Thoughts on The Bluest Eye

Original image from InspirationalBlackLiterature.com.

Original image from InspirationalBlackLiterature.com.

It was a Saturday afternoon and I was riding the El into Austin on Chicago’s West Side. The train was quiet as it rumbled down the Pink Line tracks and I hae never been more self-conscious. If you’ve never been to Chicago, then you won’t really understand the starkness of the racial borders in this town, but I can tell you I was the only white person on that train. When I got off at Central Park Avenue and walked north, I was burningly aware of the stares I received as I walked the three blocks to the apartment where I was headed on assignment. Once I stepped into the apartment, though, I felt the racial barriers soften a little as I spoke with a black family who lived in the area. I realized that my discomfort was of my own making, and on the way back to the train station, I spoke to several people who stood on the sidewalk with no awkwardness. We are all Chicagoans.

For Banned Books Week, I broached into Tony Morrison’s classic novel The Bluest Eye. The disjunction of the story from myself made me feel uncomfortable at first until I was able to slip into the main character’s world and finally feel that she was one of us. The novel is purportedly about racism and beauty, but in honesty, it is more about how we as a society treat our most vulnerable members, be they children, minorities or poor. Pecola Breedlove was all three.

Set in mid-20th century Lorain, Ohio, a town bordering on idyllic Lake Erie, the novel tells Pecola’s story from the outside. She is essentially a social outcast, both at school and at home, but by no fault of her own—her family is poor, she is considered ugly and “too black” and her father was in prison. She doesn’t speak much, but terrible things keep happening to her completely out of her control, and nonsensically, she is shunned for them.

We watch Pecola’s life through the lens of stories told about her and her neighbors, the plots and scenes that play out in their lives. She is bullied, teased, mocked, abused and left alone, and still is somehow at fault. People are merely looking for something to hate about her, and in the process, make her so downtrodden that they finally find something, nevermind that they caused it.

One of the most poignant examinations is on the topic of female sexuality as it relates to beauty. At one point in the novel, Claudia, the narrator, and her sister Frieda are discussing the family’s lodger in Frieda’s room. Frieda is crying, saying that Mr. Henry, the lodger, touched her breasts. Instead of being revolted or frightened, Claudia’s first reaction is jealousy. She says she wishes she had breasts for someone to find attractive, nevermind that Mr. Henry had no right to touch her sister and it was sexual assault.

This confusion, this contradiction, is a theme throughout the novel. Claudia is given a baby doll at the beginning of the novel and begins to dissemble it, looking for the “inner beauty.” Of course, all she finds is stuffing, and that’s beside the point. The point is that we tell our children that beauty is inside, but so much rides on the physical facade that we leave our girls confused in the dark, particularly girls that do not conform to the white, middle-class Dick and Jane standard.

Every chapter leads with a jumbled excerpt of the children’s primer Dick and Jane. It has little actual relevance to the story other than to assert the drumbeat that Pecola has been hearing all her life: “This is normal, you are not. This is normal, you are not.” American standards have been changing in the last few years to be more diverse, including minority children in advertisements and shows almost to a mocking point, but the actual standards for how we expect our lives to be end with the same tradition: Mother and father, boy and girl, middle class, white.

Toni Morrison has taken many critics to the cleaners over the years about the content of the novel. It is still the second most challenged book on the American Library Association’s list, and not surprisingly: Many of the descriptions of sex between a husband and wife are extremely graphic in nature. There is one rape scene describing a man having sex with a child that is shocking in its detail and coolness. Of course, these things are offensive, but the discussion is important.

In many ways, The Bluest Eye can bring out the worst in us. It forces us to consider the worst things we have done and why.

 

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The Kite Runner

Original image at Wikimedia commons.

Original image at Wikimedia commons.

Title: The Kite Runner
Author: Khaled Hosseini
Year: 2004
Genre: Fiction/drama
Rating: 1

Okay, so this is hardly a review. Everyone who has had half an ear open to the literary community in the last decade has heard of The Kite Runner and how it spent 100 weeks at the top of the New York Times Bestseller List. The novel is essentially critic-proof; you cannot NOT like it. And I do love it. Instead of being a review, which is a compilation on whether this book is good or bad or not, I’m just going to share my thoughts on it. I believe everyone should read this book, and I’m just going to give you a schema to work off.

Both so removed and so personal, Khaled Hosseini achieved in The Kite Runner what many authors have to wait many years to do: Tell his own story in a fictional way that moves thousands of people. Hosseini himself was displaced from Afghanistan in the 1970s and could not return because of the Russian incursion into the country in 1979. He moved to the U.S., to California, and began a successful career in medicine. Shortly after that, he began writing his novel, and after languishing in obscurity for about two years, became successful enough to found a charity that now assists Afghan residents. He is also a Goodwill Ambassador to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

His works mirror many of these themes, which makes him uniquely fitted to discuss the issues in modern Afghanistan to a largely American audience. They simultaneously hammer at our own discomfort with the Middle East, painting the people there with a warm brush, while challenging us to confront the assumptions we make in our own society. Hosseini straddles the lines between cultures with grace, broaching into the genre of world literature in the most real way possible.

The novel tells the story of two boys, Amir and Hassan, growing up in Kabul in the 1970s and the events that split them apart. The two grow up together and are the best of friends for 12 years despite their racial differences—Amir is of the Pashtun ruling class while Hassan is a Hazara, the poorer and essentially servile class—until a fateful crime that severs the tie between them. Curiously, it is not any fight or disagreement. It is Amir’s guilt over something that happens to Hassan that poisons the friendship and inspires all later cruelties.

After the Soviet invasion of Kabul in 1979 that consumed the country for the next ten years until the Mujahideen and the Taliban moved in to grip the country, Amir and his father are shaken from their prosperous life into poverty in California. Amir becomes a successful writer but must confront his history when a phone call comes from an old friend in Afghanistan with only the short urge, “There is a way to be good again.”

That line may as well be the story and the hope for Afghanistan. In the U.S., the country is essentially synonymous with a war zone rather than the mecca of poetry, music and learning that it has been for hundreds of years. It is only in the last three decades that the delicate arches in the cities have been destroyed by bombs, the women imprisoned in their own homes, the people living in fear of Taliban rule. Hosseini crosses borders and the book remains relevant in the stories of countries like Pakistan, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon today. The book challenges both American and Afghani perspectives.

It is also offensive in many ways. The decrying of racial stereotypes against the Hazara, Pashtun and Urdu are as taboo in Afghanistan as the discussion of racial relations between blacks, whites and Latinos in the U.S. For that reason, it is still the sixth-most challenged book on the American Library Association’s list of challenged books. The 2007 film adaptation was outright banned in Afghanistan as soon as it came out because of the graphic sexual nature of a rape scene and the overtly negative views of the Taliban.

But the most beautiful parts of it are the quieter themes buried beneath the shocking ones. In one scene where a character takes a brutal, nearly fatal beating, the repeated theme of absolution for past crimes is tearfully beautiful. In one scene where a boy is dripping blood on the snow after a brutal crime is done, the tension crackles between pride and love and cowardice, uncomfortably tugging readers between understanding and condemnation.

Behind the title is the essence of the story: Can we recover what is lost? Do we become the past to satisfy ourselves or to give the best to our children? In Kabul, the greatest sport of Amir’s childhood was kite fighting, the art of controlling kites to tangle strings until one broke. Hassan was the boy who would run after the fallen kite to retrieve it as a trophy and bring it back to the winner—a perfect partnership. The sport was outlawed when the Taliban overtook Kabul, putting to death the symbol of the race relations that, while tense, had existed between the Pashtun and the Hazara. By severing them, the Taliban lost some element of learning to live together. In a racially tense time the U.S., this is just as relevant to us as it is to Afghanistan in the 1990s.

Hosseini accomplished with his first novel what many authors work for years to do. His subsequent novels explore different people groups in the same place at the same time, but each accomplishes a different point. I have reviewed both, and I have yet to find a novel of his that I think is repetitive. Hosseini brings his passion and perspective to fiction in the same way that journalists bring it to stories of social injustice. In his works do we best see that art is a pure reflection of ourselves.

The Kite Runner, now in its 10th anniversary edition, should be available in most libraries, but you can get it from Amazon for about $11 in paperback and about $19 in hardback. It is available for $6.99 on the Kindle as well. Do yourself a favor if you’re late on Banned Books Week reading and choose this one—I could talk about it forever, but the only way to understand it is to just to jump in.

Happy Banned Books week!

Original image at FRTF.org.

Original image at FRTF.org.

Happy banned books week to everyone! Appreciate it if you live in a country that allows open dialogue about why things are offensive and why we should be allowed to offend one another. And if you don’t live in a country with free speech, write about it! Make a statement that advances freedom. For there is no free speech with the power to offend.

This year focuses on banned graphic novels, of which there are many. Check them out here!

Also, as a reminder, this happened last year:

Singapore threatens to destroy copy of gay penguin book

Enjoy your banned reading! I just finished Lolita and am off to write a piece on The Kite Runner, turning the corner into The Bluest Eye.

Crystallizing a book into legend

Perhaps I am biased, but Fezzik is my favorite character in the film. Andre the Giant was perfect casting, and the character is this beautiful middle ground between connivance and innocence. Original image at CinemaSquid.

Perhaps I am biased, but Fezzik is my favorite character in the film. Andre the Giant was perfect casting, and the character is this beautiful middle ground between connivance and innocence. Original image at CinemaSquid.

I first saw “The Princess Bride” when I was about 8 years old. My father was going through a phase where he felt guilty for not showing us many films (well, maybe not, but that was the impression I got) and he brought home this movie to me and my siblings and insisted that we watch it. We fell in love almost immediately with the one-liners, the impossibly distinctive characters and the sweet romance at the heart of it. My sister and I could the rhyming scene on the boat by heart.

Many Americans have similar memories of the film. Others have fond memories of the book by William Goldman. But what is it that made this book such a phenomenal success? After all, it’s just a love story.

Cary Elwes, who is releasing a memoir entitled As You Wish about the making of the film, commented that it was the sweetness of the origin story. Goldman apparently asked his daughters what they would want in a story, and one replied “princess” and the other replied, “bride.” The story was born out of his love for his daughters, which translates to the material and consequently to the film, Elwes told The Daily Beast. Even Goldman himself has said the positive response surprised him.

But this raises the question for literary analysts and fans alike. If that love translates across, does that make author’s intent more important than source material? After all, I had no idea of the origin story and still sensed a feeling of genuineness from it.

There’s a concept in literary analysis known as “authorial intent.” In shorthand, it refers to the schema the author sets out for his or her work and whether that is communicated to the audience. The success of the work, then, is gauged on how much of that authorial intent is received by the audience without an explanation.

But to verify the success, the author must explain what he or she was trying to achieve. In that way, the work can never stand on its own, which many New Criticism analysts criticize. The debate is endless, but the fact stands that authorial intent does reveal elements of a story that readers may not find on their own.

In the case of “The Princess Bride,” many subtexts stand on their own, making the work a fascinating piece of fiction that is just far enough from reality to engage us but close enough to still make a point about humanity. The authorial intent adds something intangible that seems to click when one hears Goldman’s story.

Elwes’ book promises to be both a riot and fairly introspective. The making of that film bound the crew and actors together over the course of years, he says; it was not an ordinary film set. In that way, it carries the legacy of its strange success through its production, marketing, debut and legacy.

Reflections on Lolita

Original image from Wikimedia commons.

Original image from Wikimedia commons.

Confession: I read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for class.

Yes, I had read the more (in)famous segments of it before, even looked at the Sparknotes and read the transcripts of hearings about why it was banned, but I had never formally sat down, read and analyzed Nabokov’s notorious masterwork.

And a masterwork it is. For all the labels of pornography, obscenity and inhumanity, the novel is beautifully written and raises uncomfortable questions about whether our actions make us inhuman and what it truly means to be a child. Nabokov also explores our fracturing identities and how we faces ourselves through the realities of what we have done.

I am currently in my final year of college. (Columbia College Chicago ’14, yeah!) As a part of my minor, I am taking a seminar in literature that focuses on banned global novels, and Lolita was our introduction. As harsh as it is, this really sets the tone for what it means to get inside the heads of the people who wanted to ban this novel from libraries and schools worldwide. For if we cannot understand those who we oppose, how are we to know the truth of the matter?

For those who have not read it, Lolita tells the story of Humbert Humbert, a self-acknowledged pedophile who is obsessed with what he calls “nymphets,” a particular subclass of pre-adolescent girls who have long, thin limbs and cherubic faces. When his first wife divorces him, he relocates to the U.S. and lodges with a woman with a 12-year-old daughter, Dolores Haze, whom he renames Lolita. He quickly becomes sexually obsessed with her, and the novel follows the years of their relationship and Humbert’s emotions over her.

The book is told in first person in flowing, exquisite English, which makes it harder to hate. Some of the metaphors and sequences he chooses to portray this incredibly taboo, illicit relationship are so moving that readers have to keep reminding themselves that this act is vile, violent and forbidden. We step inside Humbert’s head and heart, and while many of his thoughts and intents are deeply disturbing, he is also so utterly human that we feel almost complicit by reading on.

And that was Nabokov’s intent. From the very beginning, when the only sexual references were fantasies and Humbert never actually touched her in a sexual way, we are titillated and keep reading. But then, when the relationship continues, we are almost bored by the continuity of what is happening, making us stop and wonder. It is as if Nabokov is mocking us: “Now that this sexual act is normal, does that make it less sinful? Why are you no longer horrified?”

But a deeper exploration of the book goes beyond its sexual content. Over and over, throughout the story, Humbert continually changes how he refers to the other characters. Lolita’s mother, Charlotte, has a myriad of different names; Lolita herself becomes Dolores, Lo, Lola, Dolly, and several others; Humbert’s name is changed and butchered in his own thoughts and by others; and even the memories of his past love, Annabel, soon become Annabel Lee. (By way of cross-reference, there are a number of Edger Allan Poe allusions in this novel. Nabokov was very well educated.) As the book progresses, he continues to shift how he refers to each person depending on his his relationship with him or her stands.

Through this mechanic, Nabokov is exploring the concepts of our fracturing identities. We have projects of people in our minds like puzzles, predicting what they will do and say and how we think of them. But when they do something out of our control and we lose agency, we must change how we refer to them in our heads. Thus, we change their identities day by day and evolve. The only difference between Humbert and us is that many of us have empathy while Humbert has none, preventing him from changing himself to meet them.

Humbert is an incredibly complex character that explores the insides of our own desires. I cannot go too deeply into analysis of his actions without spoiling the entire book—and you MUST read it, please, swallow your disgust—so I will instead just say that readers will try to separate themselves from him but find themselves understanding.

Just one last note.

One of my classmates brought up the statements at the end of the discussion: “I don’t think pedophiles are human.”

While I agree that what they do is inhumane and violating in the worst way, I think that is a step too far. Despite their illness and propensities, the entire point of the story is prove that pedophiles (and schizophrenics, psychopaths, people with bipolar and murderers) are still human. Our actions do not invalidate our humanity—they are simply mistakes, albeit on a much more grave scale.

This American Life broadcasted a spectacular piece on April 11, 2014 that told the story of young pedophiles and a support group they founded to prevent themselves from acting on their desires. The founder expressed a desire for people to know that they are not controlled by their desires, that they are still human and want to do the right thing.

That was the entire point of the book, and those that get hung up on the horror the act miss the point entirely.

The Bone Clocks is almost here

Original image at NPR.

Original image at NPR.

This isn’t really a commentary or insightful analysis, but more of a fangirl squeal. As my regular readers know, I am a huge fan of David Mitchell in virtually every one of his books. He’s a modern master and everyone should at least read Cloud Atlas if not all his other novels. The Reason I Jump, which he only translated, is also deeply touching and enlightening.

But his new book, The Bone Clocks, is due out Sept. 2, and I can’t wait. NPR released an exclusive first look at the book, and everyone should get over there and read it when they have a chance. The segment isn’t long, but it already carries a lot of promise for the book’s plot and his standard brilliance.

On a side note, one of the things I love most about Mitchell’s continued works is the subtle Easter Eggs he tucks in. For instance, Brubeck, the narrator of the segment, works for Spyglass, the same magazine that Luisa Rey wrote for in Cloud Atlas. At the end of Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Jacob mentions meeting a young Dutch sailor called Boerhaave, who is the salty old mariner on Adam Ewing’s ship across the Pacific in Cloud Atlas. As if he is still making his point, Mitchell’s characters from his most famous novel still echo out into his other works, having their own small effects and stories without changing the universe.

And I said this wasn’t going to get deep. Anyway, go read the segment. It’s well worth the ten minutes.

Passé, you say?

 

Lois Lowry, author of The Giver. Original image from Wikimedia Commons.

Lois Lowry, author of The Giver. Original image from Wikimedia Commons.

Lois Lowry, the great young adult novelist, told a reporter from Variety Magazine that dystopian YA is now passé. Besides her somewhat catty terminology, most of the young adult audience would likely disagree with her.

Lowry’s classic book The Giver, which is read by elementary schoolers across the U.S., has been adapted into a film released last Friday. Unlike many authors, she has been involved with the film’s development since its first conception nearly two decades ago, and apparently she is pleased with the liberties the film has taken from her original work as well, according to Variety.

However, she commented that after her book opened the dystopian genre for young adults, too many people have engaged in it and it is now cliche. And between blockbuster hits like The Hunger Games and Divergent, her hypothesis seems solid.

However, couldn’t the same argument be made for any trend in YA literature? Two years ago, it was vampires. Before that, it was coming-of-age romance. Before that, it was “bad boy” stories. And so it goes.

The same applies to literature on a wider scale. Lowry claims that she drew from dystopian novels like Brave New World and 1984 for her inspiration in The Giver. What makes her more unique than a simple emulator or copycat? According to Merriam-Webster’s definition, emulate is “to strive to equal or excel.” Artists and author prefer “draw inspiration from,” but in essence, isn’t that the same thing? Drawing influences from a particular work means you use elements of the work they admire and strive to include elements of that work, which is similar to emulating.

Yes, Lowry got to the dystopian genre while Suzanne Collins was still scripting “Little Bear.” But that doesn’t give her exclusive rights to it. In a world where authors make a living from their writing, the books must realistically sell, and catering to the public’s taste for a particular kind of story is exactly what the publishing industry is designed to do. That is why erotica and paperback romance novels have survived so long—they

cater to a very particular audience for a purpose that doesn’t become unpopular over time. The dystopian genre also caters to a particular audience.

Here’s a thought—maybe it’s not passé because it’s been overdone. Maybe it’s been overdone because of our current despair at the state of our country and the world. With a sluggish economy, violence breaking out worldwide and political unrest, the idea of a dystopia doesn’t seem so far. And in the case of The Hunger Games, it lends younger people much more power and influence in their world than they perceive themselves to have in reality.

So if Ms. Lowry wants to lay claim to the YA dystopian genre, she has every right to do so. But maybe there is a reason for it to exist more than just as a fad.