Date of Award
Master of Fine Arts
Steve W. Pett
Florida is conceived of as a destination-capital-D (South Beach, Miami, Disney, Sea World). Often overlooked: the giant Confederate flag flying over I-4; the fact that the sand that makes up Miami Beach is actually imported regularly; that some days it's sunny in the front yard while it rains out back. Florida is a weird, wonderful state. There's no other state like it. We're in the geographical south, but we're not The South. We kayak with alligators and find iguanas on our porches and hit the rinse cycle when roaches show up in our dishwashers. We have palm trees (California borrowed a few). We are a peninsula. We are the home of the Skunk Ape. We are Hemingway's "last wilderness," land of the Hanging Chad. We aren't perfect. But we try to market ourselves that way.
For all of its attempts to draw tourists in with postcards of beautiful beaches and tropical escapes--for all of its attempts to be a paradise--Florida is a place as environmentally troubled as any other state, and its inhabitants struggle with death, love, money, and loss just as all human beings do. My goal in writing this collection was to tackle the outside perceptions, and truths, of my home state. I want readers to leave the text with a sense of the state, and its people, that exists beyond the Sandals' commercials. These stories are meant to dispel the caricature of Florida's environment and its inhabitants and express them, instead, as full-bodied and inseparable from one another. Florida's people contribute to its environmental degradation and suffer from it. A healthy environment means healthy people, be it physically or mentally.
The range of characters, points-of-view, styles, and places add, I think, to an established tradition of collections situated in a world on the cusp of environmental breakdown--books that wrap conservation, environmental justice, and the inevitably flawed nature of human beings up in story. I've long admired the work of George Saunders, Karen Russell, Etgar Karet, Rick Bass, and TC Boyle, all of whom tackle environmental issues and situate those ideas (and, often, commentaries) within a compelling human narrative. I've attempted to add my voice to this conversation.
This collection also finds its place within the tradition of Florida writing. Authors such as Karen Russell, Carl Hiassen, and Zora Neale Hurston write extensively about the Floridian environment and its people, always working aspects of environmental awareness and environmental justice seamlessly into an engaging narrative. They make their audience care about the environment through storytelling. I hope that my collection does the same.
As a Floridian, I am surprised at how rarely I come across literary stories about Florida, or even set in Florida. My home state is rich territory for story, yet it is often overlooked in fiction.
Some historical moments of note:
* After draining 50,000 acres of the Kissimmee River Valley for agriculture, drainage pioneer Hamilton Disston committed suicide in Philadelphia. Florida's landscape, though fertile, proved difficult to manage and drove him into debt.
* In the late 1880s, Florida was prime hunting ground for poachers in the North American feather trade. Over 130,000 snowy egrets were killed for this purpose.
* Hurricane Andrew hit Miami in 1992, freeing numerous nonnative animals from the Miami MetroZoo: pythons, monkeys, Asian birds, crocodiles, antelope. They wandered the streets and picked their way through the city's ruins.
* Recently, Florida's oldest tree was burned down by a woman smoking meth beneath it.
These moments beg to be encapsulated in fiction. Florida's environmental story is complicated, nuanced, and deeply rooted in its people. This is a gap in Florida writing that I want my stories to fill.
This collection is the result of three years of careful research and thought. As a Florida native, I've taken deliberate care with how I represent my home state. It's taken eight, nine, sometimes upwards of ten revisions of each story to achieve the honesty I hope comes across in the collection as a whole. Florida is a beautiful state, but I did not want to portray it as pretty. Pretty is a postcard, is two-dimensional. Beauty acknowledges flaws, thus becoming fuller, more layered. Beauty insinuates love of a place and its people despite, or even because of, those flaws.
This collection has grown (at one point I had a novella in mind) and shrunk (no more novella, no more flash fiction pieces, several stories cut). The tone has shifted from being completely absurdist in nature (an early title was Till Magic Kingdom Come) to being a book with a funny bone: it is human nature to wince and laugh at the same time. In a sense, this is the book I came to Iowa to write. Amid cornfields I learned about swamps and beaches and have been able to put into words the love and disappointment I feel for Florida, my home place.
Dixon, Brenna, "Sawgrass and the broken heart: Stories" (2012). Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 14079.