Sunday, 9 January 2011

Round-Up 15

The first week of 2011 has been a literary bang. Three previously unknown stories by Zora Neale Hurston have been found and a 'sanitised' versions - some are saying ruined - versions of  MarkTwain's most famous novels have been published.

Zora Neale Hurston - three short stories found
Glenda R. Carpio and Werner Sollors are professors of English and African and African American studies at Harvard University. In a piece in this week's Chronicle (of American higher education) they describe how they and their students go about researching the life of Zora Neale Hurston as part of the Africian-American literature programme, and have as a result found three short stories from 1927, that had not been listed in the formal autobiographies of her life. In writing the piece the authors set it out as a literary process/lesson, rather than a straight news piece and choose to lead on the antagonisms between Richard Wright and Zora. It is their analysis of the stories which I found most interesting:
The three stories are important because they provide fuller insight into Hurston's engagement with urban black life. They show us that Harlem was of more than just passing interest to the author, and ask us to dig deeper into the phase of her life before she became so identified with Eatonville. The first story we found is a different, somewhat funnier version of "Book of Harlem," with the subtitle "Chapter I.," suggesting that Hurston may have envisioned it as the beginning of a longer migration tale. The second story, "Monkey Junk: A Satire on Modern Divorce," adheres to mock-biblical storytelling to satirize urban divorce, with the duped husband going back to Alabama at the end. It closes with the exclamation "Selah," an equivalent of "Amen" or "so sayeth the Lord" from the Book of Psalms and an ending that Hurston also used as a tongue-in-cheek valediction in a 1927 letter in which she expressed hope for a large automobile.
While "Monkey Junk" tells the classic migrant tale on the country mouse/city mouse theme, the third find, "the Back Room," is as fully immersed in the most sophisticated 1920s upper-crust Harlem party life as any story previously known from the Harlem Renaissance: "West 139th street at ten p.m. Rich fur wraps tripping up the steps of the well furnished home in the two hundred block. Sedans, coaches, coupes, roadsters. Inside fine gowns and tuxedos, marcel waves and glitter. People who seemed to belong to every race on earth—Harlem's upper class had gathered there her beauty and chivalry." In the background of the story are the human entanglements of a night at a party that also features a Charleston dance contest. The ambience: "Everybody being modern. Cigarettes burning like fireflies on a summer night."
Here is their full article: The newly complicated Zora Neale Hurston
This is a  link to one of the stories: Monkey Junk
All three stories will be included in a forthcoming issue of Amerikastudien/American Studies.

Mark Twain and the 'n' word
Alabama based publisheers New South have published new version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. These versions have the inflammatory words for native Americans and black people replaced with words and expressions that are now deemed more acceptable. In Huckleberry Finn, for example the 'n' word appears 200 times. The publishers aim is to enable the books to be on the (American) school curriculum and enabling the most famous works of Twain's to be read and enjoyed by the young - and much more wider audiences. This has resulted in a massive literary furore with most arguing that this is then not the work that Twain published and others arguing that in this day and age such words are just not applicable/necessary in the school. What do you think?

In my work's book club I suggested that we read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (in 2009) on the basis that we all should have read at least one Twain and that this classic would be a good one. I did not finish it - I did not get beyond chapter 7.  Its actually pretty dull and implausible, (that could be it's worst crime) and while I get that the book is supposed to show the transformation of Huck's attitude to the run away slave Jim; and that Twain was showing up the ridiculousness of the southern states attitudes to black people and slavery, it is not worth the struggle to the end - when there are now so many good books around.  I can of course understand that it written of its time and that Twain was anti-slavery and pro-equality, but now such words are not only unacceptable in all 'civilised' circles (to use another Huck turn of phrase), they do get in way of discussing the book's issues thoroughly in an open way. My recent experience is that it was difficult and embarrassing to discuss in a mixed group. Also, I don't think that replacing the 'n' word with the word 'slave' is the correct  word - one is a term of horrible dehumanising abuse; and while the other is unfair and dehumanising in its application, it is a word - an accurate noun. So it is not the right word in the sense that Twain meant to give impact to the experience that Huck had been through. Ultimately I feel that choice - you can choose to read the version that you prefer - is a good thing. And I would hope that in school a good English literature teacher would be able to explain the literary context, construct, themes, characters and aims of any work in a sensitive and learned way.  While I think that the wrong word has been chosen, overall I don't have a problem with the word being changed, since if you read any translation, either from another language or the updating of English - who'd read Chaucer in the original these days? -  someone, other than the original author has made a decision about the words that you reading. As a connected aside, while I think of it here, I recently read Christos Tsiolkas' The Slap, it is about multiracial contemporary life in Melbourne, Australia,  and it struck me how many terms of abuse that there are for people of colour; as someone who has read many books by authors of colour it seems that such terms of abuse barely exist when describing people of other races or colours - just a thought.

Costa Prize: Children's Award
Jason Wallace's Out of Shadows has won the above prize. It is set in Zimbabwe and is essentially the story of his life, when as a young boy his family moved there just after the country gained its independence and black rule. It is based in a colonial boarding school where they cannot accept this new rule and try to turn the clock back. The overall prize for the Costa Book of the year will be announced later this month.

The Man who Recorded the World: A Biography of Alan Lomax
John Szwed, is a Yale scholar whose previous work has been on Miles Davis and thus has set the bar really high in terns of jazz biographies. In this work he is looking at the life of Alan Lomax who used to visit the southern states - most notably the Angola prison in Mississippi to record the folk music of the region, that became the basis for the jazz, soul and rock music of the early and mid-20th century and inspired many of the most famous musicians and pop bands. On one hand Alan Lomax is lauded as a kind of important librarian, in getting the music listed and record - it has become a critical archive of the music that would have been otherwise lost. On the other hand, he is controversial because he sometimes put his name to the works to gain royalties when he was no way the creator. Not the first or the only person to have ripped of young and unknowing black musicians by any means. This weekend there have been two very good reviews of this book in the The Guardian and The Observer. Both reviews note that the non-scholarly Lomax was taught his methodology in Haiti, by Zora Neale Hurston, who was a specialist anthropologist and worked throughout The Caribbean.

You, John Haynes
Poet John Haynes latest work, You, a book length poem about his life with and love for his Nigerian wife, has been shortlisted for the TS Elliot Poetry prize.  The winner will be announced on the 24 January. Here is a review of You from The Guardian, it is a bit confused - he says it has 'a cliched lexicon' and that it 'is clumsy' but 'engaged and engaging.' I think that 'stark contrasts between Britain and Nigeria' seem obvious cliches to me, but that is reviewers for you.  St Lucian Nobel prize for literature winner (1992), Derek Walcott is on the TS Eliot short list too for his latest book White Egrets 
Is Just a Movie, Earl Lovelace
You don't often see reviews of books by Caribbean based authors in the UK press. So it was good to see Ian Thomson (author of The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica) reviewing in the Financial Times, this novel about Trinidad, Is Just A Movie. Earl Lovelace, is a distinguished and well respect author across the Caribbean, Is Just a A Movie, is set in 1970, over a one year period tells how the island flirted with a back to Africa revolution based on the Black Power movement..

How to Read the Air, Dinaw Mengestu
Dinaw's second novel is just out and was reviewed in the Sunday Times today (8/1/11). His first novel Children of the Revolution was a Guardian First Book Award winner and LA TImes book of the year in 2008 . There has been an expectant buzz around the arrive of How to Read the Air, also in the US where it was published before Christmas.  It is is the story of a marriage break-up set against making a new life (from Ethiopia) in the US, the narrator is the son, who also re-tells the story of his parents travel through Sudan and Europe and life in Washington DC. Review: The Guardian

Poet laureate for Scotland?
Author and poet Jackie Kay is on the shortlist for the honour of becoming Poet Laureate for Scotland - known as the first makar. I am sure that she'd be fab at it, but I wonder if she's have better things to do with her time really. I am never inspired by the work of the poet laureates, it seems to be an honour that drains the work inspiration out of the honoured.  Read about it: here

Look for for these new books
Look out for The Cry of the Go-Away Bird by Andrea Eames in which a white girl in 90s Zimbabwe sees her privileged world fall part. And Hollywood's favourite crime writer, according to Amazon, Elmore Leonard's next book is a geo-politicical crime fiction called Djibouti, which The Guardian, says it is a 'Middle East'-western on water - it of course, set in the horn of Africa.  Both books will be published in February.

King James' Bible Readings
The BBC (Radio 4) has excelled itself with the readings of the Bible throughout the day today. Hugh Quarshie (from Holby City) read the Book of Job (episode 4) and Adjoa Andoh (Dr Who) did the extraordinarily sensual Song of Solomon (episode 5). All the programmes are available to listen again for seven days and can also be downloaded as podcasts.


  1. As a regular reader of your blog, and a Caribbean reader and writer, I have to say that I disagree with the changes (what I see as the sanitization) of Twain's books. There was an authenticity to them that I feel is bowing to political correctness. Admittedly, I haven't read the books in a long time and was always more of a Tom Sawyer girl than a Huck fan but if anything, I feel much like one of my faves Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, they make not only for good reading but open a door to discussing, frankly, race relations in America (as it existed then) as one of the things that books help us to do is explore the human condition. Just because it makes for uncomfortable discourse doesn't mean it should be glossed over. I volunteer with a kids reading club and we try to discuss these issues when they come up as part of whatever book we're reading.

  2. Thanks for your comments Joanne. It is lovely to hear that you are a regular reader of this blog. I don't have a problem with the sanitised version of Mark Twain's work. I support more choice that encourages more people to read. I would hope that people would choose the version that they prefer - politically correct or not. I don't feel Huckleberry Finn has stood the test of time for today's readers, in the way that Harper Lee's book has, [To Kill A Mockingbird is one of my all time favourites] because the language of Huck Finn is too dense.
    best, tricia