Honoring Zitkala-Sa

Let’s face it, Google has changed the world in a very big, bold, permanent way. The way it gave us search navigation capacities isn’t an ongoing change, but I’d like to think perhaps Google can still change the world in other ways. One of the opportunities to do so is through the Google doodle, the image featured above the search bar.

Google doodle Feb. 22, 2021

Today’s Google doodle features South Dakota writer, musician and activist Zitkala-Sa, and I hope people click into it and learn something new and wonderful by learning about this writer.

I first encountered her in Pierre, SD as a kid on a fishing trip. No, she wasn’t fishing Oahe or the Missouri River; she died in 1938 in Washington, D.C. But in the way literature brings people and places to life, when I found her book Old Indian Legends at DakotaMart, a whole world came to life for me. Zitkala-Sa became a female writer I could look up to in the way I looked up to Mari Sandoz. These writers from the middle of nowhere drew on the places and stories they knew and shared them with the world.

And I wanted to do that. Well, maybe I didn’t really want to write about Nebraska where I grew up, but I did want to tell stories, and I wanted to get away from that part of the world.

The beings I encountered in Old Indian Legends enchanted me. Itkomi, a spirit come alive in the form of a man-spider, delighted me in his craftiness and intrigue, and I was forever trying to figure out if he was man, spider or spirit.

IKTOMI is a spider fairy. He wears brown deerskin leggins with long soft fringes on either side, and tiny beaded moccasins on his feet. His long black hair is parted in the middle and wrapped with red, red bands. Each round braid hangs over a small brown ear and falls forward over his shoulders.

Zitkala-Sa, “Iktomi and the Ducks,” Old Indian Legends.

This opening from “Iktomi and the Ducks,” the first story in the collection, introduces readers to Iktomi and his world. We spend a lot of time with him in this book, but we also meet a badger, a bear, mice, a frog, a rabbit and other creatures. And of course, through these critters we encounter humanity and its various characteristics and foibles.

But Zitkala-Sa didn’t just retell her people’s myths and creation stories and bring them to others. Born on South Dakota’s Yankton Indian Reservation in 1876, this woman experienced the impact of Christian missionaries when she was eight and went away to Indiana to attend school. She was christened (oh, the poignancy of that phrase here) Gertrude Simmons and wrote about these experiences in The School Days of an Indian Girl. Through this, one can see the roots of her activism. Readers of her nonfiction can also see how these events led her to a place of duality as she grew older. She loved her heritage and culture, but she had been removed from it as a child and was educated and lived in white society.

This struggle is one I related to in my own way as I got older, and it allowed me to see her in a a new light and as a model in new ways. From telling her people’s myth stories to advocating for her people, she exemplifies writing as activism.

Google is celebrating her today, her birthday, but she is worth celebrating every day.

Project Gutenberg has Old Indian Legends available for download, and if you’ve never read it, I highly recommend it.

Header image credit: 5MinuteHistory.com

Baldwin’s America: A challenge and a lesson

There are books that leave me so dazzled by the setting and scene and characters I can easily think of them as candidates for “favorite book” when someone asks what my favorite book is. These books don’t discuss craft, but are craft at its finest, moments of pure magic that come together through voice and imagery and emotion.

There are books that teach me and guide me as a writer or an educator, and those books stick with me for different reasons. Often those reasons have more to do with how I view the reality I live in and how I help craft it in my writing. Sometimes they have to do with craft, which is a neat meta trick. I recently completed Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.’s Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, and it is a book that does all these things.

Glaude is the James S. Milton distinguished professor of African American Studies at Princeton University; in this biography and piece of social criticism, he is also a guide for the tumultuous times in which we live. This is fitting, as the book works to unpack the vison of another guide: James Baldwin. Glaude’s mix of Black history, Baldwin and “where do we go from here” thinking makes this book shine brightly from each of its many facets.

I first encountered Baldwin in grad school, through his short story “Sonny’s Blues.” Published in 1957, the story takes readers to Harlem and provides a peek into the life of a teacher and his brother, Sonny, who is a passionate musician, veteran and heroin addict. Reading it in my 20s, the music and the drugs appeared to me as realities that just go hand-in-hand with living in the big city, for anyone.

Of course I was just seeing Sonny’s experience through my own lens; today I know it was music and drugs that spoke to me then. But it is Baldwin’s compassionate treatment of Sonny and the empathy we feel for him and even his judgmental brother that is the hallmark of this story. Today I know that what I saw as part of city life is actually part of a complex history for Black people, a history that is more nuanced than any shallow understanding I could have had in my 20s And Baldwin’s fierce compassion is what I see now, when I engage with him. It’s what I see in “Staggerlee Wonders,” a poem as sharp and biting as a blade.

I read Part I of the poem to students in my Literature of Revolution class, and it gives us so much to discuss: wars, both domestic and foreign, external and internal and those that are not recognized. We get to talk about history, who “the natives” are–who they really are– and how Baldwin’s bite is so carefully crafted here. We also, of course, get to talk about the real life “Stagger Lee” and the violence perpetuated on people like him.

In these contexts, I’ve felt like I have a good understanding of what makes Baldwin’s work so powerful. Its the way he holds his loved ones close and his enemies closer, and how they are one and the same in America. But I am not a scholar of Baldwin, and I only know enough about Harlem and history and Black History to introduce my students to these topics and guide them through it with the voices of the real experts, the writers I draw on, to help lead me. Reading Glaude’s book took me through Black America of the 50s into the 80s, and in doing so, it illustrated white America, too, and the ugliness, hatred and shame that this country has borne since its founding.

Glaude introduced me to Stokely Carmicheal, as I wrote in another post; he introduced me to Dorothy Counts, a 15-year-old girl who tried to end segregation in Charlotte, North Carolina when she was the first black student to integrate into Harding High School in 1957 (same year of “Sonny’s Blues”). There are several other figures and moments vividly detailed in Begin Again, but I think the most powerful comes toward the end of the book, when Glaude goes south to Alabama and visits some of the memorials to fallen civil rights leaders and those who died by lynching. Between Caroline street and Holcombe Street in Montgomery, he finds the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, describes it as “a monument to our dead and to the countrymen who killed them,” and describes his walk into what is sometimes called “The Lynching Memorial.”

As I walked into the memorial, I saw walls featuring text blocks that told the story of the violence…my eyes turned to the Nkyinkyim Installation…a haunting sculptural representation of slaves chained together in agony, defiance, and unimaginable grief. The sculpture stands on the side of the path that leads you up an ascending walkway to the monument, the physical structures that commemorate the dead. With each step you make your way up the hill…you can see lined up across the lawn duplicate monuments that can be claimed by the individiaul counties where the lynchings occurred.

Glaude, Eddie S. Jr, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons For Our Own.

Glaude is overcome by grief as he looks at these 800 monuments, and then again as he focuses on the monuments that list multiple lynchings in one county. He continues with what is for me the most chilling passage of the book.

As I kept walking, the floor slanted downward, but the monuments remained level. Before long their bottoms were above my head. As I looked up at them, it was if I were witnessing bodies swaying from poplar trees–except these were stiff.

He recalls Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and in sharing that moment with him, I am reminded that music and politics come together as complexities of the Black experience in a way I could never know, but a way that Baldwin sought to get at through Sonny.

Glaude continues with the memorial and describes the death sentences on the monuments before him: “One man was murdered for having a photo of a white woman in his hat; another had been falsely accused of peeping at a white woman through a peephole; another refused to buy seed from a white man.”

He concludes the passage by noting the monument from Jackson County Mississippi, his childhood home: Eight names. Eight men lynched. Eight men he’d never heard of until that moment. His own experience of what it is to be born a Black man in the South has suddenly shifted, and readers are able to shift along with him.

For much of this book, Glaude asks what it means to be an American, not just what does it mean to be Black in America, or white in America, but what does it mean to exist in a country bound and also separated by a great lie. He seeks to hold those in power accountable for what they’ve done to fail people of color– Blacks, Latinos and Indigenous populations– but he also asks us to wrestle with how we more forward. And because he wrote this book during Trump’s presidency, he also condemns that excuse of a man and all that “Trumpism” has done to set our country at odds. This book is a collection of anecdotes, quotes and their contextual background, history and hope. But it is also a prescriptive guide to how we now must move forward as a country.

“…[O]ur task, then, is not to save Trump voters–it isn’t to convince them to give up their views that white people out to matter more than others. Our task is to build a world where such a view has no place or quarter to breathe. I am aware that this is a radical, some may even say, dangerous claim. It amounts to “throwing away” a large portion of the country, many of whom are willing to defent their positions with violence. But we cannot give in to these people. We know what the result will be, and I cannot watch another generation of black children bear the burden of that choice.”

Featured image: James Baldwin, featured on the US Embassay & Consulates in Turkey websiteBook

Is George Saunders brilliant, or what?

“Love Letter,” by George Saunders, was published today in the print version of The New Yorker. I read it a few days ago, when it appeared online, and I’ve been pondering it since then. I keep asking my self, is George Saunders fucking brilliant, or so erudite that his intent misses the mark?

I ask myself this question, or some variation of it, whenever I talk about Saunders. That doesn’t  happen often, but I use his  “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” in my fiction writing workshop, so it happens often enough for the question to exist.

“The Semplica Girl Diaries”

This is a “futuristic” story that derives its title from the format of the story, a first-person accounting  of a middle-aged father’s comings and goings throughout most of the month of September. It’s in diary form, and kind of hard to read. It also takes its name from the Semplica-Girls: young women who have become lawn ornaments, strung together by a wire running from one girl’s head to the next.

The SGs are not very detailed, and student readers often completely miss what they are on first read, but the lessons of subservience and gratitude and privilege are all there. And our narrator is blind to it in such a way that makes him incredibly useful as a conversation piece. For instance, although he feels sorry for himself for not having money, and sees himself as benevolent, he can’t see the plight of the SGs. Upon finding his daughter Eva drawing pictures of an SG arrangement, he writes, “talk to her, explain that it does not hurt, they are not sad but actually happy, given what their prior conditions were like: they chose, are glad, etc.”

There is so much to talk about with students as we work through this story. There’s all the sociopolitical stuff, race, class, gender. And there’s the writerly aspect of it. Why does Saunders set the story up as he does, in this format? What does it mean to us, as readers? Is he taking shortcuts or carefully, painstakingly crafting something incredible? Does a story have to make sense to be published?

I’m working with undergrads in this context, so it’s a fantastic story for fucking with them. It’s also great for making them work hard to analyze something from a writer’s perspective, a reader’s perspective and the one thing we all share– a human’s perspective.

So when I saw that Saunders had a new story out, I did a mental hand clap. Something else, perhaps, to add to that class?  I’ve read “Love Letter” a few times now, and I’m not sure.

“Love Letter”

In this piece we have another first-person narrative constructed this time through the trope of a letter, written to Robbie, from GPa, or Grandpa. Like the SG Diaries, it’s sort of hard to read.

Also like the SG Diaries, it’s set in the future, a tangible and specific future, according to Saunders in this interview that runs in the same issue.  The author explains how the story came about, and what it meant to him to capture this moment in time in a way that illustrates just how many of us are not actively doing something to enact change.

The letter is conversational in the way letters are, and Grandpa is of some esteemed, verbose class of gentlemanly businessmen. He admits he has some money set aside, and so he could perhaps help Robbie if things go south, but the tone and language implies that there’s perhaps more than just “some” money. Throughout the story, GPa is giving Robbie advice on a series of questions the grandson had posed in a previous letter.  We learn that Robbie is concerned about three people: G, M and J.

Something has happened to G and Robbie is advised to “let that go.” M, we learn, does not have the necessary paperwork for something. J is being held in a facility, state or federal, we do not know. Neither does Grandpa. We do not know the genders of G or M, but we learn J is female, and she is a citizen. Robbie is perhaps interested in her.

Saunders creates a wise, eloquent grandfather here, but in contrast to the way the SG Diaries’ narrator was oblivious and therefore the lens through which readers could gain some personal insights about their views on privilege, he’s perhaps too eloquent. Too all-knowing. He has privilege, and he knows it, and he’s trying to nudge his grandson to do the same, to see his privilege. In this bit of craft, I think Saunders is right on the money. Pun intended. But because it also seems as if Robbie is perhaps being gently encouraged to also bask in his privilege and not get tangled up in unpleasant circumstances, I think the story is too bougie. Even as Saunders intended to have Grandpa’s thoughts be a call to action, I think they instead only highlight more sharply inequality.

In the Q&A, Saunders says, ” And that’s why I wrote the story, to be honest. I felt as though I ought to be doing more than just kvetching at the TV. And the only thing I’ve ever done that had a whiff of power about it has been writing.”

I’m grateful for the explanation that helps me understand some of the craft and intent, but it’s just not enough for me to say that Saunders is brilliant in a way that matters to anyone other than a creative writing instructor. This story is just a haughtier form of kvetching.

So, from a craft perspective, I can see Saunders doing what he does best. Getting characters and their development out of the way so that ideas drive the story and force the reader to think until their ears steam.

As with the example above, Saunders does this through the questions GPa poses, and the responses he gives:

We were spoiled, I think I am trying to say. As were those on the other side: willing to tear it all down because they had been so thoroughly nourished by the vacuous plenty in which we all lived, a bountiful condition that allowed people to thrive and opine and swagger around like kings and queens while remaining ignorant of their own history.

Just tell me what it all means

So why is this story stuck in my craw?  It’s intelligent. It could work in a classroom setting to push students to talk about the very same things we talk about with “Semplica-Girl Diaries” — privilege, race, writing and personal style.It is ripe with opportunities to discuss craft. But Grandpa is just a little too…too much. And  herein lies the problem for me, as a reader, a writer, an instructor, a human. This story is brilliant and subtle, but requires more of its readers than those who need to read it have (Damn; that, it kind of doubles down on its brilliance).

I argue that the people who are putting kids in cages or supporting ICE raids (some of the things that come to mind as I read “Love Letter”) aren’t reading The New Yorker, so the story and its lessons are  lost on them. And those of us who read The New Yorker, well, there we are, “swaggering around” or reading things like this drivel of a blog post while kids live in cages or stand alone before juries while their parents are deported.

So.  Is George Saunders fucking brilliant? Yes. But is he speaking too much to people like me who have time to diddle our brains over such matters, and not telling a simple enough story that it could actually force some change? Yes, again.

Saunders says about the piece that the only bit of power he’s ever had as been as a writer, and although in the end I think he’s  brilliant, I’d like to see this story put to use to work that power a little more.