ARTS & CULTURE
By Pamir Kiciman
Today when Southerners hear about kudzu (Pueraria montana), it is despised as an uncontrollable invasive vine. Your neighborhood native species volunteer is removing kudzu from that land over there, and in the listserv you subscribe to, many participants talk about best practices in kudzu eradication.
Kudzu does grow voraciously, and it is nonnative. But that is only one side of its legacy. Kudzu is respected in its native East Asia lands, going back 6000 years (page 6 of the link). Similarly, it has been kept in check by the use of grazing animals.
It may be strange that an invasive plant became a symbol of the American South, but the climate is perfect for it, allowing kudzu to scale readily visible places such as roadside poles, empty lots and untended fields. This is why kudzu is burned into the Southern psyche.
In Mimi Herman‘s new novel, The Kudzu Queen (Regal House, Jan 10, 2023), one fictional town of Pinesboro in one equally fictional Cooper County, North Carolina, the hometown of Mattie Lee Watson, age 15, is the new site of a kudzu revolution in 1941, led by Mr. James T. Cullowee, a self-proclaimed and charismatic “Kudzu King.”
Kudzu is its own character in the novel. Just as it climbs and covers anything it encounters, its arrival in Pinesboro cloaks secrets and deceptions. There is a sinister sense to how it grows in Herman’s descriptions, like a malaise taking over its host.
An incredible array of benefits is assigned to kudzu by its principal proponent, the Kudzu King, who has the looks of a “Greek god” and the slick smile of a confidence man.
These include: No plowing, fertilizing or weeding; grows if it is dry or wet; forage for farm animals; cures headaches and heart attacks; makes jelly and jam and candied kudzu flowers for the kids. There are so many more, it is stupefying. And the government pays “five dollars an acre” to every farmer who plants it.
Perhaps the most galling, though is, “dried properly, kudzu combines with Carolina tobacco to make the finest cigarette I’ve ever had,” says Cullowee, while handing out packs of these smokes.
As Herman writes, “but cigarettes in tobacco country? That was nothing to take lightly.”
Kudzu may even compete with cotton!
The Kudzu Queen is about a Southern farming community and its adjacent incorporated town community (just before the U.S. enters WWII), and the tragedies, triumphs and defeats of the people who live there, thrown together with the potent mix that is produced by the theatrical entry of the Kudzu King.
Cullowee is dramatic both in his presentation and the predatory behavior he brings hidden underneath his traveling show of kudzu farming, a countywide kudzu festival and the crowning of the Kudzu Queen of Cooper County after the beauty pageant. There is even a tiara and photos of Kudzu Queens from other counties.
As powerful a catalyst as Cullowee is, Mattie Watson is the narrator of the book and its central hub, without whom none of the other cogs in The Kudzu Queen would operate.
She may be 15, but her point of view is highly engaging to an adult reader, and she is an excellent guide to the backstories and foibles of everyone in the book, including her own. Her recounting of the present is empathetic, colorful and suspenseful.
She describes characters simply but precisely with insightful physical and personality markers that are distinct and consistent throughout the story.
The book is a simmering stew of alcoholism, domestic abuse, abandonment, horrid male predation and the conventional demarcations of a mostly rural 1940s Southern community.
These powerful social ills are shown through a core cast of characters, extending from Mattie to her best friend, Lynnette, and her best friend from an earlier time, Rose, in a web of family, high school classmates and other town figures.
Mattie wants to be a lawyer. She is the middle child of three. Her older brother, Danny, is going to “Ag school in Raleigh,” and her 6-year-old brother Joey is a budding kudzu entrepreneur. Mattie does not enjoy home economics class or the chores at home and on the farm, but she does them anyway.
She is smart and headstrong, a caring and loyal sibling and friend, and since meeting the—“in my head I was already calling him James”—Kudzu King, on a chemical overdrive from a concoction of teenage hormones and romantic fantasy, radiant as can be but dangerously naïve.
Herman’s prose flows in an easy cadence. With a lilting rhythm and a natural tone, the novel is tinged with just the right amount of Southern sass and humor. Readers will find it difficult to resist appreciating such gems as: “Everything from her dermis layer down to her stingy heart was pure-T ugly,” and “When she was little, she was skinny as a stick and twice as sharp,” and “a redheaded scarecrow with feet as big as rowboats, who was so skinny I figured he’d break if he tried to carry a bucket of water.”
The heart of the novel is about a community coming together to protect its vulnerable, forge stronger familial and friendship ties, be true neighbors and oust a destructive outsider before corruption takes root and does any more harm.
The writing is effortless in a way that it becomes beguiling. It draws you in and does not let go. Do not be fooled, though, because The Kudzu Queen is a hot sweaty mess of a tale raising questions of race, class, gender roles, sexuality and power dynamics, roiling beneath a genteel Southern veil.
It is a thrilling page-turner.
Mimi Herman will be at Flyleaf Books on Feb. 16 for a book signing and reading. The bookstore is located at 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Chapel Hill.
The Local Reporter interviewed the author about her first novel.
What were the circumstances of you first coming across the historical facts behind the novel?
While I was in the library some years ago, roaming through the microfiche, I came across an article about men who traveled the South promoting kudzu, encouraging farmers to plant the “miracle vine” and arranging for kudzu festivals with kudzu beauty queens. I couldn’t believe anyone would intentionally promote kudzu—or want to be the queen of it—so I had to write a novel to discover why.
This is your first novel. You have two collections of poetry, and your other fiction has been published in literary journals. How did you arrive at the decision to write a novel?
I think I’ve always been a novelist and poet, though I learned fiction through writing short stories at UNC-Chapel Hill and Warren Wilson. I’ve written stories I’ve loved, but I always feel a bit sad and lonely when they’re finished, like a party that’s ended too soon. In novels, I can get to know characters and live with them for a while.
Poems are different and provide a counterbalance. When I write a poem, I explore an idea or feeling to understand how it works, then offer that understanding to readers. There’s a lot more instant gratification with poetry. You can finish a poem in a day.
What has writing long-form fiction revealed to you about your own writing and writing in general, its power and impact?
Long-form fiction is an investment in the past of your characters, and in the future of your readers. It’s essential to me as a novelist to get it right, to be ruthless with every sentence, every line of dialogue, every description, so the characters can rest easy, knowing they’ve been seen, and readers can get lost in the book, emerging changed in some vital way.
Are you the kind of writer who keeps notes about local turns of phrases and syntax or do you have a special kind of memory? Because you go beyond familiarity with Southernisms and have a balanced comfort with the language.
Thank you. I’m always writing down great phrases I hear, but I rarely use them, though if you grow up in North Carolina, as I did, you’re going to hear a lot of phrases over and over. I also invented some, because they sounded right. People’s ways of speaking stay with me. I try to listen to how their syntax and word choices vary, depending on who’s talking and what their backgrounds are, and to understand characters through their voices. I’m also very aware of how much the South has been stereotyped in literature, even sometimes by Southern writers. I wanted to write a book with distinctive voices that felt real and mattered to the reader.
The Kudzu Queen is a rural Southern novel. You invented North Carolina’s 101st county. Tell readers how you went about populating and enlivening the life of Pinesboro.
I figured out early on that if I wrote about an existing county, I was going to spend the rest of my life answering to people who said, “Well, I live in _____ County, and it’s not like that at all.”
The truth is that I’m not sure if I populated Pinesboro or Cooper County at all. What I did was to invent Mattie Lee Watson, who immediately started surrounding herself with the people she needed: a mother and father, an older and younger brother, a best friend, Lynnette. Then Lynnette needed parents and sisters. And the Kudzu King, Mr. James T. Cullowee, needed people to admire him. Rose Moore was clearly essential to the book—and to Mattie. Everywhere anyone went, new people just started popping up. Mattie couldn’t go to school or church or the movies or Queen Class without someone new finding a way into the book.
Have we advanced enough on women’s and social issues?
If we must ask that question, we still have a way to go. But perhaps what we need is a new way of envisioning what’s possible, looking not at ways we can take power from the people who have it and give it to those who don’t, but how we can create ways to live together so everyone gets what they need.
Similarly, what parallels and throughlines are there between the rural South of 1941 and today’s cultural tensions and moments?
I started writing this book before the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements, but there are certainly many parallels. What Mattie experiences, what Rose goes through, the lives of Lynnette and her mother and sisters, all of these are still present today—throughout America.
Do you ever find yourself asking, “What would Mattie do?” when your sense of right and wrong is strained and easy answers are hard to come by?
Since what Mattie would do in any given moment is as likely to be reckless as wise, that could be a dangerous question. But I trust Mattie’s character, so I’d say she’s a pretty good guide to finding the answers to difficult moral questions.
What insights would Mattie have for a person her age (15) today?
I think Mattie would say, “Being 15 is tough, but there’s still right and wrong in the world, and the things you do can make a difference.” And probably Cary Grant is a better romantic choice than Errol Flynn.
What is the one gift that you would like to leave readers with when they finish The Kudzu Queen?
Speak up for the things that matter and look after those you love.
Pamir Kiciman is a writer/poet, artist/artisan, photographer, healer, and meditation teacher. To learn more, visit https://liinks.co/reiki.wordsmith or contact him by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.