queer-young-adult-literature

Course Syllabus: Queer Young Adult Literature

Hello readers! So, I’m finally teaching one of my dream courses, and it’s one that I’ve been anxious to teach for quite some time! Click here to access the syllabus that I’ve designed for an intermediate seminar that I’m currently teaching at Bowdoin College. The seminar is entitled Queer Young Adult Literature, and it is currently offered under Bowdoin’s English Department and the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies program.  The course description is as follows:

How do literary texts communicate ideas that are supposed to be unspeakable, especially to a younger audience? In this course, we will explore contemporary young adult literature that represents the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer adolescents. We will not only scrutinize the complex relationship that exists between narrative, sexuality, gender, and audience, but we will also determine how certain genres and narrative modes enable or limit representations of queerness. Drawing from temporal and affective approaches to queer studies, we will examine the genre’s attempt to encapsulate an enduring change in terms of how queer adolescence is (or can be) represented, perceived, and experienced.

This course is my opportunity to teach and discuss ideas that I’ve developed while writing my dissertation, especially when it comes to the analysis of youth literature with queer content using the critical lenses of queer, affect, and narrative theories. Although this course has various goals and objectives, there are three main things that I want students to explore throughout the course:

  1. The way in which young adult novels make use of non-conventional narrative forms and structures in their explorations of queer content, and the formalistic/structural strategies implemented by queer youth narratives.
  2. The ways in which queer young adult literature complicates or reaffirms ideas regarding queer childhood and queer adolescence.
  3. The affective and political potential of the young adult genre, and the ways in which youth literature uses emotion to help its readership develop historical awareness and resilience towards violence and queerphobia.

In all honesty, this was one of the most difficult courses that I’ve ever designed, particularly since I had to limit the amount of novels that students and I would read and discuss throughout the semester. There were various criteria that I considered when making the final text selection. First and foremost, I wanted the course novels to reflect the spectrum of sexual and gender identities (i.e. lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, etc.). Secondly, I wanted to include novels that represent the intersection between gender, sexuality and race, and that are written by authors of color–an issue, especially since youth literature with queer content is notorious for sidelining the experiences of queer characters of color (this has been changing, but ever so slowly). Last but not least, I wanted to include novels that implemented innovations of structure, form, and narrative mode, which wasn’t difficult to find given the propensity for queer narratives to implement nonlinear narratives and postmodern aesthetic techniques.

When you look at the course schedule that is located in the final two pages of the syllabus, you’ll notice that each of the course novels is paired with an important piece of theory or criticism focused on affective, temporal, and age studies approaches to queer theory. It is my hope that these difficult, theoretical texts will provide students with the means to conduct both reparative and paranoid readings of the young adult novels that I’ve selected. Furthermore, I hope that these difficult texts will help illuminate the intricacies and complexities of the young adult genre–a genre that is oftentimes viewed as simplistic and not worthy of critical attention.

As always, I appreciate any and all feedback! If you were to design a course on queer young adult literature, what novels would you include? What readings would you pair with your selected novels? What issues or topics would you focus on? If you have designed or taught a course on queer young adult literature, I would love for you to share your syllabus in the comments section below.

Just in case you missed the link above, you can access my syllabus by clicking here. I really hope you enjoy it!

Relativity

What is Postmodern Literature?

Defining the parameters of postmodern literature is a daunting task, due not only to disagreements about what texts can or can’t be approached as postmodern, but also to the paradoxical and elusive nature of the postmodern movement. Paradoxical seems to be an effective word to invoke when approaching postmodern literature–as Barry Lewis points out in his distillation of Linda Hutcheon’s views in his essay entitled “Postmodernism and Fiction,” postmodern works simultaneously create and destabilize meaning and conventions in their ironic or critical use of works from the past (171). Given that the postmodern movement embraces instability and skepticism as its main traits, how do we even begin to grasp what literature can or can’t be approached as postmodern? In this post, I will briefly trace out the major components of postmodernity and postmodern literature using the 2011 edition of The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism (RCP)–and when appropriate, I will bring in original examples to illuminate some of the points made in the text.

Before addressing the issue of postmodern literature, it’s important to quickly overview elements, trends, and perspectives that can be approached as postmodern. In the introduction to the RCP, Stuart Sims points out that postmodernity is characterized by skepticism and rejection, particularly the rejection of cultural progress, and even more so, the implementation of universalizing theories or grand narratives (sometimes called metanarratives). I am reminded of a universalizing theory when recalling a conversation I once had with one of my literature professors, in which she claimed that all narratives are either about “sex or war.”  A postmodern stance against my professor’s claim would argue for the inability of sex and war to constitute the totality of a particular narrative. The issue with grand narratives is that in their effort to generalize, they fail to account for experiences and beliefs that do not fit within their parameters or confines. To claim, for instance, that literature is the study of the ideas of “dead white men” would imply a failure to recognize other literatures produced by non-male and non-white authors.

In the TED-ED video entitled "What Makes a Hero," Matthew Winkler discusses the elements and conventions that most stories on heroism embrace. Winkler identifies a blueprint that most epic tales share--thus developing a universalizing theory of the elements that shape heroism in fiction. While postmodernists do not deny the existence of universalizing theories, they are skeptical about them. Wherein lies the "danger" of approaching all epic tales through this metanarrative? Another question we can ask is: how do postmodern tales on heroism challenge or refute the hero's grand narrative?

Postmodernists not only reject grand narratives, but they also embody an “anti-authoritarian” position when approaching and analyzing the world and its cultural productions. In other words, postmodernists distrust any entity or agency that tries to control or regulate what people can or cannot do, and they also distrust any agent or element that tries to fixate the meaning that something possesses (or can ultimately possess). As Sims states in his introduction to postmodernism, “To move from the modern to the postmodern is to embrace scepticism about what our culture stands for and strives for” (vii). It might become clear at this point that the aims or stances of postmodernity and poststructuralist theories go hand-in-hand. As Sims puts it,

Poststructuralism has been an influential part of the cultural scene since the 1960s, but nowadays it can be seen to be part of a more general reaction to authoritarian ideologies and political systems that we define as postmodernism. (x)

Thus, it is unsurprising to observe that after the advent of postmodernity, ideas such as Barthe’s death of the author began to emerge in the study of literature and the arts; even theoretical fields such as queer theory arose after the advent of the postmodern movement. Both the death of the author and queer theory are anti-authoritarian in their outlook: the death of the author discredits the ability of an author to dictate what his/her work can or can’t mean to an interpreter, whereas queer theory is designed to assume a position against normativity to challenge binaristic thinking and the regulation of identities. Much more than being a genre or a typology, postmodernism can be approached as an attitude that is reactionary, especially towards the ideas and ideals perpetuated in the modernist movement (e.g. the divide between low and high culture, the view of humanity as an entity that is perpetually improving and progressing, among others). As Lloyd Spencer puts it in his discussion on “Postmodernism, Modernity and the Tradition of the Dissent,” postmodernity’s anti-authoritarian alignment is the element that continues to give this attitude strength and relevance, even in the face of its critics:

One way of drawing the line between postmodernism and its critics is to focus on postmodernism’s refusal of the utopian, dream-like elements which have accompanied the constant change of modernity. Modernisms, including Marxism, dreamt of a better world. Legislating for this world on the basis of this dream of a better one is seen as the cardinal sin of that modernism which postmodernism seeks to go beyond. (220)

Returning to Barry Lewis’ essay on “Postmodernism and Fiction,” he claims that postmodernism underwent an “epistemic break” during the 1990s, creating a distinction between what he calls first-wave postmodernism and second-wave postmodernism. During the first wave, postmodernism referred to “an overlapping set of characteristics that applied to a particular set of novelists, bound together by their simultaneous acceptance/rejection of earlier traditions of fiction” (169). First-wave postmodern texts not only challenged the divide between high-literature and low-literature that was fostered by modernists such as Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot, but they were also known for being “self-reflexive, playful and exceedingly aware of the medium of language in an attempt to revivify the novel form” (169). A good example of how this self-reflexive and playful nature manifests in a literary text can be seen in John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse.” In Barth’s short story, what at first seems to be a conventional coming-of-age story quickly metamorphoses into a critique on literary conventionality and ordinary structure. The text not only exposes how conventional plots work, but it actively highlights and questions its own structure, plot, and content.

When Lewis refers to the literary characteristics that postmodern authors embrace and reject, he is referring mostly to well-known literary conventions such as plot, setting, character, and theme. These conventions are challenged and shattered both in first-wave and second-wave postmodernism through features such as:

    1. Temporal Disorder – This refers not only to the disruption of the past, but also the disruption of the present. Anachronism in historical postmodern fiction is an effective example of temporal disorder because it flaunts “glaring inconsistencies of detail or setting” (173). For an example, take Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2010 novel Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, which depicts and alters the biographical facts of the 16th president of the U.S. Other postmodern novels alter the present by deviating from ordinary time (chronos) and focusing on various instances of significant time (kairos), as exemplified by novels such as Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow–which is known for its overwhelming plethora of events and characters.
    2. Pastiche – Alluding to the act of piecing things together, as in the case of a collage, pastiche is a postmodern aesthetic that “actively encourages creative artists to raid the past in order to set up a sense of dialogue between it and the present” (231). Pastiche came to prominence when artists realized that the contemporary moment presents little room for originality because everything has been said and done before–leading postmodern artists to “pluck existing styles higgledy-piggledy from the resevoir of literary history” (173). A good example of pastiche would be Art Spiegelman’s Mausa graphic memoir that depicts a son who tries to create a work based on his father’s experiences as a Polish Jew in the Holocaust.
    3. Fragmentation – Perhaps one of the most prominent elements of postmodern texts, fragmentation refers to the breakdown of plot, character, theme, and setting. Plot, for instance, is not presented in a realistic or chronological fashion, bur rather, as “slabs of event and circumstance” (173). Take for instance Sandra Cisnero’s The House on Mango Street (1984), which is told through a series of memories or vignettes rather than through the traditional narrative structure expected from a coming-of-age novel.
    4. Looseness of Association – The incorporation of chance into the reading of a narrative text (e.g. pages in a random and disorganized order, or a program that scrambles the order of the pages in a text).
    5. Paranoia – Paranoia refers to the distrust in a system or even a distrust in the self. Postmodern texts often reflect paranoia by depicting an antagonism towards immobility and stasis. A notable example of a literary text that invokes postmodern paranoia would be Tony Kushner’s 1993 play Angels in America
    6. Vicious Circles – These circles manifest when the boundaries between the real world and the world of the text are collapsed, either through the incorporation of the author into the narrative, or through the incorporation of a historical figure in a a fictional text.

If first-wave and second-wave postmodernism share these traits, what differentiates the two? According to Lewis, the differing element would be experimentation. Whereas the features mentioned above were employed in first-wave postmodernism as a way of challenging the authority and dominance of literary conventions such as plot, setting, character, and theme, they are employed in second-wave postmodernism simply because they have become integrated with the dominant literary culture. Thus, fiction produced during second-wave postmodernism is crafted during a time in which “postmodernist fiction itself became perceptible as a kind of ‘style’ and its characteristic techniques and themes came to be adopted without the same sense of breaking new ground” (170). Notable examples of second-wave are novels such as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

I hope that this post gives you a better idea of the notions that constitute postmodernism and postmodern literature. I highly recommend The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism if you want to learn more about this “attitude” and “genre” with more nuance, and if you want to better understand how postmodernism manifests in other areas besides the literary, such as genre, sexuality, music, and popular culture, among others.

You can purchase a copy of The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism by clicking here.

All essays cited in this discussion can be found in:

Sims, Stuart (ed.). The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism. 3rd Edition. London: Routledge, 2011. Print.

Indian Cover

Tradition, Change, and Kinship in Sherman Alexie’s [The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian]

Front cover of Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007)

Front cover of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007)

Few young adult novels manage to tackle deep and complex issues with as much heart and nuance as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (henceforth PTI). Initially, PTI can be approached as an autobiographical coming-of-age (graphic) novel that centers on the growth and development of Arnold Spirit Jr., a fourteen-year-old cartoonist and student who is born and raised in the Spokane Indian Reservation located in the Washington state area. The novel, which is told from Arnold’s first-person perspective, immediately lets the reader know that he is not considered normal from racial, physical, or social standards. He discloses that he was born with a condition known as hydrocephalus (the accumulation of water in the brain), he grew forty-two teeth instead of the thirty-two that most adults have, and the brain damage originated by his condition causes him to have seizures and to have a near-sighted eye and a far-sighted eye. Besides his physical ailments, Arnold reveals that his family is not only very poor, but also that his father is an alcoholic and his mother is a recovering alcoholic. These conditions lead Arnold to prefer a solitary life away from other members of his tribe, usually because they approach him as “a retard” (4) or as different. Arnold spends most of his time reading books, drawing cartoons, and spending time with his hypermasculine and stubborn best friend, Rowdy.

The main tension of the novel is triggered when Arnold decides to transfer to Reardan High, a school populated exclusively by white, middle-to-upper-class students–making Arnold the only non-white student in the school. Arnold’s decision to leave the high school situated in his reservation is not only fueled by the fact that people are brutally violent towards him in the reservation (he literally fears his life when dwelling the reservation, and he is bashed by peers and adults alike), but also by a growing awareness of the stagnancy and immobility promoted by the reservation. Arnold is aware that nobody in his reservation has gone to college, and he is also aware of how social diseases such as alcoholism infect his environment to the extent that it kills people he holds dear, such as his grandmother and his sister. As he points out towards the end of the novel:

I cried because so many of my fellow tribal members were slowly killing themselves and I wanted them to live. I wanted them to get strong and get sober and get the hell out of the rez. It’s a weird thing. Reservations were meant to be prisons, you know? Indians were supposed to move into reservations and die. We were supposed to disappear. But somehow or another, Indians have forgotten that reservations were meant to be death camps. (217)

Leaving the reservation’s high school is seen as a betrayal by most of the Spokane residents. To make matters even more complicated, Arnold soon realizes that as the only Indian in Reardan High, he is seen by others as an outcast.

Image from page 63 of PTI, in which Arnold illustrates himself being verbally abused by his white peers at Reardan High.

Image from page 63 of PTI, in which Arnold illustrates himself being verbally abused by his white peers at Reardan High.

Arnold thus develops and grows in cultural borderlands–he isn’t white, and he isn’t Native American. However, Arnold’s choice to leave the reservation isn’t a matter of “arrogance” (217) as he later implies in the novel, but rather, it is a decision driven by the desire for a livable life. The notion of cultural forgetting becomes an important element in the novel, especially when focusing on the reservation as a space of death, alcoholism, and destruction. Arnold recognizes that the reservation does have some beautiful qualities, especially when it comes to the preservation of ancient customs and traditions. However, he comes to understand that this preservation and conservation comes with a price: immobility, death, and stagnancy.

Something I truly love and appreciate about this novel is the fact that it is in no way driven by binaristic forms of thinking. True, there are moments in which binaries are highlighted in PTI, particularly binaries of race, color, culture, and belief–but they are highlighted only to be obliterated at certain points of the narrative. Returning to the notion of mobility versus stagnancy and tradition versus innovation, Arnold doesn’t take a definite stance when it comes to these issues, and at times, he even seems to contradict himself when judging tradition and conservatism as positive or negative. He recognizes that immobility and tradition are sometimes self-sabotaging and at times irrational, but he also takes care to point out instances in which tradition seems to be even more enlightening and liberal when compared to contemporary and more “evolved” forms of thinking. This is particularly seen when Arnold describes his grandmother, who adhered to more traditional ideologies:

Now, in the old days, Indians used to be forgiving of any kind of eccentricity. In fact, weird people were often celebrated. Epileptics were often shamans because people just assumed that God gave seizure-visions to the lucky ones. Gay people were seen as magical, too. I mean, like in many cultures, men were viewed as warriors and women were viewed as caregivers. But gay people, being both male and female. were seen as both warriors and caregivers. Gay people could do anything. They were like Swiss Army knives! (155)

It is here that one of the root problems of Arnold’s society is exposed. He points out that with the advent of Christianity in the reservation, people grew to fear eccentricity and lost their ability to be tolerant. With this in mind, the tension of the novel is based not on the battle between tradition and change, but rather on the struggle between appreciating difference and eliminating difference. I think it would be too simplistic and naive to approach Arnold’s departure from his reservation as an act of assimilation or as a manifestation of a white-washing sentiment. I’d rather approach his departure as an effort to strive for difference, as an effort to live, and as an escape from complete assimilation. Furthermore, Arnold’s departure leads him to realize that he does not belong to one tribe, but to many: “I realized that, sure, I was a Spokane Indian. I belonged to that tribe. But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants. And to the tribe of basketball players. And to the tribe of bookworms. And to the tribe of cartoonists. . .” (217). Thus, rather than trying to adhere to notions of identity as a individualized entity, Arnold comes to understand, through his escape, that the self is pluralistic and multifaceted.

Besides a story of growth, development, and maturation, I would also classify PTI as a very unconventional love story. However, rather than focusing on love in romantic terms, the book focuses on the love that develops through the kinship between two boys. With this, I am specifically referring to the love between Arnold and Rowdy. This love is not romantic or sexual in any sense, but it is perhaps the most intense and problematic love expressed in the novel. Rowdy is one of the many people who views Arnold’s transfer to another school as a betrayal–and it ultimately leads Rowdy to develop an intense animosity towards Arnold and everything that his actions represent. This hatred leads Arnold to constantly reflect on his relationship with Rowdy, and the void that his absence represents in his life. Arnold’s relationship with Rowdy inspires and ignites the novel’s deepest reflections on notions such as gender, masculinity, and culture–and it also pushes Arnold to question unwritten social rules when it comes to boys crying or expressing any type of affection to each other.

Image on page 219 of PTI. The image shows Rowdy and Arnold jumping into turtle lake when they were in third grade. It is important to note that unlike many of Arnold's other illustrations, this drawing depicts a realism that differs greatly from the other "cartoonish" drawings that Arnold usually includes in his diary.

Image on page 219 of PTI, depicting Rowdy and Arnold jumping into turtle lake when they were in third grade. It is important to note that unlike many of Arnold’s other illustrations, this drawing depicts a realism that differs greatly from the other “cartoonish” drawings that Arnold usually includes in his diary.

Arnold’s relationship with Rowdy becomes an element that allows the protagonist to assess the limits of relationships, but even more so, it allows him to reconfigure his conceptions of notions such as kinship and family. Early on, Arnold confesses that Rowdy is the person that he feels closest to, and he questions whether it is acceptable to love some who is not connected to you through blood or DNA: “I think Rowdy might be the most important person in my life. Maybe more important than my family. Can your best friend be more important than your family? I think so” (24). When Arnold tells Rowdy that he is transferring to Reardan High, he is conflicted with the emotions that he feels because he doesn’t deem them to be culturally acceptable, especially when it comes to Rowdy, who tends to be very macho and very violent: “I wanted to tell him that he was my best friend and I loved him like crazy, but boys didn’t say such things to other boys, and nobody said such things to Rowdy” (48-49). As the novel unfolds, Arnold not only grows to understand the gender politics that reign in different cultures, but he also grows more comfortable with recognizing and validating his own feelings even when others fail to acknowledge them. Arnold’s recognition of the unwritten social rules of gender doesn’t stop him from admitting that he loves Rowdy, and more importantly, experience doesn’t stop Arnold from labeling his affection towards Rowdy as love. As he states in the last page of the novel: “I would always love Rowdy. And I would always miss him too. Just as I would always love and miss my grandmother, my big sister, and Eugene” (230).

In sum, Sherman Alexie’s The Asbolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a rich, heartfelt, and complex novel that I would definitely recommend to my colleagues and peers. I learned a lot about Native American culture from reading it, and it gave me yet another insight into the unique relationships that humans can develop with their cultures and with other people. I loved the clever incorporation of art into the novel (drawn by the talented Ellen Forney), and I appreciated how these drawings added interpretive nuance to the novel, rather than simply illustrating the novel’s events. Much like a graphic novel, the drawings in PTI contribute to its meaning just as much as words do.

You can purchase a copy of Alexie’s novel by clicking here.

Work Cited

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007. Print (hardcover edition).

Front cover of Martin Wilson's What They Always Tell Us

Brotherhood, Race, and Gender in Martin Wilson’s “What They Always Tell Us”

Front cover of Martin Wilson's What They Always Tell Us

Front cover of Martin Wilson’s What They Always Tell Us

Young adult novels, generally speaking, tend to be emotionally draining reads. It is not uncommon for teens and young adults to feel angst, loneliness, and depression when trying to transcend into the realm of adulthood (as many of us know when we look back at our teen years, or as we currently experience them). I guess it’s unsurprising that many books within the YA genre tend to fully embrace these sentiments. One of my colleagues once told me that she reads books in the genre when she wants a good cry, and lately, during my immersion into many YA texts for my doctoral examinations, I can’t help but feel this immense sense of sadness and impending doom when first approaching a novel. I guess this is why Martin Wilson‘s book surprised me, for although it certainly begins on a somber note, it ends not only with a sense of optimism, but also with a sense that there are fleeting moments in life when all is good in the world.

I included What They Always Tell Us in my reading list mostly because people tend to classify this book as a gay YA novel, but in all honesty the narrative centers not so much on the topic of gayness, but rather, on brotherhood. The two main characters of this text are James and Alex, two brothers who look alike and who are similar in terms of physical and intellectual prowess. Despite these superficial similarities, the brothers are characterized by different social and emotional nuances. Alex tends to be the more emotional or “sensitive” brother while James embraces a stoic and slightly “jockish” persona. Although the brothers used to get along when they were younger, they have reached a point where they barely talk to each other, not only because of their diverging interests, but also because of their inability to understand the other’s thoughts and actions (due to a lack of communication). The occurrence that propelled this divergence between the two brothers is Alex’s recent suicide attempt triggered by feelings of loneliness and isolation. James, rather than feeling supportive of Alex, ultimately shuns him because he is unable to comprehend why Alex would try to selfishly get rid of his own life. The bulk of the novel is centered on the subtle actions and developments that lead the brothers to rekindle their fraternal relationship by understanding each other, and more importantly, by understanding themselves.

The time in which the narrative of this novel takes place is a little unclear to me, but what it is clear is that the plot takes place in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I think this last bit is interesting because Alex’s story is focused on his emerging sexuality and his fixation on James’ friend Nathen Rao, a gay cross-country star who also happens to be half Indian and half white. Naturally, Alex’s and Nathen’s sexuality is very problematic within their current location, and as a romantic relationship develops between these two characters, they become aware of the difficulties of being gay in the southern region of the United States.

I was expecting race to be problematic during this point, either because the narrative takes place in the south, or because there would be issues of representation in terms of Nathen’s Indian background. Within YA fiction, it is not uncommon for authors to make their characters more exotic or interesting by given them particular physical traits or identities–what is commonly known as the token (insert identity marker here) character. These token characters’ thoughts, actions, and development are sometimes not affected in any way by markers of identity. What’s even more problematic is that the “marked” identity of these characters typically adds little or no narrative depth to the text. Perhaps the most well known case of this type of character would be Dean Thomas in the American edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, who is described as black, simply for the sake of making the novel seem more diverse and inclusive. At first, I was afraid that Nathen would be a character who was half-Indian in name only. Nathen’s cultural heritage is described by James as follows:

Nathen’s dad was born in Indian, but he grew up in England, where he met Nathen’s mother, who is white. They both have these great British accents, though Nathen–and his college-age sister, Sarita–sound as southern as everyone else. Sure, they stand out in Alabama, but Tuscaloosa is a college town with a lot of foreign students and teachers. Plus, Nathen and Sarita are good-looking and athletic and smart, and people in school have always are more about that than their heritage. (Wilson 40)

While on one hand this certainly alleviates the necessity to make race a central issue within the novel, it does feel like the issue is being brushed off completely–thus leading me to question how realistic this wholehearted acceptance of Nathen’s family truly is. Could Nathen ostensibly be a character of any other race without dramatically affecting the narrative? Nathen’s Indian heritage does come up several again in the book, especially when Alex visits his house during a weekend when Nathen’s parents are away. We find out that Nathen’s father almost tries to conceal the fact that he’s Indian, whereas his mother, who is white, tends to compensate for this concealment by decorating her house in Indian decor, and by constantly cooking Indian food. Unlike Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter series, Nathen’s heritage is explored with a little more detail– but I was expecting a little more exploration of issues of race. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that this novel is focused on James and Alex’s mental development. Nathen, after all, is a secondary character, and thus my expectations of racial exploration are a little too far-fetched and demanding when taking the aims of the novel into consideration.

Race aside, I thought the portrayal of Alex’s emerging interest in Nathen was a significant and well-developed aspect of the plot. I originally tried to approach Alex’s narrative as either a coming-out tale or a tale of self-discovery, but Alex’s development doesn’t really fit any of these narrative roles (especially when taking his sexuality into consideration). Alex does eventually come out to James, but this doesn’t seem to bother James in the least because he is more concerned about his brother’s happiness and well-being. I was also expecting to see some tension in terms of race due to the fact that there’s an interracial relationship taking place in the south, but as I mentioned above, race is presented as a non-issue within this novel. Gayness, however, is a significant tension in the plot, not only because it is implied that Alex lost his friends because they suspected he was gay, but also because it challenges James to question the extent to which his role as a loyal brother should trump his role as a friend to others. I think this was a clever choice made by Wilson as a writer, for he approaches sexual identity as a way of facilitating a discussion of family and brotherhood. It is through Nathen’s treatment of Alex that James comes to realize his flaws as a brother.

In due course, Wilson’s What They Always Tell Us is a worthwhile read because it manages to highlight the extraordinary embedded within the ordinary, while simultaneously combining seriousness with heart. Although we are not given perfect snapshots of what always goes on in the protagonists’ heads, we are given enough to debate and contemplate why they behave and think in particular ways. In other words, the novel provides entertainment, but it still provides the reader with a space for reflection, contemplation, and speculation. It is comforting to see a novel aimed at portraying both the good and the ugly present within the world, using the motif of brotherhood as a platform to discuss issues and events that bind us as humans and that simultaneously set us apart.

I guess in due course, the novel posits that what we are always told in life isn’t always true, but it certainly gives us something to hold onto, something to aspire to, and at times, something to deliberate.

Work Cited

Wilson, Martin. What They Always Tell Us. New York: Delacorte Press, 2008. (Hardcover edition)

You can purchase a copy of this novel here.

This is a poster titled "Wm. H. West's Big Minstrel Jubilee," originally published in 1900. The poster illustrates a white man "transforming" into a black man, colloquially known as donning "black face." Some characters within "The Confidence Man" question whether Guinea was a white man disguised as a black man simply because of the unrealistic and cartoonish (and downright racist) demeanor of white people who typically disguised themselves as African Americans.

Revealing the Man beneath the “Negro”

In a previous post, I discussed issues of race in Melville’s Benito Cereno, and this week, I couldn’t help but return to the depiction of race in Melville’s works. Now, Melville’s The Confidence-Man was indeed as challenging and perplexing as I thought it would be; after all, most of Melville’s works are characterized for being “devious,” ambiguous, and downright difficult. One of the most complex characters within this narrative was the “Black Guinea,” a crippled African American beggar who ostensibly was a free slave. The narrative strongly suggests that Guinea was one of the personas donned by the Confidence-Man, seeing as it was he who listed some of the other personalities that the Confidence-Man embodied, and seeing as Guinea was accused of being an impostor—a white man pretending to be a crippled beggar of African lineage.

What caught my interest in the scenes where Guinea appears is that they say much about the perception of black people during Melville’s era. However, the perception of the African American race becomes an even more prominent and complex issue if we were to approach Guinea as a white impostor, for then, we are witnessing a white man performing and interpreting what he deems to be an accurate portrayal of blackness. Thus, within these scenes, we have blackness as distilled through three perspectives: Melville’s perspective as an author, the perspective of the white audience that surrounds the beggar (particularly the drover), and the perspective of the white man performing blackness.

What first caught my attention in terms of Guinea’s depiction and representation in The Confidence-Man was the fact that animal qualities and traits are used to describe his actions and his appearance. Guinea describes himself as “der dog widout a massa” [the dog without a master] (Melville 10). The drover states that Guinea’s appearance “seemed a dog, so now, in a merry way, like a dog he began to be treated” (Melville 11), and he even goes as far as to compare Guinea’s physical traits to that of a “Newfoundland-dog” (Melville 13). Guinea’s animalistic depiction, however, is not limited to descriptions of a canine persuasion. When Guinea shivers as he recalls the harshness of the winter cold, he moves himself into the crowd, resembling “a half-frozen black sheep nudging itself a cosy berth in the heart of the white flock” (Melville 11). Even as Guinea tries to entertain the crowd in order to “earn” cash from the surrounding crowd, the drover points out that the beggar opens “his mouth like an elephant for tossed apples at a menagerie” (Melville 11-12).

What is clear is that these animalistic qualities are alluding to the fact that the beggar perceives himself as non-human or sub-human, for he belongs to a social hierarchy that is clearly different from the white folks that surround him. Although it may be argued that this notion of Guinea as an animal may be attributed to the fact that he is crippled, and not to the color of his skin, this assumption becomes moot with the presence of a wooden-legged man. Despite the fellow limper’s physical condition, he did not draw the attention that Guinea drew from the crowd, but rather, the Guinea’s position is so inferior that the wooden-legged man stumbles against him in a threatening position, demonstrating his superiority. Thus, although his crippled state attributes to his inferior position in society, it can be argued that Guinea’s animal depiction is attributed mostly to his skin color.

Melville’s choice to depict Guinea using animal qualities is indeed an interesting literary and semantic choice. After all, animals in literature, contrary to human characters, require little to no description in order to be “understood.” Whereas we expect human characters to be described in terms of personality, dress, conduct, and intellect, animals are stereotyped or pigeon-holed into particular molds and expectations: people know what to expect when elephants, sheep, or dogs are mentioned, and not a lot of effort must go into describing how they look like or how they act. Could it be that in the case of Melville’s novel, slaves and “negroes” were no different to animals in this aspect?

At first, Guinea does seem to live up to the 19th Century stereotype of the African slave, especially when concerned with his cheerful demeanor. Despite not having a home, a master, food, or currency, Guinea happily plays music with his tambourine and entertains the crowd—alluding to the perception of slaves being extremely happy people who constantly laughed and sang in spite of their horrible living conditions. However, the drover notes that Guinea was perhaps quite adept at acting and at hiding his emotions: “whatever his secret emotions, he swallowed them, while still retaining each copper this side of the [e]sophagus” (Melville 12). Guinea’s cheerful demeanor dissipates with the presence of the wooden-legged man, and he then begins to wail in defense of who he is, and why he deserves the crowd’s charity. Notice that Guinea also seems to possess a great deal of power, seeing as he is not afraid to challenge the people that surround him. When the crowd asks him to present documentation to prove his status, and when they question Guinea’s trustworthiness, the beggar repeatedly wails “have you no confidence in dis poor ole darkie?” (Melville 18), which serves to directly challenge the crowd’s perceptions and sense of charity to the less fortunate.

This is a poster titled “Wm. H. West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee,” originally published in 1900. The poster illustrates a white man “transforming” into a black man, colloquially known as donning “black face.” Some characters within “The Confidence Man” question whether Guinea was a white man disguised as a black man simply because of the unrealistic and cartoonish (and downright racist) demeanor of white people who typically disguised themselves as African Americans.

Guinea thus engages in a slight appropriation of social power by alluding to the moral sympathies of the crowd, and he also disengages from the cheery and optimistic demeanor that slaves were deemed to don during the 19th century. This may be slightly problematized if we were to believe in the statement that Guinea is truly a white man in disguise, or even the Confidence-Man himself. If this notion of Guinea as an imposter were true, this supposed disruption of racial stereotypes and appropriation of social power loses its currency, for when it comes down to it, it is a white man who is undergoing the social negotiations performed by Guinea. Even more so, given the fact the Guinea is quite believable as a “negro” according to the perception of other characters, Melville could have been further perpetuating the stereotypes of blackness that existed during his time.

True, at first it may seem that Melville’s approach towards Guinea seems somewhat stereotypical, racist, and inhumane; but in turn, he highlights the hypocrisy that exists within 19th century perspectives of race. It is convenient to view Guinea as an animal until he requests the human virtue of charity—it is then that he is required to offer human proof that justifies his requests. Although Melville’s perspectives of race are perhaps as ambiguous in The Confidence-Man as they were in Benito Cereno, we must admit that the portrayal of Guinea in The Confidence-Man certainly opens up room for debate, racial emancipation, and the hypocrisies of racial stereotypes.

On a side note, I must confess that The Confidence-Man has been my least favorite Melville text up to now. I found it disjointed and nonsensical, and overall less enjoyable than his short stories. Some argue that Melville intended for the novel to be disjointed and full of gaps–an early example of a postmodern text. Postmodern or not, the book was too difficult and inaccessible for my own personal tastes.

Source:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0192837621/

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This image titled “Wm. H. West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee” is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

Fear

On Uncertainty and Fear

When I took a survey of early English literature as an undergrad, I inevitably had to tackle a text that virtually every English major is bound to encounter during their studies: Beowulf. During our discussion of the text, my professor and friend, Dr. Nickolas Haydock, asked us why the text’s infamous creature (Grendel) instilled so much fear to other characters within the text, and presumably, to the reader. After much debate and speculation, Dr. Haydock looked at us with a stern face and said: “Grendel instills fear because so little is known about him.”

Prior to that moment, I never really approached fear as a lack of knowledge. However, something within that idea resonated within me, perhaps because it alludes to a simple and indisputable truth: we all fear the unknown, and when we are forced to confront it, inner chaos and turmoil ensue. When something can be explained or understood, it loses its capacity to frighten and to stir negative emotions.

I think horror movies are a good example of this notion. For instance, John Carpenter’s 1978 movie Halloween scared millions of viewers, not only because it included the obvious thrills and scares, but also because the movie’s villain–the one and only Michael Myers– remains a mystery. Why was he troubled? What was his motive to kill? We are never offered answers to these questions. Michael Myers could ostensibly be anyone. Fast-forward to 2007, a year in which Rob Zombie re-imagined the film and gave Michael Myers a back-story and the motive. The sense of enigma that electrified the fear in the original movie became nothing but an undetectable spark in the remake.

I invoked the notion of fear for a reason. Sure, Halloween is just around the corner and mischief is in the air, but I encountered fear distilled through an unexpected source: Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno. Sure, we encounter fear that is portrayed in a typical fashion–we are unaware of what is going on throughout the development of the plot, we are unable to explain the strange occurrences happening within the San Dominick, and we encounter a strange, seemingly symbiotic relationship between a white Spanish captain and a “meek” African slave. But the novella as a whole invoked another sense of fear: the fear of uncertainty.

This text was extremely slow, especially when considering that it is in essence a maritime narrative. However, towards the end, I expected a payoff for my efforts–I expected all the pieces to fit together. And  things definitely made more sense with the “grand reveal,” or should I say, with the “removal of the canvas.” But even though the pieces are put together, I am still left in the dark, and I am unable to envision the entire picture. Benito Cereno continues to be bizarre and nonsensical. It refuses to fit itself in a mold, and it refuses to provide direct and concrete answers.

What makes Benito Cereno so fearful is its ambiguity–its refusal to be explained, especially when approaching the issue of race. The more I think I come closer to determining the meaning and the root of the racial tensions in the novella, the less I become certain with my convictions. Race in American 19th Century literature is indeed a provoking ambiguity, especially when focusing on race as an empancipatory dialectic. I think this definitely became clear as I paid attention to a course discussion on Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. Do we want to claim that the elimination of the interracial couple from the novel’s equation was an affirmation of Cooper’s racism, or do we want to view it as an emancipatory affirmation? Consider how this notion becomes polemical when we realize that Cooper puts so much effort into infusing exorbitant amounts of pathos into these two doomed characters.

I think a similar issue manifests within Benito Cereno, but the voltage of this issue is increased tenfold. We see a reversal of the white owner – black slave binary, and Melville depicts a “world” in which the white slave succumbs to the wishes of the black master. And indeed, I think it is easy for some readers to find the actions of the slaves questionable, manipulative and revolting. After all, they successfully managed to overthrow the Spanish colonists and turn the remaining survivors into puppets. I can only begin to imagine how one of Melville’s contemporary readers would’ve approached the topic: they either would’ve been shocked or completely disgusted. But is something worthwhile achieved by shocking the audience? Will it lead them to realize that the actions of these slaves are no different to the actions committed by white slave masters?

I think it’s easier for today’s readers to feel much more sympathy for the enslaved Africans (I certainly did). After all, they were taken against their will from their homeland in order to attend to the needs of someone from a different racial and cultural background. Talk about abuses of power! Modern readers would probably view the slaves’ actions as completely justifiable and Karmic.

But, to justify their actions is to justify murder, is it not? Perhaps both the white Spaniards and the slaves should be scrutinized critically, but then again, wasn’t it the Spaniards who ripped out the African natives from their homeland in the first place? What we are observing here is a struggle between power and blame, and it’s interesting to see how power circulates through the members of the San Dominick in an almost Foulcaudian fashion. I know that we now live in the time where the notion of the “death of the author” predominates, and that a once a text is circulated, it no longer belongs to its writer. However, I can’t help but speculate what Melville’s views towards race were, and what conceptions of race he was trying to project in the narrative. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to pin this down.

I think that this difficulty is due mostly to the metamorphosing depiction of both races throughout the progression of the novella. At first, Melville seems to depict both whites and blacks in a very egalitarian fashion:

While left alone with them, he was not long in observing some things tending to heighten his first impressions; but surprise was lost in pity, both for the Spaniards and blacks, alike evidently reduced from scarcity of water and provisions; while long-continued suffering seemed to have brought out the less good-natured qualities of the negroes, besides, at the same time, impairing the Spaniard’s authority over them. But under the circumstances, precisely this condition of things was to have been anticipated. In armies, navies, cities, or families, in nature herself, nothing more relaxes good order than misery. (170)

Notice that the lack of provisions and of material necessities such as food as put both blacks and whites on the same level: misery and suffering provides a bind that makes them equal. On that boat, they are all beings capable of suffering. Misery in this ship leads blacks to increase power while causing whites to lose it. But notice as well that Melville clearly depicts this leveling between the slaves and the Spaniards as a natural disorder–a parody of how things should “naturally” be. Is Melville trying to be satirical? Is he trying to be emancipatory? Is he critical? Or is he simply embracing the attitudes predominant during the time? It’s nearly impossible to tell… it seems to be deliberately ambiguous. This sense of uncertainty is simply frightening.

The ambiguity of race attitudes is manifested in other parts of the novella as well, particularly in the instance in which Captain Delano witnesses one of the oakum-pickers striking a Spanish boy with a knife simply because he did not like a word that this boy used. Once again, the act can indeed be interpreted as transgressive, but is this any different from the way slaves were typically treated by whites? Captain Delano is obviously appalled with this occurrence: “Had such a thing happened on board the Bachelor’s Delight, instant punishment would have followed” (180). However, we see that Benito Cereno approaches the event with a degree of nonchalance, stating that the action “was merely the sport of the lad” (180). Indeed, I thought at first that Melville was once again peppering the narrative with hints of egalitarianism: whites deserve to be treated equally to how the slaves are treated. But this sense of equality ultimately becomes moot when we figure out that Cereno was making no big deal of the situation because the slaves threatened him. What I first thought was liberation was actually the exertion of power disguised as goodwill.

I fear that there is no solution to how Melville approached the creation of Benito Cereno, and the purpose behind its crafting will forever be unknowable. That is the fallacy of speculation: it’s simply difficult to reach a solid conclusion. Not knowing is indeed uncomfortable… but it is precisely this invocation of fear that leads to critical thinking. What answers or insights are provided by the act of NOT knowing? Even more importantly, are knowing and not knowing binary constructs, or is there something in between these two concepts that we are unable to see? Isn’t that an ultimate manifestation of the fear of the unknown… that the knowledge we use to interpret the world prevents us from finding or even being able to perceive gray areas?

Perhaps Melville didn’t have an exact purpose when it came to race. Perhaps he simply wanted to confuse us. Perhaps he wanted us to struggle in a way that he struggled in his own life. I think it is safe to say that the unknown definitely frightened Melville, and in due course, it made him miserable. With that in mind, it is no wonder that this story relaxes “good order.”

References:

Billy Budd, Sailor and Selected Tales by Herman Melville

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net