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Author explores Southern culture in memoir

BY ALYSSA MARIE HARN | NOVEMBER 30, 2010 7:20 AM

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Don't take the name literally. Melissa Delbridge's memoir, Family Bible, has nothing to do with religion.

"The book is not a bible," she said and laughed. "Trust me on this."

The book got its name because it acts as a record of the norms of the South over different generations, much like the Bible.

Delbridge will read from the memoir at 7 p.m. today in Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St. Admission is free.

Family Bible is a series of autobiographical essays that address topics of race, gender, and sexuality in the '60s and '70s, all of which were issues Delbridge faced growing up in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The first three essays were written in 2002, when she was a fellow at the Duke University John Hope Franklin Center. The fellows were given those three subjects to focus on and Delbridge decided she had a lot to say, having grown up in Tuscaloosa in the '60s.

"[Tuscaloosa] was very conservative with the beliefs and customs of the old South," the University of Alabama graduate said. "But because of the University of Alabama, there was also an influx of new ideas and more progressive thinking, and I moved very comfortably between those two worlds."

One of Delbridges's essays dealt with two of her childhood friends, one of whom grew up to become a classics scholar; the other became a stripper.

"I learned things that helped me survive in life from both of them," Delbridge said. "[The essay is] an exploration of the impact of childhood friendship."

When the three essays were published, Joseph Parsons, the acquisitions editor at the University of Iowa Press, read the work and asked her to write more essays on the topics and publish them in a book.

Jan Weissmiller, a co-owner of Prairie Lights, helps select which authors read at the store. She said the UI Press contacted the bookstore to ask if Delbridge could read there.

"It is a memoir that is very well-written, and I think it will reach a broad array of people," Weissmiller said.

The Southern author spent a year working on the essays, which span from her childhood into adulthood and approach race, gender, and sexuality in the context of Delbridge's family.

"I wanted to document my own experience in the South but also describe the place that I love and a place that absolutely drives me crazy," the author said. "Parts of the book are funny, yet some are disturbing and thought-provoking and, I hope, moving."

Delbridge hopes readers learn something new about the South after reading Family Bible. She said many authors have written about gender, sexuality, and race in the South and have made the villains and heroes quite clear, but the author realized from her experience this is often not the case.

"Sometimes, the heroes are not very nice people, and sometimes, the villains are people you love," she said.

Many of the essays in Family Bible feature Delbridge's relatives and neighbors from her hometown. Though the author was worried about the reactions of those included in the memoir, she was greeted with mostly positive reception.

"Most of the people have been very happy with it, and I received a very warm welcome when I did readings in Tuscaloosa," she said.


Excerpt: Melissa Delbridge: Family Bible

Neva Whitman from the Methodist church and her mother-in-law bring a pan of Mexican cornbread to my grandma's house while I'm visiting.

"Oh, honey," she says, eyes glistening with memory. "You look so much like your daddy. I'll never forget how he made the rounds totin' that bottle of Wild Turkey every Christmas morning." She shakes her head slowly.

"Thank you," I reply, wishing I had a slug about then. "I'll take that as a compliment."

"And I sure meant it as one. Your daddy was a pretty man. A pretty man inside and out."

Old Mrs. Whitman blows her nose and nudges her. "Well, Neva, she's pretty, too. Ain't she pretty? Got those pretty little feet. Just you look."

The three of us stare at my feet. My grandmother puts on her glasses so she can stare too and hobbles over with her walker. My feet don't look bad, thanks to the saleslady in the pharmacy. She helped me select a bottle of nail polish with as much enthusiasm and concern as if I had been picking out my wedding gown.


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