Monday, August 24, 2009

More Glories of Three

Every time my daughter sees or hears the word “three” she puffs out her chest “I’m three!” The three-month-old dog, the three blueberries she needs to eat to get a popsicle, three o’clock.

She loves to ride the elevator, which she calls “the alligator.”

We have a bath towel with a little hood on it. These are common silly middle class things: you wrap the child in a hood and she looks like an animal. I put the elephant towel on her the other night and suddenly she was reciting a little poem I’d never heard, complete with hand gestures:
The elephant goes like this and like that.
He’s very tall and very fat.
He has no fingers, but he sure has toes.
And, goodness gracious! What a nose!
I wish I could describe how it came pouring out of her. It wasn’t fast; her concentration was intense, but she was possessed with the need to recite the whole thing, pausing, utterly still, to recollect the next word. When she was done, she didn’t even look at me for praise. She just looked down, clearly amazed and deeply proud that she had done it. I waited, burst into applause, and she beamed.

Last night, reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, she was deeply skeptical of the blue horse: “Horses can be white or brown or gray or black. But not blue, right?” Then, the second time through, she noticed a second oddity: “Birds don’t be red!”

Oh yes, they be, honey. Yes, they be.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

How to Write a Fan Letter

I’m taking some notes on Woolf’s letters. I find her recommending Thomas Hardy’s poems to an old friend in December, and then, in January, writing to Hardy himself, thanking him for his poems and for all his books.

Hardy was born in 1840; Woolf, in 1882. In 1915, she had written only one novel and many, many reviews. So, she approaches him very much as a young writer approaching an elder. The letter is brief and gracious: she has a clear pretext (Satires of Circumstance [1914] includes a poem to her father, Leslie Stephen [1832-1904]), but it’s the last line that I love:
I write only to satisfy a very old desire, and not to trouble you to reply.
So graceful and grateful. That’s a real fan letter.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


More than half way through Mrs. Dalloway, Elizabeth enters her mom’s room to tell her she and her history tutor, Miss Kilman, are going out to run an errand. Unhappy and jealous, Miss Kilman stands in the hall, seething.

Miss Kilman resents the degradation of poverty, degradation that forces her to take jobs from rich people like the Dalloways. Still, she remembers, Richard had been kind.

Lady Bruton can barely stand Hugh Whitbread. Nonetheless, she remembers that she needs to tolerate him since he had been kind.

At the very beginning of the novel, the florist remembers that Mrs. Dalloway had been kind years ago, very kind.

Clarissa’s aunt is kind to Peter, since he gave her a rare flower, and in spite of his horrible lovesick rudeness.

Rezia desperately searches the faces of Septimus’s doctors, of strangers on the street, for signs of kindness.

There is an argument about kindness running through this novel: about how it matters, about how it binds us together, about how it papers over all kinds of differences and resentments. It’s hard to articulate without sounding sentimental.

But these are the sorts of patterns one begins to notice on the fifteenth or twentieth time through a book…

Monday, August 17, 2009

Even More on Jessie Fauset

Ethelene Whitmire, a professor at U-Wisconsin, Madison, popped into the comments to note that Fauset’s fourth and last novel is being reissued by Rutgers this fall. Thank you! It sounds like a darker—more realistic?--version of There is Confusion, edited by Cherene Sherrard-Johnson (also of UW):
Comedy: American Style, Jessie Redmon Fauset’s fourth and final novel, recounts the tragic tale of a family’s destruction—the story of a mother who denies her clan its heritage. Originally published in 1933, this intense narrative stands the test of time and continues to raise compelling, disturbing, and still contemporary themes of color prejudice and racial self-hatred. Several of today’s bestselling novelists echo subject matter first visited in Fauset’s commanding work, which overflows with rich, vivid, and complex characters who explore questions of color, passing, and black identity.

Cherene Sherrard-Johnson’s introduction places this literary classic in both the new
modernist and transatlantic contexts and will be embraced by those interested in earlytwentieth-century women writers, novels about passing, the Harlem Renaissance, the black/white divide, and diaspora studies. Selected essays and poems penned by Fauset are also included, among them “Yarrow Revisited” and “Oriflamme,” which help highlight the full canon of her extraordinary contribution to literature and provide contextual background to the novel.
I can’t wait to read it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

There'll Always Be an England

"Through the Brownes Stevie met Mungo and Racy Buxton who lived nearby at Wiveton." Stevie Smith: A Biography (194).

Stevie Smith & Betty Miller

I’m reading Frances Spalding’s biography of Stevie Smith and every chapter brings me a little gasp of excitement. Her Novel on Yellow Paper is a favorite book of mine.

Yesterday’s find was the strong speculation that the woman Orwell bragged about having sex with in a public park was likely Smith.

Here is today’s: Smith was a libelously autobiographical writer. Novel on Yellow Paper begins “Good-bye to all my friends, my beautiful and lovely friends” and she did, indeed lose many friendships over her thinly veiled accounts of marital spats and her confusing frankness (and anti-Semitism) toward her Jewish friends. One such friendship sundered was that with Betty Miller, author of Farewell Leicester Square (another of my discoveries this summer). Smith spent the weekend with the Millers and then commemorated it in a short story portraying the Millers as burdened by the sense of English anti-Semitism, Miller herself as a suppressed wife, and Miller’s son Jonathan (the Jonathan Miller) as a brat.

Betty was not pleased.

I don’t doubt it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

More on Jessie Fauset

If Jessie Redmon Fauset is remembered at all, it is as the author of Plum Bun, which, I suspect, many know vaguely as that other novel about passing that is not Nella Larsen’s Passing. But Fauset (1882-1961) wrote several novels and served as the literary editor of Crisis magazine from 1919 to 1926: the heart of the Harlem Renaissance. Alain Locke may have edited The New Negro (1925), but Fauset must have played a huge role in publishing and promoting the talent of all those writers we know from that anthology.

Though you may not have noticed it, I did: I was unfair to Fauset last week by leading with my criticism of her energetic and ambitious first novel.

Actually, and in spite of its many flaws, I was very moved by the book and I think it’s an amazing novel to revive during the age of Obama.

The plot is unwieldy but full of wonderfully cinematic scenes. If you are a screenwriter in search of material, I recommend mining There is Confusion.

The Marshall family, the four children of Joel Marshall, are the book’s heart. Joel Marshall is a very successful caterer, a self-made man, living in a large prosperous house in Manhattan—at first, in the 50s and, later, in Harlem. Rich as he is, he regrets that his success came in mere catering and hopes for more—for greatness, for ambition, for real intellectual and political achievement, for his children.

Of his four children, only Joanna shares those ambitions and both she and her father are somewhat surprised to find that her talent lies in singing and dancing: once again, the family’s dreams of a new Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth are checked by both their talents and the lack of opportunity.

Joanna is one of three young people whose maturation the book details. Her story contrasts with those of Maggie Ellersley, the daughter of a laundress who hopes that marriage to a rich man will raise her from poverty and Peter Bye, the scion of freedmen from Philadelphia, who must overcome his father’s anger and laziness to become the man—and the physician--Joanna deserves to marry.

Part of the book’s failure is also what makes it so continually interesting: Fauset spends a lot of time explaining her world. She has her earnest young people engage in long, DuBois-ian conversations about talent and how best to spend it. They walk the streets of New York, experiencing both freedom and discrimination. Fauset explains the differences between the social mobility of New York—both within the black community and in a tentatively integrating bohemia—and the intense social hierarchies of elite black Philadelphia, where the daughters of freedmen work hard not to aim too high, but simply to remain eligible brides for the appropriate sons.

I had hoped to find a new novel of the Harlem Renaissance to teach this fall, tiring as I have of Larsen. I am really excited about this one, about which I cannot stop thinking

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

First novels, Race, and the MFA

I was about 100 pages into Jessie Redmon Fauset’s There is Confusion (1924) when Short Girls came. Both are great stories of young people striving in the face of racism, but only Nguyen’s is an easy, lovely read. Both Fauset and Nguyen show their characters experiencing and, as important, reflecting on racism. Both women take a deep interest in helping—it does feel like that’s the right verb even though it’s slightly absurd—their female characters find both love and work that will fulfill them.

When I finished Short Girls, I returned to Fauset and, somehow, really got involved in the story and finished it with great pleasure. Still, it cannot be said that this, Fauset’s first novel, is flawless: it’s overplotted, it’s got too many characters; it’s too talky in parts.

I kept thinking about the difference it would have made if Fauset had an MFA. I don’t think MFAs can create talent, but they do seem to help writers prune their manuscripts, think about their audience, focus their purpose. This is a somewhat disheartening conclusion, and I want my literature great more than competent, but, over and over again while reading Fauset, I would think, oh! If some fellow reader, if some instructor, could have helped her smooth that over, edit that out, how much better this book would be.

Amazing the difference that those 80 years have made.

UPDATED to say: What I wanted to add here is that Fauset herself knows this: there is an incredibly affecting scene late in the book. The protagonist has finally gotten her dream job, dancing in a Broadway show. It's an integrated cast and the exposure brings her, for the first time, into a bohemian group of friends, many of them white. She wonders at their accomplishments: how can they have done so much when she's been dancing all this while. Then she thinks back over all the time she's spent overcoming obstacles put in her way by racism: finding the dancing teacher who would teach black students; getting him to agree to a special class when white students refused an integrated one; finding 10 other black dancers to join her, etc. She things ruefully about all she would have done had she not had to beat down her own path.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Short Girls

I remember our neighbors’ pride, the mother’s need to assert her status as hostess while living in a house owned and furnished by the church, and, reading Short Girls I recognized immediately the daughters’ discomfort when the well-meaning family of sponsors shows up at the father’s citizenship ceremony. Somehow, I can’t quite explain it, but I rejoiced inside to hear Nguyen’s explanation of the awkwardness from the inside. Maybe it’s as simply as a relief in the great fact that we have a Vietnamese-American writer who can explain to everyone, even those who haven’t seen it themselves, the utter lack of interest a child might feel in a sponsoring family. I love the honest ingratitude of children, even grown ones.

That citizenship ceremony is the heart of the book and it’s where the separate lives of the Luong sisters reconnect. This book, like Sima’s Undergarments for Women, has a plot structure that is designed to soothe and please: things are a mess at the beginning and you have, from the start, some sense that, somehow, things will improve. The party that we know will bring the sisters together happens a little more than halfway through the book: I loved that I couldn’t predict the aftermath of the book, but that, from the start, I had eager hope for what I knew would be interesting. That is a deeply satisfying kind of story to me these days.

Van Luong is the good sister, an immigration lawyer, but her husband has left her; Linny, the bad girl, is reconsidering her affair with a married man. Since they’re both in their late-twenties, a lot of the plot’s conflict revolves around figuring out a way to find a life partner, but that is not the only thing. I love how Nguyen promotes their search for satisfying careers to equal importance. Linny’s job, designing recipes for “You Did It Dinners,” one of those catering places that helps working mommies assemble casseroles is a wonderful job for a slacker girl: she’s gifted at cooking, but, lord, is this how she’s going to spend her life? Making up non-threatening burrito-bake recipes for other women to assemble? And when Van’s husband blames her for losing a hopeless immigration case, her utter collapse of confidence, too, seems like just the kind of folding of confidence I saw again and again among my ambitious friends at the first big career setback: the decision that, oh well, I really didn’t want to do public service/litigation/inner city teaching, I’ll just settle here.

The novel is mercifully free of faux-exotic details—and mocks those white friends who want them—but there is a deeply realized sense of the Vietnamese community of Michigan, its development, how it revolves around the family that got rich first, how the Luongs, by buying a house a few neighborhoods away, lost touch with its center, how it looks now (in 2003) that some of the children of 1975 have children of their own.

Van is an appealing but hard to know character: there is something deeply private about her; even up to the end, she seems a little unknowable in her studiousness. That meant that it took me a while to feel at home with her—even as I was in the novel’s world from the very first page—a fantastic scene of the young abandoned wife, worrying that she’ll forget the alarm’s code because it’s their wedding date. But, as the novel unfolded, I learned how much stock I was to take in little clues—that Van would never tell us, that Nguyen will never tell us—directly why she became an immigration lawyer, but that, in her poring over post-9/11 rule changes we could infer her deep ethical commitment to working for immigrant rights.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Multicultural in Seattle

Nguyen’s novel showed me a lot about what it might have been like to be on the other side of some of those fleeting friendships I had with Vietnamese kids growing up in Seattle. It got me remembering the first wave of Southeast Asian immigration to our city.

At the far end of our block in Seattle, on our side of the street, there was a modern ranch house, high atop an ivy-covered hill. Two gay men lived there, with a pool and a solarium full of birdcages with mechanical birds. My parents were proud to be square, but they were—and are—kind, tolerant people. Where others might, in those days, have kept their children away from the queeny gay men down the block, we went there from time to time and thought of them as friends. My sister and I sat in the solarium during their drunken Christmas parties, sipping spiked eggnog and listening to the songs of the mechanical birds.

Across the street from them was a beautiful brick Tudor house, usually vacant, and owned by the Episcopal Church. Next to that, a vacant lot. The vacant lot—really, a very meticulously tended lawn with a cluster of trees in the center and a short hill, perfect for rolling down--belonged to the third house in, but we called it “Green Grass Grows” and it was our favorite place to play. Sometimes, the caretaker would come and yell at us, but as long as we didn’t wreck the grass too badly, he tolerated us.

This was Capitol Hill in the 70s: houses from 1905 up against modern ranches, all rendered affordable because of a Boeing bust and white flight.

In 1975, I was 8, and the church (or someone in the church) sponsored a Vietnamese family: the family’s mom had worked in the American Embassy, spoke fluent French and English, and was, naturally, among the first to have to leave. (In my mind, I picture them on the top of the embassy roof, fleeing by helicopter, but that’s just dimly remembered news footage. Still, there was an intense sense of emergency to their story.) They had four children, our age and younger. Those children, living next door to our play spot, the vacant lot, became our friends. We taught them tag and learned not to play t.v. tag with them till they’d learned some t.v. shows.

We went to their house sometimes, and sometimes—though rarely—they came to ours. This was a fragile neighborhood friendship, made harder by the Do’s pride and dislocation, by language and cultural barriers, but the gay men across the street were shocked. They took my mother aside: “Why don’t you send your children to the private school? I can’t believe you send them to that public school with all those C---ks, N----s, and J---s.”

My mom told me what he’d said because she had to explain why we were not friends any more: it wasn’t homophobia that kept us from the gay men’s house, it was her rejection of their extreme racism.

That was a mind-blowing lesson of girlhood.