By Allen Boyer
The Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters has honored “The Past Is Never,” by Tiffany Quay Tyson, with its 2019 award for fiction.
This honor accords with HottyToddy’s original review of the novel: “‘The Past Is Never’ is Southern fiction. And it reads like a new kind of Southern fiction.”
“The Past Is Never” is a taught, searching novel, about a family figuring out how they relate to each other (in every sense of the term) and their struggles to break free of a curse. The setting is the Mississippi Delta, in a town called White Forest. The main strand of the narrative runs forward from August 1976. Another strand starts during the Depression, while a third unspools from the early 1920s.
Tyson is a native of Jackson. A graduate of Delta State University, she worked as a reporter in the Delta, winning the Frank Allen Award for Journalism. More recently she has taught at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop and the Lighthouse Young Writers Program, and earned two Heartland Emmy Awards for her work in television. Currently, she lives and writes in Denver.
“The Past Is Never” takes its title and epigraph from William Faulkner, but a comment by James Joyce might fit the book more aptly: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
By the end of the book, its protagonist, Bert (short for Alberta) finds that she can break free of history. She does this submerging herself in family—understanding that love may create bonds that blood cannot. She tells her young niece: “You were born from cotton slaves and plantation owners, from preachers and kitchen help, from healers and murderers, from liars and truth-tellers, from criminals and lawmakers, from bigots and from the oppressed, from monsters and saints. You were born from water and from earth and from blood.”
Tyson’s first novel, “Three Rivers” (2015), was the story of Melody Mahaffey, a Christian pop musician who returned home to care for her dying father and brain-damaged brother – and finds herself forced to deal with an absent mother, a fugitive and his young son, and the rising water of a horrifying flood. “Three Rivers” also introduced Tyson’s chosen setting of White Forest.
In the Clarion-Ledger, Gerry Wilson wrote that “Three Rivers” is reminiscent of a Beth Henley play or a Flannery O’Connor story. At its contemporary Southern Gothic best, “Three Rivers” propels the reader along like the deep, fast currents of the floodwaters Tyson so aptly describes, rushing toward a poignant, cathartic ending.”
The MIAL awards, first presented in 1980, are made in seven categories: Fiction, Non-fiction, Visual Art, Musical Composition (Concert), Musical Composition (Popular), Photography, and Poetry. The Institute’s awards are conferred through a juried competition, one of a kind in the state.
“The Past Is Never” was reviewed in Hottytoddy.com upon its publication in early 2018.