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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, May 18, 2002

Author weaves Southern life into compelling tales

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Book Editor

KINCAID: Draws on own upbringing for 'Verbena'
Like the subject of her new novel, "Verbena," Nanci Kincaid is a woman of the South, taught by her culture to smile sweetly at all times, stand by her man and never say no.

And like her character "Bena," Kincaid had to unlearn some of that. Still, the Honolulu writer acknowledges, "I'm so Southern I sleep grinning."

This is by no means a bad thing. Because Southerners, like Islanders, are storytellers.

"The South has two of the most verbal cultures in the world — the African American and the Scotch Irish. Even if you couldn't do anything else, you could talk," said Kincaid, 40, who has lived all over the country with her football-coach husband Dick Tomey.

She grew up steeped in the language and lore of the South. "To this day, I have a craving for it," Kincaid said.

As a child, she was a listener. "My mother said I was just born eavesdropping," she said. "I think that's what made me write."

That, and a stubborn streak.

Kincaid had long toyed with writing, but never for publication. "The page is such a great tool for exploration. If I was sad or going nuts, I could write it out."

But then the family moved to Laramie, Wyo., where they were homesick for

barbecue and cultural diversity. Kincaid enrolled in a University of Wyoming course taught by John Edgar Wideman, the first black Rhodes scholar, an award-winning novelist and a man who has written bitterly about race relations. She was blond and blue-eyed, a coach's wife, a Southerner. "He hated me right away," she recalled.

But Wideman's distaste — perceived or real — was just the provocation the writer within Kincaid needed. "He clearly believed that we ought to be able to hear that and accept that, because it was his truth," she recalled. "So I said I'm gonna see if I can write my honest truth about race and see if he can accept it."

The result was the manuscript that became her first novel, "Crossing Blood." Wideman was so impressed he sent it to his agent.

Wideman and Kincaid share a commitment to the truth, which both find in making things up. "It is not in the collection of facts. That's not where the truth lurks," she said.

It is, for example, in spinning out the story of "Verbena" —ÊVerbena Martin Eckerd McKale of Baxter County, Ala. — that Kincaid is able to write about growing up in her own family of six, watching her divorced mother "beaten up" by Southern values that wouldn't allow a woman to be smart and assertive, trying to understand the Southern tactic of "scaring you into loving Jesus," then watching half her family get so born again that they don't even seem to speak the same language anymore.

"I set out to write a book about forgiveness, about a character whose life is blocked until she can forgive something. But it turned out to be less about forgiveness than about spiritual bewilderment," Kincaid said. "Bena wants to give her life to Jesus, but it just seems like he won't take it. She's just a woman who didn't bring enough to the table until a tragedy erased her future and her past at the same time."

The character has just enough pluck left to vow that her husband's death may have changed everything, but she won't let it ruin everything.

Pluck is a Kincaid woman trademark. She comes by that honest, as Southerners say.

"My mother is where I get a lot of my fiction," said Kincaid. In fact, the book's end, in which Verbena performs an extraordinary — and quintessentially Southern — act of love, is based on fact. Kincaid's stepfather was dying and, as he lay in living room cranked up on a hospital bed, Kincaid's mother worked to make a dream of his come true, having a pond dug in the back yard where he had always wanted one.

Of course, it never really became a pond, despite the dozens of garden hoses Kincaid's mother hauled in from K-Mart and left on for nearly a month.

But nobody — not the family, not the folks from church who came for a picnic supper on the lawn — ever mentioned that it was nothing but a big hole.

"Of course nobody's going to mention that," Kincaid said. "You call it a pond. You want it to be a pond. Therefore it's a pond."

In the South, as in great fiction, she said, "naming is the power, language is the power."