A Space For Expression and Introspection
A Space To Be Determined.
A Space To Be Determined.
His Favorites by Kate Walbert is a coming-of-age novel that asks for someone, anyone, to listen.
Told from the perspective of lead character Jo, as an adult, the novel dives into her trauma head on, avoiding any bushes to beat around.
For the entirety of the novel, Jo is detailing her experiences to a detective in an effort to try and heal. Desperate for someone to believe her, “This is not a story I’ve told before. No one would believe me. I mean, really believe me,” (His Favorites, pg.3) Jo is telling her story for the first time in full. We learn that her trauma has been mounting on her shoulders ever since she was a teen. And we also learn throughout that she has been neglected during that same span.
In the early pages of the novel, it is revealed that she accidentally kills her best friend while they were hanging out one night. Her mother’s response was too move her away from what happened and try to move on with distance, instead of words. The problem with this was that it didn’t provide Jo with an outlet to express her true feelings. Thus, her emotions and her stories of grief are ignored.
Later on, she is abused by a perverted school teacher. One of his many victims, yet he seemed to like her a bit more than the rest it seemed given the title. When Jo talks with her friend and succeeding builds up the courage to speak on her abuser, her story is tossed into a patriarchal shredder and erased. Her story isn’t believed, and her feelings are disregarded, although this time being way more mal-intended.
By the end of the novel, Walbert asks readers to grapple with the idea that Jo’s story still isn’t believed, and that her feelings still aren’t regarded. It’s a stark reflection.
Heart Berries, a memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot, sees her wrangling with her past, her present, and her future, in an intense reflection on or of her life as a First Nations indigenous woman. Being that she is only in her thirties, it’s startling just how intense this memoir can get at times. Whether it be a domestic dispute that turned violent quick, or a gross moment in the shower, even losing a child. In Heart Berries, Mailhot doesn’t spare on the details of these events and she writes with a gritty nature that doesn’t pull any punches.
Based on the discussions held in class in relation to the article linked above, I started to wonder about the privilege of an individual who can state that the events of this novel in particular can be read as cliche. It’s sort of baffling in a way because, memoirs are supposed to be spaces where fiction isn’t a thing and the scenarios of the novel actually took place. For Mailhot, this book reads very personal, I can feel the passion of every word here.
So, how is it that this novel can be written with cliches? If something traumatic happened to an individual and that same individual uses words to explain their grief and pain then no matter how many times a reader has read that material, it should never be something that is considered redundant, or typical, as in the same experience as another.
And an argument could be made that the privilege to call someone else’s trauma cliche is within a readers right to say or do but, I think it’s also worth noting that if that reader truly believes that something is cliche in a memoir like this, maybe that should make them more upset at the reality of these traumas happening with such a frequency.
Looking at Kamila Shamsie’s novel Home Fire, there are many instances of characters doing things that could be considered wrong but, for the sake of someone they care about. Examples include, Aneeka’s relationship with Eamonn or Parvaiz’s departure to Syria, or even Isma telling the authorities about her brother’s leaving.
These characters in particular make complex choices that are hard to confine into a black and white lens. Focusing on Aneeka in particular, her number one goal is getting her brother back safely, despite his own leaving. So, when the son of a high-ranking official walks into her life one day, I wouldn’t blame her for taking that as more than a coincidence. Her relationship with him isn’t completely one-sided though, as she does have some feelings for him according to the text. Even still, her number one priority is Parvaiz.
Some would call her manipulative due to this fact. When people around Aneeka (even Eamonn himself), challenge her morals here she defends herself, citing her love for her brother as being worth it. Love for the people closest to you will draw a difficult hand from your deck sometimes. Shamsie shows that here.
On the back of the novel, where the synopsis reads, the last sentence asks what you would sacrifice for love. That question resonates throughout the book and for Aneeka, she is willing to do just about anything. That doesn’t make her a bad person at all, it makes her layered, it begs at least a hint of empathy on the behalf of the reader. When Isma tells on Parvaiz, Aneeka views her as a traitor for the rest of the novel pretty much. And while that is one way of viewing her, she can also be empathized with because she is only doing what she feels is right (I probably align closer with Aneeka here but, even still).
I guess my point is that a little empathy can go a long way. That doesn’t make choices right or wrong but, at least they can be understood a bit easier.
*In retrospect it probably would’ve been more efficient to write a comparative post for this novel and The Incendiaries. Ooops
The idea of belonging is ever-present in R.O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries. Whether it’s Phoebe struggling with losing her mother and sequentially her love of piano, or Will losing his faith and to an extent Phoebe, the novel centers round this theme of place. The central question being, where do I belong if not here?
These individual ordeals that are dealt to the characters are similar to the personal story of Kwon’s own loss of faith. In interviews, she refers to the emotional turmoil that followed with such a decision. Losing connections with family, friends, anyone associated with the faith who were unwilling to empathize. This is relevant because in the novel, Kwon shows just how far people will go in order to feel secure in a space, their own.
For Phoebe this means being swayed into an extremist cult led by someone prying on her loss and fear of abandonment (for the lack of a better term). It’s easy to sympathize with her in this novel if you understand her grief and desire for some sort of tether, something for her to latch on to. For Phoebe, her mother and piano were those tethers for a while. When those unhooked from her life, John Leal came around with a hook of his own. In argument could be made that she initially latched on to Will and then Leal. Point still stands that desperation set in, even if subconsciously. And although this story is told mainly from Will’s perspective, this I feel is the larger point.
I believe that Kwon was trying to demonstrate the desperation and angst involved with finding yourself and your place in the world. Phoebe is a tragic character who is desperate to belong, and she mirrors our own struggles even if in a more dramatic sense. We all don’t end up in some sort of extremist cult (although some have), we all may not love piano but, we all do want to be comfortable in our own identities. Everyone wants to feel like they belong somewhere, no matter where it is. The Incendiaries relays those ideas for me.
Another Brooklyn, the novel by Jacqueline Woodson, mentions early on this idea of jazz being this force that wasn’t available to August and her friends during their childhoods in Brooklyn. An interesting preposition given Jazz’s unique importance to the African-American experience as a whole. A bit further in the novel, August describes herself and her friends as a sort of jazz improv group. Jazz is a form of music that I very much enjoy myself, mainly because of how broad it can be.
Woodson seems to be painting August, Gigi, Sylvia, and Angela with brush strokes laced in jazz flare. Their quartet features a myriad of varying personalities that combine to form a shared experience of “growing up girl in Brooklyn” (pg. 3). Jazz provides its practitioners the opportunity to convey emotions through the music, through the beat of your drum, through the notes of your saxophone, etc. Jazz is very cathartic, as this novel could’ve been for Woodson, even if its not autobiographical. The chaotic nature of jazz is mirrored by the even more chaotic lives of the four girls mentioned here. Angela is repressing knowledge of her mother’s existence from her friends, August is grappling with not having a mother around to love her, Gigi is trying to keep the four together, and Sylvia is under the iron fist of an abusive father. Chaos surrounds these girls on a daily basis, same as the people who frequeted jazz bars back in the ‘20s. However, when these girls are together against their individual pain they create a force not known by many around them. This unity creates a shared bond that strengthens them in their plight, they each give the other something to root for amongst the chaos. The same as jazz does to this very day. Their bond is a jazz improv group, and that bond was a force to be reckoned with. Which is why it was sad that that bond was shattered under the micro-pressures of society at large. Together they were unstoppable because they had each other.
Sandra Cisneros is an inspiration of mine. A new one admittedly but an inspiration nonetheless. In the 25th anniversary edition of her novel, The House on Mango Street, Cisneros uses text and form to confront the rules of the society around her, and around all of us still. And although awareness is rising, the themes raised in this book are still relevant today.
When comparing this book (which I’m not) to Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, I find that while both books explore themes of friendship, yearning for a better life, girlhood/sexuality, etc. each novel explores these themes in varying ways. Cisneros in particular seems to be looking back with a child-like innocence. Having listened to the audiobook of this novel, I can attest to this even further. Woodson on the other hand seems to be writing from a reflective perspective and seems to have a darker outlook on the past. While I’m in no position to critique either’s reasoning for respective povs, I do think it’s interesting that Cisneros chooses to write in the way she does. As I said before, there seems to be an innocence rising from these words even though Esperanza herself is a teenager during the events of the novel. Children are very dream oriented and they seem to operate around the world being this big place revolving around them. Esperanza is a young girl who dreams of a house all her own, she wishes to escape from the clutches of poverty. Cisneros seems to be commenting on Esperanza’s hopes as child-like dreams in the face of reality around her. That reality being that young women can be swallowed up trying to advance themselves. Esperanza mentions her grandmother early on who is forced to reside behind the window of her home as she is now burdened with being wed to an inconsiderate spouse who forbids her from working out of the home. Esperanza mentions that she wants the home but not the seat behind a window, essentially waiting to die. Her grandmother’s story is a very sad one even through the eyes of a child and this story resonates throughout the entirety of the novel. In The House on Mango Street, Cisneros writes a young woman attempting to turn her dreams into a reality among a cesspool of darkness. The un-blurring of her potential greatness.
Imagine if you lived at Disney World everyday of your life. Imagine being able to wake up, open the curtains and see a beautiful sun rise on a new glorious day. No worries, just bliss like this picture here, a fairy tale. Now I think I may have oversold the idea of fairy tale living when considering Boy, Snow, Bird regardless, lets stick with the fairy tale motif for at least a few more sentences.
To be honest I'm not really into fairy tales, I never have been either. So when reading Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, it was a struggle for me keeping up with the references to fairy tale dynamics and toying with them alike. That said, I believe that Boy, Snow, Bird handles the weight of "happy ever after" well. Oyeyemi also weaves in many tropes of the genre into the narrative and for the most part they land. The novel also juggles a myriad of themes including race and class. Bouncing off of that point-- it's fair to say that Snow was a more privileged character than either Bird or Boy, story-wise. Her looks are worshipped and her skin is light enough to escape the same struggles as a darker toned Bird. Snow is treated like a princess (didn't catch this until class discussion). At the same time, Snow is a product of her environment, if no one treats her differently from Bird or anyone else who's darker-skinned then I assume that Snow would act less "princessy" (Not a word I know, repetitive I know). So I'd say that Snow isn't innocent but she is still a victim, a victim of the system around her. Compounded with being sent away by her mother doesn't help matters either. I could imagine quite the surge of anger and resentment towards Boy as a result. I believe that Boy and Snow's relationship isn't healed by the end of the novel but it seems to be on the right path. Sending away a child is a move that only has consequences, no such thing as a re-do after something like that. With that in mind, Boy knows that sending Snow away against her will was a monumental decision and thus the guilt would most likely be high. Boy may not regret her decision but she had to feel some level of guilt for it. Oyeyemi handles conflicts like these well and as a result her novel isn't just a book about race, it's also a book about motherhood and love.
Red Clocks is a book filled with bold choices and decisions, from both a storytelling and even a cover perspective. So the choice of telling this story from five varying perspectives is an interesting one. Leni Zumas intertwines these characters both in narrative and structure and I think that this formality allows for a feeling of inter-connectivity between all of the characters. Even Eivor-- who is dead long before the main story begins-- feels very connected to what's happening in the narrative, particularly with Ro. Based off our previous class discussions, I believe that Zumas decides to tell this story through five different voices as a way to act against a patriarchal standard of turning women against each other. In this way Zumas has essentially brought five women together through struggle and strife. I wonder myself how the story would change if told from only the perspective of maybe Ro and Mattie. I think lessening the amount of perspectives would dampen the grand scale of Red Clocks itself. Having the perspective of a woman who acts as a vigilante of sorts, a young girl going through an accidental, a woman who wants the accidental, and a woman who questions her accidental (referring to Susan, her children most likely weren't accidental), these outlooks provide a large scope in context of female choice and affirmation. This novel doesn't represent a universal spectrum of patriarchal oppression on women but it does still do a good job--great even, at telling this specific narrative and this specific ordeal on women. Props to Zumas on that. Thoughts??
P.S. Call me slow or whatever you want but I never realized what I was looking at when I looked at the cover of Red Clocks until very recently. The cover always stood out to me and then one day I just had a “duh” moment. Bold choice indeed.