Afia Atakora’s debut novel, set in the rural South, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, is a complex exploration of the deeply held tensions and continual trials that infuse a small, isolated community of former slaves.
The story centres around Rue, who has inherited the position of midwife and healer from her mother, Miss May Belle. Practicing the kind of “practical magic” that keeps everyone healthy and sustains amicable relationships between members of the community, she is a solitary, stoic figure who quietly and unceremoniously binds this small group of families together.
After the death of their master, these formerly enslaved members of the plantation have continued to run things as as they’ve always been. But two events threaten to tear apart their relatively peaceful lifestyle.
When Lena Johnson is invited to participate in a research study that will pay all her bills and provide for a future that is beyond comfortable, it is an impossible offer to pass up. A college student whose grandmother passed away leaving a pile of medical bills, and whose mother, Deziree, suffers from a mysterious health condition that requires expensive care, Lena jumps at the chance to help contribute to the family’s survival.
But she quickly discovers that the experiments conducted at the research facility, located in a small midwestern town called Lakewood, are of a deeply strange and violent nature. Furthermore, all participants in the study are people of colour, whereas the researchers and observers are white.
In this deeply troubling novel, the treatment of marginalized peoples throughout American history is continually evoked, in particular, emphasizing the ways that black bodies have served, intangibly, as the site of exoticization and othering, and concretely, as subjects of violence.
The Great Lakes Shipping Company, the organization which operates the experiments, bestows a fake life upon Lena, to provide a front on those rare occasions that she is permitted to speak with her loved ones. Each day she receives a brief explanation of how she spent her time. In this fake life she learns Microsoft Excel, receives leadership training, and becomes involved in small office spats (who stole whose yogurt, and the like), while in her real everyday experiences, as a research subject, she undergoes various forms of torture, psychological and physical, while being forced to take round after round of mysterious pills. The most disquieting fact of all remains that no one who participates in these studies–not only its subjects but also a significant portion of those performing them–has any idea what the expected outcomes are, or what benefits they hope to provide.
This year Santa sent a beautiful book to our family,* and I had to stop and write a few words about it because it has become a favorite evening ritual, and reading it aloud to our sons has made me stop and think about things like why we read aloud and how verbalizing certain things helps call them into being. Also other things like how woefully detached we are from the natural world and how we really need to just go ahead and buy that farmland already…
The Lost Words is a project that started as an indignant outcry. In 2007, the Oxford Junior Dictionary culled certain nature-related words from its selection, while those from…oh, let’s say…current media-driven culture were newly included. Acorn was rejected, celebrity added; weasel got the boot but vandalism found a place. While we all have hot takes of varying intensity, related to the yearly choice of words by the OED, there is something particularly offensive about this process of elimination occurring within the context of a dictionary for young people. First off, because we were probably less likely to hear about it (because really, who knows what’s going on the world of childhood education). And secondly, because the symbolic gesture of removing certain pieces of the imaginary from young people, those who need it most, and giving them instead a glut of words to describe a modern world in peril is just too much.
Children are themselves but they are also a metaphor for the depths of our collective imaginative potential. To see the world through the eyes of a child and all that . . . It is probably an unfair ask** of them, to be responsible for something of such magnitude. And yet here we are. So, to remove words from the dictionary widely used in their educational environments is to remove in some way the hope for our own imaginative potential as a society. It is to limit ourselves and our experience.
And so, from this vaguely dystopian tragedy of a story comes The Lost Words, with the conceit that it is not a children’s book or a book of poetry per se, but rather a “spell book” for calling the natural world back into being.
Hello there! Hope you are all enjoying a warm and wonderful holiday time, sharing good food and good stories with dear ones, baiting Santa Claus with sugar cookies, and maybe cracking the spine of that novel that’s been sitting on your shelf for the last six months…
As for my household, we are delightfully non-mobile this year, and looking forward to a quiet Christmas with no work, lots of time with the kids (our favourite holiday tradition is to remove all limits on sweets and screen time and let everyone pile into blanket-covered mush heaps on the couch for days on end, it is AMAZING), and hopefully some sledding. If we play our cards right, there may even be some time for reading books that don’t have pictures!
If you’re looking for some recommendations, for now or for the new year, here is a little glimpse onto my bookshelf.
I’ve been slowly progressing through this remarkable book over the last couple of years. As an academic work that spans several fields–sociology, economic theory, culture studies, and literary theory (with a smattering of psychoanalysis)–it is fairly dense. So I’ve been picking it up here and there, reading a chapter and then letting it sit for a while. But, despite our casual-seeming relationship, it has certainly been my most recommended book throughout the last couple of years.
I myself am currently living a happily-ever-after type situation, so why would I be reading a book about why love hurts? Well, the first response is that love, while being the subject of this book, is also the incredibly powerful lens through which the author examines social and economic functions. Honestly, I understand more about the free-market economy after having read about how we mate within it. The second response is that most of my friends who are not happily partnered are extremely unhappily participating in various mating rituals that they hate. And they hate them because they are degrading, debasing, unsatisfactory, capitalistic practices that are largely geared toward devaluing women. And that’s a tragedy. And I wanted to know about how that worked, since I also at one time had to go through these bizarre machinations and am left with scars and hauntings of great scope and variety. And the third response is simply that I’m kind of obsessed with love. Always have been, always will be. It comes from reading too much adult fiction in my preteen years but the damage is done and here I am.
So, the book is nominally about love, but it really touches on a range of topics, all related to how humans currently relate to each other in the context of romantic relations.
It is highly pessimistic in tone, as you might expect. Part of Illouz’s “Well, golly, and here we are, stuck in this mire and there’s no going back” attitude may be due to the fact that she is reacting, in large part, to the role of self-help culture and behavioural psychology in getting us into this mire in the first place.
To lend too much of a positive perspective to the situation would be to undercut her argument that a good old-fashioned positive attitude–self-love, self-care, YOLO, you do you–cannot fix social systems designed to torture the humans living within them. So look, it’s glass half empty kind of book. But then I’m a glass half empty kind of gal.
Why Love Hurts is composed of five main chapters, which can also stand alone to a greater or lesser extent, but which all come back to the question of why, in modernity, romantic love has come to be associated with certain specific forms of emotional suffering.
How did I discover this very under-the-radar tragedy? I went to see Edward Clug’s Carmina Burana the other night–produced by Montreal’s Grands Ballets, along with another Clug piece, Stabat Mater on the program–and when I tried to read about the choreography later, the internet left me very uncharacteristically at a loss.
The first short review I found claimed that “music is the star” of the performances. Which I’m sure made any number of the incredibly talented dancers in the company, not to mention the choreographer, feel super warm and fuzzy inside… (To be fair, yes, the music is amazing, and yes, the Grands Ballets orchestra definitely upped their game and yes the solos were beautiful… Still…) The second review focused on the fact that the choreographer’s main job lay in pulling this star-quality music away from the audience’s common associations with it (ie: big budget action films). At which point I decided to go poking around in the French journals to see what they thought. The Journal de Montréal review contained an interesting reflection on the significance of the massive ring, which formed the majority of the set design, along with lighting. In the choreography, dancers were both pulled to and repulsed by it, which makes sense, given that the circle itself represents the wheel of fortune (O Fortuna, velut luna, etc.). And really, what is one’s fate if not at times times attractive and at other times repulsive? And Le Devoir focused on the sheer number of dancers on the stage, and the effect created by their simultaneous movement: “L’impact vient de la démultiplication, de l’effet produit par le grand nombre de danseurs. La beauté naît de voir un geste sur des dizaines de corps répétés et de la plus-value d’énergie que cette accumulation produit. C’est le levier chorégraphique principal qu’utilise le chorégraphe.” Now, what’s special about the Devoir’s review is that it is pretty resoundingly negative. And that’s fine. And it was a well-written review with a distinct point of view that points out some of the stylistic (Carmina) and sociopolitical (Stabat) problems of the program. But what’s frustrating about this review is that it makes some great points, but it does not quite do the work of taking the ballet on its own terms, in order to judge whether it lives up to its own project. Yes, for example, some of the “humouristic” movements fell flat. I agree. But why did they fall flat? And why was there physical humour in a piece about the suffering of the Virgin Mary (Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater) at all?
Please don’t misunderstand me, I don’t think these pieces represent journalistic “fail” by any means, (maybe the first one). And we all know, from Rory Gilmore, how tough it is to review ballet. What I think has happened is that no one (or no one paid to write in a daily) really knows what’s going on in ballet/dance anymore. Which is to say, I’m not sure that anyone has any language for tying movements of the human body to meaning.
I had the great pleasure of reviewing Jana Beňová’s award-winning novella Seeing People Offa couple of years ago, over at Necessary Fiction. It is an excellent, genre-defying, language-experimenting work with a compelling woman at its centre. So I was very excited to pick up Away! Away! Which is similarly genre-defying, language-experimenting, and also driven by a woman character sorting through a love-life-liberty mire in a thirties-ish kind of way.
As you might have gathered from the title, the book is about forms of escape, both large and small. If you enjoyed Seeing People Off, as I did, this book will be pleasantly familiar. But it also shows a stronger emphasis on the prose-poetry form, and pushes the boundaries of what this form can do, narrative-wise. All of which is to say that, comparatively, this book is more abstract in terms of what (“actually”) happens, but perhaps even more precise in describing the impressions and feelings that accompany what happens.