Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Growing Up in Westeros: Breaking the Wheel of Fantasy Expectations


BY MARIA SACHIKO CECIRE

The tendency to set up—and then dash—the expectations of fantasy has always been crucial to HBO’s Game of Thrones and its source novels by George R. R. Martin. (I refer to them collectively below as GoT.) From the beheading of Ned Stark to the slaughter at the Red Wedding, much of the story’s claim to fame comes from the way that it “realistically” kills off high-minded main characters. The shock and emotional anguish that fans express at these moments reveals just how widely held and deeply cherished the norms of medievalist fantasy are; in particular, the expectation that the “good guys” will win, or at least survive. But Martin has always been unapologetic about his mission to explode people’s expectations of fantasy, and has referred derisively to the pseudo-medieval worlds in works by “Tolkien imitators and other fantasists” as “a sort of Disneyland middle ages”: childish, inauthentic, idealized, sanitized.

This statement reminds us of something that viewers may have forgotten: GoT has always been about the gap between childhood expectations and adult experience—seen especially clearly in the concluding montage of the show, which focuses on the destinies of the surviving Winterfell kids. The stories of Stark children Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran, Rickon, and the fostered boys Jon Snow and Theon Greyjoy overturn an array of popular children’s fantasy plotlines from the twentieth century, with GoT offering its own brutal alternatives as part of a “grown-up” retelling for adult audiences today. This is not to say that there are no moments of triumph, heroism, and luck in the series; instead, it maintains a constant pleasurable (or anxious, depending on your view) uncertainty about whether its plots will tip towards catastrophe or towards what J. R. R. Tolkien called “eucatastrophe”: the “sudden joyous ‘turn,’” the characteristic happy endings of fairy tales.

But how did we come to expect safety and triumph for our favorite characters in the first place, when they exist in worlds defined by violence and supernatural dangers? Why are we rooting for feudal lords, monarchs, and colonizers anyway? The answer lies tied up in the history of the fantasy genre, which emerged as the form we now know during a period when English literature and culture was being transformed by modernism, cosmopolitanism, the decline of Empire, and a pervasive belief that science and rationalism had disenchanted the world. As I argue in my forthcoming book, Tolkien and his Oxford colleague C. S. Lewis launched a counterattack against these cultural directions, using a surprising, and wildly effective, weapon: children’s literature. Their fantasies The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia drew on the heroic traditions of medieval literature and recast such tales in line with more recent ideas about children as inherently magical, innocent, and inclined towards goodness. Ignored by the academy and literary establishment, their writing sparked a wildfire of new medievalist fantasy in the second half of the twentieth century, the “imitators” that Martin mentions above. And these stories, which so many people encounter in childhood, set the norms that GoT repeatedly upends with its darker twists and turns.

Of the Stark children, Robb, the oldest son, suffers the sharpest and most complete lesson in the unreliability of fantasy conventions. Robb takes on the role of the chosen boy hero, right-born and well-meaning like Peter Pevensie in the Narnian tradition, Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, or Will Stanton in Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising sequence. Too trusting, he dies in a trap alongside his followers. Sansa is the fair damsel, a princess figure who dreams of courtly love and advantageous marriage. She becomes a victim of sexual and other forms of violence, a political pawn repeatedly married off for others’ gain. Only after Sansa experiences what Shiloh Carroll calls “violent reeducation” does she end GoT as queen of her own people, a position achieved through her own shrewd and powerful actions. Arya takes up the tradition of female knights like Tamora Pierce’s Alanna, Tolkien’s Éowyn, and women warriors of medieval literature who hide their gender for the chance to fight. But in GoT, Arya’s survival through disguise comes dangerously close to turning her into a cold, unmoored assassin (“a girl is no one,” she learns to say of herself) before she returns to her family, destroys an undead king, and turns to other quests. Her younger brother Bran, body broken but endowed with supernatural abilities, journeys into the wilderness seeking wisdom like Lewis’s spiritual searchers in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Bran gains greensight as the Three-Eyed Raven and returns to his family as an eerie and emotionally distant presence. His crowning as king of Westeros at the end of the series is hardly joyful; barely human, Bran finds little pleasure or triumph in the role. The Stark family’s youngest, Rickon, is hidden from his family’s enemies early in the series much like the young Arthur of medieval legend. While his fate in the books remain unknown, in the TV show he is betrayed and executed by his father’s former bannermen for their political gain.

The trajectories of the Starks’ two foster-children also allow GoT to explore the common theme of outsiders in children’s fantasy. Jon Snow is the unlikely hero, a Frodo-figure dedicated to the higher good and—like the young Arthur of T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone and, later, Harry Potter—an orphan who longs for acceptance and roots while secrets swirl around his identity. In spite of Jon's successes and (in the TV show, if not the books) the revelation of his noble birth, he ends GoT where he started, a literal outsider banished to the far northern reaches of Westeros after murdering his own lover and queen. Meanwhile Theon, Ned Stark’s ward, plays the part of the arrogant incompetent who needs to be reformed, a descendent of Lewis’s Edmund Pevensie and Eustace Scrubb in the Narnia books and Ursula Le Guin’s Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea. Theon tries to play the role of usurper in Winterfell, but is captured by a sadist whose torture reduces Theon to a trembling servant. His happy ending is the chance to die with honor, defending the family he betrayed and demonstrating the capacity for redemption.

These characters’ suffering in GoT raises questions about how well “Disneyland” upbringings in safe, morally “stark” spaces of childhood--such as the plots of most medievalist fantasy--serve young people as they enter into adult life. Moral clarity; the certainty of right overcoming wrong; eucatastrophe and the promise of happy endings; heartwarming family reunions and the finding of true love: these are not only the norms of children’s fantasy since Tolkien and Lewis but also the dominant myths of modern Anglo-American childhood, cycled and recycled through children’s media from picture books to video games to holiday specials. At the same time, the fates of the Winterfell kids don’t suggest a simple rejection of fantasy norms so much as a shift towards what Lee Konstantinou calls “postirony”: a twenty-first-century mode that acknowledges the miseries of life but which “moves past irony” to find meaning and, I suggest, alternate forms of enchantment.

The dragon queen Daenarys Targaryen repeatedly claims that her goal in seeking the Iron Throne of Westeros is to “break the wheel” of power that crushes so many people in the GoT’s world. Jon kills her as she reiterates this dream in sight of the throne, in spite of his love for her, because he has come to recognize that self-righteous idealism can lead to despotism just as well as greed and malice can. The series ending suggests that audiences, too, have to “grow up.” We must kill our dreams of fantasy conventions and follow the postironic paths of Jon and the other remaining Winterfell children by first recognizing the hidden tyrannies of simplistic hierarchies and inflexible moral ideals, and then finding re-enchantment in more complex, unexpected arrangements of people and power.

But even as it aims to overcome tired fantasy tropes, GoT remains caught in and reaffirms one of the genre’s most exhausted norms of all. From the Winterfell brood to the dragon-strafed youth of King’s Landing, the young people we are asked to identify with in this narrative all look suspiciously similar; only white children’s stories seem to really count. As Ebony Elizabeth Thomas argues, the one black girl in Martin’s books, Missandei of Naath, appears in the TV show as a sexualized adult; and her story is cut short to further the stories of white characters in the most brutal and degrading of ways. Even the series’ more hopeful conclusions betray its Orientalist mindset: as one Atlantic historian friend pointed out, Arya’s sailing west under the Stark crest at the show’s end unproblematically celebrates her turning into a settler colonist. Martin’s dated understanding of history shows, as Kavita Mudan Finn has suggested, and the misogynist and colonialist biases of his sources carry into the series’ ambitious attempt to rethink the underlying premises of the genre. When will medievalist fantasy break that wheel?

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Maria Sachiko Cecire is assistant professor of literature and founding director of the Center for Experimental Humanities at Bard College, and the author of the forthcoming book Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children's Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Poetry and Extinction in the Anthropocene


BY DAVID FARRIER

Life itself is a form of poiesis, a perpetual world-making. But if eco-criticism also sees the poem as an exercise in world-making, how are we to read it in an age of extinction?

Perhaps more than any other environmental crisis, extinction pitches us into deep time: into awareness of the richness of our inheritance from the deep past, and the depleted legacy we will leave to the deep future. But in the midst of death, the pull of connection persists. To make kin is to incline towards another, relinquishing the illusion of the separate, bounded self for the startling reality of the self in community; that is, to perform a clinamen, a swerve between contexts. As I argue in Anthropocene Poetics, clinamen can help define a poetics of kin-making in an age of extinction.

In Vahni Capildeo’s ‘Latona and Her Children,’ we find an example of kin-making organised around the swerve of clinamen. The poem is an ekphrasis, responding to a seventeenth-century Dutch tapestry depicting a scene from the myth of Latona, or Leto as she appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Ovid’s telling, she is seduced by Jupiter and conceives twins (Artemis and Apollo), and as punishment is made by Juno to wander the earth without refuge, “debarred from settling anywhere in the world.” Her exile continues after she gives birth, and one day, under a blazing sun, she arrives with her children by a lake in the land of the Lycians. She seeks permission from the Lycian men working the shoreline to drink from the lake, and to give water to her children, but they refuse to take pity on her, and even maliciously stir up the muddy bottom with their feet. Outraged, Latona pronounces a curse on their inhospitality—“live forever in that lake of yours, then!”—and turns the men into frogs.

As a form of clinamen, ekphrasis encloses a number of swerves: like apostrophe, it performs a turn towards an object; as in citation, it draws another artwork into itself; comparable to metaphor, it is an account of one form in the manner of another. It also poses a particular temporal relation: that of the stilled scene. The archetypal Romantic ekphrasis is, of course, Keat’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn,’ which rhapsodises “silence and slow time.” Capildeo, however, shows how ekphrasis may allow us to think “fast and slow time together”, as the artist Ilana Halperin suggests we must do in order to grasp our own “geologic intimacy.” The first stanza reads:

This tapestry’s in sympathy

with wives who have been wronged

in gorgeous-feeling houses

where rage bindweeds into rugs.

You could lay your cheek against this

woolly silky rosy thread,

smug in a censored village

where the frogs have been erased.

The opening lines positions this as a poem in search of affinity: art is a form of kin-making, Capildeo affirms, a means of inclining beyond singular experience. The maltreated Latona is, of course, the primary focus of sympathy, but Capildeo’s prefatory note, that in making the tapestry, “the heads of men were woven as frogs and then altered to human,” also introduces a rather ambivalent sense of multispecies relations. For one, it inverts the metamorphosis, changing frogs to men rather than men to frogs, introducing a ghostly sense of kinship. The human genome shares around 1,700 genes with the genome of the African clawed frog, and many common elements of structure—structures that were present 360 million years ago, in the last common ancestor of all mammals, amphibians, and birds alive today. Prefaced by this creaturely haunting, we enter the poem aware that we, like all species, are what Deborah Bird Rose calls densely woven knots of embodied time.

The inversion (frogs to men rather than men to frogs) initiates a series of clinamen or swerves that undo the neat justice of the Ovidian myth. The erased frogs in the first stanza turn towards the ‘erased’ Latona, wandering in exile in the second; the “bastard fruit” she carries in her womb turns towards the final stanza, which is preoccupied by the Dutch weavers’ decision to enclose the scene of abuse in a vision of bucolic calm, surrounded by “green, without drama.” The frame transmutes the violence of the myth into the violence of enclosure, and the forcible exclusion, like that of Latona, of nature as the outside of human experience.

Capildeo’s swerves show us that the malice of the Lycians begins in their destructive attitudes towards their environment, as no more than a resource to be exploited or withheld. In turning attention to the frame, however, Capildeo also looks beyond it, laying the poem open to other times and places that torque the myth into an Anthropocenic context. The “reassuring woodland décor” also hints at “signs of Artemis to come,” and this intimation that another kind of relation with the natural world is possible prompts a final turn: one that looks back to the animal of its opening stanza, and to the fast-and-slow-time-together of extinction—back, that is, to the “censored village / where the frogs have been erased.”

Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Sixth Extinction opens with a visit to El Valle de Antón, a town in Panama that, in 2006, lost virtually its entire population of golden tree frogs in an outbreak of a deadly chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). Bd is responsible for the extinction of around ninety frog species since the 1970s, along with serious decline in around another five hundred amphibian species; a quarter have lost more than 90% of their population. It emerged in the Korean peninsula sometime in the 1950s and, coeval other symptoms of the Anthropocene, spread rapidly worldwide. International shipping, the mass transit of soldiers during the Korean War, and the global trade in amphibians as pets have introduced Bd to Australia, North, South, and Central America, the Caribbean, and the Iberian Peninsula in a matter of decades. Kolbert notes that frogs evolved “at a time when all the land on earth was part of one large mass”—the Pangaea supercontinent—a geologic reality of the deep past effectively reconstituted by global trade: biologists refer to contemporary trade networks as “a functional Pangaea for infectious diseases in wildlife.”

Like Leto searching for a place to rest, Bd has found a home on six continents in a matter of decades. There are other peculiar parallels, other swerves between myth and reality. One key early driver in the spread of Bd was the use of African clawed frogs in mid-twentieth century pregnancy tests; the disease itself causes the animals’ skin to harden and slough off, preventing them from taking in fluids. There is currently no viable cure for Bd in wild frog populations, which continue to decline alarmingly, embedding a deep irony in Latona’s curse on the Lycians: “live forever in that lake of yours.”

Although erased, the frogs populate the poem’s soundscape, in the many ‘g’ sounds—wronged; gorgeous; rugs; smug; glanced at too in rage and village—that cluster in the first stanza. Rage is bound into this tapestry, not just the wrath of maltreated Latona but the scandal of extinction as well. As Capildeo’s ekphrastic poem swerves away from the tapestry’s frame and inclines towards the animal hidden in the weave, the immense slow time of evolution and the devastatingly fast time of species loss flow through it. Through the figure of the clinamen, Capildeo’s poem urges us to swerve back towards life, and to see that our responsibility in the Anthropoecene is to cultivate collaborative rather than exploitative relations with other species. It reminds us that life, woven in deep time, is itself a form of poiesis, an ongoing exercise in world-making.
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David Farrier is senior lecturer in modern and contemporary literature at the University of Edinburgh. He is author of Unsettled Narratives: The Pacific Writings of Stevenson, Ellis, Melville, and London and Postcolonial Asylum: Seeking Sanctuary before the Law.

"The Anthropocene spells trouble: not only with respect to the global environmental changes, largely for the worse, to which it refers; but also in terms of the troublesome nature of the word itself. David Farrier’s brilliant elucidation of a multi-faceted ‘Anthropocene poetics’ delves into these troubles with great philosophical, scientific, social-ecological and aesthetic discernment. Whilst acknowledging the limited efficacy of poetry in response to the immense challenges of our perilous times, his carefully contextualized close readings of exemplary texts do indeed demonstrate how literature, and other art forms, can ‘help to frame the ground on which we stand as we consider which way to turn.’ This is, moreover, not only a work about poetry: it is also an exquisitely poetic work of scholarship." —Catherine Rigby, Bath Spa University, author of Dancing with Disaster

"In Anthropocene Poetics, David Farrier ventures into a poetics of the Anthropocene and calls for the need to create ‘an Anthropocenic literary imagination.’ Exploring the Anthropocene conundrums and dysphorias with avant-garde and lyric poetry, Anthropocene Poetics will certainly change the way we perceive deep time as well as our understanding of the poem. Imagine a creative becoming enfolded by the new poetics of deep and thick time!"—Serpil Oppermann, Cappadocia University

"The Anthropocene needs poetry. With its vorticular temporalities, swift shifts in scale, enmeshment of the human and the nonhuman, and constant challenges to the adequacy of language, this age of ecological crisis may never be better understood by any other technology—even as the Anthropocene changes what we understand a poem to do. David Farrier’s brilliant new book is a rapturous meditation on ecocriticism, time, the limits of human comprehension, and the power of the humanities in a turbulent era." —Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, author of Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The legacy and nostalgia of the Star Wars franchise


BY DAN GOLDING

“Every generation has a legend.”

I have seen these words twice in my lifetime. The first time, I was twelve years old and downloading the first teaser trailer for Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace on a 56k dial-up modem in rural Australia. These were the early days of the internet. The idea of a trailer as an event, and the practice of streaming video were both just beginning to take hold. I watched with awe at literally every frame for this new film: every ten minutes or so I would have a new five-second section to contemplate. I scrubbed through them with the arrow keys of my prehistoric desktop computer, my eyes only inches from the screen. Darth Maul drawing his lightsaber. Gungans in the mist. A new Jedi order.

The second time I saw these words was on April 12, 2019. I was thirty-two and live-streaming a panel from the other side of the world as the first purrs of a weapons-grade marketing campaign for Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker came sputtering to life. In a year of enormous, culture-defining blockbusters, this would surely be one of the biggest. The ‘saga’ was coming to an end; a new caretaker in the forms of Disney and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy would shepherd the Skywalkers towards a final full-stop.

The story of the twenty years between The Phantom Menace and The Rise of Skywalker—filled with six ‘saga’ films, two anthology films, three animated television series, two in-production live-action series, uncountable characters and actors, and the biggest transition in the franchise’s history from the outsider millionaire George Lucas to the insider corporation of Disney—is too big to be told. How do you encapsulate the white-hot rage that George Lucas and his prequels faced for Jar Jar Binks, midichlorians, and the adolescent pouting of the man who was supposed to become Darth Vader? How do you explain away the Mickey Mouse jokes that greeted the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney, or the fears that Star Wars would become an all-singing, bland sell-out? How can we begin to understand the apocalyptic hatred that actors Kelly Marie Tran (Rose from The Last Jedi) and Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks from the prequels) were on the receiving end of, and then, unbelievably, the rapturous standing ovations and sports-like chants of support they both received that same weekend in April, 2019, as Star Wars fans welcomed them like long-lost relatives?

“Every generation has a legend.” This is a marketing line with bite, and if anything can tell us about this almost unfathomable moment in pop culture, it’s this. The generations of Star Wars illuminate our current cinema, franchise-making, and the self-made myth of nostalgia.

Nostalgia’s pull has multiplied in our times because media augments memory. When we watch an old film, in some part we grasp at who we were when we saw it for the first time. This is of course an impossibility: we cannot time travel or grow younger, and so nostalgia provides us with a kind of impossible homecoming, a return to a place that we can never really go to. When Rogue One’s costumers went to remake the 1977-era Stormtrooper for 2016, they found that the grills on the side of their helmets had to be built in—the cheap stickers that looked fine on ‘70s Panavision filmstock would today not live up to memory’s rosy recollection. Fans can never return to the moment they fell in love with Star Wars for the first time, but Han Solo can return to the Millennium Falcon: Chewie, we’re home.

Indeed, the greatest trick of the sequel trilogy—this new Disney era—has been to displace fans’ own awe and thirst for a nostalgic return into the mythology of the films themselves. By the time of The Force Awakens, Luke Skywalker has become myth. The Jedi, the Force, the Empire, these are all distant memories spoken of in disbelieving tones: our new heroes mirror our own watery-eyed shock at reencountering them again, as if our memories have taken on corporeal form. It’s true, we’re told. All of it.

Star Wars generations are identified, created, mythologized. Göran Bolin argues that nostalgia is at the root of generational gaps, often appearing between parents and children through insurmountable differences in their respective media landscapes. Adults hated the prequels in 1999, but those who grew up with them now use them to signal their own yearning for youth. The secret, for Disney, has been in simultaneously addressing three generations: first, in authorizing a return to the ‘home’ of the original trilogy for older fans; second, in not alienating the prequel kids; and finally, in opening up enough points of entry to galvanize a generation of newcomers, for whom the stories of Star Wars were for other people.

With nostalgia, with ageing generations, also comes legacy. The next best thing to an actual return to youth is the passing on of experience, and knowledge, and passion. Parents pass Star Wars on to their children, and now, the films do it too. Carrie Fisher, in her memoirs, The Princess Diarist, keenly observes this point through her years of interacting with Star Wars fans. She notes how Star Wars fans have a “common language that runs from five to eighty-five,” that is deliberately and almost ritualistically cultivated by parents in their children. Do you show your kids A New Hope or The Phantom Menace first, you ask?

Every generation, we’re told, has a legend. And now, with the sequel era of Star Wars, with The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker, another generation, another legend, is not so much born as it is actively cultivated by a megacorporation that will be here long after all of us. Like all other generations, it too will inevitably be remembered, mythologised, and ultimately, passed on.

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Dan Golding, author of Star Wars after Lucas: A Critical Guide to the Future of the Galaxy, is lecturer in media and communications at the Swinburne University of Technology and an award-winning writer with more than two hundred international publications. He is cohost of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation TV show What Is Music and the producer of the soundtrack to Push Me Pull You. He is coauthor of Game Changers: From Minecraft to Misogyny, the Fight for the Future of Videogames and has written for popular and web-based publications such as Kotaku, Buzzfeed, The Guardian, IGN, and The Conversation.

"Star Wars is almost too big a subject for any one mind to grasp, but Dan Golding’s look at how the franchise maintains its nostalgic glow in the Disney era stays on target, excavating the unique combination of art and commerce that holds Star Wars together." —Adam Rogers, deputy editor of Wired and author of Proof: The Science of Booze

"Star Wars after Lucas is a useful and welcome review of the past four decades of Star Wars, as well as the strategies that corporations are increasingly adopting in order to perpetuate franchises. In particular, Dan Golding aptly describes Lucasfilm's struggles to balance nostalgic appeals with a growing commitment to diversity and inclusivity." —A. D. Jameson, author of I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing: Star Wars and the Triumph of Geek Culture

"Dan Golding’s wonderful book strikes a perfect balance between criticism and knowledgeable fandom. Approaching Disney-era Star Wars, his writing provides important insights into the workings of nostalgia culture, transmedia storytelling, and the power of transnational media industries in the age of global capitalism. His readings of individual Star Wars texts are thoughtful, nuanced, and theoretically informed, while at the same time relating them back to the complexities of branding, cross-platform marketing, and global entertainment franchising. Star Wars after Lucas is essential reading for anyone with an interest in media franchising, globalization, media industries, and entertainment in the Disney era." —Dan Hassler-Forest, coeditor of Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Parents versus Planners

BY NICHOLAS TAMPIO

Parents have dreams for their children. Sometimes, the dreams are specific; we want our children to play an instrument, enroll at our alma mater, or become engineers. Mostly, however, we want our children to do what will make them happy. If they want to try out for the school play, enroll in an out-of-state college, go to veterinary school, or enter the corporate world, great. If they want to drop out of college and teach ski lessons, well, maybe that wouldn’t be our first choice, but we will support them. Parents want the future to be wide open for their children.

Is that a realistic option in the modern world? Certain education reformers—let’s call them planners—think that our country can no longer afford to let children find their own way. According to planners, children need to be placed on certain college and career pathways. The name for this is a P20 system, and the way that it runs is through data collection.

The basic idea of a P20 system is to collect data on children from preschool (or prenatal) until the early years of their careers. If children satisfy conditions such as high test scores, then doors such as admission to state institutions of higher education open for them. If children do not test well, then they may be slotted for career and technical education. A P20 system, in theory, is a seamless pipeline from cradle to career. For advocates, this system helps policymakers identify what works in education and prepare young people for long-term success.

Schools have collected data on children for a long time, but things have been changing rapidly in the past two decades. The federal government greatly expanded its role in data collection with the passage of the Education Sciences Reform Act and the Educational Technical Assistance Act in 2002. Now, the Institute of Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education administers a program for states to build state longitudinal data systems. In 2009, New York won a $19,670,975 ARRA grant to create the “building blocks” of a P20 system that is transforming every corner of the public education system.

Here is a sketch of how the New York state longitudinal data system works. Initially, local education agencies collect data about students’ demographics, coursework, test scores, and teachers. This data is collected, formatted, and standardized before it is delivered to a state data repository. Then, this data is sent to the American Institute of Research to produce growth reports. With these reports, the state can identify a data linkage between teachers and students. In other words, the growth reports enable the state to identify which teachers help their students’ test scores grow more or less than predicted.

Though there has recently been a wrinkle in the state’s plans to use the end-of-year state tests for this purpose, New York continues to have a high-stakes testing regime that evaluates educators on how students perform on standardized tests. In my book, Learning versus the Common Core, I argue that this system pressures schools to narrow the curriculum to testable skills. Gone are the days when teachers could help children develop their unique gifts. This is enough reason for parents to protest the new educational paradigm.

But it gets worse. New York’s state data repository creates transcripts for students. This transcript determines if children may enter the state’s public universities (CUNY, SUNY) or other colleges in New York and out of state. The education department shares the transcript with the state agencies responsible for housing, workforce development, health and social services. The education department also gives this information to the armed forces and the department of correction services.

In short, the state is creating a permanent record for each student that follows them from age five (or before) until they get started with their adult lives.

Will this system benefit young people? Advocates of P20 say yes. But it also creates a condition ripe for abuse—at least if you believe that young people deserve second chances or that there are many ways to show your talents. For example, the state universities may determine that students need a certain score on a single standardized test to earn admission. But what if students shine in other ways?

There is a scene in the movie Interstellar (2014) where Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, expresses a sentiment that many parents experience when they discover the details of a P-20 system.

Cooper: You're ruling my son out for college now? The kid's fifteen.

Principal: Tom's score simply isn't high enough.

Cooper: What's your waistline? 32? With, what, a 33 inseam?

Principal: I'm not sure I see what you're getting at.

Cooper: You're telling me it takes two numbers to measure your own ass but only one to measure my son's future?

Central planners are making themselves, in effect, gods who can determine children’s fates. But there is no reason that parents should accept this new arrangement. Young people deserve to have a wide range of options available to them.

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Nicholas Tampio is professor of political science at Fordham University. He is the author of Learning versus the Common Core (Minnesota, 2019).

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Secret of the Secret of Color

BY NICHOLAS GASKILL

Color has a secret.

In one form or another, this has been the message of the recent boom in color studies. Sometimes the secret is psychological. Seeing blue involves not only light waves and retinas, but also an act of interpretation based on lighting conditions and on what, in the past, we’ve made of similar stimuli. That’s why some people saw blue and black in that famous dress, while others saw white and gold.

Sometimes the secret is social. That red shirt you’re wearing? It’s not just red but “spiced apple” or “rapture rose” or some other specific hue picked out and promoted by a color forecasting group, an actual group of actual people who meet up in convention centers to set color trends. Manufacturers have their “color experts,” who decide which hues will be used for the season’s products. That’s why, as Regina Lee Blaszczyk notes in her history of these color professionals, the same shade of lime green or mustard yellow will suddenly seem to be everywhere, from clothing to throw pillows to the menus at the new bakery. The workings of these color cabals are revealed every couple of years in the popular press.

Sometimes the secret is historical. Did you know that “ultramarine” is derived from the Latin for “beyond the sea,” and that the name designated the long passage that lapis lazuli had to take from the mines of Afghanistan to Europe? Or that ultramarine pigment was, for centuries, costlier than gold, which is why artists in the fifteenth-century began using them for the Virgin Mary’s robes? Kassia St Clair’s The Secret Lives of Colour brims with such secrets, stretching from ancient times to modernity. Her entry on Baker-Miller pink, for instance, tells of the brief moment in the 1980s when this Pepto-Bismol-like hue came to be used in prisons, buses, and housing estates because of its supposed ability to subdue the violent impulses of young men. Other books by Michel Pastoureau, Victoria Finlay, David Kastan, and Gavin Evans, to name just a few, reveal similar “hidden messages” about color.

There’s always a secret. The pleasure of reading these books and articles about color is in seeing how something that seems natural and self-evident is in fact the result of complex historical and biological processes. Color, that paradigm of immediacy, turns out to be riddled with mediations.

When I began writing about color and American literature as a graduate student, I too wanted to tell secrets. I found that my period of interest—those essential years between 1880 and 1930 when American modernity took its distinctive form—witnessed crucial developments in how color was made and understood. The mass production of new synthetic dyes changed the look and feel of commercial colors, bringing a vibrant and expansive palette to the goods of everyday life. The emerging science of psychology took color as one of its early subjects, redefining it in the process. Studies of color perception and its relation to environmental stimuli and the state of the observer (whether distracted, focused, listening to sounds, thinking about language, and so on), put forth a detailed view both of how color experience is produced and of how specific colors affect us. Advertisers and social reformers quickly sought to put these theories to work.

By telling the cultural and literary history of color, I wanted to tell a broader story about how the modern sensory scene came about, including an account of the habits of feeling and seeing such a scene demanded. (That’s one area in which literature proves helpful: in dramatizing historical ways of responding to color).

But the more I researched, the more I realized that I was not simply finding further color secrets but witnessing the more fundamental construction of color as something with a secret. In the novels, poetry, decoration manuals, children’s books, philosophical essays, psychological studies, pedagogical journals, and business magazines that I read, and that I discuss in my book Chromographia, I saw how color came to be understood in two separate yet related ways. First, as a distinct domain of nature with its own laws and principles, such that an artist or designer could learn how to manipulate color effects. Second, as an intense and emotionally-charged experience, something that hits the body directly, bypassing conscious thought. I became more and more interested in how these two faces of color fit together, and in how they were often held apart. Because it’s in this duplicity that color came to be something at once immediate and mediated, wholly manifest and yet full of hidden depths.

When L. Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, he worked with illustrator W. W. Denslow to make his book “glow” with bright color. In fact, the whole narrative universe of the original Oz story—with its color-coded regions and hyper-green Emerald City—is designed to show off the colors of the actual book. As a children’s author, Baum exploited the immediacy of color.

The gates of the Emerald City. Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, illustrations by Denslow, 109. Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Yet as an advertiser and window-dresser (before Oz he edited a professional journal called The Show Window), Baum leaned on the “laws” of color, which he held to be hidden from average observers and so perfect for stimulating consumer desire. He gave readers tips on how to manipulate the “set laws” of color and advised that even items “desirable in themselves” still “need[ed] a color effect to throw them out properly”—otherwise consumers might not even realize they wanted it.[1]

The doubleness of color held in other areas as well. Empirical studies of color perception in the period tended to emphasize one of two things: either the direct, bodily reaction to chromatic stimuli (such that certain colors caused certain moods--see Baker-Miller pink), or the complex calculations that the brain makes in order to see a particular color. In this latter case, what we see when we see red is not so much a thing as a set of relations, which our minds mediate into a single sensation, imbued with qualitative immediacy. This, in fact, is what Gertrude Stein discovered when she apprenticed as a color researcher in the Harvard psychology lab in the 1890s. And it’s the basic insight about color that she carried into her famously saturated book of poetry, Tender Buttons (1914).


Two Milton Bradley Color Wheels (bottom right and left), along with several color disks of various sizes. There are also apparatuses for testing the perception of afterimages, luminous color, color blindness, and "appreciation of color." "Instruments for Experiments on Sight," from Hugo Munsterberg, Psychological Laboratory of Harvard University, 8.

The more I saw this dual nature of color in the wider cultural conversation about color effects—and I should note that at the turn of the twentieth century this conversation was livelier than it had ever been—the more I realized that the blend of immediacy and mediation opened a new space for exploring the language of color, and in particular its literary uses. An obligatory move in recent books on color is to point out that language can never do justice to the visual world. This is usually done with an apologetic tone. The idea is that language is an abstract system of mediations, while visual color is a concrete presentation of brute sensation. But if we take seriously the challenge of color’s duality, the way it results from the transformation of mediations into immediacy, and if we are willing to shed the ingrained philosophical habit of thinking of the abstract and the concrete as two incompatible realms (rather than as two phases in an ongoing process), then the language of color is no longer an embarrassment to vision. Rather, our verbal invocations of color—from the names we give it to the ways we narrate its effects—stand as extensions and transformations of color itself.

In Chromographia, I’ve tried to show just how inventive and consequential the literary transformations of chromatic experience were in the early decades of American modernity. There are lots of color “secrets” in the book, many of which give a historical background for the current crop of color books. But perhaps the most important story it tells is that of the secret of color’s secrets.

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Nicholas Gaskill is associate professor of American literature at the University of Oxford and tutorial fellow at Oriel College. He is coeditor of The Lure of Whitehead (Minnesota, 2014).

"What happened when chemists invented mauve? When The Wonderful Wizard of Oz taught us childhood meant colorfulness? When Stephen Crane painted courage red? In Nicholas Gaskill’s brilliant, beautiful, and mind-expanding book, we learn the myriad ways in which being modern in America meant no less than an encounter with color itself. And that meant thinking anew about mind and body, language and world, the challenges of the avant-garde and the pleasures of popular culture. Chromographia is that rare and iridescent thing: a philosophically searching contribution to literary–cultural history."—Jennifer Fleissner, Indiana University, Bloomington

"Between the 1880s and the 1930s the world changed color. Nicholas Gaskill’s multilayered study of the period shows how a number of factors—an emerging relational understanding of chromatic experience, the commercial production of synthetic dyes, and theories of vision derived from evolutionary biology—together gave color a new visibility and brilliance and transformed it into a vitally important subject for literary and artistic modernism. If the cultural study of color—let’s call it Chromotology—was a recognized discipline, then this would be one of its principal texts."—David Batchelor, author of Chromophobia

"Chromographia is a study of color perception just as brilliant as all the saturated hues that the new chromatic technologies and synthetic dyes of the nineteenth century brought out like never before. Nicholas Gaskill explores the meaning of this modern, multicolored world from the perspective of the writers, philosophers, psychologists, and educators who, in trying to cultivate a feeling for color, believe that language has the power to augment our sensory encounter with the world and to make life more vivid. This is a dazzling book that puts us in immediate relation with the vibrancy of these decades as we learn about the dynamic forms that color takes, its importance to aesthetic experience, and its intensifying, clarifying role in modern thought."—Elisa Tamarkin, University of California, Berkeley

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References:
[1] L. Frank Baum, The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows and Interiors: A Complete Manual of Window Trimming, Designed as an Educator in All the Details of the Art, According to the Best Accepted Methods, and Treating Fully Every Important Subject (Chicago: Show Window Publishing, 1900), 24, 35.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Anika Fajardo: On searching for identity, exploring origins, and reconciling what family means



BY ANIKA FAJARDO

I once went swimming in natural hot springs in Colombia. It was the mid-1990s and Colombia was, according to the U.S. State Department, the most dangerous country on earth. At twenty-one years old, I had just arrived to see my father for the first time since I was a baby. His wife had brought me and my cousin to the town of Coconuco in the Western Cordillera of the Andes Mountains, where underground geothermal springs fuel a somewhat tepid ecotourism. I remember being poised in my unflattering one piece on the bank of the aguas tibias.

Publishing my memoir, Magical Realism for Non-Believers, feels just as precarious as standing on the edge of that pool. I began working on what would become this book nine years ago and, while the goal was always to publish, I never really thought about what that would mean. When I was writing abut my family, myself, and our foibles and follies, I never considered what it would be like for those stories to belong to readers and not just me.

A few other tourists had come to visit the Coconuco springs that day, even though low clouds made the high-altitude air chilly and damp. The rocks that created makeshift paths were icy on my bare feet. This pool was naturally occurring and rimmed with lush vegetation—plants I, having grown up in Minnesota, couldn’t identify, making the whole experience even more surreal.

That surrealism of my return trip to Colombia and getting to know my father is what drove me to write this book. It’s a story of searching for identity, exploring origins, and reconciling what family means. But I hope it also demonstrates the magic of life. While this is creative nonfiction (meaning these are true events that really happened), and I can’t do what Gabriel García Márquez does with story, the genre of magical realism—superimposed over memoir—lets me tell you about the leap into aguas tibias, the time snow erased my past, the drama of my daughter’s birth via emergency C-section. Because life—reality—is magical.

As I looked down into aqua-blue water, Spanish words swirled around me and the faint scent of sulfur hung in the air. Those moments before you leap, the moment before you know what will happen and how it will affect you, require bravery and probably a little insanity. Launching my memoir into the world feels just as brave and just as insane. But like that day in the Andes, all I can do is wiggle my toes, giggle with anticipation, and jump.

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Anika Fajardo was born in Colombia and raised in Minnesota. Her writing has been published in the anthologies Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction and Sky Blue Water: Great Stories for Young Readers (Minnesota, 2016). She has earned awards from the Jerome Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board, and the Loft Literary Center. The manuscript for Magical Realism for Non-Believers was a finalist for the Bakeless Literary Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She lives in Minneapolis.

"Incredibly well written and compelling, Anika Fajardo’s Magical Realism for Non-Believers is a remarkable memoir about the search for a father, a culture, a self. I felt like I was reading about my own life and the price I paid for assimilation and acculturation. I simply couldn’t put it down."—Pablo Medina, author of The Island Kingdom and Cubop City Blues

"Bicultural experience is a dispassionate term for life lived across borders, identities, and even family trees. As Anika Fajardo makes clear in this searching and lyrical memoir, there is nothing dispassionate about flying back to one’s birthland, walking its soil again, or breaking bread with family who have become as good as strangers. Fajardo seeks to reconnect these missing and scattered pieces, and it is a privilege to journey beside her."—Lila Quintero Weaver, author of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White

"A rare read, you know the kind: you don’t want it to end but you can’t put it down. Bewitching and beautiful, bound to move anyone who was ever a parent or a child, and just as compelling (and magical) the second time around."—Dinah Lenney, author of The Object Parade


Launch event: 7:00 PM, Thursday, April 18, 2019. Moon Palace Books (3032 Minnehaha Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55406)

A full list of Anika's events can be found here.





Wednesday, April 10, 2019

How a chance encounter led to an uncommon collection of Sami folktales by Emilie Demant Hatt.



BY BARBARA SJOHOLM


By the Fire is an uncommon collection of Sami folktales recorded by a woman who was herself quite remarkable for her time. Emilie Demant Hatt was born in a rural village in Jutland, Denmark, in 1873 and only attended school up to the age of fourteen. But with help from her mother’s family, Demant Hatt moved to Copenhagen in her early twenties to study art at the Royal Academy. At the age of thirty-one, by now a painter, she traveled with her sister to northern Sweden as one of the first tourists on the new iron ore train through the high mountains between Sweden and Norway, lands previously inhabited mainly by the nomadic Sami herders and their reindeer.

Demant Hatt’s chance encounter on the train with Sami wolf-hunter and would-be writer Johan Turi changed both of their lives. After studying the Sami language at Copenhagen University and preparing herself as best she could for a sojourn among reindeer herders, Demant returned to Sápmi in 1907 and spent nine months with Johan Turi’s brother and his family. She then accompanied another group of herders and reindeer over the mountains from Sweden to Norway, a grueling trek memorably chronicled in her travel narrative, With the Lapps in the High Mountains (1913). Demant Hatt later went on to make many field trips to Sápmi, to translate and edit the work of Johan Turi, to travel in North America with her husband Gudmund Hatt, and to study with the Boas circle at Columbia University. She became a noted Expressionist painter and left a large body of work with Sápmi as a major motif.

As the translator of her astonishing (and beautifully written) travel narrative, and eventually as the biographer of Emilie Demant Hatt, I was familiar with her illustrated collection of folktales, By the Fire (Ved ilden). Originally published in 1922 and long out of print and neglected by Nordic folklorists, By the Fire first struck me by the charm and power of the linocuts, so reminiscent of the German graphic artists of the time. Through her endnotes I could see that she had collected her tales from various siidas or communities in Swedish Sápmi, and I gradually realized that a large number of tales must have come from her women friends and teachers over the years 1907 to 1916, even though few names were mentioned. That Demant Hatt was particularly interested in the lives of women and children was already evident to me. Her ethnography is notable not only for the fact that she was an early practitioner of participant observation but also because her focus—many years before Margaret Mead went to Samoa—was on the daily lives and customs of women relating to courtship, marriage, childbirth, work inside the tents and work outside (often in dramatic weather conditions), herding, leading migrations, and setting up camp.

I wrote about By the Fire and some of the storytellers in my biography of Demant Hatt, Black Fox, and then, after deciding to translate the folktales, I returned to her field notes in Danish (500 pages, fortunately typed), which are held at the archives of the Nordic Museum in Stockholm, along with her photo albums from Sápmi. Using the field notes as my guide, I was able to correlate many of the folktales with individual storytellers. Some I was familiar with already: Anni Rasti, for instance, whom Demant Hatt had memorably described in With the Lapps as “Gate,” in whose tent she lived in spring of 1908 on that rigorous, nearly two-month trek over icy plateaus and frothing rivers, to get to the green meadows of Norway. Or Märta Nilsson, a Sami elder and “wise woman,” who resided in a tent with her husband Nils in a siida near Östersund in South Sápmi. Demant Hatt spent six weeks with this couple in 1910. Other storytellers I was less acquainted with: Margreta Bengtsson, a mother, wife, and herder in Pite Sápmi, with whose family Demant Hatt and her husband traveled in 1914; or the former herder Anders Larsson, whom the Hatts got to know well in 1912. Thanks to a travel fellowship from the American Scandinavian Foundation, I was able to spend some weeks in 2017 in archives in Uppsala and Stockholm, gathering material on the storytellers to add to what I already knew from Demant Hatt’s mostly unpublished manuscripts.

In my research I often found that the details of the herders’ lives in the early twentieth century, at a time when their culture was gravely threatened, gave added resonance to the stories she collected from them. Demant Hatt admired the Sami for their resilience and humor, and she collected a number of tales and legends that spoke to how an indigenous people could protect themselves against enemies, often through inventive means, and otherwise bear witness and seek justice. Some of the tales she recorded are well-known in Sápmi and appear in other historic collections, but it’s notable that By the Fire contains a higher proportion of tales by women, and perhaps because of that, a higher proportion of girls and women as heroines who outwit farmers, bandits, Dog-Turks, their Stallo fathers, and even Swedish pastors who mean them and their people harm.

By the Fire is less comprehensive than deeply personal, the reflection both of self-educated scholarship and an unusually modern view for the time that indigenous people, and especially women, deserve to have their voices heard in all their wisdom, humor, and power. I’m very happy that this collection in English translation will be available to a wider audience almost one hundred years after its first publication.


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Barbara Sjoholm is a writer, editor, and translator of Danish and Norwegian literature, including By the Fire: Sami Folktales and Legends. She has written fiction and nonfiction.

Emilie Demant Hatt (1873–1958) was a Danish artist and ethnographer who lived among the Sami of Swedish Lapland in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

"When the darkness draws [the Sami] to the campfire, when the stew kettle hangs on its sooty chain and steam and smoke rise up through the tent opening to the clouds and night sky, then rest comes, memories slip in, like dreams to a sleeper. . . . The spirit of Fairy Tale perches at the edge of the hearth. The fire hisses, the flames flare and die back. . . Outside in the deepest night wander the dead, the spirits, the evil thoughts one person sends another. . . Here inside the tent is the campfire; here is home, the great safe place."
—Emilie Demant Hatt, from the Introduction

"By the Fire offers insights into the fascinating Sami storytelling tradition at a time when folk beliefs met Christianity—where motifs from Cinderella and legends about sea monsters intertwine in milieus as diverse as icy mountains and tobacco fields. Barbara Sjoholm's translation renders these wonderful stories in all their darkness and power."
—Coppélie Cocq, Umeå University

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

American Masculinity in a New Era



By Miriam J. Abelson

What does it mean to be a man in America?

This question was at the forefront of the minds of many of the 66 trans men I interviewed while doing research for my book, Men in Place. These men lived in a wide variety of cities and rural areas across the United States West, South, and Midwest. Perhaps this question has not been easy to answer in any era, but American masculinity and manhood seem particularly fraught at the end of the second decade of the 21st century.

The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have shone new light on rampant sexual harassment, assault, and gender inequality across industries and locales. Indeed, there is a growing recognition of the harmful effects of masculinity on the larger society and on men and boys themselves. Even the recent headline-making advertisement by Gillette asks for men and boys to rethink how they behave with one another and with women, by posing their long running tag line – The Best a Man Can Get – as a question: Is this the best a man can get? The ad is a prime example of calls to reform masculinity, but we also see rising resentment and backlash from those loathe to give up their personal and social positions of power.

Trans men who I interviewed described navigating the pressures of being a man and being masculine in ways that are similar to other men. Their stories illustrated that they did not have one specific way to be masculine, but that their expressions of masculinity depended on the spaces and places they lived in and moved through in their everyday lives, shifting and balancing as they entered different contexts. In most places, but certainly not all, the ideal for masculinity was an in-between masculinity that is not hypermasculine but also not too feminine or effeminate. From this study, I conclude that masculinity is dynamic: not just toxic or healthy, but variable depending on the space. Those that perform it most successfully are individuals that can maintain the in-between as they encounter the social expectations that shape particular situations.

Although these changes sound promising, this new ideal of in-between masculinity mostly leaves existing social hierarchies in place.

In my work I find that maintaining these social hierarchies happens through an emphasis on who can control themselves and who cannot. Control is a hallmark of dominating masculinities in the sense of men being rigid or controlling of others. Yet, in this newer ideal, control does not mean inflexibility; rather it is men’s ability to maintain the in-between in responding to the demands of a particular space, such as region or even in public bathrooms. Men who can adjust to the demands of masculinity across these spaces become proper men in comparison to those who cannot maintain control. On one end, women or feminine men are too weak and emotional. They are not capable of being strong in the right spaces. On the other end, hypermasculine men, usually coded as poor black urban men or poor white rural men, are too much like a stereotypical macho man. They are too violent or unable to express the correct emotions in the right spaces.

In this way men can both strive to maintain a certain manliness while also displacing the blame for sexism, racism, and other social ills onto hypermasculine men. This dynamic appears where white working class rural men in the South and Midwest are solely blamed for the election of Donald Trump, even if his support actually had a wider base among affluent suburban Republicans. It also appears in the more widely publicized but not new killings of black men, like Stephon Clark or Michael Brown, because they are viewed by police as hypermasculine violent threats. The black men killed on the street and the poor rural Trump voter are linked not only in their relation to space but also as symbolic representations of masculinities that are not under control. In one instance, lives that must be eliminated because of their threat; in the other, the assertion that hypermasculinity and attendant racism and sexism are located only in rural spaces and particular regions. Some men may never be able to achieve the in-between of “acceptable” masculinity by virtue of their race, class, sexuality, or some combination of them.

In regard to violence, this in-between masculinity means that either being a violent perpetrator or a victim of violence can make a man illegitimate. This means men must carefully navigate fears, which are often tied to particular spaces, in order to avoid being a victim. Trans men’s fears in rural spaces provide a particularly telling example of how these dynamics are gendered, raced, and classed.

Rural spaces are commonly thought to be especially dangerous for LGBT people due to the idea that small towns are dominated by backward, white, lower class men who are exceptionally hateful toward queer or transgender people. At the center of LGBT fears is the specter of rural masculinities that are too violent. The men I interviewed reported trying to protect themselves from potential violence by watching how they acted in order to not seem too much like a gay man in rural spaces. Shifting their behavior allowed them to avoid violence and also maintain an in-between masculinity. They could distinguish themselves both from the violence of potential perpetrators and from the weakness of a victim.

Indeed, the finding from my work that often surprises people the most is that the majority of trans men I interviewed who lived rurally had few interpersonal problems beyond finding reliable access to medical care. This is because they were white in predominately white areas and their masculinity fit in with the local ideals for how men are supposed to be. At the same time, fear drove them to be complicit in the sexism and racism occurring around them. Race, in this case as a particular classed and masculine whiteness, shaped both who is feared and how one can find belonging in rural spaces.

What could it mean to be a man in America?

Debates about the behavior of men exemplified by #MeToo and the Gillette ad signal that perhaps U.S. masculinity is in crisis. Mass shootings and increased white supremacist organizing suggest that white masculinity is a crisis in itself. My work illustrates that a contextual understanding of masculinity as always intertwined with race and sexuality is necessary to chart a different course forward. Further, it will take efforts not just for men to do masculinity differently, but to move beyond surface changes and actually undermine existing hierarchies that disadvantage women, LGBTQ people, people of color, and poor people.

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Miriam J. Abelson is assistant professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at Portland State University.

"In Men in Place, Miriam J. Abelson foregrounds the lives of an intentionally diverse sample of trans men in the U.S. to address shifts in the look and feel of powerful intersecting systems of inequality. In this brilliantly written, theoretically sophisticated, interdisciplinary, and compassionate study, Abelson poses new challenges to research on masculinities and gender and sexual inequality that illuminate dynamics of power and inequality that reach far beyond the lives of the trans men she studied."—Tristan Bridges, University of California, Santa Barbara

"What does it mean to be a man in the 21st century? Through moving interviews with trans men from across the United States, Miriam J. Abelson documents that there is no easy answer to this question. Men in Place shows us that we cannot begin to understand what it means to be a man without understanding race and space. Abelson weaves a story of manhood that is almost always just out of reach for all men, a Goldilocks masculinity that must be managed, tailored, and altered depending on the environment. Men in Place is a must read for scholars interested in masculinity and its meanings across space."—C.J. Pascoe, University of Oregon

"Men in Place boldly investigates the intersections of white supremacy, economic strain, and rurality as they shape disparities in the experiences of rural trans men of color and their white counterparts. With powerful detail, Miriam J. Abelson demonstrates how the willingness of cis people to embrace trans men as men is shaped by their perception of local and external threats to their community—threats that are not just related to gender and sexuality, but also demographic and economic transformations. This book's substantial and diverse sample of trans men and its critical race and feminist theoretical orientation make Men in Place a unique and necessary contribution to trans studies."—Jane Ward, author of Not Gay: Sex between Straight White Men

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Linda LeGarde Grover: On resilience and loss.




BY LINDA LeGARDE GROVER


The story began for me when I was a child, too young to question but old enough to see, hear, and remember. Adults conversing over tea occasionally forgot that there were children present and alluded to loss: to Indian boarding schools; to runaways and the foster home system; to inexperienced girls leaving home; to pregnancies and adoptions; to death, to a disappearance. For a few seconds their words hung in the air, then an auntie would snap her eyes from the speaker to the children, and the subject would change, or another auntie might say, “You kids go play in the other room.”

Years later my father, brother, and I stood in a courtroom as a judge who was attempting to determine an old probate case involving treaty land holdings and allotments asked a list of questions about an aunt who had disappeared decades before. It is doubtful that her story will ever be known. Perhaps the fictional Loretta Gallette, the young mother who disappears in this novel, walked out of the courtroom with us; not long after that she made her appearance in my writing.




The fictional Loretta Gallette gave to her daughters “the most beautiful names she could think of”: Azure Sky and Rainfall Dawn. She also gave them a night of memory before she signed them over to the county foster care system and vanished. The loss felt by the extended family and community of the Mozhay Point Ojibwe rippled through the decades that followed like waves expanding from a rock thrown into a pond. In the Night of Memory is fiction, yet stories of missing women and girls are distressingly familiar to American Indian communities throughout North America. As Loretta’s story touched many lives, so do the stories of all Native women; Loretta, her daughters, and the Mozhay Point Band of Ojibwe will, sadly, seem familiar in many ways. Each story is unique and singular; at the same time they are all the same: there is loss and guilt, and there are countless questions of what if, how, why; of what will we do now and how can we bear this and endure.

In the Night of Memory is a recounting of loss by Loretta’s daughters as well as other women of the northeastern Minnesota communities of Mozhay Point, Miskwaa Ziibens, and Duluth. In the tradition of time-honored Ojibwe teaching, Auntie Girlie, the oldest living Mozhay relative, provides the reader with a history of both communities as well as the complex relationships between lands and people. Like me, Auntie Girlie is a sentimental realist who intends that the story shall be told. Between the two of us we place Loretta, her girls, and the relatives and community members of the Mozhay Point Band of Ojibwe within a context that shines a light of humor, hope, and resilience on the actions and events of our lives and future.


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Linda LeGarde Grover is professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth and a member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe. Grover's latest novel is In the Night of Memory. Her novel The Road Back to Sweetgrass (Minnesota, 2014) received the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers Fiction Award as well as the Native Writers Circle of the Americas First Book Award. The Dance Boots, a book of stories, received the Flannery O’Connor Award and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and her poetry collection The Sky Watched: Poems of Ojibwe Lives received the Red Mountain Press Editor’s Award and the 2017 Northeastern Minnesota Book Award for Poetry. Onigamiising: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year (Minnesota, 2017) won the 2018 Minnesota Book Award for Memoir and Creative Nonfiction and the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award.

"With In the Night of Memory, Linda LeGarde Grover offers us a gift of story across generations of Native American women. This book examines what it means to grow up poor, grow up female, and grow up in a place that should be home but feels far from belonging. Grover creates a tapestry of history and imagination, a weaving of perspectives beautiful and wise, a collection of truths that anchors and honors the experiences of Indigenous women."
—Kao Kalia Yang, author of The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father

"In the Night of Memory is a moving story of loss and recovery in Native America. Linda LeGarde Grover has created fully realized characters pushed to the margins of their own lives but who, nevertheless, manage to live on their own terms. Riding on the wave of this poignant novel are some of the most important issues affecting American Indians today, including the loss of family and heritage and the destruction and disappearance of American Indian women. A remarkable achievement."
—David Treuer

"Once again Linda LeGarde Grover skillfully knots together the lives of Anishinaabeg connected to the fictional Mozhay Point Reservation. Like lace, the knotted pattern has gaps, absence, loss, and a design because of what—because of who—is missing. Set across decades and told through generations of relatives, In the Night of Memory mirrors actual history, from government removal of American Indian children to our current crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the United States and Canada. The intimate and interested narrative voices carry the readers, keeping them witnessing and understanding how what happened in the past never stops happening—and continues to impact communities today."
—Heid Erdrich

"I love this book! What a beautiful story of love and loss—from the pain of intergenerational effects to the trauma of the child welfare system to the hopefulness of community re-engagement. I felt an instant connection with the poetically named Rainfall Dawn and Azure Sky, and their mother Loretta, too. The whole family lived and breathed on the page and filled me right up as if I were there with them. I was sad to finish this one."
—Katherena Vermette, author of The Break