No One Belongs Here More Than You, Miranda July

I feel like short stories are a greatly overlooked form of writing. People are way more likely to read novels or memoir, which are equally great, but it’s kind of strange to me that the general attention span today is lessening, yet people still generally read novels more than shorter fiction. Like, a novel is to a film as a short story is to an episode of a television show. But then again, just because a short story is short doesn’t mean it’s lacking in quality. So, in conclusion, nothing i just wasted eighty-eight words on is true, and i’m being deeply transparent about my failure to make a compelling observation about the world we live in today.

But anyway, I read No One Belongs Here More Than You: Stories by Miranda July, which was actually my first experience with a short story collection. I found i rather liked it. Some stories were shorter than others, but it was fun to experience tales of varying lengths, as well as different subject matter. I must say, though, content-wise, i was a little put off at first. No One is very clever and very bizarre, two elements which distanced me from her characters and stories initially. Or, bizarre is inaccurate, i guess: it wasn’t like none of the situations she created, such as a woman laying in bed fearing that she is about to get robbed, could happen, but the characters’ reactions to the situations are bizarre and detached. And sometimes the situations themselves, such as a woman giving swimming lessons to a group of elderly people in her living room, were too quirky for me to find heart in. So, for the first third or so of the book, i was entertained, but not especially drawn in. Until i reached “Something That Needs Nothing,” one of the longer pieces in the collection.

Oh, my goodness. Maybe it was just pulling at my queer heart strings, or maybe i felt more invested in the characters, or maybe it was just easy for me to identify with a story of two recently-graduated girls. Whatever it was, this one really got me. When one girl leaves the other for a new girl she has fallen in love with, i literally felt a stab of pain in my heart. And from this point on, for one reason or another, i was able to relate more closely to the characters of each story, long or short, especially culminating in the last story in the book, “How to Tell Stories to Children,” a poignant and provocative tale of the friendship between a middle-aged woman and the daughter of two of her friends.

Another winning point of this collection was the variety of protagonists, which included the young, the old, males, females, gays and straights. As Josh Lacey points out in his review of the work on the Guardian’s website, all of these narrators (all the stories are told from the first-person POV) sound largely similar, which could become tiresome if you read the book for large chunks of time, but if some breaks are taken in between, it’s less noticeable and hardly offensive.

July’s talents don’t end with prose: in fact, she’s primarily a director who has dabbled in multimedia visual art, performance art, acting, and punk music. Cool tidbit relating to an earlier post: July was once best friends with Johanna Fateman, who is a part of the dance-punk band Le Tigre, which is headed by who else but the great Kathleen Hanna, and has also appeared in a music video of riot grrrl band Sleater-Kinney. Also notable is her now retired online project, Learning to Love You More, the results of which also collected into a book.



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Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, Judy Blume

I guess i kind of missed the boat on children’s lit. Which isn’t to say that i didn’t read—just that i read the same select few books over and over again, namely: the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series (which i would love to do some kind of project on in regards to gender; details pending); the Wayside School series by Louis Sachar; Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson, by Judy Blume, the title of which i didn’t recognize as a musical reference for several years, as well as Superfudge; and A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. Now, these weren’t the only books i read as a kid, but they were a lot of the books i read (is that grammatically correct?), and each book/series has made a small part of me what it is today: Wayside School and Unfortunate Events helped shape my generous if odd sense of humor. Here’s to You and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle inspired my love of voyeuristically observing others’ problems form a safe distance.

Despite these gifts, i can’t help but feel i missed out on some classic kids’ books, and i’m sorely reminded of this fact whenever i discuss childhood reading habits with Avery, who was a much more well-read youngster than me. But hey! Just because i’m in college doesn’t mean i can’t play a little catch up, right?

So. A major girlhood classic is Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. I’m surprised this one evaded me, since i, like most girls, was interested in My Changing Body, as well as realistic tales of childhood drama. Even so, i didn’t find my way to it until i was far past puberty. Go figure. But it’s still a valuable book.

A little background: this book is often banned for, i guess, either its frank discussion of menstruation or religion—specifically, not having a religion. I’m not sure which tends to offend more, but obviously these topics aren’t worthy of discussion, especially not with kids—quelle horror! Anywho, Margaret is a top-banned book, and Judy Blume is a top-banned author and all around BAMF for daring to realistically deal with such topics as teenage sexuality, divorce, bullying, and female puberty. She has some lighter stuff too, which doesn’t catch as much flack. And i guess people who ban her books feel that they’re too grave or upsetting or inappropriate for young readers, but the truth is, these topics have long been of importance in kids’ lives, and i would imagine that reading about them in book should make kids feel less abnormal if they’re dealing with them, less alone.

The story is pretty simple but true to the average girls’ feelings about puberty, school, friends, and family. One of the aspects i enjoyed the most about Margaret was its positive portrayal of menarche. Margaret and her friends form a club that regularly discusses periods as part of their meetings—namely, what they think it will be like. The first of the group is to immediately report when they get their first period. And sure, it’s presented a little competitively, even compelling the ring leader of the group to lie and say that she got her period before she really had (*spoiler alert*), but it’s presented as an undoubtedly positive life change, unlike so much other media, in which it’s presented as uncomfortable, dirty, inconvenient, etc. My friend Kelsie, who did read the book when it was a bit more applicable in her life, even said it made her want her period and look on it with a positive perspective.

Margaret‘s generally a permissive book, gently exploring themes of body changes, life changes, and questioning major things, such as the decisions one’s parents make, or the religion one should follow. But it never feels heavy or melodramatic, which is an accomplishment. If i ever have a daughter, i would definitely encourage her to read this—and if i had a son, Blume’s got me covered too: Then Again, Maybe I Won’t serves as a sort of companion book to Margaret in that it’s about a boy’s pubescent experiences. Yay for gender equality, sensitive exploration of childhood experiences, and Judy Blume.

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Black, White, and Jewish, Rebecca Walker

I flirted with Rebecca Walker a bit during spring quarter at K, where a few of her essays showed up in my Intro to Women’s Studies class. And I knew she was mixed (Like Me! ) and that her mother was Alice Walker, and that she started Third Wave Foundation, a nifty-sounding third-wave feminist organization. And I’d wanted to read her autobiography for a while, but didn’t get around to it until now, as neither K College’s nor the Kalamazoo public library had it.

Throughout reading, I discussed Black, White, and Jewish at length with Avery, and now am a bit at loss for words. It’s a deep, impactful book, one I related to on many levels, given my similar biracial background. I know well what Rebecca means about the necessity to navigate between what feels like two different poles of oneself and one’s loved ones. And what it feels like to be called black when you do not feel totally black—indeed, are not—, or what it feels like to be accused, implicitly or explicitly, of “acting white.” What it feels like to be aware of friction between the two sides of your family, and wanting to stand for something great, even if you’re just a kid, and even if your racial identity is total chance, nothing you signed up for in particular.

I was also struck by how Walker was obligated to grow up before her time. After her parents’ divorce, it is determined that Rebecca will spend two years with each parent, alternating until her graduation. When she is living with her mother in San Francisco especially, she is expected to conduct herself like an adult from age twelve, doing laundry, caring for herself, not being required to check in with her mother, being left by her mom for days at a time so that she (Alice Walker) could write. As such, Rebecca gets into certain things, such as drugs, alcohol, and sex, earlier than would be deemed appropriate by many. And if she ever questions this arrangement—this essential lack of parenting—she is told that she is mature enough to handle things, and that her job is take care of herself as much as possible so that her mother may work.

If Rebecca feels uncared for (if independent and adult) when she is with her mother, she feels stifled and out of place with her Jewish father, especially after he remarries and moves to Larchmont, a small, largely white, largely wealthy New York small town, going so far as to express hate for her father and stepmother during her second two-year stay in Larchmont.

Much to my surprise, the way in which Rebecca was raised almost overshadows her racial identity, at least in my reading—of course, they each feed into one another: how her father choses, eventually, a white, Jewish, provincial, upwardly-mobile life, and her mother, a bohemian, artistic existence filled with the community of other women, especially women of color. And Rebecca is caught in the middle, toeing each line, calling her father’s new white wife “mom” and feeling that she has betrayed her biological, black mama; sleeping with a black boy who, as Rebecca develops strong interests in art and yearns to expand her boundaries, accuses her of turning into a white girl; being ignored completely by her Jewish great-grandmother as a little girl; cutting off contact with her black and Dominican friends from the Bronx after she moves to Larchmont.

Rebecca’s life isn’t easy, and it isn’t clear, but it is fascinating, filled with varied characters whom she befriends, insightful yet engaging analysis of family dynamics, contextual and personal discussion of race and sexuality. And Walker is deeply transparent, offering the reader everything, unashamed and poetic all at once. By the middle of the book, I felt close to her, in tune with her life, and, upon finishing, found that I missed her, that I could have kept reading—the book ends with her high school graduation and, in many cases, eighteen years’ worth of autobiography is sufficient to me, but in this case, I longed to know more, about where her life took her after high school, about how she continued to craft her identity outside of either of her parents homes. I guess I’ll have to tackle the rest of her vast body of work for that.

Note: Those interested in reading about the aftermath of this extremely tell-all biography that does not present Alice Walker in the best light can read about it here.


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Middlemarch, George Eliot, with guest blogger Avery Smith!

As mentioned previously, i don’t care much for long books, so no way was i gonna read two (Well and Middlemarch) in a short span of time. So, i’ve subcontracted a post on Middlemarch out to my dear Avery Smith, who was more than happy to oblige.
*     *     *
I started reading Middlemarch in the search for a “classic” novel that was also a Feminist one. Published in 1871 by the pennamed George Eliot (born Mary Ann or Marian Evans), I’d heard it spoken highly of and, when, in the first few chapters, I was introduced to the independent and idealistic central character of Dorothea Brooke, I considered my search satisfied. But as I continued to read—plowing steadily through upwards of 700 pages—I realized that even though Middlemarch is written by a woman and has a strong female protagonist, it cannot be simply classified as a Feminist novel. It cannot be simply classified as any kind of novel. Its scope is simply too large, its plot too all-embracing, its realism too successful.

Anyway, as I learned from both the book itself and from reading the introduction by Margaret Drabble, such expansive realism is sort of the point of Middlemarch. It’s a novel intended to display the way society worked—in Midlands mid-nineteenth century England—and in the end it’s the fact that it does so so broadly that makes it successful. Rather than presenting just one viewpoint (be it Feminist, conservative, or otherwise), Middlemarch is a novel of crossing boundaries, of acquiring sight and understanding where once we were blind or blinkered on all levels and all perspectives.

It was a bit of a struggle for me to accept this at first, because, like Chelsey, I don’t find 19th century Brit-Lit the most riveting. However, what I liked in Middlemarch was that, as Drabble writes in the introduction “On one or two occasions, George Eliot chooses to shock us by displaying the rents in the social fabric.” She goes on to explain that one way in which Eliot does this is by making the reader intimately familiar with characters located on all levels of the class system, and then demonstrating how some of these characters, even while living in the same small provincial town, have no familiarity with each other. The upper-class Brookes and Chettams don’t even know the names of the Garths and Vincys, for instance, families of poor characters whom the readers have been induced to feel much fondness for and familiarity with. Such an example shows clearly how divisive the class system was, and brought home to me for the first time the inescapably restrictive and all-consuming nature of rank in the society of the era (and how it can persist even now).

On the other hand, Drabble points out that Middlemarch also effectively demonstrates the way in which “no group can afford to ignore any other group.” Every rank relies on and interacts with the ones above and below it, families intermarry and gossip, and the community leaders (both official and informal) condemn or condone the actions of those in the neighborhood. What I found most brilliant about Middlemarch was how powerfully it illustrated this sort of community—and how honestly. Eliot does not idealize community life nor married life, showing time and again how restrictive each can be. It is in this way that I think the novel can most be read as a Feminist one: as a 19th-century British woman, after all, Eliot “should” be portraying married life as a sort of ultimate goal and community as a helpful, cooperative resource. Instead, she shows strong individuals—both female and male—who are stymied by a patriarchal society and an unquestioning resistance to change.

Eliot was apparently very similar in character to her idealistic protagonist, Dorothea, who advocates charity and social progress often at personal expense. Nonetheless, both Eliot and Dorothea seem to realize that as much as each individual can be a change agent, they will only care to change what wrongs they see in their society because they are a part of that society. So though I didn’t find quite the feminist epic that I was expecting, I did still find something of a call to action in Middlemarch, and recommend it for its breadth and bravery in exploring society’s every layer and intricacy. To sum up in Eliot’s own words, a quote from page 722. “Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she [Dorothea] felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labor and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.”

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Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, Sara Marcus

When i was in tenth grade, my friend Sandrina gave me a copy of a mix CD she’d made to introduce others to the wide world of punk—a genre of music (and an attitude) that i had no experience with at the time. Because the CD included a variety of bands and subgenera, Sandrina encouraged me to listen to the whole thing a few times, then let her know which artists were my favorites, so she could give me more of their work and begin to hone in on what type(s) of punk i liked.

Settling in with the “Up Tha Punx” playlist queued up on my iPod, i felt distinctly badass, but also a little daunted. I’d long loved music—my father sang professionally and i’d whiled away large chunks of my childhood teaching myself different instruments. But, all things considered, my musical taste was fairly limited: basically i liked 60s folk rock, Regina Spektor, and Damien Rice. And Cher. And showtunes. All of which i still like. But i sure as hell didn’t listen to anything loud. And i sure as hell wasn’t a punk. I was known best by my shyness, after all. I wasn’t like Sandrina, who wore combat boots and did whatever she wanted. I didn’t expected to like the music.

But i did. Some artists more than others, as Sandrina had predicted. I particularly liked a track called “Alien She” by some band called Bikini Kill. “She wants me to go to the mall/She wants me to her pretty/her pretty pretty pretty pretty lipstick on!” sang the lead singer (some chick or other, i didn’t know or care much at that point). I was intrigued; the second song by Bikini Kill, “Don’t Need You,” sealed the deal: “Does it scare you, boy,” the singer shouted, “prettiness” thrown to the wind in favor of intensity, “that we don’t need you?”

It would be wrong to call my tenth grade self a budding feminist, as i’d long been concerned with women’s issues and equality. (I remember, once, in fourth grade, going on a rant about how women were obliged to divulge their martial status in their title (Mrs. or Miss), while men’s had one, neutral option. “I’m always going to go by Ms.!” i’d insisted.) But i was green in that i’d only recently become fully aware of feminism as an organized movement and begun identifying as one. So it was deeply exciting for me to discover these feminist songs.

The next time i saw Sandrina, i told her i wanted more Bikini Kill. “You would,” she teased. But, like so many wonderful things, it didn’t happen when i wanted it to. Amidst all the other important goings-on in our young lives, my request got lost in the shuffle. Even i would forget about it—that is, until i would be listening to music and happen upon either track. So, it was a while before i heard any more Bikini Kill, a while before i researched the band and discovered the existence of riot grrrl, its motives, methods, and associated musical acts. But i eventually did, and here we are today, with me writing about a lovely book called Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus.

If you don’t know what riot grrrl is, as i didn’t not especially long ago, it was/is a movement within punk rock that, yes, pushed girls to the front. Historically, punk was a very male endeavor; female punks were expected to stand passively on the sidelines during shows while their boyfriends moshed. And they almost never were up on stage playing. Of course, there are exceptions, but by and large, punk bands comprised of men exclusively, or of men instrumentalists and a female singer who was often treated as more of a mascot than a musician.

Riot grrrl set out to prove that this was wrong by encouraging the formation of girl bands, the publication of girl zines (independent, political publications distributed for a dollar containing pieces by girls about feminist issues and music), and the general questioning of the status quo of gender. Girls to the Front traces the movement’s history, from its roots with the formation of the bands Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, to the proliferation of girl-produced zines and the budding of Riot Grrrl chapters across the country, to the media blitz and subsequent commercialization of the revolution, to its eventual (alleged) decline.

Now, one of the most amazing things about this book is the immense amount of research Marcus undertook to write it. This isn’t some overview of the movement and its players, or a strictly musical survey. It is an impressively complete analysis of the movement’s origins, its movers and shakers, its interpersonal relationships, its emotions, its writing, its music, the media on it, the effects it had on the grrrls and on the public. The book is imbued with quotes from Bikini Kill and Bratmobile frontrunners as well as other key players in the movement; quotes from zines; song lyrics; complete descriptions of certain iconic performances; various viewpoints on scandals and controversies. And Marcus leaves no stone unturned, writing of even less savory parts of riot grrrl, such as how women of color often felt excluded from the movement, or about the drama and splintering within the group itself.
And despite the sheer breadth of the book, Marcus is able to present her mass of information in a clear, organized manner—and render it in such a way that it feels very real and close, including details that give the narrative texture and character, such as the pasta and nutritional yeast one group of grrrls would eat in their run-down apartment to save money, or methods grrrls would employ to produce zines as cheaply as possible.

Now, this book took me longer to read than i’d expected. It’s creative non-fic and not hard to comprehend, but it’s about four years of intense creativity and political action boiled down to one tome. So if you wanna read this, don’t expect to breeze through it.

But do expect to feel inspired. At least, i was. So much, in fact, that i have teamed up with a former Intro to Women’s Studies classmate of mine to create a zine called RESIST PSYCHIC DEATH, after a Bikini Kill song, in honor of the band and its lead singer and riot grrrl legend, Kathleen Hanna. And i won’t plug too much, but you can like it here, and soon, fingers crossed, i’ll have scanned the pages of our prototypical issue and posted them…somewhere. Riot grrrl wasn’t/isn’t perfect (what is, after all?) but even so, i find a group of young women loudly proclaiming that enough is enough endlessly inspiring. With the zine, Clara and i hope to honor riot grrrl’s unapologetic, ruthless passion while actively extending its boundaries to include women who aren’t white, who aren’t straight, who aren’t middle class, who aren’t American, who aren’t even punk—so that any girl can be a riot grrrl. And we would love support. Keep checking the Facebook page for details.

Okay. That’s my plug.

And that’s my post.

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*Classic Alert, with pictures!* The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall

If I may make a blanket statement, I am not a huge fan of classic British literature. Perhaps this disdain stems from my trying to read such tomes before my time in an attempt to feign precocity. Or the time in tenth grade when I refused to read Pride and Prejudice at the rate prescribed by our teacher and ended up having to read it in four or so days in order to catch up. Regardless of my reasoning, I’ve often found it to be too dry, too stuffy. Just kind of boring. Yet, there are certain forces at work (the sources of which I won’t get into in this particular post) that have instilled in me the notion that a Brit Lit-y is the inarguable mark of good writing—that if any piece happens to smack of Dickens’ diction or Austen’s allegory (for which I don’t think she’s noted; I just wanted to be alliterative), it is a good, “real” piece of writing.

So, it felt almost unreal for me to read a piece of classic Brit Lit that involved lesbians. Because Brit Lit, to me, is the paragon of literary propriety and status, it felt downright unreal that here was a thick tome by Brit Radclyffe Hall all about gays, a group of people largely ignored in lit as a whole, let alone the hallowed halls of classic English literature that seem so high-brow in my little mind.

Collage! Look how lovely and old it is!

Yet, so it stands. And though I usually avoid reading from this genre for pleasure, I decided to break habit for a work as iconic as The Well of Loneliness. And I came across a particularly handsome copy: a 1929 edition with thick, creamy pages and a plain green cover, complete with an publisher’s defensive note on why they chose to publish the novel despite the negative press it had received on account of its “obscene” content (despite the fact that only twice in the novel is sex even obliquely alluded to).

The Well of Loneliness is a member of that subgenre of books that are quite long and concern themselves with the majority a certain character’s life, à la Gone With the Wind and Les Misérables. Here I broke another rule for The Well: I am not a huge fan of long books. I often feel that many things could be cut out and the work would be either unchanged or else enhanced. And perhaps that’s true for The Well, but even so, things kept interesting enough for me to not rue the length of the novel.

The Well was written by BAMF Radclyffe Hall, a self-identified “invert,” as lesbians were once called, poet, novelist, and player.

Radclyffe to the right**

Hall lived proudly as a butch invert by rejecting her given name of Marguerite, wearing masculine clothing, and having two long-term relationships with relatively well-known women of the time.  Most of her novels dealt with lesbian themes, not the least of which being The Well, whose main character, Stephen, is identified from birth as an invert. The plot follows Stephen’s life from birth, to her first crush on a maid in her family’s manor, from her ill-fated affair with an American socialite, to her career as a writer and eventual settling down in Paris with her long-term partner Mary. Of course the novel ends sadly—perhaps Hall felt it would be too unrealistic to end otherwise, or else feared that a happy ending would prevent it from being published.

Despite its depressing conclusion, The Well is infused with pleas for tolerance for inverts, as well as a core defense of homosexuality as natural. For example when Steven’s mother discovers her sexual nature, the protagonist stands her ground: “’…but what I will never forgive is your daring to try and make me ashamed of my love. I’m not ashamed of it, there’s no shame in me…Good and—and fine it was…the best part of myself…” (229). Stephen and Mary’s relationship, closely mimicking the stereotypical passive homemaker and dominant breadwinner, deepens Hall’s presentation of homosexuality as normal. (Though such a power structure is not the “natural” or necessarily ideal way to structure a relationship/family, it certainly would have been perceived as such in 1928, when The Well was published.)

Further, The Well presents several predicaments that could very well be applied to queer people of our own time. For example, when one woman falls ill, her partner is forced to pretend that she is just a friend, and therefore unqualified to make any decisions about her partner’s treatment.  This scenario is familiar to many modern gay people who are not allowed to make medical decisions concerning their incapacitated significant other or even be in the hospital room with them after certain hours unless they have gone through the trouble of securing a marriage or carefully preparing legal documents for such a happening in advance.

If not The Best Novel Ever Written, The Well holds its significance as one of the few works of its time to deal honestly and kindly with a queer character, let alone a queer protagonist. Interestingly, there has been recent scholarship that suggests perhaps Stephen is best described as not a lesbian, but as transgender, given, of course, her name, her penchant for masculine clothing, her interest in honing her body and hunting, and her overall demeanor. Indeed, in the same conversation referenced above with her mother, Stephen states that “[i]f I loved her the way a man loves a woman, it’s because I can’t feel that I am a woman. All my life I’ve never felt like a woman, and you know it…” (228-9). This hypothesis is perhaps aided by the fact that though other inverts appear in The Well, they are not described as particularly masculine.

Whatever Stephen might have identified as if she’d been around in our time, and despite Covici-Friede’s anxiety over publishing such a controversial text*, The Well helped end the conspicuous lack of gay characters in literature and endures as celebrated piece of queer fiction.

*Perhaps not without reason: The novel was seized from the publisher’s offices after one of the company’s owners sold a copy to a representative of the New York Society for Suppression of Vice. Smooth move.
** Credit to these people

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Classic Alert! Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

My girlfriend once pointed out that it’s frequently more edifying to read introductions to books after reading the novel.  So was the case for me with Their Eyes Were Watching God.  Though i started to read the intro in it’s appropriate, pre-novel place, I decided that, not knowing what the author was discussing, i should return to it after reading.  In doing so, I was able to more fully appreciate the discussion of feminism and black female strength that the novel poses.

First things first, though.  Their Eyes is a deceptively simple, quick read.  Told in the third-person, but framed as the main character, Janie, telling a friend of recent events in her life, the novel attains a certain distance from the plot, almost like a myth, legend, or, even more apropos, black American oral traditions, as pointed out by Mary Helen Washington in the intro of the novel.  In short, Their Eyes tells the story of a Southern black woman named Janie.  The majority of the novel focuses on her third marriage to a much younger man named Tea Cake, with whom she leaves the all-black town of which her second husband served as mayor to move to the Florida Everglades.  Throughout the tale, I was struck by the juxtaposition of the rough, deep South dialect of the characters and the beautiful, decorative poetry of Hurston’s narration and description.  Even so, i was wondering where it was all going; the plot seemed pretty simple and meandering, and i didn’t expect the book to ultimately leave much of an impression on me—that is, until i got to the dynamic ending.  Which i won’t spoil if you haven’t read this before.  But suffice it to say that it’s abrupt and tragic.

Throughout my reading of Their Eyes Were Watching God, i felt conflicted: here was an independent black female protagonist—a revolutionary idea when the novel was published in 1937, and in many ways still today—who defied social norms by loving exactly who she wanted (in the case of Tea Cake, a younger man), who does not feel the need to pretend to grieve for her late second husband who she did not truly love, who didn’t care if she was gossiped about.  Yet, when she marries Tea Cake, she becomes extraordinarily submissive: she does not rebuke him when he steals $300 from her purse, she listens to what he tells her to do, whether that is to stay at home or come with him to work.  There are no serious consequences when she catches him cheating on her with a young coworker.  What are readers to make of this ambiguity?

With Janie, there seems to be a strange divide between choices and consequences—though she actively makes choices that other women of the time would have balked at, once her choice is made, she seems to accept wherever that choice takes her until another opportunity for action is presented.  For example, she chooses to leave her first husband with whom she is unhappy to run off with stranger, an incredibly bold choice.  Yet, when her second husband begins to treat her like a second-class citizen, she acknowledges her dissatisfaction (“She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them,” writes Hurston as Janie ponders how she doesn’t share her true thoughts and emotions with her husband (68)), but only challenges him once during their entire marriage.  Similarly, Janie chooses to marry Tea Cake, though he is a man almost twenty years her junior, yet, when he perpetrates the injustices discusses above, Janie utters nary a word of protest.

After ruminating upon it for a few days, i decided that the mixture of strength and submission makes the character far more realistic than she would have been had she been a flawlessly independent woman, such as the likes of Scarlett O’Hara.  Though we love (or some, i suppose, love to hate) Scarlett for her strength, conviction, and determinism, with so few moments of weakness, she almost seems superhuman.  And while Janie isn’t necessarily the type to, say, shoot a wayward Yankee in the chest or marry a man she cares nothing for for his money, neither is she a whimpering, pampered belle.  Like most humans, she is imperfect, and like most feminists (a term that would have meant nothing to a poor Southern black woman of the 1930s and, as such, is perhaps a poor term to describe such a character) is unable to shake every last trapping of patriarchy.

At a discussion of voice in Their Eyes at a 1979 MLA convention, Alice Walker championed the notion of Janie as a strong, feminist character, pointing out that “women did not have to speak when men thought they should, that they would choose when and where they wish to speak because while many women had found their own voices, they also knew when it was better not to use it” (Their Eyes intro, xii).  This view seems to mesh with Janie’s approach of making important choices and living with them—perhaps she felt that though she was entitled to make the choices, she didn’t have enough power to alter their consequences if she felt the need.  Though this state of affairs is slightly depressing, it likely would’ve been the case for a woman of Janie’s time and situation.  And it’s important to keep context in mind in feminist analysis of characters of a different time or place.

Still, despite Janie’s reticence in certain situations, and the drama in the final chapters of the novel, it ends on a positive note.  Early on in the work, Janie berates her grandmother for taking her future away: “Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing god ever made, the horizon—for no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you—and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her” (85).  Yet, the last sentence evokes a strong sense of personal agency and, yes, autonomy, despite the ambiguity of the rest of the novel: “She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net…So much of life in its meshes!  She called in her soul to come and see” (184).


Filed under review - fiction