An Otherworldly Whisper Revisited

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[NOTE: I originally wrote this little riff for the Jan/Feb, 2017 issue of Blue Ridge Country.  I’ve tried not to mess with it too much, but I’m an editor and a busybody, so if you’ve seen it and notice a new twist or turn, chalk it up to evolution or a creek that jumps its bank now and then.  It seemed a fitting piece to post on the door, though Gone Fishin has its appeal as well.  I will miss the forum of this blog space, but not the tyranny of its calendar.  To those who have been readers, followers, critics, I hope the ride was lively.]

Despite my enthusiasm for a wilding fiddle, plaintive music from the mountain dulcimer will always be the sound that summons me back to the Blue Ridge.  The root of the instrument’s name means sweetness, and its strings can hum and whisper, lullaby and lament.  It’s domestic and intimate, just over a yard long with the fretboard raised above a narrow soundbox and wire strings stretched across bridges, anchored to  tuning pegs on one end.  The sound holes may be shaped as seahorse fs, hearts, doves, diamonds, leaves, whatever the craftsman’s hands are capable of.  A species of zither, it can be shaped like an hourglass, a teardrop, even a coffin, and may be played on a table, but sounds best when placed across a seated musician’s thighs.  I believe in that position it might echo the deepest tones of the picker’s bones and blood . . . just a theory of mine.

My favorite design is a courting dulcimer, a double set of strings enabling a couple to pitch woo in one room while kin listen from another, the purr of both sets of strings confirming that the lovers’ hands are up to music and not mischief.  No doubt much ingenuity ensues.

My dulcimer is a blonde hourglass made by Boone’s Frank Hodges about 1970, fir top with heart-shaped sound holes and spruce back intricately grained like a weather map.  It suits me well.  I have never been an accomplished player, but I learned “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” then tackled my favorite, “Shady Grove.”  “Auralie,” “Careless Love,” “What’ll I do with this Baby-O” –  I even managed to “master,” fittingly, “Hard Times.”

A longtime would-be guitarist, I was drawn to the dulcimer in part because it’s a necessity-born folk instrument perfect for ballads like “Babry Allen.”  I associate it with all the richest suggestions of “home made.”  Its hum is bee-like, and you can construct one in a weekend.  It’s more at home strummed with a quill plectrum on a porch or before a hearth than on any public stage.  Think wind in the chimney, water quick over pebbles, heartbreak or hardship, the need for consolation on homesteads in Galax, Spruce Pine, Valle Crucis.  In the hands of Jean and Bayless Ritchie, Edd Presnell, the Proffitt family, even Brian Jones on “Lady Jane,” it’s as haunting as the Abyssinian maid’s very different “dulcimer” Coleridge dope-dreamed in “Kubla Khan.”  The dulcimer’s domain is the threshold, the family, the community, and  the trembling sound of its drone strings’ Scots-Irish resonance can be the perfect vehicle for either grisly, tragic tales or meditations on sorrow and joy.  Its sweetness is almost always shadowed, its whisper insinuating that there’s more than we know.

Sitting on my deck with the hourglass form across my knees, I yearn to be keen enough of ear and deft enough with my fingers to  serenade tonight’s super-moon rising behind the ridgeline, itself  as quiet as owl flight.  The dulcimer, with its shivering, echoing drones, can whisper akin to the syllables of the old Celtic terrain, as well as the most local leaf fall and night bird’s otherworldly cry.

As I’ve said, it’s a haunting sound, but ghostly in an unthreatening way, as if it could put us in touch with the past, heal the clear cuts and gouges in the earth, break the dams, salve the losses, staunch the wounds.   The dulcimer speaks of sweet mystery, as well as the rigorous and sometimes bitter labor of living in the Appalachians with voices that reside in the bloodstream, the winds, the rivers, even for an eternal beginner like me. *

POST SCRIPT:
I have let Dulcie lie fallow for some time now, but I find myself drawn back to it these blistering June days and hope to be forgiven the neglect.  Because I have a neurological ailment that creates tremors like a dulcimer’s drone strings, I now feel less player than instrument.  It seems like inviting territory to explore: it’s time to tune up, flex my fingers and try to soothe myself.  Some things I can’t make my hands do, but this is one I’m convinced I can.
R. T. Smith  6/22/18

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Lady Macbeth: Wonderfully Wicked Across Multiple Mediums

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Sure, Lady Macbeth orchestrates multiple deaths throughout the play and frequently emasculates her husband by accusing him of weakness, but her manipulative murder plots and her rejection of her gender cast her as what some might see as an amusingly devious and entertaining co-star in Macbeth. In his 1606 play, William Shakespeare brings a whirlwind character to the stage, pushing against the strict definitions of gender and power that continue to exist today while evoking a complicated sense of sympathy through her emotional fall to madness.

Asserting her influence over Macbeth despite her status as a woman in medieval Scotland, Lady Macbeth motivates her husband to pursue their mutual goal: power. Towards the beginning of the play, Lady Macbeth seems like the dominant partner within the duo, as she masterminds murder plots, and even attempts to remove her femininity in the hopes that she will consequently gain the strength, that her husband does not initially possess, to follow through with murder. In her famous speech, Lady Macbeth begs the spirits:

…Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direct cruelty! Make thick my blood,
Stop up th’access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose nor keep peace between
Th’effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! (1.5.38-48)

Her requests to “unsex [her]” and “take [her] milk for gall” indicate that she intends to remove the feminine aspects of her body and mind to free herself of guilt, demonstrating that her gender impedes her plan to murder King Duncan, see Macbeth succeed to his throne, and solidify her and her husband’s power. In defiance of her gender, however, Lady Macbeth persists in her guiltlessness—if only for a short time.

While her fiercely-held ambitions deem her a uniquely empowered woman for her time, Lady Macbeth continues to evoke emotion from readers who are incensed by her resolve to kill and from viewers who sympathize with her spiraling descent to crippling guilt and madness. Through various enthralling interpretations, Lady Macbeth appears in film as the mourning mother of a dead child as well as the classical guilty coconspirator to a self-serving murder plot.

Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film opens with a shot of an infant child’s corpse. Soon after, Lady Macbeth approaches the child’s body, Macbeth dutifully by her side, before the altar is engulfed in flames. The Macbeths lean their heads against one another, showing the support each filches from the other. Later, Lady Macbeth descends into madness, mumbling to herself and manically rubbing her hands clean of blood stains that aren’t there. In Kurzel’s version, Lady Macbeth looks, with tears in her eyes, just to the side of the camera. A tear falls down her cheek as she begs, “Come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What’s done cannot be undone. To bed, to bed, to bed” (5.1.59-61), reaching for something off-screen. The end of the scene shocks the audience as the camera cuts to the spot on which Lady Macbeth’s eyes are fixed and reveals for what she reaches: a child. By interpreting Lady Macbeth as a mourning mother, Kurzel draws attention to her gender, the psychological effects of losing a child, and her counterintuitive resolve to murder. The idea that the Macbeths have a dead child is fascinating, cementing the significance of Lady Macbeth’s femininity and depicting her grief as she reaches for the deceased child, unable to hold him.

In Phillip Casson’s 1979 version of the same scene, Judi Dench’s harrowing twenty-five-second-long “Oh” unsettles and inspires empathy for the woman in pain. By drawing out the word “Oh” and turning it into a screeching wail for this excruciatingly long time, this interpretation intensely displays Lady Macbeth’s desperation and guilt. The audience feels her pain, despite the fact that her suffering results from her insatiable hunger for power.

As she drives herself to madness, Lady Macbeth continues to evoke emotion, captivating readers in English classes, audience members at the Globe in seventeenth-century England, and viewers of all modern film adaptations alike.

Citations:

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, Edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, Gordon McMullan, 3rd ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2016, pp. 917-69.

Macbeth. Dir. Justin Kurzel. Perf. Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. The Weinstein Company, 2015. Film.

A Performance of Macbeth. Dir. Philip Casson. Perf. Ian McKellen and Judi Dench. Royal Shakespeare Company, 1979. Film.

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Ghosts and the Gothic: A Supernatural Encounter at Washington and Lee

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Every W&L English major has heard at least one story about the alleged Payne Hall ghost: doors slamming, lights flickering, books falling off of shelves. Numerous professors will attest to their supernatural experiences in Payne Hall; it’s rumored that Dean Keen has even seen the ghost run up the stairs. Every W&L English major has also read at least one gothic novel and should be familiar with tropes of the supernatural. I have always erred on the skeptical side when it comes to ghosts or the supernatural, but when I was invited to a séance this past weekend, I had to accept out of curiosity.

One of my friends, coincidentally an English major, is writing her sociology thesis on the ways in which we talk about the supernatural, so she decided to try and contact some of the Colonnade ghosts via Ouija board. The Ouija board came out of the 19th century American obsession with spiritualism, the belief that the dead can communicate with the living. Spiritualism became widely popular during the Civil War, as people grew desperate to receive messages from the dead and connect with loved ones lost in battle. Mary Todd Lincoln held séances in the White House after her 11-year-old son died of a fever in 1862.

While most gothic novels don’t mention Ouija boards, many reference encounters with the supernatural. Jane Eyre, for example, includes an alleged ghost encounter in the second chapter while Jane is locked in the red room as punishment: “a light gleamed on the wall… it glided up to the ceiling and quivered over my head… I thought the swift-darting beam was a herald of some coming vision from another world” (18). While Jane reflects that she later knew the light was probably from a lantern, at that moment, she “had a species of fit: unconsciousness closed the scene” (19).

We were all set up in Newcomb Hall — candles, dimmed lights, sage, salt, the whole deal — but didn’t get even a glimmer of a response, so we packed up and moved over to Payne Hall, the neighboring building on Washington and Lee’s Colonnade. The failed attempt in Newcomb solidified my skepticism about ghosts and our ability to talk to them. Whenever I had used Ouija boards in the past, usually at a sleep-away camp or with my big sister, I was convinced someone else was moving the planchette – a small, typically heart-shaped device used for automatic writing and in séances – to manipulate the situation.

Payne did not provide the most ideal set up for a séance. All of the classrooms were locked, so we settled for the sitting area in the second-floor hallway. The overhead lights wouldn’t turn off (so much for the green energy initiative), so we had to forgo any sort of mood lighting. We went against all the tropes: there were no dimmed lights, flickering candles, strange sounds, or chilling breezes. This added to my skepticism; I was convinced that if we couldn’t contact a ghost in Newcomb, there was no way we were going to talk to a spirit in a very well-lit hallway in Payne.

 

Regardless of the less-than-perfect setting, we resolved to try again. We moved the planchette around the board to generate some energy then settled on “Hello.” My friend asked if there were any spirits in the room and, after a few moments, the planchette moved to yes. Cliché as it may be, the energy in the room definitely shifted. It wasn’t as dramatic as the mysterious cackle or torn veil in Jane Eyre, but you could definitely feel a change. One participant said that they started to feel sad and a little sick. Another said they got a headache that got progressively worse as we continued. When asked for a name, the spirit responded with “MYH” and confirmed those were his initials (we also asked for their gender preference, to which the spirit responded male). MYH said he was neither a W&L student nor a W&L faculty member, and when we asked his connection to W&L, he responded simply with, “no.” When we followed up asking if he had anything else he wanted to share, he moved the planchette to “Goodbye.” Several participants were really shaken by that response and the abruptness with which the encounter ended. I was more excited by it. I wanted to keep going, either by trying to contact MYH again or trying to connect with another spirit.

Even though I walked into that séance skeptical about ghosts and the supernatural, the encounter convinced me otherwise. I didn’t faint quite like Jane in Jane Eyre, but I will attest to a sort of vague presence in the room. I can also say that my interest in gothic novels has since been piqued.

Citation: Lutz, Deborah, and Charlotte Bronte. Jane Eyre: an Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. W. W. Norton & Company, 2016.

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Stumbling Upon Old Memories: Nostalgia and Self-Reflection in “Book I” of Wordsworth’s The Prelude

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As the Olympic theme song fills living rooms all around the world at prime time each evening and people suddenly become experts on gold medal slopestyle form and proper bobsled strategy for sixteen days, I can’t help but reflect on my own Winter Olympics sport of choice: figure skating. Though it’s been four years since I stepped off the ice and thus concluded my ten-year stint with the sport, I look back on the victories, challenges and lessons I learned from ice skating with serene reminiscence and self-reflection mirroring that conveyed in William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, an autobiographical exploration of one of the first English Romantic poet’s growth as a man and master of poetry, which was published posthumously in 1850. Specifically, “Book I: Introduction—Childhood and School-time” details the nostalgic thrill and elated pleasure of witnessing a group of children ice skating and tracing the influences of one’s identity.

As our speaker comes across a group of children ice skating outdoors, he pleasantly reflects on his formative years through vivid diction and tangible images of winter. With excitement, Wordsworth writes:

“And in the frosty season, when the sun
Was set, and visible for many a mile
The cottage windows blazed through twilight gloom,
I heeded not their summons: happy time
It was indeed for all of us—for me
It was a time of rapture! (lines 425-30)”

These lines evoke the energy and pleasure associated with walking through the countryside and seeing children play games outdoors reminiscent of one’s own childhood, conveying the similar experience for me of flipping through channels and stumbling upon Olympic figure skating—a pleasant surprise that brings forth cherished memories of youthful fun.

Using imagery from nature as a stand-in for the speaker’s developing feelings, Wordsworth describes nature’s ability to instill important values that shape a child’s identity. He writes, “Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up / Fostered alike by beauty and by fear” (301-2), indicating the developmental experiences that influence a child’s identity. Essentially, Wordsworth underscores nature’s role in shaping a child’s thoughts and emotions, ultimately establishing a set of morals and forming “a grandeur in the beatings of the heart (414)” that lasts beyond the formative years. Further, Wordsworth suggests that his skills as a poet gained a similar “grandeur” and refinement through the influences of his childhood spent in nature, enjoying the comfort of the familiar outdoors and acquainting himself with consequent pleasure and morality.

While Wordsworth transformed into the man and poet he was by his influential relationship with nature, my character was shaped by the discipline and endurance of practicing figure skating. Just as Wordsworth’s childhood games in nature influenced the poet he became, I can trace my aptitude for working hard and never giving up, my ability to fall with and without grace, and maybe most importantly my resilience that drives me to get up and try again to my years of ice skating.

Though many years have passed since our respective formative childhood years, the late Wordsworth and I each experience nostalgia and pleasure by stumbling upon old memories, whether they come to mind while walking through the countryside or channel surfing on cold nights in February. We explore the intricate ways our morals, values, and skills developed as we grew up, whether spent playing games outdoors all seasons of the year or attempting—and failing—the same trick over and over again until it was finally learned.

Citation: Wordsworth, William. “Book I: Introduction—Childhood and School-time.” The Prelude. London: Edward Moxon, 1851. Online.

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The Function of Dream in A Midsummer’s Night Dream

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Undoubtedly one of his most well-known comedies, the very title of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream[1] tempts viewers to dismiss the production as mere fabrication. This option is offered explicitly in the final act of the play in which Puck recommends to the audience that if the actors have offended them, they should consider the production no more real than a dream. In the play, the phenomenon of dream bridges the divide between the real and spirit worlds and functions to effect character transformation. Having undergone a metamorphosis of personality and opinion, the characters are able to depart the dream world and return to the city where these changes aid in securing their joyful marriages.

At the play’s opening the strictly lawful city of Athens, historically comparable to Shakespeare’s 17th century rule of law, hinders reasonable perception with nearly all characters experiencing obstructed vision. Almost everyone sees narrowly, through an equally limiting and limited group of assumptions about status, beauty, and romance. The characters each see separate versions of reality and strongly believe that their version is resoundingly correct. For example, in the very first act Hermia laments that her father should see her preference for a husband through her eyes, but Theseus assures her that she must consider things through Egeus’s more experienced and authoritative point of view.

Chief troublemaker Oberon lures the four lovers away from the rigidly structured society of Athens and into the forest, an obscure paradise where phenomena such as status challenges and sexual complications ensue through the outlet of dream in a positive, therapeutic fashion. The characters leave a strict, severe environment in which they are unable to attain their heart’s desires in favor of a part of nature where social norms do not pertain. Both in nature and dream, they can embrace the illogical to help them enter a curative return to chaos.

  Oberon then compels Puck to instigate ordeals that will help the characters to undergo personal transformation. Through these seemingly improbable ordeals, a status reversal occurs between Helena and Hermia in their intense argument. The women are brought from a high status as potential wives down to a demeaning rank as they bicker in an unladylike fashion; they even come close to socially degrading physical combat.

Status reversal also occurs between Bottom and Titania, for which the status swap is coupled with sexual encounters resulting in an amusing yet meaningful demotion of standing for Titania and a short-lived rise in status for Bottom. The transitory adjustment of status between both pairs of characters serves to impart them with the wisdom of what could have been. This shows them the error of their ways and gives Oberon the peace of mind that they will assume their “natural” pairings now that they are aware of what happens when they fail to do so.

Now that these transformations have taken place and the characters understand the implications of breaking the status quo, the dream ends. The lovers return to their proper mates ready to replace the beneficial chaos that occurred in the forest with the social formality of marriage in Athens. The insights gained in the forest have metamorphosed the romantic desires of the Athenian lovers. They will now be able to obey the laws of their city which, after the transformation of all characters, have been relaxed substantially to the benefit of all. Theseus overbears Egeus’s will and blesses Lysander and Hermia’s formerly prohibited nuptials.

At the beginning of the play in still-strict Athens, the characters react to conscious social pressures by turning to the unconscious to seek transformation. They flee from an oppressive atmosphere to escape from society to nature. They then return to the changed society, completing a cycle that has offered therapeutic transformation to all involved. Helena can reconcile with her true love Demetrius, and Lysander and Hermia are finally afforded their happily-ever-after. These changes would not have been possible without the lovers’ remedial transformation that took place in the forest. Had they not stumbled into the powerful and curative dream world, the lovers would not have ended up in their satisfying romantic couplings in now-reformed Athens.

Puck’s epilogue serves to deliver a final confusion of reality and illusion to the audience. Just as Oberon mended his mischief by sorting out the romantic entanglement of the four lovers, Puck insists in the final act that if audiences dismiss the whimsical nature of the play as no more than a manifestation of the subconscious, “all [will be] mended” and he will “restore amends” to potentially affronted theatergoers. Audiences are left to ponder the meaning of Shakespeare’s emblematic dream with the play’s thought-provoking message concerning the sensation fresh in their heads.

 

[1] Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (New York: Modern Library, 2008).

Josette Cosetta (Feb. 2018)

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Stories with Heart

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When approaching a potential short story of interest, I often find myself searching for seemingly inconsequential characters, for those who doubt their place in the world and view themselves, and the world, with disinterested apathy. I search for those stories which cast an even darker shadow upon their protagonist; stories of societal or personal unrest which take the character into the realm of psychological disturbance and turmoil, only to leave the reader with a distant feeling of unease as the final pages bring the story to a shuddering halt. I like to see the character perched on the edge of destruction, only to reel back as if in the eleventh hour. It is not this dreary nature, however, that I find enticing. Rather, it is the journey the protagonist embarks on, the constant search for internal and external peace that draws me in. I find that while their lives begin to unwind, and they attempt to piece it back together, very human attributes begin to appear. “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe checks all these boxes off for me. Poe introduces us to a nameless character—we do not know his purpose, we do not know his relationship to the old man with the “Evil Eye,” we know nothing of him except that he is simply nervous. “Very, very dreadfully nervous” to be precise. The man asserts his sanity, creating an ambiguity surrounding the man’s moral and mental character as he plots the old man’s murder outside of his door each night.

Stories like this dwell in that certain gray area that permeates life, entering neither into territories of good or bad, sweet or evil, and perhaps, begin to reveal truths about us, and how, we too, exist neither wholly innocent or guilty. The protagonist kills the vulture-eyed man, not of malice, but rather to liberate himself–and the old man–from that malevolent eye. To the protagonist, murder is an act of deliverance.

I also enjoy a loud protagonist, one who, while unsure of their role in a life unraveling, fight their way upstream, refusing to be trumped with ease. That battle between laying belly up for the antagonists, even if it is themselves, and fighting for who and what they are, separates the ordinary from the spectacular for me. The man in “The Tell-Tale Heart” struggles for his nebulous grip on reality, reasserting his sanity as his paranoia heightens with each invisible whisper of the old man’s still-beating heart that grows into a resounding insistence that he is guilty. My favorite characters find their end bloodied and bruised with busted knuckles and a raw throat, having fought for their existence—whether mentally or physically—until they either expire or succeed. I like to read of characters who live, characters who have experienced the breadth of human emotion, the variance of life. This window into a tumultuous mind that settles itself on actions of violence justified by the superstitions of a madman soon overcome with the guilt of murder draws an image of what it is like to be fully human, which, I suppose, is what I am looking for when I read. I like novels to remind me that humanity is neither perfect nor entirely flawed, but rather, something that perpetuates itself in gray areas. I wish to read about stories and people who extrapolate the complicated nature of life and humanity; I find such stories in the unlikeliest of heroes in the most onerous of places, in those who must fight for what they want, and who persist until their last breaths. The answers in this life are not simple. I do not wish to read of characters who think it so.

 

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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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