Georgia author, naturalist named Grisham Writer-in-Residence
July 31, 2003
By Deidra Jackson
OXFORD, Miss. — Janisse Ray, author of the poignant American Book Award-winning memoir Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, is the 2003-04 John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi.
The Georgia native assumes the prestigious teaching post in the Department of English Aug. 15.
A naturalist, activist and regular commentator for National Public Radio, Ray is the newest recruit for the 11-year-old program which embraces emerging Southern writers. The annual appointment, including housing and a stipend, is funded by the best-selling author and his wife, who were Oxford residents for several years. Recipients are invited to teach writing workshops and participate in department activities.
Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (Milkweed Editions, 1999) is Rays story of growing up poor and white, amid a junkyard in Baxley, Ga., near the Florida border. Raised by fundamentalist parents, including a father whose junkyard was located in the middle of a longleaf pine forest, Ray comes to embrace and help save the beleaguered Southern forests in the books moving commentary. It is required reading for English students at UM and at some other universities and colleges around the country.
In her latest book, Wild Card Quilt: Taking a Chance on Home (Milkweed Editions, 2003), Ray passionately describes returning to her childhood home, with her 9-year-old son, after spending years in Montana. “Could I resolve the troubles of childhood, since I would no longer be a child in a childhood place?” she asks in the books opening pages.
“I am thrilled that Janisse will be at the University of Mississippi this year,” said Ann Fisher-Wirth, a professor of English who teaches creative writing. “She is a wonderful writer, a compelling teacher and speaker, a passionate environmentalist and an all-around amazing woman, whom I am honored to have as a friend.”
Fisher-Wirth, who also writes about the environment, met Ray four years ago at Ossabaw Island, off the Georgia coast, at a writers weekend retreat which Ray said she organized “to meet other people who wrote environmental poetry, fiction, or nonfiction in the South—to build an artistic and activist community.”
“Many firm friendships, many environmental projects and a lot of good writing have resulted from the group that formed, which included writers such as Lola Haskins, James Kilgo, Frank Burroughs, John Lane, Bill Belleville and Susan Cerulean,” Fisher-Wirth said.
A phenomenal success, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood also won the Southeastern Booksellers Award for Nonfiction, Southern Environmental Law Center Award for Outstanding Writing on the Southern Environment and Southern Book Critics Circle Award. It also was honored by the Georgia Center for the Book as “The Book Every Georgian Should Read.”
Joseph Urgo, UM English chair, said his faculty were tremendously impressed with the book.
“In a short time, Janisse Ray has established herself as an important new voice in whats called creative nonfiction—essays, nature writing, sustained observation and reflection,” he said. “We wanted to invite someone working in this genre, and when we sat down to talk about it, Ms. Rays name kept coming up.”
Ray has published essays and poems in magazines and newspapers such as Audubon, Coastal Living, National Geographic Traveler, Sierra Tallahassee Democrat, The Sun, Georgia Wildlife, Orion, Wild Earth, Missoula Independent, Florida Wildlife, Hope and Florida Naturalist. She also has provided commentaries for Peach State Public Radio and NPRs “Living on Earth.”
As an activist, Ray hopes to slow the rate of logging in Southern forests. She is a founding board member of Altamaha Riverkeeper, a group dedicated to repairing the Georgias mighty Altamaha River. She helped form the Georgia Nature-based Tourism Association and worked to save the 3,400-acre Moody Forest in her Appling County home.
For more information about the John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence program, call 662-915-7439.
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