Homegrown Literature Gives Sense of Place

North Carolina has a proud collection of novelists, poets, columnists and writers in general. The seeds were sown early in the lives of its writers and nourished to blossom and bloom when the time was right. These creative minds have brought a forest of wondrous words to life and we are better for it.

The first writer from North Carolina that I met was Jim Wayne Miller, who was born in Leicester in the mountains. I was privileged to get to know him in nearby Kentucky. He was a quiet, thoughtful man with a quick wit and enormous talent for poetry. Although he was a professor teaching German and Modern Languages at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green for 34 years, his claim to fame is his work on Appalachian studies where he quickly became a renowned advocate for Appalachia through his poetry.

In Every Leaf a Mirror: A Jim Wayne Miller Reader, edited by his widow Mary Ellen and Morris Allen Grubbs, Jim is quoted about his inspiration for writing poetry: “People in their place – how they have coped, what they have come to be as a result of living in that place.” This collection of Jim’s work is a treasure gleaned from years of writing and publishing. 

Jaki Shelton Green is another North Carolina poet who is inspired by people and place. She is a strong voice for young writers with emphasis on African-Americans. However, she does not want to be misinterpreted as favoring one group of people over another. Rather, she is a humanist who cares for all of us and says so forcefully. I interviewed her for OutreachNC in December 2014 and asked what being named poet laureate for the NC Piedmont meant to her. She replied, “I’ve always been attracted to nontraditional writers – writers whom I’ve worked with in homeless shelters, in prisons, women on death row. I want to enhance the world of literature one person at a time. As the poet laureate, I get to roll around the area and meet with many writers. I don’t always get excited about the everydayness of poetry. People often ask me what inspires me. As a working class writer, I don’t have the privilege of saying I’m going to my cabin, or beach house, to write now. Writing is as natural as breath for me. Poetry is everywhere. You have to listen.”

Green does not write on a computer. She loves paper and writes in her journals. “I feel connections between the paper and pen and my thoughts.” She says that “growing up in North Carolina was a blessing in all of its beauty and ugliness. Space and place influenced the stories I heard.” Green was born in Alamance County, grew up in Orange County, and now resides in Mebane. If you are not familiar with her work, check it out and prepare to be amazed.

Mystery novelist Margaret Maron was born where the piedmont meets the sandhills of North Carolina. After living in Italy and Brooklyn, she returned to her NC roots and now lives on part of her family’s farm. Time and place have been important themes for her. In New York, she created NYPD Lt. Sigrid Harald as the lead character in her mysteries. In North Carolina, she has created District Court Judge Deborah Knott, the opinionated daughter of a crusty old ex-bootlegger. Her novels are set in various NC locations, and some characters may resemble local folk but she is quick to note that “No, I’m not writing about my own family.”

These writers have earned many awards and prestigious accolades. They were born in different parts of North Carolina and have chosen different motifs for their writing. The early seeds have been well tended and the harvest from these and many other authors do our state proud.

Ann Robson is the author of “Over My Shoulder: Tales of Life and Death and Everything In Between.” She can be reached at overmyshoulder@charter.net .