nicola griffith is one of the best writers out there and if you haven't read her books you should. the only book of hers that left me cold was the thinicola griffith is one of the best writers out there and if you haven't read her books you should. the only book of hers that left me cold was the third aud torvingen novel, Always, and the reason it left me cold is maybe similar to the reason why i found that this book, Ammonite, lost some steam 3/4 of the way through (it got it back before the end!).
let me start with saying that this is griffith's first novel. it's an absolutely phenomenal first novel -- the writing is perfect, the pacing is perfect, the characters are perfect. where another author might spend words explaining, griffith gestures deftly with a word or a sentence, and you are all set and, occasionally, blown away. i admire this. i admire the precision and focus of her work.
i also admire that she writes books about people who happen to be women who happen to love other women. this is not "women's fiction" or "lesbian fiction" any more than Mrs. Dalloway is women's fiction (or lesbian fiction!). her characters are complex and rich and tough and tender, and she manages to build entire worlds (in this case, literally) in which very real people experience the full gamut and complexity of human emotions and dramas -- those traditionally assigned to men and those traditionally assigned to women.
as a sci-fi author, griffith is up there with the best. both Ammonite and Slow River are top-notch sci-fi novels, from writing to story to characterization.
Ammonite is about a planet far off into the wide wide universe which is entirely inhabited by women. there are still men on our green planet earth, but they can't go to this faraway planet (the earthlings call it jeep) because they will contract a virus that will kill them. women contract the virus too but, unlike men, have a chance to survive it. a sinister "company" is dying to get its greedy paws onto the planet and its riches, but until a cure for the virus is found this is a no go plan. there is a little bit of gender dig in this, cuz of course if women can survive the virus they can also run things for the company. female earthlings, it must be said, consider their chances to survive the virus very very low, so there's that, but one cannot but perceive the company as distinctly male.
let me point out that the novel does not have a single male character, in any role at all, however tiny. i don't think men are even mentioned. no other author comes to mind who has tried this with such resounding success (Charlotte Perkins Gilman tried something of the sort in Herland -- which does have a couple of (entirely clueless and ridiculed) guys -- but the novel, though interesting, does not reach griffithian levels of mastery).
i think griffith puts to sleep the question of whether a world run by women would be a gentler world. the answer is a definite no, in all respects.
the crux of the book is the us vs. them conundrum. jeep is populated by its own people (some variation of early human settlers), but until our heroine gets on it, no contemporary earthling has even thought of entering in any sort of conversation -- cultural or economical -- with them. these distinct communities/nations are treated pretty much the way herds of bison would, which is of course horribly reminiscent of the various colonial "discoveries" effected by europeans in the rest of the world (if you haven't, read Laila Lalami's The Moor's Account, a sobering report by an enslaved african accompanying a spanish expedition into the "west indies" of the ways in which european discoverers felt that entire villages, cultures and people were theirs to name, pillage, and dispose of). this is not to say that the earthlings who are currently on the planet (they are all military) are abusive to the natives. they simply find no reason whatsoever to start any sort of exchange with them. and of course the watchful eye of the "company" hovers overhead.
the book is the story of how marghe, our heroine and a linguistic anthropologist, decides to get to know (some of) the locals. it's well done and engaging and fun and brutal, the last of which won't surprise you a bit if you have read any griffith at all.
it seems to me that griffith is at her best when she does women in danger. when her troubled women get cozy and safe her writing grows slack. i saw this in Always and in a small part of this book. fortunately, the cozy doesn't last long and we go back to true blue griffithian writing, of which i, for one, can't get enough. ...more
atwood is eye candy for her absolutely mastery of the narrative form. the storytelling just slips offETA: i reviewed the whole trilogy here
atwood is eye candy for her absolutely mastery of the narrative form. the storytelling just slips off her pen, not a word wasted, not a sentence out of place. crisp. it never gets melodramatic or slack or anything but taut. it's just perfect.
the story didn't feel hugely gripping to me. post-apocalyptic whatever. i don't really care a whole lot. but the understanding of how we got to this -- through sheer, criminal neglect of the environment; through science gone mad; through nasty experiments; through rigid and spiteful class division -- this is all so brilliantly conceived and yet so simply delivered, you know it's true. it is so true that just a few years after this book was written the things atwood wrote are coming to pass, under our eyes, without our having to make an effort to look for them -- and we are doing nothing to stop them. sorry, kids.
maybe this startling simplicity, this predictability is what made the story less than gripping to me.
here's something else that's fabulous. this entire book pivots on the voices of two women. atwood chooses to hew close to genre and does not delve into the intricacies of their personalities (in other words, she resists the pull of the psychological), but she gives us two great female voices while, somehow, managing not to turn this into a "woman's book." see how it's done, boy-authors? you can put women's voices at the center of the book without erasing the men at all. go to school at atwood's academy, boy-authors. stop erasing women from your stories. we are tired.
honorable mention to the book's dealing with sexual violence. this is how it's done, boy-and-girl-authors. not a second of graphic prurience, yet so devastating. men so infatuated with the penis that they put it at the center of their perception of "the perfect human." men brutalized by the compulsion to violate women. this is what brings the world down y'all: men split off from women. women split off from men. like jimmy; like lucerne.
unlike others (i am talking to you, jakaem, my prime interlocutor), i saw the gardeners as entirely un-ironic. in fact, i found them quite inspirational. yes, adam one is hokey, but so what? that's what religion always looks like from the outside (both toby and ren are outsiders) -- irredeemably absurd, over the top, ridiculous. i think atwood has a ton of respect for the gardeners. why wouldn't she? she makes them the flood's survivors. the dick-wagging boys? they all go down.
this is my new bff ruth ozeki's first novel and yes, it is a novel that deals with the woeful health impact of the way beef is processed these days bythis is my new bff ruth ozeki's first novel and yes, it is a novel that deals with the woeful health impact of the way beef is processed these days by the US meat industry, but like all of ozeki's novels, it is also so much more. and i for one am a little astonished that this is her first novel, because there are so many layers to it, and this complex ensemble of voices, self-referentiality, and documentary work is put together in such a controlled, light-hearted, humorous yet touching way, you just can't stop reading.
it seems as if what i'm about to say could be said of all of ozeki's novels, but this is mainly a story of women, and since ozeki is nothing if not a fierce woman writer, she gets into the nitty gritty of femalehood -- sex, the body, mothers, children, wives, blood, guts, food, work, love, resilience, and the bond of honesty that must (imperatively must) link women everywhere -- from the get go, and stays there, right in there, in that space of womanhood that is so often undervalued and dismissed, the whole time, even when the going gets tough and malehood threatens to encroach and take over.
there are lovely men and there are awful men in the book, but the women, the women are all terrific, even the monstrous ones, especially the monstrous ones. and this is only fair, you know, this is not slanted or skewed or unbalanced, this is just fair because womenworlds get so little room in literature and movies, so little darn room -- not for brave women authors' lack of trying, but for lack of reviewing, advertising, supporting, mediapropagating, enthusing, etc. -- you need once in a while to see the world through a woman's eye, and see that we trust each other, and need each other, a whole lot, and that men sometimes are to us just bad people who think they own us.
some people on here found the book preachy. i can't for the life of me see any preachiness in it, but at the same time i do see, somehow, how one might feel preached at by it. eh. if you feel preached at just drop this book and read something else. ruth ozeki won't mind. she didn't write the book for you.
what makes it all so fantastic is how daring ozeki is formally. she puts herself -- the writer -- right into the narration; she spills outside the boundaries of the first-person/third-person/multivocal novel and does pretty much what she pleases, addressing the reader, discussing the book even though the book should be invisible, and blurring the author-narrator distinction; and she infuses it all with such riotous humor, and such elegance, and such goddamn pathos, you wonder how it all works together. but it does, it does, and there isn't a clumsy, heavy-footed, incongruous moment in the whole thing. ...more
this is a brutal and unsparing portrayal of sexual violence. it's also a critique of economic disparity and an angry indictment of patriarchy (which mthis is a brutal and unsparing portrayal of sexual violence. it's also a critique of economic disparity and an angry indictment of patriarchy (which may or may not go hand in hand with economic disparity).
a young haitian lawyer, black, married to a handsome nebraskan man (white), with an übercute little kid, is kidnapped during her visit to haiti to see her family. kidnapping apparently is the order of the day in haiti at the time (pre-earthquake) and wealthy people expect it and do all they can to prevent it. mireille's family's security measures are not enough and soon the kidnappers are asking for one million american dollars as ransom for mireille. sort of inexplicably, near the beginning of the novel mireille, who narrates the vast majority of the chapters, tells us that her kidnappers were scared young men. this sense of forgiveness, acceptance, or empathy never returns in the novel; nor, frankly, do they seem that scared when we meet them. but there you have it.
in all likelihood that kidnapping would have gone off without a hitch and no-one would have gotten hurt if mireille's father had paid straight away. but mireille's father has opinions about how to handle situations like this (it's his first time, but of course he has been preparing for it forever), and decides not to negotiate with the kidnappers. this unleashes in the latter a barrage of sexual violence that goes on, relentlessly, for the entirety of the 13 days of the kidnapping. we are given a really precise sense of what this violence consists of and of what it feels like, and it isn't pretty. in fact, it's barely tolerable. one night, after reading, i found myself shaking and unable to sleep. let's just say that i've never read sexual brutality described with such truthfulness. the only other book that made me equally horrified is Primo Levi's incredible narration of his life in auschwitz in Survival in Auschwitz, aka If This Is a Man. what these two books have in common is their masterful rendition of what it feels like to stop being human.
mireille alternates the narrative of what happens to her during her capture with stories of her life with her husband michael and of her pregnancies, only one of which goes to term. the narrative organization is pretty flawless, and while mireille's life before her capture emerges as nice (a lot of emphasis on desire between mireille and michael), there is always, looming, and by necessity, a sense of unease about men and their strange culture. in short, men are brutes who hurt women, michael notwithstanding. and michael is not a sweetie pie. he's a man of few words and he's as hungry for mireille as mireille is for him. given the narrative set up, though, this hunger is uncomfortable to the reader. you'd rather have them make french toast together than fuck intensely, overwhelmed by their love/desire for each other.
there is also the fact that michael's nebraskan family, made of farm-owning mom and dad, is none too pleased with michael's marrying someone of a different color, and makes absolutely no mystery of it. this is as painful and uncomfortable to mireille as you'd expect it to be, but michael seems kind of clueless about it.
the most powerful parts of the book are about the brutality and the cluelessness of men. the torture scenes are really, really good. roxane gay, who was born in nebraska but is of haitian origin, gives you a clear sense of how easily women turn from human beings to playthings in the hands of men. she gives, it seems to me, no rhyme or reason for this. the playing they are subjected to is fully sexual and fully sadistic, so that if we weren't used to this, if the object of such treatment were, say, animals rather than human beings, we would unquestioningly consider these men psychopaths. as it is, we consider them rapists, a category that is so over-present in all sorts of representational forms, we consider it pretty much natural. so one thing that roxane gay does well here is denaturalize all that, show it for the absolute pathological deadly derangement it is.
and we are extremely thankful for the fact that, after having given us a chillingly accurate idea of what these men are doing -- after making sure we get it -- she lets up and simply hints. not that it gets any easier for the reader, but the novel doesn't turn into torture porn one. tiny. bit. which it could easily have done.
men's cluelessness is portrayed in all its glory in the aftermath, when mireille is released. the major culprit, of course, is michael -- but then he was clueless from day one.
the second part of the book is about post traumatic agony, and there are some pretty brutal scenes (not quite as brutal as the torture scenes, but close) in which michael thinks that the best way to help his wife is to force her to do things she doesn't want to do. as anyone who understand trauma even just a bit knows, forcing someone who's been deprived of her autonomy in the most radical way to do things, even things that are supposedly good for her, is a sure recipe for intolerable retraumatization.
eventually respite comes to mirelle (thank god) from some unexpected and lovely place, and we can breathe a little (just a little).
two things that left me unhappy at the end: although reformed, michael seems to me to continue being a jerk, understanding his role as mireille's partner only in terms of "masculine" protectiveness and bluster. if the book means for that to be the case, and therefore critiques michael, this critique is not made clear at all. the other thing is small but it bugged me all the way through: mireille has two siblings but the second one, a male, is mentioned only at the beginning and never mentioned again. this is strange in a book in which the family and its dynamics are so closely analyzed. if i've missed something, please feel free to let me know in comment.
i think roxane gay puts material about nationhood, race, belonging and capitalism in the book, too -- especially about the mayhem that is bound to happen when very rich people live in close proximity to people who are absolutely destitute -- but, frankly, her analysis of gender relations is so bright and stark and powerful, the rest kind of falls by the wayside. ...more
i am, doubtless, doing a grave injustice to this book, which will be probably rectified the moment i read reviews and secondary material on it. but ii am, doubtless, doing a grave injustice to this book, which will be probably rectified the moment i read reviews and secondary material on it. but i have a prejudice against alice walker. she seems to me, for an accumulation of reasons none of which sits discreetly in my mind, identifiable, a sloppy writer. say this book. the story is powerful and powerfully told. but then there's a whole lot of anthropology thrown in, and some etymology, and some sort of grand historical theory of patriarchy and the submission of women, and when you scratch the surface a tiny little bit you realize that it's made up. i didn't scratch the whole surface, so it's entirely possible that some of it -- the core of it? -- may not be made up. but when i scratched i found sloppiness or unabashed invention (some invention is openly acknowledged in the postscript) and, well, i am not sure i liked it.
i could be persuaded, but, right now, i don't see why alice walker needs to come up with an invented nomenclature (say) for stuff that truly exists. she doesn't offer any reason and i don't see a reason myself.
so this is what took the book south for me. the first part is beautiful, but then, well, i stopped being engaged, because i felt i was being taken for a ride, and i become unconvinced with everything. what is the relationship between adam and lisette all about? what is its narrative purpose? how do people (reviewers, etc.) know that tashi is treated by carl jung? are the clay figurines for real? do women really leave refugee camps because otherwise they'd be asked to work? what?
nice treatment of post-traumatic mental pain, and powerful, powerful indictment of genital mutilation. i thought i knew about it but i didn't know a thing. genital mutilation must stop. ...more
this is extraordinary and beautiful. i can see how it may not be everyone's cup of tea -- kind of the same reason why, say, virginia woolf is not everthis is extraordinary and beautiful. i can see how it may not be everyone's cup of tea -- kind of the same reason why, say, virginia woolf is not everyone's cup of tea. there are writers who are utterly and unflinchingly original. this is nothing if not unflinching. it doesn't hold anything back. it says what it has to say and it doesn't mince words.
i hope to be able to write a longer review soon. my one suggestion, if you read it, is to read freud's Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. your reading of this book will be all the richer and fuller.
P.S. don't listen to chuck palahniuk. you cannot possibly compare this book to a boybook. there is a quantum leap in operation that prevents comparison. this is a girlbook (NOT a girlybook) through and through. also, honestly, i wouldn't know what book to compare it to. it's its own very lovely, very shocking book.
so let me try to say more. lidia yuknavitch has clearly studied the heck out of freud's most famous case study. two of freud's major faults in his treatment of dora are a. silly interpretative moves and b. not believing dora. yuknavitch tackles those faults head on. she leaves all the interpretations intact (all freud's quotes are from the Analysis) and puts them in front of a very sad but extremely spunky, ballsy, and angry 16 year old (am i getting the age right?). the circumstances of ida/dora's life are pretty much the same in the two works, with full update to the 21st century in Y's rendition: super sad mother who's given up on life and daughter, super self-involved father engaged in an unsavory affair, shocking turn of events in which the father basically sells the daughter to his lover's husband in order to keep things quietly humming along.
this whole drama, in freud's analysis and in yuknavitch's rendition, is reproduced on dora's body. dora has problems with her voice, which comes and goes at will. in one great line (in Y's book) dora says, "My silence? It's what kept the house in order." and here let me say that i love the way Y deals with the silencing of girls who know and feel "too much." yes, dora loses her voice (then gets it again, then loses it again, etc.), but she doesn't go down. she fights back by incessantly recording other people's voices with a super duper digital recorder, and by creating films in which the voices of others (stupid voices, ordinary voices, regular city noise, etc.) form the soundtrack. when she does have her voice, dora is the most mouthy, offensive, obscene teenager you've ever met. this has shocked some readers, especially given the fact that the book is written in dora's voice so the offensiveness is not only between quotes but also in the narrative.
but that's how dora speaks. that's how dora gets mad. that's how dora fights the manipulation of adults and freud's relentless attempts at subjugating her sexuality in the name of a sexist view of things in which penises are very powerful and attractive objects and vaginas are very meek and passive objects. dora is not politically correct. not even close. dora is sixteen and hurt and angry.
dora also cuts herself. her cuts are not just injury: they are writing. she writes a new body on her own body. she writes her voice on her body. she doesn't have much to make herself heard, at least to herself, and she uses it to the max.
dora has a wonderful girlfriend whom she adores but with whom she can't make love, or ever make out, because the terrible "transgression" of expressing a woman-on-woman, or simply a female sexuality causes her to pass out.
in the meantime, freud is not a complete asshole. after all, he's the only adult in authority who pays any attention at all (though dora has a little posse of great, queer, alledgedly marginalized friends who are family and salvation and home). so there are some nice moments between dora and sig, alongside some entirely cringe-making moments which you might or might not be able to endure.
as someone who loves psychoanalysis i was happy to see that it wasn't entirely thrown under the bus. freud (the real-life guy) really screwed up with dora, but psychoanalysts (some of them at least) have learned a thing or two between then and now, and they are some of the few mental health professionals who still listen, and pay attention, and hear you.
underneath all of dora's spunk, or alongside it, there's a ton of pain: the pain of abandonment by her parents, the pain of denial of her sexuality, the pain of the utter silencing of her self. i have the impression one or two or a thousand girls and boys might find themselves in dora and say, with her, fuck yeah. cuz kids nowadays, and perhaps always, need all the help they can get.
here's a really excellent word of advice, straight out of dora's mouth, for every adult who finds him or herself in a position of helping kids, especially girl kids, and maybe girl non-kids too: "Um, brainbuster? Next time you work with a female? Ask her which city her body is. Or ocean. Give her poetry books written by women. Like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton and H.D. and Adrienne Rich and Mary Oliver and Emily Dickinson. Let her draw or pain or sign a self before. You. Say. A. Word."
finally, i want to say that this book's language will bring tear of joy to your eyes. also: it's really hilarious. like, LOL hilarious. and heartbreaking. and still hilarious. ...more
i think i've read my share of slave narratives, though of course i could read many many more, and ithis is brutal. brutal brutal brutal.
i think i've read my share of slave narratives, though of course i could read many many more, and i must say to my shame that i never felt the horror. i don't know if it's a question of habituation -- a tolerance we develop because of repeated representation -- of historical distance, or the fact that the people who suffered this tragedy didn't look like me. it may well be habituation. shamefully, i don't feel much empathy when i read shoah narratives either, but i felt outrage and sorrow in my one reading of the japanese american internment, and in some narratives of the native american holocaust.
this book, though, this book slayed me, and i think the merit goes entirely to the unique genius of octavia butler, one of the writers of all time i most respect.
you know the story. on her 26th birthday (why?) dana, an african american woman living in los angeles (why?), married to a white guy with prematurely gray hair and very light blue eyes (why?), gets "summoned" by a white ancestor of hers who lives in the past -- in fact, during slavery times -- in order to save him from drowning. in this first summoning, rufus, the white ancestor, is just a very young child, and dana's visit very short. but these summonings keep happening, and dana finds herself back in slavery times for longer and longer period of times, always ostensibly to save rufus from death, but in fact a lot longer than this salvation requires.
there is a lot here to unpack. the premise of the novel is that if rufus dies dana will not be born, which is one of those time-travel mindfuckeries better left unexplored. the real meat of it though is that dana's ancestor is a white man, that this white man is at first a young, malleable, sweet boy, but that he later becomes a grown slave owner who cannot but see dana as what she is, a black woman. (this book is so up on race politics that when at some point a white character tells dana that she occasionally forgets that she is black, dana is none too pleased and points to her black skin. black pride man.)
the relation between dana and rufus is a masterpiece of literary representation. rufus is very fond of dana, and dana is very fond of rufus. this fondness though is complicated by race (esp. on rufus's part), by education (rufus is literate only because of dana, plus dana of course knows all the history that happens after rufus's life), by culture (dana is a feminist and a race-conscious person, and this plays a really interesting role in a story in which not only brutal racism but the sexual exploitation of women are the norm), by the fact that rufus and dana are of different genders and heterosexual (so at some point the issue of sexual attraction is bound to come up), by dana's inevitable connection with other people, white and black, on the plantation, and by the role played by dana's husband, kevin.
one of the time-travel mindfuckeries is that, however long dana's and, on one occasion, kevin's stays in the past, they last only minutes or at most hours in the present of the narration (1978). so while, in her present life, dana and kevin are gone altogether barely more than a week, they stay in the past months or even years (their paths diverge at some point).
this makes for major dissonance in their lives. a happily married couple the defies traditional mores without too much risk, dana and kevin begin to find the past to which they are transported much more home than the present in which they have lived most of their lives. octavia butler is not one to explain things for the reader, but neither is she one to make her choices sloppily (this is part of why i like her so much). there is something sinister, it seems to me, in the fact that dana immediately and uncomplicatedly adapts to plantation life, just as kevin does. except kevin hangs out in the big house while dana spends most of her time in the separate building the hosts the kitchen, lending a hand. she is not quite a slave (at first she is supposed to be kevin's slave, but this doesn't last long), but, well, she of course is, cuz being a free black in maryland in the 19th century, 30 years before the civil war, means being at least a potential slave, and often a de facto slave.
the only way i can interpret this ease of adaptation is internalized racism on the part of dana, and unconscious racism on the part of kevin. while both liberated enough to genuinely love each other and be married to each other, they are also quite comfortable with falling back into modalities of hegemony and oppression, respectively. i think butler helps us along in this reading by making kevin so excessively white.
both in the past and in the present, dana and kevin have intense conversations about the plantation and its life, and these conversations seem to me very important. i haven't analyzed them properly, but it is clear that dana needs to do a fair bit of educating, not only with ignorant slave-owner rufus, but also with liberated anti-racist kevin. there are some things that neither man can really comprehend. one of these things, in kevin's case, is the consequences of dana's actions for the rest of the plantation's black population.
dana feels tremendously responsible for the slaves on the plantation. butler chooses to portray a not-too-brutal plantation, with a restrained amount of beatings (enough though to make you feel like you want to throw up) and a fairly reasonable owner (rufus's father). the people dana mostly hangs out with, not the field hands but the kitchen and house staff, have a fair quantity of autonomy and are mostly respected (i.e. left alone) by rufus's father and his wife.
this makes the explosion of retributory violence all the more gut-wrenching when it happens. whippings occur basically only when someone attempts to escape, and since dana, a contemporary woman like us, is there, and also because she seems to fit so naturally in the life of the plantation, they are all but intolerable. we identify with dana in a way in which we don't identify with any of the other slaves, and her witnessing and experiencing of whippings made me want to quit the novel several times.
another striking feature of the novel is the terrible sense of inescapability. just as dana cannot avoid being dragged back into the past any time rufus is in trouble (and rufus's troubles, though potentially lethal, are all -- meaningfully -- of a very trivial nature), she simply cannot escape the plantation. in fact, all attempts by anyone to run away are invariably thwarted. there is no escaping the relatively benign insularity of rufus's house.
except for kevin, who very pointedly spends five years all over the eastern seaboard, aiming as far north as maine, doing all sorts of things over which butler dwells minimally. the only thing we get to know is that he finds various jobs, including teaching. we don't know why he left rufus's plantation (re-encountering dana there is his only ticket back to the present) and we don't know whether his long stay in the past felt to him like a condemnation or whether he settled right in (the latter seems to be the case, as he complains of displacement only when he returns to the present). we do know that he helped slaves escape, but only because dana, pointedly, asks him.
stuck on rufus's plantation, dana adopts a sort of saintly persona. she helps the sick, she teaches literacy, she lends a hand whenever she can, she tries to educated the not-very-teachable rufus, she stands up for herself and others. in her role as helper, educator, and facilitator, she also leads to some pretty heinous turns of event, in particular and most prominently (view spoiler)[the sexual slavery of alice to rufus (hide spoiler)].
at the end, (view spoiler)[dana consciously causes the sale of all the slaves, the separation of families, and the wipe-out of the small community that has formed among the slaves at the plantation. this is not a morally blameless move. just as she aided alice's systematic rapes at the hands of rufus, she could have spared the plantation folks by allowing her own rape. this is something dana and kevin decide together. it's a deeply unsettling ending (hide spoiler)].
the most superficial lesson to be drawn from this book is that you cannot live in a situation ruled by evil without becoming part of the evil. dana chooses to survive at the cost of happiness and life of others. this is not to say that she doesn't do a ton of good. she does. but it's not untainted good, in spite of her almost-saintliness.
another lesson, often remarked upon by both dana and kevin, is that you can't live in a place in which people like you are superior, or inferior, without adopting this inferiority or superiority yourself (is this why kevin left the plantation?). it is very striking the both dana and kevin find the old plantation mansion much more home than the (brand new) home in which they live in present-day los angeles.
i love that butler focuses as much on gender oppression as she does on racial oppression. in the present time, in spite of the fact that both kevin and dana are writers with temporary blue collar jobs, kevin has already a few novels under his belt while dana has only published a few short stories. this disparity foreshadows, it seems to me, the sexual exploitation of women in the sections of the novel that take place in the past.
i find it interesting that, in spite of her being female and black, dana maintains a status of moral superiority at the plantation, with the whites and with the blacks, but mostly, i believe, with the whites. rufus and family are afraid of an educated black person, and dana works very hard at teaching the children at the plantation how to read and write. the moral superiority that comes to her from self-assurance, education, and the magic way in which she shows up and leaves, allows us to see the ways in which slave-time culture can be stretched toward progressivism and the ways in which it just can't. there are things even dana cannot affect.
i'm sure i left out a lot. maybe others have thoughts to add? of course there's a ton written about this classic, so these are only fresh and off-the-cuff reflections about a most remarkable book. ...more
i just taught this for the first time. for some reason, this time around the book had a tremendously disruptive impact on me. it was, simply put, likei just taught this for the first time. for some reason, this time around the book had a tremendously disruptive impact on me. it was, simply put, like going through a trauma experience. the last part, about the three stages of recovery, gave me palpable relief, as if i were going through recovery myself as i read the book with the class.
reading it with a group made a huge difference. at least some of the students experienced some level of traumatization. it was important to debrief at the end. some felt compelled to share stories. all reported discussing the book outside of class. the level of attentiveness during discussion was so high you could tell who had done the reading and who hadn't.
this book is not about a generically traumatizing world; it's about regularly misdiagnosed mental pain. the number of mental health professionals who are willing to journey with a patient to the roots of trauma is minimal. the number of those who have the competence, training, and wisdom to do so safely and successfully is so tiny, if you find one it's a miracle. most mental health professionals will misdiagnose post-traumatic syndromes. most mental health professionals will slap demeaning and belittling diagnoses on you and declare you sick for life and doomed to a lifetime of maintenance-drug use. most won't even feel the need to talk to you. it's amazing the way trauma imposes its stealth on the world of healers. the refusal to recognize it and deal with it is as persistent in healers as it is in sufferers.
a student was brave enough -- and healed enough -- to discuss a traumatic experience of their own in class. gently, we asked questions. gently, we helped them see how they were reproducing in their narrative the telltale symptoms of the traumatized person ("it was nothing;" "people have it much worse;" "i am ashamed of my reaction;" "i am trying not to give in to weakness and fear"). it was pretty intense, and i hope healing, for all of us. the student's openness helped us see that they are okay. one can experience trauma and be okay. after reading the horrors depicted in this book -- what a relief.
there are mental health professionals who know how to deal with trauma and if you have a traumatized past you should look for them. at the very least, you should look for a survivor group (the internet will do in a pinch). trauma doesn't heal in isolation. trauma is a dramatic break in relationship (with the world, with others, with the self, with god) and can only heal in relationship.
there are aspects in which this book is dated. its feminism is a bit black and white, and ignores the myriad ways in which gender-related trauma cross-pollinates across gender boundaries (such as they are; they constantly reshape themselves anyway). men get beaten, threatened, and raped too. women go to war. violent men are often themselves trauma victims. the low-level traumatization in which all women are steeped qua women has a low-level traumatic correspondent in guys. if 1 in x women will be raped in their lifetimes, 1 in x guys will be raping a woman in their lifetimes. as JH demonstrates when she talks of war, the perpetration of violence leaves the perpetrator scarred. yet, she does not extend this observation to civilian life. this is a mistake. we try to understand and forgive the horrors soldiers perpetrate under orders on the battlefield (whatever that is; that specific spacial designation no longer exists), but we are loath to understand the pressures that push men to take their rage out on women, children, other men, and, increasingly, strange bystanders in our civilian communities.
what lies behind school shootings and other civilian rampages? diagnosing and medicating mental pain away, clearly, is not working. we have to restructure our culture of psychic healing from the ground up. it has to be based on deep listening, deep investigation, and a genuine, long-term commitment to the well-being of the patient. too few graduate programs in psychology train therapists in the arts of deep listening and deep therapy. this is a crisis we can no longer afford to ignore. ...more