Arts & Culture Archive

Book Review: Tina Fey, Bossypants (Little, Brown and Company, 2011)

By Lydia Holt
If I weren’t the sleep-deprived mother of a sick child, I probably would have stayed up late into the night to finish 
Bossypants by Tina Fey all in one go. As it was, I had to swallow my guffaws so as not to wake the aforementioned sick child.

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I Am Not Descended From Egyptian Pharaohs, and That's OK

By Lydia Holt

I love what the girls of Watoto From The Nile did in their video/letter to Lil’ Wayne. It was a superb critique of misogyny cleverly disguised as hip-hop, and their video brought up an aspect of black American culture that has long been a bur in my saddle. 

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Tuesday
May312011

A Rich Man: Celebrating Edward P. Jones During National Short Story Month

By Nichole Rustin-Paschal

The New Yorker’s hold on me has stemmed less from its vaunted fiction and more from its criticism and reporting. Except for mid-summer in 2003 when it published Edward P. Jones’ short story, “A Rich Man.” I had never heard of him. But his language drew me in, entrancing me with its specificity, materiality, and what was left unsaid. The story recounts the end of a marriage between a long-suffering wife and her philandering husband, the couple who came to be known in their retirement complex as the man and wife who couldn’t stand each other. Loneese and Horace are former civil servants, estranged from their only son, and increasingly so from their only grandson. After Loneese’s lonely death in the hospital, Horace could openly bed women without making feeble attempts to hide his activities. Rather than keep to women nearer his age of 72, Horace rediscovers the pleasures of much younger women. As is just, considering how shabbily he treated his wife during their entire marriage, Horace is felled by his lusts, old and new. In the last scene we see him standing amidst the shards of his prize record collection, wanting to kill but his hand is stayed by the sounds of a crying baby.

Without ever explicitly describing the couple as middle-aged black people, Jones scripted their race through their language patterns and vocal cadences, their clothes, their customs. I knew them intimately. Truthfully though, even as I felt I knew them intimately, I still wondered throughout that first reading whether those were black characters. Had an author told a story that depicted the disappointments, realities, and experiences of black men and women without actually having explicitly stated they were black? I could visualize Loneese and Horace, as well as the other characters, even without Jones providing clues about the hues of their skin or the relative kinkiness of their hair.
 
Jones’ fiction gets at the heart of what short story telling is about, the creation of fully imagined worlds where characters live and struggle to find meaning in their experiences and relationships. In Jones’ fiction, the world is unapologetically a black world with its norms rooted in black culture. Jones probes those norms to explore universal truths about betrayal, love, sex, family, and work. Jones puts an end to the question of whether one must be either a black person who writes or a writer who happens to be black.   

Jones also charts the complex geography of black Washington, D.C. in the twentieth century in his short story collections, Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children. Washington, D.C. is as much a character as any of the individuals in his stories, with its own story to tell. The city is alive with black migrants from the South, with shifting neighborhood boundaries marked by segregation then integration, with personal grievances and disturbances. Jones, a native Washingtonian, was partially inspired by James Joyce’s Dubliners; he wanted people to understand the city as “a place of neighborhoods.” The two story collections are also linked, not as a sequel to the original, but as the reprise of characters and themes, a fuller fleshing out of neighborhood places and inhabitants of 20th century Washington.

Jones, the winner of a MacArthur Genius grant, spent 10 years thinking about his novel, The Known World, a story about a black slave owner in Virginia. The writing took only months. For Jones, putting words to paper comes after he understands the climax of the story. All the writing is toward that end; knowing where the writing is going is the hard part, once there, much of the writing is, as he says, behind you. He speaks candidly of his depression and finding that writing, rather than antidepressants, has seen him through. Even if no one else reads the work or responds to it, the fact of being able to fill the page with characters and events built through his imagination, gives him satisfaction and the feeling of well-being. Whereas some authors seek unfettered time to write, Jones found that freedom because of having a  “day job” working for the federal government. He could think his stories through, working out the characters, and working toward the conclusion without the stress of wondering how he would support himself or whether he was completing the book fast enough so that it could be published, allowing the publisher to recoup its advance. Now he teaches creative writing at George Washington University.    

For Jones, being a writer means always becoming one, there is no “creative bank” a writer can draw on when starting a new novel or story, you are always “starting at the bottom again.” Eschewing the myth that copious research renders fiction authentic, Jones relies on and is in fact freed by his imagination and the remembered details of every day life to create stories and characters that explore the known world of black Americans. His fiction is heart-stopping and wondrous, masterful and simple. We are the richer for reading it.

 

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