Time/Dates: Tuesdays from 3 – 5:00pm beginning September 12 – October 24, 2017. The final session on October 24, 2017 will run three hours (2 – 5:00pm) in order to accommodate a reading by participants.
Location: Writers’ Workshoppe & Imprint Books
820 Water Street, Port Townsend, WA.
You can register for this class after May 10, 2017.
General Summary: As part of her Goddard MFA in Creative Writing, Pamela Moore Dionne will offer 7 workshops once a week for seven weeks at 2-hours each plus a 1-hour reading by workshop participants at the end of the final session. That means the final session on October 24th will start at 2:00pm and go till 5:00pm. (Refreshments will be provided for the reading.) This workshop is offered at no fee for ten participants. The sessions will focus on writing scenes and creating believable characters. The workshop series is open to those interested in writing fiction or creative nonfiction. In other words, if you want to write a novel or a memoir this series can help you build your narrative scene-by-scene and character-by-character. The workshop will focus on developing plausible character arcs within a scene. Interwoven into each session will be an examination of the narrative arc that is essential to storytelling. Excerpts from work by authors such as Barbara Kingsolver, John Gardner, Octavia Butler and Charles Baxter will give us an opportunity to examine narrative technique and also to practice close reading. Students will learn to critique using a system based on Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process. Writing prompts will be introduced as ways to approach already existing work or to stimulate new work. Students will be given time to create writing inspired by the prompts. We will learn how to critique in a supportive atmosphere that fosters each writer’s work. The final meeting will be a reading by participants of narratives created during the workshop. Students should bring writing supplies or laptops to each session.
Poet and writer Pamela Moore Dionne’s work has appeared in a number of journals including Shenandoah and Pontoon. She was a Jack Straw writer and received their Artist Support Grant to record a CD of her Sabina Spielrein Ghazal series. Dionne earned a Centrum residency and an Artist Trust Gap Grant. Her visual art has been published in journals and presented in one-woman shows. Other credits include founding and managing the online art & literature journal Literary Salt. She was also the founder of Discovery Bay Games. Currently she is enrolled in the Goddard College MFAW program.
The Missing Voice of Tyranny in the Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The Poisonwood Bible is a novel that uses five different voices to tell the story of Nathan Price and his family who go to the Belgian Congo in 1959 as itinerate Baptist missionaries. The only adult narrator is Orleanna Price, Nathan’s wife. The other narrative voices belong to the couple’s four daughters. Rachel is fifteen when they arrive in Kilanga Village. The twins Leah and Adah are twelve and Ruth May is six. The age differences alone make for distinctive narrative variations as the plot line unfolds. But each narrator also has a personality that reveals itself through her telling of the tale as she sees it. It is a compelling way to tell a story from five different perspectives while giving new information to each retelling of the same event. What this does for the story is layer it in a way that reveals more than a single narrator would be able to do. But the most telling piece of narrative technique Kingsolver uses in The Poisonwood Bible is the missing voice, that of Nathan Price. In a narrative where language and communication – or more accurately miscommunication – act as a central theme we understand that a considered perspective cannot be delivered by a man who refuses to listen to any voice other than his own. He relies on judgmental dogma that doesn’t allow for input different from what he already believes. In the pages of this novel Nathan is a tyrant oppressing his family in much the same way that a foreign government oppresses villagers in places like Kilanga.
The foolhardiness in Nathan’s attitude becomes apparent when he ignores Mama Tataba’s instructions on how to plant his vegetable garden in Kilanga. (39-40) Because of his refusal to listen, he handles poisonwood and breaks out with a painful rash, loses his first crop to flooding and later finds that the plants he has chosen to bring with him from America have no pollinators in Kilanga. So he creates a very showy garden that flowers profusely yet never produces any fruits for his labor. Essentially this is the perfect metaphor for Nathan himself, showy but without substance. Nathan has stepped into a world so utterly different than the one he left in Bethlehem, Georgia that the only logical thing to do would be to listen to locals. They are his only chance to learn how to survive in this new world to which he has brought his family. The villagers know from generations of experience what works and what does not. But Nathan believes God is testing him and to win almighty approval he must bend the village and the land to his will. How very colonial of this man with all of his proselytizing.
Nathan’s missing narrative helps to define him as incapable of self-examination. But more than that it allows his wife and daughters to observe him as though he’s a member of a different species of animal altogether. This creates the right atmosphere for readers to recognize him as a metaphor for a larger concept of usurper. Nathan represents the bullish manner in which the Belgians and the U.S. treat Africans and their national resources in this novel. Nathan with his total disregard for his wife and daughters and his disdain for the villagers he has come to convert mirrors the way western governments colonize third world countries. Kingsolver has chosen to set this novel at a time in history when the Belgian Congo was experiencing the beginnings of a pro-independence movement. This political unrest is mirrored by the burgeoning unrest within the Price family against the tyrannical despot that Nathan Price has become. The way the narrative works in supporting this construct is by showing readers a man who rules his own family unreasonably. He does whatever he decides to do with total disregard for his wife or his children’s welfare. Belgium’s King Leopold II governs his African colony with this same disregard for its citizens’ welfare. Both Nathan and Leopold see their subjects as tools to be used rather than individuals who think and feel and are worthy of respect. In these men’s minds, only the patriarch holds a purpose or position that can be considered as having merit.
Ultimately, Nathan is abandoned in Africa by his family and is seen by villagers as an evil spirit who can turn himself into a crocodile. It is the process by which he holds himself separate that sets Nathan up for one small disaster after another leading to a finality he is unable to see coming. He is shunned and eventually killed by villagers who suspect his crocodile-self of causing a group of children to drown in the river. Nathan’s inability to listen, empathize and communicate clearly is what causes his failure as a father, a husband and a missionary. The fact that he doesn’t narrate any of his own story sets him apart as does his inability to communicate with other characters within the pages of this novel. Because of these factors he is never actually able to bring about change in anyone, including himself. He is the only member of his family who doesn’t evolve. The reader is left with a sense of the way arrogance has caused tyrants to fail throughout history.
Edwidge Danticat’s novel Breath, Eyes, Memory demonstrates how immigrants bring their home culture ethos with them when arriving in a new country and how that makes assimilation difficult. The novel gives us a view of the better life that many immigrants hope America will deliver. This narrative achieves its purpose using gender issues, race issues, and divided loyalties. Danticat supports much of her premise through Haitian folk tales, which gives us a sense of the richness that is left behind but also of the ways in which oppression can be fostered.
In this view of Haiti during a time of violent political upheaval we meet four powerful women whose lives are affected by the way men value them. We witness the way these women respond to the values, or lack thereof, that Haitian men place on women. “Our men, they insist that their women are virgins and have their ten fingers.” (Danticat 150) This statement leads Sophie Caco to reflect on something her Tante Atie told her when she was just a child. Atie says that a woman’s ten fingers were given names before she was born. Purpose is embedded in those names: Mothering, Boiling, Loving, Baking, Nursing, Frying, Healing, Washing, Ironing and Scrubbing. (Danticat 151) In this we are given a Haitian woman’s value and begin to see the culture as controlled by men since it’s highly unlikely that these are the only purposes women would list for themselves. We learn from Tante Atie of Grandma Ife’s “testing” her daughters to be certain of their virginal purity. She tells Sophie how debased it made her feel to have her mother’s fingers probing inside her vagina to make sure she was intact. It is not women who value virginity so this is an imposed value that has been accepted as part of the norm that all good Haitian women adhere to in order to fit the standard. That this tradition follows Sophie when she immigrates to America at the age of twelve to join her mother, Martine, is clear later when Martine insists on “testing” Sophie. (Danticat 83) So we are given evidence that assimilation into a new culture and letting go of old traditions is a difficult if not impossible task.
Sophie has been told that America is a magical land of opportunity but she arrives in New York to find her mother, Martine, exhausted from working two jobs. Martine drives a shabby car and Sophie can feel springs when she sits in the front seat. (Danticat 39) Furthermore, the streets of the city are littered with garbage. Sophie’s expectations of a new and better life are suspect at this point in the narrative. She doesn’t speak English and must learn it. The food is unlike anything she has known before and her loyalties are torn between her Tante Atie who raised her and this mother who has only ever been a photograph and a voice on a tape machine. Sophie is out of synch in this new culture but as we move further into the narrative we understand that Martine is also.
To add to Sophie’s difficulties in her new country the novel gives us a view of extreme differences between the richness of her social life in the small town of Croix-des-Rosets, Haiti and her isolation in New York City. In her American school she endures racism that keeps her on the outside of relationships with classmates. Kristopher Hansson in his essay on cultural camouflage says that people tend to hide certain characteristics in order to blend into a social setting that is more desirable. (Hansson) There is no way for Sophie to hide the color of her skin in order to fit in. In contrast to Sophie’s mute acceptance, her mother constantly applies a bleaching cream to her own skin in an attempt to fit an American ideal. But because, initially, Martine lives close to immigrants from her country of origin and socializes exclusively in an enclave that is largely Haitian, she never really achieves assimilation. This plus the fact that Martine sends money home to Grandma Ife means Martine must work one job during the day and another at night. This severely limits her ability to learn American norms in order to adapt to them. Her mother working two jobs means that Sophie is essentially alone in this new country whereas the small town in Haiti where she grew up was filled with community. Clearly there are many forms of oppression besides the political violence Haitian immigrants have come to America to escape.
Danticat uses Haitian folk tales to further demonstrate the affect of Haitian culture on Sophie and her family. Tante Atie, Grandma Ife and Martine all use these tales to demonstrate Haitian ideals that control women and men. They repeat these tales to the young and malleable Sophie. In fact, Sophie is so inculcated by the stories that she returns to one before she breaks her own hymen. It is a story of the bleeding woman who seems incurable. The woman visits the goddess Erzulie who is femininity embodied in Vodoun religious practices. In this myth, which Sophie repeats to herself, the bleeding woman must give up being human in order to stop bleeding. She must become something other, be it plant or animal. As the woman considers her options she thinks of the animals that are captive and those that are free. She chooses to become a butterfly. At this point Sophie destroys the part of herself that has held her captive to her mother’s “testing.” So stories are also part of the culture that stays with us when we immigrate to a different country. They are often the guides that teach us how to be who we are expected to be within any ethos. In this instance Sophie chooses a freedom myth to give her the courage to change her current paradigm.
Arthur W. Frank, professor of sociology and core faculty at the Center for Narrative Practice in Boston has written several books that examine the way narrative story works within any culture. One of his major premises is this:
“Stories animate human life; that is their work. Stories work with people, for people, and always stories work on people, affecting what people are able to see as real, as possible, and as worth doing or best avoided.” (Frank)
That Danticat uses folk tales throughout Breath, Eyes, Memory tells us she is fully aware of the importance of these stories and how they influence behavior within a group. We are given subtle yet persuasive evidence of the power of one’s first culture when Martine insists on “testing” Sophie years after both she and her daughter left Haiti and immigrated to America. Even Tante Atie and Grandma Ife display the importance of these tales in their responses to each other, which are often delivered in story parables. When Sophie attacks the cane in the field where her mother was raped, Grandma Ife and Tante Atie shout the traditional Haitian storyteller’s question of “Ou libere?” (Are you free?) (Danticat 238)
In contrast to the way men in Haiti are represented, once we reach New York we are given a different male archetype. Martine’s lover Marc is Haitian but evolved enough to accept Martine as she is. He is even welcoming to her daughter Sophie. Sophie’s husband, Joseph, is accepting of who Sophie is. He doesn’t react except to worry about her when she leaves without telling him that she’s going to visit her family in Haiti. But these men are only lightly sketched into the overall story because Danticat is tightly focused on the four women at the narrative’s center. And in a novel so bound to the idea of immigration it is mostly Sophie and Martine who struggle with assimilating in a new culture.
We do have evidence that Sophie is Americanized when she goes jogging while in Haiti. This is in distinct contrast with the behavioral norms of women in her country of origin. Sophie notices the puzzled expressions on faces as if people are thinking, “Is this what happens to our girls when they leave this place? They become such frightened creatures that they run like the wind, from nothing at all.” (Danticat 158) There is other evidence that shows Sophie has assimilated further than her mother did. For one thing, she sees a therapist regularly. She is also a member of a women’s therapy group. None of these are things her mother would have seen as helpful for a “good Haitian woman.” Sophie will never totally reject her cultural heritage. Her family ties bind her to some traditions. She, though, has the option to pick and choose what she will keep. She is the transition between cultures and her daughter is the first of the American line of the Caco family.
In spite of the bleak first impression Sophie has of America and her divided loyalties between what was and what is, by the end of the novel we see that she has managed to find her own place in the new culture. Through her women’s group she has an avenue to assimilate without losing herself and all of her traditions.
Danticat, Edwidge. Breath, Eyes, Memory. New York: Vintage Books, 1998. Print.
Hansson, Kristopher. “Camouflage” in Orvar Löfgren and Richard R. Wilk, eds. “Off the Edge: Experiments in Cultural Analysis. Ethnologia Europaea, Vol 35. Museum Tuscalunlanum Press, 2006. Excerpted and reprinted in Camoupedia. http://camoupedia.blogspot.com/2010/03/cultural-camouflage.html
Frank, Arthur. Letting Stories Breathe: 2010. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s9676.pdf
Admiration, Envy and Resentment in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Short Story, “Fatherland”
Viet Thanh Nguyen gives us entry into complex family dynamics when he opens the short story “Fatherland” with the statement, “It was a most peculiar thing to do. Everyone said so who heard the story, of how Phuong’s father had named his second set of children after his first.” This rumination leads immediately into the second born Phuong’s envious declaration that “her father’s other children were much more blessed.” In this single phrase you have an inkling of Phuong’s envy and resentment even though it is veiled in admiration. This is the inner conflict that gives us a tension strong enough to carry the story forward. The statement is delivered as an oblique observation that hints at the emotion behind it. Nguyen approaches the internal landscape of his characters in Fatherland via external physical action, reaction and observation. It is this approach that allows the necessary subtlety to affect readers without becoming cloyingly sentimental.
Based on letters and photos of the first Phuong sent home by the first Mrs. Ly we learn several things. Phuong number one is taller, fairer skinned, wears better clothes, has a better education and, thanks to a practice in pediatrics, is independent. Basically she’s everything that makes Phuong number two feel less worthy than the first. This is further reinforced by the fact that though the second daughter is intelligent enough to earn a degree in biology she works as a mere hostess in a restaurant. So Phuong number two has not been strong enough to break free of a sense of unworthiness in contrast with her sister. The reason for her poor sense of self comes directly from her father and becomes clear as we read, “He often compared Phuong to her absent namesake, which had cultivated both a sense of yearning for this sister and some undeniable jealousy.” (5) This statement shows that our point of view character has some self-awareness that may serve her later.
Nguyen further reveals how Mr. Ly values his first daughter over the second when stating that there are photos of only the first young woman. They are laminated, protected, even kept close at hand. By this readers are free to assume a few things. Since no photos of the second Phuong are mentioned, we assume there are none. Though Mr. Ly does take a photo as the sisters exit a Ferris wheel ride, Phuong two is cut out of the frame leaving only her older sister. The second daughter is a nonentity as far as her father is concerned and so Phuong two’s envy and resentment of both her sister and her father is believable. This remains at a subtext level until late in the story. The tension underlying the narrative at this point is not made entirely clear but we learn that the little sister has a secret. Phuong number one represents possibility for the younger woman. If given the same opportunities, could the less fortunate sibling accomplish just as much as her sister? There’s a kind of hopeful fantasy going on here that keeps the second sister from truly embracing her resentments. They remain at a slight remove.
Envy is born of admiration in this story though we find later that the first family’s success is a sham invented by the ex wife. The things that have produced the second born daughter’s yearning are for the most part unreal. However, her father’s apparent preference for the version of Phuong now going by the name Vivien seems quite real and is later reinforced.
There is some evidence that Phuong’s view of her father is already complicated when she observes him with pity but without respect. While the first family’s apparent success is not entirely true, they seem to have done well enough in their new homeland for the oldest daughter to travel. In contrast, the second family remaining in Vietnam has struggled through re-education camp and poverty. At one point Vivien acknowledges that she spent money on Phuong and her family because they have, “never been anywhere.” This indicates that Vivien has been more fortunate.
The most telling indicator of Phuong’s changing emotional landscape occurs after Vivien has left. By this time Phuong knows that her sister is not a doctor and that the first wife has been lying in her letters. Vivien sends a letter and photos back to her father and the second family. Through Phuong’s inner observations we see a new cynicism. We get glimpses of several passages in the letter that she feels show her sister’s hypocrisy. When Mr. Ly tells her to take the photos and have them laminated for an album she speaks from her truth for the first time, “What for?” Her father’s shock lets us know that this is not the norm he expects.
When a photo is taken of both sisters at the end of the visit, Phuong is finally present in the frame. She stands unsmiling beside her apparently happy sister in an ao dai that she was forced to wear. Here is where the movement from innocence to awareness is clear and where the possibility for freedom begins. When she finally burns the photos of her sister’s trip she is burning the illusions with which she masked her hope and envy. She has fully embraced her resentment.