…is right here.
There’s a long tradition of Socialist Worker movie reviews generating major debates, so I am eagerly awaiting responses.
…is right here.
There’s a long tradition of Socialist Worker movie reviews generating major debates, so I am eagerly awaiting responses.
My workout ground to a dead halt tonight when I noticed that the TV above me was covering Trayvon Martin and I watched, riveted, while mainstream news said things like, “This is a new movement.”
That’s what it feels like, even being here in Wisconsin where there isn’t yet a response despite our own local murder of a Black boy for doing what teenagers do (what I did); despite the latest vicious racism, like semester-clockwork, from our frats; despite everything. It feels like something was let out of the bottle with Troy Davis and Occupy, or maybe like something finally crawled its way out, and it’s not going back even if it hasn’t yet taken stock of itself, even if it hasn’t figured out yet what it is.
I can’t stop thinking about the picture from the CNN slideshow of three men of color on a New York City bus urgently photographing the Million Hoodie March blocking their bus’s progress. It feels like a line is being drawn, between cops and prosecutors and reporters and racists laying bare that they don’t care in the slightest about Black boys’ lives, and people shouting that we care. When I look at that picture of the bus, it feels like maybe this is the first time they ever saw someone shouting that they care. It feels tangible how much they care back. It feels like one of those moments when options change.
I hope, I hope this is a new movement. Because we really need this one.
HUGE SPOILERS for THE HUNGER GAMES and CATCHING FIRE!!!
(note, this is the first of several semi-related posts on the Hunger Games trilogy – stay tuned for more!)
So, I love the whole trilogy, but CATCHING FIRE is my favorite, and here’s why – its about organizing. And I’m an organizer and activist, and thus love and appreciate books (non-fiction or fiction alike) that actually show the organizing process – the how of how change comes about, which mainstream history and a lot of fiction tends to skip past. CATCHING FIRE doesn’t get into as much detail as I personally might like, but I recognize I’m probably on one extreme of that preference spectrum in Collins’ overall readership, so I’ll cut her a little slack. Because what she does quite well is thread in bits and pieces throughout the book that make two things clear: a mass rebellion does not occur “spontaneously;” and depending on your personal experience and context, you are going to see and understand (or not see and not understand) what is happening very differently.
We get a number of glimpses of organized resistance before Katniss re-enters the Games, which we see primarily through Katniss’ perspective, but which we also get important alternative interpretations of through other characters.
The changing of the head peacekeeper and general crackdown in District 12 bring to light the extent to which the underground economy centered around the Hob was in fact a set of organized survival mechanisms within an oppressive regime – ones that have not, in Katniss’ memory at least, been used to challenge that system and thus were permitted to exist, but which actually put in place the kind of networks of communication, mutual support, and solidarity upon which more overt resistance movements build. Which is why it makes sense that the Capitol immediately does what it can to wipe out the whole underground world of District 12 upon the emergence of resistance elsewhere and small signs that at least a few individuals in District 12 might have similar thoughts. Of course, burning the Hob to the ground and electrifying the fence doesn’t destroy deeper community networks. In fact, Katniss’ mother makes it clear that the period of laxness has been relatively short (although apparently long enough that Katniss doesn’t clearly remember the last harsher time), and she and others seem to return pretty seamlessly to the roles they played previously.
Katniss interprets the crackdown as largely a personal retaliation by the Capitol against her. She has no clear memory of previous similar situations, so unlike her mother and some other townspeople who seem to see the lax period as an exception and the crackdown as a more of a return to what came before, Katniss sees the opposite. Furthermore, without context for understanding how collective action happens, how and why people respond to oppression in various ways at different times, Katniss sees both the acts of overt resistance that seem to her eyes to crop up out of nowhere, and the Capitol’s response, as direct consequences of her defiance with the poison berries. President Snow, of course, encourages that line of thinking and its corollaries: that she is personally responsible for any and all actions that follow down the line, and that she has the capability to stop others’ resistance. (More on this in a later post).
Gale provides an important contrast here, because at the start of THE HUNGER GAMES his perspective is actually quite similar. He’s portrayed as a more rebellious personality than Katniss – he sees the system as unjust and unfair, and it makes him angry, and more than anything else he comes off as frustrated. Which makes sense because the only solution he’s able to present is for him and Katniss to run away and live in the woods. Which they can’t do, because they’re each primarily responsible for feeding their families. While Gale may be bolder than Katniss in stating his feelings towards the Capitol, he’s no more equipped to do anything about it than she is. It’s after he leaves school and begins to work in the mines that his perspective shifts. When Katniss tells him about seeing the District 8 uprising on the Mayor’s TV, his immediate reaction is completely different from hers:
“And it’s my fault Gale. Because of what I did in the arena. If I had just killed myself with those berries, none of this would’ve happened. Peeta could have come home and lived, and everyone else would have been safe, too.”
“Safe to do what?” he says in a gentler tone. “Starve? Work like slaves? Send their kids to the reaping? You haven’t hurt people–you’ve given them an opportunity. They just have to be brave enough to take it. There’s already been talk in the mines. People who want to fight. Don’t you see? It’s happening!”
Whereas Gale proposes running away early in THE HUNGER GAMES, and is willing to try running away at Katniss’ suggestion moments before the conversation above, he’s able to see collective rebellion as a viable third option beyond the status quo and running away, at least under the right circumstances For Katniss it doesn’t register that way, even after Gale presents it. While there are many things that I think go into explaining Katniss’ reactions (which I will write about more fully in future posts on the series), what seems to me to explain the shift in Gale’s outlook is that he’s gone to work in the mines. Presumably Gale is learning from others at his job who have been in that context longer and may have previous experiences acting collectively. Katniss doesn’t get that education.
The other two examples of organized rebellion Katniss encounters are her glimpse of riots in District 8 on the Mayor’s TV, and the District 11 response to her and Peeta’s stop on the train tour.
In both cases, Collins made it clear to me as a reader that the people of those districts had chosen to organize against the Capitol. Perhaps Katniss’ berry moment provided inspiration or created a moment in which people decided to take that step into defiance, but between that moment and the scenes Katniss witnessed they have clearly done significant collective organizing work to create and then attempt to carry out a plan for active rebellion against the capitol. It’s that in between part that Katniss, unfortunately but also very realistically, doesn’t have the context to recognize. When, after her speech honoring Rue and Thresh in District 11, the audience offers a salute, she realizes, “What happens next is not an accident. It is too well executed to be spontaneous, because it happens in complete unison.” But she doesn’t seem able to get deeper into what that means.
Likewise, when she sees the District 8 uprising on the mayor’s TV, her response is: “I’ve never seen anything like it, but I can only be witnessing one thing. This is what President Snow calls an uprising.” She doesn’t seem to have a sense of what must have happened to lead to the violent, frightening scene she’s seeing, nor, importantly, does she seem to latch onto what it might lead to, other than the immediate effect of people being hurt or killed, and the threat to her family and loved ones because of her conversation with President Snow.
Katniss evaluates what she sees based on what she knows – she doesn’t know any system other than the one she grew up with, and she doesn’t seem to have learned about or latched onto the idea of substantial change as a real-life possibility. That makes sense because she doesn’t know collective action, she doesn’t understand organizing, and without some sense of that she has no context for thinking about how what seems like a complete fantasy (ie, overthrowing the Capitol) could occur. Without some idea of how, its hard to imagine it as real.
Dumbledore, memorably, falls in love with a younger man in the third installment. Other female characters were introduced, and developed beyond stereotype; we learned to value McGonagall as much as Dumbledore, to stop slagging Lavender Brown off as clingy and gross because she actually wanted her boyfriend to like her, to see the Patil sisters and Luna as something other than flaky, intuitive, girly idiots. Unbelievably, even Ginny Weasley got an actual personality.
I already knew about Constance McMillen — the girl whose school decided to cancel the prom rather than let her show up in her tux with her girlfriend — but there’s tons of teenagers to be proud of in Gary Lapon’s article, Why can’t Constance bring her date?
I’m watching a CNN interview Lapon linked with a 10-year-old who wouldn’t say the pledge of allegiance (since gay people don’t have liberty and justice for all) and his dad and it is so awesome. I want to give that kid such a big hug. And his dad! He is just so full of bemused pride.
What I think is interesting in this case of censoring school board mistaken identity is that at least this particular article seems to think it’s natural that, if the same Bill Martin who wrote BROWN BEAR… had also written a book for adults called ETHICAL MARXISM, then it would be just fine to keep his well-loved (I haven’t read it) kids’ book out of the curriculum.
Whereas historically, as we now know from Julia Mickenberg, during McCarthyism, children’s publishing (because it was so trivialized) was one of the few places that blacklisted authors could still find work. Which is one reason why it became a relatively progressive industry, with, for example, books about racism and slavery — albeit ones that might strike us as dated or inadequate now — in the early ’60s, while the Civil Rights Movement was still in a pretty early stage of its spread North.
When I say relatively progressive, of course, we know to take that with a grain of salt. (By the way, a post by Editorial Anonymous — which makes a great second point about how having ignorantly non-racist intentions does not constitute a Get Out of Accusations of Racism Free card — is sparking an interesting discussion about the obligations of authors, and when pragmatic professionalism becomes opportunist careerism.)
But back to that Dallas News article… the other thing I find hilarious about it is that the author mentions that one of the school board members orchestrating the censorship of BROWN BEAR… is just plain mad that there are so many books being approved for the curriculum. This is mentioned almost as though it partially excuses his idiocy — see, it wasn’t about this book; he doesn’t want teachers to be able to choose any book for their classrooms!
Perry Moore’s HERO is easily one of the best books I’ve read lately.
Along with some excellent plot twists, there are a couple major plot holes — Moore hangs a lantern on one by having the hero comment in passing on the fundamental stupidity of the villain’s plot — but I barely noticed because I was having so much fun reading it.
Like a few other books I’ve read lately, it’s a non-graphic novel set in a version of the present in which superheroes and their organizations have for decades been a recognized part of America’s political and cultural landscape. The protagonist, Thom, is the son of a disgraced former hero and a mom who’s disappeared. And he’s got a couple of secrets…
Here are some things I loved about this book:
One of Moore’s best tricks is to repeatedly have his narrator-protagonist imagine what other characters’ experience of something (e.g., the moment when they make an unpleasant discovery) must have been. It could easily have been abused, but as Moore does it, it’s a nice way to create a vivid sense of some of the book’s other characters, while also conveying our hero’s sense of empathy. It helps that Moore employs this only for particularly painful moments. What’s a better way to make you care for a character than helping you imagine in detail the indignities they face?
There were some unexpected sucker-punches (in the best way) — including one passage that I loved for indirectly making the parallel between LGBT civil rights today and interracial marriage in the past.
Here’s just one passage that made me fall in love with our hero, and thus cheer him on in his efforts to find love of his own:
We drove in silence. I didn’t like the empty space. I wanted to tell him that I’d take him to dinner and get to know him, and that even though I didn’t have a lot of money, I’d find a nice pizza joint and we’d both have fun. I wanted to tell him to drive us straight to the beach and we could check into a motel and talk all night and walk by the ocean until the sun came up.
But I guess if you don’t really feel that for someone, you shouldn’t say it. I wasn’t saying it to him, and he wasn’t saying it to me, either.
I had those feelings for someone else.
That’s what I’m talking about, people. If you haven’t read this one, consider doing so at your earliest opportunity.
One of the reasons Madison’s public library wants me dead is my reluctance to read Walter Dean Myers’s SUNRISE OVER FALLUJAH. I returned this to the library, overdue, twice without having read it, before finally getting myself to crack it open (at a point when the creditors’ letters bemoaning my idea that this time, I’m really going to read this! were piling up).
Why the reluctance? I love Myers — I have since some kind soul got me to read MONSTER — and I was excited to know SUNRISE OVER FALLUJAH was coming out. I think the source of my Hotel Rwanda-ing of it is mostly that I read about, and think about, and talk about Iraq all the time*, and the idea of doing it at bedtime, when I read kids’ books to relax, was a bit overwhelming.
Of course, I’ve also been working on IRAQIGIRL this past year, putting “children’s/YA books about the Iraq war” a little more firmly into the camp of “work” rather than “chilling out with a sauvignon blanc and a book and pretending there’s not some journal article that some more virtuous grad student somewhere is taking notes on (or writing) while I enjoy this shit.”
Anyway, I was really glad when I finally did force myself to start SUNRISE, because it is excellent. All of Myers’s usual strengths come into play: he manages to genuinely individuate characters by the precise brand of sardonic wit they employ. This feat is one thing that elevates the book over generic war stories, with their military banter so tired we feel we’re on our own third deployment of it; I’ve, sadly, read my fair share of that, too, and Myers is better than it.
Another notable characteristic of SUNRISE is the serious research effort that Myers clearly put into it. Having read a lot of soldiers’ memoirs (nearly all more brutal and negative about the war than what Myers portrays, by the way, although his has certainly been received as a bleak view), SUNRISE broadly accords with what I’ve read and also heard soldiers describe; Myers also makes good use of facts that have more recently come to light — like Blackwater’s role in Iraq — to imagine what the war looked like back in its earliest days.
I particularly appreciated that some of this research was clearly off the beaten path of mainstream U.S. reporting, as when Myers’s protagonist, Robin “Birdy” Perry, witnesses an argument between his superior and a local sheikh:
“Do you really think that we have the problems your papers are reporting?” Hamid asked. “Do you think that people who have lived together more years than your country has been in existence suddenly find it impossible? That the hatred has grown so quickly between Sunnis and Shiites that we must shoot each other and bomb each other?”
The mythology of timeless and unchanging ethnic hatred in Iraq is so taken for granted in the U.S. that I was surprised and happy to see it explicitly challenged in one of the book’s key scenes. And it’s historically accurate: SUNRISE is set in the war’s first year, before the ethnic divisions among Iraqis had become so entrenched by the experience of occupation and by the electoral and military systems designed by the U.S.
That decision to set the story in the war’s early days is what gives Myers’s book its most effective emotional punch: the characters can truly believe that they’re about the find the fabled WMD, and we get to vicariously experience their ultimate betrayal without Myers having to take his story there directly. Here’s another such scene:
“Tell him we didn’t come to kill him,” I said. “That we’re trying to build a democracy over here.”
“You bombed my village,” the old man, his head down, replied slowly in English. “First you shoot into my house, then you come to the door.”
“Where you learn to speak English?” Jonesy asked.
“I drove a cab in London for twelve years,” answered the old man. “When I had enough money to buy a house for my family, I came back to my country.”
“You’re going to be all right,” Jonesy said. “We don’t hurt our prisoners.”
And, of course, everything we know about Abu Ghraib and everything else makes this scene intensely painful.
Which also raises my biggest question about the book. People who are about to be freshmen in college this fall were in sixth grade when the Iraq war began; they were in elementary school during 9/11. Myers’s target audience of high school students, of course, was even younger. Do they even remember the lies about the WMD? Do they remember Abu Ghraib? They never experienced, as news-aware citizens, the days when the most optimistic hopes of Myers’s characters were taken for granted by most Americans. What do they make of this book? And when Jonesy assures his prisoner, do they believe him?
* Emily and I both have a long history of involvement in the antiwar movement; we both, for example, were at different times members of the national coordinating committee of the Campus Antiwar Network, back when were were in college.
Thanks to blog reader (and off-blog friend, game-night hosting and chicken-raising extraordinaire) Kristy for pointing me to this article on a battle to remove “pornographic” (largely, LGBT-positive) books from the public library’s YA section.
Apparently learning from the U.S. corporate press’s working definition of “balance” (see Glenn Greenwald making this point on torture), the original couple calling for censorship is also claiming that the library needs to at least stock some materials by “ex-gays” in the YA section.
The efforts of the censors have now inspired a separate group of old men in Milwaukee to file a lawsuit calling for the books to be (what else?) burned. I mean, you have to feel sympathy for these guys, as evidently their “mental and emotional well-being” has been harmed by the books being stocked in a place where teenagers can find them. Insert your own joke about these dudes’ mental and emotional well-being here: ____________________.
Here’s me raising my glass to the West Bend librarians for standing their ground, and to West Bend citizen and mom Maria Hanahan, organizing the campaign against the censors. We can only hope that the publicity helps some of the books in question… much as I personally purchased GEOGRAPHY CLUB this morning in solidarity with its earlier censorship fight in one of my state’s libraries (and because I tend to trust Jennifer Hubbard‘s recommendations).
Mildred Taylor’s ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY has always been a favorite – I’ve read it, and its 2 sequels, over and over. But I only just recently learned that there is a prequel, THE LAND, that has been sitting there, unread by me, all along. No longer.
THE LAND is excellent in all the ways that ROLL OF THUNDER and LET THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN are excellent (I think THE ROAD TO MEMPHIS is very good, but not quite on par with the prior two). Great, complex characters, engrossing story, and most impressively, a really deep exploration of slavery, racism, and how people, black and white, deal with injustice in a realistic way (which Elizabeth wrote an excellent post about a while back). THE LAND is the story of Cassie Logan’s grandfather Paul Edward. Its set during Reconstruction, and Paul Edward is the son of a man and one of his former slaves. The exploration of his relationships with his father and his white brothers is pretty impressive in that it manages to very realistically humanize the white characters without in any way excusing their racism, or ignoring the reality of their place in the post-slavery power structure, and the power imbalances in their relationships with black people. As in Taylor’s other books, the way the characters, white and black, respond to and live within their racist society, is varied, nuanced, and believable.
What struck me most, though, was that reading THE LAND felt like finally hearing the full story of something you kind of know about and have often heard in bits and pieces, but now are getting all the gaps filled in, all the bits of information you just sort of know put in order and strung together. Which is an incredible testament to the world Mildred Taylor built in this series of books – its common to talk about world-building in fantasy books, where authors have to construct a full and consistent reality, but I think its a different kind of impressive to so fully construct a “real” world, one which is historically accurate, but has characters and places rich enough in detail, with personal histories so full, that reading more about them feels like hearing your grandma tell stories about when she was growing up, where a lot of it you didn’t really know, but it all sort of feels familiar anyway. I can’t recall another book where I felt that sensation of familiarity so strongly.
And actually, reading Taylor’s books again set me off on a civil rights history kick in my reading – and so I will mention, although its, you know, not on the topic of this blog, that LETTERS FROM MISSISSIPPI, edited by Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez, is one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time and I highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in civil rights history.