Monday, May 21, 2007

Quote of the day, 5/21/07

"...Of course we were fair-minded, and would have instnatly let into the Circle (which was also Immortal, by the way) any who demonstrated Circular qualities, as long as they were just like ours.

Somehow they were not.

We did, actually, let a few in. (This made us feel generous).

Most, we did not. (This made us feel that we had high and important standards).

Some didn't even want to get in and stood about making rude remarks. (This made us feel scared).

But how on earth could we possibly let them in?

They were clumsy.

Their work was thin.

It wasn't about the right things.

It was -subsidiary-.

It had no 'universal values.' (These are shiny gold bells, worn on the head, which are indispensable to the art of frument, and which the practicing frumentor, by shaking the head back and forth, causes to go 'bing! bing!' in complicated rhythmic outbursts while performing the other actions proper to this delicate and complex art).

To drop the metaphor...when white critic Elly Burkin informed a room full of us white feminists...that we were racists and homophobes, I felt both angry and accused. After all, none of us had done anything that bad and we were hardly responsible that the Great Tradition of English literature was largely white, or that the others were subsidiary, or that so little had been done in these latter. I had certainly confronted homosexuality in women's writing, and so would I confront color--when and where it was appropriate to do so, of course.

To prove all this, I went to the library, got Black novelist Zora Neale Hursto's classic, -Their Eyes Were Watching God,- and read it.

It was episodic.

It was thin.

It was uninteresting.

The characters talked funny.

It was clearly inferior to the great central tradition of Western Literature (if you added these authors' wives', mothers', daughters', sisters', and colleagues' books). I'd been vindicated. Why go on?

But Elly must have put a virus in my tea or otherwise affected me, as shortly thereafter I returned from the library with one armful of books and from the bookstore with another, all these about women of color. There were novels, short-story collections, books containing literary criticism, literary journals, and a few slender pamphlets from small presses. Then I read John Langston's -Drylongso-, Gerda Lerner's -Black Women in White America-, Barbara Christian's pioneering study -Black Women Novelists-, -Conditions: Five, The Black Womens' Issue, Toni Cade Bambara's -The Black Woman: An Anthology-, Mary Helen Washington's -Black-Eyed Susans: Classic Stories by and about Black Women-, and Barbara Smith's -Toward a Black Feminist Criticism.-

Then I re-read -Their Eyes Were Watching God.-

It was astonishing how much the novel had improved in the interim.

Could it be that all these authors were not--as I had unthinkingly assumed--in subsidiary traditions, but -parallel ones?- And that the only thing unique, superior to all others, and especially important in my tradition-was that I was in it? Was centrality really a relative matter?..."


--Joanna Russ, "How To Suppress Women's Writing"

7 comments:

Eli said...

Is it Thursday already? This week has totally flown by.

belledame222 said...

cripes, you're right.

Anonymous said...
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Unsane said...

I detected similar things when I wrote this: http://home.iprimus.com.au/scratchy888/Black%20Sunlight%20draft.htm

Unsane said...

oops!
draft

Deoridhe said...

This reminded me of my Senior AP English class in high school, which was when we studied this. Since it was an AP class, the focus was on very regulated analysis until mid-march, which was when the test was. Then the professor (Dr. S.) would go hog wild, pulling out all sorts of things to make up with the largely whitebread previous months.

Hurston was part of the pre-test curriculum, though. So was Ellison - of Invisible Man fame. I will never forget learning for the first time that sweet potatoes were often considered a "black" or "southern" thing in HS. I didn't learn about black eyed peas until college, and it was only a couple years ago that I learned about chicken, watermelon, and strawberry soda. And it was less than a mounth ago that I learned "true" grits are savory, not sweet, so I'd revealed my Yankeeism for all the world when I sat in that restaurant and added sugar to my grits (I've had them savory now and they're quite good).

I love Hurston for her dialects and the feminism of her stories. The treatment of women interacting with women was a real novelty in that class; even my beloved Bronte sisters had more male/female than female/female interaction, and white Austen had her female characters interact, they had the arching style of written characters (which is what I love about her, but variety is the meat and potatoes of life). Hurston's always seemed more human, somehow. People presented as both earthy and refined at the same time, instead of one leading to the other or simply one.

And it occurs to me now (I'm slow, ok?) that even the slight multicultural/multiracial representation in my class (we had nothing Latin@ until after the exam, and then we had a lot, and I don't recall any Asian literature at all, including Haiku; the one Haitian poem I read in HS was given to us by our often-exaspirated M. D.) was probably due to our teacher being stubborn about including it. She would slot in racially and genderly aware stuff wherever she could in a class which was not welcoming to it. I owe her a lot for that.

Did you hear about the poems carved on the walls of the West Cost Imigrant Detention Center? They reminded me a bit of Haiku; Western-style poems don't reference nature as much or in the same manner. One included a line about "I am the pear tree" and it had shades of Amergin's poem of becoming from old Irish Literature. "I am... I am... I am..." Only so hopeless, there; such immense grief and helplessness and anger. The translations were lovely, and seeing the actual Chinese characters... Chinese has a prettier alphabet than English does. There's a power to the carvings that defies translation.

...I have probably rambled enough.

The Scarlet Pervygirl said...

Brava! This past semester has been my first where literature was really placed in an historical and cultural context, and she's right: books, particularly high-modernist and post-modernist books, which reference a sort of collective cultural consciousness, DO get better when you know what the fuck's going on in them, rspecially if the zeitgeist they're referencing has aged or gone arcane.