Upcoming Events Calendar
Return to This Issue's Index
Return to Homepage
A Report on the Southern Women
By Jan McDaniel
The Southern Women Writers Conference recently held its
fourth biennial session at Berry College in Rome, Georgia.
This gathering, with a specific focus on women writers from
the American South, carries a different theme each year.
The year 2000 theme was "Remembrance". According to
the conference brochure, "Speakers and presenters will
explore the ways in which memory informs and is represented
in the works of southern women writers."
The conference offers a "forum for examining the unique perspectives
and concerns of southern women writers of the past and present".
Hosted by the college where it was created, a place noted for another
unusual feature (a 28,000 acre campus), there could be no better
location. Memories of college founder Martha Berry surround the
The rich history and legacy of this amazing woman, who worked
alone to start a small school for isolated mountain-dwelling
children, is evident in the original log cabin structure that
was used as her school. Her playhouse sits near-by and the
white-columned family home, Oak Hill, houses a museum filled
with memorabilia collected through the years. Run by students
at the college, which is work-centered in its philosophy, the
museum showcases crafts made in early classrooms as well as
mementos from some of Martha Berry's influential friends and
supporters. Oak Hill also hosts readings during the conference
and opens its doors and gardens to visitors throughout the year
with a special Christmas event taking all present back to earlier
days when Martha herself turned no one away.
One of her supporters, Henry Ford, donated more than trinkets to
the college. He believed in Martha Berry's work so much that
a whole complex of castle-like buildings bears his name. These
include dormitories, an auditorium, a dining hall and a chapel.
His donations, along with those of others outside the rural
Georgian landscape, illustrates the impact Ms. Berry had on
those around her.
Ford Auditorium, one of several buildings donated to the college
by Henry Ford.
The Dream House, a hill-top retreat built by students for their beloved teacher, is surrounded by the countryside she loved. With open arms she welcomed visitors here as she spent her entire life building what is now a respected institution of higher learning. She is buried on the campus near the main chapel.
Do they remember Martha? The answer is yes. Today's graduating classes carry lighted candles in her honor during their processionals. It is said that her protective presence still guides.
What kind of conference takes place in such a setting? In addition to the scholarly papers and networking opportunities traditionally expected, this conference highlights new talent by incorporating an Emerging Writers Competition into each conference year and presenting work by the winning writers on the events schedule.
An enthusiastic Director, Emily Wright works with co-directors
Katherine Powell and James Watkins to create something special
for attending writers and scholars. Along with current
Writer-in-Residence June Spence, the staff planned an
outstanding slate of sessions, speakers, panel discussions,
and ground-breaking entertainment this year. The roster was
packed with talent:
Spence herself received the Willa Cather Award in 1995 for an
early manuscript of her short story collection Missing Women
and Others (1998). In 1999 she received the Mary Ruffin Poole
Award for First Work of Fiction from the North Carolina Literary
and Historical Society and is presently working on a novel.
Lee Smith, featured speaker, is the author of nine novels and
two short story collections and has received eight major writing
awards, including the Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Award (1995-97),
the Robert Penn Warren Prize for Fiction (1991) and the O. Henry
Award (1979 and 1981). She is professor emeritus at North Carolina
Nikki Giovanni, poet, writer, lecturer, activist, and educator
has been named woman of the year by three different magazines and
has received numerous honorary doctorates and awards, including
the Langston Hughes Award and the NAACP Image Award for Love Poems.
She is currently a professor of English at Virginia Polytechnic
Institute and State University.
Musicians and singer-songwriters Matraca Berg and Marshall Chapman,
made this conference much more than a literary event. Berg, a
Nashville-based musician, has written songs for some of the
biggest names in country music. In 1997 she won the CMA Record
of the Year Award for "Strawberry Wine," recorded by Deana
Carter. Chapman, a native of Spartanburg, South Carolina, is
a songwriter whose recordings span two decades. She has
recently collaborated with Berg, Lee Smith, and Jill McCorkle
on the musical titled Good Ol' Girls which was presented in an
evening performance during the conference. The musical, an
adaptation based on characters in some of Lee Smith's novels,
is Broadway-bound and lots of rip-roaring fun! More information
can be found on Chapman's website at www.tallgirl.com.
Though Jill McCorkle was unavoidably detained in Boston (where
she teaches writing at Harvard University and Bennington College),
an interview with her is available in this issue of
Writing Journal. Another glitch left interviewer
Rose Mary McGee short an interviewee when illness kept Sally
Fitzgerald at home. McGee carried on by presenting some of her
taped conversations with Fitzgerald who is the editor of The Habit
of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor and Mystery and Manners:
Occasional Prose of Flannery O'Connor, as well as the author of
numerous articles and reviews.
Despite such obstacles, and a little rain, the conference offered
high spots such as luncheon speakers, Mary Louise Weaks and
Carolyn Perry. These talented collaborators, both professors
of English, have edited works of their own. From Rockford
College in Illinois, Weaks co-edited Talking with Robert Penn
Warren before joining Perry (Westminster College, Missouri,
editor of The Dolphin Reader) in a massive undertaking titled
Southern Women's Writing: Colonial to Contemporary. The duo
will pair up again to complete the forthcoming History of
Southern Women's Literature.
The variety of presentations was endless at this year's conference.
Children's book author George Ella Lyon, who presented thoughts on
her poems, essays and novels as well as her picture books, is a
multi-talented, award-winning native of Kentucky and a fascinating
speaker. Editor and author Peggy Prenshaw, of Louisiana State
University, is a distinguished Eudora Welty scholar. Her work
as editor and reviewer added yet another dimension to the
Panel members Lorraine Johnson Coleman and Brenda Marie Osbey
offered up intriguing insights into their writing as well
as delivered wonderful readings. A Georgia native, Lorraine
Johnson-Coleman is the author of Just Plain Folks, a
collection of short stories and essays documenting African
American folk life. Her forthcoming The Wisdoms of the
Baabah Tree will find her making use of a strong sense
of family and persuasive story-telling skills. She is a
guest commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition
and was recently featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Berry College Chapel. Built in 1915 it is the gravesite of college
founder, Martha Berry.
Brenda Marie Osbey has authored four volumes of poetry,
the most recent of which--All Saints: New & Selected Poems
(1997) received the American Book Award in 1998. She is a
native of New Orleans and has written essays on her hometown
for The American Voice, the Georgia Review, BrightLeaf,
Writer, teacher, musician, and editor Susan Ketchin (author
of The Christ-Haunted Landscape: Faith and
Doubt in Southern Fiction
as well as many reviews, articles, and essays) teaches
at Duke University and is presently working on a book
about the role of traditional music in southern literature.
Her in-depth interview is scheduled to appear in an upcoming
issue of The Internet Writing Journal.
From this brief look at those who shared their work and their
lives for three days in northwest Georgia, it is easy to see
how important this relatively new conference has become. In
a few short years (since 1994) Berry College has established
its conference as a cultural center of southern studies in
While earlier conferences here brought such names as Dori Sanders,
Shay Youngblood, Mary Hood, Janice Daugharty, Ellen Douglas, and
Virginia Lanier, to name a few, it is the future that beckons
and challenges readers and writers alike and allows us to look
forward to what is to come in 2002.
Bringing together the best authors and scholars of the region,
the Southern Women Writers Conference remembers the oral
traditions of the past, sets the stage for the study of
an often overlooked segment of great American literature,
and opens the way for the creative accomplishments of the
This year's conference is over. In the end, papers were presented,
books were signed, contacts were made and inspiration garnered.
Among the sounds and memories taken from the place, a rich
tapestry by anyone's standards, it is the voices--all of the
Links for further information:
**About Jan McDaniel
Jan McDaniel is a writer from the southeastern United States,
currently living in Georgia. Her published work spans a
twenty-five year period and
includes columns and articles for newspapers and magazines,
curriculum materials, resource kits, radio spots, book reviews,
author interviews, and fiction in traditional and electronic
publications. Within the past two years, her short stories have
appeared in the Savannah Literary Journal, EWG
Presents, Moondance: A Celebration of Creative Women, The
Literary Journal, Alternate Realities, and FrightNet
Online Magazine. Her monthly columns and
website reviews may be read in Haven's List Newsletter and
Word Weaving: the essential elements and through America Online's
Other Side of Creativity (Keyword: OSC).
As Founder and Director of
Weekly Writer, a promotion-oriented
writing group, she keeps busy with a variety of writing-related tasks. She
also enjoys interviewing authors, reviewing children's books and marketing
several manuscripts of her own. She may be reached via email at