September 22, 2020

Deep Down: New book highlights uniqueness of Natchez, Mississippi

Author Richard Grant spent little time in Natchez before he knew he was going to write a book about the town and its people.

“About three or four hours,” Grant said from his house in Tucson, Arizona, Friday.

The New York Times bestselling author of “Dispatches from Pluto” came to Natchez in 2017 at the invitation of local chef Regina Charboneau and soon found himself immersed in a community that was unmatched in his life experience.

“I just met some really interesting people as soon as I got there … I had been to the Forks of the Road and that really affected me and that night I went to a ball at Stanton Hall and I said, ‘Wow, What is this place?’”

On Monday, Grant will launch “Deepest South of All: True Stories from Natchez, Mississippi,” a book born from that first trip three years ago.

The book will be unveiled at 6 p.m. Monday in an online event hosted by Lemuria Books in Jackson, and Square Books in Oxford. The event will feature an interview with Grant and Natchez resident and New York Times bestselling author Greg Iles. Although registration is complete for the book launch, readers should be able to find a recording of the event on Lemuria’s Facebook page after the event.

“Deepest South of All” is filled with Grant’s observations of the town — a place he depicts as one that celebrates eccentricity, promotes its Civil War past while struggling to break free from a legacy of slavery.

“The book is kind of a travel book — a journey and exploration into a place,” Grant said. “What is this place and how did it get this way?”

The 274-page book is filled with a cast of characters with which most Natchez-area residents are familiar.

Garden club ladies, local civil rights activists, antebellum homeowners and members of Natchez’s progressive gay community all make an appearance in the book. So, too, do stories of local legends from the past, including the late Nellie Jackson, the Natchez madam who became an informant for the FBI, and the late Buzz Harper, a Natchez antiques dealer known for his over-the-top flamboyance and Rococo flair.

During his visits to Natchez, Grant gets a behind-the-scenes view — one he details for readers — of the long-standing feud between the Pilgrimage Garden Club and the Natchez Garden Club. While Grant was in Natchez, the clubs quarreled over efforts to make the annual Tableaux more inclusive of African Americans and the slave experience. The clubs would eventually split and offer separate versions of the annual Spring Pilgrimage event.

In between chapters of his experiences in Natchez, Grant weaves the story of another Natchez legend, transplant Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima, an African prince who was sold into slavery and bought by a Natchez resident in the late 1800s.

The story is the only record of an enslaved person in Natchez that has been depicted with any level of detail, Grant said.

“I thought it was an incredible story and I thought the book would gain a bit of momentum for having that story going through it,” Grant said.

The Ibrahima story was particularly important, Grant said.

“I wanted to write about slavery since the town was built on slavery,” Grant said. “I was trying to think of a good way to write about it, and here is an incredible story about a guy who was enslaved in Natchez.”

Initially, Grant said he considered Natchez to be an utterly exceptional place. But after spending more time talking to members of the community, Grant said his views changed.

“When I first started spending time in Natchez it seemed very unique and then the more I learned about (the town) the more it seemed like a microcosm of America, especially when it comes to the whole vexed question of race.”

Grant said, Natchez has been grappling with racial issues for the last 10 to 15 years that are now being addressed nationwide. In a way, Natchez is ahead of its time, Grant said.

“I feel like the rest of the country has started having conversations that I was hearing in Natchez a few years ago and had been going on in Natchez for a while, especially regarding monuments and systemic racism,” Grant said. “I had a lot of conversations in Natchez about ‘How are we going to tackle the legacy of slavery? How are we going to include our fore history in what we present to tourists?”

Despite its struggles with the past, Grant said Natchez remains a city that is captivating in a way that makes the rest of the world pale in comparison.

Grant said he met many people on his visits who found it difficult to leave Natchez because the rest of the world seemed “a bit boring and not beautiful enough.”

“When I was really immersed in Natchez, I kind of felt that way about the rest of the world. It just seemed a bit mundane somehow.”

Grant said even after writing the book he feels like he could have spent more time understanding the place.

“I feel like I did my best, but I would have liked more time to understand the place better,” Grant said. “Because it is a complicated place and I feel like I had my take on it, but that it would have benefited with more time — a deeper level of understanding that I didn’t quite get.”

Even still, Grant said he hopes people recognize his affection for the town when they read the book.

“I love Natchez and I care about it and I would like to be welcomed after this book.”