Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng (Ecco Books; 336 pages; $25.99).
Chinese-American author Bill Cheng takes on the African-American existence in Mississippi in his odyssey Southern Cross the Dog. Cheng focuses his narrative lens on Robert Chatham, a black man in his 20s who believes he is cursed.
Cheng contrasts the tenderness of falling in love for the first time with the rising waters of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the catastrophe that destroyed Robert’s home and changed his life forever.
Robert’s journey takes him from a refugee camp to a brothel to a job clearing land in the name of progress. With an evocative setting, Southern Cross the Dog is a testament to a man’s will to live and to the distance he will go for friendship and love as he must carve a place and an existence free of bad luck and curses.
Full of meaning, Southern Cross the Dog features a strong narrator who takes us with him on his incredible journey. Cheng’s magisterial and resonating historical epic is steeped in an astounding setting and peopled by the most intriguing and charismatic characters. Equally memorable and equally fascinating, Southern Cross the Dog heralds the arrival of a brilliant new voice in literature.
Jaime Boler: Thank you, Bill, for letting me ask you these questions. You blew me away with your epic odyssey set in my home state. Did you always want to be a writer?
Bill Cheng: It’s my pleasure.
I can’t remember a time of wanting to be anything else. When I was a kid, I was prone to daydreaming a lot in class, and, when I was twelve, I started writing these adventure stories with my friends. There wasn’t a discrete moment, though, where I felt like I was suddenly [a] writer. It was just something I did, out of boredom or to amuse myself. Some part of that probably holds true today.
JB: How would you describe Southern Cross the Dog in ten words or less?
BC: Coming home.
JB: Are you a fan of the blues?
BC: Very much so. I kind of came of age at a time when this country was particularly fragile and unsure of itself and its place in the world. Blues, for me, had a way of framing that anxiousness and desperateness. When I listen to John Hurt or Skip James or Leroy Carr, the world becomes smaller somehow, more manageable.
JB: Which character’s voice did you hear first?
BC: Dora’s. Robert I saw first, but Dora I know down to the timbre. When I was 21 or 22, I was teaching for a short time at this this school in Bedford-Stuyvesant. I think I heard her voice there.
JB: What was the inspiration behind Southern Cross the Dog?
BC: There isn’t one blues song that helped me build the texture and world of this novel. The first one I point to, though, is John Lee Hooker’s Tupelo, but there are a host of others: (In the Evening) When the Sun Goes Down by Leroy Carr; Hellhound on my Trail by Robert Johnson, Death Letter Blues by Son House, Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor by Mississippi John Hurt, Hard Times Killing Floor by Skip James… the list goes on and on.
But on the subject of inspiration, the writers teaching at my MFA program at Hunter College—Colum McCann, Peter Carey, Nathan Englander—have been an ongoing source of inspiration, not only for this book, but my outlook on what I think a writer is and should be.
JB: Your title is a reference to “Where the Southern crosses the yellow dog,” where two railroad lines cross in Moorhead, Mississippi. What does the title mean to Robert Chatham, your main character?
BC: Interesting question. I don’t know if I’ll have an interesting answer. To me, that’s always existed in my mind as a place of final rest and peace, like the Beulah Land that John Hurt sings about. To me, that’s what Robert wants throughout the novel, but when Robert he uses the term in the novel, I’m not sure if it’s anything but a reference to the place.
JB: Prior to your Mississippi book tour, had you ever visited the state? Did anything about Mississippi or its people surprise you?
BC: I hadn’t.
I hate to generalize, but I suppose my greatest surprise was how warm and genial [everyone] was. I remember driving through Vicksburg one Sunday evening, and my wife and I had gotten a little turned around. We were along some stretch of houses down by the river, and some old guy was just sitting on his porch, looking at us. Then, unexpectedly, he lifted up his hand to wave to us. We waved back.
JB: Yes, that sounds exactly like Mississippians. What research did you do for Southern Cross the Dog?
BC: I’ve done a fair amount. Read a lot, listened to music, oral histories, watched movies, documentaries, visited museums—basically everything short of booking a flight and setting foot down into the Delta. It can be tricky with research; you don’t want to do so much that the story you want to tell becomes bullied and constrained by the research. Somewhere in my parents’ house is a replica of a brochure that shows all the Black-friendly hotels in Mississippi. That never made it into the book, but it told me something about the world I was trying to imagine.
JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing your novel?
BC: Writing the Dora section was difficult. Having to embody a young black girl who undergoes this horrible abuse—it really tested my convictions as to what I believe is and isn’t within a writer’s wheelhouse.
JB: Did you learn anything new about yourself while writing this story?
BC: I suppose I learned a lot about what I’m willing to test and what I’m willing to risk as a new writer starting out. I learned that good fiction is unafraid, and, more than art, the writer needs conscience.
JB: How were earlier versions of Southern Cross the Dog different from the final copy?
BC: In the earliest conception of the book, Eli Cutter was going to play a more significant role in Robert’s life. Robert and Eli would have traveled together in Duke’s medicine show. In the end, I decided it would make the already large book too unwieldy. I also cut some scenes with the dog. Its presence was pressing too deeply in the realm of the supernatural, and I wanted it its presence to be an open question in the reader’s mind.
JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Southern Cross the Dog?
BC: I want readers to understand that this was not a book about the South, or about the Black experience. It’s about us, today, right here.
JB: What’s next for you? Are you working on anything new?
BC: Yes. About a hundred new things, in fact. It’s hard to stay with anything new when a part of you is still so vested in the world of this book. But I think things are about winding down now. I have a new novel I’m trying to make some headway, but I might just go ahead and try to knock out some short stories as a kind of palette cleanser.
I can say, however, with some confidence that whatever my next project is, it won’t be another blues novel. It’d be easy enough to poach some of the characters from here and perhaps set the book in post-WWII Chicago but there’s nothing vital in that for me right now. It’s not to say that it couldn’t happen in the future, but, right now, I feel like I’ve said what I wanted to say.
JB: I will read anything you write. Whatever it is: I know it will be good. Thanks, Bill, for a wonderful interview. Good luck with the book!