“Jupiter, Florida” (2016), by Jackson Hallberg. Courtesy of the artist
Everything Went Wild
By Sarah Viren
“In Florida, it’s always noon and everything is full of honey”—Jack Gilbert
The Twitter feed that launched the Florida Man meme in 2013 refers to him as “the World’s Worst Superhero.” He is the man in Fort Walton Beach who stole sausages and jumped off a bridge to escape arrest. The DeLand man dressed as a bull trying to burn down his ex-lover’s house with pasta sauce. The man who beat a flamingo to death in Tampa. And the man run over by his own truck in Ridge Manor after his dog put the vehicle in gear.
He is also the boy trapped in an arcade game. The woman who accidentally swallowed a five-thousand-dollar diamond. And our current president—at least part time.
When I taught Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief to a bunch of West Texas college students a couple of years ago, I showed them the Florida Man feed so they would understand what Florida has come to mean in the popular imagination. But also so that they would stop saying that Orlean had to be making things up.
Orlean’s Florida Man is named John Laroche, and he was—still is—a real Florida man arrested in 1994 for stealing orchids from a state preserve. In The Orchid Thief, he represents everything manic and wild about the state, and Orlean eventually acknowledges that she’s come down to Florida hoping to feel the same level of obsession that drove Laroche to risk jail time for a flower.
This leads her, as many routes do in Florida, to the swamp, and the book ends with her following Laroche through the Everglades, water up to her waist, in search of one of the rarest but allegedly most beautiful orchids, the ghost orchid.
They get lost, of course, and at some point Orlean gives up. She realizes she will never germinate obsession like Laroche does. And when she finds herself back near civilization, the concrete and stream of cars again visible, she is relieved. By the end of the book, we know that she will soon return to New York, and Florida will be but a dream—but also a book that she’ll write about that dream.
When I began obsessing this past year about the state where I grew up, and questioning what it is, or what it is becoming now that it suddenly seems to be having a literary moment, I remembered The Orchid Thief. It came out in 1998, when I was in college in Sarasota, and I read it soon after finishing Peter Matthiessen’s Killing Mister Watson, a brutal historical novel about Florida as frontier. For a while those two works nested together in my imagination—outliers in a world that insisted either that Florida literature didn’t exist or that it was a subpar subset of Southern literature. The only other great Florida writer I knew then was Zora Neale Hurston—and she had been claimed by the Harlem Renaissance.
In recent years, though, Florida has been making noise. Karen Russell won a MacArthur Fellowship and her novel Swamplandia!—about a family who ran a failed Florida theme park—was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Matthiessen’s Shadow Country (which incorporates Killing Mister Watson) won a National Book Award. Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics, a play about cigar factory workers in Tampa’s Ybor City, won the Pulitzer Prize and was nominated for two Tony Awards. And this past year, Moonlight—a small-budget film about a queer black boy’s precarious coming of age in Miami—took home an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Picture.
Authors writing now are publishing books—including Lauren Groff’s latest story collection, Florida, and Sarah Gerard’s celebrated book of essays Sunshine State—that do more than just use Florida as a wacky backdrop for someone else’s drama. And some, like the journalist Craig Pittman, are writing books that claim Florida has something to teach the rest of the United States. “No matter how hard you may laugh at Florida,” he writes in his 2016 book Oh, Florida!, “the fact is it’s constantly influencing all the other states. They just don’t notice it.”
And so, it seems important, suddenly, to figure out what Florida literature is. First, though, we should agree what Florida is.
“Florida,” Tom Hallock tells me, “is a screen. We are the projection on that screen.”
We’re talking via a screen when he says this. Hallock, and his wife, Julie Buckner Armstrong, both literature professors in the University of South Florida’s Florida Studies Program, agreed to an interview after I told them that I was writing an essay about “what Florida literature is, i.e., how we would define it, who we’d place in its canon, and why it’s great (my opinion).” I call them on a February morning and find them in two swiveling chairs in one of their offices in St. Petersburg, the blue sky of Florida visible through a window behind them, while I sit at my desk in Arizona, a state that sometimes feels like a dehydrated fruit version of Florida.
Before we talked, Hallock had told me that he planned to “make a plug for the old,” while Armstrong could “go current,” but we get off topic early and start talking in metaphors.
The screen metaphor, Hallock says, has to do with the fact that “an important part of Florida is the idea of being removed, a state filtered through someone else’s perception.”
Case in point: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, the Spanish explorer who in 1528 found himself on the west coast of Florida with an expedition of more than four hundred men hoping to find riches in the New World. By the time Cabeza de Vaca made it back to Spain ten years later and wrote up an account of all he had seen, only four of the men remained alive. And so, along with describing vegetation and wildlife, The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca also recounts near-starvation, slavery, cannibalism, and feats of magical healing as the expedition trekked up the Florida coast and into the Southeast, Texas, and Mexico.
The Florida section begins in May. Three hundred men and forty-two horses make their way from a harbor near what is now Englewood, inland past the Hillsborough River, which now passes my parents’ house, and up toward the Panhandle, where, five months later—sick from disease and under attack from a local tribe—the remaining men finally “escape” Florida on boats they have fashioned from palmetto oakum, pine pitch, and juniper trees, their shirts sewn together to make sails.
The Florida that Cabeza de Vaca imagines is a region where gold always appears to be near but is never found, a place that at first reminds him of home, that later seems both “marvelous” and “strange,” and, by the end, is just “that bad country.” He describes “a country difficult to traverse and marvelous to see,” one filled with “three kinds of deer, rabbits and hares, bears and lions and other wild beasts, among them one that carries its young in a pouch on its belly as long as the young are small,” and, in what was perhaps the first Florida fiction, he notes, “The country is very cold.”
He also writes of the people already living here, people we now believe were the Apalachee. There is a benevolent Indian chief who arrives riding on another man’s back, a coterie of flute players preceding him, but there are also others who are less welcoming, those who resist the encroachment on their land by the band of foreigners come from afar. These are the native Floridians who attack the Spaniards near the end, effectively driving them out of the Florida peninsula and off into someone else’s land. “All the many Indians from Florida we saw were archers,” Cabeza de Vaca notes near the end of the Florida expedition, “and, being very tall and naked, at a distance they appear giants.”
Hallock, when he talks about the narrative, likes to point out that Cabeza de Vaca was back in Spain when he wrote his account, and so everything he has to say about Florida is filtered through that distance. “There is always that projection going on,” he explains. “That projection of the exotic.”
“I like to think of Florida as a Venn diagram,” Armstrong says—one comprising overlapping circles of “national ideas, Southern ideas, and Caribbean ideas.”
She tells me I should read Calypso Magnolia by John Wharton Lowe, which makes the argument that rather than being a part of the South, Florida is best understood as the “South of the South.” In the book, which is subtitled “the Crosscurrents of Caribbean and Southern Literature,” Lowe, a professor at the University of Georgia, reimagines Southern Studies and Caribbean Studies to include outlier literary moments and figures—writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Cristina García, historical events like the Haitian Revolution (about which many Southern writers wrote), and regions like Florida. What has kept Florida from claiming a proper place in Southern Studies, he writes, has been its tropical weather and large population of Northern retirees, but more importantly, its strong Latino history and present-day culture.
“Florida,” Lowe writes in the final chapter, “has always been correctly seen as Caribbean, and therefore not only not Southern, but in many ways, not like the rest of the region or nation.” Lowe focuses on the Cuban American writers of South Florida, including Virgil Suárez, Roberto G. Fernández, and Cristina García. When Armstrong teaches Florida literature, however, she often includes Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics, which takes place in Tampa, where I grew up. Or rather, the play is set in Ybor City, a district in Tampa that began as a company town in 1886 for cigar factory workers and over the years became known as Tampa’s Cuban district, one that by the 1920s had filled with stately brick buildings in which the tabaqueros rolled hundreds of millions of cigars a year.
The drama in Anna in the Tropics converges around the figure of the lector—or the reader—usually a man, and a well-educated one, who was paid by the tabaqueros to read to them while they worked—from newspapers and magazines, but also from romance novels, political treatises, and works of literature, like Don Quixote, or, in Cruz’s play, Anna Karenina. The lector in Anna in the Tropics, Juan Julian, arrives in Tampa from Cuba to replace the former lector, who has died, and, as such, he plays the role of the outsider—the foreigner—who represents the old ways of doing things. Meanwhile, another character, Cheché, is the stand-in for the North, and by extension, the United States as a whole.
Cheché wants to modernize the cigar factory, bring in machines to do the rolling and kick out the lectores. Juan Julian argues against this in an impassioned speech about the history of cigar rolling, how it comes from the Taíno Indians, how the original rollers were called “oidores”—or listeners—because they could hear the sounds of the tobacco leaves, which “whisper the language of the sky.”
Between these two sides lie the rest of the factory workers, those tabaqueros who have settled in Ybor City but still don’t feel a part of the United States. And they are the ones who represent Florida, I think—these people in between two worlds, feeling like they are still part of the island they left behind, as well as the new nation and state they’re trying to join.
Armstrong says when she teaches Florida literature, she focuses on the state’s multiethnic heritage but also on pushing her students to reconsider their previous conceptions about what Florida literature is or should be. “I try to understand Florida along the lines of a hurricane map, that we are part of a bigger flow, if that makes sense,” she says.
I nod my head, but I must look confused because Hallock adds, “I can tell you something that makes a book Florida literature. Shit blows through.”
And then they both laugh, as if everything were now clear.
A month after talking to Hallock and Armstrong, I return home to Florida. As we fly in, my oldest daughter, who is four, gasps when she sees a harvest moon out the plane window as we descend over Tampa Bay. “What is that?” she asks, and I remember how Cabeza de Vaca saw a harvest moon as he fled Florida almost five hundred years before us. I also remember something that so many people say about Florida: We have the prettiest sunsets. Which we do.
I’ve come home for a week to see my parents but also for a writing conference called the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, or AWP, the largest gathering of writers in the country, one expected to bring twelve thousand of them to Tampa for five days of panels, readings, and parties about literature. I am convinced that seeing so many writers converge on the city where I grew up will help me clarify what Florida is, and whether or not it is having a moment.
From the start, though, most of the writers let me down. A friend of a friend, a novelist from Brooklyn, declares Florida “the least literary place ever.” Others say Tampa is boring. Or tweet that it has no culture. A guy I’ve just met claims the humidity has put everyone in a bad mood. And some skip the conference entirely, saying they’ll wait until next year when it is in a proper literary place: Portland.
Those who are optimistic about Florida arrive with their beach gear ready. They marvel at the quaintness of chickens roaming the streets of Ybor City and sit on benches along Tampa’s Riverwalk, eyes closed in meditation before so much sun and water. There is an argument to be made, I know in watching them, that Florida is no place, or that if it is anything, it is a vacation destination or—as the saying goes—God’s waiting room.
It’s true that many of the writers we Floridians might call ours were really only passing through. Elizabeth Bishop traveled to Key West and wrote her much-anthologized poem “The Fish” based on her experiences there. E. B. White wintered in Sarasota and, after going to see one of the city’s circuses, he wrote one of his most famous essays, “The Ring of Time.” But very few people think of these works as Floridian in nature. Few even realize they were set here.
The modernist poet Laura Riding Jackson moved to Florida and gave up writing poetry, declaring it an obstacle to the “realizing of the full potential afforded by language.” And then there’s Jack Kerouac, who lived in Orlando on and off during the height of his fame—soon after On the Road was published—and eventually moved to St. Petersburg with his third wife and his mother, living in a little brick house where he slowly drank himself to death.
Kerouac’s only contribution to Florida letters was a series of poems called “Orlando Blues,” which he never published, and one line of which reads, “Don’t ever come to Florida.” And, yet, according to the musician David Amram, who wrote the preface to a book about Kerouac’s tenure in the state, Kerouac in Florida: Where the Road Ends, Kerouac felt he was happy and productive in Florida—even if the rest of the “literary cognoscenti” saw his move there as the beginning of the end.
Amram shares an anecdote about the time he tried to convince a well-known New York editor that Florida could be literary, too. “How about the fact that many of our greatest writers still come from the South?” Amram asks the unnamed editor.
“Yes, David, you have a point,” the editor responds. “But none of them who had any kind of major career would ever choose . . . Florida. After all, Florida is where people go to die.”
The conference schedule lists more than a dozen panels about Florida, including “Creatures from the Black Lagoon: Feminist Writing from the Deep South of Florida”; “Crazy, Sexy Miami: Reporters Tell All”; and “Oy Vey es Florida: Poetry on the Jewish American Experience.” In these panels, writers with Florida roots ask important questions bent on taking Florida seriously, questions like “How can fiction writers make Florida feel real when it’s so often associated with make believe?” and “Is Florida the anomaly or the bellwether, the odd man/woman out, or the state (literally) of things to come?”
At a panel called “Complicating Florida,” on the first day of the conference, the poet Raymond McDaniel opens by asking for a raise of hands of all those who were born in Florida.
About half the room has a hand in the air (I’m not among them).
“How many have a parent born in Florida?” he continues.
Only a quarter still have their hands up.
“I’m just going to keep my hand up,” says McDaniel’s fellow panelist, the novelist and essayist Kristen Arnett.
“A great-grandparent?” he asks.
Now we are down to four—McDaniel, Arnett, and a couple of people in the audience.
“I’m a ten-gen Floridian,” he says, as hands fall back in laps. “We’ve been in Florida for longer than it’s been Florida. If you can prove to the state that you’re descended from someone who lived in Florida prior to its statehood, they’ll send you a certificate.”
The irony, he adds, is that many who lived here at that time—Native Americans, escaped slaves, immigrants—had no paperwork to certify their existence. In fact, much of the history of this state is built on that contradiction, on an apparatus that allowed what was once native—swamps, wildlife, people—to give way to the exotic, which soon becomes invasive, and in this way permanent.
“For me, the heritage of Florida is that of space that survives by never being stable,” McDaniel tell us, “never being solid, never being one thing at the expense of another, of people who change their names, who fought, who fled, who dispersed, who mingled, who survived.”
Arnett’s version of Florida is also that of a state rife (and ripe) with contradiction, a place where she once watched a boy slit open a live lizard with a pearl-handled knife, but also where, as a kid, she would stare through her front window at the dancers on smoke breaks at the topless bar across the street, watching as they “walked back inside in their stockings, tiptoeing to avoid gravel and tire-flattened bottle caps.
“I found them graceful and lovely,” she tells us.
Last year, Arnett published an essay called “The Problem with Writing about Florida” that is as close to an anthem for the state I have ever read. “This state is invasive, creeping, needy,” she writes. “You fight for the right to live in its greenery, and once you’ve finally carved out a space, you stay tangled in the wreck. Once you’ve left, there’s no coming back. The best you can do is hack out a different life somewhere else. This place isn’t yours to write about. It’s barely mine.”
Both she and McDaniel grapple with the question of what it means to say you are from Florida, but also who has the right to write about this state. And their conclusion, if they have one, seems to be that it does make a difference if you live in Florida or not. It does matter if you were raised here, too—at least in the way you understand what Florida means.
For McDaniel, what distinguishes longtime Floridians from those who just live here is an understanding of class and race in the state—at least in the north part of Florida, where he grew up, a region arguably more akin to the American South than the rest of Florida. Raised by poor white parents, he recounts needing from a young age to distinguish his white poverty from that of other poor whites: those with an accent, those who were prejudiced, those called “trash.”
“Our attitude about whiteness certainly didn’t divest of us its privileges, and yet it itself is a manifestation of those privileges,” he says. “But one’s relationship to one’s kind and whether or not one admits how various, especially in Florida, one’s kind truly are, matters.”
For Arnett, being from Florida is more about refusing to ever leave. But even those people, even people like her, she adds, have a hard time replicating this place on the page.
I think about the first time I read Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and how perfectly she seemed to capture the state—but also the process of falling in love. And maybe for Hurston they were the same thing. She grew up in Florida, but, as a folklorist, it was also a site for her research. She knew this place well.
In her book, Florida, like love, is a place of extremes. There is the paradise that is Eatonville, the first incorporated African-American town in the United States, the town where Hurston grew up and where her protagonist, Janie, comes into her own. And then there is the wilderness known as “the Muck,” the Everglades now drained of swamp and suitable for crops, a place where Janie and the man she eventually falls in love with, Tea Cake, find work planting and picking beans alongside Lake Okeechobee.
“Ground so rich that everything went wild,” is how Hurston describes the land. “Dirt roads so rich and black that a half mile of it would have fertilized a Kansas wheat field. Wild cane on either side of the road hiding the rest of the world. People wild too.”
The two are happy in the Muck until the day the weather changes—and anyone or any animal native to the area starts heading to higher ground. Janie and Tea Cake stay on, and so do most of the other workers, “laughing and waiting for the sun to get friendly again.” Only at nightfall do they begin to doubt themselves.
“It is so easy to be hopeful in the daytime when you can see the things you wish on,” Hurston writes. “But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands.”
When Hurston narrates the hurricane that eventually comes, she personifies everything: the night strides, the drifting mist arms itself with thunder, the lake rolls in his bed, getting more and more angry, until finally
the two hundred miles an hour wind had loosened his chains. He seized hold of his dikes and ran forward until he met the quarters; uprooted them like grass and rushed on after his supposed-to-be conquerors, rolling the dikes, rolling the houses, rolling the people in the houses along with other timbers. The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.
Hurston teaches us a number of lessons in her book, but among the most important are these: Love is impermanent, but so is our dominion over the land. We may have drained the swamp, but the swamp is always there, waiting for a chance to return.
In high school, I passed by the same corner lot every morning on my way to class. The lot was across from a trailer park home and a couple blocks away from a gas station, but it managed to remain pure jungle. It was so green and fecund it seemed almost pornographic, and I felt a lower-head buzz each time I spotted it amidst the strip malls and chain stores and golf courses. Because I lived in Florida, though, I kept expecting it to disappear. But it didn’t. And then it didn’t. Until one day, when I was in my twenties and home for a visit, and I drove past the lot and found in its stead an upscale apartment complex called Hidden Palms.
I think about that lot a lot. It seems connected to something else essential about Florida. Something that relates to McDaniel’s thoughts on the stable instability of the state, but also to Arnett’s images—and Hurston’s personification—of Florida as a living thing. It has something to do with the feeling, too, that, in Florida, reality and unreality are layered one on top of the other like the leaves of an onion.
Or maybe it’s that we’re like a mirage. You see one thing when you look at the state from a distance, but if you come closer, dig deeper, you always find something else. This probably has something to do with Disney World, but it also relates to the entire construct of Florida—the mythology of the state as a paradise preserved in time just for you.
In Russell’s Swamplandia!—which is probably the most well-known contemporary Florida novel—we see the mechanics of that paradise-making in the Bigtree “tribe,” a family of alligator wrestlers and theme park operators overseen by the patriarch, Chief Bigtree. “Although there was not a drop of Seminole or Miccosukee blood in us, the Chief always costumed us in tribal apparel for the photographs he took,” Russell’s child narrator, Ava, explains. “He said we were ‘our own Indians.’”
When Ava’s mother, the star of the alligator-wrestling act, dies, Chief Bigtree continues on as if nothing has happened. He doesn’t change the promotional material that mentions her name, nor does he acknowledge the situation when the theme park begins to lose revenue. And as he is spinning delusions, so is Ava’s older sister, a girl named for a Seminole warrior, who believes she is betrothed to the ghost of a Depression-era dredgeman. Even Ava herself eventually falls for magical thinking when she decides that someone named “Bird Man” can help her find a door to the underworld in the Florida swamp.
Almost everyone and everything we meet in Swamplandia!, in fact, is a mirage of some sort, even the landscape. The trees we see throughout the ten thousand islands are melaleuca trees introduced by Army Corps of Engineers as a way to drain the waters but that have now taken over the swamp, killing off the wildlife and spoiling the habitats the waters once nurtured. The alligators are also a fiction. They’re all named Seth, we learn, so that the Bigtrees don’t have to change their promotional material if one alligator needs to replace another.
When Swamplandia! was published in 2011, the New York Times Book Review called it “a North American take on magical realism,” but I think a better description would be a Floridian understanding of the magically real. Which is to say: Rather than magical, we have bizarre. And rather than real, we have the quotidian, the everyday, the commonplace. Our magical realism is Florida Man, the ordinary bizarre—that laughable, absurd, grotesque person who is also just a person.
My last day at AWP, I spot a six-foot swamp ape wandering the rows of stalls in the book fair—a walking advertisement for the new literary journal Swamp Ape Review, from Florida Atlantic University. He is the kind of creature that, if you met him in the middle of the Everglades, you would surely scream and run. But under the florescent lights and among rows of books in Tampa, he appears comical, or sad.
“The Swamp Ape is a legend that reflects Florida,” the journal explains on its website. “Its mythology, its weirdness—as well as the human desire to create a narrative around that which we can’t explain.”
In his preface to a new anthology called We Can’t Help It If We’re from Florida, editor Shane Hinton writes a fable in response to the question “What is Florida Literature?” and ends his story with a sinkhole. In another story in that collection, by Jeff Parker, a sinkhole opens up in a cheap hotel room and takes with it the protagonist’s potential love interest. When the hole is reported to the hotel manager, he replies: “That’s not a sinkhole. Just a little floor malfunction.”
Sinkholes in Florida stories, like hurricanes and alligators, are often both metaphor and reality. They appear in our literature because they are a very real part of daily life, but they invariably start to mean something bigger than themselves.
In Groff’s “Flower Hunters”—from her new collection, Florida—she manages to work a sinkhole, an alligator, and a storm into what is essentially the story of a lonely suburban mother drinking wine on her front porch on Halloween. While she drinks, the mother reads the travelogue of the eighteenth-century naturalist William Bartram, a man she identifies with—she, too, “was once a Northerner dazzled by the frenzied flora and fauna here”—and also adores:
She reads by bat-light and sees two William Bartrams as she reads: the bright-eyed thirty-four-year-old explorer with the tan skin and sinewy muscles and the sketchbook, besieged by alligators, comfortable supping alone with mosquitoes and with rich indigo planters alike, and also Bartram’s older paler self, in the quiet of his Pennsylvania garden, projecting his joy and his younger persona onto the page.
Like Cabeza de Vaca, Bartram (whom Tom Hallock also teaches) writes about Florida from afar. He treats Florida like a screen, his writing a projection upon that screen—though his vision of the state is arguably more affectionate. In describing a Florida bull gator, he verges on exultant:
Behold him rushing forth from the flags and reeds. His enormous body swells. His plaited tail brandished high, floats upon the lake. The waters like a cataract descend from his opening jaws. Clouds of smoke issue from his dilated nostrils. The earth trembles with his thunder.
Groff’s protagonist reads that passage and thinks about those “two Bartrams,” the “feeling body and the remembering brain” that together capture Florida in his writing. She, by contrast, is present tense, a body and brain experiencing Florida in a rush, and we realize in reading “Flower Hunters”—and most of the other stories in Groff’s collection—that the landscape is the self, and the self is the land. There is no distance.
This is clearest with the sinkhole. Groff’s protagonist noticed a small one in her lawn the day before, and now she can’t stop thinking about it, and how it could grow bigger at any moment. The sinkhole is “like a hole in the mouth where a tooth used to be,” she thinks; it is a hole “in her mind.”
Finally, she puts down her book and, though it has begun to storm, trudges out in the rain to examine the hole with a flashlight. Looking down, she imagines herself and her house and dog and piano all at the bottom of a massive sinkhole, “her family’s heads peering once in a while over the lip, tiny pale bits against the blue sky.” She imagines, in other words, Florida subsuming her. “From down there,” Groff writes, “everyone would seem so happy.”
Depending on you how look at it, the sinkhole is either the opposite of that layering of meaning we see in Swamplandia!, in Disney World and Florida tourist brochures, and in my memories of that jungle lot. Or it is the same thing. They both can pull the rug out from under your feet. You think Florida is paradise, but look closer and you find beach erosion, corruption, and a long history of racism and exploitation. You are sure you have a home, a family, kids, a life, and in the next moment all you have is a hole.
Four years ago, Nick Moran, a book critic at The Millions, took a vow: He would read only Florida literature. As he explains in his column two years in, his pledge was to read only books “set in, connected to, or written by authors from the state of Florida.”
He started with the classics: Hurston and Matthiessen, John McPhee’s Oranges and Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s River of Grass. He “dipped into” poetry by Bishop, Donald Justice, and Richard Blanco; he fell in love with the stories of Jennine Capó Crucet; he read all of Joy Williams; and, as he writes in one of his columns, “with increasingly deep breaths, I inhaled Carl Hiaasen’s entire God damned oeuvre until I felt like I was having a psychic asthma attack.”
When asked why he was doing this—and of course he was asked—Moran couldn’t come up with a proper response. He didn’t really remember. It may have had something to do with falling in love with Florida when he moved there for college; he lived in Miami, about which he says some semi-romantic things—how it’s “a thin strip of raised land between the Everglades and the ocean”—as well as some sardonic ones: “the best part of Miami is how close it is to the United States.” But Moran’s quest may also be about doing something that no one else has done before.
When I ask Moran to describe the “Florida canon” he often mentions in his columns, he initially says he can’t, that Florida literature is just too varied—like the state itself, what with its swamps and high rises, its confluence of Southern and Latin American cultures, its super-rich and hyper-poor. A responsible, if convenient, response that brings to my mind what the memoirist Kent Russell—brother of Karen Russell—wrote: “Florida never will be fully captured. That, truly, is its deal: Florida exists hypothetically, in the future-continuous tense.”
Then Moran thinks about it. “There’s a sense at all times in Florida that you’re living on borrowed time in a place you shouldn’t be,” he clarifies. “I think any book I’d consider putting into the overall canon would have to at a minimum get into this theme.”
That sense of borrowed time is one you hear often in talk about Florida. In fact, there are those who say that the rest of the United States should pay attention to us if only because we might portend their future.
“What I like to say about Florida is that being from Florida is like being from the future,” McDaniel said in his panel. “Everything that’s going to happen, happens there first. We know what’s going to go wrong before the rest of the country does.”
This premonitory factor is usually characterized in terms of negatives—that global warming will first affect Florida’s vulnerable coast, that Floridians are exporting, via Florida Man, a fascination with the macabre and grotesque that is slowly taking over the rest of the United States—but I think we can also think of it in terms of making art: that recent Florida literature and film capture something essential about the present moment. About our collective sense of having no real dominion over the land, perhaps. Or a realization that calls to drain the swamp are what brought us Disney World and (at least some) invasive species.
We see this best in a genre that Moran calls “Floridapocalyptic.” Books like Denis Johnson’s novel Fiskadoro, in which the Florida Keys are quite possibly the only livable place left on Earth. And to a different extent in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, in which a mysterious swath of wilderness referred to as Area X calls to mind Florida in the age of Cabeza de Vaca or Bartram—but if the land were suddenly given power over the humans sent to study it, and write about what they found.
“On a tropical peninsula where the highest point is only 345 feet above sea-level,” Moran writes in his review of the trilogy, “you get the sense that nothing man does here will matter in the long run because, sooner than later, the entire place will be consumed by the earth from whence it rose.”
After the AWP conference, back in Arizona, I call Moran with a few follow-up questions, and at some point, he mentions that he thinks that Florida is “having a moment.” I tell him I’ve been thinking the same thing, have been fixated on it, but I can’t figure out if my perception is real or skewed by how much time I’ve spent reading and thinking about the state.
Moran lists new films like The Florida Project and Moonlight, the Magic Mike franchise, stuff about football that I don’t follow, our Publix grocery store sub sandwiches—which briefly became a national phenomenon—and all the news coming out of Florida lately. The day before, more than a million students walked out of schools across the nation to protest gun violence—a demonstration that began with Florida student activism after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland a month before. A couple of weeks later, students would gather for a mass rally in D.C., and one of the Parkland shooting survivors would greet them with the rallying call, “Welcome to the revolution.”
I think, too, about the smaller ways in which the literary world in Florida seems to be coming into its own. The state now has nine graduate writing programs, behind only New York and California when it comes to academic support for the literary arts and young writers. AWP holding its conference there was in part a reflection of the fact that so many of its members now have ties to the state. “Florida is a strange place: hot, beautiful, ugly,” Roxane Gay, whose parents live in South Florida, once wrote in a column for the Guardian. “I love it here, and how nothing makes sense but still, somehow, there is a rhythm.” When Joy Castro, one of my favorite essayists, flew home after AWP, she tweeted: “Flock of white water birds over the highway. Good-bye Florida. How strangely you still feel like home.”
Before we hang up and return to our Florida libraries, Moran raises a point about the canon that brings Florida Man to my mind, one that suddenly makes at least momentary sense of my state. “To be a real weird Florida story, there has to be some level of irony in there,” he says. “And some of the irony is at least amplified by the very nature of the fact that it’s a beautiful setting, and then you got this weird thing happening within it.”
Which is to say that Florida literature is both about Florida—the land and the weather and the dreams of paradise—and about Florida Man—all of us tromping down to paradise bent on finding our dreams there or, if not, then inventing them out of the land we see before us, and the people—Florida men and women—who appear giants in the distance.
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