Friday, January 08, 2016

Counternarratives Featured on Howard Rambsy's Culture Front

Photo from Cultural Front (© Howard Rambsy II)
UPDATED: Cultural Front has added two new posts, "John Keene's 'Acrobatique' and the poet as short story writer" and, bestowing me what I consider to be one of highest possible honors, he places the remarkable Elizabeth Alexander and her foundation poem "The Venus Hottentot" in conversation with "Acrobatique." (This is particularly important to me because Elizabeth has been a huge inspiration since I first saw her read, from The Venus Hottentot no less, at the Dark Room in Cambridge, Massachusetts many moons ago. I hold her and her art--her poetry, her criticism, her nonfiction--in the highest esteem. She is for me one of essential poets of her generation.)

The reviews of Counternarratives continue to trickle in now that we're a few weeks into 2016. One by Daniel Green is forthcoming on Kenyon Review's online, and I think it will be positive, given that he selected it as the best book of 2015. Currently online but inaccessible--to me, since neither the Rutgers or New York Public Library systems subscribe to the journal--is Alex McElroy's review, at Georgia Review. (We currently are conversing by email about the book and hope to see a copy of the review one of these says soon.) Just before the new year arrived, another online site, Wuthering Heights blog, which had previously wrestled with the book, named it to its "Best of 2015" list (you can read the prior review at the link). Lastly James Crossley of Mercer Island Books selected Counternarratives as one of his 2015 "Books to Give At the Holidays."

In the meantime, it has been encouraging to have an African American scholar, Howard Rambsy II, who teaches at Southern Illinois University and writes about black poetry and poetics, book history and textual studies, to write a bit about the book on his blog Cultural Front. Rambsy is the author of The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetry (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011), and is involved with several important scholarly and critical projects involving black literature, among them the Project on History of Black Writing, based at University of Kansas. He also served as faculty member for the Black Poetry after the Black Arts Movement Institute, about which I heard extensive praise, this past summer at KU. As Rambsy's archive list will show, he has been blogging about poetry and black writing more generally since 2008, so make sure to scroll through the trove of posts.

Howard has now posted three entries about Counternarratives. The first provides a list of some of the online coverage of the collection, helpfully aggregating many of the book's reviews. The second does something that I think is a first for this collection and which has not popped up in most of the reviews, which is to explore how the Counternarratives fits, extends and exceeds--I guess that's the right word--the African American short story tradition. As Rambsy notes, there are aesthetic links to prior black writers, some of them like Charles Chestnut and Zora Neale Hurston (though I love their work) whom I was not thinking of, and some of whom, like Richard Wright and Charles Johnson, that I was. (I would add that other black short story writers who have strongly influenced my work include James Baldwin, Toni Cade Bambara, Ernest J. Gaines, Gayl Jones, Paule Marshall, Reginald McKnight, James Alan McPherson, Alice Walker, and John Edgar Wideman, to name just a few from preceding generations.)

His third post concerns the character "Zion" from my story "An Outtake from the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution," and focuses as this protagonist as an example of the "bad man," akin to similar figures in African American folklore and popular culture, and in books by writers I deeply admire, including Tyehimba Jess, Adrian Matejka, Tony Medina, Cornelius Eady, and Rita Dove. Rambsy points out that Zion is in some ways linked to the mythical figure (High) John the Conqueror, and like him he continually eludes attempts to keep him in bondage. Yet Zion also operates on the plane of realism in that he moves through his world attempting always to experience and embody freedom, but as an enslaved black person, is denied the option, in part because he is not recognized with in the larger discursive space, as Bernard Bailyn so artfully describes in his landmark 1967 book The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, that would permit him to realize freedom as the unfolding social and political systems and practices of the society around him. His revolution is internal and considered lawless, even as it mirrors that of the larger society and of black people across the northern states. 

I imagined Zion as a fictional counterpoint to figures like Phillis Wheatley, Prince Hall, Wentworth Cheswell, and Lucy Terry, to give just a few examples of real 18th century African American pioneers. Zion, as the story makes clear, refuses to play by any rules, unlike his fellow enslaved person Jubal, because he senses that the entire system disregards and oppresses him. Moreover, there is the fact that much of his behavior parallels that of his white master and others whose actions are rationalized and permitted by the society's racialized legal, political, cultural, and social structures.  One need only look at the contemporary prison-industrial complex, the ties between capital and criminalization, and the unequal application of justice and incarceration to see that we are still living with these same systems and institutional mechanisms. I'll stop there, but I offer my deep thanks to Howard for highlighting the book, and welcome any comments from readers of his blog or this one about the book (or anything else).

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