Author Archives: craig campbell

Here’s Where The Story Ends

Humph…Lost Children Archives…what did I just read? First of all, that is the longest sentence I’ve ever seen in my life. Starting on page 319, the only full stop to be found appeared some twenty pages later. I have no choice but to look at this stylistically to try and make sense of what I’ve just finished reading. Long sentences often give the feeling of dragging time, that a minute can last for hours, days even. This thought lasts for 20 pages. I felt anxiety the entire time. No, not due to my overly pedantic nature, a good grammatical challenge makes me happy. But this…what was the point of this?

I feel let down. I enjoyed the portions of the book about nothing: the road trip. I loved how The Boy was telling The Girl about how things were—however, what was the temporal context? Obviously, The Boy is telling The Girl about what happened in the past (the tense changes in the narrative) but are the kids adults now? What was the significance in the change in narrator? I don’t know. Was there a point? And what was the point of the metanarrative, the story within a story. It seems to me that the elegies were the meat and potatoes of the book, the rest were the peas you try to hide under your napkin when no one is looking. If that’s the case, what was the point of the road trip?

How can I enjoy a book that I disliked so much? I did enjoy this book. I can’t honestly say I liked it though. In fact, I would go so far as to say I disliked it. There was no build up. With each turn of the page I hoped to see that Manuela’s girls were reunited with her. But no. She was just a simple side story. Perhaps her kids were in the elegies? But if that happened long before Lost Children Archive were written, how could they possibly be in search for them? It takes months to publish a book, those girls would be long gone.

This book made absolutely no sense to me. I couldn’t place the events on a time line. Sure there was a beginning and a middle. The end never happened though, which was frustrating.

In the context of our course, I am not sure how this book fits in. In fact, so many of the books we covered are such odd examples of books—kinks. Starting with The Squatter and The Don, it seemed as though this book was a history lesson in the form of a novel, which was rather interesting. Then we saw an analysis of legends based on true events in With A Pistol in His Hand. From there we foréed into Nuyorican literature with Down These Mean Streets, which seemed, to me, to be the first normal novel we read…only, it wasn’t a novel. Bless Me Ultima didn’t register well with me and may very well be the first book I ever donate. I will probably reread The House on Mango Street many times over the years, it is easily one of my favourite books I’ve ever read…yet it’s not a traditional book. And then there’s Lost Children Archive, which excited my interest in linguistics and stylistics but left me stranded…lost…for plot. Each one of the books we read had its own kink.

Which brings me to my final thoughts, thoughts that are more difficult to express than I thought they’d be. It has been an honour and a sincere pleasure working with you folks of SPAN 322. I have learned so much from every single person in this class, about literature, about life. I have been and will continue to be inspired by the dynamic that we had for these past few months. Thank you, Jon for your approach to literature. You make it interesting by not herding us down the corral of traditional literary analysis. You encouraged every one of us to emote with no holds barred, which helped me see the way through. Some of the blogs written, I didn’t always agree with, but I learned from every single one of them. And I want to thank each and everyone one of my classmates: Maria, whose work ethic and determination will inspire me for always; Cynthia, whose cheeky sense of humor will always bring a smile to my face; Madison, who showed me that strength and calmness go very well hand in hand; Pamela, with your level head, smile and laugh, you can persevere to accomplish anything; Curtis, well, you are wise beyond your years my friend, your blogs always inspired me to think; Rachel, who apparently hates reading but always finds the good to focus on with such wise words about what we read; Stephanie, whose will and fortitude showed me that passion is important for success; and Aurelien, who despite reading in a language other than your mother tongue, which is my biggest struggle, you inspired me to keep trying and to never give up. Each and every single one of you have touched my life and I will always remember you and this class with the fondest memories. I wish each and every one you the best.

I leave this blog, my last, with a song that punctuates the end our journey this term.

Valeria Luiselli on the Youtube

Here is a clip of Valeria Luiselli describing her work, how her characters are unnamed and how she describes her work as documentary/ fiction. I found it neat, so I thought I’d share it.

Stay healthy everyone!

Lost Child Archive (part i)

So while I haven’t quite finished the first half of Lost Children Archive, I think I am far enough into it that I want to start my blog now. A few things strike me as peculiar about this novel, but I have to say, so far I am thoroughly enjoying it; it may even be my favourite of the term.

The first thing I find peculiar is the fact that none of the main characters are named. We know of Manuela, the woman whose children migrated from Mexico (I think?) but that’s it. The
first-person narrator is the main character in the story. We know her as Mama or Ma. She refers to her children coldly as ‘the boy’ and ‘the girl’—sometimes out the determiner. Only twice does she stray from this: the first time on page 5 to tell us that she refers to her son (stepson) and daughter as ‘boy’ and ‘girl’; the second time on page 16, when she says “…I had a conversation with the mother of one of my daughter’s classmates”. Even then, the narrator isn’t referring to her daughter; she is merely a point of reference for the mother of the classmate. It stuck out like a sore thumb to me and I am waiting to see if at any other point in the narrative this comes to light…and what this means. Is it foregrounding? Is it simply a slip in style?

The other thing I find interesting about this book is the first-person narration. We don’t get to see exactly what the characters are thinking, only the narrator’s opinion or interpretation of their thoughts. We also only see things unfold from the narrator’s point of view and through her participation in the events she describes. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book written in this manner, which is perhaps why I like it so much. In my youth, before computers, I used to write letters—pages upon pages—to my best friend after I moved away. To this day, she has seven
2-inch binders filled with my letters and I too have about the same from her. From time to time I revisit these letters and I get a snapshot, in detail, of what we were doing back then. This novel provides us with sequential snapshots of the events as they unfold, almost like the scenes in a movie. Each scene is titled as if the camera angle changes, giving a slight different perspective of the surroundings, whether it is the children playing ‘Apache games’ with their father, the next chapter is the narrator/ mother, in the same scene, reading up on how to use Boy’s polaroid camera (which for you iGeneration folks was a camera that developed it’s own film…back before photos turned up instantly on a cellphone… ???? ).

No song specifically comes to mind so far in reading this book, except that they are on a road trip which seems to never end. I love road trips and I usually revert back to my high school days, when I used to write all my letters, and make playlists which provide us for hours (or days) of endless music. One of the best road trip songs, in my opinion, is Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer”. The words almost apply to what our world is going through. So I am making it my blog song. I hope everyone is well and staying healthy.

 

Week 11—The House on Mango Street

So all term long, I have dreaded bloging about The House on Mango Street. Not because I didn’t like this book; on the contrary, I thoroughly enjoyed it. But this book is so different from any book I’ve ever read.

Then it dawned on me: kink. This book is a kink.

The Introduction really brings this to the fore. First of all, it occupies just over 20% of the copy space of the entire book (of the edition I read). It’s xxvii pages long! And unlike the Forward in Bless Me Ultima, where Anaya blathers on about how great his book is, Sandra Cisneros shares with us the experience of writing her book. The writer tells her reader, up front, that what they are about to embark on is rather out of the ordinary. She says what she had in mind was “a book that could be opened at any page and will still make sense to the reader who doesn’t know what came before or what comes after.”

When I read this book for the first time over Christmas (actually, it was on my Christmas wish list and was a stocking stuffer from my husband), I read it in a linear fashion, from cover to cover, beginning to end. When I picked it up for a second read last week, I decided to do as Cisnero suggests in her Introduction, and read miscellaneous chapters at a time (marking the ones I had read), from where ever I opened the book. And she’s right; the reader can open the book and start where ever they want, without knowing what happened previously, and without knowing what is going to happen—and it still makes sense.

As far as literary analysis goes, and the methods with which I have been taught to use, this throws everything out the window. There is a plot, but it doesn’t really happen in the format of ‘beginning, middle and end’ if you read it from any point. Each segment takes on its own plot with its own mirco- beginning, middle and end. And the characters don’t develop in the same way as they would reading a novel from cover to cover. Some characters only exist for a paragraph, some for a page…and then vanish as if you’ve passed them in the street or noticed them briefly in a coffee shop. The setting, while it all takes place in Chicago, isn’t really impacted by reading the book in this way. The reader may be taken to a street, or a stolen car or school, only to turn the page to find that this mini adventure is over and another begins. The result: a collection haphazard little snippets and anecdotes that unite to tell a story about the protagonist, Esperanza. If anything, I enjoyed reading the book in this way more because I didn’t expect anything to happen. Yes, it is anticlimactic (which is something else this book seems to lack), but truth be told, I wasn’t searching for a climax. Each chapter managed to take me away from the craziness I now find myself in.

What a curious book this is. And for this reason, I find that The House on Mango Street is, in itself, a kink. A written-word collage, like photographs taken of someone else’s life journey and shared during a trip down memory lane, or a picture book you get at an art gallery where each page is a different painting.

My blogsong this week is “Mad World” by Tears for Fears. This song came out just a couple of years before The House on Mango Street was first published. Tears for Fears are an iconic band from the UK. This song captures, for me at least, the craziness of the world we are now surviving in.

Be well, and stay healthy.

Week 10—Bless Me Ultima (part ii)

I’ll cover a couple of things in my blog from this past week. First and foremost, is Matilda, our dog joining us in class today. She’s been rather lonely and out of sorts since Clarabell passed away at the end of January. So when I moved from the dining room table to the couch as the battery on my lap top got low, Tilda didn’t realise I was in class and decided she needed to join. I don’t have the heart to push her away, mea culpa.

As Jon mentioned, I’ve been delinquent in getting my blog out this past week. I’ve run amok, so to speak. Compiling thoughts in any cohesive manner has been difficult for me. But the discussion of our class today has helped me a little.

But I am going to do things backwards and discuss a song to which I’ve always turned when I feel ill at ease, and then relate it back to Bless Me Ultima. The song is “Day is Done” by Peter, Paul and Mary, a folk/ hippy group from the 60s (before my time by the way…). The song starts with the lines “Tell me why you’re crying, my son, I know you’re frightened, like everyone”, which rather reflects how I feel lately over this whole Covid-19 hoopla, social distancing and isolation. Someone, with more wisdom than the child, is asking what’s the matter. Perhaps the asker has the answer or can help ease the ill-at-ease feelings.

Back to Bless Me Ultima now, this is almost, for me at least, like the relationship Antonio has with Ultima. Ultima seems to have all the answers. Or if she doesn’t, she has the ability to make Antonio feel more secure, as a child, with the troubling things he sees going on around him. Perhaps Ultima doesn’t say anything, but she seems to know how to make him feel better or more assured. Which is what religion does, I suppose. I’ve been a recovering-Catholic since my mid 20s, after having converted to Catholicism at the age of 14 (yes, odd I know…in fact, I am the only Catholic in my family and very nearly became a priest). But it is what we believe that provides us with reassurance, regardless of whatever that is. As children, this reassurance often came from adults, or a grandparent, like Ultima does for Antonio and his family.

My grandpa died 6 December 1986. I can still hear his voice, smell his smell of DuMaurier cigarettes and Mentos mints. I remember this day as if it happened yesterday. It was 6 minutes after 8:00 in the morning, and the phone rang. I had a habit of asking who it was when I didn’t answer the phone. I never got an answer, but I knew what happened. I knew it was Grandpa. I sat with my Mum in the living room for the morning, staring off in to space, in absolute shock. Mum wasn’t able to provide me with comfort because she too was just a child looking for comfort. And now that I have no grandparents left, there is a feeling of being on my own, to find my own way that often overwhelms me.

I think this is what Ultima means when she tells Antonio that he cannot go on if Ultima is with him all the time. How can he develop and mature into adulthood, finding his own way, if Ultima is always there for him to rely on? Sooner or later we need to all put our big boy/ girl pants on, and be brave, and face the big scary world.

On that note, I end my odd blog this week. Slightly off topic, I admit, but perhaps we can all be brave in the newness of the current conditions in which we find ourselves…and find comfort in knowing that at least twice a week we are among each other on Google Hangouts for a bit of a break from the real world.

Please, be safe and be healthy.

Week 9—Bless Me Ultima (part i)

I struggle with reading. In fact, I have in the past said that I hate reading, but that is simply because I struggle with it. I can zip through a ‘good’ book without batting an eyelash, and I flip the pages of a ‘not-so-good’ book as if I were shovelling heavy snow. This is how I felt when I started Bless Me Ultima. To start with, I found the Introduction, which the author Rudolfo Anaya provides as really arrogant, reminiscent of the likes of Alice Munro or Margaret Atwood—two Canadian authors who think very highly of themselves. Why tell me how great your book is before I read it? This takes away my agency as a reader to figure out whether or not I like it before I even start…never mind the audacity of including discussion questions at the end of it for me to ponder. It makes me think the writer has little faith in his reader. Alice Munro, the Canadian author I mentioned previously, says in an essay called “What is Real?” that authors are often asked “very naïve questions…by people who really don’t understand the difference between autobiography and fiction, who can’t recognize the device of the first-person narrator”. Yuck. Anaya’s Introduction made me think he has the same lack of faith in his readers that Munro does. Let me, the reader—your reader—decide for myself whether or not your book is good. My imagination is well sufficient.

So this is how I felt starting the book.

It wasn’t until chapter Tres when I started to relate to the narrator and forget about the arrogance I had interpreted at the onset. It was when the narrator said that he would be forced to speak only English when he started school, according to his sister, it dawned on me that this was a little boy speaking his story. I began to turn the pages with a little more ease.

It was one of our midterm topics—language, and here it comes up again in this novel…‘the classic novel’, per the cover. Language plays such a formidable role in sociocultural aspects of our lives. I began to understand that the narrator was a Spanish-speaking little boy in New Mexico, whose only language is Spanish, conveying his thoughts in English from the mind of an adult.

I also began to think of something I read about Down These Mean Streets while preparing for our impending wikipedia assignment. Schools used to insist that English be the only language spoken. Kids, who came from families which didn’t speak English at home, struggled. They were evaluated in comparison (or contrast) with the other students who did speak English at home and already had achieved some sort of fluidity with English. This caused the impression of stupidity and laziness in students, simply because English was not their first language. These stereotypes developed with them into adulthood. This caused tension for the students who struggled to express themselves in a foreign language…despite being so close to their home.

So from this, I started to get into the book a little more, and I have almost forgotten how I felt when I started.

I’m including a song this week that I often share with students I tutor…a Spanish version of The Beatles’ song ‘Amarillo Submarino Es’ by Los Mustang (I believe they were from Barcelona). Songs, poems, thoughts can be translated from one language to the next, often with little tweeks of change that don’t have a significant impact on the overall meaning or mood to capture something similar to the original language in which it was written or thought. I was reminded of this version of the song when I realised that the narrator was thinking in Spanish despite the words being in English; the melody remains the same and I understood him.

Community

Thus far, in our survey of various border literature, I am most fascinated by the concept of community. Depending who you ask, community can mean different things, whether it is their local neighbourhood, the cultural identity to which one relates or on a larger scale it can represent a larger county, province or country. The Cambridge dictionary defines community as: “the people living in one particular area or people who are considered as a unit because of their common interests, social group, or nationality”. Community has been addressed in each of the selections we have discussed in SPAN 322; however, for the sake of time restrictions, I will keep my discussion to two of the three selections: María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s The Squatter and The Don—A Novel Descriptive of Contemporary Occurences in California and Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets.

Foremost, is the reference to places in each of these selections’ titles: the first references California in the subtitle, while the second refers more generally to ‘streets’. And while geographic places, such as California or more generally ‘streets’ denote a specific area, as mentioned in the Cambridge definition of community, the subject matter of both books focus more on the community to which the characters belong.

Ruiz de Burton (RdB) takes on the subject of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which intended to define peace between the United States (US) and Mexico after the Mexican-American War. National borders were redefined by this legislation regardless of the traditional or familial ties to land ownership. Thus, in RdB’s novel, the reader encounters the Alamar family, who has for some time owned the vast expanse of land on which they live and farm. We then encounter the ‘squatters’, namely the Darrell family and others, who arrive on Alamar family land and assume portions of it for their own use. So within one geographic area, two communities are established: those with traditional ownership and affiliation with the land and those who are new arrivals. Of course, this causes conflict, especially when the division between the two communities is blended through marriage.

The notion of community in Thomas’ book, on the other hand, is on a much smaller scale. Piri, the main character, lives in Spanish Harlem, or what he calls El Barrio. This is where he feels he belongs. This is where he is among people with whom he shares a cultural identity, namely the Puerto Ricans. When Piri’s family is relocated to the Italian part of New York, Piri is considered an outsider; he is no longer in El Barrio. While this division of cultural identity occurs at the same time as a geographic change, Piri’s sense of community, that is, as a Puerto Rican, remains strong. Furthermore, Piri’s family moves again to a suburban New York neighbourhood which is predominently white. Piri’s identity as a Puerto Rican is further tested because of his darker complexion. The community does not see him as white, he is seen as black. Thus the sense of belonging within his community causes Piri to seek his own self-identity, driving the plot of the entire book.

The notion of community and what it means is not as simple as establishing clear-cut boundaries. Rather the sense of self identity provides one’s sense of belonging with in which ever community the feel affiliated. Whether based on traditional or legal boundaries, or cultural and racial affiliations, community is not a label that can be prescribed. The boundaries of communities, both visible and invisible provide each and everyone of us with a sense of belonging.

On a final note, and in the interest of continuity within my series of blogs, I’m including a link to one of my favourite pieces of music, “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin. This piece, not only takes me away to a place of sheer bliss when I need an escape, it also demonstrates the unity of two musical styles…or communities: classical and jazz. The conductor and pianist in this video is Leondard Bernstein, who composed West Side Story, the musical from which we jump started our journey through border literature. This piece is long (nearly 20 minutes), but trust me, it is worth it…treat yourself to the escape. And to that end, wouldn’t it be amazing if we lived in a community that fused together and celebrated all that is different in one harmonious rhapsody in blue?

Week 7—Down These Mean Streets (part ii)

I found myself wide awake at 2:30 this morning after 3 short hours of sleep. They don’t make infomercials like they used to, so I decided to read the final 40 or so pages of DTMS. I had been savouring them, not wanting the story to end.

There are so many things I find significant in this book. So many things that I’ve experienced in my life that parallel what Piri Thomas shares with his readers, yet the life he lived and the one I’ve lived thus far are completely different—or are they? From the Prologue to the final chapter, Thomas spills out his inner most thoughts: his yearning to belong in society; his quest for his identity, a relationship with Poppa; the loss of everything he knew due to a bad decision—the loss of 7 years of his life, the loss of Moms, Brew, Trina and probably countless others who didn’t make the pages of this book.

All of my anticipation of reaching the end of the book came to a head at the bottom of page 314, after he has been released from Comstock State Prison and is back in jail waiting to face his further charges. Thomas recalls, “I studied my new home. It was three parts concrete, one part steel bars—yellow bars, or were they buff? I chuckled. Green, yellow, buff—they were still bars underneath. I looked up and around and I saw that I wasn’t alone.” The notions of home, colours and layers of facades plays such an integral part in his story, in his life…in our lives. Home is such an important idea that he sections portions of the book off according to the geographic area he hung his hat at the time things were happening. Whether he was at home with his familia, couch surfing with strangers or incarcerated, home was where he slept. In fact he titled the book after the streets where he felt at home, and called them mean. I find this really interesting having lived on the streets myself. Sure, they were mean—the people who had homes were mean, but the homeless community of which I was a part was anything but mean. We looked out for each other, just as Thomas’ pals did for him.

Colour was a catalyst for so much of Thomas’ mental anguish. Within his family, it was never an issue. As a young child, living in El Barrio, it was never an issue. It was more important that one had heart, never mind the colour of their skin. And while it never dawned on him that he wasn’t white, Moms always called him ‘negrito’. Granted, I’ve been told by many of my Spanish profs that this is a term of endearment, but still. And in the end, skin colour is just an external layer, much like the layers on the steel bars of his jail cell. Whether they were buff or yellow—is that really the point?

I am sorry to end this book. I want to find out how Thomas went from this to the next phases of his life. I will have to search for his subsequent books and writings.

For my song this week, I’ve chosen one of the most poignant songs of my youth—“Gangster’s Paradise” by Coolio. It was released about a year after I had been on the streets of Toronto, ‘shelter hoping’. The racial diversity was omnipresent in the shelters and I found my closest allies/ friends were Jamaican. Anyway, this song played on their ghetto blasters nonstop at the time. It became almost an anthem for me. The song’s opening words about sum it up for me: “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death | I take a look at my life and realize there’s not much left”. Just like Piri Thomas, I reflect back on the stuff I’ve seen, the stuff I’ve done…stuff I’m proud of and stuff I’m not so proud of. I am where I am today because of it all. I’ve still got lessons to learn in life. Books like DTMS help me dig deeper at those events, providing me with new lessons and ways to look at things in preparation for the tomorrows.

Week 6—Down These Mean Streets (part i)

I’ve been waiting to start studying this book since the start of term, anticipating even more our class discussions. When I preread this book (okay, I made it half way through), I couldn’t put it down. I guess partly because it is a memoir of Piri Thomas’ life; a collection of his life experiences and happenings that made him the person he became. There is such a personal element in this story. I mean, let’s face it, very few heterosexual men will describe their first sexual experiences with another man, even fewer will even admit to it.

One of the main themes of his memoir is one that fascinates me the most in literature—liminality. Here we have a man, Piri Thomas, who is raised in a Puerto Rican home, with Puerto Rican parents and siblings. Moms is a ‘white’ Puerto Rican and Poppa is a ‘black’ Puerto Rican. Piri shares the same complexion with his father. And from the beginning of the book, Thomas remarks on the harsh, if not abusive, treatment he receives from his father. Right off the bat, Thomas tells the reader that “Poppa ain’t never gunna hit me again. I’m his kid too, just like James, José, Paulie, and Sis. But I’m the one that always gets the blame for everything.” For some reason, there is an unseen tension between Piri and Poppa; a rift between them despite them sharing a similar complexion. In fact, the first section, titled “Harlem” begins with Thomas saying “Pops, how come me and you is always on the outs? Is it something we don’t know nothing about? I wonder if it’s something I done, or something I am.” Even though Piri and Poppa are the two members of the family who share a darker complexion, it is as if Poppa resents Piri and takes it out on him. Perhaps it is to toughen Piri up to prepare him for a life of prejudgment and racism, which we read about in a few chapters.

It comes to light more prominently later on that Piri doesn’t see himself as Black; rather, he sees himself as Puerto Rican. In Chapter 11, titled “How to Be a Negro Without Really Trying”, Thomas describes his job interview, and how he is passed over for being ‘black’. When he tells Harold Christian that he is Puerto Rican, Piri is probed about his name and the degree of Puerto Ricanness it is. Harold Christian doesn’t care though…all he sees is some black dude in front of him.

Piri sees himself as neither black nor white and that isn’t sufficient for the outside world. He doesn’t see colour or race, clinging only to his inherent nationality. Society, however, sees him as black and treats him as black. His teachers, neighbours and potential employer see only the colour of his skin, missing the person he really is. It is as if the label Puerto Rican is both on the limits of whiteness and the limits of blackness separately at the same time.

Piri also tests his limits when he and his pals go to the home of the local ‘maricones’ to smoke up and get some cheap thrills. His friends don’t seem to mind ‘gettin’ down’ with men because they are effeminate and sound like women, with feminine gestures. Does this make them gay? Does it not count as a gay experience because their demeanour isn’t masculine? Piri, however, can’t get past this and has an internal argument with himself throughout the first part of their visit. Although once he’s stoned, Concha starts putting the moves on him (hashtag metoo movement). While Piri knows he is straight (sexually speaking), he isn’t straight enough, in terms of sobriety, to stop Concha from taking advantage of him.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the book so far. I will keep it to that because I am sure I am already over my word limit. I am adding a song by my girlfriend, Cher, called “Half Breed”. Although she sings about being the product of a ‘mixed’ encounter (which she was, just not this the mix she sings aboot), a similar sentiment is shared with Piri Thomas’ feelings of being in between two races.