A New Reality

Amy Pond: Look where?

The Doctor: Exactly where you don’t want to look, where you never want to look. The corner of your eye. Look behind you.

–“The Eleventh Hour,” Doctor Who

Disclaimer: I’m using a British quote to close out our American month. Don’t judge. It fits.

There is something in the darkness, something around the corner. It makes your skin crawl. You can hear it breathing, yet it has no need for air. This is a world quite like your own, but half a second off. Or tilted just slightly differently on its axis. Whatever it is, you can’t quite touch the strangeness with your mind (for here, the only way to touch is within the mind). But you know it is strange. There is something lurking very near, very close. Don’t look back.

All right, so there’s nothing lurking behind you (that I know of). But that eerie feeling is central to the genre we’re focusing on today: slipstream. A relatively new genre, there is something uniquely American about slipstream. By no means does this mean all the authors in this genre are American. Far from it. But I think this is the genre that could define contemporary American lit.

Slipstream is ill-defined in some sense. It’s most pronounced characteristic is strangeness. That’s it. Strangeness. Practically, that falls somewhere between science fiction and fantasy, perhaps with a bit of horror mixed in. It’s a genre that straddles the real and the bizarre, taking from both whatever it wishes. It’s related to magical realism, which is primarily a Latin and South American genre. It can be dark. It can be exciting. Every story is different, caught up in a world that is just different than ours.

So what makes “strangeness” the American genre? I’ll posit a few things here, but you are welcome to do your own digging.

First, slipstream opens new frontiers. It’s hard to think of American literature without a frontier to conquer, be that the West or space or liberties. Slipstream stories literally create new frontiers in familiar spaces. We can explore the world we’ve always known with altered eyes.

Actually. Less literary detour here. This is what Pokemon GO does. Yes, I just went there. But stick with me. Pokemon GO has opened up a different world hidden in our own. It’s a lighthearted imposition on the streets and places that we normally just drive by. We actually enter into a different world without ever leaving our own. We pick up our phones and find Pokemon and are transported somewhere that’s just a bit weird, if we really stop to think about it. And then we stick our phones back in purses or pockets and step back into a world without Pokemon, or rather, without Pokemon that we can see. We slip in and out of what we consider real and what we consider imaginary. Pokemon GO is the app version of this genre.

Leaving behind the frontier, let’s move on to American rebelliousness. Slipstream is the genre that refuses (thus far) to be thoroughly defined. It’s the rebellious child of Sci-fi and Fantasy, taking some traits from the shifty looking guy from down the street named Horror and whatever other influences it picks up as it hitchhikes around the world (or maybe Slipstream’s doing the Airbnb thing; that seems likely). There is a restlessness in America, a desire to not be tied down or defined. We want to be weird. We want to be noticed. Slipstream is a reflection of that, highlighting the abnormal and leaving us haunted by ourselves.

Ready for a postmodern adventure? Slipstream is coming for you, oozing into the books you’re reading, the movies you’re watching. Keep your eyes open–you don’t want to be caught off guard.

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“Phenomenal Woman”

“Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size…
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.”

–Maya Angelou, “Phenomenal Woman”

“Does my sexiness upset you?”

–Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise”

Tonight, I’m looking forward to honoring a poet from my hometown. St. Louis has been home to several poets, most notably Angelou and T.S. Eliot, and two US Poet Laureates. I’m a pretty big fan of Eliot myself, but there’s something about Angelou that resonates in a very different way.

After a several year period of silence in her childhood, triggered by serious trauma, Angelou opened her mouth and didn’t bother to shut it again. She got loud, though not in volume. She became strong and firm and unwilling to have her voice silenced. She spoke up for civil rights, for women, for people and causes that weren’t necessarily popular.

So who is Maya Angelou to me? What makes her rise through the ranks to come out among the handful of American authors we’re talking about this month?

Quite simply, Angelou’s brazenness inspires me. Her self-confidence defies those who would denounce her. She’s not in this game to impress you. She’s here to show you beauty and strength and wit, all wrapped in a woman’s curves.

Angelou is the confidence that the chubby girl in your gym class needs. She’s the femininity that raises up the girl with a Frida Kahlo unibrow. She’s the one telling us that girls don’t have to be skinny to be sexy. She’s a woman, and don’t you challenge her femininity.

There is a trend that, whether we consciously recognize it or not, is fueling feminine insecurity. There is something that tells us that to be a woman is to always comment on a friend’s weight loss (even if it’s half an ounce) or to mention that new diet fad. There is something that says, “To be a woman is to be small, quiet, unnoticed except for in the slenderness of your being.” There is, of course, nothing wrong with short girls. Or with introverted or otherwise quiet girls. Or with slender girls. There is nothing wrong with not wanting to be the center of attention.

But what Angelou does is offer the woman–be she seven or seventy–the opportunity to defy those standards. Angelou gives us permission to be tall or wide or loud. Or all three. She is one of those women who looks at society’s standards and says firmly, “Does my sexiness upset you?” She gives permission to the supposedly unpretty girls, those of us who won’t ever be in a fashion magazine. We can be sexy. We can be beautiful and opinionated and strong. And none of those characteristics make us unfeminine.

Maya Angelou opens the door for us to challenge a world that doesn’t want us. She shows us how to make a world of our own. She doesn’t change the world by her words. She disregards its standards and asks if it cares to join her in a different paradigm. If not, let the world burn. But Angelou will just keep on being her strong, beautiful self, lifting up the women climbing behind her. May her legacy continue to strengthen the insecure and give us hope. She was, quite truly, a phenomenal woman.

To Boldly Go ~ Space and the American Frontier

“Science fiction is not prescriptive; it is descriptive.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

First, a confession: I have not read the work I am quoting. (Not from lack of trying, I will have you know. I have been on the waiting list at TWO libraries for FIVE WEEKS.) However, it was so apt for my topic of conversation today that I decided to use it anyway.

Like the majority of things American, Americans did not invent sci-fi; they simply made it their own. And what genre is more relevant to a young nation that still has a frontier than that which explores ‘the final frontier’? (If you don’t believe me about our frontier, tell me about what happens twenty miles from the interstates in the west.) Continue reading “To Boldly Go ~ Space and the American Frontier”

Three Words

“XII. Fear of Insurrection”

–Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

American literature is such a rich, diverse body of work that it is easy to overlook one of its darker chapters, one that perhaps holds some relevance for current events. We don’t often like to revisit this genre, drenched in an ugly history. But in light of Mary’s post about the poetry of the oppressed, a brief look at the slave narrative seems in order.

There are many slave narratives in our written literature, many more woven only on the tongues of those who lived those narratives. Within our recorded literature, slave narratives can be autobiographical or not, fictional or entirely true. The most famous novel in this genre is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Most Americans have probably read about Uncle Tom, or at least been assigned to read about him.

Why not talk about Uncle Tom? Simple. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written by a white woman as a fictional piece of propaganda for the abolition movement. It’s a powerful story, masterfully written. But it is, if you will, a secondary source. Harriet Beecher Stowe didn’t write from her own experience. All well and good in fiction. Nothing wrong with that. But that’s not what I want to write about.

I want to get into the grittiness of these narratives. I want to explore a true story, one that can’t be brushed off as fiction or exaggerated. Jacobs and the friend who edited her work both attest to the veracity of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jacobs goes to great pains to reassure her reader of the truth of her account throughout the narrative. There is a grim reality to Incidents that is much easier to avoid in books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Having reread Incidents recently, I found nothing so powerful as this chapter heading I’ve quoted above. There are some beautiful quotes. Jacobs is a raw, honest writer. But what really caught my eye was chapter 12 as a whole and with its title. It’s such an understated title: “Fear of Insurrection.” Three words. But the scene they sum up is such a vivid picture that I couldn’t find just one sentence to quote. The title must suffice.

Think back, will you, to the events of the past couple years. Can you remember the protests? Do you see them still? Do you remember the streets of St. Louis on fire? Can you see the anguish in the faces of mothers who had just buried their boys?

No, you’re right. This isn’t slavery. America has changed. But as we said on Tuesday, “America has not yet been America yet.” There are still dark nights ruled by fear. Fear of the Other. Fear of injustice. Fear of the system. Fear of the darkness.

Perhaps we should not say “united we stand.” Rather, in honesty, we might better echo Jacobs’ words: “fear of insurrection.” But let our present not be our future. Which three words will you be known by?

Let America Be America Again

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

–Langston Hughes, Let America Be America Again

The entire text of the poem can be found at the Academy of American Poets.

NB: This post was planned prior to the heartbreaking deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Upon reflection, I decided not to address current events, but to move ahead with my plans for the post anyway–other people are far more qualified and have more right to comment upon these events, and I am qualified to comment upon literature. 

American poetry is the poetry of the oppressed.

The Idea of America–the Form, if you will allow me some Plato–is a place for the oppressed. A place where they cease to be oppressed and stand on their own two feet, where any man or woman can be free.

Sadly, the Idea of America is not the reality.

Enter the poet.

The American poet sees the American Idea and recognizes that it is not reality. He (or she, though I will use the masculine pronoun since this post was inspired by Langston Hughes) is not content to simply admire the dream; he must call out those who have failed the dream. He must bring our attention to the flaws.

The American poet cannot simply let things be.

This presents a problem: the poet is a gadfly, and discomforts those who would rather remain blind and deaf to oppression and reality. They do not want to listen. The poet–and the oppressed for whom he speaks–refuse to be silenced.

The poet of necessity is a polarizing influence in a nation that desperately needs to be united. But this is not the poet’s fault; he brings to the surface the already-existing wounds because this is the only way for the wounds to be healed. The nation was never completely united in the first place.

America has not yet been America yet. But the poet dares to dream that it might yet be.

  • Recommended Reading:
    • Maya Angelou
    • Emily Dickinson
    • Allen Ginsberg
    • T.S. Eliot
    • William Carlos Williams
    • Shel Silverstein
    • Phyllis Wheatley
    • Mary Oliver

Captain America: Civil War ~ Team Iron Man

Captain America: Civil War ~ Team Iron Man

TONY STARK: If we can’t accept limitations, we’re boundaryless, we’re no better than the bad guys.

Earlier this week, you got to hear from Team Cap. Now it’s Team Iron Man’s turn. I must admit that I am not your standard Tony Stark admirer. I’m naturally more inclined to side with Steve Rogers, the cleancut idealist. I hated Tony Stark from the minute I met him, and it took me years to get over his arrogance.

So why am I on Team Iron Man? Simple. I believe that anyone, even superheroes, can convince themselves that their good intentions are worth a little collateral damage.

How much is one person worth? Can we sacrifice one to save the many? Is collateral damage a moral necessity? These are the questions Tony is weighing. Because for him, the loss of one human life at his hands, even indirectly, is a failure. He is haunted by the lives he has cost. That’s why he stopped making weapons. That’s why he became Iron Man. He wants to save the world.

But Tony knows better than almost any of the Avengers what it is to do harm when you’re trying to good. He has seen the negative results of his good intentions. He’s never been the golden boy. He’s the playboy. When a playboy starts suggesting some oversight, it’s probably time to listen.

Remember, of course, that this isn’t Tony’s ideal solution. Would he rather the Avengers self-police? Yes. But he recognizes that any person left to their own devices can spiral into justifying even the most disturbing actions. That’s why he says the Avengers would be no better than the bad guys. Not because they’re bad people. But because they each have the potential to become bad people.

No man should have as much power as these do. But they already have it. And to avoid World War Avengers, they need an outside perspective to offer guidance. The Avengers function under no law, and that’s Tony’s concern.

Near the end of the film, Tony faces Steve and asks a very simple question.

TONY STARK: [about his parents’ deaths at Bucky’s hands] Did you know?

STEVE: I didn’t know it was him…

TONY: [struggling to keep his temper] Don’t shit me, Rogers! Did you know?

STEVE: [hesitantly] Yes.

Here is is, plain and simple. Tony loses his self-control. Hard to blame him, frankly. Who knew the day would come when Cap was anything but honest? But volatile Tony isn’t the only one who lacks restraint. Think back to that that final fight. Tony is lying there, broken. And Cap slams his shield into Tony’s arc reactor.In context, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say Cap left Tony to die. Yes, Tony made it. But that’s not the sort of self-restraint he seemed so confident he could provide. This isn’t the Cap we’ve trusted.

Why Team Iron Man? Because I know the darkness of my own heart. It’s not a pleasant reality, but I can’t ignore it.

Captain America: Civil War ~ Team Cap

Captain America: Civil War ~ Team Cap

Steve Rogers: This job… we try to save as many people as we can. Sometimes that doesn’t mean everybody. But if we can’t find a way to live with that, next time… maybe nobody gets saved.

The sad thing is, it should not be a Team Cap/Team Iron Man thing. A civil war should never have happened. But it did.

So why am I Team Cap?

In a word: people.

First, I am more likely to trust a person than a government–or a committee–any day.

Each of the catastrophes that was listed as a reason for the Accords–New York, Washington D.C., Sokovia, Lagos–were not caused by the Avengers. They were caused by people the Avengers were trying to stop. The governments that we are supposed to trust with oversight attempted to blow up the entire city of New York. The governments we are supposed to trust with oversight repeatedly choose to try and take power wherever it is found rather than to protect their people.

Given all of this, why on Earth–or anywhere in the galaxy–would we choose to let them control the Avengers?

Second, because people are people–with their own choices and their own hopes and dreams. They are not objects or weapons of war. Ross summarizes everything I disagree with early in the movie:

Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross: Tell me, Captain, do you know where Thor and Banner are right now? ‘Cause you can bet if I misplaced a couple of 30 megaton warheads, there’d be consequences

And lest anyone think this is a strawman, Tony about Wanda:

Tony Stark: She’s not a US Citizen and they don’t grant visas to Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Captain America–Steve Rogers–believes in the power of the individual to make their own choices. People are not assets. People are not objects.

And really, that is the true reason I am Team Cap: Because Steve Rogers believes in self control–not in controlling others.

And I would rather be responsible for my own mistakes any day than responsible for the mistakes of others–or have others responsible for choosing my mistakes.

Vision: [straining] If you do this, they will never stop being afraid of you.

Wanda Maximoff: I can’t control their fear. Only my own.

I am for Captain America because I am for the individual. I am for the defenseless. I am for the defender.

I am for the human being.

Bleeding American

 “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.”

–Ernest Hemingway

This quote, famously attributed to Hemingway, doesn’t actually come from any of his works. In fact, there is some amount of dispute as to whether Hemingway actually said it. I’m going to give tentative credit to him, though, as it’s blunt enough to be Hemingway, and he is typically considered to be the man who said it.

It’s not that unusual of writing advice anyway. Many authors have written and spoken on the painful work of writing. Whether it’s the frantic sweating as deadlines approach or a broken heart as you let one of your character die–well, writing isn’t always a pleasant process. It’s messy, and it hurts.

But this idea of bleeding onto the page is an interesting one. It’s a uniquely Romantic or post-Romantic idea (which is what leads me to question the quote’s source), and in some ways, an American one.

Going way back in literature, we lose track of the names of authors. This is partially because of spotty records and such. But there appears to be a cultural context as well; ancient Western civilizations valued the story over the storyteller. The myth was more important than its maker. After all, what does it matter who Homer was when we can hear about Hector and Agamemnon? While certainly a foreign concept to our ears, there is a significant measure of sense ot this. The magic of the story is in the tale itself. The author need not insert themselves into the narrative.

But this Hemingway* quote provides a very different approach to writing, which is much more Romantic. This idea of bleeding our stories into the typewriter (or computer) implies an intense personal imprint that the author invests in their work. The story is a deeply individual artifact that will never be, and in fact cannot be, separated from its author.

Not only is this idea Romantic, it’s also pure Americanism. American literature is infused with a sense of individualism, of the settler or the vigilante. The lone hero in a darkened world. But that ideal isn’t just found in characters and plotlines. Before ever opening the book or reading a word, you can find this individualism. It has been breathed into our authors, and their very style of writing is changed by virtue of their being American. To write is to bare one’s soul. To write without bleeding is not to write at all–or at least not to write as an American.

The American writer is in many ways one with their story. They are not a passionless god moving pawns to create a narrative. No, an American gets his hands dirty, gets herself down in the grit and roots out the secrets. The American writer inhabits the world in which their characters live. The American writer bleeds.

That’s what we’re going to celebrate this month–American writers and American stories. Whether that’s books or movies, whether that’s Tom Sawyer or Captain America, we’re going to dig into American lit and see what this relatively young tradition already has to offer. So stay tuned for all of July as we celebrate American literature and the people who make it.