Confessional Voice–First Person Point of View in “The Joy Luck Club”

First person point of view, one of the strongest parts of Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club, gives the story a personal tone and draws the reader into the inner circles of two separate groups of women. The first group of women are native born Chinese and are the original members of the Joy Luck Club; their American born daughters comprise the second group. The first person point of view is the unseen counterpart to the role Jing-mei Woo has assumed. Jing-mei has taken her deceased mother’s “seat at the mah jong table” (Tan 19) in the Joy Luck Club with her mother’s friends, yet she is also a first generation Chinese, like the other daughters whose mothers are members of the Joy Luck Club.

Through Tan’s utilization of first person point of view, the reader learns intimate details about the characters.  The mothers, “are frightened” for they know they have daughters “unmindful of all the truths and hopes” (40) carried from China to the United States. The first person point of view allows these women to express their hopes to the unseen reader, hopes they’ve been unable to pass onto “daughters who grow impatient” (40) when the older women revert back to the language of their childhood or have difficulty expressing themselves in English.

Through the first person point of view, Suyuan Woo’s daughter Jing-mei relays stories about her deceased mother, starting with her mother’s “Kweilin story” (20), the tale of her mother’s first marriage and family back in China, at the time of the Japanese invasion. This story and point of view both opens and ends the novel—finishing off both stories. The reader alongside Jing-mei when she meets her long-lost half-sisters in Shanghai, as she watches the Polaroid picture of the three of them develop and her observation that “together we look like our mother” (288). Through first person point of view, the stories of Jing-mei and her mother converge and become one.

The point of view also shows the chasms that exist in the mother-daughter relationships. These Chinese women don’t know how to communicate their pasts with their American born daughters and as a result, the daughters have no idea what experiences have shaped their mothers. But by novel’s end, the first person narration’s confessional nature frees several of the mothers to close the communication gap and speak of their pasts.

By actively addressing the reader, the first person point of view works as a kind of confessional for the characters; the reader is a safe third party in which to work out their relationship issues. Once the issues are spoken about, the characters—especially the mothers—are free to take the next step in those troubled relationships by being more open about their pasts and the reveal aspects of their personalities they’ve kept hidden from their daughters for years.

Works Cited

            Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. New York: Penguin Books. 1989. Print.

You’re Too Nice: Flannery O’Connor and Character Hate

By Kyler Campbell

I love my characters. Every character I create in a story is in some small way a part of me. I want them to survive and to prosper, to have every bit of happiness I can give to them. I’m too nice to them, sometimes. I’m afraid to push them to their absolute limit, to toy with their emotions, and to make others hate them. When they’ve found an escape from the awfulness around them, I’m afraid to take it away and leave them scratching in the dark. There are many authors who don’t seem to have this problem, but chief among them, I believe, is Flannery O’Connor.

I’ve never doubted that O’Connor was anything less than brilliant and a true voice of women’s literature in the South. Reading through a collection of her stories is something akin to catching up with an old friend: a reminder of familiar themes and people that were just as exciting now as the first time I experienced them. O’Connor’s lyrical prose and memorable characters have as much to say about methods of writing as they do about antiquated southern values. But more than anything, O’Connor demonstrates the effectiveness of Character Hate.

If I could only read one O’Connor story for the rest of my life, it would undoubtedly be “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” In the story, O’Connor lays a hard path of remorse and damnation for an average middle-class family, setting up one terrible situation after another. Within the story, O’Connor shows she is not afraid to attack her characters with full force both physically and emotionally. The grandmother’s famous, “You’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children,” confession shows a dramatic reversal in the character’s perspective (O’Connor 132). The Misfit has murdered her entire family and holds a gun to her head. It is then that the grandmother sees the humanity in her murderer. She, on her knees at gun point, appeals to the Misfit’s sense of mercy, displaying her own humanity and decency. The grandmother has her first truly human moment in the story only after the rest of her family is murdered. She shows compassion instead of judgment for the first time in many years, and is murdered for it. The Misfit remarks later that the grandmother would’ve been a good person “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life” (O’Connor 133).

O’Connor’s treatment of her characters is more than hate: it’s purpose-driven story-telling. O’Connor detaches herself from her characters in a way that allows her to craft a moving piece of fiction without holding herself or the narrative back. She has, what I like to call, Character Hate: enough narrative distance to let the characters have dynamic flaws but enough heart invested that the reader stays involved.

The idea of Character Hate is something every writer can benefit from. O’Connor uses it to great success in her stories and shows the potential that every character can have when the author lets go. It’s a challenge to all writers to put aside our apprehensions and start letting the story take its course. It’s time to stop being so nice, and to start writing.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Noonday, 1990. Print.

Asylum

Asylum

By Liat Faver

            Susan Neville’s Indiana Winter weaves in and out of its varied settings, introducing us to an array of characters that are sometimes transparent, sometimes illusive, and always intriguing. Neville’s style dances between rapid-fire delivery and tamer cadences, and her often stream-of-consciousness prose keeps us entertained and involved. Her journey prompts us to ask the deep life-questions, and although we know the answers are as elusive as ever, Neville unravels a bit of the tangle. Instead of suggesting answers to life’s riddles, Neville makes us aware of something more tangible, something at the heart of the questions, something like human nature.

Neville builds her story by adding layers while simultaneously peeling them away. In the title chapter, we spend an evening at a Christmas party. Neville takes us through inner and outer dialogues, revealing the guests’ dreams, nightmares, frailties and strengths. We feel we are floating inside their heads and hearts, the way dust floats through air, we are written into the scene to eavesdrop. Throughout the party scene, we feel the rumble of an approaching train wreck. Although we hear conversations about our troubled times, Neville also paints doom into her setting, beneath and behind the colorful decorations, between the lines of her characters’ disturbing thoughts, like muddy footprints in snow. We never see the train or the impact, but the debris is everywhere.

Wherever she takes us, we hear the onrushing train, yet she keeps it gently distant, revealing it in fragments like “a tear in the fabric of illusions that holds us, more or less comfortably, in midair” (42), and teaches “different ways to live with gloom. One way is to rest in it, to feel the waves of it like a boat on top of water. Another is to sink down into the weedy dark and brood” (39).

Neville shares her confusion about relationships with spouses, children, parents, and friends so that we see our experiences paralleled, “as though what we are finally is the woven pattern of movement, a cat’s cradle lifted, at the end, from the earth’s fingers” (105). We recognize the fantasies we’ve all entertained, the “pure bubble of a life floating on the darkness,” and Neville has the courage to remind us of our darkest moods, and what we fear “is that I have it and can’t see it, and want sometimes for it to break into its glittering pieces, to shatter into dusty glass” (107). Part of Neville’s message is in unappreciated shadowy hollows that may reveal our motivations. Shattered glass is what we aren’t talking about, and we all know it’s there.

Neville’s ideas are evinced with simple statements that leap off the page like headlines: “There are those strange border areas between insanity and wisdom—the medieval nun who’s crazy but who brings back visions. We turn vision into symptom” (243). By collecting stories of humanity, art, sanity and madness, Neville’s travels give us an original and profound commentary on the human condition. Indiana Winter is a mirror made of words, a marvel of reflection on what we love most and misunderstand best: Ourselves.

Neville, Susan. Indiana Winter. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1994.

 

The Strange in Aimee Bender’s The Girl in the Flammable Skirt

By Nick Hinton

Aimee Bender’s The Girl in the Flammable Skirt is a collection of short stories about real people with real emotions who inhabit some very strange worlds. A man evolves backwards in front of his girlfriend’s eyes, an imp meets a mermaid in high school, a boy can concentrate to find lost objects, and two girls in a small town have hands made of fire and ice. Bender is able to make these stories meaningful, even though they are completely outside the realm of the everyday, by making her narrators have strong, authoritative voices. Bender also will ground her characters by providing them with something familiar, or she throws those characters headfirst into their tumultuous lives by removing the comfort of the familiar.

The worlds of the stories in this collection are weird to say the least, and could easily come off as gimmicky. But Bender uses an authoritative voice in each case to establish that strange things are happening, but the weirdness isn’t where the heart of the story lies. She uses the oddity to emphasize what the real story is, which is what gives those stories meaning. “Loser” is a story about trying to find your place in the world when you are lost. The central character in “Loser” is an orphan who has the ability to find lost objects, but it rises above being a story about the finding of the objects and is instead a story about the orphan trying to find his place in the world when he is lost himself. It begins with: “Once there was an orphan who had a knack for finding lost things.” He has this ability; it’s out there, now the story can begin. He is able to use his gift to find a kidnapped boy, and because he is an orphan he feels the need to make a connection with this boy. But he can’t, and he ends up just as lost as he was to begin with. The strangeness improves the story by making the orphan able to find everything except what he is longing for.

One way Bender makes these fantastic stories realistic is by how the characters treat the comfort of the familiar. In “Quiet Please” a librarian’s father, who she hated, has died. She has many conflicting emotions about her father’s death and finds the whole situation overwhelming. There is one line in “Quiet Please” which perfectly summed up the story for me. “Her father’s funeral is in one day. It is important that there is quiet in a library.” She is unsure of how to react to the news of her father’s death, but quiet in the library is a source of comfort to her. It anchors her in this time of upheaval, which is a very true to life reaction. In “What You Left in the Ditch” Mary’s husband comes back from war without lips. She took comfort in having a normal husband with lips, and the loss of them has a profound effect on her. In this story her husband Steven’s face is the familiar, and when he comes home that is taken from her. Once he has no lips, the boy at the grocery store becomes that much more appealing to her because he is now more familiar than her own husband. The familiar, which kept the librarian’s head above water during the time of her father’s death, now causes friction in Mary’s life because it has been taken from her. By using this relationship with the familiar Bender is able to make these whimsical stories still carry human weight.

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt contains stories which, if written poorly, would barely pass for a B-movie plot. However, Bender is a more adept storyteller than that, and she infuses these stories with meaning and truly human characters. She accomplishes this by using the strangeness of her stories to connect them to real life in a meaningful way. I have made the mistake of writing strange stories for their own sake in the past, and reading The Girl in the Flammable Skirt is a good example of how to take weirdness and make compelling stories with it.

U. G. L. Y.

By Gabrielle Brant Freeman

A few days ago, I was reading Mark Doty’s The Art of Description: World into Word, and I came across his explanation of Richard Diebenkorn’s use of color in his paintings from the 1950’s. Doty explains that Diebenkorn’s abstract representations “look so alive” because of their “Sheer push and pull of shape and line, the restless energy inherent in these masses and their dynamic relations” (67). Given that I am always interested in studying artists I don’t know, and given that Google affords me a reasonable out for not working on what I’m supposed to be doing…namely grading papers…I looked Diebenkorn up and hit “images.” Whoa. Swathes of color, line, swirly thingies. Yes, I said “thingies.”

Since I was strangely attracted to these paintings of…something, I decided to read what others said. Google is magic, you know. And I came across the following line in the blog design journal by blogger Brittany Stiles, “I don’t like things too pretty or too perfect or too planned […]; if something is a little ‘ugly’ or awkward, I tend to like it more, and I find it a lot more interesting.” My immediate thought was Yes! Never have truer words been spoken.

It is with the idea of imperfection or “a little ugly” in mind that I bring Robert Penn Warren’s Audubon: A Vision to my post today. I read this book at the suggestion of writer RT Smith, and let me tell you, I wasn’t too excited about it. Why? I don’t know. Yep. That’s it. Gut instinct. Could not have been more wrong. I fell in love with this book immediately, and I believe it is precisely because its language is a little ugly; it shows perhaps a bit more than we’d like of humanity, and therein lies its truth.

In section II, “The Dream He Never Knew the End Of,” RPW writes:

The face, in the air, hangs.  Large,

Raw-hewn, strong-beaked, the haired mole

Near the nose, to the left, and the left side by firelight

Glazed red, the right in shadow, and under the tumble and tangle

Of dark hair on that head, and under coarse eyebrows,

The eyes, dark, glint as from the unspecifiable

Darkness of a cave.  It is a woman. (7)

This is not a parody of an ugly woman. This is an actual woman, a woman living on the frontier with her sons,  a woman willing and able to slit a man’s throat to ensure her survival and livelihood. It ain’t pretty, but it resonates.

The same woman is described later in the same section in a barely veiled segment comparing the pure rawness of survival mode to sex to the idea of murder for personal gain:

Against firelight, he sees the face of the woman

Lean over, and the lips purse sweet as to bestow a kiss, but

This is not true, and the great glob of spit

Hangs there, glittering, before she lets it fall.

The spit is what softens like silk the passage of steel

On the fine-grained stone.  It whispers.

When she rises, she will hold it in her hand. (10)

This woman is sharpening her blade on a whetstone using her spit. She is fully prepared to kill her paying lodgers in order to further herself and her sons in the American wild. It is at once practical, sensual, brutal, and honest. RPW’s description is beautiful and grotesque, and this is exactly what makes the characters in this narrative poem real; it is exactly what makes them interesting.

In a world of airbrushing, photoshopping, and otherwise making people “perfect,” it is precisely the imperfect, even the monstrous real in this collection that makes me read it again and again. In these “ugly” details lies truth, and that is what compels us to create.

Doty, Mark. The Art of Description: World into Word. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2010.

Stiles, Brittany. “Art History Thursday – Modernism in America.” design journal. 28 Oct. 2010.

13 Sept. 2012. Web.

Warren, Robert Penn. Audubon: A Vision. New York: Random House, 1969.

Dillard’s Truth about Nature

Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters is Annie Dillard’s book of reflections that tease out meaning in life and the natural world. The book is composed of a series of lyrical essays about places the author has been and what meaning she has constructed out of her experiences and the experiences of others who have traveled there before her. In much of the book, Dillard contemplates the workings of God, the universe and the purpose and direction of life.
Dillard begins with a description of a total eclipse in Yakima Valley in Washington where she finds the vision terrifying and apocalyptic. “There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed. There was no world. We were the world’s dead people rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the planet’s crust, while the earth rolled down.” She describes the screams that follow the eclipse and adds a story about a man who died of fright from the sight of solar eclipse. This essay is the first of thirteen essays that expose Dillard’s interest in the mystery and fragility of life.
“An Expedition to the Pole” is the longest chapter and the crux of the book. Here she details the first polar expeditions that were set out for the Pole of Relative Inaccessibility. The chapter alternates between three main parts: The Land, which gives the history of the Polar explorers and the description of her own expedition to the Pole; The People, which describes the rituals of her Catholic church; and The Technology, which includes the facts about what science and knowledge was available to the explorers. It also contemplates how people use what they have whether it be in the material, mental or the spiritual realm. At the end of the chapter, Dillard imaginatively moves herself and the people of the church to the Polar landscape in a wild scene that acts as a metaphor for how church goers seek the same thing that the Polar explorers were seeking: something pure and inaccessible. It is here that Dillard describes the purpose for all her own expeditions. “It is for the Pole of Relative Inaccessibility I am searching, and have been searching, in the mountains and along the seacoasts for years.”
She considers the planet “a sojourner in airless space, a wet ball flung across nowhere.” Twice in the book she recalls reading that “our solar system as a whole is careering through space toward a point east of Hercules.” She compares this idea to humanity being cast out with no clear destination, like Adam and Eve from Eden. This idea rings through in the title chapter, “Teaching a Stone to Talk.” She tells the story of a man who is trying to make his pet rock speak. She concludes that his experiment exemplifies the human desire to hear the voice of God, and assuage our fear of being alone with our own thoughts and without direction or clear destination. She asks, “What have we been doing all these centuries but trying to call God back to the mountain, or failing that, raise a peep out of anything that isn’t us?” She decides to quit hiding, “pray without ceasing,” and resolves that “silence is all there is.”
Dillard’s use of language and her gift for pulling seeming random thoughts into the metaphors of her storyline makes it strong. She expertly blends facts into her narrative and reflections and deftly compares two or three things at once to provide layers of metaphor. Dillard’s lyrical descriptions are done with a series of short declarative sentences that roll into longer ones to add breath. There are often multiple comparisons made of an object or a place as if she is turning it around in her mind and describing it from different vantage points. After her experience seeing the eclipse, she goes to a restaurant that becomes “a halfway house, a decompression chamber.” She expresses her thoughts as if they rush through her mind and transform into images. The pattern of her writing makes her descriptions immediate, sharp and individual.
In this book, the reader is pushed to think about everything differently. The air, water, trees, animals and insects in Dillard’s essays become characters of their own. The reader goes along with Dillard to contemplate their activity and function in the world.

The Honesty and Self-delusion of Internal Thought in My People’s Waltz

By Rhonda Browning White

Dale Ray Phillips’s My People’s Waltz is a collection of ten interrelated short stories set in the South, told in the voice of Richard as he grows from age eight until around age forty. These stories relate what can be considered the everyday life of most Southern boys and men, but the way the stories are written, they come across as anything but ordinary: they read as bravely honest, emotionally heartbreaking and, at times, gracefully violent—like the South itself. Most striking in these stories is the honest voice and accessible language with which they are told.

Each sentence in the collection reads as simultaneously eloquent and stark, revealing that Phillips must have spent countless days choosing perfect phrases and fine descriptions to relate his stories, and likewise selecting which unnecessary details to leave out. The gripping first sentence of every story in the collection is both unorthodox and understated, such as the opening sentence of the first story in the collection, “Why I’m Talking.” “My grandfather kept his floozy in a silver Airstream above the bend in the river where the dead crossed over” (15). Eight-year-old narrator Richard doesn’t call the woman his grandfather’s girlfriend or mistress, but his floozy. This colloquial language not only reflects Southern dialect, but also tells how the boy is being raised. The seemingly innocent mention of the silver Airstream’s location takes on deeper meaning when we’re told it’s “above the bend in the river where the dead crossed over,” as we now know Richard believes in local legends and the paranormal (15). These beginning sentences are full of intimation of what follows, and Phillips succeeds in delivering one important, revealing line after another. Nothing is left to chance, and throughout the collection, each action, each character description and each setting detail is carefully chosen to reveal truths that display the story’s underlying meaning with glaring clarity.

As an example, Phillips’s character Richard often reacts and reflects internally, but each of these reactions and reflections does more than simply convey what Richard is thinking; they also complement external signals, such as in “Everything Quiet Like a Church” when retired midwife Ruby bring up religion and asks Richard, “Then what do you believe in?” (100). Richard’s response is delayed almost an entire page as he reflects and reacts internally: “Her question unsettled me. . . . What do you do when you’re not the type of man whose soul quakes at sunsets? You believe in palpable things—the heft of her breasts in your hand or the good weariness you feel after turning a patch of stony soil into a garden” (100). Richard reflects on the time his then-girlfriend Lisa tried to explain their love to him, and he thinks he didn’t understand her explanation, but that, “The light in the room was like that done by old master, and I had fallen in love and wanted to make a baby; people had been chasing this type of happiness all the way back to Adam” (100). Through Richard’s internal reflection, we know he understands more than he is willing to admit; he is simultaneously examining his true mindset while remaining stubbornly dishonest with himself about his feelings.

Phillips also often layers action with internal reflection, thereby revealing unexpectedly deep emotion, such as when Richard applies first aid to the stump of Glen’s severed hand in “What It Cost Travelers.” Richard muses internally: “As I iced Glen’s arm in the fish cooler, I thought of phantom limbs which itched and ached and must be soothed, though they beckoned from a part of yourself which no longer existed” (123). This understated yet powerful sentence works so well because Phillips has given us other details beforehand—Richard’s severed marriage vows, his broken relationship with his wife and child—that mirror the revelatory importance of this thought. Again, Richard seems to push away this self-revelation about his feelings for his wife and child, as he applies the sensation of missing only to the severed limb. Frequent use of this technique in Philips’s writing blurs the line between internal and external conflict so that the two are seamless reflections of one another. This is why Phillips’s writing works. 

Work Cited

Phillips, Dale. My People’s Waltz. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. Print.