Odie Lindsey: “Home Is People”

Can we ever actually come back home, literally or figuratively, back to that one special place that restores, replenishes, reaffirms our core sense of identity? This question is central to Odie Lindsey’s debut novel, Some Go Home. The novel weaves together the stories of three generations in the fictional town of Pitchlynn, Mississippi connected by a brutal murder. The characters grapple with regret, ambition, and desire, wrestling with the possibility that who we are can be as elusive as where we think we come from — and that clinging to the definitions and stories we tell ourselves can actually cause us a lot of pain. Lindsey beautifully explores the heartache of adulthood, the agony and sweetness of life as we accumulate memories and experiences, and how the past is always in our present.

Your novel begins from the perspective of a young veteran named Colleen, who has returned to her small hometown in Mississippi after having served in the Iraq War. She remains an important character throughout your novel, the main thread that connects the other characters and their stories. Colleen first appeared, though, in a short story within your collection We Come to Our Senses (W.W. Norton, 2016). What was it about Colleen that made you want to come back to her and put her into a novel? And what was that process like, building upon her already existing (fictional) life, especially as she navigates getting married, being pregnant, and becoming a mother? 

The process of developing her character ended up directing both works. While I most often riff my way into a short story, with “Colleen,” I imposed a constraint in advance: her war and postwar experience was not mine. This allowed (or forced?) me to reconsider a familiar narrative, about the tension that erupts when a veteran realizes that their homeplace may not be a safe place. The more I worked to uncover her story and character, moving away from my own, the more compelling it was to explore.

Cut to: three years into a novel that has nothing to do with Colleen. (Some Go Home is in large part about the legacy of a Civil Rights-era murder on a handful of families.) Only, I couldn’t stop thinking about her, wondering who she had become, and if she ever made peace with herself, or her town. At some point, I realized that I’d been writing my novel around her, and that the short story was really more of a prologue. With this, I cut 30,000 words from the novel draft, demoted my protagonist(s), and reconfigured all the storylines. In both a thematic and literal sense, Colleen’s body became a living battle site of Some Go Home’s generational conflict.

Colleen is one of many immensely compelling female characters in Some Go Home. These women show strength in various ways, from deftly running a salon to escaping an abusive marriage to raising children alone, though that strength at times seems to come at a great cost. Why did you write this novel with these particular female viewpoints, and can you speak more to these themes of strength and sacrifice? 

Your question means the world. My greatest concern while writing these characters was spending enough time with them. I wanted to immerse myself, to know them as if knowing close family — including the barbs, the blind spots between them, and in my own relationship to telling. (In a sense, this process is like charging a hill you know you’ll never crest…which is one of the things I love about writing fiction.) I’m grateful you think it — they — came together.

As for why so much of the novel centers on females, perhaps this was a natural complement to Colleen, and how her town’s expectation of a young woman shapes her identity — as if there was a singular identity to measure. To that end, twinned to character, this novel is about place. The South is and has been obsessed with gender, relentless in its overdetermination to control and define “appropriate” bodies. (I am, of course, a product of this overdetermination.) Hell, as I type, just down the street from me in Nashville, Governor Bill Lee is wielding massive political capital not for pandemic relief, let alone any kind of relief, but to make it more difficult for trans persons to exist. He is attempting to bring anguish upon bodies unlike his own — in part because of their resilience. His phobia, this sickness, is among the definitive impulses of our region.

Although I sit in a tidy little office, in a comfy little home, such tension — of the individual body versus dominant structural pressure — is nonetheless an emotional motivation for my fiction. This may or may not have to do with deployment, when a person is subordinated to the structural will of a larger power. I don’t know. In this case, as it relates to gender within this specific work of fiction, the female characters in Some Go Home may be standalones, if not antagonists, yet they are all subject to this pressurized, determining process.

Speaking of strength and sacrifice, you’re a veteran yourself, having served in Desert Storm. Your father served in Vietnam, and your grandfather served in World War II. How has being in the military, and being in a family with a legacy of serving, influenced you as a writer? 

The easy part of this answer is that I am both grateful for and inspired by each of them.

My grandad never spoke to me about WWII — I’m not sure he had reason to — and my dad doesn’t say much about Vietnam. I’d like to know more about each experience, though it is doubtful I ever will. Yet even this, the tension of silence, and the cultural imposition if not encouragement of this silence — which is by all accounts unhealthy, and is something with which I am complicit — is ripe for contemplation, and in my case, for creative work.

Of my own deployment, one big-picture impact was the impact of removal. Being removed from physical, cultural, and moral certitude — and watching the world go forward without missing a beat — illustrated that what was perceived to be concrete was often pretty flimsy. In particular, as a young person who had been told that one must do this or that, or believe this or that, it was shocking to realize how many of these “musts” were jive.

As specifically related to fiction, care of images, or recurrent themes, war has been incredibly generative. Even more, I shared a profound experience with a diverse group of strangers whom I would not have otherwise known. (My dad jokes that if he hadn’t nudged me toward the Army, I wouldn’t have anything to write about. He may be right!) Physically, the experience also continues to inform. The pandemic churned up both self-sustaining and anxiety-dominated behaviors that I hadn’t experienced for 30 years! It is wild what the body can bury, and remember.

As you developed your characters and the novel took on more shape, did any one person or story line surprise you?

They all have to surprise you, otherwise they fall flat. My chief concern was that characters not be one-dimensional — which is no easy deal when it comes to Southerners, or veterans, two groups which get saddled with thin, ready-made narratives. As an example, even the avowed racist and murder suspect, Hare Hobbs, had to be human. And not as a plot trick. I had to care about him, and ask the reader to do the same.

When it comes to that central murder, and the town’s relationship to that defining event, nearly every character needed to be complicit. There could be no clear or easy Us vs. Them here. In some cases, this meant pushing a character away from what I considered to be safe or expected behavior. How far would Colleen go to protect her family? What would Susan George, the town matriarch, do to make things great again, and sidestep the community’s violent past?

There are so many rich cultural details your novel touches upon, if just for a moment, such as Native American history in the South, or the influence of Lebanese immigrants on the cuisine in Mississippi. Was there anything you came across during your research that stood out to you as especially remarkable, or some unique facet of living in the South that you just personally really love? Was there anything you wanted to include in the novel but for whatever reason couldn’t, or something you had to cut during the editing process?

I was assistant editor of the Mississippi Encyclopedia project while writing much of Some Go Home. The former consisted of something like 1,700 scholarly records, contributed by 700 authors, across 30 subject areas. Every workday brought such texture, such dimension to a state whose very name, for better and worse, conjures a monolithic narrative. One day I’m learning about the Lebanese in Mississippi, the next I’m learning about Civil Rights hero Dr. Gilbert Mason, or the global crosscurrent of indigenous, Spanish, French, British, African, and others who continue to define the state. It was so rewarding, personally and as a writer and educator. As related to the novel, the most difficult part was to remember that I was writing fiction, and that at times, a mere mention of historical fact could clobber story.

You’re the Writer-in-Residence of Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University. Can you tell me more about this role and what brought you to it? How do these topics relate to your writing?

My department is an extraordinary, interdisciplinary space, and our work often examines social determinants of health. Most of my students are our version of pre-med, and all of them are freak smart. Yet for all their valedictorian-ness, their triple-major ambition, they usually don’t know how to read Toni Morrison. So, in my classes, we do that. We consider craft, and culture, and complication. We pursue narratives that defy rote memorization, or easy diagnosis, and the related, authorial decisions, the very process of telling.

The students ultimately bring their health-based training to bear on the literary text. As in, some budding neurologist will not only diagnose Morrison’s Soaphead Church c/o the DSM-V, she’ll thread-in an underexplored, historical aspect of scientific racism, analyze the impact of transgenerational trauma all while breaking down the neurological process that drives Church’s behavior…and providing keen analysis of the epistolary form, and how it functions in Church’s narrative. It is brilliant fucking stuff to witness.

The theme of returning home is obviously a very strong one in your novel. Your title, which is a nod to Jerry Jeff Walker’s song “Some Go Home,” suggests that not everyone does, or can, do so, perhaps even if a person is physically able to come back to a specific place. What does “home” mean to you? Has that definition changed throughout your life?

Though I’m sure I heard Walker’s “Some Go Home” as a kid in Texas, I only remember coming across it right after Desert Storm, when I was living in Knoxville. More than a bit lost, I was floored by the song’s opening verse, about a soldier just home to Tennessee, who is “tryin’ to find his life again.”

Ultimately, though, when thinking about Colleen, and Some Go Home, the passage that mattered is about a young female passenger: “She’s headed home / back where life begins and ends / and they feel like you belong to them.”

Colleen’s town has, does, and will lay claim to who she is supposed to be. The culture of this place has defined her existence long before she was born. So how, then, does she go about changing that narrative? How, then, does she come to belong to herself?

As for me, as this last 15 months of staring at the same walls made clear, home is people. All I did was miss people.

Some Go Home
By Odie Lindsey
W. W. Norton & Company
Published July 21, 2020
Paperback July 27, 2021