Tim Parrish recalls being in a Baton Rouge, La., department store with his mother one day during the racially tense ‘60s. A young child at the time, Parrish innocently used a racial epithet to describe an African American fellow shopper.
“I heard my parents use this word all the time at home and didn’t know there was anything wrong about it,” Parrish says, but his mother reacted with horror to his use of the word in a public place. Her shocked response made Parrish realize for the first time that “something was being hidden in my house. People had shame about their prejudices, but they didn’t try to remedy them.”
Everything about Baton Rouge is a paradox, says Parrish, an assistant professor of English who recently published a collection of short stories, Red Stick Men. The stories are set in Baton Rouge—which natives call “Red Stick,” the English translation of its name—and reveal a strong sense of the place.
The “red stick” for which the city is named was actually a cypress tree, discovered by 17th-century European settlers, that Native Americans had smeared with blood to mark a tribal boundary. While Baton Rouge’s white natives have mythologized the red stick and its historical roots, Parrish says that ironically they are reluctant now to visit the site of the original red stick, whose location is now part of the campus of the largely African American Southern University.
Parrish’s intent in writing the stories in Red Stick Men was “to demythologize Baton Rouge, to be true to the place.” Although Baton Rouge shows up in many songs because of its romantic French name, Parrish describes his hometown as “a somewhat surreal place,” with the glow from chemical plants and oil refineries lighting up the sky.
The characters in his stories, far from fitting into hackneyed romantic Southern stereotypes, are gritty blue-collar folks who work on oil rigs, as exterminators or in pipe factories. Critics have praised Parrish, the director of Southern’s creative writing program, for his ability to bring his characters to life and to show another, more realistic side of Baton Rouge.
“I have a love/hate relationship with Baton Rouge,” Parrish says of the city he lived in for 27 years. “The love comes from family and a real connection to the place that made me. The hate comes from the fact that I grew up in a very racist environment. It caused a lot of turmoil.”
Parrish was raised on the industrial side of town in a family of natural storytellers. He credits his parents and his brother especially as influences on his yarn-spinning abilities. In his fiction Parrish also draws on his own experiences as a roustabout on an oil rig, a chemical plant worker and a counter man at a post office in a hardware store.
Baton Rouge “has a full nelson on my imagination,” says Parrish, explaining why he writes about his hometown. “Every time I go back there, something about the melange of trouble and fun and conservatism and hedonism and creativity and lethargy inspires me to try and capture it.”