Andalusia and the ache of identity.
You can judge how far outside of Atlanta you are by the gasoline prices. My parents kept calling them out every few minutes as we drove from their house toward Milledgeville to the farm where Flannery O’Connor once lived. Gas that was $2.26 in town became $2.11 just outside the city limits. The weather was less hot than usual, which is to say that while it was still awful and sticky, there was a breeze every now and then. Prices hovered around two dollars as we drove south, and the landscape shifted from tony suburbs to farmland. Soon forests of tall slender pine trees began filling our periphery, and my mother actually gasped when we encountered $1.96 a gallon. At $1.95, we reached Andalusia Farm.
I had asked my parents to road-trip with me to Andalusia because I admire O’Connor’s writing, but also because my driving has gotten pretty shaky. I sold my car five years ago, when I left the South for New York, and though I can still remember thinking nothing of a spontaneous six-hour trip from Chapel Hill to Charleston when I was in college, these days sitting in a car for more than half an hour makes me antsy. Since coming north, I’ve lost other Southern abilities, too. No longer can I say “ya’ll” or “ma’am” or ask if I can fix someone a drink without becoming marble-mouthed. After a while, it became difficult to gauge whether my once-earnest habits had become stubborn affectations.
The long gravel path up to Andalusia, shaded by snug deciduous trees, closes behind you as you drive. You feel as though you are leaving something behind as you approach a clearing that hosted a scattering of weather-beaten sheds and cabins. After we parked, my parents and I meandered around the site, which was enclosed on one end by dense forest and, on the other, by a sloping valley that resolves in a pond so shaggy with algae that it looked like a field. We stopped here and there to read metal plaques that gave cursory details about O’Connor’s life and work. (One sign described the fuss that transpired when Hollywood came to Andalusia to shoot a short film based on “The Displaced Person,” which featured a young Samuel L. Jackson.) The farm inspired the setting of many of O’Connor’s stories as well as her passion for domesticated birds: she had a chicken that could walk backward, and, toward the end of her life, dozens of peacocks. I wondered if the bed of irises by the driveway would have survived when those elegant yet vociferous birds still roamed free around Andalusia—peafowl have an appetite for flowers.
The farmhouse where O’Connor and her mother lived is a pleasant white cottage with a red roof and a wide screened porch lined with rocking chairs. I walked in and introduced myself to Abbey Lee, a docent at the farm, who had recently graduated from college. Her face was framed by large glasses and long curly blonde hair. She wore a shirt screen printed with an image of Flannery’s face. “How’d you hear about her all the way in New York?” she asked in a slow drawl.
I stopped myself before protesting that I was Southern, too.
Unlike many author’s homes that have become museums, nothing in the farmhouse, save O’Connor’s old bedroom, was set off by rope. There were no signs to warn against flipping through the books on the bookshelves or standing too close to the paintings on the wall. My mother and I chatted about lunch while we sat on an ornate, gold sofa in the living room. In the nearest corner, a spider spun a web between the legs of a chair. Mom stood up to drum a few keys on the piano in the corner, and eventually I drifted to the back porch to sit in the nice light and read a copy of Milledgeville Scene.
When I wandered back to the front of the house, Abbey Lee asked if I’d typed anything on the typewriter that was resting on a desk on the back porch.
I froze—I hadn’t, but I was afraid I was nonetheless in trouble for touching something forbidden.
“You should!” she said. “You should type something on the typewriter.”
The charm of Andalusia lies in gestures like this, the ones that urge you into feeling as though you belong. The place isn’t a fossil, it’s a home. Fresh breezes poured through the screen windows, and the cloth napkins and silverware really did seem as though they’d been set for that night’s dinner.
My father and I walked outside again and found the old dairy barn, the wood of which had aged to a dark gray. It was hard not to think of poor, ailing Asbury from O’Connor’s “The Enduring Chill,” a writer as pretentious as he was unsuccessful, who returned from New York sneering at the dairy cows and hoping to die a dramatic death to spite his mother. I told my father that the barn also reminded me of a shaky structure behind our house in Tennessee. I’d been forbidden to play in it as a child, but that had never stopped me.
“It burned down, did your mother tell you that?” he said.
A hot wind blew through the grass as I was transported to the plot of land where I’d played during so many summers in Tennessee. I tried to imagine it laid bare, but without the barn, the architecture of my memory all but collapsed.
As the child of immigrants, I sometimes wonder whether my connection to my Southern identity may be more tenuous than others’. But then there are moments like that one, when I feel some deep recognition—not so much for a Southern accent or a glass of sweet tea as for the land itself. I often recall O’Connor’s writings about regionalism when I feel this way. “Southern identity is not really connected with mocking-birds and beaten biscuits and white columns any more than it is with hookworm and bare feet and muddy clay roads,” she wrote in an essay that was published in 1963. In her writing, O’Connor dwelled often on the dilemma of identity, the slipperiness of attempting to define oneself. Her solution was rigorous investigation, but even then she was able to pin down only what identity is not: “An identity is not to be found on the surface; it is not accessible to the poll-taker; it is not something that can become a cliche.”
It seemed fitting, then, that the only thing that disappointed me about Andalusia was the peacocks, animals that have lately become a cliched emblem of O’Connor herself. In my imagination of the farm, the birds were everywhere: draped over telephone poles, cawing on the roof of the equipment shed, making a constant meal of the rose beds. Today, however, there are only two caged peafowl in the aviary, a small roost with chicken wire. They aren’t even related to O’Connor’s original flock. For a while I watched the cock chase the hen around with his tail unfolded. They weren’t anything to write home about.
Wei Tchou is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff and is one of the Daily’s correspondents.