‘When I grew up, girls like me knew our place. We were expected to smile politely and keep our white-gloved hands folded neatly in our laps when we sat in church… We did not ask: “Why?” We did not say: “That doesn’t seem fair”… And as we grew up, we understood that stepping off the prescribed path in any way meant risking it all, and probably losing.’
Growing up in Mississippi in the 1950s and ‘60s, Tena Clark knew her life looked perfect from the outside. To the casual observer, she had it all: a gorgeous mother, a wealthy father, and the fanciest dresses money could buy. She had a beautiful, sprawling home that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Gone With the Wind, and her garden was acres and acres of rolling fields, filled with sturdy oak trees perfect for climbing, and honeysuckle bushes with scents so sweet and rich you could almost taste them.
But life at home was not nearly as idyllic as it seemed. Tena’s father was a serial womaniser, and Tena’s mother had taken to drink to numb the pain caused by her husband’s infidelity. The pair’s relationship was fiery, and their fights violent and wild: on one occasion, they wrestled ‘like they were in a ring’, and on another, Tena’s mother tried to shoot and kill her father after realising he’d been out on the town with one of his mistresses.
To add to this tumultuous childhood, Tena soon realised she wasn’t like her older sisters and the other girls she knew. While they talked incessantly about the local boys they were crushing on, Tena crushed on leggy cheerleaders, and before she even had a name to describe what she was feeling, she knew she would face the struggle of a lifetime if she ever asked for her family’s acceptance.
There was one person, though, who accepted Tena without question. Her nanny, Virgie, was the calm at the eye of the Clark family storm, and on Tena’s tenth birthday, when her mother left the family home for good, it was Virgie who stepped in as Tena’s surrogate mother, protector and confidante. Virgie was by her side as Tena grew up. Bravely, she took a stand with Tena against the racism that pervaded their southern hometown, and it was Virgie’s love and strength that gave Tena the courage to forge her own path, pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a musician, and most importantly, be her true self.
Penned by Grammy Award-winning songwriter and music producer Tena Clark, Southern Discomfort is a raw, insightful and profoundly moving memoir. Clark doesn’t shy away from sharing the ugly, unpleasant experiences that largely defined her dysfunctional childhood, and the book certainly packs an emotional punch: we feel the full force of Clark’s anguish at her parents’ behaviour, and it’s heartbreaking to read of the inner struggles she faced over her sexuality.
But there’s ample joy in Clark’s story, too, and your heart will feel full as you witness Virgie’s unconditional love for her surrogate daughter, and as you watch Clark embrace her sexuality, make waves as a civil rights activist in her conservative hometown, and pursue a music career instead of settling for the unfulfilling domestic life her parents pushed for.
In charting Clark’s long journey to making peace with her childhood and parents, Southern Discomfort also shines a light on the complexity of love and forgiveness, and the endlessly intricate bonds of family, and there are other complexities that make this story engrossing, too. Clark’s parents seem near irredeemable, but as the story progresses we glimpse their kindness and courage, and throughout the book, Clark beautifully highlights the complexity of the American South as ‘a savage place, a complicated place’, and yet one that ‘still burrows into you.’
Southern Discomfort is a heartbreaking and deeply hopeful story that paints a compelling portrait of mid-20th Century southern America. Perfect for fans of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, we recommend it wholeheartedly.
About the author:
Born and raised in Mississippi, Tena Clark is a Grammy Award-winning songwriter, music producer and activist. She has written and produced for music legends including Aretha Franklin, Leann Rimes and Dionne Warwick, and has contributed to multi-platinum soundtracks for My Best Friend’s Wedding and Desperate Housewives, among many other films and television programs. Clark is also a civil rights activist and a crusader for women’s rights, with her strong sense of social justice formed during her early life in the American South of the 1950s and ‘60s. She lives in Atlanta, and her memoir, Southern Discomfort, is her first book.