Are you, o reader, from the United States? If so, there’s a fairly decent chance you’ve heard about our latest fatal police shooting in Chicago,1 and the subsequent police “action” (or riot) at the impromptu protest. If you aren’t from Chicago, you might assume it happened in a bad neighborhood, the sort of place where “those things” happen. You’d be wrong: South Shore is a good neighborhood. It’s also painfully close to home, for me. You see, I’m a Hyde Park native; the fatal shooting happened less than four miles away from where I grew up.
There’s little better than a fatal shooting on one’s own turf to drive home the danger with which so many of my friends and neighbors live on a daily basis. I learned, when I was in grad school, that my own dark eyes—pretty much the only thing .I have that isn’t stereotypically Irish—can, in some places, mark me out as other. But the truth is, in Chicago nobody gives a damn about dark eyes on an Irish face, and I can move much more freely thanks to the privilege afforded me by my race, my ethnicity, and my continued performativity of class, never mind that, as an educated and underpaid millennial, I might never regain my place in said class. In any case, as a white woman, regardless of my current or former social or financial class, there are a lot of things I won’t live, but I can damn well suggest books that might delve into our current (and former) situations in this country.
Ever wondered about what makes a white person, well, white? (I’m going to be honest: I spend a lot of time thinking about it.) The answer, of course, is that it’s a socially constructed piece of nothing. But if you’re curious about a more detailed answer—including a rundown of when some of us (such as my Irish ancestors) became “white,” or at least white enough, most of the time, you might like The History of White People. We have a tendency, in our country, to talk about the rage of people who don’t fit under that constructed umbrella of “whiteness,” but we spend far less time on white people’s angry. Rectify that with White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide.
I try never to leave anyone with a list only of nonfiction—fiction, after all, has a way of helping us understand, and drawing us in, that truthiness will probably never be able to replicate. In the graphic novel I Am Alfonso Jones, the titular character tells the story of his death at a policeman’s hands, while those he left behind fight for justice. The Hate U Give, soon to be a major film, and All American Boys both focus on the aftermath of police brutality. Both feature “good” cops as well as bad; both have been challenged by the police in South Carolina. I’d challenge anyone to actually read them before trying to get them banned. In American Street, a young Haitian immigrant must cope not only with her mother’s detention and a whole new world but with American-style police brutality as well. How It Went Down carries readers into the aftermath of a shooting, as do Dear Martin and Tyler Johnson Was Here. Find Chicago again with Kekla Magoon’s duet of 1968-set young adult novels,The Rock and the River and Fire in the Streets.
I am not an optimistic person, which is no doubt one of many reasons I’m a Slytherin and not, say, a Gryffindor, convinced of my own rightness, or a Hufflepuff, who wants to befriend everyone, or a Ravenclaw, who just wants to study. The past was, for the most part, pretty awful, but let’s be honest: the present sucks, too. It’s always been my philosophy that by working together we might manage to make the future a little less horrible—but sometimes, it’s hard even to maintain that hope.
July has been, historically, an important month for my family, as well as for my country. On July 2, 1776, our country declared itself independent of the yoke of its tyrannical government, based in England; sometime that same year, one of my ancestors, a man to whom I have taken the liberty of assigning passion and determination (and, well, nationalism), joined a New York militia. Maybe he joined after he read Patrick Henry’s immortal words. Maybe he joined because his family, which most likely had originated in London, or perhaps Leicestershire, had come to hate England, or at least a government based so far away and with so little understanding of this continent. Whatever the reason, and whatever the date, John joined up in 1776—and, unlike some (including his future brothers-in-law, the ten or so sons of a local Irish American family, who with their father cycled in and out of the militia for the duration of the war), he remained, until the bloody end and our true independence, in 1783. Our war for independence didn’t end with Yorktown.
July 3, 1863 marked another important event in the history of my country (and my family): that well-known genius Robert E. Lee, famed for being a traitor, decided to teach us Yanks a lesson with a singular mark of military excellence known today as Pickett’s Charge. It was a great day for Yankees, since it meant that Gettysburg was ours; it was also a Big Day in family history, since my ancestor—the guy who surrendered at Appomattox—was among those Johnny Rebs wounded in the Charge. (He may have been among those captured, too.) There were, of course, other members of my family about on that day, including a man too old to be drafted who joined up anyway, in the name of liberty, freedom, and preservation of the Union. I think that particular fellow was the son of an immigrant, back in the good old days when one’s whiteness and one’s ability to walk onto American soil made one more or less good to go.
Independence Day has always meant a lot to me, a day to remember my country’s promise and those who have tried, over the years, to force it to live up to its great words (and, sometimes, to confront and destroy its horrible ones). It’s a day (at least for me, descendant, as I am, of our equivalent of conquistadores) to celebrate this country that my ancestors helped to forge, while simultaneously forging ahead to make it actually live up to the promise, however half-baked, of equality for all people. (“Remember the Ladies,” said Abigail Adams, and of course they didn’t—and they actively denied the personhood of African Americans, and of Native Americans, and if one were a man without property, well, one wasn’t exactly equal either.)
I am, of course, a stickler for historical accuracy—I’ve denigrated movies for failing to get it right, I’ve double-checked biographies while fact-checking television shows, I’ve railed at those who get it wrong in jokes or in novels. As a writer I check and double-check my sources, ranging from old newspapers to scholarly treatises. Perhaps my patron’s right after all, and I am cold: certainly my mother figures that my brother E and I fit more in the logical world of STEM. Independence Day can be interesting when one is profoundly wedded to accuracy, since we are wedded to our fairy tales; it can also be grating in its lunge towards the commercial, since, after all, we’re remembering that time when we went to war against a tyrant in another country, not that day we got great sales. (Not that I won’t use the sales to my advantage, mind—I am stuck in capitalism, even if I’d prefer to crush it.)
There are many irritating Independence Day slogans—my winner before was probably Happy Treason Day! which always makes me want to kick something—but I walked into a new winner when I headed into the grocery store this year to pick up the fixings for my nice Prussian Independence Day feast: PARTY LIKE IT’S 1776! it said, and, I mean, I can tell you, 1776 was no party for my ancestors, what with being on the front lines of a damn war and all. (July 3, 1863, when B. rode into Union cannons, was also not a party, although at least the Confederacy lost that battle, and, eventually, the war.) Now, most likely my ancestors did blow some stuff up when they heard we’d declared ourselves independent—probably the Irish side had a bonfire or two, if they’re anything like my family now. Perhaps one of them was even attractive enough (if he was part of the Continental Army!) to get invited to one of Baron von Steuben’s possibly nude parties! But they were in a war zone—the entire country was a war zone—and so I highly doubt any of us much want to replicate their parties.
In 1775, we, as a young and stumbling collection of colonies, rose up against tyranny. (We rose up for some less than savory reasons, too, and had less than savory leaders—but tyranny definitely played a part.) We had villains, and heroes, and certainly no saints, and together, out of blood and gun smoke and determination (and a lot of help from a Prussian and a bunch of French and Haitian and Spanish guys), we forged something that yearned forward, towards greatness, even if we still aren’t quite there. I was raised to believe—no doubt with more than a shade of arrogance—that as the descendant of men who fought the Revolution (and before that the French and Indian War, and after the War of 1812, and the Mexican-American War, and then the Civil War, on both sides), it was my place to push my country towards true equality for all.
World Refugee Day was last week, on June 20th–a strange and horrifying irony set amidst our current political hellscape. We know that reading makes us more empathetic, better able to understand or to sympathize with other people1—so what better way to mark the passage of World Refugee Day than by reading?
You can start out right here, from your computer, or your tablet, or your phone, with the New York Times’Pulitzer Award-winning comic chronicling the experiences of Syrian refugees in the U.S., “Welcome to the New World.” Wondering how anyone could leave? Check out “Madaya Mom,” a collaboration between Marvel and ABC. And, because maybe you’re a fan of the graphic format, we can move from here to other graphic renderings of refugees. Vietnamerica chronicles the lives of a family of Vietnamese refugees, as seen by their first-generation American son; Eoin Colfer’s Illegal is a children’s graphic novel, a tale of a young boy’s journey from Ghana to Europe. (Thus far, it’s gotten starred reviews from Kirkus andPublishers Weekly, as well as a strong review from School Library Journal.) Follow Marjane through revolution-era Iran, and learn some of the reasons why people flee, in Persepolis, then bump between countries in The Arab of the Future.
Follow a young Russian refugee in New Jersey as she tries to decide who she is and where she’s bound in Invitation to a Bonfire. Stumble across a Germany decimated by the Nazis with fleeing Prussians, their Scottish POW, and a young man in a Wermacht uniform who is actually a Jewish refugee in Chris Bohjalian’s Skeletons at the Feast, then visit a family who put their lives on the line to save—and fight with—their Jewish neighbors in The Zookeeper’s Wife. (Oh, and that’s a movie too, in case you hadn’t heard.) Share a story of worship and of defiance with your children with The Grand Mosque of Paris and its tale of Parisian Muslims working to save their Jewish neighbors. I’ve mentioned these before, of course, but now’s a good time to re-read Ruta Sepetys’ work, from Salt to the Sea, the anguished story of refugees fleeing for their lives onto a doomed ship, to Between Shades of Gray, the tale of death—and life—in Soviet gulags. And, of course, Americans have fled death in their own country: for just one example, see Years of Dust, a quick read, geared towards young teens. Step into the world of the Berlin Wall with the award-winning2A Night Divided, where a young girl must decide whether to attempt to cross the wall and reunite with her father in the West, and The Lives of Others, a tale of spies and death in East Berlin. Travel between past and present in a tale of intertwined families and long-hidden tragedies in The Bastard of Istanbul, in a tale that moves from contemporary America (and Turkey, or the Turkey of a few years past) to the Ottoman Empire and back.
Now let’s move forward, away from the Second World War, towards our dark present. Mahindan thinks that life will finally get better when the ship carrying him and other Sri Lankan refugees docks in Vancouver—but all are detained and he is separated from his son as the country debates their lives and fates in the award-winning The Boat People. Flee for your life alongside Nadia and Saeed in Exit West, then follow a contemporary Syrian refugee and a medieval mapmaker’s apprentice in The Map of Salt and Stars. Step into the deadly world of Generalissimo Trujillo’s Dominican Republic alongside Haitian-born maid Amabelle in The Farming of Bones, then follow a young Iranian refugee in America—and her father in Iran—in Refuge. Step into the worlds of Vietnamese refugees with the short-story collection The Refugees, then visit a world of refugees and of spies with The Sympathizer. A group of attorneys, translators, and activists come together to try to protect a refugee in Live from Cairo, then revisit another book I’ve suggested before as Fabiola, a young Haitian immigrant, must struggle to cope with a new world after he mother is detained upon entry to the U.S. in American Street.
Follow two teens from very different backgrounds—Australian-born Michael, whose parents are the face of an anti-immigration party, and Afghan refugee Mina—as they meet at school and grow close in the face of rising xenophobia in The Lines We Cross, then follow Nisha and her family as they flee violence after Partition in The Night Diary. Travel alongside Afghan refugees in The Kite Runner, then travel from Trujillo’s Dominican Republic to the Bronx with the García girls in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (this one gets challenged a lot, so you’ll be getting up on your banned book reading, too!). Visit the Cuba of the Revolution, as people decide whether to stay or to go, and then return years later, with Next Year in Havana, then follow a family as they make the difficult decision to come to the U.S. in The Book of Unknown Americans. Travel from Saigon to Alabama with Hà in Inside Out & Back Again, then follow along as a young Vietnamese-American girl returns to the country of her parents’ birth as her grandmother searches for her husband lost in the war in Listen, Slowly.
Did you know that without soldiers from elsewhere, including a gay Prussian aristocrat, soldiers from France and Spain, Haitian soldiers, and more, we would not have a country at all? So, as we draw close to that day on which our forebears declared themselves a nation, let us remember our own roots that so often come from elsewhere, and seek to serve humanity with grace and compassion.
When one works with the public, one meets some interesting people, who have many interesting interpretations of one’s life and lived experiences (never mind that they haven’t lived them). I’ve been told I am cold and logical (probably partially true); I’ve been told (while smiling) to smile, because then everything will be great (it’s never worked, folks). Today, however, I’m going to focus on the guy who told me that he’d analyze my handwriting—and then, after being flummoxed that I wrote in pencil (I’m severely dyslexic, what do you want?), said that I am stubborn, determined, and strongly influenced by a woman, or women—my mother, my grandmother. And you know something? It’s a crackpot idea, everything he did—and anyone can probably see I’m stubborn, and a plotter—but it’s true: my mother, and my grandmothers, are always there.
My maternal grandmother, a soft and gentle woman whose yearly rages are the stuff of legend and whose novels were (almost) always about the nicest people imaginable,1 got me to say my first word (everything was a duck), and told my mother, when I was just a tiny little thing, that something wasn’t connecting quite right, and my parents should be on the lookout for dyslexia, or some similar learning disability. (She was, of course, right.) In a day when women did not often get educations, she was considerably more educated than my grandfather, who claimed, to her three Master’s, only one, in library science. (She had that too, of course.) My memories of my grandmother are strange, and fraught, and I am often frustrated when I am told I look like her, and I wonder if perhaps those who think I do merely think all fair-skinned, dark-haired white women look the same—but I owe a great deal—perhaps even my hard-won literacy—to my grandmother.
My paternal grandmother was not a soft woman. Though she be but little she is fierce, Shakespeare wrote, and it could easily have been written about her. At her tallest she barely hit five feet, though I remember a time when she seemed tall and I quite, quite small. I think I was two years old then, and she was teaching me to ice skate. My brothers told me, recently, that they think she mellowed out, by the time they came around. I’m not sure if this is accurate, or if, perhaps, she merely passed on her rage—her “Peso ancestral,” with its cup of women’s bitterness and rage—to me, and not to them. I learned old grudges and newer vendettas from her; the sound of an English accent will always make me flinch, thanks to her tales of cannibal English and their unrelenting desire for Irish babies.2 My grandmother was eternally complex, a creature of iron and of bedrock, the foundation of a dynasty, much as her mother, whom she loved and hated, had once been. She aged well, and, my father and my uncles have told me, in the end she died well, too—a model of how to live, and how to die, my introduction into my own culture and ethnicity. I laugh like her, I am told, though my brothers—who may well remember a more mellow woman than I, since I cannot imagine her mellow at all—have asked, more than once, if Grandma actually laughed. She was not, you see, your average grandmother.
My mother is very little like either of my grandmothers, though, like my paternal grandmother, she never stops moving. I’ve grown up on her tales of the bloody ’60s and ’70s; I, apparently unlike other white folks, was trained to be as wary of the cops as of a mad dog, or a bear. She, a champion speller, never gave up when presented with a severely dyslexic child, and without her determination, I have no doubt I’d never have made it through a double major (with a perfect 4.0 back in the day when that was as high as it went), and then through two Master’s programs, without her.
She is a musician—in the highest echelons of Chicago’s freelance elite—and I grew up backstage, which meant both that I, despite being so cold and so logical and so used to the inside of a lab,3 can move freely among artists and musicians and actors and writers. It also means that I had a full repertoire of profanity by the time I was, oh, maybe five, and now can swear pretty respectably in three languages4 and, in one of them, multiple dialects. When one is lucky enough to have a mother who encompasses that word, in all its nouns and verbage, a few words on Mother’s Day are paltry, indeed, yet here they are, all the same.
I have been lucky, in my life, to have learned from strong, imperfect women, whose strength and fire and—sometimes—outright rage has forged a path for me. One raised me, on tales as well as determination; one gave her the insight to watch for a disability of which she’d never heard. One taught me rage deeper than, most likely, anyone really needs to know, and gave me bedrock on which to set a foundation. I am not quite sure what it says, about me or about the women who have formed me, that from the moment I read the Argentinean modernist Alfonsina Storni‘s poem “Peso Ancestral,” I thought of those women who came before me, strong women, determined women, who had no choice but to drink of that bitter cup of centuries, and who blazed through it anyway, from determination, from spite, from love. I would not be here, or be who I am, without them.
1 I do not write about nice people. 2 Probably this was a bastardization of Jonathan Swift, who was actually Irish and writing satire, and Jack and the Beanstalk, but trust me, you hear it enough times, you’ll never hear an English accent without flinching again, ever. 3 This is true: when she couldn’t take me along and couldn’t find a babysitter, I got dropped at my father’s lab, where his fellow lab rats gave me my very own set of test tubes and pipettes, showed me the doctor’s hidden chocolate stashes, and let me play to my heart’s content. 4 I hope to add German, some day.
In the wild, when I’m working readers’ advisory, I tend to lean a lot less on genre (with the exceptions of some broad ones, like “commercial” versus “literary”) than on appeal factor: what might make my patron want to read this book, or another. What was the last book you enjoyed? Or the last movie, or TV show, or video game? What made it good? When you finished it, what made you say, now that was a good movie/book/TV show? Because those are the things I need to know to find a book (or a movie) that might fit your needs right now. (Note that much as I try to suggest rather than recommend, I almost always preface a suggestion by saying, and if this one doesn’t work for you, there are lots more!) Those hooks and appeal factors—the characters, the way the story’s told, what happens (or doesn’t happen)—those are the most important things, when I’m booktalking.
I build my passive readers’ advisory largely around fanbases and books and other materials that share appeal factors as the original fanned item, whether it be Black Panther (I filled that one with Afrofuturism, in case you’re wondering) or Outlander, Ready Player One or Downton Abbey. I make deals with myself: I’ll never have fewer than two diverse works on a list, I promise myself, and then I try my damndest to ensure I have more. I do a pretty decent job of it, albeit not perfect, but every time is another reminder of what a piss-poor job we do of acknowledging the diversity in the “normative.” (As a dyslexic, it’s really frustrating to see myself so seldom represented.)
So, then, that is my day job: a world where genre, in its barest form, as romance or Western or mystery, matters—but where it’s a lot less important than appeal factor, where your favorite TV show can help steer us towards a book you may enjoy just as your favorite movie might guide us towards some new bands for you to try. (Enjoy Ready Player One? Have a hankering for some ’80s music? Why not check out Redbone to go along with your Def Leppard and your Twisted Sister?) For that matter, if I do my job well, I can “sell” the book multiple different ways, making genre even more flexible. But my night job, the one that, like childhood trauma, is always with me? I am gathering that, at least for the business side, genre’s rather important.
As a musician’s daughter, I am quite familiar with the importance of marketing and of business in the arts. It’s pretty much paramount: you’ve got to be able to market yourself if you’ve a snowball’s chance in hell of making it out there. So, for the first time in quite a while—since before library school, I guess, back in those halcyon days when I thought Dewey made some kind of sense—I have to try to think in terms of genre, to pick through preferred styles and agents and novels, to figure out what on earth I do, beyond type incredibly fast (and filled with odd typos, only half of which pertain to dyslexia). Maybe in the next, oh, year, I’ll pigeonhole myself (upmarket? commercial? wtf?), and get the courage needed to start down the road of rejections.
Wondering about appeal factors and booktalking? Here are some of the things I’ve used to become an okay (I hope) booktalker.
Baker, Jennifer. “Booktalking for Adult Audiences.” Reference and User Services Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 3.
Long before I could read, I loved the sounds of words, the music of them, the way they fit together and were forged anew, over and over again, a new world in each sentence. Maybe it was in part my long years of illiteracy, or perhaps it comes of having been born a musician’s child, with an ear towards sound, but I have, as long as I can remember, loved poetry, where words become their own music.1 I turn to poetry in times of stress and of joy, in hours of boredom and of curiosity. I seek it out in my first language and my second, sometimes even stumbling over it in languages I do not, technically, speak at all. And so, though April is National Poetry Month, today is World Poetry Day, and it seems a good day to talk about some of what poetry means to me.
Apparently, way back in the day when I was but a wee little thing, I was wildly fond of Hey Diddle Diddle. I memorized nursery rhymes and poems (my mother really loved Robert Frost). I memorized the picture books that were read to me, too. Have you ever heard of a picture book called Yonder? I can’t even say for sure what happened—I know they planted a lot of trees—but my God, I can still remember the cadence of those words.
After I learned to read (onShakespeare, which is kind of poetry), I started working my way through every book of poetry my mother owned. I read Tennyson (though we didn’t have much, my mother disliking flowery language in all its forms); I read John Greenleaf Whittier and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Leaves of Grass (I got the idea that it was very Exciting and Naughty following the Clinton impeachment trials and was sorely disappointed, I tell you) and Evangeline and Miles Standish and Giles Corey, which sticks with me to this day. (Evangeline makes me wince, but Giles Corey retains all its horrible power.)
I branched out, read Beowulf (love it!—and I think it got me started on tales of adventure), and then, since I was a (very lonely and depressed) teenager, I embarked upon love poetry, and on poems of despair. Dylan Thomas is great, if you’re in the mood for something dark and full of angst (and also worms). Oh, and, pray: Do not go gentle into that good night. It’s perhaps an odd poem to which to turn, as one’s world darkens or one loses loved ones, but I’ve clung to it for fifteen years now, maybe more, and it’s been there for me, through loss and grief and fear, and it’ll be there for me for years to come.
I had a lot of amazing classes as an undergrad majoring in Spanish—and I read one of my all-time favorite novels, JuanRulfo‘s Pedro Páramo, for the first time in one of them—but I think the class that sticks with me the most was the one where all we did was read poetry, which was really incredible and wonderful and lovely, actually. We read Pablo Neruda—I love Neruda, and I love his weird surrealist phase, which freaked out a lot of my classmates, and I love his million odes to everything from cats to onions. We read César Vallejo, who made language his plaything in his dark poems, and whose surrealism glinted out of every word. I fall back on Alfonsina Storni (her Peso Ancestral is one of the first poems I think of, every Women’s History Month) and Delmira Agustini, gone far too soon.
I have gotten the feeling, over the years, that poetry is maybe an acquired taste. It’s one I acquired very, very young, well before I ever learned to read, as I memorized the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, or Sandburg’s “Chicago”—and did you know he has a charming little poem about the fog and its little cat feet? Poetry has carried me from before I could read; it continues to be there for me. I would agree with UNESCO, that poetry can help draw us together. Whether spoken—as all poetry was, to me, before I was ten—or read, there is a magic in the rhythm of a poem. It can be educational and a tool for change; it can be a space of beauty and of sound. And it doesn’t even have to rhyme!
And—here’s Frost’s The Road Not Taken! It was apparently first published in The Atlantic, years ago; you can read an article about it, here.
1 I am sure it’ll be a total surprise that this is one of the reasons I love opera: it’s words, drama—and music! Magic!!
It’s the Spring Equinox here in the Northern Hemisphere, and it’s been a cold, blustery one in the Chicago area, perhaps to go with the end of what has been an incredibly stressful primary run. (I voted this morning! It’s over! And I hope you voted too, if you had a primary in your area.) It is now officially spring in Chicago, the great and glorious day of Chicagohenge (it’s kind of cloudy, so we’ll see about that), the day when there’s a certain kind of light not present at any other time, the season When life’s alive in everything.
This is, of course, why I am here, to obnoxiously talk about how spring is meant to be wild, to hop madly from one extreme (65 degrees Fahrenheit, anyone?) to another (now it’s snowing), because it’s spring, that time between. This volatility is, in fact, my favorite part of the whole season, that madness of weather hopping from warmth to cold and back again. (This makes me about as popular as loving snow and cold, bu there you are.)
According to Five Thirty Eight, Chicago’s weather is, indeed, most prone to (violent) fluctuations in the spring. It’s definitely not a surprise: with the exception of merry November, the spring months are the most likely to lurch wildly from one extreme to another. (Ironically, we still don’t have particularly violent fluctuations, and we still aren’t windy—that name’s still down to our politicians.) The spring equinox has come, and spring is here (and it’s actually windy today, too, in the city of big-talkers), and it’s absolutely right, and normal, and appropriate, that we still have snow on the ground in my backyard.
It’s also right, and appropriate, that we should be looking at 50s coming up soon. I hate those, however, so until they’re here (and killing me with those allergens), I’ll continue to ignore them. However, our temperatures are, in general, warmer—and that’s a big problem, in the spring as much as in July, or in January, when I really want it to be cold, and snowy, and beautiful. Climate change has contributed to increasingly violent hurricanes, even if only by providing them with extra water thanks to those handy rising seas. Puerto Rico remains devastated following Irma and a response that can charitably be called heartless, venal, and gleefully cruel—as well as racist, in case you’re wondering about that. (I have a lot of friends from Puerto Rico, and the situation there is not something I’ll forget.)
To be more accurate: it probably is still warmer than it should be, even in this wild and blustery March, but I’m damn well going to enjoy having a very Marchish March all the same. It’s snowed, and blown, and iced (not my favorite, but definitely appropriate for the season); we still have snow, and ice, here and there around the yard—and the rains will be moving in soon, getting ready for April, and those flowers that will eventually shove their way up in May.
I have a little while longer, of this wild and undecided season, before it cedes way to the heat of summer. (I hate hot weather.) I fully intend to enjoy it while I can, before everything heats up, and also before the tree pollen starts trying to kill me (which is definitely going to happen too). Best of all? I know I still have the Three May Icemen to look forward to, just around the bend.
When I was in library school, I had the opportunity to take a course with Dr. EmilyKnox, one of the world’s experts on intellectual freedom and its cousin, censorship. It was, and remains, one of the most foundational courses I have had the opportunity to take. Intellectual Freedom & Censorship is the sort of class that provides those who take it (particularly if, like me, they are consumed by anxiety and overthink absolutely everything and always assume that the Worst Is Coming™) endless opportunities for reflection.1 For example, would our profession be a profession without intellectual freedom? Dr. Knox argues that it is our support for access for all, and our stand against censorship, that has made us a profession.2
Why am I obsessing over Dr. Knox’s class right now, in particular? Oddly enough, it’s less because of current challenges (there are a lot of them) than because of language use, word choice, and the obligations of being a professional (in these cases, of being a librarian or a teacher/instructor/professor). Darned if I can find exactly when we discussed this one, but it was made clear to us as librarians (and, thus, guardians of the First Amendment) that we did not “like” or “love” or “hate” books when we were at work.3 (Similarly, we were told in Adult Popular Literature not to use the word “recommend” but rather “suggest”; if you ever deal with me in person, you will probably notice that I do, indeed, avoid “recommend” at work.) Why must we avoid these words, or these value judgements? Because we cannot impose our values on our patrons.
So, obviously, we’re imperfect, and this is a hard line to toe—but I’d also argue it’s an important one. It’s not for us to press value judgements on our patrons, to tell them that their romance or their space opera or their western is WRONG, or even that it’s the BEST THING EVER—after all, if they hate that damn book, we want them to feel safe coming back to find another (which is why I tend to end readers’ interactions with some variation of: and if this one doesn’t work, come back and we’ll find another!). And, of course, the only places thus far I’ve found fellow dyslexics and people with chronic pain, who exist as humans in space rather than inspiration porn, are in genre fiction (usually romance—thank you Tessa Dare and Courtney Milan and Anne Brockaway!) and young adult (here’s to Leigh Bardugo!), which, I think, should hopefully underscore the importance of not automatically discounting something because it’s written for teens or, you know, has a happy ending.
So, maybe because people almost never take me all that seriously at first glimpse, and maybe because ever since I was young I’ve run into Men who Explain Things to me (and also get angry when it turns out I’m not as stupid as I apparently look), professionalism is incredibly important to me. There’s a reason I swear like a Victorian gentleman at work, and it is definitely not because I can’t tell you to go F yourself in three languages (I totally can). So, for instance, when I was a teacher, I was always very careful about how I gave feedback. What a ghastly piece of shite usually became something like what an interesting concept, let’s work together to make this better!
Having grown up a dyslexic I am, perhaps, a bit touchy about words, and what they can do—that’s probably even one of the reasons I am so careful when providing feedback. So, as a dyslexic, and as someone who often ponders how to be a better professional (gotta hide all my judginess in public forums, yo), it’s been bothering me to watch some of the discourse, of late, on assistive technologies.4 Basically, a lot of assistive tech is super unpopular with a lot of instructors and professors. For an excellent example of this sort of crappiness, see the prof at UIUC who not only refused to provide accommodations5 for a student but then emailed the entire class about it—because why stop at denial when you can achieve public humiliation, too?
In any case, I have been running into some unnervingly similar comments in my own life. (I even get to be the Inspirational Disabled Person sometimes!) Now, I totally understand that, say, computers in classrooms are not a drama-free topic (kind of like the 4,000 Patterson novels that are published every year! or what makes it to the top of the NYT Bestseller list!), but it’s one of those things that needs to be discussed with, as it were, one’s professional language, and with the understanding that people are always listening—or, as dear old Aethelwold reminds us, a written thing is rather constant. Put it out there that laptops are the devil’s work and no one should use technology in a classroom as it will make them stupid, and, well, not only will I remember forever (and let’s face it, Slytherins suck at forgiveness), but a whole lot of students are realizing that they can never ask this particular person for help. And that’s a huge problem.
Acquiring safe and non-judgemental readers’ advisory might not be quite as important as finding professors in whom one can confide, but I would certainly argue that it is, indeed, important—and it’s important that the library professional not judge either what’s being read (Patterson ahoy!), or the method of reading (or consuming) said material. Prefer to listen? Excellent! Read only on eReaders? Let’s help you set up Libby6 and Hoopla! We all have our favorite genres, we really, truly do. And that’s fab, and okay, and it’s fab and okay that we have our preferred methods of consuming said genres, whether those are by listening, reading a print book, or utilizing an eReader. (Ironically, I’ve noticed that for the most part, librarians care infinitely less about how people consume literature than the general public. Así es la vida or something, I guess.)
So, in this assortment of obsessive musings, I guess I am trying to say something very simple, and very fundamental: when we are in helping professions (or any profession, really), what we say has a fundamental impact upon those we serve. In a profession such as mine, I need to be safe and available for my patrons, regardless of their literacy level, or their ability to read Cien años de soledad, or their preference for reading erotica on their phones. (I only read my smut on Kindle, personally. Can’t stand that tiny phone screen.) I don’t always assist my patrons in finding books that I personally like. Honestly, readers’ advisory for People Who Read Like Me is very, very rare, and that’s okay. If I can’t do readers’ for people with different tastes than mine, then I am a piss-poor excuse for a librarian, indeed. Honestly, if we the helpers can’t help without making people feel like garbage, then I think we might need to rethink our professions, or at least our commitments to them. Because we’re really not here to make people feel terrible.
1 Or obsession. Anxiety is weird. 2 Emily Knox. “Intellectual Freedom & Censorship,” 4 February 2014. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 3 At home we can do anything we want, up to and including making book arches or book clutches or book art. 4 What the hell is assistive technology? Check these out:
5 There’s also an interesting comment from a student who screenshot emails from the prof, including notes he sent in prior terms. 6 Libby is the current Overdrive/Media on Demand platform. It was also named one of the Google App Store’s best apps of 2017, which is pretty darn cool.
I’m not much a one for New Year’s Resolutions: I guess that my chronic presumption that The Worst Is Coming™ (kind of like Winter is Coming, but definitely more unpleasant!) might make them difficult. But, as another burning year ends, I can stop and take stock of where I’ve been, and where I might be bound.
I rarely talk about my profession here, for a lot of reasons—I really do prefer to keep it separate—but I’ve had a few (no doubt small-scale) professional triumphs this year. A coworker and I collaborated on a civil rights-themed display that made it to a local Facebook page (they liked it!). I got up my list of diverse literary awards for the second year in a row, earlier this time—so maybe it was even in time for holiday shopping! And, finally, I participated in a well-received panel at my state library association.
Presenting in public is not my thing—I prefer to hide behind words, rather than present my little and unimposing face to the world. But I can do it all the same, and sometimes do. So, even as I try to decide whether or not to renew what is theoretically my main professional membership, I am proud to have accomplished at least some things this year.
If I made any New Year’s resolution last year, it was probably to read diversely, to step aggressively outside my comfort zone (largely genre fiction, in particular romance, because even if I believe in the worst, it’s lovely to read about things ending happily sometimes), to push myself to be more and better—and, for that matter, to listen more. Now, listening better is an act in progress, always, and I will continue to work on listening. My reading has been a little more, well, entertaining.
Oscar Wilde once wrote: All women become their mothers. That is their tragedy. I have no idea if it’s a tragedy, but, as I sit surrounded by piles of books about the history of racism and the history of white people and sexism through the years and other rather depressing pieces of sociological research, I think it can be accurately said that my reading list is turning into my mother. Perhaps that’s my tragedy: I have no idea. But, hey, thanks for the tendency towards dark literature, Mom!
Now, I did other things this year, some of which were more important (those pertained, often, to my creative work), and some that were less. I had the opportunity to attend my union’s conference, which turned out to be incredible for me, less because of all the amazing pointers (there were a lot of those) and much more because, for whatever reason it may have been, I came away reminded that I have worth, that my labor has worth, and that, no matter what my professional or personal situation may be, I still have value, as a person and as a professional. (And there’s one of the reasons to belong to a union, folks.) Occasionally I’ve stepped away from my comfort zone on TV (that would be action, mostly); I’m slowly watching Juana Inés on Netflix, and it is alternately brilliant and frustrating (the third episode, “Lágrimas negras de mi pluma,” mostly just frustrated me: I would love to see middle-aged women allowed to be strong and powerful and brilliant and not, you know, prone to hysterics and dying and things like that).
I finally took the Pottermore Sorting Hat quiz1 and got sorted into Slytherin and was so happy that I danced and all but sang, which is not really a thing that I do, but, you know, sometimes you’ve got to celebrate getting into the green-draped house of ambitious, manipulative water-lovers. (I love green, like, presumably, all other good Irish-Americans.) So, since I work with the public, I now have a lovely pair of Slytherin earrings to go with all the green I’ve worn for years. I also got what was probably one of the best complimentary insults I’ll ever receive. When one works with the public one hears some amazing things, and I am—proud? pleased? amused?—to report that it is just as well that I purchase for science and math, because I am a cold and logical person. It was not meant as a compliment but I am going to wear it with pride, because honestly, logic is a beautiful thing.
Here’s to 2018! But a lot colder than this gif. Because (thankfully) Winter is Coming. Or, rather, it’s here.
I’m not really going to sign off with resolutions, or even with a lot of hope, because I don’t want to jinx anything by, you know, assuming that something good will happen. (This is, apparently, where logic fails for me—I assume it’s all those thousands upon thousands of years’ worth of ancestors who feared the dark and raided each others’ cattle, coming out and forcing me to knock on wood.) But here’s to hoping for a year a little less on fire: for something good, whatever it is or may be or shall become, and for a whole lot of good books, because they always make things better. Even the dark ones.
1 Note that I also took this one, which is supposedly scientific (probably about as scientific as my INTJ from Myers Briggs! 😂😂😂), and also got into Slytherin, at least when I’m being honest about not liking danger. I really don’t like danger, guys. Also getting my hands dirty is only really acceptable when I’m working with my plants.
Last year, I compiled a list of the diverse literary award winners I found in a scouring of the internet—and then I decided to make it an annual excursion. We know that diversity in publishing is sadly underrepresented: that, even now, precious few of our books show something close to the world many of us recognize as our own. Thus, while these are hardly the only books out there—and they really aren’t!—these winners of diverse literary awards are an excellent place to start, and a great way to help show publishing that we want (as well as need) diverse books.
We need diverse books for kids, but we also need them for adults, and I’m glad to say that the awards covered here celebrate literature for kids, adults, and everything in between. They run the gamut from popular literature and genre fiction (big genre reader, here) to scholarly works, works in translation (some of them are popular works, too!), and poetry. In short, no matter what your tastes, I think you’ll find at least something here to read.
If I find additional awards before the end of 2017, I will add them. If there are typos or errors (which are, alas, quite likely, since I am the compiler), I will fix them as I notice them—and I apologize in advance. In the meantime, since every book is its own journey—bon voyage! Continue reading →
A long, long time ago, after Christianity came to the Isles and turned old gods into saints or devils or knights of a Round Table, a boy toy from the Scottish side of the borderlands had gotten himself into a bit of trouble. He’d gotten his lover, Burd Janet, into trouble too, but since she was ever so much smarter than he, one guesses she would, in the end, be fine. And so, whether he cared more about her or about his own hide, he told her: “‘But the night is Halloween, lady, / The morn is Hallowday, / Then win me, win me, an ye will, / For weel I wat ye may.'” The boy toy, who hung about Carterhaugh on the Scottish Borders, was, of course, Tam Lin; his words come from Childe Ballad 39A, verse 29—probably my favorite of all the many Childe ballad versions, though I do have far more than a passing fondness for them all. And the day on which he was to pay a tiend to what he called hell was our Halloween.
My plan, for today, was to write about resistance to Christóbal Colón and his crew of marauders; unfortunately, when one has a headache, one is not in the mood to re-read those old diaries—or even de las Casas’ Brevíssima Relación, which always makes me angry1—one is not quite in the right frame of mind to write anything engaging. However, thanks to my librarian superpowers, I can literally always churn out a booklist.2 So here are some books for, you know, Indigenous Peoples Day, and Alt Columbus Day.
I doubt it’s a secret that I am a fan of labor unions, or that it runs in my blood—that my grandfather encouraged his staff to become the first unionized library in Wisconsin, that my great-great granddad Carl the Commie had to leave Prussia for his unionizing (Von Bismarck, it seems, didn’t approve), that my mother’s been a union member for 50 years (or maybe more), that I have been and am involved in unions.
Back in the day (which was not actually all that long ago), people used to figure that the sun disappearing behind the moon was, you know, the work of darkness and demons. Given what’s happening in the world of late, I am starting to wonder if perhaps they had something right. In any case, rather than provide a list of funny and engaging books about astronomy, I am presenting reading for Charlottesville, ranging from novels to nonfiction, and from the Holocaust to America’s long, dark history of race relations. Surely, if we understand the horrors of the past, we are better equipped to go forward, not back.
It’s taken me a bit to return to Juana Inés, mainly because I have been running largely on rage and when that is the case I turn, very decidedly, to The Last Kingdom and The Musketeers and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and other violent period dramas (with an occasional helping of Wynonna Earp or Buffy the Vampire Slayer), because I am nowhere near as nice a person as folks seem to think and watching those shield walls and one-sided swordfights is deeply satisfying. (There is a lamentable lack of punching and swordfights1 on Juana Inés, but, obvs, it shouldn’t be there, since it would probably be historically inaccurate to have ninja nuns. In Juana Inés, that it.2)
“Paral el alma no hay encierro,” the title pulled straight from one of Juana Inés’s poems,3 hurts to watch, as Juana Inés’s brilliance is tucked away in a convent that would destroy her, her light almost snuffed out.4 It is interspersed with awkward acknowledgements of race and an intense, terminal exploration of women in seventeenth century New Spain. Ignacio, Juana’s faithless suitor, remains the weakest character link, at least for me. Similarly, Juana Inés‘s treatment of race continues to be awkward, although, in tantalizing fits and starts, it seems to be trying for something more, perhaps most of all in the discussion between the virrey and a few members of his counsel about slaves imported from Africa (they’re causing all these problems, complains the virrey, and we don’t need them anyway, we’ve got the Indians—which is probably as close as Juana Inés, or just about anything focusing on creoles, will come to admitting native slavery), and, later, when an irate merchant, who happens to be of African descent himself, goes up against the virrey’s decision not to allow him to disembark the people in his hold at ports in New Spain. (The merchant also pops up for about two seconds which is kind of weird. His costume is super rad though.)
I’m curious about the choice, and prone to read too much into it: there are records of people of African descent holding slaves themselves.5 Similarly, more than one conquistador was a man of African descent; some were free, some were freed, and some were enslaved. One of them, Juan Garrido, went on to become the first person to grow wheat in the Americas—if you read colonial literature, half of which is old letters complaining about your lousy neighbor (those are, alas, universal), or asking for more money, you’ve run into Juan Garrido and his wheat.6 So, as an exiled lit person, I am curious: does this merchant reflect people like Juan Garrido? Does he reflect people like the Brazilian Antonio José Dutra?7 Or is he just there, and am I reading way too much into a casting choice?
Meanwhile, the brilliance of Hernán del Riego’s villainous Padre Antonio Núñez de Miranda shines in his absolute conviction that he is destroying Juana in order to “save” her. He will, in fact, destroy anyone and everyone, and do so absolutely convinced that it is God’s will. He is not the sort of man with whom one hopes to deal, for the fanaticism will continually blind him to his own encroaching evil. I’ve got to say, I love these complex and horrible villains—those who are villainous for the sake of villainy get boring awfully fast.
Para el alma no hay encierro
ni prisiones que la impidan
porque sólo la emprisionan
los que forma ella misma.
—Juana Inés de la Cruz8
In a show filled with snappy dialogue (like, really, the writing is really good), Arantza Ruiz’s Juana Inés gets the lion’s share (as it should be, obviously)—and, because whomever adapted this was a genius, much of her words paraphrase, or directly quote, her own works, while tapping into the frustration and fear of life as a genius who happened to be young, beautiful, female, and illegitimate—every last one a strike against her in the seventeenth century. Núñez de Miranda might think he is saving her, but he is trampling her, a fact made more egregious when she asks him to serve as her confessor.
Much of this episode is, indeed, pulled straight from Sor Juana’s biography—she did indeed go, first, to the Discalced Carmelites; unsurprisingly, she hated it, and did indeed become quite ill. Núñez de Miranda would indeed become her confessor, something I have never entirely understood—perhaps Juana Inés, in her genius, knew she needed to keep her enemies closer, and so was trying to keep tabs on the man who would eventually destroy her.
The secondary characters—Juana Inés being, of course, our hero, and Núñez de Miranda our fanatical villain—remain a rich but inconsistent tapestry. Mauricio Isaac’s Virrey Antonio Sebastián de Toledo y Salazar is still a man of questionable morals, in many ways more modern than Núñez de Miranda—he is far less concerned with minor details such as bastardy (doesn’t affect her genius, he points out) and lies than is the priest, because, after all, that’s why we have confession, isn’t it? (In case you’re wondering—I feel his depiction is fairly accurate to the era; the virreyes were known for supporting Juana Inés—that’s pretty much how she managed to make it as long as she did—after all, it would, years later, be a virrey and vireina, leaving Mexico, who would smuggle her books to Spain, where they would be published.) Also, he still looks spectacularly like the man he portrays, which makes me a little more disposed to like him.
There are, naturally, some rather soapy parts to “Para el alma no hay encierro,” a number of which center around Lisa Owen’s Virreina, Leonor Carreto de Toledo. Ah, writers: could we have been less soapy with the middle-aged woman? Now, I am not entirely sure what Juana Inés’s classification at the viceregal court would have been—she’s a tutor, sure, but likely also some manner of lady in waiting or lady of the bedchamber or something—but it might well have been quite natural, given whatever her position was, for her to assist the Virreina in undressing (and in putting on old-timey lotion).9 Or perhaps it was really as startling as Juana Inés’s face tells us it is. Certainly, Leonor Carreto’s hysterical response to the eventual revelation of Juana Inés’s Big Dark Secret (her parents aren’t married! gasp!) is, well, melodramatic, which is kind of irritating given how infrequent well-written middle-aged women are. But Leonor shines as the episode goes on, seeking out Juana Inés like an avenging angel and finally carrying her away just in time to save her life. It’s super dramatic, and pretty much a melodrama, and it’s pretty great.
I have little doubt that it will take me a bit to get back to the third episode of Juana Inés, “Lágrimas negras de mi pluma,”10 mainly because I need some swashbuckling and also because I just noticed that Rogue One just hit Netflix. The things of which I was unsure during “Miradme Al Menos” remain, as it were, uncertain—but some of that is simply that I am no watcher of soaps, and never have been. In addition to ripping out our hearts, “Para el alma no hay encierro” also sets up the future: we meet a clergyman who will be an important figure going forward (he’s the guy who agrees with the virreina that, oh yeah, can’t have the clergy thinking they’re above the virreyes—which says he, for one, knows how to politic); we see Leonor go from hysterical matron to scheming, avenging angel; we watch Juana Inés topple, only to rise again, thanks, apparently, to whatever Nahautl healing magic11 has been used on her. And the framing device—Arcelia Ramírez’s dying genius, grasping to hold onto books, memories, words, life—remains as heartrending as ever. Our Juana Inés, both the youth and the dying woman, remain a woman, not a hollow figure of national pride.
But most, most of all? I love how much respect, and love, the writers and producers and directors have given Juana Inés and her words—her beautiful, strong words, which have come down well more than 300 years, and which remain strong and stirring even now. Her words speak, in her dialog, even in the titles of Juana Inés’s episodes. It isn’t that often I get to partake of my favorite 17th century Spanish-language texts on the small screen, and I do thrill to it.
Notes 1 I say this, of course, as someone who tried to watch Doctor Strange and got bored. Insufficient action, excessive Orientalism. Although I kinda liked the librarian. 2 There have definitely been ninja nuns. Check out Catalina de Erauso, aka La Monja Alférez, aka the Lieutenant Nun, for one sterling example. 3 Romance 42, “A la misma señora (la Condesa de Galve), en ocasión de cumplir años.” 55-56 in the Obras Completas. By Juana Inés de la Cruz. 4 This is, in case you’re wondering, quite true. 5 They include people like Nicolás Augustín Metoyer of Louisiana, mentioned in this article by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and in this article from the Washington Post delving into the Metoyer family’s history. 6 Incidentally, Juan Garrido had slaves, at least occasionally, as mentioned by the National Park Service. He was also not the only person of African descent to be in the New Spain region, not by a long shot—there were many other explorers, including Esteban Dorantes. Meanwhile, while there are Afro-Mexicans, Mexico has only recently started officially documenting its citizens of African descent, as discussion in this Huffington Postarticle; meanwhile, Afro-Mexicans have been deported and forced to sing the national anthem because people don’t believe they are Mexican, as discussed by the BBC here. 7 Dutra, having managed to to buy his freedom and his wife’s, set out buying himself a number of slaves, including some (I think the musicians were among this number) whom he rented out to make more money. You can learn more about Dutra in Dutra’s World. 8 Romance 42, “A la misma señora (la Condesa de Galve), en ocasión de cumplir años.” 55-56 in the Obras Completas. By Juana Inés de la Cruz. 9 I am definitely no expert on ladies in waiting or anything they do. ¯_(ツ)_/¯ These are some pretty good resources about them:
10 Also a line from a poem! This one was written to commemorate the death of the Marquesa de Mancera, our own Leonor Carreto de Toledo. It is the third section of a longer sonnet: “En la muerte de la Excelentísima Señora Marquesa de Mancera.” Here’s the stanza from which lágrimas negras hails:
Muera mi lira infausta en que influíste
ecos, que lamentables te vocean,
y hasta estos rasgos mal formados sean
lágrimas negras de mi pluma triste.
Juana Inés de la Cruz, from “En la Muerte de la Excelentísima Señora Marquesa de Mancera,” 155-156 in the Obras Completas.
11 All I could think of was this trope, largely because of the way it was handled (and the way Juana Inés has skirted race through both “Miradme Al Menos” and “Para el alma no hay encierro”).
Dankmar Adler, that genius of acoustical engineering, was born on July 3, 1844—one hundred seventy-three years ago, today. The Chicago History Museum fêted him, but it’s well possible that if you’re not a Chicagoan, or not an architecture fan,1 you’ve never heard of him. He was an acoustic genius, the acoustics consultant for Carnegie Hall2; the synagogue he built for his father would become the birthplace of gospel. He elevated Sullivan’s lacy architectural fantasies to genius levels after himself bringing Sullivan on, but after an economic downturn, Sullivan would never let him return to the practice, damaging both men, rather irreparably.3 And, as is far too often the case, much of his work has been torn down—but, to our fortune, much of it remains, too. Here are three of those Chicago survivors.
Auditorium Theatre & Building (Roosevelt University)
By the time Roosevelt University bought the Auditorium Building for $1, it had really been through the wringer. Now, slowly but surely, it’s being restored to its original glory, or at least something close. (And it is really, really beautiful—probably the nicest building in which anyone could go to college. Just saying.) The theatre is stunning, a work of architectural and acoustical genius—it is, in fact, the reason Adler got that job as a consultant to Carnegie Hall, and is frequently studied by concert hall architects even now. I like to think that Adler and Sullivan, who built it with dreams of egalitarian glory, would be pleased to know that the building now houses a college based on social justice for all. You’ll find it at 430 S. Michigan, kitty-corner (and a couple blocks) across from the Art Institute, and you’ll likely know it even if you’ve never seen it before: it’s been in its share of movies.
Pilgrim Baptist Church, Bronzeville
Pilgrim Baptist is one of the saddest of our sad tales of architectural despair, as well as one I’ve covered several times: it was nearly destroyed in a fire, careless roofers destroying the building that was once a synagogue (Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv Synagogue) and then the birthplace, thanks to its music director, of gospel. I still hope that, some day in the future, someone will bring it back to life. It deserves to have music lift its rafters, not fire. Meanwhile, it sits,4 a despairing hulk, at 3300 S. Indiana, on the corner of Indiana and Martin Luther King Drive, just a bit away from the lake.
Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church
I know Ebenezer Missionary Baptist5 a little better than I know some of Adler’s work: my mother performs in it often enough to be well-versed in its acoustics, still crystalline after nearly 120 years. This is a late Adler, built after his split with Sullivan, and once again originally a synagogue (Isaiah Temple, once upon a time), and it’s gospel’s birthplace, or at least its childhood home. My mother has said the building runs towards the spare (I don’t know if others would agree with her), but her focus is, and always will be, on the voice of the building, and the voice it gives her instrument, and, as was Adler’s way, Ebenezer Missionary’s voice is still clear, all these years later. You’ll find it at 4501 S. Vincennes, also in Bronzeville.
There are a few more Adler buildings throughout Chicago—some churches, a few remnants of the Adler and Sullivan stock exchange at the Art Institute—enough to give one a taste, as it were, of Adler’s rather extraordinary mind for sound waves. They’re all worth a visit, right down to the rather incredible room, lifted directly from the stock exchange and set down in the Art Institute for anyone to see, as long as they can find it. (I finally went in; naturally I recommend it to others.)
So here’s to Dankmar Adler, Jewish immigrant, genius engineer and architect, whose works became cradles of a great new American music, and whose buildings remain, as they have always been, spaces of great and pure acoustic beauty, created by a man with an understanding of sound to be filled with music and with life.
1 And how can one be a Chicagoan and not an architecture buff? 2 Notes from both “Origins of Modern Architecture,” fall 2008, and “Origins of Civic and Commercial Architecture,” spring 2009, both taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago by Timothy Wittman. 3 Ibid. 4 There was a recent attempt to tear the church down; it failed to acquire a permit. I continue to hope that Pilgrim Baptist will, one day soon, come back from the edge of the grave. 5 There is a lot of information out there about Ebenezer, because it is a well-loved building. Here are a few sites:
Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana, la Décima Musa, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, looms large in the study of the literature of the Siglo de Oro. Hers is often the first woman’s voice we find, in a litany of men; forcefully Juana Inés reminds us of a woman’s genius, and a woman’s perseverance, against great—and ultimately insurmountable—odds. She is, in short, much more immediately important to me than is Simón Bolívar, libertador and subject of a flagrantly inaccurate adaption—but I have watched María Luisa Bemberg’s Yo, La Peor de Todas, and I’ve read Octavio Paz’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: O, Las Trampas de la Fé,1 as one does—and now, finally, an age after it showed up in my queue, I’m watching the new Netflix/Canal Once production of Juana Inés. I know how this story must end—all of us do, and all of us know her confession, some of us by heart—and so the interest here lies in how this new show will depict Juana Inés’s life, and her genius, and her eventual doom.
The first episode of Juana Inés is a command: “Miradme Al Menos,” which I would translate as “At least look at me!” and which Netflix has translated as “At Least Look Unto Me.” (Okeydokey, Netflix.) Our young protagonist will repeat the phrase, repeatedly, in various forms but always as a command, throughout that first episode: at least look at me, she demands, as men ignore her, and turn away from her, and try to decide her life without ever acknowledging her humanity, let alone her mind.
This Juana Inés is not yet the Décima Musa, the woman whose salons were known through Mexico’s cultured elite—and, though they were held in a convent, attended by many of the country’s greatest minds, criollos and peninsulares2 alike. Instead, she’s a child, a genius who happens to be a woman in an era in which women are, as the vierrey periodically reminds his court, supposed to be more decorative motif than greatest mind of the century.
We follow Juana Inés from her aunt and uncle’s home—she’s been sent there by her mother, who lives in the country, as one does when one has been the mistress of a soldier and has his illegitimate children—to the viceregal court in Distrito Federal, through streets littered by the officials of the Santo Oficio (the Inquisition, also known as the Santa Inquisición), led by one Antonio Núñez de Miranda, a Jesuit priest who is definitely gonna be a problem later one (Juana Inés lets us know this right away, so even if we didn’t already know Juana Inés’s story, we’d know Padre Núñez de Miranda was bad news. After all, the bugger is burning books when we meet him—if it’s not on the okay list, it goes.) We also meet Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora3—it’s his books that Núñez de Miranda is burning. He’s another who will figure in throughout Juana Inés’s story—I’m curious to see how the writers will develop him, and their friendship, as the series goes on.
Juana’s youth is framed by an older Juana, on her deathbed, remembering her life. It’s pretty jarring, at least for me: the hero, brought low, as a framing device for the heroic journey. But her youth itself is a framing device: the show rather brilliantly puts in place the pieces that will make up the adult Juana Inés, from her pride in her Mexican identity (“soy criolla,” she tells a Spaniard) to her linguistic abilities (she speaks Nahault because, as she tells another character, it is the language of the land); from her belief in women’s rights to her aggressive genius, it’s all there: her hero’s journey, and her doom, set from the moment she walks into the viceregal court.
The viceregal court was simultaneously terrific—it looks like something out of Velázquez! it’s incredible!—and also kinda weird. Juana probably had men propose to her—she was a great favorite, after all—but my interest lay, after all, in her words, and in her rather blasé acknowledgement that she joined a convent because of her “absolute unwillingness to enter into marriage” and because, above all, she wanted to live alone and quietly, where nothing “would disturb the freedom my freedom to study.”4 Which is to say, in short, I don’t think she’d be jumping for joy at the thought of marriage to anyone, let alone a guy who writes iffy poems. I was also a little unsure of the viceroy’s mistress, who is clearly out to cause problems—I think she’s artistic license, which makes sense, but I’m not so sure about her. I’ll see what she does in the next episode. (Also, her blondness is rather eye-catching, in a dark-haired court—apparently the viceroy’s got a thing for blondes.)
From the vicereina to Juana Inés, from the ladies in waiting to the viceroys’ daughter María, “Miradme Al Menos” is filled with women clawing their way through a world distinctly hostile to them. The mistress, what’s her name, uses her body and her spying abilities to try to push herself into the graces of the viceroy and of Núñez de Miranda. The vicereina, Leonor Carreto de Toledo, uses her considerable intelligence and political acumen to try to protect her daughter—she would not seek a better tutor were she not trying to make her daughter something more—and to try to make her own life a little better. She’s a long way from home, is Leonor, in a very different world, and she’s trying her damndest to make it work (although she also calls theirs “this shitty court,” so, you know, she’s not trying to love it or anything like that). Also she looks like she stepped out of a painting by Velázquez.
Juana, of course, is something special, even in a world filled with women trying to survive (and to keep their minds from atrophying). She’s an aggressive kid, a genius who knows it, and who has been raised by people who recognized her genius and, for the most part, try to help her on her way, while simultaneously protecting her from an ugly world. I don’t recall precisely why she was tested, by forty of Mexico’s greatest (male) minds—they really did it up, in that there shitty court—but, although I don’t really think it was about tutoring at all, it is very much part of her mythos,5 it isn’t the worst framing device, and fits the story building in Juana Inés rather well. Her snappy dialogue and sly mastery of a bunch of dudebros who expect to drown her with their superiority might seem impossible for a teenager (although I’d argue one has only to actually listen to them to realize that it is not), but it fits with Juana Inés’s writing—she always had a brilliant voice, and would have had it ready to command, although not yet fully matured, when she was “tested,” at 15 or 17, by forty men who wanted her to fail.
One of Juana Inés’s many snappy quotes comes on the theme of obedience, which has never been her strong suit. The words the scriptwriters have given her are a foreshadowing of her great Respuesta, written in 1691, in which she vigorously defends the right of a woman to an education. In fact, Juana Inés will say that it is God’s will that a woman be educated, for did not God give her her mind?6 So, in the flower of her youth, as a teen who manages to be simultaneously assured, even aggressive, and as uncertain as any other teenager, Juana tells Núñez de Miranda that there is no higher love than that of God, and so she will obey God before she will obey him. The most chilling thing about Hernán del Riego’s depiction of Antonio Núñez de Miranda is probably his absolute faith: he’s going to break her, sure, but he’s only doing it to save her soul! That fanaticism makes him rather a terrifying figure.
Juana Inés, of course, is magnificent in her confrontation with Núñez de Miranda: her mother is, she says, “una gran mujer, aunque pobre e ignorante”—a great woman, albeit poor and uneducated. She is willing to stand up for her unwed mother, to risk the censure of priests and society to insist on Isabel Ramírez’s greatness. Her speech, and her defiance, is itself a foreshadowing of one of her great poems, “Hombres necios,” in which she points out that the man is always let off easy, while the woman, no matter what she does, must suffer the consequences. (Her father, after all, was presumably still cavorting around the Spanish Empire, military rank intact.) These nods to the poetry and prose of the Décima Musa come throughout the episode, from nods to the Respuesta and “Hombres necios” to, when she critiques the viceregal court, “A Su Retratro” foretold, in its full grim glory.
I had a few quibbles, particularly at the very end of the episode. I don’t see Juana Inés, young or old, as the kind of woman who would throw herself into a man’s arms—any man’s arms, even if he did write iffy poetry in her honor. She was a brilliant woman—she knew what being a bastard meant for her marriage prospects. Hell, she wasn’t even supposed to join a convent as a nun because of her illegitimacy, which is why she professos herself “hija legítima de Don Pedro de Asbaje y Vargas Machuca y de Isabel Ramírez”7—the lie gave her a chance at a life. The passage of time is also a bit of an issue: one presumes time has passed, but there is no real evidence of it in the dreamy world of the court, where it is always spring, or summer. (Did this gachupín8 really fall in love with our heroine in, like, a week? One hopes not.) Another quibble comes in the confrontation with Antonio Núñez de Miranda: he claims that Juana Inés’s father is the local priest, who is also de Asbaje! (Cue the drumroll, please.) This is presumably being done for dramatic effect, but I am wary of where it could go. So far, Juana Inés has also avoided thorny discussions of race in New Spain. I don’t recall when, exactly, she was “gifted” another human, but I do know Juana took a slave with her to the convent.
The show touches on Juana’s linguistic abilities, primarily her ability to speak Nahautl9; she apologizes to a Nahautl man, which seems fitting for a woman who wrote poetry in the Nahautl language, but it still glosses over the realities of life for Afro-Mexicans and indigenous and mestizo Mexicans. It will be interesting to see how the show deals with race as it continues on through Juana Inés’s life and career. I’m also not quite sure about the focus, from what’s her name the mistress, Núñez de Miranda, and the viceroy, on Juana Inés’s poetry for the vicereina—back in the day, it was the done thing to write what was essentially love poetry to one’s patron, and I’m not sure if a man as intelligent and cultured as one presumes the viceroy would have to be would truly be unaware of such literary conventions. But it is certainly possible, and could be a decent foil going forward.
So, for once, I’m really excited about an adaption, although I doubt that I will marathon this one as I marathon nearly everything else—I’m taking way too many notes, and revising too much old research, for that. Juana Inés is, thus far, a remarkable humanization of a woman who has become more symbol than human: the Décima Musa as a child, genius but also unsure, capable of smirking when the displaced mistress calls her names but also capable of fear and uncertainty. So far, in fact, I’ve thought a lot of Marina Warner’s Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form—Sor Juana has come down to us as something of an allegory, her statues and her face on currency less woman than symbol of something else, and something greater. Juana Inés, however, is trying to resurrect the woman, and the girl, behind that symbol, and so far, it is doing rather a good job.
1 Generally considered the definitive biography of Sor Juana. 2 “Criollo,” or “creole,” means, in this context, a person of Spanish descent born in the Americas. It will become increasingly important in the days to come, as creoles—including people like Sor Juana and her circle—begin to define a “creole identity.” And remember Simón Bolívar? It’ll really come into its own with the Revolutions. 3 Sigüenza y Góngora will eventually get kicked out of the Jesuit order—I’m really curious to see if this gets a mention in Juana Inés. 4The Answer/La Respuesta, translated by Electa Arenal & Stephanie Powell. 51. 5 It’s worth noting that this episode is first written down in the biography that went in with her poetry, and that it was part of the effort to prove that, as Electa Arenal and Stephanie Powell write, “nothing in its pages went against church teachings” (3)—important for a world under the sway of the Inquisition. 6 See The Answer/La Respuesta. 7 Quoted from Autobiographical Writing by Early Modern Hispanic Women by Elizabeth Teresa Howe, 196. 8 A less than complimentary term for a Spaniard living in the Americas but born in Spain. This one was more used during the move towards independence. 9 As Arenal & Powell point out, Juana Inés also spoke various languages and dialects, including “African, and … rural dialects” (3). Juana Inés could have gone even further with the whole linguistic genius thing, basically.
Cruz, Juana Inés de la. The Answer/La Respuesta, trans. & ed. by Electa Arenal & Stephanie Powell. 2nd ed., The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2009.
Cruz, Juana Inés de la. Obras Completas de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Porrua, 2007.
Warner, Marina. Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form. University of California Press, 1985.
I first read Pam Muñoz Ryan‘s middle grade novel Esperanza Rising shortly after it was published, in the early 2000s. It has stuck with me, powerfully, ever since. It’s set during the Great Depression, in Aguascalientes and then in the San Joaquín Valley in California, and readers follow Esperanza Ortega from her life as a spoiled child of privilege in Aguascalientes through a desperate flight to the United States following her father’s murder. Readers go into the camps where Mexican agricultural laborers live and watch la migra—today’s ICE—as they raid, harass, and bully the laborers. Perhaps the most incredible element of Esperanza Rising? It is told through a child’s eyes (Esperanza is only 15 at book’s end), and, as I remember it, at least, it really does read like a child’s perspective on immigration. It is also a Pura Belpré Award Winner, for those interested in reading up on diverse award winners.
Melissa De La Cruz‘s novel Something In Between is, in a way, very similar to Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star. Like Natasha, Jasmine de los Santos is an exemplary American girl, smart and college-bound. She is, in the words of one of the quotes De La Cruz uses to preface her novel, almost “more American than people born here.” She is also an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines, although she, like Natasha, does not at first know this. Unlike Natasha, Jasmine learns about her status during the course of the novel. Adding to her angst, she falls in love with the wrong guy: a dude whose father happens to be a congressman who doesn’t believe in immigration reform (and, indeed, works against it). This is very much a romance; Booklist says that “At its gooey heart, this is a love story suited for romance-thirsty teens,” but reviews from Booklist to Publishers’ Weekly to Kirkus all mention that one will probably learn something from it, too, even if Kirkus thinks it’s way too optimistic. This one is very much a happy ending; it will likely make for a satisfying read, and will provide another window into the life of a young American without papers.
Remember Ibi Zoboi, who interviewed Nicola Yoon about The Sun Is Also a Star? Well, she’s back: she wrote the intense American Street, a novel about a young Haitian woman, Fabiola (or Fab) Toussaint, who comes to the United States with her mother to live with her aunt and cousins in Detroit. But there is a sudden, horrible catch: Fabiola has the proper documentation, and is sent ahead to Detroit—but, somehow, Manman does not, and is detained, thrusting Fabiola alone into a brave and frightening new world. American Street reminds me of some of the contemporary Latin American novels I’ve read; I would call parts of it magical realism, except I think back to what a professor once said—how can it be magical realism if it is one’s belief?—and am hesitant to do so, as Zoboi, through Fabiola, calls up Haitian spirits and traditional beliefs to help her survive Detroit. American Street actually has some similarities with The Hate U Give—it, too, touches on the horrors of structural racism and police brutality. It is rather a tour de force. It has also been reviewed well: Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist all accord it starred reviews.
Lithuanian-American Ruta Sepetys calls herself, on her website, a “seeker of lost stories.” Certainly her novels about the human costs of World War II, Between Shades of Gray and Salt to the Sea, are such lost stories, sought and remembered. I’ll slide away from objectivity here: I loved both Between Shades of Gray and Salt to the Sea. They shattered my heart, and I learned a lot from them. Between Shades of Gray follows a young Lithuanian girl, Lina Vilkas, after her father, a math professor, is detained by the Soviet secret police and her mother and brother are sent to Siberia. (My middle name comes in part from a Polish resistance fighter who happened to be a family friend, which might make these stories more intense for me.) It is a story of horror and depravity, but also of humanity and, surprising in those shades of gray, of hope.
Salt to the Sea, meanwhile, showcases several different people—Joana, Lina’s cousin and a nurse; German resistor Florian, fleeing for his life; Polish Emilia, fighting for her life and struggling against the crimes committed against her; and Alfred, a sadistic young Nazi—as they struggle through the end of the war in Prussia. They will all embark upon the Wilhelm Gustloff—and anyone who knows maritime history will know what comes next. (I cried my eyes out anyway, but, because this is Sepetys’ gift, there is still hope.) Both Between Shades of Gray (which definitely isn’t 50 Shades, sorry not sorry) and Salt to the Sea offer a glimpse into the darkness that drives people from their homes. Between Shades of Gray gets starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist; Kirkus gives Salt to the Sea a strong review, Publishers Weekly and Bookliststarred ones. Though both are set in the 1940s, and in Europe, both are a pretty stark reminder of the dangerous facing refugees, and of the reasons why people leave.
I think Warsan Shire has probably written the ultimate contemporary explanation of why one would leave home; there is a reason her poem “Home,” with its reminder that “you only leave home / when home won’t let you stay” has been spoken at protests and held up by asylum seekers. The novels I’ve suggested here are not, to be sure, Shire’s “Home”—but they are strong works, pieces that can help us to better understand the lives of others,1 and the realities of our world. And, of course, there are more out there.
1 By the way there’s an amazing German movie called The Lives of Others. It is very much worth watching.