Clark, Tena. “Southern Discomfort: A Memoir, Touchstone, 2018.
Coming of Age and Coming Out in Mississippi
The moment I heard about this book, I knew I had to read it. After all, I am from the South and although geographically I am now a Yankee, I will always be a southerner in my heart. “Southern Discomfort” is a memoir “set in rural Mississippi during the Civil Rights era about a white girl coming of age in a repressive society and the woman who gave her the strength to forge her own path—the black nanny who cared for her.”
Tena Clark was born in 1953 in a small Mississippi town close to the Alabama border, where the legacy of slavery and racial injustice was everywhere. At first glance, her childhood sounds wonderful. Her father was one of the richest men in the state; her mother was quite a beauty. The family lived on a large farm and had the only swimming pool in town. Tena was a child of privilege. Looking deeper into the family, we see that Tena’s life was lonely and filled with chaos. chaotic. By the time she was three, her parents’ marriage became an alcoholic swamp filled with infidelity and guns. Tena also learned quite early that she was different from her three sisters and that she liked women. Her sisters had had been beauty queens and majorettes. “Tena knew she didn’t want to be a majorette—she wanted to marry one.” (I love this line).
On Tena’s tenth birthday, her mother left her father because of his cheating and Tena was left in the care of her black nanny, Virgie, who became Tena’s surrogate mother and confidante. Virgie always had time for Tena even though she was raising nine of her own children. Because of Virgie’s acceptance and unconditional love, Tena gained the courage to stand up to her father, believe in her mother’s love, and the strength to be her true self. As I read, I could not help but see the similarities between Tena’s life and my own (and the lives of many people that I know).
Tena’s family is more than just dysfunctional and we learn from it. We really see the complexities of people here and how the “old” South became the “new” South. Clark’s debut is an entirely original story in which she shares her deeply personal, private struggles and the painful, shameful struggles she was witness to in Mississippi during the Civil Rights era.
We see that even when one lives in fear, anger, and hate that there can be tolerance, forgiveness, and love. Clark grew up in the Jim Crow South and really tried to be the person her family wished her to be but it wasn’t who she is. It was her strong sense of social injustice that compelled her to behave in ways that could have been dangerous, specifically for those whom she feels have been mistreated. I have to say that I love this book with the themes of racism, sexuality, family, and Southern complexities of the South. Tena Clark gives me the faith to believe that the legacy of Tennessee William’s South is still alive.