Waynesboro memoir delivers rollicking ride
By Norma Watkins
Special to the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
The reassuring thing about memoir is you get to read about other people’s troubles from the comforting distance of the written page. In Southern Discomfort Tena Clark takes you through enough trauma for three books.
This is not Bastard of out Carolina. Clark did not endure poverty or incest, but she grew up the youngest of four daughters in a small southern town, with a father she describes as a stuttering, runty, working-class womanizer, a man who, by his thirties was the richest man in Wayne County, Mississippi
She grew up trying to rescue her mother, a six-foot beauty who was usually drunk by noon, and who regularly threatened her wayward husband with a Colt .38. This is a book about a child learning to negotiate between two out-of-control adults. The action takes place in the late 50s and 60s.
Who knew things could be so wild in Waynesboro? I’ll admit it. Jackson-born snob that I am, I didn’t know where Waynesboro was and had to look it up on a map. I had no idea of the craziness you could get away with in a tiny place like that if you were white and had money. Clark was given a car, and drove, at age twelve.
She grew up, mostly alone after her parents’ divorce, in a big house on an isolated farm with a father who ignored her. She had one friend in that house, Virgie, the maid. Maybe you only need one person telling you it’s going to be okay, that you’re special and not to worry, that someday you’ll find your place and your people.
Nolan Clark, Tena’s father, wanted a boy, and his nickname for his youngest daughter was “Monkey Joe.” His single instruction to her growing up was, Don’t go acting like a girl. And Clark didn’t.
She writes, “I simply never thought of myself as a girl. I thought of myself as a boy. Biologically, I knew I was a girl, with all the female body parts, but I never considered myself one.” Her aunt told her she could turn into a boy by kissing her elbow and Clark began a years’-long struggle. At six, she spotted her first majorette in full regalia and realized that’s what she wanted to marry.
Discouraging to realize a generation after I grew up, not much had changed for southern women. Clark experienced the same expectations: dress nice, talk pretty, don’t go worrying your head about a career, and don’t poke your head into what the men are doing. Hard enough living up to that without having to do it as a lesbian. If she were a child today, Tena Clark might identify as transgender, but there is no hint in the book that she felt born in the wrong body. She simply preferred women.
Clark tells this story of love and fury with humor and no self-pity. There are tales so wild, if they were in a novel, they would strain belief. But Southern Discomfort has an almost rollicking tone. No matter how hair-raising the event, I never really feared for the author, never doubted that wit and gumption would get her out.
Clark found a way out, far from Waynesboro, in the music business where she became a Grammy-award-winning songwriter and producer. As a child, she learned about black music from her father’s chauffer, gospel from Virgie’s church, and the New Orleans blues from her mother. There are things I would like to have known: how did Clark go from liking to drum on tables with a knife and fork to becoming a drummer? When did she form her own band? How did she move from touring with a band to being a music producer?
But his is not that book. This is about raising yourself in Waynesboro, ignored by a crazy-rich father and a Bible verse-spouting, alcoholic mother. It’s a wild ride.
Norma Watkins is the author of two memoirs: “The Last Resort: Taking the Mississippi Cure” and “That Woman From Mississippi.” Follow her at normawatkins.com