Southern Exposure

Southern Exposure

Though he moved away 31 years ago, Tim Parrish can’t seem to leave Baton Rouge behind. It looms over all his major works, from the short story collection Red Stick Men (2000) to the memoir Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist (2013) to the novel The Jumper (2013).

Louisiana’s capital city, with its Exxon refinery and chemical plants and flooding after every hard rain, has an apocalyptic quality in Parrish’s work. Benzene drifting over his family’s house from the plants stings their noses and eyes. From his childhood bedroom, young Tim watches “the flare stacks spit flame, the fat burn-off clouds pulsing salmon on the horizon.”

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The city, Parrish explains in Fear and What Follows, is also known by its Native American name: Istrouma, or “red stick,” for a “blood-stained tree marking tribal boundaries.” Every year, elementary school children watched a pageant that “told the story of Chief Nawaganti and his stand against the French, who came to take his land,” he writes. “I could make fun of it all, … but the history and messages still resonated—you stand against invaders or you lose your place and its meaning.”

That message resonated because Parrish was growing up in a roiling time of race riots and social upheaval, as black families moved into his previously all-white neighborhood and whites feared “that blacks were coming and taking what was ‘ours.’” In Fear and What Follows, Parrish traces his coming-of-age from being a brave child who raises his hand in church to vote in favor of welcoming blacks into the congregation to being indoctrinated into an “old misguided standard of manliness and retribution.” His descent is so deep he nearly follows an influential older boy’s call to burn down a black family’s house.

Fiction was the way Parrish began to work through his upbringing in a racist culture that “encouraged me to act out of my worst impulses, out of fear…” The stories in Red Stick Men, cover some of the same ground that Fear would more than a decade later. The collection’s first five entries are “loosely autobiographical,” he says. All nine are set in or near Baton Rouge. Each one is a beautifully crafted story with an ugly situation. In “Complicity,” a boy realizes the truth behind a neighbor’s claim that a black intruder broke into their house and beat his wife, then discovers that others know the truth as well and have no intention of confronting it. In “Roustabout,” a young man works his first job on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, where he finds himself erotically drawn to another man in a closed society that will tolerate no such thing. The stories are compact and tightly wound, but they were only the beginning for Parrish the writer.

Because then came 9/11. The “jingoistic rhetoric” that followed compelled him to confront his old neighborhood in a new way. “I said, ‘I’ve got to do this straight-on,’” he recalls. Fear took a long time to write and longer still to make it to market. The big New York publishers wouldn’t touch it. Finally released in 2013 by the University Press of Mississippi, the book reached a modestly sized audience and had its day. What Parrish calls his “uncomfortable minor celebrity” followed later, after a young gunman killed nine people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Parrish was moved to write an op-ed piece for the New York Daily News titled “How hate took hold of me: My friend and I could have been Dylann Roof.”

The essay went viral. CNN called. Fox News called. “It got really intense really fast,” Parrish says. The heat only died down when he had to step back from being the go-to source on white racism to deal with some serious medical issues involving his eyesight. Both experiences—the media and the medical—have changed him, he says. “I don’t have a lot of… bravado. A lot of my persona dropped away… just vulnerable all the time.”

These days Parrish, a professor of English at Southern Connecticut State University and one of the founders of its MFA program in creative writing, still visits community and school groups to talk about racism. It’s work he finds both important and exhausting. Often, he says, “Nobody ever heard a white person say, ‘I’m a racist,’” and then talk about what they’re doing to “recover.” “What gets injected into us as beliefs is not fully our choice,” he wrote in the Daily News. “What is our choice is to be constantly vigilant, to deconstruct the assumptions we make, to combat impulses we may have that lead us in the direction of thinking we are somehow the generalized victim and the more civilized color.”

Perhaps needless to say, Parrish’s books aren’t feel-good. Violence is a given, and the N-word slips easily from his characters’ lips. It’s a choice Parrish defends. Ultimately, he says, “I have to tell the truth.”

That truth-telling has not always sat well with his own family. His brother Robert summed up one of his early stories as “bullshit.” Parrish isn’t sure his father has even read the work, despite mounting vehement defenses of his own actions and beliefs. But Parrish believes that as long as he stays true to the people who are the basis for many of his characters, “true to the people, as I understood them,” he’s honoring who they are.

He tells his creative writing students at Southern to look into their own neighborhoods and their own hometowns and recognize that “nobody’s life is ‘normal.’ There is no ‘normal.’” Then he helps them find their own subjects. The things they know as deeply as he knows Baton Rouge.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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