“Tracks” by Louise Erdrich

This weekend here in Minnesota is snowy and bitterly cold, good weather to hunker down and continue to gorge on Louise Erdrich novels. I just finished reading Tracks (1988), a story of the decimation and dispossession of the Ojibwe (a.k.a Chippewa) Indians of Minnesota and North Dakota during the years 1912-1924.    This is how the novel begins:

“We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.  It was surprising there were so many of us left to die.  For those who survived the spotted sickness from the south, our long fight west to Nadouissioux land where we signed the treaty, and then a wind from the east, bringing exile in a storm of government papers, what descended from the north in 1912 seemed impossible.
By then, we thought disaster must surely have spent its force, that disease must have claimed all of the Anishinabe that the earth could hold and bury.
But the earth is limitless and so is luck and so were our people once.” (1)

This sense of unfathomable loss permeates Tracks, and yet it is not entirely bleak.  This novel is recounted by two alternating narrators, Nanapush and Pauline.  Pauline is an odd young woman, half mad, full of longing and resentments.  She gravitates towards a masochistic kind of religiosity and eventually becomes a nun, albeit one who is twisted and sometimes sadistic.

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Nanapush, a man of about fifty, is the only surviving member of his family.   He possesses a wealth of historical knowledge about the tribe that he is passing on orally to his granddaughter, Lulu.  We readers are positioned as eavesdroppers to his oral history.    He says to Lulu, “Although I had lived no more than fifty winters, I was considered an old man.  I’d seen enough to be one.  In the years I’d passed, I saw more change than in a hundred upon a hundred before.  My girl, I saw the passing of times you will never know.”

In the beginning of the novel, Nanapush finds a young woman named Fleur Pillager barely alive in her cabin, surrounded by five dead family members.  Fleur, like Nanapush, is also the last survivor of her family.  Nanapush takes Fleur home with him and becomes like a father to her.  They are both overwhelmed with the spirits of the dead who surround them.  The names [of their dead family members] “grew within us, swelled to the brink of our lips, forced our eyes open in the middle of the night.  We were filled with the water of the drowned, cold and black, airless water that lapped against the seal of our tongues or leaked slowly from the corners of our eyes.  Within us, like ice shards, their names bobbed and shifted.  Then the slivers of ice began to collect and cover us” (6).

Nanapush and Fleur almost succumbed to their grief by moving on to the next world; many people did.  Nanapush notes that “there were many of our people who died in this manner, of the invisible sickness.”  They do not die, though.   It might be too much to claim that Fleur, Nanapush, and Pauline flourish, but they do lead vigorous lives of passion, love, violence, vengeance and even laughter.   Erdrich writes in a lyrical style in which the line between realism and myth often blurs. Her prose is beautiful and her characters are magnificent.

This is the second time I have read Tracks.  The first time was long ago in a different century.  I remembered very little about the book except for the haunting power of Fleur Pillager.  All three main characters—Nanapush, Pauline, and Fleur—are compelling creations.  Fleur, however, is mesmerizing.  She is strong.  She is beautiful.  She is frightening.  Nanapush calls her “a woman gone wild, striking down whatever got into her path” (45).  Pauline claims she almost destroyed the town of Argus.

What I find interesting (from a craft perspective) is that this untamed woman does not have a voice in the novel.   Fleur has a huge impact on the people around her.  We read about her from Nanapush’s and Pauline’s perspective, but we never hear her own voice, her own story.

In this sense, Fleur reminds me a little bit of Caddy Compson from William Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury.  Caddy has three brothers who are all obsessed with her, but in different ways. Each brother narrates his own section of the novel in which Caddy plays a central role. We never hear Caddy’s story.

Writers, take note.  One might expect that not giving a character her own voice would dilute her power.  I am not sure if that is the case, though.  For me, at least, Fleur and Caddy both remain indelibly ingrained in my mind long after I was done reading.  Might they have had even more impact if they could have spoken for themselves?  It is hard to say, but my guess would be no.  Maybe observing other characters trying to hard (yet failing) to understand and “capture” these female characters is what makes them so compelling.

What do you think?  If you have read Tracks or Sound and the Fury, do you think Fleur and Caddy should have been allowed to speak for themselves?  Why or why not?  Can you think of other really compelling characters who were not given a voice?  Have you written any?

 

 

 

 

 

Humorist Marietta Holley on Man Logic

You would be hard-pressed to find an American who had never heard of Mark Twain, the famous 19th century writer and humorist.  It would be almost as difficult to find an American who had even heard of Marietta Holley, much less read her work.  And yet, in her lifetime (1836-1926), Holley was nearly as popular a literary humorist as Mark Twain was.

holley

She published twenty-four books between 1873 and 1914, many of them humor books written under the pseudonym “Samantha Allen” or “Josiah Allen’s Wife.”  In these works, Holley uses humor to advocate for women’s rights and temperance, the two issues about which she was most passionate.  A best-selling writer in her own time, she was forgotten after her death.

samantha woman question

Living as we do in a time period in which some people still openly claim women are not funny, or at least not as funny as men, I think it is important to keep the voices of past female humorists alive. (Click here and here for random examples of the women-aren’t-funny claim.)  Although we would all like to think the struggles women faced over a century ago are no longer relevant, unfortunately this is not the case.  The role of women in the Christian Church, for example, is still a hot-button issue, and Holley’s satire still rings true.  I will admit that her use of dialect is a little off-putting.  If you can get past the dialect, though, I think you’ll find her humor is still effective.

I am reproducing here an excerpt from Holley’s book Samantha Among the Brethren. In this excerpt from Samantha Among the Brethren, Samantha—a devout Christian—is frustrated with the way women are treated in her church.  In particular, Samantha grapples with trying to understand why women are not allowed to serve as delegates to a church conference.  Although Samantha does not understand the logic governing women’s status in the Church, her husband Josiah understands it perfectly because of his superior mind.   It has to do with how the words “laymen” and “men” are interpreted in official documents.   Women’s minds are too feeble to understand such fine legal distinctions, but Josiah happily tries to explain it to Samantha.

 

“Oh, yes,” sez Josiah in a reasonin’ tone, “the word laymen always means wimmen when it is used in a punishin’ and condemnatory sense, or in the case of work and so forth, but when it comes to settin’ up in high places, or drawin’ sallerys, or anything else difficult, it alweys means men.”

Sez I, in a very dry axent, “Then the word man, when it is used in church matters, always means wimmen, so fur as scrubbin’ is concerned, and drudging round?”

“Yes,” sez Josiah haughtily.  “And it always means men in the higher and more difficult matters of decidin’ questions, drawin’ sallerys, settin’ on Conferences, etc.  It has long been settled to be so,” sez he.

“Who settled it?” sez I.

“Why the men, of course,” sez he.  “The men have always made the rules of the churches, and translated the Bibles, and everything else that is difficult,” sez he.

Sez I, in fearful dry axents, almost husky ones, “It seems to take quite a knack to know jest when the word “laymen” means men and when it means wimmin.”

“That is so,” sez Josiah. “It takes a man’s mind to grapple with it; wimmen’s minds are too weak to tackle it.  It is jest as it is with that word “men” in the Declaration of Independence.  Now that word “men” in that Declaration, means men some of the  time, and some of the time men and wimmen both.  It means both sexes when it relates to punishment, taxin’ property, obeyin’ the laws strictly, etc. etc., and then it goes right on the very next minute and means men only, as to wit, namely, votin’, takin’ charge of public matters, makin’ laws, etc.

Josiah continued:  “I tell you it takes deep minds to follow on and see jest to a hair where the division is made.  It takes statesmanship.  Now take that claws, ‘All men are born free and equal. ‘ Now half of that means men and the other half men and wimmen.  Now to understand them words perfect you have got to divide the tex.  “Men are born.”  That means men and wimmen both—men and wimmen are both born, nobody can dispute that.  Then comes the next claws—‘Free and equal.’  Now that means men only; anybody with one eye can see that.”

“Then the claws, ‘True government consists,’” continued Josiah. “That means men and wimmen both—consists—of course the government consists of men and wimmen, ‘twould be a fool who would dispute that, “in the consent of the governed.’  That means men alone.  Do you see, Samantha?” sez he.

I kept my eye fixed on the tea kettle, fer I stood with my tea-pot in hand waiting for it to bile—“I see a great deal, Josiah Allen.”

Debra Goes Mild with Cheryl Strayed

"Wild"
“Wild”

In the past couple of weeks, I have read the memoir “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed and seen the movie version of it starring Reese Witherspoon.  My reaction to both the book and the movie was a constant oscillation between “Strayed is amazing!” and “Strayed is batshit crazy!”

Strayed’s memoir is about a period in her early twenties after her mother died suddenly of cancer at the age of 45.  Reeling with grief, Strayed’s life started to unravel with her self-destructive behavior.  She became promiscuous, used heroin, and divorced her kind and loving husband while on her downward spiral.

Cheryl Strayed
Cheryl Strayed

One day, Ms. Strayed, who had never done an overnight hiking trip in her life, decided it would be a good idea to hike 1000 or so miles of the Pacific Crest Trail by herself.  “Wild” is her account of both her downward spiral and the hiking trip that helped her recover from her grief.

“Wild” is not a hiking guide or a self-help book.  It is a memoir, a work of literature.  Strayed writes beautifully and honestly about the beauty of the landscape she traversed, but also, frequently about the physical pain she endured.  Her backpack, which she affectionately called “Monster,” was way, way too heavy for her.  Not only was it difficult to walk with such a burden on her back, but it left her seriously bruised and blistered.  Even worse were her feet.  I don’t know if this is common for long-distance hikers, but her feet were in constant agony and she lost six toenails by the end of the trip.

Nonetheless, her book was inspiring to me.  I have done a little bit of hiking I my life, but not a great deal.  And I certainly do not enjoy pain.  But what she wrote about the healing effects of strenuous outdoor activity makes sense to me:

“I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back.  And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it.  That I could bear the unbearable.  These realizations about my physical, material life couldn’t help but spill over into the emotional and spiritual realm.  That my complicated life could be made so simple was astounding.  It had begun to occur to me that perhaps it was okay that I hadn’t spent my days on the trail pondering the sorrows of my life, that perhaps by being forced to focus on my physical suffering some of my emotional suffering would fade away.  By the end of that second week, I realized that since I’d begun my hike, I hadn’t shed a single tear.” (92)

Strayed suggests that there is something about strenuous effort or—to be more blunt—physical pain in the wilderness that can make a person stronger, not just physically, but also emotionally.  Whereas heroin and sex were attempts to get outside of herself, Strayed realized on her hike that she need to stay inside herself in order to heal.

“But walking along a path I carved myself. . . was the opposite of using heroin. . . Uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something.  That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of what I’d lost or what had been taken from me, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me.  Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.”

So I am now inspired by Strayed to experience more of the strenuous outdoor life.  Yet, I still think hiking 1100 miles by oneself is crazy.  I’m not interested in doing anything like that.  However, I would like to get out into nature more often than I normally do.  So here is my compromise, my very Mild response to Strayed’s “Wild” adventure.

Strayed hiked a total of approximately 1100 miles.  My goal is to do 1100 miles this summer, by combining biking and hiking.  I pledge to hike a total of 100 miles and bike a total of 1000 miles this year.  I am no Cheryl Strayed, so these miles will be cumulative, not all at once.

I live in Minnesota, so I can’t really get outside until probably late April, when the snow melts and the temperatures are regularly above freezing.  Because of the generally crappy climate I live in, I henceforth declare the spinning classes can count toward my mileage.

I will update my blog periodically about my progress, so stay tuned!

 

Killing Them With “The Englishness”: “Nervous Conditions” by Tsitsi Dangarembga

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We have a tendency in the West to think of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa as a “first world problem.”  Surely such disorders are confined to upper-middle class young white women from American suburbs, right?

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, a 1988 novel from Zimbabwe, suggests otherwise.  This perceptive novel, set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, dramatizes the coming-of-age stories of two main characters.  One of them is Tambu, a girl who is determined to get an education in order to pull herself and her family out of poverty.  The other girl is Tambu’s cousin Nyasha, who spent several childhood years in England, where her parents completed their graduate degrees.

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At the beginning of their relationship, Tambu is in awe of Nyasha, who seems to have everything. She is pretty and smart.  Her parents, Babamukuru and Maiguru, are well-educated and relatively wealthy, at least compared to Tambu’s family.  Not only that, but their sojourn in England left them all with an aura of glamour and sophistication that Tambu finds intoxicating.  At the same time, Tambu also is somewhat disapproving of Nyasha because of her tendency to question everything, including the authority and benevolence of her father Babamukuru, whom everyone else adores.

Eventually, the two girls become close and the readers observe both of them as they grow up and learn more about the ways of the world.  Their relationship is complicated, though; Tambu and Nyasha do not always understand each other.  They do, though, learn about some harsh life lessons from each other’s experiences.  In particular, the girls struggle against two main forces:  the sexism of the men in their community, and the toxic effects of colonialism on their minds and bodies.

Tambu, for example, has to fight tooth and nail simply to get an elementary education because her family favors her brother and sends only him to school.  Nyasha, on the other hand, struggles against the sometimes violent authoritarianism of her father, who expects her to obey him unquestioningly.  She also resent his implication that she is on the road to becoming a “bad girl” in a sexual sense, even though she gives him no reason to doubt her.  Nyasha learns that simply having a female body is reason enough for men to think of her primarily as a sexual object.

Perhaps this is the reason—or, one of the reasons—Nyasha develops an eating disorder.  Dangarembga never explicitly states why Nyasha becomes anorexic, but she implies that it is the only way Nyasha knows how to rebel against her father and his expectations of what it means to be female. She does not want to be seen as primarily a sexualized body.  Nor does she want to become like her mother, who must be submissive to her husband’s will despite her own advanced education and professional job.  It is implied that by starving herself, Nyasha is attempting to remove all traces of her adult female body, and thus the fate of all the women she knows.

This explanation over-simplifies the themes of Nervous Conditions, however.  In addition to criticizing the effects of sexism in her community, Dangarembga is also illuminating the even more insidious effects of English colonialism on the minds of the Shona characters.  (In the late 1960s-early 1970s, Zimbabwe was still a British colony and was still called Rhodesia.)  The title Nervous Conditions was taken from Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, a famous work detailing some of the pernicious psychological effects of colonialism on the colonized.

Sartre wrote that “The status of “native” is a nervous condition introduced and maintained by the settler among colonized people with their consent.”  Sartre explains that colonized people carry huge rage against their oppressors.  However, they cannot express this rage against the colonizers unless they are willing to be killed or imprisoned for doing so.  Therefore, Sartre states that “if this suppressed fury fails to find at outlet, it turns in a vacuum and devastates the oppressed creatures themselves.”

This is what happens in the novel Nervous Conditions. Nyasha is not the sort of person to accept the status quo unthinkingly and without question.  The more she reads about the world and observes the people around her, the more enraged she becomes at the way people exploit each other.  The English exploit the Shona people while rewarding a few “good natives” such as Babamukuru.  In turn, the Babamukurus become mini-colonizers themselves, lording over the rest of his community like a god.  The whole system drives Nyasha mad, quite literally. Eventually, she starves herself nearly to death and then explodes in a fit of rage.

“Why do they do it, Tambu,” she hissed bitterly, her face contorting with rage, “to me and to you and to him?”  Do you see what they’ve done?  They’ve taken us away.  Lucia.  Takesure.  All of us.  They’ve deprived you of you, him or him, ourselves of each other.  We’re groveling.  Lucia for a job, Jeremiah for money.  Daddy grovels to them.  We grovel to him.”  She began to rock, her body quivering tensely.  “I won’t grovel.  Oh no, I won’t.  I’m not a good girl.  I’m evil.  I’m not a good girl.”  I touched her to comfort her and that was the trigger.  “I won’t grovel, I won’t die,” she raged and crouched like a cat ready to spring.”  .. . . Nyasha was beside herself with fury.  She rampaged, shredding her history book between her teeth (‘Their history.  Fucking liars.  Their bloody lies.’), breaking mirrors her clay pots, anything she could lay her hands on and jabbing the fragments viciously into her flesh, stripping the bedclothes, tearing her clothes from the wardrobe and trampling them underfoot.  “They’ve trapped us.  They’ve trapped us.  But I won’t be trapped.  I’m not a good girl.  I won’t be trapped.”  (200-201)

Finally, Nyasha’s family realizes how troubled she is and they take her to a clinic to get some help.   Whether or not she will be able to survive, much less thrive, is unclear by the end of the novel.

For her part, Tambu was baffled by Nyasha’s illness. She did not understand why someone like Nyasha, who seemingly had it all, to “suffer so extremely.”  Perhaps Tambu did not understand, but her mother did, very clearly.

‘It’s the Englishness,’ she said.  ‘It’ll kill them all if they aren’t careful,” and she snorted.  ‘Look at them.  That boy Chido can hardly speak a word of his own mother’s tongue, and you’ll see, his children will be worse. . . You’ll see. . . . “About [Nyasha] we don’t even speak.  It’s speaking for itself.  Both of them, it’s the Englishness.  It’s a wonder it hasn’t affected the parents too.”  (203)

The “Englishness,” in other words, the colonializing process, is what drives Nyasha and other characters to the brink, especially when combined with the sexism of their own culture.   Tambu, her mother, and her aunt also experience their own “nervous conditions” of various sorts.    In the interests of space, however, I will not go into detail on their struggles.

Nervous Conditions  was Dangarembga’s debut novel, written when she was still a young woman.  It is a relatively short (200 page) novel, and one that is quite engaging.  More significant, however, this novel insightfully portrays the devastating effects of sexism and colonialism on the minds and bodies of African women.  I highly recommend it.

That’s the Spirit! Ghost Marriage in Lisa See’s “Peony in Love” (Part Seven of Minnesota Couch Warmer’s Guide to China)

Ghost Wedding
Ghost Wedding

See source of this photo here.

Chen Tong (known by her family as Peony) and Wu Ren finally get married after pining for each other for 23 years. All of the rituals considered proper for their time and place—17th century China–were performed, including the payment of a dowry and a bride price. Peony was dressed up beautifully and carried in a palanquin to her new husband’s house. A lavish banquet was served, and finally the bride and groom retired to the bridal chamber, where they spent the night together.

Peony and Wu Ren are characters in Lisa See’s meticulously researched historical novel Peony in Love. The wedding scene between the two of them might seem commonplace, except for a couple of important details. For one thing, Wu Ren was already married to somebody else. Also, Peony happened to be dead when she married her beloved Wu.

"Peony in Love" by Lisa See
“Peony in Love” by Lisa See

Peony and Wu Ren had a ghost marriage. I learned from reading Peony in Love and doing a little research afterwards, that ghost marriages were not uncommon in pre-Communist China. It was believed that if a person died while single, they would be very lonely in the afterlife. Furthermore, if the single ghost was a woman, she would have no living descendants to care for her. (Daughters can only be venerated by their husband’s family, not by their natal family.) Because of their loneliness and lack of proper veneration, they would most likely cause a great deal of mischief to their family members and descendants who were still alive. Therefore, it was better for everyone involved to find a spouse for the dead family member.

In this case of Peony in Love, Peony was engaged to Wu Ren but died before they could marry. The Chinese believe that death does not take away any of the human longings we all feel when still alive. If anything, they are amplified. So Peony spent 23 love sick years in the afterlife, pining for her beloved and wreaking a fair amount of havoc on the living. Once they were properly married, she was venerated by Wu Ren’s current wife as the dead first wife, and everybody was much happier.

Although this custom seems strange to Western sensibilities and was outlawed when Mao Zedong came to power, I learned that ghost marriages still occur occasionally in China. In fact, according to March 2013 article in Time Magazine, four Chinese men were arrested and are facing more than “2 years in prison for digging up female corpses and selling them for ghost marriages, an ancient ritual of burying newly deceased women alongside dead bachelors so that they can accompany each other in their afterlives, according to the state-run newspaper China Daily.

According to the report, the men have been digging up graves in coal-rich Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces since 2011. They reportedly washed the corpses and fabricated hospital documents to push up the prices. The thieves allegedly made almost $40,000 off the 10 stolen corpses before being caught.” (See Time article link here.)

I will be traveling to China soon, so learning about ghost marriages and the fact that they still occur made me think about how the practice might affect me. One the one hand, I see a good business opportunity here. $40,000 for ten corpses is not bad money. I could probably earn that in five days of relatively light work, assuming I dug up two graves per night. Piece of cake!

On the other hand, I wonder what would happen if I died while in China. Would I be eligible to be a ghost bride? I don’t think I would like that. It was bad enough to learn a few years ago that I could be baptized posthumously as a Mormon. (No offense to Mormons, but I am a card-carrying Lutheran and would prefer not to convert after death.) Now, I might end up not only a Mormon, but in an arranged marriage to somebody I don’t care for—and it will last literally forever. Although, if I become a Mormon, would that make my desirability as a mate for a dead Chinese man less desirable?

Another point to consider is that I am sure I do not meet the physical ideal of Chinese bachelors. But let’s be honest—after being dead for a week or more, most women aren’t at their best. With the right chemicals, make-up, clothing and photo shopping, I could probably get by.

Clearly, as with any custom, there are pros and cons to this practice. I will keep you posted on my outcomes—either as a grave robber or a blushing ghost bride. (Can ghosts even blush?)