Here’s to 25 more years of the tough Ox­ford Amer­i­can

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY RON CHARLES ron.charles@wash­

Ox­ford Amer­i­can, the quar­terly mag­a­zine of South­ern writ­ing, has just re­leased a fan­tas­tic 25th an­niver­sary is­sue. It in­cludes pho­tog­ra­phy by Jack Spencer, po­etry by the late Mar­garet Walker and a short story by Glenn Tay­lor. But the high- light is an ex­cerpt from Jes­myn Ward’s up­com­ing novel, “Sing, Un­buried, Sing,” which will be pub­lished in Septem­ber. (Two more ex­cerpts from the novel are planned for the sum­mer and fall is­sues of Ox­ford Amer­i­can.)

Se­cur­ing those pieces by Ward, who won a Na­tional Book Award in 2011 for her dev­as­tat­ing novel “Sal­vage the Bones,” is yet an­other rea­son to pay at­ten­tion to this re­gional mag­a­zine that de­fies the re­gional la­bel. Last year, Ox­ford Amer­i­can won a Na­tional Mag­a­zine Award for gen­eral ex­cel­lence, and the mo­men­tum is clearly con­tin­u­ing. All good news for an or­ga­ni­za­tion that some- times seemed like it was act­ing out its own South­ern gothic plot.

First pub­lished on a shoe­string bud­get in 1992 by Marc Smirnoff, Ox­ford Amer­i­can has been snuffed out sev­eral times de­spite pub­lish­ing work by such giants as John Updike, Richard Ford and Eu­dora Welty. Best-sell­ing thriller writer John Gr­isham kept the mag­a­zine alive for a while, but it still ran out of money, suf­fered a crip­pling em­bez­zle­ment, got hit by a huge bill from the IRS and en­dured a sex­ual ha­rass­ment con­tro­versy that di­vided its staff.

For­tu­nately, the non­profit mag­a­zine, now housed at the Univer­sity of Cen­tral Arkansas, seems to be en­joy­ing a much-de­served pe­riod of sta­bil­ity.

Edi­tor El­iza Borné, ap­pointed in 2015, says Ox­ford Amer­i­can is “thriv­ing,” de­spite the gen­eral shift away from pa­per and to­ward the Web. “We re­main fo­cused on cre­at­ing a quar­terly print mag­a­zine with great writ­ing and gor­geous de­sign,” she says, but her staff also posts Web-only photo es­says, main­tains an Instagram feed and dis­trib­utes a weekly e-newsletter.

Borné in­sists that “the South is much more than a geo­graphic or cul­tural mono­lith,” and she’s de­ter­mined to make sure Ox­ford Amer­i­can re­flects the re­gion’s com­plex­ity. She writes via email: “The South is host to so many dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties, from so many back­grounds, that I have never found it lim­it­ing to fo­cus our cov­er­age on the re­gion. In the past year, we have pub­lished sto­ries about Burmese refugees in ru­ral Ge­or­gia; coal min­ers who are strug­gling to make ends meet in Har­lan County, Ken­tucky; an­ar­chists in Palm Beach County; and mi­grant work­ers who died in the lit­tle-known Hawk’s Nest Tun­nel dis­as­ter in West Vir­ginia.”

The rise of Don­ald Trump and his “Amer­ica First” ral­ly­ing cry have drawn new, some­times pe­jo­ra­tive at­ten­tion to peo­ple liv­ing in the mid­dle of the coun­try, but Borné re­jects any easy char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of South­ern vot­ers. “By al­low­ing South­ern­ers to tell their own sto­ries,” she says, “we fight against the myth of it be­ing a ho­mog­e­nized re­gion.” For in­stance, long be­fore the pres­i­dent promised to “build a wall,” Ox­ford Amer­i­can had pub­lished sto­ries about trans peo­ple who live along the Mex­i­can bor­der and about im­mi­grants risk­ing their lives to cross into Texas.

Here’s to the next 25 years of great writ­ing and strik­ing pho­tog­ra­phy from a tough mag­a­zine that re­fuses to fade away.

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