South of Resurrection

 

resurrection

book by Jonis Agee

annotation by Tisha Reichle

Before I sign up for a workshop or class with any writer, I always read at least one of her books. If she has multiple novels, I choose the one that has some element similar to what I’m doing with my own writing. I selected South of Resurrection by Jonis Agee because it is in a rural setting with characters who are not wealthy; these are the people of my childhood. The characters also battle nature and a history of racism; this has been the chaos of my adulthood.

Immediately, Agee sets the stage with a place where the narrator, Moline, will experience turmoil. After 23 years away, Moline returns to her home town of Resurrection, “the sort of no-count, nowhere place … [that] could not be revived to a bedraggled glory” (1). The character’s musing about the place establishes her as an outsider who only crawls back home because she is broken and has no place else to go. The tension created between person and place makes the town of Resurrection a character in the novel, one that wreaks havoc on numerous relationships, not just on Moline’s. I want to make the setting of my novel come to life in that same way.

The character of Resurrection intensifies as the region experiences weather extremes. In the middle of a conversation with her childhood friend, Titus, who is the town’s preacher at the black church, Moline notices the “steady darkening of the sky from the clouds bellying up against the hills … the hollow went dim and smoky as if there were a fire just beneath the scattered pine needles and last year’s leaves underfoot” (180). The foreboding weather precedes a warning to Moline from Titus’s wife; she wants Moline to leave and take the trouble she’s stirring up with her.

Agee’s use of colloquialisms, gives Moline a distinct voice, representing the Ozark region in its glory and gloom. Early in the first chapter, one of the essential themes surfaces in the line, “Dreams hunkered down, refusing to be driven out” (3). Initially, Moline is critical of others and clearly indicates her stay is temporary. She mocks them, increasing the tension between herself and the people of Resurrection. She is clearly trying to avoid returning to some conflict from her past. But it is inevitable. She characterizes her attraction to Dayrell, “like going underwater, the sinking inside, all the resistance going away, the weight overhead insistent as a hand pushing me down” (231). In a town this small, she cannot avoid him, the man she once loved.  Or his horrible brother, McCall. This antagonist has no redeeming qualities, according to Moline. She looks at him with “the numb panic of the frog when it sees inside the dark of the snake’s open jaws” (185). But he is as complex as the other characters, manipulating his brother and charming the women of Resurrection out of their land, money, and dreams. He is a predator and Agee develops him with grace.

In spite of strong opposition from her own cousin, Pearl, Moline eventually tries to establish new dreams in Resurrection. With the help of several formidable female characters, including Great Aunt Walker and the sometimes weak, Lukey, Moline faces the abusive men and capitalist intrusion with resilience and determination. Agee has a cast of complex people who are damaged by their families’ past but determined to change the community into what they think is best for everyone.

Agee also uses detailed descriptions of furniture, buildings, and the natural surroundings to parallel the torment each character experiences. Moline helps her Aunt Walker and Uncle Able at their hotel, one that “even the special viciousness of raiders and occupying armies could not put an end to, that even the dying-out Rains family would not allow to expire, a hotel that housed not only the racial history of this town, but also the story of everyone and everything in its museum. If there was anything permanent at all, it was the Rains hotel” (212). This parallelism is effective at contrasting the weary tone Agee creates to portray the people and the land triumphant.

There are religious undertones scattered throughout the story as well; it is to be expected in the South. One character is a preacher and several are clearly God-fearing, Bible-beating, devout believers. In sharp contrast, Moline is skeptical and denies any belief. “Praying hadn’t worked before …God and I hadn’t been on speaking terms since I left Resurrection. No reason to think He was even listening anymore. It just seemed like one of the things you try when you hear the sounds of the well being capped above you” (169). Until she decides that she wants to hang on to her tumultuous relationship and remain attached to the dysfunctional community she is determined to protect.

Most prominently, this is a haunting novel, where a present-day mystery in the town is clearly connected to Moline’s dark past, the reason why she scurried out of Resurrection at sixteen and never looked back. With this added layer of conflict, Agee established the need for me to keep reading, turning each page looking for answers and hoping for resolution. It is not a fairy tale ending, but there is satisfaction in what she leaves unresolved.

Animal Dreams

Animal Dreamsbook by Barbara Kingsolver

annotation by Tisha Reichle

Returning to her home town of Grace, Arizona, Cosima Noline (Codi) reunites with her friend Emelina but remains estranged from her ailing father. She takes a job as a biology teacher and discovers the town is ailing too. She also discovers secrets about her own family. Much of Kingsolver’s created family will guide me as I revise my own novel. My hope is to create that bond between people and place the way she has with the characters and Grace.

Codi’s sister, Halimeda (Hallie) has abandonded her in Arizona and is helping restore Nicaragua. This forces Codi to confront her father and unpleasant childhood memories alone. She also has to confront her sexual past and the man who eventually helps her see her own strengths and learn how to love herself.

Kingsolver artfully alternates point of view from Codi in first person to her father, Homero (Doc Homer), in 3rd person. For him, Kingsolver creates a disconnected perspective allowing readers to empathize with his deteriorating mind. Ironically, Codi as she narrates her own life she should be more in control of her own destiny, but readers soon see that is NOT the case.

The conflicts, though numerous, are believable. Codi struggles with her father’s illness, being back in Grace, her own professional apathy, her own sexuality, her sister in Nicaragua, and the memories of her mother’s death. When I list them like this it seems overwhelming, but Kingsolver has connected each person to his/her obstacle and then released him/her to resolution. I strive to have all the nuances in my own fiction evolve in this manner.

Kingsolver also weaves the Arizona desert landscape and isolated rural life eloquently into Codi’s educated consciousness. Assisted by Loyd, her Native American lover, Codi begins to see the beauty in what has always surrounded her. In this setting, she finally accepts her physical and professional insecurities. She is inspired to work for social change in her own community which finally enables her to gain self-confidence and become a permanent part of her cultural and familial history.

As a reader, I finish this novel inspired to change some injustice in my own community. This is what I want to achieve in my own writing. I want readers to be moved to action by my words.

Mama Day

Mama Daybook by Gloria Naylor

annotation by Tisha Reichle

Throughout the novel I was enthralled by the settings and intrigued by the powerful female characters. At the end, however, I was not sure exactly what happened. Was the life of one human being sacrificed so that a family legacy could continue? Was it voodoo or cultural necessity?

This is a novel about an intricate web of traditional Southern black people with powerful women at the center. In spite of being from a different race/culture, I see my female ancestors’ strengths in the women of Willow Springs; I also see our flaws. Through the people living isolated on the island of Willow Springs, I learned to appreciate the intimacy of a small town and be grateful I no longer have to suffocate in one.

The complexities of Naylor’s narrative rest in the relationship between two sisters (Miranda and Abigail) and their great niece/granddaughter (Ophelia – Cocoa). Cocoa has worries of her own in New York – find a job and find a man. Only when Cocoa has both can she return to Willow Springs and participate in the town ritual as a woman. The man she finds (George Andrews) has no past, but becomes part of the Day family, one with a legacy steeped superstition. On the island, Cocoa and George are confronted with evil forces conjured by a jealous woman after a big storm. The combined strength of Miranda (Mama Day) and the voices whispering from the other side keep death at bay. However, George is the only one who can complete the life and death cycle so the next generation of Days in Willow Springs can flourish. Does this mean they had to be rescued by a man?

In spite of the uncertainty, I loved Naylor’s structure and organization; it enabled me to enjoy the various points of view and it is also a good model for what I am doing with the characters in my own novel. Without the confines of chapters, Naylor’s sequence of events can flow more freely. My structure is hindered, I think, by the need to have characters names every time I change point of view. What Naylor does with the three diamonds is less disruptive and more conducive to occasional brief sections (which I have).

Spiritual magic is the other inspiration Naylor offers for my writing. I wrote one short story that ends with the death of the protagonist’s grandfather, and I want to build a collection around that with each story having some element of magical realism. I definitely want to read (and re-read) more of Naylor’s work.

The Hummingbird’s Daughter

Hummingbirds DaughterBook by Luis Alberto Urrea

Annotation by Tisha Reichle

This journey begins with the conquest, coffee, and Dia de los Muertos as Cayetana waits to give birth. Throughout the novel this same tension exists between the political, the natural, and the spiritual. Urrea tells a detailed family story infused with cultural history. I learned a great deal about the geography and people of various regions. I was also traumatized by the mother who abandons her child; however, that immediately gave the novel its universality. This is a phenomenon that plagues my own community across race and class. Unfortunately, it is also too often unacknowledged. While it may not have been Urrea’s intentions, he inspires social consciousness.

Using vivid imagery, Urrea paints Mexico as a land of adventure and political problems. Alternating between male and female protagonists, urea allows them both to have a voice. Teresita grows up on the trip and replaces Huila as curandera for their rancho. She expands her healing powers after her own resurrection. Huila dies.

Huila is my favorite character because of her knowledge and strength; she is feminine in a way not normally revered by men. Teresita’s father, Tomas, entertains readers with his womanizing, beekeeping, and skepticism. He provides Urrea the opportunity to infuse humor into his text. Complicating their lives are Tomas’s two sons: one the offspring of his wife Loreto and the other illegitimate like Teresita. All of the characters are unique and present a distinctly identifiable perspective throughout their travels.

Conflicts ensue when Teresita wants to read and her father (at first) discourages it. He is master and all (even the bees apparently) obey. That is until he is forced to confront Buenaventura and his son, Jose Francisco and he must acknowledge that Teresita is his daughter.

Women turn to god and faith in times of duress, but we see many of the male characters responding with violence. Urrea is making commentary about the state of Mexico’s society. He also offers contrasting perspectives on religion with the resurrection of Tereista, Cruz’s worship of her, her father’s denial, and Fr. Gastelum’s accusations. Readers are challenged to create their own impressions.

This novel is both love story and adventure tale. It is the kind of fiction I aspire to create; the kind that weaves familial reality with the cultural and political history of a nation.

Woman Hollering Creek

Woman Hollering CreekBook by Sandra Cisneros

Annotation by Tisha Reichle

The women of Cisneros’s stories are flawed creatures; that is what makes them so real. Unlike traditional heroines, they don’t always win. The narrator and her comadres are women that readers from varying cultural backgrounds can relate to. Cisneros expands the virgin-whore dichotomy to illustrate other types of women. Some of her characters praise men, others blame men, but they all assert their woman-ness proudly.

Some of the stories, like “Eleven” and “Barbie-Q,” echo the childhood conflicts Cisneros focused on in The House On Mango Street. The narrator recalls a school incident that brought her shame on her eleventh birthday and a fire that damaged the toy store. Through these accounts, she illuminates her unfortunate economic circumstances.
Most of the description, however, are sexual, abusive, and yet filled with faith. In “One Holy Night,” a young girl loses her virginity to a man who vanishes, bringing shame to her family. In “Never Marry a Mexican,” girls are warned about the consequences of making bad choices. In “Woman Hollering Creek” a woman endures the will of men (father and husband) until rescued by other women. In the face of serious obstacles, Cisneros’s women (young and mature) persevere; they are models of strength and inspirations for future generations of women. Cisneros gives women who have not been listened to an opportunity to be heard.

She also employs a unique narrative structure. Some of the individual stories possess a reader in a brief snapshot – no dialogue and no real plot. Others have a more traditional beginning, middle, and end with the narrator sharing what others say but not in conventional dialogue. Others are even more experimental with simultaneously alternating conversations, an acrostic poem, lists, letters, and advertisements inserted to move the plot along. Many of the longer pieces have interesting scene breaks – sometimes brief fragments of memory separate the actual action.

Reading this text empowers me as a Chicana, as a Feminist, and as a writer. I am encouraged by Cisneros’s words to reach deeper into my subconscious and extract the silenced voices of my ancestors.