2012 Sidney Awards

January 1, 2013

In what has become an annual tradition, I find there is no better way to start a new year than by sitting back and reading a few examples of excellent long-form journalism and essayism. Every December, New York Times columnist David Brooks presents a series of “Sidney Awards” (part I, part II) to articles published in the last year. The chosen pieces are lengthy, but I make it a goal to read at least a few whose descriptions catch my eye.

Here’s my selection from the 2012 Sidney Awards:


Without Blinking Once

May 8, 2012

I tuned in to NPR this afternoon and heard the gravelly sound of a familiar voice. My stomach plummeted when the voice-over explained that this was an older interview. Replaying someone’s earlier interviews on the radio is never a good sign. Sure enough, it was a tribute piece to beloved American “not just children’s” author Maurice Sendak, who died today at the age of eighty-three.

Like many of my generation, I fell in love with Where the Wild Things Are as a child, but only later came to appreciate the full extent of the author’s wit and insight. Just a few months ago, I burst out into uncontrollable laughter in a crowded coffee shop when I watched Sendak’s cutting humor dissect the national elections process during his two-part interview on The Colbert Report.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Grim Colberty Tales with Maurice Sendak Pt. 1
www.colbertnation.com
http://media.mtvnservices.com/mgid:cms:item:comedycentral.com:406796
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

(Click to watch part 2 of the interview.)

A friend of and collaborator with the likes of Tony Kushner and Gregory Maguire, Sendak left a legacy not limited to children. In 2003, Kushner wrote this in a biography of Sendak excerpted The Guardian:

Children’s literature may reflect the pleasant, booming confusion of the world in a thousand ways; it may describe earthly pleasures; it may be the most profoundly materialist (in the philosophical sense) and the most thoroughly sensual literature. But it is the product of a solitary, and a lonely, pursuit. For the great adult creators of children’s books, the work at hand is a reclamation, through the difficult exploration of feelings most people have forgotten, of the past.

“Children surviving childhood” was, Sendak said, his “obsessive theme.” That being said, when I sat in a darkened movie theater a few years ago, watching the credits roll at the end of the film version of Where the Wild Things Are, I felt no less championed by the author in that moment than I did when I first encountered it fifteen-plus years ago.

Thank you for that, Mr. Sendak. You will be missed.

Listen further: “Fresh Air Remembers Author Maurice Sendak.”


Daring to Speak

March 7, 2012

Imagine if the next fad in self-help and self-improvement ran on the following slogan:

We are how we pronounce the words “caramel” and “pecan.”

The implications for identity and conflict are potentially terrifying. Nonetheless, the concept of dialect and regional differentiation of language is a fascinating one. Today on the Diane Rehm show, guests Joan Houston Hall and Ben Zimmer discussed The Dictionary of American Regional English, or DARE, a project cataloging just this phenomenon.

Listen to the show archive now.

Fred Cassidy, one of the project’s founders, was a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

[Cassidy] selected just over a thousand communities across the U.S., chosen to be as evenly distributed as possible while still sampling all the places that were notable for historic events or migration patterns. He recruited a group of 80 Fieldworkers (mostly graduate students, but also some professors), and between 1965 and 1970 they were sent out to the selected communities to interview people who had lived there all their lives. Initially some of the Fieldworkers traveled in minimally-outfitted vans dubbed “Word Wagons.”

Their findings, now spanning a five-volume set, have been used in fields ranging from theatrical training to forensic linguistics, medicine, history, and law. Underneath, as the tone of the show and comments reflected, is an ongoing fascination with the way we are united and divided by words, even within the bounds of a common language. As one commenter wrote, “Regional accents are really part of the great flavor of America.”

Now I just want to know if the original “word wagon” researchers had read Travels with Charley


Bread and Change

February 15, 2012

The rhythm and pulse of a community are expressed in speech. To speak that language in that tempo is part of what it means to belong. As a young girl bemoaning her lack of southern accent, I’m pretty sure I attempted to express this sentiment more than once. That being said, John Steinbeck does it so much more eloquently in Travels with Charley. Take a look:

Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident or human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech.

I who love words and the endless possibility of words am saddened by this inevitability. For with local accent will disappear local tempo. The idioms, the figures of speech that make language rich and full of poetry of place and time must go. And in their place will be a national speech, wrapped and packaged, standard and tasteless….What I am mourning is perhaps not worth saving, but I regret its loss nevertheless.

Even while I protest the assembly-line production of our food, our songs, our language, and eventually our souls, I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days…and that sweet local speech I mourn was the child of illiteracy and ignorance. It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better. But it is true that we have exchanged corpulence for starvation, and either one will kill us. The lines of change are down. We, or at least I, can have no conception of human life and human thought in a hundred years or fifty years. Perhaps my greatest wisdom is the knowledge that I do not know. The sad ones are those who waste their energy in trying to hold it back, for they can only feel bitterness in loss and no joy in gain. (83)

“The endless possibility of words” would be a beautiful motto. (On the other hand, “I do not know” would be a far more accurate one.)


Wandering with the Stars

January 18, 2012

After nearly four months, I finally finished reading Wandering Stars, a serial novel by Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916). Translated in unabridged form by Aliza Shevrin a hundred years after it was first published, the novel is slow-moving and wildly tangential but full of captivating characters, and it stole my heart in the last fifty pages. Here’s one of my favorite passages:

The wandering stars that have, as you know, been drifting toward each other without ever meeting have finally met. That was in America. But just met, nothing more! To really meet, to become one–that will never happen, never. Who is responsible for this, I or he? That I do not know. Possibly both of us. We both have made our share of mistakes during our lifetimes, though we hardly lived, hardly lived at all. Late, too late, the wandering stars met. No, dearest, apparently there is no happiness here on earth. There is only the striving toward happiness…

This book requires some commitment, to be sure, but its characters richly reward the reader’s efforts. At some future date, I think it will demand a second reading to produce a more complete review.

In the meantime, I’m re-reading Tony Kushner’s foreword and enjoying the opportunity to absorb literary analysis written by someone with a great deal more to contribute to the conversation than I would have.

If the heart of all diasporic tales of desire is desire for home, there’s a special, specific poignancy in averting the eyes at journey’s end [...] It’s as if, after such a terribly long and bloody wait, obtaining the object of our desires has become almost impossible to vividly imagine, as if reunion with the loved and lost one has become almost unrepresentable, recognizable only in its elusiveness, in its receding and vanishing. [...] Even those of the strongest faith must face an affliction of doubt and ask whether, for Leo and Rosa, for us, there will only ever be wandering.

Beautiful.


Narrating Cries for Help

January 9, 2012

Before I criticize a book or film, I often feel obligated to permit it to speak in its own defense. For that reason, I went from reading Harry Potter, of which I am a devoted fan, to Eragon and Twilight. I enjoyed parts of each, raised an eyebrow at the sometimes-poor writing, and found other elements problematic. In 2010, I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin alongside Blake; or The Huts of America. I wanted to understand the perspective that was deprecated in later publications.

This January, with similar misgivings, I picked up Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.

Friends have recommended it; newspapers and online commentaries have alternately praised and berated it. Readers and thinkers whom I respect have excoriated the claim of a white writer to speak on behalf of and in the voice of black maids in the 1960s.

Narrative authority is one of the literary issues that I care most deeply about. Although I hesitate to make the claim that it is never possible to explore the voice of a character unlike yourself, the authors I most respect are those whose attempts to do so demonstrate a measure of self-awareness and self-critique.

For example, in Age of Iron, J.M. Coetzee’s narrator writes, “I tell you the story of this morning mindful that the storyteller, from her office, claims the place of right. [...] So I ask you: attend to the writing, not to me. If lies and pleas and excuses weave among the words, listen for them. Do not pass them over, do not forgive them easily. Read all, even this adjuration, with a cold eye” (104). I was looking for similar moments as I read The Help.

It is a page-turner, well crafted and, for the most part, well executed. A few passages came close to identifying the problems or risks of narrating on behalf of another. As Aibileen and Skeeter construct a book of the maids’ stories, they make editorial choices. “Let’s just move on,” Aibileen says in one brief exchange. “We don’t got to…count that one” (304). The story in question does end up in Skeeter’s book, but for me, this scene had the potential to problematize Stockett’s own role as an editor and narrator. To my disappointment, its potential never materializes.

Finally, in an afterword, Stockett describes her doubts about the project. She says, “I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person. [...] I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don’t think it is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman’s paycheck could ever truly understand. But trying to understand is vital to our humanity” (529-530).

On one hand, I agree with the sentiment, the effort to understand. I respect other books that have attempted a similar feat. The cover of The Help compares Stockett’s novel to To Kill a Mockingbird, saying, “This could be one of the most important pieces of fiction since To Kill a Mockingbird …If you read only one book…let this be it.”

It is true that both The Help and To Kill a Mockingbird rely in troublesome fashion on the intervention of a white character (Skeeter and Atticus, respectively) to give voice to their oppressed black communities. It is also true that in doing so, both books make an effort to tackle complex issues of racial perception and action. However, there is one key difference that I cannot brush aside.

In Lee’s novel, Scout attempts to understand racial segregation from the outside. She wrestles with what she can see, without being able to conveniently slip inside Calpurnia’s head, or Tom Robinson’s. Had The Help taken a similar stance, simply recounting Skeeter’s attempt to piece together a narrative that is not fully her own; had Stockett left the nested book Help unwritten and inaccessible to readers, I think I would have found the concluding commentary much more compelling. Unfortunately, the book itself is so consumed with telling a gripping story that it fails to reflect the doubt Stockett expresses in her closing remarks.

As a result, the book left me disappointed that a well-written story like this one wasted its potential to dig into the problem of narrative authority and, with the help of additional research and inquiry, to open a meaningful conversation about the narratives that were and were not allowed to emerge from the twentieth-century South.


One Mission Accomplished

January 3, 2012

This morning, I received an email update from a sociology professor at my alma mater, Bridgewater College. The message from Dr. Mwizenge S. Tembo began with this headline: “Mission Accomplished: Books Delivered to Nkhanga Library Dec. 20, 2011 at 5:15PM.”

In my graduate studies, I have read and written a great deal about the power and politics of reading and writing. Sometimes I forget to give equal space to the personal and positive sides.

The Nkhanga library project is part of a larger initiative called ZANOBA: the Zambian Knowledge Bank. Co-founded by Dr. Tembo in 1995, its mission is to “to encourage all Zambians in the Southern African country to document, preserve, and enjoy their traditional and modern Zambian culture and technology among people who live in the rural villages and Provinces to the towns and cities of the African country.”

Fundraising for this particular branch of the Zambia Knowledge Libraries began in 2006, while I was a junior in college. I have been following its progress since that time: watching, through photos, as trees were cleared and the foundation laid (May 2007); the walls were completed (September 2008); the roof was installed (August 2009); and the interior took shape (May 2011).

Setbacks were a regular feature of the progress updates, but also prominent were the determination and dedication of many individuals who did their part, however small, to make this vision take shape.

The main collection of donated books arrived a few days before Christmas. Dr. Tembo writes this:

I just returned from Zambia. I am thrilled to report to you that all the publicly donated total of 3,092 used books packed in 65 carton boxes were successfully delivered to the new Nkhanga Village Library in Lundazi in Eastern Zambia in Southern Africa on December 20, 2011 at 5:15PM local time and 10:15AM Eastern American Standard time. …

What the shipment of the books and the entire Nkhanga library project has shown is that there are so many selfless people both in the United States and Zambia who are genuinely dedicated to the success of this very truly unique grassroots project. On behalf of the project I would like to thank everyone in the community here and in Zambia for their contribution.

You can read more about the Nkhanga library project in the Fall 2011 issue of Bridgewater Magazine (beginning on page 21). Visit www.bridgewater.edu/zanoba to find out more about the broader aims and goals of the Zambian Knowledge Bank.


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