Monday, January 23, 2012

"Beloved" pilloried

Toni Morrison's "Beloved" has been removed from the programme of an advanced English literature class, in a high school in Michigan. The reason is that two parents complained the book was 'simplistic pornography'. Now, I wonder why in this school they let parents who don't know anything about literature take decisions as important as what their children should and should not study. It took a committee to decide that "Beloved", the most important work of a Nobel Prize laureate, should remain in the programme!

One of the parents claimed that "Beloved" contains 'gratuitious language, violence and sex acts that provide no historical context for the reader'. It is evident that Barb Dame, the mother in question, doesn't know the history of her country (or perhaps she is a rather insensitive person), because you clearly cannot say that the violence in the book (rape, whipping, murdering, the hanging of slaves etc) has nothing to do with the history of black people in the USA. The sex acts in the novel have a highly metaphorical meaning: they stand for the difficulties that black people in America experienced regarding normal, healthy love relationships. Starting a family in the wake of the horrors of slavery, when fathers and mothers were bought and sold and children were born only to live a life of suffering, is what lies behind some of the acts in the novel.
Rita Dove
Another thing they complained about was the language in the book. Although the book is usually described as stylistically complex and poetical, Matt and Barb Dame complained that the lexical level of the book is only suitable for a fifth grader (10-11 years old), thus comparing the book to Roald Dhal's "James and the Giant Pea", a popular children's book.

Personally, I think this is racist and it makes me think of a similar piece of news. A couple of months ago a review of an anthology of twentieth-century American poetry written by Helen Vendler caused a stir and a fierce debate on the American canon. The anthology, according to Vendler, includes too many black poets (the editor is in fact Rita Dove, a distinguished African American and a poet). Skimming over her other controversial claims, Helen Vendler observes that the poems chosen by Rita Dove are often 'of rather restricted vocabulary'. As if complicated words made good poems and simple words could not. Now, that black American writers sometimes use a relatively simple vocabulary compared to that of their fellow white writers is a fact. They do this on purpose, of course. It is part of their political agenda. African American theorists like bell hooks and Alice Walker have pointed out that. That Rita Dove has chosen accessible poems (except when the choice was inevitable, as for T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land") is simply the result of her taste. Every anthology is the result of one's sensibilities regarding literature. 

Harold Bloom
Nobody nowadays takes anthologies as the Gospel truth. The time when Harold Bloom could choose 26 authors - all male but for Austen, Dickinson, Eliot and Woolf - and decide they were the Western canon is gone, thank God. That time, nonetheless, is not that far away ("The Western Canon" came out in 1994). Personally, I think it is ridiculous to annihilate every form of canon, because without some shared authors, what would we talk about? It would be a discussion between deaf people. At the same time, I think one should be free to value some writers and dislike, or even discard, some others. A fine balance is hard to find, I agree, but nothing come easily in literature criticism.     

Read the full review here and Rita Dove's answer here. Also have a look at this long but interesting article appeared on The Australian, where I got the reference to Harold Bloom and his canon, a topic that was buzzing in my mind for a while. I have many more things to say about Vendler's article (what about those infamous statements about Gwendolyn Brooks?), but I'll save that for another time.

Friday, January 20, 2012

African American theatre digest (2)

“Fences” by August Wilson
Denzel Washington in a stage performance of "Fences"

In this realistic play published in 1983, August Wilson has stuffed many of the anxieties of contemporary African American families. The sixth in his ten-part 'Pittsburgh Cycle' where every play is representative of a decade of African American experience, “Fences” tells the story of an ordinary black family of the 1950s: Troy Maxson is a husband and a father, he works as a garbage man and always grumbles when his older son Lyons visits him only to ask for money. He is frustrated because he was an excellent baseball player but was denied entry in the Major League because of his skin colour. For this reason he doesn't want his son Cory to play football. Of course this is a cause of serious argument with his wife Rose. Troy is introverted, he always looks at the past with anger and at the future with resignation. His attempt to get a promotion as a garbage truck driver sounds ridiculous, seen that he doesn't have a driving licence. To give you just another hint, he is building a fence in his yard to keep death away, but also to keep people out. Without realizing that she has stood by him and helped in the household, he cheats on his wife of 18 years. The family, as portrayed by Wilson in this play, is presently precarious, but looking for stability. The play has been awarded the Pulizter Prize for Drama and, although it deals with everyday life and seemingly trivial things there is a lot of symbolism and philosophical insight into the psychological complexities of the characters.

“Ma Rainey's Black Bottom” by August Wilson

Ma Rainey has been one of the first professional blues singers, recording her music at a time, the 1910s and 1920s, when this was perhaps the only way for black people to become rich and famous. She even came before Bessie Smith (a legend telling that Ma Rainey kidnapped Smith and taught her how to sing). Wilson's play deals with Ma Rainey as much as with the musicians in his band and with the white producers. Levee, the youngest member of the band, is bold and ambitious. He has his own innovative ideas about music and tries to impose them on the other musicians, who are however reluctant. He wants to play the songs faster, and with swing. The white producers are interested, but the suspicion that they are only exploiting him is strong. In opposition to Levee there is Toledo. He is the only member of the band who can read and write and has learned a lot of things about African American culture from books, thus he keeps lecturing everyone on the seemingly African influences of their gestures and habits. When Ma Rainey enters the stage, one becomes aware of her stardom: she has her own private car and wants to be served a coca-cola before starting to record the songs. The members of the band, however, keep arguing. Things become even tenser when she stubbornly wants her stuttering nephew Sylvester to deliver a line at the beginning of a song. The tragic epilogue does not leave any hope for the African American experience of the 1920s. It is a grim ending, but one that African American literature has made us accustomed to. Wilson's theatre is humorous at times, but it also has painfully bitter parts. He always constructs complex metaphors of the situation of African American people in a precise moment in time. Hope and defeat go hand in hand in Wilson's work, they are inextricable.    

“Gem of the Ocean” by August Wilson

This the obscurest of the three Wilson's plays I have been reading. It is set in 1904 in Pittsburgh, in the house of a clearly-symbolical 285-years-old matriarch, Aunt Ester, who practices healing with a strange ceremony, the journey to the City of Bones. Citizen Barlow needs to be cleansed because of a crime he has committed, while the city is in turmoil because of an incident at the mill, involving a black man accused of having stolen some nails. The man, faced with the shame of admitting to a crime he has not committed, drowns himself in the river. While Citizen Barlow undergoes the ritual in which he imagines himself on the ship that brought his ancestors to America and visualizes an underwater city of bones, representing the people dead in the voyage and, simultaneously, his ancestors, things get worse in town, until the usual tragic epilogue leaves the audience gasping. What to make of the ritual, with its strong connections to traditional African folklore and animistic religion? How to reconcile it to the dismal fate of black people Wilson insists upon? The hope envisioned at the end of the play, with Citizen Barlow taking up the role of Solly Two Kings, a former guide in the Underground Railroad that led enslaved people to freedom, is highly charged. Finally, after moments of panic and daunting emotions, a small liberation, a cathartic moment that parallels the experience of reconciling oneself with the haunting memory of the Middle Passage.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

"The Old Man and the Sea" by Ernest Hemingway

William Faulkner once tried to insult Ernest Hemingway by saying that he 'has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary'. Hemingway, however, did use some words that you would need to look up in the dictionary: a lot of fish names, for instance, and fishing techniques. The problem is that they are not the kind of words you are eager to know the meaning of. The narrative, in fact, goes on smoothly whether you know or not the kind of fish Hemingway is talking about.

“The Old Man and the Sea” is the work that made Ernest Hemingway a celebrity but in spite of that it is a rather simple story: an old fisherman called Santiago struggles to catch a very big merlin, à la Herman Melville, and the fight goes on for three days. Despite having refused company for the day, Santiago wishes a younger friend who usually takes good care of him would be there to help him. He knows that he is just an old man fighting a very stubborn fish, whom he however admires. Santiago shows an excellent knowledge of nature and of the sea. His struggle for survival and his mind fixed towards his goal in spite of several adversities is perhaps a parallel to the way one needs to treat life.

I am aware that there is a plethora of interpretations of this short novel and that Biblical references apparently are of paramount importance. The way I see it, this novella might be partly autobiographical, at least from an allegorical point of view. “The Old Man and the Sea” can be seen as the will of an middle-aged writer (Hemingway was 52 and maybe already suffering of depression when he wrote this) who has recently received some let-downs from his work but is looking for a last win before retiring. All the savvy and wisdom that Santiago shows at sea may simply represent the skills a writer should use to make his story work. All the talk in town about him being the greatest fisherman in the world who has been struck by misfortune and hasn't caught a single fish in the last eighty-four days shows perhaps how big Hemingway's ego was at the end of his astonishing career (after all he would be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1954). Even Manolin, the young man who has learned everything he knows about fishing from him and is ready to take his place, can be interpreted as a younger generation of writers who have learned from Hemingway and are ready to continue his work and enrich American literature even further. “The Old Man and the Sea” is in fact the last work Hemingway would publish and it comes after “Across the River and into the Trees”, an ambitious novel that was critically and commercially a disaster.

I must confess that I have never been a huge Hemingway fan. I had read passages of his work at school and found his writing too “economic”. He does not indulge on describing emotions and one may suffer from the lack of lyrical passages. Hemingway is down to earth and straightforward: his sentences are mostly made of actions and there are relatively few adjectives. However, I liked the relationship of the old fisherman with the natural world that surrounds him, his awareness of the place he occupies within the natural world. I found the tale enriching in from a spiritual, rather than literary, point of view (without revealing too many details, the end of the novel is both a loss and a win). After all, what did Hemingway answer to Faulkner's provocation? He declared, not without wisdom: 'Poor Faulkner. Does he really think that big emotions come from big words?'.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Filtered # 2

Time ago I had tried a new post format, where I would filter some "bookish" news and pass them on to you. Unfortunately, as I had warned you, I wasn't constant, but I still like to look for news and curiosities about authors and books.

PS: now my links open to a new window!

#1 What is more relaxing than reading a book while crunching on some good cookies? Stacy Adimando,  a "food editor" (and if you want to know what that is follow this link), has made a list of classic cookies (mostly American, but I'm sure you can find most of them in Europe too) to go with a book. The names range from Ernest Hemingway to Jhumpa Lahiri.

Lucia Etxebarria, Spanish author
#2 Spanish author Lucia Etxebarria has decided to stop publishing books at all after having learnt that more copies of her books were illegally downloaded than they were sold. Of course, her drastic choice has sparked fierce debate: is writing a call or a profession? Can one give up writing for the lack of economical gain? Mind that Etxebarria earned more than £750,000 in prizes, so she isn't starving. We haven't lost that great a novelist, in my opinion, as you can gather from my review of one of her novels.

#3 It could become the plot of a new Scandinavian movie. For a certain period Norway's national library had acquired manuscripts and documents related to their best-known authors, playwright Henrik Ibsen and Nobel prize winner Knut Hamsun. Antiquarian booksellers joined the party: the material was in fact juicy, ranging from the draft of a letter addressed to Adolf Hitler to unpublished plays. Unfortunately, everybody was duped, as they were all forgeries by a Norwegian scriptwriter and actor who had contacted people interested in the Second World War. Knut Hamsun is in fact a controversial writer, having sympathized with Nazism.

#4 Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on classic novel "To Kill A Mockingbird". This talented author has a gift for essay writing, as well as for story telling. I am going cold turkey for her books right now!

#5 An app called Freedom, available for Mac users, locks you up from your own computer, leaving time to do everything else, for example write without the distractions of the internet. Reporters found proof that authors like Zadie Smith and Dave Eggers use it. Can we still hope for that Zadie Smith novel that is due for some years now?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Books read - 2011

This has been an intense year for me, both academically and "bookishly". I'm in the middle of my research project on the interconnections between postcolonialism and feminism in Indian women's writing. For this reason, you will be encounter books on postcolonial theory and postcolonial feminism (1, 2, 3, 31), a lot of India and poetry, not to mention books for my seminars (10, 30, 34, 37-44, 46, 48) . On top of this list, I have read tons of essays on various topics and this is why, even though I am two books short of my record of 51 books achieved last year, I have actually read a lot. My only regret is that the project is draining me of time to read other books I have bought and I am eager to read (Kenaz, Aminatta Forna, V.S. Naipaul, Kiran Nagarkar, some American and English poetry that is piling up on my bedside table...). I hope I can squeeze them in next year, but I know I'll be even busier than now.
In the meantime, a book hug. Happy New Year everyone!

1. The Shock of Arrival - Meena Alexander
2. The Empire Writes Back - Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths & Helen Tiffin
3. Borderlands / La Frontera - Gloria Anzaldua
4. London Fields - Martin Amis
5. Il visconte dimezzato - Italo Calvino

6. The English Patient - Michael Ondaatje
7. Rich Like Us - Nayantara Sahgal
8. No New Land - G.V. Vassanji
9. Felicia's Journey - William Trevor

10. A Writer's People - V.S. Naipaul
11. Il Dono (The GIft)- Vladimir Nabokov
12. The Skin Between Us - Kym Ragusa
13. Cime tempestose (Wuthering Heights)- Emily Bronte

14. Possession - A.S. Byatt
15. Tabaccherie Orientali - Clara Nubile
16. Con il sari rosa - Sampat Pal
17. Scintille - Gad Lerner

18. My Story - Kamala Das
19. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born - Ayi Kwei Armah
20. Raw Silk - Meena Alexander
21. The Country without a Post Office - Agha Shahid Ali
22. Fedeltà (Fidelity) - Grace Paley
23. The Shadow Line - Joseph Conrad

24. Jasmine - Bharati Mukherjee
25. Mañana en la Batalla Piensa en mi - Javier Marías
26. Because of India - Suniti Namjoshi

27. The Ramayana - R.K. Narayan
28. Italiani, Brava Gente? - Angelo del Boca
29. Shooting Water - Devyani Saltzman

30. Guerra e Pace (War and Peace) - Lev Tolstoj

31. Woman, Native, Other - Trinh T. Minh-Ah
32. The Finkler Question - Howard Jacobson
33. Come diventare Italiani in 24 ore - Laila Wadia

34. The Beggar's Opera - John Gay
35. Feminist Fables - Suniti Namjoshi
36. A Sin of Colour - Sunetra Gupta

37. For colored girls who... - Ntozake Shange
38. Topdog/Underdog - Suzan Lori-Parks
39. Funnyhouse of a Negro - Adrienne Kennedy
40. Middlemarch - George Eliot

41. Fences - August Wilson
42. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom - August Wilson
43. Gem of the Ocean - August Wilson
44. Le Affinità Elettive - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
45. Building Babel - Suniti Namjoshi
46. The White Boy Shuffle - Paul Beattile
47. A Bowl of Warm Air - Moniza Alvi
48. Polly - John Gay
49. Il Vecchio e il Mare (The Old Man and the Sea) - Ernest Hemingway