Speaking Southern: Columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson to headline annual literacy gala

Rheta Grimsley Johnson will share her story at the Friends of Literacy's 6th annual East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame event on Oct. 29.

Photo by 2001 Snowbound

Rheta Grimsley Johnson will share her story at the Friends of Literacy's 6th annual East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame event on Oct. 29.

  • When: 7 p.m. Oct. 29
  • Where: Crowne Plaza
  • Speaker: Rheta Grimsley Johnson
  • Tickets: $100
  • Info and reservations: 865-594-1507 or www.friendsofliteracy.org

Dictionaries give the meaning of "literacy" as the ability to speak, write and communicate in a meaningful manner. If they wanted to sum it up in three words, they could just say "Rheta Grimsley Johnson."

In a near-perfect blend of form and function, Johnson will speak at the Friends of Literacy sixth annual East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame awards dinner on Oct. 29 at the Crowne Plaza in downtown Knoxville.

Johnson is a nationally syndicated columnist who has crisscrossed the South for more than three decades in her attempt to discover who we are and what we are all about. She has worked for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Commercial Appeal in Memphis and other regional and national news organizations. Her column appears on Sunday in The News Sentinel.

While Johnson is the quintessential wordsmith, waking each morning in the wee hours to ply her craft, she also is willing to put away her keyboard and mine the very bedrock of literacy.

In her most recent book, "Poor Man's Provence: Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana" (New South Books), the author has a chapter on the Tool Shed Reading Club in Henderson, La., where she convened a bunch of ragtag neighborhood children for afternoons of book reading after school.

'Poor Man's Provence: Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana' is Rheta Grimsley Johnson's most recent book.

"Poor Man's Provence: Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana" is Rheta Grimsley Johnson's most recent book.

"We kept it going for about two years with 12 to 15 kids," Johnson said recently in an interview. "The kids were just so eager."

Mind you, Henderson is not the cozy and genteel Southern neighborhood of magnolia trees and mint juleps. This is the car-on-blocks, couch-on-porch, gritty patina of the real South that Johnson and her late husband, Don Grierson, fell in love with as their second home. As word of her reading club spread, books began pouring in from all over the country, including Knoxville.

Johnson has recently learned from the mayor of Henderson that the city has rented an old funeral home to be used as a library/community center. Some of the books from the Tool Shed Reading Club will go there.

"I'm not taking any credit for creating a library," she warns. "If the library happens, all the credit goes to the children."

The interviewer then asks the perfunctory and somewhat trick question: Are you a Southern writer or simply a writer from the South?

Johnson hesitates not one whit.

"There was a survey done by Harper's Magazine where writers from the South were asked that very question," she said. "It seems that most of them wanted to have it both ways, but I have no problem admitting that I am simply a Southern writer."

Johnson says that Southerners are storytellers by nature.

"If you ask one of us how to get to the tire store, we may tell you to turn right or turn left at which corner, but we also want to tell you stories about the people who live in the houses along the way," she said.

In her books and newspaper columns, Johnson's treatment of the South and its people is neither condescending nor nostalgic. It's matter-of-fact and unapologetic.

"This is not Connecticut," she said. "It doesn't look like it and doesn't feel like it.

"It takes a deeper look to see the beauty of the Deep South," she continued. "This is the place I know, and I think I know it well."

She says the imperfections may be what she likes the most about her South.

"Frank Sinatra may have perfect pitch, but I think it's more interesting to listen to Kris Kristofferson."

Due to the death of her beloved husband earlier this year, Johnson is in the process of selling the home in Henderson. She will make her way to Knoxville from her 113-acre patch of woods in Fishtrap Hollow, Miss.

She shares some news with her fans. Her next book will be out in March with the fetching title "Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming."

We can safely assume it will be literate and Southern.

Vince Vawter is a freelance contributor to the News Sentinel.

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