Writing on Women Writers

A site for college students to write about women writers.


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“Recitatif”-Ignoring Black and White Stereotypes

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Tony Morrison’s “Recitatif” is a short story about two young girls, Twyla and Roberta, and their interactions throughout their entire lives.  We know one of the girls is black and one of them is white but Morrison never tells us exactly which one is which so we are never entirely sure.  All we know is that the girls are of different class structures.  The girls never display any clear stereotypical characteristics of each race but have characteristics that could be each race.  Morrison does at great job at removing the racial codes from this story, leaving the reader to guess what the race of each girl is.

I found that at the end of the story I did not know of what race Twyla and Roberta were.  I had no idea throughout any of the book.  I couldn’t give an exact race to either one because there just wasn’t enough evidence in the story for me to do that.  There was one section that made me think Twyla was black, and it was on page 1228 in our anthologies.  It read:

“Mary, simple-minded as ever, grinned and tried to yank her hand out of the pocket with the tragedy lining- to shake hands, I guess.  Roberta’s mother looked down at me and then looked down at Mary too.  She didn’t say anything, just grabbed Roberta with her Bible-free hand and stepped out of line, walking quickly to the rear of it” (1228).

This section made me think that Twyla and her mother were black, because Roberta’s mother wouldn’t shake Mary’s hand at all and back in the 50s when this took place, it was stereotypical of a white person to not want to touch or associate with a black person.  But then I started to think that if Roberta’s mother was an upperclass black woman and saw Twyla’s mother as a lower class white hussy, she may still not want to shake her hand.  Morrison does this throughout the entire story, where you think that one girl could be one race but you are never exactly sure.

I think Morrison does this to prove a point that we are all equal.  In the story we know one girl is white and one is black but we are never sure which one is which because Morrison never comes out and says it.  By removing the racial code from the story, it helps to prove that we are all equal and that you can’t judge a person based on their race.  Also by removing stereotypes and putting the girls in similar life situations Morrison continues to prove a point that we are equal and anyone could be any race.

This book was enlightening and really made me think.  A lot of Toni Morrison’s writing does that for me.  Down below is a link to a YouTube video where she talks about her motivation for writing.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8Zgu2hrs2k

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The Presence of Plath’s Mental Illness in “Edge”

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Sylvia Plath had a constant battle with mental illness from a young age, but persisted though her struggles of bipolar disorder until she took her own life.

 

“It was now February 11, and Sylvia Plath prepared to die. She left food and drink for her children in their room and opened a window. In the hallway, she attached a note with her doctor’s name and number to the baby carriage. She sealed the kitchen as best she could with tape, towels, and cloths. Then she turned on the gas and thrust her head as far as she could into the oven.” -Carl Rollyson- The Boston Globe 

 

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Six days prior to her death she penned the poem “Edge.” She writes,

 

The woman is perfected.

Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,

The Illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,

Her Bare

Feet Seem to be saying;

We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,

One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.

She had folded

Them back into her body as petals

Of a rose close when the garden

Stuffens and odors bleed

From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

The moon has nothing to be sad about,

Staring from her hood to bone.

She is used to this sort of thing.

Her blacks crackle and drag (818).

 

 

Plath writes omnipotently about her death, obviously knowing what she was going to do in a few days.  In the first lines, “Her Body is Perfected/ Her dead/ Body wears the smile of accomplishment.”  The speaker is obviously pleased that they have died. The have died on their own accord, thus bringing a state of bliss- the smile of accomplishment of their face. The poem continues to writes “Her bare/Feet seem to be saying:/ We have come so far, it is over.” The speaker is obviously relieved they no longer have to walk the hard life they were once walking in. Plath continues to writes “The moon had nothing to be sad about./ Staring from her hood of bone./She is used to this sort of thing./ Her blacks crackle and drag” The moon is refering to the speaker- someone who no longer needs to be sad about anything, because now all of their sadness is over.

Being so in tandem with her suicide, one may assume the speaker of this poem is Plath herself, giving her last goodbye to the world in the only way she knew how- though her poetry.


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Recitatif and the Unknown Races

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In the story Recitatif, by Toni Morrison we are introduced right away to two young girls. The only thing we know about them is that they are or different races and are placed in a shelter. The interesting thing that Morrison does is she never tells us what race each child is. Throughout the story it is the readers decision to choose who they think is which race. Their job is to notice parts in the novel that would set the races apart. As the reader your tendency is to lean toward stereotypical aspects that would define the girls’ races.  For example we are given a chance to be stereotypical right in the beginning of the story:

“We were eight years old and got F’s all the time. Me because I couldn’t remember what I read or what the teacher said. And Roberta because she couldn’t  read at all and didn’t even listen to the teacher” (pg. 1244).

This right away tends to make readers think Roberta is African American. This was because the story was written in 1983. During this time period many slaves could not read or write.  This is the first assumption the reader would make but throughout the novel Morrison challenges us.

The next section where Morrison plays on the race role is when Twyla and Roberta meet at the Howard Johnson’s. (click for a quick old commercial of one of these restaurants!!) Twyla was working there and Roberta stopped in.

“”We’re on our way to the Coast. He’s got an appointment with Hendrix.” She gestured casually toward the boy next to her.

“Hendrix? Fantastic,” I said. “Really fantastic. What’s she doing now?”

Roberta coughed on her cigarette and the two guys rolled their eyes up at the ceiling.

“Hendrix. Jimmy Hendrix, asshole. He’s only the biggest—Oh, wow. Forget it” (pg. 1229).

Many would assume Roberta was African American here as well, but others would could assume she was Caucasian.  A lot of Caucasians were huge fans of Jimmy Hendrix. It is another way of Morrison trying to get the reader to question the races.

Morrison deliberately left the races out. She wanted to show that people make assumptions based on people no matter what you tell them.  Morrison wrote many other stories about these situations. Morrison is very passionate about who she is and what she has done to get to where she is in life. Below is an interview with her. She is a powerful woman!


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recitatif in Recitatif

Toni Morrison’s writing style aims to involve the reader emotionally. She says, “my writing expects, demands, participatory reading, and that I think is what literature is supposed to do. It’s not just about telling a story; it’s about involving the reader. The reader supplies the emotions. The reader supplies even some color, some sound. My language has to have holes and spaces so the reader can come into it” (1225).

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I think it’s interesting that Morrison refers to her writing as her “language.” A word I’s use to describe her work is “genuine.” Morrison writes the way she speaks. It is no wonder the reader can be so emotionally connected to her stories. The language is relatable.

Along those lines, Morrison uses the style of recitatif, which is also the title of the story. This style relates to that of recitatif in opera, in which a character sings in a thoughtful, speech-like manner preceding the aria. An aria is closer to what we know of as a song.

“It really wasn’t bad, St. Bonny’s. The big girls on the second floor pushed us around now and then. But that was all. They wore lipstick and eyebrow pencil and wobbled their knees while they watched TV. Fifteen, sixteen, even some of them were. They were put-out girls, scared runaways most of them. Poor little girls who fought their uncles off but looked tough to us, and mean. God, did they look mean. The staff tried to keep them separate from the younger children, but sometimes they caught us watching them in the orchard where they played radios and danced with each other. They’d light out after us and pull our hair and twist our arms. We were scared of them, Roberta and me, but neither of us wanted the other one to know it “ (1226).

As can be seen in this passage, the writing is quite fragmented. Sentences stop and start in places one would not expect upon reading a grammatically correct piece of literature. It does, however, make sense as it is speech-like in nature.

We are provided with new information upon each new sentence. This is certainly a technique that produces emotional involvement on behalf of the reader. It is gripping in a way that constantly draws us in and makes us want to know what is next. The short sentences also provide way to reel in our focus, rather than be lost in a long jumble of words.

Morrison mentions that the reader supplies color and sound. In this way, the reader can truly make a story his or her own, with his or her own thoughts and opinions. Morrison does not specify the racial backgrounds of Twyla and Roberta, but still makes it a central topic to the story. Upon making conclusions about race, in response to some of the stereotypes in the story, one can even learn quite a bit about his or her own thinking process.

ABC News special on the psychology of stereotypes:

Morisson aims to engage the reader’s emotions, yet the tone of her writing is so “unemotional” with blunt, short, matter-of-fact phrasing. Her language is anything but flowery. She does not tell the reader how to feel but forces the reader to feel something. I think that is big part of what art does.

I would say that this style, is very “take it or leave it”, which in itself is extremely powerful.


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“Standing Female Nude” by Carol Ann Duffy

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Carol Ann Duffy is one of the most important contributors to contemporary British poetry. Duffy is known for granting voices to a wide range of women with varying tones. Oftentimes, her poems take on the form of a monologue and cover themes such as the representation of reality, the construction of self, gender issues, contemporary culture, varying forms of alienation, oppression and social inequality. While she is primarily known for her unique poetry, Duffy has also written numerous plays that have premiered in London. “Standing Female Nude” is conveyed from the perspective of an unfulfilled female nude model. “Standing Female Nude” was the title poem of Duffy’s first collection in 1985, which won the Scottish Arts Council Award.

In the first stanza, the model introduces herself as an objectified woman. The model narrates,”Belly nippe arse in the window light, he drains the colour from me” illuminating the artist’s transformation of her image to someone truly unrecognizable, which further emphasizes her objectification. The narrator continues, “I shall be represented analytically and hung in great museums” (334). In this line, Duffy blatantly highlights the model’s objectification to the reader. The model’s figure has been altered to please society. This idea can be supported by the final line of the poem, “It does not look like me” (335). According to the model, the artist procures some aspects of her figure; however, manipulates the parts he does not like to formulate a work of art. The model ascends into further detail of her objectification when she narrates, “He possesses me on canvas as he dips the brush repeatedly into the paint” (334-335). The speaker does not have any power or control over how she will be portrayed. Through his painting, the model believes that the artist took ownership of her body. The model continues, “When it’s finished he shows me proudly, lights a cigarette” (335). Although the artist and the model are both benefitting form each other to an extent, the artist carries himself in a manner that suggests his superiority to her. The model also states, “These artists take themselves too seriously,” further emphasizing his feelings of superiority over her (335). The model recognizes and detests the artist’s arrogance, concluding the monologue with “I say Twelve francs and get my shawl. It does not look like me” (335). The artist molded the model’s figure into an piece of art that would be aesthetically pleasing to his audience. However, at the conclusion of the session, the model feels out of control and objectified by a man that believes himself superior to her. The model states, “They call it Art,” utilizing irony to emphasize her disgust with the artist’s objectification of her identity (334). Throughout the monologue, the model questions the true meaning of art.

Throughout her poem, Duffy incorporates Marxist philosophies to further enhance the class struggle in France during this time. The insight behind Marxism was philosopher and communist Karl Marx. According to Peter Hayes, “In the Communist Manifesto, Marx presented a polarized view of classes under capitalism…the bourgeoisie owned the means of production, the proletariat did not; the bourgeoisie were employers, the proletariat were their employees. Not only were the bourgeoisie and proletariat diametrically opposed to each other, but other classes were subsumed within this clash of opposites” (100). The model begins by stating, “Six hours like this for a few francs” implying that she feels underpaid for her circumstances and does not enjoy her work (334). The model refers to herself as a “river whore,” implying that she has sold her body in multiple ways (334). Furthermore, states that both the artist and herself are using each other to an extent. The artist uses the model to build a reputation for himself by stating, “Both poor, we make our living how we can” (335). The artist and the model are in a sense collaborating to create a work of art for the Bourgeoisie. The narrator further perpetuates this idea with, “He is concerned with volume, space. I with the next meal,” further insinuating her low socioeconomic status and the necessity of her work for survival. (334) When the Artist states, “You’re getting thin, Madame, this is not good” (334). he emphasizes her low social status. Although the narrator does not enjoy her line of work, she must sell herself in order to survive. As stated above, both the artist and model are benefitting from each other’s work; however, the artist recognizes that he has more potential of success than the model. The artist hopes to climb the social latter and acquire a higher socioeconomic status in society.

At the conclusion of the third and beginning of the fourth stanza, Duffy wrote, “His name is Georges. They tell me he’s a genius” (334). In Angelica Michelis and Antony Rowland’s book ‘Choosing Tough Words’: The Poetry of Carol Ann Duffy, “Deryn Rees-Jones suggests that the culprit here is the french artist Georges Braque. Her interpretation can be supported with reference to the last stanza: when the model asks why he paints, the artist replies ‘Because I have to. There’s no choice’, which chimes with Braque’s statement that ‘I did not decide to become a painter, any more than I decided to breathe” (14). Although many critics have attempted to discover which Braque painting Duffy refers to, the most common assumption would be his Cubist painting “Large Nude” (1908). Because the Braque utilized a Cubist style to create his modernist painting, the conclusion of Duffy’s poem can be considered from a different angle. When the model states, “It does not look like me,” the model may have felt critical of her own body. Furthermore, the style the artist utilized to capture her figure would easily make her body appear unrecognizable. Today, the painting remains in a private collection.

Large nude.08

I found a collection of discussion questions to help you further solidify your understanding of Duffy’s poem:

http://www.morelearning.net/KS5/CarolAnnDuffy/Standing%20Female%20Nude%201.pdf

I also included a video from a 2013 Dove campaign pertaining to body image and how women view themselves as opposed to how others view them:

http://www.dailylife.com.au/health-and-fitness/dl-wellbeing/the-body-image-video-every-woman-should-watch-20130417-2hz3v.html

Works Cited:

Duffy, Carol Ann. Standing Female Nude. The Longman Anthology of Women’s Literature. Mary K. DeShazer. 1st Edition. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc, 2001. 16-72. Print.

Hayes, Peter. “Marx’s Analysis of the French Class Structure.”Theory and Society 22.1 (1993): 99-123. Print.

Michelis, Angelica, and Antony Rowland. The Poetry of Carol Ann Duffy: ‘Choosing Tough Words’., 2003. Print.


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Recitatif

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Born on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, Toni Morrison is a Nobel Prize- and Pulitzer Prize-winning American Novelist; she is also an editor and professor. Her parents, George and Ramah Wofford are credited for instilling in her a love of reading, music and folklore. Her novels involve vivid dialogue and richly detailed black characters. She was not fully aware of racial divisions until she was in her teens. She once told a reporter from The New York Times “When I was in first grade, nobody thought I was inferior. I was the only black in the class and the only child in the class who could read.” One article states, “What I am determined to do is to take what is articulated as an elusive race-free paradise and domesticate it. I am determined to concretize a literary discourse that (outside of science fiction) resonates exclusively in the register of permanently unrealizable dream. It is a discourse that (unwittingly) allows racism an intellectual weight to which it has absolutely no claim.Unlike the successful advancement of argument, narration requires the active complicity of a reader willing to step outside established boundaries of the racial imaginary. And, unlike visual media, narrative has not pictures to ease the difficulty of that step.”

Toni Morrison has become the name around which the debates of considerable significance to American literature, culture and ideology have amassed — these include debates about multicultural curricula; about the relation of slavery to freedom; about the possibility of creating literature that is both aesthetically beautiful and politically engaged. One novel she wrote, Recitatif, deals with the major racial issues prevalent in the lives of two young eight year old girls who live in the 60s until they reach their mid 40s. As mentioned, the novel, including two young girls, one young one black opens with them at an orphanage and then takes place at four separate meetings later on in life. Morrison, when using dialogue between the two, never implicates which child is black and which is white…that stays a mystery, although at some points one could take a guess which one is which however that idea formulated could change with the next meeting. Morrison invites readers to participate in a soaring affirmation: Life can be understood, she says, and it is beautiful, even glorious. In each of her novels, the individual finds knowledge, meaning, and faith in a clearly duplicitous world. Such affirmation rests on Morrison’s racialized and feminist self. She wants to strip away all the racist assumptions, not in order to study race but to look deeply at what remains, to see it in a new way that is fresh and clear. “In writing novels,” Morrison noted, “the adventure for me has been exploration of seemingly impenetrable, race-inflected, race-clotted topics”

As stated in the youtube video above, Morrison uses a particular device to make people question their assumptions and their stereotypes surrounding the fact that she does not indulge which character is black and which is white. She leaves it up to the reader to question that but in turn makes the reader question the fact that they are stereotyping that character in the novel based on preconceived notions of their idea of race. Some examples of racial stereotypes in the novel are:

  • Twyla doesn’t at first know what to think of Roberta, but Twyla remembers and agrees
    with something her mother has told her, that people who are of Roberta’s race “never
    washed their hair and they smelled funny.” (p.682)
  • Twyla: “I saw [my mother] right away. She had on those green slacks I hated and hated
    even more because didn’t she know we were going to chapel? And that fur jacket with
    the pocket linings so ripped she had to pull to get her hands out of them. But her face
    was pretty—like always—and she smiled and waved like she was the little girl looking
    for her mother. . . . But I couldn’t stay mad at [my mother] while she was smiling and
    hugging me and smelling of Lady Esther dusting powder. . . . and I was feeling proud
    because she looked so beautiful even in those ugly green slacks that made her behind stick out.” (p.684-685)
  • Twyla to Roberta – “Look at them,” I said. “Just look. Who do they think they are? Swarming all over the place like they own it. And they think they can decide where my child goes to school. Look at them, Roberta. They’re Bozos.” (p.1234).

Aside from these examples, there are many other examples from the text where racial stereotypes are placed.

 


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Native American Identity – Pass it on through Writing

We have been reading a lot about identity in the past few weeks. Identity is what a person can relate to, what makes them who they are. In most of our readings we have dealt with personal identity and with cultural identity. Cultural identity is the identity of a person’s heritage and how they express that identity. Many of our authors have come from mixed heritages, sometimes having the heritage they grew up with stripped away and replaced with one that the government feels is more appropriate, as is the case with many Native American’s identities and other tribal people. Assimilation into American society nearly killed the identity of all Native Americans. It was taken away strikingly and violently and left a hole in Native American’s which may never be filled. Many of the writers we looked at shared the loss of their culture through writing so that it may never be forgotten. Gertrude Simmons Bonnin who goes by Zitkala-Sa shared a Native American tale which would have been passed down orally within the tribes. Beth Brant gave us insight into the loss of a child during assimilation when the children were taken from the Native’s home. Paula Gunn Allen expresses her anger and resentment in a poem titled Molly Brant, Iroquois Matron, Speaks.

The oral tradition was very important to Native American’s. They would pass down stories to their people as well as history orally. These stories would be told by a storyteller in the tribe and this person was very well respected amongst others in a tribe. Zitkala-Sa wanted to share the stories of her childhood so that she could spread understanding about her people. “Later essays….pieces frought with tension between her anger at the government’s maltreatment of Indians and her desire to promote cross-cultural understanding” (976). The story The Tree Bound is filled with cultural references, especially the native’s love for animals and the Earth. She shared these and other stories so that others might relate to her people. She wanted people to understand the Indians so that they might treat them better.

Beth Brant talked about a more serious issue in A Long Story. She pairs the loss of a child during assimilation with the loss of a child in a more modern sense. Both of the stories, told in pieces one after the other, reflect how certain classes of people are judged harshly by society and how those judgments turn into maltreatment. The native woman in this story loses her child to the government. The government, and a lot of society’s citizens at the time, thought that Native Americans would be better off being educated. During education they assimilated the Native’s children. This included teaching them to be ‘proper’ or ‘civilized’, in other words stealing them from their homes and beating their own culture into these poor children. The children were not allowed to see their parents for a long time. They were taught to speak English and to lose their own Native tongue and all the other culture that went with their birth.

Paula Gunn Allen expresses her grief and anger about the loss of her culture in Molly Brant, Iroquois Matron, Speaks. She uses graphic language to show her disgust saying “the carrion birds that flew upon the winds of Revolution to feed upon our scarred and frozed flesh” (1028). She talks about the destruction of the tribes across the United States when the land was stolen from the Native’s. The end of the poem is angry and vengeful, as the woman in the poem is angry and vengeful. She waits for the end of the Earth so she can laugh at the people who destroyed it. “Maybe when the last blast goes up you will hear me screaming with glee, wildly drunk at last on vindication, trilling ecstatically my longed for revenge” (1030). Many Native American’s are angry about the loss of their people, their culture, and the way that that loss came about. Their land was stolen, their people murdered, and their culture diminished to a fraction of what it once was.