A Southerner on how New York made her realize what a Southerner she is
Published: April 13, 2011
Jane Borden reading and book signing
Atomic Books April 13 at 7 p.m.
For more information visit atomicbooks.com.
In I Totally Meant to Do That, writer Jane Borden recounts her nearly decade-long experience being a Southerner adjusting to living in Manhattan—and a Southerner living in Manhattan who comes to understand just what she left behind when she moved away from home. As a book subject, it’s in some ways fairly straightforward. What makes Borden’s handling of it so engaging is her ribald sense of humor and disarming sincerity. Here is a writer boisterous enough to compare a high school acting turn of The Lottery’s Miss Bessom with “as played by a man with hearing loss and hemorrhoids” and make something as innocuous as high-fiving a stranger on the subway feel like a fleeting moment of ordinary joy. City Paper caught up with Borden by phone to chat about Southern accents, thank-you notes, sorority rush, and the inherent kindness of talking behind someone’s back.
City Paper : I was curious to see if you had a Southern accent. You make reference to it a bit in the book, but it’s sometimes hard to tell. Did you lose it by osmosis or on purpose? I ask only because I made myself lose mine on purpose.
Jane Borden: I did. I lost it pretty quickly. I think I’m just an assimilator is the short answer. I’m kind of a chameleon wherever I go but it didn’t take me too long to lose it at all. The interesting thing is when it comes back. Whenever I’m home, it immediately comes back, and if I talk to my friends or my parents on the telephone, it comes back. And, you know, when I have too much to drink, which is what I mentioned in the book.
CP : Since I got the book two days ago, and I have to confess I’ve only made it about halfway through, I get the impression it’s a story of acclimating to living in New York—a process that kinda/sorta made you aware of being Southern.
JB: That sums up the first half pretty well.
CP : Was it a situation where you didn’t think about the North-South differences until you were living in Manhattan? I mean, I get the impression when you were 16 you weren’t thinking to yourself, “I’m such a Southern young lady.”
JB: Exactly. Your reality is what you’re presented with. And so growing up I didn’t know that this was anything weird or necessarily specific. It was just life. And when I went to where it was different, New York, that’s when I was able to understand it for what it was in relief. And then my initial reaction was to not hide where I came from—it’s not like I was ashamed of it or anything. But I realized that because it was so different it required so much explanation, which was exhausting. So it was easier to just blend in.
CP : I think comparing sorority rush to Craigslist roommate hunting is brilliant. Was that an observation that came during that process or in hindsight? Or did come at the Tri-Delt’s place with the Polaroid?
JB: (laughs) It was the Polaroid. That’s when I kind of put it all together in reverse. When they took my picture I was, immediately, Where have I seen this before? And then I was just—oh my god, this whole process has been exactly the same. And then, of course, after I found that candle in the bathroom and then the girl said, “Yeah, I was a Tri-Delt,” I was just like, “Oh god. Oh god.” So if you have ever lived through Craigslist, then you have sorority rushed, let me tell you that because they’re both essentially the same process.
CP : OK, so you’re your Aunt Jane.
JB: Oh yeah.
CP : I loved the idea of “homework”—picking teeth, lipstick, scratching head—being things people don’t do in front of other people. I have an idea in mind of what kind of woman Aunt Jane is, and I imagine she was full of life wisdom that perhaps didn’t make it into the book, although the guide to common courtesy book is priceless. Do you ever wonder/fear that you’ll one day find yourself asking yourself, What Would Aunt Jane Do?
JB: I mean, I don’t know. The thing about manners is that they’re so frequently misunderstood, particularly in New York. New Yorkers are very suspicious of manners, suspicious of some sort of malicious ulterior motive. And sometimes that’s the case. People can take any ritual and remove the original motivations from it and use it in a negative way. And I think to a certain degree, manners are a way for people to be exclusive, as I write in the book. But the urge of manners is doing for other people first, and I think one of the reasons my aunt is considered such a gracious person is because she is always doing for other people first and that will take you very far, I think, in life. And so I hope one day I can be a little more like her. To give people presents all the time requires not just money but also time.
CP : It seems like an exhausting amount of work.
JB: It is. The very first event I did was for a book club in Raleigh with some of my aunt’s friends called—and they were tongue-in-cheek about it—but they called themselves [affects a perfect Southern accent] the Old Raleigh Literary Society. It was this group of very fine ladies, and I’m telling you, all they do is give presents to each other and write each other thank-you notes for the presents that they gave. And then the cycle just goes on and on. And what a beautiful way to live. It’s a luxury not a lot of us, have but it exists.
CP : I was going to ask how the response has been by friends and family and North Caroliners in general. It’s a story I can relate to a bit, but probably not in the same way as a native.
JB: I appreciate that. North Carolina has been great. I’ve done six readings down there, and I feel like I’m getting the biggest hug from the state. And I think it’s because of a couple of reasons, one of which is I think they just relate to it in a very specific way. But I’m glad to hear that you relate to it in general because I wanted the book to transcend the specifics. The arc of the story is about transition and in a bigger sense about running away from home when you’re young and only when you get distance can you look back and appreciate home for what it is. That’s what I really want the book to be about, and in the second half that’s what it becomes about. I assimilate so much to New York and I get so far away from home that suddenly I look back and I go, “Oh, whoops.”
CP : Do you ever think of going back?
JB: Well, spoiler alert, that’s the conclusion I reached at the end of the book, is that it’s not just that I’m having to choose between two different regions or cultures, but that one of them is where my family is. And over the 10 years that the book covers, my sisters start having kids and I start to really feel the distance and start to really feel left out. My sister calls me and says, “Oh, the cutest thing. I asked Borden”—which is my nephew’s name, we do that—“I asked Borden, ‘Where’s Jane?’ And he pointed up in the air and said, ‘Choo-choo in the sky.’” And that was a really big moment for me. My nephew understands me as someone who lives on an airplane. That’s twisted.
And I started to understand the things that I had praised about New York in a different way as well. In one chapter I talk about the reason I love the city is because nobody cares for me here and you can fly under the radar and no one can hear you scream. And all of a sudden I said those sentences again and was horrified by them. Nobody cares about me? Nobody can hear me scream? That’s terrible.
CP : You mention a few assumptions Southerners have about Northerners in the book. What are some assumptions New Yorkers have about Southerners that you’ve encountered?
JB: New Yorkers are suspicious of anything nice. They don’t believe that Southerners are actually that nice, me included. So generally, when they’d ask me where I’m from they go, “So you guys aren’t really that nice down there?” Generally they ask that question. And then specifically, I’ve had people who are suspicious of me—it took us a while to be friends. They didn’t like me because they thought I was fake.
CP : I’m always surprised by the presumption of ignorance, that Southern accents and the so-called simple way of speaking is that sophisticated, whereas Southern hospitality can be turned into Southern hostility pretty effortlessly.
JB: The whole thing about kill ’em with kindness and wait to say things behind people’s backs, yeah. And sometimes that true. It’s not that people are going to be nicer or not nice in some region, they’re just more outwardly or inwardly that way. But I will say that I defend the behind-the-back rudeness. It depends on the situation. If it’s someone who’s close to me, yeah, be upfront. Don’t talk behind my back. But if it’s just a stranger on the street or a person in the store, what’s the point? You can ruin someone’s day, what’s the point? You’re never going to see them again.