Monthly Archives: June 2013

Dear President Obama,

Dreams from My Father

Dreams from My Father

To celebrate your winning a second term in the White House, I read your memoir Dreams from My Father. I enjoyed it very much not only because I’m a supporter of yours or because you’re president, but because your family history and early adventures make a great American story and you tell it clearly and with grace. Your book is subtitled A Story of Race and Inheritance, and in the Introduction you explain that you opted to tell the story of your life rather than to compose an essay on race relations and civil rights. I’m grateful you made that choice. I’ll take a story over a lecture any time. Part of what makes your memoir moving is your candor and insight into how you were shaped by seemingly random events in the lives of your grandparents and parents. Their experiences took place long ago and far away and you learned of them through stories and, in turn, they sparked the longer story that you embrace as your inheritance.

Stories glow throughout this book, sometimes as brightly as my halogen desk lamp and other times dimly in the background like distant stars. You learn ofHalogen Desk lamp

Halogen Desk lamp

your mostly absent father through stories that were “compact, apocryphal, told in rapid succession in the course of one evening

Distant Star

Distant Star

then packed away for months, sometimes years, in my family’s memory.”  The story of your mom and dad’s interracial romance and marriage is another one you weave into an heirloom American tapestry. And so it goes. Everyone in your family, everyone you meet, has a story and you share these so your reader comes to appreciate your ability and willingness to listen to and understand other people. Contradictory as it seems, your own story is not all about you.

I admire your dogged efforts to know your elusive father and to include him in your life and your life story even though you discover him to be less than perfect. Your attention to the stories of others, especially your relatives, makes me wish I’d paid closer attention to stories my mother told and probed her for details before it was too late. She rarely discussed her family history or her own early life except to say that on hot summer nights she and her brother slept on their Newark, NJ fire escape, that this brother died in WWI,

Poppy in Flanders Field

Poppy in Flanders Field

and that after their mother died, their father remarried and this stepmother was also dead. When I was about ten years old, I asked what these women died of, and my mother replied tersely, “He worked them both to death.” This Simon Legree was hard for me to reconcile with the devoted grandfather, or Beanpa as I called him, who lived with us. He was my Monopoly and Canasta opponent, the man who walked me to and from school until I was old enough to go by myself, the same benefactor who bought me a white organdy party dress embroidered with baby blue flowers. I deeply regret not ever pressing my mother for details even if they threatened my little-girlish world view. I might have understood her better.

You make complex concepts and experiences vividly accessible without oversimplifying or condescending to your readers. For example, when you describe your early inattentiveness to the fact that you are biracial, you say, “That my father looked nothing like the people around me ─that he was black as pitch, my mother white as milk─ barely registered in my mind.” When, a few paragraphs later, you introduce the term miscegenation, the reader is prepared to follow your one paragraph history of interracial marriage in America. This ability to express complexity clearly and interestingly to a wide audience is crucial to presidents, and they don’t all have it.

Black Writer

Black Writer

Your communicative competence helped during your tenure as a community organizer, another part of your life I especially enjoyed learning about. Reading of how you struggled and occasionally failed and how you admitted each failure and learned from it made me more tolerant of my own struggles as a teacher and, more recently, as a writer.  Those same communication skills and your Kenyan ancestry enable you to feel at home in a variety of international settings and in several languages. You are truly a man of the world, the whole world.

You self-identify as a black American, so it’s fair for me to compare your coming of age story with some others I’ve read by other talented black male writers who came before you and before

March on Washington    1963

March on Washington 1963

major civil rights legislation in this country: Frederick Douglas, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Malcolm X, and Claude Brown. Like their prose, yours occasionally reflects the references and rhythms of the black preacher. But, you are not enraged, hungry, addicted, or given to religious extremism. Your fleeing father did not leave you without family, and your mother, stepfather and grandparents did not mistreat you but nurtured you instead. You hardly feel invisible or unmanned. On the contrary, your bicultural, biracial, multilingual, splintered extended family and somewhat nomadic upbringing have made you strong and given you the perspectives of both outsider and insider wherever you happen to be. And you’re a terrific writer.  I can’t wait to read the books you write when your term as president ends. Meanwhile, thank you for this one.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, Memoir, Uncategorized

Dear Jamaica Kincaid,

See Now Then  A Novel

See Now Then
A Novel

I didn’t exactly enjoy reading your controversial book See Now Then: A Novel, but I’m glad I read it and glad that you persevered for the decade it took

Trophy Wife

Trophy Wife

you to complete it. Some reviewers panned it as a purely personal fusillade of fury aimed solely at exposing and humiliating your socially prominent ex-husband after he dumped you. I see it differently. To me, your book is fueled by the pain and rage of all the powerless, and who is more powerless than the middle-aged wife and mother, dumped in favor of a younger woman? I’ll tell you who: the brown-skinned, middle-aged, immigrant wife and mother who lost the love of her own mother and is dumped in favor of a whiter, younger woman. Such a dumpee is the epitome of powerlessness─ unless she’s a really good writer. And you are such a writer.

You’ve always been able to express scathing sentiments in the perfect, grammatical sentences of the English schoolgirl, a reflection of the British education you received on Antigua when it was Briton’s colony. My students, many from islands in the Caribbean, and I used to marvel over how brilliantly you skewered Brits and Antiguans both. You attacked the former for displacing Antiguan culture with Anglican mores, books, and history and the latter for keeping the worst aspects of colonial rule after the colonizers were long gone but letting their excellent library and educational system decay. You even managed to work your distaste for colonialism into your books on gardening such as My Garden (Book). Who else would look at a hollyhock growing in Vermont and recall harvesting cotton as a child in Antigua?

Antiguan Stamp 1942

Antiguan Stamp 1942

And you’ve always written movingly and, often angrily, of characters and events that are recognizably and unabashedly autobiographical. You did not spare your mom or your brothers from your acid critiques. So it’s not surprising that the defection of your husband, son of your onetime American benefactor and father of your kids, should inspire a novel that reads like a cri du coeur from your own hurt and hurting heart of domestic and erotic darkness. It took creativity and guts to fashion an unusual novel from the ruins of your abandonment.

Heracles

Heracles

Your use of names and mythology is provocative. Mr. and Mrs. Sweet are often anything but and their progeny, the “young Heracles” and the “beautiful

Persephone

Persephone

Persephone,” have twisted versions of the qualities that make their namesakes memorable. The athletic Heracles suffers from ADD and his affection for the plastic soldiers that come with Happy Meals borders on addiction. Persephone, daddy’s girl, is easy to imagine reigning in the netherworld when, old enough to know better, she curses her mother for doing the writing that helps finance their middle class lifestyle.

Fueled by fury, your novel is powerful, your sentences Faulknerian tirades crammed with surreal snapshots of life as seen through the eyes of your third person narrator and through those of the Sweets. Mr. Sweets envisions his “beastly,” “bitchy” wife decapitated, her severed head greeting him on the yellow Formica counter in their kitchen. Mrs. Sweet envisions her spouse as a balding rodent, scurrying around filled with loathing for her, for their son, and for life in their New England village. She also envisions herself as deformed with a crooked spine, bent shoulders, too-long legs, and flared nostrils resting “like a deflated tent” on her “wide fat cheeks.” You even articulate the adolescent Heracles and Persephone’s hatred of their mom’s writing life so the reader can see how they curse the very vocation which has sustained their family and how much they fear her power to expose them.

Power of the Pen

Power of the Pen

I suspect conjuring up and articulating your own version of the violent imaginings of all these characters required you to call upon your store of writer’s power. This power is not the fleeting edge granted to the young and beautiful, but rather it is the lasting power of the really good novelist. Like many male authors who have fictionalized their relatives in the process of asserting authorial power, you have hung up an imaginary version of your family’s dirty wash to dry in the front yard of your book and in so doing, you too have created memorable fictional characters who live and breathe fire on the page.

Astronomical Clock

Astronomical Clock

And these characters will live on, and that is partly what, I think, your book is about. The present, or Now of your title, eventually morphs into the past and becomes the Then, only a memory, as subjective and fleeting as love itself unless it gets captured and crystallized on the page. Not every dumped ex-wife has the writing chops to do this, but you do. You turn your pain into potent prose images that linger in the hearts of your readers. I will remember your novel and use it as a lesson in how to make a powerful story, a modern Grimm’s fairy tale complete with ogres and witches, out of a lousy situation. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, feminist fiction, Immigrant story, Uncategorized