Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Black Boys and Gorillas: The Cincinnati Zoo Incident and Alice Walker’s “Entertaining God”

Earlier this summer, a three-year-old boy entered a gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo and was violently and repeatedly dragged through a moat by a 450-pound gorilla before zoo officials killed the gorilla and rescued the boy, who sustained no serious injuries. News of the encounter between boy and gorilla, only ten minutes in total, and the subsequent killing of a western lowland silverback gorilla, one of a critically endangered species, spurred a lot of response on the web. Outraged by the gorilla’s death, news stories and independent commenters questioned the zoo officials’ haste in killing the gorilla without trying other methods of rescuing the boy first, the boy’s mother’s childrearing abilities, and even the jail record of the boy’s father (not present at the time of the incident). These kinds of responses might seem ridiculous at first glance. Yes, it is tragic that a gorilla was killed, but the incident is not incomprehensible. Haven’t most of us momentarily looked away from a child under our care only to turn back and find him or her doing something dangerous? And, in any case when a child is the grasp of a wild animal, wouldn’t most of us agree that he or she should be saved in the timeliest way possible? As others have since pointed out, race is the underlying issue in many of the comments that people have made regarding this little boy and his parents, all of whom are black. The disparaging—and cruel—remarks that people have made regarding these three are ultimately unsurprising, given the predominant understanding in the US of black fathers as absent, black mothers as negligent, and black boys as delinquent.

In interesting ways, the Cincinnati Zoo incident echoes the plot of Alice Walker’s short story “Entertaining God” (1973). “Entertaining God” contains three sections that seem to connect only loosely. In the first section, a black teenager, named John, leads a gorilla away from the Bronx Zoo, performs ritual sacrifice to the gorilla, and is killed by the animal; in the second one, John’s father dies in a tornado; and, in the third, John’s mother attempts, only somewhat successfully, to connect to her dead son by performing poetry readings for college students. Stereotypes of black men, women, and boys are in play in this story as well, as John’s father has left his son to pursue a relationship with another woman, John’s mother is distant and clearly unaware of her son’s plans for the gorilla, and John himself succeeds in stealing an animal from the zoo.

In preparation for teaching “Entertaining God” next semester, I poked around in the MLA Bibliography database to get a sense of the critical conversation surrounding Walker’s work. It turns out that there isn’t much written about her short stories at all, and some of what I found isn’t flattering. In “Alice Walker: The Achievement of the Short Fiction,” for instance, Alice Hall Petry discusses Walker’s “capacity to produce stories that are sometimes extraordinarily good, sometimes startlingly weak” (12). Petry seems to place “Entertaining God,” included in Walker’s first collection, In Love & Trouble, in the second category, claiming that “the story comes across as a disjointed, fragmentary, aborted novella” (21). According to Petry, the story “would make no sense to a reader unfamiliar with Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood” (21), a novel that also includes a series of episodes with a teenaged boy—in this case white—and a gorilla. Although I agree with Petry that Walker’s stories are hit or miss, I see “Entertaining God” as a better one. I think that the story coheres thematically, despite the fact that each section takes on a new main character and setting, and that it provides the details needed to comprehend its meaning. And, although familiarity with Wise Blood might enhance a reader’s appreciation for the inclusion of a gorilla, the Cincinnati Zoo incident provides a new context for the story, placing it in conversation with those who have questioned the parenting abilities of the mother and father in Cincinnati and the value of their son’s life in comparison to that of a zoo animal as well as in historical relationship to the shooting of a gorilla to save a black boy’s life. I would argue that the three vignettes presented in the story portray the struggle for and difficulty (impossibility?) of survival for black men, women, and children in a white supremacist culture, both of which are still at issue in the rhetoric surrounding the recent Cincinnati Zoo incident.

As the title indicates, “Entertaining God” is particularly interested in religion in a way that the commenters on the Cincinnati Zoo shooting have not been. The subheading for the first part of the story, “John, the son. Loving the God given him” (99), suggests that what follows will depict an act of worship. And, indeed, John’s two days with the gorilla, at first “drowsy from the medicine the zoo keepers had given him” (99) and later “powerful and large and twitching with impatience” (105), are depicted as a journey toward the spiritual ecstasy that inhabits John’s final act of sacrifice to the idolized gorilla. To begin, John and the gorilla hike to the top of a hill near the zoo, a vantage point from which John is able to observe the activities of everyday human life below, perceiving the “cars whiz[ing] to and fro” as insect-like nuisances, “wasps or big flies,” to be “swatted” away in order to focus on his higher purpose with the gorilla (100). When the gorilla passes out as an effect of the drugs he received before John led him away from the zoo, John prepares a loaf of bread and bottle of red wine, traditionally used to symbolize the sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood in the Christian sacrament of communion, for giving the gorilla “the homage he deserved from him” the next day (101). When he wakes up the next morning, John is “exhilarated” (102) and begins to build a fire “with slow ritualistic movements” (103). He positions the still-groggy gorilla above him, on “a shallow rise overlooking the fire,” and proceeds to burn several pieces of bread and repeatedly “[bow] all the way down to the ground in front of the gorilla” (104). Finally, John pours the contents of the wine bottle into the fire and lays “the burnt offering at the feet of his savage idol” (105). By this time, the gorilla has reclaimed full consciousness and is frustrated by John’s destruction of each item of food before him. Predictably, even to John, who anticipates with some relish that, after the ritual, “everything [will] be over” (101), the gorilla quickly dispatches with the boy and eats the burnt bread.

In its depiction of John’s experiences with the gorilla, the story reveals that the boy is simply “embrac[ing] the God that others—his mother—had chosen for him” (100). Here, John’s mother is singled out as having significantly contributed to the designation of the gorilla as John’s God. After learning more about the mother’s character in the course of the story, however, it becomes clear that she would never literally encourage the worship of a gorilla. She is, however, at least before John’s death, fervently devoted to assimilation to the dominant white culture, taking great pains to approximate whiteness in both her appearance and behavior. In the last minutes of his life, John’s father reflects on the changes that she underwent in the first years of their relationship. He was initially attracted to her because she was “loose and fun and because she had long red hair” (106). After they were married, though, she stopped dying her hair and started wearing gray suits. Because he was a hairdresser, she had him “conquer the kinks” to create an “unimaginative” hairstyle, and he found that “the duller he could make [her] look the more respectable [she] felt” (106-107). She acted as if she would have liked to change her husband’s appearance as well, having their wedding pictures “touched up so that he did not resemble himself,” replacing his “black and stubbly and rough” skin in the photographs with “olive brown and smooth” skin (106). When John was born, his parents discovered that the child possessed “all of the physical characteristics that in the Western world are scorned,” that “[h]is nose was flat, his mouth too wide” (108). John’s father recalls that “John’s mother was always fussing over John but hated him because he looked like his father instead of her. She blamed her husband for what he had ‘done to’ John” (108). In this passage, it is unclear whether John’s mother “hated” her husband or her son because of either of their characteristically African American features, but, either way, her son ultimately internalizes her antipathy toward blackness, learning to view his father “with an expression faintly contemptuous” (108) and destroying his own black person through self-sacrifice to the gorilla. Fittingly, as she is the one who chose John’s God, “[o]nly his mother had been able to piece together the details of his death” (110). In response to her son’s death, John’s mother seeks to “vindicate herself from former ways of error” (109) and, thus, begins writing poetry lamenting her previous attempts at “incipient whiteness” (110). Although John’s mother didn’t tell her son to worship the gorilla that he takes from the zoo, she clearly feels responsible for his misguided act of self-sacrifice and atones for her mistakes by reversing her position on assimilation. Through John’s mother’s attitudes toward race before her son’s death and her drastic reversal of these attitudes after his death, the story makes the symbology of the gorilla very clear. It represents that which is most predominantly worshipped in the story’s setting of the US in the 1960s and 70s—whiteness.

John’s father had rejected this worship of whiteness after he left John and his mother, marrying “a sister in the Nation” and then endeavoring with her “to preach the Word to those of their people who had formerly floundered without it” (107). Instead of assimilating, as John’s mother did, John’s father had followed the custom of many in the Nation of Islam of taking the last name of X (107), a practice intended as a reminder that the ancestors of many black individuals in the US were stripped of their surnames and renamed by slaveholders. Unlike John’s mother, John’s father’s new wife “wore his color and the construction of his features like a badge” (108). Still, in the moments before his death, John’s father recalls that he had chosen “a new religion more dangerous than the old” (108). The danger of his new beliefs is perhaps most fully manifested in the tornado that takes his life. In the world of this story, it seems that neither acceptance nor rejection of white supremacy can ensure a black person’s survival.

Besides John’s mother, there are two others who do likely survive in “Entertaining God,” however. When they realize that they are destined for the belly of a tornado, John’s father and “the plain black girl who was his second wife . . . . r[u]n toward the refrigerator, frantically pulling out the meager dishes of food, flinging a half-empty carton of milk across the room, and making a place where the vegetables and fruits should have been for the[ir] two children to crouch” (105). John’s father imagines that the children will be rescued after the storm and will mostly forget “in twenty years the plain black girl and the man who was their father” (106). The implication is that the children will live—knowing nothing of the gorilla that killed their brother and remembering little of the tornado that took their parents. At the end of the action relayed by the story, readers are then left with three characters: a “black radical [poet]” (109) who inspires “new proud blackness and identification with their beauty” among the students—about the same age as her son would have been had he lived—who attend her readings (111) and two children who will grow to adulthood among the rhetoric of “the Black revolution” (109) espoused by the activists and poets of John’s mother’s elk. Instead of fulfilling the stereotypes of black men and women that they seem to fit upon first glance, the three adults in “Entertaining God” actively work to protect their children and to create a changed world for future generations. The story leaves open the possibility that the students who John’s mother inspires with her poetry and the two children who John’s father and stepmother shelter from the tornado will live fulfilling lives in a world changed by the difficult social projects undertaken by those of the older generation introduced in the story.

This hope for the future, which is partially concealed within the sad story of John’s death at the hand of a gorilla, is perhaps realized in its contemporary corollary, the incident at the Cincinnati Zoo. Like “Entertaining God,” the incident in Cincinnati began with a black boy’s violent encounter with a gorilla. Unlike in the story, though, the Cincinnati Zoo incident ended with the rescue of the boy. That the boy’s rescue has been challenged and his mother and father’s willingness and ability to parent questioned does not change the fact that the zoo officials very quickly chose the survival of a black boy over the life of a gorilla. Read in tandem with “Entertaining God,” the Cincinnati Zoo incident perhaps indicates some amount of social progress. In the case of the Cincinnati Zoo, black life was protected, at least initially. It did not succumb to the white supremacy that destroys it in Walker’s story. The public backlash against the boy in Cincinnati and his parents are of a piece with other movements in the contemporary US through which radical social conservatives are voicing their desperation in opposing the unstoppable train of social progress that has transported us from the revolutionary poetry and Black Nationalists of the 1960s and 70s to the Black Lives Matter movement in the present and that must—and will—continue to move us, despite the protests of white supremacists, toward a future of racial equality.

Works Cited

Petry, Alice Hall. “Alice Walker: The Achievement of the Short Fiction.” Modern Language Studies 19.1 (1989): 12-27.


Walker, Alice. “Entertaining God.” In Love & Trouble: Stories of Black Women. Orlando: Harcourt, 1995. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Christianity as Progress in Season 3 of Vikings?

Big fans of television series available for binge-watching after the kids go to sleep, my husband and I recently worked through the first three seasons of the History Channel’s hit Vikings. So far, the series has followed the rise of Scandinavian Ragnar Lothbrok from farmer to earl to king and his growing interest in Western Europe and mostly successful exploits in England and France. Although roundly criticized for its historical inaccuracies, Vikings is loosely based on Scandinavian figures and events passed down through the oral tradition to writers who finally recorded them during the late Middle Ages. It includes the infamous Viking raid of the monastery at Lindisfarne, for instance, as well as the figure of Rollo, known in history as having founded the Scandinavian settlement of Normandy and as the great-great-great grandfather of William the Conqueror. The character of Ragnar himself is based on a legendary king and hero, said to have battled Charlemagne and borne important warrior sons (the same sons whom he is shown to have fathered in the show as well). The accuracy of the legends of Ragnar are debated by historians, some saying that they are based in truth and others perceiving them as mostly fictional. Vikings admittedly plays fast and loose with history, combining legends from diverse regions of Scandinavia (by, for instance, depicting Rollo as Ragnar’s brother) and often flouting the chronology of historical occurrences (by placing Ragnar in the time of Charles II’s rule instead of Charlemagne’s, to name one example). Moreover, while many of the events depicted in the show might plausibly have happened within the Scandinavian cultures of the early Middle Ages, others seem unlikely. The intense (and often homoerotic) friendship that develops between Ragnar and Athelstan, a monk who Ragnar captures in the Lindisfarne raid, is one such fabrication, perhaps unrealistic but effectively used in the show to heighten one of the central tensions of the series—between the paganism of the Scandinavians and the Christianity of the Western Europeans.

Athelstan originally perceives the Vikings as heralds of Satan, sent from God as punishment for the sins of man, but he comes to respect and love Ragnar, teaching him the language of the English and sharing information about the cities and cultures of Western Europe. When he is first taken captive, Athelstan brings a religious text with him to Scandinavia, and he is shown as reading it faithfully during his first few months as a slave to Ragnar and his family. He also maintains his practice of tonsure, very painfully and bloodily using a dull blade to shave the top of his head. But, as he becomes more and more integrated into Ragnar’s family and community, Athelstan begins to doubt the existence and power of Christ. He calls out to God, saying that, for the first time in his life, he cannot feel His presence. Eventually, Athelstan’s holy book disintegrates, and he begins wearing his hair in the style of the Scandinavians. He accepts an arm ring from Ragnar when the latter becomes earl, thus pledging his allegiance to Ragnar and the ways of the Scandinavians. In Season 2, Athelstan returns to England to raid with Ragnar and, through a series of extraordinary events, becomes the prisoner—and confidant—of the intelligent but morally dubious King Ecbert of Wessex. At this point, Athelstan eagerly returns to the kind of writing that he once did at the monastery, this time transcribing Ecbert’s secret Roman scrolls. He is unable to resume priesthood, however, professing that he has strayed too far from his Christian beliefs. A dark beast—symbolic perhaps of his sin against God or maybe of the duty that he now owes to Odin—haunts him in waking dreams, and he seems to feel, at once, disloyal to Christ and to the belief system of the Scandinavians. Athelstan even admits to Ecbert that Scandinavian customs are, in some ways, superior to English customs. When given the opportunity, Athelstan leaves England, to reside again in Scandinavia with Ragnar, who offers him affection and protection—as well as a somewhat more consistent moral code than Ecbert’s.

In his interactions with both Ragnar and Ecbert, Athelstan acts—sometimes unwittingly—as an agent of what either king, and certainly the show’s viewers, might perceive as “progress.” As a former monk, he is a learned man, and he affirms Ecbert’s appreciation for Roman architecture, art, and literature. He agrees with Ecbert that the Christians have much to learn from pagans—presumably both Roman and Scandinavian—and encourages Ecbert’s curiosity in Scandinavian customs and his decision to allow the Scandinavians to settle in Wessex. Athelstan shares information with Ragnar about England and France that ultimately facilitates profitable Scandinavian raids, settlement in the fertile regions of Western Europe, and adoption of important technological advances in farming equipment (a plough in Season 2) and weaponry (a cross-bow in Season 3). On many occasions, Athelstan acts as translator between the Scandinavians and the Western Europeans, enabling that which we know to be the massive changes in the cultures and languages of Western Europe that the Viking settlements ultimately produced. Perhaps most importantly, Athelstan promotes the blending of traditions, teaching Ragnar to recite the Lord’s Prayer, for example, before taking up arms himself to fight in his now beloved friend’s battle for the kingship of Scandinavia. Indeed, Athelstan seems to embody cultural exchange, which both Ragnar and Ecbert value, at least in part, and certainly that many 21st-century viewers imagine as progressive in our age of globalization.

(As another example of how Vikings plays with history, we might note that Ecbert, Athelstan, and Athelstan’s son Alfred, borne of Athelstan’s affair with Ecbert’s daughter-in-law and so far fiercely protected by Ecbert despite the infant’s well-known status as a bastard, are all also based on historical figures. The historical Ecbert was a Christian king of Wessex who battled regularly with the pagan Vikings. Alfred the Great was Ecbert’s grandson, and he made peace with the Scandinavians after their king Gunthrum was baptized. Finally, the historical Athelstan was the grandson of Alfred, and he ousted the sitting Scandinavian ruler from the Viking settlement of York. As with their counterparts in the show, the lives and times of these three figures were very much influenced by the conflicts—and blending—of English culture and Viking culture as well as Christianity and paganism.)

Late in Season 3, however, Athelstan’s symbology in the show shifts. No longer does he seem to promote the blending of traditions but, instead, advocates for a return to seeing Christianity as distinct from—and superior to—paganism. He experiences a sign from God and returns with fervor to his Christian faith. After a scene in which he seems to re-baptize himself in the waters off the coast of Scandinavia, he tosses his arm ring out to sea. Athelstan then announces to Ragnar that he has been born again and that he can no longer stay in Ragnar’s kingdom. Ragnar refuses to allow him to go, saying that Athelstan is the only person who he can truly trust, and the scene ends with Athelstan reaffirming his dedication to Ragnar’s planned attack on Paris. In some ways, this seems another example of Athelstan’s ability to blend belief systems: he is renewed in his Christianity but willing to facilitate a Viking raid of an important Christian city, indeed, the center of Western Christendom during much of the Middle Ages. But, when Athelstan is killed by a member of Ragnar’s inner circle who fears Athelstan’s growing Christian influence over the king, Ragnar remembers him as a Christian, first and foremost. Ragnar carries Athelstan’s dead body to the top of a tall hill and buries him there, intending to lay him to rest as close to Athelstan’s god as he can get him. He then places Athelstan’s cross necklace around his own neck and shaves his head in a bloody scene reminiscent of Athelstan’s shaving episode at the beginning of the series. As Vikings creator Michael Hirst has pointed out in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, here, Ragnar adopts a version of the Christian practice of tonsure to signal the significant change that he has experienced as a result of his friend’s death.

Like Athelstan during his time in Wessex, Ragnar seems caught between Christianity and paganism at this point in the show. When he is injured in the raid on Paris and fears that he is dying, he imagines two competing visions of that which awaits him after death. One of these is the figure of Odin, pictured throughout the series as a black silhouette with a raven on his shoulder; the other is Athelstan, who seems to function, for Ragnar, as a stand-in for the Christian God. Ragnar reaches toward Athelstan, but the latter turns to walk away, and Ragnar is left with Odin. Fearing eternal separation from his friend, Ragnar bargains with the Parisians, agreeing to send his warriors back to Scandinavia in exchange for a large quantity of gold and, more importantly, his own baptism and Christian burial. When he is baptized in front of his shocked and angry kinsmen, Ragnar seems to have finally chosen, like Athelstan, Christianity over paganism. After he is carried inside the Parisian cathedral for his final rites, however, Ragnar jumps up from his casket and brutally slays the Christian priest who had previously expressed revulsion at the prospect of having to baptize him. Ragnar escapes the battle that ensues and, then, in the final scene of the season, is shown aboard a Viking longship bound for home in Scandinavia.

Given Althelstan’s and Ragnar’s conflicted thoughts and contradictory behaviors in Season 3, it is difficult to interpret the show’s message regarding Christian conversion. Throughout Season 1 and Season 2, Athelstan suffers with his conflicting feeling of duty toward Christ and his attraction to the Vikings gods, but he lives with both and seems to work toward an ethic of cultural exchange that perhaps most viewers in the 21st-century can get behind. For his part, Ragnar is presented as a visionary, a leader who imagines a better future for his people through raiding and settlement in Western Europe. His attachment to Athelstan is used to highlight the conflicts between Christianity and paganism in the Viking Age, but viewers are also able to see it as indicative of Ragnar’s willingness to embrace the kind of progress embodied in the priest-turned-Viking-warrior, the progress of economic and financial advancement for the Scandinavians as well as of the cultural blending that occurred between Scandinavians and Western Europeans during this historical period. Given their characterization throughout the series, what are we to make of Athelstan’s and Ragnar’s actions in Season 3? Is Athelstan still representative of progress? Is Ragnar still dedicated to progress? Maybe most importantly, is cultural blending still inherent to progress?

Since Athelstan is gone from the show by the end of the season, we are left to reckon most violently with Ragnar’s lingering dedication to his dead friend and his resulting baptism, as well as his decision in the last episode to kill the Christian priest and return to Scandinavia with his people. I would argue that there are ways to read Ragnar’s actions in the last few episodes as in keeping with his role as visionary. It is plausible, for example, that Ragnar is baptized only to ensure that he rejoin Athelstan in the afterlife but that he intends to remain loyal to Scandinavian traditions during his remaining time on Earth and, thus, that the baptism signals only the further blending of cultural systems that we have witnessed heretofore through Athelstan. Ragnar’s baptism might also serve as simply one more move toward the progress that he sees as essential for his people. Historically, of course, the adoption—or partial, or even feigned, adoption—of Christianity eased the way for Scandinavian groups’ acceptance in Western European trading and settlement. Renowned Viking historian Anders Winroth offers further clarification of the reasons for conversion, stating that the Scandinavians came to perceive Christianity as prestigious by associating it with the material wealth that they found in raiding monasteries and, ironically, that Scandinavian leaders sometimes used the practice of converting potential followers to Christianity as a way of convincing them to dedicate themselves to these leaders’ future raids in Western Europe. Whether to align their beliefs with those of new friends, to appease the Christian rulers of Western Europe, or to gain Scandinavian followers, masses of Scandinavians did eventually convert to Christianity throughout the Middle Ages. Ragnar’s baptism, therefore, seems at least somewhat historically plausible and, in that it foreshadows the future of conversion in store for his people, in keeping with his characterization as adept at navigating the tides of change in order advance the interests of his kinsmen.

Nonetheless, it is difficult (and disappointing) to imagine this show as depicting progress as simply a matter of conversion to Christianity instead of a process of cultural blending. My hope is that Ragnar and Ecbert, as well as other important figures in the show, will continue to contend, in complex and convincing ways, with the clashes between their two cultures and belief systems in Season 4, scheduled for release in early 2016—despite the show’s loss of Athelstan as a figurehead of cultural exchange.

Ready for a new show . . .
Until then, my husband I will have to find a new series. Any suggestions?



Friday, May 23, 2014

Hope in Danticat's Claire of the Sea Light

Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light (2013) is a collection of interconnected narratives set in the fictional Ville Rose, an impoverished seaside village in Haiti.  The title character’s story—conveyed most directly in the first and last chapter of the text—frames and connects the other narratives included in the volume.  We meet Limyé Lanmé Faustin, translated to Claire of the Sea Light, on her seventh birthday, a day that is both celebratory and sorrowful for Claire and her father, Nozias, as it marks the seventh anniversary of both Claire’s birth and her mother’s death.  In the evening, Claire’s father, a fisherman, arranges to give his beloved daughter to Gaëlle Cadet Lavaud, a middle-class widow who lost her own young daughter in an automobile accident exactly three years ago, on Claire’s fourth birthday.  Guilt-stricken from arranging for the murder of her husband’s supposed killers and in mourning for her daughter, Gaëlle has long resisted Nozias’s proposal that she take the girl and provide her with a better life than he can, but, tonight, she has finally decided that she wants to care for Claire.  When Claire hears that Nozias and Gaëlle have officially agreed that she will leave the seaside shack where she and her father now reside, she runs away toward Món Initil, where the villagers believe that the ghosts of their slave ancestors reside.  Later, from her position on a hill above the town, she sees Nozias and Gaëlle performing basic life support on a nearly drowned man on the beach.  After she notices that Nozias is calling for more light, Claire rushes back to the seaside. At the end of the book, we can assume that Claire will act as a “sea light,” or lighthouse, aiding Nozias, Gaëlle, and other community members in their rescue efforts.  Indeed, in this scene, and throughout the text, Claire represents a beacon of light in the darkness of postcolonial Haiti: the possibility of perseverance in the face of oppression and grief, the necessity of healing after trauma, the emergence of new life from death.

Significantly, Claire is a “revenan, a child who had entered the world just as her mother was leaving it” (16).  According to Ville Rose folklore, revenans are inclined to “follow their mothers into the other world,” to “[chase] a shadow they can never reach” (16).  In some ways, Claire does experience her dead mother as a shadow, sometimes feeling “another presence around her” (235-36).  Claire also seems to be drawn to death.  She “wonders what people would have said if she and her mother had died on the same day” (215).  Claire’s favorite song for the wonn, or the circle game that she plays with the other little girls in Ville Rose, is the Lasirén song, including the lyrics, “Lasirén, The Whale / My hat fell into the sea” (219).  Reflecting on this song, Claire notes its relevancy to the lives of Ville Rose citizens: “She was surprised that the granmoun, the adults, were not singing this song all day long.  So much had fallen into the sea.  Hats fell into the sea.  Hearts fell into the sea.  So much had fallen into the sea” (220).  Here, Claire alludes not only to her own loss of her mother, whom she associates with the sea in other passages, but also to the despair of an entire community, descended from slaves and now dependent on an unreliable and dangerous fish trade to feed and shelter themselves.  Even as a seven-year-old, Claire is astutely aware of the oppression and grief that the community has undergone.  Fittingly, when Claire runs away from Nozias and Gaëlle, she heads for Món Initil, where, according to legend, masses of fugitive slaves died in pursuit of their freedom.  Just as the townspeople predicted by naming her a revenan at birth, Claire seems to pursue the shadows of her own past as well as a communal past.

Rather than join her mother in death or the ghosts of escaped slaves on Món Initil, however, Claire ultimately returns—running and gleeful—to the land of the living, ready to help the people gathered around the man on the beach and then to “becom[e] Madame Gaëlle’s daughter” (238).  On her way home, she imagines that “this too could make a good song for the wonn”: “She had to go home / To see the man / Who’d crawled half dead / Out of the sea” (238).  In this version of a wonn song, Claire focuses on a man’s triumph over the sea instead of the sea’s power to take and to kill.  For the moment at least, she shifts her attention from death to life and despair to hope.  This shift is reflected in the Nozias and Gaëlle’s efforts to save the man on the beach; despite the fact that their own “sorrows could have nearly drowned them,” the two “take turns breathing into this man, breathing him back to life” (238).  At this moment, they choose to contribute to life instead of wallow in death.

Danticat has been quoted as saying that she structured Claire of the Sea Light after the pattern of movement in a game of wonn:  

Wonn is a children’s game that is a lot like “Ring a Round the Rosie.” Kids, often little girls, get together, hold hands, make a circle, and run clockwise, or counter clockwise while singing. One child is in the middle while the others are singing and they switch places during different moments in the song. This game mirrors the structure of the book in that the book moves back and forth through time and circles back to different characters.  (Dowling)

Just as the stories in the text shift and connect with each other as the participants in a game of wonn, the narrative that the text conveys overall resembles the narrative of a wonn song, relaying the history and spirit of a community through fragmented narrative and stories that repeat, with a difference, details previously conveyed.  Indeed, it is possible to read the text as an expansion of the wonn song that Claire invents as she runs back to her beachside home.

Tellingly, the narrative conveyed in the text contrasts sharply with the stories that Claire recalls being read to her at school: “In Madame Louise’s stories, everything was organized in a certain way; everything was neat.  Things would start out well, but would end up being bad, then would be well again” (214).  Louise George works at a local radio station and volunteers at Claire’s school.  She also suffers from a rare and untreatable condition that causes blood to stream from her mouth when she is menstruating.  Louise structures episodes on her radio program, Di Mwen, translated to Tell Us, much like the stories that she shares with the Claire and her classmates.  On Di Mwen, Louise interviews members of the community who have undergone some kind of hardship or trauma.  Instead of calling for social action to address the oppression in people’s lives, she finds opportunities to lighten the mood with “little remarks in the middle of a painful story” meant to “[make] people in the listening audience laugh” (173-74).  Louise also shapes each episode to produce “the part where the horrible story began to take a positive turn” (178), shaping her guests’ stories into narratives that follow a traditional story arch, to conclude happiness, stasis, justice.  Not surprisingly, “Claire didn’t believe stories like [Madame Louise’s], even when she felt like they were aimed at her, even when they were meant to defend her or teach her a lesson” (214).  In fact, Claire distrusts language in general, saying that she wishes people were like trees because “talking wasn’t everything” (213).  Some narratives are false, damaging, even violent, as symbolized by the blood that flows from Louise’s mouth.  The story that Claire composes in her wonn song—and the narrative of Claire of the Sea Light—defies the traditional story arch structure and, thus, challenges the narrative oppression of stories meant to contain and sanitize the struggles of Haitians. 

In fact, Claire of the Sea Light is more in the vein of the stories that Bernard Dorien wants to air on the radio, where he works with Louise before he is falsely accused of killing Gaëlle’s husband and then murdered by the men that Gaëlle hired to enact justice for her loss.  From Cité Pendue, the part of town where gangs run rampant, “Bernard imagined himself becoming the kind of radio journalist who’d talk about what he preferred to call the ‘geto,’ from the inside” (67).  Specifically, Bernard is interested in the young men of Cité Pendue who participate in gang activity, men the townspeople of Ville Rose call “ghosts” (68).  He believes that “[w]e can’t move forward as a neighborhood, as a town, or as a country . . . unless we know what makes these men cry” (68).  In Claire of the Sea Light, stories of the oppression and despair felt by Ville Rose citizens of all social strata are aired, although not in the way that Bernard might have imagined.  In the end, Claire turns from the ghosts of the past and the present to begin a new life.   Danticat’s wonn song conveys continued struggle, as the characters not only fight to save a man’s life on the beach but also contend with personal trauma and communal oppression.  But the story ends with hope, with Claire of the Sea Light returning to the community to help with the rescue effort.

Works Cited

Danticat, Edwidge.  Claire of the Sea Light.  Knopf Doubleday, 2013.

Dowling, Brendan.  "Maneuvering Myself Around a Scene: A Conversation with Edwidge Danticat." Public Libraries Online.  21 Oct. 2013.  Web.  23 May 2014.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Immersive-Learning Project on Sustainable Agriculture

Below, I describe and reflect upon the recent immersive-learning project that I led.  I wrote this for publication on the English Department Blog.  Enjoy!

In the fall semester of 2013, I led a seminar on sustainable agriculture at the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry (VBC).  The main product to emerge from the class was a 25-minute film entitled Down to Earth: Small Farm Issues in a Big Farm World.  The students in the seminar also developed a website containing recipes for foods that are locally available and more than 60 articles meant to serve as supplementary to the film.  In addition, they built a four-week curriculum on sustainable agriculture and implemented it in an after-school program for elementary students at the Roy C. Buley Center in Muncie.  I see the seminar as a great success!  The students and I were able to develop informed opinions about the future of farming and food production.  The course also allowed us the opportunity to enter into the current social and political movement toward sustainable agriculture by sharing important information about local foods with community members—and the world—through the film, website and educational program. 

Since I hail from the Department of English, many people have asked me about my interest in sustainable agriculture and why I chose this topic for a VBC seminar.  Certainly, I’m not an expert in agriculture or environmentalism.  But I care about finding solutions to the problems in our current food system, in order to build a healthier world population and to mitigate the damage that humans have caused to the Earth over time.  Agriculture has always been a part of my life, as I grew up in rural Indiana surrounded by soybean and corn fields, many of which my family owned and leased to local farmers.  I began to develop a real interest in farming only a few years ago, however, after I changed my eating habits because of health issues.  In the process of researching the impacts of food choices on human health, I also learned about the economic, social and environmental issues that have arisen out of our current methods of agriculture.  I saw the VBC seminar as an opportunity to produce a film that would advocate for responsible production and consumption of food items and, on a personal level, as a chance to learn more about farming, an endeavor that I may someday undertake through ownership of my own family’s farm.

Some of the students in the seminar knew more about farming than I did at the start of the semester.  Those from scientific fields brought valuable background knowledge of agricultural and environmental issues, such as soil science and climate change, to the seminar group.  One student had grown up on a working farm, and another was currently interning at a farm in the local area.  Others in the class were more like me, from disciplines and backgrounds removed from agriculture.  But each of us felt passionately about some aspect of sustainable agriculture or another, and, throughout the semester, we developed shared knowledge of the field.  The students also learned to depend on each other’s individual academic strengths and personal skills to complete the projects of the seminar.  Students from Telecommunications and Journalism contributed particular skill sets that were crucial for the success of the film, for instance, while those who were talented in research and writing focused on producing articles for the website. 

We began the semester with a visit to Becker Farms, where we witnessed the successful use of sustainable methods such as rotational grazing and natural pest control.  In addition to leading a tour of his own farm, Kyle Becker took us to see additional farms—ranging in size from small to very large—that he serves as a large animal veterinarian.  During this time, we also read seminal texts in the area of sustainable agriculture, such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Anna Lappé’s Diet for a Hot Planet, to name a few.  We interviewed regular people about their eating and purchasing habits as well as leaders in the movement for sustainability in farming.  Finally, we visited Washington, DC, to talk with important political figures, such as Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly, and representatives from groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition about food policy.  By the sixth week in the semester, we were overwhelmed by the complexity and depth of the problems in our current food system and wondered how we would ever make a difference in the area of sustainable agriculture through a student film and other related projects. 

After some floundering, the group decided to focus the film on the first farm that we visited together, Becker Farms.  The students believed that they could use Kyle’s story to convince consumers to exercise the considerable power that they possess to drive a national movement for a socially, economically and environmentally sustainable local foods system.  Down to Earth: Small Farm Issues in a Big Farm World follows Kyle through a week of life on the farm, at the farmers market, and on veterinary calls.  At the same time, it presents commentary from leading figures in the local foods movement, such as Joel Salatin and Will Allen, to explore the importance of growing and selling food locally.  The film shows that farming methods like those that Kyle employs are environmentally and socially advantageous, unlike many that are used in conventional agriculture.  Ultimately, Down to Earth asks consumers to buy their food locally in order to advance the movement toward sustainable agriculture.   Besides the importance of its message, the film is worth watching because it is beautiful!  Its cinematography and color are truly stunning.


As is the case for all students who participate in VBC seminars, the students in my class received up to 15 credits in courses that they needed for graduation.  They also gained a deep understanding of many issues related to sustainable agriculture, something that matters to each of us since we all eat and we all live on this planet.  The students were also given the opportunity to develop professional skills, through the completion of project-related tasks suited to their individual career goals.  Finally, all of us learned about teamwork, as we worked together to create a film and related products that far exceed our early expectations for this project.  

Post on Emma Donoghue's Room

Please check out my post on Emma Donoghue's Room over at the Ball State English Department's blog!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

No Divergence from "Mama Bear" Stereotype in Veronica Roth's Divergent

My almost 11-year-old daughter recently received Divergent (2011), by Veronica Roth, as an early Christmas present.  The gift came from a family member who had taught English in a middle school for the past several years, so, thinking that it was already vetted by an expert, I felt pretty safe letting Taegan read the book.  Besides, Taegan reads at at least a 10th-grade level, and she’s been choosing books from the Young Adult section in the library for a few months now.  Granted, I try to assess each YA book for its levels of violence and sexual content before letting her check it out, but, honestly, how much can you tell from a cover?  I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the idea that she will probably, at some point, read content that is somewhat inappropriate for her, but I guess I’d rather her read that than not at all due to boredom with the books that are classified as Juvenile. 

Anyway, I picked up Taegan’s copy of Divergent one day last week, and we ended up reading it together.  The book upheld my expectation of a YA novel in its inclusion of some violence and sexual content.  It was titillating but not explicit; perhaps more importantly, nobody got past first base.  Even so, Taegan said that it contained the most kissing that she has ever encountered in a book.  J  Going through it with Taegan actually gave me the opportunity to talk to her a little bit about what she was reading, though, which ended up being a good thing, I think. 

Divergent is frequently compared to The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner, due to its similar themes and target audience.  It is a bestseller, and Lionsgate Entertainment is currently producing a film version of the story.  The novel is the first in a trilogy about a dystopian world where people are strictly organized, according to their dominant personality traits, into five factions: Abnegation, Dauntless, Erudite, Candor, and Amity.  It is also a coming-of-age story, portraying Beatrice—or Tris—Prior’s discovery that she is Divergent, which means that she doesn’t fit neatly into one faction; her subsequent choice to leave her home faction of Abnegation, because she is unwilling to live an entire life in a state of self-denial; and her successful initiation into Dauntless, where she struggles to hide her differences from the other initiates.  In the ending chapters, the novel depicts the beginnings of a war between Erudite and Abnegation.  Erudite’s attack is fueled by the insertion of computer chips into members of Dauntless and their use Tris’s Dauntless peers as combatants.  By the end of the novel, Tris is uniquely positioned—because she is Divergent—to quell the violence of the war and change the structure of her society for the better. 

Divergent is interesting in several ways, but I am most intrigued by its portrayal of Tris’s mother, Natalie Prior.  Although the critics have said very little about her, Natalie plays a crucial role in the development of the story’s narrative arc, as she ends up teaching Tris that which I would argue is the primary lesson of the novel.  In the heat of battle, Natalie courageously sacrifices her life for her daughter, an act that proves that self-denial and bravery are sometimes one and the same—not opposite from each other, as the division between Dauntless and Abnegation seems to suggest.  By extension, Tris begins to realize that no one is merely one thing or another, that every personality combines elements of selflessness, courage, knowledge, honesty, and kindness.

Natalie is portrayed as foundational to Tris’s journey of self-discovery and cultural awareness, even from the opening pages of the novel.  The story begins with Natalie and Tris locking gazes in a mirror, a moment that might suggest, of course, that the two see each other in their own reflections.  According to Abnegation rules, members of the faction may utilize mirrors only on the second day of every third month, and, this time, Natalie is taking advantage of the opportunity to cut Tris’s hair (1).  Tris needs to look her best for the upcoming Choosing Ceremony, where she will elect the faction in which she will spend the rest of her life.  Tris perceives Natalie as the perfect model of self-abnegation, “well-practiced in the art of losing herself” (1).  But, in this instance, Natalie surprises Tris: “Her eyes catch mine in the mirror.  It is too late to look away, but instead of scolding me, she smiles at our reflection. . . . Why doesn’t she reprimand me for staring at myself?” (2).  Natalie surprises Tris again at the Choosing Ceremony, defying the motto, “Faction before family,” when she assures Tris that she will continue to love her no matter her choice (41).  Certainly, Natalie’s words contribute to Tris’s election to enter into Dauntless, but Tris continues to think of her home faction and her new one as stark opposites, telling herself, “I am selfish.  I am brave” (47). 

When Natalie visits Tris on Visiting Day, she complicates her daughter’s perception of the division between the two factions.  Tris learns that her mother wasn’t always as selflessness as she appears to Tris: Natalie was a transfer to Abnegation and originated in Dauntless (188).  Even more shockingly, Natalie displays traits that Tris never saw in her before.  When the older woman tells Tris that her father isn’t attending Visiting Day because he “has been selfish lately,” Tris is stunned: “More startling than the label is the fact that she assigned it to him” (179).  Tris deduces that her mother must be angry with her father to call him “selfish,” and she is shocked that Natalie is capable of such an emotion.  Natalie is also easily able to shake hands with Tris’s Dauntless friends, even though shaking hands is not acceptable in Abnegation, where the gesture indicates too high of a level of self-possession (181). 

After Visiting Day, Tris begins to call on the image of her mother as both an inspiration for moments of self-sacrifice and a source of strength when she is faced with challenges.  After a fellow initiate is brutally attacked by a competitor, Tris volunteers to clean up the blood, thinking, “Scrubbing the floor when no one else wanted to was something that my mother would have done.  If I can’t be with her, the least I can do is act like her sometimes” (209).  In a later scene, Tris dreams that her mother engages her in the process of cooking crows, birds that have repeatedly swarmed Tris in the simulations that she has undergone throughout initiation (301).  In this dream, Natalie is depicted as herself a force of power and, also, as a source of encouragement as Tris is learning to overcome her fears.

I would argue that the climax of the novel occurs at the same point where Natalie most surprises her daughter by displaying bravery much like that of Tris’s Dauntless peers.  When the war between Erudite and Abnegation breaks out, Tris is discovered as Divergent and taken to become a test subject for Erudite officials, as they attempt to learn how to control even the most irrepressible among them (437).  Natalie rescues Tris from her confines and then courageously runs into a crowd of soldiers, knowing that they will kill her but that her daughter will escape (443).  Tris later announces to her remaining family that, since leaving Abnegation, she has learned how to be both brave and selfless and that, “Often they’re the same thing” (457).

Some might read Natalie as a powerful mother figure and her depiction in the novel an improvement from, say, the portrayal of Katniss’s mother—weak and overcome by her circumstances—in The Hunger Games.  Surely, Natalie is strong and wise; she lives and dies as a testament to the important overlap between fearlessness and self-sacrifice.  But, at the same time, Natalie’s characterization is stereotypical.  She fits the type of the “mama bear”—or the “mama grizzly” so infamously celebrated in Sarah Palin’s campaign rhetoric in 2008.  In literature and film throughout the ages, the “mama bear” is subservient until her child is threatened, at which point she becomes fearless and ferociously powerful.  Michelle Rodino-Colocina argues that the “mama grizzly” ideology articulated by conservative female politicians such as Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman “st[ands] to further the interests of wealthy, white patriarchs rather than working to end sexist oppression” (89).  It characterizes women as motivated solely by the wellbeing of their children and, in doing so, reduces their own claims to subjectivity.  Although Divergent gives us a strong female lead in Tris, its depiction of Natalie Prior as a “mama bear” does little to challenge this harmful sort of ideology regarding the place and interests of women.  In addition to kissing, the “mama bear” is another thing that I’ll need to talk to Taegan about.

Works Cited

Rodino-Colocina, Michelle.  “Man Up, Woman Down: Mama Grizzlies and Anti-Feminist Feminism during the Year of the (Conservative) Woman and Beyond.”  Women and Language 35.1 (2012), 79-96.


Roth, Veronica. Divergent. New York: HarpersCollins, 2011.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Sexual Power of Mother Nature in Prodigal Summer

Teeming with the imagery of natural fertility, Barbara Kingsolver’s 2000 Prodigal Summer presents the intertwined stories of three unlikely romances: Deanna Wolfe, a ranger dedicated to protecting the ecosystems of Zebulon Mountain, and Eddie Bondo, a bounty hunter in pursuit of pack of coyotes; Nannie Rawley, the liberal owner of an organic orchard, and Garnett Walker, a stodgy old-timer determined to repopulate the Zebulon forests with an ancient breed of chestnut trees; and Lusa Maluf Landowski, a scientist-turned-farmer, and Cole Widener, Lusa’s husband who is killed early in the narrative but whom she comes to know better after his death than she had during their very brief marriage.  Within each of these pairs, the woman comes to represent “mother nature,” pitted—to varying degrees—against the forces of “man,” enacted and symbolized by her partner. 

The storyline closely associates these women with nature—especially its nurturance and fertility.  The two who are still menstruating, Deanna and Lusa, note that they naturally cycle with the moon, for instance.  Deanna also cares for the wild animals that live near her mountain cabin in a way that Eddie declares can only be classified as “maternal” (190).  And after a couple of months of passionate—even animalistic—intercourse with Eddie, a man nearly 20 years her junior, she realizes that she will have a child of her own (387).  Despite being recently widowed, Lusa, too, becomes a figure of maternal abundance, deciding to adopt a troubled niece and nephew as her sister-in-law loses her battle with cancer (380).  Finally, both Lusa and Nannie use flower pollination as a way of talking about sex with their young charges, Lusa with her niece Crystal (351) and Nannie with Deanna when she was a girl (200).  In this way, they present sexuality as a natural part of life—and, indeed, as necessary to the continuance of life.

The three women also seem to understand the interdependence of living things more clearly than their male counterparts.  Several times, Deanna explains to Eddie that a predator—though villanized in American culture—is a critical link in the food chain, finally managing to convince him to read her Master’s thesis on the importance of the coyote to the health of the mountain ecosystem (179, 362).  Nannie values predators as well.  When Garnett refuses to stop spraying near Nannie’s farm, she invites him to sit down and delivers a lesson on the different insects that live on her orchard, detailing how the bigger insects naturally take care of the “pests.” This natural form of pest control is disrupted, though, when these predators are killed off by the drift of herbicide that Garnett uses to keep his lawn looking tidy.  The pest population recovers more quickly than the predator population, Nannie explains, and causes great damage to her crops until the bigger insects can once again handle the pests (274).  Lastly, after Cole’s death, Lusa decides to try an alternative to tobacco, previously the Widener cash crop, and raise goats for meat instead.  Quite intentionally, she integrates the goats into the landscape of the farm, using them to keep the briars and thistles from taking over her hayfields and, in turn, allowing the animals to harvest some of the hay in order to round out their nutritional profiles (also turning them into more quality products for market) (157). 

In the end, each of the men seems to acquiesce to the women’s greater wisdom of the natural world, at least temporarily.  Eddie departs Zebulon Mountain (without knowing about Deanna’s pregnancy), leaving behind a note that simply states, “It’s hard for a man to admit he had met his match” (432).  Deanna takes this one line as an indication that Eddie is “offering his leaving as a gift,” that he is leaving both Deanna and her beloved coyotes alone: “No harm would come to anything on this mountain because of him” (433).  On the Widener farm, Lusa’s goat-raising scheme is successful, bringing more of a profit than Cole’s tobacco ever had.  More importantly, Lusa comes to realize that Cole had disliked the conventional agricultural methods that he felt that he had had to use; she begins to think that Cole probably would have enjoyed seeing the farm reformulated into a hormone- and pesticide-free operation, although he was not willing to implement these kinds of changes himself.  For his part, Garnett accepts Nannie’s offer to use the genetics of the old chestnut trees on her orchard to strengthen the strains that he is developing and, in doing so, starts to accept the idea that she already takes for granted—that relationships are more important than property lines.

What is interesting about these cases, taken together, is that the men seem to submit to the women as much because they are each irresistibly attracted to their female counterparts on a carnal level as because they are persuaded on an intellectual level to see the women’s points of view.  Both Lusa and Deanna speak with their mates, Cole when he was living and Eddie during his time atop Zebulon Mountain, of the power of women’s pheromones to attract men (37, 92).  After Cole’s death, Lusa is finally able to accept Cole’s sense of attachment to her, and, then, that he would have wanted her to make the farm her own after his death.  Just as Lusa’s pheromones most certainly played a part in the development of Cole’s love for her, it is likely that Deanna’s womanly scents played a part in Eddie’s development of affection for her and his subsequent decision to leave instead of to hunt Zebulon’s coyotes.  For his part, Garnett finally gives in to Nannie’s kindness toward him when he can no longer resist the image of her picking fruit in her “short pants” (427).  Although each situation is different, in each of all three relationships, the man finally succumbs to the power of a distinctly female sexuality. 

Tom Conoboy has pointed out that the ending of this novel is a little too neat, happy, ultimately “bloodless.”  This is true in lots of ways; one of these is that the men seem to lose very little of themselves in submitting to their female mates.  I would argue, though, that Eddie, Cole, and Garnett may be willing to shift in their worldviews, if only temporarily, because they benefit as much as the women in seeing the interconnectedness of the natural world.  If Deanna, Lusa, and Nannie represent “mother nature” in this text and their male counterparts represent “man,” then the novel seems to suggest that we must allow ourselves to be seduced by the sensuous beauty of the Earth—as Eddie, Cole, and Garnett allow themselves to be by the women in the story.  We must submit to the power of nature’s fertility and abundance in order to reap the benefits of these.