May 16, 2015 § 8 Comments
Now that we’re well past the halfway mark of our year-long exploration of New Zealand, I’ve reminded myself how useful it is to document the details of a major trip. And so, although it’s been nearly four months since I described our Pinnacles hike on the Coromandel peninsula, I’m going to pick up right where I left off, in late October on the North Island.
From the Coromandel peninsula, we drove south and slightly east over a series of truly terrible, topsy-turvy roads that produced feelings of nausea even in this iron-stomached sometimes-Texan. We finally made it to Mount Maunganui, an adorable oceanside town embedded within the larger city of Tauranga, in the scenic Bay of Plenty. There, we booked a room, as ever, through AirBnb with a young, friendly, professional newlywed couple. They seemed somewhat dissatisfied about their current state of living and were nostalgic about the extended period of time they’d spent in Africa (Kenya, I think it was). As our female host remarked, Maunganui is jokingly referred to as “full of newlyweds and half-deads.”
Nonetheless, the town of Maunganui had a cute, young, and slightly hipster-ish vibe, as promoted by the collection of small shops and trendy restaurants and bars along its main street. Our first night there, we drove over to the historic village in Tauranga to attend an outdoor screening of Amelie, which is always — always — a charming film to watch, especially seated on the grass with soft tacos in hand.
Mount Maunganui is situated on the tip of a peninsula and surrounded on all sides by ocean. The Mount, from which Maunganui takes its name, is visible from all vantage points. On foggy days, a layer of soft white cloud obscures its apex.
It’s strange to look back at these photos, which were taken in October, because they seem so gray and dark. Summer in New Zealand was characterized by bright blue and mostly cloudless skies, and the air itself seemed brighter. Many of the Kiwis we talked to throughout September, October, and November spoke of summer in loving terms, and told us that everything was better in the warm season. “Just wait until summer,” they’d say. When it finally arrived, one abrupt day in late December, it was as glorious as promised. But it ended all too soon, with cool winds blowing in the morning and evening hours, and the standard chilly temperatures became everyday life again.
Climbing the Mount is one of the most obvious things to do in the town, and many residents use it as an exercise space, running and walking along the many paths scattered among its slopes. It also doubles as a emergency gathering point in the event of a tsunami wave. Even though the mountain is very much located in the middle of an urban area, Kiwis have made sure to take advantage of its grassy slopes for grazing. Like the cows on Mount Mangere in south Auckland, sheep were the primary residents of the Mount itself, and we came into very close contact on our way up.
Lambing season in New Zealand falls from late July through September, so our October walk up the Mount was the perfect time to see many adorable little lambs frolicking about, baaing loudly and munching on whatever they could find.
We weren’t able to touch a lamb – indeed, signs posted at the base of the mountain asked visitors not to disturb the sheep – partly because they are naturally skittish, but also because the female ewes were constantly on guard.
It was there that Greg was able to take possibly one of the most adorable photos of all time.
The way to the top afforded many lovely views of the surrounding area, despite the foggy weather. To our left we could see Matakana Island, a seemingly endless expanse filled with pine trees. The dark green made for a gorgeous contrast against the gray-blue water.
Eventually, after much meandering and delighted appraisals of the sheep, we made it to the top and looked down upon the little town below (also see top photo). The little island you see there is Moturiki Island, a bird sanctuary populated by an extremely violent and cacophonous colony of seagulls (among other less obnoxious birds). At low tide, you can walk straight onto the island from the beach.
The top of Mount Maunganui, like the rest of the mountain, is peppered with small footpaths, and we happily wandered among them, taking photos all the while.
Eventually, after drinking in the views and getting our photo taken by a nice German tourist, we wandered down the other side of the mountain where, of course, there were more sheep. Our hosts had told us to visit the Mount Hot Pools at — you guessed it — the base of the Mount, and even though our “hike” had barely lasted more than two hours, we were happy to take up their suggestion.
We ended the day with beers and chips at a pub, which was an average experience. HOWEVER, one of our nights in Maunganui involved an absolutely fantastic buy one, get one free meal at Barrio Brothers. Truly outstanding Mexican food, a treat that we definitely didn’t expect to find in New Zealand! If you’re passing through Maunganui, I can’t recommend going to Barrio Brothers enough.
We only spent four nights in Mount Maunganui, but it was a cute town that we’re glad to have seen. We also didn’t stay with all that many young professional couples via AirBnb, so it was interesting to see how our hosts in Maunganui were ambivalent about their life in New Zealand and eager to travel elsewhere, a theme that was to become increasingly common as we moved through the country. On our final day in Maunganui, we drove an hour east to Matamata to visit the Hobbiton set… but that deserves its own post entirely!
Photo credits: Majority by G., with a few exceptions; the Mount in fog, Matakana Island, Moturiki Island, footpaths, looking east, and the last lamb were taken by me.
Read more entries in my New Zealand travel log by visiting the New Zealand! page.
May 2, 2015 § 6 Comments
A few weeks ago I finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s much talked-about Americanah, the story of a Nigerian university student, Ifemelu, and her transplantation to the United States. I was so impressed while reading the book that I recommended it to my sister, Erin (whom some of you might remember from the post “Words of Wisdom from a High School Valedictorian“) who found a copy for herself and finished it in a record number of days. Despite a few flaws, mainly structural in nature, Americanah is a unique, thought-provoking novel that sharply demonstrates just how prevalent racism (still) is in America. Furthermore, there are seemingly few books written from the middle-class African immigrant perspective — or, at the very least, I am not familiar with many of them — which complicates the frequently recounted immigrant narrative focusing on economic and linguistic barriers to integration. Because we both enjoyed Americanah so much, and had so much to say about it, Erin and I decided to co-write the following review.
Overview of Book
By the time the story begins, Ifemelu has spent over a decade in America. Thirteen years, to be exact. Despite finding unprecedented financial and academic success by running a blog about race and racism, Ifemelu slowly comes to realize that there is “cement in her soul” and decides that she must return to Nigeria. Thus the visit to the hair salon to spruce up her appearance, where Ifemelu recounts her immigration story in flashback-style narration while sitting in the salon chair, waiting for the stylist to weave intricate braids throughout her hair. The flashbacks begin with an account of Ifemelu’s early life in Nigeria. Though she attended an excellent secondary school, her family’s lower-middle-class status put Ifemelu near the bottom of the wealth index of her classmates. Her father’s pompous vocabulary, deployed in an attempt to disguise the fact that he never attended university, and her mother’s religion-obsessed, neurotic behavior mean that Ifemelu’s parents are unable to transcend their class. Eventually, Ifemelu sees them as little more than a source of embarrassment. When, amid rising political instability and frequent shutdowns at the University of Nsukka, Ifemelu manages to obtain a visa to attend university in America, she does so with few regrets — the biggest being Obinze, her high school sweetheart. Ifemelu recounts just how pervasive dreams of America are in the Nigerian collective imaginary. School friends compliment each other by remarking, “‘You look like a black American,'” the highest commendation one can bestow (p. 67). Many of Ifemelu’s friends long to travel to the United States, where everyone has perfect teeth and nice clothes. Those who manage to get there are forever after christened “Americanah” due to the superior habits they acquire. This term, the namesake of the book, is explained on page 65. Ginika is one of the first of Ifemelu’s friends who manages to immigrate to America.
Ginika complained and cried, painting images of a sad, friendless life in a strange America…‘Ginika, just make sure you can still talk to us when you come back,’ Priye said.‘She’ll come back and be a serious Americanah like Bisi,’ Ranyinudo said.They roared with laughter, at that word ‘Americanah’, wreathed in glee, the fourth syllable extended, and at the thought of Bisi, a girl in the form below them, who had come back from a short trip to America with odd affectations, pretending she no longer understood Yoruba, adding a slurred r to every English word she spoke.” (p. 65)
Getting Lost and Becoming Black in America
The description of the immigrant experience in the United States is one of the strongest aspects of the novel. Ifemelu’s perceptive and insightful remarks about the realities of immigration are presented in stark contrast to the commonly held American belief that “Africa” is full destitute people, all of whom long to come to the United States in search of a better life. As a result, many of the people with whom Ifemelu interacts expect her to be grateful that the United States “allowed” her to immigrate there. Kelsey, an ignorant university student who Ifemelu encounters in the hair salon, is a perfect example how many people pretend to condemn America while secretly holding it in high esteem:
She recognized in Kelsey the nationalism of liberal Americans who copiously criticized America but did not like you to do so; they expected you to be silent and grateful, and always reminded you of how much better than wherever you had come from America was. (p. 189).
In reality, for Ifemelu, Nigeria posed significantly fewer problems in terms of race and identity. During a dinner party in her new home, Ifemelu lambasts a woman who claims that race is not an issue in her bi-racial relationship. As Ifemelu argues,
‘The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it… we don’t want them to say, Look how far we’ve come, just forty years ago it would have been illegal for us to even be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? We’re thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway?’ (p. 290-291).
Indeed, race is not a problem in Nigeria. Despite its spectacular economic gains, or perhaps because of them, American culture and society has failed to cultivate a sense of equality that transcends racial boundaries. After moving to the United States, Ifemelu has an extremely difficult first few years, during which she suffers from a loss of identity, the result of a social construct that paradoxically denies and emphasizes race. In one of her spirited blog posts (constituting some of the best parts of the novel), she states,
Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t ‘black’ in your country? You’re in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the Society of Former Negroes. (p. 220).
In the United States, the term ‘black’ encompasses all of those with darker skin, irrespective of origin or nationality. It is a catch-all term, an inherently racist term that categorizes people based solely on their position on the light-to-dark scale. And thus, Ifemelu exposes the ridiculousness of the concept, which has no meaning apart from that which is assigned to it socially. In another one of her posts, Ifemelu asserts:
But race is not biology; race is sociology. Race is not genotype; race is phenotype. Race matters because of racism. And racism is absurd because it’s about how you look. Not about the blood you have. It’s about the shade of your skin and the shape of your nose and the kink of your hair. (p. 337)
In her award-winning blog on race and racism, Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, Ifemelu exposes all sorts of racist behavior, from euphemisms like “diversity” that people use when they are afraid of saying “race,” to accusations of “playing the race card,” to being asked to provide “the black perspective” in class, to claims that “racism is over.” But Americanah documents all sorts of racism, beyond that discussed in the blog, from the perspective of one (fictional) character’s lived experiences. From comments about black people not needing sunscreen, to the realization that white guys in college weren’t attracted to her sexually, to her numerous failed attempts to find a job when she first arrived, Ifemelu recounts how, above all else, racism shaped her life in America.
Oppression Olympics is what smart liberal Americans say to make you feel stupid and to make you shut up. But there IS an oppression olympics going on. American racial minorities – blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Jews – all get shit from white folks, different kinds of shit but shit still. Each secretly believes that it gets the worst shit. So, no, there is no United League of the Oppressed. However, all the others think they’re better than blacks because, well, they’re not black.” (p. 205)
‘You’re so beautiful,’ a man told her, smiling, his teeth jarringly white. ‘African women are so gorgeous, especially Ethiopians.’ (p. 169)
There was a certain luxury to charity that she could not identify with and did not have. To take “charity” for granted, to revel in this charity towards people whom one did not know—perhaps it came from having had a yesterday and having today and expecting to have tomorrow. She envied them this… Ifemelu wanted, suddenly and desperately, to be from the country of people who gave and not those who received, to be one of those who had and could therefore bask in the grace of having given. To be among those who could afford copious pity and empathy. (p. 169-170).
Nathan had told her, some months earlier, in a voice filled with hauteur, that he did not read any fiction published after 1930. ‘It all went downhill after the thirties,’ he said.She had told Blaine about it later, and there was an impatience in her tone, almost an accusation, as she added that academics were not intellectuals; they were not curious, they built their stolid tents of specialized knowledge and stayed securely in them. (p. 323-4).
There were people thrice [Ifemelu’s] size on the Trenton platform and she looked admiringly at one of them, a woman in a very short skirt. She thought nothing of slender legs shown off in miniskirts — it was safe and easy, after all, to display legs of which the world approved — but the fat woman’s act was about the quiet conviction that one shared one with oneself, a sense of rightness that others failed to see. (p. 8)
Ifemelu stood there mesmerized. Obinze’s mother, her beautiful face, her air of sophistication, her wearing a white apron in the kitchen, was not like any other mother Ifemelu knew. Here, her father would seem crass, with his unnecessary big words, and her mother provincial and small. (p. 70)
Happilykinkynappy.com had a bright yellow background, message boards full of posts, thumbnail photos of black women blinking at the top. They had long trailing dreadlocks, small Afros, big Afros, twists, braids, massive raucous curls and coils. They called relaxers ‘creamy crack’. They were done with pretending that their hair was what it was not, done with running from the rain and flinching from sweat. They complimented each other’s photos and ended comments with ‘hugs.’ They complained about black magazines never having natural-haired women in their pages, about drugstore products so poisoned by mineral oil that they could not moisturize natural hair. They traded recipes. They sculpted for themselves a virtual world where their coily, kinky, happy, woolly hair was normal. And Ifemelu fell into this world with a tumbling gratitude. (p. 212)
‘So [there are] three black women in maybe two thousand pages of women’s magazines, and all of them are biracial or racially ambiguous, so they could also be Indian or Puerto Rican or something. Not one of them is dark. Not one of them looks like me, so I can’t get clues for make-up from these magazines. Look, this article tells you to pinch your cheeks for colour because all their readers are supposed to have cheeks you can pinch for colour. This tells you about different hair products for everyone–and ‘everyone’ means blondes, brunettes and redheads. I am none of those.’ (295).
The chapters detailing Obinze’s experiences in Britain are an interesting, but inconsistent, addition to the novel. Structurally, they occupy only a small fraction of the book, around 50 pages in a 477-page story. They are less fleshed out and seemingly less important to Adichie in contrast to the minute descriptions of Ifemelu’s life in America. Adichie almost treats Obinze’s story as an afterthought, passing over his difficulties too quickly for comfort.
The undeniable heroine of Americanah is Ifemelu. The significant amount of time spent on describing her transition to life in America, her decision to return to Nigeria, her relationships and insights are the outstanding aspects of this book. Obinze is a presence in Ifemelu’s life, but not entirely relevant for the many years they remained out of touch. To truly do justice to both characters, Adichie could have either eliminated Obinze’s time abroad or more explicitly explained his time in Nigeria. Organizationally, as well, the Britain chapters could have been better integrated into the narrative. If Adichie had two separate, linear stories – Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s – and a concluding section that detailed their reunion in Nigeria, the relevance of Obinze’s story would have been better understood.
Still, it is interesting to see the way in which Adichie distinguishes between the United States and the United Kingdom. Both are built on tribalisms, she argues, but while America’s primary distinguishing characteristic is racism, the UK’s is xenophobia. Broadly speaking, the United States is not anti-immigrant (though, certainly, there are exceptions to that rule, especially concerning undocumented Mexican immigrants), but it does assign social worth based on the color of one’s skin. Conversely, the UK is less preoccupied with skin color, but abhors and resents immigrants. As Obinze reflects, Britain’s xenophobia is effectively a denial of history.
The wind blowing across the British Isles was odorous with fear of asylum seekers, infecting everybody with the panic of impending doom, and so articles were written and read, simply and stridently, as though the writers lived in a world in which the present was unconnected to the past, and they had never considered this to be the normal course of history: the influx into Britain of black and brown people from countries created by Britain… It had to be comforting, this denial of history. (p. 258-9)
This denial of history regarding immigration flows is a common facet of anti-immigrant narratives in all of the major Western countries, and finds expression in micropolitics as well. For example, after the Northern United States demolished much of the Southern United States during the Civil War, thousands of African-Americans flocked to Northern cities. Instead of being well-received by those who were theoretically opposed to slavery, many African-Americans were segregated into the poorest and least desirable areas and reduced to occupying the lowest levels of labor hierarchies. But I digress.
Eventually, Obinze is deported back to Nigeria after attempting to wed a British citizen for residency. He is acutely embarrassed, largely because he thought his middle-class background meant he would be successful in Britain. He returns, eminently humbled, and, like Ifemelu, experiences a partial loss of identity.
Perhaps the greatest weakness in Americanah, though, was the ending. Seemingly incongruous with the tone and plot of the rest of the novel, the final chapters of Americanah are undeniably romantic in nature. However, the concluding chapters set in Nigeria are interesting insofar as they examine how Ifemelu was altered during her time in America. It’s impossible to live in America, inundated with advertisements and commercialism and passive aggressiveness, without undergoing significant personal change. Upon her return to Nigeria, Ifemelu reclutantly acknowledges that she has been, to some extent, corrupted by her stay in America. She attends a partly for the “recently returned” Nigerians who have spent extended periods of time abroad, and is disappointed to find that she has become used to the foods, conversation, and ease associated with the American lifestyle.
An unease crept up on Ifemelu. She was comfortable here, and she wished she were not. She wished, too, that she were not so interested in this new restaurant, did not perk up, imagining fresh green salads and steamed still-firm vegetables. She loved eating all the things she had missed while away, jollof rice cooked with a lot of oil, fried plantains, boiled yams, but she longed, also, for the other things she had become used to in America, even quinoa, Blaine’s specialty, made with feta and tomatoes. This was what she hoped she had not become but feared that she had: a ‘they have the kinds of things we can eat’ kind of person. (p. 409).
These small differences – food, lifestyle, and conversation – conspire to make Ifemelu feel like something of a stranger in her own nation. Overall, I’d argue that Ifemelu experienced a phenomenon of displacement; she spent enough time abroad to feel alienated in her home country, and, conversely, would never feel fully integrated in the U.S.
Oddly enough, though, it was the way that Ifemelu casually picked up her relationship with Obinze — arguably the very reunion that the entire novel was working towards — that irked me the most. Apart from the obvious — i.e., that Ifemelu had spent years in America, was clearly changed, and was hardly the same person who Obinze knew as a student — there was a certain fairy-tale quality about the romantic ending of the novel. After the brutal honesty and insight contained in hundreds of Americanah’s pages, the sugary-sweet ending seemed like it was being delivered with the audience’s wishes in mind rather than Adichie’s token realism. It was also frustrating that Obinze was permitted to be the superior one. Why didn’t Ifemelu question him about the origins of his wealth? Why did Obinze get to make the final decision regarding their relationship? Why did he seemingly have all of the power, and all of the dignity? There was a reversion away from feminism in the conclusion of their relationship, a disappointing ending for a character who had exhibited such independence and self-awareness throughout the rest of the novel.
April 12, 2015 § Leave a comment
**Please note that this review is based on chapters 1-3 and 7-10 of the book; I did not read chapters 4, 5, or 6.**
Spoonley, P. and Bedford, R. (2012). Welcome to Our World? Immigration and the Reshaping of New Zealand. Auckland, New Zealand: Dunmore Publishing Ltd.
Paul Spoonley (Massey University) and Richard Bedford (University of Waikato) are two of New Zealand’s foremost immigration scholars. With Welcome to Our World? Immigration and the Reshaping of New Zealand they have created a comprehensive, useful resource for students and fellow scholars alike to learn about the fundamental aspects of New Zealand’s immigration history and policies. They trace New Zealand’s immigration history from the historic signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, which represents the country’s first de-facto immigration policy, to the immigration reform introduced in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to the characteristics of and challenges facing present-day New Zealand immigrants in a sometimes not-so-welcoming host society.
Spoonley and Bedford’s portrayal of New Zealand is remarkably balanced. They do not fully condemn New Zealand for its problematic “preferred country” (i.e., white) immigration system that persisted until the mid-late 1980s, but instead contextualize New Zealand’s immigration history in relation to its first-world peers — i.e., Canada, Australia, the United States, and Britain. At the same time, they do not let patriotic loyalty or nationalist sentiments preclude them from critically detailing New Zealand’s racist and/or xenophobic treatment of immigrants, from fearmongering surrounding Pacific Island immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s, to the public concern over an “Asian invasion” in the mid-1990s, to the ongoing racialised hierarchy that persists in New Zealand, with Pacific Islanders at the bottom, those of Asian descent in the middle, and white immigrants from “preferred” countries (U.S., Britain, South Africa, etc.) at the top.
Appropriately, Spoonley and Bedford discuss New Zealand’s immigration policies as they compare to other English-speaking, first-world nations — namely, the United States, Canada, Britain, and Australia. While some might consider it an oversight not to consider the immigration policies of less-similar nations, the fact is that by combining these five countries, Spoonley and Bedford are able to discuss immigration patterns typical of so-called “desirable” immigrant destinations. These immigration flows, which are dominated by “economic migrants” admitted because of their skills and education, are distinguished by unique problems. For example, Spoonley and Bedford describe how the shift from a “preferred country” policy of immigration, which privileged British and other white Europeans from the early 1800s until the mid-1980s, to a points-based system introduced in 1991 that emphasized skills and work experience — and subsequently lead to increasing numbers of Indian, Chinese, and Korean immigrants — revealed racial and xenophobic tendencies among the general population. Although immigrants are generally perceived as having a positive impact on the New Zealand economy, the shift from a largely white/British immigrant population to an increasingly Chinese, Korean, Indian, and other Asian immigrant pool has required New Zealanders to accept that their country is primarily an Asian/South Pacific one, and not a miniaturized “Britain in the south seas.” Furthermore, although New Zealand (and Australia and Canada) admit immigrants based on their potential to positively impact the New Zealand economy, many immigrants from Asian countries face difficulties finding suitable employment at a level commensurate with their skills and experience. This represents one of, if not the, primary policy issue relating to immigration in New Zealand today.
Perhaps counterintuitively, one of the advantages of New Zealand’s historic “preferred country” immigration policy is the absence of a strong sense of patriotism or nationalism. As Spoonley and Bedord explain, because New Zealanders were technically British citizens until 1948, there was no need to convince large numbers of disparate immigrants to adopt a “new” nationality, in sharp contrast to other countries like the United States which has been dominated by a melting pot ideology. Even today, the thresholds to permanent residence and citizenship in New Zealand are low compared to similar countries, and there is not a strong expectation that immigrants should hastily adopt the national norms and pastimes of their new home. Furthermore, New Zealand’s distinctions between citizens and permanent residents are relatively relaxed, with permanent residents having access to state-funded health care and other social benefits, in addition to the right to vote in national elections.
My criticisms of the book, which are few, are more or less identical to those expressed by Jane Yeonjae Lee of the Unitersity of Auckland. In a review published in New Zealand Geographer, she remarked that:
This book provides a comprehensive overview of New Zealand’s immigration history, policy development and impacts, and migration system. However, the book does not move beyond a general overview of various matters of immigration. Hence, it would not be appropriate for someone who is looking for a theoretically engaging book. (p. 80; link to source).
Published in 2012, Welcome to Our World? is especially useful — as are most academic texts — because of its extensive bibliography, which covers just about every aspect related to immigration that New Zealand scholars and academics have pursued. As such, Spoonley and Bedford point out areas in need of further research (e.g., children of immigrants; transnational immigration patterns and circular migration; and examining New Zealand’s immigration inflow and outflow in conjunction with that of Australia, paying special attention to the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement). With Welcome to Our World?, Spoonley and Bedford have accomplished something that is still relatively rare for academic texts: their detailed account of New Zealand’s immigration landscape is both appropriate for (educated) novices as well as scholars with decades of experience in the field. It is critical reading both for those wanting to ensure that their understanding of the literature is sufficiently broad, as well as undergraduates learning about New Zealand’s immigration history and policies for the first time.
Overall rating: 4/5 stars — Ideal both for undergraduate students seeking a general introduction to immigration in New Zealand, as well as graduate students and academics eager for a comprehensive resource containing a semi-specialized overview of pertinent issues and the relevant literature.
P.S. I realize that this review is a somewhat unusual one for my blog, as I usually stick to fictional texts. I’m hoping to study something related to immigration at the graduate level here in New Zealand. When I have a better idea of whether I’ll be able to do that, I’m potentially planning to create a second, separate blog with resources on that subject. But, for now, it’s useful for me to be able to record my impressions of what I’m reading here on Literary Vittles.
February 28, 2015 § 16 Comments
This book has floated on the edge of my awareness for quite some time now. When I spotted a copy in the bargain bin at a used bookshop in Wellington, I thought, why not?
Well, shame on me! I don’t know WHAT compelled me to think I’d get along with a book containing “sisterhood” and “ya-ya” in its title. Where was MY divine intervention, to stop me from making such a grave mistake?
Despite the fact that Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is, for the most part, quite well-written, I felt dirty while reading it because of the blatant racism, classism, and sexism contained within its pages. I was horrified to learn that it sold a whopping 1.5 million copies in the two years following its publication. Who were those 1.5 million people? Why were they duped into thinking that Ya-Ya was a good novel? I think I have part of an answer, but it’s not a comfortable one.
There’s a long history of white women getting away with saying and writing problematic things. I’ve never read Gone with the Wind, but I’ve heard secondhand about how racist it is. Gone with the Wind is discussed extensively in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and it’s clear that author Rebecca Wells drew inspiration from the classic Southern novel. After all, the four Ya-Yas are essentially modernized Scarlett O’Haras, born 75 years too late to witness the destruction of the South. They still glorify and romanticize the hell out of it, though. Someone, somewhere (I can’t remember who) remarked that books and films like The Help end up being popular precisely because they are written by white women, while more critical (and important!) novels by people of color get shoved out of the market. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin when I was a precocious middle-schooler, and I have to wonder what it was about my educational and societal circumstances that led me to think that was a good idea. At 12, I wasn’t shrewd enough to perceive the racism lurking beneath the abolitionist text, but I have no doubt that if I were to return to it today, I’d feel ashamed of Harriet Beecher Stowe. When I think of all of the wonderful stories that Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood probably displaced, it really makes me wonder what kind of stories become popular, and why.
The disturbing elements of the novel are too numerous to name – and far too complex for me to attempt to thoroughly dissect – so in this review I will focus on four main issues: racism as evidenced by the lack of independent black characters, classism as conveyed through the assumption of wealth, willful ignorance regarding mental health, and sexism through the relegation of men to servile, sexual, or absentee roles.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood begins in 1959 on the Pecan Grove Plantation in Thornton, Louisiana. Siddalee Walker is six years old, and goes mostly unloved by her glamorous, alcoholic mother, Vivi. Vivi’s gaggle of equally-superficial, too-eager-for-a-cocktail friends refer to themselves as the Ya-Yas because of their alleged violations of Southern social codes. They are: tiny Teensy, a Cajun firecracker with a perfect body and a predilection for stripteasing at parties; bohemian Caro, who looks great in clothes thanks to her athletic physique; and mommy-ish Necie, who’s unremarkable apart from her long, beautiful hair. It’s important to note that Necie is the most conventional-looking of the four Ya-Yas, which is directly translated to mean that she also behaves the most conventionally. Physical attributes are directly mapped onto emotional ones, an unwelcome resurgence of the antiquated – not to mention false – concept of physiognomy.
Flash forward to 1993. Sidda is 40, a theater director working in New York. Her relationship with her mother has exploded thanks to an unfortunate feature in the New York Times in which Vivi is referred to as a “tap-dancing child abuser.” Vivi is furious, and refuses to speak to Sidda on the precept that her daughter has ruined her reputation. The problem is, though, that Vivi did abuse her children: she beat them so badly that she had to be institutionalized for a short period of time. Vivi makes it clear, however, that Sidda is the one at fault. Highly distressed, Sidda calls off her upcoming wedding because of the drama with her mother — a decision that, at least to me, makes absolutely no sense. So fractured is her delicate sense of self that Sidda has to retreat to a cabin on Lake Quinault in Washington State which, luckily, a wealthy friend of Sidda’s lets her borrow free of charge. Urged by her Ya-Ya girlfriends to repair the rift between herself and Sidda, Vivi reluctantly mails Sidda her scrapbook entitled “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.” The bulk of Wells’ novel consists of Sidda rifling through the pages of the scrapbook, remembering pieces of her childhood, and attempting to reconcile her feelings about her mother. These are interspersed with flashbacks to Vivi’s childhood and the formative years of her friendship with the Ya-Yas.
Black stereotypes, Cajun glorification, and Indian appropriation
The portrait that Rebecca Wells paints of Louisiana and the Southern United States is unwaveringly white. Segregation is mentioned several times, but references to the Civil Rights movement are few – perhaps indicative of the way that many wealthy white Southerners ignored a movement that didn’t really interest them. Black women in particular are depicted as secondary to white interests; when the Ya-Yas take their children to picnic at Spring Creek, black women are mentioned only in passing – i.e., they prepare the picnic baskets.
In her discussion of the film adaptation of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Deborah Barker argues that the ambiguous Southern setting invokes a specific kind of nostalgia for an era in which women were not yet responsible for being aware of racism or feminism:
…many of the films are set not only in the South but also in the past, further distancing the audience not only from the 1970s women’s movement but also from the Civil Rights Movement and justifying the emphasis on white women as the subjects of film, while African-American characters play supporting roles. (93)
Sidda herself, allegedly the less-racist contemporary, claims to love both her “white mother” (Vivi) and her “black mother,” Wiletta. She makes the following grandiose claim about a third of the way into the book.
Wiletta, now almost eighty, still cleaned Vivi and [her husband] Shep’s house. Sidda and Willetta still exchanged letters. Vivi’s jealousy of their affection did not keep Willetta and Sidda from loving each other… Sidda cannot think about her mother without thinking about Willetta. And yet she can barely unravel her relationship with her white mother, let alone her black one. (114)
Despite this observation, the vast majority of Sidda’s reflections involve Vivi and Vivi alone. Sidda is not enamored of or confused by Willetta in the same way that she is by Vivi; Willetta, cast in the stereotypical black mammy role, offers uncomplicated love. Vivi, on the other hand, is permitted to develop a unique personality that necessitates deep reflection to understand.
Apart from Willetta, mentions of black characters are scarce. They are not an integral part of the story, but rather hover on the periphery, where, occasionally, they are called upon for favors by the white protagonists. In 1939, at the age of 13, Vivi demonstrates just how ignorant she is about racism in the following exchange. She is traveling with Caro and Teensy to Atlanta, Georgia to attend the premiere of the film Gone With the Wind. Ginger, Vivi’s black maid, is sent along to chaperone the girls on the train ride to Atlanta.
…then there was another knock on the door. And we all thought it was the conductor again, and so I climbed down and opened the door. It was a colored porter with three glasses of milk on a platter for us. I thanked him and he asked if we wanted our shoes polished. We all said, ‘Yes, thank you.’ And I got our shoes and handed them to him. Then he said in a whisper, ‘Ginger want to know if yall be doing all right. She say run two cars down if you in trouble and she take care of you.’ We were all surprised that he knew Ginger, but Ginger gets around, you know she does. I thanked him, and he said, ‘My name is Mobley if yall need anything.’ And so Mobley has just taken off with our shoes and he better bring them back or we’ll have to go sock-footed to the diner in the morning! (89)
This is the essence of Vivi’s relationship to African-Americans: they are there to be polite, to not ask questions, and to do her bidding when she requires it. From age 13 to age 31, Vivi only grows more racist. After giving birth to her fourth child, Vivi temporarily hires a black nurse, Melinda, and is horrified by the prospect that she will have to care for her own children after Melinda moves on. Despite the fact that she is perfectly willing to let Melinda bathe, clothe, and feed her children, Vivi lacks even an ounce of respect for her.
Melinda had stayed for three months to nurse Baylor and then she left me. She had to. She had another baby to take care of…
The monsters were all asleep for once. It was quiet. I could hear that low hum of the refrigerator. I did not want to beg a colored person to help me, but I couldn’t stop myself.
‘Melinda,’ I said. ‘I am begging you. Please don’t leave me. I cannot take care of these four babies by myself. Please, please do not leave me. I will pay you anything you want. I will make Mr. Shep get you your own car. How about that?’
I thought for a minute I had convinced her, thought for a minute she would stay. After all I had done for her and her family, I thought she might at least stay and help me.
‘Miz Vivi,’ she said, ‘they you children and you gonna have to tend them one of these days.’ (262)
Only the spoiled white woman is allowed to get tired of her kids. Not the black nanny who operates as a surrogate mother and gets paid terrible wages, all the while raising children of her own.
While African-Americans in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya- Sisterhood are portrayed as servile, stoic, and undesirable, other “exotic” cultures are fetishized. Teensy, the dark-haired Cajun girl and one-fourth of the Ya-Yas, is continuously sexualized because of her perfect, petite body, swarthy skin, and French exclamations. So, too, is Teensy’s mother, Genevieve, idolized by the four Ya-Yas because of her beautiful “otherness.”
Teensy had jet-black hair and eyes that were almost as dark. Barely five feet tall, she had an olive complexion and tiny feet, almost like a child’s… Teensy had a perfect body, and we all knew exactly what it looked like. One of her eccentricities (when the gang really got going, when the bourbon was flowing, when the time seemed right, when she received the call) was to stage an elaborately drawn-out, sexy, and very funny striptease… Teensy always wore the skimpiest swimsuits. The Ya-Yas called her the Bikini Queenie and she was the talk of Garnet parish with her risque little numbers. I always imagined that she received those bikinis in the mail straight from Paris. (38)
Even more egregious, however, is the pseudo-religion that the Ya-Yas construct for themselves using elements of Native American culture. The girls assume that Native Americans are inherently closer to nature, that by engaging in “Indian” rituals they can bring a flash of uncivilized excitement into their lives. How else to explain the bizarre initiation ceremony that the girls hold in the bayou?
Teensy whips the empty oatmeal boxes out of her paper sack, and we all beat on them. And while we drum, we yell out to the night and the woods and the fire that we are now The Ya-Yas. Then Necie, Mistress of Names, formally gives all of us our Ya-Ya Indian names that we have chosen ourselves. Mine is Queen Dancing Creek. Caro’s is Duchess Soaring Hawk, and Necie’s is Countess Singing Cloud… ‘Everybody ready for ceremonial paint?’ Teensy asks, with one of her bad looks. ‘What?’ we all say. This is not in the program, but the Ya-Ya tribe plays things by ear. Teensy reaches into her sack and pulls out a bunch of Genevieve’s Max Factor of Hollywood tubes and pots of color, and pencils and lipsticks… We take turns drawing on each other until we could pass for full-blooded Injuns. (71-72)
It is worth mentioning that the girls are eleven when this scene takes place. Less problematic, perhaps, than the idea of four young girls unwittingly engaging in cultural appropriation is the fact that adult author Rebecca Wells thought this was an inspiring and unforgettable way to convey a close friendship. Bits of Indo-Cajun-religious lore are sprinkled throughout the novel, from frequent invocations on Sidda’s behalf to the Holy Lady in the moon, to ritual lightings of Virgin Mary candles, to contemplations about how walnuts are “food and seed at once.” These pseudo-religious, mother-earth-praising interjections only serve to further romanticize the “natural” South and emphasize the oft-disproven notion that women are inherently more in tune with their emotions.
Classism: Assumptions of wealth
Make no mistake: Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is all about wealth, and how said wealth allows you to ignore the unpleasant things in life. Everyone with a significant role in the novel is wealthy. Sidda is raised on Pecan Grove, a plantation with a whopping 900 acres. Teensy inherited her money in the form of Coca-Cola shares. So, too, are Necie and Caro well-off, though the source of their wealth is not explicitly stated. Sidda is wealthy; her Yale-educated fiance is wealthy; her theater director friend May Sorensen is wealthy (and oh-so-handily owns that cabin on Lake Quinault). It gets exhausting, to be honest. And cloying. Interactions with the less-well-off are not only scarce, but actively scorned. When Vivi and her friends make that infamous trip to Atlanta to attend the Gone With the Wind premiere, they are forced to observe poor people.
There were thousands of people lined up in a little park in front of the auditorium. Uncle James said they were the people who didn’t have tickets, and that they should have stayed away like Mayor Hartsfield requested. But they were standing out there in the cold, looking like the folks who live at Ollie Trott’s Trailer Paradise at home, with bad teeth and all. When the police gave them orders to move back, they did. We just walked right by them, Necie. Aunt Louise tried to make us hurry, but we all had trouble walking in those hoop skirts. (97)
It’s one thing to write a novel about the South in which you discuss race-based inequalities with a critical edge. It’s quite another to write a contemporary book set in Louisiana that makes the whole place seem like an Angel Food Cake, all fluff and prettiness and prosperity and laughter and friends and fun. It’s Southern romanticism, and it’s a dangerous thing.
Moreover, no description of the Ya-Yas is complete without a commentary on their wealth and appearance. Their physical and material beauty lends them credibility – after all, what’s so exciting about a group of four poor female friends?
To say that Sidda was startled by the sight of the three Ya-Yas pulling into the drive of the Quinault Lodge in a teal-colored Chrysler LeBaron convertible would be an understatement… All three women wore sunglasses… Teensy wore a pair of black linen slacks with a crisp white linen blouse. On her feet she wore a pair of little Robert Clergerie sandals, which probably cost more than her airfare from Louisiana. Necie was clad in a light-blue-and-white-striped skirt and blouse, looking very Talbot’s. Caro wore khakis and a white shirt – she could have been in a Gap ad. The backseat of the convertible was loaded with the kind of luggage that one does not normally see at park lodges in the Western United States. It was the kind of luggage one associates with Southern women of a certain era who believe that it is their duty to make sure that doormen and porters make a good living, and that it is impossible to arrive in a new place without a pair of shoes to match every possible change of clothes. (282-283)
In other words, the Ya-Yas are high maintenance, and painstakingly so. More problematic is that their materialism is a source of praise, a source of whimsy; the commentary about their clothing and luggage stems from the kind of reasoning that glorifies shopping dates and other excursions in which large sums of money are spent by all participants. Isn’t capitalism just a hoot?
Let’s tally Vivi’s sins: She’s vain, selfish, racist and rude, and on top of all of that, she’s close-lipped about her mental health issues. It is established within the first few pages of the novel that Vivi had a mental breakdown and beat her children viciously, yet clarity on this point is never truly achieved. Thirty years after being beaten by her mother with the metal end of a belt, Sidda receives something like closure from Caro, since Vivi is too proud and ashamed to talk about the episode herself. Apparently, Vivi got a prescription for Dexamyl, then went on a 4-day Catholic retreat. When she returned, she decided the devil had invaded her kids, and that the only way to get rid of Satan was to whip him out. After a three-month stint in the mental hospital, Vivi returns, still shaken, and completely refuses to talk about the episode. In fact, she never discusses it with her children at all. She only refers to it as a euphemism: “I dropped my basket.”
There is never any suggestion that Vivi should own up to her mistakes. Indeed, Rebecca Wells goes out of her way to paint Vivi as a character deserving of sympathy. First, there is the fact that Vivi’s father also punished her with a belt, which left ugly marks on her beautiful true-blonde skin. Then there is Vivi’s mother, a strict, religious woman whose devotion to Catholicism allows her to criminalize her daughter. The reason that Vivi is so fragile, we are to understand, is twofold: First, her true love, Jack Whitman, died when she was 16, and she never recovered. Second, Vivi’s mother sent her to Catholic boarding school for half a semester, where poor Vivi, surrounded by ugliness, severity, and oversalted food, starves herself and ends up in the hospital ward. Physiognomy rears its head again in a letter addressed from Vivi to Caro:
Dear Caro, Every single girl at this school is ugly. I do not mean plain, I do not mean homely. I mean ugly. This is one of those schools where there are two types of girls: (1) the daughters of Catholic nuts; and (2) bad girls who they want to punish. I guess I fit in both categories. They’re all ugly and they stink. The whole joint reeks like sauerkraut and old men’s socks…
My room here is not a room. It’s not even a cubby-hole. It’s a pen, a hole, a cell… I asked the nun who brought me here where my closet was. She said,’ You have no closet.’
‘I need to hang my dresses,’ I said. (210-11)
Are the girls at the school ugly because they are unhappy, or are they unhappy because they are ugly? Poor Vivi, with nowhere to hang her party dresses! The most ridiculous thing about this overwrought scenario is that Rebecca Wells seems to expect that her readers will feel sympathy for Vivi. Well, I suppose a few million did. Wells obviously has her issues with the Catholic Church, and to be honest, many people do. But the way in which she condemns the religion is overdramatic and simplistic at best.
Sidda must constantly be on guard when speaking and interacting with her mother. As a result, their conversations are necessarily stifled, full of one-sided praise.
Afraid to say the wrong thing, Sidda said nothing. She shelled the crayfish and ate. ‘This is delicious.’
‘Thank God Louisiana men know how to cook,’ Vivi said.
‘Not as sophisticated in its flavoring as your etouffee, of course’ [Sidda replied].
‘Necie made sure you had some?’ Vivi asked.
‘I had forgotten food could taste like that,’ Sidda said.
‘You really thought it was good?’
‘Good?! Mama, the etouffee you sent up with the Ya-Yas would have made Paul Prudhomme weep over his cast-iron skillet. That man is a short-order cook compared to you.’
‘Well, thank you. I am known for that dish, if you recall.’ (344)
Vivi’s pride gets in the way of her being a capable, loving mother, but her glaring personal defects are supposedly forgivable because of her snarky and vivacious personality. Unfortunately, throwing regular temper tantrums does not a compelling personality make. Referring again to the episode in which Vivi begs a black maid to take responsibility for her children, Vivi subsequently takes off on a four-day jaunt to the Gulf of Mexico dressed in nothing but a cashmere Givenchy coat. She drinks, sleeps, and drinks some more, having left her children – and the caretaker – with zero explanation. Vivi argues that she was not destined to be a housewife, that she was instead meant to be glamorous and famous, and that it is unnatural to expect her to change diapers and warm up bottles of milk. It’s not that Vivi didn’t want children; she did, but is displeased with the reality and the responsibility. Eventually, she convinces herself to return home, but not without “tucking away” a piece of herself first.
I was thirty-one years old. I was still alive. I would take chunks of myself and store them in a root cellar. I would take them out when my children were grown. (281)
As though motherhood is nothing but unmitigated misery. It’s the height of selfishness to describe it that way. Nonetheless, Rebecca Wells is determined to furnish a happy ending, where Sidda weds Connor in a field full of sunflowers wearing her mother’s wedding dress. As Deborah Barker argues, “The happy ending depicts mother and daughter coming together on the porch swing in a scene that is the ultimate validation of the abused child” (110). And, as I would argue, the ultimate validation of child abuse.
Sexism & Superficiality
In terms of its depictions of men, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is about as progressive as Desperate Housewives. The men in the book, who are very rarely mentioned, fit into stereotypical categories. First, there are the absentee fathers and husbands, who never speak to their wives, let alone help them with chores. Chick, Teensy’s husband, is the glorified exception. Because he worships Teensy’s Cajun heritage – which, as we have already discussed, is a form of racist fetichism – cooks all of the meals, and caters to her every whim, he gets a pass from Rebecca Wells.
A small wiry man of around seventy stepped toward the car. He was wearing a plaid bow tie and a finely tailored shirt, looking a little like a cross between an aging horse jockey and Mr. Peepers.
‘You must be Connor,’ Chick said, giving him a kiss on the cheek in the European fashion. ‘I’m La Teensy’s lesser half.’
‘You darling man,’ [Sidda] said to him, smiling. ‘Where is Teensy? Where are all the Ya-Yas?’
‘La Teens needed her beauty rest,’ Chick said… ‘Sidda, please don’t snitch and tell your amoureaux that I’m a faux Cajun. I can’t help it if I only married into majesty.’ (339)
Husbands are only suitable if they behave as though their wives are royalty. It’s a fantasy, nothing more, nothing less, and certainly isn’t an argument in favor of gender equality. Sidda’s father, Shep, is so glaringly absent from her childhood narrative that even her fiance, Connor, comments on it.
‘I don’t hear much about your dad,’ Connor said, reaching for his cup of latte. ‘He must be a brave man.’
‘What do you mean?’ [Sidda asked].
‘Come on,’ he said, ‘marrying a woman as strong as your mother. Finessing his own way through that band of women. What’s the French word for sisterhood? Communaute de soeurs.’
Sidda helped herself to a slice of cantaloupe. She thought of how much she’d missed her father. ‘He was never around much. I’ve been so obsessed with my mother I guess I haven’t paid much attention to Daddy.’ (329)
In Rebecca Wells’ world, only the (white) women are permitted to be emotionally complex. The men are side acts, ideally there to glorify their wives, to work and provide the cash for the women to spend, no questions asked. Because they could not possibly comprehend (or participate in) the deep, natural connection shared between mothers and daughters, they are completely cut out of the narrative.
The second role that men fulfill in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is sex objects. Connor, Sidda’s fiance, is consistently described in physical terms, and Sidda is repeatedly congratulated for ensnaring such a handsome man. Though he supports her emotionally, it is Connor’s sexual prowess that is perhaps even more important. We are told, again and again, just how well he is able to satisfy her.
[Sidda]’d had two long-term relationships, but it was not until Connor that she felt fully met and deliciously cherished. After they made love that day, they lay naked next to each other, their skin warm and flushed. Sidda sank down into the wide flannel embrace of their bodies, and she rested. For a moment she died a good little death, they died it together. And then her eyes began to fill with tears…When she stopped crying, he kissed her eyelids. Then he asked her to marry him. (22)
Perpetuating this type of fantasy scenario is unhealthy. It’s the prince charming complex dressed up in supposedly progressive terms. A woman can be highly intelligent with a successful career, but none of that really means anything until she finds a preferably attractive man who can satisfy her sexually, and, moreover, who wants to marry her. It’s written like a cheap romance novel by someone who constantly dreams of sexual satisfaction, but finds it in short supply.
Not to be outdone, the women in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood are also granted legitimacy based on their physical appearance. When Vivi returns from the mental hospital, 10-year-old Sidda is upset not because her mother sleeps all day and barely talks, but because Vivi has allowed her nail polish to chip — a grooming oversight that would normally never be permitted. As the novel progresses and Sidda moves closer and closer to forgiving her mother, so, too, do the physical descriptions of Sidda proliferate. It turns out that she is red-headed with long, luscious eyelashes and a tiny, sexy, petite body. When she finally returns to Louisiana, nobody bothers asking Sidda about her directing career; instead, they are preoccupied with her favorable appearance.
‘You look good, mother. Really good.’
‘You look terrific,’ Vivi said. ‘I think you’ve lost weight.’
Sidda smiled. Her mother’s highest compliment.’ (344)
Ah, there’s nothing like a trip back home to Alabama to remind me that my university GPA doesn’t matter; it’s all about the hair, the makeup, the clothes, and most importantly, the figure. It calls to mind a disturbing article that I read in The New Yorker recently, in which the daughter of a model recalls the various warped ways that strangers commented on her mother’s beauty. This passage in particular struck me, because I realized that Rebecca Wells was doing the same thing in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.
One day, my mom and I were having lunch with our good friend, the Surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning, whom I’d known since I was born. When my mom left the table for a few minutes to use the restroom, Dorothea said to me, out of the blue, ‘Do you think the reason you’ve loved your mother so much is that she’s so beautiful?’
I was a bit stunned and depressed by this question. The answer was no, definitely not. And yet, once posed, that question troubled me, and made me wonder if, on a subconscious level, my great love for my mother might have been partly caused by her beauty. I hoped not — and I very much doubted it. (source)
Unlike the insightful author of The New Yorker piece, Vivi and Sidda trade off memorializing each other through observations about physical appearance. Vivi, for example, claims that part of the reason she loves her children is because they are beautiful.
My children were perfect, each one of them more gorgeous than I could have ever imagined. I thank God for not giving me an ugly child. It’s so much easier to love them when they’re beautiful. I made good babies. (269)
Not to be outdone, Sidda hesitates to condemn her mother partly because she is transfixed by her anachronistic beauty. She describes her mother’s body, hair, and porcelain skin several times throughout the book, effectively mythologizing her.
In those days I knew Mama’s body down to the shape of her toes, her toenails covered in her trademark “Rich Girl Red” polish. Her blonde complexion with tiny cinnamon freckles on her upper arms, on her cheeks… She stood about five feet four inches tall in her bare feet and never weighed more than 115 pounds… She was not like the kind of mother I saw in books and movies. Except for her breasts, which were surprisingly full for her frame, she was not plump or round in any way. (41)
It’s a sickening way for parents and children to interact. Emphasizing the importance of attractiveness often comes at the expense of other, arguably much more important, qualities. One justifiably wonders if Vivi might have grown up to be less superficial, less spoiled, and less inclined to beat her children if she had been expected to become anything more than pleasant to look at.
If Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood has any redeeming qualities, one of them is that it’s not terribly written, at least not always. It’s a shame, in a way, because Rebecca Wells might have been able to produce something worth reading had she been able to overcome the shortcomings of the society in which she was raised. The novel is also somewhat useful in promoting the idea that beauty is not evil, that desiring and seeking out beauty is not, in of itself, a sinful act. Unfortunately, most of the progress the novel makes in that direction is undermined by its superficiality and obsession with female and male appearances alike.
On the whole, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood romanticizes the South and celebrates many of the things that contribute to its backwardness: the division of wealth along racial lines, the enforcement of rigid gender roles, and the tendency to shove unpleasantries like mental illness under the rug. Its appeal is clear: it offers readers the opportunity to indulge in ahistoricized tranquility, where money, feminism, and racism aren’t real concerns. It’s demeaning and demoralizing, and nobody should read or watch an inch of it.
At least I’m not the only one who reacted this way to the Ya-Yas. This fantastic review by a cynical male moviegoer made me laugh heartily.
The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is for women who spend their lives looking for surrogates for significance from the Franklin Mint. They’re ladies who think empowerment comes from Oprah Magazine, Beanie Baby collections and soft, fat, harmless men with accents who can cook. They think a shirtless Fabio is sex, and that actual screwing is too messy and smells funny. They don’t allow unhappiness into their lives because there’s no room left in their curio cabinets. They try to believe in words like “closure” and “nurturing” and that the diet in the latest Good Housekeeping really will change their lives if it helps keep reality at arm’s length. (source)
I couldn’t agree more.
Overall rating: 1.5/5 stars
Deborah Barker, “The Southern-fried chick flick: postfeminism goes to the movies.” In Chick Flicks: Contemporary Women at the Movies. Edited by Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York, NY: Routledge, 2008. Persistent URL.
Amanda Filipacchi. “The Looks You’re Born With and the Looks You’re Given.” The New Yorker, 12 December 2014. Persistent URL.
Randy Shandis. “Divine Secrets of the Blah Blah Blah Blah.” The Filthy Critic. Persistent URL.
February 21, 2015 § 12 Comments
It’s been a while since I read a book that I really, truly enjoyed. Angela’s Ashes, by Irish-American writer Frank McCourt, was considered an outstanding example of its genre immediately upon publication. Indeed, it was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography in 1996, a fact that makes me wonder if I ought to read more books that have won that particular award (my infatuation with the Man Booker Prize ended after reading Julian Barnes’ disappointing The Sense of an Ending). After all, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is one of my favorite novels of all time; I’ve heard nothing but good things about Interpreter of Maladies; and my sister adored A Visit from the Goon Squad.
But enough about all that. Let’s return to Frank McCourt, shall we?
It is 1930 in Brooklyn, New York. Recent Irish immigrants Angela and Malachy McCourt have just been joined in holy Catholic matrimony in a shotgun wedding. Frank McCourt, narrator of said memoir, is born a few months afterward, followed rapidly by his brother Malachy, twins Oliver and Eugene, and, a bit later, his sister, Margaret. They lead the typical lives of impoverished first-generation immigrants; Angela is overwhelmed with pregnancies and births, while Malachy, Frank’s father, is more concerned with drinking whiskey than with finding steady work. The family routinely has very little to eat, but at least they have a dry apartment, a relatively clean lavatory, and helpful and concerned neighbors.
The family’s fortune takes a turn for the worse when Margaret, beloved curly-haired little sister, dies only seven weeks after she is born. Angela falls into a severe bout of depression, and Frank, now age four, tries to care for his three younger brothers as best he can. Eventually, realizing that Angela isn’t going to get any better without a change in scenery, some relatives of the family write to Angela’s mother in Limerick, Ireland asking her to send money for the trans-Atlantic fare. She does, and the McCourt family, bedraggled but optimistic, commences the journey back to Ireland.
As Frank McCourt notes on the very first page of his book, “My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone” (1). As bad as things were for the McCourt family in Brooklyn, they quickly devolve into unmitigated misery back in Limerick, seemingly the status quo for the poor in Ireland. Because of his Northern Ireland accent, Frank’s father, Malachy, cannot get work either in Dublin or in Limerick, and is forced to go on the dole — which is less than 1 pound per week. The damp, chilly weather and worsening living conditions cause Angela to have a miscarriage soon after they arrive, and lead to the deaths of the twins, Oliver and Eugene, in quick succession. Running an infant mortality rate of 80% (including the miscarriage), Angela moves her family into a flat on Roden Lane — an address made famous through the publication of Angela’s Ashes and the squalid descriptions therein.
Certainly, Angela’s Ashes describes poverty-induced misery in occasionally gruesome detail, but it’s far from a miserable book. It’s lighthearted rather than plodding, thanks to Frank McCourt’s ingenious tragicomical narration style. It’s extraordinarily well-written, and deftly so; it retains a forward sense of movement and contains very little repetition, a veritable feat among memoirs. Overall, it is eminently readable.
Occasionally, I’d break out into laughter while reading the book. Frank is enrolled in Catholic boys’ school, which is about as progressive as you’d expect. The instructors at the school are quick with the lash and embody the old mantra, “spare the rod, spoil the child.” They’re equally concerned with history, politics, writing, and the damn English as they are with their students’ souls and ability to recite the catechism. First Communion is an enormous event, and all of the boys at Frank’s school spend weeks preparing (those passages brought back memories of my own First Communion, which was just as bizarre, if not as serious, as Frank’s). In one of my favorite passages from the book, Frank recounts his first confession:
I try to listen to Willie’s confession when he goes in but all I can hear is a hissing from the priest and when Willie comes out he’s crying.
It’s my turn. The confession box is dark and there’s a big crucifix hanging over my head…
The panel slides back before my face and the priest says, Yes, my child?
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my First Confession.
Yes, my child, and what sins have you committed?
I told a lie. I hit my brother. I took a penny from my mother’s purse. I said a curse.
Yes, my child. Anything else?
I, I listened to a story about [mythological Irish hero] Cuchulain and [his wife] Emer.
Surely that’s not a sin, my child. After all we are assured by certain writers that Cuchulain turned Catholic in his last moments as did his King, Conor MacNessa.
‘Tis about Emer, Father, and how she married him.
How was that, my child?
She won him in a pissing contest.
There is heavy breathing. The priest has his hand over his mouth and he’s making choking sounds and talking to himself, Mother o’ God.
Who, who told you that story, my child?
Mikey Molloy, Father.
And where did he hear it?
He read it in a book, Father.
Ah, a book. Books can be dangerous for children, my child. Turn your mind from those silly stories and think of the lives of the saints. Think of St. Joseph, the Little Flower, the sweet and gentle St. Francis of Assisi, who loves the birds of the air and the beasts of the fields. Will you do that, my child?
I will, Father.
Are there any other sins, my child?
For your penance say three Hail Marys, three Our Fathers, and say a special prayer for me.
I will. Father, what was the worst sin?
What do you mean?
Am I the worst of all the boys, Father?
No, my child, you have a long way to go. (141)
One of the reasons I love this passage so much is that the humor is conveyed through several levels. There’s Frank, the kid, saying weird stuff to the priest. There’s the priest himself, full of platitudes and all of the stereotypical Catholic warnings. There’s the absurdity of the old-fashioned, and mostly meaningless, ritual that both are forced to enact. And then there’s Frank McCourt, the writer, remembering the scene decades later in amusing detail. It’s extremely difficult for an adult writer to remain faithful to his or her childhood emotions, but McCourt is a master at simultaneously conveying child naiveté and adult cognition, and does so consistently throughout the book.
Of course, as McCourt warns on the first page, Angela’s Ashes is terrifyingly sad at times. Frank has a fractured relationship with his father, Malachy, who drinks the dole money more often than not. Malachy has a talent for writing and for telling stories, but has never had an opportunity to utilize those skills. Frank seems to suggest that his father drinks partly because he fully comprehends the misery of their situation, and realizes that reducing said misery is impossible. As such, most of the scenes with Malachy contain part sadness, part anger; it’s clear that Frank wants to love his father, but he has a hard time forgiving a man who will drink half a dozen pints at the bar knowing his wife and children will starve.
I know when Dad does the bad thing. I know when he drinks the dole money and Mam is desperate and has to beg at the St. Vincent de Paul Society and ask for credit at Kathleen O’Connell’s shop but I don’t want to back away from him and run to Mam. How can I do that when I’m up with him early every morning with the whole world asleep? He lights the fire and makes the tea and sings to himself or reads the paper to me in a whisper that won’t wake up the rest of the family. Mikey Molloy stole Cuchulain, the Angel on the Seventh Step is gone someplace else, but my father in the morning is still mine. (237)
Eventually, when WWII commences and the German Blitzkrieg means that London is being bombed day in, day out, the English government starts recruiting Irish men to work in the factories. Despite their long-seated hatred of the English, many of the poorest residents of Limerick flock to London, the promise of bread, jam, electricity, and dignity strong enough for them to swallow their collective grievances. After much persuasion, Frank’s father decides to go as well. Instead of sending home money like the responsible fathers, though, Malachy squanders his paychecks on alcohol. He comes back once when Angela becomes gravely ill, and again for a horrifyingly depressing trip over Christmas. Functionally, though, he is entirely absent from Frank’s life, and with no income (or even the dole) to live on, Angela and her children are evicted.
I could go on, but, really, you ought to just read the book. It’s wonderful and haunting to hear Frank describe how he fell in love with Shakespeare and literature during a three-month stint in the hospital for typhoid fever. It’s hilarious and disturbing to read about Frank’s pubescent body, the guilt and gratification he experiences while committing masturbatory sins. It’s impossible to imagine how terrible Angela must have looked after cigarettes caused her teeth to rot and fall out, how bad the unwashed boys must have smelled, how thin and raggedy the entire family must have been. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in quite a while, and, for once, the lack of quotation marks doesn’t irritate me. If you’re as skilled of a writer as Frank McCourt, then quotation marks are optional.
I finished the 426-page book in a matter of days, a pace that is becoming increasingly unusual for me, and it commanded my full attention the entire time. Any lingering doubts I have about the book are mostly borne out of the usual gripes that memoirs have to face: How much of it was true? How much of it was exaggeration? Could Frank McCourt possibly be as hilarious and brilliant and humble and wonderful as he came across in his book?
To be honest, I’m not too fussed about the book’s veracity, as personal memories always find ways to warp themselves. It seems like people go out of their way to “disprove” the contents of famous memoirs, and frankly, I’m not interested in that kind of witch hunt. I wasn’t surprised to hear that it outraged some of the residents of Limerick, though. People generally don’t like it when their hometowns are the subjects of seriously negative depictions. For all of its miserable descriptions and sympathy-inducing title, Angela’s Ashes doesn’t read like a condemnation of Limerick. As Nina King observed in her review for The Washington Post,
Angela’s Ashes confirms the worst old stereotypes about the Irish, portraying them as drunken, sentimental, bigoted, bloody-minded dreamers, repressed sexually and oppressed politically, nursing ancient grievances while their children (their far-too-many children) go hungry. It confirms the stereotypes at the same time that it transcends them through the sharpness and precision of McCourt’s observation and the wit and beauty of his prose. (source)
That wit, after all, had to come from somewhere, and McCourt’s unique mixture of irreverence, earnestness, and humor makes me want to explore Limerick myself. Even the most outraged readers could still agree on one thing: the book is beautifully written.
Overall rating: 5/5 stars
P.S. Want to read more about Frank McCourt? Here’s a fascinating interview he gave about the public education system in the United States. His obituary in The New York Times is worth reading as well, and makes me wish I could have taken a writing class with McCourt when he was still a teacher at the Stuyvesant High School in New York City.
Photos by G.