Tag Archives: Literature

Which Books Have Opened Up Your Mind?

12 Feb

Americanah(Image Sarah Mirk used under CC 2.0 via)

 

As the lists of hate crimes compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Slate and The New York Times prove every week, bigotry in the United States persists. (As noted before, statistics on hate crimes here in Germany are hardly more heartening.) As debates over the best way to stem such crimes abound, a judge in Virginia has ordered a group of minors found guilty of defacing a historic black schoolhouse to spend the next year reading one book each month about various human rights struggles and to write a report on each, analyzing it in both historical and modern contexts.

She was given the idea by prosecutor Alejandra Rueda, who told the Times: “It occurred to me that the way these kids are going to learn about this stuff is if they read about it, more than anything. Yes, they could walk into court and plead guilty and get put on probation and do some community service, but it wasn’t really going to bring the message home.” The books from which they can choose are:

1) The Color Purple by Alice Walker
2) Native Son by Richard Wright
3) Exodus by Leon Uris
4) Mila 18 by Leon Uris
5) Trinity by Leon Uris
6) My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
7) The Chosen by Chaim Potok
8) The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
9) Night by Elie Wiesel
10) The Crucible by Arthur Miller
11) The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
12) A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
13) Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
14) The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
15) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
16) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
17) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
18) Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
19) Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle
20) The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
21) A Hope in the Unseen by Ron Suskind
22) Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas
23) Black Boy by Richard Wright
24) The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates
25) The Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt
26) The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
27) Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
28) The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang
29) Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
30) The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
31) The Help by Kathryn Stockett
32) Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
33) Too Late the Phalarope by Alan Paton
34) A Dry White Season by André Brink
35) Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides

My own personal recommendations would include Jubilee by Margaret Walker, Trash by Dorothy Allison and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, since they contributed profoundly to opening my world view to perspectives and experiences I had never before considered. Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi and Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum were among the first nationally acclaimed novels I read that credibly portrayed experiences of physical disability. Please share any titles missing from the list that have had a similar effect on you in the comments.

 

 

 

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What Makes A Story “Depressing”?

24 May

I recently read Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum, winner of the PEN Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction and several other accolades. When describing it to friends as a story told from the perspectives of patients and staff at an institution for severely disabled minors, I got a common response: “Well, that sounds like a fun read!”

I will perhaps never fully grasp what distinguishes a depressing story that brings you down from a great drama that hooks you from the start. The bestselling books in the English language are about a boy who must face down his parents’ killer, a girl who spends hours in her lover’s Red Room of Pain, and a high schooler who can’t wait to have a monster baby with an emotionally disturbed vampire. Crime shows and novels continue to be wildly popular through the generations. If you turned on the closed captioning for most of the top-grossing films of the last 30 years, you would be reading, “[scary music],” every few minutes.

Why do we embrace all this while believing that a book that starts off with the rants of a teen in a wheelchair might be too heavy to handle?

Of course, realistic portrayals of suffering pack a far more visceral punch than contrived ones. Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Wars will widely be perceived as less distressing than The Piano and Love Is Strange because, despite their carnage, the adventure stories never get inside their victims’ heads. Touchy-feely tales embraced by mass audiences tend to have happy endings, or at least the satisfying downfall of an easily identifiable villain. This is why, as Salon’s book critic Laura Miller has pointed out, a story is schlocky and sentimental insofar as it lies to the audience.

And Good Kings Bad Kings does not lie to its audience. I embarrassingly ended up having to conceal tears streaming down my cheeks while sitting on a bus as I read about one particularly beguiling character who (SPOILER ALERT) dies after getting third-degree burns in the shower due to human error and then catching pneumonia after surgery. I can attest that such a tragic scene is representative of reality, not sheer melodrama. I lived in a pediatric hospital for five months when I was a pre-teen, and the next year I learned that one of my friends had died after his breathing apparatus failed due to human error, and another one had died from catching pneumonia after surgery.

Living at that hospital was far from easy. As I’ve written before, listening to others share their realities in group therapy was one of the most humbling experiences I’ve ever had. But while the human fear of death and suffering is rational and something I never lost, living alongside the patients did knock down many of my fears of illness and disability that were irrational.

Within a few weeks on the ward, I was no longer disconcerted at the sight of head injuries, tracheostomy tubes, stumps, or burned faces. At first I stared. Many of the owners stared back at me and my Ilizarov fixators. We all stared at anyone with a condition we hadn’t seen before. And sometimes we stared at each other’s wheelchairs out of envy. But the constant exposure soon rendered such features as mundane to us as glasses, braces, and freckles. We were used to it. What is the harm in allowing the rest of the world to get used to it, both through inclusion in society and representation in books and film?

As a study published in Science found, reading literary fiction makes you more emotionally intelligent. As The New York Times reported, “This was true even though, when asked, subjects said they did not enjoy literary fiction as much. Literary fiction readers also scored better than nonfiction readers — and popular fiction readers made as many mistakes as people who read nothing.” The results are unsurprising when literary fiction distinguishes itself from popular fiction by avoiding formulas and stereotypes. We’ve already seen that avoiding stereotypes fosters more creative, innovative thinking. Now it makes us better at understanding each other, too.

Indeed, literature provides characters who are realistic because they are just as complex as we all are. Realistic characters don’t make us the readers like them. They make us understand them, while simultaneously being a little bothered by them because we recognize their faults and selfish impulses in ourselves. In other words, a great literary feat doesn’t show you good people triumphing over the bad. It shows you how and why we hurt each other.

The harm in Good Kings Bad Kings is not wrought by cackling villains upon innocent angels. It comes from the fear, anger, and selfishness easily recognizable in everyday life. And it is visited upon disabled people who are not dying to escape their diagnoses but who are sick of the condition our society has left them in. As Susan Nussbaum writes in her afterword:

I used to wonder where all the writers who have used disabled characters so liberally in their work were doing their research. When I became a wheelchair-user in the late seventies, all I knew about being disabled I learned from reading books and watching movies, and that scared the shit out of me. Tiny Tim was long-suffering and angelic and was cured in the end. Quasimodo was a monster who loved in vain and was killed in the end, but it was for the best. Lenny [in Of Mice and Men] was a child who killed anything soft, and George had to shoot him. It was a mercy killing. Ahab [in Moby Dick] was a bitter amputee and didn’t care how many died in his mad pursuit to avenge himself on a whale. Laura Wingfield [in The Glass Menagerie] had a limp, so no man would ever love her…

None of the characters I write about are particularly courageous or angelic or suicidal, bitter for their fate, ashamed to be alive, apt to kill anyone because they have an intellectual or psychiatric disability, or dreaming of being cured or even vaguely concerned with being cured.

And that’s what makes realistic portrayals of disabled people so significant. Not for the sake of inspiration porn. Not to make us proud of how good we have it. But to welcome disabled people’s lives, stories, and perspectives into the arts and therein mainstream society.

The assumption that a story about severely disabled characters must be overwhelmingly upsetting is precisely the mentality that marginalizes severely disabled people. If we won’t read their stories because they’re too sad, we’re not very likely to know how to approach them in real life.

And for all its lines about the importance of realistic stories for the sake of galvanizing greater empathy, The New York Times never reviewed Nussbaum’s award-winning book.

 

 

Note to Artists Who Aren’t Günter Grass: Dwarfs Aren’t Children

19 Apr

La petite Géante(Image by Marc H used under CC license via)

 

German author and Nobel laureate Günter Grass passed away this week. His most celebrated work, The Tin Drum, is the story of a German boy living before, during and after the Nazi era, who decides he does not want to join the preposterously nonsensical world of adults and therefore is determined to stop growing. He throws himself down the stairs and successfully stunts his growth. Later he meets a dwarf circus performer named Bebra and joins up with him, performing on the Western front for German officers and eventually having an affair with Bebra’s lover, who also has dwarfism. The book, which involves far more storylines than I have adumbrated here, has justly earned nearly universal praise, and the 1979 film adaptation won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and the grand prize at Cannes.

The Tin Drum is a story of magical realism that instrumentalizes dwarfism in a complex way. “Our kind must never sit in the audience,” says Bebra, “Our kind must perform and run the show or the others will run us. The others are coming. They will occupy the fairgrounds. They will stage torchlight parades, build rostrums, fill the rostrums, and from those rostrums preach our destruction.” These statements are loaded, ominously referencing dwarf entertainers like the Ovitz family who were being treated like lab rats by Dr. Mengele at Auschwitz. Günter Grass came to prominence as a leading voice in the Vergangenheitsbewältigung movement that broke the silence about his country’s crimes. Any failure to illustrate the reality of dwarfs during the Holocaust years echoes the many tales of Medieval and Early Modern courts that portray dwarf servants and jesters merely as part of the scenery while saying nothing about the fact that these people were, to put it bluntly, slaves traded among the aristocracy, sometimes in cages.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “Hopfrog,” written in 1849, is one of the few tales to allude to these human rights abuses. In 1992, the PBS American Playhouse program adapted the story as Fool’s Fire. (I was invited to audition for the part of the protagonist’s little sister. My acting career ended thereafter.) Director Julie Taymore made the decision to portray the average-sized characters in monster-like masks and the dwarf characters without.

This make-up treatment was the precise opposite of how the directors of the Harry Potter films would later chose to portray dwarf actor Warwick Davis’s goblin characters alongside the humans. In addition to miserly goblins and slave-like elves, the Harry Potter books include dwarf characters. They are mentioned in passing as “raucous dwarfs” in a pub in the third book and reinforce the servant trope when they are dressed up like Cupid and sent through the school delivering valentines in the second book. One must wonder why the author felt the need to include them at all. They represent, if anything, yet another point at which J.K. Rowling’s chef d’oeuvre fails to be nearly as progressive as she seems to think it is.

It’s never fun to get upset about all this.  Size can be a genuinely magical idea worth playing with (as seen above).  But genuine upset tends to grow the longer it goes unacknowledged. In college I took a writing workshop where we were encouraged to write about sensitive, taboo, and offensive words. The N-word and the C-word were brought up almost immediately, and I decided to demand a debate about the M-word for dwarfs.  One of my classmates pointed out, “The problem with rude stuff said about dwarfs is that it doesn’t strike us as offensive or controversial. It strikes us as funny.”

Exactly. We’re too amusing to be seen as victims. Our human rights cannot be violated because we are not fully human.

The Tin Drum is all about humanity and employs absurdist characters and events for harrowing, not hilarious effects. It is a complex novel, as is Stones from the River, a German-American war story I am inclined to prefer because the protagonist is a non-magical dwarf. After being arrested for taking a crack at the swatstika, she is hauled before a judge who reminds her that she can’t afford to speak out against Nazism when people like her are prime targets for eugenics researchers.

While The Tin Drum did not invent the idea of comparing children and dwarfs, it would be nice were it the only example of it. This has hardly been the case. It’s a gag nearly every person with dwarfism has heard for the umpteenth time. The Simpsons have done it. The brilliant comedy team Mitchell and Webb have done it. After my third-grade class watched Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, my teacher pointed out—or perhaps conceded—that the Oompa-Loompas were portrayed by people who had dwarfism just like I did. One of my classmates said, “Oh no, they might have just have been children.” I looked at her cock-eyed, thinking, How can you not tell a dwarf from a child?

The fate of the main character in the crime-comedy In Bruges hinges on the villain mistaking a dwarf’s corpse for that of a child. The joke already appears earlier in the film, when the dwarf in question explains that he’s been hired to appear in a school boy’s uniform in a cinematic dream sequence and rolls his eyes at it. This sort of we-make-the-joke-but-also-make-fun-of-it-so-that-makes-okay schtick is reminiscent of Ricky Gervais’s Life’s Too Short, of which one critic at The Quietus aptly said:

Perhaps this is some triple-axle attempt at post-post-postmodern irony, an ultra-sophisticated comedic in-joke that has tied itself up in such obscure knots it only seems crass to the un-knowing, the obtuse. Well, that’d be me because from where I’m sitting it looks like we’re supposed to be laughing at a guy for being too short.

It’s unfortunate because I really love In Bruges. Just as I love Willy Wonka and That Mitchell and Webb Look. Call it cynical, call it ironic, call it hilarious, but in these cases and so many others, deleting the dwarf characters would have allowed me to enjoy myself completely.