Academic journal article Flannery O'Connor Review

Powers and Prophecy: An Interview with Valerie Sayers

Academic journal article Flannery O'Connor Review

Powers and Prophecy: An Interview with Valerie Sayers

Article excerpt

Note.-Tbis interview was conducted via email in Aug. 2010 and Jan. 2012.

Among writers at work today, Valerie Sayers (born 8 Aug. 1952), who grew up in Beaufort, South Carolina, not much more than 30 miles as the crow flies from Flannery O'Connor's Savannah, writes most expressly about the experience of being Irish Catholic in the South.

The middle of seven children born to transplants Paul and Janet Hogan Sayers, Valerie Sayers would self-consciously choose to identify with southern culture despite self-professed "cultural ignorance." By her own account, her childhood in Beaufort profoundly shaped her world view. As it happened, her life path was such that she wouldn't go home again, or at least, she would do so only infrequently. After leaving for college she spent several decades largely in New York, until her appointment to the English faculty at the University of Notre Dame in 1993, where she directed the Creative Writing Program and now chairs the English Department. Asked how southerners have received her work, she replied,

Oh, the only people who read my work in the South are my family and some generous reviewers and other Southern writers, and people who read my kind of books are generally the most tolerant of folks. Some friends from high school have been kind enough to read one or two. Being a non-best-selling writer (a gentle way to put it to myself) means a writer can fly way beneath the radar.

With her ear for southern dialect and her eye for regional peculiarities, her writing is often infused with the terror of her Catholic South. Though distinctly in the region's religious minority during her childhood, Sayers did not feel herself precisely embattled :

Along the coast Catholics were plentiful enough to thrive: Though we were officially designated a mission parish, we had three nuns imported from New York and three priests-a pastor and two curates-all witty and sophisticated enough to leave me with the mistaken impression that Catholics were by definition intellectuals. We were a jolly, social bunch: Catholics drank and smoked and danced, and my Baptist friends were scandalized by our raucous ways. In the summer we bunked at Camp Saint Mary's, on the Okatee River, where we recited the Magnificat at picnic tables and met Catholic kids from upstate who told us they tried to keep their religion quiet, on account of the Klan. My mother insisted on the opposite: We must let people know we were Catholic, and if we accidentally wore a bit of orange on Saint Patrick's Day, back we went for greener clothing. ("Land's End" 21)

Sayers grew up with an awareness of the importance of being Irish, too. When asked to define the "authentic Irishman," she riffed on James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "The one living in silence, exile, and cunning?" Within the nexus of the small Catholic world of coastal South Carolina and Georgia, Valerie Sayers and Pat Conroy, one generation removed from Flannery O'Connor, were likely to meet, and indeed they did cross paths. Graduated from Beaufort High School in 1963, Pat Conroy returned from The Citadel as a rosy-cheeked teacher in the autumn of 1967, enthralling students, including Sayers, who took his psychology class. (Sayers's father, a civilian psychologist who vetted Parris Island recruits, liked to cross-examine her about the course.) The Beaufort the two writers knew was an unassuming military beach town of "some 7,500 souls" that "held rich and poor at a short arm's length from one another" ("Land's End" 21). The prevailing atmosphere of beach-town insouciance, military functionalism, and an older South brought together shotgun shacks and the shabby gentility of old cottages. "If I was acutely aware of wealth and poverty, I was also pretty sure my family's identity wasn't based on economics but on religion. We were Catholics in the Protestant South" (21).

Sayers graduated from Beaufort High School to attend Fordham University in 1969and returned, like Conroy, to teach for a year in Beaufort, in her case, "at a brand-new technical college, where [her] classes were almost evenly black and white and full of frank, angry, forgiving talk about race. …

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