The Known World feels like a book that took a long time to write. The writing proceeds at a slow but churning pace. Jones meticulously ties each character to one another, to the land, to the curious circumstances of the “peculiar institution” of slavery. We are taught in school that slavery was a black and white affair, but Jones takes great pains to describe a human landscape where such distinctions are blurry: the most powerful man in Manchester County, William Robbins, dotes upon the two children he has fathered with his slave, Philomena; Oden, the Indian, exaggerates his cruelty towards blacks to maintain his tenuous superiority; and Henry Townsend, the gifted young black man at the center of this novel, acquires a plantation full of slaves from which discord flows, imperceptibly at first. The lesson is the messiness of slavery made real by the vivid lives of each character. Over the course of the novel, Jones sketches out each character, from birth to death, using deft flashbacks and flash-forwards that are scattered throughout like crumbs and give the book a marvelous depth. In this sense, the book reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The book ends before the Civil War begins, and so the triumph of good over evil is not allowed to mitigate the brutal picture of slavery that Jones paints. Perhaps because it was so assiduously researched, this novel feels like history and it feels like life. Here’s hoping that Jones’ next one doesn’t take ten years to write.
In our benighted age, which is as scornful of navel-gazing as it is desperate to find new avenues for its pursuit, memoirs and autobiographical writing proliferate and in proliferating incite bitterness. Long personal pieces on, for example, Salon or Slate are usually accompanied by several hundred comments, mostly variations on “I can’t believe someone got paid for this” or “I hate you.”
In many respects I’m as likely to be a hater as the next embittered internet user, but I think memoirs are nice. The Liars’ Club, Hons and Rebels, Goodbye to All That–I like me a memoir, you might say. The obvious caveat is if it is crappy. What I found so bewildering about the James Frey controversy was not that he had made things up, but that people had enjoyed his prose enough to feel personally betrayed upon learning of the author’s (rather transparent) perfidy. I would rather read forty-five leaked, unedited Twilights than one authentic, inauthentic Frey.
That said, I’d like to offer up a set of memoirs I feel that only a really first-class hater could malign. They are by Beverly Cleary, one of the architects of post-war American childhood, without whom we would have no Beezus or Ramona or Klickitat Street. In addition to being the hero of children (now grown-ups, although I hope children still read Ramona books), she’s also a fine memoirist. A Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet are my personal cure for winter blues or bad news or just generally feeling sort of droopy and dépaysé.
The first book, A Girl From Yamhill, documents Cleary’s childhood in Depression-era Oregon, from early years in a farm town, to schooldays in Portland, to her departure for junior college in California. In My Own Two Feet, Cleary goes to junior college, goes to Berkeley, falls in love, graduates library school, and starts a career that included a wartime stint in a barracks library. Yamhill is the better of the two, I think, but only by a minute measure. Perhaps it’s the influence of her long experience of writing for children, but there is something very immediate and compelling in the written memories of her own childhood.
Cleary maintains elegant balance on all fronts–she is warm without being sentimental, honest without being maudlin, probing without being neurotic, frank without being prurient. She writes about moving from small town to big city, the specter of pioneer ancestors, the pathos of only children, restless mothers, crooked teeth, perverted uncles, gloomy boyfriends, and tonsillitis. She writes about discovering the pleasure of reading and of writing. She writes about the uncertain times, her own uncertain future, and the miracle of California and junior college–begun with a solo trip on the Greyound bus, five dollars in her stockings.
It sounds appallingly smarmy, but when I read these books they give me a little national kick. I don’t get misty when I see a bald eagle on a gentleman’s tank top, but I have a soft spot for well-told narratives from across our geographic and cultural landscape. I like to read about the spunky women who went to college and made dresses out of old shirts and dreamed of writing children’s books.
Cleary writes on the familiar beauties of Mount Hood and the unique revelation of California, where avocados are eaten off the tree and Crab Louie abounds. She writes about San Francisco, which might be the most beautiful city in the world. She writes of driving over the Bay Bridge, newly opened to traffic, and of seeing the unfriendly scrub of Siskiyou County for the first time. These are books that make you feel the American West right in your bones.
I first read these when I had mostly outgrown Ramona but yearned for more Beverly Cleary. Maybe it’s because I was a young adult (as in Young Adult Fiction) before the advent of sixth-grade sexting, but I found these books meaningful even seventy years after the girlhood they described. I just read them again, and I’d like to think that they transcend time–that they’re just right for precocious little girls, ornery millenials, the young and old alike.
This guest contribution comes from Kevin Hartnett. Hartnett lives in Philadelphia with his fiance. After graduating from college in 2003, he joined Teach For America and taught sixth grade in the Bronx for two years. He enjoys politics and travel and writing about both.Snow, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s 2004 novel, opens as Ka, a stranger come to town, steps off a bus into the first flurries of a gathering snowstorm. He has arrived in Kars, a remote border city in eastern Turkey and a place, like much of his native country, that is foreign to him. For the last eight years Ka has lived as an exiled poet in Hamburg, shifting anonymously between the public library and the cheap porn shops near his apartment. In Kars, his bourgeois Istanbul accent and department store coat mark him as an outsider.The city appears muffled at first, its citizens dispirited by poverty and forced inside by the cold. Kars is a place of former glory, once a haunt of the Ottomans and the Russian tsars, now crumbling and forgotten as the rest of Turkey looks west to Europe. Ka, however, feels revitalized in Kars.He has come ostensibly as a journalist, to report on an epidemic of suicides among the “headscarf girls,” a group of young women who killed themselves after a law prohibited women from participating in public life with their heads covered. It is soon evident, though, that Ka has little interest in the story, or politics generally. Even his exile was prompted simply by a case of mistaken identity, an apt fate for a man whose own apparent weightlessness would have caused him to suffer the misfortune with little objection.Ka has not had sex in four years or written a poem in nearly that long and he feels the promise of a dual rebirth in Kars. His real reason for making the trip is Ipek, an acquaintance from high school whom he remembers only for her beauty. Ka takes a room at the Snow Palace Hotel where she lives, and wastes little time pressing his intentions. Ipek appears amenable, yet cautions that she could never make love while her father is under the same roof, and her father almost never leaves the hotel. Thus left to bide his time, Ka wanders the streets of Kars, finding creative inspiration in the rapidly falling snow, and learning, by chance encounter, about the political rifts and personal aspirations which rend Kars.He is approached by boys from the local religious high school, who interrogate Ka about his belief in God. One of the boys, Mesut, asks him, “do you or don’t you believe that God Almighty created the universe and everything in it, even the snow that is falling from the sky?” Ka replies only that, “The snow reminds me of God.” It is the type of elision by which Snow frequently works. Characters, their views and their motivations are elusive and unknown, often even to themselves.The boys’ interest in Ka turns out to be more than mere curiosity or defiance. Fazil, a particularly earnest boy, was in love with Teslime, a headscarf girl who committed suicide. He says to Ka, “We could not believe that a Muslim girl ready to sacrifice everything for her faith could be capable of suicide” (which is forbidden by the Koran). Fazil fears that Teslime’s suicide reveals her to have been an atheist, and even worse, he has begun to worry that it marks him by association. He seeks Ka’s reassurance. “‘Are you an atheist” asked Fazil with imploring eyes. ‘If you are an atheist, do you want to kill yourself?'”Pamuk began writing Snow before 9/11 and the book presages the lines of conflict which have erupted since. The religious boys are poor, provincial, and wary of “The West,” for mocking their faith. Their counterpoint is Sunay Zaim, an effete, secular actor, whose traveling theater troupe comes to Kars to perform an intentionally provocative version of the Turkish play “My Country or My Headscarf.” Zaim uses the performance to launch a coup when, mid-scene, prop guns turn out to have been loaded with real bullets.Ka’s confused beliefs about God and his mixed identity, as a Turk, an exile, and an outsider in Kars (an accurate description of Pamuk as well), inspire leaders on both sides of the coup to promote their cause to him. Ka is secreted to a meeting with Blue, a charismatic Islamist leader and possible terrorist, who is repulsed by Ka’s mealy convictions, but nevertheless wants his help getting a statement out to Western newspapers. Zaim likewise beckons Ka, hoping that he could secure the participation of Ipek’s sister Kadife, an outspoken headscarf girl, in the dramatic final act of the coup.For his part, Ka would rather simply pursue the affections of Ipek and the reinvigorated direction of his muse. He admits to feeling “so ashamed of his wish for happiness” yet after years of austere loneliness abroad that is all he wants. Such pretensions to happiness are not well accommodated in Kars, however. The falling snow evokes God to Ka and inspires an eponymous poem, but it also has a more practical role in the story. It abets the coup by blocking the roads into the city.Snow is haunted by the specter of religious suicide and rife with the political strife that defines our time. Pamuk handles both thoughtfully and subtly, but his final concern is happiness, and whether such a thing is possible in a world where ideological pressure and cultural change confuse an individual looking for his own path towards belief. If Ka is an emblematic figure, than our prospects seem dim, though Pamuk does offer the possibility of redemption in the story itself, well told and beautifully written as it is.
The first thing you’ll notice upon opening Harbors by Donald Quist are the two epigraphs introducing the collection of essays, the first by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the second by Lucille Clifton. Clifton is a contemporary black American poet, and the former Poet Laureate of Maryland, where Quist spent most of his early childhood years. Clifton is steeped in feminist politics and pushes poetic boundaries, a contrast to the British Victorian embodied by Tennyson. This white European bard held the Poet Laureateship for both Great Britain and Ireland and is lauded for his attention to craft and melodious lines. Beginning with these two poets makes sense. It highlights Quist’s respect for both classic literature, as well as its projected future — we must know our history in order to understand the future. Like the diverse geographical regions from which his introductory poets hail, Quist always has his feet firmly planted in multiple homelands: Maryland and South Carolina, U.S. and Thailand, the double consciousness of being both black and American. His duality starts at conception, since his mother is black American and his father Ghanaian.
This doubleness affects even the identification of the book’s genre. This collection seems more like creative non-fiction because of its use of the author’s name in many of the pieces, but the publisher has labeled the group essays. But these days it is increasingly common to blend/blur/bend genres, so wrestling with how to label this collection is essentially futile. Sadly, many readers may have missed Donald Quist’s first debut short story collection, Let Me Make You a Sandwich, because it was a self-published collection funded mostly by Kickstarter fan pledges. However, readers should investigate Let Me because it also serves as a primer of sorts for Harbors.
Where Quist truly excels in Harbors is when he utilizes and creates new forms. “Tanglewood” is written entirely in the risky second person point-of-view. Of course, writers such as Junot Díaz, Claudia Rankine, Pam Houston and others have popularized second-person narration. But despite its quasi-popularity, it’s a gamble, because the narration is difficult to sustain for extended amounts of time. A different kind of POV experimentation occurs in “In Other Words,” where Quist the narrator speaks from both the “I” of Donald as well as the “I” of his wife, “P.” This crafty trick allows the narrator to critique himself with a fine-toothed comb: “He says, ‘Why do I live in this country?’ I ask him what he means, assuming he’s just being dramatic — Donald is very dramatic.” Occasionally this shifting point of view can be confusing, but whatever messiness it creates, the dazzling results are worth it. The essay “Lesson Plan” begins as a written academic lesson plan similar to what Quist’s narrator, and Quist himself, would use in his own classroom that he heads in Thailand. It ends in “Notes for Citation,” but twice erupts into a Q&A from the narrator’s students. This Q&A may seem rudimentary, but the issues discussed bring racial stereotypes back into focus without settling for easy answers.
“Have you sold drugs?
–Yes, but that wasn’t why I was arrested.
Why were you arrested?
–I did something I shouldn’t have done and it’s a lot easier to get arrested in America when you look like me.
Why is it easier to get arrested?
–Because of racial bias, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. Or maybe it isn’t.”
Two of the most touching stories (and more traditional in format) are “Junk” and “Till Next Time, Take Care Of Yourselves, And Each Other.” The first is a moving account of the narrator’s (and his wife’s) decision to clean up his mother’s house before he goes overseas, a task complicated by the fact that the mother is a hoarder. She is also simultaneously dealing with the slow deterioration of her eyesight due to a medical condition. The story tugged at my emotions. I know the mother’s tendency to hold on too long to household items won’t help her hold on to her son. “I might not be able to correct my mother’s junk eyes or clear the mess from her home, but I can pack up my own life in a way that gives my existence order.” I sense (and I suspect readers will as well) that Quist is leaving as a way to control what is essentially uncontrollable — his mother’s hoarding and slow descent into blindness.
“Till Next Time” describes the narrator’s relationship with another important woman in his life, his grandmother Thelma. While she was a woman who smoke, drank and didn’t attend church, she practiced her faith and generosity by advising and assisting random neighbors. After mock-therapy sessions with neighbors Thelma would, “posit a final thought for them to consider as they went on their way, and sometimes I’d notice her visitors appeared a little less sad or angry or scared than they had looked before.” Quist balances Thelma’s (also known as The Old Lady) pseudo-saintly spirit with her penchant for Jerry Springer episodes, illustrating that people are much more complex than we give them credit for. And sometimes, like the Springer Show, the very thing that people denigrate can be extremely therapeutic and necessary to economically disadvantaged people.
This review would not be complete without mentioning the stellar “I’ll Fly Away: Notes on Economy Class Citizenship”. First published at The Rumpus, it is required reading for those contemplating the racial and class complexities of contemporary America. This puts Quist in company with other writers meditating on race and citizenship: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rankine, and James Baldwin. But don’t overlook the tender moments of interpersonal connection in this book. Mastering narrative like other transnational writers such as Díaz and Jhumpa Lahiri, Quist captures coming-of-age dilemmas and family dramas with finesse. Yes, there are countless other essays, short stories, and poems out there currently examining the borderlands of human existence and racial identity. But readers should flock to Quist because he illustrates that being a decent human being isn’t simple or easy. Quist articulates not only his geographical, ethnic, and class complexities well, but explores the grey spaces in between with delicacy and verve.
In the end, I continue to return to “The Animals We Invent.” As a black American female struggling everyday with growing racial tensions, I find comfort when Quist’s narrator says, “I want to share what I’m learning about the capacity of grace, the difficult but empowering work of allowing myself to forgive without forgetting.” What a beautiful sentiment; what a wonderful place to find shelter.