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
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

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.

Poetics of Grief

September 23, 2011

Today, Palestine seeks recognition of statehood at the United Nations.

Two days ago, President Obama told Palestinians, “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN – if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.”

Last week, I was reading a book I found on clearance at a Borders going-out-of-business sale. The author, Mahmoud Darwish, was a celebrated Palestinian poet who died in 2008. His lyrical essay collection Journal of an Ordinary Grief (trans. Ibrahim Muhawi) deals with home, exile, belonging, borders, and injustice, but also with the role — and impotence — of the poet in navigating these difficult and politically charged concepts.

Rather than attempt to dissect and analyze the relationship between Darwish’s writing and the current political situation, I want to set out one passage that drew my attention and made me pause before I had even begun the book proper.

The battles do not end, and the language remains on edge. These pages do not tell the whole story. They only set down the beginnings of a small voice that shook the rock a little. The homeland is distant and near, and in this everyday grief and everyday death the writing gets written, or tries to get written, so that this ordinary grief may stop accepting being acceptable.

There is something safe and unsatisfying about reading a poem instead of dealing with media representations, historical grievances, and political maneuvering. As Darwish writes, “Justice is a hope that resembles an illusion if it is not supported by power.”

However, it seems to me that the narratives spoken at the U.N. this week and the stories written in history books and newspapers and passed from parent to child all represent attempts to give voice to everyday griefs like those Darwish extrapolates in his poetry. To me, the exchange of stories through poetry and literature — even if it is a safe, low-stakes medium for me as an American reader — does matter.

What does it mean for an ordinary grief to “stop accepting being acceptable”? The language is poetic and muted, but its use of repetition and degrees of removal resembles the long, convoluted search for peace. In this context, making statements may not bring immediate change, but it creates the possibility of an encounter with another human who is struggling to write his or her story, despite the limitations of language, vulnerability, and an imperfect world. That kind of encounter is most deeply felt when it takes place face-to-face, but writing it is, at the very least, a beginning.

Honesty, Debate, and Literature

July 21, 2011

I was driving to a coffee shop this morning, listening to the Diane Rehm show on NPR. Diane’s guest was Juan Williams, the author of Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate. The book goes on sale next week (July 26) from Random House. Here’s a piece of the description from the publisher’s website:

In today’s partisan world, where media provocateurs rule the airwaves and political correctness dictates what can and cannot be said with impunity, Williams shows how the honest exchange of ideas and the search for solutions and reasonable compromise is deliberately muzzled. Only those toeing the party’s line—the screaming voices of the extremist—get airtime and dominate the discussion in politics and the media. Each side, liberal and conservative, preaches to a choir that revels in expressions of anger, ideology, conspiracies, and demonized opponents. The result is an absence of truth-telling and honest debate about the facts.

While I have mixed feelings about Williams’s statement and dismissal and the resulting NPR funding debate, I think he raises a worthwhile question: how important are the words with which we engage in open conversation? When “diplomacy” and “political correctness” meet “honest” and “unflinching” conversation, at what point does each side need to compromise?

The same concern seems to underlie the controversy surrounding WikiLeaks. Diplomats speak more freely if they are not afraid of hearing their words in a sound byte on the nightly news; however, they also discard some of the tact and consideration associated with their posts.

Although legal concerns are certainly important, if the only angle discussed is the legal protection of free speech, I think we risk missing the personal. The promotional copy writer for Williams’ book concludes that “Only by bringing such hot button issues into the light of day can we hope to grapple with them, and exercise our cherished, hard-won right of free speech.” In my mind, it’s not quite that simple. In our media-saturated world, thousands of issues see the light of day and yet are not seen. The glare of competing messages, preconceptions, buzzwords, and mistranslation still gets in the way.

What is (often) lacking is a decompressing of the “hot button issues” into information that admits complexity and contradiction. What is (often) lacking is the idea that free speech can be used to build up, not just to tear down. What is (often) lacking is a face-to-face encounter that is not about “winning” an argument but about building a relationship.

To me, some of these missing pieces are cultivated by the study and practice of literary thinking. What I mean by “literary thinking” is a model of reading the world that places you in the perspective of others, admits and works within contradiction, and pays attention to the limitations of language and human understanding, while seeking to recognize its beauty and potential.

The idea is still half-formed, and of course, this blog is also a mediated platform subject to the same weaknesses I just identified. Perhaps my musings have no practical value at all. Nonetheless (pointless whimsy or not, impractical idealism or not, lexical gap or not), I cannot help wishing that the mode and tone — not necessarily the subject — of conversations about literature could translate more often to the political realm.

The Why Question

June 27, 2011

I came across this quote this morning and thought it was worth passing along.

“The sciences teach us how. The humanities teach us why…You can’t continue to do the how without the why. If we ignore history, philosophy, and all of the other attempts to deal with the why, the how can become very dangerous.”

-George Lucas, on behalf of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ national Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. (Read more…)

What do you think?