Saturday, December 4, 2010

On memoir

This semester, I learned that memoir isn’t about writing about an author’s entire life, just the important parts—the ones that helped shape who the writer would become as an adult. It also includes smaller moments that stick out in memory, the ones that are strong and detailed but the writer may or may not know why, such as Patricia Hample’s memories about a nun’s hands guiding her with piano lessons, or that same nun sneezing in the sunlight. We’re always remembering odd details about our childhood or lives that we think are just random moments. Sometimes, those moments have significance and we’re too close to them to be able to see it. It would take a reader to pinpoint why we remember what we do. The author may be able to write something that may at first have been random, and then, during revision or sketching out the scene, realize the larger impact the moment had on his or her life. Or it would take a third party’s interpretation to bring to light such significance.

I don’t think the memoir really ends with the last revision before printing. I bet there are many times during book readings or class discussions where an author’s eyes are opened to something he or she wrote but didn’t recognize. As educated readers, we’re coming into memoirs knowing what devices and techniques to look out for, and as writers we try to utilize them. But many times in my own writing, something comes full circle that I hadn’t thought of before. And when it comes to one’s childhood, there are many ways to see a string of events, as this class has illustrated.  

I used to think that memoir was simply a glorified journal. I’d been too used to things like Anne Frank’s Diary that when presented with Angela’s Ashes, The Liar’s Club, Stop-Time, etc., I expected them to be similar. I figured that memoir would follow the same literary techniques and elements that fiction or poetry follows, instead of having its own list. Were it not for the immature teacher who taught the creative non-fiction course for undergraduates, I’d lament more for having to drop the class. I have no idea if he even covered memoir, but it seemed that what mostly came from the course was individual essays. Indeed, many submissions to the campus literary magazine were individual, and nowhere did I find (unless I missed a few) any that stated the essays were part of a memoir. I wish memoir would have been covered in undergraduate courses, or at least introduced.

I don’t think anything in particular surprised me. Perhaps my journalism background prepared me for the steps one must take with writing memoirs. The rest I learned as the class progressed and took everything in the same vein, with the same mentality. If anything surprised me, it would be moments in the memoirs themselves. Perhaps what could have surprised me was the ability for the covered writers to include sensitive information, such as being sexually abused or raped, or family problems like a grandmother’s death and a mother and father’s alcohol addiction. Some things families may want to keep hidden, and it would take a lot of courage not only for the writers to admit something deeply personal and embarrassing about themselves, but the same information about their families. I don’t know if I’m brave enough for that, yet.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Wiesel's "Night"

The memoir Night was important to both the author, Elie Wiesel, and the world because Wiesel was able to relate his experiences to the rest of the world, while simultaneously giving the world a view of the Holocaust from the inside.  He was very brave to write down his experiences so soon after they occurred, when so many would have tried to stay as far away from anything that may remind them of it. He also may have been able to contemplate his religious confusion by working it out on paper, writing down what he was feeling at the time and trying to make sense of it all.
On page 51, he first begins to question God when people started saying the Kaddish. He writes, “For the first time, I felt anger rising within me. Why should I sanctify His name? The Almighty… chose to be silent. What was there to thank Him for?” He clarifies his loss of faith on page 63 when he writes, “I was not denying His existence, but I doubted His absolute justice.” Elie continues to question God and His works throughout the rest of the memoir in many paragraphs of questions and accusations. He remains consistent from the beginning after he realized his soul had been burned away. He recognizes God, but no longer trusts in him or prays to him except in times of extreme fear or moments close to death. I’m not sure if he reached any place of comfort within himself after writing his stories and defining his beliefs, but he probably felt relief after getting his story out to the world. This story, in general, is very similar to that of millions of other captives in the Holocaust, and by writing his, he was partially writing theirs, especially because many stories were lost with the people as they died.
The world has a way of denying violence while embracing it. Many still deny that the Holocaust ever happened. Stories like Wiesel’s provide historical and personal evidence about the atrocities that so many experienced. For example, he lists off a string of events in the beginning of the book. They range from the German bombings, news from the Russian front, a Budapest radio announcing that the Fascist party had seized power, German troops entering Hungary by its government’s approval, the expulsion of foreign Jews from Sighet (where Wiesel lived), Germans arresting leaders of the Jewish community, the creation of ghettos, and the law of the yellow star. On page 28, he writes, “The Germans were already in our town, the Fascists were already in power, the verdict was already out—and the Jews of Sighet were still smiling.” This passage reveals that despite such events that were against the Jewish community, the people were still hopeful and clinging to any small amount of good news, such as the Russian front advancing. It seemed that, in this particular town, the community chose to deny the meaning of events until they were crossing the gates of Auschwitz. Wiesel relived every one of these events, including many others, to bring truth to the world, perhaps for the world to learn, always remember, and never repeat what had happened. It’s a shame that such acts of genocide (minus the camps) continue to happen, and that even America was guilty of concentration camps for the Japanese, though the conditions weren’t nearly as horrific.  
I think if this book was written as a historical account instead of a memoir, it wouldn’t hit home as much as it does. Because it’s told from a personal perspective, displaying how one’s life could be affected by the decisions made during a war, people can imagine themselves in the same situation, or their family or friends. They can ask themselves what decisions they would have made, see if they’d have lived through it or not. This imagination placed upon the story increases its impact and horror. If it was just a historical account, the reader encounters extreme distance of time and miles. The events of the Holocaust are of little consequence unless the reader is Jewish, gypsy, a little person, or homosexual. It’s just an event in the past. But with a personal account, it becomes personal for the reader.  
Night is filled with elements of literary style. He uses scope and intent, larger truth, voice, and style. One could argue that it also has shape and structure because of specific incidents chosen to portray the Holocaust. The readers must realize that every day in the concentration camps were probably the same, and that there would be only a few moments of change throughout the general arc of his time there. But even those events are rather general. As for the others, the memoir spans his experiences with the Holocaust, an event that affected millions of lives, if not much more. It’s an event that maintains importance today because the world continues to witness acts of genocide, though the “Never forget” promise seems to have ensured that the acts of genocide are not committed in concentration camp-like environments. Night is written like an adult reminiscing about the past, but limited to the perspective of Wiesel’s teenaged self. There are few moments of foreshadowing included wherein the adult Wiesel makes a comment, but it’s mostly told in the voice and perspective of a teenager who didn’t and couldn’t know what was really happening around him or what was to come. This places the reader inside Wiesel’s emotions at the time, taking the reader for a ride that makes him or her question everything, as Wiesel had done as well. Wiesel writes about the banality of evil with everyday people causing harm or ignoring events around them, he agonizes over his religion in the face of torture and abandonment, and he provides commentary on the Holocaust and the war itself.
                I think in the case of Wiesel, his witnessing of painful events was very much relevant to his memoir. Otherwise readers could argue, “How did you know certain specific events happened to specific people? You weren’t there. You didn’t experience them for yourself.” It establishes trust between Wiesel and the reader to know what he was there and had, in fact, gone through the torture and selection and managed to survive. If not, the level of trust diminishes greatly and creates a distance between the reader and the event instead of placing us inside the narrator as he experiences everything. But Wiesel’s writing is concise and he doesn’t dwell or dawdle on a subject. This style ensures that his writing isn’t overemotional.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Thoreau's "Walden"

I don’t think Walden can be considered a memoir. It’s more a work on nonfiction because he writes about his time at Walden, as opposed to his life up until that point.  He does mention his life beforehand, the life he came from and what he’s giving up in order to live a life of simplicity. But those instances are rare, and most of the chapters in Walden talk about his observations and how he managed to survive through the days, nights, and seasons. He also includes his use of husbandry—which I learned about through the piece—carpentry when describing how he built his house/cabin, and mathematics when describing how he learned the varying depths of the pond.

Despite this, we can still learn pieces of information about Thoreau. He directly comments about his thoughts, actions, and beliefs. But those are more personal assertions that a reader cannot be sure are true or false. The reader can more accurately determine Thoreau’s character through his choices and observations, and the nature of his descriptions.  One such description in “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” is about the pond on a rainy day. He writes, “This small lake was of most value as a neighbor in the intervals of a gentle rain storm in August, when, both air and water being perfectly still, but the sky overcast, mid-afternoon had all the serenity of evening, and the wood-thrush sang around, and was heard from shore to shore.”

Here, we see that he considers the lake a living object by referring to it as his neighbor. He also seems to appreciate not only its beauty, but a duality of existence. He finds a moment in the day and relates it to night, somehow straddling the boundaries like twilight and living in both realities at once. If I remember transcendentalism correctly, this duality of existence is present in the philosophy. It teaches to live in and as both, any extreme or dichotomy, and use it to transcend the world. But not only that, the divine can be found in nature. Thoreau’s reverent descriptions of the nature around him reveal how he sees the divine in it. Walden contains many such descriptions, and indeed the whole experience began to connect with nature and live not only within it, but alongside it in a way that allows both to survive. He introduces a form of sustainability by using only what he needs, in addition to replanting and trying to preserve as much as possible. He also writes about being awake, and uses the metaphor of morning to explain it, but this idea slips through in his descriptions of evening and night. While he wants to be aware even at night, he wants to also be fully immersed in the world around him. Recognizing the value and beauty of evening hours and the effect rain has on his environment, he’s very much aware.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Eggers's excerpt of "A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius"

When I took Writing for Electronic Media and Film at SRU, we covered many lesson plans for writing in different styles, like vlogs and moving poetry and such. The point of the whole class (the way that particular professor taught it) was that we didn’t have to stick to the conventional methods of words on a page or screen in order to tell a story. Eggers using graphs, lists, play scripts and anything else he could think of is just another way to convey the same information. It’s the same as writing everything out, and the messages still get across. It also provides the reader with something else to look at that might not require as much thinking, or would stimulate other portions of our brains so we don’t feel like we’re looking at monotonous bits of information and continuous text blocks. This method is unique and I think works well.

The fact that he creates some of the scenes is okay. As we saw in the assigned excerpt, he created a scene by writing it as a script. The conversations probably happened many times, and even if those exact words didn’t happen, they still truthfully represented the other conversations. Writers of memoir will take whatever point in their lives they’re trying to write, and condense it into a proper narration. The dialogue there may not be exactly the same, but it matches the technique Eggers used of making it fit the scene and represent what happened. The only difference is that one was within narration, and one was without it.

Eggers’s method shows us that it doesn’t matter what memoir method writers choose, we can still arrive to the same conclusions and enlightenments. All it takes is remembering, writing, reading, reflecting and making connections—it doesn’t matter what format the writing takes. In Eggers’s case, it did take a bit of pondering to realize why he used those differing techniques, but that only resulted in further enlightenment when the rest of the pieces started fitting together. If I were writing a memoir and came upon a discussion or even that happened many times, I would definitely consider using techniques like recipes and play scripts or graphs, if they were relevant. Relevance and easy readability are all that matters.  

Monday, November 1, 2010

Conroy's "Stop-Time"

Sorry about being a bit late in posting this...

Conroy's use of the jazz stop-time technique is evident in his chapters when he creates a different section by adding a space between the paragraphs. He then switches from past tense to present tense, bringing the reader from an adult’s reflection to a child’s experience. It took a bit of getting used to because it caused the entire chapter, much less the entire book, to switch paces. In chapter two, there’s a significant tense and story change when Conroy shifts from talking about Jean to Tobey and then back to Jean again. He explains Jean’s background in order to explain why Jean is the way he is. To do this, Conroy also explains Jean’s siblings to show how he worried about Jean’s unstable mentality, because siblings are a good indication of what Jean could become.

On page 32, Conroy shifts from past tense while explaining Jean’s string of temporary jobs, to present tense about waking up on Victor’s Jean’s brother, couch. There is a sense of rising and falling action when Conroy wakes up to discover Victor had come in the living room to his desk. Conroy knew not to move or let on that he was awake because a sort of sixth sense had warned him of danger. The scene is tense as he waits to see what Victor was going to do. When Victor screams and falls to the floor, Conroy leaps from the couch and runs outside, only to crash into a parked car and pass out, seeing stars swirl around him like in a cartoon. The tension provides the rising and falling action with the scene starting with Conroy waking up, the tension mounting as he registers the danger and waits to see what happens, and then falling action when he reaches the climax of leaping from the couch and ending by passing out. It begins and ends by him being unconscious, bringing the scene full circle. After this, the narration returns to past tense as he describes how Jean leeched from his and Alison’s child support checks.

In the scene, Conroy describes his emotions in order to increase tension and uneasiness. He writes, “Uneasiness creeps forward from the back of my head, waking me with a silent danger signal. Don’t move! Don’t make a sound!”He then increases the uneasiness by describing what was happening to Victor and his scream before Conroy runs from the couch and out of the house while only in his underwear. The impact of the entire scene, though, wasn’t his realization of Jean’s family being crazy. He realized that the entire world was crazy because of his collision with the parked car. That moment connected the readers, and thus the world, to a situation that could have been but a singular moment otherwise.

I think that because of the madness Conroy grew up in, he only knew how to function when the world was crazy. In the case of framing his story with his car crash, the reader sees that he is ecstatic when the car loses control and he careens into a fountain. It was a moment where everything was thrown out of his control and he felt alive, even though he also thought he was about to die. His relaxation before the car hits the fountain was taught to him while growing up. When things go crazy, just go with it. “Let it come.” If such uncontrollable craziness is all he’s ever known, then he would welcome it. My mentor wanted me to read “Writing Short Stories” by Flanner O’Connor. She states that a story is driven by meaning. That telling a story is the only way to make someone else understand something. In this case, I think that the entire narration between the prologue and the epilogue is a means of describing his reaction to that one car wreck.   

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Hampl and Frey's use of fabrication

Many times when we’re trying to write a scene, we’ll invent details to help pull everything together or fill any gaps from our memories. We can’t remember every little detail of a situation, but we understand what it takes to complete a scene. But we’ll also combine memories into one event, despite some details not happening until before, later, or in a different order. Hampl shows this in her piano lesson sketch by explaining that she didn’t use that particular red book until much later, and she mentions how she wasn’t sure if her father’s violin playing was the result of her piano lessons, or vice versa. She explains how we’ll combine details to make a scene work, and only through revision and further introspection can we realize our fabrications. Then we can begin to order our memories and decide whether it is acceptable or inappropriate to use fabrications of smaller details to finish a scene.

She suggests that memoirs help to make sense of our lives. Without writing about our own life, we don’t have one, and reflection helps us understand what happened and notice things we may not have previously when we experienced events. She says, “Memoir seeks a permanent home for feeling and image, a habitation where they can live together.” It is also a way for us to accomplish things we may not have been able to before, such as the subordinate relationship Hampl has with her peer. The experiences are the same, but the feelings and retrospection of certain events can portray a different scenario than what may have been felt the first time. It’s not lying, just a different way to view an event. It’s a way to write down feelings and reactions from situations as accurately as possible with memory. This won’t have a bias on it due to political responsibilities, just an account. However, because of the use of fabrications, the memoirs should only be approached with a grain of salt. Despite that, her suggestions are valuable for memoir writers and I will probably resort to our class readings when deciding how I should approach my own memoir, should I write it.

As a journalist, I’d like to say that everything in a memoir must absolutely be factually accurate. However, unless the writer as a photographic memory and can remember small details, it’s not possible to have everything accurate. There are certain details that are needed to complete a scene, and because most of us cannot remember those details, we have to fabricate them. But we’re not completely fabricating, we’re making an informed decision about what details were probably there. We do this based off other memories of different times, or a general understanding of family or surroundings from whatever time we’re writing about. So, everything should be as close to factually accurate as possible, but not everything will be.
Most people understand the nature of memory. There is an unspoken contract between writer and reader that what is in the memoir will be as close to the truth as possible, but people understand that not all the details will be. However, readers do except scenes and situations to have actually happened, and will feel betrayed or misled if they find out otherwise. They will also understand that sometimes people don’t want their stories told, or that their secrets may be detrimental to that person if revealed. In that case, I think people would understand if names were changed to protect someone in real life. As long as the situations and story doesn’t change from the name, then what’s a name? It wouldn’t matter.

If I bought any of the memoirs outside of class and then found out that some stories in Karr and Frey’s works were lies, then I would lose trust in them and wouldn’t purchase any other works by them. I would also probably take the books to Good Will to be rid of them. But I wouldn’t sell them back. I believe in a buyer’s responsibility for purchases. If you bought it, if you read it, then you shouldn’t sell it back just because of disappointment. I can understand why others would want to, but I wouldn’t.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Hughes's "Salvation"

Hughes incorporates man vs. society and man vs. self in his essay “Salvation.” He also includes rising and falling action, showing the conflict and resolution of the event.

To begin, Hughes uses man vs. society because of the expectation he feels from the fellow church members. Expectation had been building for weeks for a revival, during which time the children would be invited to join the “fold.” In addition to the “preaching, singing, praying, and shouting,” his aunt had spoken of it days beforehand. Then, he’s ushered to the front row of the church with the other children, in front of everyone else in the church. So instead of melding into the throng, they’re on display.

When he expects to see Jesus’s light, but then doesn’t feel or see anything, the conflict is enhanced by adding man vs. self. The rest of the children are standing up in their own time, either immediately or eventually. Soon, it’s down to just Hughes and another boy. Hughes is truthfully waiting to experience Jesus, but is fully aware of time slipping by and the group’s expectations. He keeps repeating, “It was very hot in the church, and it was getting late.” Older members are kneeling in front of him to pray fervently for him salvation. His aunt comes and kneels to cry over at his knees. The whole congregation was praying for just him in the end. He wanted to truthfully see Jesus, but he also wanted all the attention off him. He faced the pressure of succumbing to society’s expectations, but to do so he would have to lie to them and, in a way, to God… in a church.

Throughout all this, Hughes incorporates rising and falling action with the church’s noise and heat. The shouts and prayers and singing and rocking all build until he stands, then everything hushes. In the beginning, the readers see an explanation of events and building tension. The essay ends with silence during a cool night. Then Hughes is the one crying, but for not seeing Jesus. He also faces the prospect of continuing the lie to his aunt, who believes his tears are because of his salvation, and dealing with his inner turmoil of lying and lack of “proper” salvation.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Karr's The Liar's Club

Blog 5

I don’t typically read memoirs, and to be honest I wouldn’t have picked this one up. There’s just something about them that doesn’t appeal to me. Many people experience poor childhoods with insecure family members in dry and dangerous environments. I guess it’s all about how you write the people involved or the memories you experienced…

I would have difficulty writing about another’s personal issues. I was once writing a Mary-Sue Harry Potter fanfiction and wanted to use my parents names in it for the first chapter. My step-father was ardently against it and refused to let me. He didn’t want people on the internet reading about him. For the people I don’t like or treated me poorly, I might not have much of a problem. But for people I care for, I’d be afraid of outing them about something or writing a scene that was supposed to remain secret. Changing names is one thing for national readers, but for local readers or those who are somehow connected to me or the situations, those people would see through the names and figure out who I was writing about. Then, it’s no different from using the actual name, and those are the people that the initial ones probably want to avoid. I suppose, then, it would depend on what I was writing about in order to decide if I would include someone or that person’s real name.

If, however, the people were no longer around, then any personal story, like the cutting story, would help shape the person’s character. It would help readers to understand who the person was. With Karr’s method of altering stories, we can still infer who the people were because each story at least had a grain of truth to them. Those are the easiest lies to accept. In term of literary qualities, Karr uses at least two: scope and intent, and voice. The Liar’s Club illustrates scope and intent because it shows all the conflicts and problems she faced in her childhood and how she dealt with them, which both helped her develop a sense of self as she grew. She also works with voice, because she shifts between an adult voice and that of a child’s within a paragraph or less, showing both how she spoke then and her mentality at the time, then contrasting it with the overall adult narration.

If I was considering writing a memoir, it’d contain personal information. I would cross a line within myself, and there’d be no going back. I’m sure there are a number of lines that I’d draw, but if I put myself outside of myself, detached permanently, I might be able to write about anything. The problem there is that even if I’m capable of detaching during the writing process, people will continue to make me relive the events in public during book readings or interviews. It’s one thing to speak to anonymous people on the page, it’s another to face them in public readings or TV/radio interviews. They aren’t as anonymous then, nor would I be. The author would have a face and voice instead of just words.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Nabokov's Speak, Memory

The main difference I see between Nabokov and McCourt is a sense of story. McCourt’s childhood narrator immerses us in a linear timeline. The reader has a story to follow and becomes invested in the narrator and characters. With Nabokov, the reader has to become invested in his obsession of butterflies in order to continue reading. Nabokov makes this easier with his elegant imagery and style, but the story is more about his butterflies than himself.

I’ve found that I prefer linear timelines to ones that jump around. The ones that jump around are hard to follow, and the reader has to look closer to find a common string connecting the timeframes. The child narrator uses simpler and easier language to take us along his life, one action and thought to the next. Nabokov takes us from one conquest to another, each butterfly linking to another or reminding him of a similar adventure, but each at different ages. He admits that parts of his memory are blurry or missing, which could be why he chose to connect his narration with the butterflies. But at the same time, McCourt’s narrator makes the story read like a story, like fiction with plot and conflict and resolutions and character development. Nabokov reads like a nonfiction manual about butterflies and moths, how to catch them, and what he did during those adventures. We have to infer who he is by what he does. As Regina said in Tuesday’s class discussions, we can deduce that he likes to be outdoors more than indoors, he is perseverant in his pursuits, is a keen observer and is more introverted and prefers nature to human interaction, which is evident when he leaves a friend behind who traveled a long way to see him.

When he looks back as an adult on his childhood, Nabokov is able to analyze his life a little easier than a child’s reaction that an adult reader would then interpret. He can recognize that it was bad to leave his friend, though at the time he may have just concentrated on his searches. Written in an adult voice, Nabokov gives the reader a break by allowing them to sit back and enjoy his writing instead of interpreting everything. The reader can imagine what the child may have been thinking, instead of the environmental factors. The reader has to take more time with the story because of its dense language, but their job as reader is easier because there’s a good chance it’s an adult narrator speaking to an adult reader.  

This age difference heightens the language. Instead of simplistic vocabulary like McCourt uses, Nabokov uses intelligent and sometimes difficult vocabulary. Combining that with his unique way of describing things, like dewy brilliancy and plastered leavers, and his juxtaposition of descriptions, like a stagnant bog surrounded by beauty, Nabokov raises the bar on literary quality. He doesn’t utilize the same universal themes as McCourt, but his writing alone gives him an edge. It makes me want to learn Russian in order to read what he actually said instead of reading someone’s translations of his words. It would then bring a new depth to Speak, Memory because we’d be able to see if anything was lost in translation.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

McCourt's Angela's Ashes

Blog 3

McCourt is brilliant with his portrayal of varying accents and dialects. I could hear everyone as if they were speaking next to me, from Mrs. Leibowitz to the Italian man and even McCourt himself as the narrator. It was nice hearing the Irish rhythms and accents again, even in reading words. I was able to tolerate the misspelled words because I’ve heard them used before and it helped me re-hear them. Having been to Ireland, I could alter the phonetics of a word to shift it into the Irish accent. And because I was in Limerick and had Limerick housemates, I could actually hear them occasionally, especially when the H sound wasn’t used, like saying tree instead of three. I’m sure that listening to McCourt read his story in an audiobook enhances the reading further because he’s then both the reader and the narrator in the story.

I noticed a running theme underneath other universal themes of hunger, being poor, an addicted parent, mental growth, and so on. There was a definite concept of possessions. This could be because McCourt didn’t have much and so he grabbed what he could, even if it was stories and songs that his father would “give” him and his friends would “steal.” A story of Cuchulain was his, a song about kisses belonged to his mother, etc. Afterward, this concept of possessions shifted from verbal gifts to food and shoes.

The close perspective of the child narrator made me become like a child again. Even as I write this, I want to use present tense instead of past. I started looking at the adult characters through the eyes of a child, and placed myself in the situations with McCourt to compare how I would’ve acted or reacted, how I would’ve managed the same events and situations. I experienced a lot of consternation reading how the adults treated the boys, and recalled that it was a universal treatment of children between certain ages. I also began to remember how I used to think and speak as a child, too. He masterfully depicts a child’s voice, and it’s more believable knowing he was listening to his granddaughter’s voice before he started writing his memoirs.

I chose to write about a Christmas event where my grandfather came to visit. My family set up a scene that made it look as if Santa Claus trailed tinsel from the tree to the back door. I swore that the snow on the deck was disturbed, and my grandfather told me about how Santa stepped on his hand at night and apologized. I found the present tense hard to write in, much less remain in. I also started commenting not just on my family’s traditions during Christmas, but the relationship between my grandparents. My grandmother lived with me as a nanny, and my grandfather lived in Angola, New York, for his work. I didn’t realize until I started writing the scene that their “separation” was peculiar and probably took a toll on them. If I hadn’t told the story, I probably wouldn’t have considered the situation for at least another few years.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Dinesen's "Out of "Africa"

In psychoanalyzing Dinesen’s passages, the reader sees that she was drawn to the opposite environment from that in which she grew up. She writes, “There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere; it was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet, like the strong and refined essence of a continent.” The words “no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere” reveals how bare everything was and broken down into the base aspects of everything. Nothing was in excess, everything was just the amount it had to be in order to survive. It also shows the simplicity of her environment. Instead of numerous ecosystems squished together on one island, like with England, it’s spread out across a giant continent. Only what is required to survive, and that simplicity has its own beauty despite how dry and barren it is in most areas.

Dinesen characterizes Africa as being high up with no luxuriance during the day while being limpid, restful and cold during the night. She uses words like strong and refined to describe the landscape, including dry and burnt like pottery. But despite that she talks of trees having light, delicate foliage that gave them “a heroic and romantic air like fullrigged ships with their sales clewed up...” The entire description, while conveying the dry heat that would be dangerous if underestimated, also seems to have a Romantic air. She romanticizes everything, which was common when those areas were colonized by those of the ruling class. And even though she lived and admired her environment, she was still separated from it and only seemed to hunt in it or manage a farm, both being acts of domination. Most of the description was “pleasant to think of when times were dull on the farm.” The landscape and the animals seemed to be “out there still, in their own country,” but the Dinesen never seemed to be part of it, at least in the excerpt. This compounds the concept of a lost world because not only was Africa "discovered" in order to colonize it, but what she's describing may no longer be there right where she said it is. General descriptions would be, but they'd be slightly altered because of time. This adds a magical quality to her descriptions because she's taking us back in time to when these descriptions were relevent, especially when she says things like, "... a landscape that had not its like in all the world."

The use of second person allows the readers to better place themselves in the environment, as if they were seeing it directly. If Dinesen used first person, it would detach the reader as well as the author instead of immersing the reader in it. The author is detached enough to begin with, she had to use some technique to draw the reader in aside from her descriptions. It's almost like telling a story to someone, but formally because of the rest of Dinesen's language. Also, I think second person may be a general "you" in this case. Like, "If you went there, you would see..." even if she wasn't talking to anybody in particular, just anyone who happened to be reading her words.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I read this story before when Angelou was about to come to Slippery Rock University for a presentation/speech. Much of her presentation was on the first book in the series, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many people in audience knew this.
While going through this story for a second time, I realized that it’s all about silence, particularly silencing. I couldn’t understand the first time through why the title was “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” until I read that it was because the bird still has a song to sing. The title and the concept in the story, then, provide an interesting juxtaposition between silence and singing. Angelou remains silent out of embarrassment, respect, fear, and direct orders. Those moments are prevalent throughout the entire book, up until the moment when she is raped and chooses to remain silent except when she interacts with Bailey.

During my undergraduate career, I had taken a creative non-fiction course for a few weeks. I ended up dropping it because it conflicted with my work on the newspaper, but I was there long enough to begin to cover the problem nonfiction writers have with memory. There is an issue about a lack of detail within memory, which the author must create instead of transcribe. The first incident I saw of this problem was on page 7 in Chapter One. Angelou describes her grandmother’s routine in the morning, including her prayer and actions before calling the children to wake them up. Angelou couldn’t know this unless her grandmother described it to her, or she used conjecture.

I read an article recently in Writer’s Chronicle about writing nonfiction from a child’s perspective. The author said that as an adult, the writer must maintain his or her own mentality and vocabulary instead of trying to sound like a child, though children are prone to insightful intuition. It’s still possible to present a child’s mentality without sounding like one. Examples the author used were “We as children understood” or “Looking back upon it,” and other variations. I noticed the difference in adult and child mentality in Angelou’s writing on pages 11 and 21, for examples. On page 11, Angelou refers to Uncle Willie by saying, “He was so proud and sensitive. Therefore he couldn’t pretend that he wasn’t crippled, nor could he deceive himself that people were not repelled by his defect.” Here some readers may think that she’s being an insightful child, but I think that because it’s in the narration, it’s the adult Angelou reflecting on the situation. On page 21, she writes “I watched him with the excitement of expecting him to do anything at any time… I see him now as a very simple and uninteresting man…” Here Angelou incorporates both her thought processes and perceptions as a child, and then switches to her perceptions as an adult.

I think that this work is timeless because it deals with childhood, maturity, changes, personal invasion, and trauma as well as racial tension. Those are things that will be around even if race becomes no longer an issue. She provides almost a primary source for history as well because of living in the segregated south and through prohibition in the city. Her work is certainly literary and has a unique voice due to Angelou’s growth through literary works and her upbringing from Momma.

When I thought back to a moment in childhood, I remembered waking up on Christmas morning to find footsteps and a trail of tinsel from the tree to the deck door, and the snow on the next disturbed. Everyone swore it was Santa, and my grandfather told me that Santa had stepped on his hand at night and apologized to him. But when I tried to remember sensory details, I couldn’t. I couldn’t immerse myself in memory as well as Angelou seems to, and I would be creating much of the details by combining memories from other Christmases and conjecture of what would have been there, instead of what was. I remember general incidents, but most details elude me.