Southern charm do’s and don’ts never sat well with Joan Brooks Baker.
The author and photographer felt there was more to life than following a Southern code that favored men and encouraged women to be seen and not heard. She reminisces on the nontraditional path she chose to discover who she truly is in her memoir, “The Magnolia Code.”
The book was named a 2020 Distinguished Favorite by the Independent Press Award in memoir, and was named a 2020 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards finalist for autobiography/memoir.
“Every culture has a code, but it’s all if you follow these rules you will be happy, and I thought, ‘I don’t think so’,” Baker said. “It was all about the man comes first, the boys come first, I think I felt that when I really look back on it, that I was being sort of brainwashed into thinking that I had to be invisible as a girl and in some ways I think that is still true. And so, this is how you behave and it’s the women behind the man and he’s going to make it.”
Baker talks about her Aunt Billie, who was a big influence in her life and encouraged her feisty and curious spirit. Billie was Baker’s mother’s adopted sister who was considered wild and not a “correct Southern Belle.”
“She once said to me ‘might as well be yourself, everyone else is taken,’ ” Baker said of her aunt. “She said ‘That’s an Oscar Wilde quote, and I mess it up every time, but you have to live that way and you have to choose and you have to put up with the consequences.’ ”
Baker’s parents moved from the South to New York City at the end of the Great Depression and did not allow their children to embrace a Yankee conduct code.
“They loved New York City, but they also brought with them this little unwritten code of behavior and correctness, and always wanted their three children to follow it,” Baker said. “I didn’t like that code and thought, I’m not interested. It was all about appearances and correct behavior and be a lady and be gracious, which I love the South’s sort of graciousness, but there was a lot about that kind of behavior that didn’t fit with my personality”
Baker also fell in love with New York City and became fascinated with the people there. She captured many in photographs. Baker was introduced to photography at a young age after being taught how to make a pinhole camera out of a shoebox in the third grade.
“A therapist once said this to me years ago, she said ‘I think you are making sense of your life by photographing and you are putting things into order’ and I always thought about that and I think it’s true,” Baker said.
Baker later experimented more with photography while at boarding school and discovered her love of photographing people.
“I’ve done a lot of photography about women,” she said. “I loved being in exotic places and I guess I love staring at people. I know my mother always used to tell me ‘stop staring’ and I couldn’t stop. I was so fascinated and there’s a connection and I felt that connection in photography.”
In the memoir, Baker tells her story through the voice of a young “Joanie” that she calls Cactus Pete.
“Cactus Pete was my spirit,” Baker said. “The spirit that I think I came into this world in and it allowed me to be feisty and be a non-follower. Try to find myself. Try to find out where I belong. You know, I certainly was confused a lot, but I think that my underlying feeling was I need to try to understand who I am.”
That spirit drew her to the Southwest. Baker fell in love with Santa Fe and moved there in 1982. But she could not let go of her beloved New York City and now splits her time between the two cities.