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The Most Important Stories of Our Time: Anthropogenic Climate Change in Fiction (Part 1)

“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” – Jessamyn West (To See the Dream, 1956)

Introduction

“In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities like Kolkata, New York, and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what should they – what can they – do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognizing the realities of their plight? Quite possibly, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.”  Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement

Human-caused climate change is one of the defining issues of our times. According to the 2019 UN Emissions Gap Report we are steadily marching toward catastrophic global warming that will irreversibly alter the planet as we know it. The science is in, and has been for decades: we know climate change is happening, and we know humans are the cause. Almost daily, we are inundated by climate change facts and figures, along with a near constant barrage of disaster-porn detailing the havoc wreaked by floods, hurricanes, wildfires, or extinction events. 

On Fire, K. Hydrick, digital illustration, 2020

Climate and weather affect so much of our daily lives that it is unsurprising to find mention of them over and over again in our spoken and written stories. From the flood stories in Gilgamesh and the Old Testament, agricultural conditions in Greek and Roman almanacs, Shakespearean weather, to seasons poetry from around the world, typical as well as divergent weather patterns have always featured in our narratives. 

The topics of weather and climate have been present in both fiction and non-fiction writing from the beginning. Today, there is no shortage of non-fiction in the form of books and news articles that sound the alarm about the changing climate, warning us of the dangerous path we find ourselves treading. However, while well-represented in non-fiction, issues surrounding human-caused climate change are often marginalized, missing, or misread in contemporary fiction.

Inspired by the recent youth-led climate strikes, I finally finished reading a volume that had been loitering on my bookshelf: Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Ghosh argues that literary fiction, i.e. the modern realist novel, has not adequately addressed climate change issues, a claim which seems to be bolstered by other writer and reader opinions.

In a 2018 article in The New Yorker, Katy Waldman asks if a “poetics of climate change exists.” She goes on to say that, “[a]s with gun violence, the [climate] crisis demands a form of literary expression that lifts it out of the realm of intellectual knowing and lodges it deep in readers’ bodies.” In an Earth Day article from 2005, Bill McKibben, an environmental scholar and founder of 350.org, puts this paradox of knowing without knowing more forcefully: 

“But oddly, though we know about it, we don’t know about it. It hasn’t registered in our gut; it isn’t part of our culture. Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?” 

I couldn’t agree more. Fiction helps us to make sense of the world and is “a way of engaging with the unthinkable.” A world being radically altered by climate change will need stories about this “unthinkable” situation. Yet it seems that any “poetics of climate change” are at the margins of art and literature. 

Since the 2016 publication of The Great Derangement, and even before, there have been increasingly clamorous calls for more representation in mainstream literary fiction of the issues surrounding climate change. Though the current marginalization may be disheartening, there do seem to be changes with ever more climate change stories being written and published. 

I’ll begin this three part series by taking a look at the history of climate change, the fact that non-fiction writing has come to dominate the discourse on this issue, and how a culture of “disbelief” along with political failures to adequately address climate change have, according to Ghosh, influenced the ways in which we tell the story of global climate change.

A Brief History of Anthropogenic Climate Change
Brendan Leonard (Semi_Rad) https://www.instagram.com/p/BpXomQyA5qv/

Earth’s climate has over the millennia gone through long natural cycles of temperature and rainfall fluctuations. Some of us may be familiar, at least in passing, with the Medieval Warm Period or the Little Ice Age. There were also smaller, one-off events, such as the volcanic eruption at Mount Tambora, Indonesia in 1815, which led to temporary global climate disruption. These natural climate fluctuations have been cited by climate change denialists in attempts to refute modern global warming. However, the rapidity of the increase in average global temperature over the past century cannot be attributed to natural climate variations. 

The rapid increase in global temperature coincides with the timeline of the Industrial Revolution and the large-scale burning of fossil fuels, beginning in the late 18th century and increasing exponentially. The current climate crisis in which we find ourselves (which includes rising temperatures, rising sea levels, more powerful severe weather events, habitat change and destruction, extinction events, etc.) is human-made, that is, anthropogenic. Human actions are now the main drivers of the changes in the Earth’s climate, so much so that some scientists have proposed a new geological epoch for our time: The Anthropocene.

Climate Change in the News

Scientists have speculated about the existence of human-caused climate change since at least the late 19th century. The issue has primarily been within the purview of climate scientists or environmental activists and has only been an on-again-off-again-cause for the general public, to be blithely set aside when caring becomes too inconvenient. It has only been within the past twenty-or-so years that information about climate change has begun to reach a wider audience. 

This phenomenon is visible in the local news. I conducted a search for the terms “climate change” or “global warming” appearing in news articles from the Worcester Telegram and Gazette from 1989 to December 2019. Some of the early articles I found questioned the validity of human caused climate change or used the idea as a punch-line for jokes. In one instance, the term “global warming” was used to describe the winning efforts of a local ice hockey team: “The IceCats are the latest contributors to global warming. Red-hot Worcester extended its win streak to four in a row with a nifty 5-1 victory over the Lowell Lock Monsters last night.” Go Worcester! Although there was some in-depth reporting, many articles before the mid-2000’s only briefly mentioned global warming and were generic feel-good stories about the efforts of local organizations to “save the earth,” or else a brief mention of a political candidate’s position on the issue.

Climate change news reports in the Telegram and Gazette steadily increased in number and depth of reporting from the 1990’s to the 2010’s before a substantial increase in the last few years of the decade. The International Collective on Environment, Culture and Politics (ICE CaPs), an environmental research group based at the University of Colorado Boulder, completed a comprehensive analysis of climate change coverage in eight North American newspapers from 2000-2020. Their extensive work also shows increasing numbers of climate change news stories throughout the 2000’s and 2010’s with a continued upward trend in the last three years of the decade. The spike in news stories from 2007-2010 is perhaps due to coverage of the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which, for the first time, showed a consensus that “it is ‘very likely’ that humanity’s emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases have caused most of the global temperature rise observed since the mid-20th century.” Also in 2007, the Bush administration was accused of censoring scientists and their data relating to climate change which also may have resulted in an increase in news reports.

ICE CaPS https://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/icecaps/research/media_coverage/north_america/index.html

Although climate change has been a known issue for decades, it has not been at the forefront of the news or wide-spread public interest until relatively recently. Despite this recent interest, these stories are a drop in the proverbial bucket. In 2019, news stories mentioning climate change or global warming accounted for less than 2% of the total articles published in the Telegram and Gazette.

The Non-fiction of Climate Change
Library of Congress and C/W MARS

Publication of non-fiction climate change books most likely follows a similar trend as news article publication. I say “most likely” because there is, as of now, no centralized way to search for the total number of climate change books published per year. The category of “climate change” often doesn’t exist on publisher’s book lists. Instead these titles are subsumed under an all-encompassing “science” category, making it difficult to pull out specific numbers without going through multiple lists of publications manually.

In an attempt to work around this shortcoming I tried searching the holdings in the Library of Congress as well as all libraries in the Massachusetts C/W MARS system. Libraries would seem to be an ideal resource to search for numbers of non-fiction climate change publications over time, and indeed they were, with a few caveats. Libraries only catalog items in their collections, and even in the case of the Library of Congress, which houses over 168 million items, they do not contain every book ever published. Additionally, there is no standardized way of classifying books within subject categories. For example, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need A Green Revolution – And How It Can Renew America by Thomas Friedman, which spent one week on the NYT bestseller list in 2008, did not appear in my subject search for the C/W MARS libraries because it was not classified under either “climate change” or “global warming;” rather it appeared under “green movement,” “ecology,” “social conditions,” “environment,” “energy policy,” and “climate” among others. Even with these gaps, the data from the Library of Congress and the C/W MARS collection can provide us with a useful baseline for the numbers of non-fiction climate change books published from year to year.

I searched both the Library of Congress general collection and the C/W MARS libraries, using the same search terms as for the news articles (the phrases “climate change” or “global warming”) and received over 2000 results combined. Neither library search engine allowed me to distinguish between fiction or non-fiction publications, though the overwhelming majority were non-fiction. Many of the results of both searches were not published books but instead government agency reports, conference proceedings, policy papers, or white papers which had been collected in “book” form. While these are important publications, it is unlikely the average reader will get a copy of Climate change: conference before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources by the United States Senate to read at the weekend (I could be wrong though).

Many of the published books were school and academic textbooks while others were written for the general reader or fell under “pop-science.” The Library of Congress collection contained more adult oriented titles like textbooks and general informational books while the C/W MARS libraries had a higher number of non-fiction children’s books about climate change. Subject-wise, the holdings ran the gamut from climate change ethics, the economics of climate change, geological and historical climate change, “how to” survive climate change, denialist titles, along with the unmistakable black and yellow cover of Global Warming for Dummies.

Overall, the number of climate change books in the library collections follows a similar trend as the number of climate change news stories published, with a quite noticeable spike from 2007-2010, subsequently decreasing again, and a slow upward trend in the last few years of the 2010’s. 

Climate change has been in the news and the subject of non-fiction books for well over thirty years, and there has been a definite increase in non-fiction coverage of the issue in the past ten years. It would seem that such a major, life-altering issue would be represented ad nauseum in fictional writing as well. Rather than an abundance, however, there is an apparent lack of fiction dealing with anthropogenic climate change. Why? Is something preventing us from telling the compelling stories of our changing climate? 

The Suspension of Disbelief
Too Big, K. Hydrick, digital illustration, 2020

Former U.S. vice president and environmentalist, Al Gore identified public disbelief as the first major hurdle to be overcome in dealing with climate change. He perhaps got to the heart of the climate issue best in a statement from 1989:

“We are facing a generalized ecological catastrophe worldwide … Common sense fights against the notion because we have never faced it before … it seems like a bad science fiction movie.” (Patton, Madeline. “CHILLING GLOBAL TRENDS \ SCIENTISTS URGE SOLUTIONS NOW.” Worcester Telegram and Gazette, Aug. 20, 1989)

In The Great Derangement, Ghosh does not deal with denialism but rather “disbelief.” He argues our “disbelief” in climate change stems from several factors, one of which is the perceived improbability of events linked to climate change. Climate change events are still thought of as “superlatives”: the biggest wildfire in state history, the strongest hurricane on record, Massachusetts’ worst year for EEE (Eastern Equine Encephalitis), etc. These climate change events are not yet thought of as commonplace occurrences and thus can readily fall into the realm of hyperbole, making them easier to discount as anomalous and thus not worth serious consideration. 

Another factor contributing to a culture of disbelief is the scale of the problem. A BuzzFeed News article, reporting on how the Reuters newswire service compiles climate change visuals, put it succinctly: “Climate change is a notoriously hard topic to effectively cover, since it’s so big, and often considered too slow or too scientific to be a visual study.” Spatially (climate change affects the entire planet) and temporally (the worst effects of climate change will likely only happen in the lifetimes of our children and their children), the issue of climate change is too big to conceptualize effectively. 

While we can objectively understand that climate change is real, it is so big and the ramifications are so dire that it breeds an attitude of disbelief, giving rise to the thought that “the worst could never happen to us.” This is an eerily familiar sentiment that is often experienced when we’re faced with other awful situations like hate crimes, mass shootings, terrorist attacks, all of the terrible things that we push away because they are too uncomfortable to consider. As a result, very little has been accomplished in the political arena in terms of addressing the problems of climate change. Although there have been promising starts, this collective discomfort and disbelief has led to a failure to address, either politically or artistically, the climate crisis in any meaningful way.

Political Failings and Grassroots Momentum
Silent Spring, K. Hydrick, digital illustration, 2020

Public incredulity regarding climate change has meant that, for the most part, any actions undertaken to combat or mitigate the problem have been short-lived and largely ineffective. In 1997 the U.S. became a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, however, “almost immediately signaled that it didn’t intend to pursue its responsibilities” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. More recently, the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement was a watershed moment for political action confronting climate change when the U.S., along with almost 200 other countries, signed on to “combat climate change and adapt to its effects.” Although groundbreaking in its nearly worldwide consensus, The Paris Agreement is just that, an agreement between what Ghosh calls “a small circle of initiates,” the political elite, and is largely symbolic with little practical significance. 

The Paris Agreement’s lack of clout has become more apparent since the Trump administration took office. Since 2017 the administration has reversed ninety-five environmental protection rules, and last November the U.S. formally notified the United Nations of its withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. 

Since I began writing this article late last year, the Corona virus has swept throughout the world, upending lives in ways that might presage life in a future in which climate change remains unchecked. May Boeve, the executive director of 350.org, has said that “[w]e’ve seen that governments can act, and people can change their behavior, in a very short amount of time,” when it comes to protecting themselves and others against the virus. She continues: “that’s exactly what the climate movement has been asking governments and people to do for years in the face of a different kind of threat—the climate crisis—and we don’t see commensurate action.” Unfortunately, the kind of social and political action needed to inhibit further climate change seems to be unforthcoming.

While the current political response to combating climate change and other environmental degradation has been lukewarm at best, there have been grassroots efforts focused on these issues since at least the early 1960’s. Although we can look back and determine that individual environmental issues were a part of human caused climate change, early environmental movements tended to focus more on singular concerns rather than climate change as a whole. 

Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s seminal work published in 1962, warned of the dangers posed to the environment by chemicals like DDT. Her book, which led to a nationwide ban on DDT as well as the eventual founding of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is often credited with starting the modern environmental movement. The Greenpeace organization, which originally formed in an effort to stop nuclear testing, was founded in 1971. Now a large international entity, Greenpeace continues to address environmental threats. And in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the world’s rainforests took center stage in the environmental movement as several activist organizations formed in an attempt to preserve tropical forests. 

In addition to their specific causes, more recent environmental actions have also focused more broadly on anthropogenic climate change. The protests at Standing Rock, School Strike for the Climate led by Greta Thunberg, and the young people who sued the U.S. federal government over what they claimed was irresponsible fossil fuel use, are evidence that there are certainly people the world over who think human caused climate change warrants our attention and immediate corrective action. The influence these groups have on political policy and public opinion should not be underestimated, even though their efforts have generally fallen short of realizing the kind of systemic change needed to prevent disaster.

Our Failure of Imagination

When it comes to addressing global climate change, not only have we shown ourselves impotent in the political sphere, we seem to be neglecting the artistic realm as well. In the introduction to a special edition of the journal Science Fiction Studies, Brent Ryan Bellamy writes that “[t]he political challenge of overcoming the relentless drive of an ecologically and socially devastating fossil-fueled capitalism is just as much an imaginative project as it is a practical one.” The improbability and scale of climate change issues feed into our common “disbelief” which, Ghosh argues, has transmuted into a “failure of imagination.” And this failure of imagination has seemingly manifested in a dearth of literary fiction addressing anthropogenic climate change. 

In order to test Ghosh’s theory, I surveyed nearly 100 people online regarding whether they thought climate change was well-represented by fiction writing. 

The most pertinent question from the survey was whether or not respondents thought climate change was well-represented in fiction. Only 2% of respondents thought that fiction writing represented climate change adequately. 38% thought fiction did not represent climate change well, while the majority of people (60%) weren’t sure one way or the other if fiction does a good job dealing with climate change issues. I was not surprised by these numbers. In The Great Derangement, Ghosh claims that climate change stories are mostly absent from literary fiction, a claim which my survey results seem to confirm.

***

Anthropogenic climate change is arguably one of the most important and life-changing issues of our time. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution the rate at which the global temperature is increasing is unprecedented in geological history. This increase in temperature has led, among other things, to the warming and acidification of the oceans, abnormal melting of the polar ice caps, unusual weather patterns, changing ranges of diseases, and extinction events. Such issues threaten at best our modern ways of life and at worst our very survival.

It has only been within the past thirty years that climate change has entered into the public discourse. Non-fiction publications relating to climate change have markedly increased from then until now, however, fiction writing has not kept pace. Author Amitav Ghosh posits that the lack of fictional climate change writing is due to the size and scope of the issue and our subsequent “failure of imagination” in being able to effectively translate anthropogenic climate change into works of fiction.  

In Part Two of this series, we’ll look at the importance of fiction in contextualizing complex issues, then go into the history of climate and weather writing as a useful lead-in to a discussion about the relative lack of climate change writing in modern literary fiction while also commenting on the role of genre fiction. From there, I’ll investigate the idea that climate change actually is present in more writing than we realize and the ways in which we as readers often overlook its presence.

Look for Part Two next week.

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Store Operation (Update 3/25)

We are reopening the kitchen today for curbside takeout orders. The menu is limited, but we wanted to offer something to our neighbors and friends! We hope you are safe and healthy – we cannot wait for this to end to see you in-store again. Hours have been updated on Facebook, Google, and here.

Our doors will be locked – we do not want in store visits. Or space is too small to guarantee the recommended 6-foot space between customers and staff. Everything will be over the phone, including beverage orders. Call or text when you arrive and we will run the food/drink/book out to your car. This is not ideal but we can only do so much with the current state of affairs

For book orders, please email us at rootandpress@gmail.com.

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Book Review: Weather by Jenny Offill

One of the attributes I always revere when reading novels is an author’s ability to create characters that demonstrate both the ideals and fears of an age and the dreams and realities of individuals. In Jenny Offill’s Weather, we meet Lizzie, a mother and wife who is balancing a multitude of personal issues that are exacerbated by the real and perceived ills of society. Among the personal demons she battles are her unrealized academic potential, her own critique of her abilities in motherhood and marriage, a recovering addict of a brother and allusions to her own substance dependence/abuse, and a general question how to be a good person. Offill weaves these with more communal issues, an intersection of emotional, environmental, and economic problems and, again, how to be a good person. Lizzie stars in her own show, providing light-hearted punchline after punchline to heavyweight topics that more accurately reflect how we think about these issues ourselves than we probably realize.

Lizzie is a college librarian who has just started assisting a former professor by handling questions users send to a podcast called Hell and High Water. She seems to have underachieved, although if it is by her own expectations or others is not always clear. We learn a lot about her through a play-by-play of her inner consciousness, one that alludes to a divorced mother, an addict brother, an unremarkable marriage, and the challenge of parenthood.

At the beginning of the book, we see things aren’t perfect, but they seem to be functioning. As the book develops, we realize the character holds things together with sleight-of-hand – whether it’s through substances (“One good thing about being addicted to sleeping pills,” Lizzie notes, “is that they don’t call it ‘addicted’; they call it ‘habituated’.”) or burying the turmoil that is evident in Offill’s short-yet-powerful paragraphs of emotion. Once, Lizzie remembers, her son Eli asks “Are you sure you’re my mother? Sometimes you don’t seem like good enough person.” Lizzie, highlighting those moments in our lives that just stick with us, remarks “He was just a kid, so I let it go. And now, years later, I probably only think of it, I don’t know, once or twice a day.”

 “I keep wondering how we might channel all of this dread into action” – Lizzie in Weather by Jenny Offill.

The switch from the perfunctory job of college librarian to the world of answering existential questions allows Offill to riff on things large and small without a hitch. At the college desk, Lizzie’s world reminds one of Seinfeld, a show about nothing, one in which the character is driven crazy by the minutiae of daily life and interactions with a cast of people.  “Don’t use bacterial soap,” Catherine (Henry’s new beau) tells her,” because lalalalalalalala.” “Who cares!?!,” Lizzie is screaming – it is just another opinion on one topic in a sea of seven billion, and those opinions cover every possibility from one end of the spectrum to the other.

Environmentalists and doomsday preachers who write into the podcast clearly get in her head, adding another layer of mystique to an already cloudy worldview. As her fascination with the end of the world grows with her work on the podcast, her natural rhythms begin to falter. How is she supposed to prepare for the end of the world when her day-to-day life is so maddening? Everyone seems on the verge of breakdown, anger, or righteous rhetoric – how are we supposed to live? How are we supposed to die?

In Weather, Offills’s seemingly random outbursts of thoughts are actually carefully constructed arguments. They are engineered to seem meandering while remaining cognizant, each blurb its own story that contributes to a sum greater than its parts. On a personal level, one gets the sense that the current level of human interaction over-stimulates individuals to points of chaos. On a larger (and more disheartening) level, Offill seems to proffer that we should reset the bar of the American Dream. Lizzie (and us) may do better to stop hoping for good things to come and lower our expectations to a new standard: the hope that terrible things will not.

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Book Review: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead is one of the best authors on race in America. He has particular skill in taking the racial history of this country and weaving his literary characters around them – characters that are reactive to the bigotry of the period and who leave a legacy of resistance in the face of hate and discrimination. His most recent work, The Nickel Boys, is a fictionalized tale loosely based on tragic real-life events at the Dozier School for Boys in Florida. Nominally a biracial reform school, the institution is instead more corrupt than the worst of its captives, resorting to beatings, extortion, and mass murder as a means of pleasure (and a way to enforce the strict enforcement that allows the enrichment of politicians and the heads of the school.) Although in many respects the white boys and black boys are treated very similarly, the worst of the abuse is reserved for the segregated black boys that lie at the center of Whitehead’s story.

The prologue introduces us to the corrupt nature of the Nickel Academy (the Dozier Academy mentioned above) and foreshadows the ominous future that awaits the boys sentenced to the reform school. A mass grave is discovered by a 21st-century construction crew and we are shown glimpses of the troubling world of 1950’s and 1960’s Nickel reform, full of secret graveyards, beating houses, and get-rich schemes. This discovery temporarily interrupts construction of a not-important building, prompting Whitehead to remark that “even in death the boys were in trouble.” The graveyard was a finally validation to claims that had been aired by survivors of Nickel for a half-century. Yet, highlighting the powerlessness of supposed “troubled black youth”, Whitehead writes that “no one believed them until someone else said it.”

From there, the book follows main character Elwood and reads like a part fictional memoir/part overview of African-American history and culture – Elwood’s early life is littered with segregation, civil rights, and, contradictorily, a directive (from his grandmother, Harriet) to stay in his lane. He was a third-generation worker at the Richmond Hotel, although we learn his mother and father deserted him and moved to California, leaving him in the care of his grandmother. In the midst of his time at Nickel, we are given some context to Elwood’s family life, especially the restrained behavior of his grandmother. We find out that the unfortunate circumstances which have levelled Elwood’s optimism have plagued generation after generation of black men in his family, demonstrating that Elwood’s future situation is not a simple case of “wrong place at the wrong time” but an example of systematic racism against blacks in most facets of life, from criminal justice, to housing, to government assistance.  

Despite the prodding from Harriet, Whitehead creates an idealistic Elwood character, one who seemed to live by his own set of moral conduct, a genuine belief in morality regardless of personal consequences. As a reader, this was sometimes hard to believe, but serves well to highlight the amount of systemic racism in place – to this writer it reminded me of the adage a black person must work twice as hard to get half as far. Even Elwood’s superior intellect and rationale cannot save him from a corrupt system of oppression that only sees color, not character. Whitehead ties Elwood closely with MLK, modeling Elwood’s defining mindset from a quote from King at Zion Hill – “We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of every life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.” Elwood never seems to grasp that others in the school may have had a promising future just like him – through his vision (as the new kid) they others all seem hardened by the school they lived.

Pre-Nickel Academy Elwood seems to grow with the Civil Rights Movement, at first hearing about and then participating in marches, sit-ins, and boycotts synonymous with the era. Whitehead fools the reader a bit here – we know the noble Elwood winds up in reform school and it was easy to picture the march he takes part in as the beginning of his delinquency. Instead, a long line of morally-correct-yet-individually-disastrous decisions lead him on a disadvantageous path – one that winds up with him hitchhiking in a car on the way to college. Predictably, he runs into trouble with the white law enforcement on a southern road, upending the promising future Whitehead painted for him.

Once Elwood is at Nickel, Whitehead builds the tension by narrating things that Elwood notices. Scars on other boys. Hunting dogs. Graveyards. A White House that no one goes near voluntarily. All throughout, the men in charge of Nickel seem to be convinced they are the moral saviors of wandering youth. There is an arbitrary ranking system at Nickel, one in which you can win your freedom by rising four levels by deeds and acts deemed virtuous. The “students” (Nickel portrays itself as a school, remember) are separated into dorms, their lives largely dictated by superiors who students attempt to avoid at all costs.

Elwood at first sees Nickel as a simple setback – he will do all he can to achieve everything at Nickel as fast as he can. He is not like these boys, he reasons. He is virtuous and industrious, capable of more than most if he simply followed the moral principles that guided his life – and supposedly guide the institution.  Unfortunately, his righteous behavior again is punished, this time with a trip to the White House – the name of a place for midnight beatings and punishments. The final portions of the book bounce us back and forth from the rest of Elwood’s time at the Academy to a post-graduate Elwood living in New York. The tension mounts as we realize that most, but not all, of Elwood’s pre-Nickel aspirations have dissipated (for instance, he has no college education but rather has just received his GED), his moralistic inclinations have been mitigated, and his general outlook is much more pessimistic than the character from the middle passages of the book. In one portion Whitehead narrates his character thinking he had “outwitted Nickel because he got along and kept out of trouble. In fact, he had been ruined. He was like one of those Negroes Dr. King spoke of in his letter from jail, so complacent and sleepy after years of oppression that they had adjusted to it and learned to sleep in it as their only bed.” This is in direct contradiction to the “somebody-ness” King and Elwood had strove for in the beginning of the book. We know something drastic has happened; it is not until Whitehead revealed the final weeks of Elwood’s time at the academy that the reader realizes that the events were worse than they probably imagined.

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Book Review: Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey

Provocative as in to provoke, as in to provoke interest. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: conversation is flirtation.

Miranda Popkey, Topics of Conversation

I greatly enjoyed Topics of Conversation, Miranda Popkey’s debut novel, although I toiled through the first seventy pages or so and I started writing a very different review than what this one turned out to be. I had heard that the book was a provocative read, and I was ready to immediately like it. However, like conversations, which can often have awkward beginnings, the promised snark and sexiness took a while to develop. Topics of Conversation is not an instant gratification read to be sure – the reader will need to spend some time with this one.

In a series of vignettes, an unnamed female protagonist offers glimpses into discrete periods of her life from college and graduate school, to marriage, divorce, and motherhood. The chapters center around conversations the protagonist has with women she knows as she attempts to reconcile female desire, her dislike of decision-making, her antipathy toward marriage, and the all-encompassing-ness of motherhood with societal expectations and norms regarding the same. The narrator’s thought processes are interpolated into these conversations, making the narrative difficult to follow at times, but faithfully representing how we experience internal dialogue during actual conversations.

I’m not, she said, disturbing you? And when I said no she asked what I was writing and I said, A letter to my boyfriend, and then, Or, not my boyfriend, we broke up, before the summer. This was not quite accurate. I’m going to graduate school, I added. He didn’t want to follow you? Artemisia asked. I laughed and she frowned and I said, quickly, It’s just that I’m young and he’s got a job in New York and it didn’t, a helpless hand gesture, come up. If we’d been, and here I paused because I hadn’t yet lied outright and didn’t want to, didn’t want to lie to her, and yet explaining the situation also seemed impossible, but then Artemisia smiled and I stopped talking, relieved. Ready, she said. You were going to say, If we’d been ready. Ready to get married, yes? This was not what I had been going to say. Of course it was true that I wasn’t ready to get married, but this wasn’t the problem, the problem was that my boyfriend, who was also my former professor, already was.

Miranda Popkey, Topics of Conversation

At first, I thought that I didn’t care for Popkey’s writing style – it is very stream-of-consciousness and rather jumpy, like you’re listening in on a real conversation (hmmm). I’ve struggled to get into some authors’ writing styles before, and this time it took me longer than usual, but I think it had more to do with the editing than the writing itself. I found myself mentally creating new paragraphs or changing punctuation in order to make the writing flow better, which is not something I generally like to do while trying to enjoy a book. It was distracting.

About one-third of the way through the novel I stopped reading for about a week. With me, that’s usually not a good sign. But I wanted to finish, so I did some research on Popkey and read some of her other writing. Reading some of her extensive non-fiction pieces, I got a better feel for her writing style and voice. Her book and play reviews are insightful and I can see that her reflections on the work of others greatly influenced Topics of Conversation

There is, below the surface of every conversation in which intimacies are shared, an erotic current. Sometimes this current is so hot it all but boils and other times it’s barely lukewarm, hardly noticeable, but always the current is present, if only you plunge your hands just an inch or two farther down in the water. This is regardless of the gender of the people involved, of their sexual orientations. This is the natural outcome of disclosure, for to disclose is to reveal, to bring out into the open what was previously hidden. And that unwrapping, that denuding, is always, inevitably sensual. Nothing binds two people like sharing a secret. 

Miranda Popkey, Topics of Conversation

After my reading hiatus I picked up Topics of Conversation again. Now the narrative kept me turning the pages until well past midnight. Perhaps it was that the writing seemed to flow better after the first few chapters, or I had just finally adjusted to the style. Besides the better overall flow of the writing, the narrative itself became more interesting, more focused, and there was more continuity between chapters.

In a recent interview with Longreads, Popkey described how initially she was working on short stories during her MFA. After a suggestion from a visiting professor, she decided to turn the stories into a novel, what would become Topics of Conversation. I think this short-stories-beginning is evident, particularly in the first several chapters. It’s also telling how Popkey talks about the way in which she crafted the first chapters versus the later ones:

“It’s funny, the first few stories, I wrote them and it didn’t feel like I was making anything up. But especially the later ones I was like ‘Okay, I need another story. I need another conversation. How do I maneuver my character into an encounter with someone who’s in some way different from the people she’s had conversations with before? How can the conversation she has be illuminating in a way that conversations previous have not been?’”

Popkey continued: “I know that is basically what writing is, but it felt wrong! The bits that I wrote latest, to me they’re so clearly serving a purpose. There are parts of the book that feel pure because I didn’t think about them when I was writing them, and then there are parts that are me as a writer working really hard to get things to happen, and because I can see myself behind the scenes doing all the work, it just is so sweaty.”

The chapters which Popkey said she had to work the hardest at are the chapters that I enjoyed the most. As a writer myself, I find this endlessly fascinating – how other writers “do it” – and I’ve had very similar experiences with my own fiction. Sometimes it just flows out of you nearly fully formed, other times you’re wrenching it out with a pair of heavy-duty pliers and then hammering at it with a pick-ax – getting sweaty.

“The bottom of the deep end was not tile or plastic or ceramic or stone. Instead it was a video screen.” Kelly Hydrick, digital illustration

Just as the prose changes, the protagonist also transforms subtly throughout the novel, from young, impressionable college girl to a jaded, but more self-aware woman. Although, in the novel, just as in life, change doesn’t equal happiness, doesn’t equal closure, doesn’t equal understanding. There is an absolutely enlightening, yet cringe-worthy, conversation she has with other single mothers where she wrongly assumes certain things and subsequently gets her ass handed to her. She is just as uncertain about a lot of things at the end of the book as in the beginning. The difference though, is she has grown into this uncertainty, and we as readers have come through her interactions and thoughts with her to arrive at a place where she’s mostly ok with herself and her life.

Through the eyes of one woman, Topics of Conversation examines what it can mean to be socialized as female in today’s society. In a 2018 review of Mary Robison’s novel Why Did I Ever, Popkey wrote of Robison that “she was only trying to faithfully represent the chaos that is lived experience.” I think much the same can be said of Popkey’s novel which depicts the disorder of everyday thoughts and conversations. Popkey’s ability to write this chaos is evidence of her talent, and I look forward to seeing what she writes in the future.

Topics of Conversation
by Miranda Popkey

215 pages

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On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a transformative and inspiring book. The author, Ocean Vuong, was born in Saigon, was not literate in English until age 11, and yet has wrote some of the most eloquent poetry and fiction in the language over the past five years. On Earth is Vuong’s first piece of long-form fiction, yet it reads as a real-life memoir of a coming-of-age son writing a letter to a powerful yet distant mother. Vuong creates imagery so jarring and punctuates the scenery with emotion so intense that you cannot help but feel that this is only part fictionalized and that the author draws heavily from his own past in its creation.

Vuong’s main character is known as Little Dog, and the beginning words (“Let me begin again…”) suggest that this version is not his first attempt to convey his feelings. The audience is his mother, yet he reveals that he can only be so open with the stories set to flow out of his soul onto the paper because he thinks there is very little chance she will ever read it. (Ma, as Little Dog calls her, does not grasp English.) He traces his history from the Vietnam War, where his Vietnamese grandmother Nan meets Paul, a white American soldier. It is revealed in the book that Paul is not his true grandfather, but Little Dog insists he is truly family “through action.” This past coincides with Vuong’s real life, where his grandmother and grandfather truly do meet because of the Vietnam War. (In a poetry piece from 2016, Vuong writes No Bombs=No Family=No Me.)

As Little Dog traverses the various components of coming-of-age in America, we are introduced to factors that make his experience unique. The strands of homosexuality, the immigrant experience, and class conflict are woven together to form a mosaic of obstacles in Little Dog’s life, yet the words that flow from his pen evoke emotions of a reluctant embrace of his lukewarm standing in the world. He seems to never be an ostracized outcast because he oscillates between worlds, yet never fully accepted because he can’t plant both feet on the ground.

As Little Dog deals with the complexities of his haphazard sexual, racial, and economic standing in late-twentieth-century and early-twenty-first-century Hartford, we see other perils of modern society develop around him – opiate addiction, the absence of health care, violence, and a gay sexual tension hidden to those around him. It is through these trials that Vuong evokes the mastery of the English language, describing feelings and emotions in a poetic prose that pulsates with beauty and wonder from paragraph to paragraph. Sometimes it is tragic (“I’m not telling you a story so much as a shipwreck…”), sometimes profound (“To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.”)

The persistent theme throughout the Little Dog’s journey is that we are constantly in a sort of transition – from place to place, form to form, being to being, life to life. Vuong remarks that we often think of things as their briefest yet most beautiful (or ugly form) form (a bloomed rose, an uncocooned butterfly, a firing squad) yet the process that results in those things can be just as profound as the final product – their true nature just a fleeting moment in a greater scheme of transition.

Towards the end of the book, Vuong punctuates this point by describing death in Saigon. When death occurs at inopportune times and city coroners can’t immediately come pronounce a death, there is a limbo where the person is neither alive nor officially dead. Neighbors of the deceased developed a tradition of hiring drag dancers to “delay sadness” and to attempt to heal. In a world where being queer was still a sin, for a short while, these otherwise taboo dancers became an appropriate response to an unreal state of being. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a testament to this transitory nature – leaving the reader to ponder beauty, growth, decay, and rebirth through what we value and cherish or lose and mourn.

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Local Author Spotlight: Wendy O’Leary

Our most popular book through the Christmas season and to begin the new year is local author Wendy O’Leary’s Breathing Makes It Better. I conducted the following interview with Wendy to shed some insight into her motivation for writing the children’s book.

R&P: What is your academic background and how has your education led you down the path of mental wellbeing?

Wendy: I have a M. Ed. with a focus in Health and Wellness.  Much of my undergraduate and graduate studies also crossed over into Psychology, which has also been an area of interest.  Following my formal education, I continued to educate myself by taking classes, workshops and participating in multiple certification programs which supported a career direction focused on children and youth wellness.

Though my academic background and formal education is connected to my current work, in truth it is my personal experience and, in particular, my own mindfulness practice that converged with my desire to help children that put me on this particular path. I saw in my own life, the power and possibilities available through the practice of mindfulness.  Having worked with young people I knew how beneficial it could be if we only tailored these skills to met the needs and learning styles of young people. I began reading everything I could on this topic and taking courses and programs to support my learning.  I researched mental health modalities that utilize mindfulness, investigated and looked at research behind yoga and mindfulness for children and took classes to support a deep dive into this field.

I was training myself to learn about ways to support individuals (children, families and even adults) by teaching tools and skills and helping individuals access their own capacity for well being based on my own personal experience as well as post graduate classes and programs. I believe the potential for well being and happiness resides in each of us and finding age appropriate ways to support the development of these skills in children has been a passion ever since.

R&P: At the store, you have told me you have less interest in being known as an author than in exposing others to the book as a “tool” for children. Have you had any incidents where these two agendas conflict?

I remember that conversation and the context.  First I would be remiss if I didn’t confess that I am very excited about the publication of my first book and being an author.  That said, being an author wasn’t really ever on my radar. My passion has been teaching and specifically teaching skills and strategies that could be of benefit to others, especially children and their families. 

I began writing when I was teaching many years ago and wrote “stories” as teaching tools that were tied to the concepts and skills I was sharing with children and the people who care for them.  These stories gave me another vehicle to share my message with children.  Now having the book published has added the possibility of spreading that message and teaching beyond my personal reach in the community and that is very exciting.  I recently saw that a woman in Australia posted about the benefits of my book and that meant so much to me!

For me this is about intention.  My intention is to get these skills and tools into the hands of individuals who could benefit by using them. So my focus isn’t necessarily to write books but to have books as a vehicle to help children. I am passionate about the possibilities inherent in this way of being in the world and think it is so important in our society and we need to start with the children. What better way to do this then through the reach of a book.

So far these two perspectives haven’t conflicted.  In fact, I have found that being focused on my intention has helped me to be clear on what I do and how I do it.  For example, I confess that I struggle with social media both personally and from a technology aspect.  Just ask my adult children who have been recruited to help me!  However, when I frame my need to be on social media as a way to get this book in more hands and get more people to experience the benefits of mindfulness then it helps me to get on board.  More generally, I am uncomfortable with the self-promotion aspect of being an author. However, when I am able to be really clear that what I am promoting isn’t myself as an author but is this book and these teachings that I know can be useful to so many, it no longer feels like self promotion. 

R&P: Besides writing, do you offer the community any other services?

Yes!  I am so passionate about the benefits of mindfulness and love having the opportunities to share with others.

My work with young people includes direct instruction with children as well as professional development for staff on strategies for emotional regulation Pre K – high school.  Most of what I teach is mindfulness based strategies and I do that in schools and non profit organizations.  I also do workshops and programs for parents on mindfulness as well as workshops for professional organizations.  I am excited to be working with prospective teachers at a local college so that these tools and skills can be integrated into their professional training which I feel is essential to make access to these practices sustainable and systemic.

In addition, I work with adults and facilitate several weekly mindfulness groups  and run programs tied to mindfulness. I am facilitating a monthly book group where we read a book connected to mindfulness and support each other in integrating the practices into our lives. My most popular program has been a workshop series on happiness!

For more information on my work people can check out my website at www.wendyoleary.com

R&P: What is the best way to support children’s happiness?

Love this question!! Please see my blog on this very topic.

Blog – Supporting Children’s Happiness

R&P: We often hear that breathing is an art – how does the breath help people who are angry or sad?

I like to teach about attention to breathing as an anchor to the present moment.  Paying attention to the breath gives us the ability to drop our story that is fueling the feeling and also helps us to come back to what is actually happening in the moment.  It supports the calming of the nervous system and creates a pause between the stimulus (what is happening to lead to the feelings) and the response (how we typically react to those feelings). Though our focus and practice is on paying attention to the breathing, slower breathing it is worth mentioning that diaphragmatic breathing (belly breathing) and a longer exhale is especially beneficial to bring the parasympathetic nervous system online and support the calming of body and mind.

R&P: In the book, you say that the book was inspired by Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. His library is extensive – what in particular struck you about his work?

Thich Nhat Hanh is an amazing teacher and his books have been an inspiration to me in many ways.  I feel so grateful that I was able to see him teach in person many years ago. In fact, the first book on mindfulness that I read was given to me by a dear friend and was a Thich Nhat Hanh book called Peace Is Every Step.

One of the practices that he teaches is using the breath and imagery for the cultivation of well being. 

For example:

Breathing in I am a mountain, breathing out I am secure

in mountain, out secure

in mountain,  out secure

As you see in our book we also use the idea of tapping into our capacity for imagery to cultivate states of well being and in particular imagery tied to nature.  Just yesterday a kindergartener in one of my classes said when “I am in nature it helps me feel calm.”  We want to teach children how to tap into that inner resource. Even if they aren’t in nature, they can cultivate that sense of how it feels.  The other skills integrated into this book include, naming the feeling, which we know is incredibly powerful to bring the prefrontal cortex back on line (or the wise librarian as I tell the children). We also encourage children to pay attention to where they feel the emotion in their body.  Finally of course, using your breath as an anchor to calm the nervous system (alarm as I call it for little ones) is the key focus throughout the book.  More information about these strategies and additional practices are included in the blog I wrote in connection with the book.

Blog – Breathing Makes It Better

R&P: To parents that buy the book, you included a practice section to help children. How can parents encourage their children to do this breathing? Forcing them seems counter-productive.

This is such an important question!  Please, do not force this or make it yet another thing on the to do list!  Mindfulness has certain attitudinal factors which make it useful and among them is curiosity, patience and acceptance. I do an entire session on tips for adults who want to teach mindfulness to children which addresses this issue.  Briefly some suggestions would include not starting to practice in the midst of a problem.  You want to give your child a chance to learn the skill so it is accessible when needed.  You wouldn’t practice a piano piece for the first time at the music recital. Start slow and support your child being curious about how they are feeling and what they can do about it. Make it fun and connecting…..there are lots of practices that support connection between adults and children and it is great to get a morning and/or bedtime routine that includes mindfulness and the calming and collecting of the mind and body. I am actually beginning to post on my instagram account a weekly practice or tip for practice with children so if people want to follow me they can learn more….this really could be an entire workshop!

@wendy_oleary_mindfulmatters

R&P: Any final words?

I would like to express my gratitude to my co-author Dr. Christopher Willard who is an incredibly talented individual and is an equally kind person and to our illustrator Alea Marley for her incredible illustrations, which brought the story to life.

I also want to share the Educators Guide, which has some “book specific” information and also has some additional mindfulness tools.

Breathing Makes It Better Educators Guide

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Land of Tears by Robert Harms

In Land of Tears, Yale historian Robert Harms ties together the Arabian, French, and Belgian “opening” of the Congo River in the interior of Africa in the late 19th-century. Historians have previously studied the Belgian, French, and Arabic settlements as individual, independent entities. Harms argues, however, that these settlements were more reliant on and reactive to one another than historians have previously given them credit for. The interconnected history is a much more introspective read – one that allows us to travel from the Congo to Paris, from London to Brussels (and even in Harm’s backyard in Connecticut) in the late 19th-century. Harm’s talent is achieving this feat without the reader feeling as if they are in a globalization tailspin of actors and actresses.

The three main sources Harms uses are Henry Stanley Morgan, an American explorer working for King Leopold of Belgium, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, who was employed by France, and Tippu Tip, a governor-type figure for the Sultan of Zanzibar, a tiny microstate off the eastern coast of Africa. These three men would carve out claims on the interior of Africa through diplomacy, force, economic pressure, and outright exploitation and chicanery, although to different degrees and often without the intent of the devastation they would cause.

The initial chapters of Land of Tears are a foray into equatorial Africa pre-1870. One of the first motifs Harms addresses is the pervasion of Africa as the “dark continent” by turn-of-the-20th-century chroniclers who described the interior of Africa as a land of cannibalism, isolation, low economic activity, and demonic religious practices. 19th-century Europeans frequently cite the laziness of the men in African societies and the lack of developed government/civic/religious institutions as proof of the backwardness of indigenous cultures. (Researchers of Native American history will undoubtedly find similar charges against the indigenous peoples of America.)

The leaders of the incursion into Africa argued that westerners could bring Civilization, Christianity, and Commerce to the continent. (These buzzwords are really just cover for pillage, exploitation, and rape of the land, but shhh.) The Atlantic slave trade had receded throughout the early-to-middle 19th-century and altruistic statesmen saw African slavery as their cause du jour, justifying their presence in the region and intrusion into domestic affairs of the faraway communities, although these were largely pretenses for economic ambition and enrichment.

(Slavery did exist, but it was demonstrably different than the American version I was most familiar with. Harms reports there were four classes in the interior of equatorial Africa. The first were rural slaves who worked the land for owners. Yet, these workers had days off to grow their own food for themselves and their family and could take a food surplus to town for sale. A second group, urban slaves often working as porters – split pay with the master.  Concubines was a third class whose descendants could inherit rights to a plantation of and even become sultan. A fourth category – trusted guards of powerful men, could rise to power in a sort of meritocracy.)

Harms demonstrates that there were dynamic systems of land use, trade, and economic mobility already prevalent in the region prior to 1870. For instance, small African power brokers had developed boundaries and trade areas through centuries of barter, war, and utilization of the natural geography, allowing various ethnic groups to control divisions of the Congo River, sending goods (including slaves) east (to the sultan in Zanzibar) or west (to Atlantic ports) depending on price and ease of transport.

The bulk of the book, however, covers the destruction of the Congo basin by European statesmen and explorers acting under the guise of humanitarian missions. One particular chapter Harms calls the “Torrent of Treaties” shows in heartbreaking fashion how quickly African leaders lost control of their realms as European powers raced to claim their stake in the region. Perhaps the most famous conference to decide the fate of Africa was the Berlin Conference in 1884-85, a farce that allowed European nations to rape the continent of resources by developing a system where European nations exercised control over the region. No African states or leaders were represented at the convention.

The stories, as in any slave/colonization narrative, are utterly gut-wrenching. Here, Harms describes the implementation of concession companies, groups formed with the sole intent of maximizing the procurement of rubber. (Ivory, the main focus of earlier exploitation, had become too rare to provide consistent revenue.) The stationary Europeans resorted to drastic measures to force the locals to acquire the product, forcing rubber frontiers to shift further and further from their permanent posts. The extensive travel to active vines made village life unmanageable, yet Europeans showed no compassion when villagers were short of their quota. Sometimes the commissioners of the concession companies would shoot an “employee” dead on the spot if they showed up with less than necessary, other times they would hold the women and children of a man captive until the quota was met.

Still, despite these ubiquitous harsh methods, King Leopold authorized a Colonial Exhibition in Tervuren in 1897 where happy Congolese paraded around the Belgian city, supposedly thankful for the opening of Africa to the rest of the world. Despite these charades, some in the European community were still wise to the worst of European colonization. A young French philosophy teacher remarked in  1909 that the land reminded him of the ‘Land of Tears’ in Dante’s Inferno, recording “Abandon all hope; rivulets of blood; land of tears; abyss of pain; regions of eternal grievance…For as long as I live, I will retain the sadness of having seen a genuine hell with my own eyes.” Harms derived the name of his book after this description, written less than a generation after the Europeans had even mapped out the area.

Harms bounces back and forth between the actions of de Brazza, Stanley, and Tippu Tip, and while on the surface this may seem confusing to the reader, it is the only effective way to demonstrate the way each was acting within the ripple effects of the others. Land of Tears is meticulously researched and uses the journals of a bevy of explorers, commissioners, statesmen and soldiers to convey information to the reader. While the sources tilt decidedly toward European origin, Harms uses ethnographical and anthropological research to fill the void left by the loss of African primary sources. The result is a ‘glocal’ work similar to Harm’s previous work The Diligent – a piece that focuses on local transformations within global contexts.

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Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt

*Note: This review has been updated (as of 1/25/2020) to reflect the controversy surrounding the author and her depiction of the migrant experience, a story that she arguably had little right to tell. I failed to consider this information when I wrote my review, but I am including it now after several people (thank you!) brought it to my attention.

I honestly missed the controversy surrounding American Dirt, and now I’m wondering how this happened. How did I read this book and get so far into my positive opinion of it without hearing about this awfulness? Upon further reflection, I know how it happened: I’m a white person who read this book, enjoyed it, and never thought twice about reading what Latinx people thought about it. I try very hard to be conscious of and examine my own white privilege, but this time, reading this book, failed to. Thank you to everyone who brought the controversy to my attention.

Here is my original review, with a few edits to address clarity and typos, that now includes my commentary on the controversy and social impact of American Dirt:

One of the very first bullets comes in through the open window above the toilet where Luca is standing. He doesn’t immediately understand that it’s a bullet at all, and it’s only luck that it doesn’t strike him between the eyes. Luca hardly registers the mild noise it makes as it flies past and lodges into the tiled wall behind him. But the wash of bullets that follows is loud, booming, and thudding, clack-clacking with helicopter speed. There is a raft of screams, too, but that noise is short-lived, soon exterminated by the gunfire. Before Luca can zip his pants, lower the lid, climb up to look out, before he has time to verify the source of that terrible clamor, the bathroom door swings open and Mami is there.
Mijo, ven,” she says, so quietly that Luca doesn’t hear her.
Her hands are not gentle; she propels him toward the shower.

American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins

So begins American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins’ newest novel, a gut-wrenching tale about the lengths to which people go in order to escape unimaginable violence and make a better life for themselves and their families. The novel has been called The Grapes of Wrath for our time, and there are certainly a few similarities between this timely American epic and Steinbeck’s classic about 1930’s Dust Bowl migrations.

Lydia is a solidly middle-class Mexican woman. She owns a successful independent bookstore in Acapulco where she lives with her journalist husband, Sebastián, and their eight year old son, Luca. She reads voraciously, enjoys occasional restaurant meals with her husband, worries about money and bills; but, she also worries about the fact that there are fewer tourists in the city due to increasing violence. 

Underneath the veneer of resort-chic the residents of Acapulco suffer. Drug-cartels rule the city and exact revenge on anyone who steps out of line. Heinous crimes perpetrated by the cartels go unsolved due to corruption within the government and police force with many employees on the cartel payrolls, earning “three times more than what they earn from the government.” 

Recently a new cartel, Los Jardineros, have taken over the city. Commanded by the charismatic but ruthless La Lechuza, their brutal control tactics have led to a temporary reduction in the violence. But a chance encounter leading to an intense friendship between Lydia and La Lechuza changes everything.

After an act of extreme savagery, Lydia and Luca are forced to flee Acapulco with virtually nothing. Transformed by their situation, they become migrantes and join the exodus to el norte. Braving the unspeakable, they attempt to reach the one place where La Lechuza and his cronies can’t follow.

Luca jumps. And every molecule in Lydia’s body jumps with him. She sees him, the tight tuck of him, how small he is, how absurdly brave he is, his muscles and bones, his skin and hair, his thoughts and words and ideas, the very bigness of his soul, she sees all of him in the moment when his body leaves the safety of the overpass and flies, just momentarily, upward because of the effort of his exertion, until gravity catches him and he descends toward the top of La Bestia.

American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins

Cummins’ driven prose tells the story mostly from Lydia’s perspective, as she and her son make their way north through Mexico. Occasionally, the book dips into Luca’s thoughts allowing us a glimpse into a child’s heartbreak and resilience. Forced to ride atop dangerous cargo trains, Lydia and Luca must maintain constant vigilance against abduction, robbery, or being caught by La Lechuza’s men. 

All of the characters, even the villains, are masterfully developed into believable, multi-faceted human beings. On the journey, Lydia and Luca forge bonds with other migrants, whose stories of suffering are remarkably similar to their own. Nearly every migrant they meet along the way has left their homes and families under duress. If they could have stayed, they would have. 

Cummins weaves up to date immigration politics into the narrative in a way that feels natural and unforced. Lydia hears from other migrant women about the US family separation policy. Vigilante border patrols in the US and cartel sponsored immigration officers in Mexico both make an appearance. Even the current US president is alluded to when a Mexican immigration officer jokes about the migrants he and his men have captured: 

“They’re […] like the norteño president says. Bad hambres.” He mispronounces the word hombres in the style of the US president who, attempting to call migrants bad men, inadvertently referred to them as bad hunger instead. It’s a joke now, full of irony. Bad hunger.

American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins

Sometimes it feels like Cummins included everything that could possibly happen to immigrants in the story. That might, in other novels, be overkill. Ultimately though, the narrative is so gripping, and in reality the events do happen to so many, that this is not a drawback. Including these events allows the reader to conceptualize the pathos of an “Everymigrant.” 

I feel privileged that I wasn’t born into circumstances of poverty and violence which forces people to flee their homes. The character of Lydia also is a privileged woman and I recognized myself in her. In a flashback, she recalls the “pang of emotion” she felt upon hearing about the migrant caravans making their way through Mexico:

<“That pang Lydia felt had many parts: it was anger at the injustice, it was worry, compassion, helplessness. But in truth, it was a small feeling, and when she realized she was out of garlic, the pang was subsumed by domestic irritation. Dinner would be bland.”>

I have had these thoughts, these big “small feelings,” which have then vanished in the hubbub of life. Reading American Dirt allowed me to consider what I would do if I had to leave my home under duress – literally, what would I take, where would I go, how would I get there? And this is what good fiction should do. Good fiction should allow the reader to step into another’s shoes, walk awhile, then return with greater understanding and empathy because of where they’ve been. But as readers we should not stop there. 

As several people pointed out to me within days of the original posting of this review, many in the Latinx community were angered at how American Dirt has depicted the experiences of migrants. The novel has been called trauma porn written by a woman, who self-identified as white up until 2015, telling a story she had no right to tell. As a white, middle-class, American woman, the fact that I so easily recognized myself in Lydia is indicative of some of the controversy surrounding the novel. 

Parul Sehgal’s review in The New York Times criticizes Cummins’ writing style, but more importantly she states:

“The deep roots of these forced migrations are never interrogated; the American reader can read without fear of uncomfortable self-reproach. It asks only for us to accept that “these people are people,” while giving us the saintly to root for and the barbarous to deplore — and then congratulating us for caring.”

This is a true statement. The novel never alludes to the bloody colonial history of Mexico and Central America or the continued US capitalist-imperialist incursions into these countries which have caused so many of the problems leading to migration in the first place. Indeed, the only negative things said about the US are brief mentions of immigration policy; otherwise “el norte” is pedestalized as a “promised land.” The US has much complicity in creating the conditions that lead people to flee their homes. Perhaps in the hands of a different author this issue would not have been completely ignored.

In the end, it is not enough to just read a book like this, empathize with the characters, and then feel good about doing so. In her review, Sehgal also wrote: 

“I’m of the persuasion that fiction necessarily, even rather beautifully, requires imagining an “other” of some kind. As the novelist Hari Kunzru has argued, imagining ourselves into other lives and other subjectives is an act of ethical urgency. The caveat is to do this work of representation responsibly, and well.” 

While an author should make sure they are responsibly depicting their subject matter, we as readers aren’t completely passive. Perhaps equally as important as the act of reading are the discussions we have after a book has been closed. And these discussions must automatically include listening to the real voices of people depicted in a work of fiction. 

In this case, Latinx voices are what sparked criticism of the book, criticisms which “stem from the author’s background and arguably unfounded sense of ownership over the Latinx border experience.” These are the voices to be listening to. Mexican-American author, Myriam Gurba (I will definitely be reading all of her work in the near future!), wrote a devastating, but also devastatingly funny, review of American Dirt that really gets to the heart of the matter. According to Gurba, Cummins got a lot wrong about Mexico and Mexican day-to-day life, she utilizes dangerous stereotypes and clichés, and she wrote the character of Lydia as if she’s experiencing her own country “through the eyes of a pearl-clutching American tourist.” 

I understand why there has been an outcry against the novel, but I also think it is a gripping work of fiction, a thought that I’ve been struggling with since reading about the controversy. Esmeralda Bermudez, a reporter with the Los Angeles Times, wrote, “This is a wonderful, melodramatic telenovela, something I would love watching for cheap entertainment, like a narco-thriller on Netflix. But this should not be called by anyone ‘the great immigrant novel, the story of our time, The Grapes of Wrath.’”

As many of the negative reviews have pointed out, there are many, many migrant stories written by actual immigrants to this country who understand the immigrant experience. But these stories have once again been sidelined by the largely white publishing industry in favor of “a book overflowing with sloppy Mexican stereotypes meant to stir pleasure through pity.” Cummins told a story that was not hers to tell and in a way that glorifies trauma for the benefit of a “mass, racially ‘colorblind’” audience and for a hefty profit. Twitter user Andrew Zubiri put it well when he wrote: “A person’s trauma should never be someone else’s aesthetic.” And as Gurba explained, this type of feel-good “trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf” makes all too frequent an appearance in the literary world at the expense of other Latinx voices. 

American Dirt and the controversy surrounding it are supreme arguments for why we all should read and discuss fiction. Knowing what I know now, the only way I can recommend the novel is if readers consider it within the context of opinions and voices from the Latinx community, and grapple with why it is so problematic for a white, non-immigrant woman to tell this story. This might be the historian in me coming out, but I think American Dirt could be a very readable commentary on modern immigration when examined along with the controversy surrounding it. However, I fear a lot of people, a lot of white people, probably will not read the book with this context in mind, just as I did at first. They will take the story at face value without examining the inherent problems of an outsider writing about the extremely painful and personal experiences of so many people.

The furor surrounding American Dirt could offer an incredible teaching moment. The book is out in the world now: people will read it; Latinx voices have been passed over and silenced while Cummins benefits from the book sales, movie deal, and publicity of being selected for Oprah’s Book Club – all of this damage has been done. Now, it’s up to readers to examine our views and preconceived notions about who has the right to tell certain stories. Then, we should support Latinx authors and read what is being written by those who have actually lived these stories. 

***

Some of the books about the migrant experience as recommended in the reviews linked above:
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo – Children of the Land
Reyna Grande – Across a Hundred Mountains
Sonia Nazario –  Enrique’s Journey
Luis Alberto Urrea –  Across the Wire and By the Lake of Sleeping Children

American Dirt
by Jeanine Cummins

386 pages

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How to Love a Country by Ricardo Blanco

I read (and write) a lot of poetry. Some poems are an exotic hor’doeuvre, some are a rich and fanciful desert. Ricardo Blanco’s poems (I prefer the Spanish) are a full course dinner of steak and potatoes. You can’t read a lot of them at once as there’s so much meat packed into them. You have to chew and savor them one at a time.

How to Love a Country explores overtly political themes on belonging in America from the personal perspective of a gay Cuban immigrant. Ricardo worked as a civil engineer in Miami and wrote poetry at night. Despite his professional background, he calls himself a “working class poet.” He prefers the accessible to the obscure, using common tropes and symbols that anyone in America would recognize, but welded in the furnace of the personal and poetic that gives them an entirely different meaning.

Blanco’s identity as a gay man is routinely erased in public. In a recent interview with Krista Tippett for the On Being podcast she noted that he was a Cuban-American and immigrant poet, but failed to mention that he was also a gay poet. He had to bring it up himself twice during the interview. Two of Blanco’s poems, “Until We Could, for Mark” about his marriage to his lover, and “One Pulse, One Poem”, on the massacre at Pulse Nightclub, will not let us forget his other marginalized identity. The poem he read for On Being was “América” from City of a Hundred Fires, published in 1998. It is the kind of ‘loving a country’ that you would expect from a child growing up between two cultures, the hyphen of the Cuban-American. (You can read several of Richard Blanco’s poems online here.)

Blanco’s latest work is a masterpiece of poetic prose, both personal and political. One of his poems, “Complaint of El Rio Grande” is a political poem about national borders that separate and kill, running through a river that joins earth, sea and sky. Another poem, “Election Year” is almost it’s opposite: how his connection with nature is the most profound sense of belonging he has, while the “election” is nothing more than distant background noise. Another poem from this latest collection, “Mother Country”, is from the heart of an older man looking back on the circumstances of his patriation.

In the political darkness of the Trump era, when many of us question why we should love America at all, Blanco’s poetry struggles with his own sense of exile, of belonging and not belonging, here or anywhere, in any country. It would appear from his bio that the poems were all written during the Obama era, at a time when it seemed easier to love a country, especially this one—but that’s not so. Many of the poems were written in the first years of the Trump era, when the ugliness and strife of anti-immigrant hatred shred our national fabric.

Particularly notable is “Let’s Remake America Great”, which is overtly anti-Trump, but also sardonic and funny, full of pop culture references from the 50s and 60s. How to Love a Country doesn’t resolve that sense of tension and grief for a country we lost; it tightrope-walks the sharp edges of conflicting emotions. The very first poem in How to Love a Country, “Declaration of Interdependence,” is perhaps his most patriotic, but also most universal, arguing that regardless of political divides and national boundaries, we simply cannot survive without each other.

How to Love a Country will be the focus of our first Queer Theory Collective readers & writers group at Root & Press café, Sunday January 12 at 2 PM. Root and Press has copies available now.

See: https://rootandpress.com/event/queer-theory-collective/

Contact Root and Press at rootandpress@gmail.com, 978-870-5429 or

Shaun Bartone, QTC coordinator, at sbartone22@gmail.com.