Miradme Al Menos: Juana Inés on Netflix

Frontispiece, Fama y Obras Póstumas del Fenix de México. Madrid, 1689. From Wikimedia Commons.

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 hacienda where Juana Inés grew up: “Frontispicio de la hacienda de Panoaya, en Amecameca, Estado de México, que perteneció al abuelo de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.” 26 January 2006. Image by Wikipedian AdamcastforthWikimedia Commons.

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.

Viceroy at the time Juana Inés came to the court: Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo, 25th Viceroy of New Spain, Marques of Máncera and Grande of Spain, in a 17th century portrait currently housed in the Salón de Virreyes. Juana Inés really nailed this guy’s look, in case you’re wondering. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Juana Inés thinks it’s absurd that women aren’t allowed into libraries: women, too, are rational beings. From link.

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.

Escena de Inquisión, by Francisco Goya. 1646. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, 1656-1657. Wikimedia Commons.

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.)

An idea of the virreina, Leonor Carreto de Toledo: Diego Velázquez’s La Enfanta María Teresa de España, 1652-1653. Wikimedia Commons

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.

Clawing one’s way up, by whatever means necessary. From link.

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.

Before the test. From link.

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.

Confronting Núñez de Miranda. From link

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.

The courtyard of the Palacio Nacional (the former viceroys’ residence). National Palace, Mexico. 2012 image by Rob Young. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Statue of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in Madrid. 2011 image by Wikipedian Drow male. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Retrato de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, 1680, by Juan de Miranda. Wikimedia Commons.

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.


For More Information


End Notes

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.
4 The 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.


Bibliography

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.

Young Adult Fiction About Migration, Immigration, and Refuge(es), I

A little more than a month ago, an American hopped up on xenophobia shot up two men from India and another man who tried to stop him, killing one. Anti-refugee rhetoric continues to swirl, and hate groups are at a horrifying high. Books can help bring us together; fiction may acually make us better people. It makes sense, then, to me, to turn to books during times like these; to seek out, and suggest, those books which may help us better understand immigrants, and refugees, and those who migrate, even within the same country.

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.

Just because.

You may well have heard Nicola Yoon‘s name: her first book, Everything, Everythingis being made into a movie, and her second, The Sun Is Also a Star, won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award For New Talent. It is about The Sun Is Also a Star that I am going to write today. You see, it brings us multiple angles on this theme of migration and immigration and Americanness, and many of them are rarely, if ever, really discussed. The hero, Daniel, is Korean-American; his parents want him to be a doctor, but he’s a poet at heart. The heroine, Natasha, is Jamaican-American; she came young to this country, and is a brilliant student, aiming for the stars, or at least the sun. But she is also, through no fault of her own, undocumented. The Sun Is Also a Star is the story of the luminous, terrifying day during which Natasha and Daniel fall in love, while Natasha is trying desperately to save herself from deportation. (You’re going to cry. And also laugh. And wince.) There’s an added layer of realism to this story: in the words of interviewer Ibi Zoboi (this name will come up again, fyi): “You share a letter to the reader at the beginning of the book about how you and your husband first met. Your name is Nicola and you are Jamaican American, just like Natasha in your novel. Your husband’s name is David and he is Korean American, just like Daniel in your novel.” Zoboi goes on to ask if the novel is autobiographical; Ms. Yoon says that “all evidence to the contrary, the novel is not autobiographical,” but that it “was definitely inspired by the spirit of our relationship.” Ms. Yoon’s books have an almost ethereal, luminous quality—one which I am hoping translates to the screen—and, true to form, The Sun Is Also a Star is beautiful, heartbreaking, and, ultimately, hopeful. It’s also an amazing window into what young Americans like the DREAMers must feel. (And, for those who like to know these things: it has starred reviews from KirkusBooklist, and Publishers Weekly.)

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 WeeklyKirkusand Booklist all accord it starred reviews.

I have not read Alexandra Diaz‘s The Only Road; it is, however, a Pura Belpré Honor Book, and, while Kirkus calls it “A deft, harrowing, yet formulaic sketch of a complex subject,” the blog Latinos in Kidlit gave it a positive review, while it garnered a starred one from BooklistThe Only Road takes its middle-grade readers on a journey from Guatemala to the United States, as young Jaime must escape violence at home before it kills him, too. It is a timely book—think of the children fleeing violence in Central America who have come to the U.S.—and will offer readers a window into a world with which they probably are not particularly familiar. Another Pura Belpré winner, the translated I Lived on Butterfly Hill, by Chilean-American academic and writer Marjorie Agosín, offers its readers a look at Chile during the years of the dictatorship, and follows its young heroine to the United States as well. Its reviews mention that it may be intimidating, but Publishers WeeklyKirkus, and the Jewish Book Council all give it strong 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 WeeklyKirkusand BooklistKirkus gives Salt to the Sea a strong review, Publishers Weekly and Booklist starred 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.

Art & Politics: An Introduction

Periodically, things go the rounds on social media, promising to break up the monotony of our dinners, or bad dates, or, now, our political postings, with art and music! Because who doesn’t want to see art and music in their timeline, amirite?! I mean, how could I argue with this? Art is beautiful! I have a degree in art history! I love early modern and colonial literature because the visual is so important!

But I can totally argue with it. Part of it, of course, is just that I’m a fighter, apparently, and arm myself with facts and data and critical theories to tilt at the windmills of bad and misleading information. (I often feel rather a lot like this and this, to be frank.) But the other part? It’s quite simple, actually: this is a bullshit theory. The arts are always political. Continue reading

Silence Against the Day

… I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam,” 30 April 1967

I have thought a great deal, of late, about the Moors and the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula, and about their expulsion from their own countries, the lands where they were born and where they had lived for, in many cases, generations. I’ve often wondered what I’d do, in a similar position. After all, the ancestors I can trace—most of them, given my brother S’s diligence—came to this continent in the 17th and 18th centuries, nearly all arriving prior to the Revolution (in which, of course, they fought). As far as I know, there are no cousins left abroad, no family members with whom to seek temporary shelter. Continue reading

Beyond the Caldecott (and the Nobel)

There are a number of very famous literary awards out there, from the Caldecotts and Newberys of children’s literature fame to the Man Bookers, the Hugos, and the Pulitzers—not to mention the Nobels—of adult literature. They award many great authors; they sometimes make incredibly bizarre choices (see the Nobel award for “literature,” 2016). They often do not, however, do a grand job of selecting representative fiction—which is to say, of course, that, despite problems in the industry, far more than men (often of one race, writing about other men) write great literary works. (There are some bright spots: Paul Beatty won the 2016 Man Booker prize for a novel about race in America! The National Book Awards celebrated diverse voices!)

However, there are also literary prizes out there which seek to recognize everything from literature celebrating the Arab-American experience to literature offering strong representations of characters with disabilities. I have tried to pull together as many of these diverse literary award winners in one space as I could; perhaps they can be among your 2017 reading challenges. The awards here include those specifically focusing upon adult’s and children’s literature, as well as awards which celebrate both.

I will edit the list with additional awards as I find them.

Continue reading

Christmas 2016 for Depressed Grinches

I’m dubious about the Christmas season, which might be why I really like “Nicholas Was,” the adaption of a Neil Gaiman poem, above, from 39 Degrees North. Holidays are really weird when you’re a musician’s kid: they are your bread and butter, after all, but they’re also definitely not “days off.” (To wit: my mother’s currently performing at a midnight mass; I, obviously, am sitting up, as I’ve done since I was maybe six months old. Since it’s midnight I am no longer watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, since that doesn’t seem quite appropriate, but I am considering Troll Hunters. One must do something, after all.)

From link.

I also never believed in Santa Claus. There are, after all, zero peer-reviewed sources to back up his existence. 😛

Victorian Christmas Card

So I actually like this one. Image from Nova Scotia Archives on Flickr.

Did you know that old-timey Christmas cards were gloriously, well, disturbing? They’re pretty amazing, actually. Hyperallergic has helpfully compiled numerous examples in “Have a Creepy Little Christmas with these Unsettling Victorian Cards,” which are well and truly unsettling. I definitely recommend a look, particularly if you like Victorian oddities (I do) and if you have a slightly warped sense of humor. (And definitely check out the originating links! Many, like this one, have all sorts of awesome images.)

Image from the Lily Library, Indiana University.

Want even more bizarre Christmas greetings? Check out Hyperallergic’s compilation of Victorian dead birds on Christmas cards. Because of course the Victorians put dead birds on Christmas cards. The cards at this compilation are often tamer; after all, they’re looking at cards as “aesthetic objects,” per the article’s title.

A 20th-Century Krampus with a bunch of babies who Just Don’t Care. Wikimedia Commons.

Are you in the mood for an evil Santa? Look no further than Krampus, who is apparently out to get you! And Krampus is definitely creepy, as demonstrated in these amazing photos from—you guessed it—a series of Krampus parades.Want more on Krampus? Here’s a National Geographic article from 2015, and a book, published just this year.

The Mari Lwyd is watching you! 2011 photo by Wikipedian R. fiend. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Considering that the deeply horrifying Mari Lwyd is still very much a part of Welsh celebrations, even though it is clearly delineated as evilevilevil in Silver on the Tree, the clear expert in all such matters, this sort of parade makes a weird kind of sense. Also! The Mari Lwyd is itself a horrifying Christmas tradition! (It is likely someone’s favorite tradition; unfortunately, as someone with an amazing imagination and a fear of the dark, as well as an excellent memory for novels, it scares the daylights out of me.)

One cannot forget the medieval artists who were apparently often trippin’ while they were creating their masterpieces. Luckily, sources such as Marginalia and Discarding Images help out with a steady stream of fabulously bizarre blasts from the past.

Truly horrified mother and infant, anyone?

I have so many thoughts about this one, but I’ll leave it at this: what fascinating syncretism we have on display here!

Here’s another absolutely glorious old illumination, courtesy of Marginalia. I am amazed, and know not what to say. (Also, the anatomy is definitely not right.)

As a musician’s kid, I intensely dislike the piped carols with which stores assault our ears starting in October or November. However! I do like some holiday music!

I’ve probably mentioned Apollo’s Fire before. They’re an amazing Baroque orchestra; their theatricality and musicality make for a spectacle in the truest sense of the word.

“Kuando El Rey” has zero to do with Hanukkah, which started Christmas Eve; however, it’s really pretty, and it’s old Sephardic music, which we don’t often hear. And I’m a colonialist, and a medievalist, and I can’t resist this sort of music. Incidentally, it has an interesting history; the lyrics are written in Ladino, and the song itself dates to…sometime or other, before the expulsion or after. Different sites have different ideas. Also, for those interested: it’s performed by different groups here, here, and here, among others.)

From link.

Gifs are an excellent way to celebrate anything, are they not?

From link.

From link.

This isn’t exactly “holiday,” but so what! From link.

(I mean, my cat actually takes ornaments off the tree, which is why we have none until like three feet up, but.)

From link.

And, finally, for all your holiday questions: here is Geoffrey Chaucer offering sound advice, courtesy of NPR!

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Festivus for the Restivus, and happy day off (if you have one) regardless of what you celebrate. And, on a different note, the Thorne Rooms are decorated for the season, and they’re charming as ever—a wonderful respite from an unhappy world.

Merry Socially Conscious Winter Holidays!

It’s almost the end of this trash-fire year! Which means we get to embark on a whole new trash fire, far, far too soon. So, this burning year from hell is about to end (and merge into more hell, unless there’s a miracle). But, if you are here, you presumably care about human rights, and about people who might not look like you. You might even want to have young folks in your life read about great moments in American history, such as the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement and the recently gutted Voting Rights Act, which was, while we had it, a shining testament to what we could be as a country.

Interested in last-minute, socially conscious reads that are also fun and engaging? Have no fear! There are booklists aplenty to help with your selection. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center—the very place where my grandmother long did cataloging—has compiled an incredible list of “50 Books About Peace and Social Justice.” They range from picture books for munchkins to early and middle grades, on up to high school. Many—maybe even most—of the books on the list are real, actual award winners, too. And many deal with histories, often dark ones, in which young people took a stand. Sometimes it cost them a lot—think of the White Rose. Sometimes it cost them liberty, at least for a time, but not life (see the young folks behind the Churchill Club). And, often, they were the only people to take such a stand, and, by their daring, helped sway the course of history. And did you know that before Brown v. Board of Education there was Mendez v. Westminster? Sylvia Mendez was only eight years old when she became the face of that early step on the fight for integrated schools, yet another reminder of the incredible bravery of young children in this ongoing fight for equality.

Working with really young kids? A lot of the books on the CCBC list, ranging from Last Stop on Market Street and Drum Dream Girl to What Does Peace Feel Like? and Each Kindness, are definitely for the wee ones—just check the suggested age ranges, which the CCBC, naturally, includes. But are you interested in even more suggestions for the picture-book set? Well, no worries. Despite part of its machinery clanging to appeasement, ALA is a vast creature of many parts. One of said parts, the Association for Library Service to Children, or ALSC, has released its own booklist, called “Unity. Kindness. Peace.” It’s available as either a webpage or a pdf, and, from what I can tell, all the included books both encourage empathy and are geared towards the young. We none of us, I think, want to see an uptick in bullying—yet are very much seeing such an uptick. Need I remind anyone, as someone who still has scars from bullying, that it is profoundly damaging? That its scars sink deep and last forever?1

Teens and Up (Or, the Bulk of This Document)

Looking for books for teens and adult people? Again, the CCBC has some really amazing suggestions. I have additional suggestions. Many of the authors listed—those I know best include Matt de la Peña, Margarita Engle, Jacqueline Woodson, Sherman Alexie, Sharon Creech, Randa Abdel-Fattah, Sharon Flake, Walter Dean Myers, Jason Reynolds, Ruta Sepetys, and Marjane Satrapi—write extensively on themes pertaining to human rights. Sandra Cisneros, she of The House on Mango Street, is another excellent choice. (I love Mango Street; I also own Woman Hollering Creek, which I think is marvelous—I am a fan of vignettes and of short stories.) Kekla Magoon consistently tackles hard topics; she even has a pair of books—The Rock and the River and Fire in the Streets—about race, gender, and politics in 1968 Chicago, following the assassination of Martin Luther King and around the time of the infamous convention.

Did you know Asian-Americans have been a part of the United States for a long, long time? Stacey Lee‘s award-winning novels, including Outrun the Moon, about a Chinese-American teenager working her way up through the social strata in San Francisco at the time of the earthquake, and Under a Painted Sky, about two girls—one Chinese-American, the other African-American—who work together to survive the Oregon Trail, cover some of this history, bringing to light contributions of people many of us never thought were there at all. (A reminder: Asians—largely Chinese—worked on the railroads alongside my Irish ancestors.) The Secret of a Heart Note is coming soon; it appears to be contemporary magical realism, and, I’m glad to say, it’s already been well-reviewed, by no less than Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.

Martha Brockenbrough’s The Game of Love and Death is, at first glance, perhaps an odd suggestion: it is a fantasy, a high-stakes “game” played by Love and Death, immortals who chose their players…and set them against one another. It is Seattle in the 1930s; Henry, a young white man, and Flora, a young African-American woman, are their unwitting pawns. They must choose each other, and love…or one must die. In the midst of this rather horrifying game, the reader learns a great deal, both about the place and the time and about racism, sexism, and constructions of gender (check out Henry, who is a sensitive, gentle sort of guy). I will, for once, spare you the total spoiler; I’ll just say that this book, which has won its share of awards, made me cry. A lot. It probably sounds like a horrifying premise, but, goodness, what a lovely book.

Similarly, Anna-Marie McLemore’s The Weight of Feathers is a strange, lyrical fantasy, one delving deeply into belonging, hate, love, and bigotry. The feud between Palomas and Corbeaus seems almost mythic, a thing of legend, living and awful, feeding on the irrationality of generations, yet Lace Palmoa and Cluck Corbeau are drawn together against all odds and despite the years of hate that should simmer in their blood. They move through a world that is like and yet unlike ours, filled as it is with casual magics; but the hate and bigotry and irrationality with which they must contend is something all of us will know, all too well.

Looking for love stories? Jenny Han is a great place to start. Sara Farizan’s Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel features the coming of age of a young woman of Persian background who is interested in girls (and worried about what will happen should it get out to her classmates); Becky Albertalli’s award-winning Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, a particularly sweet romance, deals with bullying, race, and class, as well as homophobia. (And it ends happily! Promise!) Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz, has come to me highly recommended by the teens for whom it was written.

The Blacksad series, graphic novels featuring a hard-boiled anthropomorphized black cat detective named Blacksad, are hard and intense and beautiful, homage to the old noir school and also a testament to the ways in which we can incorporate history and social commentary into graphic novels featuring talking, suit-clad animals. While I suggest all the Blacksad novels, starting at the beginning—because I always start that way—Arctic Nation, with its emphasis on the horrors of racism and segregation, is particularly chilling and apropos.

There are also, maybe in the vein of The Weight of Feathers, dark love stories. Libba Bray’s Diviners seriesThe Diviners, followed by Lair of Dreams, with more, eventually, to come—follows a diverse group of “diviners” as they work together against rising evil…but, since they are a diverse group, our heroes must also contend with the daily evils of sexism, racism, and homophobia, among other petty human hates. Leigh Bardugo’s shattering Six of Crows duology—Six of Crows followed by Crooked Kingdom—pits a diverse group of “criminals”—including a dyslexic—against a corrupt merchant class, grown fat and venal on the spoils of their ill-gotten gains. (I’d argue that the “crooked kingdom” of the title could very well refer more to those venal merchants who abuse their labor.)

Cat Winters’ The Steep and Thorny Way is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The heroine’s African-American father, murdered, walks the crossroads, seeking justice and his daughter’s safety; the man accused of his murder escapes, and tells his daughter, a biracial girl in a racist town, that he is innocent: the Klan is behind her father’s death. The darkening atmosphere balances with our protagonists, who must outrace time and try to hide from the KKK to find out what really happened. Even darker is Out of Darkness, Ashley Hope Pérez’s award-winning novel built around a historical school bombing in Texas. A word of warning: while the protagonists are sweet, and deeply in love, this one is a tragedy. (Pérez has other books that are not quite so tragic; they all look pretty good.)

The newest Captain America on the block, Sam Wilson, must also make an appearance; he is a true Captain America of our age, like Luke Cage a heroic Black man, standing, as it were, not only for that old, trite saying of truth, justice, and the American way, but for an American way that includes liberté, égalité, and fraternité: one in which racism will surely one day fall beneath his boot—or perhaps beneath Misty Knight’s. M. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel features another bright young hero, Kamala Khan, Pakistani-American teenager by day, superhero by night. There’s the new Black Panther…and the Avengers have assembled to fight white supremacy. (I think I am going to just go ahead and order that one, actually.)

And, on this theme of superheroes who look like the country at large (check out the adventures of Super Indian while you’re at it! And, coming soon, a whole comic book about Choctaw code talkers!), don’t forget mild-mannered Hank Chu, just trying to do his thing in China Town, LA…while being a superhero at night. Gene Luen Yang has told his story in The Shadow Hero, and it is definitely worth a read. Hank is heroic and an angsty teenager…and he must contend with racism and even class issues as he navigates both his day-time life and his superhero world, into which his mother, who has a thing for superheroes, has thrust him. (Well, also an old deal his father made—but you’ll have to read it to find that part out.)

Shadow Hero is really important to me for a couple of reasons. The first is super simple and not deeply emotional: I liked it. The second is deeper, harder to explain, and deeply emotional. The building of my childhood was quite diverse; if it was majority-anything, it was majority-Asian—but there the majorities tended to fall away, as there were people from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, China, Taiwan, Korea, Mongolia, Indonesia, the Philippines. I didn’t realize, because I was a clueless kid, that there was anything unusual about this; it was something I accepted, just like I accepted the decades-long cold war between my grandmother and her next-door neighbor. I was pretty old—I think I was in high school—before I ran into anti-Asian slurs for the first time. I was, in short, pretty clueless about what Yang describes in his brilliant, moving graphic novel American-Born Chinese. In truth, in case you’re wondering, I still feel badly that I was so clueless about what my best friends must have been living. Never again, guys.

For, la, it is a tapestry. Scene 6, Bayeux Tapestry. Wikimedia Commons.

There are so many more books than what I have listed here; so many authors, to be discovered, read, and cherished. As a Hyde Parker, my America doesn’t look like this country of which I’ve heard too many, lately, speak; I would argue that what makes us great—if, indeed, we are great—are all the threads that make up the tapestry that is us. Tapestries are amazing things, you know: textile art of the highest order, in which every single yarn is chosen with care, and every single piece tells its own story. At a glance, unless one knows something about fiber arts, one probably won’t even notice all the variances that make up a great tapestry. But up close, on careful inspection, one might begin to see.

Fiber art: Peruvian Chimu Mantle, possibly c. 1000-15th century. Wikipedia.

I’ve never cared for the “melting pot” analogy; everything melted together is ugly. But, fashioned as a sort of tapestry, well, our differences make us stunning. And so I present this incomplete list of books which delve into, and celebrate, so many of the threads that make up our American tapestry.

Happy Endings for Teens and Older

Everything sucks; perhaps you only want to read super-happy stuff set in our super-diverse and beautiful world. Maybe some of these will fit the bill.

 Additional Resources


1 For more information on bullying, see any or all of the following studies: