When Black kids – shut out from the whitewashed world of children’s literature – took matters into their own hands

A newspaper boy hawks copies of the Chicago Defender.
Library of Congress

Paige Gray, Savannah College of Art and Design

Hanging on the wall in my office is the framed cover of the inaugural issue of The Brownies’ Book, a monthly periodical for Black youths created by W.E.B. Du Bois and other members of the NAACP in 1920.

The magazine – the first of its kind – includes poems and stories that speak of Black achievement and history, while also showcasing children’s writing.

Although much of American children’s literature published near the turn of the last century – and even today – filters childhood through the eyes of white children, The Brownies’ Book gave African American children a platform to explore their lives, interests and aspirations. And it reinforced what 20th-century American literature scholar Katharine Capshaw has described as Du Bois’ “faith in the ability of young people to lead the race into the future.”

Most likely inspired by The Brownies’ Book, several Black weekly newspapers went on to create their own children’s sections. While the children’s publishing industry may have shut out Black voices and perspectives, the editors of these periodicals sought to fill the void by celebrating them, giving kids a platform to express themselves, connect with one another and indulge their curiosities.

A pioneering publication

The cover image of that first issue of The Brownies’ Book, published in January 1920, epitomizes this effort. In it, a young Black girl stands on the tips of her toes, dressed in a ballet costume.

Already, this image represented a radically different vision of Black childhood. Children’s literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries very rarely focused on African Americans. The few Black children who did appear in print were often written or drawn as variations of Topsy, the enslaved young girl from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” who is initially considered “naughty” only to be redeemed by Eva, who plays the role of the “white savior.”

A smiling girl dressed in white raises her arms and stands en pointe.
The inaugural issue of ‘The Brownies’ Book.‘
Library of Congress

As children’s literature scholar Michelle H. Martin has noted, “children who wanted to read about black characters in children’s literature could read about buffoons, mammies, Sambos or savages,” but not about “the beauty” of Black children.

The girl on The Brownies’ Book cover offers a vastly different vision of Black childhood than the caricatures seen throughout popular culture of the time. She’s confident, excited and talented. The pages that follow feature an assortment of fiction, commentary, history and news for young readers that honors and extols Black identity.

One of the most compelling recurring sections is titled “The Jury,” which features children’s letters to the editor. In the magazine’s first issue, a boy named Franklin writes to ask about “things colored boys can work at when they grow up.” Eleanor wants the editor to recommend “some books on the Negro” so that she “can learn more about [her] race.” And a 15-year-old girl inquires about possible funding sources so that she can attend a boarding school that accepts African American students.

The Brownies’ Book had a relatively short run – 24 issues from January 1920 to December 1921. But it nonetheless seems to have encouraged a number of other Black newspapers to launch children’s sections in the early 1920s. The Pittsburgh Courier, Baltimore’s Afro-American and the Journal and Guide, published in Norfolk, Virginia, each experimented with children’s sections.

But by far the most successful effort was that of the Chicago Defender, which would launch a periodical section for Black youths that ran for decades.

‘Let us make the world know that we are living’

The Chicago Defender was perhaps the most influential Black newspaper of the 20th century. Its readership extended across the United States, and it helped spur the Great Migration, a time during which millions of African Americans left the South, by promoting job opportunities in Northern industrial cities like Chicago. Roi Ottley, biographer of Defender publisher Robert S. Abbott, wrote that only the Bible was more significant to Black Americans during the first half of the 20th century.

It contains spaces for a child's name, address, age, city and state.
An application form to join the Bud Billiken Club from the April 29, 1922, edition of the Chicago Defender.
ProQuest Historical Newspapers

In 1921, the Chicago Defender started publishing a section called the Defender Junior, run by a fictional editor named Bud Billiken. Billiken was really a 10-year-old boy named Willard Motley, who later became a noted novelist, though sometimes the paper’s adult editors wrote under Billiken moniker. In his first column, Billiken tells readers that he wants to fill “this column with sayings and doings of we little folks,” and implores them to submit their poems, questions and opinions.

Young readers could become members of the Bud Billiken Club by mailing in a form with their name, but they could also mail in letters and poetry as a way to correspond with their fellow Billikens. In June 1921, a girl named Ruth McBride of Oak Hill, Alabama, submitted the following letter to Bud:

“As I was reading the Chicago Defender a lovely paper of our Race, I came across some beautiful poems written by some of the members of your club. It filled my heart with joy to read such sweet poems. I am a little girl 9 years old, and I wish to join your club. If there is any space for me. I go to school and am in the fifth grade. My mother gets the Defender every week. Here is a poem I am sending:

  Down in the sunny South, where I was born,
  Where beautiful flowers are adoring,
  The daisies white and the purple lily.
  This is where the land is hilly."

In July 1921, Juanita Johnson of Washington, D.C., sent the Defender Junior her poem:

  "When you are lonely and don’t know what to do,
  When you must admit that you are feeling blue, 
  Take your pen in hand, my dear child, I entreat,
  And write the B.B. Club something nice and sweet.
  Your blues will depart, I’ll surely guarantee.
  You’ll cheer up at once, for so it is with me."

Black children could find – or at least attempt to find – their voices on the pages of these periodicals. For Bud Billiken, there was no greater urgency. In his introduction to the April 23, 1921, edition, he tells the story of a fly that “sat on the axle of a chariot wheel and said, ‘What a dust I do make.’”

“The fly imagines that he is causing the wheel to go around,” Billiken continues. “Let us not be like the fly, thinking we are doing something when really we only move as the world moves us.”

He concludes by writing, “The world would move on if we were not in it. This paper would be published just the same without our space. Let us make the world know that we are living and helping to make the noise and dust.”

The Defender Junior proved popular – so popular that the newspaper launched the Bud Billiken Parade in 1929 in Chicago’s South Side. By midcentury, the annual parade had become one of the largest gatherings of African Americans in the U.S., attracting national figures such as Duke Ellington and Muhammad Ali. In 2020, the beloved event was canceled for the first time in 91 years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A birds-eye view of a throng of kids marching in the parade.
Kids march during the 1967 Bud Billiken Parade in Chicago.
Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

The Brownies’ Book, the Defender Junior and the children’s sections of other African American weeklies gave Black children a space to tell their stories, express their anxieties and assert their ambitions.

In that photograph of the ballerina on The Brownie’s Book’s first cover, I imagine her saying something similar to Bud Billiken’s appeal – “Let us make the world know that we are living.”

Or perhaps more simply, “Black lives matter.”

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Paige Gray, Professor of Writing and Liberal Arts, Savannah College of Art and Design

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

There’s no such thing as a ‘faithful retelling’ of the Arthurian legend

The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon by Edward Burne Jones.

Amy Louise Blaney, Keele University

Justice League director Zach Snyder has said he is interested in working on a “faithful retelling” of Arthurian myth. Cut to a small horde of Arthurian scholars (myself included) entering stage left to loudly proclaim that there is no such thing as a “faithful retelling” of the King Arthur myth. King Arthur is one of the most pervasive legends of all time. What scholars call the “Arthurian mythological concept” has developed over several centuries – and over several cultures. Indeed, what makes the Arthur legend so enduring is its very lack of fidelity.

Although many of us today get our first taste of the Arthurian legend from films such as Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) or TV shows such as the BBC’s Merlin (2008-2012), the core elements of the story that we recognise remain largely medieval.

Arthur’s name first appears in the work of ninth century Welsh historian Nennius. However, the legend as we know it today – knights in shining armour, damsels in distress, Round Table, Holy Grail etc – gallops into view from around the 12th century onward. This heralds the start of what is now known as the “Romance Tradition”.

Painting of Merlin being seduced.
The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne Jones depicts the wizard being seduced by the Lady of the Lake.

Chances are that if you’ve read a version of the Arthur story today it is likely to be one of these Romances – most likely Thomas Malory’s 15th-century Morte D’Arthur or an early 20th-century re-telling such as TH White’s The Once and Future King. The tradition also proved very popular with the Victorians – especially with the Pre-Raphaelites, whose visual depictions of Arthurian legend frame the way we see the legend today.

For example, their paintings popularised captivating female figures such as the virginal Maid of Astolat (or Shallot), the dangerous enchantress Morgan Le Fay and the beguiling Lady of the Lake, the temptress Nimue.

One thing that remains consistent throughout the centuries however is the Arthurian myth’s ability to remain relevant to the people, countries, and eras in which it is being retold.

Reworkings and re-imaginings

In the late 17th-century, for example, Arthur was enlisted in the wake of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 as a means of bolstering support for the new Protestant regime and their political allies. Physician-poet Richard Blackmore wrote two lengthy epic poems – Prince Arthur (1695) and King Arthur (1697) – comparing the new King William III to Arthur and praising the way in which the monarch’s religious (and, crucially, Protestant) piety would “fresh Life to Albion […] impart”.

This was certainly not the first time Arthur had been associated with the English throne. Both the Tudors and the Stuarts adopted the mythical king to suit their own political purposes, with Henry VII going so far as to repaint the Winchester Round Table with a Tudor Rose at its centre. The paint job was probably in honour of a state visit by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1522 and – just to ensure that Charles got the message – Henry also had himself depicted on the table, sitting in Arthur’s place.

The Winchester Round Table, showing Henry VII sitting in Arthur's seat and with a Tudor Rose at its centre.
The Winchester Round Table, showing Henry VII sitting in Arthur’s seat and with a Tudor Rose at its centre.
Wikimedia/Mike Peel, CC BY-SA

Nor was it the last time that Arthur would find himself so conscripted. Elements of the Arthurian story – most notably the figure of Merlin – were used in the early 18th-century by the Hanoverian monarchs and their supporters to bolster their own claims to an inherently “British” identity.

Queen Caroline, a clever and well-informed curator of her own public image, capitalised upon the 18th-century’s rediscovery of its national history through ancient heroes. In collaboration with architect William Kent, she developed Merlin’s Cave – a name suggestive of a grotto but in reality more of a thatched folly (a round house with a thatched roof) designed around the Merlin myth – in the gardens at Richmond in 1735.

Numerous panegyric poems – poems designed to publicly praise and flatter – followed including two by “a lady subscribed Melissa”. The first praises “Her Majesty Queen Guardian” as the inheritor of Merlin’s legacy. The second, entitled Merlin’s Prophecy, envisages Frederick, Prince of Wales as “Ordain’d, to wield the Sceptre Royal […] And rule o’er Britons, Brave, and Loyal”.

As these examples illustrate, the one thing we can really say with any certainty about the Arthurian mythos is that fidelity is – as with any myth – an impossible concept.

Arthur has come a long way since his ninth century origins and our modern interpretations show no signs of altering that trend. Whether it’s making us laugh about the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) or putting women centre stage in Cursed (2020), the appeal of Arthur’s mythical world is its adaptability.

He might be “The Once and Future King”, but there’s no such thing as faithful in Arthur’s mythical world.The Conversation

Amy Louise Blaney, PhD Candidate and Associate Lecturer in English Literature, Keele University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

James Hogg at 250: the farmhand who became one of Scotland’s greatest storytellers

Sir George Watson Gordon, CC BY-SA

Daniel Cook, University of Dundee

James Hogg defied categorisation. A prolific poet, songwriter, playwright, novelist, short story writer and parodist, he wrote with equal skill in Scots and English. Labelled as the Ettrick Shepherd, the former Borders farmhand, whose life spanned the 18th and 19th centuries, befriended many of the great writers of his day, including Walter Scott, John Galt and Allan Cunningham.

Even though he was celebrated off and on in his own lifetime, some details of the author’s life remain unclear. Records place his baptism on December 9, 1770. But Hogg long believed he was born in 1772, on January 25 – Burns’ Night no less. This complicates attempts to commemorate his 250th birthday, unless we embrace his fantastical worldview. Fiction mattered to him more than fact. Besides, Hogg’s sestercentennial will inevitably be overshadowed by Scott’s own such celebration on August 15, 2021.

Despite lacking in formal education, Hogg never lacked in confidence. The Poetic Mirror, or The Living Bards of Britain (1816) purports to be a collection of the leading poets of the age (Hogg included). But actually Hogg, the editor, fabricated the works under the guise of big-name writers. There are moody romances after Byron, mystical musings in the style of Coleridge and ponderous poems for Wordsworth.

Cover of Canongate's imprint of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg feature two silhoutted heads in top hats.
Best work.
Canongate, Author provided

Aside from mimicking medleys, Hogg’s own body of work is made up of mountains of bits and pieces – and must be enjoyed on those terms. Seeking conclusions or definitive statements will only frustrate. Tales can drift off into fragments of poetry both familiar and new. Within stories he flips perspectives with little warning.

Presented as a found document, Hogg’s best work, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) is deliberately left with holes. Dark, humorous, violent, sweet, light, weird, wild, celebratory and cruel, the book has many tones, often all at once.

Hogg was 53 years old when he created his finest and most unsettling work. Drawing on a large box of tricks carefully cultivated over a long if chequered career, he infused Calvinist doctrine with a brooding gothic mood. A mysterious shapeshifting figure, Gil-Martin, goads the fanatical Robert Wringhim into taking extreme measures against the local sinners. Is Gil-Martin a manifestation of madness or the devil himself? Where does evil come from? Denounced by hostile critics at the time as anti-religious, nowhere in literature is the divided self so tantalisingly imagined.

It’s not enough to call Hogg an experimental writer ahead of his time or a genre hopper who challenged the conventions of his day. And he was much more than a born storyteller. Hogg favoured word for this type of art was “intermixing”. He was Scotland’s great intermixer. In hindsight, the Borders bard seemed destined for the make-believe world of literature.

Fairytales and family

Hogg’s mother, Margaret Laidlaw, was an important collector of Scottish ballads and a canny taleteller. His maternal grandfather, known as Will o’ Phawhope, was said to have been the last man in Selkirkshire to speak with fairies. Fairytale figures certainly fill Hogg’s most imaginative stories, most notably in his first collection of prose fiction, The Brownie of Bodsbeck and Other Tales (1818).

Burns was an early influence on Hogg, who considered himself to be the rightful heir to the Bard of Ayrshire and published his own collection less than four years after his idol’s death. Long before then, the locals dubbed him Jamie the Poeter, and he wrote countless songs for local girls to sing.

Portrait of Scots bard Robert Burns.
Robert Burns inspired James Hogg.

After writing a popular patriotic song, “Donald Macdonald”, in 1803, Hogg was recruited to collect ballads for Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. He also undertook extensive tours of the Highlands with a view to securing his own farm, but became more interested in the songs he heard along the way.

By 1819, he was recognised as a leading expert on Scottish ballads when the Highland Society of London commissioned him to produce the Jacobite Relics of Scotland, which became the benchmark of Scottish anthologies for many more decades.

He endured many failures on the way. In 1810, at the age of 40, Hogg moved to Edinburgh to settle into the life of a full-time writer. Within a year of starting it, his magazine The Spy folded. Readers weren’t ready for a publication that covered shocking themes such as extramarital sex.

Hogg spent the next few years scribbling more poetry and prose, and in 1817 he helped William Blackwood establish Scotland’s most influential literary periodical, the Edinburgh Monthly Magazine (later, Blackwood’s Magazine). In time, displaced by punchy younger contributors, Hogg eventually became a figure of fun in the same periodical. But he kept writing and writing. Winter Evening Tales (1820), produced in the middle period of his life, is especially rewarding.

Hogg’s literary afterlife

A collected edition of works was published shortly after Hogg’s death in 1835, but the publishers pruned the more indelicate (and inventive) passages, and even entire texts. The great forgetting of Hogg set in.

Photograph of Robert Louis Stevenson in black and white.
Hogg’s most famous work preempted Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Jekyll and Hyde.

This only began to change in the mid-20th century, when the French writer André Gide championed Justified Sinner in an enthusiastic introduction to a 1947 edition, describing himself as being “voluptuously tormented” by the book.

Only in 1995, when the colossal Stirling–South Carolina Research Edition of the collected works began to appear, would the wider body of Hogg’s works be publicly available in the form they deserved. In recent years, Scottish novelists such as Irvine Welsh and the playwright Marty Ross have proclaimed the importance of Hogg’s fantastical imagination for their own thinking. Before that, Justified Sinner also pre-empted that other great Scottish gothic masterpiece of the divided self, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.

The University of Dundee recently produced a free online edition of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which includes explanatory notes and copies of the earliest reviews. Scotland’s great intermixer awaits new readers.The Conversation

Daniel Cook, Reader in Eighteenth-Century and Romantic Literature, University of Dundee

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Poems for long distant loves in lockdown

Olga Strelnikova/Shutterstock

Kate North, Cardiff Metropolitan University

Many people are not lucky enough to be with their loved ones this valentine’s day. If that is the case, or if you simply want suitable words to mark the day, then there are plenty of long-distance love poems that you can reach for, to share or to read for comfort.

Some of them can be found in unexpected places, such as Song of Solomon, also known as Song of Songs, a book found in the Old Testament. But if you want an account of longing at a distance, a celebration of sexual intimacy, praise for lust and passion, then this is where you’ll find it: “How much better is thy love than wine!” declares Solomon, “By night on my bed I sought him…” speaks his lover. The lovers were not married and lived separately, and were perhaps in the early days of their courtship. The verse describes their visits to each other in erotic detail, and their yearning for each other when apart.

A slightly more traditional and obvious source for love poetry in the English language is, of course, William Shakespeare. Sonnet 98 gives us a meditation on love and distance. In it the speaker is so distraught that their lover is not present, they can no longer recognise the beauty of nature, even as spring bursts into bloom around them.

Love lost and changed with time

Distance is not always about a physical measurement of proximity though, it can also relate to the passing of time. Lost love, love that is no longer and first loves are all forms of love that are unreachable through time.

One example that speaks to this kind of love can be found in former Poet Laureate Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters, his final collection. Hughes’s relationship with his first wife, poet Sylvia Plath, has been much written about. People have long been fascinated with the turbulent trajectory of their relationship and the tragic end to Plath’s life.

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.
Flikr, CC BY

Many years after Plath’s passing, Hughes produced a collection of poems that he wrote throughout the decades after her death. It was published months before his own death and it can be read as an homage, a marking, an exploration and a final word on his passionate relationship with Plath:

I look up – as if to meet your voice

With all its urgent future

That has burst in on me.

For a more contemporary take on past love, I recommend reading Kim Addonizio, who has previously won the Pushcart Prize, a Guggenheim Foundation award and many other accolades. Love is a topic she returns to in her work time over. In her poem Stolen Moments she takes the reader back to the early throes of love, to an instance where it feels like love will never end, in which she finds a perfect memory of what it is to feel in love:

Now I get to feel his hands again, the kiss

That didn’t last, but sent some neural twin

Flashing wildly through the cortex.

Alice Willitts’ recent publication With Love is a collection in which every single title begins with the word “love”. In her poem love / couples who sleep in separate rooms live longer, she refuses to trade possible health benefits for the joy of being able to:

…open a dozy eye

right into your precious face

Read more:
How to write a love poem

Love from afar and in the moment

Another former poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, explores the complete arc of a romantic relationship, from the heady beginnings to the crashing end, in her collection Rapture. The opening poem, Text takes us through feelings of anticipation, excitement and desire as experienced in a brand new relationship. The moment of waiting for a lover’s message to appear on your phone, the thrill of the ring tone as it is received, the compulsion to read and reread it, over and over.

I tend the mobile now

like an injured bird.

We text, text, text

our significant words.

In the past year Duffy has invited poets from around the globe to write directly of their time during the pandemic. This has resulted in a large body of poetry, which will act as a record of lived experience from the pandemic’s earliest stages.

In the scores of poems on the project website, it is interesting to see how the themes of distance and relationships have shone through. For the poet Kim Moore:

now distance is a physical thing

that has crept into my heart

One of the most thought-provoking poems on the site draws on our primal need for intimacy as humans. It’s a need that cuts through familial, platonic and romantic relationships. In her poem Harbour Grace Nichols is willing to trade all, “for the simple harbour of a hug”. If you are unable to reach for a hug this Valentine’s Day, then finding one in a poem could be the next best thing.The Conversation

Kate North, Reader in Creative Writing, Cardiff Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The chattering classes got the ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ book wrong – and they’re getting the movie wrong, too

Lisa R. Pruitt, University of California, Davis

Film critics have had nary a good word to say about Netflix’s new movie “Hillbilly Elegy.”

Reviewers varyingly called it “Oscar-Season B.S.,” “woefully misguided,” “Yokel Hokum,” “laughably bad” and simply “awful.”

I admit to delight when I read professional critics trashing the film, which is
based on J.D. Vance’s widely praised memoir detailing his dramatic class migration from a midsize city in Ohio to the hallowed halls of Yale Law School. I was expecting the worst based on my dislike of the book, and these reviews confirmed my expectations.

But once I saw the film, I felt it had been harshly judged by the chattering classes – the folks who write the reviews and seek to create meaning for the rest of us. In fact, the film is an earnest depiction of the most dramatic parts of the book: a lower-middle-class family caught in the throes of addiction.

Everyday viewers seem to find the film enjoyable enough – it has solid audience reviews on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes.

So why the big gap between the critical response and audience reaction? Could it be yet another sign of the country’s steadily growing class divide?

A bootstrap manifesto

The film’s negative reviews are an about-face from critics’ warm embrace of the book, which was published in 2016, when Vance was just 31.

In telling his story of overcoming his mother’s addiction and attendant familial and economic precarity, Vance credits his Mamaw and Papaw, along with luck and hard work.

Fair enough. But he gives no nod to the government structures – K-12 schools, the military and the GI bill, the public university where he earned his B.A – that greased the skids of his sharp ascension into the ruling class. Worse still, Vance expressly blames laziness as the culprit of those left behind, with only cursory attention to the impact of policies that encouraged the offshoring of manufacturing jobs and weakening of the social safety net.

The book is not subtle in its message: Working-class grunts are to blame for their own struggles. If they’d just get off their duffs, go to church and stay married, everything would be OK.

J.D. Vance talks on a cell phone.
J.D. Vance’s memoir was a sensation when it was published.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Yet commentators from across the political spectrum greeted the book with a big wet kiss. Published months before Donald Trump’s election, it was perfectly timed for the zeitgeist, and Vance’s extended personal anecdote suddenly became the authoritative text about enigmatic working-class whites, all presumptive Trump supporters. The New York Times fawned over its “discerning sociological analysis,” overlooking Vance’s one-sided invocation of data and scholarly literature, while prestigious think tanks like the Brookings Institution elevated Vance to expert status.

I was one of few progressive elites to push back against the media’s early, broad embrace of the book. Admittedly, I was moved by Vance’s compelling biography, which featured many of the hallmarks of my own: hillbilly roots, addicted parent, family violence and – ultimately – a dramatic class leap into elite legal circles.

But I was put off by Vance’s singular focus on personal responsibility and use of his story to advance an agenda antagonistic to the social safety net. Many of Vance’s positions run contrary to my own scholarly work about the white working class and rural America.

Vance also suggests that his family – in both its best and worst manifestations – is representative of Appalachia. Yet like all families, Vance’s is typical in some ways but not in others. And that’s what got so many Appalachians up in arms when the book came out. Not all of them are drug addicted any more than they’re all coal miners. Further, not all Appalachians are white. Many lead boring lives.

From curiosity to disdain

I wasn’t happy when Ron Howard and Netflix paid US$45 million for the movie rights, because I didn’t want the book to get an even wider audience. But the film leaves Vance’s politics aside and instead focuses on three generations worth of Vance family saga. That means the positive potential I saw in the book is at the heart of the film.

For one, working-class white people can see themselves on screen. When I read the book, I initially laughed out loud – but also cried – over the ways Vance’s hillbilly grandparents reminded me of my own extended family. I also related to his “fish out of water” experiences in elite law firms.

Second, the story is a reminder that white skin is no magic bullet. Folks where I live and work in California often use “white privilege” as synonymous with “you’re white, you’ll be all right.” Members of the Vance family are white, but they are clearly not all right. The movie has the potential to foster empathy between the two worlds J.D. Vance straddles – the ones I also straddle – between working class and professional class.

Yet to some critics, the film amounted to no more than “poverty porn.” They lamented a lack of complexity, nuance, motivation and internal conflict in the film’s characters.

Really? Those reviewers must have looked right past the trauma both Mamaw and Bev experienced in their early lives – the former as a child bride, the latter as a child raised in the violent home of that child bride. J.D. is a product of both.

There are surely other reasons, too, that the film world has turned a cold shoulder to this cinematic packaging of Vance’s book. I suspect that it has something to do with the fact that the four-year span between the book and the film neatly coincided with the beginning and end of Trump’s presidency. During that same period, what started as progressive elites’ curiosity about the white working class gave way to bald disdain and fury.

Nowadays, my Twitter feed is awash with resentment every time “mainstream media” run a story about white Trump supporters.

The woke whine that such coverage implies that these are the “real Americans” who we should try to understand, while overlooking other marginalized subsets of the population. Film critic negativity about “Hillbilly Elegy” may reflect similar attitudes – a mix of exasperation and boredom with a pet topic for media outlets since the 2016 election.

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Audiences have a different response

To me, the real pity is that so many coastal elites know so few working-class folks of any color, let alone the hillbilly subset of them. Indeed, studies show that, increasingly, people from different socioeconomic strata no longer mix even within the same metro areas.

The crummy reviews ultimately evince this profound and persistent disconnect between those who write the reviews and “regular” folks.

A week after its release, the film’s critic score on Rotten Tomatoes was 27, while its audience score was 82. That’s a massive spread, and one that may align with the yawning chasm cutting across our national electorate.

The cosmopolitan set can’t believe viewers would want to watch “those people” – and may even be able to relate to them – any more than we can believe so many people voted for Donald Trump.

When critic Sarah Jones, an Appalachian by upbringing, argues that “Hillbilly Elegy” wasn’t made for hillbilly viewers, I’m not convinced. Jones places “Hillbilly Elegy” among “an old and ignoble genre” that “caricatures the hillbilly for an audience’s titillation.”

Maybe. But there are far worse depictions of rural folks and other hillbilly types. Look no further than this appalling scene from “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” or the 1972 classic “Deliverance.”

Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor certainly took liberties in condensing and dramatizing decades of Vance family dysfunction, but we shouldn’t pretend that families like these don’t exist. I know people like them – heck, I’m even related to some.

Many viewers will relate to “Hillbilly Elegy” simply because addiction is such a shockingly common phenomenon, one that touches many families and every community. Others will appreciate the film because it presents J.D. Vance achieving the “American dream.” It’s an ideal many find irresistible in spite of the fact that – or, indeed, because – upward mobility is more elusive than ever.

With Vance’s politics tucked out of sight, can we simply judge the film for its entertainment value? Can we acknowledge that we don’t all like the same things?

After all, there may be a few things elites don’t “get.” And that could be because the movie wasn’t made for them in the first place.The Conversation

Lisa R. Pruitt, Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Law, University of California, Davis

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

John Keats: how his poems of death and lost youth are resonating during COVID-19

John Keats by Joseph Severn (1819).
National Portrait Gallery

Richard Marggraf-Turley, Aberystwyth University

In John Keats’ poems, death crops up 100 times more than the future, a word that appears just once in the entirety of his work. This might seem appropriate on the 200th anniversary of the death of Keats, who was popularly viewed as the young Romantic poet “half in love with easeful death”.

Death certainly touched Keats and his family. At the age of 14, he lost his mother to tuberculosis. In 1818, he nursed his younger brother Tom as he lay dying of the same disease.

After such experiences, when Ludolph, the hero of Keats’ tragedy, Otho the Great, imagines succumbing to “a bitter death, a suffocating death”, Keats knew what he was writing about. And then, aged just 25, on February 23 1821, Keats himself died of tuberculosis in Rome.

Life sliding by

His preoccupation with death doesn’t tell the whole story, however. In life, Keats was vivacious, funny, bawdy, pugnacious, poetically experimental, politically active, and above all forward-looking.

He was a young man in a hurry, eager to make a mark on the literary world; even if – as a trained doctor – he was all too conscious of the body’s vulnerability to mortal shocks. These two very different energies coalesce in one of his best loved poems, written in January 1818 when the poet was in the bloom of health:

When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be is a poem of personal worry, according to biographer Nicholas Roe. In it, Keats is anxious that he won’t have time to achieve poetic fame or fall in “unreflecting love”, and these fears and self-doubts take him to the brink.

But as brinks go, this one doesn’t seem all that bad. The poem is romantic with a small “r” – wide-eyed, dramatic, sentimental – its vision of finality, of nothingness, gorgeous in its desolation, and all-importantly painless. Who can read those final lines without themselves feeling a pull to swooning death, half in love with it, as Keats professed to be?

That’s what I used to think, at any rate. Lately, in the pandemic, I’ve begun to read this poem rather differently. Lensed through long months of lockdown, the sonnet’s existential anxieties seem less abstract, grand and performative, and more, well, human.

It’s a poem that will resonate with the youth who are cooped up indoors, physically isolated, unable to meet and mingle, agonisingly aware of weeks slipping by, opportunities missed, disappointments mounting. This poem has made me almost painfully empathetic towards their plight.

Painting of a young John Keats reading a book.
John Keats by Joseph Severn, painted posthumously (1821-1823).
National Portrait Gallery, London

The sonnet’s fears of a future laid to waste are shared by whole generations whose collective mental health is under siege. In his last surviving letter, written two years after the sonnet while dying in Rome, Keats records a “feeling of my real life having past”, a conviction that he was “leading a posthumous existence”. How many of us are experiencing similar thoughts at the moment?

Illness and isolation

Of all the Romantics, Keats perhaps knew most about mental suffering. He grew up in Moorgate, just across from Bethlem Hospital, which was known to London and the world as Bedlam. Before he turned to poetry, Keats trained at Guy’s hospital, London, where he not only witnessed first-hand the horrors of surgery in a pre-anaesthetic age but also tended to patients on what was called the lunatic ward.

It was all too much for him. Traumatised by the misery and pain he felt he could do little to alleviate, in 1816 he threw medicine in for the pen. His experiences at Guy’s, though, and the empathy he developed there, found their way into his writing. For instance, in Hyperion, his medical knowledge helps him to inhabit the catatonic state of “gray-hair’d Saturn”, who sits in solitude, “deep in the shady sadness of a vale”, despairing after being deposed by the Olympian gods. The vignette is a moving image of isolation and enervation that speaks to us today:


As for lockdown, Keats was no stranger to its pressures and deprivations. During periods of illness in Hampstead in 1819 – precursor symptoms of tuberculosis – he was reluctant to venture out, isolating himself. In October 1820, he set sail for Italy in the hope warmer climes would save his lungs. On arrival, his ship was put into strict quarantine for ten days. In letters to his friends, Keats described being “in a sort of desperation”, adding, “we cannot be created for this sort of suffering”.

Keats was a poet of his age, his own social, cultural and medical milieu. And yet, on the bicentenary of his death, he’s also – more than ever, perhaps – a poet of ours. A poet of lockdown, frustration, disappointment, fears … and even hope.

Because even in those last, scarcely imaginable weeks in Rome, 200 years ago, holed up in a little apartment at the foot of the Spanish Steps, he never quite gave up on the future, never relinquished his dreams of love and fame.The Conversation

Richard Marggraf-Turley, Professor of English Literature, Aberystwyth University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Aliens in Lagos: sci-fi novel Lagoon offers a bold new future

Detail from the cover of Lagoon, a novel by Nnedi Okorafor.
© Joey Hi-Fi/Hodder & Stoughton

Gibson Ncube, University of Zimbabwe

In his satirical essay How to Write About Africa, the late Kenyan writer and journalist Binyavanga Wainaina advocated for a rethinking of clichéd and stereotypical representations of the continent. Wainaina was in favour of looking beyond the despair that has plagued and continues to plague Africa.

African science fiction is a literary genre which tries to imagine utopic futures of the continent. Nigerian-American novelist Nnedi Okorafor calls her brand of sci-fi “Africanfuturism”. She explains in her blog that Africanfuturism is “concerned with visions of the future” and that “it’s less concerned with ‘what could have been’ and more concerned with what can/will be.”

Okorafor is on an upward global sci-fi trajectory, especially with the adaption of her acclaimed novella Binti into a major TV series – among several proposed projects involving her African protagonists. Considered especially against the background of the phenomenal success of the sci-fi blockbuster movie Black Panther, Okorafor’s rich body of work matters when it comes to the representation of black lives.

A book cover in green, black and white reading, 'Nnedi Okorafor Lagoon' with a quote from Ursula la Guin and an illustration of a human form swimming through sea creatures and tentacles towards the light.

Joey Hi-Fi/Hodder & Stoughton

Her 2014 novel Lagoon recounts the story of the arrival of aliens in Nigeria. The aliens make their landing in the ocean, in the lagoon close to the city of Lagos. The novel focuses on Ayodele, the alien ambassador, and her interactions with three humans: a marine biologist named Adaora, a musician from Ghana named Anthony and a military man named Agu. Ayodele has shapeshifting capabilities that allow her to change her form. She transforms fluidly between human, animal and inanimate forms.

As I have observed in my analysis, Lagoon, through its shapeshifting alien protagonist, challenges long held ideas of how gender and sexual identities are considered in Africa.

That which does not resemble us

Lagoon cheerfully disregards many literary norms. A mythical spider called Udide Okwanka, for example, recounts the story – which is also told from multiple perspectives. But particularly innovative is how Lagoon imagines a bold alternative future in which there is a liberation of identities and desires from rigid norms.

In Ayodele’s interactions with humans, she questions how they live and think. Through her shapeshifting capabilities, she defies what humans consider the “normal” ways of being.

Ayodele is portrayed as queer. By queer I mean that her identity defies established gender identity categories. In the novel, she is referred to as “a woman … man … whatever” and as a “woman, thing, whatever she was”. This fluid identity blurs the boundaries of what has been normalised as “correct”.

The narrator of Lagoon explains that Ayodele’s fluid identity makes her dangerous. The danger lies in that Ayodele dismantles a well established system that denigrates ways of being that are different or stray from what is considered normal. Ayodele’s identity makes humans uncomfortable. In the novel, Ayodele states

Human beings have a hard time relating to that which does not resemble them.

It is when humans are made uncomfortable that it becomes possible to start imagining different futures. The familiar is defamiliarised and stereotypes are disregarded.

Becoming visible

In Lagoon, Ayodele’s difference compels a queer student organisation called Black Nexus to come out of hiding and to confront societal stereotypes. Before the arrival of Ayodele and the aliens, Black Nexus only met clandestinely once a month. Ayodele’s presence emboldens them to come out of the closet and confront their own insecurities.

A woman with a wry smile and large hairstyle sits in front of a museum display of insects.
Portrait of Nnedi Okorafor with insects.
Cheetah Witch/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Of particular interest, the group is encouraged by how Ayodele challenges Father Oke, a bishop in a local diocese. Father Oke is known to speak out against queer individuals and for equating queer relations to bestiality. The Black Nexus group see in Ayodele a possible ally and a radical force that could change how they are viewed in Nigeria – a country where same-sex relations are criminalised.

By becoming visible, the members of Black Nexus defy the ways of thinking that marginalise them and render them invisible in Nigeria.

What if?

In my reading, Ayodele’s shapeshifting capabilities represent a need to rethink identities so that they are liberated from the limiting ways in which humans consider them. The novel imagines a future in which different forms of otherness are granted space to be and to flourish. Ayodele hints at this future, saying:

Last night, Lagos burned. But like a phoenix, it will rise from the ashes – a greater creature than before.

Lagoon’s Africanfuturist vision requires a reader who is actively engaged in co-creating the alternative future that the novel is constructing: one in which identities are freed from restrictive thinking that refuses to recognise difference and diversity.

The reader is a central participant in this process because the writer, the reader and the text are engaged in a creative conversation. This conversation involves challenging the present and past misrepresentations of Africa. And it involves striving to envision counter-futures that contrast the present and past. The reader is required to be an active participant in meaning making.

I conclude by quoting Okorafor, who explains in a 2017 talk that sci-fi plays an important role in imagining possible futures. She tells her audience:

So much of science fiction speculates about technologies, societies, social issues, what’s beyond our planet, what’s within our planet. Science fiction is one of the greatest and most effective forms of political writing. It’s all about the question, “What if?”.The Conversation

Gibson Ncube, Associate Professor, University of Zimbabwe

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Humour in poetry should be taken seriously


Christina Thatcher, Cardiff Metropolitan University

As a child, I remember laughing out loud while reading Shel Silverstein’s poetry book A Light in the Attic (1981). I loved it so much that I started reciting the poem Skin Stealer every day, to the great annoyance of my little brother. Even now, these lines still come knocking:

This evening I unzipped my skin

And carefully unscrewed my head,

Exactly as I always do

When I prepare myself for bed.

As a teenager, I was taught that poetry should be more serious. It was art – and art took itself seriously. Even now, poems designed to make us laugh are often dismissed as frivolous. This seems strange given that many of our earliest poems are comic ones. The limerick, for instance, is thought to have originated during the Middle Ages and has been used to great humorous effect by thousands, from Shakespeare to Roald Dahl.

Perhaps the crime here isn’t that funny poems have been sidelined in favour of serious ones, but that funny poems are not also considered to be serious. Humour, after all, has the power to disarm us and promote reflective thinking.

Although there are innumerable ways in which poets can be funny in their work, I have chosen pieces here which employ three different types of humour to demonstrate how poetry can make us both laugh and think.

Sexy humour

Sometimes called dirty, naughty, rude or cheeky, this type of humour works because it violates social norms. After all, it is not polite to talk about sex. But, poetry which pokes fun at bodies and desire is centuries old.

Poems in this category can range from titillating to obscene. But, beyond the tee-hees, these pieces can reveal deeper truths about sex and relationships. Take a look at the opening of The Did-You-Come-Yets of the Western World by Rita Ann Higgins:

Absurdist humour

Poets who use absurdity in their work tend to operate under the assumption that implausibility is essential to comedy. Absurd humour highlights the ridiculousness of life, pushing normally accepted realities to extremes to give the audience a fresh perspective. This can be seen in Luke Kennard’s darkly funny poem The Murderer, which opens:

In his correspondence with writer Paul McDonald, Kennard discussed how this poem works to reveal the shortcomings of both characters, opening up a chance for readers to reflect on moral relativism.

Satirical humour

Satire is an excellent way for poets to respond to social trends and current events. Often, this type of humour relies on ridicule and exaggeration to expose and criticise people’s stupidity or vices. Satirical poems play an important role when it comes to challenging political, cultural and aesthetic oppression. According to the poet Matthew Rohrer, satire is a tool by which the oppressed get to make fun of their oppressors.

Satirical poetry takes many forms but one of my personal favourites is the cento – a patchwork poem made up of words or phrases directly from the person at the butt of the joke. Rob Sears’ The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump does this brilliantly, particularly this piece:

There are, of course, huge swathes of humour that I haven’t even touched on here. For instance, surrealism, dark humour and observational humour can provoke important discussions, launch taboos into the light and straddle the fine line between “haha” and “oh no”.

Because humour is also highly personal, you may not find any of the poems I’ve chosen to be funny. To remedy this, I also asked poets on Twitter to share the pieces which made them laugh and, wow, did they deliver. In this thread alone, the power of humour in poetry is self-evident.The Conversation

Christina Thatcher, Creative Writing Lecturer, Cardiff Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Guide to the classics: Darwin’s The Descent of Man 150 years on — sex, race and our ‘lowly’ ape ancestry

Jared Rice/Unsplash

Ian Hesketh, The University of Queensland and Henry-James Meiring, The University of Queensland

When Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was first published in On the Origin of Species in 1859, the book was conspicuously silent about how his theory applied to humans.

Darwin believed the subject of human evolution was so “surrounded with prejudices” he was determined to avoid it entirely.

It was only when he became frustrated by the way others conceived of human evolution that he took up the subject himself. His two-volume The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex was published on 24 February 1871.

Revisiting this work 150 years on, it is striking how some of Darwin’s most radical claims — such as humanity’s ape-like ancestry — are now taken for granted while some of his other views were clearly embedded in Victorian racial and gender stereotypes.

Read more:
Guide to the classics: Darwin’s On the Origin of Species

Sexual selection

Darwin’s objective in Descent was threefold: to consider whether humans were descended from a pre-existing form; to consider the nature of human development; and to consider the differences between the “human races”.

In coming to terms with these issues, Darwin focused on the theory of sexual selection.

Darwin’s earlier theory of natural selection explained how the struggle for limited resources led to adaptations that were beneficial to certain individuals of the same species at the expense of others.

Black and white illustration
An illustration of a peacock feather as published in The Descent of Man.
Wikimedia Commons

Sexual selection, in contrast, explained how the struggle for mates led to adaptations with no survival benefit. The bright plumages of male birds of paradise and the spectacular tail of the peacock were a product of mate choice by female birds, he wrote.

A similar process, he theorised, explained the development of specialised weapons for battle, such as the large horns of beetles: a result of males struggling against one another to secure mates.

Applying this principle to humans, Darwin argued that in the early stages of humanity’s development, men took the power of selection away from women. Men struggled against other men to select their mates, he wrote, and so became stronger and more intelligent over time, while women became more nurturing in their pursuit to attract mates through the cultivation of fashion.

It is not difficult to see how this theory of sexual selection naturalised Victorian gender relations.

Read more:
How Darwin’s sexual selection theory co-stars in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

The development of the races

For Darwin, sexual selection also explained how different human races had developed.

While he was committed to the theory of monogenism, believing humans were a single species, he also adhered to a racial hierarchy. As historian of science Evelleen Richards shows in her recent book, Darwin’s encounters with Indigenous peoples during his Beagle voyage, circumnavigating the globe between 1831 and 1836, led him to perceive vast physical and intellectual differences between the human races.

Black and white illustration
RT Pritchett’s drawing of a catamaran off the Brazilian state of Bahia, as seen on the Beagle Voyage.
Freshwater and Marine Image Bank at the University of Washington

He came to believe many of those differences could be explained by the processes of sexual selection. Differences in skin colour were, for Darwin, the result of diverse aesthetic preferences, which subsequently led to the development of distinct races. And as the races diverged, they were further shaped by inherited customs and social practices.

By accepting a racial hierarchy in this scheme, Darwin believed Indigenous peoples, or “savages” as he called them, represented “early stages” in human development.

In the final observation of the book, Darwin confessed he would rather be related to a “heroic little monkey” than to a “savage who delights to torture his enemies”.

His deeper message, however, was that readers should be consoled by the fact some of the nobler qualities of humans were shared by many of the great apes — even if they seemed to be absent from humanity’s “early stages”.

What makes humans moral?

The Descent of Man included three chapters dedicated to the subject of mind and morals. Darwin aimed to show there was “no fundamental difference between man and higher mammals” in their moral and mental faculties.

His moral theory relied heavily on animal observations, including those of dogs, apes, and even bees. He insisted humans shared the capacity to feel guilt, shame, and compassion with other social animals — therefore moral conscience was not unique to humans.

Darwin’s theory rejected essentialist and religious categories of “right” and “wrong”. He postulated different animals developed different moral systems depending on their environment and social structures, famously using bees as an example.

If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees […] our unmarried females would, like the workerbees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.

Morality was the product of factors related to the struggle for survival and reproduction, and not divinely ordained.

Morality, wrote Darwin, was not absolute: if humans evolved like bees, our understanding of right and wrong would be very different.
Eric Ward/Unsplash


Even though plant and animal evolution was largely accepted by the scientific community at the time, the subject of human evolution was still highly contentious. Darwin’s views were heatedly debated in the press and in public.

A reviewer for the Edinburgh Review observed:

no book of science has excited a keener interest than Mr. Darwin’s new work on the ‘Descent of Man.’ In the drawingroom it is competing with the last new novel, and in the study it is troubling alike the man of science, the moralist, and the theologian. On every side it is raising a storm of mingled wrath, wonder, and admiration.

By the end of 1871, the work was translated into Dutch, German, Italian and Russian.

Despite its commercial success, The Descent of Man was heavily criticised. At the beginning of 1872, Darwin lamented “hardly any naturalists” agreed with him on sexual selection.

Charles Darwin, as an ape, holds a mirror up to another ape.
Darwin was frequently caricatured in the press as an ape, as here in a colour lithograph by F. Betbeder.
Wellcome Collection, CC BY

Most naturalists felt Darwin attributed too much power to female choice, and they rejected the idea other animals could possess an aesthetic sensibility.

It was Darwin’s analysis of morality, however, that caused the greatest outrage. He stood accused of undermining the foundation of Christian society by advocating moral relativism.

Leading feminist Frances Power Cobbe rejected Darwin’s theory of morality as “simious”, while The Times thundered Darwin’s ideas could encourage “the most murderous revolutions”.

Darwin received hate mail from offended readers like Mr. D. Thomas, who referred to him as a “venerable old Ape”. Darwin began to be regularly caricatured as an ape in the press.

Descent today

Certain aspects of Descent hold up well, such as Darwin’s speculation humans originated from Africa, as evidenced by multiple fossil discoveries in the mid-20th century, notably by Mary and Louis Leakey.

Charles Darwin.
Wellcome Collection

Many of his controversial insights in relation to morality have been central to recent debates about “evolutionary ethics” among moral philosophers considering the relationship between our understanding of morality and evolution.

And his theory of mind and morals informed the development of multiple scientific disciplines in the 20th century, including evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and psychoanalysis.

The same cannot be said about Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. While the idea of “female choice” has been revived several times, such as in Robert Trivers’s parental investment theory which argues the sex that takes on the primary caring role has the greatest choice in a mate, there is very little consensus on the relationship between mate choice and beauty.

Moreover, most evolutionists consider male combat — as Darwin wrote about in horned beetles — a form of natural selection, rather than sexual selection.

And when it comes to Darwin’s general views of race and gender, he very much appears a man of his time and social background.

Today, what is most compelling about The Descent of Man is how Darwin’s portrayal of humans was made within the context of a system of evolution that applied equally to all of nature. At a time when other evolutionists stressed humanity’s uniqueness, Darwin instead sought to uncover man’s “lowly nature”.The Conversation

Ian Hesketh, ARC Future Fellow and Association Professor, The University of Queensland and Henry-James Meiring, PhD Candidate, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Book review: Claire Thomas’s The Performance triggers burning questions

Stanley Li/Unsplash

Cecily Niumeitolu, University of Sydney

Book review: The Performance by Claire Thomas.

Theatre and its constant recreation, allows for the possibility of the political. Sometimes this is manufactured by directors as they place a loaded question on stage. Sometimes it occurs as an unexpected interruption to the usual flow of a performance.

Claire Thomas explores the possibility of both in her new novel The Performance.

Historically, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953) has been a rallying point for theatre practitioners and audiences living through a state of crisis: waiting through incarceration, dispossession, racial segregation, or the wake of environmental disaster.

But what if our waiting for tomorrow succumbs to an earth that waits for no one?

At the centre of The Performance is another Beckett drama, Happy Days (1961).

Winnie’s tangential recollections and gestures on stage reverberate into the perspectives and memories of three complex women stuck in the auditorium, watching the play: Margot, the world-weary professor with a theatre subscription; Ivy, the philanthropist lured to donate more money through the offer of free tickets; and Summer, the usher working under duress.

The Performance book cover

The audience watches Winnie as the earth increasingly swallows her, and her terminal happiness. Happy Days is a play adequate to contemporary times: the sixth mass extinction.

The Performance is set against Australia’s bushfire season. Just as Winnie’s parasol catches alight in Happy Days, there is the latent hazard the cool theatre could go up flames. As Ivy watches the play, she thinks: “Climate change is the key moral question of the age”.

And yet, as Thomas explores through her characters, what about those who are not scientists, engineers, policy makers, experts, activists and politicians directly involved in the challenge of global warming?

“The world is a swarm of need, and Ivy knows she cannot save it,” writes Thomas.

Margot, Ivy and Summer do not truly choose to watch Happy Days. It is more so their place in the theatre that night happens through their financial entanglements.

The bodily functions and reactions — ranging from disdain to intimacy — are conducted through Winnie’s words and her pace. Inseparable from this shared performance is the site and its time:

Summer is feeling worried, so worried, but she cannot work out if she’s worried about Winnie, or herself, or the blazing world outside, and where the blood is pooling or spilling at this moment, inside a certain body or beyond it.

Breathe, Summer. Remember to breathe.

Phrasing the musical

Actors and directors who collaborated with Beckett have recounted how he directed his plays for stage, television and radio in musical terms.

The voice he wrote for demanded a certain colour, accent, tone, rhythm. The cast were his instruments and elements.

Billie Whitelaw, Beckett’s favourite female actor, said Beckett “conducts me, something like a metronome”.

Of Happy Days, she mused how “terribly courageous” Winnie was.

Every day, an institutional bell rings, and life demands of Winnie one more day. One more day to apply her lipstick, play her music box, kiss her revolver, to speak in “the old style”: meagre defences in a life barely witnessed, barely there.

And when these props fail Winnie — and when her companion Willie exists only as a possibility out of sight — she sings in hope of an ear in the darkness. She holds on.

The Performance echoes Beckett’s musicality. Thomas tends to the base, cloying, funny, fragile disturbances that make theatre an imperative act. She gives breadth to her characters’ thoughts in tension to the daily performances they play in the role of mother, grandmother, friend, wife, lover, daughter.

Read more:
Billie Whitelaw was one of Beckett’s greatest actors – she suffered for her art

She opens up the care it takes for these characters to not leap into easy connection, to allow space for their own and a stranger’s difference. She teases out how ideals and identities fall short of life’s ambiguity.

She gently holds the inescapable paradoxes of wanting, needing and enduring in these strange-becoming-stranger times.

Dissonances of life and art

The Performance is a poetics of the political, without preaching or judgement: it triggers burning questions. This is achieved through the novel’s clever structure. Chapters are a compilation of different points of view with no character’s point winning out over the others.

These perspectives converge in the middle of the book — an interval — which then affects the chapters after.

This book itches at sore points of neoliberalism, class, privilege (and lack thereof), race and Australia’s violent colonial history, gender, sexuality, and the bruises and yearnings that join, alter, or wear away the crossing paths of strangers, friends, and family.

For the treasure hunter, motifs and fragments of visual art, drama, and fiction weave through the plot. There are gestures towards the theatre novel like Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts (1941).

And for those interested in Beckett’s biography, there are snippets of his life, body of work and Happy Days itself threaded throughout — both pointedly and hidden.

Written with passion, The Performance is a brave book: unafraid of confronting the dissonances of living in a modern Australia.

The Performance is out now through Hachette.The Conversation

Cecily Niumeitolu, PhD Candidate, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.