post-ac in a book club?

I read an excellent book last week: The First Rule of Swimming by Courtney Angela Brkic.

The novel tells the story of a postwar Croatian family scarred by war, the terrors of Yugoslav Communism, and the familial rending of emigration. I loved it for its haunted characters, for the way its vacillating narrative flattens the space between past and present, for its sense of place on Rosmarina, an imaginary island so visceral that it becomes its own character, and for its study of an intergenerational community that, like the island itself, glistens and sustains, even as it oppresses.

I can thank a friend and her book club that I read this novel at all. By coincidence, I’d seen it weeks before in the bookstore where I didn’t pick it up because the jacket whispered “romance novel” in an unfortunate misrepresentation of the richness inside.

I have never been a member of a book club. In fact, I remember ridiculing such clubs as a graduate student. While I’m embarrassed to admit that now, I’m not surprised I fell into academe’s elitism as a young student eager to prove my intellectual worth. Eventually, those feelings dissipated and the teacher emerged. As a teacher, especially of learning disabled readers, I value any group that encourages people to gather in pursuit of their literary interests.

But does that make a neighborhood book club a good home for an ex-literature scholar like myself?

So far, I haven’t thought so. If I were making my living through literature – as a writer, a critic or a professor – and I interacted regularly with a professional literary community, then perhaps it would be fun to also read literature more casually with a group of friends, family members, or neighbors. But as an ex-academic, the prospect of a neighborhood club as my only outlet for discussing literary interests has always sounded demoralizing.

Consequently, I’ve drifted for years somewhere between communities of casual and professional readers–alienated from one group by training and the other by lack of affiliation.

It’s not all so terrible as it sounds. As I’ve discussed in how I lost and found my love of literature and independent scholar? not so much, until this year, time and energy for significant amounts of literary or scholarly reading have eluded me anyway.

For this one day, however, I sat in as a guest in the unfamiliar territory of a book club because my friend had invited our writing group to come and meet the author. It was a privilege to speak with the lovely Brkic and hear about the heritage and family that inspired her novel. I also enjoyed the group’s discussion of characters Magdalena and Jadranka, two sisters working through very different relationships to their Croatian community both at home and abroad.

Afterward, I found myself thinking about exile and community, and I couldn’t help but let my thoughts wander to my own exile as a literature Ph.D., made more keen by my participation in the group that night. In the loosest sense, post-acs make up a diaspora of our own: scholars scattered to the wind, isolated from each other and alienated from our academic roots in the university.

That’s a little dramatic I suppose, and hardly the wrenching struggle that Brkic describes, but still it’s an interesting way of thinking about post-acs because it suggests we should connect with one another to preserve and cultivate our common interests.

In the spirit of fostering that kind of community, I’d love to hear comments from others who have read The First Rule of Swimming (and I encourage you to read it!) or other works, fictional or not, about postwar Croatia and its diaspora. I for one intend to read the author’s memoir, The Stone Fields as a follow-up to a novel that peaked my interest about a culture and history I know so little about.

“you don’t have anything if you don’t have stories”

I know I just posted 1,131 words on how grief severed the cord between me and fiction, but if you must know the truth, I am prone to these crises.  In fact, they linger around me, like a nagging cough I just can’t shake.

Onset began in graduate school.  I would often become so engrossed in the politics of a thing, I would forget the thing (the book – its craft, its rhythm, its aesthetics). Two hundred pages of dissertation dedicated to this art form we call literature and nary a word on aesthetics.

Quite honestly, I’m surprised I got away with that.

Occasionally, that nagging cough would evolve into a full-on cold.  At those times, I would question my path, asking between tissues and sneezes: What am I doing? Why not study political science or sociology, or foreign affairs? Literature is not real – and so, not relevant.

Then a student would tell me “I love this class,” or “This class changed my life,” and the groove of my train wheels would click back onto the track with a clunk.

Literature matters.  I knew it, even if I couldn’t always explain why.

About a year ago, I realized that my literary hiatus would not end on its own–I found myself standing on a lonely platform, waiting for a book train that wasn’t coming.  If I wanted to get down the tracks, I decided, I would have to do it myself. So without any real interest, I went to the library. I did read a few books: Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, and Julia Alvarez’s Saving the World among them.  I read, but not with fever or purpose, or love. For example, I renewed the Alvarez multiple times, even returning it and checking out a different copy to extend my time because I couldn’t get through it. So sorry Julia!

Even reading Carol Shields’ Stone Diaries, an acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winner, I found myself thinking, “meh, not sure why this matters.”  Oddly, I just googled Shields’ name to double check the spelling, and one line of a New York Times book review popped up.  It said, “The Stone Diaries reminds us again why literature matters.”

Is that a sign or something?

It must be, because when I finished Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior about a month ago, I found myself overwhelmingly reminded of something so important: the great power of the imagination.   I think Einstein planted this seed a year ago when I read his biography and learned of his infatuation with creativity and imagination.  He believed they mattered above all else, saying things like, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

I’m pretty sure I felt something flutter in my brain when I read that.

Flutter turned fittingly to “flight” when I read the Kingsolver.  What was it about Flight Behavior that woke me up? For anyone concerned with climate change, it’s no secret that a decade of misinformation from the fossil fuel industry (among other groups) has successfully derailed efforts to educate the public about the current threat to our global health.  We cannot effectively manage the environmental crises we face because of the vast disconnect that exists between scientists and the doubting public.

Kingsolver addresses this problem.  Flight Behavior intertwines the plight of a small rural town with the plight of the monarch butterfly, localizing the vast implications of climate change and, ironically, making them feel more real and more intimate than Bill McKibben or James Hansen have ever managed, despite their very valiant and nonfictionalized efforts.

While the rest of us can’t figure out how to communicate about this crisis, Kingsolver sticks a scientist, Ovid, and a 20-something high school educated mother from Appalachia, Dellarobia, together on the side of a mountain and asks them to talk to each other.

Why didn’t I think of that?  The result is just brilliant.

No, it’s not real, but Kingsolver helps us believe that it could be.  She portrays Dellarobia as uneducated but intelligent, eager but trapped.  Conversely, Ovid is educated but uncommunicative, committed, but helpless.  Kingsolver throws them together, allowing them to form an unlikely friendship and a mutual respect.

With the help of their tenuous friendship, Ovid tells Dellarobia about carbon particles per million, greenhouse gases and melting polar ice.  Later, she tells him, “You guys aren’t popular.  Maybe your medicine’s too bitter.  Or you’re not selling to us.  Maybe you’re writing us off, thinking we won’t get it” (321).  In response to Ovid’s suggestion that her people simply turn their backs on what frightens them, she responds with certainty, “My husband is not a coward,” (322).

Kingsolver removes us from a public discourse that has grown hysterical in its panic and vitriol and helps us to imagine what it would sound like if two people from these opposing camps spoke to one another openly and respectfully about what matters to them.  She shows us that the people in these two camps need each other.  She helps us see a stark reality: to save ourselves, we must dispense with judgment on both sides.

I could not have imagined these conversations on my own, and I’d say Kingsolver’s portrayal has changed my judgmental view of climate deniers because I can see myself in Ovid.  I share his inability to understand the viewpoint of those in Dellarobia’s community.  Of course, Dellarobia is imagined, but her portrayal is reasonable, interesting, and completely unfamiliar.  Consequently, I found myself listening to her, and hearing her, right along with Ovid.

This is the kind of book you finish quietly, setting the volume carefully on your lap and exhaling in a long and thoughtful breath.  It left me feeling hopeful about our chances of bridging this gap between academics and regular folks.  I also felt inspired, for the first time in a long time, by a work of fiction.

I knew without question that this book mattered, and suddenly, I wanted to read again—in earnest.

With nothing new on the shelves and no time for the library, I scanned my bookcases for something interesting enough to reread.  I chose Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony because I am still scarred by the memory of being asked about its ending during my oral exams.  Having forgotten what happened (in my usual form), I had no choice but to admit, “I don’t remember it.”  Happy to finally fill in that blank, as well as to recommit myself to reading and valuing works of fiction, I settled in on the couch with my book and my tea.

I must be onto something, because I hadn’t passed page two before I came to this:

“I will tell you something about stories,                                                                           [he said]                                                                                                                          They aren’t just entertainment.                                                                                     Don’t be fooled.                                                                                                            They are all we have, you see,                                                                                        all we have to fight off                                                                                                 illness and death.

You don’t have anything                                                                                                    if you don’t have the stories.”

how i lost, and found, my love for literature

I earned my phd in American Literature in 2004, and I quit adjuncting in 2006.  Shockingly, it’s 2013 and I can count on one hand the number of novels I have read since I last departed campus in any official capacity.

What happened?

You might assume that I threw my hands up in disgust as I turned my back on the whole debacle, vowing to never touch a work of literary fiction again.

I didn’t.  In fact, I had no idea it would be so long before I would regain my interest in literature. I had no idea I had even lost it.

In retrospect, I’d say grief shouldered literature out of my mind’s eye.  Grief over the confluence of three things:  the failed job search, death, and learning disabilities.

As I said, I didn’t consciously reject literature because I failed to make it my career, but there must be some correlation, right?  There must have been some kind of defense mechanism, or perhaps just weariness of words, that turned my attention elsewhere.

Regardless, just months after I quit teaching, my daughter Olivia’s six year old friend was killed in a car accident, leaving me in a state of shock and grief that I’d never before known.  I opened my eyes the morning after her devastating funeral and stared blankly from my bed, unfocused and unmoving.  Fuzzied in my line of vision on the bedside table sat Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters. My book mark stuck out of it, somewhere in the first 50 pages.

It would never move.

This had happened to me before.  Were you teaching on 9/11?  As the first plane hit, I parallel parked my car in an illegal spot just off campus (what graduate student can afford legitimate parking?). I assumed it was a small plane and taught my 9:30am class without incident.  An hour and a half later, I stood in front of my second class listening to the local news on a portable pink CD player. I’d brought it to play the slave spirituals we were supposed to discuss that day.

I had been so excited about that lesson.  Taking something that looks so simple on the surface and peeling back its layers of delicious complexity thrills any teacher, doesn’t it?  I’d introduce words and phrases like “double-voiced,” “dialogic,” and “intertextuality.”  We’d let them roll around on our tongues like so many sweet jellybeans clickety clacking together.

Instead, we listened to frantic journalists use cold metallic words and phrases like “bomb,” “war,” “terror,” and “death toll.”

When my classes reconvened on Tuesday, we talked about how the world had changed.  We wrote about our feelings.  We shared our stories.

By the next Thursday, I knew we needed to make Frederick Douglass matter again, but I remember looking at the book with a feeling of complete and utter disinterest.  Despite the fact that Douglass addresses similar emotions, our current grief, shock and terror made his work feel distant and irrelevant.

After 9/11, I regained my literary footing rather quickly—perhaps because I had 60+ students relying on me to help them move on, and I had a dissertation that refused to write itself, no matter how much I pleaded with it.

After Olivia’s young friend died, however, no such imperatives existed.  For over a year, it never even occurred to me to read anything literary.  Unfortunately, I would experience further tragic losses as time passed, keeping grief and reflections about mortality at the forefront of my mind.  In that context, novels felt frivolous and inconsequential. Literature felt indirect and inaccessible.  Instead, I busied myself with informational texts, reading about current events, death and grief, and a new preoccupation: special education.

My son, Gareth, was diagnosed with dyslexia in the year I graduated.  Consequently, the end of graduate school marked the beginning of my informal research on learning disabilities and the brain.  I read about multiple intelligences, different kinds of memory, visual motor integration, auditory processing, ADHD, sensory integration dysfunction (now sensory processing disorder), and multi-sensory approaches to education.  I’d learned enough by 2007 that I had a small business off the ground, tutoring dyslexic learners for 8-10 hours a week.

Inadvertently, however, I learned something about myself in all that research (isn’t that always how it is?).  No, I do not have dyslexia as you’d expect me to say (it’s genetic), but I do have a learning disability.  A shocking one, quite frankly, for a person who has earned a Ph.D. in literature.

I cannot remember the books I read.  I comprehend well, and come away with the larger message of a text (which works fine for informational readings on specific subjects).  With something like a novel, however, I come to the end with big picture messages, overarching plot points and impressions, but very little detail.

Why?  I learned from my research that most people visualize what they read—making movies in their heads that create memories.  I don’t see anything but words.  This means that unless I take copious notes and study them, I will not remember many details about a given book.  In the past, I had blamed myself for forgetting, always promising myself that “next time” I would pay better attention, and it would be different.  Now I understood that it wasn’t an attention or an effort problem.  My brain just doesn’t work that way.

While discovering a learning disability can be empowering, my initial reaction was grief.  Grief for my lost hope in the successes of “next time.”

With proper training and a lot of practice, I know I could develop my visualization skills.  However, having no time or money for that back in 2007 (or now), I found myself suddenly faced with a formidable question: why bother to read a novel if I’m only going to forget it?

I didn’t know the answer to that.  So I stopped reading.

And the years went by.

Since then, I suppose time has worked its magic, smoothing the sharp edges of loss in career, life, and learning, because suddenly, I find myself searching, when the kids have gone to bed, for that book.  Not Isaac’s Einstein: His Life and Universe that I plowed through last year.  Not Rothkopf’s Power Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government that I’ve yet to finish.

But a story.

I was thinking about this new (but very familiar) need and what it might mean as I read this month’s Harpers. Scanning the book reviews, I came across Tom Bissell’s review of Rachel Kushner’s Flamethrowers.  In it, he notes the “power of fiction” and how it can give you “the sudden sense…that you’ve been cleaved from some calamitously lost other half.  Seeing the world through another’s eyes, you are restored to what feels like full sight, and full thought, once again.”

Yes. That is what I’m looking for.