Literary Fiction by People of Color discussion

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message 1: by Wilhelmina (last edited Jun 30, 2011 08:12PM) (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments July 1 begins our discussion of Unburnable: A Novel by Marie-Elena John. The discussion will be led by Christine. Here's a little biographical information about John from her website http://www.marie-elenajohn.com/index.php :

Born and raised in Antigua, Marie-Elena John wasn’t considering a writing career when she left her Caribbean island for New York’s City College. There, thanks to a semester spent at the University of Nigeria, she became fascinated by the intertwined cultural commonality of the Continent, the Caribbean, and the African-American experiences. After graduating as CCNY’s first Black woman valedictorian, she went on to earn a Masters degree from Columbia University, focusing on culture and development in Africa. From a Washington D.C. base throughout the 1990s, she worked with non-profit organizations, traveling throughout Africa, first in support of grassroots development efforts, later working with pro-democracy and human rights movements, and eventually becoming best known in her field for her pioneering work on the denial of women’s inheritance rights in Africa. Recently, though, she has been channeling her vast knowledge of and passion for the African Diaspora into her dazzling literary debut, Unburnable – a multi-generational novel that powerfully brings together Caribbean history, African customs, and African-American sensibilities, published by HarperCollin’s Amistad in April 2006.

Her website also has a list of reviews and interviews as well as an interesting Q & A page.

Enjoy!


message 2: by William (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1288 comments Mod
I have finished the book while on a short vacay down in Puerto Rico. It was a little funny watching commercials on the television encouraging me to hop on over to Dominica and other nearby islands mentioned in the book while there. I even got to see taped vistas and video of the mountain that plays such a central part in the novel. I also have more than most folks knowledge of the tiny place given that I once dated a young lady from there. With my tongue firmly in cheek I can say..Wish I'd read this book first! There were quite a few other surprising links I had to the story that I may share later if pertinent to the discussion. But as an overall impression of the book I must say that I was at times engrossed and others ready to throw the thing in a corner and walk away. I see a future discussion filled with seesawing comments (from me).


message 3: by William (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1288 comments Mod
I really would like to know what the women of this group thought of the first couple pages of the book. As a male and distinct minority here all I can say is..I was definitely taken aback. Do you think that the opening scene was for shock and prurient sake to draw a reader in or maybe if the story had a male protagonist I would have hardly noticed? (Not me personally but me who has never read a book that opened so graphically?)...


message 4: by Jo (new)

Jo | 8 comments William wrote: "I really would like to know what the women of this group thought of the first couple pages of the book. As a male and distinct minority here all I can say is..I was definitely taken aback. Do you t..."

Hi all

I was planning on missing this months read as it isn't in the library and I have over spent my book budget this month, already..... but after your posed question to the group I am intrigued.


message 5: by Rebecca (last edited Jul 02, 2011 07:56AM) (new)

Rebecca | 386 comments William, I read the first chapter a few weeks ago. At the end I said Whoah!! It kind of scared me off. But hearing about your recent travels makes me want to try again. I look forward to your comments.


message 6: by Koritha (new)

Koritha Mitchell | 13 comments William wrote: "I really would like to know what the women of this group thought of the first couple pages of the book. As a male and distinct minority here all I can say is..I was definitely taken aback. Do you t..."

William, what an important question! I was definitely taken aback. And there were many moments when I felt very uneasy. I had very visceral responses that left me grimacing and cringing. And it only got worse when I knew the details of this having been done to her by a woman and "up to the elbow." My goodness! I have to say that I'm not big on this kind of graphic stuff, but one way that I could get through this was because of the amount of attention John gives to sexual injustice more generally. I was particularly struck by the emphasis on Matilda's giving up the love of her life because he was giving sexual help to men whose wives wouldn't welcome the heightened activity (around pg 36). Attention to women's awareness of other women's sexual activity comes to the fore again around 58 in a more complicated way. And, of course, we get even more details about Matilda's understanding of that situation at the end of the novel. (I stuck with it and finished the novel.)

I was definitely uncomfortable with the graphic nature of some of this prose. I read it while in Aruba last week and found myself having random "flashbacks" of the description. Not cute! But I guess that also means that John's prose is vivid. But I guess I was committed to getting through it because she also took up some very important issues around women's sense of ethics toward each other in sexual matters. I suspect that I'll say more about this as the discussion progresses, but that gives you a sense of how I dealt with the discomfort.


message 7: by Koritha (new)

Koritha Mitchell | 13 comments William very much describes my experience of reading this book when he says that he "was at times engrossed and others ready to throw the thing in a corner and walk away." :-) Still, what I found absolutely compelling was the book's interest in complicating our view of religion, especially Christianity. When we are introduced to Simon, the narrator explains: "It was not so much that the Europeans had come and had conquered that bothered Simon, because, after all, so had the Island Caribs, come up from South America in their canoes only a few hundred years before.... But these white people did not think they had to earn the land by fighting for it, they did not expect to spill *their* blood over it. This was the unbearable thing for Simon, that white people had shown up and told his ancestors that they were entitled to land not theirs, entitled to enslave other human beings simply because of their God, A SPECIAL KIND OF GOD WHO WOULD NOT TOLERATE OTHER PEOPLE'S GODS" (21-22). And John keeps this issue at the surface throughout the novel, and it ends up being such a key at the end. Wilhelmina's introduction emphasizes John's investment in understanding the African Diaspora. I think that this religion issue is central to what John wants readers to recognize about the experiences of those dispersed by the European tendency that offends Simon.


message 8: by Rashida (new)

Rashida | 264 comments Well, it certainly did make me sit up and pay attention. It was an... interesting way to debut. But it didn't bother me. What did bother me was the dwelling on the subject. Ok, I get it. They are the most beautiful women you'll lay eyes on, and they have magical [blank] powers, and they use their aggressive sexuality as the only sphere of life where they have any control. Point made. There was so much other interesting stuff that it annoyed me that so much was spent on that.


message 9: by William (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1288 comments Mod
John teases us a bit in the first pages alluding to the damage done by a coke bottle. {SPOILERS} But when the actual grisly rape scene is described later, one would have to be exceptionally hard hearted not to cringe. I remember a voice in the back of my head say no no don't go there..but she did go there and much farther. They take dishonoring one's family name to a whole new level. Which by the way was a qualm of mine. Wasn't this punishment truly overkill and over the top...even in a "backwards" place like Dominica?


message 10: by Kristin (new)

Kristin | 4 comments Just finished the book and need to ponder it for a while. The theme that stands out for me most at this time is human misunderstanding and the problems that arise from knowing only half-truths. It is so damned easy to come to the wrong conclusion when we know only part of the story.

For some reason, I wasn't at all put off by the first chapter. I assume living under colonization gives rise to all kinds of bizarre realities and uncomfortable (for us first worlders) choices. With limited access to real power, woman make the most of other "powers", be they sexual, religious, ceremonial, customs, decorations, etc.


message 11: by William (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1288 comments Mod
There are a number of themes explored in the novel but as Koritha and Kristin point out womens sexual power and limitations is one of the strongest. And is it this three generation long history of sexual abuse, trauma, and in many instances freedom the cause of Lillians "insanity". I didn't agree with John's choice of making Lillian enfeebled and at the mercy of her maternal past. I would have preferred to see her emboldened and stronger for it. For as Kristin says these were women trying to make the most of the limited power they had and Lillian was coming off as a real dunderhead in her inability to recognize that. And talking of dunderheads..John really needs to go back to the drawing board on her male characters...I found very little realistic or believable about Teddy. He thinks her crazy but still follows her to the mountains percipice as she's poised for flight?? I have but one reason I can think of that a man would do that and its definitely NSFW....


message 12: by Rashida (new)

Rashida | 264 comments Holy Guacamole! Have you all seen this? http://www.theroot.com/views/haiti-ma.... Really only tangentially related, but it did make me think of this novel immediately.


message 13: by Kristin (new)

Kristin | 4 comments Oh, Rashida, that is not going to end well. White women are entitled to use any country we want in our effort to overcome our personal traumas! And yes, that was sarcasm.

William, I'd like to challenge your adjective "enfeebled" in regard to Lillian. She has been deliberately deprived of information and kept separated from her peers. She lacks basic skills and knowledge. Even so, she takes on challenges and takes actions (bringing a gift to Myrtle?!) that few would dare.


message 14: by William (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1288 comments Mod
OK...not enfeebled..handicapped by her deprivation of information. As you say for good reasons but which makes me not as sympathetic to her character as I am to most of the other women.


message 15: by Karen (new)

Karen | 16 comments William wrote: "OK...not enfeebled..handicapped by her deprivation of information. As you say for good reasons but which makes me not as sympathetic to her character as I am to most of the other women."

On the whole I found it very difficult to be sympathetic towards Lillian. Can a person really suffer from PTSD because a loved one tried to shelter you from learning about the trauma suffered by others?


message 16: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments Rashida wrote: "Holy Guacamole! Have you all seen this? http://www.theroot.com/views/haiti-ma.... Really only tangentially related, but it did make me think of this novel immediately."

hey rashida. i read the mac mcclelland article and i find it tremendously good. i don't think she exploits haiti or any other country at all. here it is . check it for yourself.

and here is a measured response to mac's testimonial from a group of women journalists and writers, among them edwidge danticat. they didn't quite like her piece either.

finally, a piece by another haitian writer who has read both pieces and stands up for mac.

actually, there's quite a lot written on this by women of color, white women, women journalists, etc. me, i agree entirely with raxane gay. mac mcclelland puts herself in the way of danger in order to report about human rights all the time, and her reporting is respectful, compassionate, and first-rate. in the PTSD/sex piece, she was simply talking about how she experienced things. that was her only point. in the future, she can choose to write another piece putting her experience in the context of her being a white american journalists who portrays haiti through a certain lens. it's for her to decide. this specific piece speaks uniquely about her trauma. trauma victims are entitled to their pain, whatever the political circumstances of the trauma-causing context. there are no bad traumas, you-don't-get-it traumas, get-over-it traumas, inappropriate traumas, or you-intentionally-put-yourself-in-the-way-of-danger traumas. no, no such thing, ever. trauma is legitimate in itself.

and by the way, since Unburnable is so much about trauma (and its legitimacy), race, and context, i don't think this is off topic at all.


message 17: by Koritha (new)

Koritha Mitchell | 13 comments I have to say that William's comment about Teddy made me chuckle. What I found most unbelievable about Teddy is related to my interest in what this novel is doing regarding religion. John made him a little too simple on the question, painting him a little too easily as an agnostic or something. And, given how much religion is shown to be a driving force in ways that we don't always recognize, I found that odd. But, perhaps, his religion is social climbing. I kind of think that John had a hint that Teddy wasn't as strong a character as he needed to be and the obsession with Lilian tries to do more work than it can. That is, if we buy that he's obsessed with her, maybe we'll overlook how much what William suggests is true. :-) Yep, still chuckling about John needing to go back to the drawing board on male characters!


message 18: by Koritha (new)

Koritha Mitchell | 13 comments I find Christine's comments about limited power and responsibility so important. John is good about holding those thing in tension. We get a sense of the limits on the characters' lives but we are always shown their insistence upon caring about what they can do for others. That is, there's no sense of a focus on simple survival; they are all interested in what they can do to maintain dignity for themselves and those they care about. I feel like that's what creates (as Christine put it) the "swinging back and forth between power and powerlessness," which I find quite rich in terms of what this book works to get readers to think about.


message 19: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments i finished this last night and i must say that i totally, completely, and passionately love this book. have no qualms about it at all. it seems to me a work of genius. so much is packed in it in terms of history, sociology, psychology, and plain suspense. i found it a real page-turner.

i read on john's website that chimamanda adichie read this book on a plane and laughed all the way through. wow. i think i chuckled a few times and some passages were definitely funny, but... laugh all the way through?

humor is so subjective. if anyone else found this book funny, can you share?


message 20: by Wilhelmina (last edited Jul 09, 2011 11:52AM) (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I'm still reading, but, no, laughing didn't come to mind. But then people laugh for different reasons. I would love to know Adichie's reason!

If I were guessing, I would guess laughter of delight at the skill of a fellow author, but who knows?


message 21: by William (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1288 comments Mod
I though the old woman who thought she had left the burden of sec behind her only to "bothered" daily by her newly invigorated husband pretty funny. hopefully as I enter senior years her reaction was an anomaly and not the norm!


message 22: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I'm posting this link, but jo found it. It's John talking about the book.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ueRwNT...


In the video, John says that she sees Iris as the strongest character in the book. Did anyone else see it that way?


message 23: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I finished the book, and I have to say the hypersexualism of this book was annoying to me. I understand that John wanted to emphasize women's sexual power, but no one, from prostitutes to wives, had what I would consider regular happy sex. It was all violent, damaging, and over the top. I have no problem with sex in the context of books, but it might have been nice had it not always resulted in physical injury or trauma.


message 24: by Rashida (new)

Rashida | 264 comments I don't know if I think Iris or Matilda is stronger. Iris survives a tremendously damaging experience. And she negotiates her world in a way that she can "exact revenge" against those who harmed her, and she makes sure her child is well cared for. But on the other hand, Matilda stands by the courage of her convictions, even when it means losing her true love, and ultimately losing her life. In between she leads an entire community in secrecy and isolation, with tremendous success.

The weakling here- have to agree with William and Karen. It's Lillian. Her trauma, that leads her to be so shattered she jumps off a mountain, is that her stepmother loved her. That's what it really boils down to. the one way in which I related to Teddy was the sense he had that he had to be missing something. this feeling that, there has to be some other bad thing that Lillian isn't divulging. Because her response is just out of proportion. As far as I could tell from Lillian's own introspection, it would be impossible for an American to understand her level of upset, because it is just deeply rooted in the feeling of Dominica. Like the island itself has some malevolent intention towards this family of women.

I think a large question in this book revolves around that label of insanity. At first, it is assumed that all three generations are "insane." As the story unfolds, it becomes quite clear that Matilda is as sane as they come, any indications to the contrary are cultural miscommunications. Iris still carries the "insane" label, although some of her actions have been explained and seem to not be so irrational. The final question though is Lillian. She carried that label with her when she left the island in shame, and seems to still be marked with it, judging by Myrtle's reaction to her. But, I felt that John wanted us to feel that Lillian is very sane and rational, and very empowered in making her decisions. But, if that's the case, then she's just plain unlikable. What did others think. Do we think that Lillian is mentally ill, and we should be impressed that she manages to cope and negotiate the world in the way that she has?


message 25: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments i want to talk about this book at length because i loved it, but i am noticing that this desire is increasingly getting in the way of writing anything at all about it. so here are two things:

1. people here have been pointing out the book's (in mina's words) hypersexuality but, seriously, there isn't a single sex scene that i remember. i, for one, didn't perceive it as hypersexual. as for non-damaged sex, young iris seems to be having pretty blissful sex with her first lover, whose name, in spite of his importance in the novel, i just can't now remember.

2. i don't think lillian is weak. i think she is uprooted and terribly confused. she has a lot in her past that she can't decode. she doesn't fit in in america (john's sharp analysis of the difference between african americans and african dominicans is something we should talk about i think). she is hiding herself behind teddy and doing his work for him (for free! why?). maybe she is weak in the sense that she's not yet come into her own. in the trip back to the island, she finally comes into her own. i don't see her suicide as a sign of mental illness (i have qualms about the whole concept of mental illness anyway). i see it as doing what her maroon ancestors chose to do because it was the thing their religion dictated. you die before you become enslaved again. if you watch the video interview with marie-elena john you'll find she says that she thinks of the end liberatory. i do too.


message 26: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments jo wrote: "young iris seems to be having pretty blissful sex with her first lover, whose name, in spite of his importance in the novel, i just can't now remember...."

But, jo, she's just a naive young girl being exploited by an older man! She doesn't see the relationship the way her mother did or the way the other townspeople did - she thinks they're going to get married and live happily ever after. That's just sad.

jo wrote: "i don't see her suicide as a sign of mental illness (i have qualms about the whole concept of mental illness anyway). i see it as doing what her maroon ancestors chose to do because it was the thing their religion dictated. you die before you become enslaved again. if you watch the video interview with marie-elena john you'll find she says that she thinks of the end liberatory. i do too..."

I can not see the end as a positive one. I know that John says that she sees Lillian as healed at the end. I don't see it at all.


message 27: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments she joins her people. she will finally belong. to her, she's going somewhere, not simply leaving here. for the first time, she does something meaningful for herself. THEY ARE CALLING HER. finally, with her ancestors, she will get all the answers, and then some.


message 28: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments She's not getting answers; she's getting dead.


message 29: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments well some of us believe in lives after/beyond/alongside this physical, earthly one.


message 30: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I do, but there is no way to know that existence while in this one. Even in the context of this novel, we can't know whether anything that Lillian experiences from the other realm is real. I see Lillian as terribly broken and obsessed with her grandmother. Like many suicidal people, she seems inextricably drawn to death and, when what she's hearing Teddy say about her grandmother doesn't suit her, she gives in to the call of death. To me, that is the opposite of healed. The maroons committed mass suicide to avoid slavery and imprisonment. Lillian escapes to avoid life. And she leaves behind people who will feel guilty for the rest of their lives about failing her, especially poor Teddy! She has played on his long-term love for her, dragged him into this situation where he has done everything she has asked of him, and then off she flies, wondering what songs will be sung about her.

I really, really hate the ending of this book.


message 31: by Kristin (last edited Jul 11, 2011 05:14PM) (new)

Kristin | 4 comments Christine wrote: "I was hoping that John ended the novel the way she did to leave the ending open..."

There is good reason to conclude Lillian did not commit suicide. John repeatedly leads us to think one story is true, then later we discover that the truth is altogether different. It's a pervasive theme in the book. That's what I was thinking as I read the ending.

Christine wrote: "She's the only character trying to find some semblance of integration being stretched between two cultures in which both have been destructive to her sense of self and growth."

Yes! John shows us that over and over. You cannot understand what really happened until you make that stretch. Only those who have made the effort are close to understanding the truth: Matilda, Iris, Lillian, the nun, her husband. They aren't completely aware, but they get closer than most.

Those who don't make the stretch: the upper class family, Teddy, the diplomat from Africa, continue to misunderstand what is happening right before their eyes.

For more info on the MacClelland essay, Edwidge Danticat posted an article at Essence, including a letter from K* (the rape survivor Mac interviewed) and her lawyer. Both Mother Jones and MacClelland plus the Haiti aid group respond in the comment sections: http://www.essence.com/2011/07/09/edw...


message 32: by Rashida (new)

Rashida | 264 comments Wilhelmina wrote: "I do, but there is no way to know that existence while in this one. Even in the context of this novel, we can't know whether anything that Lillian experiences from the other realm is real. I see Li..."

I agree with everything you say in this comment, Mina. And I'm a bit surprised at the Teddy hate from other members. He seems a bit of a fool for sure. I mean these are some crazy lengths to go to for sex. But maybe he does really love her. For what, I can't say... But he's doing her a real solid here. And by the end of the book, he's one of the only people who do have a true understanding of what happened, because he was persistent in uncovering it. He dug beneath those layers, and he did it for Lillian. That is, after all, what she said she wanted. But when she started to get to the truth, she flees from it instead having the courage to confront it. She kills herself to avoid knowing more, when ostensibly the fact that she was kept in the dark is the thing that she is protesting. I can't with this one. Yeah, when I realized that the next page was "acknowledgments" and not another chapter, so I was at the end... Ooh, I wish I had a mountain to throw that book off of, myself.


message 33: by Rashida (new)

Rashida | 264 comments Ok, I've made quite clear what I didn't like about the book. But, I will say, I found "the truth" about Up There to be riveting. I wish that we could have seen more of that.


message 34: by Karen (new)

Karen | 16 comments This book was a great example of the limitation of the star ratings. I gave this book 4 stars because it has burned itself into my memory; not neccessarily because "I really liked it." I'm still having flashbacks. (Can you get PTSD from a book?)

However, I felt that the sex that was ever present to always had a negative aspect to it. Iris was 14, and then became a alcoholic prostitute. Lillian was "damaged" and seemed to be using sex to hurt either her partner or herself.

As an "Ethnic Catholic" I found the treatment of religion equally as troubling. The idea that a priest would essential "punish" a child but not allowing her to recieve the host on the occassion of her first communion; was absolutely inconceivable to me.

The one theme, that of a 20th century Maroon village, was the most interesting and I felt, the least explored.


message 35: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Agreed, Rashida and Karen. Learning more about "Noir" would have been great.


message 36: by William (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1288 comments Mod
I think that John deftly handled and exposed the blend of Afro-American, African, Caribbean, and European cultures. She literally showed me how being steeped in one culture and blind to others can cause one to make erroneous assumptions about the motives and behaviors of people not in your own clan. Even though I have first hand knowledge of the African practice of labolo, I didn't think of it as an explanation of Matilda's reaction to Iris status as a mistress until John wrote about it. She also showed the Nun's (I've forgotten her name) folly in judging Matilda solely through the lens of her European experiences. Surely an allegory for the entire imperial colonial experience.


message 37: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments William wrote: "She literally showed me how being steeped in one culture and blind to others can cause one to make erroneous assumptions about the motives and behaviors of people not in your own clan."

True, Bill, and, of course, Matilda's cultural experience meant that she completely misjudged that relationship. Iris was not a treasured younger second wife; she was used by a selfish, unfeeling older man.


message 38: by Karen (new)

Karen | 16 comments Wilhelmina wrote: "True, Bill, and, of course, Matilda's cultural experience meant that she completely misjudged that relationship. Iris was not a treasured younger second wife; she was used by a selfish, unfeeling older man."

Agreed. Lack of "cross-cultural competency" is a handicapping condition for everyone. Matilda lived in one world John Baptiste and his family in another. Unfortunately, it was Iris that paid the ultimate price.



message 39: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I was curious to know what people thought about the ex-nun, Mary-Alice. Was her transformation from nun to dreadlocks-wearing Rastafarian believable?


message 40: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments you know, i don't think that "believable" is applicable to this book. i don't think it's a book that aims to be believable, at least not literally so. but i LOVED mary-alice. talk about cross-pollination. the whole interplay of catholicism, folk culture, traditional medicine, animism, and magic is one of the most fabulous aspects of this book for me.

mary-alice also speaks to this book's interest in women's sexuality. hey, how about the love of mary-alice for... jeez, what's his name, mina? no violence, no brutality, just lots of love and tenderness and kids and strength.


message 41: by Koritha (new)

Koritha Mitchell | 13 comments I've been off longer than expected. I had internet access while in Ireland, but my time there was even more hectic than expected. I love seeing the direction that the discussion has taken! The day before I left, I saw a white woman with dreads exactly as John describes Mary-Alice's. Seeing that in Columbus, Ohio was a trip in itself!

What I took from John's description of Mary-Alice's love was that it was based on 1) her view of him as exotic and 2) her sexual repression, which she threw off upon encountering him. So, while it's free of the violence of other relationships (as Jo reminds us), I saw it as another example of the limitations caused by (in William's words) "being steeped in one culture and blind to others." I say that because, in my view, exoticizing other people is just a more "positive" form of stereotyping. So, it seems to me that the longevity of their relationship may have less to do with how much better their love/relationship is than the others that John portrays and more to do with Mary-Alice having cut herself off from other options. Especially given how abruptly Mary-Alice left the church (as Christine emphasizes), it's like John made her into a character who illustrates the old saying, "Once you go black, you never go back." I know I'm oversimplifying by making that connection, but part of what I'm saying is that I don't think John gives us ANY good relationships in this book, and I think her refusal to do so is saying something powerful and disturbing.

The question is, what is the inability to imagine good relationships in the context of this book about? John's view of the consequences of colonization, etc. or John's view of Dominica or something else?? I don't know a lot of John's other writing but--while I'm on the topic of exoticizing others--I have to say that I wondered if John paints her home, Antigua, with the same exoticizing brush that she uses for Dominica. While I continue to see value in the questions that John raises about women's ethical responsibilities to each other in sexual matters, I totally get what Wilhelmina and others are saying about how troubling they found the treatment of sexuality. So, I wonder if the oversexualizing is also linked to my question about whether John is exoticizing Dominica.


message 42: by Koritha (new)

Koritha Mitchell | 13 comments Thanks so much for mentioning this, Christine. I have not read Kincaid's *The Autobiography of My Mother*, but I'm glad to know that such portrayals of Dominica may be common among writers and not something I should assume has more meaning because it's coming from someone who isn't from there. I look forward to seeing people's answer to your question about other examples. Thanks!!!


message 43: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments That is intriguing, Christine, I haven't read The Autobiography of My Mother either. Does anyone have any idea why these themes might be so prevalent in books set in Dominica? Is this more true for books set in Dominica than for the rest of the Caribbean nations?


message 44: by George (new)

George | 759 comments still on vacation but I just picked up the book yesterday at Borders. I've avoided reading much of the discussion so far but it certainly looked like everyone found it very interesting. I'm looking forward to diving into it.


message 45: by William (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1288 comments Mod
Christine, I think that John gave Lillian the liberation she sought through her suicide. Of course it was an ending at odds with the Western/Christian view of suicide as a "sin" and impediment to ones entrance into heaven/ultimate liberation. I think John had this one last "cultural shock/reversal" card up her sleeve in allowing Lillian to plunge to her death as a way out and to free herself of her pain. I think most of us as Western reader view that decision as unacceptable whereas to others suicide is a legitimate choice. While I can empathize with Lillians choice my problem is with the circumstances surrounding that choice. I always got the feeling that Lillians torment and actions were outsized and overblown, those of a drama queen rather than a truly haunted individual. To me she seemed a little nutty.


message 46: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Do we actually know that in Dominican culture, suicide is more acceptable, Bill? Or in the West African culture replicated in the village of Noir? I know very little about suicide in other cultures.


message 47: by William (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1288 comments Mod
Not saying that at all...I don't know enough about it either (culture in Dominica) but I assume that Lillian was drawing upon her roots because of the mass suicide of the Maroon village. And in the wider world, certainly in the East, suicide is sometimes a noble act.

As tiny Carribean islands go, Dominica is smaller than most. I would think the culture there is not much different than most of the surrounding ones. I think that one should not take the happenings in the book to literally. I think that John has taken many parts of fables, legends and some true events from all over the Caribbean and woven her story and placed it on that island.


message 48: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I'm going to go ahead and make this comment, even though I didn't want to. Maybe it's just me, but I am a little weary of the color stereotyping of Black women. We had Matilda - African, dark-skinned, matriarch, strong as nails, willing to decide matters of life and death. Then we have her mixed-race daughter and granddaughter - beautiful beyond belief, fragile, sexually enticing, etc, etc. I have seen "Aunt Sarah" and "Sweet Thing" (from Nina Simone's "Four Women") a few too many times to find them interesting. Now I feel very mean, but I had to say it.


message 49: by Koritha (new)

Koritha Mitchell | 13 comments Wilhelmina wrote: "I'm going to go ahead and make this comment, even though I didn't want to. Maybe it's just me, but I am a little weary of the color stereotyping of Black women. We had Matilda - African, dark-skinn..."

Yes, I think it needed to be said. I think that's part of what made me suspicious on the exoticizing issue more generally. I understand that authors can't be limited by readers' potential complaints about their work reinforcing stereotypes, but that doesn't mean that readers have to pretend that we're impressed by what amounts to annoyingly consistent patterns, not innovation and creativity.

Okay, so you don't have to feel mean because your wording is very nice compared to mine! :-)


message 50: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Thanks, Koritha! I'm not alone!


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