Sunday, November 29, 2009

Story Corps in Houston

The Story Corps mobile booth is in Houston for a month, until Dec 19.  Today I went with my Peruvian friend Vilma Burwick to the Story Corps booth to record an interview with her about her very interesting life.

Vilma was born in a remote village in the north of Peru.  She had a large family, and they were very close. She really did walk two hours to school every morning, and two hours back.  When she went to high school, it was three hours.  Her father really valued education, and he encouraged her to study.

When she finished high school, she went to Lima to go to the university there.  She worked to support herself while she was in the university, and she became a lab technician at a hospital.  But she wanted more opportunity, and she decided she wanted to move to the United States at some time, but she didn't know how she could make it happen.

Vilma cared for the children of a family that sometimes traveled to the United States for vacations.  On one of these trips, Vilma had a long layover in the Houston airport.  A mysterious man kept talking to her and flirting with her.  She was scared, but after a while she came to sort of like the man. When she got back to Peru, he had sent her a lot of emails!  They were in English, but she got a dictionary and translated them.  She wrote back to him, partly in Spanish, and he had a dictionary too, to figure out what her emails meant. Fifteen months after she met Keith Burwick in the Houston airport, she came to Houston and, reader, she married him.

Vilma had to learn English, so she watched American soap operas and read as much as she could in English. She started attending ESL classes at HCC, which is where I met her.  Now she's on her way to a four-year university, to study microbiology.  And she became an American citizen. She's an American success story.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Multiculturalism and Feminism

An interesting issue came up in the writing center the other day.  I was tutoring a Chinese woman who was writing an essay about motherhood, fatherhood, and marriage. She wrote that women have a "bounden duty" to have children because they have the right body parts.

Usually I don't argue with students when they say things that I don't agree with, but I couldn't let this one go by.  In part that was because I knew that her writing teacher would think this point of view odd; the teacher had assigned a lot of essays about gender issues and is presumably a feminist, although I don't know her and couldn't say that for sure.  Even if this were not the case, I thought it was my "bounden duty" to inform the student that this statement, presented as if it were self-evident and not defended at all, would strike most Americans as old-fashioned, if not downright offensive.  So I told her that in the US, we consider child-bearing a choice rather than a duty.

"A choice?"  she said, after a long silence. What a novel concept.

I was somewhat puzzled by her puzzlement, because I have met other young Chinese women students who are very career-oriented and don't want to be only housewives.  They don't seem to see child-bearing as a "duty," and I know that China has had a long-time policy of limiting births to one child per family.  The Maoist socialist revolution was ostensibly feminist also.

I asked the student if most people in China thought that women had a duty to have children. She said that they did.  Maybe she is from a different class or region than the women I had met before, who were graduate students at the University of Houston.

Anyway I posted a story about this on the email list for writing tutors at HCC, asking people what they do when a student writes something that is "politically incorrect" or possibly offensive to most Americans, especially when they don't seem to realize this is the case.  Almost always these un-PC statements are about the inferiority of women, or their proper place in society being firmly under the thumb of men.  Muslim and Hispanic male students, and some Asian men, are the usual offenders, but occasionally recent immigrants who are women express these un-feminist points of view, without defending them much, as if they are obviously true.

I was surprised that another tutor thought that it was inappropriate to some degree for me to argue with the Chinese student about her point of view. She said that some people think it is an honor to be pregnant, and that I was privileging the intellect over the body.  I wrote back that I thought being pregnant and giving birth were indeed very empowering, but that the body is not necessarily "honored" by pregnancy:  that in fact pregnancy changes the body in sometimes negative ways that can last the rest of a woman's life. (That's something that they don't tell young women.)  I also reiterated the familiar feminist point that honoring the body means giving its owner control over it, rather than assuming that its reproductive ability belongs to a husband, or a collective.  Women are not just baby-making machines, yo. 

I also said that when one becomes a mother, one is by no means giving up on the intellect:  being a good mother takes a lot of thought.

But there's another issue here: what are we to do with all these people moving to  our shores who bring with them pre-Enlightenment--ie medieval--ways of thinking?  Some European countries have had the policy of absolute tolerance of, say, Islamic fundamentalism, and the result is incidents like the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh.  Other countries like France have tried to assimilate Muslims by forbidding Muslim girls from wearing head scarves at school.  In the US, we haven't really decided what our policy is. Muslim girls can wear head scarves or even full body coverings to school (I've seen women on the Rice campus who are covered head to toe in black, to the point that you can't even see their eyes), and in most universities and colleges, faculty bend over backward to accommodate "multicultural" points of view, in order to be "post-colonial."   At the same time most academics would probably describe themselves as feminists, even while they argue that it's parochial for Westerners to tout Enlightenment values like freedom of thought and individualism! 

I just can't go there.  I am unashamed about valuing freedom of thought and individualism.  And I don't think that those values are at war with community well-being.  We don't have to choose between the individual and the community, especially when it comes to women's individualism:  development policy makers in the Third World know now that educating and empowering women is the single most important thing that an NGO can work on, to improve the overall well-being of a whole community.  (See Nicholas Kristof  and Sheryl WuDunn's new book Half the Sky.)

Also, if the Chinese people are so averse to individualism, why do they want to get rid of the firewall that their government has erected around their internet access?  How could Tiananmen Square have happened?  Some Western intellectuals seem to think that all political attitudes are created by one's society, and that they are all equally valid; but if that's the case, how does change ever happen?  How do people come to question what they've been taught?  I think that people know when things aren't right, and that individual thinking exposes oppression.  The freedom to talk about one's insights into oppression helps other individuals think more clearly about their situation, and that's how political change in the right direction of more freedom and equality happens.

So I will continue to encourage thinking and questioning of received opinion in the writing center.  I don't care if I'm not post-colonial enough.  I like the Enlightenment.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Why Not Play it Cool?

Here's a poem by Wendell Berry that recently appeared in The New Yorker.  It's written in couplets of iambic pentameter, and it's about global warming, I think.  

Can you write a good poem about global warming?  This poem doesn't shy away from being didactic. In fact, you could call it preachy. Usually that makes for a bad poem.  And I am having a hard time saying that this is a good poem, even though I agree with all its sentiments.  A couple of lines in it stick in my craw, for example:

 "Burning the world to live in it is wrong." 

 Why is this bad?  Well, any more, poems don't generally lecture to you and tell you what's wrong.  I guess they used to, though, but that ended sometime in the early twentieth century.

 So let's say this poem is a throw-back to ...Victorian poetry.  Is it good Victorian poetry?  I would say:  pretty good.  If we look at the line above again, there's more to it than first appears:  the image is of burning  a world in order to live in it.   How can you burn something and live in it at the same time.  You can't.  You could burn some of it to live in the rest of it, but that's not what it says:  it says we are burning the whole world in order to live in it.  Our house is burning down around us.  Point taken.

Some of the images  are really good:  "an antique dark-held luster."  That's oil and coal  presumably.  It's old--"antique," implying old-fashioned, even out-moded, but valuable--and it's "dark-held," in some fastnesses deep in the earth.  Maybe the earth tries to hold onto it, but we wrest it away from her.  And it has luster; it shines like gold, like money, which it can be exchanged for a lot of.

But the question remains:  is it ok to write a didactic poem?  In the sixties there were a lot of poem-like songs that were sort of didactic.  We called them "protest songs."  Is this a protest poem? 

A Speech to the Garden Club of America

(With thanks to Wes Jackson and in memory of Sir Albert Howard and Stan Rowe)

by Wendell Berry

Thank you. I’m glad to know we’re friends, of course;
There are so many outcomes that are worse.
But I must add I’m sorry for getting here
By a sustained explosion through the air,
Burning the world in fact to rise much higher
Than we should go. The world may end in fire
As prophesied—our world! We speak of it
As “fuel” while we burn it in our fit
Of temporary progress, digging up
An antique dark-held luster to corrupt
The present light with smokes and smudges, poison
To outlast time and shatter comprehension.
Burning the world to live in it is wrong,
As wrong as to make war to get along
And be at peace, to falsify the land
By sciences of greed, or by demand
For food that’s fast or cheap to falsify
The body’s health and pleasure—don’t ask why.
But why not play it cool? Why not survive
By Nature’s laws that still keep us alive?
Let us enlighten, then, our earthly burdens
By going back to school, this time in gardens
That burn no hotter than the summer day.
By birth and growth, ripeness, death and decay,
By goods that bind us to all living things,
Life of our life, the garden lives and sings.
The Wheel of Life, delight, the fact of wonder,
Contemporary light, work, sweat, and hunger
Bring food to table, food to cellar shelves.
A creature of the surface, like ourselves,
The garden lives by the immortal Wheel
That turns in place, year after year, to heal
It whole. Unlike our economic pyre
That draws from ancient rock a fossil fire,
An anti-life of radiance and fume
That burns as power and remains as doom,
The garden delves no deeper than its roots
And lifts no higher than its leaves and fruits.

Another mule and wagon on the Dixie Limited's track

Probably by now you've heard of Kathryn Stockett's widely acclaimed first novel, The Help.  A friend loaned it to me, and I started reading it somewhat skeptically, as I usually don't like "best-seller" chick lit.  But this book surprised me:  it was well-written and thoughtful, and it has a riveting plot that keeps the reader reading deep into the night.

There are already over a thousand reviews of this book on Amazon, and I haven't read very many of them, so I may be repeating what other people have said, but here goes.  The story is told in the first person voices of three characters:  Skeeter, the young white woman who co-writes a book about the lives of black maids in Jackson, MS, in the mid-1960s; Aibileen, a maid in Jackson who writes several of the most important chapters in the book; and Minny, another maid whose explosive narrative of her own experiences being a maid drives the plot of the book.  In the background are the terrible events of the early years of the Civil Rights movement:  bombings, shootings, assassination, and general terror, mixed with wild hope.

I was raised in the South, and my mother had a maid.  She was a constant quiet presence in my life from the time I was four, until I left for college.  She left after my sister graduated from college and got married, so that means she worked for my family from about 1959 to 1999, about forty years.  She was a very young woman, around eighteen years of age, when she first started coming a few days a week to our apartment at the VA hospital, and she was a little older than I am now when she finally left.

I remember wondering a lot what her life was like when she wasn't at our house.  I  never saw her house, or met anybody in her family. Sometimes I heard her husband's voice on the phone.  During the 1960s, I remember knowing on some level that there was a lot of tension between black and white people (I was 14 in 1968), and I wished I could know what she thought, but as Kathryn Stockett says in the epilogue to her book, it just didn't seem possible to ask.  Ms. Stockett wrote her book after spending years imagining how her beloved Demetrie would have answered that question.

This book may be as good an answer as white women ever get to the question:  what do the black women that work for our families think about us?  What are their lives like when they're not with us?  Some of the answer, of course, is not flattering to white folks and is uncomfortable to read about.  But Stockett also recognizes the closeness that sometimes develops between black and white women who spend hours together, looking after children together, and sharing the ups and downs of life over many decades; some of these relationships do last for forty years or more.  The closeness and affection and genuine caring are there, but the characters in the novel talk about the "line" that can't be crossed, and how frustrating that line is.

I have to say that despite all the changes of the last forty years, that line has not gone away. I feel it when I am with the caregivers that take care of my parents so devotedly, twenty-four hours a day.  I like to think that we are friends, and that there is genuine respect both ways.  But my life has been privileged in ways that they can scarcely even imagine.  Perhaps the greatest privilege was the opportunity to stay home with my own child, instead of having to leave him to care for other people's children.

The most heart-rending story in the book focuses on this very issue:  the separation of a black mother and daughter, when the mother can't possibly care for her daughter and decides to put her in an orphanage.  The main white character, Skeeter, only hears of her mother's maid's heartbreak at losing her daughter after Constantine, the maid, has died.  But the other maids tell Skeeter that one of the hardest aspects of their lives is having to leave their own children to make a living caring for the children of (mostly idle) white women.

The picture of small-town middle-class Southern white women's lives is dead-on. I was a child in the 1960s, but even then I could see the deadening boredom yet privilege of the endless rounds of bridge, country club lunches, and Junior League meetings.  Luckily, I escaped that, partly just by being born late enough that that life was no longer mandatory for middle-class white women by the time I grew up.  But I enjoyed the skewering that Stockett delivers to the complacent grande dames of the country clubs.

One amazing thing is the way in which Stockett manages to make something new grow out of the well-plowed ground of race relations in the South.  Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O'Connor are all hard acts to follow.  But the stories of Faulkner's families, black and white, inter-related by blood and history, start before the Civil War and end around the 1940s.  Faulkner didn't write about the 1960s.  Welty and O'Connor touched on the intimacy and distance of these black and white cousins trenchantly in the 1960s, but it was not the centerpiece of their oevres, as it was with Faulkner.  Since the 1950s and 1960s, many black writers have illuminated the lives of black people in slavery and afterwards, writers like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.  Recently, in the last forty years or so, it seems that it's been rare for a  writer entered into the imaginative and emotional life of both white and black people as thoroughly as Faulkner did, with an understanding that doesn't oversimplify the complexity of either race's experience.  Stockett has come close to Faulkner's high standard in that department.  It's a brave attempt. As Flannery O'Connor wrote, "The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do.  Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down."

She can't match his style, obviously, and there are no modernist breakthroughs here as there were in The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying.  Stockett benefits from her reading of Faulkner:  she lets the characters speak for themselves, as Faulkner did in those two books.  It's not exactly stream-of-consciousness, and that's a good thing:  The Help is a much more accessible book than The Sound and the Fury, if a less rich one textually.  It's not the kind of book that scholars will be poring over for decades to come, but it's a damn good read.  Whereas many if not most readers are put off by the difficulty of Faulkner's voices, with their highly cryptic allusiveness to dreams and other voices--the "tale told by an idiot" in particular--readers are quickly drawn in by the warm and very real voices of Stockett's likeable characters.  Nobody likes Jason Compson.

At first Stockett's impersonation of the way black women talk sort of irritated me:  it seemed a bit fake and annoying.  But eventually the authenticity of the voices won me over. Some people really did talk like that; some still do.  Skeeter's voice is also believable, quirky, and funny.  Getting a character's voice right-- her  speech patterns and accent--without "dumbing down" her voice is tricky, and Stockett nails it.  She has obviously read her Huckleberry Finn, and her Alice Walker.  It's hard to get these characters' voices out of your head when you put the book down, and that's a good test of a voice's authenticity.

In the epilogue, Stockett goes into memoir mode and tells why she wrote the book:  in part it was in tribute to the black woman who raised her.  I kind of wondered why she didn't just write a memoir; why did she feel as if she needed to write a novel, when her own story and Demetrie's story was so compelling?  I think it might be because she wanted it to be about more than just herself and Demetrie.  She was able to populate her book with not just middle-class white women, but a memorable "white trash" woman too; not just with saintly black women but with at least one mean and bitter one.  This terrain of black and white women was treacherous:  she could have lapsed into caricature and stereotype and sentimentality, and at times she comes pretty close.  But in the end, the black women are not all saints and the white women are not all snotty, frigid, and lazy.

She says there is one line in The Help that sums up the meaning of the book:

"Wasn't that the point of the book?  For women to realize, We are just two people.  Not that much separates us.  Not nearly as much as I thought."