My Nobel Fascination

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I know this is somewhat strange, but Nobel Literature Prize acceptance speeches are without a doubt one of my most preferred sources of leisure reading.  I like hearing what the world’s most influential and innovative literary figures have to say when they have the whole planet’s attention.  Unsurprisingly, I hold special fondness for a Nobel speech if I happen to already admire the work of the writer being recognized; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1970 acceptance speech remains one of my favorite works of writing to re-read, but my appreciation for his expertly minimalist novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich definitely plays into my affection for his Nobel oration.  This all being said, my second favorite Nobel Prize acceptance speech was penned by an author whose fiction I cannot claim to have overly enjoyed reading: William Faulkner.

Faulkner won the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1949, having by that point already published landmark books such as The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Absalom, Absalom!.  His award speech, given in Stockholm in December of 1950, immediately distances itself from his fiction in that it is a mere five paragraphs of precise, poignant discourse.  My primary frustration with Faulkner’s novels, admittedly a total fault on my part and in no way detracting from his genius, remains his insistence on keeping the reader uncomfortable all the time.  His work often features extraordinarily long passages, abrupt and un-signaled changes in narrative perspective, and grotesque characters with loads of psychological baggage, all of which are completely valid and interesting literary devices, but when combined make a reading experience I find more inscrutable than rewarding.  I hope, much in the way that parents want their children to grow up and appreciate eating vegetables, that I will someday turn an intellectual corner with Faulkner and be able to sing the praises of his novels with the genuine respect they assuredly deserve.  Until that day comes, Flannery O’Connor will retain her hold on my Southern gothic affections.

The Nobel speech Faulkner delivered, however, seems intended to accomplish the opposite of his fiction.  Convoluted and disconcerting plots are exchanged for concision and clarity of expression.  He begins by saying, “I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust.”  This opening impresses me every time I read it with its simultaneously sincere humility and pride.  He acknowledges both the grandness of the award in its recognition of his “life’s work,” while also admitting that the “award is only [his] in trust,” in the sense that he is neither the first nor the last writer to have such an influence on the world, and nor should he be.  He knows that the future of literature, and correspondingly the future of society and culture, depend upon those to come: “the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.”  Acceptance speeches understandably can tend towards a backwards-looking talk, one commenting upon what it took for the recipient to make it this far, and how their work has already changed lives for the better.  Notably, Faulkner resists this temptation, instead directing the audience, and the world, to look ahead.

Practically every sentence in Faulkner’s speech could be elaborated on at length, given the impressive depth of insight he achieves in such few words, but the concluding two sentences demand consideration over the rest.  He writes, “It is [the poet’s] privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.  The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”  If there exists a better two-sentence summation of how literature and the human experience are uniquely bound together in a mutually enriching relationship, I have yet to read it.  Writers, as Faulkner eloquently points out, have the “privilege” of speaking to the world and its myriad of beauties, complexities, struggles, and passions.  Where many see labor or profit, Faulkner finds the potential for inspiration and fulfillment.  The next time that you have five free minutes, I encourage you to read Faulkner’s speech in its entirety.  While it may not lead to a strangely fervent appreciation for the Nobel Prize speech as an art form, as the one I admittedly bear, its powerful message is well worth such a small portion of your time.

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The Motherland That Was Never Mine

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The title of this blog post was meant to go with a completely different concept. Originally, I planned to write about how I’ve never been to my parents’ native Haiti in person—only through literature. I’ve imagined stepping onto the tarmac of the tiny Cap-Haïtien airport a million times; I’ve written about the beaches and the mountains as though the images in my head are from my own memories and not my mother’s photo album. I clung to every word in Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory and The Dew Breaker, half wishing that the words and experiences of a Haitian native might rub off on a first-gen Haitian American who has always felt like she was missing something.

That was the original outline—until a few days ago.

Until it was announced that the Trump Administration would retract the temporary protection that was awarded to roughly 59,000 Haitians who sought refuge from the 2010 earthquake.

Until I remembered that while I’ve always longed to finally breathe the salty air of the Cap-Haïtien coast and walk the streets on which my parents were raised, my visit to my parents’ hometown would be just that: a visit. For some, a flight back to Haiti would be forced exile, wrought with uncertainty and danger.

The estimated number of Haitians beneficiaries of Temporary Protected Status in the United States has most likely surpassed “59,000” since the disaster. For the country’s returning citizens, stepping onto that same Cap-Haïtien tarmac would be a return to square one. For the ones who may have grown up in the United States—whether they’re Haitian citizens who came here as children, or American citizens born to Haitian immigrants— the “return” to their parents’ country might be even more daunting than merely starting over; the only ‘home’ they have ever known might be the same country that’s flushing them out.

 

They would be returning to a motherland that was never theirs.

 

It doesn’t take long for my American friends, classmates, and teachers to learn that I’m Haitian-American. I’m proud of my heritage, I like talking about the things I’ve learned but have not yet experienced, and I’m always willing to answer questions about cultural differences and Haitian customs. However, because several people have assumed that I was born in Haiti, they are surprised to learn that I have never been there. Then comes the dreaded, inevitable question: Have you ever thought of going back home?

I always know it’s coming; I can see it forming letter by letter, word by word. I smile, sidestep, shrug it off.  I’m not offended; I’m not allowed to be. Still, it has the strange, quick sting of a needle that pops something in my mind and sends it reeling.

Home? I am home. This country has always been my home. Haiti was never mine.

Remember, I have privilege in citizenship. I was raised here, but I was also born here. Imagine how jarring that question must be to DACA or TPA recipients whose home may not be in their country of birth. Imagine how it must feel for someone else to tell you where your home must be.

My experiences are in no way comparable to theirs. I don’t know the documentation statuses of the state-side Haitian friends and relatives that I know of, let alone that of those I have yet to meet. I don’t know the exact statuses of the thousands of immigrants, Haitian or otherwise, who came to this country by way of Temporary Protection. I can only imagine what they must be going though. I am beyond blessed to have been born to immigrants who are now also American citizens. My parents earned their citizenship back when it was extremely difficult, not near-impossible. For millions of immigrants and refugees, the hope to be legal, secure, and visible in this country died with the promise of a new president. Each reversal to vital immigration laws is a kick to the carcass, another nail in the coffin.

I can’t speak for any of them, but I can empathize, advocate, protest. Why?

Because although I am not directly threatened by this change in legislation, it still affects me. Because this country as we know it would not exist without the communities, cultures, and contributions of its immigrants, their forced exile would affect all of us.

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Can you be nostalgic for a time in which you did not live?  

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Those that reply “no” simply haven’t read or seen convincing enough imagery. Because I certainly am nostalgic. I’m nostalgic for a time, a place, and an ideal that I’ve never personally experienced: the women’s college.

It’s a concept that used to sit squarely associated with upper-class sophistication. Families packed their children off to these institutions – Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke – with some of the family jewelry, and perhaps a horse, to study Literature and Art History and maybe find a husband to boot. Many of these schools existed in a kind of domestic partnership with near by all-male schools: Wellesley to Harvard, Vassar to Yale, and so on. Because of the close physical proximity and the tendency of both schools to attract the same “types” of student, many of their alums ended up married.

My grandmother attended Agnes Scott in the 50’s. A small smile appears on her face when she recalls the orchestrated courtship between students. The boys from the men’s college nearby would call her dormitory’s phone, the girls would line up and down the hallway and wait their turn to receive the phone and be asked to some dance or soiree. The image makes me smile as well. Despite my constant monologues on feminism and equality (just ask my housemates), I still find that a part of me yearns to know what it was actually like in those feminine institutions during the mid-20th century, all coifed curls and 10 PM curfews.

These schools, in their heyday, boomed. The reason? The elite higher education institutions of the day prohibited admission of the gentler sex, necessitating the creation of separate universities where lucky daughters would earn their degrees. By 1927, a coalition of prestigious women’s schools emerged, the “Seven Sisters” of Vassar, Smith, Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe, and Barnard. These colleges were considered the feminine counterpart to their all-male colleagues, the Ivy League. If anyone has seen the 2003 film staring Julia Roberts, Mona Lisa Smile, you’ll get the feeling: a kind of female-version-of-Dead’s Poet Society, an Amazonian utopia of feminine intelligence. They are also the alma maters of some illustrious literary alums: Margaret Atwood (writer, Radcliffe), Elizabeth Bishop (poet, Vassar), Emily Dickinson (poet, Mount Holyoke), Ursula Le Guin (writer, Radcliffe), Sylvia Plath (poet, Smith), Gertrude Stein (critic and writer, Radcliffe), and more.

But, despite this legacy of badass (excuse my French) women, the “women’s college” itself is a dying breed. In the 1960’s, there were 244 single-sex institutions of higher education in the U.S. Now there are 44. It’s an inevitable, but nonetheless unhappy, phenomena. Kids don’t want to go to college without the opposite gender anymore.

On one hand, I understand this: I did not choose (or even really consider) a women’s college for myself. But on the other, I don’t: I do have experience in an all-female learning environment, and it was one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I had the great good fortune to receive my secondary education at a private, all-girls school in the south. It was exactly like you would imagine it to be. Uniforms were crisp plaid and saddle oxfords, physical education courses included required lessons in dance and poise, and the favored afternoon treat of “tea cakes,” frothy confections consisting of crumbly bases piled high with white glaze and baked fresh in-house. Everything was white and soft and distinctly feminine. I still recall the heady scent of the blooming magnolia trees in spring, covering the campus like a blanket. When I recount fond memories of my experiences at an all-girls’ school, many people who don’t understand the allure balk: “but it’s crucial to be educated alongside boys at that age, you’ll be handicapped for life not knowing how to interact with men!” As if the absence of male genitalia in my high school classrooms would somehow render the male sex a mystery to me for life. It was truly a treasured time in my life. Who wouldn’t want to experience that kind of closely caring community?

The answer is girls and boys both, apparently. To flip the gender coin, today in the U.S. only four non-religious all-male schools remain, including one just a stone’s throw away two hours southeast in Hamden-Sydney. This university itself was once a bastion of masculinity, admitting only men until 1985, when fiscal necessity trumped the protests of reluctant alums. Those holdouts were evidently placated with a compromise: while the gentler sex would be admitted, the ratio of male-female students would never creep above 51-49: the male would always hold the majority. I like to tuck this little fact away to remind myself with when I feel W&L is getting too progressive (insert sarcasm here). Despite that tidbit, we have come a long way since the 80’s: now, the school is affectionately referred to by some as “Whiskey & Libido” University – a nickname that is, truthfully, appropriate.

So, W&L went the co-ed route, and barely any masculine fortresses of higher education remain impervious to feminine intrusion. Likewise, one of the few remaining women’s colleges, Sweet Briar here in Virginia, went belly-up in May 2015, 114 years after the institution’s inception. In old photos, the women of Sweet Briar all look so much older than I feel now. I mean, those women were undeniably women when I, at age 22, still find it difficult to use that word when referring to myself or my peers without discomfort. This, I think, is the crux of why my generation has killed off the single-sex institutions of our grandparents’. They – and their sepia-colored scholars – are simply too old for us. We have outgrown them by slowing the process of “growing up.” And while I’m quite happy where I am, the nostalgia still comes, for a time and place and an ideal where I might be a little less millennial, and a little more adult.

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Bated Breath, Fingers Crossed

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Registration season is once again upon us at Washington and Lee.

As a senior, this latest round of signing up for winter-term courses has never gone more smoothly. As a French major who has somehow managed to fulfill all of her degree requirements with time to spare, I’ve actually been able to look into classes that I could take for fun—while I write a 50-page honors thesis in French, that is. As a creative writing minor who is one category away from completion of the track, I have first pick among many interesting English classes that would satisfy this final requirement. But as a black woman at a predominantly white institution, and a student who also frequents departments where both of these minority identities are even more noticeable, registration is difficult. It’s a constant reminder that for many courses, the ‘classic’ topics seem to take priority over more their more ‘diverse’ counterparts—even when a class could potentially be taught both ways.

For example, I’d taken enough English classes that I considered picking it up as a major during my sophomore year. I was excited to try my hand at comparative literature  Since there is so much potential to discuss and examine minority works throughout the Americas, I aimed to complement French literature with American literature. The department offers several American Lit classes every semester, so my hopes were high every time registration came around. However, based on the descriptions that I saw, it always seemed that there would not be much diversity of subject matter. Sadly, this year was no different.

Consider this excerpt of a description for an upcoming class on the American Short Story:

“This course is a study of the evolution of the short story in America from its roots, both domestic (Poe, Irving, Hawthorne, Melville) and international (Gogol, Chekhov, Maupassant), tracing the main branches of its development in the 20th century…we focus our attention on the work of two American masters of the form…, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. We examine how they were influenced by their predecessors and by each other and how each helped to shape the genre.”

To be fair, I had a slightly different definition of the term “American” when I first happened upon this course title in the catalog; I initially thought it would include works from all of the Americas. It is also a bit odd to see a list of mostly Northern writers and to still label the topic as “American.” I realize that this might be a specialty topic chosen by the professor, hence the focus on Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

I was definitely taken aback by the selection of writers that are actually listed in the description. Why? Because none of the aforementioned writers are female, people of color, or both—yet both minority groups were vital to the establishment and development of the American short story in the 20th century. I can only wonder if other key writers, such as Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison, Eudora Welty, Toni Bambara, or Ernest Gaines, might still be discussed.

I know that a small blurb does not outline an entire course, but this recurring registration issue highlights a bigger problem. First-years and non-English majors may not be familiar with a lot of popular writers, so they can’t exactly anticipate the ones a professor might teach. For them, a course description like this one is probably all of the information they will get, unless they formally request a syllabus.

But if a woman, a person of color, or a woman of color happens to be considering this particular American Literature course, then a description that essentially credits the creation and mastery of the American short story to Northern and European white men is problematic.

Personally, I was left to wonder if I would have to sacrifice my own diverse interests yet again. Then I started obsessing over potential ways to “fix” my experience in a course in which I wasn’t even enrolled:

 “That can’t be all of the writers we would study, right?”

“Okay, but focusing on Hemingway means the professor would have to mention Gertrude Stein, so technically a woman writer is still in the curriculum. Right?”

“Would it be inappropriate for me to request a lesson or two on a writer of color?”

I know it seems silly that so much uncertainty could stem from a few lines in the course description, but those few lines were enough. This is only one blip in the hunt for curricular diversity that I (and students like me) often experience. I’ve found that I have to hope for diverse subject matter, and then I try to justify the lack thereof if it’s not delivered. I shouldn’t have to go into a class with my fingers crossed.

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Morsel: Spark

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I don’t know anyone named Muriel, but I want to.  My primary association with the name is from reading Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jane Brodie, then seeing the film, made marvelous by the young Maggie Smith.  I’m also aware of a Tom Waits song with the name as title, a brand of cigar and a Salinger character who is first paramour, then wife to Seymour Glass, but recently someone gave me a quotation from the Scottish writer Spark that drove me to a little light research.  Among my most satisfying discoveries were that Muriel is, in angelology circles, the “patron” angel of June and that it’s also a variant on Mary.  But the real treasure is in its history going back to early Welsh: muir – sea + geal – bright.  So Muriel is sea-bright, or perhaps shining or sparkling.

So: Muriel Spark is Sparkling Spark, which brings me back to the quotation, which many seem to have heard but without knowing the source.  (Will Twitter’s Spark scholars bring the source out of the shadows?)  She wrote about her own ambitions as a writer, “I aim to startle as well as please.”

For some time now one of my essential equations for effective poetry has been from Horace, who said that art should delight and instruct.  Another is, I think, just rumor I’ve netted from of the wind: a poem should appeal viscerally, emotionally and intellectually.  Lately I’ve wondered if musically and rhetorically are different categories or if they are subsumed by the first three.  The wind of rumor and hearsay and unattributed advice is the wind I mean, but that bit of wisdom dovetails neatly with Eliot’s suggestion that a poem can be felt before it is understood.  And I’ve long been fond of the Horace, that “delight” echoed in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (“To such a deep delight ’twould win me”)  and then Robert Penn Warren (“Tell me a story of deep delight”), from “Audubon: A Vision.”

Now there’s something in that “startle as well as please” that seems necessary, too.  Many times I have wrought and wrestled with a poem whose tone, pace, imagery, figures, taste and pitch and shape are just not quite cooperating in a satisfactory manner, though my rational self has contributed all it can and insists that this should be working?  The necessary something I’m lacking need not shock or impress or bewilder, but startle.  I see that the term goes back to a Middle English word related to “start,” but I don’t agree that present usage implies, as the Mirriam Webster suggests, “not seriously.”  A startling moment can change your life.

Perhaps my new directive is somewhat at odds with Dickinson’s “dazzle gradually,” but it may be the last step completing a dazzlement.  William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark” comes to mind, especially that moment when the traveler/narrator says, as he pauses beside the dead doe on that dark and perilous Wilson River road, “I could hear the wilderness listen.”  Similar moments arise in Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” near the end of Dickey’s “The Heaven of Animals” with “that sovereign floating of joy,” the close of Cummings’ “[Buffalo Bill’s],” “Ariel,” “The Art of Losing” or any number of Dickinson poems.  Most any reader can supply a provocative list.

The quotation from Spark has really given me a second wind, rescued and refreshed me the way that crow shaking down “a dust of snow” onto Frost’s narrator has, saving a part of the “rued” day.  The quotation startled me, but did not alarm me.  It arrested me and redirected me and revived me, and it has something to do with delight and instruction, not just a little to do with visceral, emotional and intellectual impact.  I’m left to pursue the rest of my day’s journey with a renewed appetite to be startled, and to embrace what is revealed.

For a writer, it’s worth remembering that Frost wrote “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”  Same goes for a startle.  Maybe there’s some comfort in this.  The process of revision is often subtle and shadowy, trial and error, catch as catch can.  It’s hard to be sure whether a two or three syllable word here keeps the line resonantly vernacular, whether a Latinate word there contributes or distracts.  But I think we know when our own choices startle us, and if we make it through a draft unstartled, it’s back to rubbing the wild sticks together, aiming to strike the startling spark.

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The Cave

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I recently read Plato’s Republic where he describes his ideal society by speaking through Socrates and in a way personal criticism of his beliefs. Based on his metaphorical and fictional society, all learning begins in a cave. This cave prevents people are not allowed to see the outside world, instead they see shadows of figures designed by teachers. These cave dwellers receive basic education such as  physical training, music, and arts. In the cave, there are some that do not pass this base level of training and are forced to stay in the cave. If the individuals successfully complete the training,  then they are allowed to leave the cave. At minimum, these people are now known as ‘auxiliaries’. The people who left the cave are now given mathematical training and obtain a basic understanding of hypothetical reasoning which leads to them gaining an understanding of true reality. After years of seeing shadows and reflections, these people are now able to recognize what is real. Later, the people are taught how to use dialect and are now able to engage in communication. Furthermore, this teaches them to be skilled enough to interact with cities and become rulers. Those who are able to grasp reality and use dialect are worthy of becoming teachers. These people now return to the cave for political training from the previous class or rulers. Furthermore, they become the teachers who educate the cave dwellers on physical training, music, and objects through shadow puppets.  After their return to the cave, these teachers become rulers. They engage in philosophical thought and lead the people. These philosophical rulers return to the cave one last time to educate the next generation of teachers on how to become great political rulers.  Finally, this class of philosophical rulers is free to live on the rest of their day as they seem fit at the age of 50.

I was fascinated by Plato’s description of the cave because it is what influenced so many political philosophical thinkers, government leaders, and literary texts.  It forms the basis of the hierarchical concept in Aristotelian thought. Hitler’s totalitarianism gained some of its basis from Plato’s idea of the guardians and philosophical elites having absolute control. Similarly, he believed the Germans were the superior race, and should have absolute control. Furthermore, one can argue the logic of 1984 and Brave New World were also derived from political thought gained founded in Platonism.

Later in the Republic, Plato destroys his argument throughout the text claiming that the Cave ideology is impossible. This is because eventually greedy, incompetent people will come to power and ruin the whole system. Nepotism will take effect and the wrong people will be given the opportunity to become rulers, which will instill rebellion from the citizens and an overthrow of the system. Some may ask, why Plato spent the majority of the book discussing the logic of cave, if he was just going to conclude with how unrealistic the idea is? Plato wrote this text to show that there is no such thing as a perfect government even if every aspect of their life is controlled. Plato believes that every nation or group of people will naturally go through a cycle from Kallipolis (philosophy reason rulers), Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny.  In any system of government, some will be oppressed, and some will believe they are not being given a chance to maximize their potential. I believe Plato’s work is truly underappreciated as it is not being taught in the modern day curriculum. I asked many of my classmates and the only knowledge known to them was that he was a philosopher. Plato is the base of all political philosophy and is the father of his field. In this sense, I truly believe Plato is undervalued and wish people were encouraged to study someone so vital to political thought throughout time.

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Emily Dickinson and Bread

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To continue with Shenandoah’s apparent and impromptu Emily Dickinson theme this week (see our most recent Poem of the Week, Dickinson’s “To Tell the Beauty Would Decrease,” here: https://shenandoahliterary.org/blog/2017/10/to-tell-the-beauty-would-decrease/), I thought it only appropriate to talk gluten. Dickinson herself was, after all, a skilled baker of bread.

 

Am I the only one who is fed up with the gluten-free, dairy-free, paleo/Whole 30/high-fat, low-carb whatever-else-there-is food fad? Growing up, I ate what my mother put on the table – there were no “special dietary needs” (save legitimate allergies and the month I would only consume blue foods) in my adolescent vocabulary. A stable of my diet – and one that is evidently now considered blasphemous – was bread. In all shapes and sizes, savory and sweet, as an accompanying player or the star of the show, I loved bread.

The poet Emily Dickinson evidently loved bread, too. During her life, which began with her birth in Massachusetts in 1830 and ended with her death in 1886, Dickinson could most reliably be found in her kitchen, the place in the house she thought most “creatively nourishing.” I can’t say I disagree – I’m writing this very post hunched over my kitchen counter, watching a cast-iron pot in the oven. Dickinson was a prize-winning baker, a well-known giver of sweets, and a benevolent fattener of children with her famous gingerbread. She was responsible for rising early and baking the family’s daily bread, as her father preferred the taste of his daughter’s bread to any other.

 

She also loved the chance to experiment with new recipes. An excerpt from a letter to her friend reads, “thank you, dear, for the quickness which is the blossom of request, and for the definiteness – for a new rule (Recipe) is a chance. The bread resulted charmingly…” Dickinson is right – a new recipe is a chance: a chance to negotiate. Every person who really loves to cook knows this. A rule (recipe) is no hard-and-fast rule, per se, they’re meant to be broken, changed, and edited. You receive a recipe from a friend or acquaintance, you try it out, you make changes and personalize it.

What Dickinson understood is that baking, and baking bread, is an imperfect science. Not only in the obvious way, meaning that bread almost always contains some sort of leavening agent that forces a chemical reaction (yeast, by the way, is quite literally a living fungus that feeds on the sugars in flour, facilitating the “rising” action of bread dough – ah, science), but also in the more subtle way – there involves a question, a series of experiments, and a conclusion. Take the bread I am currently watching bake in the oven, for instance: my question – did I let this dough rise long enough on the counter, in the right climate, before I baked it? My experiment – let’s bake this thing and see how it turns out. My conclusion – to be determined, when this bread comes out of the oven. If my experiments prove fruitless (i.e., this bread is awful), then it’s time to edit some part of the recipe or methodology. Go back to the drawing board, and try something else. It’s supposed to be fun.

I see writing in the same light. We have a subject that we want to explore, we set about exploring it in a series of experiments, and either we are happy with the conclusion or we are not. So writing is a lot like cooking bread, in my opinion. People are intimidated by them both, myself included. The great things is, both can be edited. And poetry, like bread, can bring people together.

Being in the kitchen reminds me of this. When writing, like baking bread, was fun, not stressful or obligatory. Just filling journals in my childhood bedroom with countless short stories and angst-y poetry. When bread was an ally, not suddenly public enemy number one. For Dickinson, the kitchen acted in the same way, as an inspiration incubator. She often wrote early versions of poetry on the backs of flour labels. Like this one:

The Things that never can come back, are several —
Childhood — some forms of Hope — the Dead —
Though Joys — like Men — may sometimes make a Journey —
And still abide

Written on the back of a recipe for coconut cake. Baking is considered a traditionally “female” enterprise. Maybe poetry should be, too. Both  are nourishing, and quite forgiving.

I just got my bread out of the oven and sliced it. Today is one of my dearest friends 22nd birthday. I gave her a piece and her eyes closed with the audible crunch of the bread. “All I want for my birthday is this entire loaf to myself,” she said. No edits necessary this time, it appears.  

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Redeeming Dickens

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Whenever people find out that I’m an English major, their first question is almost always, “Oh, what’s your favorite book?”  Glossing over the fact that regardless of one’s major or career field, everyone ought to have a favorite book, I typically give a two-part answer.  First, I say Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a novel that truly changed the way I approach both literature and life in general.  However enriching and influential that work may be, though, Invisible Man is not my absolute favorite, want-it-if-ever-stuck-on-a-deserted-island read.  That distinction belongs solely to Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

My fondness for this archetypal bildungsroman narrative is in large part due to nostalgia.  I read the abridged version when I was nine or ten, and then moved on to the full text when I was a freshman in high school; this twofold exposure allowed me to mature along with the storyline in a way, working vicariously through Pip’s coming of age as I came of age myself.  I felt as strongly about his boyish desires to discover the identity of his secret benefactor, to become an empowered and affluent man of status, and to marry his beloved Estella, as if they were my own aspirations.  When I first read the story’s conclusion, where Pip writes, “I took [Estella’s] hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her,” I felt a sense of resolution and satisfaction unparalleled by any other work of fiction I have had the pleasure of experiencing.  I can honestly say that I have never identified emotionally with a protagonist as much as I did, and still do, with Pip.

I used to answer the favorite book query just with Great Expectations, but don’t anymore due to a sad reality I have come to understand: a lot of people really do not like Dickens.  They probably read one of his works in middle or high school, such as David Copperfield or A Tale of Two Cities, and found his long-winded prose exhausting.  Ever since, they have fostered an almost visceral aversion to the author’s work, ranking it just below the iTunes terms and conditions on their ‘for pleasure’ reading lists.  So, after growing tired of hearing “Oh wow, couldn’t be me,” whenever I brought up Great Expectations first, I relegated it to a secondary position out of a desire to avoid admitting that I actually enjoy reading books by an author whose writings are often considered the most effective cure for insomnia in students aged 12-18.

All that is changing, though, right here and now. I have decided to take a stand.  Charles Dickens deserves better than his current reputation as the literary equivalent of Nyquil.  Yes, his books are quite long and wordy.  Also yes, everyone is capable of not only reading them but of enjoying and appreciating them as well.  To help convince you, I have put together a brief, mostly unbiased list of three reasons why reading Charles Dickens is well worth the effort:

  1. The names of Dickens’s characters are just plain awesome.  Simply by reading names such as Ebenezer Scrooge (A Christmas Carol), Wackford Squeers (Nicholas Nickleby), and Toby Crackit (Oliver Twist), readers gain immediate insight into these individuals’ defining traits and motivations.  Hey, even J.K. Rowling blatantly channels Dickens for the naming of many Harry Potter series characters (Severus Snape, Dolores Umbridge, I mean, c’mon).
  2. Knowing Dickens’s iconic lines (in their entirety) will help you be a more sophisticated dinner party guest.  Sure, everyone knows “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” but if you read A Tale of Two Cities you can impress your friends and intimidate your enemies by picking up where they leave off: “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”.  At the very least, you’ll be the envy of all in attendance at the next local bar trivia night.
  3. By far the most important reason, and the one I hope really hits home.  The length of his books actually allows for greater reader investment in the lives of the characters involved.  You spend so much of your own time engaging with their elegantly developed personalities and journeys that you come to love David Copperfield as much as you loath Uriah Heep (David Copperfield), to root as strongly for Sydney Carton to find redemption as you do for Doctor Manette to find peace (A Tale of Two Cities).  Charles Dickens has so much valuable perspective to share on life, so many stories that transcend time in their ability to capture eloquently the workings of the human soul.  To hold a grudge against him for that time years ago when he made you want to drop out of ninth grade lit is to deny yourself some of the most immersive, enlightening, and inspirational storytelling the English-speaking world has ever produced.  Don’t be lame, give Chuck a second chance.
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Political Lessons of Water in the Tao Te Ching

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Professor Gray is a political philosophy professor at Washington and Lee University. In this post, he briefly explains the significance of water in the writings of Lao Tzu who was the founder of Taoism. Taoism advocates humility and religious piety.

1. Fluidity of Effective (wu-wei) Action (in accord with self-difference and duality): idea
of the inner, self-contained dualities/differences and identity of opposites helps exhibit
the relativity of values (e.g., hard vs. soft), depending on where one stands and how one
approaches things—remember the key difference between knowing that (which is a
matter of believing in linguistic claims with rational justification—one knows that
Annapolis is the capital of Maryland) vs. knowing how (which is a matter of ability—one
knows how to ride a bike).


2. Here, think about water’s duality: it is soft if you approach it slowly and gently with your hand, but it can also be as hard as concrete and exhibit great resistance if someone approaches it quickly and from a distance. Therefore, water’s characteristics change and are themselves fluid, even without water changing its essential nature—what matters is how we approach it. In this sense, it changes without actually changing by being both soft and hard at the same time (think of yin and yang circle—opposites are contained within the same entity). Also, consider the example of a swimmer working with the water vs. non-swimmer who thrashes around and drowns. Analogue to politics: more effective rule is about “flow” and efficient action, not tension and resistance—melding with the natural environment, working with and not over/against. This idea provides an alternative form of “political naturalism” whereby the natural does not revolve around human nature or a human-centrism. The “primitive” and “simple” are not in fact so—look at all the complexities and depth around you everyday that does not require your overt, distinctive, grand projects and involvement…even something as apparently boring and simple as water!
3. Tolerance: Lao Tzu also plays upon the fluidity of water because it is a naturalistic
analogue to the rather unpredictable process of becoming, along with its internal
dualities, differences, and relativity of values. In turn, this supports a Taoist ethic of
tolerance. That is to say, we should refrain from passing immediate, strong judgments on a particular person, situation, etc. as “good/fortunate” or “bad/unfortunate” because the value of our values may change from moment to moment, especially depending on
changing circumstances—most of which we do not and cannot control ourselves. In this regard, Lao Tzu is a “contextualist” when it comes to ethical judgments, not a
“universalist” with pre-determined categorical valuations.

4. Humility: Water is adaptive and humble, seeking out the lowest places (try to keep this in mind when Lao Tzu talks about the sage ruler and how he rules). Someone following the nature of the Way (and mimicking the nature of water) does not see or approach the “low” as low in a moral or normative sense, which Lao Tzu claims is an arbitrary linguistic distinction anyway. Its adaptivity, from which we can glean humility, is not seen as a weakness but rather a power, as it gradually (note patience!) melts rocks and brings down large mountains—a further example of the Taoist conception of rule: supple and flexible, yet strong. Also, note the humility displayed in the politics of “mimicry” that is found in mimicking the natural world: believing that the natural world/nonhuman things have something to teach us, and that we are not (and should not) seek to be its master. This reverses a traditional western understanding by reversing the “humans over nature” hierarchy and placing ourselves beneath the nonhuman, which Lao Tzu believes will exhibit the political knowledge exhibited or contained in natural elements such as water. Correspondingly, Taoist political thought privileges absence and humility—doubly so by using natural, non-speaking objects as examples instead of human beings and logos-/reason-centered objects like books or grand pieces of art…here one might think of references to things like doorways, windows, and cups.


5. Clarity through Stillness (especially as a precondition for right/efficient action): water
attains clarity through stillness, and the world (along with the “shine” of its physical characteristics), tends to be distracting and takes our attention away from what is closest/within us. Stillness and not conscious, frenetic energy and effort, allows us to achieve this clarity and better understand and watch what is going on within our own minds. Contrast this, for example, with Socratic dialectic and dialogue (which we’ll be
discussing very soon), which constantly stirs things up, especially in his interlocutors partly by displaying his interlocutors’ confusion and incoherent beliefs. This often leads to aporia (lack of a clear path to move forward), perplexity, and/or impasse. Lao Tzu would say that spending more time blunting our physical and mental activity—especially as it is stimulated through complicated linguistic engagements—is an important method for gaining greater clarity, understanding oneself, and understanding one’s own mind.
6. Anti-Hierarchical, Anti-Competitive, Anti-Distinction: Water runs/flows from the
higher to the lower places and refrains (in many, but not all ways) from “competing” with the physical objects it encounters in an combative, agonistic fashion. From one point of view, competition and efforts at distinction actually make one weaker by making one more vulnerable. By standing out, we make ourselves a target and get increasingly caught in the web of resistance and value judgment (think of celebrities and how harangued they are!). One of the best examples of Lao Tzu’s point in the history of western political thought is in the Classical Greek Athenian practice of “ostracism,” which entailed ostracizing members of the democratic polis who had grown too “notable” and influential for a period of 10 years (it was thought that such individuals could potentially upset democratic political equality and become a tyrant). Hence, Lao Tzu suggests that rulers shun hierarchical distinction, which he believes leads to greater weakness and instability over time.

1 This distinction between types of knowing relates to wu-wei, or non-action/efficient action. Generally speaking, wu-wei is action that is non-self-conscious yet perfectly responsive to the situation. Here we might think of various examples in sports, dance, or theatre. Wu-wei is not mere idleness or lazy, disinterested engagement, but rather a powerful, creative quietude in the midst or flow of activity. It is akin to a virtuoso performance in dance or sports, as opposed to sitting listlessly in my chair. That is, when I am brooding in my chair I am focused on myself, but in the case of playing sports or dancing, I am focused on the performance and the game or dance. In other words, I am in the non-self-conscious “throw” of the activity, efficiently lost in the midst of it—“in the flow,” so to speak. To take a dancing example: at first, I am very clumsy and self-conscious, and everything involving “trying” and remembering the steps. But gradually, as I become more skilled, I have to “think” less and become less self-conscious of myself as engaging in this particular act or activity. This is what it means to move in the direction of wu-wei and mimic the nature of the Way. In wu-wei (non-action/efficient action), the strongly demarcated self disappears and there can then be pure responsiveness to the Way of things. Behavior and activity, then, become less atomized and become more like a “flow”—hence, the analogies to water.

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What to Do When You’re Not on the List

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This is the standard race and ethnicity checklist that everyone has probably had to fill out, on one official document or another:

 

Race /Ethnicity (circle one):

American Indian or Alaska Native

Asian

Black or African American

Hispanic or Latino

Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander

 

 

Not a lot of people pay it much mind, but I do. Frankly, filling it out has always felt like a set-up.  I have no choice but to tell a half-truth—for the sake of someone else’s demographics chart. If I stare at the list for too long, it gets even more confusing:

 

Why do they set up race and ethnicity to be interchangeable? What’s the difference, anyway?

 

What if there was an ‘and’ between the ‘Black’ and ‘African American’ categories? Would I feel better about them being in the same category?

 

What even am I ?!  WHY IS THIS SO HARD?!

 

Here’s my dilemma: lists like these are setting up ‘Black’ and ‘African American’ as though they’re one and the same. I understand that this may be an easy way to group people together by skin color, for the sake of a diversity chart, but not every black person in the United States is African-American.

 

In my case, I am a black, American-born citizen, but I am also a first-generation Haitian American. Haiti is one of the many Caribbean countries that exist as a result of the African diasporic migrations. I am a product of a particular migration of African peoples to the West Indies, but technically I’m not of direct African descent. As for my American-ness, I am American by birth but not by culture since I was raised in Haitian customs and traditions. At best, ‘Afro-Carribbean’ would be the most accurate way to describe my ethnicity, moreso than ‘African-American.’

 

Unfortunately, not everyone’s ‘most accurate’ is an option—unless they’re willing to write in the classification they prefer at the bottom of every checklist they come across. Instead, they settle for the next, more tangential option with which they may or may not agree. For most of my life, I was also willing to settle. I believed there was no other choice.

 

Until I read Americanah by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie.

In the novel, Adichie creates a new way to both racially and ethnically classify her black characters: ‘American-Black’ and ‘Non-American Black’ (AB and NAB). I immediately identified with both of these; their sudden intrusion into my life felt like putting names to two familiar, elusive faces. I’ve never been able to define the wishy-washy, in-between space that I occupy so clearly before. Neither term is as vaguely concrete as ‘Black’ or as confusing as ‘African American.’ If anything, they expand the reach of their limited predecessors. An American-born black person who might consider themselves too removed from potential African ancestors can use the term ‘American Black’ instead of African American. Similarly, the use of the term ‘Non-American Black’ could unlock a new cultural identity for Pan-African and Afro-Latino immigrants, as well as for first generation Americans like myself, who had previously considered themselves invisible among other black people.

It is important to remember that AB and NAB are not perfect terms; there are people of direct and indirect African descent who are not black at all. Still, the way in which Adichie creates these new categories and incorporates them into the structure of her novel is an important call to action in the struggle for cultural visibility. If you can’t find yourself on the standard list, you can always create new categories, and in turn, a new list.

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