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Journal 1

Dear Journal,

Alas, I have returned for one more semester to tell you of my adventures in World Literature. Like a sailor in a small boat, I have gathered with me only the bare essentials as I head out, to travel the stormy waters of Africa, Europe and Latin America.

When I last left off I was reading Sherman Alexi, and life-writing, and now I find myself immersed in the countries of Alabania, Sudan, Columbia, and Antigua and Barbuda.

This week I read 4 stories. The first I read was “The Country Where No One Ever Dies” about a girl being raised by her aunt, a very cruel woman. The girl narrates the story in a stream of consciousness kind of format, moving from idea to idea so that it is not entirely a story, but we learn about her life in a sequential organized way.

I found myself quite disturbed as I read the story, for the writer does not hold back with description of very brutal assumptions about the world. And on top of it, I know that it’s the character of a girl telling me, for instance, that women are practically expected to sew themselves up for their man when he returns so that she may be as tight as she was on their wedding day. And all of this is what is being taught to her.

Journal, I find it difficult to talk about some of these issues and I can’t place my finger on exactly why. There is a level of extremely uncomfortable tension when I read about the stitching up the womb. I find myself almost wanting to set the book down, but what makes the story powerful, instead of disturbing, is that we need to see that in order to understand why her mother dies, and why it’s so difficult for her to live with this aunt. It’s important for us to understand exactly how it feels as that one and only picture she has of her mother is tarnished.

This week, the theme for our stories was set as “Author/Narrator and Structure: Point of View”. And indeed, the collection of stories for this week was a good variety of different narration styles and techniques. Nevertheless, I strive to find an even deeper theme; though I suspect the themes will be reappearing and disappearing throughout the semester, as we are reading short stories and can read a wider range of material. But two words I kept hearing during discussion were Expectations and Control.

In two of our stories the society, as it is portrayed to us at least, has a lot of expectations for women to act a certain way and to do certain things, otherwise they’re a whore or a slut. And of course, this is a way for a male-dominant society to control the women, and to stay in power, but I got that much from my Women’s Studies course.

We continue the theme of control and expectations in Sudan with Yassir  as he is expected to marry a woman with a Sudanese name.

“She would not “remember” it. It would have been the same if Emma had been Jane, Alison or Susan, any woman from “outside.” Outside the large pool of names his mother knew and could relate to.”

I suppose what I am looking for is a place where I connect to the stories, but this week I am at a narrow loss. Even with Asthmatic, and the rebellious spirit of these college students, I cannot relate. Protests in general bother me because of how they too often become violent, and that’s not at all something I’m interested in.

One thing that struck me about these stories is that the characters that are met with control and oppresion, they bow down to it and submit, and when they don’t bow down, they receive the consequences. And I am indeed a rather rebellious spirit. When I was younger, I found myself rebelling against the pressure of my peers to act a certain way and do certain things, but in the end, I stayed true to myself, instead of following their advice and becoming like them. And I do not think I have had to deal with many consequences for my rebellion.

So perhaps this is why I am truly lucky to live in a country as open as ours, and a state as open as Minnesota.

And this week, I am grateful.

Posted in Journals by Preston C. Palmer on January 13th, 2011

Journal 2

Dear Journal,

As a gloomy day comes to a gloomy end, I look out at the dark grey buildings, the fog drifting in between, and I reflect on the five stories of the week. I was pulled in by Joyce’s rich description of the city street, I could smell the pies cooling in the window, and hear the children playing in the street. In fact, each story this week had incredible description. From Adichie, “Nkem watches Amaechi slice potatoes, watches the thin skin descend in a translucent brown spiral”; to Joyce’s “The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns.” And even Akpan’s, “The Wizard offered to give his money, too, but we don’t allow him to. If he gave even one franc, his bad money would swallow all the good contributions, like the sickly, hungry cows in Pharaoh’s dream.” If it didn’t say this week was about Character I would have said it was about description.

It was not immediate that I began to think about my childhood after I read these stories. But My Parent’s Bedroom in particular began to bring me back to traumatic situations between my parents when I was young, when I was far too young to really understand all of the difficulties of a marriage, of a relationship like that. I remember hearing the fighting sometimes and feeling scared, but also protective, just like Monique. One thing that stuck out to me was how she kept trying to give Jean to her mother, but her mother wont touch him. Monique knew that she was not the boy’s mother, but she didn’t know what she would have to do so near in her future.

Of course my past was nowhere near as horrific as Monique’s. What disturbed me the most about the story was the end and Monique’s utter loss of reality; of sanity, it seemed like. She had been witnessed an atrocity so huge that emotion seemed unable to surface.

 “I’m waiting for Maman,” I tell the ceiling people. “She’s gone, Monique.”
“No, no, I know now. She’s up there.”
“Yagiye hehe? Where?”
“Stop lying! Tell my mother to talk to me.”
The parlor ceiling is now creaking and sagging in the middle, and Madame Thérèse starts to laugh like a drunk. “You’re right, Monique. We’re just kidding. Smart girl, yes, your maman is here but she will come down only if you go outside to get Jean. She’s had a long day.”
“Yego, Madame,” I say, “wake her up.”
“She’s hearing you,” Monsieur Pierre Nsabimana says suddenly from the kitchen. He hasn’t said anything all this while.
(Akpan) 

– – –

In high school I convinced myself that I had fallen in love with a girl. She was in love with another boy, who was uninterested in her. But she continued to pursue him, in turn driving her mad. I was her friend then, but I was invisible to her, it seemed.

I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.
(Joyce) 

Months passed that I was holding this secret in, and I slowly let it slip to my friends in school. My foolishness building upon itself until I forgot entirely why it was that I was so attracted. There was strength to her; a power that entranced me. And all this time, she was continuing to pursue a boy that she was convinced truly loved her.

One day she came up to me and asked me, “Preston, if you were in love with someone, you would tell them, right?” Speaking, of course, about the man she desired, the man who could not possibly be in love with anyone but her. And I responded without hesitation. Yes. I said. I never knew how much I would eat my words.

At night in my bedroom and by day in the classroom her image came between me and the page I strove to read. The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me.
(Joyce)

Her infatuation for this boy became the gossip of the school, and those who knew that I was infatuated with her were especially interested in this build-up. So one of our mutual friends told her that someone had a crush on her, and it wasn’t the boy she wanted. In retrospect it was what needed to happen, for I wanted desperately to relieve myself of this secret. And within days, I told her. Her response was one of pity and humor, but I was lost in my own confused mind. As I rode my bike home, upon making a blind turn into a downhill, a biker coming the other direction cut me off, sending me spinning until I landed on my side in the sand and gravel of the bike-path.

And for a few minutes, before an angel came to help me, I lay on the ground and smiled up at the sky, almost wanting to laugh at my folly.

Journal, this was the story I thought of when I read James Joyce’s Araby. I feel like Araby is that place that we must all go to in order to discover our recklessness. For within months, as my infatuation faded, I was finally able to see her for the person she was; a person for whom I no longer had any desire.

My Journal, this week I muse on love in all its forms; familial love, infatuation, fatherly love, the love of a wife or lover. I think about how despite the darkness of some of the texts for this week, if I can just take a few more minutes to look closer, the love pervades through the shadows. This week, I think, I have begun to see the love.

Posted in Journals by Preston C. Palmer on January 27th, 2011

Journal 3

Dear Journal,

I want to step off of that train, the distant hills, grey on the horizon, the only reminder that the rest of the world is not as hot and dry as the almost endless desert surrounding me. I see myself stepping down onto the stiff, hard ground, hoping the smells of the loose animals, and dirt and must will come out of me with the cool breeze brought on by the setting sun.

The night was so dark the rails vanished within three yards. But they didn’t turn the torches on right away: insect noises, the cry of an owl. The inert landscape, observed during the boiling-hot day, was returning to thronging life. In the distance, some sparks that could have been fireflies. There was no moon, a sky of fine, shining sand.

I’ve never smoked, not a thing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know what it means to be lost. To traverse the endlessly confusing desert of the mind in search for some understanding, and at the same time, in search of that fear, in search of the horror that lies around the corner. And so this week, as I curled my cold feet underneath me, in a bed of pillows and blankets, I was transported to the desert, the giant flat land. I was reminded vaguely of Edward Abbey and the silence of the river.

Pedro was in search of peyote. Admittedly, not the most honorable call to action, but it was his journey and I am no one to judge. So I found myself wondering if at any point he actually was high, or if the hallucinations were more products from dehydration and hunger and heat exhaustion. I suspected the latter, because it is for me, the reader to decide.

Journal, there was nothing much more than awe and inspiration that I received from reading Coyote. It was as wondrous and as poetic as any journey of realization I have ever read or experienced. As quickly as I set down that book, and picked up a little slice of Europe, I found myself on the highway, what better a place for a journey. I felt like the rain should be falling, and I could see it, as if through the windshield in the middle of the night, the neon light of the brothel passing by as I continued onwards into another universe, another continent towards an old clairvoyant woman and her nephew.

This story I loved for the structure, I was so intrigued by the sudden switch to the murderer’s perspective, I had to go put the book down and run to the bathroom so that I could enjoy the narrative structure un-inhibited.

But this week, again, I find it difficult to write about this literature that I enjoyed so much. I find myself being more inspired to write great short fiction, like the authors in these collections. I see characters, and stories, and conflict flowing through me like a waterfall. Narrative arc, pacing, character, all of it seems so insufficient and inadequate; exhausted aspects of analysis that seem so dissatisfying.

In all truth, I could probably write spend the rest of this page telling you, my journal, all about the juxtaposition between Christianity and Indigenous African Tradition in Christianity Killed the Cat but you, I, already know.

With these stories, finding where cultural values are passed into the texts is difficult, and sometimes pointless to even attempt to distinguish. The Manhood Test surely holds many cultural values of that society, but who’s to say it isn’t also about the difficulties of a man and his wife (as it would be said in that country); or that Christianity Killed the Cat isn’t about a father and child’s relationship.

No, this week I am content to just be inspired, and to find time to do my own writing. For this week, Journal, you will have to wallow in agonizing incompleteness.

Posted in Journals by Preston C. Palmer on February 3rd, 2011

Journal 4

Dear Journal,

Over the last two weeks I have been a busy bee, gathering and delivering nectar, transferring pollen from one flower to the next. I have wandered out into the dark night, just to test my footing on the ice, to taste the freezing air. And then something like spring arrived, and I turned my face to greet it, my eyelashes filtering the sunset as steam and smoke rises up above the dark silhouetted houses and trees and shops, vanishing in the warm southern winds. In this space, I consider the readings for this week and their ties to relationships between people.

And so I find myself thinking about my own relationships with people. I think about the bedroom. I think about loneliness. I think about love.

“The man feels something inside him stir something he thought he had left far behind in the past. The man tells the girl she is beautiful. The man is glad when the girl laughs and thanks him. The man asks is she has time for a drink after work. The man is pleased when the girl says she does. The man thinks it is perfectly all right when, after the drink, or rather, drinks, the girl declines to come up to his room, or rather, the bed she has made. The man tells himself it’s really too soon.”

I really, really loved Blatnik’s short stories. They were so small, so simple, but they were so personal, I could hear the person’s thoughts, I could see each second. And there was a subtle bit of despair in each of them that I can relate to. Whether it was the love affair with the woman who didn’t really belong, the man who runs over the child, to grandmother’s Sunday diners. There is a raw, and simple truth to each of these stories that I was fascinated by. I used to think that every story had to mean something, that every story had to hold more in it that just the characters, the plot, and the setting, but how awful does that make our ordinary people’s lives, if a lack of a greater meaning means that you mean nothing.

Sunday Diners, I think, was especially powerful in this respect, because it was a different kind of perspective on the evolution of war, and how a culture copes with war. It mentions the westernization of culture: not having time for sitting down at the table to see one another’s faces so that you can remember those who love you when you inevitably end up in the heat of battle. And the story showed how a culture of war can permeate the mind so thoroughly, that having guns loaded and the safety’s off in the closet is more important that a phone conversation with your grandmother. It illustrated a world where life is lived in paranoia and fear.

“…ready, we must be ready now, nobody knows when it will happen, when it happens.”

– – –

“Nobody knew where you were, because you told no one. Sometimes you felt invisible and tried to walk through your room wall into the hallway, and when you bumped into the wall, it left bruises on your arms… At night, something would wrap itself around your neck, something that very nearly choked you before you fell asleep.”

Journal, this week, Valentine’s Day came and went. Men in suits came in and bought flowers, women in big comfy coats bought chocolate, and I sat at the register pretending like these were as ordinary purchases as eggs, milk, and bread. This week, I learned that sometimes, it is better to be lonely by one’s self than lonely in a crowd.

But I wore nothing around my neck that closed tight as I lay in bed at night, choking me, reminding me of the isolation that I try harder to forget than to hide. Instead, I immerse myself in challenges, and art, and other activities that bring me no closer to the rest of humanity, but, thank goodness, don’t take me further away from it.

And in all my distractions, I fell into the same pit filled with the same fluid, this viscous, vicious stuff that reminds me of high-school classrooms and awkward walks in the park. Relationships, I’ve always maintained, are silly things. They ask questions about power, and gender, and psychology, and history. All these questions that need answers until them and me are less people and more piles of stored information, assembled together to stand for something; something that has to mean something.

This week I learn more about relationships than Expression, Voice, Tone, or Language. And only because that is why I am sitting here, musing, following one thought to the next. I learn that relationships have rules. I wonder why the man is expected to initiate a close relationship, why the man is the one who chooses and the passive, quiet, obedient woman must accept. I wonder why I respect all those headstrong, determined, independent women so much that they attract me more.

Adichie’s story was about race in America, it was about gender roles, and it was about Africa, but more importantly it was about two people that didn’t know if they loved each other; two mysterious characters that fascinated one-another. It was about the passing of time and space between two people.

This week, I remember that as I sit alone with my laptop, covered in blankets and books. I remember how little control I have over that time and that space between that person and me; that person, the person I don’t want to need me to love them, the person I hope might just want to be around me, or the person that would be okay without me.

I remember that, as the fog rolls in, miniature drops of water falling on my jacket, the streetlights filling the quiet streets like faucets. I walk down the center of the street to avoid puddles, and I hold tight to all these thoughts and frustrations. I hold tight a bit longer, and then, like Adichie’s character, I let go.

Posted in Journals by Preston C. Palmer on February 17th, 2011

Journal 5

Dear Journal,

I remember in my last entry, I was walking down a quiet city street, as the fog settled down on the houses and the cars like a blanket, and I was thinking about this push and this pull I have with other people; these things called infatuation and love and respect and passion and camaraderie. It is this stuff that fills my veins with a flurry energy and my mind with a rush of thoughts. And then, like the fog, it passes.

I endure this in both an accepting sort of contentedness, but also a powerful frustration, the world around me becomes a theatre, and I am the passive movie-goer, wandering through this story like a character that only matters when it’s necessary to the film. All the while, my passion, my adoration, burns hot like a coal until I find myself walking down the street, past the buzzing street-lamps, cursing the heaven’s silently.

Perhaps I can relate more to the man in Park Cinema than I had originally thought. But it is not so simple. I would never think of taking a knife to the bosom of the person I crave, but only because it is not the bosom I crave. (Does that mean I’m saying I think he was really more infatuated with her as an object? Yes.)

Elena Poniatowska was born in 1933 and now lives in Mexico. I do not know if she is a feminist, but I cannot help but look at this story from the feminist perspective. I think feminism in America has been widely publicized. Whether the media positive or negative is another issue, but I think most people know that it exists. In Mexico, there was the Tlatelolco massacre of course, which influenced Mexican feminism because of the women who participated in the rallies, however I think violence against women, and objectification of women is way over-looked in many Latin-American cultures.

It is a story about a man who is confused and crazy, but we call him this because we say that she is just an image, just an object on the screen, nothing more. But even the character is a woman the same way the actress is a woman, and his desire for her going so far as to lead to violence? Yes, I say, we all kill the ones we love the most… No, I cannot say the same for myself, because what I crave cannot be stabbed; it is a more ephemeral, true thing, which exists between people and not in people. But to the man in this story, he was in search of that thing we call the forbidden fruit.

– – –

But after the fog passed through me, and I was again free to return to my already solitary existence, I sat and I read In The Family, A Private Experience, and The White’s Only Bench and I was reminded of my connection to the rest of the world. I thought about Chika sitting in that small shop and the fear each of them felt as a war rages around them. But what I loved about that scene was the silence of that store. I could see the cobwebs in the ceiling, the golden light of the sun shining through the dirty windows and perhaps some colored cloth shades, casting blotches of blue and purple and red around the room. I could see the dust on the floor as Chika hesitated to sit on the woman’s wrapper. There was something so beautiful about the silence of that small space where they each shared a private experience.

I thought about the many things I don’t know about other cultures. I don’t really know what it’s like to walk in an airport as a Muslim; I don’t know what it’s like to live in war. All of these things that I do not know, but I do know, at least, that they are each small, pebble-sized, reasons to remember that I am not where it all started, that I am just a small piece of this puzzle.

But people think this sometimes, with their things, things that distract us from the simple fact of our humanity. And I saw this in the White’s Only Bench. Because that’s what the bench was, in the end, a political statement about our humanity.

In class, the issue of the character’s race was brought up, but I had assumed that they were mostly darkly skinned and the making of the fake bench was their way of reliving the past and working through their feelings and emotions about that piece of history. I thought about museums and this commitment to preserve history. So yes, the authentic bench was a portrait of a piece of history, a harsh reality of what really happened. But to these characters, the catharsis and the humor or making this fake bench was much more important; a dramatic and humorous work of irony; a fake white’s only bench being used as a real one. But then, finally, Mrs. King sits on the bench and the whole point of the bench is realized.

The history of my family is hard to determine because of two men, each on either side of my family. In the 1960s, my great grandfather disappeared and was never heard of again. And my grandfather on the other side of my family had an affair during WWII and has since kept some of his history secret from our family. But it is also the case here in America that we do not value the family the way they do in other cultures. The family is just the result of other factors it seems.

But then, this family turns the mirror and sets it at the end of the table. And suddenly they can dine with their ancestors; the family, all of us, at the table.

And that’s really what it is, Journal. Tonight, I sat for a while, watching cars pass like waves in the ocean, and I wondered if my brother, who we had not heard from, and were expecting to be home, was all right. I wondered for the first time in too long if my family was all right. I wondered if the family of people that I come into contact with every day is all right.

I realized that I have a connection to these people because they are not just dots wandering through the same halls and streets that I traverse. They are each pieces of a web that I too am a part of. And when I appreciate something’s history, or share a private moment with someone, or ask how someone is doing, I am starting something new, starting a story; the only thing, I’m beginning to believe, that really matters.

Posted in Journals by Preston C. Palmer on February 21st, 2011