Earlier this year, I took on a mammoth project that at the time totally felt manageable. I agreed to define and survey Florida literature, now and throughout the ages, for the Oxford American’s summer issue. I love Florida and writers who try to capture Florida and it also seemed like Florida was suddenly having a moment—or at least being noticed more than usual—and so I figured I could easily highlight the new and old from the state’s literary canon and be done with it.
But as the book critic Nick Moran once wrote, “Like a greased manatee, Florida eludes capture.”
By the end, I had written a 6,000-word essay about Florida that still managed to leave out so much: authors I wanted to mention, theories I hoped to include, Florida quotes I was dying to cite, memories I couldn’t give up. So, in the name of excess (with is also very Floridian), below is a list of Florida tidbits I had to excise from the Oxford American essay but have been unable to forget.
“I thought I saw an alligator catching a fish.
But it was just two turtles humping.”
– My dad
For most of the 1800s, Florida was considered unlivable by the rest of the country—and those who did call it home weren’t exactly inviting others down here to live. The first flag to fly about the statehouse read “Let Us Alone.”
This is a Florida filled with water, an Everglades of alligators, malaria, and bandits, a place called the “most dreary and pandemonium-like region I ever visited” by an army doctor sent to Florida to fight the Seminole Indians in 1838.
But around the turn of the century, the state changed. Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward took office after campaigning on a promise to “drain that abominable pestilence-ridden swamp,” by which he meant the Florida Everglades, and after the swamp began to dry, land in Florida started to sell. By the 1920s there was such an excitement for property in the state that the New York Timesprinted a separate section dedicated to Florida real estate.
“Chicanery is the economic and cognitive driver in modern Florida. No place lies like Florida lies. Almost every aspect of its official and civil history is false.”
What is clear is that Florida has long been a place to which new people blow in, and sometimes blow back out: Spanish explorers, fanatical naturalists, escaped slaves, Confederate army deserters, outlaws, Cuban exiles, Caribbean refugees, tourists, and, of course, snow birds.
The Ringling Brothers blew into Florida, too. Originally from Iowa, they started buying up land in the 1910s and within ten years they owned nearly a quarter of the city. I went to college on land that had once been theirs and took classes in their former mansions. Human Evolution was in a second story bedroom that looked out on the Sarasota Bay, and Twentieth Century Art History took place in their pink and blue carriage house. It was in a newer building, though, that I took a class called “Florida As Home” and first read Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ memoir Cross Creek.
Rawlings, who is best known for writing the Yearling, was also a transplant to Florida. She grew up in Washington D.C., but in her 30s she used a small inheritance to move to North Central Florida and buy an orange grove. Cross Creektells the story of that grove and Rawlings’ gradual understanding of Florida as place.
“We at the Creek draw our conclusions about the world from our intimate knowledge of one small portion of it,” she writes in a chapter called “Who Owns Cross Creek?”
Rawlings’ version of Florida was one in which anyone could arrive and find their place.
“Nothing in Florida is ever quite what it seems. Visitors to Key West drive over the seven-mile bridge, which isn’t that long; and marvel at the six-toed cats proudly featured in Ernest Hemingway’s house, even though Papa didn’t own any cats; and snap selfies at the southernmost point in the United States, which isn’t.”
When reading Florida, it’s easy to come up with new authors. What’s difficult is finding an overarching ethos to define them. Yes, the weather. Yes, the landscape. Yes, this sense of building and rebuilding. The gaudy and grotesque and beautiful and idyllic. But what else?
Joan Didion chronicled Miami.
Joy Williams wrote a guidebook for the Keys.
E.B. White essayed Sarasota.
Elizabeth Bishop and Wallace Stevens both have sets of Florida poems.
Then there are all the new writers: the essayists Jaquira Díaz and Sarah Gerard, the poets Derrick Austin and Erica Dawson, the fiction writers David James Poissant and Heather Sellers.
In an interview at Duke University once, Jennine Capó Crucet was asked about Miami as place in her stories, and she said: “there is an over-the-topness to Miami” that it’s not aware of, but that her goal in writing was “not exoticize it or fetishize it but show how mundane that [the over-the-topness] is.”
At a panel at AWP on the essay someone asked the essayist Jaquira Díaz what she thought about pressure on writers to represent “the universal” in their personal stories and she said, “my essays are universal in Miami, my essays are universal in Puerto Rico.”
“Florida is that part of the Cuban stage where declamatory exits are made, and side deals. Florida is where the chorus waits to comment on the action, and sometimes to join in.”
Florida Man is the element of Florida for which the state is most often mocked. It’s the plastic flamingo lawn ornaments, the burrito that only comes in pink, the headline that reads “Florida Man flashes buttocks at IHOP after impersonating a police officer to get free food.” It is something about the state that makes it a wonderful place to be a journalist and a hard place to write about… seriously.
Florida has “Florida man” the way Latin America had the magically real. Both are simplifying labels foisted on a region from the outside and yet their stereotypes can be telling, both of the region and our regional literatures literates. In Gabriel García Márquez’s speech to the Nobel Board after receiving their prize for literature, he explains that magical reality is also linked to magnitude of atrocity.
What is most horrifying about Florida Man is that he says something true about what is grotesque and untamed in all of us.
In Jaquira Díaz’s essay “Baby Lollipops” she takes what could have been a Florida Man story and shows the humanity and depravity in all of us. The Florida man in this case is a Miami woman and her lesbian lover who in 1990 starved, tortured and left for dead the woman’s three-year-old son—a boy who, when found under some cherry bushes, was wearing a t-shirt with lollipops on it. In Díaz’s essay, the unfolding of Baby Lollipop’s story is intertwined with her own story of growing up with an addict mother during Miami’s era of drug wars.
“An entire city mourned the loss of a boy no one knew,” she writes. “We carried him with us. And even though he belonged to no one, he belonged to us all.”
“As Spain’s conquistadors discovered, and we too often forget, Florida is like Play-Doh. Take the goo; mold it to your dream. Then watch the dream ooze back into goo.”
I moved to Florida when I was 10, and so like most people in this state, I am not exactly from this state. For a while I thought that meant that I couldn’t really call myself a Florida writer. But like a lot of people who grow up in Florida, I also didn’t know how else to identify, and so at some point in my thirties—after I had lived in Iowa, Missouri, Texas, and, now, Arizona—I decided I had to be a Florida writer. No other place makes sense to me.
We fly back home on a Friday, and by Saturday my kids have already figured Florida out. They play with rubber ducks and a bucket of water on the dock beside the Hillsborough River at my parents’ house and within minutes they are both nearly naked in the humid mid-afternoon. There are leaf blowers blowing. And we all kept trying to spot alligators on the river line.
On Sunday we go to the Thai Buddhist temple and sit by the river and eat dumplings and spring roles and drink Thai coffee. I take my youngest daughter Frida to the dock and we make fish sounds at the fish. I try to take her in the temple where people are taking turns gonging the gong, but she just wants to get down and crawl all over the prayer mats. It is windy for a moment and we all feel like something has gone wrong. In Florida there is only wind when there’s a storm, or a hurricane. When Frida gets bitten by ants, I feel like things are right again.
The most Florida experience I have at the (AWP) conference is at George Saunders’ keynote speech. I arrive late because I stay too long drinking bourbon with friends at one of the many new bars in Tampa’s downtown, and I practically run to the convention center, hoping I haven’t missed too much. I stumbled into the room I see others stumbling into, but it’s barely filled, and I look at the stage and Saunders is there speaking to us on two screens, but he isn’t really there. There was no one at the podium in front of us.
Up until this point, there have been a number of stories of people getting snowed in, people coming from places like Syracuse or Maine and not being able catch their flights to Florida, and I imagine that Saunders got stuck up North, too, and that the conference board then convinced him to stand behind a fake podium in snowy New York and give this speech, which is ultimately about compassion, but at the moment I stumble, Saunders is talking about trying as a young writer to imitate his literary hero, Hemingway, a writer who Florida sometimes claims, but who never really claimed Florida.
I was disappointed to have a simulacrum of Saunders instead of the real thing, until I remember Tom Hallock’s comment about Florida being a screen, our writing our projection of what we want to see onto that screen. Then it made sense: me watching a projection of George Saunders before a half-filled room of writers, while, as I learned later, the real George Saunders is just a few ballrooms over, talking to a standing-room-only crowd of 1,500.
Florida is a screen upon which we project ourselves, or what we want to be. Maybe I want to be George Saunders. Maybe I want him to be Florida. And then he was.
“There will never be an end/ To this droning of the surf.”