Best Southern books of 2022 reflect diversity of authors

Race, marriage, identity and generational trauma among the topics addressed.

Southern literature had a dynamic year in 2022. It began with a flurry of nonfiction books that garnered acclaim, most notably the National Book Award for Nonfiction winner “South to America” by Imani Perry.

As the year progressed, a handful of established greats released evocative fiction that broadened America’s literary scope, including “Demon Copperhead,” Barbara Kingsolver’s adaption of a Charles Dickens’ novel into an exploration of Appalachia’s opioid epidemic.

In November, a U.S. judge kiboshed a $2.2 billion merger between two of the country’s big five publishers, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, giving authors and readers renewed hope that the trend toward publishing diverse books in a competitive environment that supports new voices will continue to gain momentum. The number of debuts, women, and authors of color that made our list this year reinforce this critical need.

Here are 12 Southern books published in 2022 that are not to be missed, listed in order of publication.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“This Boy We Made”

Virginia writer Taylor Harris’ nonfiction debut, “This Boy We Made: A Memoir of Motherhood, Genetics, and Facing the Unknown,” is a Southern Book Prize finalist that explores how a mother with anxiety disorder grapples to solve her young son’s medical mystery. Revealing as much about her own fears and inadequacies as the racial inequities she encounters while navigating U.S. medical institutions, Harris’ forthright and powerful memoir delivers a tale of perseverance, courage and the unfailing determination of a mother’s love. (Catapult, $26)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

“South to America”

A professor of African American studies at Princeton University, Imani Perry won the National Book Award for her ambitious and provocative collection of essays that examine how the South’s race relations have influenced the nation. Focusing on a single city or region like Appalachia and the Lowcountry, she weaves together personal experience, scholarship, history, religion and pop culture to illustrate the complexities and nuances of life in the South and vanquish once and for all the misperception of the region as a stereotypical monolith. (Ecco, $28.99)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“The Violin Conspiracy”

The cutthroat world of classical music, the theft of a priceless Stradivarius violin and a young Black musician’s unrelenting determination to achieve collide in Brendan Slocumb’s gripping mystery debut “The Violin Conspiracy.” Drawing from his decades as a classical musician, Slocumb weaves in a broader narrative about the lingering effects of slavery while navigating a symphony of present-day racial barriers in this compelling and heartrending Southern Book Prize finalist. (Anchor, $28)

Credit: HarperCollins

Credit: HarperCollins

“Foreverland”

Columnist Heather Havrilesky drops some major truth bombs in this collection of personal essays about married life. She’s not afraid to portray herself in an unflattering light as she mines the highs and lows of her 16-year marriage to husband Bill, starting with their courtship and spanning years that saw them having babies, moving to the suburbs, enduring the pandemic and navigating a health crisis. What elevates the literary status of “Foreverland” is Havrilesky’s sharp, irreverent sense of humor, her deep well of empathy and the wisdom of the conclusions her essays arrive at that affirm the real joy of matrimony. (Ecco, $27.99)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“Ancestor Trouble”

Heralded by the Boston Globe as “a brilliant mix of personal memoir and cultural observation,” Maud Newton’s nonfiction debut, “Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation,” is a chronicle of her multi-decade quest to untangle the legacy of “crazy” in her family. What begins as a journey to understand her own impulses morphs into a sprawling genealogical study on intergenerational trauma that ultimately allows Newton to reconcile the behaviors of those who came before. (Random House, $28.99)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“Take My Hand”

Bestselling author Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s germane work of historical fiction “Take My Hand” is inspired by the 1973 sterilization of 12- and 14-year-old Montgomery, Alabama, sisters by a federally funded agency. Filled with a cast of complex characters who mean well but don’t always do the right thing, “Take My Hand” provides a dynamic scrutinization of the systems that provide aid to those in need, the dangers of administering charity bereft of dignity and how racial and economic disparity can lead to the erosion of reproductive sanctity. (Berkley, $27)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“Black Folk Could Fly”

Award-winning North Carolina author Randall Kenan was beloved for his groundbreaking fiction that weaves magical realism into the queer, Black, Southern experience. In this posthumously released collection of 22 essays, “Black Folk Could Fly: Selected Writings,” Kenan provides an autobiographical window into his formative years, the culture that raised him and how his relationship with his own identity and the surrounding world changed over time in this book the Atlanta Journal-Constitution describes as “at turns wry and self-aware.” (W.W. Norton Company, $27.95)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“If I Survive You”

It’s no wonder this collection of eight linked short stories about a Jamaican family living in Florida landed Jonathan Escoffery’s fiction debut, “If I Survive You,” on the National Book Award Longlist. Rapidly shifting literary devices and a humorous twist of the macabre create an immersive experience into the struggle of growing up racially ambiguous in America in this book NPR praises as “an intensively granular, yet panoramic depiction of what it’s like to try to make it — or not — in this kaleidoscopic madhouse of a country.” (MCD, $27)

Credit: Amazon

Credit: Amazon

“Demon Copperhead”

Esteemed author and social activist Barbara Kingsolver accomplishes a fantastic literary feat in adapting “David Copperfield” — Charles Dickens’ 19th century Victorian opus about institutional poverty — into a modern-day tale tackling the opioid crisis in America’s Appalachia. But the heart that carries “Demon Copperhead” is Kingsolver’s titular character Demon, described in my review for the AJC as “a razor-sharp and likable Holden Caulfield” in this “heartrending, probing and ultimately hopeful tale about a young boy’s journey from devastation to survival.” (Harper, $32.50)

Credit: Knopf

Credit: Knopf

“The Passenger” & “Stella Maris”

Sixteen years after winning the Pulitzer Prize for “The Road,” acclaimed author Cormac McCarthy has broken his fiction silo and emerged from his residence at the Santa Fe Institute of Scientific Study to present a two-volume epic, published one month apart, following a brother and sister who are haunted by their father’s contribution to the atomic bomb. Heralded by The Guardian as “rich and strange, mercurial and melancholic,” McCarthy’s “The Passenger” hitches a ride with a salvage diver as he traverses across the South facing his ghosts. The second volume, “Stella Maris,” homes in on the life of his sister as she journeys through the psychiatric analysis of her paranoid schizophrenia. (Knopf, $30/$26)

Credit: Ecco

Credit: Ecco

“Now Is Not the Time to Panic”

Kevin Wilson’s latest novel beautifully captures the edgy, indie vibe of the ‘90s when everyone was an artist or musician or writer and the world was their canvas. Stuck in small-town Tennessee, teenage misfits Frankie and Zeke combine their burgeoning talents as a writer and artist, respectively, to create an enigmatic poster that they secretly plaster all over town. The reaction their subversive art project elicits takes them by surprise when it creates a panic that spreads throughout the country and beyond. Filled with humor and empathy, “Now Is Not the Time to Panic” is a beguiling testament to the power of art and friendship. (Ecco, $27.99)

— Suzanne Van Atten contributed to this article.