The South is for all kinds of storytellers


Culture shock doesn’t begin to describe what I felt walking into that 8th-grade classroom in the middle of February. I was the new kid, just moved from California to Raleigh.

It’s been nine years since I nervously stepped down those middle school hallways. And what was once fear, has transformed into a love for the state and region that made me who I am.

The emergence of that love for North Carolina, and the South at large, comes from a common trait I see among people here: a passion for storytelling.

I hear it every day talking to people around the county. 

“Why is xyz important,” I’ll ask.

The response is often long-winded. A tale involving characters, a whole story arch and a rich history of every detail involved. Perhaps it’s more than I bargained for, but in those responses, I see a love for one another that is seldom seen in other regions of the country. 

That passionate storytelling was on full display at the Chatham Literacy Spring Luncheon last Wednesday. The event featured a keynote address from N.C. author Lee Smith, who gave a speech about the importance of literacy and read an excerpt from her newest novel “Silver Alert.”

Chatham Literacy works with adults to develop their reading, financial and digital literacy skills and reach their educational goals. All told, the event raised more than $38,000 for Chatham Literacy and posted a record with 253 attendees at the Governor’s Club in Chapel Hill. It featured gift baskets donated by local businesses, presentations from local organizations like Chatham Trades and a scavenger hunt with statistics about adult literacy in North Carolina.

And then, there were the stories. 

Smith shared the writing process for her new book, which began as a conversation with her husband during a long drive from Key West, Florida. They saw signs for a Silver Alert, which is meant to inform the public that there is a missing person who is suspected to be suffering from dementia.

“I didn’t actually know what Silver Alert meant, so we just sort of made it up,” Smith told the crowd. “We saw the alert for a Porsche Carrera, which kinda interested us. And we started thinking about it and by the time we saw the alert for the third time we had already made up a whole backstory.”

From that conversation, Smith knew she had to write the novel.

In my mind, that’s about the most Southern way a novel could come about — a fictional tale borne of a tangential conversation. The sort of jumping from story to story quintessential to the porch style of Southern storytelling. Smith certainly understands the way the South influences her style, too. 

“For one thing, people in the South will talk,” she told the News + Record in March. “We’ve always had that desire to talk and communicate. And we’re very community-minded. And as I say, writing is about talking. It’s about communication. And that’s where stories come from. Southerners are just much better storytellers.”

Before Smith’s talk, Jim Buie, an attendee Wednesday, said Smith’s words were emblematic of the kind of stories his grandparents told. The kind you hear when sipping sweet tea. The kind that holds deep historical memory.

“Sometimes I forget the South exists,” Buie said. “People like Lee Smith remind me that it does.”

Compassionate storytelling is how we connect with one another. It’s how we learn to humanize our neighbors and rationalize our fears and show us who we are. And it breaks down barriers of class, race, status and power by making the grandiose feel grounded.

That’s also what makes the work of Chatham Literacy so important — gifting the sharing of stories to people of all backgrounds. Through its free tutoring programs, the organization helped more than 190 students improve their literacy skills, get jobs and even become U.S. citizens.

I’ve been privileged in the support I’ve received for my storytelling. I’ve gotten to witness its power to change lives, uplift people and embrace community. 

It is with that privilege that we, as Southerners with a passion for stories, must take up the charge to support others in enjoying that same privilege.

The next Chatham Literacy luncheon will be on Nov. 2 at the Chatham County Agriculture & Conference Center in Pittsboro. It will feature a talk from Annette Clapsaddle, author of “Even As We Breathe.” For more information visit

Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at  or on Twitter @b_rappaport

Chatham Literacy, Lee Smith, Silver Alert, Southern storytelling