Forged by fire

After two decades away, author Tim Parrish continues to unearth memories of his family’s working class north Baton Rouge neighborhood.

The 55-year-old Parrish has taught creative writing at Southern Connecticut State University for 20 years, but has published a novel, a memoir and a short story collection all set in his hometown.

“It (Baton Rouge) offers every universal topic I could confront,” Parrish said. “It’s also a really vivid setting. Things played out large there, and things were on fire — my daddy worked at a plant that exploded. ... There is so much going on there.”

Populated by blue collar men and women living in the shadow of an oil refinery’s spires, Parrish’s stories depict Southerners living through floods, racism and the eye-stinging “bauxite burn-off” filling the air.

His short story collection, “Red Stick Men,” came out in 2001. Last year Texas Review Press published Parrish’s novel “The Jumper” about a young man summoned from Texas to Baton Rouge to meet his father. It won the George Garrett Fiction Prize.

In September the University Press of Mississippi published his memoir, “Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist,” about growing up in a Southern Baptist family during the racial turbulence of the 1960s and ’70s.

“The setting of north Baton Rouge is what developed him into a writer,” said Judy Kahn, a retired LSU English instructor who taught one of Parrish’s short stories, “After the River,” in a fiction class.

“His heart was all about writing about this life he had growing up,” she said.

In his memoir, Parrish describes lying awake in his bunk bed and watching the night sky brightened by a refinery complex.

“As a kid … I’d watched the flare stacks spit flame, the fat burn-off clouds pulsing salmon on the horizon,” he wrote. “Very young I’d turned the fires symbolic. By age seven, the flames conjured the approaching apocalypse and holy war… .”

A graduate of Istrouma High School and LSU, Parrish taught at LSU and Scotlandville Magnet High School in the 1980s. He had written a few short stories when he won a writing contest administered by writer Elizabeth Nell Dubus, who became a mentor to him.

“I admire a lot of things about Tim Parrish, and one of them is the particular kind of honesty as a writer that he has,” said Dubus, who is known for writing the novel “Cajun.”

“There is an eager openness to what life brings in him,” she said. “If it’s tough, horrible things he has to deal with, he meets them with honesty and courage.”

Committing to the writer’s life, Parrish entered a creative writing program at the University of Alabama and graduated with a master of fine arts degree in 1991. In 1994 he joined the faculty at Southern Connecticut State University and helped found the creative writing graduate program there.

For most of his adult life, Parrish had been working on his memoir in one form or another. Earlier attempts to tell the stories in fiction or essays foundered. Leaving Louisiana gave Parrish “a kind of freedom to allow this city in your head flourish,” he said.

In “Fear and What Follows,” Parrish tells how his childhood destabilizes when his older brother leaves to fight in Vietnam, his mother battles an illness and a bully torments him.

Rage and fear infest him. He takes up with a charismatic, racist teen bully, who offers a sort of protection.

After a riotous racial fight at Istrouma High in the fall of 1974, Parrish follows his new friend, whom he calls Dyer in the book, to terrorize black children near their neighborhood.

Clutching a chain, Parrish writes, he chases down a boy he thinks is about 12 years old and stares him in the eyes, preparing to hit him before Dyer stops him.

“To me that was one of the most brutal moments of my life,” Parrish said. “It’s an intense moment to confront every time I read it, and it’s also an intense moment to put out in front of other people. That kind of shame for me will never go away. I don’t believe I would have ever hit the kid, but it’s not so much about that. It’s about that I lost myself so much that I would even entertain doing something like that.”

By the end of high school, Parrish grounds himself with the help of good friends and an influential English teacher.

Parrish still returns to Baton Rouge regularly to visit and help care for his father. His mother died in 1989 from a drug reaction after suffering from lupus for years.

He has spent much of his life, he said, fighting the racism and rage that bubbled to the surface in those teenage years.

Writing the memoir was incredibly difficult. While he writes daily and teaches writing regularly, he does not plan to publish another memoir.

“I felt compelled to do it,” he said. “I would never want to do it again. It was really a kind of horrific experience.”

Creating these early works, while difficult, may have been something Parrish had to go through, Kahn said.

“I think he had to work through his background,” Kahn said. “I think his future work will be even more brilliant and complex.”