June 2008 Archives

So Proud!

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Linda Alcorace, my lovely student at the Pine Manor College MFA program, has a personal essay running in the L.A. Times today! 

Linda, who suffers from the extremely rare Budd-Chiari syndrome, is waiting for a liver transplant, which is a very perilous situation, but she decided to pursue a writing degree anyway and has been working like a horse on her creative nonfiction.  So this is especially fantastic news.

Hurray!  Congratulations, Linda! 


The Laugh of the Medusa & Jamaica Kincaid

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A couple of posts ago, I wrote asking for your help coming up with examples of écriture feminine, Cixous's term for writing associated with the feminine/female, for my lovely Pine Manor student.

In "The Laugh of the Medusa," Cixous writes:

It is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing, and this is an impossibility which will remain, for this practice can never by theorized, enclosed, coded . . . it will always surpass the discourse that regulates the phallocentric system . . .
That said, she explains:

Women must write through their bodies, they must invent the impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes, and rhetorics, regulations and codes, they must submerge, cut through, get beyond the ultimate reserve-discourse . . . Such is the strength of women that, sweeping away syntax, breaking that famous thread (just a tiny little thread, they say) which acts for men as a surrogate umbilical cord . . .
The other night, it hit me:  Jamaica Kincaid!  Maybe not all her work, but definitely the stories in her slender, beautiful collection At the Bottom of the River and also her painful, hypnotic memoir My Brother, about her brother's death in Antigua from AIDS.  Just her short story "Girl" might be a wonderful short example of her work in this regard.

Other suggestions?  Come on, I know there are some literary folks out there!


The Delights of Teaching

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One of my favorite books to teach at Wabash College, where I worked for ten years before moving to Lincoln, was the inimitable Beverly Daniel Tatum's Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?  I love this book.  I loved teaching it to first-year writing students, not only because Tatum's writing is wonderfully logical, organized, and crystal-clear--a great model for students--but also, and more importantly, because she explains issues of institutional (structural) racism and white privilege in ways that anyone can understand.  It made me feel happy to be doing peace and justice work in the composition classroom, instead of talking only about paragraph organization and comma splices.

My father loved the book, too.  I gave him a copy and told him how excited I'd been to find it (at the GLCA Course Design & Teaching Workshop for multicultural education, which I'd taken as a junior faculty member).  He read it and was annotating it; he told me that it clarified things that had puzzled and hurt him all his life.  I found it on his little stand next to his armchair after he died.

One of my favorite students at Wabash, a young man named Daniel Zeno, who's now in law school at the University of Iowa, just wrote to update his friends on the work that he's been doing this summer with Advancement Project, a policy, communications, and legal action group in D.C. that works for racial justice.  Along with several other initiatives, Daniel has written a blog post for the Advancement Project's blog, Just Democracy, called "Undelivered Promises:  40 Acres and a Mule in 2008," about the new suit filed by over 800 Black farmers against the USDA.

He writes:

The persistent unwillingness of the USDA to address these problems of racism and discrimination, combined with the many other examples on the federal, state and local government level (Did somebody say Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans?) remind us all that structural racism is still alive. Structural racism is a direct result of a history of racism in the United States and continues to deny people of color equal opportunities.

Go, Daniel!



A Very Good Question

Hurray!  I've been doing nothing--and I mean nothing--but revising since I last posted, but I'm finally done!  Woohoo!  (Well, for the moment, at any rate--my best reader is going to read the manuscript and give feedback this week, and then it's back to the grindstone.)  After revising, the book weighed in at 395 pages, and I know size doesn't matter, but still, it's so massive that I can't help grinning.  This is the kind of page count you can generate when you deliberately choose to have no life . . .  :)

So, back to real life.  I got the most interesting question from a wonderful student at Pine Manor College's MFA program, where I moonlight, and I have some random thoughts in response, but I thought I'd throw it open to your collective wisdom and see what all of us can generate for her.

For a class I'm teaching at this summer's residency at Pine Manor, I've asked students to read in advance Hélène Cixous's famous essay "The Laugh of the Medusa."

My dutiful and smart student, who's already read the essay, writes: 

I am just wondering if you have any reading suggestions for what you'd consider "writing from the body" (especially) or "feminine literature" (since time has passed since 1976) and contrasting books/writing by women that you would not consider in that category.
Suggestions?  Off the top of my head, I'm thinking of--post 1976--Louise Erdrich's memoir The Blue Jay's Dance and novel Love Medicine, Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood's Surfacing (whoops--1972 pub date), fiction and poetry by Sandra Cisneros, and Lauren Slater's Lying.  And to me, Toni Morrison's work, starting with The Bluest Eye seems very much written from the body. 

On the negative side of the writing-from-the-body equation, and perhaps not what Cixous was calling for, there's Susanna Moore's novel In the Cut, Kathryn Harrison's memoir The Kiss, and, in other un-cheer, Alice Sebold's excellent memoir Lucky. 

For pre-1975/76 publications that Cixous probably wouldn't have known about, I'm thinking of Meridel Le Sueur's classic short story "Annunciation" and H.D.'s creative manifesto "Notes on Thought and Vision," both of which have a positive vision, together with much of the work by Jean Rhys, which doesn't.

But all of these selections are debatable, and I welcome your feedback and alternatives.

And what books by women aren't in that category?  Hmm.  Where to start?  



Hurray for Writers' Groups!

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Since last Fall, I've been meeting with a writers' group on the third Friday of every month.  The four of us meet downtown at a restaurant to drink, nosh, and swap news about our personal and professional lives.  Then we critique a manuscript one of us has written and emailed in advance.  It's been terrific.  They're all writers affiliated with the Department of English at UNL, so we can talk shop if we want to (though we usually don't), and they couldn't be nicer, more interesting women.

For the end of the semester, we had a potluck at one writer's house last Friday, and I had something BIG to celebrate.  I'd just finished the first draft of my new novel, all 349 pages of it.  The writers' group hadn't read it (too long), but they knew what a huge accomplishment it felt like.  I made the salad (which I record here for posterity, since it's only like the third salad I've ever made in my life--that's a bit of our apartment in the background) and brought the bubbly. 

And you know what?  My friends were so happy for me, so completely congratulatory and supportive and generous.  We sat out on the deck and chatted.   They asked great questions, which I was happy to answer, and we all caught up on each other's projects. 

As we all know, writing is solitary, and it can get lonely.  Sometimes you feel like you're not getting anywhere on a project, and sometimes you doubt your work's worth.  So when you do achieve something, it's important to have people to help you mark the little successes along the way.  If you're a writer and you don't have that kind of network, start building it now.  It can be done. 

Lincoln's a wonderful town to be in, and I'm so happy to live here among friends.


Who's the "We"? A Meditation on Ghosts

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The cover story of today's New York Times Book Review is a piece by Robert Pinsky, former U.S. Poet Laureate, on Kathryn Harrison's new nonfiction book, While They Slept.  He examines the paradoxical way in which literature asserts the unspeakable-ness of traumatic experience while still speaking it:

The violations that destroy human lives, or maim them, seem to demand telling.  Possibly we seek such stories as ways to understand our smaller, more ordinary losses and griefs. . . .  Raped, her tongue torn out, Philomela becomes the nightingale, singing the perpetrator's guilt.
But who is the "we" in Pinsky's second sentence?  "Possibly we seek such stories as ways to understand our smaller, more ordinary losses and griefs."  This assumed in-group troubles me, for many of us have been raped.  Or experienced incest, or been witnesses to killings (examples he goes on to mention).  Or, pressed by our nations into service as warriors, we have been the perpetrators of legally sanctioned murder.  Or we've grown up in the homes of such people, afflicted by the leftover traumas they didn't know how to cure.  Many of us would love to have suffered only the "smaller, more ordinary losses and griefs" of Pinsky's second sentence.

Pinsky quotes the chorus, speaking to Oedipus:

What madness came upon you, what daemon
Leaped on your life with heavier
Punishment than a mortal man can bear?
No: I cannot even
Look at you, poor ruined one.
And I would speak, question, ponder,
If I were able. No.
You make me shudder.

"I cannot even / Look at you, poor ruined one."

How do survivors of trauma cope with this invisibility--with knowing that they make the un-traumatized "shudder"?  How do they survive, not only the initial trauma, not only its aftereffects (which can last decades), but also the knowledge that they offend the eye and ear of the healthy civilian, that their unspeakable pain has rendered them unsightly? 

Though he gives a positive review to Harrison's book (the true story of brutally abusive, fundamentalist parents whose actions, ignored by the surrounding society, led to their murder by their son), Pinsky's attitude reinscribes the horror with which "normal" people often greet those who've traumatized.  The surviving daughter,

[a]t the age of 6 or 7, in an act of imagination that foreshadowed her achievement of surviving . . . created families of ghosts she would speak with, in the trees near where she lived.  [Author] Harrison suggests that these ghosts--creatures who are dead, yet persist--were a way for the child to mourn for herself, or for the lost selves and family that might have existed.
Different ghosts arise in an interview with Edward Tick, who counsels returning veterans, in the current issue of The Sun, "Like Wandering Ghosts:  How the U.S. Fails Its Returning Soldiers."   His attitude toward the traumatized is a more compassionate one:

Kupfer: Though you treat ptsd, you’ve said that it is not a mental illness. Why do you believe this?

Tick: We pathologize everything in this culture. We think anything that ails us must be a medical condition that can be treated. Veterans are angry or sad because they have been through horrors, but we say it’s got to be a pathology. This is exacerbated by a profound alienation between our warrior class and our civilian class, which have almost nothing to do with one another. We don’t even think we have a warrior class, and we don’t teach our service people to think of themselves as warriors, even though societies throughout history have almost all had warrior classes and reciprocal relationships between warriors and civilians. Soldiers have a responsibility to defend their country, and it is our responsibility as citizens to heal those who have put their lives on the line for us, even if they fought a war for the wrong reasons or for lies. And we’re not doing that.
Using PTSD as an inadequate but the best currently available term, Tick sees it as "an identity disorder and soul wound that has its source in moral trauma. It is also a social disorder arising from the broken relationship between our society and its veterans." 

If for "veterans," you read also "battered women," "torture victims," "abused children," "rape victims," and so on, then you'll have a sense of how potentially transformative Tick's view could be for our world, in which so many people are now traumatized by war, natural disasters, and violence. 

They need to be listened to and healed, not ignored, not invisible-ized, not disappeared. 

Tick writes:

I am still protesting the Vietnam War, and all war. There are two things we have to do as a culture to end war: One is to take full responsibility for our wounded. It’s not enough just to “bring the boys home,” because they aren’t boys anymore, and getting them home physically does not do it. We need to help them heal and help shoulder their burden. The other thing we need to do is take responsibility for the damage we have done to other countries and their people. I bring veterans to Vietnam to heal not only them but also the Vietnamese. Americans do not realize the monstrous damage we do with technological warfare. I want to bring that reality back home and educate Americans about civilian suffering in war.
Read the whole interview with Tick here



Not just another campaign speech

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If you didn't see Barack Obama give his nomination-clinching speech earlier this week, it's worth 29 minutes of your time, and it's available on YouTube.  Not only did he speak to issues of healthcare, the war in Iraq, global security, energy, the economy, and the environment, but he did this educator's heart good when he said that we must "finally decide that in this global economy, the chance to get a college education should not be a privilege for the wealthy few, but the birthright of every American. That's the change we need in America." 

The speech was terrific.  Obama finished with these remarks:

Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment - this was the time - when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals. Thank you, God Bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America.
My son and I hugged with tears in our eyes.  We're suckers for a good speech.  Especially one that can change history.


Then She Found Me

Hey, all you members of the adoption triad out there--or just you folks who like a romantic comedy with a grain of reality and brains in it--Then She Found Me is really good.  Helen Hunt, of Mad About You fame, directed, wrote the screenplay, and stars.  Other members of the cast are Colin Firth, Matthew Broderick (who's terrific as the clueless, self-absorbed child-husband), and Bette Midler.  Ben Shenkman (Angels in America) and Lynn Cohen (Miranda's housekeeper on Sex and the City) also have good roles.

The film, which has apparently been a labor of love for Helen Hunt, who's been working on it since 1997, is based on the 1990 novel of the same name by Elinor Lipman, who shares her thoughts about its conversion into film on her website.  (Take note of the timeline, all you writers whose books have been optioned or who are hoping for that.)

I really like the way the film explores the sense of total upheaval that an adoption reunion can bring to your life.  As excited and hopeful as you may feel, a reunion is still like an earthquake.  It shakes everything.  The film captures those chaotic highs and lows. 

And it's not like the rest of your life just holds still so you can think about it and deal.  The movie does a good job with that aspect, which it represents in a nicely, realistically complex fashion.  I'm excited about the way Then She Found Me might bring a better understanding of adoption issues to a mainstream, non-adoption-related audience.

I really liked the unabashed inclusion of the protagonist's Jewish faith, too.  Seeing her spirituality presented seriously and with grace made me think about how often Jewishness is depicted in pop culture as inevitably allied with humor, from Woody Allen to Seinfeld to Curb Your Enthusiasm to Jon Stewart's self-deprecating remarks on The Daily Show.  As hilarious as those folks can be, I realized how rare it is to see anything different.  Good for Helen Hunt.

Though most elements of the film are quite strong, some of the dialogue delivery feels, to me, a bit too much like dialogue, not enough like real talk, but that's a minor quibble, and it only happens in a few scenes.  Overall, the movie's terrific.  Here in Lincoln, it's showing at The Ross, but only until this Thursday. 

If you go, prepare to think and be moved.


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