“Chef” and Passion

I’m trying to get into my summer groove after juggling too many things at once since the school year ended (a summer course, friends from out of town in and out of Brooklyn, my dear mother) and it’s been more overwhelming than usual. I have a lot I want to write, more that I need to write, and the regular mix of summer reading. And I’ve willingly fallen into World Cup madness. It’s all fun (even the teaching), but it means I’m bouncing from thing to thing and trying to keep track of too many schedules that are not my own. I want and need to get back to a slower flow and my own rituals.

This is why, even though I was in for the evening and about to have dinner, I decided to see “Chef.” I knew next to nothing about it and hadn’t even paid real attention to the trailer. It’s just as well because I might have skipped it other wise. I’m ambivalent about Jon Favreau but find Sofia Vergara grating and can never get past Robert Downey Jr.’s smug-I’m-so-clever personae.

There’s nothing new about the story, and Favreau isn’t all that convincing as a father figure, even an ineffective one, but the movie is pretty perfect anyway. You can see the plot unfolding from the very start, but plot twists are not the goal here. In fact, knowing how it’s all going to unfold is what makes it so pleasurable. In the first place, it’s a gorgeous visual ode to the art and joy of cooking. It’s a movie for foodies but also for anyone who has ever enjoyed the perfect grilled cheese sandwich. It’s a road trip about towns and neighborhoods that could be trite but manages to feel authentic. I also loved seeing a story about men being friends and bonding without making adulthood (or women) the enemy.

The few times I’ve seen Sofía Vergara her performance seems to be all about how sexy and exotic she is. It’s as if no one knows how to show her in any way but over-the-top-how-is-that-even-possible beautiful. But here she is a kind, wise compassionate woman who also happens to be over-the-top-how-is-that-even-possible beautiful. She’s a more mellow version of what we usually see, and she’s even more beautiful because of it. Downey should always play sly assholes. He’s really good at it.

So see the movie for all these reasons. And see it because it’s funny and easy to slip into, and the soundtrack is terrific. But you should also see it to remind yourself of what it means to feel passionate about a thing—passionate beyond all reason, to the point where it keeps you up nights. This isn’t a movie about dilettantes pretending to give a damn but about craft that has to be practiced and perfected in order for those lucky enough to have a thing to feel whole and complete. And it’s about enjoying that craft in the company of friends who understand and celebrate your thing and laugh with and at you when it’s all looking pretty bleak.

I needed that this evening as I get back to doing my thing.

“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.

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
http://www.fuse.tv/2013/10/big-freedia-bounce-music-history-twerking

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?

Yes

It’s been over a week, you know.

So.

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?

Yeah

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

Yep.

Still pissed about Cathy Kerkow?

Yes

So, just with the one-word answers.

I hate her.

Why?

She gets away with too much.

Really?

Everyone else has to pay and she doesn’t.

Seriously?

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

Nope

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

Wrong

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

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!

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.

“The Skies Belong to Us” #2

I’m having a lot of fun wondering what prompted my mild-mannered friend to tweet a WTF.photo-31

Is it the sheer number of hijackers?
Is it the crude capitalism of the security debate?
Or is it the hijacker in the cowboy boots?
Is she thinking of our friend Amber the flight attendant?
Or maybe the new Almodovar movie with its Glee-like musical number?*

It’s hard to say what has my eyes wide open to the point where I want to nudge strangers on the train to share my incredulity. Is it the zaniness of the hijacking capers or the tug-of-war between the airlines and a government trying to protect a public that didn’t seem terribly bothered by side-trips to Havana? I’m in awe of the “What to Expect When you’re Hijacked” articles and the proto-Dr. Phil and his cray-cray theories about what makes a hijacker. The pissing contest between Cuba and the United States. I don’t even. WTF.

I know Holder and Ketchow are at the center of this story, but, right now at least, I’m not at all interested in them. I want to know more about the other hijackers, especially the hot Italian or the guy who hijacked a plane in order to propose (note to Dom: if a man went to those lengths to get me to marry him, I might seriously reconsider my “no wedding” policy). I credit my curiosity to the way Koerner tell us about the collection of the disillusioned and the delusional—one right after another. It’s like a slideshow you want to watch again.

Underneath the hijinks and breeziness (sorry), Koerner offers a history of the current security state we all currently live in. If Holder were getting on a plane today, a TSA agent would have the right to search his afro for explosives. Maybe “history” isn’t the right word. Maybe it’s a kind of prequel. Right now, he’s laying it out without making a lot of fuss about it. He is just telling the story and leaving it to the reader to make of it what she will. I hope it stays that way. It’s distracting when authors and/or their narrators do the work of interpretation for me. I don’t want or need anyone sitting on my shoulder and talking to me while I’m reading, unless I’m being mocked (see Jane Austen’s narrators).

Some free associations…

I’m with Dom when she reacts to politics that seem uniquely American**. I had to stop reading for a bit when Koerner describes the trauma of Holder’s youth. I also wonder if she has the same experience of being challenged about her blackness that Holder faced in his youth and I had to negotiate well into graduate school.

I’m noting how much the military industrial complex leaks into our daily lives and how the technology that begins there wends its way to civilian use.

I’m wondering if there is a connection between deregulating airlines and the current security model of the TSA. I was a kid when the airlines were deregulated and have no memory of it, but I keep seeing it as a crucial turn in public policy and our relationship to travel and, eventually, security.

I read Koerner, stop, and do other things, and I think about travel.

I remember The Flying Tigers airline that took my family from Mississippi to The Philippines. The flight attendants were extra kind to us. My Christian mother calls this God’s favor. The militant part of my black identity thinks it made them feel good to be extra gracious to this nice, squeaky clean black family. My father was handsome and sharp in his uniform, my mother was beautiful, and I was wide-eyed and well behaved. The flight attendants weren’t just nice to us on the plane. Even after we moved into our house, whenever they flew into Clark Air Base they would bring me presents—a shiny blue Flying Tigers jacket (in my size), a Flying Tiger pin, and, my favorite thing: real, whole milk. We couldn’t get that overseas, so we drank the powdered stuff (I actually only used it for my cereal or in hot chocolate). The flight attendants would bring me the milk that didn’t get used during the flight. Bliss.

Now, of course, the experience of flying overseas is exhausting and invasive.

On my way back from Amsterdam a few years ago the wand the security guard used to scan my body for explosives was triggered by the underwire in my bra. When it beeped, the flat-chested agent asked what was causing the beep. When I said it was most likely the underwire in my bra she was derisive: “why do you need underwire in your bra?” I looked at her breasts and then down at mine and then back at hers and then back at mine. I did that until she nodded curtly and let me go through.

I feel impossibly naïve to be so shocked by the degree to which all thoughts and policies about “security” are guided by commerce. I like to think I know how the world works, and as much as I attach the phrase “industrial complex” to any number of nouns (prison/education/wedding/mainstream feminist/Hollywood + see above) you’d think I know by now that Sally Bowles and the Master of Ceremonies are dead on right when they sing “money makes the world go round.”

I wonder if we will we ever buy our way back to that relative ease of travel. I know we’ll never be able to walk freely around airport and airplanes without intense scrutiny, but will the passenger’s comfort matter more than security the farther away we get from 9/11? Is there enough money in corporate travel to offset the billions earned by security?

My concerns about the writing have evaporated. I wondered at first if my first response was just me being a prickly, picky reader who was being super critical about a writer she doesn’t know, but I do think the writing gets better and smoother. I also am having a hard time putting the book down. But I am. As much as I want to know what happens next (of course, on some level I do know what happens), I’m slowing down to savor this book. I flew through Mat Johnson’s Pym a few summers ago and was bereft when it was over, wandered around like some lost puppy unsure about what to read next. Not this time.

I like what Dom says in her first thoughts about the book:

I have the sense that the “dots” in Roger’s and Cathy’s story can be easily connected from choice to choice, coincidence to coincidence, and consequence to consequence. Whether that is due to who they are, or to Koerner’s skill as a writer, remains to be seen.

*Dom is right about television. I was with her in Toronto for a week and only have some vague memory of a television somewhere in her apartment, and I don’t think it was ever on. I, steeped as I am in serialized fiction, love the whole process of falling in love with a show—especially dramas. I am very much looking forward to a well-done mini-series of this book, narrated by Samuel L. “Get these motherfucking hijackers off of this motherfucking plane” Jackson.

**I know, I know. I can’t help it.