Saturday, May 13, 2017

Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

I love coming across a new author and a first novel.  According to her website, Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s fiction has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Story Quarterly, Story South, and elsewhere.  In 2011, she was a finalist for two NAACP Image Awards and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for fiction.  She was also awarded the First Novelist Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association.  She received a DC Commission on the Arts Grant for her forthcoming second novel, Balm.  Dolen teaches in the Stonecoast MFA program in Maine.  She is a graduate of Harvard and a former University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA.  She is a popular guest for Black History and Women's Month programs.  Dolen lives in Washington, DC with her family.  Wench is an absorbing, heart rending story of a group of women slaves in the middle of the 19th century.

I have read a number of African-American novels in my time.  Among these are Beloved (and others) by Toni Morrison, Eva’s Man by Gayle Jones, and of course, the novels of Zora Neale Hurston.  While they all contained horrific accounts of African-Americans, and all were compelling and well-written, none had the lyric beauty of Dolen’s prose.  The novel has a number of pastoral scenes frequently interrupted by the horrors of slavery.

The novel centers around four slaves, Sweet, Lizzie, Reenie, and Mawu.  All are owned by men with a varying degree of concern for their slaves.  Lizzie was the mistress of Drayle, who treated her better than most slave owners, but, nevertheless he was not above slapping or raping her.  She knew early on Drayle’s wife was unable to conceive, and so after Lizzie twice became pregnant, her focus shifted to her son Nate and her daughter Rabbit in hopes of earning their freedom.

Perkins-Valdez writes, “The slaves had been back at Tawawa house for only a short time before Mawu was spotted sweeping her cottage porch as if she’d never left.  As they passed one another, they gave the silent signal to meet at the stables that night: eye contact, a glance in the direction of the stables, and brushed fingertips down the forearm to signal dusk” (34).  These women were resourceful.

As the women became acquainted with Mawu, she told her story.  Dolen writes, “Mamu told them she was telling her story so they would know why she couldn’t go back to Louisiana, why she didn’t feel the same pull they felt toward their children.  She didn’t live in the big house like Lizzie.  Her children did not have special favors like Sweet’s.  She hadn’t had a cabin built for her like Reenie.  She was just a slave like any other – beaten, used, and made to feel no different than a cow or a goat or a chicken” (42).  Later in the novel, Wamu was whipped into unconsciousness because her owner, Tip, heard she was thinking about running away.

Because of her special “relationship” with Drayle, Lizzie was taught to read.  Perkins-Valdez writes, “As Lizzie learned the meaning s of new words and what the letters looked like on the page, it became more difficult to hide the fact she could read.  She wanted to read everything.  She scanned the spines of books along the shelves in Drayle’s library.  She looked over [Mistress] Fran’s shoulder as she cleaned around her, straining to make out the handwriting of Fran’s mother.  She wanted to read to the slaves in the cabins.  There was only one man among them who could read the newspaper, and Lizzie thought she might be able to read as well as he could.  She wanted to show him up, prove that women could learn, have everyone’s eyes hungry for her mouth to open and turn the piece of pulp in her hands into hope” (94-95).  Despite living under the most extremely horrific circumstances, the thirst to learn burned in Lizzie’s heart.

Time and again, when things seemed hopeless, and one of the women said they needed the help of a man, “No. […] Us can do this our own selves” (187).  Near the end of the novel, Lizzie thinks about her daughter.  Dolen writes, “As she leaned against the porch post, she thought of Rabbit and what she would teach her.  This was what she would say: Don’t give in to the white man.  And if you have to give in, don’t give your soul over to him.  Love yourself first.  Fix it so you don’t give him children.  If you ever make it to freedom, remember your mammy who tried to be good to you.  Hold fast to your women friends because they are going to be there when ain’t nobody else there.  If you don’t believe in God, it’s all right.  God believes in you.  Never forget your name.  Keep track of your years and how old you are.  Don’t be afraid to say how you feel.  Learn a craft so you always have something to barter other than your private parts” (287-288).  I find it difficult to imagine a mother having to give her daughter advice like this.  It reminds me of the mothers in Ferguson, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other cities where woman have to teach their children to fear the police and how to act if stopped.  This passage brought tears to my eyes.

The strength, courage, intelligence, and persistence of these four women was heart-warming, and, sometimes, horrific.  But against overwhelming odds, these woman managed to maintain their dignity and raise children, all the while under the constant threat of the whip.  Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez is a tremendously inspiring story.  While not sugar-coating the horrors of slavery, it demonstrated how – under incredibly difficult circumstances – they were able to maintain a sense of decency to pass onto their children.  5 stars

--Chiron, 4/30/17

Soul at the White heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life by Joyce Carol Oates

About a month ago, I began a three-part review of Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life by Joyce Carol Oates.  Part One dealt with essays by Oates about the “Writing Life.”  We now turn to “Part Two, Classics” which deals with reviews of classic authors Oates selected for inclusion in this magnificent work. 

A review of My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead starts off this section.  Middlemarch is one of my most loved stories of the 19th century.  One of my original ideas for grad school centered on women’s British novels including George Eliot, the Bront√ęs, and Jane Austen.  Mead’s work involves a little known genre, the bibliomemoir.  I have a couple of these in my collection and they are always enjoyable excursions through literary fiction backed up by a non-fiction memoir.  U and I by Nicholson Baker examines the author’s connection to John Updike.  Sharing points of intersection with these works is a real rush.

Oates discusses an author I recently discovered who has captured my imagination.  Georges Simenon, born 1903 and died 1989, has me scrambling to find more of his work.  He has written nearly 400 titles, including seventy-fife showcasing the detective, Inspector Maigret.  Oates points out that his novellas have given birth to the genre.  She writes, “A “simenon” is a sparely constructed novella” by the phenomenal Belgian-born Georges Simenon” (108).  I add to my collection by accidentally stumbling on a book here and there.  I am afraid a thorough search my just bankrupt my book budget.

In “Two American Prose Masters: John Updike, Ralph Ellison” Oates examines the work of my number one favorite author, John Updike.  She describes his work as, “brilliantly condensed, intensely lyric homage to the voice of another American contemporary, J. D. Salinger,” in a story “most anthologized, as it is likely the Updike story most readily accessible to young readers” (117).  In my literature classes, I always compare this story, “A&P” to a wonderful James Joyce story, “Araby.”  Both stories demonstrate a young boys coming of age in difficult situations.  Updike is an outstanding and prolific short story writer, and I cannot recommend him more highly.

In “A Visit with Dorris Lessing” – another of my favorite authors – enlightened me as to the inner workings of Doris’s mind and how she constructed her writings.  She had an interesting life, having been born in Iran, and traveling in Africa and London.  Oates writes, “Doris Lessing is direct, womanly, very charming.  She wears her long, graying black hair drawn into a bun at the back of her head; her face is slender and attractive” (122).  Oates admits she “had been reading and admiring for so long.  Meeting her at last I felt almost faint – certainly unreal – turning transparent myself in the presence of this totally defined, self-confident, gracious woman” (122).  I can honestly report I have felt that same tingling when in the presence of authors I love and admire.

Other works in this section include Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin, and “The King of the Weird”: H. P. Lovecraft, whom Oates describes as “The American writer of the 20th century most frequently compared to Poe, in the quality of his art […], its thematic preoccupations […] and its critical and commercial reception during the writer’s truncated lifetime […] is H.P. Lovecraft (74).  Even my students, who are horror fans, appreciate his work.

There is so much more to Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life by Joyce Carol Oates than I can ever hope to reveal in a brief review.  However, anyone interested in writing, reading, and collecting will find this volume most enjoyable.  Stay tuned for Part Three.

--Chiron, 4/29/2017

Night by Elie Wiesel

Back when I was in high school, I worked at a soda fountain/diner near my home.  I cleaned pots and pans, helped the waitress clear tables, served some customers, and made about fifty-cents an hour.  The couple who owned the place had peculiar accents.  One day, I happened to see some numbers on the arm of the woman, and I asked her what they meant.  She asked me what did I know about the Holocaust, but I only have a few vague and scattered notions of what happened during World War II.  Her husband had a similar number.  Both had been in Auschwitz. 

At the library, I asked for books about the murder of 6 million Jews and another 6 million men, women, and children.  One book struck me, it was This Must Not Happen Again.  The pictures were horrific beyond anything my 15-year-old imagination.  The next year, we read Elie Wiesel’s memoir of his time in Auschwitz, Night.  Some of the knuckleheads in the class, laughed and made jokes, but I knew better. 

Considering the disturbing climate of Zenophobia spreading across the U.S. and the world today, I re-read Wiesel’s book.  I could not stop reading for a minute.  All the old images, together with Jack and Leah’s stories came pouring out like some poison released in my room.

Then my thoughts turned to the title: This Must Not Happen Again, and I realized it has – and is -- happening again today all over the world.  The slaughter of an estimated two million Cambodians under Pol Pot, Darfur, Rwanda, Angola, now Syria, and numerous other ethnic and religious groups all around the planet.

I will not give any excerpts, because this book needs to be digested – preferably in one sitting – to take in the truly disgusting depths to which the human species is capable.  The history of the human race, dating back hundreds of thousands of years, attests to the strategy of turning one group against another by blaming the “others” for all the problems and woes a particular society faces.

In a Preface to my new edition, Wiesel asks, “Why did I write it?  Did I write it so as not to go mad or, on the contrary, to go mad in order to understand the nature of madness, the immense, terrifying madness that had erupted in history and in the conscience of mankind?  Was it to leave behind a legacy of words, of memories, to help prevent history from repeating itself?  Or was it simply to preserve a record of the ordeal I endured as an adolescent, at an age when one’s knowledge of death and evil should be limited to what one discovers in literature?” (vii).  Even at a point in my life far removed from the concentration camps and the gas chambers, and crematoria, my stomach turned at Wiesel’s descriptions.

Wiesel concludes the preface, “I believe it Important to emphasize how strongly I feel that books, just like people, have a destiny.  Some invite sorrow, others joy, some both” (xiv).  He continues, “Sometimes I am asked if I know ‘response to Auschwitz’; I answer that not only do I not know it, but that I don’t even know if a tragedy of this magnitude has a response.  […]  The witness has forced himself to testify.  For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow.  He does not want his past to become their future.

Elie Wiesel’s horrific memoir, Night, should be on every thinking-person’s reading list.  We must not allow our neighbors around the corner or around the globe to be subjected to this horror.

--Chiron, 4/23/17

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

I dimly remember reading Carson McCullers The Heart is a Lonely Hunter around the time we were reading To Kill a Mockingbird.  At the least my current reading of McCullers reminds me of Harper Lee’s great novel.  Set in the days at the end of 1939, she recaptures all the difficulties at the tail end of the depression.  Inevitably, it also examines the Jim Crow era in the south.  This classic novel should be on everyone’s bookshelf.

According to the back cover, Carson McCullers was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1917.  She graduated from high school at 16, and began to pursue a dream of becoming a concert pianist.  Rheumatic fever cut short those hopes.  While in recovery, she became a voracious reader and decided to become a writer.  Carson wrote a total of nine novels, one of which was made into a play.  She died at the young age of fifty in New York. 

The title of the novels tells all – the southern town is populated by characters who struggle with loneliness throughout their lives.  McCullers begins the novel with the appearance of Singer and Antonapoulos.  She writes, “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.  Early every morning they would come out from the house where they lived and walk arm in arm down the street to work.  The two friends were very different.  The one who always steered the way was an obese and dreamy Greek.  In the summer he would come out wearing a yellow or green polo shirt stuffed sloppily into his trousers in front and hanging loose behind.  When it was colder he wore over this a shapeless gray sweater.  His face was round and oily, with half closed eyelids and lips that curved in a gentle, stupid smile.  The other mute was tall.  His eyes had a quick, intelligent expression.  He was always immaculate and very soberly dressed” (3).  These two men carry a thread through the entire novel, and they affect a variety of characters in an almost exclusively positive way.

Mick Kelly a 16-year-old high school student, began to develop a strange attraction to the tall Mr. Singer.  She secretly followed him to work in the morning, and she waited for him after his work day ended.  She thought of him constantly.  Singer welcomed her into his apartment, where they played chess, listened to the radio, and talked about their lives.  Singer held up his end of the conversation with a silver pencil.  Everyone liked Mick and Singer, and several other people visited Singer for the same purposes.  Even an African-American Doctor had been partially abandoned by his children.  In one scene, he sits in a rocking chair in his empty house as his children try and move him into retirement.

As any reader can imagine, all of the characters spend vast amounts of time reflecting on their lives, fretting about their future, or the impending war.  I frequently found myself deeply involved with these characters.  I wanted to sympathize, to advise, to help them.  Carson McCuller’s splendid novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, is anything but dull and depressing.  It is, however, a story which drew me into this town, the local bar, the doctor’s office, the apartment where Singer and Mick lived, and the quiet lives most of these characters experienced.  Be prepared.  The ending is startling.  5 stars

--Chiron, 4/22/17