Sunday 22 January 2017

Deal Me in Challenge: Blossom: Priestess of Oya, Goddess of Winds, Storms and Waterfall by Dionne Brand

Card Drawn:

Oya: Tempest, Guardian of the Cemetery, Winds of Change, Storms and Progression.

And the winner for the longest short-story title goes to...

Dionne Brand's Blossom makes for a great companion piece to Austin Clarke's Canadian Experience that I read last year for the DMI challenge. Both authors write about the immigrant experience in Canada from an Afro-centric perspective and while they each present the difficulties associated with assimilating into a dominant white culture that promotes systematic oppression, Brand is more optimistic than Clarke, playing with the supernatural in Gothic fiction to reclaim a sense of autonomy for the disenfranchised immigrant rather than victimization. Brand reinvents the "cultural other" by subverting problematic racial stereopyes; more specifically, the "black mad woman" that is a common trope found in Gothic literature, with the most popular example being Bertha from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Madness is racialized and gendered in this novel with Bertha being the archetypal villain from the Caribbean. Insanity is prone to violence and madness does not payoff for Bertha in the end (my apologies to those who have not read this novel but to think that a crazy black woman locked up in an attic will somehow escape unscathed in a 19th century Gothic text would be naive). At the time that Bronte was writing, black people from the colonial islands were seen as cannibals or savages that practiced black magic/voodoo and was therefore one of the many reasons that justified colonialism as a way to bring Christianity to these heathens, cleansing them from evil spirits. However, in Brand's story, the 'black mad woman' motif is not represented negatively but rather as a source of agency reflected in the black immigrant experience. In fact, Brand's depiction of madness is comical and empowering, allowing a new space for cultural identity.

The protagonist, Blossom, is trying to achieve upward social mobility as an immigrant similar to George in Clarke's Canadian Experience but she too fails because of racial discrimination. However, unlike George, she has to deal with female gender barriers. As a struggling immigrant trying to make ends meet, she works in many service positions with one of them being a maid for a white employer who tries to sexually assault her. Of course, as a rich white man, he sees her as his "property" like a slave and is under the impression that there can be consequences for his actions. Wrong! You messed with the wrong black woman, dude. Blossom resists her attacker by grabbing his neck in a similar way Bertha attacks Rochester in Jane Eyre. This assault precipitates Blossom's madness that develops into an act of rebellion, bringing about real resistance to white hegemony. It is also ironic that she calls on a Christian God to ask for help. In a rather funny scene, Blossom and her friends begin protesting in front of the white man's house with picket signs, proclaiming that he is a rapist, which obviously draws a lot of attention in this rich white neighborhood. Hence, resistance through madness.

Later on, we find out that Blossom is having marital problems with a deadbeat husband and during one of their fights, she chases him down the street with a bread-knife, threatening to cut off his genitals. Once again, Brand infuses comedy within the serious subject matter,  Blossom's madness continuing to be a type of emotional and spiritual release from societal pressures. Madness is a vehicle to independence and catharsis; a way of negotiating pain. She is not a woman silenced by society like Bertha and will fight back until she eventually "blossoms" into an Obeah woman (a clever play on words by Brand), which refers to a Caribbean woman who practices black magic or sorcery. For Blossom, this spiritual transformation is redemptive and signifies a return to cultural origins; an effective strategy to survive immigration. Obeah started as an African practice that was grounded in spiritual cosmology. Just to reiterate a previous point, these foreign cultural practices were seen as forms of sorcery and witchcraft as a means to justify colonial rule (ideologically speaking). Furthermore, Obeah and other spiritual leaders were seen as a threat to colonizers since they had the power to organize revolts so it was imperative to discredit them. Since the Obeah has been negatively represented in Gothic literature, Brand attempts to reclaim it so as to no longer be associated with racist stereotypes through various inversions. For example, the holy spirit in the Pentecostal church turns into Obeah and enters Blossom where she experiences a "glorified vision." She begins speaking in tongues, influenced by the Priestess of Oya, a goddess worshipped in Nigeria associated with wind and renamed Obeah during the slave trade. Ironically, she finds spiritual transcendence in a Christian paradigm. This is a place of light, hope and harmony, not evil as usually depicted in the Gothic tradition. Not only is she able to bring the black community together with her newfound powers but this cultural reclaimation in Blossom gives her further agency. The pain she experiences as a black female immigrant is ultimately redemptive, using black magic to heal and protect others. Her panoramic transcendent vision puts her in direct contact with the marginalized black community and she begins to understand the history of black suffering.

One of the most striking aspects of this story is the Brand's use of language that reflects a West Indies patois and vernacular. The improper use of syntax and grammatical errors, especially with pronouns, are deliberate; a way for Brand to subvert English conventions of language and reclaim a cultural way of speaking. In essence, Blossom is able to write her own narrative without outside influence from the white hegemonic culture. As a poet, Brand delivers a unique form of storytelling that often blurs the line between poetry and prose without compromising the narrative or its thematic concerns. An excellent read.

Sunday 15 January 2017

Deal Me in Challenge: The Cactus by O. Henry

Card Drawn:

It seems what we've got here is a failure to communicate.
O. Henry is a dastardly clever writer and a master of irony in his short-stories. He is often celebrated for his slick prose and "twist endings" (rightly so) but one of his greatest strengths, to me, is the ability convey such powerful emotions without straying into the realm of sappy sentimentalism. Although many readers might find his style to be gimmicky, I have yet to come across any story by him that was not refreshing or delightful to read in some capacity and The Cactus is another noteworthy achievement. Writing in the realist tradition, O. Henry presents a cynical critique of male ego and vanity. The story opens with the protagonist, an upper-class gentleman named Trysdale, brooding on his past relationship with a woman that rejected his marriage proposal by sending a cactus plant as a parting gift. Harsh. Trysdale perceives himself to be quite the catch with the ladies as a dashing and intelligent fellow of great social standing, which is why it is so difficult for him to fathom why this woman (she is never named) would suddenly drop him like a hot-potato without so much as a letter to explain her actions. To make matters even worse, she is getting married to one of his friends and he is a member of the wedding party. Clearly, Trysdale is unable to reconcile with the past and is heart-broken but the fact that he would willingly attend her wedding suggests that he has masochistic tendencies. 

As the story progresses, we learn a little more about the relationship between Trysdale and the mysterious woman. They encounter each other at various social events, begin flirting and develop an amicable relationship that seems to be leading towards a blossoming romance. Perspective is important in this story and from Trysdale's point of view, he is overly confident that she cannot resist his charming sophistication. In fact, he even speaks Spanish, or at least, embellishes that he is fluent in the language to appear more distinguished. Even though he is under impression that she worships the ground he walks on, this pompous showmanship and false-front will be Trysdale's downfall. O. Henry understands the male psyche when it comes to 'dating' and the inclination for men to puff themselves up so that a woman will find them more attractive. Most people would agree that honesty is the best foundation for any healthy relationship but it is difficult for me not to empathize towards Trysdale even though he was not entirely truthful in his account of speaking another language. Let me qualify this statement by emphasizing that I am not saying that men should conjure up elaborate lies in order to win the affections of their romantic interest but to simply state that this pattern of behavior is very common, even amongst women when it comes to dating. We want to make the best impression on others so as not to come across as inferior in some way that would be damaging to our chances of achieving a potential match. Maybe we are embarrassed about our vocation or social status and want to present ourselves in a more interesting light. Regardless of our motivations, there does seem to be this intrinsic desire in human nature to adopt a different persona of ourselves when placed in a social situation, especially when it comes to dating. As Shakespeare famously said, "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players." The Cactus can be seen as a cautionary tale pertaining to the consequences when people are not honest with themselves or others, resulting in the missed opportunities of finding love. O. Henry hammers this point home with the sharp ironic ending that is achingly poignant.

The most notable thing about Time is that it is so purely relative. A large amount of reminiscence is, by common consent, conceded to the drowning man; and it is not past belief that one may review an entire courtship while removing one's gloves.

You can read this story HERE.

Monday 9 January 2017

Deal Me in Challenge: If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky

Card Drawn: 

Life, um, finds a way.
*Cue Jurassic Park Theme Song*

Here is my first short-story of 2016 for the Deal Me In Challenge and it is a weird one! Winner of the Nebula Award in 2014, Rachel Swirsky's If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love immediately begs the question: what is the proper definition of science-fiction? Depending on who you ask will invariably produce different answers and whether or not this particular short story falls into this genre is bound to be polarizing. Darko Suvin's famous definition from 1972 tends to be widely accepted by most critics and scholars:

"Science Fiction is a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment."

Remember, Suvin's analysis is not ubiquitous and there is still plenty of room for debate. However, his definition does offer an interesting theoretical approach to a story like Swirsky's since one can view it as both speculative fiction and science-fiction. Both genres share many similar literary elements such as an imagined reality, the fantastic or even the supernatural and it is difficult sometimes to separate the two from each other. 'Speculative Fiction' can be seen as a a branch of the broader Science-Fiction genre or vice-versa. For Suvin, Science-Fiction is often paradoxical (the conflation of empirical and rational science with fiction), involving a psychological "estrangement" caused by a recognizable 'reality' and demfamiliarization occurring almost simultaneously. This "imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment" can certainly be applied to Swirsky's story that takes place entirely within the narrator's imagination but one can interpret the whole revenge-fantasy as contrary to Suvin's theory since this "empirical environment" does not exist at all. Yet, the counter-argument can be made that Swirsky's story does, indeed, fall under Suvin's definition since the narrator's only way to come to terms with her trauma is to distance herself from reality by indulging in an imaginative fantasy world that does contain elements of science-fiction. Depending on what side of the fence the reader happens to fall upon will likely determine their enjoyment of this story. Personally, I see this story as a hybrid between speculative fiction and science-fiction that is ultimately about dealing with unresolved trauma. Regardless of genre, Swirsky should be commended for writing a unique, tightly woven and emotionally charged story. Does it deserve to win the Nebula Award? Probably not but it is certainly memorable. 

You can read this story HERE.

Saturday 7 January 2017

Deal Me in Challenge: 2017 Edition


It's baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack! Jay from Bibliophilopolis is hosting the 7th annual Deal Me in Challenge and I couldn't be more excited. I am more drawn to short-stories and poetry these days and my list of works to read continues to grow exponentially. I completed last year's challenge but still have to finish writing reviews but that is not going to discourage me from taking on even more short-stories! 

What is the goal of the challenge?

To read 52 short stories in 2017 (that’s only one per week – versions with a lesser story requirement are noted below)

What do I need?

1) Access to at least fifty-two short stories (don’t own any short story collections or anthologies? See links to online resources below).
2) A deck of cards.
3) An average of perhaps just thirty minutes of reading time each week.

It's fun and not time consuming so what are you waiting for? Join up! 

I decided to keep two categories from last year ("American Lit" and "Racial Diversity), made a slight variation with "Science Fiction"(female power!) and added a new one that includes recommendations from my friend Teresa. Let's do this!

Spades: American Lit

A - The Cactus by O. Henry
2 - One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts by Shirley Jackson
3 - Rappaccini's Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
4 - Offertory by Amy Hempel
5 - Love Too Long by Barry Hannah
6 - The Outcasts of Poker Flat by Bret Harte
7 - Was it in His Hand? By Elizabeth Bishop
8 - Summer by Joy Williams
9 - Wunderkind by Carson McCullers
10 - Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolff
J - You Can't Tell a Man by the Song He Sings by Philip Roth
Q - The Little Room by Madeline Yale Wynne
K - The Lovely Troubled Daughters of Our Old Crowd by John Updike

Clubs: Science Fiction - Female Writers
A - Baby, You Were Great! by Kate Wilhlem
2 -
The Lost Kafloozalum by Pauline Ashwell
3 - Playing with God's Bowling Ball by N.K. Jemisin
4 - Daedalum, the Devil's Wheel by E. Lily Yu
5 -
Spider the Artist by Nnedi Okorafor
6 - Six Months, Three Days by Charlie Jane Anders
7 - The Last of the Winnebagos by Connie Willis
8 - Rachel in Love by Pat Murphy
9 - If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky
10 - Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer
J - In the Queue for the Worldship Munawwer by Sara Saab
Q - Speech Sounds by Octavia Butler
K - The Heat Death of the Universe by Pamela Zoline

Diamonds: Racial Diversity 

A - The Comet by W.E.B. Du Bois
2 - The Fire and the Cloud by Zora Neale Hurston
3 - Death Constant Beyond Love by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
4 - Street of the House of Wonders by Rachida el-Charni
5 - Like a Winding Street by Anne Petry
6 - I Hanging On, Praise God! by Austin Clarke
7 - Silent by Olive Senior
8 - Sanctuary by Nella Larsen
9 - Old Boys, Old Girls by Edward P. Jones
10 - Squatter by Rohinton Mistry
J - A Loaf of Bread by James Alan McPherson
Q - Blossom: Priestess of Oya, Goddess of Winds, Storms and Waterfall by Dionne Brand
K - Seven People Dancing by Langston Hughes

Hearts: Teresa's Recommendations 

A - The Closing Down of Summer by Alistair MacLeod
2 - Bread by Michael Crummey
3 - The Second Strongest Man by David Bezmozgis
4 -
The Blue Cross (The Innocence of Father Brown) by G.K. Chesterton
5 - The Peasant Marey by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
6 -
The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio by Ernest Hemingway
7 - A Field of Wheat by Sinclair Ross
8 - Pantaloon in Black by William Faulkner
9 - Anna's Whim by Louisa May Alcott
10 - Gustav by Anton Chekhov 
J - The Story of My Dovecote by Isaac Babel
Q -
Death by Landscape by Margaret Atwood
K -
The Silver Dish by Saul Bellow

Monday 2 January 2017

A Brief Recap of 2016!

And good riddance! 2016 was a whirlwind of a year for most of us and I am so looking forward to making a fresh start. Despite my busy schedule, one of my new year's resolutions is to read more and actively update my blog. 2016 was a dismal year for me reading-wise and I feel motivated to redeem myself. Even though I failed to reach my goal of reading 15 books for the year (missing the mark by only 3, drat!), I somehow managed to read 52+ short-stories all in the month of December to complete the Deal Me in Challenge. Huzzah. Granted, I was unable to produce a review for each short story as initially planned but might go back and write on them later. Additionally, I read a lot of great poetry this year and contemplating whether or not I should host a Poetry Reading Challenge for 2017. It would function in a similar way to The Deal Me in Challenge where participants would aim to read one poem a week (at their choosing) and post their thoughts on it if they feel so inclined. Poetry continues to be greatly overshadowed by novels and I would love to see more people critically engaged with this wonderful literary form. Perhaps there could be prizes. Sounds fun right? 

Here are a few highlights from my reading adventures in 2016:

Favorite Novel: Jazz by Toni Morrison

You could write a whole textbook on this novel. Toni Morrison's status as one of the finest writers of the 20th century is more than warranted and I can't wait to dive more into her work. Paradise or Tar Baby will be my first novel of 2017.

Least Favorite Novel: The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer

Ugh. I still can't believe this won the Booker Prize. Gordimer chronicles the turbulent years of the Apartheid in South Africa, which one might think would make for an interesting read, but this turns out to be quite the opposite. Dull. Dull. Dull. This crucial period in history and important issues of race and class are obfuscated by her insufferable prose. A huge disappointment.

Favorite Short Story: The Last Question by Isaac Asimov

Mind-blowing. You can read my review here.

Least Favorite Short-Story: Melancholy Elephants by Spider Robinson

Surprisingly, I did not come across any short-story this year that deserved a one-star rating. Melancholy Elephants by Spider Robinson (cool pen name) won the Nebula award so naturally, my expectations were rather high. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a rather tedious story that is more of a discourse on artistic expression rather than an actual narrative that loosely falls into the genre of science-fiction. Robinson explores some interesting ideas here especially in relation to copy-right laws and creative genius, which prevent this story from being a complete dud but it is not enough to sustain an already limp narrative. 2 stars.

Favorite Poet: E.E. Cummings

It was a toss up between William Carlos Williams and E.E. Cummings but the latter wins by a slight margin. I read a lot of wonderful modernist poetry in 2016 but I find Cummings's experimental style to be so refreshing and beautifully poignant. Sparseness, the lack of punctuation, improper syntax and typography has become his trademark and while reading his poetry might seem daunting at first, there is a method to his madness. In fact, I would argue that his poems are deceptively simple and often contain a childlike innocence. His love poems are absolutely stunning! If anyone has seen Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters, you might remember the reference to Cummings's "somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond". This is a very famous poem and for good reason but some of my other favorites include "anyone lived in a pretty how town" , In Just-, and Since Feeling is First.

Let's hope that 2017 proves to be a far more productive reading year for me. Thus far, I have decided to take part in only two reading challenges: The Russian Reading Challenge and The Deal Me in Challenge (obviously) but I am still working on finishing on several of other challenges from the past few years such as my Canadian Reading Project (I plan to make a serious dent in this one) or the Classics Clubs Challenge that I have been chipping away at for far too long. Suffice it to say, I have an inordinate amount of reading material to keep me busy and very eager to get started. 

All the best in 2017 and happy reading everyone!

~ Jason