Sunday, February 22, 2009

Elijah of Buxton

My choice for Canada Reads is Elijah of Buxton (Scholastic, 2007) by Christopher Paul Curtis. This book isn't on the official 2009 list, but I predict that it will be someday. It's the kind of book that will attract a growing audience.

It came into our house through the unlikeliest of ways: through a school promotion/sale. My wife ordered it. I started reading it as a bedtime story to my eight-year-old step-son. Soon we understood, however, that this isn't a typical book for kids.

I'm going to give away the entire plot, so be forewarned.

The narrator is 11-year-old Elijah, who lives in Buxton, Upper Canada, a settlement of runaway slaves near Windsor, Ontario. Elijah is the first child born in the settlement; "born free," which makes him magical, figuratively speaking.

Buxton is a real place. An author's note at the back of the book points readers to Legacy to Buxton by A.C. Robbins for more information.

The story takes place in 1856. Elijah is on the cusp of youth and some deep learning about the wider world. The early chapters are light in tone, as readers follow Elijah to school, to the fishing hole and out and about with his friends, playing tricks. He is Huck Finn-esque (a juxtaposition that suggests many avenues to be explored). We learn that Elijah is considered "fragile;" but as post-moderns we know he's just sensitive, smart and a little on the anxious side.

This is a book that provides added meanings when read aloud. The language is rich with southern twang and a local vernacular. My eight-year-old thought it was great, lively, funny, though he did grow tired of it: "Read it with your normal voice," he said eventually. But I couldn't read it with a flat, Toronto, 21st century accent. It's not written that way.

As the story moves along, it takes on ominous tones, though we remain within Elijah's point of view. Some new escaped slaves arrive. Some slavers are said to be nearby, seeking to repatriate their "property." One woman receives a letter informing her that her husband was whipped to death after being caught escaping. This is a pivotal point, because she gives the gold she was saving to buy her husband's freedom to a neighbour, so he can purchase the freedom of his wife and children.

At this point, my step-son had had enough. He didn't want to read any more, but he wanted to know what happened. Page by page, it was too stressful for him.

Here's how it ends. One of the men entrusted with taking the gold across to the USA to buy the freedom of the wife and children turns sour. He gambles the money away and shoots his partner. The partner returns to Buxton. The man who expected to see his freed family kidnaps Elijah (because he can read) and takes off in search of his lost gold and the traitor.

Then he has a heart attack and dies, leaving Elijah to fend for himself.

Armed only with the name of someone in Michigan he believes he can trust, Elijah asks for help finding the lost gold, but he's told to go home. He's also told to avoid a certain barn, which of course he heads straight towards. Inside the barn, he finds the traitor lynched and four adult slaves, naked and shackled -- one a woman with a baby.

To make a long story short, Elijah takes the baby home with him. It's the best he can do, in the end. And he learns, he says, what it means to be "growed."


The author's biography on the Random House website says:

Born in Flint, Michigan, Christopher Paul Curtis spent his first 13 years after high school on the assembly line of Flint’s historic Fisher Body Plant #1. His job entailed hanging car doors, and it left him with an aversion to getting into and out of large automobiles—particularly big Buicks.

Curtis’s writing—and his dedication to it—has been greatly influenced by his family members, particularly his wife, Kaysandra. With grandfathers like Earl “Lefty” Lewis, a Negro Baseball League pitcher, and 1930s bandleader Herman E. Curtis, Sr., of Herman Curtis and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression, it is easy to see why Christopher Paul Curtis was destined to become an entertainer.

Entertaining Elijah of Buxton certainly is, but it's much more than that, too.

It's not just topical, historical, relevant, or regionally significant. It's probably the best written children's book I've read (and I've read a lot lately). Read it to be entertained; read it to learn; but read it first for being a good book; a strong story, well told. An instant classic.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Fiction is Mystery

When I was younger, I thought that good reading leads to knowledge and that knowledge led to a deeper understanding of life, the world, the opposite sex, everything important.

It can, of course, I still believe that, but it does something much grander – it leads to a more sustained sense of life’s mysteries. It leads to confusion, to speak plainly.

I’m drawn, for example, to stories of self-deprecating writers. Charles McGrath had the following to say recently about John Updike, recently deceased:

His submissions to The New Yorker, where I used to edit him sometimes, were often accompanied by a little note declaring that the enclosed was not very good and would probably be his last, because the well was going dry, the tank was empty, the field was fallow. In fact, until the very end of his life Mr. Updike was remarkably youthful, and he filed his last piece with the magazine just weeks before he died (New York Times, January 31, 2009).

One mustn’t confuse writing and life, of course. Life can be mysterious, and one can live graciously and with an sense of wonder at each evolving moment and still not have anything to say, nor any talent for language. However muddled the writer, his or her fiction may still lead to revelation, conviction and certainty, but I don’t think so.

There are good readings and bad readings, better interpretations and worse interpretations. Interesting expositions and dull ones. But the interaction between reader and story is subjective; each of us reads differently, even if we are reading the same thing.

I will illustrate this point by referring to an article about children who struggle with literacy. Teachers were the audience of the article, which asked, “Who can tell the child that his or her interpretation of a story is wrong?”

The example provided was of a child who’d read a reference to a donkey being a “beast of burden” and concluded that the donkey was a vicious creature. He was “a beast.” This is clearly an incorrect reading, but this was a child who struggled to process language and here he offered his own interpretation. His imagination produced something mysterious, but it was correct, clear and meaningful to him. So it was not wrong.

Or was it?

I have a step-son with a learning disability, and he can say astonishing things, and he has taught me much. Such as, neurologically normal children are more predictable. It is the unexpected, however, that makes stories interesting. Unexpected interpretation is what leads to keeper knowledge; the mystery never ends.

This is not a conclusion that my graduate school professors passed on. Unless I missed something important, which I’m sure I did. Many times. I’d say I’m a slow learner, but Pynchon said that long ago. So I’ll just say my literary education has progressed in fits and starts. I was drawn to one school, then another. I have wanted to write dirty realism and fabulist-styled postmodern tales. I have ended up both more confused and more grounded. It’s the sort of contradictory conclusion that only fiction could provide.

One of the best quotations about fiction I’ve found is from John Barth: “Traditionalist excellence is no doubt preferable to innovative mediocrity (but there's not much to be said for conservative mediocrity; and there's a great deal to be said for inspired innovation).”

I also like Douglas Glover’s notion that fiction “opens into mystery.” (Carol Shields also apparently said that Alice Munro’s stories don’t end: “They soar off into mystery.”) If fiction works in any meaningful way, it’s to remind us that what we think we know, we probably don’t. We make many assumptions just to get us through, day by day. If we start living by what we expect to be true, we will inevitably end up hurting other people. So we all need forgiveness, but the universe doesn’t provide any.

We’re all just waiting, waiting, waiting for Godot.

I wrote a short story called “Beginnings and Endings” (included in Thirteen Shades of Black and White; Turnstone Press, 1999), which plays with a concept I stole from Robert Kroetsch’s Words of My Roaring. I’m sure he stole it from somewhere else, because beginning and endings are what make stories. They are the tops and sides of the box, the basic structure that holds in the middle.

Clark Blaise says he thinks beginnings are more important that endings, although most of the critical work about short stories focuses on endings (see Selected Essays; Biblioasis, 2008). I don’t privilege one over the other; I’ll just make this my final point. I think you can start just about anywhere and end just about anywhere. What matters most is the journey in between. The best stories make startling leaps, but they still make sense. Life is full of surprises, and fiction should be, too.

[This first appeared on Lemon Hound; February 19, 2009.]

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Clark Blaise

Selected Essays by Clark Blaise (Biblioasis, 2008) is, one assumes, like any other "selected;" it is a greatest hits package. It also serves as a primer, introducing the author to new readers. It may even provide an exclamation mark; a final, emphatic statement at the end of a career (not that Blaise's career is over, mind you).

Edited by John Metcalf and J.R. (Tim) Struthers, the book concludes with a lengthy bibliography of Blaise's non-fiction. The list begins with "Neofascism and the Kennedy Assasins" (Canadian Dimension, 1967). Thankfully, the essays that precede the bibliography tend toward literary subjects, which hold up better over time than politically themed reflections.

I have only read one other Blaise title, Resident Alien (Penguin, 1986). I picked that up a year or so ago at a garage sale. Interestingly, the opening essay of Blaise's new book begins with a reflection on the author life, including reference to the fact that Resident Alien was about to come out. Blaise wrote that essay in his early 40s, living in Iowa; as he wrote, "unemployed (I should be saying, bravely, self-employed as a writer), with a son in university, a son in high school, and a wife who has just started teaching in Montclair, New Jersey."

He had been writing for 20 years by that point, born in the United States to a Manitoba-born mother and a French Canadian father, but he was only just finding his life's subject. As the Canadian Encyclopedia puts it:

Clark Blaise's fiction sympathetically explores various conditions of alienation, isolation and displacement. His characters typically find themselves (as he often has) at odds in a foreign culture and place. Their keen sense of wonderment at the sharply observed details of their immediate environment - oppressively eccentric or pedestrian, exotic or banal - emphasizes their private disorientation.

Or as Alexander McLeod wrote in Essays on Canadian Writing (2002):

... there is something remarkably original about Blaise's work. Blaise is more than just a local colourist who ferrets out the curious details of "marginal" communities in order to delight cosmopolitan readers. Rather, if we consider the full arc of his work, we see that for nearly fifty years he has been challenging the way that we understand the concept of place in contemporary Canadian and American literature.

As his most famous titles reveal, Blaise is a "resident alien" who cannot escape his twentieth-century "North American education." He is a child of his time and place, a direct product of this continent's postwar fascination with personal mobility. He is a writer who really did grow up on the interstate, at the train station, and in the airport. If we only reorient our perspective, it becomes apparent that Blaise's rootlessness is at least as fascinating, at least as unique, as the rootedness that we instantly recognize, praise, and appreciate in earlier twentieth-century writers such as Faulkner, O'Connor, and Welty.

In our Obama moment, we should be quick to acknowledge: there are writers who have been preparing us for this new world. Blaise is one of them. He has been ahead of his audience for some time. May they find him soon, and in some volume.

Blaise's father married five times. His mother taught school on the prairie as a young woman, saved her money, then took herself to Europe for training in design before fleeing Hitler's Germany for Montreal and a late marriage and family. Blaise was born in North Dakota, spent his childhood in the deep south and Pittsburgh. Moved an average of three times a year. Went to school with children of his father's mistresses. By grace alone, it seems, he remained sane and had the gal to present himself to Bernard Malamud, who was teaching a creative writing course at Harvard.

Later came continuing literary education at the University of Iowa (where he later taught, among other places) and marriage to writer Mharati Mukherjee. In November 2008, Obama called himself a "mut." As this YouTube video shows, that language is loaded and risky. But Blaise's bi-racial childhood (and Canadian/American identity) complicated with a personal relationship through marriage and fatherhood to the subcontinent. As a family, this situation isn't unique. But there are few writers who have written from within multiple identities and attempted to capture the distinctions and meanings of so many boundaries.

The essays return to this theme, again and again. He saves his harshest language for the racism his family experienced in Toronto in the late 1970s. (There is also strong feeling in his too short telling of the book he and Mukherjee wrote about the Air India bombing, including interviewing the chief suspects before their names where widely known -- and well before the public trial.) He is otherwise remarkably sanguine about all of the changes and accomodations he's endured and made. It sometimes seems as if the deepest wisdom he has to impart is his own survival.

Which is a way of saying that there is a fair amount of autobiography in the Selected Essays. The essays are of two types: personal and professional. Sometimes they overlap, as in Resident Alien, which includes essays about his childhood and short stories that pick up pieces of the autobiography and embellish with fictional detail. (Embellish is the wrong word, because the fiction is not dependent on the facts, but then this is part of the questions Blaise's work raises. In this way his work is related to that of his one-time teacher at Iowa, Philip Roth.)

If I had to pick one essay as the best, I'd choose: "Kerouac in Black and White." It's the only essay I've read about Kerouac that starts from the point of view of the end years of Kerouac's life. The lonely, angry, reactionary, and as Blaise makes clear, the overtly racist years, though it is a racism consistent and persistent throughout Kerouac's career. Kerouac engaged, explored and wrote about "the other" consistently and persistently, but the exploration didn't lead to reconciliation; it led to entrenched alienation and the ultimate failure of Vanity of Duluoz (1968).

Amazon provides the opening sentence:

All right, wifey, maybe I'm a big pain in the you-know-what but after I've given you a recitation of the troubles I had to go through to make good in America between 1935 and more or less now, 1967, and although I also know everybody in the world's had his own troubles, you'll understand that my particular form of anguish came from being too sensitive to all the lunkheads I had to deal with just so I could get to be a high school football star, a college student pouring coffee and washing dishes and scrimmaging till dark and reading Homer's lliad in three days all at the same time, and God help me, a WRITER whose very 'success', far from being a happy triumph as of old, was the sign of doom Himself.

Blaise provides the context:

An impotent, alcoholic, ruined, middle-aged, mill-town Franco-American living in Lowell, and finally in St. Petersburg with his jealously protective, corrosively ignorant and loudly bigoted mother, or with a wife he alternately loved and hated while tying to divorce, is not a candidate for progressive opinions on race, class, or sexual politics. Forget Kerouac in his youth, the beautiful boy with his breathless tales of breaking away from canadien catholicism nightmared in Doctor Sax or tapestried in Visions of Gerard; forget the trips he took us on, like swatted rubber balls on their widest orbit in On the Road and The Dharma Bums and Mexico City Blues before they crashed back to the paddle that propelled them. That was then; this later, much later.

Which Blaise later expands:

Race, in the normal American black/white sense, was never a reality for Kerouac, never part of his early personal history -- only a metaphor for freedom, or temptation. He carried his blinkered childhood within him like a malignant unborn twin,and a white, Catholic, lost, pure French empire was part of that childhood. But for the likelihood of Indian blood, which he (like most French-Canadians) embraced, Kerouac was pur laine, a proud, full-blooded, full-culture French Canadian: ("Go back,"he wanted to call to his Breton fishermen ancestors,"ils vous I . jouent un tour." That is, America's going to play a trick on you.) Against the backdrop of the Church, and his own monochromatic background, "Negroes" offered only occasions for sex, drugs and music. And since those are also occasions for merging identities, they specifically challenge the corrosive dreams of racial and religious purity. Gerald Nicosia, in Memory Babe, mentions that Jack would have married Mardou Fox, the heroine of The Subterreaneans, if she'd been white. A strange inhibition for a Beat. "Purity" rose up early, and late consumed him, his vulture-twin pouncing on a helpless host.

You can start to see here that in Kerouac, Blaise has a precursor: a French Canadian border-crosser who struggled with multiple identities and modernity ... but who failed (found in the end only bitterness and collapse), whereas Blaise survived and tells us things Kerouac never could.

His essays on Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul, for example show Blaise is an intelligent interpreter of post-colonial literature(s). They also help contextualize his own biography, and our understanding of his ongoing fictional project, as Alexander McLeod has so capably outlined (quoted above). There is much substance in these essays to ponder; and to unsettle our assumptions, as good essays should.

Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to note that there is more than personal reflection and engaged musings on prominent post-colonial writers in this collection. There is also a series of short essays on the technique of writing short stories. We learn, for example, that contrary to most others, Blaise thinks the beginnings of stories are more important than their endings. These essays provide valuable advice and contributions to the literature of short story theory.

Nine years ago, Blaise and I shared a reading at a small book store in Vancouver. He was there with Mukherjee, and he read from The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy (Viking 1987). I read a short story. I had never heard of him, or Mukherjee, or The Sorrow and the Terror. But I have never forgotten his reading (and I wish there were more about this book and the process of its research and writing in Selected Essays).

At the book store, Blaise had a humble presence, but the words he read betrayed a sustained ambition to engage a complex subject at the deepest level. I thought, he has done something remarkable. Something much better than what I had done.

These essays are often remarkable, too.