10 October 2009

Rude Words and Piracy: A High Wind in Jamaica and the Child Reader



Richard Hughes's first and most famous book, A High Wind in Jamaica, is one of the strangest novels I've ever read, which is really saying something. It's both delightful and disturbing in the way it presents -- in an unfailingly light tone -- children as amoral aliens. The novel is rich with irony, and it's not a satire so much as a relentless attack on sentimental notions of childhood. The possible interpretations of the novel are likely endless, but in many ways the book itself is about interpretation -- about the futility of trying to interpret a child's experiences and thoughts through adult eyes. (It's also worth noting that the novel was first published in the U.S. under the title The Innocent Voyage, which I'm rather more fond of than its better-known title. It was also once illustrated by Lynd Ward.)

I was surprised this morning to discover an essay by British teacher Victoria de Rijke in a 1995 issue of Children's Literature in Education, "Reading the Child Invention", in which de Rijke explores the very concept of "children's literature" by having children read A High Wind in Jamaica. The majority of the essay consists of transcripts of a conversations de Rijke had with an 11-year-old who read the novel, Ayeshea Zacharkiw. It's possible that Zacharkiw was extremely precocious, but de Rijke writes of many other children who read and appreciated the book, too. Toward the end of the discussion, she asks Zacharkiw if she thinks Hughes's novel is a book for children or for grown-ups, and Zacharkiw says she thinks it depends on reading ability, and a child's willingness to use a dictionary.
AZ: ...It’s an old book as well, so it’s got all these old expressions, but I think anyone could read it whether they’re children or grown-ups. Yeah. It might take the children longer than older people, but cut at two year olds, cos you have to be sensible about ages.
VdR: Right. I agree. And do you think there’s anything in it that adults now wouldn’t like children to read?
AZ: I don’t know why it’s been republished for adults. There are words in it I suppose, rude words (laughs) and piracy, but you can get horror books especially for children, but adults read them. Well, anyone can read any book. It’s just what level you are at reading, whether you like that particular type of book, and if you don’t like it, you can always put the book down.
VdR: Mmm, absolutely. You’re free to do that, aren’t you? It’s not in control of you! (laughs)
AZ: (laughs) No, course not. Once you’ve bought it. It doesn’t matter who you publish it for. Anyone can buy it and read it, or get it out of the library.
VdR: So what kind of particular type of book do you think this is?
AZ: Well, it’s about life. It’s about life on the schooner, and about children, as they’re the man characters, and about the difference between grown-ups and children, who’s in control.
De Rijke draws some interesting conclusions from this exchange:
Children’s observations are often valued by grown-ups for their blunt honesty and wisdom, for cutting through the adult flannel and exposing simple truths, most often because adults are already uncomfortable about hypocrisies which they are concealing. Ayeshea reminded me that there are a number of basic requirements for effective reading: a level of basic literacy, information retrieval and developmental skills ("cut at two year olds, cos you have to be sensible about ages"). What a terrifically blunt reminder of the low expectations teachers and adults have of reading potential! ... The act of reading cannot be controlled by publishers’ reading-age targeting, or price, given access to the library and a free choice of genre. In conversation, Ayeshea and I also emphasized, by the repetitive use we made of the word control the significance the book places on power relations, in terms of its subject. The term subject could be applied to both reader and plot.
It's a fine reminder not to underestimate readers.

For another view of the book, Francine Prose's introduction (PDF) to the NYRB edition is a good overview of some of its strange wonders and terrors. And I'm entirely in agreement with Mr. Waggish: "The sheer oddness of this book really defies summary."

In place of summary or analysis, I'll leave you with a direct quote from the middle of A High Wind in Jamaica:
In short, babies have minds which work in terms and categories of their own which cannot be translated into the terms and categories of the human mind.

It is true they look human -- but not so human, to be quite fair, as many monkeys.

Subconsciously, too, everyone recognizes they are animals -- why else do people always laugh when a baby does some action resembling the human, as they would at a Praying Mantis? If the baby was only a less-developed man, there would be nothing funny in it, surely.

Possibly a case might be made out that children are not human either: but I should not accept it. Agreed that their minds are not just more ignorant and stupider than ours, but differ in kind of thinking (are mad in fact): but one can, by an effort of will and imagination, think like a child at least in a partial degree -- and even if one's success is infinitesimal it invalidates the case: while one can no more think like a baby, in the smallest respect, than one can think like a bee.

How then can one begin to describe the inside of Laura, where the child-mind lived in the midst of the familiar relics of the baby-mind, like a Fascist in Rome?

08 October 2009

Life of Book, Sound of Finch, Meer of Vander

Jeff VanderMeer has posted a picture of copies of the actual Booklife, which excites me very much, because it's a neat book (yes, I still say "neat"; deal with it) and includes a little essay-thing I wrote at the end (alongside various essay-things by more interesting and less conflicted writers than I). Full contents here. I'm planning to keep a stock of extra copies of Booklife always on hand to give to the various aspiring and aspired writers I encounter, because it really does get at some stuff that I haven't seen elsewhere, and, well, I kind of had an addiction to writers' guides for a decade or so, which makes me oddly and a bit ashamedly qualified to make a statement like that. (The thing is, most writing guides are really terrible. Really. But not all.) Booklife is one of the few books I've seen to really address the life part of it all, rather than just the craft, and it does so in a way that is generous and suggestive rather than prescriptive. (I think I'll make a bumper sticker: "Kill your guru. Get a Booklife.")

Also, Jeff's upcoming novel Finch has an instrumental soundtrack from the band Murder by Death. The website lets you stream it, or you can download the album or specific tracks and pay what you want for them. Some lovely, haunting stuff that I haven't had nearly enough time to listen to to really absorb, but the couple times I've had it on the background, I've been pleased. I also seem to have grown strange mold on my skin and developed a real craving for dark, damp places...

Finally, if you're in the Plymouth, New Hampshire area between October 15 and November 23, stop by the Lamson Library & Learning Commons at Plymouth State University, where the exhibit "Illustrating VanderMeer: A Glimpse Into the Collaborative Works of Author, Jeff VanderMeer and Illustrator, Eric Schaller" will be on display (contrary to what the site says, though the majority of the books included are from my collection, some of them are Eric's). The big event will be the evening of Monday, November 23, when Eric and Jeff will both be in attendance, and there will be a reading, as well as discussion. I expect we might even be able to rope David Beronä into the discussion, though he might not be willing to join us for the obligatory mud wrestling afterward.

05 October 2009

Of Essays and Norton Readers

The ever-extraordinary Anne Fernald has just put up a post asking for recommendations of essays, since she is on the advisory board for The Norton Reader and they're planning a new edition.

I have an extraordinary fondness for The Norton Reader, though some of that fondness is, as they say, extra-textual. The textual fondness is that I think it's a wonderfully generous selection of stuff -- in fact, I like it so much I've assigned the book in classes, and if I ever taught such a class again, I'd almost certainly use it again. The extra-textual fondness is entirely for John C. Brereton, one of the main editors of the book, who, almost exactly one year ago, had the excellent taste to marry one of my best friends and mentors.

So I care a lot about The Norton Reader.

And I like essays.

Thus, while my students were taking tests this afternoon, I thought about essays to recommend to the folks at the NR. My thoughts are all a-jumble on this topic, though, because I hardly know where to begin.

I had four immediate ideas, though:
  1. For years, I have wished someone would anthologize John Leonard's essay "A Victim of Surprises", which I've frequently used in classes to demonstrate all sorts of different things (I mentioned the essay in my eulogy for Leonard).
  2. The essay I have used most frequently to demonstrate certain types of rhetoric and argument is "The Singer Solution to World Poverty" along with a photocopy of the letters page of the NY Times Magazine the following week. I would love a book to include both.
  3. My favorite edition of Best American Essays is the one edited by David Foster Wallace. Heck, Wallace's introduction itself would be a good thing to include (although I also like "Consider the Lobster" which is already in NR. Actually, I'd support a whole "Essays By David Foster Wallace" section of the book...) There's very little in the book that wouldn't be useful in NR. At the very least, Jo Ann Beard's "Werner" should be a shoe-in.
  4. The NR should not ignore the online world. The context of rhetoric in our time is one that has moved more and more online, for better and/or worse. There are marvelous, professional online venues now -- and not just well-known-by-everybody spots like Salon, but also Strange Horizons and Quarterly Conversation and Rain Taxi Online and a gazillion other places that I don't happen to have written for. There are also all sorts of brilliant individual voices available via blogs (cf. the sidebar of this site). A book like NR would enter the current century if it were able to integrate such voices into its canon. But the key would be to avoid presenting the online world as if it's just like print. Two items particularly come to mind: The ability of blogs to use hyperlinks in all sorts of different ways, and the addition of comments from readers to not just blogs and opinion pieces, but even newspapers. If a book is really going to show the progression and potential of rhetoric, it can't ignore this, and it can't approach it in a superficial and cursory way.
Those were my immediate thoughts. Then I tried to think of a few more examples of specific texts that I would recommend. Given a week or two, I'd come up with a much better list, but I've got other things clawing at my attention right now, so in the spirit of keeping the online world in mind, here are some things I've kept bookmarks of that I think would be interesting or amusing additions to my beloved Norton Reader...
Helon Habila on Dambudzo Marechera
Louis Menand on cultural prizes
Barbara Ransby on Hollywood's Africa problem
"Viewing American Class Divisions Through Facebook and MySpace" by Danah Boyd
Nicholson Baker on Wikipedia
"How to Write about Africa" by Binyavanga Wainaina
"The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism" by Jonathan Lethem
Tim Wise on institutional racism and the SAT
Mark Liberman on "Sexual Pseudoscience from CNN"
"The Color of an Awkward Conversation" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
"Obscenity Rap" by Geoffrey Nunberg
David Skinner on Webster's Third
"The Talking Helix" by Patricia J. Williams
"Being Poor" by John Scalzi and Nick Mamatas
Stanley Fish on norms and deviations
"The Gamble" by Samuel R. Delany (PDF)

"Gin, Television, and Social Surplus" by Clay Shirkey

(Those are just things I happen to have easy access to at the moment, so reflect my particular interests and prejudices, but I'm just making quick suggestions, not editing a whole book, so there's no attempt to be comprehensive or balanced.)