December Links Roundup: Femme Faces of Spirituality

December is the season of Advent in the Christian liturgical calendar, a four-week season of spiritual preparation for Christmas, as well as anticipation of the Second Coming and Last Judgment. (You won’t hear any songs about that in the mall–at least not in the liberal Northeast.) In Protestant churches, the lead-up to Christmas is also the only time of year when an important holy woman, the Virgin Mary, is depicted in our religious scenes or named in our songs. Even then, as I discovered while researching my small-group curriculum on sacred music, there are no hymns with Mary as the main character in the “Christmas” section of the Episcopal Church’s 1982 Hymnal.

At her blog Love Joy Feminism, evangelical-turned-atheist Libby Anne marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses by considering “What Women Lost in the Protestant Reformation”. Libby Anne passed through Catholicism on her journey out of Christianity. Although Catholic doctrine on women and gender is still problematic by modern liberal standards, the historic Church offered more religious role models and life paths for women than did its Protestant competitors:

During the middle ages, numerous female mystics and theologians made an impactin religious faith and practice. Julian of Norwich, an anchoress, is an excellent example, but she is not alone. Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess, wrote theology. Bridget of Sweden wrote an extremely successful book on her revelations and founded a religious order. Mechthild of Magdeburg, Gertrud the Great, and many others wrote books and outlined visions. Catherine of Genoa changed the Catholic conception of purgatory.

With the coming of the Protestant Reformation, religious vocations that had offered women the opportunity to study, contemplate, and write disappeared, replaced by the expectation that all women marry and spend their time in childbearing. The Protestant Reformation circumscribed women’s options, leaving them with just one—submission to an individual man who would be their lord and master.

No longer could a woman become an abbess, gaining some authority over others in her sphere. No longer could a woman eschew marriage and choose instead devotion to religion and learning. Certainly, convents were not perfect. In some cases wealthy women were sent away to take religious orders if her parents did not have enough for a dowry, whether that was their choice or not. The availability of options did not mean that choices were not circumscribed. They were. But with the elimination of options, their choices became only more circumscribed…

…The Protestant Reformation changed the very nature of women’s space. It changed the terrain on which women negotiated their role in society. No longer could a woman go to the pope and petition to create her own religious order. No longer could a woman opt to spend her life in contemplation and study rather than domestic labor. No longer could a woman live in a space dominated by other women, rather than in a domestic household in obedience to a father or husband. To be sure, the options women had were never perfect—but they were options…

…There is something else women lost to the Protestant Reformation, too—the Virgin Mary. Under the Reformation, religion became much more masculine. Gone was Mary, the Mother of God, and gone were the female saints, whom women had related to, asked favors of, and drawn strength from for centuries. Compare the stained glass windows and images in a Catholic church with those in an old-style Protestant church and you’ll see what I mean. We talk about representation. Mary wasn’t perfect, but she provided that.

For me, the Virgin Mary, like the Cross, is a potent double-edged symbol. It’s all a matter of emphasis. One can critique the sex-shaming involved in equating virginity with moral purity, and the restriction of women to the domestic sphere. However, this is not a flaw in Mary, as much as a side effect of patriarchal tokenism, which puts too much pressure on a limited number of female role models to be all things to all people. Looking at Mary in a positive light, she can represent women’s creative power, independent from men and heterosexual reproduction. Like Jesus, this teenage unwed mother voluntarity took on social stigma to follow her own perception of God’s call.

I relate fondly to Mary as a fellow human being, a nurturing figure in my spiritual pantheon. A mother goddess, on the other hand, triggers me severely, with its implication of a perpetual power imbalance and infantilization of her devotees. At the social justice blog The Establishment, this 2016 article by Amelia Quint explores “How Wiccan ‘Mother Goddess’ Worship Disempowers Women”. Quint, a former Catholic, shares that her decision to remain childless made her feel excluded from the traditional Wiccan archetype of Maiden-Mother-Crone.

The prominence of the Mother Goddess archetype in Wicca is not to be understated; in fact, she seems at times to be an intentional foil to the Father God of Christianity…Though many maintained that this motherhood could be symbolic, of creative works or businesses or your own life, I still couldn’t understand why the spiritual equivalent of the prime of my life had to be expressed by an experience I’d opted out of…

…The growing popularity of spiritual accoutrements and consciousness on social media invites the question: Is emphasizing motherhood really reclaiming the agency we’ve fought so hard for? Feminists have fought for the right to flourish outside the home, yet feminist spirituality in many ways returns them to that sphere. The mystique of alternative spirituality is alluring, but as more women embrace Goddess-centered forms of worship, it’s tough to reconcile the fact that many of these practices emphasize the divinity of masculine and feminine archetypes, keeping traditional gender roles intact.

Quint cites some modern practitioners who are working on making the tradition more inclusive, such as Lasara Firefox Allen’s Jailbreaking the Goddess, which imagines a fivefold Goddess archetype based on talents and life stages other than procreation. Quint also consults philosopher and spiritual counselor Briana Saussy, who posits that the common thread of maternal divine figures in world religions is that they help themselves and others heal from great loss:

Isis had to knit her beloved Osiris back together. Demeter had to search the Underworld for her daughter, Persephone, who had been kidnapped and raped. Mary watched Jesus suffer a violent death.

For Saussy, it isn’t the motherhood that takes center stage; it’s the survival of trauma. Unlike generativity or nurturing, losing something we hold dear is an experience that transcends every social construct. A less literal interpretation might have the “mother” be that which puts us back together again. Saussy agrees: “What these various goddesses really tell us is how to move through those losses and see them for what they are.”

Faith-centered trauma healing is the mission of Rebecca Davis’ website Here’s the Joy, a Christian blog that supports survivors of abuse in churches and critiques abuse-enabling theology. For instance, she advises believers to “suffer intelligently”, that is, to beware of martyrdom theology that romanticizes submission to mistreatment:

There is still suffering in the loss of a relationship and recovery from a betrayal, suffering that will remind us to turn our eyes to Jesus Christ for our hope and healing. But this is not the willful suffering of putting oneself under cruelty on purpose, thinking that it will somehow refine you.

There is only one Refiner. It is Jesus Christ. There is only one way to be refined. It is by faith in Him.

Sometimes suffering is completely unavoidable. Sometimes suffering is a path we must go through in order to attain a vital goal. But instead of assuming that all suffering is desirable, we can ask the Holy Spirit to help us discern. Is this suffering completely unavoidable? Is this suffering to be endured for a vital goal?

Or is this a suffering that we can and should escape?

Davis writes that she began to focus her blog on these issues after seeing her church’s failure to help a friend in a domestic abuse situation. I see the femme face of divinity, nurturing and fiercely protective, at work in projects like these.

 

 

Putting Survivors First: No Man Is Indispensable

It’s challenging for us progressives when one of our politicians or cultural leaders is credibly accused of sexual misconduct. In recent days, the #MeToo speak-out against workplace sexual harassment and assault has swept up Democratic Senator Al Franken, venerable PBS talk show host Charlie Rose, and actor Jeffrey Tambor, currently starring in the Amazon Studios hit show “Transparent” as a trans woman undergoing a late-in-life gender transition. We’re tempted to give these men a pass because resistance to the Trump regime seems paramount.

One of my radical Left friends is afraid we’re playing into the hands of pro-Trump Russian operatives who would love to see a purge of liberal media figures and LGBTQ-supportive programming. Many others are anxious about ending the political career of a potential 2020 presidential candidate. Minnesota’s governor would appoint another Democrat to the Senate seat, but he or she probably wouldn’t have Franken’s nationwide popularity and name recognition.

But you know what? Nobody is indispensable. For every male mogul we “can’t afford” to remove, there are probably dozens of equally qualified women in his field who never made it to a key leadership position because of pervasive sexism and harassment. Why can’t we give some of them a chance to fill that guy’s shoes?

Not to dismiss my fellow progressives’ fear and disappointment, but I’m tired of women and survivors being told to take one for the team. You do what you want, but I’m going to make my own liberation a priority.

Progressives’ damage control calculation is uncomfortably reminiscent of incest family dynamics. We can’t send Daddy to jail, he’s the breadwinner. Father So-and-So has done so much good in this parish. Do you want the church to close? There are always persuasive reasons to silence survivors–and that’s no accident. Abusive men are able to maneuver themselves into positions where many people admire and depend on them, by systematically using sexual boundary violations to squeeze out female competitors on their path to the top. Instead of asking whether it’s fair to ruin a man’s career over one inappropriate remark or grope, understand that we’ll never know how many women’s careers were aborted by the behavior of men like him.

(A note on gender terms in this post: On an individual level, not all perpetrators are men, and not all victims are or are perceived to be women. However, on a structural level, the culture of workplace harassment is primarily maintained by powerful men and predominantly affects women and femmes, so this post is more binary than my usual writing. Your friendly neighborhood enby says, please don’t derail.)

My #MeToo Moment

Survivors of sexual assault and harassment have shared their stories with the #MeToo hashtag millions of times since October, when an exposé of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s serial harassment of female employees and performers was quickly followed by similar disclosures about actor Kevin Spacey, comedian Louis C.K., and numerous others. #MeToo was coined 10 years ago by activist Tarana Burke, the program director of Girls for Gender Equity, a Brooklyn-based organization that empowers young women of color.

Closer to home, in late October my high school alma mater sent out a mass email to current and former students, parents, and faculty, saying that the school was investigating alleged inappropriate sexual contact between “former employees” and students in the 1990s and earlier. (I attended from 1982-89.) This probe was reportedly sparked by an alumna’s #MeToo post. What followed was an amazing, heartfelt outpouring of personal stories on our alumni Facebook page–so many of us finally breaking through the walls erected by our school’s competitive culture and by the general pressure on urban teenagers to seem sophisticated and invulnerable.

Our school was an amazing place to be a talented maverick, and gave me a better education than Harvard. But if you want to understand its shadow side, read Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I remember being assigned to read it in 9th grade and not understanding it at all. As David Foster Wallace said, the fish asks, “What is water?”

I reread it out of curiosity last year after I heard that it had queer subtext. Now the title character’s narcissism is blindingly obvious (though I still find Sandy’s religious vocation unconvincing). But as a teen, I must have thought it was normal for teachers to play favorites, track their students into single-issue identities as “the singer” or “the poet” or “the math genius”, and tacitly encourage us to outdo one another in specialness instead of finding solidarity with our peers.

At times I benefited from this system, with life-changing mentors in poetry and theology. At other times I felt crushed by the inability to break into the inner circle of the performing arts departments. Either way I grew up with an unhealthy sense that my fate, and my talents or lack thereof, were mostly unchangeable.

I was bullied a lot, but never sexually harassed or assaulted at school, unless you count the time that the other smartest kid in 7th-grade Latin class looked up all the swear words in our dictionary so he could call me a whore (meretrix). However, the sexually charged atmostphere felt unsafe to me, and I resisted growing up too fast, even though this made me terribly lonely (and led to some awful fashion choices–Laura Ashley fabric should be only for sofas). My mother supported this choice for the self-serving reason that she wanted me to stay childlike and enmeshed. So I’ve spent all these decades feeling ashamed and angry that my peers had a real adolescence while I hadn’t dared.

Our #MeToo Facebook thread dramatically revealed that I wasn’t so different after all. Many of those “cool kids” felt equally out of their depth, and pressured to be too sexual too soon. Poor boundaries between adults and students played a big role here. Many alums on the thread agreed that our teachers and administrators often forgot we were psychologically still kids, despite our intellectual precociousness.

The then-headmaster and school founder, a notorious womanizer, set the tone. He made a pass at my mother during the admissions process: “Your daughter is so smart, you and I should make genius babies together.” Luckily she thought he was gross, and the world was spared the supervillain offspring of two narcissists. Another story: For a profile in the local paper, he told them he was a “libertarian”, but they misquoted it as “libertine”, which he shrugged off by saying they were both correct. Yet this is the same person who first told me I was “A Poet!”, introduced me to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, and reassured me that someday I would be “bien dans ma peau” (fit well in my skin). As Rene Denfeld wrote in The Child Finder, her gorgeous recent thriller about intergenerational trauma, the good in a person doesn’t hide the bad like a costume–the good and bad are inseparable, somehow both true.

It’s been a very emotional experience for me, with these belated waves of compassion and affection for my former classmates (well, maybe not the Latin guy), the grief that we didn’t know how to let our guard down sooner, and the refreshing validation that I wasn’t just a prude–I was right that there was something predatory and boundary-blurring about the environment where our sexual self-discovery was supposed to unfold.

I’ve already made one new/old friend from this group conversation, and hope we will keep up our momentum to share what we’ve learned with the current generation of students. Telling survivor stories changes lives.

November Links Roundup: Body Positive

Twitter served up this adorable story today about two male lions in Kenya who were observed in an affectionate mating scene. The Daily Mail couldn’t resist captioning the pics “Gay pride” and “Can you feel the love tonight”. If I didn’t already have a lion tattoo, I would consider inking one of these images. The article notes:

While male lions engaging in sexual activity is a rare occurrence, it is far from unknown.

In fact, studies published in the 20th century indicated that about eight per cent of ‘mountings’ observed by scientists had been male lions with other males.

Male lions have been observed courting other lions, including showing affection and caressing, as well as mounting. Lionesses are also known to couple up, however this has mainly been observed in captivity.

Lions are by no means the only animal species where homosexual relations exits. Biologists have recorded same-sex sexual activity in more than 450 species including flamingos, bison, beetles and warthogs.

A 2010 study of Alaskan Albatrosses found that a third of the pairs actually consisted of two females.

Possible reasons for homosexuality in animals include teaming up to protect young and occupying the attention of surplus males. Non-reproductive bonding behavior can still advance an animal’s genetic interests by improving the survival of its social group. Now I want someone to write a children’s picture book about gay lion uncles.

Author and singer-songwriter Vivek Shraya recently released a video of the title song from her new album, “Part-Time Woman”. The video features Shraya and nonbinary activist Alok Vaid-Menon singing about femininity as something that you know inside, not something you must perform to prove your identity to other people. It’s a powerful message delivered in a tender, intimate style.

Holy Foreskin, Batman! Issue 17.5 of DIAGRAM, a well-regarded online journal of experimental and hybrid literature, published this provocative prose-poem by Caroline Crew. (Content note: “Reliquary” is illustrated with a disturbingly graphic medieval painting of baby Jesus’ circumcision. He is definitely giving the mohel the side-eye.) Crew plays with concepts of authenticity, incorruptibility, and holiness. She questions the value that the Church ascribes to changelessness, even as the Church itself has changed its doctrines over the centuries.

f you must imagine the Holy Foreskin still survives, look upward. Prefiguring the Church’s lockdown on this most intimate of relics, 17th century theologian Leo Allatius declared all Holy Prepuces fakes—the true foreskin of Christ had quit this mortal coil, and transcended to space. The rings of Saturn, that was the true location of what remains of Christ’s cock. A body so stopped in time it’s frozen in lightyears. Starlit forever.

A relic of the past. When referring to a person, perhaps whose views are archaic or abhorrent as a “relic,” we attempt to place that person in a history that refuses any connect to the present. We want to stop time, isolate its horrors.

But history is a body, not an object. It moves, and rots and corrupts, and moves on.

Recent relics, according to the headlines: manufacturing, soap operas, marital rape, herbal medicine, mail delivery, national identity, moral relativism, a home cooked meal, slavery, ethernet cables, ambassadors, religion. It is easier to believe in relics than it is to believe in a body. Bodies change. Bodies corrupt.

Let me rot, so I may change.

 

October Links Roundup: That’s What I Like

There is no theme this month.

The single best medical decision I ever made was to get the Mirena chemical IUD this year–or as I call it, “Van Helsing”, because it stopped the bleeding! I was somewhat pushed into it because my insurance company forced me off the brand-name Pill that kept my endometriosis under control, and the generic version was making my blood pressure go up (or perhaps that was the frustration of losing control over my reproductive health??).

But I didn’t actually hear about the IUD option from my OB-GYNs. It was never suggested to me, during the 30+ years I’ve been chronically disabled from menstrual pain. No, I had to read about it in the comments on an article about fertility magic at Little Red Tarot. Some goddess must have been looking out for me, because my periods have stopped, and for the first time since I was 10 years old I can make plans like a normal person. I don’t have to deal with losing a week of my life every month to pain and insomnia, or the shame of having to make false excuses for my unavailability because menstruation is a taboo subject for many people. As with all hormonal medications, your mileage may vary, but it dramatically changed my life for the better.

Lack of information is just one of the obstacles to good reproductive care. In her essay “You’ll Feel a Pinch” at the online literary journal Catapult, Megan Stielstra writes about her decision to have her IUD replaced early, in case the Trump administration makes birth control even more expensive and hard to get. She had to go through a lengthy and humiliating process to get this authorized. I blame the Religious Right; they’ve capitalized on people’s reasonable moral qualms about abortion to gain veto power over all health care relating to sexuality and reproduction.

Turning from real-life monsters to probably-imaginary ones, comics artist Greg Ruth explains why “Horror Is Good for You (and Even Better for Your Kids)” on the website of sci-fi and horror publisher Tor.com. (Hat tip to Love, Joy, Feminism for the link.) Childhood is scary, so stories that acknowledge the strangeness and dangers of the world are validating and can teach resilience. Horror archetypes teach us truths about intimacy, isolation, difference, and the struggle to find your place in a community. Moreover, the constraints of writing for younger readers can produce more subtle and effective fiction, because the writer can’t go for the lazy shock value of sexual violence and gore. No wonder I became a horror fan in junior high… around the same time I started to bleed every month… coincidence?

Also at Tor.com, the Lovecraft Reread series by Ruthanna Emrys and Anne M. Pillsworth offers insightful and witty critiques of work in the HPL tradition. After covering H.P. Lovecraft’s original tales, they have gone on to reread stories by weird fiction contemporaries like M.R. James and E.F. Benson, and contemporary practitioners such as Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Bear, and Brian Lumley. You may even find horror greats like Ramsey Campbell dropping in to the comments section, which is remarkably respectful and well-informed.

The high-modernist poet T.S. Eliot was my other big literary obsession during those teen years. Revisiting Lovecraft this year, I noticed some psychological similarities. Both writers contemplated man’s humble place in the cosmos, liked to name-drop erudite references in multiple languages, had a fastidious and even phobic attitude about sexuality, and resorted to racist caricature in their defense of Anglo-American civilization. I wondered if they were aware of each other, since their iconic works were written in the 1920s-30s. Wonder no more: in comment #9 to the Lovecraft Reread of HPL’s “At the Mountains of Madness”, user “trajan23” treats us to HPL’s TSE parody, “Waste Paper”, which begins thus:

Waste Paper
A Poem of Profound Insignificance
By H. P. Lovecraft

Πἀντα γἐλως καἱ πἀντα κὀνις καἱ πἀντα τὁ μηδἐν

Out of the reaches of illimitable light
The blazing planet grew, and forc’d to life
Unending cycles of progressive strife
And strange mutations of undying light
And boresome books, than hell’s own self more trite
And thoughts repeated and become a blight,
And cheap rum-hounds with moonshine hootch made tight,
And quite contrite to see the flight of fright so bright
I used to ride my bicycle in the night
With a dandy acetylene lantern that cost $3.00
In the evening, by the moonlight, you can hear those darkies singing
Meet me tonight in dreamland . . . BAH
I used to sit on the stairs of the house where I was born
After we left it but before it was sold
And play on a zobo with two other boys.
We called ourselves the Blackstone Military Band
Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey, won’t you come home?
In the spring of the year, in the silver rain
When petal by petal the blossoms fall
And the mocking birds call
And the whippoorwill sings, Marguerite.
The first cinema show in our town opened in 1906
At the old Olympic, which was then call’d Park,
And moving beams shot weirdly thro’ the dark
And spit tobacco seldom hit the mark.

Never fear, you too may find a place in the literary canon of white men, with help from the Lovecraft Engine, a random phrase generator that remixes HPL’s favorite over-the-top descriptors. My first go-round gave me “That iridescent, fabulous menace,” which is exactly what I aspire to be.

Speaking of fabulous, our queer link of the month is Brandon Taylor’s LitHub essay “Who Cares What Straight People Think?” Taylor writes about what is gained and lost when books with queer characters go mainstream, no longer segregated in specialty bookstores or back rooms. One could argue that when straight writers and readers consume narratives of queer suffering, it perpetuates a narrow stereotype of LGBTQ lives as tragic and Other. Perhaps it’s more progressive to write mainstream fiction about characters who just happen to be LGBTQ. However, Taylor concludes that it’s a mistake to use outsiders as our reference point for self-censorship. Gay-bashing, AIDS, child abuse, and other traditional tropes of queer fiction are still unfortunate realities that we must be free to write about:

It is tempting to imagine that this is the way things ought to be, tasteful meditations on the human condition with queer people at their center, that the supposition of a queer default means an abandonment of trauma narratives and queer suffering. That everything will be alright when we’re finally writing of ourselves in our everyday lives, everything smooth and bourgeois and immaculately styled.

But that would be a grave miscalculation, a failure to understand the fundamental nature of the problem at hand. Queer people live their everyday lives under the threat of violence and political persecution. Queer teens would rather die than continue living in a world that is actively hostile to them. Our narratives must remain alive and vital to that pain, to the very real suffering we endure. To assume a central queer gaze is not to pass judgement on narratives of queer suffering at all, but to allow queer people to continue to tell their stories, to write into their own narrative spaces without the need for a heteronormative overculture. After all, it is the heteronormative gaze that renders these narratives problematic. It is their place of prominence in the overculture that presents the problem, not the narratives themselves.

It is not enough to merely write queers in comfortable bourgeois captivity. You have not conquered some artistic challenge. You are not artistically pure for turning away from queer suffering. Our comfort and our agony are of a piece. They reflect one another across the length of our experience. The answer to Michelle Hart’s question about the state of gay literary fiction is this: we must move toward a queer aesthetic, which permits the true simultaneity of queer experience. We must stop waiting for permission. We must stop looking to the overculture for legitimacy. Within a queer aesthetic, we weep and we laugh and we withdraw and we advance. Queer suffering and queer joy dominate the ordinary instant. We are everything at once.

 

 

The Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast and the Death of White Jesus: Final (?) Thoughts from NecronomiCon 2017

My visit to NecronomiCon 2017, the convention of H.P. Lovecraft horror fans and scholars in Providence RI, concluded with the Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast on Sunday morning. Darrell Schweitzer’s Amorphous Tabernacle Choir treated us to Mythos-inspired hymn parodies. Scott R. Jones spoke about the cosmicist philosophy of his book When the Stars Are Right: Towards an Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality, or as he likes to call it, “Keeping it Real-yeh.”  Horror writers Cody Goodfellow and Anthony Teth presided as priests of Yog-Sothoth and Shub-Niggurath, with mitres that the Episcopal Church could only envy. Goodfellow (left) even looks suspiciously like former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Hmm… haven’t seen him lately…

The genius of this Monty Python approach to religion is that you get all the fun parts of high-church Christianity–gory pictures, occult medallions, over-the-top vestments—without the doublespeak that death is life, torture is salvation, and the universe is a safe place. It reminded me of the Church of Satan, a humanist organization that doesn’t so much literally believe in evil supernatural entities, as reclaim those symbols to expose the weak spots in traditional religion. (Because humanism is just more fun with fancy dress.)

The Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast was finely balanced on the line between farce and sincere religious-philosophical questioning. The refusal to collapse one mode into the other seemed like a healthy shadow-integration, the Zen paradox that we approach the deepest wisdom through discovering our foolishness.

I wasn’t expecting a genuine religious experience at this conference, but I got one. At a couple of points during the weekend, I had this brief and unprecedented feeling of freedom from my constant strivings to cheat death and achieve significance. The Mythos looks mortality and infinity directly in the face and accepts them, even semi-ironically celebrates them, which I found such a relief from the relentless religious-cultural-psychological project of propping up the ego and distracting ourselves from the abyss.

The Prayer Breakfast sermons were solidly humanist rather than nihilist. That is, they used our humble and mysterious position in the web of life as a reason to reject all forms of xenophobia, arrogance, and fanaticism. I especially loved Teth’s “Sermon Against Purity”, reprinted on his website. Some highlights:

The concept of Purity is anathema to life itself, since any rudimentary study of biology can clearly show the interdependence of organisms to the life cycles of the invisible squirming masses of microbes, germs, and bacteria that cling to epidermis and esophageal tract, stomach lining and salivation ducts.

Enjoy your breakfast, by the way.

Those creatures made sterile or bereft of these helpful swarms in lab experiments grow weak and die, barely able to digest or process what would normally be considered “basic foods.”

Yet the concept of Purity is also anathema to death. Those aforementioned masses responsible for the continuance of a creature’s life will almost immediately begin devouring their host the moment life processes cease, while dozens of various mammals, reptiles, molds and fungal growths eventually have their fill and leave the rest to worms, mites, plants and trees. Even if we go back to the philosophical root of death itself, entropy, we find not this supposed purity, but an exceedingly complex system of devourment and proliferation, with cooperation and competition creating a teaming miasmal stew of wonder and possibility…

…And one of the most ridiculous of these, shall we say, Puritanical concepts, is where folks profess this enigmatic and frankly preposterous Purity within, of all bloody things, human genes. Yes, humans, those oddly bipedal, domestic primates who for thousands of years have been humping their neighbors, humping their friends, humping their neighbors’ friends and friends’ neighbors, until eventually deciding to migrate elsewhere and continue the rampant rutting cycle with whomever happens to be nearby and (theoretically) willing. Humans who have been mongrels since the beginning, and shall be so at the end.

Yet some take this even further, claiming even greater purity and superiority over these shambling masses of great apes, while carrying Polynesian garden torches of all things, and flashing a salute fit for Caesar…

…Yes, humans who claim superiority over all other terrestrial life on this adorably blue, spinning sphere due to a combination of brain size and thumb dexterity, but still have a helluva time figuring out that most basic of tenets: Don’t shit where you eat.

At the bookfair, I picked up a pamphlet of Robert M. Price’s sermons from the 1995-2006 Prayer Breakfasts, which I’m about halfway through. Price is an actual former Baptist pastor and theologian who went on a trajectory through liberal Christianity to atheist humanism. Some of his non-Cthulhu-related sermons are available on his website. He’s also a well-known literary critic and editor of Mythos fiction. “Founder and Editor, The Journal of Higher Criticism; Founder and Editor, Crypt of Cthulhu; Fellow, The Jesus Seminar“. You don’t see a resume like that every day!

Price’s Cthulhu sermons don’t have the positive political vision or moral center of the ones I heard this summer. He emphasizes the Nietzschean joy of facing the abyss. Spiritually, all we have is a choice of fictions. The ultimate forbidden knowledge is that there is no knowledge. Setting this alongside Lovecraft’s white supremacist views and the majority-whiteness of the conference attendees, I started to wonder whether there’s something white about this brand of intellect-driven disillusionment. It takes a certain amount of privilege and safety to feel that you can dispense with religion’s prophetic, justice-seeking function.

Simultaneously with Price’s sermons, I was reading James Cone’s 1969 classic Black Theology and Black Power to prepare notes for a church discussion group. In his chapter on black Christianity in America, Cone says the black church’s central theological problem was why God had allowed slavery to exist when it was so clearly a violation of God’s moral law. The courage and risk involved in affirming God’s existence notwithstanding, as a black person with this history, makes white death-of-God theology “seem like child’s play.”

It’s understandable to repudiate faith because you’re morally outraged by oppression, says Cone. “But if it arises out of one’s identity with an advancing technological secular society which ignores the reality of God and the humanity of man, then it appears to be the height of human pride.” (Here’s looking at you, Jesus Seminar.) According to Cone, only the oppressed, or those who are sacrificially in solidarity with them, really have the right to decide whether God is dead or irrelevant. “If theology fails to re-evaluate its task in the light of Black Power, the emphasis on the death of God will not add the needed dimension. This will mean that the white church and white theology are dead, not God.”

Perhaps our modern god has been an idol of (liberal) intellectual or (conservative) moral certainty, not a real presence we depend on in our helplessness and unknowing, so when those certainties die, God appears dead. Whether you replace that with the Jesus of liberation theology, or a sense of oneness with all life, I think there has to be something we align ourselves with, above the oppressive systems of the moment, so we can name falsehood and evil for what it is, and find strength to resist. Even Lovecraft’s anti-theistic stories are full of moral judgments and outraged adjectives–unspeakable, decadent, accursed, loathsome, and the like. The universe may not be on our side, but we ought to be.

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Eldritch Gifts: More Notes from NecronomiCon 2017

Iä, everyone! I continue my report from NecronomiCon Providence, the recently concluded convention devoted to all things H.P. Lovecraft. Here are some highlights from the panel discussions and author readings. (I did not attend the off-site movie screenings because I am (A) chicken and (B) have no sense of direction even with a map.) Generalized trigger warnings apply for all links below: death, creepiness, blasphemy, sexual situations, etc.

Author discoveries:

Guest of honor Kij Johnson‘s fiction blends poetic surrealism, horror, and feminist critique. She read “Mantis Wives”, a strangely poignant–even romantic–story about the female insects’ well-known habit of decapitating their mates, and an excerpt from her novella The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, which was vivid and tense but went somewhat over my head because I haven’t read Lovecraft’s “Dreamlands” stories. Johnson also referenced her Nebula Award winning story “Ponies”, available on the Tor.com website. It is a masterpiece about the cruelty dealt to, and inflicted by, little girls. I know it’s a great story because I keep trying and failing to think of alternate choices that would avert the protagonists’ bleak fate.

James A. Moore read a suspenseful excerpt from his novel Deeper, a horror/adventure novel about what happens when Lovecraft’s sinister New England town of “Innsmouth” is rebranded as a tourist destination named Golden Cove, and a marine research team discovers that the monstrous Deep Ones still live in its waters.

Matt Bechtel read from his debut collection Monochromes. His punchy reading style went perfectly with the rapid-fire humor of these flash fiction pieces, with their unexpected turns toward melancholy or terror. Some followed the logic of high-concept poetry: for instance, what happens when “Someday” finally comes?

Nnedi Okorafor prefaced her reading by pointing out that humans, usually white and Western, are the default characters in alien first-contact stories, and it’s really time to shake things up. She read the fantastic beginning of her novel Lagoon, where first contact is made instead with marine animals in the ocean outside Lagos, Nigeria. Okorafor’s multiple-award-winning novels include the Binti and Akata Witch series.

Craig Laurance Gidney read the beginning of a very scary ballet story from his limited-run novella The Nectar of Nightmares, and I may never find out how it ends because it’s out of print. Damn it, Craig. I’ll check out his Lambda Literary finalist collection Skin Deep Magic instead.

Gwendolyn Kiste read the title story from And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, a fine example of movie-buff noir about a murdered actress haunting an obsessed fan.

Panel discussions:

“Writing Non-Stale Mythos Tales” (Vincent O’Neil, Alex Houston, Kij Johnson, Tom Lynch, Peter Rawlik):

Cthulhu has been so normalized by pop culture, how can we create a frightening Mythos tale today? Think about what makes any story a fresh example of an established tradition, e.g. fairy tale retellings. You could write about what is left out: center the perspectives of supporting characters, as in “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead”, or the original author’s blind spots–obviously race and sex were big ones for HPL. New books looking critically at Lovecraftian racism in a Mythos contest include Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (which I loved!) and the anthology Heroes of Red Hook (Golden Goblin Press), all stories from the POV of minority-group characters in the Jazz Age setting of HPL’s singularly racist story “The Horror at Red Hook”. Unusual genre mashups bring out distinctive features of both: P.H. Cannon’s Scream for Jeeves parodies Lovecraft by bringing his cosmic horrors into the world of his contemporary P.G. Wodehouse’s frothy upper-class comedies. (I must read this!)

A key element of a Lovecraftian story is the movement from faith to gnosis. Characters discover that the universe is not at all what they thought it was. In a sense, this is always a fresh theme, because we can all be terrified by the loss of what we believed in, or getting what we want and regretting it. Our own personal mortality comes as a surprise emotionally, whatever we might know intellectually.

The panelists were in agreement that tentacles do not a Mythos story make. Neither does pedantic flowery language. Most writers don’t have the vocabulary and grammatical discipline to imitate HPL’s style. We’re in a post-Mythos world where we can’t be surprised by the same discoveries that HPL’s characters made. No modern person would meet Cthulhu in real life and not already know about the books. Perhaps all fiction is meta-fiction now! Everyone is aware of living in a particular genre and literary tradition. (My favorite example of this is the scene from the movie “Stranger Than Fiction” where Dustin Hoffman asks Will Ferrell 23 questions to determine what genre of novel he’s living in, so he can stop the author from killing his character. “Do you find yourself inclined to solve murder mysteries in large luxurious homes? Has anyone left a large wooden horse outside your door?”)

“Guests of Honor Panel” (s.j. bagley, Ellen Datlow, Kij Johnson, Stephen Graham Jones, Steven Mariconda, Nnedi Okorafor, John Jude Palencar, Donald Sidney-Fryer, Richard Stanley, Peter Straub)

Squee! I shared an elevator with editor extraordinaire Ellen Datlow! I played it cool, though, and did not exclaim how her horror anthologies have pleasurably scared the crap out of me since high school. I also felt like a high-level fangirl for remembering Omni, the science fiction and fantasy art magazine that I read in the 1980s. Datlow was their fiction editor back in the day.

The panelists spanned the genres of fiction, criticism, poetry, visual art, and film. They considered: What is “weird fiction” (or poetry, etc.) and why do we create it? It is creative work that presents us with the unnameable, makes us grapple with our insignificance, or dissociate from normal modes of cognition to see another aspect of reality. Straub said, “I like the sense of luxuriance… amplitude… narrative overflow” in probing the limitations of human comprehension. Sidney-Fryer observed that “the weird serves to purify the ordinary emotions by heightening them.”

In what sense is weird fiction political? Panelists disagreed as to whether all art was already political, versus the mid-20th-century New Criticism dictate to stick with the words on the page. Some suggested that it’s political–perhaps by virtue of being anti-political, unconstrained by ideology or “decency”–to write about taboo subjects. Straub called it liberating to face the experience of abjection, to stay present with the emotional discomfort of the events on the page, instead of spinning intellectual theories about them. Consciously layering political agendas onto our reading can be an avoidance mechanism.

“Anyone who writes fiction where cruelty is a common thread is surely responding to the presence of cruelty in his own life,” added Straub. He said he came from a “classic traumatic childhood” and was supremely blissful when writing a novel about sociopathic serial killers, because it was cathartic! “Dark” fiction is integrated fiction. In American life, we are taught that it’s a moral duty to reject the shadow side, but that is where our life takes root. The biggest religious moralizers are often the ones who are caught in perverse scandals.

“A Very Terrible Difference: Race, Gender, and the Other” (Byron Nakamura, Faye Ringel, Jenna Randall, Troy Rondinone, Fiona Maeve Geist, Eli Shurberg, Daniel Schnopp-Wyatt)

Humanities professor Faye Ringel gave a paper on Lovecraft and racism, surveying some of the recent literature that’s used the Mythos to criticize HPL’s politics: Black Tom, Matt Ruff’s wonderful Lovecraft Country, and Paul Lafarge’s The Night Ocean, which she said examines HPL’s possible homosexuality. (The old boy seemed more asexual to me, but am I going to object to slash fiction about anybody? Never.) Both LaValle’s and Ruff’s black characters decide the Old Ones are not as scary as white humans. Interesting fact: the first KKK represented themselves as the living dead, the ghosts of Confederate soldiers, so ghost stories are an apt genre for a novel about American racism.

Troy Rondinone discussed Orientalism in 19th and early 20th century pulp fiction. Orientalism is Palestinian cultural critic Edward Saïd’s theory that the East is configured in the Western mind as the Other, a surrogate or underground self that defines the West in contrast to its alleged backwardness–decadent, exotic, mysterious, deceptive, effeminate. Hence the many references to primitive death cults and menacing gods of Egyptian origin in the work of HPL and contemporaries. Watch out for the same unfortunate tropes today in films like “The Mummy” and “The 300”.

Geist and Shurberg (Hampshire College, represent!) gave a paper about mapping intersections of queerness and negativity. Geist quipped that though we don’t know much about Lovecraft’s sex life, his stories are “kind of thirsty” about miscegenation. Scholars and fans have made this fake hermetic separation between HPL the great writer and HPL the gross racist. (Indeed, primo Lovecraft biographer S.T. Joshi dis-invited himself from this year’s convention to protest what he felt was excessive focus on the author’s political sins. Too bad so sad.) Our reading of him will be deepened by putting these halves back together.

HPL’s incorporation of eugenicist views in his writings fits with his stated personal opinion of sex as mechanistic and degraded, an undisciplined force that potentially leads to the degeneration of the social body and the species. More than just a product of his time, his racism harks back to the academic literature of the 1800s, about the virile empire that goes forth to conquer lesser peoples but is vulnerable to impurity from interbreeding. These scholars developed complex racial taxonomies that remind us of Lovecraft’s fixation on the genealogy of once-great families in decline.

For a cosmic pessimist who believed in the universe’s indifference to human values, HPL was heavily invested in the moralistic hierarchy of the races. “He was an atheistic Puritan.” Perhaps that was the repository for his anxiety about his own metaphysics–faith in fragile white civilization replaces traditional religious faith. “The Call of Cthulhu” encapsulates this paradox: the opening describes the dark seas of infinity and the tiny happy island of ignorance, and isn’t it a coincidence that all the Cthulhu cultists are people of color?

This observation was a good segue into Daniel Schnopp-Wyatt’s paper about the historical antecedents of “Call of Cthulhu”, which has a memorable scene of a human sacrifice cult in the New Orleans bayou. In the early 1910s there was a notorious spree of axe murders in Louisiana against the families of poor black agricultural workers. The media sensationalized them with rumors that the killings were related to voodoo. A 17-year-old black girl named Clementine Barnabet was coerced into confessing, then subjected to brutal medical and psychological treatment in prison. Schnopp-Wyatt is dubious about her connection to the murders, let alone voodoo. This paper left me agreeing with “Black Tom” that I’d take tentacled aliens over a run-in with the American mental health and criminal justice systems, any day.

Until next time, I’ll see you in the Rapture–

It’s a gift to be squamous,
it’s a gift to have fins,
it’s a gift to have gills
when Cthulhu wins.
When all the stars are right,
on the world’s last night,
we will swim in the glory of R’lyeh’s light.

(Darrell Schweitzer’s Innsmouth Tabernacle Choir Hymnal)

September Links Roundup: A Wounded Deer Leaps Highest

At her blog the prowling Bee, Susan Kornfeld has been analyzing each of Emily Dickinson’s 1,700+ poems since 2011. This 2012 post looks at a poem where the moment of greatest anguish paradoxically clothes itself in the appearance of vitality. In Emily’s words:

A wounded Deer –leaps highest –
I’ve heard the Hunter tell –
‘Tis but the ecstasy of death
And then the Brake is still!

The smitten Rock that gushes!
The trampled Steel that springs!
A Cheek is always redder
Just where the Hectic stings!

Mirth is the Mail of Anguish –
In which it cautious Arm,
Lest Anybody spy the blood
And “you’re hurt” exclaim!

I confess I’ve only studied a small fraction of Dickinson’s output, the oft-quoted verses most likely to appear in school anthologies. She is something of a cottage industry round here (Amherst is the next town over from us) so I have also toured her house and seen two movies about her, most recently Terence Davies’ “A Quiet Passion”, which came out this summer.

This film, starring Cynthia Nixon, left me wanting to delve more deeply into the poems, but also feeling troubled and strangely soiled. As it was no doubt intended to do, “A Quiet Passion” inspired righteous anger about how the religious and gender-based constraints of 19th-century society would chafe the soul of an eccentric female genius. At the same time, the film’s portrait of Emily was a compendium of humiliating spinster tropes: lonely, emotionally needy, prickly and barely tolerable even to her loved ones, stunted at an earlier developmental stage while her female peers moved on to the adult roles of wife and mother. I squirmed on her behalf, imagining how this woman who’d made a fetish of privacy would react to the knowledge that her social gaffes and chronic pain were displayed on widescreen for us to gawk at. Is there no merciful oblivion for such things, 150 years after her death?

Fairfield University English Professor Emily Orlando wrote in the July 13, 2017 Daily Hampshire Gazette (our Northampton newspaper):

Perhaps most troubling is Davies’ focus on Dickinson’s decline and decease. Here’s the thing: Emily Dickinson — unlike, say, Sylvia Plath or Edgar Allan Poe — is not known for her death. She is known for her vibrant body of work. And yet, the director chooses to put his viewer — and the exceedingly excellent Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson — through an excruciating, poorly directed death scene. The same is true for the seizures that precede her passing: too long, too agonizing…These overwrought and disturbing scenes, while perhaps intended to illustrate the inadequacies of medical treatment in 19th-century New England, effectively privilege the dying and dead female body — the passive trope of the female corpse that is replicated across Victorian visual culture (think: The Lady of Shalott, Beatrice, Ophelia)…

…One wonders why the film ends with Dickinson’s death, with no mention of, say, the goldmine of nearly 1,800 poems Dickinson left for future generations to discover.

On the multi-authored social justice blog The Establishment, Isabel C. Legarda, M.D. has just published an incisive essay, “Emily Dickinson’s Legacy Is Incomplete Without Discussing Trauma”.

There has already been some scholarship exploring the idea of Emily as a trauma survivor. A research study published in Military Medicine noted evidence that she, along with other notable historical figures, “developed symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of repeated potentially traumatizing events.” A paper from the journal PsyArt finds in her poetry “a psychologically acute description of trauma as a distinctive emotional and cognitive state.”

In 1862, Emily herself wrote to mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “I had a terror since September, I could tell to none; and so I sing, as the boy does by the burying ground, because I am afraid.”…

…Who was the “the spoiler of our Home” whose footfall Emily dreaded, who committed a “Larceny of time and mind,” and of whom she writes, “He put the Belt around my life?”

Of all the poems that support the possibility that she might have suffered sexual assault, and possibly at home, “Rearrange a ‘Wife’s’ affection” is perhaps the most telling and disturbing, filled with notions of violence and self-harm in the first stanza; devastating shame in the second; “Trust entrenched in narrow pain,” “Anguish — bare of anodyne” in the third; and two recurring tropes in her poetry, the “crown” of wifely duty and an image from Calvary, in the fourth…

She opens the last verse with, “Big my Secret but it’s bandaged — ”; it is both a wound and something to hide. In “A great Hope fell” she confesses of this wound that “The Ruin was within” and that there was “A not admitting of the wound / Until it grew so wide / That all my Life had entered it.”

Many poems — “She rose to His Requirement,” “Title divine is Mine,” “I live with Him — I see His face,” and “It would never be Common” — suggest ongoing trauma, specifically the trauma of being expected to be someone’s sexual partner against her will; they express despair at having to fulfill the obligations of a bride without the legitimacy and joy of real marriage. “But where my moment of Brocade?” she asks…

This piece validated my unease with both the Dickinson of “A Quiet Passion” and the general public image of Emily as a stereotypical recluse or “damaged” woman. She was a triggering figure for me because she evokes pity or distaste instead of outrage. We don’t identify with that Emily, we’re not on her side, we don’t want to be her. (Even I, the fame whore, would think twice about the cosmic bargain: “People will buy your books two centuries from now and put your face on a tote bag, but everyone will also think you’re an unsexy weirdo.”)

Legarda finds persuasive hints of sexual assault, probably incest, in Dickinson’s poems, and links to articles by other doctors and critics who see evidence of childhood abuse or PTSD. Although I have mixed feelings about psychoanalyzing authors based on their art, in this case the endeavor seems like it could restore some dignity to a poet who continues to suffer from the assumptions of a sexist culture.

 

Give Me That Old One Religion: Notes from NecronomiCon 2017

How times have changed at Reiter’s Block. Only a few years ago I would have been reporting on the Wheaton Theology Conference. Now my idea of a spiritual retreat is NecronomiCon Providence, the biennial convention for writers, artists, scholars, and fans who shamble in the footsteps of that 20th-century master of weird fiction, H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). This will be the first of several posts on the convention and revisiting Lovecraft’s work.

HPL penned classics of cosmic horror such as “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, as well as being an influential editor, collaborator, and mentor to many other writers in the genre. His literary heirs include prominent horror writers such as Robert Bloch (Psycho), Thomas Ligotti, and Ramsey Campbell.

It’s strangely fitting that his beloved Rhode Island hometown (his tombstone reads “I Am Providence”) bears the name of a religious belief whose loss tormented him. Divine Providence, the idea that world events are meaningfully directed by a God who placed humanity at the pinnacle of creation, is precisely what has been swept away in Lovecraft’s cosmos. His characters are driven mad by discovering that powerful uncanny forces, superior and indifferent to humans, are lurking below the fragile surface of this illusion we call civilization. Ignorance truly is bliss, but unachievable, as there is nothing so tragically human as the quest for hidden knowledge.

HPL was also, perhaps not coincidentally, a flagrant and neurotic racist. Genealogical and antiquarian research, an obsession of many of his interchangeable narrators, is likely to reveal corrupt ancestry (fish-frog people, humanoid apes, or body-switching wizards) that inexorably pulls the hapless descendant into degeneracy. His work is fascinating not least because it holds up a mirror to 20th-century anxieties about Darwinism, the brutality of the First World War, and the mixing of cultures in an immigrant society.

On a psychological level, forbidden family knowledge is a topic that resonates with many readers. When HPL was very young, his father died from syphilis in an insane asylum, and his mother was also institutionalized there at the end of her life, which must have contributed to his love-hate relationship with intergenerational history and breeding (in all senses of the word).

I personally read incest themes into his work as well. Sexuality is only depicted as corrupting and unnatural, involving the breaking of unspeakable taboos; the ocean, from which his most memorable horrors arise, is an archetype of the engulfing maternal feminine; and in tales like The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and “The Thing on the Doorstep”, evil ancestors forcibly occupy the minds and bodies of their descendants. Incest leaves you with the very Lovecraftian terror that you will become the thing you most abhor. Whether or not HPL was literally a survivor, the symbols are there for us to see ourselves in his characters.

I think HPL was the first horror writer I read, when I was about 12; before that, I’d been such a nervous child that I closed my eyes in the Mystery section of bookstores so as not to see the word “Death”. Turning suddenly and eagerly towards what I feared, I went on to consume every horror anthology I could find in my high school and college libraries. This interest continued until about 10 years ago, when I fell into the deepest part of my PTSD brain and could get nightmares from an episode of “The Simpsons”. Yay, recovery! Three years ago, coinciding with my survivor-conscious farewell to Christianity as I’d understood it, I heard Cthulhu calling…and found something deeply healing in the Mythos.

Cthulhu resembles the evangelicals’ God in many ways, except without the bullshit that he loves you. Cthulhu doesn’t gaslight anyone. Echoing Calvinism’s absolute divine sovereignty, Cthulhu is honestly indifferent, inscrutable, able to destroy the world, and beyond all human ideas of Good and Evil. According to the footnotes for this story in Leslie Klinger’s indispensable The New Annotated Lovecraft (Annotated Books, 2014), HPL was thinking of Nietzsche, another great critic of Christian hypocrisy. Whether you get eaten or not is just random, like double predestination. Cthulhu demands or at least seems to appreciate human sacrifice, but doesn’t say it’s for our own good, unlike the Christian Father God’s sacrifice of his Son. Despite the frequent assertions that the events of these stories have shaken the narrator’s sanity, the Antarctic winds from the Mountains of Madness have the bracing quality of truth dispelling the fog of denial.

Even so, I felt a whisper of anxiety at our blasphemy as I entered Providence’s First Baptist Church in America for the opening ceremonies of NecronomiCon that Thursday afternoon. Founded by Roger Williams in 1638, it’s the oldest Baptist church in the country. Apparently HPL’s leadership in architectural preservation efforts put him back in their good graces despite his apostasy–we were told he was kicked out of Sunday School after three weeks for asking too many questions!

Just days after the racist rally in Charlottesville, I was also worried what sort of person the conference would attract, and whether it was insensitive even to be celebrating such a problematic author right now. Never fear, the clientele was solidly queer/Goth/nerd, with not a tiki torch or Confederate flag decal in sight (though some white dude, hopefully not an attendee, shouted slurs at my family from a car window outside the mall the next evening).

Barnaby Evans, executive director of the Providence arts organization WaterFire, emceed the opening ceremonies, setting a politically progressive and inclusive tone that continued throughout the weekend. It was clear that we were here to carry on and critically develop the Lovecraftian legacy of awe in the face of cosmic mysteries, rather than being apologists for his blind spots. Opera arias and organ music by the dazzling Gigi Mitchell Velasco filled me with a sense of the sublime, giving me hope that I could let go of doctrines but keep what I loved about church: a community gathered in a beautiful historic place to meditate on the wonder (and sometimes terror) of mortal existence.

Until our next installment–

In Cthulhu we are trusting,
Though his rites are quite disgusting;
From his crypt he’ll soon be busting,
And that’s good enough for me!

Give me that Old One Religion!
Give me that Old One Religion!
Give me that Old One Religion!
It’s good enough for me!

(Darrell Schweitzer’s Innsmouth Tabernacle Choir Hymnal)

After Charlottesville: Readings for Racial Justice

As my readers are probably aware from the national news, a few hundred white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen and their fellow travelers held a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA this weekend to protest the removal of Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s statue from a nearby park. The New York Times has the summary of events. One of the racist movement’s supporters drove his car into the crowd of anti-fascist counter-protesters, killing a young woman named Heather Heyer. Violent clashes claimed two other lives and injured 34 people. “President” Trump issued a weaselly statement condemning “violence on many sides” but did not single out the white nationalists, who happen to represent a loyal part of his voter base.

The rally was protected by a large police contingent who have been criticized for not doing more to prevent the violence. As Jia Tolentino wrote in her New Yorker piece “Charlottesville and the Effort to Downplay Racism in America”, “the spectacle succeeded in proving the ongoing reality of white supremacy in America…Black demonstrators protesting the murder of teen-agers are met with tanks and riot gear; white demonstrators protesting the unpopularity of Nazi and Confederate ideology are met with politesse.” Tolentino’s depiction of the genteel pretense of post-racial liberalism at Charlottesville’s University of Virginia reminds me of the fictitious Winchester University in the sharply funny Netflix series Dear White People. Watch it and learn.

We white liberals are belatedly waking up to the reality of the other America that black people have lived in for centuries. It’s a privilege to be surprised that this kind of violent hatred has never gone away. As Columbia Journalism professor Jelani Cobb said on Twitter, “The biggest indictment of the way we teach American history is that people can look at Charlottesville and say “This is not who we are.'” The best remedial education is to immerse one’s self in stories by and about African-Americans. For me personally, one year as a judicial clerk, reading real-life cases of minority New Yorkers’ encounters with the police and public housing authorities, was worth seven years of critical theory in college and grad school.

With that in mind, let me offer a few literary works from the Winning Writers contest archives that will move you and teach you something about race relations (if you’re white) or hopefully validate your experience (if you’re not).

Winfred Cook’s novel Uncle Otto won first prize for literary fiction in our 2016 North Street Book Prize. In the tradition of Alex Haley’s Roots and Queen, Cook uses research about his forebears as raw material for dramatizing a representative story of racial oppression, migration, and economic mobility during the first decades of the 20th century. The novel covers the “Great Migration” of African-Americans from the rural South during the period around World War I; the emergence of, and resistance to, the black middle class in the North during the 1920s; and the cultural upheavals of the Prohibition era. I’m looking forward to reading Cook’s new book, Wayfarers, a Civil War era interracial gay romance.

Geoff Griffin’s essay “Hey White Guy!” from the 2007 Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest is a humorous look at the social awkwardness of unlearning prejudice and privilege. Accustomed to his whiteness being un-coded, unmentioned, Griffin has a moment of realization about the unequal ways he notices race. Another runner-up from the 2009 contest, Sally Hermsdorfer’s “In the Colored Waiting Room”, depicts a white pharmacist in 1950s Memphis who finds a clever way to silence opponents of his integrated practice. It’s both entertaining and instructive about effective allyship. In “Trayvon”, first-prize nonfiction winner for 2015 Madeline Baars describes the odds against black boys and the persistence of hope in a poor New Orleans neighborhood where she was a clinic worker.

Myron L. Stokes won the 2012 Margaret Reid Poetry Contest for Traditional Verse (subsequently combined with our Tom Howard Poetry Contest) with “For My Ancestors”, a lyrical and passionate ode to forebears who endured slavery: “Their bludgeoned dreams bled of a time/when their children’s children could chase the stars,/learn behind ivy walls…”

In our Sports Literary Contest, which ran from 2012-14, A.A. Singh took a runner-up prize with his essay “Team Sports”, exploring the intersections of his Indian, Trinidadian, Canadian and American identities: “if America doesn’t want me after I’ve learned how to ride a bike here, after I’ve given it my first day of school—after I’ve driven my first car, drank my first beer, moaned in bed with my first hangover, experienced my first love, kiss, and heartbreak—if America doesn’t want me, what country does?”