Truth in Literature

There is no such thing as truth and yet there is, undoubtably, because we’ve given this mystifying word space to grow. But I imagine that truth is, by now, a tired and weathered line, tugged by definitions as pigheaded as their creators.

“Truth,” one will claim, “is this.”

“But no,” another will say, “truth is not that, rather, it is this.”

“I,” the first will say, “assure you that you are wrong.”

Poor truth, I think, how exhausted and defeated that dubious word must feel, watching quarrels erupt time and time again over the nature of its meaning. But of course we quarrel. After all, we rely on truth to define ourselves, our lives, our purpose. We seek truth in all aspects of our lives. We even attempt to define truth within illusory contexts. Children know that Santa Claus is real, or at least, for sometime these alternate truths provide a reliable narrative. But it’s no wonder that the first word to follow Santa Claus when conducting an internet search is “real.” At some point or another, we all begin to question what is true and the word begins to break down.

I am going to admit (and I am somewhat ashamed of this fact) that up until now I’d never read anything by Carol Shields. This week, I read The Stone Diaries, a novel published in 1993 that tells the story of a woman’s life, a woman referred to as Daisy Goodwill, Mrs. Flett, Dee, Mother, Grandmother, Aunt Daisy, Daze and Mrs. Green Thumb. Each chapter offers rumination on the distinct stages of her life: childhood, marriage, widowhood, remarriage, motherhood and old age.

The book is very much a biography. In its opening pages, the reader is provided with an elaborate family tree. In the middle of the book are several pages of photographs. Daisy’s parents, her children, her late husband. The reader will wonder:

“Is this not a work of fiction? ”

“Perhaps,” they will think, “I am mistaken but yet I swear… the book was organized under “fiction” at that bookstore off 17th Avenue and 14th Street.”

“Perhaps,” they will think again, “the book was misplaced.”

But the reader will soon realize that it simply doesn’t matter. Daisy Goodwill is as “real” as real can be. It’s been a long time since I’ve become emotional over a book and I’ve grown somewhat attached, irrational and bewildered. Joy, sadness and angst permeate my thoughts. The book clings to me as I cling to it.

“Alice shut up!” I scream in my head. Her mulish ways have begun to gnaw on my nerves. I want to tear the pages and yet, some years later, I love Alice dearly, so much I can barely stand it. So again, here I am, my heart is beating. I am convinced of Mrs. Flett’s sorrow and when Beverly calls Warren “a drip,” I want to cry. Ink is sneaky. Clever. How “true” these characters feel. They feed on empathy, gain enough strength to walk from the page and declare a reality of their own.

So we may quarrel as much as we like over the meaning of “truth” but the only “truth” I know is that which I believe, that which sneaks into my life and forces me to feel. The only “truth” I know is my own version of “truth,.” This is not to say I’m not influenced by others. I will forever feel influenced by Daisy Goodwill, making her, in many ways, a “truth” that straddles the line between fiction and reality.

To conclude with a quote from The Stone Diaries. Shields writes:

“The real and the illusory whirl about her bedroom in smooth-dripping waltz-time- one, two, three; one, two, three. On and on she goes.”

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On Marian Engel’s Controversial Novella “Bear” and the Role of Taboos in Literature

This book was published in the 1970’s but still gleans as one of Canada’s most disputed and beloved novellas. Despite its aging existence, Bear is an incredibly controversial gem of a book and thus its content continues to reverberate on the fringes of our society. The book deals with highly sexual content so this post will include a discussion on the roles taboos play in literature.

In sum, Bear is the story of Lou, a librarian who moves to Cary Island for a summer to catalogue the deceased Colonel Jocelyn Cary’s library. On the island Lou lives alone, except for a domesticated bear who’s inhabited the land for years. Lou soon forms a relationship with the bear that initially appears friendly but soon blossoms into an erotic relationship.

I recently reread this book for a class. I was sitting in a seminar when I pulled up Bear on Google Books during a break. A classmate sitting next to me widened her eyes, apologized for peering over my shoulder and proceeded to describe her shock in regards to the book’s content. Of course bestiality is shocking, even in a world that attempts to explore taboos within literature, so I was not surprised by her response. The first time I read the book I also felt shocked (I didn’t know what it was about when I first read it and was certainly taken aback) and frankly, I still feel shock in the re-reading of it. This does not, however, diminish the quality of the writing nor does it dissolve the narrative. The novella is filled with delicate, poignant, gruesome and sparkling images, some of which are so vivid they’ll stop you in your tracks.

They went berrying together in the woods. He pawed the ripe raspberries greedily into his maw. She saved hers like soft jewels in an old Beehive Honey tin with a bindertwine handle she found in the shed.

She lit the gas-lamp in the kitchen easily enough: held a match to it, turned its key, and heard it pop softly alight. Under its warm glow she filled the kettle with a dipper from a graniteware pail of water by the sink. The water was cold and smelled of sulphur. The house was cold now too.

Now, in analyzing this short piece of fiction, readers differ in opinions. Such controversial material is a sure way to spark debate. Some consider Bear to be one of Canada’s greatest fictional works. Others view this novel as a work focused on raw sex scenes that illuminate a dark taboo. But Bear is far more than a highly erotic novel focused on a woman’s sexual relationship with a bear. The story explores themes that are fundamentally intertwined with the human experience, themes such as rejection, loneliness and guilt.

First of all, I’d like to argue that taboos are themselves a kind of cultural cage, a place to send banished ideas or experiences, many of which deal with human sexuality. So I believe that literature attempts to take these cages and dismantle them, then observe how those detained notions interact with society. Because this book was written in the 1970’s some argue that it embodies a form of second-wave feminist literature in an era when female writers were celebrating women’s sexual liberation.

One of my first impressions of this book is drawn from a comparison I noted between the experience she shared with the bear and sexual experiences shared with men. In one scene, Lou sleeps with a man whose name is Homer. Homer finishes, says “thank you” and leaves. In contrast, the scenes with the bear provoke discomfort yet they frame one who “gives” rather than “takes.” So how do we interpret this kind of material? Is there a message here? Certainly the emotional complication of loving one who cannot or will not love you back crawls to the forefront and begs attention.

I’ve often contemplated what would happen if this book were to replace the bear with a man. We’d see a women plagued by loneliness, who falls in love but feels heartbroken by his inability to provide her with what she desires. We’ve seen this kind of plot and yet the presence of a bear in this narrative has more effectively triggered conversations pertaining to women’s sexual loneliness and/or guilt. So is Engel using bestiality, a longtime taboo, to illuminate a more common struggle? Is she attempting to capture our attention? There is no clear answer, but instead a myriad of speculations. She is definitely questioning the impact of sexual relationships on our perception of love. As Lou begins to admit she loves the bear and reminisces on sexual and romantic experiences with men, her sense of isolation is deepened. Meanwhile, Engel may be exploring the ways in which one’s understanding of love is corroded by sexual cravings that overwhelm rational thought.

Because what she disliked in men was not their eroticism, but their assumption that women had none. Which left women with nothing to be but housemaids.

Perhaps this is an indicator that some time has passed since the book’s publication. A discussion in the back of the book asks: How do you think the reading public’s reaction to this novel would have differed had it been published now as opposed to in 1976?

In my opinion, I think the reason this book is still being taught and discussed is because women and sex is still a hot topic. Magazines continue to feature women owning their bodies, taking control of their sex lives or pushing for equal recognition in the workplace despite a pushback against “white liberal feminism.” Nevertheless, Bear attempts to break taboos by portraying a form of sexual liberation that may be interpreted literally of metaphorically. Either way, this book explores women and sex and is, therefore, still relevant.

Oh, she was lonely, inconsolably lonely; it had been years since she had had human contact. She had always been bad at finding it. It was as if men knew her soul was gangrenous. Ideas were all very well, and she could hide in her work, forgetting for a while the real meaning of the Institute, where the Director fucked her weekly on her desk while both of them pretended they were shocking the Government and she knew in her heart that what he wanted was not her waning flesh but elegant, eighteenth-century keyholes, of which there was a shortage in Ontario.

I admit, despite the weird responses I usually get, that this is one of my favourite books. I do believe it raises relevant questions in addition to providing some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever come across. Note, I am a sucker for CanLit, which Bear represents wonderfully. Hazlit’s take on CanLit, a genre sometimes criticized for an over reliance on nature, did give me a good laugh though: “imagine a CanLit drinking game in which you have to empty your glass every time you read the words, ‘the sound of the loon cry.'” I must concede, though I don’t personally feel bothered by this detail, Bear does rely on landscape to mirror emotion in a very “Canadian” way.

Another important emotion explored in Bear, which I mentioned above, is guilt. Guilt, I believe, is one of the most corroding human emotions belonging to our emotional repertoire. Lou feels immense guilt, especially as she moves forward in her relationship with the bear. Despite loving the bear, she knows she has engaged in a social wrong, demonstrating her shame in various ways throughout the course of the narrative. “She remembered guilt” is written on the second to last page, so while Bear in a sense attempts to justify, it also recalls the rigidness of taboos and their effect on the human psyche.

Bear is certainly filled with some awkward and disturbing scenes but if you’re particularly drawn to Canadian or feminist literature I definitely suggest taking a read. As I said, Bear is one of my favourites, not only because it is filled with content that can be peeled and examined microscopically but because of Engel’s superb writing.

If you’ve read Bear and would like to share your thoughts, please drop a comment below.

Ruminations on the Nature of Sadness in Poetry

I love poetry. It’s hard to pick a favourite poem but if forced, I’d perhaps choose Blue Bird by Charles Bukowski (That or The Weight of Oranges.) I’ve listened to this poem more times than I can count and yet every line still hurts, stirs sadness. In poetry, poets often share their fascination or preoccupation with sadness. It’s an enigma, this draw to despondency… an ironic love and yet it persists.

What intrigues me most is how writers use poetry (though other genres are fair contenders too) to explore what aches, what is tender and violent. In Bukowski’s poem he writes “I do not weep,” and yet the poem is imbued with emotions difficult to pinpoint… regret, perhaps? It is, nevertheless, melancholic and confessional. The words themselves seem to weep.

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
he’s
in there.

-Excerpt from Bluebird

A link to “Bluebird”

But are poems always sad? No. But are they predominantly sorrowful? This I’ve debated with many fellow writers, pulling collections off my shelves and it seems true that many are nostalgic, wistful, infused with heartache, political despair or sexual frustration, anger or regret.

I have found that some of the most common perceptions regarding poetry is that poems are sad, boring, must rhyme or useless. It’s difficult to define a poem, especially when explored outside the confines of conventional style. Of course there are poems that rhyme… there are eye rhymes and slant rhymes and rich rhymes among others. And like anything, there are poems that are boring to one and enthralling to another.I believe that one of the leading reasons people understand poems to be boring or reliant on rhyme is because of how they’re taught… but that poems are always sad? This conception intrigues me. In fact, I feel slightly troubled by it. Like I said, I love poems, but when I think about my favourite poems they are, indeed, quite sad. I can’t help but wonder why. I suppose a poem is home to emotions that have no where else to go and so often those lost and confused emotions are unhappy.

When asked to think of a “happy poet” the first who comes to mind is Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning poet.

Below is a poem of Oliver’s titled “Breakage”

I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred—
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the moisture gone.
It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
       full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.

 

I do not believe that poetry requires gloom or overt intensity to become treasurable. Poetry, in my mind, is an extension of our perception- perception that, in some cases, frames sadness, in others, the world’s smallest, most colourful details.

Nevertheless, I also believe that poetry is, in a sense, a kind of writerly compass. I know I have personally come to terms with many events or navigated difficult times through writing (admittedly, poems) and as a result, those poems are often weighted by own sense of confusion, loss or fear.

Another consideration…  what do we think is “sad”? A poem, for example, like Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise, was inspired by horror and oppression (for those of you unfamiliar with Angelou, she was an Afro-American poet and civil rights activist- someone worth checking out) and yet the poem of which I speak provokes hope and ambition.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

-Excerpt from Still I Rise

So many poems totter on this dichotomy, a dichotomy wherein sadness and hope become family, dependent and yet competitive.

I am making it a goal of mine to discover more “happy” poets or poems so as to further develop my understanding of how poetry relates to all emotion so please feel free to drop a comment below if you have any poems/poets/ideas you’d like to share!

 

 

Perspectives: A Brief Analysis of Chinua Achebe’s Critical Novel “Things Fall Apart”

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The post-colonial novel Things Fall Apart, by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, serves as an analysis of early colonial encounters. The book bears witness to the cultural collision experienced by members of Igbo society upon the arrival of European missionaries.

The collision resulted in a monumental shift wherein Igbo tradition came under imperial threat. Religion, gender and family form a thematic triad in which personal and communal identity is examined through omniscient narration. As reflected in the novel, British imposition deeply challenged this triad and Achebe makes a point of analyzing just how far these traditions were pushed. The narrative relies on omniscient third person narration, which allows the writer to limit bias and provide a sweeping depiction of European influence on the traditions of Igbo society.

Okonkwo’s tragic downfall may extend beyond his unfaltering renunciation of British colonial rule. One could argue that Okonkwo’s character represents the aching hearts of African peoples whose identifies were affected by colonialism. Okonkwo’s decision to end his life speaks to the suppressive nature of colonial rule, a rule so commonly accompanied by violent means or ends.

While the novel introduces readers to elements of Igbo culture, namely agricultural methods, marital structures, religion and gender roles, Things Fall Apart is set in a complex historical period. Understanding the context in which the novel was conceptualized will thoroughly enhance one’s understanding of its themes and its overall premise.

Furthermore, the novel avoids drawing false comparisons between pre and post modern cultures. Achebe recognizes the ways in which Igbo culture changed with European arrival, but he also recognized that the effects of colonization would haunt the memories and traditions of Igbo peoples long after decolonization (Gikandi 1996). While interpretations of colonial ideologies often sketch African cultures as “primitive,” (such as when the District Commissioner decides to name his book “Pacification of the Primitive,”(Achebe 2000: 148) it is important to consider Igbo culture as a culture with its own ideas, values and history. Achebe makes a particularly strong case for recalling African History.

One of the novel’s most striking components may be its exploration of missiology. The reader witnesses a cultural transformation following the introduction of Christianity. Interestingly, Chinua Achebe provides little context in regards to the surprising relationship between Igbo society and the Christian missionaries. Perhaps the most notable representation of this relationship is in Nwoye’s conversion. In chapter sixteen, Achebe writes: “The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul” (Achebe, 1962: 104). The question that nagged at Nwoye was that of Ikemefuna’s murder. Here, Achebe appears to argue that the conflicts were not necessarily obvious; some were far more complex in the ways they undermined long believed ideologies.

Although many Igbos converted, (hence rejecting the long believed supremacy of Chukwu) the most devastating effect was, arguably, not the rejection of Igbo traditions, but how that rejection led to the sundering of Igbo society. In chapter eighteen, “the spirit of war was upon them” (Achebe, 1962: 113). Okonkwo felt determined to chase the Christians from his village in order to restore peace but was met with resistance from some of his own peoples. The ideological split shakes the narrative and promotes tension. “It is not our custom to fight for our gods,” says one of Okonkwo’s fellow men, to which Okonkwo replies, “let us not reason like cowards” (Achebe, 1962: 113). Although the dialogue reads as a straightforward dispute, the subtext speaks to a larger issue. Achebe effectively highlights how colonial interference undermined Igbo unity and sense of identity. In saying that “it is not our custom” readers can conclude that some Igbo customs may have arisen out of unspoken habits or assumptions.

A reader might, in this sketch, note the ways in which colonization brought about new ideas. Though the effects these ideas would have on Igboland proved devastating, it is worth being tactful in one’s historiographical approach. It is far easier to look at events in retrospect and understand how those events unfolded, but it is more difficult to understand why they happened the way they did. For instance, nearer to the British Annexation of Igboland, colonial relations begin to break down and the Ekumeku movement attempts to halt British Imperialism, a movement that embodies much of what Okonkwo’s character called for (Ohadike, 1996).

In this sense, Things Fall Apart touches on complex ideals or historical events but withholds much of what the reader would need to contextualize characters actions and comments. For instance, why do some Igbo peoples readily adopt Christian doctrines and not others? The answer to this question is certainly multi-faceted, but a possible answer might be found in considering trade relationships versus the desire to preserve identity. In the nineteenth century, trade posts were established throughout Igboland to support increasing demands for palm oil. The trade proved lucrative and many Igbo communities welcomed British colonists and missionaries into their villages, unaware of the dangers their culture would end up facing (Ohadike, 1996).

Things Fall Apart provides insight into some of Nigeria’s most pivotal moments. Many aspects of traditional Igbo culture are incorporated into the writing and repeated throughout the narrative. The drinking of palm wine, meditations on gender roles and status, the sowing of yams or time spent in the Obi are a few examples. In their reiteration, the reader can conclude that such traditions were long practiced and deeply ingrained in Igbo society. Hence, Things Fall Apart, provides depictions of colonial effects from a multitude of angles and character perspectives. Their ensuing military, religious, economic and gendered responses thoroughly capture Igboculture before and during colonial rule.

 

Bibliography:

Achebe, Chinua. 2000. Things Fall Apart: African Writers Series. Berkshire: Cox & Wyman Ltd.

Gikandi, Simon 1996. “Chinua Achebe and the Invention of African Literature,” in African Writers Series, Things Fall Apart, pp. ix – xix). Berkshire: Cox & Wyman Ltd.

Ohadike, Don 1996. “Igbo Culture and History,” in African Writers Series, Things Fall Apart, pp. ix – xix). Berkshire: Cox & Wyman Ltd.