Siblings by Choice

by Pierre Bouillot.jpg

Photo Thanks by Pierre Bouillot

I finished Archie Smith, Jr. and Ursula Riedel-Pfaefflin’s book, Siblings by Choice: Race, Gender, and Violence. I read one of Professor Smith’s books in seminary (Navigating the Deep River: Spirituality in African American Families) and have found in him a deep well for my own thinking and practicing of pastoral care. When I saw this book, I had been developing my reading list for my supervisory education training, and I put this on it.

The book is about their studied suggestion in how women, men, and children from different cultural and spiritual backgrounds can, together, struggle against oppression. They write about how we can choose to become siblings as we form relationships of resistance, safety, trust, and accountability.

“When people are thrown together by external circumstances, they may discover themselves as siblings in a common struggle against whatever it is that oppresses them. They are siblings in struggle, perhaps, but not yet siblings by conscious choice” (pg. 8). The book highlights the intentionally taken paths toward becoming siblings by choice.

My reading was first in the context of my current training. I’m studying to become a supervisor of pastors, an educator of chaplains, and a caregiver to folks in a myriad of crises, likely but not exclusively in the medical setting. But my inherent reading experience is shaped by my right now work as a pastor in an urban multiethnic congregation and as a teacher in two distinct denominational seminaries. There is much to learn and enrich me in the book for all of my work settings.

I say this for a couple reasons that are worth repeating to myself. First, violence has been a historical reality for people I know, and the book does a great job in thoroughly summarizing several peopled experiences of violence. Note that oppression is one form that violence takes.

Second, gender and race are two words which are of continued appeal to me, especially by these two writers—one a black man and the other a white woman—who were working together out of their shared, abiding interest. In the book they are using their experiences as racial and gendered people to point to paths they’ve taken as colleagues so as to offer us a good read of reconciliation.

Third, I’d love to see churches who are trying to reach people from different social, cultural, and experiential spheres use this book’s treasure. Churches are experiments in multiculturalism even if they don’t make explicit their concerted efforts to embrace that multicultural attribute. People are different, especially when skin color shows off that difference. But churches need real and constructive resources which are thoughtfully prepared and easily adaptable for their own local church processes. This is such a resource. And I’m a pastor and will be a pastor so material like this is enlivening.

Finally, I’m a reconciling, contrarian who finds delight in starting illuminating, educational, and interior fights for the purpose of healing and growth. This book and books like it help me become clearer about my role in the world in that respect. I’ve taken to telling people that a part of practice is in graciously initiating fights and then seeing what happens. I instigate. I do this better now because of readings like Siblings by Choice.

The material helped me think through the authors’ primary conceptual vehicles of narrative agency, systemic thinking, and intercultural realities, words they define well throughout the book. Here is a quick summary from their text:

Narrative agency is the meaning that people make of their lives over time—gifts of love, activities, beliefs, hopes, anxieties and doubts, fears and courage.

Systemic thinking is based on the principle of linkage, in which everything is actually or potentially linked to everything else, either directly or indirectly.

Intercultural realities are the coming together of influences from many different streams of cultures and systems of meaning.

If these definitions leave you interested, spark a question, or light you up, take a look at the book. The three pieces above become their primary means of investigating public morality, gender, and cultural traditions. Their wedding of Mark 10:28-30 with these three avenues brings an echo of biblical and theological reflection to the book so that you keep with the reminder that you’re reading a work that is pastoral-theological.

We read of life from the African-American experience of man who is of the Baptist tradition and life of a white feminist who is of Lutheran and Catholic heritage. They intend to push by boundaries which impede community, and they give real, helpful exercises to pursue community. I find that inclusion to make this book extremely useable. Using vignettes, literature, and examples from current life, a theoretical work is immediately made practical.

The authors also have a lot of good stuff about reflexivity and experience, and the book is worth buying for the individual and group exercises they develop in order to show how pastoral people can work these concepts into practice. They use literature, historical events, and personal experiences to highlight how vital race, gender, and embodiedness are when it comes to addressing the varied expressions of violence in the world.

They are counselors and theorists in pastoral care. They are basically talking to people who care about some of the same things, and if those areas are yours, you’ll want to locate this book. Bending toward clinical applications, they discuss the ways life these days is connected to life in past:

We create the future through our behavior, and whether recognized or not, we reproduce certain established patterns from the past. Our current activity is guided by maps in the mind or certain enduring ways of thinking and being in the world. (pg. 89).

They encourage the reader to “become aware of the history that has shaped” them in order to “self-consciously work for the good, confess our limitations, stay alert to every new and emerging form of evil, and challenge our students, colleagues, family members, individuals, and groups to develop their own practices and traditions of care, prayer, and work for spiritual discernment” (pg. 71).

History is not our only influence. “We are also shaped by ignorance.” We are impacted by what we don’t know and what we choose not to know. I’m particularly aware of this as I sit through and live through the nasty, vitriolic presentations of people claiming to be Christian in the political realm. As the authors recount stories from their own lives and from their people’s lives, you hold the strong reminder that such stories are hard to hold, heavy.

And this book is encouraging for the witness who, in their words, “hears the story of the traumatized ones, acknowledges their demoralization, helps to give voice to their trauma, and enables them to face the depths of their experiences” (pg. 135). We don’t witness alone. Remember that, whether you read this book or not: we don’t witness alone.

Meg Wolitzer “On The Rules…”

Have you seen this essay, The Second Shelf, by Meg Wolitzer, over at the NYT?  You can read the entire essay by clicking here.

If “The Marriage Plot,” by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention? Or would this novel (which I loved) have been relegated to “Women’s Fiction,” that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated? Certainly “The Marriage Plot,” Eugenides’s first novel since his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Middlesex,” was poised to receive tremendous literary interest regardless of subject matter, but the presence of a female protagonist, the gracefulness, the sometimes nostalgic tone and the relationship-heavy nature of the book only highlight the fact that many first-rate books by women and about women’s lives never find a way to escape “Women’s Fiction” and make the leap onto the upper shelf where certain books, most of them written by men (and, yes, some women — more about them later), are prominently displayed and admired.

This is a tricky subject. Bringing up the women’s question — I mean the women’s fiction question — is not unlike mentioning the national debt at a dinner party. Some people will get annoyed and insist it’s been talked about too much and inaccurately, and some will think it really matters. When I refer to so-called women’s fiction, I’m not applying the term the way it’s sometimes used: to describe a certain type of fast-reading novel, which sets its sights almost exclusively on women readers and might well find a big, ready-made audience. I’m referring to literature that happens to be written by women. But some people, especially some men, see most fiction by women as one soft, undifferentiated mass that has little to do with them.

Recently at a social gathering, when a guest found out I was a writer, he asked, “Would I have heard of you?” I dutifully told him my name — no recognition, fine, I’m not that famous — and then, at his request, I described my novels. “You know, contemporary, I guess,” I said. “Sometimes they’re about marriage. Families. Sex. Desire. Parents and children.” After a few uncomfortable moments he called his wife over, announcing that she, who “reads that kind of book,” was the one I ought to talk to. When I look back on that encounter, I see a lost opportunity. When someone asks, “Would I have heard of you?” many female novelists would be tempted to answer, “In a more just world.”

The truth is, women who write literary fiction frequently find themselves in an unjust world, even as young single women are outearning men in major American cities and higher education in the United States is skewing female. As VIDA, a women’s literary organization, showed in February in its second annual statistical roundup, women get shockingly short shrift as reviewers and reviewees in most prestigious publications. Of all the authors reviewed in the publications it tracked, nearly three-fourths were men. No wonder that when we talk about today’s leading novelists — the ones who generate heat and conversation and are read by both men and women — we are talking mostly about men.

Exploring Amazon, I came across a category called “Women’s Fiction” where I am listed, along with Jane Austen, Sophie Kinsella, Kathryn Stockett, Toni Morrison, Danielle Steel and Louisa May Alcott. (Needless to say, Amazon fits us into other categories as well.) If there is a stylistic or thematic link to be found among us, it’s hard to see. It should be noted that Amazon puts the occasional man in this category. Tom Perrotta is there, and so is Jonathan Franzen (albeit the Oprah’s Book Club edition of “Freedom”), which should provide yet more fodder for those who complain of his ubiquity. Both men write about relationships and also about suburbia; is that why they’re included?

Amazon is clearly trying to help readers find titles they want. But any lumping together of disparate writers by gender or perceived female subject matter separates the women from the men. And it subtly keeps female writers from finding a coed audience, not to mention from entering the larger, more influential playing field. It’s done all the time, and not just by strangers at parties or by various booksellers that have no trouble calling interesting, complex novels by women “Women’s Fiction,” as if men should have nothing to do with them. A writer’s own publisher can be part of a process of effective segregation and vague if unintentional put-down. Look at some of the jackets of novels by women. Laundry hanging on a line. A little girl in a field of wildflowers. A pair of shoes on a beach. An empty swing on the porch of an old yellow house.

Compare these with the typeface-only jacket of Chad Harbach’s novel, “The Art of Fielding,” or the jumbo lettering on “The Corrections.” Such covers, according to a book publicist I spoke to, tell the readers, “This book is an event.” Eugenides’s gold ring may appear to be an exception, though it has a geometric abstraction about it: the Möbius strip ring suggesting that an Escher-like, unsolvable puzzle lies within. The illustration might have been more conventional and included the slender fingers and wrist of a woman, had it not been designated a major literary undertaking.

I took semiotics back at Brown University in the same heyday of deconstruction in which Eugenides’s novel takes place (he and I were in a writing workshop together), but I don’t need to remember anything about signifiers to understand that just like the jumbo, block-lettered masculine typeface, feminine cover illustrations are code. Certain images, whether they summon a kind of Walker Evans poverty nostalgia or offer a glimpse into quilted domesticity, are geared toward women as strongly as an ad for “calcium plus D.” These covers might as well have a hex sign slapped on them, along with the words: “Stay away, men! Go read Cormac ­McCarthy instead!”

I sometimes wonder if book length, intentionally or inadvertently, signals to readers a novel’s supposed importance. Certain novelists who have achieved high literary profiles, like David Foster Wallace, Haruki Murakami and William T. Vollmann, have all published extremely long books — in the case of Wallace and Vollmann, over 1,000 pages. With some notable exceptions, women have not published many well-known doorstops since Doris Lessing’s “Golden Notebook.” As it happens, we live not only in the era of the abbreviated attention span, but also in the era of the book group, whose members often set a strict page limit. Yet does the marketplace subtly and paradoxically seem to whisper in some men’s ears, “Sure, buddy, run on as long as you like, just sit down and type out all your ideas about America” — what might in some extreme cases be titled “The Big Baggy Book of Me”? Do women reflexively edit themselves (or let themselves be edited) more severely, creating tight and shapely novels that readers and book groups will find approachable? Or do they simply not fetishize book length one way or the other? (And for that matter, would most long-form men say they were just letting content seek form?)

All this isn’t to say megabooks are necessarily better; in their prolixity perhaps it’s easier for them to in fact be worse. But they are certainly louder.

Over centuries, the broad literary brush strokes and the big-canvas page have belonged mostly to men, whereas “craft” had belonged to women, uncontested. It’s no wonder that the painted-egg precision of short stories allows reviewers to comfortably celebrate female accomplishment, even to celebrate it prominently in the case of Alice Munro. But generally speaking, a story collection is considered a quieter animal than a novel, and is tacitly judged in some quarters as the work of someone who lacks the sprawling confidence of a novelist.

My sense is that like most men, most women are writing at the length they want to write — but they’re not always getting the same reward. Men like Ian ­Mc­Ewan and Julian Barnes have written very short, highly regarded and widely read books in recent years. Yet if a woman writes something short these days, particularly if it’s about a woman, it risks being considered minor. (“Spare” is the oft-used word of faint praise.) Yet if, on the other hand, a woman writes a doorstop filled with free associations about life and love and childbirth and war, and jokes and recipes and maybe even a novel-within-a-novel, and anything else that will fit inside an endlessly elastic membrane, she risks being labeled undisciplined and self-indulgent.

Sure, Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” is pretty massive, but I suspect that a historical work — one that teaches the reader about a subject (in this case a male one) — is considered more acceptable from a woman than, say, the kind of long “sensibility” novel written more frequently by men. Julia Glass, who won a National Book Award in 2002 for her novel “Three Junes,” said: “Many readers ask why I write so often from a male point of view. I have theories, but I don’t really know. I don’t game my books toward a male audience, and yet the point of view may help their reception. I think men are more accepting of my books than they would be if the points of view were always female.”

Characters matter to a great extent, and novels that involve parents and young children seem at first glance to be considered the potentially sentimental province of women. Except, of course, when those parents and children are male, as is the case in “The Road” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” both of which feature father-son duos and have been praised enthusiastically by men and women.

But some of the most acclaimed female novelists have written unapologetically and authoritatively about women. And the environment needs to be receptive to that authority, recognizing and celebrating it in order for it to catch. It seems no coincidence that some of the most esteemed women writing today — Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Marilynne Robinson — came to prominence at an unusual moment in time when the women’s movement could be felt everywhere. Stories, long and short, and often about women’s lives, suddenly mattered to the cultural conversation. This period, the 1970s and to an extent the early ’80s, initially appeared to create an entirely different and permanent reality for female fiction writers. Men were actively interested in reading about the inner lives of women (or maybe some just pretended they were) and received moral kudos for doing so. Whereas before that a lone woman might be allowed on the so-called men’s team, literary women began achieving critical mass and becoming more than anomalies. But though this wave of prominent authors helped the women who followed, as time passed it seemed harder for literary women to go the distance. As Katha Pollitt, the poet and literary critic, says: “I think there’s always space for a Toni Morrison or a Mary McCarthy, but only one of them at a time. For every one woman, there’s room for three men.”

Finish reading this essay by clicking here.