In January 2013, J. Nicole Jones penned the essay “Why’s everyone so down on memoir?” In this piece, she examines the criteria for why writers perceive memoir as beneath the novel form. Within her investigation she grapples with Lorrie Moore’s claims that the faultiness of memory shows how memoir cannot convey the deeper meaning a reader can uncover within a novel. Jones weighs these ideas within her essay, and considers the blindspots in labeling memoir as a genre that is overly confessional. “While some require the freedom of fiction, what if some stories need the pressure of truth—not because a writer perceives reality or confession as more interesting or so different from fiction, but because there is a unique dialogue that happens only in memoir between the present and the past.”
Nearly ten years after Jones’ viral essay, her memoir Low Country has come out in bookstores. Labeled a Southern Memoir, the narrative chronicles Jones’ girlhood growing up in South Carolina, as the eldest of four children. On her father’s side, she is part of a large clan that had settled in the Myrtle Beach area, and established themselves by owning restaurants, bars, golf courses, and hotels. While the financial boom began with her grandfather, affectionately referred to as Granddaddy, the descendants did not fare as well, most of them finding work within the establishments to make ends meet. Jones’ own father frequently worked at one of his father’s bars, as he dreamt of becoming a country musician.
Within this setting, Jones’ family struggles with finances, infidelity, domestic violence, and drug abuse. Mostly stemming from Granddaddy and her uncles, Jones is fully aware of the discrepancy between the familial wealth and the financial struggles within her nuclear unit. “Such was the contrast of my early childhood: we were barely able to pay for groceries, and yet I received fur coats and collectible dolls as Christmas gifts from Nana and Granddaddy.”
With the men possessing the money and the power to avoid repercussions for their behavior, the women find no recourse but to endure it. Jones specifically witnesses the double-standard between genders for her mother and grandmother. “Even as I watched them shield themselves from the cruel jibes of men and the sneering insults of other women by making themselves smaller, I couldn’t help but understand that they wanted some part of themselves to disappear.”
According to a coffee table book her grandmother, Nana, owned, “South Carolina is the state with the most folktales in the whole of the U.S.” In Jones’ childhood, stories and folklore take up just as much space as—if not more than— memories, and in the book it’s evident the setting is steeped in both history and passed-down tales. “I know several God-fearing folks who claim to have seen with their own eyes the Gray Man pacing the beaches of Pawleys Island before hurricanes Hugo and Hazel.” Testimonial accounts include phantoms, blending the real with the surreal, permitting a memoir to welcome the supernatural like a friendly neighbor. Starting with the narrator’s account of seeing the ghost of a woman she once knew, we are pulled into the depths of a landscape made vivid through its densely layered stories.
Jones takes this responsibility seriously, as she carefully uncovers detail after detail of her experience of South Carolina, providing a more dynamic sense of setting. In addition to gaining leeway by including the supernatural, Jones also takes liberties with embellishing the story, such as when she narrates that her parents met while working at the restaurant Drunken Jack’s, when it had actually been a different establishment. Staying true to form, she does come clean with her alteration to the truth, her reason being, “We must place our feet in the right pattern, in the right time, so the memories can turn into history and the future might hurt a little less from its past.”
Not only does Jones bear witness to the enabling of men, she also carries the weight of memory and repetition, specifically with Granddaddy’s abuse towards his wife and grandsons. In one scene, as her grandfather chases her cousin down the hallway with a baseball bat and her cousin turns around and wrestles it away, Jones feels the tug of this same moment from a generation earlier, the moment transformed through repetition into oral history: “Here again history has repeated itself as unfailingly as a chorus. Granddaddy had been in nearly the same position before, when his two younger teenage sons, Dad and Les, caught his arms on their way down to Nana’s back and told him, ‘Never again.’” Much like Nana, Jones has taken on the role as the keeper of stories, bringing two moments from different time periods to the same plane, revealing the cyclical nature of trauma.
Jones’ attention to language is what makes this memoir a stunning read. “I can tell you little with absolute certainty except that if you want to get rich, try drinking.” At times amusing and other times heartbreaking, her care with language shines through in every page, and with her descriptions of family, such as her great-grandmother Pearl, known as Ol’ Mama: “Her voice low and coarse, she was not much for small talk. She drank her share of the whiskey, as likely to pull a pistol as pull you into her arms.” While Jones’ great-grandfather managed the Gay Manor Hotel, Ol’ Mama was in the back running the gambling houses. Her mother’s father was: “Over six feet tall, blond and blue-eyed himself, he had the kind of good luck that makes you wonder if certain gods still play patron to their favorites.” The language conveys a kind of hyperbolic tendency that is deeply Southern and true to that sense of self.
Much like the hurricanes that threaten the South Carolinian shores, the debate about the value of memoir sweeps in every some-odd years, causing a heated debate before dissipating. Is there a winner? Well, memoirs still exist. And writers continue to bring their wondrous unique voices to this ever-growing genre. Jones provides a brilliant look into the cracks of a family, channeling the folktales and sayings from her ancestors, and bringing them to the page. She says it beautifully here: “Every generation gets a little better, leaves a stitch or two behind to close the open family wounds a little at a time.” The trauma passed down through Jones’ line is fraught, but her storytelling conveys compassion to the characters that helped shape her life.
by J. Nicole Jones
Published April 13th, 2021