Nell Zink is 50. She has married and divorced two men. She’s lived outside Berlin since 2000. And until last year, she hadn’t published a page of writing.
In her recent novel, “Mislaid,” a lesbian college student from Port Royal becomes pregnant by and marries a gay poet professor at a fictional women’s college outside Petersburg. When the marriage sours, she takes their daughter, steals the identity of another child and mother, and goes to hide in rural southeastern Virginia.
What follows is an incisive, satirical story of characters mired in the racial and gender politics of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s in central Virginia. From dorm rooms at the University of Virginia to swampy backwaters of Tidewater, Richmond readers will recognize the landscapes and the people.
“When I moved to Richmond in 1990,” Zink says by phone, “someone told me, ‘Where you’re moving is a really, really bad neighborhood.’”
It was the Devil’s Triangle, and the author recalls her time in Richmond as the “happiest months of her life.” She’d just started seeing a man she would later marry, and moving to and working in Richmond was a cheaper way to help support him in graduate school.
“After I moved to New York City, I couldn’t walk past Port Authority bus terminal without wanting to get on a bus and go back to Richmond,” she recalls. “Maybe I missed the South, or the ’80s.”
Zink grew up in rural King George County and attended high school at Staunton’s Stuart Hall School. She recalls visiting the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for the Fabergé eggs, and when she was a college student in Williamsburg, Richmond was the place to go dancing: “Scandals, which was a huge gay disco in Shockoe Bottom, Domino’s Doghouse, the National. Are those still there?”
But writing this novel was an attempt to reconcile some of the darker memories of her childhood and young adulthood.
“I’m interested in exploring issues as they appear to me,” she says. “It’s not an objective truth about how it was, but a certain subjective take is something you can do as novelist.”
Her character, Peggy Villaincourt, realizes at an early age that “she was intended to be a man.” Stillwater is the fictional college known as a Mecca for lesbians in ’60s Virginia. There, she meets many attractive women — and Lee Fleming. Lee is gay, a famous poet, and from a storied Virginia family, living obscurely at the college, entertaining visiting literati from the north in the Fleming-family Victorian across the lake from Stillwater.
Several years, two children, and 30 pages later, Peggy takes their daughter, leaves Lee with their son, and claims an abandoned cabin in southeast Virginia as her home, intending to write experimental lesbian plays. She picks up a new birth certificate for her daughter to better hide their whereabouts. The identity is that of a recently deceased African-American child. According to the Commonwealth of Virginia, Peggy and her daughter are now black. Peggy earns enough to feed and clothe Karen selling foraged plants and psychedelic mushrooms.
The race and family dynamics of the era are steeped in Zink’s own experiences.
“You didn’t have to ‘be racist’ in the segregated South,” she says. “It was just how life worked.” Subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to subvert integration, the state’s defining and cataloguing race with the one-drop rule, people driven from their land — these are memories that drove the writing of “Mislaid.”
Many reviewers outside of Virginia have found the turn of events improbable and Zink’s writing glib. Maybe so. But a Virginia audience will find more to appreciate.
The novel is a sharp critique of a stifling and stagnant cultural landscape. Scenes often flash like vignettes of a society struggling with the changing times. Lee finds himself in conflict with feminist students over the inclusion of women writers in his literary journal, with women who cared less about his gayness than about his role in the privileged patriarchy. Peggy scandalizes a book group of white-flight moms with radical gender philosophy and soon finds herself forced out of the cabin into urban housing projects.
The book talks frankly and wittily about race, gender and class in a way that few Southern white writers do. This is no “The Help” or “The Secret Lives of Bees” with their caricatures and easy villains. Nor is this a Cormac McCarthy landscape of tight-lipped cowboys and one-dimensional women.
Zink is unsparing in conversation, too. “Provincialism is real,” she says. “People from Richmond think it’s the center of the universe.”
When asked what she would want a Virginia reader to take away from this book, she has a ready answer: “Find out the history of where you’re living. Find out how your community really came into being.”
“I see a lot of people saying, well segregation has been over long enough, people should know each other by now,” she says. “I was born in 1964, and most Americans are older than I am. If they’re from the South, they cannot have attended a truly integrated school. That’s what we’re still dealing with.” S
Nell Zink’s “Mislaid” is available locally at Chop Suey. Her debut novel, “The Wallcreeper,” is available online.