When Florida writers leave home and look back, what have they learned?

Jennine Capó Crucet, Jonathan Escoffery, Dantiel W. Moniz, and Karen Russell photo credit: Nick Doll

by Annette Holmstrom

 

“I didn’t know Florida was supposed to be strange until I left Florida,” Dantiel W. Moniz said, during Friday’s panel Floridians Abroad: Crafting Home After You’ve Left It Behind.

Four authors – Jonathan Escoffery (now in California), Dantiel W. Moniz (Wisconsin), Jennine Capó Crucet (North Carolina), and Karen Russell (Oregon), shared how leaving Florida changed them, and stepped up to defend their home state from destructive misconceptions.

Crucet said that people who grew up somewhere else seem to think Florida is just Miami or Disneyworld. “This is not the Florida I know, right? It’s not a vacation.”

Russell agreed: “People have this monolithic version of Florida, a monolithic pressure that flattens and reduces. In our different ways we try to disrupt that, and instead, talk about what is beautiful in our state.”

Escoffery described how he reacts to this false perception from outsiders when he writes. “When you are from Miami and see it represented in film or TV, it’s a flat version I knew wasn’t right…. I seek to write about my home state with a nuance that native Floridians would appreciate and recognize.”

The panel’s discussion illustrated some of Florida’s nuances. For instance:

Escoffery told of a palmetto bug he referred to as a roach. “Students said roaches don’t fly, that if it’s not launching at you, it must be a roach. They thought it was fake.” Floridians know that roaches fly since everyone’s been the victim of a roach launch, and ‘palmetto bug’ is just the regional term for several types of cockroaches.

–       Alligators are not that scary. They serve as Florida’s deer, the rats of Florida’s garden. “They’re pretty slow. Go around,” Crucet advised.

–       Floridians just shrug when making eye contact with a roach in their morning shower, which may be a normal reaction in Florida but maybe not in Minnesota. Russell noted that what’s considered strange may be geographically based: “No one from Florida thinks this book is so bizarre,” referring to her bestseller Swamplandia.

“The natural world permeates our world,” Crucet said. “The rhythms of rain, waves, and water are part of our daily existence, and I didn’t know that was something I felt so deeply, until I left.” Russell added, “(In Florida) water is a character, and you relate to it in that way.”

The concept of Florida Man came up repeatedly, and caused puzzlement for one audience member. “What IS Florida Man?” she asked, and panel members chimed in to explain how Florida’s famous joke worked.

“It’s a headline of some wacky thing, like Florida Man eats another man’s face,” Escoffery said.

Moniz expressed dismay at the joke’s ‘Stupid Floridian’ punchline. She wondered why there’s not a New York Man, or New Jersey Man, since plenty of wacky headlines come out of those states as well. She explained how pernicious stereotypes like this one affected her as a child: “I grew up understanding that nobody writes or reads here.”

This year’s talented Literary Seminar presenters, and the readers who flock to hear them, refute that destructive stereotype, and a Florida background may, in fact, be the perfect base for a successful writing career:

“I was grateful to grow up in Miami, because I received this incredible gift of thought from all this biodiversity,” Russell explained. “To be from a place with so much hope, but such a degree of pain, with this ambient sense of homesickness? It was an excellent education for a writer.”

 

Annette Holmstrom is a Seattle, Washington-based travel writer (blog: blakeislandjourneys.com)

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