Nobody Warned Me.

30091914Halfway through this book, I tweeted about the nightmares it was causing me.  And I’m not talking about Stephen King ghosts or monsters, but live human cruelty.  They weren’t dreams like others I have had, revolving staircases, or sudden drops into homes I knew, but had been subtly changed by my dream space.  These dreams were as visceral as the words on the page.  I felt the steel copper bullet – plunge –  slow motion into my rib cage.  Each bone flex forth and open like a cracked fence post.  When I woke up each morning, I had stones in my belly, and gnarls in my gut.  This story uprooted me.

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Photo from The Japan Times

And I wasn’t warned, so I’m warning all of you.  This story conveyed the human capacity for cruelty so well and so often that I almost couldn’t finish it.  While I believe it’s a story that needs to be told and a history that should not remain hidden, I want to scrape at the pieces of it that stayed in my mind for days afterwards.  For a full three pages, Han Kang describes some of the Gwangju boys’ torture, the crisp sizzle of a cigarette to an eye.  If you winced at that sentence, then I can’t recommend this book for you.  It caused me physical pain to read.

(And I know some of you will roll your eyes and say that this is nothing to the physical pain that the people of Gwangju felt resisting and standing up to their traitorous government, but feelings are allowed to be felt).

Today, Amnesty International reported hangings of over 13,000 in Damascus.  These hangings have been done secretly after victims are tried for under three minutes in a basement after being told they are being transported elsehwhere.  We sit around arguing on Twitter over what’s fake news, or how many alternative facts will be spun in the administration currently in office, and in Damascus, Syrians are being targeted and wiped out by the thousands in Civil War.  Until this moment, no news of these hangings had been released.  This is probably not the fault of our news media, but the fact that this is happening in our modern world – after the Holocaust, after Cambodia, after Tinneman Square and now after the Gwangju uprising, maybe we need to be a little more “woke.”

I listened to this story on NPR having just finished Human Acts.  I had been contemplating the number of stars I could give a book that I was hesitant to recommend, that I was angry no one had warned me about (most reviewers just said, “it has beautiful writing”) and disgusted with the bottom dark of human capacity put into elegant words on the pages of Human Acts by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith).

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Screenshot from Amnesty International Report

No where in my life have I had to contemplate the snap of a rope bruising and twisting my pale neck. Never the butt of a gun.  Never a protest that could end in the spray of shrapnel.  Comparing one’s life to another never makes anything easier, but I have been both lucky to be who I am, where I am, and lucky to read a book that makes me understand that luck is a physical phenomenon and not just a mental/emotional privilege.  I can only speak for myself, but all I really wanted to do in hearing that report was spit it out so it couldn’t become a part of me, of my existence.

“Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke.  Something that, until then, I hadn’t even realized was there” (202).

In the last chapter of this novel, the author becomes a character.  She describes her journey seeking out information on the massacre itself, but also on the family written throughout.  She is indirectly related to this family.  They lived in the house she moved out of at a young age, and they lost a brother to the Gwangju uprising while living there.  The narrator talks about her nightmares while researching the novel.  I know why.  I experienced nightmares as well.  I texted my best friend, and Korean scholar, Seth and asked him about what was told to him about this while he was in South Korea.  His first response when I began describing the book was “they don’t tell tourists those stories.”

I wonder how many stories are left dark in the world.  How many shoved into corners, buried against one another, corked.  This is no longer one of those cave stories, this mosaic novel of different voices interwoven.  It is really a connection of short stories, some more difficult than others to get through.  I believe Han Kang did exactly what she set out to do, make it so no one can desecrate these memories again.

“Please, write your book so that no one will ever be able to desecrate my brother’s memory again” (214).

In the beginning, I found hope in the short anecdote about the chalk erasers and board spray from middle school between the loving sister and brother in the novel.  I hung onto that for the rest of the novel because there isn’t much redeeming about the human spirit here.  This is a novel that very much lacks the bud of hope.  It doesn’t make it less true, it just, for me, makes it more sad.  If we believed the world ended like this, I don’t think any of us would continue letting it fester.

“Isn’t he your friend, aren’t you a human being” (43).

“There Are Great Holes in Your Newspapers. Nobody Sees Them. God Sees Them”

Because I need a few more days to mull over what I’m going to say about the new President on this blog, I thought I could review one of my already favorite books of the year.

News25817493 of the World by Paulette Jiles was a quiet simmer, a rustle, a murmur. I hadn’t read anything about it other than it was a finalist for the National Book Award and that there were 73 people on the library waiting list before me.  That’s an accurate portrayal, not a fudged number.  I can tell now, why, and why it has such a catastrophically high Goodreads score.  Usually, even my favorite books tap out at 3.2, maybe 3.4 if there’s an influx of smart, beautiful readers, but typically all books stay average, even the good ones.  (I don’t have any stats on this, this is just sheer user interpretation).

Right now, News of the World has a 4.23 star score on Goodreads. I’m going to make the argument that it’s all about the characters (and then the setting, and then the pacing, and then the softness, in that order).  There’s two main characters and then a handful of townspeople that we meet as they travel through Texas.  The two main characters are Cho-Henna and Kep-Dun.  Captain Kidd is a former military messenger and Johanna is a girl who was captured by the Kiowa Tribe at a young age and only knows that life.  However, at the beginning of the book, Kidd accepts guardianship of returning her to what’s left of her family (an aunt and uncle) and thus the book begins.

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Map of Civil War Sites in Texas (Fort Tours)

The entirety of this book is their journey on just a few roads. Kidd is stopping in towns to read the news from local and international papers, a former print shop owner, he likes to create fairytales of far-off places in the minds of Texans, and while doing that he teaches Cho-Henna a few “house rules” without changing who she is at the core.  I fell in love with both of these characters.  By the end of the book, I could actually hear the peep of Cho-Henna’s voice saying “Kep-Dun” from behind a flour barrel, or underneath a blanket.

She was so quiet, almost silent, and yet the sound of her stays with me.  It wasn’t the voice of the character that was so moving in this book, it was the subtle sounds of everyday life that she made.  The way she patted the captains arm, or handed him dimes to be used as bullets, or ripped the lace from her skirt.  Those sounds that create a live-action movie in the reader’s heads.  I knew that countryside while I was riding, and although we had to listen for the sounds of danger, it was so easy being with Captain Kidd and Johanna just a little while longer.  I feel the same soft spot for Johanna that Kidd grows in this story.

And although we know from the beginning that this will end tied with a bow, I don’t fault Jiles for the conclusion being that neat.  This was a feel-good story from the very beginning.  I eased through the way Captain Kidd treated Johanna like she didn’t need to be anyone but herself in order to get along in the world.  He could only teach her this through his own ways of being in the world, just a visitor, always in motion, and always with a message.  At one point, he thinks the following:

“Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news.  Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed” (121).

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BFG and Dreams

I think this was just the most perfect instance of how life is made.  Whether we’re Captain Jeffrey Kidd making life after the Civil War, or we’re a child with two visions of the world that collide and collapse at random.  I’ve harped about this idea of purpose for the last several months.  I’m a pray-er, I don’t know what you guys believe, or what religious doctrine you follow, if any, but I like to send open words out into the air and hope someone is catching them (kind of like The BFG and dreams).

For a long while, every time I prayed about being a teacher, I got a solidified answer as to why I needed to keep doing it.  Even in my most desperate, cry on the side of the bed as I slide down the post, moments.  Where a whole tissue box wasn’t enough, and neither was the constant heaving, I got a sign the next day, or a word, or a moment.  When I decided to quit teaching, those signs that I was holding like small weapons against any stray ideas, went dark.  I couldn’t find anything telling me to “just keep swimming.”  I was carrying a message, but I didn’t think it was the right one anymore.

I’ve had a lot of nights where I manically mindmap my purpose.  Where I talk to myself about podcasts, and blogging, and editing, and reading, and making life. Not making a living, but just making life. I’ve tried to find goals and make them into something.  Truth be told, I’m lost as hell. But with all of that, I’m also in a moment of creation.

“To go through our first creation is a turning of the soul we hope toward the light, out of the animal world.  God be with us.  To go through another tears all the making of the first creation and sometimes it falls to bits” (56).

bigstock_failure_grunge_text_3728194-1In situations like this there’s that constant nag of failure.  It creates a lot of fear.  And that’s what wasn’t in this book.  Neither character was tied to a certain message, a certain town or person or purpose.  Both were just between living.  Sure, their road had an end.  Captain Kidd had a goal and a $50 gold coin to show for it.  He had a mission for Johanna that wasn’t of her choosing, but was still a mission they both partook.  And so maybe, it’s corny, but maybe it’s true – it’s about the journey.  I know this book was.

This was one of those moments where I hit the just right book at the just right time.  So what if the goal isn’t clear? So what if we’re reinventing all the time? If people know us as a chameleon or a lover of adventure or just someone that can’t stay focused? So what? Make life.  Make it with people who don’t have to speak because the thud of their feet in the hallway and the click of a radio button and the morning voices of Mike & Mike  are the only reconciliation you need. (Thanks, Beej).  This is true for these two characters and I would argue that it’s true for most of us.  If we gave up speaking, we would still make love with sounds.  If we lost our voices, we would still show pity, embarrassment, joy with the soft strokes of being human.

28119237News of the World is that subtle reminder that we all need.  I highly recommend this read because it will seriously melt your heart.  In many book clubs they’re recommending it be paired with Tribe by Sebastian Junger. I’m going to try to get my hands on a copy of that next.  Get both from the library and dog-ear every page you love for the next person.  Leave that muted symbol, imagine the rubbed sound of crisped page against their thumb.

We Must Give Everyone a Name and Not a Body of Fears.

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 9.33.06 AMI have a lot of thoughts about Ta-Nehisi Coates new book Between the World and Me, a pseudo-memoir written to his son about being young and black in America, and they’re not quite organized in my head, but with a little help from Otis Redding swooners and a homemade cup of coffee sans sugar, I think I can do it a bit of justice.

I was introduced to Coates when I came across The Case for Reparations his long essay in The Atlantic.  I immediately wanted to handle him in the classroom, but the essay is quite long and it doesn’t excerpt that well.  It comes as a whole piece, and thus he wrote it as one.  “The Case for Reparations” shows Coates’ distinct writing style, but also shows his knowledge on his subjects and his desperation to share this knowledge with the American community (if now, we can call it that).

Highlighting and marginalia is a must with this book.

Highlighting and marginalia is a must with this book.

At the time that I was reading this, one of my Mother’s good friend’s sons was accused of a crime he didn’t commit.  This boy, a shy, six-foot-four black boy, who tries out for the high school basketball team every year, but never makes the team due to his inexperience with AAU or paid-basketball leagues.  Shy is actually an understatement.  Here is a boy who looks down when he speaks to adults, the word “sweet” sings home on every school report card, and covers his mouth when he laughs at my dad’s one-liners.

And he was accused by a gaggle of women in their apartment complex of harassment, yelling sexual slurs at women on the sidewalk, and invading their personal space.  Much like the woman harassed in NY (on the fifteen minute video of mostly black males), these women were sure the man was tall, and black.  The two defining factors in their minds.  He was questioned by the police in front of his mother.  He teared up and pleaded with his mother to believe him around the kitchen table where she had worked hard to raise him on home-cooked meals and morals.  She heard, “Mommy, Mommy, I didn’t do this.” Just a seventeen year old boy who still used “Mommy” when talking to his mother, and eyes full of innocence.  This is, again, a boy who hasn’t had a date in four years of high school because of his utter bashful.

You need a lot of breaks so always carry this book with another one.  You will cry. Accept this about it.

You need a lot of breaks so always carry this book with another one. You will cry. Accept this about it.

Three rounds of police questioning.  A line-up. A trip to a police station.

And it took one single blind woman, harassed by the culprit, to break the fears of (I assume) every black parent and say, “No, no, it couldn’t be him, because this man has an accent.”

An accent. From a woman who cannot see.

One defining factor. One defining factor from the woman who couldn’t claim that the man was tall, or the man was black.  One defining factor that four other women had somehow missed in the cat calls.

This is America, every single day.

Reading Between the World and Me aloud with Fro-Cat and Beej.

You need a read aloud partner. Who’s not a cat.

And this is the story that Coates is trying to portray in his essay Between the World and Me. Without blaming the people “who believe they are white,” Coates takes the reader through a personal history that expands to a larger history of American culture and how it has reacted to the body (and arguably the mind) of the black American male.  He says, “The point of this language of ‘intention’ and ‘personal responsibility’ is broad exoneration.  Mistakes were made.  Bodies were broken.  People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.”

And this Dream is the point of the book.  Living up to the Dream. Experiencing the boundaries of the Dream. Breaking the barriers of the Dream. Malcom Xing the Dream. Martin Luther King Jr. having a Dream. Dreams dying. Dreams being shot by dirty police officers who are following the Dream given to them by a society that has built the Dream on the very principles that break the Dream over the back of day Dreamers.

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Image from Sandiegofreepress.org

I teach the American Dream in my American Literature classroom.  I teach it as something that is conceivable but not always available to every American.  I teach the Dream with Raisin in the Sun because it is the best example of a family that can high five the dream with the tips of their fingers, but the Dream moves, the white neighborhood watch tries to talk them from the Dream, the son tries to explode the Dream, the daughter tries to escape the Dream into her African ancestry, the mother believes in the Dream and then she hangs curtains to cover the view of the broken Dream.

And then there is Travis Younger. A boy who is too young by society’s standards to be eligible for the Dream. But the Dream makes him ask his Momma if he can push carts after school for extra change.  The Dream makes him see the fear made anger in his mother and father’s tension.  The Dream makes sure his grandmother makes his bed so he doesn’t grow up too soon.

The Dream is already manifest.  The Dream is already showing him that because he owns a black body that he is breakable.

“You preserved your life because your life, your body, was as good as anyone’s, because your blood was as precious as jewels, and it should never be sold for magic, for spirituals inspired by unknowable hereafter.  You do not give your precious body to the billy clubs of Birmingham sheriffs nor to the insidious gravity of the streets. Black is beautiful–which is to say that the black body is beautiful, that black hair must be guarded against the torture of processing and lye, and black skin must be guarded against bleach, that our noses and mouths must be protected against modern surgery.  We are all our beautiful bodies and so must never be prostrate before barbarians, must never submit our original self, our one of one, to defiling and plunder” (Coates, 36).

Me reading Raisin in the Sun

Me reading Raisin in the Sun

And is this what we teach our black males in school? Coates says “The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests.”  This classroom where Texas classrooms can claim that the Civil War was not an act of keeping slavery as a business trade.  Classrooms where Republicans can claim that same war was over “States’ rights” and not the buying and selling of black bodies.  Classrooms where teachers can decide just how much education is good enough education. As a high school English teacher, I know that we haven’t moved away from one education for all.  As much as I would love to see education individualized for the student, literature studied through the eyes of just one pupil based on their interests and expanding those interests, it’s just not what is happening in America right now.

Because when black males came into my classroom, I saw what Coates describes, “The fear was there in the extravagant boys of my neighborhood, in their large rings and medallions, their big puffy coats and full-length fur-collared leathers, which was their armor against their world…with their hands dipped in Russell sweats. I think back to those boys now and all I see is fear, and all I see is them girding themselves against the ghosts of the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered ’round their grandfathers so that the branches of the black body might be torched, then cut away.  The fear lived on in their practiced bop, their slouching denim, their big T-shirts, the calculated angle of their baseball caps, a catalog of behaviors and garments enlisted to inspire the belief that these boys were in firm possession of everything they desired. I saw it in their customs of war” (Coates, 14)

And Coates is a generation ahead of my students.  Coates describes the boys of his childhood as the boys who walk into my classroom everyday.  Now it’s Lebron and not Russell. Now it’s chains and not rings.  Now it’s sagging and not slouching.  But it’s all the same.  In a generation of young black males, the same fear grows suddenly large against a world where judgment and ownership has always been the Dream.

I dedicate myself to this cause in my classroom.  My classroom will not be a jail of interests of my choosing, but a field of interest growing.

Howard University (Coates' Mecca)

Howard University (Coates’ Mecca)

It will be what Howard was for Coates.  “A Mecca” of knowledge, and discovery.  I will give each child a name to live on and not a body that houses fear.  This was my favorite realization from Coates’ book.  He only names the deceased.  Never does he name his son, never does he name his wife, Prince has a clear name, a clear story, a heated intervention to the reader that only the named black bodies, only the black bodies that have proven owned will get a name.  This is how they earn their name.

This can no longer be okay in America.  We must give everyone a name.  We must complete the story that Coates cliff-hanged.  We must not let black be synonymous with lower class, with darkness, with evil, with anything that can be less than because black is what holds up a sky of dead stars, and I refuse to see any of my students live a life where every corner is a death wish, and every badge is a death warrant.

Black. is the only reason we can see lightening.  The only reason that stars can be seen like sugar in the sky. The words on a page that make me both more human, and more capable.  A black body is beautiful, matters, grows strong and meaningful, makes a difference, doesn’t need to live in fear, and is a body of worth in society.   When we can live in a world that doesn’t stark contrast us into categories, and a world where no color is synonymous with damage, then Coates and I can both live in a world with no in-betweens.

If America claims to be the number one country in the world (just the fact that we see ourselves as competition with the world is kind of disgusting in this conversation), then why is Coates able to see alleys in France as walkways and not darkness where his body will be mugged? Action > Intentions. It’s time, America. And it’s time for this book. Toni Morrison says it’s required reading, and Toni Morrison is the sole reason I believe the old dead white man’s canon is wrong.