Levee. Photo by Nicholas Noyes. http://tinyurl.com/ztls4n2

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Interview with Richard Grant

Richard Grant, a British writer who has traveled around the world and recently made Mississippi his home, is a quintessentially “global” Southerner. Mr. Grant’s interests are as wide-ranging as his journeys; he has spent time working on books, articles, and other projects in Mexico, Tanzania, Italy, and the American West. Yet, Mr. Grant felt drawn to the state of Mississippi, where he recently decided to purchase a home.

South Writ Large communicated with Mr. Grant about his new book, Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, a lively account of his first year living in the Delta.


Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta tells the story of your decision to relocate from New York City to Pluto, Mississippi, where you and your family make a new life for yourselves. What feature of the Mississippi Delta most attracted you?

We knew nothing about the Delta when we decided to buy a remote farmhouse there, thirty miles from the nearest supermarket. It was the setting that attracted me: big sky, golden light, cotton fields and cypress swamps, birds everywhere, deer in the woods.

What aspects of daily life in Mississippi most surprised you?

Shooting squirrels with pink rifles to promote breast cancer awareness. Photographs in the newspapers of five-year-old girls holding up the antlers of deer they had just shot. The extreme racial segregation in Delta schools, with the whites in private academies and blacks in failing public schools. The ability of people to hold enormous family trees in their heads, and remember the maiden names of each other’s great-grandmothers. The custom of giving guests a sixteen-ounce Styrofoam cup full of ice and liquor for the drive home.

How does the South and Mississippi in particular live up to its reputation for hospitality and friendliness? What were the ways you felt welcomed and what ways did you feel yourself to be an outsider? 

The hospitality has been incredible, wonderful, staggering. On our second day in the house, the nearest neighbors came over with wine and a selection of firearms to shoot. Noting our lack of furniture, they came back two days later with beds, couches, a kitchen table and chairs, armchairs, all on permanent loan for as long as we wanted it. Noting that we had only one vehicle, they gave us the keys to one of their cars. Later on, they adopted us into their family, and hosted our wedding. I always feel like an outsider, but a very welcome outsider.

With whom did you become friends?

As I said, the neighboring Thompsons became more like family than friends. Probably my closest friend was William “Monk” Neal, a black man whose family used to work for the white Thompson family. We spent a lot of time grilling meat, drinking whiskey, listening to music, and talking about the complexities and contradictions of Mississippi race relations. I also became friends with Bill Luckett, the mayor of Clarksdale, and Morgan Freeman, the actor, who lives in the Delta. And the blues singer T-Model Ford (RIP). And Sam Olden, a ninety-seven-year-old former CIA agent with an amazing art collection and dazzling intellect. And the dentist who operated on death row prisoners at Parchman prison. Many others. No shortage of characters in the Delta, and I found it a very easy place to make friends.

What pastimes did you find interesting relative to the different institutions and activities that make up Mississippi’s culture, i.e., church, academy, sports, arts, music, etc.? 

I found the black churches a great deal more enjoyable than the white churches. Mississippi’s obsession with college football didn’t rub off on me, although I did enjoy tailgating at Ole Miss. Hunting is the great pastime in the Delta, and that did rub off on me. I had never done any hunting before moving to Mississippi, and within a year, there were deer, duck, doves, rabbits, bullfrogs, wild hog, and alligator meat in my freezer.

I was wonderfully spoiled for live music. One of my Pluto neighbors is a gospel musician, and he would come over with his group and play at our parties. The phenomenal Rev. John Wilkins performed with his gospel-blues band down the road at Pluto. I got to know a blues singer called Jimmy “Duck” Holmes who owns a juke joint in Bentonia, Miss. There is so much musical talent in Mississippi. Even karaoke night in a small-town bar can be amazing.

Is there a story that stands out in your mind that’s emblematic of your experience in Mississippi? 

Going alligator hunting with a man who was building an anti-Muslim pheasant tower. He sends his Mexicans up into the tower to release the pheasants, and people below blast away at the birds with their shotguns. He had planted a grove of pine trees around the tower in the shape of a cross, “to give the finger” to any Muslims who happened to be flying overhead.

As a British man living in a rural region within the United States, did you ever feel “out of place” in your new home?

I always felt out of place, but in a good way. I felt very free and alive, and open to new possibilities.

When you tell your fellow countrymen about the South, how do you express the concept of the South that differentiates it from elsewhere? 

What differentiates the South as a region, more than anything, is its shared history: slavery, secession, losing a war, reconstruction, the rebuilding of white supremacy through Jim Crow laws and KKK terrorism, battling again over race during the civil rights movement. The past is more present in the South than the rest of America. The hold of church and family is stronger. It’s also a place of extraordinary human warmth and kindness, and contradictions here are as natural as rain or madness.

One of the most interesting chapters of your book is “Grabbing Smoke,” a discussion of racism in Mississippi. In it, you argue that when one attempts to “measure and quantify prejudice itself that it all turn[s] to smoke.” What assumptions did you have about racism in the South prior to your arrival in Pluto? Has your understanding of race relations changed at all since you moved to Mississippi?

The hardest thing to understand is that love and closeness also exists between the races in Mississippi, right alongside hate, prejudice, distrust, and a deep impulse to self-segregate. Race relations are layered and complex here, and defy easy explanation. You often hear, “In the South, we love the individual and hate the race.” That to me, requires a considerable feat of mental gymnastics, or a psychiatric evaluation, but it’s a normal everyday thing here, and most people don’t question it.

From your experience, is it possible to see Mississippi as a laboratory for the increasing necessity for people around the world to learn to live with others of racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity?

Yes. When circumstances push them together, black and white get along with each other extraordinarily well here. But most of the time they choose not to. There is so much distrust on both sides, but slowly, gradually, it’s breaking down, one relationship at a time. People here are uncommonly stubborn and suspicious of change, which is part of the problem. I would hope that in other places it happens quicker.

There has been a long-standing pattern of Mississippi writers—Eudora Welty, Elizabeth Spencer, Willie Morris, Bill Ferris—who moved northward or even abroad to find literary inspiration. How does your experience of moving to Mississippi compare with theirs?

It doesn’t. Mississippi writers are so entangled with their roots. I’m not really from anywhere. I was born in Malaysia, lived in Kuwait as a boy, then London. I’ve lived in twenty different houses on four different continents. I’m rootless and have no strong conception of home, which is almost unimaginable for these Mississippi writers.

How does your experience inform your opinion about non-Western immigration to England and other parts of Europe?

When you’re an immigrant like me, there’s a natural sympathy with other immigrants, but I think Europe has a real problem. I don’t see the Middle East or North Africa becoming less turbulent any time soon, and I know what I’d be trying to do if I grew up in one of those countries. It’s the sheer number of immigrants and potential immigrants that concerns me. Can Europe be expected to absorb 50 million people, for example? How about 100 million?

As a global traveler, have you identified any elements of Southern culture that remind you of behaviors, traditions, or social rituals in other countries where you’ve spent time?

Mississippi sometimes reminds me of Ireland. The hold of the church and the extended family. The pleasure in strong drink, storytelling, and mischief. The appreciation for talent.

What will your next project be?

I’m not sure. I’ve been reading a lot of Mississippi history books lately, and something might come out of that. I’ve also been consulting on a new documentary about ending infanticide in southern Ethiopia. It’s called Omo Child: The River and the Bush. And there’s talk in Los Angeles of turning Dispatches from Pluto into a television series.