Monday, December 12, 2011

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2011, part 4: Andrea Hairston

Subversive Joy
by Andrea Hairston

I’ve been on the road most of this year. Crisscrossing the United States and venturing into Canada, I lugged large tomes onto planes, trains, and rented cars. The weight of words was a pleasure. I also had slim volumes that could be consumed in a sleepless night. I met readers and writers everywhere who were thrilled at the promise of good writing. They wanted to be entertained by complex, challenging characters and stories.

“You’re a writer?” strangers would say with delight. “Science fiction and fantasy? Wow! How do you do that?”

I sold books at many a bed and breakfast during the morning spread or afternoon tea. I always got into great discussions. The passion, intelligence, and creativity of the people I met inspired and energized me.

“Have you read—” or “What do you think of—” was the beginning of many new friendships.

I lost count of how many people said, “I’ve got an idea for a book. More than an idea, I’ve written four hundred pages.”

There are books about to be born everywhere; stories aching for an audience; narratives offering transport; readers who found themselves in places they couldn’t imagine; reality recognized and revised with the turn of a page.

One of the great pleasures of 2011 was the direct experience of the marvelous international community of readers and writers that I live in.

I do know the culture of reading is having hard times. Bookstores are an endangered species. Big publishers are shrinking. Junk floods the market and assaults us on every screen. Children and education budgets (the future?) are getting slashed. These are trying times. And we are not sitting down and taking it with a shake of the head and a nothing-you-can-do resignation. One of the slim books I inhaled was Hope on a Tightrope by Cornel West. He begins the book with the State of Emergency:
The poor and very poor are sleeping with self-destruction. The working and middle classes are struggling against paralyzing pessimism and the privileged are swinging between cynicism and hedonism.
West points the reader from this to the subversive joy of ongoing activism and hope grounded in a messy, tragic-comic struggle. He makes us ask:
How did I become so well-adjusted to injustice?
Tad Williams penned two of the heavy tomes I read: Shadowrise and Shadowheart. In the final volumes of Williams’s epic fantasy series, legions of complex characters work to make the future possible. In Disintegration, The Splintering of Black America, Eugene Robinson deconstructs the racist notion of essential, monolithic blackness. L. Timmel Duchamp’s Never at Home was a serious trip. I like my hallucinogens in word form, and the stories in Duchamp’s volume take you out of the normal rut into the land of who else might we be! I loved the chimpanzee characters in Ape House by Sara Gruen and the people weren’t bad either. I reread the first three books of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle. Her sentences are delicious. After forty years, the hero of Wizard of Earthsea is still on a quest unlike any other and the enemy character are startling and complex, transforming the notions of good and evil out of melodrama and into tragic, redemptive fable. The witches in the Earthsea Cycle have no access to the great knowledge of the Wizard’s academy and women characters (even in the Tomb of Atuan where they are central) seem subordinate and inferior to the male characters. I can’t wait to read the final volume, Tehanu, to shift this perspective and celebrate the equally valuable women’s magic. I also reread Gregory Bateson’s A Sacred Unity. I relished his impassioned, well-argued plea for the metaphorical mind’s truth, beauty, and necessity in the age of reason.

At the multiplex, there were Fighters, Company Men, Cowboys and Aliens, grey- and black-suited dudes working Adjustment Bureaus, making Margin Calls, surviving the Source Code, and so few major films centering on women I could scream! Removing the women characters in many of the boys’ movies might have improved them. I did scream. Rachel Weisz does a great job in The Whistleblower, playing Kathryn Bolkovac, a Nebraska cop who is a peacekeeper in post-war Bosnia and outs the U.N. for covering up the heavy traffic in women happening on their watch.

I wrote earlier about The Help juggernaut before seeing the film. I have now seen it. The Help is about a white woman writer who encourages (enables) black women maids to speak out about their (horrific) experiences in Jim Crow servitude for a book she writes. The acting in The Help is stellar. Viola Davis tears apart the script to give a brilliant performance, creating a depth of character that is absent from the writing. I enjoyed seeing her and all those brilliant actresses up on the screen working: Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Sissy Spacek, Allison Janney, Cicely Tyson, Mary Steenburger, and Aunjanue Ellis. But I must confess that the simplistic melodrama of the story was infuriating and BORING. The white character is the engine for the Civil Rights movement that happens in town. The black women are all long suffering saints. Even the one who ends up in jail is just trying to find money to send her child off to a better life! Evil is individual, not systemic. The bad white girl is not complex. In fact, as is often the case with rich white women characters, the evil bitch is trivial and petty, and we enjoy making her eat shit. Literally. Oh yeah, the fat black lady is the funny one. Smug, superior, and safe, the audience can wallow in this heartwarming rift on our national shame.

Beaucoup tickets sales, rave reviews, and breath-taking performance might mean a trip to the Oscars for Viola Davis. I will cheer her acting magic, but I am still waiting for those films that will take women’s lives seriously, that will entertain me with our follies and possibilities, with our adventures and our visions. Viola Davis could star in that. An antidote to The Help is Pray the Devil Back to Hell, the documentary on the women from Liberia who join together across a religious divide to bring peace to their country. Just after I wrote this I learned that the Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, the subject of the film, has won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize along with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkol Karman.

I had the privilege and pleasure to read new work as writers shaped and polished it. Be on the lookout for: Eileen Gunn’s new collection of short stories that will include a wonderful Golem story. Pan Morigan is writing two urban fantasy novels about wolves, Viet Nam vets, expressways devastating neighborhoods, community gardens, and secret libraries of the spirit. Playwright Liz Roberts sends her audience down a vent with corporate execs and homeless folks. Sally Bellerose had me laughing and weeping in the junkyard with two 80-something life partners, as these women faced life and death on thin ice with heavy equipment!

Back to Cornel West. Living through the State of Emergency with these imaginative folks, I feel we can make the future different and possibly better.

Andrea Hairston is the Artistic Director of Chrysalis Theatre and has created original productions with music, dance, and masks for over thirty years. She is also the Louise Wolff Kahn 1931 Professor of Theatre and Afro-American Studies at Smith College. Her first novel from Aqueduct Press, Mindscape, won the Carl Brandon Parallax Award and was shortlisted for the Phillip K Dick Award and the Tiptree Award. Her second novel, Redwood and Wildfire, was published earlier this year. She will be a Guest of Honor at WisCon next year.

1 comment:

Eileen Gunn said...

Quite a few books to add to my reading list -- thanks, Andrea! And thanks for the shoutout!