bellocqsadeleCarriSkoczekTwenty years ago I published my first book with a small press, and it won an award my hometown newspaper described as “the prestigious Flannery O’Connor Award.” My father still thinks that’s the award name, though he says The Prestigious Flannery O’Connell Award. All writers hope that getting their first book published will change their lives. It does, variably. I got a teaching job, also firsthand insight that hardly anyone reads a small press book with a good award except writers and aspiring writers—especially an aspiring writer enrolled in your class and perhaps his mother. One day a student a few years younger than me told me his mother had read my book. I braced myself. I was in one of my grim starter marriages, and my grim father-in-law had weighed in. He’d skimmed my book and grimaced. “Trying too hard to be naughty.” He compared me unfavorably to Shakespeare, whom he couldn’t have read closely.  “Why sex?”

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Growing up working-class in a small Southern city, I early acquired a racist vocabulary. This was by no means encouraged by my parents, who were mortified when, at four or so, I referred to a fellow customer at Sears as a nigger. I have no memory of doing that — I was told about it years later — but I’m sure I was baffled by the punishment I received. The kids in my neighborhood used the word “nigger” as a matter of course. To them, it was an appropriate term for a person of color, and I followed suit, even after the Sears incident. Why punish someone for calling a bird a bird? And why would a bird object? So, I think, my reasoning went.