'The South is speaking' at the new Center for Southern Literary Arts

The Eureka Hotel was demolished in 2005, but it is in clear view of the Center for Southern Literary Arts.

The center draws inspiration from the segregation-era haven which housed countless African-American artists and musicians from the time it was established in 1885. Black life, art, entrepreneurship, folklore and spirituality flourished at the Downtown hotel on Mulberry Street, according to the CSLA.

Jamey Hatley, co-director of the CSLA, describes the Eureka Hotel as the “shadier” artist-friendly counterpart to the Lorraine Motel, which was favored by politicians and “above-ground” folk.

It follows that the underground hotspot for the arts fell out of Memphis’ narrative while the Lorraine Motel was cemented as the site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

That same intersection of civil rights, social justice, arts and language finds a home at the CSLA office, located at the Emerge Building at 516 Tennessee Street less than a mile away from the former site of the Eureka Hotel.

The nonprofit, which was incorporated in June 2017, is at the early stages of a bold mission to reinstate Memphis as a destination for literary culture, accomplished by building up Memphis’ artist class and bringing in nationally-renowned authors.

“CSLA builds an intentional professional infrastructure for writers, whether they are high school students with a knack for words or professional writers piecing together gigs,” said Zandria Robinson, co-director of CSLA and an assistant professor of sociology at Rhodes College.

“At the same time, it shines a light on what Memphis is doing in the literary world, which is one way to get the important and diverse stories about our city — beyond the music — out to the world.”

CSLA co-directors Molly Quinn, former director of public programming at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in NYC and Hatley, a 2016 Prose Fellow for the National Endowment for the Arts, discuss how their organization strengthens the link between social justice and storytelling.


HIGH GROUND NEWS: Why did you choose Memphis as the home for the Center for Southern Literary Arts?

MOLLY ROSE QUINN: We grew up here, and we found each other because of our writing and our Memphis-ness even though we're all different ages and from different parts of the city.
JAMIE HATLEY: We realized that people [on book tour] would go to New Orleans, Jackson [Miss.], Oxford [Miss.]. They would come here and catch a plane or stop here to eat barbecue on their way to Nashville. And so, that's a problem. When the whole publishing industry restructured, some people in New York decided not to come here. Out in the suburbs, you'll get a romance writer or a thriller writer or some big names, but the regional writers, queer writers and writers of color, they're not visiting here.
MQ: The way that Memphis interacts with its history — good and bad — and the way that it interacts with the present — good and bad — is very critical and beautiful and offers something to national conversations about justice, about art, about literature.
And we wanted the institution to be a critical link in those conversations and not only for those who are writing and reading in Memphis to feel connected to some larger literary and therefore broader cultural conversation, but we think Memphis has something important to communicate to these important [national] authors.
JH: Memphis has a huge literary tradition, like Ida B. Wells ... There's this history that somehow has been lost a little bit. As the co-director Zandria Robinson has said, not everybody in Memphis is literate but everyone is literary. We are a place full of stories and in publishing, in the world, some stories get privileged over other stories.

HGN: How is your organization moving Memphis forward and what need or gap are you filling in the Memphis arts community?

MQ: We feel like writers are this kind of connective tissue for all kinds of art. They're grant writers, nonprofit people, marketing people. We feel that Memphis does have a strong core of writers, but they don't have a good, sustainable roof above their heads to be able to provide something to all different kinds of art that are here.
JH: If you don't own your narrative, then erasure can happen — just in the naming if we're just talking about neighborhoods. I think about this all the time, what if you lived in a neighborhood and then all of a sudden the name is changed? It erases it. What does it mean to come from a place that's nowhere?
And so, everybody can own their own narrative and their own stories. It's extremely important in a place like Memphis where there are these mythical narratives ... In the face of those huge narratives, the small narratives are just as important to us and necessary. Communities can get eclipsed by their mythic narratives.

HGN: When people think of Southern literature, they may think of Faulkner and Shelby Foote and other titans of another generation. How does the narrative that the CSLA supports intersect or diverge from that larger canon?

JH: There are many Southern literatures like there are many black literatures, immigrant literatures, American literatures. We need more stories ... This history has not been acknowledged. If all the stories of the south are written by white men, even if it's lovingly and carefully, then what does that mean?
MQ: We all do what we do because we believe that this conversation about justice is born in language and held in language and there needs to be more thought, care and compassion about the way that language is used. The South can live in language. There's South in New York. There's South in Detroit. There's South in LA.

HGN: So are you saying that Southern literature can be seen more of a brand or a sense of belonging or dis-belonging?

MQ: Land is very important, and I don't mean to rip the South away from land at all, but if you look at the Great Migration and you look at the Underground Railroad, you see the way that the South has been and lived and been pushed and thrown and torn into all parts of this country.
Something that is Southern is something that's inherently fractured and has parts of it that are broken and parts of it that are stolen, and that's why we're so interested in the way that state moves into language.
JH: Just me going to writing conferences with a southern accent makes me a different thing, also being a black woman and being older than most of my peers. It shows what people think of the South and what people think is possible from a person who is from here. Being who I am, I am confronting those kinds of stereotypes held by people who have been to the best of schools and assume things often about who you are as a southerner and who they are in relation to you ... Then, if we are the most trained people and can still run up against that kind of thinking in the rooms that are supposed to be the most open and inclusive, then what about the person who's just starting?
MQ: You were asking about why Memphis? We've been watching this whole strange year while folks in New York and LA and folks who feel they're far away from the South, they look at what's happening in Charlottesville [Va.] and asking why. My answer, which is just one among many, is that those folks in LA and New York are not listening to the South. The South is speaking. In some ways, we're helping Memphis, but we're also helping those fancy people get themselves together.
We want to give young people who are writers or want to be writers, the personal, professional and emotional tools to feel good about themselves and their work when they engage in their profession — and to visit writers and readings and feel like there is a supportive institution making those connections possible, reasonable and comfortable for everyone involved.

HGN: And how will you bring that about? What are your short and long-term goals?

MQ: Just our initial calendar year, the focus is on programming, so we're presenting a series of things that are intentionally curated to hit a few different points. We have a free evening event, a free festival at the end of the year, two visiting writers who occupy their own unique spaces and this dinner which is a fancier-ish event which will support us.
The festival is really important to us. If you remember the Mid-South Book Festival, this is picking up where that left off. We're combining forces with Literacy Mid-South to refocus it on Downtown and voices that we feel need to be highlighted and there will be a real focus and energy for local writers.
A lot of the work we're doing long-term has a focus on two things. First, to raise money to provide opportunities for writers in the form of fellowships and residencies. So, we're interested in providing short-term and long-term fellowships in studio spaces for writers that are located in this city.
We also hope to create a very attractive fellowship for a writer who isn't based in Memphis to be an annual writer in residence in the city and then also be providing some of those resources for local writers in the city, so there is that interplay. And also, there’s an education program. We’re putting together a writers in the school program where we will bring some local and nonlocal writers to teach creative workshops in Memphis public high schools. This year it will be small and next year it will be bigger.
Everything that’s being done is moving us towards the establishment of a physical space, which is on our agenda for the next couple of years. The occupation of that space will be events, workspace, studio space, retail and coffee shop and bookstore kind of creating jobs and a community space.
JH: It's about expanding the idea and the intersection of the arts here to make a life, to make a lovely life.
MQ: As far as fundraising and advocacy in Memphis, there's been a lot of focus on livability, and we're excited that we've found other people who believe that having a cultural life in the city is as important to survival as having money and healthcare and a workforce and understanding that art is not a luxury but is a survival tactic in so many ways.
JH: And it shouldn't just be for people who have time and money to do it. That’s why the residency and helping artists here to become professional is so important because Memphis often funds art and not artists ... Art is work, and in Memphis, we need the infrastructure.

HGN: Do you have any closing notes about how your organization bridges literary arts and social justice?

MQ: To me, there's no bridge. I just think that storytelling is this key, and it's completely obvious and necessary to unlock social justice.
JH: Without stories, there's no justice. Who's going to tell these stories? Who will speak? More voices, when they feel empowered, come to the table. Whether that table is someone speaking up at a school board meeting, whether it's someone running for office, someone going out into the world and correcting the record for somebody when they say something stupid about the South.
There's always an emergency, but I feel like the South is always this very contested place of these very serious matters but we also are full of joy. We're not just America's problem to solve. We are full of joy and excitement and love, and those stories are just as crucial.

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Read more articles by Madeline Faber.

Madeline Faber is an editor and award-winning reporter. Her experience as a development reporter complements High Ground's mission to write about what's next for Memphis.