A friend once described watching the AMC series Mad Men as an experience akin to reading well crafted postwar American short fiction. I thought that was a little excessive until I actually watched the show, which is exactly like well crafted postwar American short fiction.
That’s not usually my jam. But the accessories are amazing and accessories go a long way with me.
So despite having breathed a sigh of bittersweet relief when the series ended (I loved the show, but it was time – they got out while the getting was good) I still enjoy revisiting it every once in a while. Especially (Surtout) when dubbed en français.
In the early days, people asked us questions like how long we would take off from work and had we researched daycares in the area. Had we read about attachment parenting? Would we let our baby cry it out?
But other recent parents asked nothing about parenting at all.
Instead, they asked us which television series we had lined up to watch.
At first, I did not fully grasp the significance of the question. But. Today, after countless barely conscious feedings interspersed with anxiety dreams, thousands of loads of laundry, a million cups of tea, endless periods of semi-solitary confinement with a tiny tyrant for a cell mate, never knowing what to do, never knowing what to say, and experiencing a limit state of humanity in which I am no longer able to form sentences in a recognizable language…I understand why they asked.
To new parents, those people inside the television are everything. They take on more emotional significance than most of us are willing to admit. They become our friends. They become our strength.
The thing about deep cultural knowledge is that you don’t realize you have it until a piece of your culture gets appropriated.
I have never considered myself particularly Southern, at least in the way that people take ‘Southern’ to mean. I do not frequently use y’all. When I ask for a Coke I do not mean some other carbonated beverage (and I don’t drink it all that much). I’m not a Republican. Or a Christian. I do not wear pearls. I do not cheer for SEC football. I do not like bluegrass music and I play the violin, not the fiddle.
But if there is one aspect of Southern cultural heritage I claim as my birthright (besides excellent taste in bourbon and a kickass biscuit recipe), it is the way we do things with words. The way southerners speak is wonderful beyond explanation. The molasses slow pace of stories; the odd idioms that come from a much older English (“vittels” from “victuals” meaning food); the blunt imagery (like someone’s having been ‘hit by the ugly stick’) and obscure use of prepositions (‘Where you at?’); the creative use of multiple modals (“I used to could ride a bike and I might could ride again someday”). It is so thick as to add a whole ‘nother layer to the sonic sphere.
Introverts have been receiving a lot of attention (ironic, no?) since Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking came out in 2012. It was kind of a thing. In fact, it was a ‘revolution’.* My internet world suddenly became filled with everything from “The Introvert’s Guide to Shoe Shopping” to “Outhouse Designs for Introverts.”
Just kidding. Kind of…
After reading the book, I so desperately wanted to identify with all these quiet people who subtly go about changing the world in their demure and ever-so-cool ways. Realistically, my immediate qualities read straight up extrovert, (ha! fooled you all) but like most people, I fall on both sides of the divide. I can enjoy a full house for a couple of hours (or a couple of martinis, whichever comes first) and then I get a tad hyperventilate-y.
What “world” are we talking about when we talk about “world literature”? We know it when we see it. It’s not France. It is definitely Africa. It might be Russia. But what about Finland? Or Puerto Rico?
And what “literature” are we talking about? Do folktales count? Are comic books literature? What about religious texts?
The term can be traced all the way from Goethe to the Norton Anthology. But when we casually say “world literature” we usually mean: books that were not written by white people, that you won’t find in your English 101 classroom, that feature places it would take you at least two flight connections to visit.
Leaving aside the difficulty of defining it, what are some strategies for reading the world? How do we become world literate?
Right after the publication of his most recent novel A Brief History of Seven Killings (winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize – not too shabby), Marlon James appeared on the thoroughly superb podcast “A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment,” hosted by writer buddies Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter. It was a great interview – those guys really bring out the best in their guests and Marlon James is one of those people who takes his undeniable genius fairly casually, a pleasure to listen to. (You can catch that here and I absolutely recommend doing so.)
At the end of the interview, James mentioned that he was working on writing a fantasy novel, partially because, as he mentioned somewhat jokingly, “I got tired of arguing about a black Hobbit.” He declared that his next project is to write “a straight up totally geeked out novel based on African mythology and African history.”
First of all, yes. Absolutely do that. James is acquiring quite the fan base, and with good reason. He’s an incredible writer, and I think we would eagerly await his next book even if it were a gardening manual. Of course, an epic fantasy novel is really so much better.
Six years ago I found myself living in an idyllic midwestern college town, working anywhere from three to five jobs at a time.
Here is a list of what my BA in French/comparative literature and recently completed MA in African Languages & Literature qualified me to do: serve coffee, sell books, rent videos, teach piano, teach French, teach English/adult literacy, babysit, dogsit, file documents in an office, go back to school and complete a PhD.
I happen to think that I was qualified to do any number of things. But it was 2009. No one had a job.