OXFORD – The Oxford Conference for the Book opened Wednesday with focuses on the blues, Southern history and fiction, journalism and other subjects aimed at readers, writers and publishers.
In “Fiction, Memory and Southern History,” moderator Ted Ownby interviewed three authors of recent books set in the Mississippi Delta.
New Yorker Bill Cheng wrote “Southern Cross the Dog,” a novel built on the drama of the Great 1927 Flood in which the lead character weighs his ties to the past and the future.
London native Francoise Hamlin was an exchange student in Clarksdale and came back as an academic to write “Crossroads at Clarksdale: The Black Freedom Struggle in the Mississippi Delta after World War II.”
Jonathan Odell is a Delta native now living in Minnesota, whose most recent book is “The Healing,” a novel set in the earliest days of slave-based Delta cotton.
“They are powerful, exciting, passionate works that stay with you,” Ownby said.
Hamlin noted her travels to the Delta to learn the people and geography of the events she examined.
“I did oral histories and traditional history research,” she said, “and I did a lot of driving around and finding places. It’s important to write about a place in that place; it’s hard to write about Mississippi from New England.”
Odell said his novel weaves disease, hope, primitive but ingenious observations and the subtle power plays slaves made to get what they needed.
“These people were advanced scientists. I learned the power that poverty and need in creating life-saving forces,” he said. “I learned the brilliance of poverty and need and tradition.”
Cheng’s book borrowed its title from one of bluesman Robert Johnson’s best-known songs.
“My book starts off right before the Great Flood,” he said, noting the story takes the lead character through the 1940s. “The 1927 flood is such a huge piece of that cultural landscape.”
For Hamlin, a recurring theme was the roles of female civil rights activists as mothers and feminists, though not all embraced them equally. When Hamlin asked one interviewee, “‘Do you think you’re a feminist?’ she practically threw me out of her house,” Hamlin said. “She wasn’t out there to change gender relations; she was out to change race relations.”
Odell said even in Minnesota, his native state defines him.
“I write to explain Mississippi. To me, this is the most amazing place in the world,” he said. “Mississippi is my monster. … I am Mississippi.”
The Oxford Conference for the Book, which is free and open to the public, continues today and Friday. For details, see www.oxfordconferenceforthebook.com.