Monday, November 30, 1998

Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat

I want to talk to you this morning about a young writer from Haiti. She is a wonderful writer who has already written at least one great book, but she is not for the feint of heart. Her books are sad right to the very core, and I/you/we ought not read them when our daily grip is too tenuous. I remember recommending the stories (or should I say articulate paintings) in Krick? Krack! to my partner; I warned her that they were very sad, very hard to take because they were so well written, because the experience of ruthlessly oppressed people is so bleak, so ineffable. Still, I wanted her to read them, convinced that these stories were the most important writing I had read in an entire summer of rich, daily reading. Given that recommendation, she decided to read them, but I could see in the first minutes, the first hours, the doubt on her face. “Why have you asked me to read this? Why must I see these scenes? Why must I be reminded of the particular ways men use women when they are able to control them for ‘political’ reasons?” She, too, by the end realized that these are stories that must be read.

Let me read you just the forward to these chilling stories, and then talk about them a bit more.
Krick? Krack! Somewhere by the seacoast I feel the breath of warm sea air and hear the laughter of children.

An old granny smokes her pipe,

surrounded by village children ....

‘We tell the stories so that the young ones

will know what came before them.

They ask Krick? we say Krack!

Our stories are kept in our hearts’.
What comes out in this series of brutal sketches is not merely the ruthless oppression by foreigners, by economic colonizers. Danticat forces us to see how such oppression corrupts and brutalizes the oppressed so that the Haitian thugs, called police, are if anything worse than the white men who made it possible for them to come to power. No wonder so many thousands of Haitians took to the sea in rickety, unseaworthy craft, perished within minutes or hours off the coast of Haiti—the choice being more how they suffered and died than between servitude and freedom. Most of these stories take place in Haiti, though a few describe how immigrant Haitians live in New York, memories and eyes cast back to Haiti.

I find it almost impossible to talk about these stories. Instead, I will read one section from the epilogue, “Women Like Us,” and hope that you will hear enough of the voice, enough of the passion and the poetry, to pick up the book. And if you read these sketches, you may also want to read Danticat’s fine first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory. The novel is a bit less sad though the voice of the writer is unmistakable.

Monday, June 08, 1998

Heat Lightning by Leah Hager Cohen

I want to talk to this morning about a book entitled Heat Lightning, by Leah Hager Cohen. It is another of those amazing first novels, though the author of this one is already an established writer of non-fiction. Like so many of the novels I seem drawn to these days, this is a novel about coming of age, about the peculiar tension between adults and children, and about a profound sort of loss that we tend not to take seriously enough.

There are two girls in this story, one eleven and the other thirteen, united not only because they are sisters, but also because their parents died by drowning when the girls were still infants. The story they are told of the drowning is so brief, so devoid of detail, that the girls are left to fill in the story—in comedian Lily Tomlin’s words, the girls are left to make up the truth, and the story they quilt together is theirs alone. They add to it in bits and pieces, changing, improving, reshaping, but once agreed to, their strict adherence to the story in all its details is a continual test of their loyalty and their private world.

In addition to the brief description they have been told, they also have a cookie tin containing twelve faded photos. This tin they only open ceremoniously, reverently, when they are alone together. The older sister’s name is Tilly, the younger referred to always simply as Mole, and the kind woman who raises these girls as if they were her own is named Hy. It is she who gives them the brief description they have, and it is her silence that allows, even forces them, to embellish the story as they choose. When, occasionally, some new detail falls from Hy’s lips, the girls pounce on it, always disappointed not to get more.
Such details fell randomly and infrequently from her lips. Tilly and I were hoarders, jealously storing them, much as we did the particular shells and stones and bits of soft-edged glass we had been inspired to collect from the lake and keep on beds of cotton in old cardboard gift boxes: undisputed treasures whose usefulness, we felt certain, we had only to decipher. Here, Hy was no help. When milked for further details, she would only shrug and clamp her lips; when pressed she would say, ‘I don’t know, you have the cookie tin.
Best friends as well as sisters, the girls roam the lake and the countryside, sharing everything, but especially the carefully crafted story they have told of the death of their own parents.
For years, one of Tilly’s and my favorite games involved arranging these snapshots on her bedroom floor and making up stories and dialogue to animate the images, the way other children might have done with dolls. These twelve pictures afforded us such latitude in constructing an idea of our parents that we learned not to mind the paucity of Hy’s reminiscences; her story we appropriated as well, and privately embellished. Thus the storm, in my mind, comprised hail, gales of wind, thunder, and lightning. The sky was gray-green, the color of the place between yolk and albumen in a hard-boiled egg. The rowboat was red. Our parents wore rain slickers: hers yellow, his navy blue. They washed up on the sand clean and pale, their mouths and eyes closed, their fingers interlaced.
And so this simple and beautifully written novel begins. The first sign of trouble, of impending change and betrayal, is Tilly’s telling of parts of the story to a teenage boy who, along with his scientist parents and three younger siblings, has moved into an abandoned house on Hy’s property known to the girls only as the dead house. Worse than Tilly’s telling of the story to this boy, Walter, is the fact that, without permission, she alters the story in detail as she tells it, changes the sequence that she and Mole have agreed on. Mole hears the change, looking for a sign from her sister that this is conspiratorial, that it is still Mole and Tilly against the world, still their story, only theirs. Perhaps the change in the story is simply a slip, a genuine forgetting on Tilly’s part, but there is also the strange new behavior—an affected lisp that has creeped into Tilly’s speech, a new attention to her body, a new insistence on privacy inside the house. How is Mole to understand these changes, this breech in their union.
For my sister—well, more than just her consonants were in flux that summer. She was by turns irritable and serene, radiant and remote. Within minutes she could alter, even her features, which behaved somehow out of synch with her moods; one moment she’d look stern and lovely, the next cheerful and angular, almost homely. She seemed to shimmer, slightly, as if two selves lay superimposed one over the other: a familiar thin shadow over a paler, emergent form. Now I have access to words I didn’t then: ‘menarche,’ ‘hormones,’ ‘pubescence.’ That summer I thought it was all the Rouens {the family in the dead house}, that their presence was bringing about a change in Tilly, in us, in our lives; that collectively they made a kind of key, unlocking us.
I think we tend to underestimate the profundity of love between children, and consequently to underestimate the betrayals, the intensity of the pain and loss that children can suffer. Not long after Mole hears Tilly begin to change “their” story, to alter it without permission (just as she alters her speech and mannerisms), she comes to understand also that Walter and Tilly no longer want her hanging around with them, no longer treat her as one of them, but, instead, treat her as one of the younger children. For the first time in her life, Mole is alone—not planning out her days with her sister as she has always done, leaving the house together, coming home hungry and sun-burned and tired together, conspiring and playing and loving together. And she is utterly unequipped to handle this new form of loneliness. She feels confused more than abandoned, an unexplainable sadness and sense of loss though she cannot really even blame her sister for it. Tilly and Mole have always noticed the difference between adults and children, have always felt a vague combination of sympathy and contempt for adults whose lives seem shallow and whose conversations seem false and strained.
The grown-ups ... talked the way grown-ups do, managing to render every subject odd and distant. The most ordinary subjects grew bloated and complex in their mouths, phrases and pauses measured in a manner at once formal and abbreviated, like Morse code.
And Tilly had explained carefully to Mole how adults simply tend to “go off”, how sometimes even Hy would “go off”, acting distant and strange. But until this fateful summer, Mole could always count on Tilly, count on the camaraderie of Tilly against the adult world, and now even Tilly is “going off”. It is unthinkable that Tilly has gone over to the other side, that she will become as uninteresting and dull as other adults.
I had the terrible thought that all grown-ups were gone off, partly or wholly, but all of the time. You might think you were having a conversation with them; you might think they understood the things you said, and they you understood them in turn, but in fact it was an illusion. You could remember their exact words, even write them down on recipe cards, but later when you checked, they would say you had misunderstood. They would say they and forgotten. And now Tilly, too.
Poor Mole has no way of understanding the concomitant loneliness and rage that begin to develop in her—no way to explain her desire to break something, to cause harm. She mopes around the house alone, snooping as she has always done without guilt.
Their secrets, Tilly’s and Hy’s, even their—not secrets, but things, trappings, personal effects—I felt were in some way details of my own life, to which I was entitled. As if locked inside their private artifacts lay information about me.
But the snooping now has an edge; she is looking for something, something that will justify her rage, explain her ineffable loneliness. She rejects Hy’s shy attempts to comfort her, and along with the loneliness that she is drowning in, she also begins to experience a new, almost terrifying sense of power and freedom.

I am making this story seem more ominous than it is, more complex and tumultuous. It is really simply the story of two children who are on the cusp of womanhood, but with one just those two important years older. And while the separation in their lives is inevitable, in some ways even good for both of them, it is also incredibly sad—the rendering of a seamless love. What is remarkable about this book to me is the way in which Cohen can so completely and yet simply express the love between the sisters. How she can remember (or construct?) these meticulous details of childhood, can remember so clearly the sense of adults keeping things from children, lying by omission, as if the children will not detect the careful misrepresentation and make more of it than had they simply known the truth. Perhaps it is only my indulging in my own childhood memories, loving the chance to again (for a few hours) have a child-eye view of the world. I think this is a lovely book, one that you will love to read and that you will come away from feeling enlightened, lifted, though you may have trouble saying why.

This is a wonderful book to start your summer reading.

Monday, April 13, 1998

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

I want to talk to you about a very special book today, and also about rereading. I just read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping for the fourth or fifth time. It would be hard for me to overemphasize how lovely this book was for me on this reading. I remember a time when the whole idea of rereading was repellent to me. After all, there are so many books to read and so little time. Nowadays, partly because I am a teacher with a suspect memory who must reread whatever I am teaching, I spend more time each year rereading than reading for the first time. But what may have started as a necessary exercise has become in certain special cases a wonderful treat. Some books, though wonderful on the first read-through, do not hold up on rereading. Housekeeping does so well not because it is a complex book which one must read and reread in order really to understand it, to mine ever deeper for the sometimes hidden meanings, but because it reads like poetry and feels like music.

In many ways it is a simple story. Two girls who have only their mother, the absence of their father never explained in any way to the girls, are nonetheless wonderful friends to each other and seem loved by if not close to their mother. Again for reasons the reader (and the girls) must guess at, the mother drives to her own mother’s house which she has visited only once since leaving seven years before, leaves her daughters there on a screened porch, and then drives her borrowed car into the lake—the same lake that had claimed her father in an accidental death a dozen or so years before.

And thus the opening paragraph of this oddly sad and yet uplifting story:
My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs.. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs Sylivia Fisher.
All of this told in a matter-of-fact voice for these girls who grow up knowing only women, and a very peculiar group of women at that.

Each time I read this book, I worry again about whether my students will like it, whether they will see the beauty, the wisdom, and fearing that if they do not, it is they I will judge, not the book—though if I had to say why it is so important, why so somehow deeply insightful, I would be hard-pressed to say, and rather angry that anyone would even have to ask.

It is their last caretaker, their last ‘mother,’ who is the most intriguing and who makes this story go. Her name is Sylvie. She is a wanderer, a loner, back in her hometown only because these girls who are strangers to her are in need, because of the unspoken ties between Sylvie and her now-dead sister. The two old aunts, themselves having lived always alone together, childless, husbandless, find themselves frightened and overwhelmed not by the bad behavior of the two girls, but by their simple, heavy presence and the dark coldness of the climate—the frozen lake, the snow that threatens to collapse the roof, the two teen-age girls who hover expectantly. The SOS that brings Sylvie home raises hopeful expectations in the aunts, and they disappear as soon as they decide that she somehow will do. Let me read just the first view of Sylvie to the girls as one old aunt escorts her into the house:
Slyvie came into the kitchen behind her, with a quiet that seemed compounded of gentleness and stealth and self-effacement. Slyvie was about thirty-five, tall, and narrowly built. She had wavy brown hair fastened behind her ears with pins, and as she stood there, she smoothed the stray hairs back, making herself neat for us. Her hair was wet, her hands were red and withered from the cold, her feet were bare except for loafers. Her raincoat was so shapeless and oversized that she must have found it on a bench. Lily and Nona glanced at each other, eyebrows raised. There was a little silence, and then Sylvie hesitantly put her icy hand on my head and said, ‘You’re Ruthie. And you're Lucille. Lucille has the lovely red hair.’
And so they meet this strange new aunt, who seldom takes off her coat (and whom they always fear is about to leave), who sits in the dark, likes to eat in the dark, prowls the nights, returning with pockets full of junk. Whose idea of housekeeping is to rinse and stack the tin cans they eat from, bring home old newspapers and magazines to save as treasures. When the girls sluff school, at first to repay an injustice by a teacher, but later because they fear to go back without excuses, they discover their aunt who seems also peculiarly truant—comfortable with the transients who hang out near the lake and the train-trestle, certainly more comfortable with them than the townspeople all of whom seem to be strangers to her despite her having grown up in this small town.
Lucille doubted that Sylvie would stay. She resembled our mother, and besides that, she seldom removed her coat, and every story she told had to do with a train or a bus station.
Still, odd and lonely woman that she appears to be, at least one of the girls, Ruthie, begins to learn from her. Slyvie seems really not to want what others wanted, seemed not at all to be in what Heidegger would call the they-self mold. She did not care about what they cared about, she did not believe what they believed, she did not care about the things they cared about, or about things at all really—except, perhaps, for a beautiful leaf, a water-worked stone, the sound of the wind in the trees. And so far is she from the values of the herd, she is not even aware of their condemnation, only vaguely aware of their stares. And if she is lonely, she is also strangely happy and self-contained. Here seems to be an existential hero not at all in the male mold, not angry and resentful and full of hate and violence. She quite simply and really does not care about what they care about. Lives as she will not because she dares to, but because she would not seriously consider living any other way.

Though now I am making the mistake of over-telling the story of the aunt, and the novel is really more the story of these two girls—of one who must opt for normalcy, who wants friends, wants clothes that do not stand out, who wants mostly just to fit in, wants to escape the sad, eccentric isolation of her mother, her aunts, the ghostly inheritance of a grandfather who rode the train into the lake. And of the other girl, Ruthie, who finds herself both strange enough and strong enough to accept her aunt’s invitation to quite a different world—in my eyes a more authentic one, a more creative one, even a truer one.

Another unique feature of this novel is that it was adapted beautifully to the screen, a rare possibility at best. Almost always, novels suffer horribly with such attempts, but somehow, due to the simplicity of this story and the flawless acting of Christine Lauti as the eccentric aunt, this novel comes off better than any other adaptation I can think of. Though you should read the novel first, do see the movie sometime. It should be cheap and easy to rent. I’m showing it to my students this very week. And if you’re not a reader or don’t have the time, rent the movie anyway. It will stand well on its own.

Let me leave you with a final quote from the book and an invitation to enjoy the peaceful loveliness of this book.
The day after Sylvie arrived, Lucille and I woke up early. It was our custom to prowl the dawn of any significant day. Ordinarily the house would belong to us for an hour or more, but that morning we found Sylvie sitting in the kitchen by the stove, with her coat on, eating oyster crackers from a small cellophane bag. She blinked at us, smiling. ‘It was nice with the light off,’ she suggested, and Lucille and I collided in our haste to pull the chain. Sylvie’s coat made us think she might be leaving, and we were ready to perform great feats of docility to keep her there.
Again, I have been reviewing the novel by Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping, reissued in 1997 by Noonday publishing. Walker Percy, the American existentialist writer says it is “...a haunting dream of a story told in a language as sharp and clear as light and air and water.” I agree.

Monday, February 23, 1998

The Jailing of Cecelia Capture by Janet Campbell Hale

I want to talk to you this morning about a book by a Native American woman; her name is Janet Campbell Hale, and the name of the book is The Jailing of Cecelia Capture.

It took longer than it should have for me to realize that this is really an excellent little book. The style in which it is written is intentionally understated, no sentimentality, no insistent cries for social justice. It is left to the reader to assimilate the message and to infer from the events the condemnation of the economic system that has created the events. It is a book about the difficulty of bridging cultures and about the terrible sense of loneliness one woman feels who can find herself nowhere. Though a successful law school student at Berkeley and apparently living out the dreams of her father, dreams of learning the white man’s law as a way of helping Native Americans against whom that law is used as a weapon, she has had to bear incredible sacrifices in order to get where she is. She has to live without her children and the husband who sees her obsession with getting an education as simply willful abandonment of him and her family.

Even as a girl, long before running away from the reservation to the city, where she is forced as a pregnant teenager onto welfare rolls, she senses her alienation from those around her. To many (if not most) of her own people, she is seen as wanting to be white, as being ashamed of who she is and where she is from. Like her father, a chronic reader and dreamer, she is seen as being intentionally lazy, proud and incorrigible. Her own sisters and her mother conspire to have her sent away to a reservation school.

Barely escaping from a white lover who condescends to save her via marriage, shocked that his noble proposal is spurned by Cecelia, she finally gets herself enrolled in college in San Francisco. Still, she must accept welfare in order to support her child, and when the welfare people discover that she wants more money to attend college, she finds herself the target of a new indignant wrath.
‘Anthropology,’ Miss Wade read aloud, ‘English composition, Spanish, psychology.’ She laid the papers on the desk and took off her glasses, as if she could see better without them, and looked at Cecelia in a squinty-eyed fashion. ‘Are you off your rocker?’ she said. ‘You can’t handle classes like these. Anway, what good do you think they will do you, even if you do manage to make passing grades, which I seriously doubt you could?’

‘I don’t know what you mean, Miss Wade. Those are all required courses at all California universities.’

Universities? Now I've heard everything. You think you're going to university? How absurd.

‘Miss Wade, what do I have to do to get extra money to buy books and supplies now that I’m enrolled in college?’

‘What 'extra' money?’ Welfare doesn't have money to send recipients to college. Whatever gave you such a stupid idea?

‘I had a neighbor who was a welfare recipient. She went to college, and welfare paid for her books and her child care and her transportation.’

‘Maybe so, but she wasn’t taking courses like yours, I’m sure. She was taking practical training, something to help her get a job quickly and get off the rolls and stop being a leech. Some kind of vocational training—nurse’s aide, X-ray technician or dental assistant. You ... you want the taxpayers of California to send you to college to study anthropology, for God’s sake. You must be out of your mind. Do you think that’s fair?
So, having run to the city from the contempt of her mother and older sisters, she encounters the outraged contempt of the welfare system. Finally, she finds a new temporary champion in a white Teaching Assistant, a man who seems to see her abilities, to understand her deep and burning desire for an education. However, once she marries her new champion and he takes the only job he is offered, near the reservation she escaped from in Yakima, she finds that he, too, does not really understand why she must return to Berkeley. “[He] didn’t understand what graduating from Berkeley meant to her, since to him graduating from college was simply a matter of course.” Now that he has her, he, too, tells her that she hasn’t the mind for law school, that she lacks the analytical ability, that she really should stay home and be satisfied being his wife and a mother to her children.

I am telling this story clumsily, while Hale tells it artfully. From the very first scene, the reader discovers Cecilia in a jail cell, frozen between her dreams for what seem an increasingly doubtful future and a troubled past. Like Dostoevsky’s underground man, Cecilia Capture has nothing to do but to replay her past, captive both literally and figuratively, the reader is allowed to ‘overhear’ her story as her memory hopscotches wildly from frame to frame. Snapshots of alcohol-hazed attempts to find temporary respite from loneliness via one-night stands with strangers, snatching at the one sort of power allowed her in a racist and sexist culture, the power to attract by offering up her body. And between the snatched and drunken trysts, long, desperate, undernourished bouts of fevered studying, never quite sure she can master the arduous demands of law-school. Memories moving from yesterday or last week, back to her earliest memories, to the stories of her father’s own desperate (and failing) attempt to bridge two cultures through the study of law. Memories of her father’s early and boastful pride at Cecelia’s intellectual achievement and of his subsequent disenchantment and abandonment. All of this overlaid with the desire for a drink, fears that she has been cursed with her father’s alcoholism, her own sense of worthlessness, of having abandoned her own children to a man who does not understand them, and all of this mixed with a simple desire to die, to escape.
They helped their mother send away to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for application forms, which Cecilia refused to sign. Government schools were for academic underachievers, or for Navajos or Apaches who had lived in the heart of the reservation all their lives and could not speak English and knew nothing of white ways. You learned a trade if you were lucky. If you were not, you learned how to be a housemaid. You learned how to get along in the world, more or less. You learned to live like a reasonable facsimile of a white person. That was what her father always said about government boarding schools. Government school didn’t interest her any more than being a martyr did.
No doubt her sense of belonging nowhere is exacerbated by the fact that her mother boasts of her Irish roots, of her Irish mother, and of her hopes someday to escape to the homeland she has never seen. In moments of frustration (either with Cecila or with her intellectual but also alcoholic father, or simply with the day to day poverty they all find themselves in), her mother castigates her for being a lazy Indian, no matter that she is showing contempt for herself as well. How can Cecelia know who she is, who she aspires to be, where she belongs?

Perhaps I have told more of the story than you need to know. Ernest Hemingway is often praised as the master of understatement, of sparse, unsentimental prose. Janet Campbell Hale has a much more powerful and important story to tell than any that Hemingway told, and she does it with (I think) as sparse and economical and understated a style as any writer I have encountered.