Patricia Engel, Lauren Groff and Karen Russell: “Stories and Floridas”

Patricia Engel, Karen Russell, and Lauren Groff photo credit: Nick Doll

by Cristina Favretto


On an alternately sunny, shady, breezy, still, hot, chilly (aka: South Florida in January) morning, the audience attending the “Stories and Floridas” session of the 41st KWLS heard three formidable authors riff on what constituted a “Florida story,” as opposed to, say, one about Rhode Island or Delaware.  To those of us who don’t live in the Funshine State, the answer appears to be obvious: gators, sunburned, foolish hicks chewing on desiccated lizards on a stick, zealous Moms for Liberty exposed as inveterate swingers, idiotic and cataclysmically hypocritical politicians, etc. etc.  To most non-Floridian readers, it appears that no Florida trope should be left unexplored, and a gleeful shadenfreude animates readers who would decry any other type of stereotyping.  After all, we who live here deserve any and all cliches heaped upon us, right? How dare we claim that we do not, in fact, all march in ideological lockstep!  Thankfully, Patricia Engels, Lauren Groff, and Karen Russell had much more nuanced answers to this question.

Groff, born in upstate New York, remembered that one of her first encounters with Florida was a trip through the Everglades; this visit confirmed her vision of the state as one filled with terrors seen (hungry alligators! sinkholes! hurricanes!!!) and unseen (home-destroying termites).  Engel, born in New Jersey to Colombian parents, confirmed these perceptions but added that her visits to Florida included an element of defiance against the terrors (i.e. not evacuating during a hurricane). Miami native Russell added to these impressions the vision of a “psychic overlay” of profound grief that underlies Floridian narratives. However, regardless of the apocalyptic views of the Floridian terrain and psyche, it was clear that all three authors were fascinated by what they agreed was a complex maximalism that is unique to Florida, and, consequently, to Floridian narratives.

The three speakers agreed that the abundant fertility of Florida imbues our geography with an inherent femininity, and acknowledged the impossibility of silencing the voices engendered by the daily “rubbing up against” an almost prehistoric wildness lurking just beneath the paved surfaces of our urban landscapes.  They named a particular “Floridan ferocity” that can be terrifying to visitors from other parts of the country (and a large part of the world), and that these terrors—whether they be ghosts, voices, or contemporary political horrors—underlie almost all the stories told about the state.  The authors’ reasoned, eloquent, and articulate refutations of “Florida man” narratives emphasized the characteristics that define truly good writing: the ability to see, to really see—with sharpness but also with compassion— the multi-faceted and complex beauty of places and the people who inhabit them.


Cristina Favretto is a librarian and curator who still isn’t quite used to living in Florida—but she’s getting there.

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