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I was a 14 year old bad-ass…

When I was in first grade, I read The Little House on the Prairie–all 335 pages of it–to my class. Out loud.

When I was in third or fourth grade, I regularly checked out impossible stacks of books. One day, the librarian voiced her incredulousness: “I don’t believe for a second that you read all those books. It’s just not possible.”

I’ve never forgotten her and I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive her.

By the time I was in my teens, I thought I was an intellectual bad-ass. I was well-read and confident in my abilities to analyze a text. When I was 22, I was still pretty sure I was an intellectual bad-ass. Now, at 32, I’m under no illusions: it’s only as you start building serious knowledge and, more importantly, life experience, that anything you read ever really makes sense to you in a deep, felt, true way.

So Reeti Roy’s smart, thoughtful essay, “Notes on Writing: The Legitimacy of Reading and Placing Books in Context,” resonated with me, especially this part:

Till the age of fourteen, I believed I was well read and that I was using my critical faculties to decipher fiction. Today, I believe that I was too unaware of histories and peoples to have come to rational, informed conclusions.

I read classics like Robinson Crusoe, for instance, but failed to consider the ill-treatment of Friday. I read Jane Eyre, but had somehow overlooked the plight of “the mad woman in the attic,” Bertha Mason.

Reeti goes on to explain how we experience different layers of reading throughout our lives. Though there’s not a single “legitimate” way to read or interpret a text, she says, as we mature we must understand that “[w]ithout studying or being aware of the social, political, and historical context of the times / places that books were written, we risk creating a monolithic notion of books and characters in our minds.”

*

Reeti’s essay couldn’t have been more timely. I’ve been mulling over an essay I want to write about visiting Eatonville, which is the Florida town where the writer Zora Neale Hurston was born, and which is the setting of one of her best-known books, Their Eyes Were Watching God. I’ve been reading some back story on Hurston, who  saw the town not so much as an inhabitable place for her, but as a setting from which stories could be mined (successfully, obviously). This understanding of Hurston’s relationship to a place that is so palpable it’s almost a living, breathing character makes my re-reading of Their Eyes Were Watching God an entirely different experience than when I read this book for the first time in a college African American literature class.

And then there’s this: the experience of having immersed myself in African diaspora studies, particularly in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and being married to an Afro-Cuban man, two experiences that mark my worldview in a new way and which compel me to interpret this passage from Chapter 1 of Their Eyes much differently now than I would have 10 years ago:

“The people all saw her come because it was sundown. The sun was gone, but he had left his footprints in the sky. It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment.

“Seeing the woman as she was made them remember the envy they had stored up from other times. So they chewed up the back parts of their minds and swallowed with relish. They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs. It was mass cruelty. A mood come alive. Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song.”

Cono! What do you make of that?

I wish I could step back into that college classroom for a minute, or talk to myself lying beneath the tree on the quad, where I read this book and contemplated the strange beauty of ginkgo leaves bursting out of their little barrels in spring. I wish I knew what I thought about this passage then– did I “get” it at all or was this all just a package of abstract notions wrapped up into two paragraphs of vividly searing, metaphoric prose?

I don’t know. All I know now is that I’m not an intellectual bad-ass. I’m just a woman who keeps taking what she lives and learns and practices applying it to understand just a little bit more.

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16 responses »

  1. Part of me thinks that considering I just got an e-mail about this post, I should wait more than 5 minutes before commenting. But I just can’t.

    I absolutely loved Reeti’s article, too. So relevant. I’ve been thinking about material transparency a lot since finding Matador, reading David’s article on it, and starting a blog/freelance career of my own. Reading ‘transparency’ is equally relevant but gets less attention, I suppose.

    What I can’t believe is that I never told you this (sometimes it takes a while to put pieces together?): in college, I took a course called “African Diaspora of Women’s Narrative.” I think you would have just been enamored with this class and the professor–who literally was an intellectual bad ass (though a very humble one!). I’m seriously going to dig around for the course syllabus to send you.

    And random nostalgic memory: in 10th grade lit when I read “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” my teacher would ask pop quiz questions like, “What body part is mentioned 47 times in this chapter?” (Yes, he would actually count). The answer was “eyes.” I got it wrong.

    Reply
  2. Aw, don’t wait! Those initial reactions are so valuable (unless you’re a hater, which you’re not). 😉

    Do let me know if you find that syllabus. I feel like I just need to school myself on these texts and lives and times all over again, you know?

    And a pop quiz like that is just wrong.

    Reply
  3. Julie, firstly I’m completely honoured to be mentioned.

    I’ve never told you this- but when I first came across Matador, the first article I read was an article you had written- called “Choose Africa’s Next Changemakers.” Something about that article spoke to me and as I encountered more of your work, I felt like I could relate to your writing and your unique experiences.

    Reply
    • Reeti-
      I love those back stories! Thank you for telling me. I feel like we have a lot in common and I look forward to our continued friendship and working relationship.

      Reply
  4. Few nice things are said about growing old. But there’s all sorts of studies that have come out concluding that older people are generally happier.

    Maybe after you’ve acquired enough experiences you develop a strong sense of what distinguishes a good day from a bad one.

    The accumulation of years is good for writing too. James Michner drifted around the world without doing much of anything until he was 42.

    Barbara Kingsolver tells aspiring writers in their 20s that the best thing they can do for themselves is make to their 40s.

    On another related note, some of my nonfiction favorite books are ones in which the author is personally involved with what they are writing about. “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” is sort of that way. The whole strange chain of events unfolds right in front of him.

    I was just listening an interview with Rebecca Skloot about her book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” It’s the true story of the first human cells that could survive in a petri dish. (The Lacks were never compensated for this huge contribution).

    Skloot said that at first she tried to avoid writing anything about herself in the book out of a sense of journalistic professionalism.

    But she ultimately couldn’t because the story became such a major part of her life. She had grown up watching her father suffer from a rare genetic disease. Also, she had spent over 10 years gaining the Lack family’s confidence and writing the book.

    Reply
    • Steve-

      Thanks for these examples- I love the Kingsolver quote and the Skloot anecdote exemplifies what I was (trying to) say a few weeks back in my piece about claiming your writing. I think there are very few (ever any?) times when we’re objective in our writing. Our very decision that one topic merits our attention over another hints at our subjectivity. I tend to find much more value in the work of a writer who has positioned himself or herself, by which I mean the exact kind of “revelation” and involvement that Skloot ultimately allowed herself to have.

      Reply
  5. Julie, you are totally an intellectual badass.

    Reply
  6. Can’t think of anything original, so I ditto Candice’s comment 🙂

    Reply
  7. Nice post. It makes me think about my experience with music. I’m a vocalist and sometimes I look back to my teen years when I got really involved in singing. I often sung about the ups and downs of life that I didn’t really understand at that point. While you can develop and improve vocal skills early, there is a certain depth to a voice that can only be acquired with life experience.

    Reply
  8. Intellectual bad-ass..Absolutely love it!

    Such a refreshingly honest post on so many levels.

    For one, on a more superficial level, it applies to those innate teenage years/young adult attitudes of “I know it all!”

    What can one truly know at fourteen?

    On the deeper level, it speaks to maturity and wisdom that, frankly, only comes with life experiences and to some extent, aging as well.

    Also in my early thirties, and oh, the things I wish I could tell my teenage/early twenties “bad-ass” self.

    Loved it.

    Reply
  9. Loved this post, Julie.

    You’re definitely an intellectual bad-ass.

    I enjoyed Reeti’s piece too and it always got me thinking how my experiences have deepened my understanding over the years, convincing me I’m still a beginner in learning.

    I was so that kid who thought I was a intellectual bad-ass: begging to listen to classical music and npr in elementary school, seeking out challenging reads, starting college at 15…(Oh-how I tried to pretend I was older than I was!)

    Traveling completely opened me up, allowing me to start to comprehend the text/music I was devouring. I wouldn’t be the same person without those experiences and I wouldn’t know now how little I know. (In a very beautiful way, of course. Does that make sense?)

    At 14 years old I could technically play Beethoven, Schumann, Shostakovich…but until I experienced heartbreak, loss, disappoint, love and “felt” through my travel experiences the places the composers wrote about, it was hollow, naive music-making.

    Reply
    • Nancy-

      I love how you and Ekua introduced the music parallel. It’s so obvious to me now as I read your comments, but I hadn’t considered music as I wrote this and you’re right- you have to have a certain amount of life experience to channel the emotion that’s required to truly play a piece in any way other than technically.

      We would have been good friends as kids. 🙂

      Reply

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