Currently at the top of my TBR pile (besides urgent dissertation-related reading) is the recently released memoir by J. Drew Lanham, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. I keep running across essays he’s written, and I really want to read this book asap.
The first essay I read was simply devastating: Birding While Black.
It’s only 9:06 a.m. and I think I might get hanged today.
Yeah. I can’t even imagine.
The next one, The Lay of the Land, is a gorgeous piece of nature writing that happens to be super relevant to my research and, well, much of what I think about, as well (although my focus is on how place can change our writing).
Place and land and nature: how we tie these things together is critical to our sense of self-purpose and our fit in the world. They are the trinity. This is true for people everywhere, but nowhere is it truer than in the South.
… And so I think about land. But more and more I also think about how other black and brown folks think about land. I wonder how our lives would change for the better if the ties to place weren’t broken by bad memories, misinformation, and ignorance. I think about schoolchildren playing in safe, clean, green spaces, where the water and air flow clear and the birdsong sounds sweet. More and more I think of land not just in remote, desolate wilderness but in inner-city parks and suburban backyards and community gardens. I think of land and all it brings in my life. I think of land and hope that others are thinking about it, too.
I Googled him and found an older piece: 9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher. It’s simultaneously hilarious and awful.
3. Don’t bird in a hoodie. Ever.
I’ve been impressed by his range, from the sharp satire to the lush descriptions of Southern landscape, and I am so looking forward to this book.
I’ve also been thinking a great deal about this essay by Namrata Poddar: Is “Show Don’t Tell” a Universal Truth or a Colonial Relic?
When teaching, I tend to avoid saying, “Show don’t tell” and focus instead on the question, “How do you get the reader to feel this?” I want students to think about sound and syntax, about mimesis in general, so they aren’t bound to scenes alone for crafting experience and emotion. Dialogue and action are two tools, but so many others are also available to writers.
This essay made me think more deeply about the politics of form. For my critical thesis at Vermont College, I studied verse and vignette novels (in large part because I didn’t like many verse novels at the time), and I concluded that these forms work best for nontraditional voices and stories (i.e. non-Western/non-white/non-cis/non-het/historical). Verse and vignette novels prioritize voice and sound and are flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of story structures. Poddar describes differences between oral storytelling and the Western novel and shows how oral storytelling techniques have been incorporated into contemporary multiethnic fiction.
The content within contemporary multiethnic fiction often talks of identity, home and displacement; they ask questions like who has power and voice and who gets marginalized or silenced, these ideas fleshed out obsessively in stories through plot, theme, form, language, or a combination.
Orality within fiction that is deliberately engaging with power dynamics between the West and non-West—as evident in the title of Rushdie’s story collection East, West—thus becomes more than just a stylistic device or virtuosity with craft. The shift in sensory focus within multiethnic fiction from images to sounds holds a mirror to our contemporary, complex literary history, guiding the reader further to ways in which these stories maybe constructed, read, or deconstructed. Orality here becomes a political stance, an ideological move reminding the reader over and again that what we consume as universal in story craft, literary history, or aesthetic taste is anything but universal.