So the first thing you should know, is that the only fictional thing in this story is the mermaids.
“Mermaids of Alabama: An Environmental Assessment” is my third published story, my second published story to come out of Carina’s workshops, and my first pro sale!
Having anything published is always exciting, but I’m especially delighted to see this piece in the world. It’s the first piece of fiction that I’ve set in Alabama, and it is very specifically set in the part of Alabama where I grew up. In fact, it’s set on what used to be my grandparents’ property, a small piece of land outside Jacksonville, Alabama, which now belongs to my aunt and uncle. I grew up running around those woods and playing in that creek, though I have to admit I never saw any mermaids there. Only minnows!
I have written a great deal about Alabama as an academic; my master’s thesis for the University of Mississippi’s MA in Southern Studies was on the Drive-By Truckers, a band from North Alabama, and focused on their depiction of Southern history. I’ve published an essay about the Civil Rights Movement history of my hometown, and my interest in the South continues to drive my academic work.
But it has been easier for me to write fiction about other places, fantasy landscapes or places further away from my childhood experience and academic education. Partly I think it’s because I’m still in that baby writer stage, where my critical reading ability is nowhere near my writing ability. The words aren’t as good as I want them to be yet!
But it’s compounded by my specific desire to get Alabama right. There are so many harmful stereotypes about the South, and so many complicated stories. For example, I grew up with late twentieth century “colorblind” narratives about race in the South, where well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) white people assured each other that while certainly things had been bad and unjust in the past, the Civil Rights Movement had fixed everything, that Black people and white people, and men and women, were all equal, and if some folks weren’t as far along as they should be, it’s because they weren’t working hard enough.
Try unpacking that as a ten-year-old.
Try unpacking that as an adult! It’s taken me decades and multiple degrees, and I still routinely uncover these insidious narratives lurking in the corners, or sometimes the center stage, of my life. Add in class, gender, and sexuality, top it off with region, and threading a needle of telling a good story while white and privileged that still addresses inequity remains a difficult – though deeply worthwhile – endeavor.
I think I managed it here – I tried to reference the settler colonialism, the legacies of Indigenous cultures and genocide, the myths brought to North America by enslaved people from West Africa, the literal remaking of land done at the whim of a military-chemical-industrial complex, the imperial fantasies of the World’s Fair and traveling circuses, and some of the legacies of resistance to all these destructive forces.
I’m most proud, I think, of the references to labor unions – a largely unknown story of Alabama history (outside of academic works like Robin Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe). I had to do some googling and some good academic librarian research (my day job), but I did figure out that both the Knights of Labor and textile mill unions had multiple chapters in northeast Alabama at various times.
I was also inspired by the beauty, abundance, and precarity of Alabama’s natural resources. The opening paragraph is completely true: Alabama’s rivers are some of the most biologically diverse places on the planet. What could be more magical than that?
But like all fictional works, I’ve only solved it for the piece that stands in front of you today. Tomorrow I’ll have to figure out how to write the next piece, and the next one, and the next one, and re-examine my beliefs and cultural narratives all over again. Digging into the past can be one way of doing that. After all, the only thing fictional here is the mermaids.
Author Bio: Ellie Campbell (she/her) lives in North Carolina with her cats and a lot of books.