“Belle” in Context

If you’re like me, and you’ve spent the last 15 years or so reading and writing about nineteenth-century British literature, the release of “Belle” does more than just provide a moment of personal joy. The cinematic rendering of a real figure from the 1800s represents a moment when the ivory (ahem) tower and popular culture intersect to produce a film that, even with its flaws, is set to change the way we read, understand, and, more importantly, imagine the period. I didn’t choose to study nineteenth-century British literature and culture in order to think about race and representation, but my work to understand the ideologies behind and underneath canon formation led me there, and in my book project that thinks about how women’s bodies function as the site for ideological debates, black women’s bodies have popped up so often that I decided they needed their own chapter—right there between a chapter about Jane Austen’s courtship novels and a chapter on Mary Shelley’s indictment of imperialism. In other words, I’ve been thinking and writing about all of those invisible Belles that do not yet have their own narratives. And, as someone who brings pop culture into her classes so often that terms like “highbrow” and “lowbrow” are practically useless, I’ve been particularly curious about why we had Zombie Austen before we had Black Austen.

BelleWhile “Belle” has not marketed itself as an Austen adaptation (Amma Asante describes it as a “Jane Austen-style period romance”), the film brings to mind Rozema’s 1999 adaptation of Mansfield Park. Asante’s film tells the story of a young woman who could easily have been Fanny Price’s doppelgänger. Dido Belle Lindsay is a young woman with ties to the wealthy and the landed and, like all of Austen’s heroines, is wending her way through the marriage market towards a suitable and companionate marriage. She’s beautiful, charming, and feisty. She’s also black or, more specifically, bi-racial—the daughter of a slave and a navy admiral, and in the film her very presence in the household of the Earl of Mansfield is the spark behind his ruling on the Zong Massacre. What this means is that in addition to selecting the right mate, she has to do so while walking a tightrope of race and gender and the respectability politics that prompted Kelli Goff (bless her heart) to forget that this is still at it’s heart a film that holds up white supremacy and patriarchy, even at the very end.

In the trailer for the film, we see the young Belle transported from a port town to a large estate in much the same way that Fanny Price is transported from Portsmouth (a slave port) to an English estate that relies on the products of the slave trade. Belle faces a stern benefactor, but Harold Pinter, who portrays Sir Thomas Bertram, the patriarch of Rozema’s “Mansfield Park,” has been replaced with Tom Wilkinson, who Austen fans might recognize from his turn as a dying Mr. Dashwood at the beginning of Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility.” The questions that Austen’s heroine Fanny faces about her place in the family (somewhere between servant and sister) are here in the film. Belle, like Fanny, has to choose between two men—a moral man with virtually no social or economic capital and a man whose view of her is, let’s just say, problematic.

This is not to suggest that “Belle” is simply a remake of Rozema’s adaptation or Austen’s novel. Misan Sagay’s screenplay is its own beautifully crafted narrative and Asante’s direction shows the kind of restraint necessary for a story that could so easily slip into the sentimental and overwrought. Seeing this movie was like watching an essay in moving images. More than considering it an Austen adaptation and/or a period film that paints by the numbers, I see it as a true palimpsest that reminds us of the Austen we know while inviting us to understand what she only hints at in her novels. It presents relationships between women of color and white women that are both tense and affectionate. It draws explicit connections between the marriage market and the slave trade, something Mary Wollstonecraft does in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It offers a lesson in how inheritance laws trapped both women and men. It shows the limits of sentimental progressive politics. And it does so by placing the fate of a woman of color at the center of its narrative to reveal the limits of picture perfect perfection.

We’ve seen alternative narratives that shift the focus from white main characters to a person of color (Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargosso Sea, the prequel to Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and its multiple film adaptations come immediately to mind), but Austen’s world has remained white in the public imagination, even though, in Emma and Persuasion, the issue of the slave trade is not entirely invisible. When we do encounter people of color in Austen’s world they are in contemporary adaptations. The most popular are Amy Heckerling’s almost flawless “Clueless,” set in a modern high with a multi-racial student body, and Gurinder Chada’s much less successful Bollywood Adaptation “Bride and Prejudice” (full disclosure: In the bottom of some filing cabinet sits my own attempt at a modern adaptation of Austen I co-wrote while driving across the country one summer. It’s called “Emma Jones.” Everyone in it is black. It’s not very good. Let’s leave it at that). To even introduce race and slavery into Austen is such a tricky prospect that Rozema had to prepare audiences for her Mansfield Park by making explicit that her intention was interpretation not fidelity.

Those who defended her film from critiques and rants of Austen purists did so from a place of well-intentioned but historically inaccurate indulgence, accepting that Rozema is projecting late twentieth-century politics back onto the nineteenth. But an adaptation likes “Belle” makes clear that what we now know allows us to re-imagine a world that Austen would have known but that would not fit into the courtship rituals she always satirized and sometimes endorsed. The specter of a racialized body in Austen’s world of manners would change the social alchemy of her novels. If her goal was to satirize courtship rituals, slavery didn’t lend itself to a lady’s humor or wit. It’s worth remembering, however, that British white women wrote about slavery and abolition during Austen’s time. In fact, depicting the horrors that slavery visited upon women and children in particular became rather fashionable among women writers of the time. They weren’t poking fun at its practitioners and defenders; instead they either went towards the completely sentimental (see Hannah More) or the pragmatic (see the interracial marriage in the first edition of Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda). We can count Mansfield Park as Austen’s contribution to that conversation and “Belle” might well complete it. As I often remind my students, Austen chose to make explicit what makes life at Mansfield Park possible.

Of course, people of color have been present in British prose from at least as early as the seventeenth century, but on college syllabi and in the public imagination they are far and few between: Othello (1604), Oroonoko (1688), Equiano (1797), and Miss Swartz in Vanity Fair (1848). In the twenty years since Edward Said’s focus on the “dead silence” in his post-colonial manifesto Culture and Imperialism  scholars and other storytellers are paying more attention to the presence of people in color in historical British narratives. In his new edition of the 1808 novel The Woman of Colour: A Tale Lyndon Dominique lists 50 long prose fiction and plays from 1605 to 1861 that include characters of color, roughly half of which were published during Austen’s time. We have been seeing new editions of some of those stories at a steady pace. The 1994 edition of Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda shows a black servant on the cover. Edited by Katherine Kirkpatrick for Oxford University Press, it presents the original novel with the interracial marriage of Juba an African servant and Lucy an English farm girl (Edgeworth was pressured to remove the marriage). In 1999, the same year of Rozema’s “Mansfield Park,” Oxford University Press released a new edition of Adeline Mowbray a novel published in 1804 which features a West Indian woman and her son as saviors and companions to the title character. In 2002, just before I finished my doctorate, the Broadview edition of Wuthering Heights issued. I was planning my history of the British novel class and when arrived it had a Moor on the cover; not the desolate landscape of my well-annotated Norton edition but an actual Moor and I remember writing a colleague: “When did we go from Laurence Olivier to Laurence Fishburn?” The cover of the 2008 edition of The Woman of Colour: A Tale (1808) is a detail from a painting in the collection of the Earl of Mansfield. The painting is titled “Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray”—the two young women in Asante’s adaption. In the novel, “Dido” is the name of the heroine’s black servant.

Austen adaptations have remained in a liminal space similar to the one Fanny occupies when she can’t return to the squalor of her home in Portsmouth but can no longer remain at Mansfield Park if it means adhering to her uncle’s wishes. They have stayed somewhere between the all-white period adaptations and the modern multi-racial ones—more Gwyneth than Lupita. But “Belle” marks an important change. It makes clear that while it’s certainly possible to go on pretending there were no black people, at least in the background, of Austen’s world it’s no longer interesting or even a nuanced representation of the time. The “dead silence” of Mansfield Park is filled with questions, speeches and declarations, and if you know the history of the abolitionist movement in England you know that beyond happily ever after, Belle’s presence represents concrete social change that echoes in a twenty-first century Britain that is paying more and more attention to its history of slavery. Much of this national self-reflection has been prompted by the fact that 2007 gave England a chance to think about the abolition of the slave trade. In 2006, The Church of England apologized for benefitting from the slave trade. The International Museum of Slavery opened in Liverpool in 2007. In 2013, The Independent reported the results of a study that showed in stark terms how much slaveowners were paid during and after the abolition of slavery. The arrival of the first black Marchioness in 2013 prompted a series of articles making clear that the peerage has a multi-racial legacy.

The storytellers are either catching up or leading the way. Despite Heathcliff being described as a “‘dark-skinned gypsy in aspect and a little lascar” he had always been cast as white in film versions of the novel until 2011 when he was portrayed by the black British actor James Howson. Then there’s Longbourn by Jo Baker . It turns its attention to the servants who make the lives of the gentry in Pride and Prejudice possible. In this representation of those beneath the stairs, Baker introduces the kinds of characters we might meet in “Belle,” and her portrait of those figures is compelling and clearly informed by a post-abolitionist reading of Austen and her world. To present social change as the work of a young woman of color, to have the body of a British woman of color as the fulcrum for legal pronouncements nudges us to reconsider race and gender in the nineteenth century and perhaps even in our own. I mean that literally. The first black marchioness who caused a bit of a stir last year? Her first name is Emma.



I’m just going to put this here because I want to get it out of my head. It’s begging to be used in the preface to my book (the one about Romantic-era fiction), but I know I’m doing that thing I hate–when someone takes a bit of theory and paints everything with it like a toddler with a brush. So I’m just going to put it here and see what happens to it:

The brio of the text (without which, after all, there is no text) is its will to bliss: just where it exceeds demand, transcends prattle, and whereby it attempts to overflow, to break through the constraint of adjectives–which are those doors of language through which the ideological and the imaginary coming flowing in.

Text of pleasure: the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading. Text of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistence of his tastes, values, memories, brings to crisis his relation with language….(14)

criticism always deals with the texts of pleasure, never the texts of bliss…(21)

The Pleasure of the Text
Roland Barthes
Translated by Richard Miller

Suriname, Part the Third: Onoribo

On the way to visit an aunt who lives about an hour and a half outside of Paramaribo, my cousin casually mentioned that we should see Onoribo the plantation where our family is from. Her English is practically perfect, heavily accented to be sure but practically perfect. Still, I figured that “plantation” must mean something else because “the plantation where our family is from” simply did not compute. I was so puzzled that, for a moment, she doubted herself. I turned to look at my mother and asked, “does that mean the same thing in English that it does in Dutch?” She was as confused as I was but then there was the sign:

Plantage Onoribo.

We drove across a road that was bright orange red because of the bauxite in the ground, and then there we were at a the head of what looked like a small compound.

I should stop here and describe my experience with plantations.  I’ve lived in Mississippi and Louisiana, so plantations are not new to me.  I remember taking a friend who grew up in New England to Natchitoches, Louisiana and showing him his first plantation.  He was shocked by the elegance of it. Slavery to him was an ugly thing and he said he was imagining something like Auschwitz.  We didn’t go on one of those awful plantation tours (I would never), but we were allowed to wander around the main house and to see the slave quarters in the back.  The experience had no real effect on me.  I might claim I’m Southern now because Louisiana is where I’ve lived the longest, but I’m not Southern; I might not be paying attention to my roots, but I know they’re not in the American South. Even knowing that my father’s family is from St. Kitts hasn’t solidified any sense of place for me. I have no desire to seek it out.  Knowing I’m the descendants of slaves has been enough (and with a great-grandmother who everyone else thought was white, I have a very clear sense of my roots). Understanding that my family has it own immigrant relationship to the United States has also been enough. When the couple I met outside of London (the Matthews) announced so cheerily that their family once owned my family I wasn’t shocked at the news but at the jolliness of their pronouncement.

I don’t mean to make this sound like a new claim for myself, as if I’ve found some new identity.  I’m too old and cynical for that. But it’s been two weeks, and I’m still gobsmacked to discover this very specific, living proof of my roots.  It’s been weird to be back in Brooklyn, which I’ve come to consider home (because being rootless makes it easier for me to call different places home), but to experience Suriname as a homecoming once removed.

It looks like a compound, and it’s not very big (in what I’ve read on-line thus far it’s always described as a “small plantation”). There is no big house or mansion but small houses spread around.  As we pulled into the grounds, my cousin explained that we’d probably have to stop and say hi because we’re related to everyone who lives there.  Again, I thought I must have misunderstood her (I don’t even know if she said this in English or Dutch). While I was trying to process this she pulled up to a monument, and carved in wood and stone I saw my family’s name—my mother’s maiden name Raatle. photo-60

Last year, the president of Suriname had a monument erected to honor…I don’t know what it’s honoring.  What is our connection to this place?  How far back does it go?  There’s a house there that one of my aunts built, and my mother remembers sending American dollars to set up the electricity. No one lives there now.  According to tourist site about Suriname a (or Surinam as they spell it):

In Surinam there are plantations like Republic, Four Children, Beseba, and Onoribo and many more than that have the possibility for recreation.  After the abolition the slaves who worked on the plantations became owner of these plantations. Until today the descendants of these plantations can claim a piece of land. The land will never be owned by them but at all times remain the property of the foundation that manages the plantation. There is also a policy for non descendants to buy a piece of land ( lot) bud (sic) again the ownership of the land remains in the hands of the foundation. The plantations are not only used for weekend and week recreation, descendants are still living on the plantation so respect their standards and values and keep the plantations clean.”

Growing up Black in a country that wants desperately to diminish the depth and breadth of its slave history, the idea of some sort of reparations, the notion of monuments that attest to what slaves built has pulled me into a project to understand this space.  “Project” is too lofty a word—like language you use for fellowship applications or to convince deans and provosts that your “work” is “serious.” It’s not a “project” but a persistent tug at my imagination.  I know that I’ve been going to bed early with my laptop and scouring the internet for information and pestering my poor mother with questions.  I’m fascinated by the idea of ownership/not ownership and sickened by thought of these places as destinations for tourists at the same time that the idea of sitting in that space is very appealing to me.  I couldn’t tell why and still don’t know.  Was it the quiet and the feeling of being in this gorgeous wooded area isolated in all the best ways? Would I feel like I wanted to be there even if I didn’t know the place was part of my distant, distant past, or would I be repelled by its history?

Onoribo is by a creek.  I counted maybe four or five houses.  There’s a graveyard I didn’t go visit because it’s not a thing that’s done in that space. I wanted to know if we had people buried there, but even before my mother told me not to, I didn’t feel like I should walk across someone’s lawn to visit it.   There are massive old trees there I wanted to get close to, but my mother worried about snakes in the grass, and since we saw a dead poisonous one in the road, I listened to her pleas to stay close to the road.

I can describe a lot of things, but I don’t know how to describe walking around there.  It was very quiet. There were chickens in a pen, and a little playground, and a road that is under construction.  It’s tucked away from everything, so I suspect very soon Europeans will be biking out there to swing in hammocks.  Apparently, that’s already happening.  I’ve read on line that there’s talking of making it a recreational space, and the thought makes me sick to my stomach.  That’s not hyperbole.  When I read about plans to make it commercial, I had a physical reaction.  I’m not sure what to make of of my attachment to a place I never knew existed and only visited for 15 minutes. I know there’s theory to describe what I felt, but theory had no place there, in that moment.

I’ve just started researching* its history and it seems to have been around as far back as the eighteenth century.  There were skirmishes over it at some point.  I’m reading how slavery in Suriname was different than it was in the United States. Plantations like Onoribo were isolated, so slaves could easily escape, and they often did.

I didn’t want to leave, but we had an aunt to visit and then some missionaries my parents have been supporting since I was a teenager (I stood on their front porch and watched a small herd of cows amble down the dirt road in front of their house). My aunt lives about five minutes from Onoribo. That fascinates me almost as much as discovering this place with documented proof of my roots.

*Again, “research” is too strong a word. I’m just poking around a lot.

Suriname, Part the Second: Language

Still there’s no getting away from the basic feeling of complete idiocy. You are aware of being spoken to as though you were a three-year old, even though you have all the pride of an adult. — Ta-Nehisi Coates

Taki-Taki is the language of Paramaribo and other parts of Dutch Guiana, called by its own speakers tàkitáki or neretjgo Negro language, in Dutch Neger-Engelsch, and in German Neger-Englisch. It and the closely related language of the Saramacca Bush-Negroes’ are creolized languages developed out of the jargonized English used by the slaves of English and Portuguese land-holders who settled Dutch Guiana in the middle of the seventeenth century. Taki-Taki is spoken in several dialects, of which the chief is the Town-Negro speech of Paramaribo. “The Linguistic Structure of Taki-Taki” by Robert A. Hall Jr.

At some point in graduate school, after consuming more theory than was good for me, I announced to my mother that she had a colonized tongue. She’s accustomed to my pronouncements about her nationality, identity, and race. Apparently, when we lived on Okinowa and I was in elementary school I would, from time to time, pull her away from whatever she was doing, drag her over to a group of kids and exclaim, “See I told you she was black!” When she completed the courses necessary to become an American citizen but wasn’t sure whether or not to give up her Dutch citizenship, I was pro-Holland. Then there was the time I came home and told my parents that I had learned in school that I was Caucasian. A teacher had explained to me that because my mother was Dutch, I was Caucasian. Among most Americans the instant image of a Dutch person is a blue-eyed blonde-haired tall person in wooden shoes living in or near a windmill. My mother is none of those things, though there is a picture of her and my father in full on Dutch garb, wooden shoes and all, hanging on the wall of the living room.

In graduate school a Dutch woman said snidely to me that my mother was not Dutch because she’s Black, and I was so shocked by the unvarnished racism that it left me speechless. It was at a time when The Netherlands still enjoyed a reputation for being progressive, so I was unprepared for this white woman’s cool dismissal of the country’s colonial legacy. My mother is a citizen of The Netherlands who was born in Paramaribo. So she is Dutch and Black at the same time. And she sounds Dutch. It’s her first language. When people meet her and hear her accent for the first time, the Blackness crowds out the Dutchness and so they automatically assume she is from “de Iiislands” and say this to her. It drives her batty and she wishes people would just ask where she’s from rather than foist some bad and wrong accent on her.

The story about me and language is that my first language is Dutch. About a month after I was born, my farther was sent to Vietnam, and my mother took me to live in Holland with her sister. We lived in the attic, and she worked at a post office, leaving me with her sister or her brother-in-law. My accent is such that if I greet Dutch and Surinamese people in Dutch they are surprised to find I’m actually American. I don’t mean to suggest that I am fluent in Dutch. I’m not. If someone walked up to me and started speaking Dutch, I wouldn’t understand what she was saying. If, however, you leave me alone long enough with Dutch speakers it comes back.

That doesn’t happen too much. All of my cousins on my mother’s side speak English and many of them speak other languages as well, and so when I’m with them I don’t even have to try to speak Dutch. This is why I have the language ability of a three-year old. I can say hello (dag), good morning (Goedemorgen), and how are you (hoe gaat het?). I can tell you I love you, and I can sing you a song about a dialogue between a mother and a child about visiting and eating cookies. It’s all anyone requires of me. My limited dialogue is met with coos and chuckles. It seems that in my American mid-40s I’m an adorable Dutch three-year old.

While I was in Suriname, most people tried to speak English around me, but Dutch is their language, and they were home, and there were with one another, and so the English wasn’t always there. It goes too far to say that my Dutch came back to me, but it was an odd out-of-body-linguistic experience to feel it return to the surface without my bidding. And when it reemerged it showed up with the creolized language of taki-taki—this playful, hyper expressive mix of Dutch, English, and the “language of the Saramaka bush Negroes.” My mother was forbidden to speak it as a child. My grandmother wanted her to be successful and believed that perfectly spoken Dutch was what she needed in order to do so. She was allowed to speak it to my mother and her siblings, but they were not allowed to speak it in return. I love it, and while I was in Suriname I spent a lot of time trying to pick it out of the Dutch that flew back and forth.

I think it’s hard to concentrate on learning a language. It’s not about being a diligent or good student. It has to just flow around you and make itself at home on your tongue. It has to come up unbidden. I don’t think it’s just about learning language as a child, though I know that helps quite a bit. In my case, my mother spoke English at home almost all the time. When I lived at home, I would only hear it when she spoke it to her sisters. When I was young this was a rare occurrence, but as calling plans made it easier to call Holland, the phone calls became a regular part of her weekly life. So it’s been seeping in for years, I guess.

My third evening in Suriname, when a man I didn’t know dropped by my cousin’s house to drop off some keys (we had managed to lock ourselves INSIDE the house), we all realized that the taki-taki was right next to the Dutch in my mouth. Instead of responding “hoe gaat het?” to his “goedenavond,” I said, “Fa Waka?”

“Hoe gaat het?” is the proper Dutch for how are you? You can hear it everywhere in Dutch-speaking countries around the world. “Fa Waka” is taki-taki for “How you walking?” Or, I suspect “how you walkin’?” More than words it’s a physical affect, and what shocked and tickled my family was not just that I said it without thinking but that I said it with the accompanying body language, throwing my shoulders back just a bit and putting my hands and arms out. It signaled a kind of belonging I have sometimes reached for in the United States among certain black folks, a code switching not from the marginalized (read “black”) to the mainstream (read “white”) but in the opposite direction to signal to folks who look like me that I really don’t mean to “sound white” or “siddity,” that I’m not an oreo or a wanna be.

In the way that grown folks do with three-year olds I was asked to show everyone my “Fa Waka” except I couldn’t. It came up in that moment in response to that man. He walked with a bit of a swagger, was stylish in all white Ralph Lauren, and was in a hurry. When I said, “Fa Waka?” I really wanted to know how he was walking. Like so many creolized languages that borrow from multiple traditions, takt-taki was better at getting to the heart of that moment than Dutch.

By the time I left, I could understand the Dutch I was hearing at moments when no one paid attention to me (otherwise I would get self-conscious and draw a blank). When a mother’s cousin asked me in Dutch to tell him how old I had been the last time I was in Suriname, I shocked everyone and myself by answering that I’d last been there when I was 12 years old. I stopped noticing whether or not my mother was speaking to me in English or Dutch, and I grew frustrated when I couldn’t speak Dutch to the women working the counter at the best bakery I’ve ever been to in my entire life. The words “one more, please” were very important at Fernandes Bakkerij.

One day I walked into a convenience store by myself and asked the man behind the counter if he carried the brand of bottled water I’ve been drinking since my arrival. It was the very hottest part of the day, when all you can do is sit and try not to get a headache. I was parched, but everyone else was ahead of me to get to the next shop, and I didn’t want to call anyone back to help me. A man who looked to be Javanese was behind the counter and without thinking I asked to buy a bottle of Para Springs water. I didn’t ask the question in English, and I didn’t point and gesture. I asked in the language of Paramaribo. The thing is I don’t know if I was speaking Dutch or Taki-Taki. Whatever I was speaking, he understood the question.

A few days later I learned a word I never expected to stumble upon in such a personal way: plantage.

Suriname, Part the First: Roots

I don’t really think of myself as having “roots” and I don’t know that I’ve missed them. In theory, I know I have roots. Everyone does, don’t they? But I didn’t grow up thinking about them. It’s part of what comes with being a third-culture kid. You move around as much as I did (Tinker AFB, Amsterdam, Cheyenne, Guam, Minot, Abilene, Okinowa, Biloxi, Angeles City, Bossier City, Natchitoches, Amherst, Montclair, Brooklyn*) with a mother from a tiny country most people have never heard of and a father “from New York” and the overall feeling is more about being regularly uprooted or, rather, transplanted on a regular basis than having roots.

It’s not been an unpleasant life at all. I was an extrovert as a kid, so while leaving was never easy, new places meant fresh beginnings and opportunities to reimagine how I might move through the world. When I started high school in the Philippines, there was no one to remind me of some embarrassing thing I did in the sixth grade in Mississippi. And when I left the Philippines, I could invent an entire narrative about it for my college friends in Shreveport. Moving was so much a part of my life that after four and a half years of college, even though I had no plan, I thought I was supposed to leave Louisiana, to uproot myself, and move someplace else (Evanston/Chicago) because my average tour in any state or country was 18 to 24 months.

The other term for third-culture kids is global nomads, and I would say that this feels like a better fit for me but only because it describes my opposition to a nomadic life. Right now, my greatest desire is to stay in one place and read and then write about what I’m reading. I don’t even like to travel to Manhattan. I’m not kidding. I teach in New Jersey and the sense of relief I feel when I drive back to Brooklyn is not simply about putting space between me and the messiness of academic departments, and it’s not even about the growing need I have to write more and more. I think it’s that I feel rooted in Brooklyn. I’m not from here (I’m not from anywhere), but it’s home, and I feel myself rooting in here, in this borough with nomads that move in and out of my life.

When my mother announced last year that we should take a trip to Suriname, my ambivalence ran so deep that I forgot to tell people I speak with all the time that I was going away at all. In fact, until a few hours ago I didn’t even realize I was going to spend time in Trinidad (just a few hours) along the way. I’ve mocked myself as friends looked oddly at my flat announcement that I was leaving frigid Brooklyn for warm Paramaribo, but I’ve also admitted that, for the last few years, I’ve lost interest in traveling. I find it exhausting, and I feel like I’ve traveled enough for a lifetime. I meet these people who are excited about some trip, and I listen to them and ask questions and I’m very happy for them, but in my head I’m thinking “Good Lord, that sounds exhausting.”

I’ve been saying for the last few weeks that I’m stressed about this trip because January has traditionally been a good writing month for me, that I’m going up for promotion and have a file to get together, that I hate packing. But the truth of it is I’m tired and the more I write the less I want to move around other people. Pleasure for me right now means days of quiet with a book or three and a legal pad scratching out notes.

But this trip has me thinking about roots. I was last in Suriname when I was 11 or 12. I learned to drive that trip. I sold watermelons with my uncle to people riding by his house. I drank coconut milk through a straw right from the coconut, immediately after my uncle commandeered it out of a tree. I went to French Guyana with my uncle for the day, and I visited with my oma who spoke virtually no English (my first language was Dutch, but I lost it decades ago). Is that what it means to have roots? To have memories from childhood? I don’t feel Surinamese or Dutch. In fact, I remember an unfortunate chapter in my life when I kept insisting to my mother, loudly, “I am an AMERICAN.” I’m a military brat, and more than anything else I’ve been I’ve always been AMERICAN. I don’t really know what that means. I do know I’ve never even bothered to apply for dual citizenship, though I know that’s something I should care about.

Once, a very nice, elegant southern gentleman (the kind with a single letter in front of his second and third names) said to me, “Tell us, Tricia, who are your people?” I replied, “that’s kind of you to ask, but I don’t really have people.” I do, of course, more than I can count (my mother has six siblings all with kids and grandchildren, and my father has three with kids who also have kids), but we traveled so much I only knew them from infrequent visits and letters (I remember one year that one of my birthday gifts was a long-distance call from the Philippines to New York so I could speak to my grandmother).

But each time I’m with my cousins, my Dutch and/or American ones, I discover some common thing, and now I wonder was that a root?

My mother said casually last night that I would be seeing my Uncle Arthur, and for the first time it seemed worth packing up and trekking to the airport at ass o’clock in the morning (3:30 am, to be exact). I blurted “Oom Artur!” with a perfect Dutch accent. I haven’t seen him in over twenty years, but when my dad was sent to Vietnam, a month after I was born, my Uncle Arthur took care of my mom and me. I don’t remember much, but my mother said that, among other things, he used to hold me on one knee and his daughter on the other (apparently I fought the poor girl over him, insisting he was my father). I don’t remember what we ever did together (he is not the uncle who taught me to drive), but I do remember how I always felt around him (happy and at home), and I wonder if that’s a root.

For my first solo trip abroad, I went to London. It wasn’t such a great trip, though I was happy to spend the day in Canterbury and glad I got to visit Marx’s grave. I had plenty of surreal moments, including an encounter with a white couple from Oklahoma who, upon discovering that we had a similar last name (they spell it with an “s”), said cheerily, “Oh, that’s because our ancestors owned your ancestors!” They said this with an astonishing amount of joy. I know I’m supposed to think of that as a root. I’m black; someone once owned someone in my family.

Later that trip, I was kind of lost near some square or another. It was kind of foggy and/or misty, and a tall, dark man (obsidian came to my mind immediately) appeared and announced, “I am Nubian.” He sounded exactly the way you would think an obsidian man would sound, especially if he appeared out of nowhere. He said, “where are you from?” and I was suddenly so tired of having to give my usual, convoluted answer (it begins, “well, my dad was in the military, and my mother is from Suriname…”) that I simply said I was from Louisiana. He said again, “I am Nubian. Where are you from?” And then I knew what he meant and was relieved to have an answer I thought would satisfy him. “St. Kitts.” He nodded, and then he disappeared.* My lack of curiosity about this fact about St. Kitt, a fact that I only know because my godfather did our family tree years ago, has never bothered me. When you’re not from anywhere at all who has time to think about where you are from, to care about things like roots?

But I’m going to Suriname, where my mother has her roots. I have family there, and I have memories, and I’m just beginning to think that I might have roots there too—if I can figure out what the hell that means and how much I actually care about them.

*these are the places I’ve lived and not the places I’ve visited; I wouldn’t know where to begin with that list.

**I’m not just saying that to be clever; one minute he was there and then he wasn’t.

Remembering Ruby Agatha

(Today is my grandmother’s birthday. I originally posted this on a now defunct blog http://twomatts.wordpress.com/2008/12/10/remebering-ruby-agatha/)

This past Saturday was my grandmother’s birthday, so it was fitting that I was in New York enjoying The Brooklyn Conservatory Community Orchestra with guest soloist soprano Kristina Henry. My friend Sarah, who plays viola, invited me to attend, and since I have a soft spot for artistic events that feature my friends, I decided to battle the Bridge and Tunnel crowd on a Saturday night and head out to Park Slope.

I’m so glad I did.

Kristina Henry

The concert took place in the St. Saviour High School’s gymnasium. St. Saviour was founded in 1917 as a college prep school for women. Somehow that seemed ideal for the feel of the evening, that and the first snow fall of the season. The school fits so easily into the row of Brownstones that I missed it at first. Now if you think a concert in a high school gym sounds hokey, it wasn’t. The venue leant a coziness to the evening. And when Ms. Henry joined the orchestra of more 70 members to perform two of Verdi’s most challenging arias (“Caro Nome” from Rigoletto and “Ah fors e lui” from La Traviata), the gymnasium felt like a concert hall, but here everyone had orchestra seats.

I was skimming the lyrics when Ms. Henry burst (that’s the word for it) into song, so, for a moment, I heard her before I looked up and saw this beautiful black woman wooing the audience. I confess that for a millisecond I felt surprise when I saw Ms. Henry, but then I chuckled at my own assumptions, especially my assumptions. I shouldn’t have been at all surprised to look up and see a black woman singing Verdi. As I said to my father when I told him about the concert, in my imagination ALL sopranos are black. Leontyne Price, Kathleen Battle, and Denyce Graves: all sopranos. All black.

Before anyone accuses of me of being a black radical, let me explain. The reason I’m more likely to think of Denyce Graves than Beverly Sills when I think of sopranos has everything to do with my grandmother, Ruby Agatha. She was born in 1911 in British Guyana. I’m not sure when she moved to New York, but I do know she graduated from George Washington High School, lived in the building where Fats Waller played the piano, and married my grandfather–the only man on the planet who meets my definition of perfection. She was a soprano. In my imagination she was THE soprano and a genuine diva. At her funeral, people remembered her for many things, but everyone seemed to talk about how she trilled her r’s and her amazing collection of hats. She told me once that she gave four recitals in her life, never mentioning that one of them was at Carnegie Recital Hall, on Easter Sunday in 1950. Tickets were $1.20 and 1.80 including tax. She sang Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, and Verdi and concluded the program with a series of folk songs.

My grandmother fit every image you have a diva—stylish, imposing, larger-than-life, and stunningly beautiful. She was a kind but not cuddly grandmother, and I always knew that she adored me. One day in church when she heard me singing harmony (I’m an alto), she beamed at me,and I felt I’d arrived. It is a fond memory because, unlike my other cousins, I didn’t grow up seeing her all the time. As an Air Force brat I was overseas more than I was in the states, so trips to New York to see my father’s family were infrequent, but when I did visit I knew I would go to church and sing, have a little culinary trip with my grandfather (he introduced me to Nathan’s hot dogs), and hang out with my cousins, all but one of whom were older and so much cooler than I could ever hope to be.

So when I think of sopranos, I think of my grandmother. When I went to see Kathleen Battle perform a Christmas concert, I thought of my grandmother. In grad school, I splurged on a ticket to see Denyce Graves sing Carmen at Tanglewood. A children’s choir performed with her; they were sitting too high to actually see her, but one little girl, a little black girl in pigtails, couldn’t help herself and kept leaning over to get a better view. I understood the impulse. And I thought of Ruby. I saw Denyce Graves again. That time I was with Will’s mother Jane, who made me grin with surprise when it turned out she knew all the words to the African freedom songs the audience was asked to sing with Graves and the orchestra. My grandmother would have scolded me for being surprised. After all, if she learned to sing in Italian and performed folk songs, there is no reason why Jane shouldn’t know African freedom songs.

I’m sure my grandmother would have loved Ms. Henry, who took to the small platform set up for her in a ruby red dress, swaying her hips, laughing during her runs, and flirting with the audience, at one point giving a red rose to a man in the front row. Her voice coach was sitting behind me, and he called “Brava Diva” when she finished, proudly telling me on his way out that she was only 26 and was going to be great.

This is not to the say that the evening’s performance was perfect. An unfortunate series of moments for the horn section in the third movement of Beethoven’s “The Eroica” caused me to blurt out, “oh dear,” which, in turn, prompted an unfortunate series of giggles in yours truly. My lack of control was not helped at all when Sarah’s husband poked me in the side and then started laughing. I thought of my grandmother then too. She was not, as far as I know, prone to giggles, but I think she would have forgiven me mine–especially since I wasn’t laughing at the soprano.

Ruby Agatha Pryme Matthew
Ruby Agatha Pryme Matthew

Afro-Pedagogy: The Poetry of Race and Privilege

You should know that this was not the “race unit” of the intro to theoretical reading (officially “The Pursuits of English”) course I co-teach. On the first day of class, I worked with students in my section to develop a more nuanced reading of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” that moved beyond a sexist/not sexist discussion of the lyrics. When we read Barthes’ “Death of the Author,” we used a poem by the bi-racial poet Ross Gay to think about how we read a poem called “Pulled Over in Short Hills, NJ 8:00 am” when we don’t know who the author is. In fact, we were actually talking about New Historicism for this unit, and our primary texts came from Lucille Clifton and Langston Hughes. This is not just true about race. We’ve been thinking about Queer Theory long before our unit on it that we’ll start next week with Kiss of the Spider Woman. We read Sedgewick with Sense and Sensibility and consider the Sapphic tension in Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

You should also know that as much as I loved“When Your (Brown) Body” and wanted my students to read it, I wasn’t sure if teaching it was actually a good idea. It’s not just that I happen to adore Tressie and so was worried about appearing biased towards her argument but that it’s such a provocative piece that I wasn’t sure it would be productive in the classroom.

In this instance, I’m the choir and Tressie is the preacher, but there’s a fine line between teaching critical analysis and proselytizing and I am loath to cross it.

But since the loose theme of the class is “the body” and we had already decided to teach Lucille Clifton, it actually made sense to at least consider adding her essay to our syllabus. In addition to its argument, it’s rhetorically interesting, and I thought my students might see in this essay a useful strategy they could adapt for their own writing. It’s difficult to build an argument with personal anecdotes, but this essay is a good example of how that can work.

The main thing, however, was this: As much as I love Hughes and Clifton and enjoy teaching them whenever I can, they keep race and bodies at a safe remove from how people of color move through the world. Hughes feels so historical and “canonical” at this point and Clifton uplifts, and while we know in theory this uplifting is born of pain, it’s all too easy to forget that poems like “homage to my hips” or “won’t you celebrate with me” reflect racist, sexist systems. Appiah and McMillan Cottom, I hoped, would provide a lens through which to read those works that demanded a more nuanced, analytical response to their poems.

My colleague suggested Appiah immediately and after thinking about it for a few months, I sent him Tressie’s piece and asked if he thought it would be useful. His reply was an immediate and decisive “yes!”
The unit ended up being:

Kwame Anthony Appiah—“Race”
Lucille Clifton—Selected Poems
Langston Hughes—Selected Poems
Audre Lorde—“On the Uses of Anger”
Tressie McMillan Cottom—“When Your (Brown) Body is a (White) Wonderland”

My colleague thoughts students needed background, so we posted these youtube links to give them some context for McMillan Cottom’s piece:

The Miley Cyrus VMA Performance (video removed)

Azz Everywhere: How Bounce Music Hit Big Time

Big Freedia The Queen Diva

We did not watch them in class.

We spent the first week on Appiah and Hughes and the second week on Clifton, Lorde, and McMillan Cottom.

I’m not going to talk specifically about my students’ work with these texts (even if I don’t name them, I don’t want them to feel they are the subject of this post as it might make them feel they need to perform something in the classroom), but the intersection of these texts demanded that I develop a new strategy to help my students think critically about all texts in general and texts that point to race and racism specifically. I had to think carefully about how to frame this as an exercise in literary criticism and not simply a consciousness-raising session. So I lead with the literature, returned to the literature, and asked my students to write their responses to the class discussion.

The thing is, you can’t talk about race and racism in a university classroom without raising something. I know this on some level, but initially I wasn’t paying too much attention to this truth. But the raising of something or other required something. I realized I needed to articulate some of what might hinder a careful consideration of a painful and complicated topic. On the final day of the unit, after having the class listen to and write short reflections on Clifton’s “what the mirror said,” I put up six points of clarification about privilege and then asked the class to consider the core question (#7 below) in the context of how we read Clifton. In other words, I wanted us to think about how we respond to all of these women of color.

Using Power Point (because that’s just how fancy I am), I put up the following:

1. You can benefit from the privilege that comes with your race/ethnicity, sexuality and class and still have a pretty difficult time of it. In other words, being white, middle or upper middle class and heterosexual, or a man (or all of these things at once!) doesn’t mean your life is a bed of thorn-free roses.

2. It’s a hard truth, but, as Appiah reminds us, race is used as a way to make hierarchies and hierarchies mean that some people are considered more valuable than others. It can be disconcerting to live with the fact that you benefit from a system you had no part in creating.

3. Benefiting from racism is not the same thing as wanting to benefit from racism.

4. We tend to think of racism in the broadest terms—dragging someone behind a truck, hurling racial epithets, Stand Your Ground laws. In reality, it permeates so many different parts of our culture that it’s difficult to avoid.

5.You can enjoy Miley Cyrus and still consider yourself a good person (but it does mean you probably have awful taste in music ☺)

6.Miley Cyrus ≠ All White Women

And then finally:

7. As an intellectual exercise, consider what the world is like if McMillan Cottom is 100% right. What does that mean for you and how you live in the world?

We talked for a little while about one through six and then we walked slowly through McMillan Cottom’s post, particularly the early part where she recounts how white women and men react to her body.

I asked the women in class to consider how many complicated social contracts were broken in those moments by saying that as much as we want to live in a society that respects women at all times, we know that, as women, being out with a man can protect us from unwanted advances. It’s a complicated, sexist truth, but it’s one most of us rely on from time to time.

We pivoted from there to the video of Peggy McIntosh talking about how she came to write “Unpacking the Knapsack of Privilege.” It’s seems so old school to me that I was tempted to simply pass the essay out, but the video is even more compelling than simply reading the essay. She speaks so compassionately and honestly and the list rolls up so slowly that it demands careful attention. Watching rather than reading the essay shifted the dynamic in the classroom and lead to a thoughtful conversation.

In response to student questions about “what can I do!?!?” I thought it useful to show Jay Smooth’s now famous “How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist” video. Knowing how to frame the conversation seemed a good place for those interested in doing so, and it’s also an amazing rhetorical feat (something several of my students noticed immediately). It’s also funny:

Class discussion then moved in and out of all the texts with students “relating” to all of the above and then, more importantly, thinking critically about how we read different representations of oppression.

I explained the Angel/Whore configuration of femininity that peaks in the Victorian period and argued that it gets raced in modern society with the Oprah/Precious configuration. I also talked about what I call “The Oprah Winfrey Syndrome”—one that makes it so that black women are most popular when they are inspiring figures that middle-class white women can look up to while feeling good that they like a black woman who is not sexually threatening. I returned to the question of what it means if McMillan Cottom is right and how we can think about what we seek in poems by authors of color.

Without going into details, I can say that students were engaged, critical (in the best ways), curious, and did a lot of writing on their own.

It’s tempting in a class like this to measure success by some ideological outcome, to hope that my students will run out and be bold activists and/or allies in the fight against racism. Maybe that will happen. Maybe I’ll get some e-mail message in a year or so telling me this. When I used fairy tales to teach theory several years ago (see Matthew, Patricia A. and Jonathan Greenberg. “The Ideology of the Mermaid: Children’s Literature in the Intro to Theory Course.” Pedagogy 9.2 (Spring 2009): 217-233. ), I would get e-mails that would send me over the moon about how reconsidering “The Little Mermaid” was life changing for students who now “read” the world as texts to be carefully considered. But I know that the work of the classroom is to model engaged, critical thinking, and I saw that happen in class this week.

And, for now, I call that success.

“The Skies Belong to Us” 4.1

I’m supposed to be grading papers, but Dom’s last post won’t get out of my head, so I’m taking a break.

We kind of thought we were done posting about the book and wondered if we wanted to ask Brendan questions (and Dom wondered if he would have questions for us), but it turns out my questions are for Dominique.  In explaining why she doesn’t like Kerkow anymore than I do, she wrote: “Further, as a Canadian, I was annoyed by Koerner’s final, loving, pages about Cathy, because I felt he was valorizing the kind of self-serving, hyper-individualistic behaviour that so many people from other countries ‘hate’ about Americans.”

In as much as I’m always interested to hear what Dom thinks about American behavior, I’m particularly interested in this critique of the book and, by extension, American culture that she offers.  I’ve just finished Sense and Sensibility with one of my classes and some literary critic (maybe Marilyn Butler) reads the novel as Austen’s critique of Marianne Dashwood’s hyper-individualistic behaviour.  Marianne is guided solely by her sensibilities and puts herself and her family’s reputation in harm’s way as a result, but her life also turns out okay (Colonel Brandon isn’t my type, but he’s a good catch for a woman who has lost some of her original charm and isn’t fit for anything more than playing the piano forte and having babies).   The conservative chattering classes of the nineteenth century had no use for the Marianne Dashwoods of their world, and I wonder if that model of woman exists in the twenty-first century English imagination or if she represents a stage in the nation’s development.  Austen is writing during what Eric Hobsbwam calls “The Age of Revolution,” at a time when part of maintaining England’s social structure depended on young women like Marianne Dashwood accepting their responsibility to the collective good instead of to their own desires and sensibilities. There was no “Lean In” in the nineteenth-century.

I’m thinking of Marx’s claim in The Communist Manifesto that nations, like people, go through developmental stages that can’t be skipped or repeated and wondering if this is a way to understand the time period Koerner explores as America’s colonizing/hyper-individualistic stage. It makes me wonder if Kerkow represents not so much a type (eat-pray-love-piper-twerking-warrior princess) but a stage in America’s development as a nation. I also wonder what our twenty-first century modes of rebellion look like.  Occupy Wall Street comes to mind, and it was a collective response against hyper-individualistic behavior, but I think we’re still too close to it to understand its impact. I wonder if the rise of gun deaths in the United States is a more apt comparison, particularly the “Stand Your Ground” culture enshrined in Florida law but part of the fabric of every state.  I feel like I need to have drinks with Dom, Brendan, and some history and political science professors.

Dom also wrote: “The processes of racialization and ‘gendering’ in our society, and the hierarchies of privilege that they create, are all over this book.”   I’m curious to know what this actually means (and why gendering is in quotation marks and racialization isn’t).  On one level, I get it (and on one level my question is a friendly challenge to the jargon I see here), but I’d love to hear more. Because if Dom is suggesting a taxonomy for these hijackers, I can forget about Kerkow. Taxonomies are my most favorite thing ever (really). More than that, I’d like to not get sucked into thinking this is a book about her.

I really, truly would.

Dom saying I went nuts about Koerner mooning over Kerkow is accurate.  In my last post, I wasn’t just pretending to talk to myself. That was, almost verbatim, a transcript of the the conversation I had with myself while I was working out in Fort Greene Park.  As much as I scold my students for seeking “justice” in narratives, I fall prey to that need from time to time.  There are literary characters I absolutely hate (Victor Frankenstein and John Knightly come to mind immediately), and Kerkow is/was a real person, so I’m a bit over-the-top about her.  So much so that when Dom pointed out that Koerner  “seems as […] just as enamoured* by the “feminine wiles” he described Cathy using to get what she wanted, and she wasn’t even there.”  I’m pretty sure I yelled something like “Oh, shit!  That’s so true!”

I was happily surprised when Koerner showed up near the end of the book. It’s like he anticipated all of the questions I had about how he put this story together, and, though I’m very much a member of the author-is-dead school of reading, having this author talk to the reader was just great.  I was so surprised that I was willing to forgive him his crush until he went all goofy about her.

It occurs to me, though, that one of the reasons why I hate Kerkow is because Koerner is unflinching in what he presents about her.  He has not offered a particularly flattering portrait of her; there aren’t hearts around every discussion about her in the story.  Further, given that he couldn’t interview her, it’s interesting how he interprets her choices.   And to be totally honest, this might be as much about just how cranky, hard-to-please I am as a reader.  It’s possible, even highly likely, that if Koerner had mooned over Holder in a similar way I would have accused him of fetishizing Black Radicalism.

Partly, it’s that I’m an impossibly picky reader with little patience for modern literature.  I don’t trust these living writers, and I’m always giving books the side-eye.  Just last night I narrowed my eyes at 1Q84, and if it hadn’t been for the beer and fried whiting sandwich I was eating at Marietta’s that always makes me extraordinarily happy to live in my neighborhood, I might have started muttering at the novel.

On the other hand, when I love a book I love it with all of my heart.  Chimanda Ngozi’s Adichie’s Americanah has me in raptures, I’ve lost count of how many people have gotten Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York (and Sag Harbor and Zone One, which I’ve never read because I’m a chicken and just hearing him read from it one time gave me a nightmare) as birthday/Christmas/it’s Thursday gifts from me.  And when I really think someone is a serious reader I’ll give her (or sometimes him) Mary Shelley’s second novel Valperga.

All of this is to say that I am intemperate about books. I LOVE a book or HATE it.  There’s very little middle ground.  And the more I love a book, the more I want to love a book, and I want the writer to have thought of every little thing I would have wanted to see.  This is an almost impossible task.

This is not to suggest that I am tempering my hatred of Kerkow, but now, after reading Dom’s post,  I am curious about the little hearts I see around Koerner’s introduction of Kerkow and where he places her at this story’s dénouement. Dom sees them too, so I know I’m not crazy, but I wonder just how deliberate their placement is in the novel book.   Is he really under her sway? Is this simply a narrative technique?  It is because we live in the age of movies, and this gives the book a Hollywood ending?    I’m curious to find out.

“The Skies Belong to Us” #4

Sometimes I talk to myself, sometimes “talking” means arguing and Tricia and Dr. Matthew don’t get along:
Still mopey it’s over?


It’s been over a week, you know.


Did you do that thing you always do? You know, that thing where you forget to check when the book actually ends and you think you have a good 15 pages left when you don’t?


So it kind of just ended for you.  All of a sudden.


Still pissed about Cathy Kerkow?


So, just with the one-word answers.

I hate her.


She gets away with too much.


Everyone else has to pay and she doesn’t.


Well, I know that’s not really the case. It’s so


I know, I know she loses things too. It’s just all too easy for her to


Sorry. What were you saying?

It’s all too easy for her to abandon an identity once it no longer suits her. And I know, she sticks around longer than I expected, but

This is really a thing with you, isn’t it?

A thing?

Yes, a thing. You started off comparing Kerkow to Piper in “Orange is the New Black” and talking about rites of passage (in that preachy tone of yours).

Well, I was right. Except she doesn’t have to because


Okay, okay. Here’s the thing: why does the rite-of-passage or the process to enlightenment have to go through the lives of the disenfranchised? It’s like this is a scarf or a jacket she put on and then took off when it started itching.

But isn’t that just the unfair truth—part of being a Cathy Kerkow is that you get to move around in ways that Holder doesn’t? (and “lives of the disenfranchised?” Puhleeze!). And why does it have to be a path to anything? Or a process?

Yes, but it’s not just her or Piper (that’s a name that should be mocked all day, by the way). It’s the whole eat-pray-love of it. It’s that white woman who became a Maasai Warrior and then wrote a book called Warrior Princess! IT’S MILEY CYRUS TWERKING!!!!

Hey now, that’s just silly. You’ve known this about her all along, and I saw those moments when you felt sorry for her. You’re just pissed because Brendan likes her so much.

So much. You could practically see the little hearts on the page.

But the end as a whole, you seemed to like it.

Oh I loved it! I read it at the bar of my favorite restaurant over red wine and chocolate cake (also very hard to get right, by the way).

I know, I heard you say “I see what you did there, Koerner!” (and everyone else did too, by the way)

I couldn’t help it. I was really happy for him! He pulled off this really hard caper, an almost impossible balancing act.  I mean, really, it’s an almost flawless book.

So it’s not the writing but the point-of-view you don’t like.

It’s the politics of it, romanticizing her.

You wanted him to say “bad little white girl!” didn’t you.

Sort of.

Even though you’ve praised the book for not being preachy, for not pointing at anyone’s behavior and leaving the reader to make her own choices and connections, for being thoughtful but

Yes–for being thoughtful and dispassionate at once.  It’s hard. I know, I know.

So you want him to judge her.

NO, I don’t want him to exactly judge her. Okay, maybe just a little bit. But does he have to like her in such an obvious way? I want him to

Judge her. You want him to judge her. Actually, you want to judge her.

There’s no “want” about it. I do judge her. I know it’s maybe irrational.

Maybe irrational?

Yeah, just maybe. This isn’t like being mad at Frankenstein or Darcy. They’re not real. She is, and plus I’m not wrong, you know. She’s a type a very specific type.

Isn’t Holder?

No, he’s a product, a compilation of tragedy, and the “tragedy” is not ennui and restlessness.Terrible, awful things happen to him, and this meant something to him. It wasn’t a lark. Yes, it was deluded, but

Funny, you have all this wrath for Kerkow but none for the hijackers who put so many people in harm’s way. She didn’t actually DO anything you know? And where is Holder’s agency in all this? (God, now you have me doing it…”agency” gag)? Lots of black men went to Vietnam and faced horrible racism and didn’t hijack a frickin’ plane.

Wait, do you hate Holder? Because that’s not okay. We like him. You don’t get not to like Holder (and what’s with the “frickin’?” your mom stopped reading this blog a long time ago). The thing is Koerner makes her this heroine. She’s not just a subject like the other people in the book but the alluring muse he imagines at the moment in the novel when I want him to

What? What do you want him to do? (and, it’s not a novel, Patricia)

Well, I’m not sure.

Have you ever, ever liked any ending of any novel written after 1845? Ever?

Right now, aren’t you already looking suspiciously at Americanah? And 1Q84

Listen, that book is a million pages.  I’m going to throw a party when I finish it. (and didn’t you just say Skies is not a novel?)

But don’t you usually use words like “flat” or “excessive” or “self-indulgent” to describe the end of perfectly good books? You have issues and can’t let go, can you, crazy-reader lady? Don’t you? Don’t you?

I’m waiting.

Still waiting

First, I’m not crazy.  Second, I can do two things at once. I can hate all endings like an irrational reader and still be legitimately pissed about how Cathy ends up. In fact, I think it’s a sign of

Oh shut up. Go see what Dominique thinks. She’ll know.

“The Skies Belong to Us” #3

I can’t decide if The Skies Belongs to Us is like a good layer cake or a good lasagna.

It’s possible that I’m thinking about food metaphors because the school year has started (cries) and my mind is on teaching students how to organize compelling essays. Or maybe it’s because I read a good portion of Skies while eating the last pieces of my birthday cake (cries and weeps). Comparing it to cake might make it seem as if the book shouldn’t be taken seriously, that it’s more like dessert than something substantive. That isn’t the case. For all of the zaniness of the different hijacking plots, this is a book that invites us to think of how national crises manifest themselves in a country’s citizens—especially those citizens whose feelings of disenfranchisement chip away at their sense of moral duty. Still, I’m leaning towards cake over lasagna.

Dom wrote in her last post: “my incredulity has been tempered by compassion, and a bit of sadness.”
She’s is thinking about Holder (she refers to him by his first name):

On page 122, there’s an excerpt of the note that Roger had started to write to the captain of the plane, but which he gave up on when he couldn’t keep his thoughts straight. It’s completely incomprehensible; a word salad from someone who is clearly not in their right mind. Reading it broke my heart a little. Here was a man who had witnessed (and committed) unspeakable horrors, and yet, because of a mistake he made while trying to deal with that, he was sent back into the regular world with no help or support whatsoever.

I felt this way at a different moment. The mention of the other black guy on Holder’s flight made me sad and uncomfortable. As the crew and passengers try to figure out who among them is a threat, he is considered a suspect—for no other reason than a shared racial marker. He must have been as frightened and frustrated as the other passengers, and yet he had another burden to shoulder.

But back to the cake/lasagna that is this book.

Writing 101 teaches the structure of a good essay: the hook, the argument, the evidence, more evidence, some analysis, conclusions. You can see this in good writing everywhere. An op-ed, long non-fiction piece, or blog post begins with some anecdote that’s meant to stand in for the piece’s larger issue or theme. I do this in my literary criticism, start with some salient (or salacious) part of the text and then hang my argument on it. It’s a great model; think of it as the comfort food of writing. I thought Koerner was doing this and had sort of eased into the lasagna of his book: personal/historical/political,personal, historical/political, personal/historical/political. For roughly the first half of the book the personal focused primarily on the hijackers, either the motivation behind their attacks and/or what happened around the hijacking (NB: when parachuting out of a plane carrying your loot, don’t wear cowboy boots).

I liked that structure and the rhythm of it. It made the history feel more intimate and kept the focus on the people. I think it might be how Koerner avoids slipping into preaching (I’m fascinated by the absence of moralizing in the book thus far). But when we get to the Holder-Kerkow hijacking, Koerner starts mixing it up, adding layers within layers, and then it’s like an amazing novel, and I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Or, actually, I kind of know what’s going to happen next but I don’t know how it’s going to happen. I love that. As someone who grew up reading detective novels and who spends her time reading canonical British fiction, I’m pretty good at anticipating what’s going to happen next and, in some cases, how events will unfold. It means I’m usually reading for something else (patterns, rhetoric, ideology), and get distracted by what I want to say or write about what I’m reading.

That’s not the case here. At first I couldn’t put the book down because I was so surprised by its content; now I can’t put it down (even for my mandatory reading for school: Frankenstein, Northanger Abbey, the Romantic poets) because it’s crafted so well. Like a really amazing cake. A good lasagna is wonderful, but it’s actually really easy to make one. It’s almost fool proof. Oh sure, you can overcook the noodles, or not season the filling properly, or use store-bought mozzarella and bore yourself to death, but it’s basic and easy to learn. Cake, especially a layered cake takes skill.

Take my birthday cake for example: lemon cake with lemon curd and vanilla cream icing (it’s called Brooklyn Sunshine and you can get it from Heavenly Crumbs, but you have to order it a few days ahead). Perfectly layered with icing that didn’t leave an aftertaste or that slimy post-icing feeling in your mouth. Just when you were enjoying the cake, a bit of lemon curd would get in there and the icing is pretty and thick enough to let you know you’re eating cake for a special reason but not so thick as to overpower the cake the way the icing on those dry monstrosities that Magnolia Bakery calls cupcakes does. For me, the heart of this book is the national crisis, and Holder and Kerchow are the icing. I’m not quite sure why, so this analogy could fall apart at any moment, but I suspect it’s because they’re the shiny, compelling decoration that pulled me into the cake.