Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Once there had been a man who cursed the rain clouds, a man of monstrous dreams.

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
I've decided to carry on the tradition of summarizing in poem form. This is the story of Tayo, a young Indian man who has recently returned to the Laguna reservation after fighting in WWII. (I recognize that there are many different terms preferred by indigenous people of America, but for this post I will be using "Indian" in many places simply because that's how they are referred to in the work.)

Tayo is half-white
Tayo is half-Pueblo
Tayo is not all anything

Tayo fought for us
But Tayo is not one of us
Second war of the world
Atomic pain
Great loss

Tayo returns
But Tayo does not return
He is lost

His friends are lost too
They lose themselves in liquor
He wants to be found

Medicine men
Fights with friends


Tayo finds himself in the mountain
The ceremony is complete
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

If you found that plot poem to be a bit opaque, then WELCOME to my world. There were things I really enjoyed about this novel, but there were also things that disturbed me, and many more which confused and confounded me. This was one of those books where I looked up a summary online after I finished, and thought, HUNH. Really? I was supposed to get all that? Not quite as large a mental gap as, say, Gravity's Rainbow (barf) but still substantial. 

My sister Diana did a read-along with me, so I'll be posting her thoughts shortly. Here are mine.

Between worlds
Reading this right after Native Son was fascinating, because I saw a lot of comparisons between Bigger and Tayo. Each young man felt trapped in his own skin, and wronged by the country to which he was 'native'. Here are a few of my favorite lines describing how Tayo feels when he returns home with PTSD from WWII:
  • They didn't want him at Laguna the way he was.
  • The new doctor asked him if he had ever been visible.
  • It had been a long time since he had thought about having a name.
  • It took a great deal of energy to be a human being.
  • He wanted to walk until he recognized himself again.
I have to agree that sometimes it does, indeed, take a great deal of energy to be a human being. Do you recognize yourself, dear readers? Do you ever wonder if you're someone else? It reminded me of one of my favorite Proust lines:
"So how, then, searching for our thoughts, our identities, as we search for lost objects, do we eventually recover our own self rather than any other? Why, when we regain consciousness, is it not an identity other than the one we had previously that is embodied in us? It is not clear what dictates the choice, or why, among the millions of human beings we might be, it is the being we were the day before that we unerringly grasp." I love the idea that you could accidentally grasp onto another human being's consciousness when you wake up in the morning. Whoops, I'm someone else!
"Jungle rain had no beginning or end."
OK, blobbists, I have to make a confession. I put this book on the list because, aside from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I don't think I've read any other books by indigenous Americans. I thought the biggest leap in my social understanding would be life on a reservation versus my rural upbringing. It hadn't even occurred to me that indigenous people fought in American wars, saw gruesome realities, were accepted as soldiers, and then rejected as humans when they returned. Tayo is so completely lost when he comes back, and between his PTSD and the fact that his cousin, the 'prodigal son', so to speak, died in the war, his identity is stripped away. No one wants to claim him, even the ones who are bound to do so. 
  • A white recruiter, to Tayo and Rocky - "Anyone can fight for America. Even you boys. In a time of need, anyone can fight for her." I found this so repulsive. I know that it is not uncommon for us to expect the same peoples that we denigrate and abuse to be our foot soldiers, and it's happened for eons, but that doesn't make it right. How dare we.
  • "Here they were, trying to bring back that old feeling, that feeling they belonged to America the way way they felt during the war. They blamed themselves for losing the new feeling; they never talked about it, but they blamed themselves just like they blamed themselves for losing the land the white people took. They never thought to blame white people for any of it; they wanted white people for their friends. They never saw that it was the white people who gave them that feeling and it was white people who took it away again when the war was over." It was interesting to me that in Native Son, the white man bears the blame, but here, even if the white man deserves the blame, he is not held responsible. 
It's a (white) man's man's man's man's world.
In Native Son, Bigger feels that everything belongs to the white man, but fundamentally it's about personhood that has been stolen. For Tayo, the land is what has been stolen, and personhood is tied to the land. 

"We fought their war for them.
But they've got everything. 
They took our land, they took everything!" reminded me of

"They own everything. They choke you off the face of the earth. They after you so hot and hard you can only feel what they doing to you. They kill you before you die." from Native Son

Do you believe the lie? Do you live the lie?
Tayo, to himself: "Why did he hesitate to accuse a white man of stealing but not a Mexican or an Indian? He had learned the lie by heart - the lie which they had wanted him to learn: only brown-skinned people were thieves; white people didn't steal, because they always had the money to buy whatever they wanted." There's a term for this pattern of thinking - internalized racism? I can't quite put my finger on it; I think there was another term in my head. Anyway, it should force us all to do a gut check, methinks. I liked Tayo's next line:

"As long as people believed the lies, they would never be able to see what had been done to them or what they were doing to each other."

But, like Malcolm X and like Bigger Thomas, Tayo learns that whiteness is not singly equivalent to evil. One medicine man tells him: "Nothing is that simple. You don't write off all the white people, just like you don't trust all the Indians."

What is your tribe?
In addition to forgetting that indigenous peoples had multi-layered identities as Americans, I also forgot, to some extent, of the variety of tribes and the ways in which tribal identity reinforces or conflicts with other identities. Silko only touches on a few tribes in this work, but it made me want to learn more and research more about our nation's too-often hidden history.

This land is your land, this land is my land...
The importance of nature and the earth to Tayo and his culture were some of the only things I really liked about him. I wanted to like him, and I wanted to root for him, but I didn't feel like Silko really gave us the chance to get to know him. I also found it off-putting that her protagonist was a rather personality-less man - I wanted a woman's perspective, a woman's voice, maybe even (gasp!) some female side characters, if we can't have a female protagonist. His aunt and his grandmother were in the distance, but I never felt truly connected to them. It reminded me of how odd I found it that House of the Spirits centered around obnoxious Esteban and not any of the lovely del Valle women.

Some bits about nature:
  • "Indians wake up every morning of their lives to see the land which was stolen, still there, within reach, its theft being flaunted. And the desire is strong to make things right, to take back what was stolen and to stop them from destroying what they have taken." What struck me as I read this was the role of time, and the unfortunate fact that if you go back far enough, a new layer of imperialism, or subjugation, or slavery, or despotism will appear. I remember my favorite word from Intro to Comp Lit - palimpsest - a kind of manuscript where the original writing has been scratched off to make room for future writing, but traces of the old writing still remain. America's history is like a palimpsest, and unfortunately there's a great deal of pain hidden along with the triumphs of democracy and individual liberties. Bigger came earlier in the literary canon than Tayo, but Tayo's pain predates slavery and the Civil War.
How are we doing, dear blobbists? Do you need a break? A snack? Here's a mental caesura:

Oh I'm sorry. Was that too literal for you? 

Here's a less literal caesura:

AAAAAnd, we're back. 

The good news is, even though white people stole the land from Tayo and his people, they know a secret:
  • On white people buying up the land near the reservation: "They only fool themselves when they think it is theirs. The deeds and papers don't mean anything. It is the people who belong to the mountain."
  • "He had lost nothing. The mountain could not be lost to them, because it was in their bones."
Then there's this excellent line:
"He breathed deeply, and each breath had a distinct smell of snow from the north, of ponderosa pine on the rimrock above; finally he smelled horses from the direction of the corral, and he smiled. Being alive was all right then: he had not breathed like that for a long time." I love this line, and its simple poetry. What smells make you feel all right to be alive? I think for me it's new rain, browned butter, and fresh coffee. 

Alnilam, Mintaka, Alnitak***
 ***Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, Hatsya
             ***Meissa, Saiph, Rigel 

I have a personal affection for the constellation Orion, so I was pleased to see it featured in Silko's secondary narrative which follows the 'Spider-Woman', a sort of Mother Earth equivalent.

"Maybe you have Orion in there

And then
everything - 

his clothing, his beads his heart
and the rainclouds 

will be yours."

Dessert stomachs, states with their own atmosphere, standing on a mesa to touch the moon
Tayo talks about how in his youth, he thought that you could touch the moon:
"He had believed that on certain nights, when the moon rose full and wide as a corner of the sky, a person standing on the high sandstone cliff of that mesa could reach the moon. If a person wanted to get to the moon, there was a way; it all depended on whether you knew the directions - exactly which way to go and what to do to get there; it depended on whether you knew the story of how others before you had gone."

It's like Neverland, right? Second star to the right and straight on till morning? I loved this imagery, and it reminded me of the amusing things we believe when we're still putting the world together in our heads. I, for instance, used to think that all the states and countries were stacked on top of each other, ground to sky, and so to cross from Pennsylvania to New York, for example, you'd have to travel through the atmosphere and start at the ground again. Logical Meredith tried to clear this up, since she had often ridden in cars between such states, and didn't remember crossing any atmospheres. But then imaginative Meredith countered with, "You always fall asleep in the car! You probably just missed the atmospheres changing!" ;)

A few years ago I was having dinner with my friend Sarah and her boyfriend, Chris, and he said that we should all get ready to fill up our dessert stomachs. I asked him to elaborate, and he said that as a boy, he thought we had separate stomachs for each course of our meals, and so he would delightedly inform his mother that he wasn't full, since he hadn't even touched the space in his dessert stomach!

What did you believe when you were young, dear readers? Dessert stomachs or alternate atmospheres? ;)

Lyrical lines I Liked:
  • "His body had density again." 
  • "The feelings of shame, at her own people and at the white people, grew inside her, side by side like monstrous twins that would have to be left in the hills to die."
  • "When it came to saving her own soul, she wanted to be careful that there were no mistakes."
  • "I've seen you before many times, and I always remembered you." I love this line so much. I was torn between this one and the one I chose for the title, but I felt like the title was more inclusive of the novel's intent. 
  • "They are trying to decide who you are." Another strong contender for title.
  • "Spider Woman had told Sun Man how to win the storm clouds back from the Gambler so they would be free again to bring rain and snow to the people." While some of the secondary narrative was confusing, I loved the imaginative quality to it. I know it only seems magical to me, since it's a different origin story than the one I was inculcated with, but I think there's something special about this. When you're told something is true from a young age, you are inclined to either accept or reject it. When you hear an alternate version, it can have a sort of mystical ring to it.
  • "She was with him again, a heartbeat unbroken where time subsided into dawn, and the sunset gave way to the stars, wheeling across the night."
petite pieces of poetry:
Because this book heavily features poetry, I wanted to take a moment to honor it with some of Silko's poems from the novel. 

"They flew to the fourth world
Down there 
was another kind of daylight
everything was blooming 
and growing
everything was so beautiful."

"I have left the zigzag lightning behind

I was born from the mountain
I leave a pat of wildflowers"

"Back in time immemorial, things were different, 
the animals could talk to human beings 
and many magical things still happened."

Did you see what I did just there? ;)

Words, Words, Wondrous Words

hackamore - a simple looped bridle, or a bridle without a bit, operated by exerting pressure on the horse's nose

hogan - a traditional Navajo hut of logs and earth

arroyo - a steep-sided gully cut by running water in an arid or semiarid region

kiva - a chamber, built wholly or partly underground, used by male Pueblo Indians for religious rites

Did you know all those words, blobbists? I did not. 

Well, all good things must come to an end, and so, alas, must this post. I want to leave you with a few final thoughts:

"I will tell you something about stories. 
They are all we have, you see, 
all we have to fight off 
illness and death. 

You don't have anything
if you don't have the stories."

It's so true. I don't know where I would be or what my life would be like if I had never found reading, and like Scout, I can't imagine losing it - it is, to me, like breathing now.

And in case you actually garnered some sort of affection for Tayo:

"I'm walking back to belonging
I'm walking home to happiness
I'm walking back to long life."

Our past is indeed a complex one, as Americans, and the intricacies of individual and collective identities can be painful to observe and immerse ourselves in. But how can we truly know ourselves until we understand what and who we are made of, and acknowledge who has won out and who has suffered in each phase of our becoming? 

I'll leave you with one final line:

"Everywhere he looked, he saw a world made of stories, 
the long ago, time immemorial stories, as old Grandma called them. 
It was a world alive, always changing and moving; 
and if you knew where to look, you could see it, 
sometimes almost imperceptible, 
like the motion of the stars across the sky."

On this day of remembrance, let us remember all the people who stand up for us and our freedoms in the ways they feel are right, our soldiers, both literal and literary, our forgotten, and our cherished nurturer, Mother Earth.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

I shall witness for Bigger Thomas.

Native Son by Richard Wright

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Dear Blobbists, in a constant effort to mix things up, I have decided to present the plot of this novel in the form of a poem. Bigger = Bigger Thomas, the 20-year-old African-American male protagonist.

Bigger feeling stuck
Bigger offered a job
Bigger accepts

Bigger meets the white Daltons
Learns about Communism
Drives for daughter Mary

Bigger eats with Mary and boyfriend Jan
Bigger hates how they make him feel
Bigger brings Mary home
She's too drunk
To keep her quiet
Suffocation (accidental)

Bigger burns the body
(and chops the parts that need it)
Bigger says nothing

Bigger gets cocky and tries a ransom note
Bigger found out
Bigger on the run

Bigger kills his girl Bessie
To keep his secret

Bigger gets caught

Bigger defended by Communists
Bigger resentful, raging, alone

Bigger is tried
Bigger is killed.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Sometimes you read a book and you feel happy. Sometimes you read a book and you wish for more. And sometimes, in rare cases and in the right circumstances, you read a book and it changes you. 

This was one of those books. 

I read this book in stops and starts, and at times I felt like I was in a fugue state or an alternate reality. The intensity of emotion, the parallels with today's race relations, and the sheer brilliance of Wright's writing held me hostage for the handful of days it took me to finish the work. It was hard to read, acutely painful, on a number of levels. All that being said, if you haven't read it, please consider picking up a copy, or at least read this post in full to get an inkling of it.

I will not apologize for the lengthiness of this post. Race relations in America deserve a prominent place at the literary table, in the resistance, and on my blog. I will also not apologize for the black and whiteness of this post. While I recognize that race relations in America include a much larger set of groups with various interactions and prejudices and problems than simply those two groups, Wright's work focuses with laser precision on people with the color of his skin, and so, for this post, I will follow suit. Without further ado, here are my thoughts.

I don't like to read introductions or extra information about books. I was, however, struck by this line from Arnold Rampersad's introduction to my edition:
"The sound of the alarm that opens Native Son was Richard Wright's urgent call in 1940 to America to awaken from its self-induced slumber about the reality of race relations in the nation."
It's certainly a beautiful line, but what struck me was its similarity to this line from Ta-Nehisi Coates's 2015 "Between the World and Me", a novel told as a letter to his son about race in America:
"When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option, because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies."
Are you dreaming now? Were you dreaming, but awoke? I think I alternate between dream-world and 'woke-world', and I am intimately conscious of the luxury of this choice. 

Before we dive into the novel's plot a little more, here are a few lines I think speak eloquently to this struggle:
  • "Wright believed that few Americans, black or white, were prepared to face squarely and honestly the most profound consequences of more than two centuries of the enslavement and segregation of blacks in North America." -Arnold Rampersad
  • "We must deal here with a dislocation of life involving millions of people, a dislocation so vast as to stagger the imagination; so fraught with tragic consequences as to make us rather not want to look at it or think of it; so old that we would rather try to view it as an order of nature and strive with uneasy conscience and false moral fervor to keep it so." -Max, Bigger's attorney
  • "Taken collectively, they are not simply twelve million people; in reality they constitute a separate nation, stunted, stripped, and held captive within this nation, devoid of political, social, economic, and property rights."
How does it feel to be a captive in your own country? Are there ways in which you feel you're a captive, readers?

Wright organizes the novel into three parts - Fear, Flight, and Fate. I've kept his sections and collected quotes that best articulate those themes. I've also added a few themes of my own.


  • "His courage to live depended upon how successfully his fear was hidden from his consciousness." I read this line over and over and over.
  • "This boy represents but a tiny aspect of a problem whose reality sprawls over a third of this nation. Kill him! Burn the life out of him! And still when the delicate and unconscious machinery of race relations slips, there will be murder again."
  • "You cannot kill this man, Your Honor, for we have made it plain that we do not recognize that he lives!"
  • "This was not his world; he had been foolish in thinking that he would have liked it." Bigger, on coming into the white world to drive for the Daltons. For some reason it made me think of this line from Ender's Game - "We did not mean to murder, and when we understood, we never came again."
  • "He was following a strange path into a strange land and his nerves were hungry to see where it led."
  • "He was not concerned with whether these acts were right or wrong; they simply appealed to him as possible avenues of escape." Traveling this journey with Bigger was troubling because I wanted to evaluate his actions on a scale of morality, but each decision and each action was so tied up in the history of his very existence and the socialization of his person that it became harder and harder to examine them through a lens of right and wrong. This is not to say that his actions are to be sanctioned, but rather that their impetus and drivers were much bigger than Bigger.
  • "His crime seemed natural; he felt that all of his life had been leading to something like this."
  • "He was tensely eager to stay and see how it would all end, even if that end swallowed him in blackness."
  • "'Didn't you know that the penalty for killing that white woman would be death?' 'Yeah, I knew it. But I felt like she was killing me, so I didn't care."
  • "It did not seem strange that the papers ought to be full of him now, for all his life he had felt that things had been happening to him that should have gone into them. But only after he had acted upon feelings which he had had for years would the papers carry the story, his story." This is another theme in the book - the idea that only by violating convention could Bigger make himself visible, create his own liberty. It was striking in its suitability.
In my last post, I spoke about hate, and how it's a sentiment I try to avoid, given its severity. That being said, I'm intentionally including it here because there is no other word for what Wright describes and what Bigger is feeling. I think it's essential that we recognize hate in this form, and the ways in which white people and America as a society have engendered this hatred. 
"Every time I think about it I feel like somebody's poking a red-hot iron down my throat. We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain't. They do things and we can't. It's just like living in jail."
"He would have gladly admitted his guilt if he had thought that in doing so he could have also given in the same breath a sense of the deep, choking hate that had been his life, a hate that he had not wanted to have, but could not help having. How could he do that? The impulsion to try to tell was as deep as had been the urge to kill." Sometimes I wonder (and this is dark, dear blobbists, so fair warning) how a people who have been so wronged by their country and their fellow citizens can even breathe through their emotions. At Breakthrough, we speak from the "I" perspective, so I will not pretend to know anything other than my own feelings, but I know that my rage and my fear and my sadness are but a fraction of what I could feel were I born with a different color of skin.
"They own everything. They choke you off the face of the earth. They after you so hot and hard you can only feel what they doing to you. They kill you before you die."
I mention these lines in particular because, while in some ways, things are dramatically better or different than they were when Wright wrote this, in other ways things are much the same. I say this not to be pessimistic or dismissive of the various efforts and battles to get to where we are, but rather to draw attention to the work to be done.

I was struck several times by how often and explicitly Wright refers to the color of his characters. I realized that in part, this drew attention to how often and how unconsciously I assume characters are white. In reading these various lines -"the black mother", "the brown daughter", "his black body", "their black fingers", "blackly naked" - I was reminded of a discussion I had with my friend Dennis, a writer currently working on his own brilliant novel at the MacDowell Colony. (#soproud) 

We were talking about writing and race, and Dennis brought up an interview he'd heard with Toni Morrison where she spoke about race and how she wrote about it in ParadiseMorrison said that she started with race (The novel opens with the line "They shoot the white girl first. . . ") and then erased it by never revealing who the white girl is. I thought of how often we ascribe race to characters without thinking, based on arbitrary or logical descriptors, our own biases, our own natural proclivities, our own identities. What race do you assume characters are?

I was struck by one noticeable change in reading Bigger's opinions on race. Before he goes to work for the Daltons, he spends time with a friend of his and they 'play white'. They poke fun at the formal way white people talk, the kinds of things they say, the power they wield. In particular, playing white involves pretending to be the President of the United States. In reading this section, I was pleased to think that this particular example would no longer work. Though, alas, it could still be a game where we 'play men'.

"It was when he read the newspapers or magazines, went to the movies, or walked along the streets with crowds, that he felt what he wanted: to merge himself with others and be a part of this world, to lose himself in it so he could find himself, to be allowed a chance to live like others, even though he was black." Do you feel that you can lose yourself to find yourself, readers? What holds you back?

As a woman (and a feminist) I feel it is my duty to point out that while Wright eloquently depicts the struggles of being a black man in America, in doing so he frequently tramples on black women. I don't want to oversimplify this, because I think there are a lot of complicating factors when we look at the crossroads of race and gender, particularly within a severely oppressed and repressed race. That being said, here were a few lines with which I took umbrage:
  • "A woman was a dangerous burden when a man was running away." oh REALLY? fine, then. leave without us.
  • "That's a woman, always. You want to know something, then you run like a rabbit." oh yes. we're just a bunch of Ridiculous Rabbits, we women.
  • "All I do is work, work like a dog! From morning till night. I ain't got no happiness. I ain't never had none. I just work. I'm black and I work and don't bother nobody..." This is a line from Bessie, and it reminded me a great deal of Beyoncé's Lemonade and the exploration of female blackness. Bessie REALLY drew the short straw in this book (and in life) and I felt for her.
Referents and Reverberations 
(This is a new section I'm including when the spirit moves me. It refers to when a work reminds me of other works that came before or followed suit. I've made this version a guessing game - see if you can guess the novel based on the cropped cover art and the quotes I chose from Native Son to match!)

Year of Publication: 1866

"Could people tell he had done something wrong by the way he acted?"

"During the last two days and nights he had lived so fast and hard that it was an effort to keep it all real in his mind."

ANSWER: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Year of Publication: 1932

"The knowledge that he had killed a white girl they loved and regarded as their symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of them, like a man who had been somehow cheated, but had now evened the score."

ANSWER: Light in August by William Faulkner

Year of Publication: 1937

"Why did he and his folks have to live like this? What had they ever done? Perhaps they had not done anything."

ANSWER: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Native Son by Richard Wright - 1940 
(Just to help you place it on the timeline)

Year of Publication: 1942

"He was not so much in a stupor, as in the grip of a deep physiological resolution not to react to anything."

"Was this the all, the meaning, the end?"

ANSWER: The Stranger by Albert Camus

Year of Publication: 1952

"Had he not done what they thought he never could? His being black and at the bottom of the world was something which he could take with a new-born strength."

 ANSWER: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Year of Publication: 1960

"What's the use? When folks say things like that about you, you whipped before you born. I'm black. I don't have to do nothing for 'em to get me."

ANSWER: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

That line reminded me of this exchange, an all-time favorite I've referenced many times on this blob: 

"Atticus, are we going to win it?"
"No, honey."
"Then why-"
"Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win."