America in Progress

America in Progress
America in Progress

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

June 25, 2019: 21st Century Lit: The Underground Railroad


[In honor of my about-to-conclude grad class on Analyzing 21st Century America, a series on great recent literary works, with the same Af Am lit through-line that I brought to the class!]
On when anachronisms don’t work, when they do, and how to parse the difference.
As I wrote in this post a few years back, my unhappy reading of Charles Johnson’s National Book Award-winning historical novel Middle Passage (1990) was one of my more surprising literary experiences, given how many elements of the novel seemed geared to my particular interests and passions. That unhappiness stemmed almost entirely from Johnson’s use of anachronisms, purposefully a-historical words and details (focused especially on his narrator Rutherford Calhoun’s voice, perspective, and identity) that thoroughly pushed me out of the novel’s historical setting and themes (despite Johnson’s stated goal of “clos[ing] the distance between the past and the present” with those anachronisms). While of course much of that response has to do with my own personal perspective and preferences, I argued in that post—and would reiterate here—that such anachronisms risk damaging the project and potential power of historical fiction; or, at the very least, place the emphasis so fully on the “fiction” side of that generic category as to render their novels not at all “historical” in the more meaningful senses of that term.
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016), the historical novel that was awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (among its many honors to date), has more than its share of such anachronisms. The literal railroad on which slave runaways like our protagonists Cora and Caesar travel in the novel’s antebellum world isn’t quite an anachronism, although of course it’s a metaphorical twist on the Underground Railroad’s historical details. But each stop and setting along that journey does explicitly and drastically shift those characters, and thus the novel’s readers, in time—beginning with a Charleston, South Carolina that features skyscrapers and medical experiments on African Americans, and continuing through a number of other such time period shifts that I won’t spoil here (but that eventually include 21st century elements). I had found out about those elements of Whitehead’s novel prior to reading it, and was thus prepared for a similar experience to that of reading Johnson’s book (although I likely would have minded Johnson’s anachronisms a bit less had I been aware of them going in). But that wasn’t at all the case—I found The Underground Railroad to be not only moving and shattering, beautiful and awful, but also one of the most evocative and effective historical novels or cultural works about slavery I’ve ever encountered.
You could make the case that my very distinct experience here had to do, again, with my preparation for these elements; or with the undeniable fact that I’m a different reader at 41 than I was at 13 (meaning I should likely give Johnson’s novel another chance). Both of those are fair points to be sure, but I would also argue that Whitehead uses these shifts in time in a more comprehensive and even genre-related way than did Johnson. Indeed, I would argue that Whitehead’s novel has more in common with Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), as both could be described as works that use science fiction tropes and storytelling both to immerse their audiences in histories of slavery and to link those histories to broader themes of race, identity, memory, and nation. While Kindred’s science fiction story takes a contemporary woman back in time to the antebellum South, and Whitehead’s brings historical characters from that setting across and forward in time to many other moments (including his and our own), both works employ their genres in service of a deep and potent examination of the specific and overarching histories. The question of whether and how any 21st century American can truly understand the world of slavery remains an open one; but both Butler’s and Whitehead’s books offer groundbreaking, genre-bending, impressive contributions to that ongoing challenge.
Next 21C text tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other recent literary works you’d highlight?

Monday, June 24, 2019

June 24, 2019: 21st Century Lit: Americanah


[In honor of my about-to-conclude grad class on Analyzing 21st Century America, a series on great recent literary works, with the same Af Am lit through-line that I brought to the class!]
Two of the many reasons why Americanah (2013) is on the short list of most important 21st century American novels to date.
Part of me feels that the best use to which I could put this post on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah would be simply to implore you to go out and read it as soon as possible. I’m not promising that you’ll love it as much as I do—I know at least one AmericanStudier’s madre who was not particularly blown away by it, and of course as the Romans knew de gustibus non est disputandum—but I believe I can promise that you’ll find it a unique novel that’s as engaging and readable as it is important and innovative, a page-turner that’s also literary fiction of the highest order. So first and foremost, check it out, and if and when you do—or if you’ve already read it and have thoughts on it right now—please share your review and perspective in comments!
Without spoiling any specific aspects of Adichie’s novel, however (a great deal of the pleasure lies in discovering her characters, plots, and themes), I do want to make the case here for two particular elements that make the novel as important as it is. The more obvious element, and a vital part of Adichie’s novel in every sense, is its transnational, dual settings of Nigeria and America. It’s not just that Adichie’s novel offers a fresh and compelling take on the immigrant experience (although it does), or on the relationship between old and new worlds for its characters (although ditto), or on cultural and ethnic hybridity (yup), or on the fraught relationship between Africans and African Americans (definitely). It’s that she’s written a novel that is deeply reflective of, influenced by, and contributing to our understanding and conversations about both Nigeria and America, two widely distinct worlds that she treats as distinct yet also brings together in potent and convincing ways. I know few other novels that have been able to pull off those joint feats for any two cultures, feats which are so crucial to our fraught global moment, and Adichie’s success there makes her novel hugely impressive and important.
If Americanah is very much of its 21st century moment in its settings and themes, I would argue that it is perhaps even more contemporary in one of its key stylistic elements. Ifemelu, Adichie’s female protagonist, creates a popular blog entitled “Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black,” and Adichie intersperses blog entries of hers throughout and alongside the more conventionally narrated sections of the novel. These blog entries allow Adichie to create a multi-vocal and –perspectival narration and text in a way that feels fresh and engaging, and at the same time to engage specifically and compellingly with questions of digital voice, identity, community, and conversation, and how those do and don’t line up with our more private identities and relationships. It goes without saying that I’m a pretty natural audience for any novel that makes use of blogging in these layered and thoughtful ways, but I believe the questions and forms that this stylistic element allows Adichie to include would be of interest to any and all 21st century readers. A great deal has been made, rightly, of the uniquely 21st century style that Junot Díaz invented for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008), but I would say that Adichie’s version is just as unique and successful, and one more reason why I’m thankful for her must-read novel.
Next 21C text tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other recent literary works you’d highlight?

Saturday, June 22, 2019

June 22-23, 2019: Crowd-sourced Beach Reads


[I’ve got some very talented friends and colleagues. So for this year’s annual Beach Reads series, I wanted to highlight works by friends old and new and colleagues at FSU (I’m a poet and I don’t know it!). Leading up to one of my favorite crowd-sourced posts of the year, featuring the nominations of fellow AmericanStudiers—add yours in comments, please!]
First, one more nomination from me; it wasn’t written by a friend, but it was shared with me by my favorite writer and reader, Ilene Railton: Richard Powers’ wonderful, justifiably acclaimed novel The Overstory (2018).
Ilene also adds another nomination, Normal People by Sally Rooney.
Kent Rosenwald nominates “Black Mountain by Laird Barron, so good I read it twice!”
Jonathan Silverman writes, “For non-fiction: Boom Town by Sam Anderson; Educated by Tara Westover; Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker; Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottleib; Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris; This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett. Also really liked Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker. These are all thoughtful, often funny, well-written, and easy to read (I listened to most of these on audiobook). It's a really good era for serious, interesting non-fiction!” He adds, “And for baseball people, The Only Rule is That It Has to Work by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Anderson is very good.”
Shirley Wagner writes, “If a book doesn’t send me hunting for a recipe or remind me of a recipe or give me a recipe, it probably isn’t calling my name this summer. Frances Mayes’ Women in Sunlight sent me looking for a lemon pistachio pasta recipe. Perfect summer food. Read, eat, read some more!”
Ian Bashaw shares, “The Girl from Aleppo by Nujeen Mustafa was excellent. You’ll finish it in one sitting.”
Lara Schwartz writes, “Just read The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner and loved it.”
Kate Smith highlights “Call Me American by Abdi Iftin. Just because you're on the beach doesn't mean you can't learn and expand your horizons! It's an engrossing, easy (albeit heavy) read, but so very important, especially given the drought and humanitarian crisis in Somalia and the rise of hate crimes against Muslims in the US and abroad.”
Irene Martyniuk shares, “I want to plug international mysteries. Jo Nesbo from Norway is my favorite, although anything from Iceland is usually a good bet (very literary nation). Barbara Nadel has a really sharp series based in Istanbul. The mysteries are great, and she incorporates historical events and the various cultures and religions of the city (Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Yezidi). Top drawer stuff. There are so many great Swedish series—Henning Mankell is terrific to start. Colin Cotterill writes about a coroner in 1970’s Laos. The stories are actually hilarious. And Vaseem Khan’s mysteries set in Mumbai are just plain fun. Unfortunately, for many Asian and Southeastern Asian cultures, the mysteries available in English are written by Europeans but that is slowly changing. And Agatha Christie is always a great beach read.”
Tamara Verhyen writes, “We’re doing a family book club this year. We are all so busy with camp and work and this gives us another way to connect. I mean it’s not summer light reading but we are starting with The Hate U Give. I think its essential reading for a 13 yo girl to read.”
Shelli Homer highlights, “Etaf Rum’s new and first novel: A Woman is No Man.”
Ryan Railton recommends “Dark Tide, about the Boston Molasses disaster!”
And finally, here’s a list of Beach Read recommendations from great contemporary authors!
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What else are you bringing to the beach this year or would you recommend we bring?