Diderot, Denis, Satire

Review of The Nun (spoilers)

Image result for nun book diderotLa Religieuse (English: Memoirs of a Nun, or The Nun) tells the story of Suzanne, who is donated to a convent under the pretense of being a financial burden to her family. But in time, Sister Suzanne learns that she is the product of an adulterous affair between her mother and another man. Suzanne’s mother placed her daughter in a convent to avoid family scandal and to atone for her sin. For several personal and financial reasons, Suzanne has no choice but to take the veil.

Sister Suzanne hates religious life. She views the convent as a prison. And indeed, the 19-year-old girl faces untold abuse at the hands of the Superior. She is forbidden from receiving any of the sacraments, including confession. The other sisters shun and insult her, scatter broken glass in her path, and deprive her of basic necessities such as food and clothing. A sympathetic sister helps Suzanne contact a powerful attorney, and the case goes to trial. But the Church is a powerful institution, and no amount of evidence will free Suzanne of her religious duties.

Finally, she is moved to another convent with a Superior who, at first, appears sympathetic to Suzanne’s suffering. The Mother Superior treats the girl like a princess, listening to her story, offering her the best living conditions, and allowing her to skip confession. Unfortunately, this Superior’s intentions are equally nefarious. Under the guise of compassion, she sexually assaults Suzanne. The girl is too innocent and ignorant to understand what’s happening. She often feels uncomfortable, but she cannot put words to her experience. By all appearance, the Superior is a kind and loving person. Yet, a confessor insists that Suzanne avoid the woman at all cost. His successor goes further and offers to help Suzanne escape. But yet again, she leaves the frying pan only to end up in the fire. He also sexually abuses her. At the end of the novel, we learn that Suzanne has taken up work in a brothel and is requesting that the Count to whom she has been telling her story will save her once and for all from the hell that has been her life.

Diderot’s inspiration was a practical joke between a Marquis de Croismare and a nun named Marguerite Delamarre. Shortly after the marquis failed to free Marguerite, Diderot and his friends wrote to Croismare, pretending to be yet another sister in need. Unlike the book’s inspiration, La Religieuse is not a lighthearted read. Diderot exposes the hypocrisy, corruption, and abuse of the institutional Church. Many of the descriptions of abuse are vivid and believable.

But I don’t know how to feel about this work. On the one hand, Suzanne’s experience was all too common in the 18th century. Many women were forced to take the veil against their will. They either went mad from grief or were punished for their disobedience. And today, clerical sexual abuse is a global scandal that has barely been addressed in any meaningful way.

Nevertheless, I sensed a dose of misogyny in the work. Diderot’s nuns are jealous, vindictive, irrational, and emotional. I was also troubled by how sexual assault is treated in the second half of the novel. Suzanne’s Superior is presented as a libertine with lesbian desires. Her acts are condemned as sinful but not abusive. In fact, I get the impression that Diderot considers the situation highly amusing. The victim is too ignorant to notice what is going on. Furthermore, same-sex attraction is presented as an unfortunate consequence of forcing religious life on unwilling girls. The assault scenes were particularly uncomfortable to read because the Superior is presented as a libertine rather than a predator.

And yet, I was also impressed by Diderot’s understanding of human psychology and institutional corruption. At several points in the story, I felt that Suzanne’s thoughts and actions accurately reflect those of an abuse victim. She wants to stay away from her predatory Superior, despite believing that the woman’s intentions are pure. There is a disconnect between what she believes and how she feels. While I was shocked that the physically abusive Superior prevents Suzanne from receiving any of the sacraments, including Confession, abusers don’t behave rationally. Perhaps, the Superior didn’t want to give Suzanne — whom she knew remained vehemently opposed to religious life — the opportunity for reconciliation with the community. Suzanne tries in vain to obey convent rules, in hopes that the abuse will cease. Victims are often made to believe that abuse is deserved, a consequence of something they’ve done. That if they changed their behavior, the abuse would stop.

I find Diderot’s works interesting for the philosophical and social issues they tackle. There is a lot to appreciate in this novel, but I don’t think it was his story to tell. The misogyny and somewhat humorous treatment of sexual assault makes La Religieuse a difficult book to appreciate in the #MeToo movement.

Adventure, Edugyan, Esi

Review of Washington Black

Image result for washington black esi edugyanWashington Black by Esi Edugyan follows the title character from the plantations of Barbados to the Arctic circle and finally to the Moroccan desert. At the start of the novel, the 11-year-old Washington Black witnesses untold horrors at the hands of his tyrannical slave-owner Erasmus Wilde. His only real friend is Big Kit, an elderly enslaved woman who protects Washington from abuse and offers the boy guidance.

One day, Erasmus’s brother Christopher (“Titch”) Wilder asks Washington to help him build a cloud-cutter. Titch chooses Washington because the boy is a talented artist, with an eye for detail. Yet, the building of this airship is no smooth sailing. Washington suffers severe facial burns in a work accident, prompting Erasmus to take the boy back from his brother. Titch almost destroyed his “property”. But before Washington can be returned to his slave-owner, Erasmus’s cousin Philip takes his own life. Because Washington witnessed the event, he knows that he will be blamed for the man’s death. That night, Titch – realizing that the boy is in danger – helps Washington escape Barbados. The two take to the sky in their newly built cloud-cutter.

Yet, Washington’s escape is not his ticket to freedom. He lives in the shadow of  several inventors, who, though critical of slavery, nevertheless use Washington for their personal gain.

If you have been following my blog for any length of time you know that I absolutely love travel stories. Washington Black is not only entertaining but also highly original in its perspective. Travel adventures are traditionally told from the perspective of the lead-explorer (almost always a white man). The servant (or slave, as the case might be) is taken for granted. They might be the butt of some jokes, but they are otherwise face-less characters. Esi Edugyan turns the narrative on its head by centering the anonymous slaves who made technological advancement possible. Washington’s story is punctuated by extreme suffering and neglect. The plantation scenes are some of the most brutal I have encountered in fiction. Yet, Washington is not entirely a victim of his circumstances. Edugyan gives her protagonist agency and a voice. He is neither a victim to pity nor a hero to admire.

This work is a fantastic contribution to the travel fiction genre. It deserves all of the literary prizes it has received and been nominated for. I will definitely be reading Edugyan’s earlier two novels.

Favorite Quote

“But human faces are so interesting,” said I. “Yes, to be sure. But when you are looking at one face, you are not looking at another. You are privileging that face. You are deciding who is worthy of observation and who is not. You are choosing who is worth preserving.”

Reflections

There’s No Perfect Writing Process

Image result for the secret miracleMy local library carries a copy of The Secret Miracle, an edited collection of author interviews about the writing craft. I have no intention of reading the book from cover to cover, but I spent an hour late last week exploring the writing routines of a diverse array of successful authors.

And what I learned, surprised me.

I have written before about the dangers of romanticizing writing. The process is messy and hard. Yet, I often assume that all successful authors have type A personalities with strict writing routines. The Secret Miracle pokes holes in the common writing advice that I’ve encountered on AuthorTube or in the writing blogosphere.

True, most of the authors interviewed treat writing as a job with fixed hours, but they don’t all write everyday. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that few authors follow their outlines to a T or rush first drafts. Ultimately, the only “secret miracle” to writing is perseverance.

How long does it take you to finish a draft?

Rodrigo Fresán: I don’t write thinking about a first draft. I edit all the time while writing. Because the first finished version is the only one (and maybe it is the tenth or twentieth draft).

Like Fresán, I edit as I write. I used to be ashamed of my slow writing speed, but many authors, it seems, take ages to produce a polished “first” draft.

How polished do you try to make the prose in a first draft?

Susan Minot: Pretty well polished. Though I do line edit afterward. But the polish is the difference between good writing and average writing.

Claire Messud: Doesn’t everyone always try to write as well as they can, at any given moment? I can’t imagine not caring, whatever draft I’m dealing with. It’s a matter of aesthetics, as much as anything – infelicities, it seems to me, should be deliberate, not a matter of inattention; because they mean something too.

Do you outline? If so, how closely do you follow it?

Andrew Sean Greer: I write a very careful outline and then abandon it halfway through. It is always a difficult moment for me, but of course I know that it is crucial to follow the way the story has grown, even if it means leaving the road and bushwacking my way to the end.

I always have a detailed outline before I start writing an academic paper, but I realize soon enough that my outline contains massive holes. I often produce three or four different outlines while writing my so-called first draft.

If, like me, you spend ages writing a first draft because you don’t always know what you want to say or you are not satisfied with sloppy writing, take heart! You’re not alone. There is no one ideal writing process. Don’t be discouraged by the writing advice you find in self-help books; they work for some people but not for everyone. Find what works for you, and go with that. As long as you reach the finish line, it doesn’t matter that you write slower than your colleagues.

Reflections

Not Dead, Just AWOL (PhD and This Blog)

I am currently beginning the dissertation phase of my PhD. That is my excuse for neglecting to blog for the past few months, despite having read some great works. For most of the summer, I have read books related to my research interests (15th and 16th-century life writing). I have also begun turning a term paper into a journal article. “Begun” is the key word because I’ve only worked for two hours on the paper the entire summer. I tell myself that I’m early in my doctorate program, so it doesn’t matter that I haven’t worked seriously on the article all summer. Nevertheless, I need to adopt some kind of writing routine to reach all of the deadlines that I have set for myself.

But none of this explains why I have not written reviews for the books that I’ve read. The real reason is lack of interest. For some reason, I have not wanted to write reviews for by Luther Blissett or Orlando Furioso by Ariosto. I don’t think that I have grown tired of this blog. On the contrary, I have a list of posts about reading and writing that I’ve wanted to publish for the past six months. It is true, however, that I am less interested in promoting well-known classics than I used to be.

My blog has evolved over the years. I started in 2014, when I was 21 years old. At the time, the blog was called Exploring Classics. I even created a Classics Club list, with the intention of reading those 50 classics in 5 years. I’ve abandoned that project for the past three years. I am now 27, having completed a 2-year master’s program and 2 years into a PhD program. My intellectual and research interests have changed over the years. And of course, I have grown in maturity. Each time, I have adjusted the layout of the blog. Two years ago, I finally gave in and bought a domain name. So Exploring Classics is now Exploring Literature.

Perhaps, I am concerned about what people might think if I were to write about my academic writing struggles. Vulnerability is not my strong suit. But at this point in my academic career, I have experienced some challenges that I want to write about. Other academics may find them relatable. I will continue to post reviews of some of the books I’ve read, but I want to explore literature from a different angle than I have in the past. Rather than focusing predominantly on reviews, I will write more writing and research-related reflections.

I hope that making this post will encourage me to finally make the many posts that I’ve wanted to make for the past few months. Let me know if there are academia-related topics that you would like me to cover on this blog. Thanks for sticking around.

Historical Fiction, Kent, Hannah

Review of Burial Rites

Image result for burial ritesHannah Kent’s debut Burial Rites is a historical novel about the final days of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman beheaded in Iceland in the early 19th-century. Agnes is accused of complicity in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson. At the beginning of the novel, the District Commissioner assigns Agnes to a family in rural Kornsá, where she must live and work until execution day. As you might expect, Jón and Margrét are not too pleased to have an infamous murderess living under their roof. Only one of their two daughters – Steina – tries to befriend Agnes. Lauga is repulsed by her presence. On her request, Agnes is also assigned a spiritual adviser named Thorvardur (Tóti) Jónsson. Though only an assistant priest, Tóti must accompany Agnes to her execution. Agnes remembered meeting him as a child.

Because Burial Rites is told alternatively in first and third person narrative, the reader encounters Agnes’ stories through several perspectives. In addition to giving us an intimate portrait of one woman, Hannah Kent introduces us to life in 19th-century rural Iceland. Daily chores include gutting sheep, preparing and cooking blood sausages, and stoking a fire with dung. The novel is powerful and intimate without being overly sentimental.

I can’t believe that I’ve put off reading historical fiction for so long! It is really the perfect genre for a literature student who works on stories from the archives. And Kent’s novel brings the past to life. The setting, the characters, and the dialogue are so compelling that I did not want to put the book down. Agnes’ host family may not be facing execution, but their lives are far from uneventful. They face heavy snowstorms and violent illnesses. Yet, nearly all of the characters are literate; Agnes is described as a lover of the sagas despite being a poor farmhand. Kent reminds the reader that Iceland has had one of the highest literacy rates in the world since the 19th century.

Female executions are rarely discussed in fiction or real life. Burial Rites deserves all of the acclaim that it has received. This work is beautifully-written and thought-provoking in its simplicity. I look forward to reading other works by Hannah Kent.

Reflections

5 Things I Learned From Presenting at a Language & Literature Conference

The Great Benefits of Attending Academic ConferencesI presented a paper at a major language and literature conference in the region. It was a great experience! I met scholars and was introduced to new texts in my sub-discipline (Late Medieval/Renaissance France).

Here are 5 things that I learned from the experience:

1) Never underestimate the importance of giving background information in a presentation. After spending nearly four months working on Louis de Berquin – the “Protestant” translator whose trial accounts I analyzed at the Kentucky Foreign Language Conference (KFLC) – I falsely assumed that Berquin was well-known to most Renaissance scholars. Thankfully, I provided a lot of background information about the political state of France in the early 16th-century because the early modernists in my panel had never heard of Berquin.

2) Present your argument clearly and near the start of your presentation. Listeners will be lost if they do not know what your argument is. In the first draft of my paper, I put my argument at the end of my fourth page but a fellow graduate student told me to move it to the first or second page. I’m glad I heeded his advice.

3) Bring a visual (either a handout or a PowerPoint). Not only does a visual keep people awake, it helps with the presentation of complex plot structures and ideas.

4) Speak slowly. Better to speak slowly and go under time by a couple of minutes than to speak quickly and barely make the time – or in the case of one presenter, get through only the first half of your paper and go over time by three minutes .*sigh*

5) Listen to questions and suggestions. Audience questions and comments can be valuable. It’s OK to disagree with someone’s claim, but please be respectful and open to suggestions. Talking over an audience member is rude and counter-productive. Conferences can be great opportunities to grow as a scholar, but you cannot grow if you are unwilling to listen and learn from others. Yes, comments-veiled-as-questions can be irritating, but even more irritating is the speaker who doesn’t know when to stop speaking.

If you have presented at academic conferences, what have you learned from the experience?

Reflections

Stop Saying That Good Writers Are Born

Image result for self-defeatismI strongly dislike the debate over whether a good writer is born or made. It fosters a defeatist mentality. Why do we feel the need to ask this question in the first place?

I particularly dislike this debate because it’s so hard to evaluate. Who do we consider a “good” writer? Because this debate often comes up in writing circles, my assumption is that a good writer has been published and has won a few literary awards. But are all successful writers good writers on an aesthetic level? Are all unpublished writers bad writers? Do all good writers get published?

I can name many authors who have written New York Times bestsellers but who would probably not get As from their English teachers. But their books are published and have been optioned for movies. Isn’t that the dream for many writers? There are equally as many writers with MFA degrees that have never published a single book. Are they bad writers?

To statistically determine whether good authors (however defined) are born or made, we could conduct a large-scale study on the childhood interests of such authors. Maybe all of them were prodigious writers at a very young age. But I doubt it. Time and time again, we hear stories about critically acclaimed authors who took up writing late in life. My favorite children’s author Roald Dahl was ridiculed by his teachers and told that he would never amount to anything.

And yet, so many people feel the need to say that writers either “have it” or they don’t. What’s the point? If success is defined by publication or prize, then an unpublished writer always has the potential to be published. An unpublished writer could become a published writer whose story sets the tone for how other unpublished writers see their own work.

There’s no point in asking yourself whether a good writer is born or made. No matter who the writer, writing requires discipline and practice. Unless you are on your deathbed, you – the unpublished, unrecognized writer – could become a published, recognized author. But only if you write and finish a project.

Let’s stop promoting the defeatist belief that artists are born, not made. In Academia, we use the term “impostor syndrome” to refer to that false belief that you do not belong in a graduate program or the professoriate. Impostor syndrome is particularly sinister when it is cultivated in us by our friends and mentors. Stop allowing other people to define success for you or to limit your potential. Stop self-sabotaging your own career or hobby. Work on improving your craft.