Turning: A Year in the Water by Jessica J. Lee, Book Review

“There is a great deal of unmapped country within us which would have to be taken into account in an explanation of our gusts and storms.”  ––  George Eliot

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Turning - Canadian edition

The above quote comes to me as I read Jessica J. Lee’s memoir Turning: A Year in the Water. From the beginning, I’ve an inkling that what she intends to say isn’t just about swimming but something deeper. I’m not disappointed. Swimming in fifty-two lakes throughout one year in Brandenburg in itself is a fascinating idea. What more, I’m much gratified with the candid revealing of her interior journey as she describes the physical terrain she treads. Often, the two mirror one another.

At twenty-eight, Lee goes to Berlin from Canada to do research and complete her doctoral dissertation on environmental history. She brings with her trunks of emotional baggage of hurts and loss from broken relationships and a transient existence,  traversing between Toronto, London, and Berlin.

Born in Canada to a Chinese mother from Taiwan and a father from Wales, Lee has been straddling multiple worlds all her life, first learning Mandarin at home, then English, then French in school. The multiplicity of languages reflects the challenges of growing up bicultural. The divorce of her parents further shakes up the fragile psyche of a teenage girl’s search for a sense of self. As a young adult she looks to other relationships and experiences to find anchor but only reaps disappointments. A move to London, England, later leads to deeper personal loss. By the time she arrives in Berlin, accrued pains and hurts have left indelible marks in her life.

To find strength and healing in a new land where she has to learn yet another language and culture, Lee decides on a venture to come to terms with her predicament. Her plan is to swim in fifty-two lakes near Berlin in the Brandenburg vicinity through every season of one year.

In short chapters under each of the four seasons, Lee captures succinctly her experience carrying out this plan, interspersing a swimming log with the back stories of her life.

Perhaps it was a drastic response. In depression, I had become someone I hadn’t wanted to be, emptied and hardened. I felt that I had to respond to it in kind, as if lake water might blast away my sadness and fear. So, I decided to swim for a year, in the hope of finding some reserve of joy and courage in myself. (6)

This unique resolve of hers fascinates me. Lee’s memoir is a log of a brave yet quiet venture through the seasons. Not only that, she has introduced me to the natural beauty of the Brandenburg landscape and the travelogues of the German writer Theodor Fontane (1819 – 1898). I read with interest the German socio-political situations she shares, also lap up tidbits on the environmental history of lakes, glaciers, and the etymology of terms associated with her experience.

Limnology is the study of lakes. Originally from Greek, but with the German overtone of Schwelle, it refers to an in-between space, an apt metaphor for Lee’s liminal identity between cultures.

Fragments of Chinese slipping out between English and German, as I press new words and places into place. Return. Home is as much in a language as it is in a landscape. (9-10)

In the stillness of the lakes, the border between nature and culture is thinned. Swimming takes place at the border, as if constantly searching for home. (14)

The term ‘Turning’ refers to the movements of the water in a lake. In lakes, there’s stratification of water and overturn, with the different layers of water in constant vertical movement. This action creates ‘cycles that keep the lake alive, ever-changing, breathing oxygen into every part of the lake.’ Isn’t that, too, a beautiful metaphor for our very existence, the essence of life?

Lee’s metaphors are fresh and relevant, akin to her academic field of environmental history. Here are two other ones I’ll remember for a long while. Lakes are markers in time in the glacial retreat:

In Lakes the present history of our world contracts and intensifies, urgent and shrinking like the ice… I take my parents’ divorce to be a marker, a line drawn between childhood and adulthood… For a girl on the cusp of teenhood, there was never going to be a good time. (56)

And this one is another apt description of so many being called diaspora: Glacial Erratics. The word erratics has the Latin root errare meaning to wander, to roam, to be mistaken, to go astray.

Erratics carry their origins with them, telling the story of where a glacier has been and how the ice deposited the erratic in the landscape. An erratic is a rock that doesn’t belong to the geology in which it is planted; instead, it’s a record of another place… Like an erratic, I was carrying past places with me. I felt mistaken. (170)

Above all, I’m mesmerized by a determined mind and body as I read how she adheres to her personally-set rules: no cars, no wetsuits. She bikes to her destinations, carries her bike on public transit when needed, most of the time pedalling for hours. She prepares a light lunch and a change of clothes in her backpack and sets off in the morning, sometimes with a friend, but mostly alone.

Every lake has its own features, the water has its own feel, the sensation swimming there can be different from another, but it doesn’t stray far from calming and revitalizing. In winter, she brings a hammer from home to break the ice on the lake surface before slipping into the frigid water. There’s numbness and pain, surely, but she has developed the courage and the tenacity to face the dark mass and not withdraw.

In solitude, she finds strength; in conquering her fears, freedom. The ghosts of the past might still be there, but she has learned to face them.

Simple yet poetic, honest and mindful. Reading Turning is like dipping slowly into the lake of empathy, gradually getting attuned to the chill to find the water soothing. And you’d want to stay there just a while longer.

 

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

 

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Turning: A Year in the Water A Memoir by Jessica J. Lee, Hamish Hamilton publisher, NY, May 2, 2017. 304 pages.

Canadian Edition (book cover image in this post): Penguin Random House Canada, April 7, 2020. 304 pages.

My thanks to Catapult.co for providing me a pdf version.

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Middlemarch Book II – IV: Inkblot Test

We’ve come to the midpoint of our tentative reading plan. Hard to believe one month’s gone by already. Instead of a review of all the chapters, how about a Middlemarch inkblot test?

What word comes to your mind when you see the following:

 

  • Dorothea 
  • Casaubon 
  • Ladislaw 
  • Fred 
  • Rosamond 
  • Lydgate 
  • Celia 
  • Mr. Brooke 
  • Mary Garth

 

I’ll just stop with these ones. Have your views about these characters changed from first you met them?

Any surprises in the storylines?

Which characters do you click ‘Like’?

What to do with the ones we don’t? Is Eliot having fun with Austen’s idea of creating characters whom no one would much like?

Favorite Quotes?

Here are some of mine, for various reasons, but mostly for Eliot’s power of association in her descriptions.

Will Ladislaw’s thought about Dorothea:

“To ask her to be less simple and direct would be like breathing on the crystal that you want to see the light through.”

About Dorothea’s predicament:

“I suppose it was that in courtship everything is regarded as provisional and preliminary, and the smallest sample of virtue or accomplishment is taken to guarantee delightful stores which the broad leisure of marriage will reveal. But the door-sill of marriage once crossed, expectation is concentrated on the present. Having once embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight –– that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin.”

And if Eliot were among us today, she would likely be vocal in the #Metoo and #Timesup movements:

“Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy.”

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Your two pebbles?

Wood Duck.jpg

 

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Other posts from our Read-Along participants:

Men of Middlemarch

Middlemarch –– Ladislaw’s Force of Unreason

Middlemarch by George Eliot –– Completed today

 

Middlemarch in May: Let the Fun Begin!

A few quotes to set the stage for our Read-Along of Middlemarch by George Eliot.

BBC History Website:

“She used a male pen name to ensure her works were taken seriously in an era when female authors were usually associated with romantic novels.”

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From “George Eliot: A Celebration” by A. S. Byatt, as introduction to Modern Library’s edition of Middlemarch:

“She had no real heir as “novelist of ideas” in England… Her heirs are abroad—Proust in France, Mann in Germany. Which brings me to another reason for loving her: she was European, not little-English, her roots were Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Balzac, not just, as Leavis’s “Great Tradition” implies, Jane Austen. She opened gates which are still open.”

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From “Why Read George Eliot”, by Paula Marantz Cohen in American Scholar, Spring 2006:

“Eliot’s voice, in its assumption of a wiser, juster, more all-encompassing perspective, is the ligament of her novels. It elevates them from ingenious storytelling to divine comedy…

As Virginia Woolf observed, Eliot wrote novels for grown-up people. Our society and our relationships would be saner and better if more grownups read her.”

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Last but not least, let’s kick off Middlemarch in May with Henry James’s lively reflections on George Eliot, as quoted in Colm Tóibín’s article “Creating The Portrait of a Lady in The New York Review of Books, July 19, 2007 Issue:

“A specter haunted Henry James: it was the specter of George Eliot. He visited her first in 1869, when he was twenty-six, and wrote to his father:

‘I was immensely impressed, interested and pleased. To begin with, she is magnificently ugly—deliciously hideous…. Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end up as I ended, in falling in love with her. Yes behold me literally in love with this great horse-faced blue-stocking.’

Three years later, when Middlemarch appeared, James wrote from Rome to his friend Grace Norton:

A marvellous mind throbs in every page of Middlemarch. It raises the standard of what is to be expected of women—(by your leave!) We know all about the female heart; but apparently there is a female brain, too…. To produce some little exemplary works of art is my narrow and lowly dream. They are to have less “brain” than Middlemarch; but (I boldly proclaim it) they are to have more form.”

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Let the fun begin!

 

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Other posts from Read-Along participants:

Middlemarch Has Me Laughing So Soon by Gretchen at Gladsome Lights

 

My invite post:

Middlemarch in May Read-Along

My Middlemarch Review Posts:

Middlemarch Book I: What are siblings for?

Middlemarch Book II to IV: Inkblot Test

Middlemarch Wrap: You be the screenwriter

 

 

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: A Book Review

NOTE: I thank Penguin Random House Canada for the reviewer’s copy of the book, and Asian American Press for allowing me to post my review here.

Little Fires Everywhere

Chinese American writer Celeste Ng (伍綺詩) had garnered numerous accolades for her debut novel “Everything I Never Told You”, including a New York Times Notable Book of 2014, Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014, winner of the Massachusetts Book Award, and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, just to name a few.

Like the stunning opening in her debut work, Ng in her second novel “Little Fires Everywhere”, begins with a dramatic scene: Mrs. Richardson, after being awaken by the smoke detectors, stands on her front lawn in her pale blue robe and watches firemen saving her house from total burnt down. The prime suspect of the fire is her youngest daughter Izzy. With that, Ng leads us into the story of the Richardsons’, an upper-middle class family living in the quiet suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio, which was Ng’s hometown during the 90’s.

Ng grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio, her scientist parents having immigrated from Hong Kong. Ng graduated from Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan (now the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan), where she won the Hopwood Award.

The thematic elements of race, parenthood, and family secrets leading to devastating consequences as in her debut novel are carried over. Covering a larger scope, “Little Fires Everywhere” expands to other issues as well, offering us views into a myriad of realistic characters and the interplay of two families, specifically, two mothers holding opposite values. Ng’s riveting storytelling skills carry us through the various plot lines breezily, while taking the time to breathe life into her characters, and deftly locks us into mental debates on contentious issues. Although set in the 90’s, the issues raised are as relevant today.

The Richardson family, one could say, is the epitome of the American Dream. They live in a six- bedroom home in a desirable part of town. The matriarch Elena and her husband Bill are well connected and respectable in the community, she a journalist with the local paper the Sun Press and he a defence lawyer. They have four teenaged children, the eldest Lexie heading to Yale. Second son Trip is popular in school, especially among girls. Third child Moody is wrapped up in his own cocoon. Youngest Izzy is the black sheep of the family. She is not happy despite her family’s affluence, or maybe, if Mrs. Richardson is willing to look deeper into her daughter’s mind, Izzy’s discontent could be exactly due to her family’s secure standing in the rule-constraining suburb. Mrs. Richardson would not trade any of her privileges, for she is living “a perfect life in a perfect place.” Her main task now is to smother any sparks that can disrupt the status quo and surface calmness in her family and community.

Celeste Ng.jpg

As the title suggests, metaphors of fire are everywhere. There are flames of passion, fury, dissatisfactions, and the fuse of suburban ennui, as apparent in the lives of the teenagers, potential fire hazards. These are all inherent threats to the idyllic, quiet town, where high school graduates are expected to head to Ivy league colleges, and where parents are oblivious to the secret lives of their teenagers, and vice versa.

The story begins not with the aftermath of the house fire, but the reason leading to it. Mrs. Richardson has just rented the upper floor of her revenue property, a duplex on the other side of town, to new tenants, single mother Mia Warren and her teenage daughter Pearl. Mia is an artist, her medium, photography. She works at menial jobs to sustain her art, and brings up Pearl moving about the country in their VW Rabbit, forty-six different towns since Pearl’s birth.

As they settle in Shaker Heights, Pearl comes to know the Richardson children and is attracted to their lifestyle. Conversely, Izzy Richardson is mesmerized by Mia’s artist life and hangs around in the duplex to help and learn from her art-making. This time, Mia and Pearl may just be settling down.

It is obvious from the start that Mrs. Richardson and Mia comes from opposing sides of ideals. While suggesting Mia take portraits for people in town to earn more money, thinking about her rents no doubt, Mrs. Richardson is confronted with the notion of the artist as a photographer, as Mia replies, “the thing about portraits is, you need to show people the way they want to be seen. And I prefer to show people as I see them.”

Mia works at the Chinese restaurant Lucky Palace to sustain a living. Mrs. Richardson offers her to work in the Richardsons’ home, cleaning and cooking a few days a week to earn some extra money. Although reluctant about the proposal but to not jeopardize their relationship, Mia agrees. Hence, Mia delves further into the Richardson family life.

As she so deftly deals with in her first novel, Ng weaves into her storylines and characters the subjects of culture and identity. The intermingling of lives between the Richardson family and Mia soon pits them into taking two contentious sides in a prominent court case in town. The Richardsons’ best friends, the McCulloughs, have just adopted a Chinese baby found abandoned at the fire hall, Mirabelle, or May Ling Chow, her birth name. The birth mother Bebe now regrets her decision which she had made in a most dire financial situation at the time. Bebe comes from China, and happens to be Mia’s co-worker at Lucky Palace. Mia is openly supportive of Bebe, while Mr. Richardson represents the McCulloughs. The case has divided the town, and now Mrs. Richardson knows she needs to dig into Mia’s past to discredit Mia and to get back at her for drawing her dear friends the McCulloughs into tormenting legal entanglements.

It is when Ng reveals Mia’s backstory that the narrative is most riveting. We are led to a moving account, a page turner even, on a subject that is complex and crucial: what makes a mother? In her novel, Ng intertwines three possible scenarios of pregnancy, wanted, unwanted, surrogate. And with these contrasting lines, she delves into the issues of adoption and identity. Are babies best brought up by their own biological mothers, especially when culture comes into play? What makes a baby Chinese? American? Or more complex still, Chinese American? The McCulloughs have well intentions to bring Mirabelle up by regular dine-outs in a Chinese restaurant, and finding her ‘Oriental Barbies’ to play with. Are these enough? If not, what is?

Cultural appropriation is a trendy topic nowadays, not only in the adoption circle, but in other realms. These are issues that require deeper pondering and research work, no doubt, ones that should be confronted deeper than Ng can deal with in her novel. Nonetheless, a fictional setting is an interesting place to spark off the debate. Just another one of her little fires in the book.

While “Everything I Never Told You” is a microscopic look at a mixed-race family during the 70’s, dense and intense, not unlike a Bergman chamber work, “Little Fires Everywhere” is looser and more expansive in thematic matters, with sprinkles of laughs here and there, not unlike a John Hughes’ movie in the 80’s. One can feel Ng is freer to roam with the larger, open space. Just as with her debut work, Ng does not shy away from the issues of race and identity, while challenging the notion of ‘success’. One should not be surprised that this is still the fundamental term we are struggling to define in our society today.

 

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

 

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Here’s a short review of Ng’s debut novel “Everything I Never Told You” (audiobook) I’d posted on Goodreads.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six Degrees of Separation or Prophetic Voices of our Time

I’ve read several books in recent months that are good evidence of ‘six degrees of separation’, and I’ll just end with four here. But more crucial is why such content at this time? They are all published in 2016 but still enjoy current bestselling positions. All are similar in their historical backdrop, authoritarian dictatorship in the 20th Century in two neighbouring countries, China and Russia. Or, maybe these writers of our time are indeed prophetic voices to stress that eerie caution: “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

Here’s the sequence of my reading:

Madeleine ThienDo Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

The top selling book in Canada according to CBC Books, Madeleine Thien’s exceptional novel of three characters, musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music during the Cultural Revolution in China, leads us through decades of contemporary Chinese history from the Communist takeover after WWII to Mao’s Cultural Revolution to the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, spanning generations and across two continents. Thien was teaching creative writing when her program was abruptly cancelled in the aftermath of the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ sprouting from the Occupy Central led by teenaged students in Hong Kong. That was a motivating force propelling the writing of the book. Following the most recent news that four young student leaders are given months of jail sentences for their actions, we know how timely a voice Thein is with this book.

 

Barnes The Noise of Time.jpgThe Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

Dimitri Shostakovich’s music is in the minds of the three musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory of Thien’s book. Shostakovich, himself a composer treading a precarious line between authenticity and self-preservation under Stalin, is an apt parallel of the situation the trio have to face.

Julian Barnes has crafted an imaginary biopic of Dimitri Shostakovich during Stalin’s tyrannical rule in the Soviet Union (1929-1953). Barnes’ depiction is internal, presenting the struggles, the giving-in and the self-loathing of a world famous composer and pianist who was unable to stand up to a ruthless and manipulative dictator. Speak truth to Power? Who can still stand, or live, after that? And it’s not just about oneself, but one’s family and all those associated.

 

Cometh the hourCometh the Hour by Jeffrey Archer (#6 of the Clifton Chronicles)

Jeffrey Archer, a prophetic voice? While his Clifton Chronicles have entertained us with imaginary characters spanning three generations of two British families, Archer does have the political mood of our times firmly held under his pen, and Lord Archer is a savvy political historian in his own right. This summer I binged on Jeffrey Archer, okay, not exactly your serious, prophetic voice, but no less relevant. This is especially true when his fictional character, Russian writer Anatoly Babakov, is imprisoned in Siberia for his book Uncle Joe. Based on his own experience while working under Joseph Stalin, Babakov offers readers an insider’s look into the ruler, revealing the ruthless dictator that he really was.

Babakov is awarded the Nobel Prize of Literature while still in prison. But not long after the announcement, he dies of a heart attack. His wife Yelena although escaped out of the country, wants to return to honour her husband. Archer’s character makes me think of the real life dissident Chinese writer and activist Liu Xiaobo, also Nobel laureate, but was denied the freedom to go and accept his Prize. He had been imprisoned for 11 years and sadly, died of liver cancer in July this year, 2017. And even more sadly, Liu’s wife could not see him at his deathbed and had gone missing after his death. Archer’s book was published in 2016. I’d say that’s quite prophetic.

 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in MoscowA totally different tone, but the same historical backdrop. Towles has created an interesting and colourful character, the aristocrat Count Alexander Rostov, kept in house arrest when the Bolsheviks overrun the country. True to his personality and lifestyle – the major consolation of such a misfortune – Count Rostov serves his house arrest in the elegant Moscow Metropol Hotel across from the Kremlin, albeit in a cramped room in the attic. With his always pleasant demeanour, the former aristocrat makes himself at home at the grand hotel, meeting interesting characters, wine and dine to his heart’s content. He stays there for decades, with the historic changes happening outside the four walls of the Metropol: Lenin, Stalin, post-Stalin, and further. As fate would have it, Count Rostov encounters an idealistic youngster named Nina, and years later, takes up guardianship of her daughter Sofia, and thus his life and view begin to turn into something more purposeful. The Metropol makes me think of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Instead of speaking truth to power and get slapped in the face or worse, Count Rostov thinks of an ingenious scheme to beat Power at their game. If I were a filmmaker, this is one to bank on.

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Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

Do Not Say We Have Nothing Book Review

The Budapest Hotel: A Grand Escape

 

Jane Austen 200: Room or No Room, She Did It

Today is the Bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death. On July 18, 1817, suffering excruciating pain, Jane died of her illness at age 41. As a tribute, I’m reposting my article on Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

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A Room of One’s Own is based on a series of lecture Woolf delivered at the two women’s colleges in Cambridge University on the topic of “Women and Fiction”.  It was published in 1929.

Woolf lamented the disparities women in a patriarchal society had to face throughout history.  The stream of consciousness flowed into torrents of incisive social observations and satirical commentaries.

She noted that women had long been deprived of equitable opportunities in education and employment. Men were rich, women were poor; men got to roam the country and travel the world, women had to be satisfied with the domestic.  Men were great writers, poets, playwrights, women had to concede to find fulfillment in “making puddings and knitting stockings”. Men had rooms to work, to rest, to create…women, the average, middle class women, seldom had a room of their own.

…to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble, even up to the beginning of the nineteenth century.

And sadly, Woolf had to utter this statement:

Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes.

Isn’t it true, Jane spent her most prolific years writing in a very public room in Chawton House.  In the midst of family activities, at a small and spartan desk, she revised Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, wrote Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion, and began Sanditon:

Jane's writing desk in Chawton

And isn’t it true that only in movies do we see the idyllic desk against a clear window, with soft light diffusing in, gently illuminating a lady dressed in elegant regency gown, writing on expansive papers and stationary, contemplating in solitude:

Room or no room, recognized or not, something happened towards the end of the eighteenth century that, according to Virginia Woolf, deserved much more mention in history than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses:  The middle-class woman began to write.

Woolf pointed out that not only did Jane Austen lack a room of her own, having had to write her novels in the very public sitting-room, she had to hide her manuscripts or cover them with a piece of blotting-paper, as observed by her nephew James Edward Austen Leigh in his Memoir of Jane Austen.

Ironically, there lay the genius of Austen, and the few woman writers around her time such as Bronte and George Eliot.  Woolf wrote:

…and we must accept the fact that all those good novels, Villette, Emma, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, were written by women without more experience of life than could enter the house of a respectable clergyman; written too in the common sitting-room of that respectable house and by women so poor that they could not afford to buy more than a few quires of paper at a time upon which to write.

Little did they know, it was in such a room that they were trained in the prerequisites of novel writing:

…all the literary training that a woman had in the early nineteenth century was training in the observation of character, in the analysis of emotion.  Her sensibility had been educated for centuries by the influences of the common sitting-room.  People’s feelings were impressed on her; personal relations were always before her eyes.  Therefore, when the middle-class woman took to writing, she naturally wrote novels…

Not only that, they wrote good novels.  With reference to Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf concluded:

Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching.  That was how Shakespeare wrote.

High praise indeed.

 

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Previous Post on Jane Austen 200:

Jane Austen’s Persuasion: A Bath Walking Tour

Jane Austen’s Persuasion: A Bath Walking Tour

As a tribute to the Bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death, July 18th, 2017 to be exact, I’m reposting my personal encounter with the city of Bath, Jane’s home for four years and the setting of Persuasion.

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The second time I visited Bath, I was a more intentional traveller. I let Austen’s Persuasion be my guide.  With a detailed street map in my hand, I went exploring the places mentioned in the novel, many of them I missed in my first visit.

“I was not so much changed…” was Anne Elliot’s words to Captain Wentworth upon seeing him eight years after turning him down.  The termination of their relationship was not her own intention, but duty had driven her to yield to Lady Russell’s persuasion.  It would have been a “throw-away” for Anne at 19 to engage with “a young man who had nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence, … uncertain profession, and no connections.” (p. 20)

But the star-crossed lovers are granted the bliss of a second chance, and rightly grab it this time. Austen’s setting of Bath in the book is no coincidence.  The Georgian City was the centre of fashion and the epitome of genteel society, a hotbed of social phenom for the critic and satirist in Austen. Jane had lived in Bath herself for four years, 1801 – 1805, with her sister Cassandra and their parents. Ironically, she was unpersuaded by its attractions according to her biographer Claire Tomalin.

Austen aptly uses Bath’s addresses for the purpose of her characterization. Geographical location is everything in a class-conscious society, as Keiko Parker’s excellent article Jane Austen’s Use of Bath in Persuasion points out.

First off,  there’s the Pump Room, where in Jane Austen’s days people socialized and met one another, gathered to drink the therapeutic water, catch the latest fashion, simply to see and be seen. The magnificent structure and decor makes The Pump Room a fine restaurant now:

Despite its grand decor, the areas around the baths are residences for the common folks in Austen’s time. Mrs. Smith, the poor, infirmed widow with whom Anne maintains a loyal friendship, lives in the Westgate Buildings close to the Baths. Anne becomes a laughing stock for the snobbish Sir Walter when he hears of her least favourite daughter is determined to visit Mrs. Smith instead of accepting an invitation to Lady Dalrymple’s, someone belonging to the upper echelon of society:

“Miss Anne Elliot, you have the most extraordinary taste! Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations, are inviting to you.” (p. 113)

Today, the open area outside the Pump Room by the Roman Baths is perhaps the most popular tourist gathering place. Tour buses stop at the Bath Abbey for pick up and drop off, buskers perform in the open space outside the Roman Baths and Pump Room:

Nearby is Sally Lunn’s Bun, originated in 1680 by a young French refugee, in the oldest house of Bath, ca. 1482. Now a restaurant on top, the cellar a museum that houses the original kitchen and cookwares, Sally Lunn’s serves this traditional creation: a large, soft, round bun that can go with just about anything. But probably best like this, simply with garlic butter:

The beautiful street corner outside Sally Lunn’s:

Further up the town, there’s Milsom Street, a vibrant commercial area of shops and businesses.  The first time Anne saw Captain Wentworth again in Bath was on Milsom Street.  Here’s a present day view of the same site:

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As for Sir Walter himself, despite having to rent out his country mansion Kellynch Hall to avoid financial ruins, he has no intention that his retreat to Bath should compromise his status and comfort.  It’s only natural that others are curious: “What part of Bath do you think they’ll settle in?”  The answer is quite obvious: the part that is befitting their social standing.

According to Keiko Parker’s insightful article, physical elevation in Bath directly corresponds to social standing. The highest point at that time would have to be Camden Place, which is today’s Camden Crescent. While I was looking for it, the ‘Ye Old Farmhouse Pub’ was mentioned to me as the marker. I was glad to find it while walking up Landsdown Road, for it was indeed quite an uphill walk.

“Sir Walter had taken a very good house in Camden Place, a lofty, dignified situation, such as becomes a man of consequence; and both he and Elizabeth were settled there, much to their satisfaction.

Anne entered it with a sinking heart, anticipating an imprisonment of many months…” (p. 98)

Just typical Austen, the overt contrast of characters using something indirect, here, the sense of place.

The houses on Camden Crescent has unobstructive view of lower Bath.  They are not grand mansions, but then again, location is everything. The following are some of the houses found on this road across from the escarpment:

And where do Sir Walter’s tenants Admiral and Mrs. Croft lodge during their short stay in Bath?  On Gay Street, not too high, not too low: “… perfectly to Sir Walter’s satisfaction.  He was not at all ashamed of the acquaintance, and did, in fact, think and talk a great deal more about the Admiral than the Admiral ever thought or talked about him.” (p. 121)

Elizabeth is not even half as kind as her vain and snobbish father.  Regarding the Crofts’ arrival in Bath, she suggests to Sir Walter that “We had better leave the Crofts to find their own level.” (p. 120)

In contrast, Anne has a good impression of the Admiral and his dear wife, the kind and down-to-earth couple, Mrs. Croft’s being the sister of Captain Wentworth having minimal bearing on Anne’s fondness of them. During their sojourn in Bath to mend a gouty Admiral Croft, Anne enjoys watching them strolling together, “it was a most attractive picture of happiness to her.” (p. 121)

So I’m just not a bit surprised to see their temporary lodging in Bath being on Gay Street.  Who else had lived there?  Jane Austen herself: #25 to be exact:

As for a suitable place for socializing, Sir Walter and his favourite daughter Elizabeth choose the Upper Assembly Rooms, a much newer development closer to their upper, more fashionable side of town, although he would prefer entertaining in private which is even more prestigious.

The Assembly Rooms are a magnificent architectural legacy in their own rights.  Designed by John Wood the Younger, who raised the £20,000 needed for the venture, the ground-breaking project began in 1769 and opened for public use in 1771.  It was the biggest investment in a single building in 18th Century Bath. Four public rooms made up the suite:  The Octagon, Ball Room, Card Room, and Tea Room.

“Sir Walter, his two daughters, and Mrs, Clay, were the earliest of all their party at the rooms in the evening; and as Lady Dalrymple must be waited for, they took their station by one of the fires in the Octagon Room (p. 131).

Here’s the exquisite Octagon Room:

Regarding the chandelier, there’s this interesting account in The Authorised Guide (p.7):

“On 15 August 1771 Jonathan Collett quoted £400 for supplying five cut-glass chandeliers for the Ball Room. They were up in time for the opening of the Rooms in September, but the following month disaster struck when ‘one of the arms of the chandilers in the Ballroom fell down during the time the company was dancing, narrowly missing  Gainsborough. What could be salvaged from the set was made up into a single chandelier, which now hangs in the Octagon.”

I was just simply amazed at how long these chandeliers had lasted, well over 300 years, and in excellent shape. Their brilliance had not faded, evolving from candlelight to gas, and now electric:

Anne and her party attend a music program in the Concert Hall.  That’s a function in the Tea Room. Despite the name which seems to convey a small and cozy setting, the Tea Room is a gorgeous room of 60 ft. by 43 ft. dimension.  On one end is a magnificent colonnade of the Ionic order.  Subscription concerts are regular events held in the Tea Room. Mozart and Haydn had written compositions to be performed there, with Haydn himself having graced the magnificent venue.

.

But what does Anne Elliot think about all the grandeur?  After earlier in the Octagon Room talking with Captain Wentworth, who has openly expressed his long-held passion for her, Anne, overwhelmed by a great flood of euphoria, now walks into the Concert Room (Tea Room):

“Anne saw nothing, thought nothing of the brilliancy of the room.  Her happiness was from within. Her eyes were bright, and her cheeks glowed; but she knew nothing about it.  She was thinking only of the last half hour…” (p. 134)

As a visitor to the historic venue, I was captivated by the well-maintained interior and its elegance, and presently amused and surprised to find this display in between two columns: The Chair, which is mentioned several times in Persuasion. The Bath Chair was invented right here in the Georgian City to transport the rich and the sick.  It could be steered by the passenger:

.

Jane might have noticed the frivolity and pierced through the façade of high society of the time with her critical eyes, but as a modern day tourist, I’m just amazed at how well history has been preserved, totally persuaded that Bath is a place I will definitely revisit some more in the future.

***

All photos taken by Arti of Ripple Effects, August 2010.  All Rights Reserved.

References:

1. Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin, Penguin Books, 2000.

2.  Persuasion by Jane Austen, The Modern Library Classics, Introduction by Amy Bloom, Modern Library Paperback Edition, 2001.

3. The Authorised Guide: The Assembly Rooms, Bath. Published by the Heritage Services division of Bath and North East Somerset Council in association with the National Trust.  Written by Oliver Garnett and Patricia Dunlop.

4. “What Part of Bath Do You Think They Will Settle In?”: Jane Austen’s Use of Bath in Persuasion by Keiko Parker.  Retrieved Online http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number23/parker.pdf

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To join in the celebration of Jane Austen 200, I’ll have more Austen posts coming up this week.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing Book Review

April 3rd UPDATE: Do Not Say We Have Nothing shortlisted for the Baileys Prize.

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First the Booker, then the Giller and the GG, and now longlisted for Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, this voice must be heard. I thank Asian American Press for allowing me to post my review here in full, and Penguin Random House Canada for my reviewer’s copy.

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Just a few months after it was published in May, 2016, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing was shortlisted for a Booker Prize and had won the top two Canadian literary awards, the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for fiction. That is extraordinary achievements for the Vancouver born, Montreal based writer.

Thien creates her third novel on a large canvas, spanning from the decades leading to Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1960’s China and onward to the Tiananmen Square protests and government crackdown in 1989. Even though her novel does not stem directly from a personal experience like others’ such as Dai Sijie’s semi-autobiographical Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, or the eye-witness account of journalist Jan Wong’s Red China Blues, Thien’s outsider’s stance is far compensated by her extensive and detailed research, not just 20th Century history of China but down to the streets and local teahouses. Further, the absence of a first-person experience is replaced by an exuberance of imaginary characters and storytelling, all intricately woven with actual accounts of historical figures and events.

While not being an eye-witness, Thien’s cultural lineage could have brought her into a kind of insider’s realm. Born to Malaysian-Chinese immigrant parents in Canada, Thien’s previous writing had depicted the unique perspective framed by her upbringing. The stories in her collection Simple Recipes (2001) have revealed poignantly the cultural and generational conflicts that could exist in a North American Asian family. Further, Thien’s previous novel Dogs at the Perimeter (2011) had prepared her well to venture into the abyss of human atrocity, with the backdrop of Khmer Rouge’s infamous killing fields in Cambodia. Do Not Say We Have Nothing presents a larger landscape and a more ambitious undertaking than her previous works.

Madeleine Thien

This is how the book opens, simple yet powerful:

“In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life.”

Here we hear a voice, seemingly nonchalant, but still lucid and sad. This is the voice of the protagonist, Marie. She was ten years-old and living with her mother in Vancouver when she learned of her father’s suicide in Hong Kong. The year was 1989. Not long after this news, Marie’s mother took in nineteen-year-old Ai-ming from China, alien and undocumented, escaped out of the country during the Tiananmen crackdown.

Ai-ming’s short refuge in Marie’s home bonded the two like sisters. As well, she opened the eyes of young Marie to life inside a totalitarian regime. The radio played only eighteen pieces of approved music. Her father, Sparrow, would listen to illegal music secretly and hum the melody of his own composition when he thought no one was around. Ai-ming’s interactions with Marie have prodded her—now twenty years later and a professor of mathematics at Simon Fraser University—to search for the truth about her father Kai and his mentor, Ai-ming’s father Sparrow, as well the tragic personal and national history that had consumed their lives.

With Ai-ming’s help, Marie and her mother began to decipher a secret hand-copied manuscript Kai had kept, “The Book of Records”, passed on to him from Sparrow, an allegorical account of their life in China, outward journey and clandestine dreams, “things we never say aloud”. As a young child, Marie was overwhelmed. Now as an adult, she is driven all the more to pursue the truth of her own family history.

It is not easy to follow Thien’s story in the first few chapters as there are many characters introduced with their own backstory. Time frame switches back and forth, spanning two continents. As I entered Chapter 4, I had to draw up a character chart, as I was looking into a kaleidoscope of three generations and other colourful figures against tumultuous events. If the book had included such a chart at the beginning, it would be most helpful for readers.

We follow Marie’s discovery as she comes to learn that her father Kai used to be a gifted piano student at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and Sparrow, a prominent composer, was his teacher there. Together with Sparrow’s young cousin Zhuli, a prodigious violin student, the three forged an unspeakable bond. They cherished each other’s dreams with youthful fervors, which all were altered if not extinguished when Mao ignited his Cultural Revolution.

When she was small, Zhuli discovered by accident her parents’ secret storage where they hid their treasures of western classical music records and books. This led to her parents, Swirl and Wren the Dreamer, to be charged as counter-revolutionary. They were publically criticised and humiliated, then sent to separate labour camps in the remote northwest of China in the name of ‘re-education’. Zhuli was taken secretly to her aunt, Big Mother’s Knife, Sparrow’s mother, and there she grew up. The woman who brought her there had met her aunt only once while on the train. As she ate a lot of the White Rabbit brand candies, we know her by that name. The White Rabbit told Zhuli about her parents’ situation matter-of-factly:

“They’ve been sent for re-education, that’s all… Since you’ve never been educated at all, it seemed pointless to send you along with them.”

This is just one incident where Thien deftly dispenses humour amidst somber events. This is what makes the book enjoyable to read. The subtle humour often is the wrapping of the resilience of human spirit hidden among tragic happenings.

Thien’s story is embedded in historical facts. The prestigious Shanghai Conservatory of Music was shut down in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution, its five hundred pianos destroyed, denouncement and physical battering of the professors and students had resulted in deaths and suicides. Bearing the brunt of the persecution was the unyielding Conservatory President He Luting, beaten but not bent.

Due to their political affiliation, Sparrow’s parents Big Mother Knife and Ba Lute are spared, but what remains in Sparrow is a compromising existence, being sent to work as a factory work for twenty years after the shutdown of the Conservatory. Kai the pragmatist chooses to follow the mainstream and becomes a Red Guard. Young Zhuli sets foot on a tragic path.

With such a setting, it is only natural that Thien would use classical music as the leitmotif of her composition. Shostakovich, Beethoven and Bach are like witnesses to the unfolding of human atrocity, their melodies the fuel that sustains whatever internal fervour that remains. Shostakovich, himself a composer treading a precarious line between authenticity and self-preservation under Stalin’s rule, is an apt metaphor of the situation the trio have to face. The different choices made by Sparrow, Kai and Zhuli well represent the paths that are opened to an artist facing political persecutions.

On another note, and true to her Canadian root, Thein lets pianist Glenn Gould and his two recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations be a recurring motif in her story. Bach’s ethereal and invigorating theme and variations belong to Sparrow, the sustenance for his inner life despite deadening circumstances outside.

As the canvas is huge, Thien’s subject matters are numerous. The details and complexity may be a hindrance to readers’ enjoyment. Yet Thien’s voice is close and personal. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the title taken from the workers anthem the ‘Internationale’, deserves our listening ears. As an instructor of the then newly established MFA Program in Creative Writing at City University of Hong Kong from 2010, Thien experienced first-hand the abrupt cancellation of the program in 2015 “as a result of internal and external politics” as stated in her Acknowledgement at the back of the book. In her article in The Guardian (May 18, 2015), she notes that students from the Program had published essays in support of the Occupy Central student-led democracy movement, the ‘Umbrella Revolution’, that brought Hong Kong to a standstill. That personal experience could well have informed and given her the potent, insider’s voice in her novel writing.

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~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

 

Reading the Season: Silence by Shusaku Endo

Click for ‘Silence’ movie review and thoughts.

For this year’s Reading the Season, I’ve chosen Shusaku Endo’s masterpiece Silence. Unlike previous years, it’s not as pleasing and exulting a read at Christmas time.  Rather, it’s unsettling and disturbing. It will interfere with your festive mood. It presents an excruciating dilemma that we hope we may never need to confront, and a question that more likely for us to face: Where is God during our suffering?

silence

Why so unpleasant a read at this time? We’re all busy with our festivities. Who would want to think about such a somber question? Director Martin Scorsese thinks it’s seasonal; Dec. 23 is the day his adaptation of Silence will be released in North America. Mind you, before showing here, it will first premiere at the Vatican. What a diversion of Christmas over there.

Thanks to Scorsese, I dug out Endo’s book and reread it. This time around, it’s even more disturbing for me. However, I also see the light seeping through the cracks of a broken human scene. I sure hope Scorsese’s film — twenty-five years brewing in the director’s heart — can lead to some quiet meditation amidst the cacophony bombarding us these days.

Historical Note

First off, very crucial before reading Silence is to establish a frame of reference; this is furnished by the Historical Note at the beginning of the book. Christianity was introduced to Japan by Francis Xavier in 1549. It was very well received at that point, despite an expulsion order later in 1587 by the Shogun Hideyoshi and the subsequent crucifixion of twenty-six Japanese Christians and European missionaries. By 1600, there were an estimated 300,000 Christian converts living in Japan.

By the time the second expulsion order was issued in 1614, however, the Christian Church in Japan was driven underground. Warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu was resolute in wiping out all traces of Christianity that from 1614 to 1640, an estimated five to six thousand Christians were killed. He later found out martyrdom wasn’t as effective an eradication measure as forced apostasy, especially with leaders of the faith, so torture was widely used towards that end.

crucifixion

In 1632, the Catholic world was shocked to learn that the stalwart leader of the Jesuits mission in Japan, Father Christovao Ferreira, had disavowed his faith and become an apostate after being tortured at ‘the pit’ in Nagasaki. No news of him came after that.

Upon this setting Endo begins his story. The historical novel describes the journey of one fervent young priest from Portugal, Father Sebastian Rodrigues, who has had the privilege to be taught and mentored by Father Ferreira years before. Upon hearing Ferreira’s apostasy, and with the reluctant approval of the Jesuit Superior, Rodrigues and fellow priest Father Francisco Garrpe board a ship and sail all the way to Japan to look for their beloved teacher and to investigate the situation. They have been forewarned, the magistrate Inoue is ruthless.

While still on the ship, the priests encounter Kichijiro, a sly, cowardly, and ambiguous figure who later will wade on shore ahead to guide them to some hidden Christians. For a while, the two Fathers have to hide themselves in a hut on a mountain during the day, and minister to the needs of Japanese believers who, despite the danger, come to seek them out for spiritual matters at night.

Later Kichijiro leads them to a nearby island to meet with more hidden believers. To the welcoming relief of the villagers, the fathers secretly conduct mass and baptism despite the risks. The evasive Kichijiro hangs around like a phantom nemesis.

The people suffer greatly under the rule of magistrate Inoue, yes, that Inoue who Rodrigues was forewarned. He extracts from the poor peasants harsh revenues and infuse the utmost fear into those of the Christian faith with his deathly measures. Rodrigues observes that “The persecutions of Christians make their faces expressionless. They cannot register on their faces any sorrow —nor even joy. The long years of secrecy have made the faces of these Christians like masks. This is indeed bitter and sad.”

Never before has Rodrigues felt so deeply about the meaningfulness of his mission:

“… like water flowing into dry earth … For the first time they have met men who treated them like human beings. It was the human kindness and charity of the fathers that touched their hearts.”

But such a firm conviction begins to shatter when Rodrigues comes closer and closer to the reality of persecution. No, not just of his own, but those of the Japanese peasants, his flock. Many are faithful to the end. When discovered, they would be tied on trees in the shape of a cross at the seashore, the rising tide slowly consumed their bodies after two or three days.

The ultimate punishment is ‘the pit’. Believers are tied up and suspended upside down above a pit. Blood would flow out of their eyes, ears, nose and the slits on the neck. They would be literally drip dry into a slow death through several days.

fumieA way out of such torture is to trample on the fumie. The fumie is a wooden plaque with a copper plate on which the image of Christ was artfully engraved. A person’s willingness to trample on the fumie is Inoue’s way of testing if one belongs to the outlawed Christian religion. It is also a convenient way to turn a believer into an apostate upon the threat of torture and death. One only needs to put one’s foot on the fumie, trample or even just step on it, then one can be released immediately, a most easy and convenient ‘formality’ to show one’s denunciation of faith. This was what happened to Father Ferriera.

The officials would say: “I’m not telling you to trample with sincerity and conviction. This is only a formality. Just putting your foot on the thing won’t hurt your convictions.”

To a believer, this may sound like a temptation, or self-deception. Or, is it a necessary choice to survive?

In this historically based novel, Shusaku Endo (1923 – 1996), a Japanese Catholic, paints a vivid picture of the crisis of faith in the face of extreme suffering, the doubts that often lie hidden even in the most devout. In the midst of persecutions, where is God? Why is He silent?  Endo is not depicting so much about the hubris of foreign missionaries coming with the hope and optimism to preach and convert, but just the opposite, he has exposed the lowest state a believer, let alone a priest, can possibly experience, the utter humiliation of being the one to denounce and betray his God, albeit under duress.

The duress is horrific indeed. The priest sees no glorious martyrdom but is witness to unbearable torture of these peasants. For several nights, the screams and moans of five Christian villagers accompany him in his sleepless nights. Father Rodrigues is thus being dragged into the ultimate dilemma: He only needs to place his foot on the fumie and all five of these suffering peasants will be released right away.

In a court of law, a statement or action made under duress cannot stand as evidence to lay blame, as the subject is under threat and coercion like Father Rodrigues is here. But in the court of the priest’s conscience, it is an ironclad verdict: Apostasy!

As he is struggling with this painful dilemma, trample on it and denounce his faith or five peasants will be suspended in the pit till death, Father Rodrigues seems to encounter an epiphany. Seeing the well-trodden, blacken face of the Christ image on the fumie, the priest hears a voice breaking through the silence:

“‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’

The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.”

Indeed, the allusion to Peter’s denial of Christ three times before the cock crows points to Christ’s forgiveness, the light that sheds through the cracks of human failure. After his denial, Peter later served his Lord with transformed fervency and love. Yes, even the Rock, upon whom the Church was to be built, had once denied Christ.

When I first read Silence a few years ago I could not accept Rodrigues’s action. This time around, I’ve come to see that Endo is not discussing theology here, but depicting an imaginary scenario. In the darkest hour of a believer’s journey—likely Endo’s own as well—when a devout is entrapped in an excruciating dilemma like being suspended in the deep pit of spiritual conflicts, Endo draws our attention to the response of a compassionate Christ.

As to the seeming silence of God, Endo lets us hear these internal dialogues:

‘Lord, I resented your silence.’
‘I was not silent. I suffered beside you.’

At the humble manger some two thousand years ago, God had spoken, with a birth that pierced the darkness of that silent night.

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Reading the Season of Christmas Past:

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

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In Other Words: Lahiri’s Reconstruction of Self

In Other Words book cover

A couple of years ago, I was surprised to read about Jhumpa Lahiri moving to Italy to live, even just for a few years. Author of four works of fiction – Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth, and The Lowland – at the prime of her writing and teaching career, having received the O. Henry Award in 1999, the Pulitzer in 2000, and her latest The Lowland shortlisted for the Booker in 2013, Lahiri decided to uproot her family and move to Italy to totally immerse in the Italian language. That means speaking, reading and writing in Italian.

In Other Words is Lahiri’s brave and candid account as a language learner. It compiles twenty-one essays and two short stories which she wrote in Italian. She uses the metaphor of swimming out into the lake instead of safely hugging the shore to refer to her Italian language learning experience. From her descriptions of the challenges and risks, the loss of anchor, the inability to express herself and be literate, let alone literary, the disorientation, the total humbling, her Italian venture is more like jumping off a precipice to billowy waters of unfathomable depth.

My hat off to Lahiri’s honest revealing of her frustrations and strive for a new identity; yes, after all, language is a major determinant of identity, one which is, unfortunately, superseded by one’s outer appearance and racial features. So it is heart-wrenching to read that despite her love of the Italian language, her total devotion to adopt it not just to live but as a tool of her trade as a writer, she is often seen as an outsider, a foreigner, barred from acceptance. Even when she speaks to Italians fluently in their language, they would respond to her in English.

English, that’s the rub. I was surprised to read that, while the author had achieved so much in her literary career as a writer in English, she chose to discard it to totally immerse in Italian. In the chapter entitled “The Metamorphosis”, she candidly admits that her writing in Italian (which she had been learning in America for some twenty years before) is a flight:

“Why am I fleeing? What is pursuing me? Who wants to restrain me?
The most obvious answer is the English language. But I think it’s not so
much English in itself as everything the language has symbolized for me…
It has represented a culture that had to be mastered, interpreted. I was
afraid that it meant a break between me and my parents. English denotes
a heavy, burdensome aspect of my past. I’m tired of it….”

Of course, that’s also the language that she loved, and succeeded with. The conflict in identity, first as an Indian immigrant with Bangali as her mother tongue, then as a writer in English who had garnered the Pulitzer Prize – an award that she felt she did not deserve – had shrouded her with unresolved tensions. Lahiri had felt deeply the tug of war between her parental heritage and adopted land. A rejection of both had silently crept in. Italian provides a way out:

“Italian offers me a very different literary path. As a writer I can demolish
myself, I can reconstruct myself, I can join words together and work on
sentences without ever being considered an expert. I’m bound to fail when
I write in Italian, but, unlike my sense of failure in the past, this doesn’t
torment or grieve me.”

Unbelievably surprising and honest, written in Italian and translated by The New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein, the bilingual book opens up to a dual English and Italian version. The short essays chronicle the progress of not only an insightful identity search and reconstruction of selfhood, but an invaluable personal documentation of second – no, additional – language learning journey. If this book was published a couple of decades earlier, I would likely have another topic for my thesis in my graduate work on second language learning; not only that, my view of English being the lingua franca, the language holding linguistic hegemony, would have completely changed as well.

After reading In Other Words and my surprising discovery of Lahiri’s ‘tormenting sense of failure’ with the English language (for all its symbolic meaning) or even her ‘undeserving’ feeling towards her award in her writing, I am relieved of a hidden burden. I don’t feel so badly about having had to constantly check and re-check my English: prepositions, idiomatic expressions, phrasal verbs usage, subject verb agreement… All the hurdles that confront me every time I write a post or an article. If Lahiri can be so candid about her frustrations and errors when it comes to language learning, why can’t I?

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples 

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My thanks to Asian American Press for allowing me to post my book review here on Ripple Effects. The last paragraph is added in just for my Ripple readers.

Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

 The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri: Book Review

The Namesake (2006, DVD): Movie Review

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

 

 

 

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín: A Second Encounter

As one who is interested in the adaptation process, I’m always eager to find out how filmmakers choose movie materials.

I first read Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn a few years back when it was first published. I admit I found it uneventful and a bit bland at that time. On the shelf it went after my reading, and I didn’t bother to think too much about it.

Only in recent months when I knew about its upcoming movie adaptation that I was drawn back to it. My major quests this time: to give it another chance and to find out what in it that appeals to filmmakers.

Well, glad I reread it, for I’m actually giving myself a second chance. This time the ‘uneventful’ narratives become a quiet and gentle portrayal of a young woman’s journey of self-discovery, a coming-of-age story told with nuance and grace.

I read it more carefully this time, noting in particular the subtexts and inferences. I paid attention not only to the characters’ inner thoughts and feelings from Tóibín’s direct statements, but his descriptions of their actions and find that he’s a master of subtleties.

Brooklyn_Colm_Toibin

Brooklyn is about migration, this time around, I can see how relevant and timely it is with our present global situation. From the small town of Enniscorthy, Wexford County, Ireland, Eilis sails across the Atlantic on her own to reach the shore of America just for a better future.

The initial foresight is however from her older sister Rose, the financial supporter and all round sustainer of both Eilis and their widowed mother. It is no wonder that Eilis feels it’s Rose that should be the one to go to America, Rose, the good golfer, glamorous, fashionable, capable and confident.

And Eilis? Here’s a little episode while still in Enniscorthy. She goes to a dance with her best friend Nancy and watches her being invited to the dance floor by a promising young man George. Sitting on the sideline Eilis watches her every move and then we read:

“Ellis looked away in case her watching made Nancy uncomfortable, and then looked at the ground, hoping that no one would ask her to dance. It would be easier now, she thought, if George asked Nancy for the next dance when this set was over and she could slip quietly home.”

When this set is over she isn’t given such a chance, for then George brings Nancy and Eilis over to the bar for a lemonade and we are introduced to his friend Jim Farrell, who “just nodded curtly but did not shake hands… his face emotionless.” Towards the end of the book we will see Jim Farrell appear again as some sort of a nemesis who poses a moral dilemma for Eilis.

Tóibín has given us an unlikely heroine in Eilis, a reluctant emigrant. Always the recipient of Rose’s support and encouragement, Eilis is in fact pushed out of her comfort zone by her well-meaning older sister. In her personal journey we see how Eilis grow and mature, and most importantly, with her good nature intact.

In Brooklyn, Father Flood helps her settle in Mrs. Kehoe’s rooming house and secures a job as a sales clerk at Bartocci’s department store. She gets a taste of rooming house politics, and at Bartocci’s, learn work ethics and the soft skills that are so essential to survive socially. And yet, she is plagued with homesickness as soon as she receives the first letters from home.

At the mid-point of the book, Eilis meets Tony, not Irish but from an Italian immigrant family. No matter, Tony’s authentic charm and devotion break down all cultural barriers and alleviates Eilis’s homesickness.

Tony is gentle with her, courteous and considerate. How do we know? As a die-hard Brooklyn Dodgers fan, Tony never mentions baseball in front of Eilis. Instead, he listens attentively to her and having learned of her night class at Brooklyn College, waited for her after class just to walk her home.

Eilis discovers Tony’s love of baseball when he brings her home for dinner over conversations with her brothers at the dinner table. His family? That’s another charming story.

Just as she begins to settle in and fully enjoy her new life in Brooklyn, Eilis receives a tragic news that sends her back to Ireland for a short while. Now we are at the last part of the book with only fifty-one pages left. Here we have the major conflict of the novel, a moral dilemma that Eilis needs to resolve.

I much appreciate Tóibín’s storytelling. After presenting us in details a successful immigrant experience, a young woman becoming independent in a new land, finding herself, meeting a love interest, and even planning for a future with him, Tóibín drops a bombshell shattering all that has been built and invested. And all this while, he’s been so calm and quiet leading to it.

Further, Tóibín shows us how we can be a different person in different settings and environment. Once back in Ireland, the independent and confident Eilis is changed back to her old self. Under the roof of her mother, she is the dutiful and accommodating daughter once again, but this time, with the added burden of guilt.

Tóibín’s narratives are often quiet and mild, but his characterization is shrewd. We see the acerbic Mrs. Kelly who runs a tight ship in her grocery store where Eilis works on Sundays, and her American counterpart Mrs. Kehoe, Eilis’s landlady. Then there’s the curt Jim Farrell who doesn’t even cast Eilis a glance but earnestly woos her when she comes back after dipping in American waters; and finally there’s Eilis’s mother, subtly scheming and manipulative.

With the subject of migration, the ultimate quest is finding a home. As we read Eilis’s personal journey across the Atlantic from Ireland to America and back again, we see her tossed by the waves of loyalty and belonging. Like her first voyage over the turbulent sea, unsettling and gut retching, her return to Enniscorthy is an even more acute challenge. But at the end we see Eilis make her choice, and it is gratifying.

She is finally ashore.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Movie review of Brooklyn is here.

 

Write Where You Are

During my New England road trip, I’ve visited several literary places. Now these are my own way of storing my memories. Whatever site I’ve been that relates to a literary figure, I categorize it as such. And it’s interesting to note the different sources of inspiration.

Thoreau went for the minimal, the Spartan way of existence. So he built a log cabin in the woods and kept only the simplest furniture. Why he only stayed for two years two months and two days may be self-explanatory. But no matter, we’re glad he had tasted the bare minimum for us so we can read all about it in his book.

Interior

By comparison, his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, who owned those woods where Thoreau had his experiment, lived in relative luxury and comfort. Here’s his residence, not a mansion but still a handsome house.

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And inside the Concord Museum I saw his study with a flashy fuchsia decor which Thoreau might not have raved about. Just might not, but one never knows. They were friends.

Emerson's Study

Ralph Waldo’s grandfather The Rev. William Emerson’s house, The Old Manse (Scottish term for ‘Minister’s House’), wasn’t shabby either. Quietly situated by the river, a historic residence where literary figures gathered and where Ralph Waldo had lived for a while and wrote Nature, which sparked the Transcendental Movement (1834-35).

Manse 2

Nathaniel Hawthorne had lived in the same house too for a few years (1842-45), writing a book called Mosses from an Old Manse. He enjoyed the garden immensely; it was planted by Thoreau in 1842 to celebrate Hawthorne’s marriage to Sophia Peabody. Hawthorne could have found inspiration right there among the beets.

The Beets

Longfellow, on the other hand, was intrigued by an old tavern and boarding house he had stayed one time in 1862. A homestead made into a lodge for itinerant farmers and transient guests had put stories in the mind of the creative, hence the publication of the Poet’s Tales of a Wayside Inn. For its namesake, the premises had since been named Longfellow’s Wayside Inn.

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Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House looks like a warm haven for story brewing too, even though the family could have used more material goods than their philosophically-minded father had provided:

The Orchard House

Back to Nature, the aspiring young poet Edna St. Vincent Millay climbed to the top of Mt. Battie in Camden and beheld the magnificent bird’s eye view of Penobscot Bay. Sky and water pressed close into the impressionable mind of young Edna, triggering a catalyst reaction of permanent change.

View from the top 3

For another, it’s the connection with the land, the toiling of the soil, the gathering of its fruits that inspired. He might have many roads to choose, but aren’t we glad Robert Frost had chosen orchard tending in Vermont and not the ones he did not; we get plenty of thoughts.

Frost's Apple

And for those born into affluence and wed into more, life was a choice of how to use the resources one gets. I’m glad that Edith Wharton had spent her fortune on something that can be left behind for me to set foot on, yes, The Mount.

EW's Garden

I learned too that her legacy had been more than literary pleasures and architectural delights, but something more altruistic after she moved to Paris.

As WWI broke out, Wharton could have gone back to America for safe haven. But she stayed in France, and poured herself in the war efforts, which was inspiration in itself. Here I quote from The Mount’s webpage:

“She set up workrooms for unemployed seamstresses, convalescent homes for tuberculosis sufferers, hostels for refugees, and schools for children fleeing war-torn Belgium. In the first seven months of her efforts, nearly 900 refugees were cared for, “including the nuns and about 200 infirm old men and women, who are ‘children’ too … and could not be left alone in the ruins.” (Edith Wharton, New York Times, 1915)”

and the story didn’t end there… Click on the above link to read more.

Where does one find inspiration, motivation? The answer can vary as much as asking what I should eat today. But one thing I’d experienced on this trip was that life can be lived in myriads of ways, and with it comes inspiration; it could be as simple as a leaf on the ground, or as huge as a war. But I’ll choose the leaf, thank you.

The Leaf

Wherever I am, that’s a good start.

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My New England Road Trip Series: