#TurnItUP: The Neighborhood—An Interview with Catherine Egley Waggoner and Laura Egley Taylor

#TurnItUP: The Neighborhood—An Interview with Catherine Egley Waggoner and Laura Egley Taylor, authors of Realizing Our Place: Real Southern Women in a Mythologized Land

Each year, the Association of University Presses hosts a blog tour in celebration of University Press Week. This year’s theme is #TurnItUP, emphasizing the work university presses do in amplifying voices, communities, ideas, and scholarship. For Day 3 of UP Week—The Neighborhood—we decided to interview Catherine Egley Waggoner and Laura Egley Taylor, authors of Realizing Our Place: Real Southern Women in a Mythologized Land, a book about Mississippi women written by Mississippi women. Read their thoughts on writing about Mississippi and representing the state through their research below. 

Catherine Egley Waggoner
Why did you want to write this book? Was there a reason you specifically chose the Mississippi Delta?

Laura and I grew up in the Delta (in Leland, MS), but both left in our mid-twenties. Inspired by my earliest memories there, I’ve always been intrigued by the power of Southern women—a power that was like some of the familiar stereotypes in many ways (i.e., polite and genteel on the outside, but actually quite formidable), but different in other ways. I was always drawn to the popular cultural representations of Southern women (e.g., Scarlett O’Hara, Melanie Wilkes of Gone with the Wind, Rosa Parks, Dolly Parton, Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry’s Madea, Coretta Scott King, Paula Deen, etc.), but never felt like they totally captured (of course, how could they?) real Southern women in all of their complexities. As someone who moved away from Mississippi in the mid-1980s but still claims Mississippi as “home,” I often get called upon to “explain Southerners” to others, and this made me want to talk with Southern women of all backgrounds to find out how they see themselves as “Southern” and the extent to which the mythologies of Southern womanhood shape their identity, if at all. And what place better to have these conversations than in the Delta, often called “the South on steroids”?

So began our quest to understand the way in which Delta women construct their regional identities. Anytime you’re studying culture, you have to look at place —and this place, the Delta, has distinctive visual markers. Laura is a photographer with a gifted eye for capturing images that speak to people. The book was the perfect project for us to do together—I as the cultural studies scholar seeking to understand how everyday enactments of Southern women constitute identity construction, and Laura as the photographer/artist looking to capture visual elements of the culture. We traveled several times from New Mexico and Ohio over the last nine years to interview Delta women. Each time was an adventure, as women graciously invited us into their homes, workplaces, communities, beauty salons, and even a funeral home, to talk with us. We were humbled and honored by their generosity and impressed by their comments.

What story did you want to tell about Mississippi women through the book? 

I wanted to get beyond the stereotypes to understand the role that place plays in Delta women’s regional identity. Place in three senses of the word: 1) geography (i.e., the land, the woods, the crops, the river), 2) social position—one’s place in the society (i.e., race, gender, socio-economic class, sexuality), and 3) the mythical “the South.” Southern women (and Southern femininity) are so much more than are often given credit or portrayed on the big screen and in novels.

Laura Egley Taylor

Did you find common themes in the women’s stories?

Yes, women across all race, class, gender lines negotiated stereotypes of Southern womanhood in intriguing and productive ways. Elements of the dimensions of “true womanhood” were apparent but tweaked in skillful ways for various purposes. So, submissiveness was apparent (ironically) as a more powerful form of deference; purity was redeployed as a type of propriety having little to do with etiquette in the way we think of it traditionally; piety was reframed as a more active stewardship; and domesticity was engaged as a potent form of creating environments that enabled women’s agency. Of course, these enactments varied across race and class lines. 

Describe the research process for this project. How did you get in touch with the women you interviewed? 

We used a snowballing method for in-depth interviews. We contacted some women initially—ones we knew and ones recommended by others, and they, in turn, suggested others—often even contacting them for us! We couldn’t have done this without the help of a few key people who helped us locate women.

Neither of you lives in Mississippi anymore. What is it like to represent Mississippi outside of the state?

I still find it odd to see how people are often mesmerized by “the South.” They are intrigued—as if Mississippi is some strange, exotic land. Often, they have negative perceptions, but more often than not, they are curious in a positive way.