Reading Women Challenge

I am hereby officially joining the “Reading Women Challenge” I found on the Reading Women Podcast site.  Click here to see the original post and the challenge list.

This is what the challenge entails:

It officially begins January 1st, 2019 and ends December 31st, 2019.

Here’s the rundown: complete as many challenges as you can from the list below. If you have one book that covers two categories, feel free to count it for both. It’s not a contest. Our goal is to encourage you to read widely (and fight the patriarchy, but that was probably a given), so just have fun with it! To help cheer you on, we’ll be hosting mini giveaways along the way.

(You’ll have to go here to access the challenge list.)

Be sure to share your progress, use the hashtag #ReadingWomenChallenge.

 

Dickens plus Austen = Gaskell?

elizabeth-gaskellI had never read Elizabeth Gaskell’s work before.  After reading her 1855 novel North and South, I have decided that this 19th century English writer is a cross between Jane Austen (especially Pride and Prejudice) and Charles Dickens (especially Hard Times) because of her combination of social critique, romance, and light satire.

Like Dickens, Gaskell is concerned in her novel with portraying the harsh effects of the industrial revolution on so many people.   Margaret Hale, a young woman in her late teens, is the daughter of a clergyman.  She is not as beautiful as her cousin Edith but people admire her because of her dignity and intelligence.    She grew up in the South of England partly in the  beautiful village of Helstone and partly in London.  At the beginning of the novel, Margaret discovers that she has to leave her beloved Helstone parsonage and move north to Milton, an industrial city (based on Manchester).  Her father is moving the family because he has some dissenting views from the Church of England and no longer feels he can remain a clergyman in good conscience.  (If Gaskell explained what these dissenting views were, I missed it.  Why keep them a secret?)

Margaret and her mother nearly have a nervous breakdown because of the move.  One would think nothing worse had ever befallen a soul than having to move homes to a new town. Margaret finds Milton lamentable at first.  A large, bustling, dirty industrial town with bad air, it has none of the charms of her beloved Helstone or the sophistication of London.  It also lacks the “right” type of people—gentlemen and their families.  Instead, it is full of industrialists and people who are in trade.  Margaret looks down her nose at all such people.

She begins to soften her stance towards Milton when she makes some new friends—some people who work in the mills.  However, by getting to know the “hands,” as they are called, she learns how deplorable the conditions are for them.  She learns that one young woman is dying at age 18 because of breathing in so much cotton.  She also learns how hard it is for the “hands” to make ends meet with the money they make and she sympathizes with them when they go on strike.  It is Gaskell’s sympathetic portrayal of the “hands” and her critical view of industrialism that reminds me most of Dickens.  (Apparently, Dickens was her editor, so this resemblance is perhaps not surprising.)

North and South reminds me more of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice when it comes to her characters and her wit.  Margaret meets mill owner (and self-made man) John Thornton when she first comes to Milton.  He is attracted to her, but she looks down on him for not being a gentleman. (She has both the pride AND the prejudice.) Later, she disapproves of him because of the way he treats his workers.  The two characters remain sparring partners for most of the novel.  Gradually, though, we see both of them changing and growing (for the better) into more mature and complex selves.   Creating strong central characters who change in a realistic way throughout the narrative is one of Gaskell’s strengths.  I also enjoyed the way she gently but realistically created characters with glaring weaknesses: her mother is self-pitying, her father is weak, and Mrs. Thornton is, frankly, a witch.   The novel is not a comedy, but some of the scenes with these flawed characters interacting together were quite amusing.

Although I admired Gaskell’s critique of industrialism and her creation of characters, I did not enjoy the book as much as I had hoped I would.  This was partly, I think, because of her long-winded writing style.  She could have cut out a couple of hundred pages with no harm to the story.  I also wondered why certain aspects of the novel were included.  Why the story of the brother in exile?  Why the proposal from Mr. Lennox?  The worst part, though, was the last half or so of the novel, in which people were dropping dead like flies.  I found that such melodrama ruined the impact of the story.

I neither loved nor hated the novel.  I thought it was OK.  I know that a lot of people love it, though, so if it sounds like your cup of tea, I encourage you to go for it.

 

This is my post for “19th century classic” in the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate

Lou Andreas-Salome

louandreassalome

Put Out My Eyes

Put out my eyes, and I can see you still,
Slam my ears too, and I can hear you yet;
And without any feet can go to you;
And tongueless, I can conjure you at will.
Break off my arms, I shall take hold of you
And grasp you with my heart as with a hand;
Arrest my heart, my brain will beat as true;
And if you set this brain of mine afire,
Then on my blood-stream I yet will carry you.

Rainer Maria Rilke
Translation from German: Babette Deutsch (1895-1982)

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote this poem for Lou Andreas-Salome, with whom he was deliriously in love.   I discovered the poem in Rachel Corbett’s recent book You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin.  Corbett’s book explores the relationship between Rilke (a poet) and Rodin (a sculptor).  Corbett focuses on how Rodin’s artistic example helped to shape Rilke’s own growth as a poet.  While the main thrust of her work is on the Rodin-Rilke friendship, Corbett also brings to light many of the other important influences on Rilke, one of whom was Lou Andreas-Salome.

Before reading Corbett, I had never heard of Andreas-Salome, who lived from 1867 – 1937.  (She was born in Russia of German parents.) Her role in You Must Change Your Life is minor, but I am devoting this post to her because I find her fascinating, and I think she deserves to be more famous than she is today.  (In her own time, she was well known in intellectual European circles.)

A prolific writer, Andreas-Salome penned more than a dozen novels.  She was also a philosopher, critic, and one of the first women psychoanalysts.  She published several critical works as well, including major studies on Ibsen, Nietzsche and Rilke.

Andreas-Salome also known for her personal life as a femme fatale and a “serial muse” who captivated and intellectually guided a number of famous men.   Corbett observes that

Andreas-Salome’s main gift was her acutely analytical mind.  She had an uncanny ability to comprehend abstruse ideas from the era’s most formidable thinkers, often illuminating aspects of their own arguments that they had not even conceived.  She was a kind of intellectual therapist: listening, describing, analyzing and repeating back their ideas in order to illuminate the places where shadows fell in their logic. (26)

Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the men she inspired.  He referred to her as “by far the smartest person I ever knew” and proposed marriage to her twice.  (She declined.) Later, she became a close friend to Sigmund Freud and studied psychoanalysis with him.  She became a pioneer in the psychoanalysis of women’s sexuality.  Freud and Salome exchanged ideas about psychoanalysis in over two decades’ worth of letters.  These letters are published and are available on Amazon here.

A free-thinker, Andreas-Salome made her own rules about how she should live. Her life was remarkably, even scandalously, liberated for a woman of her time.   She was married for over 40 years to Carl Andreas, but with the understanding that there would be no sex and no children.  Further, both people were free to take other lovers.  (It was rumored that Carl Andreas had threatened to kill himself if Lou did not marry him.)

One of her deepest relationships was with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who was 14 years her junior.  Rilke regarded her as not only a lover, but as a muse.  Corbett explains that

Andreas-Salome did not return Rilke’s unhinged adoration, but she began to genuinely appreciate his talent and believed that the qualities she disliked in him could be fixed with a little grooming.  She began to mold the poet into a version of himself that she found more attractive.  . .  The poet hungered to become her creation.  More than his first great lover, Andreas-Salome was his confidante, his mentor, his muse, even a kind of mother—if not to the young man, then at least to the artist maturing inside him.  “I am still soft, I can be like wax in your hands. Take me, give me a form, finish me,” he wrote in an autobiographical story when he met her” (28).

It is hard (probably impossible) to speculate on how different Nietzsche’s, Rilke’s, and Freud’s works would have been without the intellectual influence of Salome.  I find it sad that few people today have heard of her, while these three men are household names.

Corbett, Rachel.  You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin.  New York: Norton, 2016.

 

 

Richard III: Dastardly Devil or Propaganda Victim?

Josephine Tey, Daughter of Time, published 1951.  Mystery novel.

Josephine_Tey_april_1934_6

Josephine Tey was one of the pen names of Elizabeth MacKintosh.

 

“Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.”  -Francis Bacon

I first learned of England’s King Richard III when I studied Shakespeare in college.  In Shakespeare’s play Richard III, readers learn that Richard, who ruled England from 1483-1485 was a nasty piece of work who reveled in villainy:  “And thus I cloth my naked villainy / With odd old ends stol’n out of holy writ; / And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”

Shakespeare emphasizes the physical deformity of the hunch-backed Richard, suggesting that his moral deformity is a natural result of his abnormally curved spine:  “And therefore, — since I cannot prove a lover, / To entertain these fair well-spoken days, – / I am determined to prove a villain, / And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”   Since nobody could love a cripple such as himself, Richard mused that he might as well rejoice in evil deeds.

Richard III, I learned, deserved such opprobrium because he had ordered the murder of his two nephews, Edward and Richard, who were aged 12 and 9 at the time.  Twelve-year-old Edward was supposed to be protected by Richard until he was crowned as the King of England.  Instead, Richard declared himself as king and the two boys—Edward and Richard—disappeared forever.  It was believed by many that Richard had ordered the murder of the Princes in the Tower in order to assure his own reign.

Such dastardly deeds surely could not go unchecked, and Richard III did not reign for long.  There were two rebellions against him.  The second one, led by Henry Tudor, resulted in the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.  After his death, Henry Tudor became King Henry VII.   Richard III’s reputation as evil incarnate became as firmly entrenched as the Tudor dynasty.

Josephine Tey, however, who lived from 1896-1952 was suspicious of the prevailing belief that Richard was the murderer of the princes.  In her detective novel Daughter of Time, she set out to prove that Richard was innocent of the murder of his two nephews.

Daughter of Time is a fascinating hybrid; it is a detective novel but also a work of historical inquiry.  The main character of the novel is detective Alan Grant.  Grant is stuck in a hospital bed for an extended period of time, and he is bored out of his mind.  His friend Marta suggests that he might pass the time by investigating a historical mystery.  She brings him portraits of historical figures, knowing that he enjoys studying faces.  When she shows him a portrait of Richard III, Grant becomes intrigued.  He does not believe this to be the face of a person who could have murdered his nephews.

Grant then begins to investigate the historical record, trying to figure out how it was determined that Richard was the murderer.  Using the investigative skills that made him successful as a detective, Grant starts with easily available historical books and moves on to records found in the British Museum (thanks to his assistant Brent Carradine.)  The readers learn, along with Grant, how flimsy the evidence for Richard’s villainy actually is.  Instead, Grant believes, the evidence points much more strongly to Henry VII as the real murderer of the princes and the truly villainous king.  Tey makes a convincing case that the Tudors deliberately set out a vicious campaign of propaganda to smear Richard III’s reputation in order to solidify the Tudor dynasty.

I am not a historian and I am not equipped to make an informed verdict on what happened to the missing princes in the tower.  I did, however, find Tey’s novel fascinating for its investigation of how history is made.  She suggests that once a propaganda campaign succeeds in creating a historical “fact,” the “fact” is repeated throughout the generations with few people questioning its veracity.  Hundreds of years after the historical events occurred, it becomes extremely difficult to figure out what actually happened.

Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time, however, succeeded in undermining the established “truth” that Richard III was a villainous murderer of children.  According to this article in the New Yorker, Tey’s mystery novel “sparked mass interest in Richard’s redemption.”  Recently, in fact, Richard’s bones have been discovered and he has been given a proper burial (one he did not receive in his day.)  Click here for more information.

I highly recommend Daughter of Time to readers interested in English history and in how history is made.

If you have read the book or know more about Richard III, I’d love to hear your perspective.

This blog post is my Pre-1500 entry for the When Are You Reading Challenge?  

Tipping My Hat to Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters. Photograph: Murdo Macleod Murdo Macleod/Murdo Macleod
Sarah Waters. Photograph: Murdo Macleod Murdo Macleod/Murdo Macleod

Sometimes I go through periods when I can’t find anything to read in my leisure time that is really captivating. That happened to me a few weeks ago.  Nothing seemed to “click.”  Desperate for something to grab my attention, I even turned to a best-selling thriller with no literary merit whatsoever. This thriller was appalling in its lazy, clichéd writing style and the way it wallowed in violence against women, seemingly because it sells books.  I regret reading it, but that’s what literary desperation will do to you.

Then Sarah Waters came in to my life and I was saved!  Waters is a Welsh writer well-known for her novels set in Victorian England and featuring lesbian protagonist, such as Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet.  I had never read her before, but after reading The Paying Guests and The Night Watch, I plan to read all of her works.

Paying Guests

The Paying Guests is about a young woman named Frances who lives in genteel poverty with her mother in post-World War I London.  I often associate the 1920s with a frenzied atmosphere of parties and pleasure-seeking—the so-called “Jazz Age.”  However, the tone is quite different in Waters’ novel, with its focus on reduced circumstances and austerity.  Frances has lost her brothers and her father in the war (the father due to illness), and with the death of her debt-ridden father, the family’s economically comfortable lifestyle was gone forever.

In order to help pay the bills, Frances and her mother take in two boarders the “Paying Guests” of the title. Len and Lily Barber are a young married couple trying to create lives independent from their families.  Frances becomes fascinated with this couple and her relationship with them changes her life forever.

I don’t want to give too much away in this post.  Part of the pleasure for me in reading this novel came from watching unexpected relationships develop.  I’ll just say that there is love, sex, secrets, and violence—the novel is certainly not lacking in plot developments.

What I most enjoy about Waters, though, are two things: her portrayal of complex characters with nuanced psychological observations, and her minute attention to period detail.  In particular, I admire Waters’ subtle portrayals of the way characters negotiate class and gender expectations and boundaries. Waters is an academic by training who does extensive historical research before writing her novels, and it shows.   I truly felt like I was in that house with Frances, desperately trying to make it—and herself–look clean and respectable with almost no money.  I also think Waters is superb at showing the after-effects of World War I on individual characters and on London as a whole.  Her characters are exhausted, but because of the seismic shocks that shattered English society, they also have the opportunity to reinvent themselves in ways they could not do before.

Night Watch

The second novel by Sarah Waters that I read is called The Night Watch.  This was written earlier than The Paying Guests, and was also about the effects of war on English society.  This war, however, is World War II.  The Night Watch focuses on the stories of four main characters– Kay, Helen, Viv, and Duncan—during and after World War II.  The complex characters and minute attention to period detail that I enjoyed so much in The Paying Guests are in this novel as well.  We learn about the love affairs of these characters (three of whom are gay) as well as their attempts to find meaning and identity while their city is being destroyed by war.

The structure of The Night Watch is unusual.  It is set in three different periods:  1947, 1944, and 1941.  Rather than starting with 1941 and moving forward, Waters starts the novel in 1947 and moves backward.  Readers are introduced to the main characters after the war is over.  We do not yet know their stories, but we know that they are emotionally wounded, living lives that are pale imitations of what they had once hoped for.  As the novel progresses, we learn more about the characters’ back stories and what brought them to their sad present circumstances.

I appreciate what Waters is trying to do with this backward technique.  However, because of it, I was not quite as engaged with the characters as I had been with The Paying Guests.  The combination of several different characters with the lack of “grounding” made it harder to connect with them.  Some reviewers have noted that a second reading of the The Night Watch is required to really appreciate the power of this work.  That makes sense to me, and I will probably do that.

Overall, I recommend Sarah Waters to anyone who is interested in finely drawn characters (many of whom are marginalized because of their sexuality), richly imagined period detail, and honest portrayals of erotic attraction.

(This post is my European entry in my Around the World Reading Challenge.)

 

In Praise of Fallen Women

Engraving of Eliza Wharton by James Eddy, completed for the eleventh edition of The Coquette
Engraving of Eliza Wharton by James Eddy, completed for the eleventh edition of The Coquette

If not for Fallen Women (aka strumpets, hussies, jezebels, floozies, trollops, and vixens), there would be no novels.  Female characters who have sex outside of marriage (often just once) and who then suffer grievously have excited the imaginations of our classic novelists more than any other subject.

A few examples off the top of my head include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, George Eliot’s Adam Bede, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.  These novels were all written in the 19th century.

As the 20th progressed, fallen women no longer had to die.  Complete ostracism from polite society was deemed sufficient, as we see with Caddy in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Ellen Olenska of The Age of Innocence.   (In the case of Ellen Olenska, she was Fallen because of her divorce rather than sexual indiscretions.)

It all started with Clarissa, Samuel Richardson’s 1748 novel.  Clarissa was one of the first novels written in English, and one of the longest.  (I read the abridged version, which was around 800 pages or so.)  The plot revolves around the Lovelace, a dyed in the wool Cad, who lusts after Clarissa.  He spends several hundred pages trying to seduce Clarissa, who succeeds in resisting his advances.  Ever more desperate, he finally drugs her and rapes her.  Clarissa, who is now a Fallen Woman, spends several hundred more pages dying of anguish.

Seeing how successful Richardon’s novel was, many other 18th century writers in both England and the United States followed suit.  One of the most successful American novels of the 18th century was The Coquette or, The History of Eliza Wharton by Hannah Webster Foster.  Published anonymously in 1797, The Coquette was a fictionalized version of the real-life story of Elizabeth Whitman.

Coquette

Elizabeth Whitman was the daughter of a highly respected family with illustrious backgrounds.  She was known and respected for her wit, her intelligence and her charm.  Yet she died in a tavern, seduced and abandoned.  How could such a thing happen?  Foster tries to explain Eliza’s fall in her novel.

In The Coquette, Eliza was proposed to by an upstanding young clergyman.  She was not especially attracted to him, but she realized he was a good catch.  She vacillated about her answer.  In the meantime, she was pursued by a Bad Man who just wanted to seduce her for the fun of it.  Bad Man had no intention of marrying her, because he needed to marry for money.  Eliza knows at heart that she would not be a good fit as a clergyman’s wife because of her gay personality and love of fun.  She also knows that Bad Man has a bad reputation, but is attracted to him anyway.

As you might expect, things do not end well for Eliza, who ends up seduced, pregnant, abandoned, dead, and eaten by cats.  (The eaten by cats part was not technically mentioned in the book.)

The story of the real-life Elizabeth Whitman was fodder for countless finger-wagging sermons.    As one contemporary newspaper account intoned, Whitman “refused two as good offers of marriage as she deserved because she aspired higher than to be a clergyman’s wife; and having coquetted till past her prime, fell into criminal indulgences.”

Hannah Webster Foster’s novel paints a more nuanced picture.  As a reader, I was sympathetic to Eliza’s desire to marry someone she was attracted to, not just someone who was “good on paper.”  After all, her clergyman suitor was clearly interested in Eliza primarily because he found  her “hot.” I was also sympathetic to Eliza’s desire to enjoy her single state for a while and “date” more than one man.  (In the context of late 18th century America, “date” meant “talk to at balls or other public events.”).

Foster portrays Eliza as making some really dumb decisions.  But she also highlights how limited the choices were for young women of the time.  She also emphasized how narrow the path was for women who did not want to lose their reputations.

Alas, like so many other literary heroines afterwards, Eliza fell off her pedestal and into the gutter—swiftly and irrevocably.   She, like all the others, became fodder not just for cats but for all the voracious sermonizers who delighted in her ruin.

(This post is a continuation of my series on early American writers, in honor of Thanksgiving and my upcoming trip to Boston.)

Anne Bradstreet: Badass Puritan Poet

Anne Bradstreet
Anne Bradstreet

Because Thanksgiving season is upon us and because I will soon be travelling to Boston, I am continuing my series highlighting early American writers.  Yesterday, I wrote about the literary duel between Thomas Morton (the bad boy of early New England settlers) and William Bradford, the long-time governor of Plymouth Bay Colony.

Today, I am focusing upon the first English-speaking poet published in America:  Anne Bradstreet.  As you might guess from her name, she was a woman.  She was also a devout Puritan who married at age 16 and raised eight children in the howling wilderness of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Managing to become the first published poet of North American while being a female Puritan makes Anne Bradstreet distinctly Badass, in my humble opinion.  Bradstreet lived from 1612-1672, and she published her collection of poetry called The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America in 1650.

let us now praise badass women

During this time period, women—to put it mildly—were considered inferior to men and were expected to conform to female duties of running a household and raising children.  They were not expected to become published poets.

To give a example of the cultural attitudes that the prevailed, one historical document suggested to women readers that they should “derive their ideas of God from the contemplations of her husband’s excellencies.”

[Excuse me while I gag.]

So it was against strong odds that Bradstreet managed to publish a book of poetry.  It helped that her brother-in-law was a strong advocate of her work; he took a copy of her work to London to get it published.

The preface her brother-in-law wrote to the book explains much about the attitudes of the time:

.. .the worst effect of his [the reader’s] reading will be unbelief, which will make him question whether it be a woman’s work, and ask, is it possible?  If any do, take this as an answer from him that dares avow it; it is the work of a woman, honored, and esteemed where she lives, for her gracious demeanor, her eminent parts, her pious conversation, her courteous disposition, her exact diligence in her place, and discreet managing of her family occasions, and more than so, these poems are the fruit but of some few hours, curtailed from her sleep and other refreshments(my emphasis)

In other words, it is hard to believe that a woman could write poetry.  It is also rather disgraceful.  But, since the woman still managed to be well-behaved and did her domestic duties, I guess we can allow it.

Bradstreet tended to write about issues dear to many women’s hearts:  her husband, her children, her home, and her struggle to reconcile her faith with her more worldly desires.  People today who read her work out of context probably find it conventional and unremarkable.  (I know that was my first reaction to it.)

However, given her time period and her context as a Puritan settler in North America, her choice of subject matter was actually quite rebellious.  The Puritans in America were generally quite literate and promoted reading and writing—up to a point.  The only subject matter they really approved of was religious subject matter.  If a person was going to write poetry, they should be sure to write poetry in praise of God.  There was no other point in writing.

Bradstreet was a religious woman and she did often write about God.  But she also wrote about private, domestic matters.  For many of her fellow Puritans, such topics were considered frivolous or inappropriate. But that did not stop Anne Bradstreet.

In one of her poems, for example, “Before the Birth of One of Her Children,” she wrote a poetic letter to husband.  In this poem, she expressed her fears that she might die in childbirth (a realistic fear at the time) and hoped that her husband would remember her lovingly.  She also hoped that he would raise their children well, and not let any wicked stepmother abuse them:

“And when they loss shall be repaid with gains,

Look to my little babes, my dear remains.

And if thou love thy self, or loved’st me,

These O protect from step-dame’s injury”

Other topics of her poetry include love poems to her husband, poems in memory of a deceased young grandchild, and even a poem lamenting the loss of her house to fire.  She often wrote about her faith, but when she did so, she highlighted the very real struggles she often faced in trying to understand why thing happened the way they did.

Despite the centuries that separate contemporary readers from the 1600s, I think most women can relate to at least some of Bradstreet’s poems.  Reading her poetry helps me to understand early Puritans as full-blooded human beings, rather than just one-sided symbols of early America.

National Blog Posting Month
National Blog Posting Month

How to be Black in America: “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ifemelu, the main character in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah, writes a blog about race in America.   Ifemelu, like Adichie, is Nigerian.  When she was growing up in Nigeria, she never thought much about race—because she never had to. When she came to the United States for her college education, however, that changed.  As a black person in a majority white country, she is forced to think about the color of her skin because it shapes the way others define her.

While in the U.S., Ifemelu learns not only about the racial tensions between American whites and blacks, but also about the tensions between American blacks and Africans.  She observes that the experiences of African-Americans differ markedly from the experiences of African-Americans (newly arrived immigrants from Africa.)  The way blackness plays out in the U.S.  intrigues Ifemelu so much that she starts to write a blog about it, a blog that becomes wildly successful.

Many of her sharp, insightful blog posts are reproduced in the novel and serve as a commentary on what Ifemelu and the people in her lives are experiencing.  For example, in this post, Ifemelu advises her readers (tongue-in-cheek) on the proper tone to adopt when discussing racial injustices:

I”f you’re telling a non-black person about something racist that happened to you make sure you are not bitter.  Don’t complain.  Be forgiving.  If possible, make it funny.  Most of all, do not be angry.  Black people are not supposed to be angry about racism.  Otherwise, you get no sympathy.  This applies only for white liberals, by the way.  Don’t even bother telling a white conservative about anything racist that happened to you.  Because the conservative will tell you that YOU are the real racist and your mouth will hang open in confusion.” (223)

This post is most obviously a commentary on the experiences faced by black characters in Americanah.  Black people in America are not allowed to be angry about racism because it makes white people uncomfortable.   The stance of this blog post also, however, echoes the tone Adichie adopts in Americanah.   Both Adichie’s and Ifemelu’s tone when it comes to race is sharp, sometimes even withering.  At the same time, though, it is funny (at times) and warm enough not to veer too far into the tone angry bitterness that scares away so many white people.    Adopting the right tone so that a black author can reach a large audience of white people in order to chastise them about their racism is no easy feat.  Adichie, I believes, succeeds at this difficult maneuver.

I say this, in case it is not obvious, as a white reader.  I am, in fact, one of those white liberal readers who is the target of many of Adichie’s most satirical jabs.  For example, Adichie’s white employer Kimberly tries so hard to be non-racist that when she is around Ifemelu, she coos over photos of ordinary-looking black women:

“Kimberly said, “Oh, look at this beautiful woman,” and pointed at a plain model in a magazine whose only distinguishing feature was her very dark skin.  “Isn’t she just stunning?”

“No, she isn’t.”  Ifemelu paused.  “You know, you can just say ‘black.’ Not every black person is beautiful.”

Kimberly was taken aback, something wordless spread on her face and then she smiled, and Ifemelu would think of it as the moment they became, truly, friends.” (149)

Scenes like this, describing well-meaning yet ignorant displays of the racial divide in this country, make me question myself.  Am I as silly and short-sighted as these white characters when it comes to race?  If so, what can I do to be different, to take a small step towards improving the sad state of racial relations in this country?

Adichie does not provide any simple answers to this question, nor should she be expected to do so.  She does, however, give this piece of advice:

“So after this listing of don’ts what’s the do?  I’m not sure.  Try listening, maybe.  Hear what is being said.  And remember that it’s not about you.  American Blacks are not telling you that you are to blame.  They are just telling you what is.  If you don’t understand, ask questions.  If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway.  It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place.  Then listen some more.  Sometimes people just want to feel heard.  Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding. ”  (328)

This advice to “listen” seems so commonsensical, it is sad to think it has to be said.  Yet I think it does.  Maybe if we would also listen (or read) more and argue (defensively) less, we could make some progress.  Here’s to possibilities of listening—and friendship and connection and understanding.

—-

This post is part of the Africa Reading Challenge hosted by Kinna Reads.

Pear Trees Are Obscene! Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

I'm a sexy beast.
I’m a sexy beast. Click here for source of photo.

 This post contributes to the Banned Books Blog Party hosted by hannah at her blog Things Matter.  Click here for more about her blog and the banned books blog party.

Pear trees in bloom should be banned.  They are just too sexy, too alluring.  They are, in fact, positively obscene.

This is the message I took away from learning recently that Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston is on the list for Banned and Challenged Books.   You may be aware that September 21-27 is Banned Books Week.  Sponsored by the American Library Association, Banned Books Week

“is an annual  event celebrating the freedom to read. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community –- librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types –- in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.”    http://www.ala.org/bbooks/bannedbooksweek

One of the Banned and Challenged Books listed by the ALA is their Their Eyes Were Watching God, a gorgeous novel written in 1937 by African-American anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston.  Their Eyes chronicles the story of a girl named Janie Crawford who, throughout the course of the novel, matures from a restless girl of 16 into a mature woman in her early forties.  Hurston focuses in particular on Janie’s search to find love, community, and a voice of her own.

Zora Neale Hurston from Carl Van Vechten/Beinecke Library, Yale
Zora Neale Hurston from Carl Van Vechten/Beinecke Library, Yale

This quest is made difficult, however, by the fact that, as a poor, black, southern girl in the early years of the 20th century, with no family except her grandmother, Janie is at the bottom of the totem pole.  As she learns from her grandmother, “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see” (14).  Poor black women are used by others—including black men—to gratify their own desires.  Expecting, as Janie does, to forge her own destiny and find love on her own terms, is unrealistic and even dangerous.

That is why Janie’s grandmother marries her off at age 16 to an older man whom Janie finds repulsive.  Granny knows through experience what it is like to be treated as a “spit cup” by men and she does not want Janie to go through the same pain.  Janie’s marriage with Logan Killicks is not a successful one.  It serves as the springboard to her restless search for a better marriage, a better life, which she does find eventually.

So why is Their Eyes Were Watching God on list of banned and challenged books?  According to the ALA, in 1997 “a parent objected to the novel’s language and sexual explicitness.”

Sexual explicitness?  I have read this book many times (it is one of my favorites) and I cannot remember any sexually explicit scene.  Hurston’s language is poetic, full of metaphors and images, rather than any starkly realistic descriptions of sexuality.

I can only surmise, but I am guessing what bothered Concerned Parent is the central symbol of the novel:  the pear tree in bloom.  In the beginning of the story, Janie is a sixteen year old girl who is first beginning to feel the stirrings of her sexuality.  One lovely spring day, she is lying under a pear tree when she has a revelation:

“She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her.  She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight.  So this was a marriage!  She had been summoned to behold a revelation.  Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid. . . .

Oh to be a pear tree—any tree in bloom!  With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world! She was sixteen.  She had glossy leaves and bursting buds and she wanted to struggle with life but it seemed to elude her.  Where were the singing bees for her?”  (11)

http://www.balboapark.org/blogs/balboa-park-beat/pear-trees-bloom#.VCa3iPldVTQ

Click here for source of photo.

 

This vision of the pear tree helps her to really “get” what the “birds and the bees” are all about.  This glorious vision of “marriage” in nature fuels her quest for the rest of the novel.  She, too, wants to find a “bee for her blossom.”  She wants the natural ecstasy she observed in nature.

 https://www.threadless.com/product/684/Birds_The_Bees

Click here for photo source.

Apparently, for Concerned Parent, the pear tree is too explicit; it is like a saucy siren minx who lures on innocent youth to their demise.  Good point, Concerned Parent.  But why stop at banning Their Eyes Were Watching God?  We should ban all pear trees everywhere.  Pear trees have undoubtedly been the cause of many a ruined life.

But let’s not stop at just pear trees.  Let’s ban all trees.  Their spring-time hanky-panky sets a bad example for the Youth of America.  For that matter, let’s get rid of spring time altogether.  You know how adolescents get when they feel those soft May breezes stroking them into a frenzy of desire.  But, as long as we’re at it, let’s ban nature.  All those plants and animals reproducing constantly.  It’s obscene and I won’t put up with it any longer—nor should you.  Let’s act now to end nature and its obscene allure.

Please join me in signing the attached Petition to Abolish Nature in All Its Forms So That Our Children Will No Longer Be Sullied.

Bird sluts
Bird sluts

Click here for source of photo

Diversiverse Challenge
Diversiverse Challenge

 

 

 

 

This post is a response to Aarti’s #Diversiverse challenge.

For more information about her #Diversiverse challenge, click here.