On novels and night classes: the best of English 403

a guest post by Shelby G

Shelby is an English grad with a love for words and an attachment to Memphis, Tennessee. If you can’t find her in a crowd, just yell the name Annie Dillard.

I love night classes. I love walking across campus at 6 pm, clutching my books and quickstepping through the cold. I love the way the nights come earlier in the fall and the way the light lingers in the spring. I love the darkened windows, the empty classrooms, the hushed, almost hallowed feel to the halls. Maybe it’s because I never took enough to hate ’em or maybe I’m just crazy, but whatever the reason, I love night classes.

Studies in C.S. Lewis was my first night class, and a Monday one at that. I won’t say that the first few weeks weren’t hard, because they were. Coaxing my 50-minute attention span to last for three hours was about as fun as training for a marathon. But once I acclimated (aka learned to down a couple shots of espresso every Monday around 4), the night class wasn’t so bad. In fact, I really enjoyed it.

There’s a community that develops in a night class that just doesn’t happen in a fifty-minute MWF. Something about the once-a-week class time and the dedication required to show up and discuss literature for three hours creates a sense of solidarity that, outside Spanish and senior sym, I’ve never encountered. So when I saw that Studies in African-American Lit was going to be a Tuesday night class, I cheered. It would be the perfect way to close out my senior year.

Turns out, I was absolutely right.

As in C.S. Lewis, I got to know some amazing people. I made new friends and grew closer to old ones, I laughed, I joked, I wrote some damn good responses. And I also fell in love with great literature.

We read eight books — five novels, an autobiography, a book of poetry, and a play — and while they were all excellent, four of them stand out.

 

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Think The Time Traveler’s Wife, but with substance. Don’t get me wrong; I adored Niffenegger’s novel. I couldn’t put it down. But at the end of the day, it didn’t really matter. It was well-written, and it had a heart-wrenching love story, but it lacked the literary oomph that Butler’s book delivers.

The first science fiction novel written by a black woman, Kindred tells the story of Dana, an African-American woman who finds herself pulled back in time to the slavery-ridden south. As time passes — and as Dana passes through time — she soon realizes that her travels are linked to the plantation owner’s son whose life she must continually save. What’s more, that son is her ancestor. Or will be, if she can keep him alive.

Kindred isn’t just a story about time travel. The book’s dust jacket calls it a “combination of slave memoir, fantasy, and historical fiction . . . a novel of rich literary complexity.” Like all good science fiction, it offers sharp critiques of our culture and tackles issues that range from racism to sexism and everything in between, all while maintaining a gripping plot that will keep you turning pages long into the night. 4/5 stars

 

Caucasia by Danzy Senna

It’s hard to summarize Senna’s debut novel because there’s so much that goes into it, but the bare bones of it are this: Birdie Lee and her older sister Cole are the daughters of a white mother and black father, both intellectual activists at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. After the girls’ parents split up, their mother takes her activism one step too far. So, to escape suspicion, she sends Cole to her father, takes Birdie — who can pass as white — and flees.

Caucasia chronicles Birdie’s life on the lam, but more importantly, it paints a portrait of her struggle for self-identity. Throughout the novel, Birdie passes as Jewish, Caucasian, and Native American, molding herself to whatever role she’s handed. But she’s never Birdie, plain Birdie, and she longs to know what it means to be herself.

Caucasia is…exquisite. I can’t do justice to it with a couple hundred words. I could write a whole paper on it and I still wouldn’t scratch the surface of everything Senna packs into this novel. Her execution of theme and content is astounding, her characters gripping, her prose stunning. It is without doubt one of the best novels I have ever read. 5/5 stars.

 

Domestic Work by Natasha Trethewey

When I chose Domestic Work as the topic for my research paper, I had one thing in mind: survival. The book was short and my semester shorter; I had five major papers to write, one of them my senior symposium, and I didn’t have time to tackle a novel like Caucasia or Invisible Man. So I picked the poems.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t like poetry. I like to write it and I like to read it, but only if it’s written by Shel Silverstein or Lucille Clifton. Everyone else has to fight a long, uphill battle to win my heart.

Well, Natasha Trethewey won my heart.

My favorite kind of poetry is the kind that tells a story. At the start of Domestic Work, it seems like Trethewey has set out to honor the working women of her past: the maids and mothers who spent long hours breaking their backs to clean other people’s homes in order to support their families. But about halfway through the book, you realize she’s tackling something much harder, much bigger, much more ambitious than a few photographs and tales: she is trying to come to terms with her biracial self.

Reading Domestic Work right after Caucasia was incredible. My professor knew exactly what she was doing when she linked them, and as class discussion swelled to fill not just one night but two, we kept returning to Birdie and her biraciality. Trethewey’s poems are excellent — both technically and thematically — but pair them with Caucasia and they’re phenomenal. You won’t be able to get them out of your head. 4/5 stars.

 

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison is in a league of her own. I’ve only read two of her novels, but even one is enough to know that she’s something special, someone truly great.

A Mercy is no exception. Set in colonial America, it revolves around a cast of women used and abused by their cultures. Florens, a slave girl, forms the backbone of the novel; it is her voice that returns every other chapter, acting as a touchstone for readers. Then there is Lina, a Native American who has weathered the storms of smallpox, rape, and physical abuse; Rebekka, her mistress, who chose to travel to America to marry a stranger rather than become a servant or a prostitute; Sorrow, the simple girl with a complicated story; and a minha mae, Florens’ mother.

Perhaps the best way to sum up Morrison’s book is to quote it: “To be female in this place is to be an open wound that cannot heal. Even if scars form, the festering is ever below.”

A Mercy is not an easy book. I’m not entirely sure it’s a happy book, either, though Morrison believes it is. But it is a good book. A great book. And if you’re willing to listen, it has many stories to tell. 5/5 stars.

For more from Shelby, check out her blog bookworming.

2 comments

  1. Thank you for this post, Shelby! Now I have five more books I must read. It sounds like I need to start with Caucasia.

    Like

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