Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Comforts of Community: A Reading Response to Adrienne Rich's "Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Existence"

Jessica Mason McFadden
WS455 Feminist Theory
Dr. West
December 1st 2005
Reading Response 5

The Comforts of Community

In Feminist Theory 455, we discussed Adrienne Rich’s essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” and I was impressed with the sensitivity and receptiveness to the new ideas that were evident in the discussion. I was particularly impressed with Dr. West’s admission that she wasn’t comfortable identifying as a part of the lesbian continuum. Dr. West’s honesty about her discomfort and my honesty about my comfort with Rich’s theory set the stage for a balanced discussion and comfortable classroom environment.

A continuum is a very healthy way of framing information because it provides a bridge between two extremes, as opposed to the chasm that exists between dichotomous positions. A dichotomy makes it difficult for people to modify their beliefs and choices, whereas a continuum allows people to be flexible in their choices. A continuum is infinite, in a sense, and certainly roomy, whereas a dichotomy is limiting. It seemed that we, as a class, set the stage for a comfort continuum in our discussion of Rich’s essay. Each student fell somewhere along the continuum of comfort with Rich’s theory—I being closer to the comfortable end.

I am comfortable with Adrienne Rich’s proposal of a lesbian continuum. In fact, the idea excites me because it supports some of my own, unpublished ideas. Each of my experiences gives me insight into my self, my life, and my purpose, as a woman who identifies as a lesbian. Each day I try to make sense of my choices and my reactions to people and their ideas. My desire to grow requires that I be flexible, and so I have to fight some of my natural tendencies to become defensive. I do not welcome certain changes because I am happy with what I know, but I still need to be open to new information in order to learn and change with confidence. Sometimes I fear change, and I think many other people do, too. I try to understand why I fear some changes and not others.

Even as I encourage open mindedness when it comes to my lesbian identity, I am not always open and receptive to new ideas myself. Sometimes I feel threatened by certain behaviors, such as polyamorous relationships, and then I feel disappointed for feeling threatened. It’s okay for me to feel uncomfortable, but I think it is important to question myself when I feel threatened. When this happens, I try to ask myself questions: how do I feel, why do I feel that way, what will happen to me if I learn to accept the behavior?

Growth also requires vulnerability. In order to welcome change, which is fundamental to growth, I must first open myself up to new, uncomfortable ideas. In my journey of becoming more open and aware, I appreciate that my fellow students and Dr. West have been willing to be vulnerable in class (sharing their ideas and listening to new ideas).

In Feminist Theory 455, I have learned to value community (human connections). As a lesbian, I spend a lot of time closed-off from other students. I avoid interaction with many people because I am afraid of being disappointed in their character, but my interactions with students in this class have shown me that my attitude may be preventing me from experiencing the joys of being a part of a community. Like Feminist Theory 455, Adrienne Rich’s theory of a lesbian existence is attractive to me because it embraces connectedness.

I believe that it is an honor to have a place within the lesbian continuum, because I interpret the lesbian continuum as a loving, embracing, and affirming community of people. I identify as a lesbian and as a member of the lesbian continuum. They are closely linked together, but I feel connected to the identities differently. My lesbian identity connects me with others based on otherness, rebelliousness, sexuality, and political awareness. My identity as a person on the lesbian continuum connects me with even more people than does my identity as a lesbian. On the lesbian continuum, I connect with people who share in qualities of my lesbian identity and people who are dissimilar. Through the lesbian continuum, I am able to connect and identify with those who may not be comfortable identifying as lesbians.

Rich’s theory broadens the lesbian’s experience, allowing her to connect with those around her. Frankly, I love being a lesbian. It’s hard for me to imagine how lesbianism might be uncomfortable to someone else. It feels natural to appreciate women, and that is a central element to my identity as a lesbian. I am a lesbian because it feels natural and positive. Discovering my lesbian identity was an easy experience because I understood myself. Everything about being a lesbian and a woman on a lesbian continuum feels good to me, which causes me to wonder if the lesbian existence, itself, is not one of the happiest existences possible. But it is not the lesbian existence alone that creates happiness; it is the lesbian existence coupled with the strength of an individual that creates happiness.

The lesbian existence, according to Rich, is expressed in various forms. Rich describes the lesbian existence as being an act of resistance against patriarchy—a broad classification that I find particularly helpful (349). While the word “lesbian” may intimidate some people, the act of resistance may be able to overcome their fears of the word. Rich is bold to be so inclusive, but her ideas have an important place in present feminist discussions and will continue to have an important place in future discussions. Her theory challenges us to embrace our connections, in the midst of our individual differences.

Reading Response to Audre Lorde's "Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference"

Jessica Mason McFadden
WS 455 (Dr. West) - WIU
Reading Response 4
November 8th 2005

Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference

Fear of differences among college students is accompanied by insensitivity to differences. At each of the four colleges that I have attended, students have reacted to difference with fear and insensitivity. I have heard female students of varying ethnicities and classes verbally attack behaviors that are different from those they are comfortable with. My experiences in college classes are evidence of a much larger pattern of fear of and insensitivity to differences.

In a Women’s Studies course at the University at Buffalo (“Gender in the Custodial State”), students verbally attacked women for wearing tight shirts, sex-workers for prostituting themselves, female prisoners for wanting to share holidays with their children, and parents for not beating their children into submission. I supported the groups who were attacked—sometimes defending their positions, sometimes posing questions to the attackers, and sometimes just shaking my head and holding in all of my frustrations. The students were so quick to criticize different groups because they weren’t listening to all of the information.

Listening isn’t easy; it requires that humans embrace difference. It is important that people strive for awareness and sensitivity. While I try to be aware of and sensitive to difference, I am not perfect. I am an advocate for difference itself, but I am not an advocate for every behavior that is different from my own. I fear high risk differences, those differences that threaten my or others’ well-beings.

Sadomasochism is an example of a unique practice that I am not comfortable with because I am not comfortable with violence and pain. I will never embrace violence and I may not even listen to arguments in support of violence. I believe that my fear of violence isn’t the same as someone else’s fear of interracial marriage. I have observed violence and I believe that it is always harmful. I have also observed interracial relationships where there is love and respect, and I do not believe that there is anything harmful about two people of different races loving, having sex, or raising children together.

Fears toward differences are not always dangerous; but they become a problem when the fear overpowers rational thought. If humans reflect upon their fears, they may or may not change their minds about them. Reflection is an act of sensitivity that requires questioning, comparing different opinions, and justifying beliefs with rational arguments. Unfortunately, humans often avoid difference because their fears inhibit their sensitivities.

In “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” Audre Lorde theorizes about women’s roles in understanding and transforming societal perceptions of difference in human relationships. She exposes the use of difference in capitalist economies. In a profit economy, differences are ignored, copied or destroyed because the economy values dichotomous roles—the dominant party and the submissive party (339). Profit economies challenge unity. Instead of supporting the view that humans who are different from each other can still be unified as a human family, profit economies separate humans because of their differences. Racial and sexual differences do not separate us, but racism and sexism do because they are predicated upon an imbalance of power.

Differences in age, race, class, and sex are misplaced into categories of good or bad, right or wrong, superior or inferior. Then those categories are named and accepted as positions of god and man, man and wife, lord and serf, master and servant, sergeant and soldier. Capitalism is parasitic because one person profits off of the financial disadvantage of another person. Humans use difference to preserve the capitalist economy by isolating individuals and groups through fear.

In a factory, a supervisor holds power over a worker’s job (financial gain) and, therefore, controls the workers life. A supervisor holds all the power because he controls the money. His position renders him powerful in many ways because of the high value of profit in a capitalist economy. The factory worker is rendered powerless because he or she has no control over the financial distribution. This may result in the workers being subjected to long hours, verbal or physical harassment, or poor working conditions. Lorde challenges the corruption of difference under the capitalist structure, claiming that it has destroyed our ability to relate as equals in the midst of our differences (339). Ignoring difference is ignoring humanness, a dangerous behavior that negatively impacts lifestyles. When we choose not to see other humans as they really are (whether they are similar or dissimilar), we are denying them their humanity.

Many humans are misled into ignoring difference. Those who are mistreated or unrecognized because of their differences feel the injustice, but may continue to ignore difference in others. An example of this pattern is the tendency of some European American women to generalize their experience as the experience of all women. When a European American woman purports to speak for all women, she ignores individual differences of race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality among women. Audre Lorde notes that when white women’s voices become the dominant voice of all women, women of color are either ignored or separated because of their differences. When women of color are ignored by white women, it is often because white women are hesitant to see women of color as women and different (340). If white women listen to women of color and pay attention to differences, both communities will redefine difference as real and unthreatening.

Lorde’s theory on difference is very important for men and women of various races, ethnicities, and classes to consider. Many humans ignore difference or avoid it if they can. To preserve sameness, they often assume critical spirits, criticizing foreign behaviors even if they have never encountered them before.

At Western Illinois University, the population is largely homogeneous so it is especially important for professors to encourage students to be reflective and conscious of their surroundings. Differences aren’t always visible or recognizable, so it is important that students strive to be sensitive to members of their community. My claims in this response are based on my personal experiences as a European American, lesbian, privileged, and multifaceted woman. My writing does not represent Audre Lorde’s theory; it represents my beliefs about and interpretations of her theory. My experiences with students’ powerful preference for sameness have led me to reevaluate my own behaviors and recognize differences.

I would like to help redefine difference, but I need to consider others’ ideas about how to do so. In Feminist Theory 455, we currently discuss our differences in relation to ideas presented by feminist theorists. Our discussions involve an exchange of ideas, requiring that we listen to each other. We are able to work through new ideas and challenge each other to consider diverse perspectives because the environment is one of support and compassion.

Short Response to the Combahee River Collective's "A Black Feminist Statement"

Jessica Mason McFadden
WS 455 (Dr. West)
Response 3 “A Black Feminist Statement”
October 4th 2005

If things happen for a reason, then it was no coincidence that I moved to Illinois and became a student in Feminist Theory 455. If I am in this class to learn something I need to know, then I was "meant" to begin considering the experiences of non-white feminists in a new way. In the past, I thought that I was sensitive to racist intolerance, but I know better now that I have a lifetime of learning, empathizing and growing ahead of me. I identify as a lesbian feminist, but I need to be aware of identities and feminist experiences that are unlike my own. I hope to be committed to thinking outside of the box; it is important that I look beyond my own immediate oppressions. In Feminist Theory 455, we are working towards a broader understanding, not only of our own experiences, but of the unique experiences of people who are different from each of us. Even though the class is small, we have so much to learn from each other.

Just as it is important for us, as learners, to listen to each other’s stories, it is important that we approach feminist theory with open minds and hearts. As I read “A Black Feminist Statement,” I struggled to read and listen without feeling intimidated by my inability to relate to racist issues. As a white woman, I have not experienced racism directed against me, but it was still important for me to read the statement. Members of the Combahee River Collective, Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith and Demita Frazier, wrote “A Black Feminist Statement” in the 1970’s. The paper itself is short, but the ideas expressed in it are bold and clear. Four categories—the beginnings of Black feminism, the Black feminist’s political beliefs, the problems of organizing Black feminists, and the issues and practices of Black Feminists—were created to organize the paper and achieve the CRC’s desire to be sensitive to academic and nonacademic readers (312). As I read through each section, theories on interlocking oppressions resonated with me because they emphasized black women’s importance in the struggle against all oppressions. I admire the respect that the authors have for themselves and for their views of the world. They believe that they are “inherently valuable” and deserving of freedom (313), and that all humans deserve to be free.

Smith et al. wrote, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression” (315). Black women’s struggles and ideas are fundamental to the concept of freedom. The authors allow readers to question their understandings of freedom and their own desires for freedom. For me, reading this article has been a gift, helping me to reevaluate my own desire for peace in the world and the meaning of freedom. I cannot be truly free when there are others who suffer in the world. If a person is experiencing privileges at someone else’s expense, that person is not free. I have spoken of freedom before as if I knew what it was, but I didn’t know freedom. In high school, I thought freedom was graduating. I thought graduating and turning eighteen meant that I would be able to move away from my parents and be free to love who I wanted to love. It did mean that I was able to move away from my parents and love women, but those were steps toward freedom—not freedom itself. I know moments of pleasure, but those moments are only possible because I push away the troubles of the world. Denial and ignorance may feel like freedom, but humans haven’t experienced freedom. What is freedom if not universal and complete? No person has experienced the kind of freedom that Smith et al. refer to in their statement. As long as black women aren’t free, freedom is only a word and not a reality.

Black women’s definitions of and struggles for freedom are important for the well-being of all people in the world. I have never experienced racism, so I am not capable of the same achievements black women are capable of in this world. My personal struggles are still important, but I need to understand the relationship (commonalities and differences) that my struggles have with Black women’s struggles. For example, I know what isolation feels like as a white lesbian, but I don’t know what isolation would feel like as a black woman or a black lesbian. I know what it feels like for my psyche to be devalued because I am a woman who loves another woman, but my psyche is not devalued because I am a white woman who loves a woman. I don’t know what it feels like to have my psyche devalued because I am a white woman. I have been devalued under biological arguments against the weaker sex, but I have not faced racism or classism.

Even though I share in many of the beliefs black feminists have about the oppressive structures in capitalist economies, I do not understand how deeply they feel these effects because I am an outsider to racism and classism. I will always be an outsider to black women’s struggles, no matter how much I care about their issues or empathize with their struggles. I realize that my relationship with interlocking oppressions will always be different from how Black women experience interlocking oppressions, but I am committed to acknowledging my privileged position.

University LGBT Political Organizations: Unity's National Coming Out Day Project

Jessica Mason McFadden
WS 455 Feminist Theory
Dr. West
November 29th 2005

Unity’s National Coming Out Day Project Report

When I lived in Buffalo, New York, I spent most of my time studying for classes, enjoying time at home with my partner, and participating in activities with my extended family. I was interested in campus and community organizations, but my lifestyle and personality embraced the comforts of being at home (home being various comfort zones, such as my house, my parents’ house, my partner’s office, my car, or a local coffee house). I relied on my immediate surroundings for activist opportunities because they were convenient and comfortable. Thus, my voice and feminist ideas were expressed in classes and at dinner tables.

Having recently moved to Macomb, Illinois, I am faced with having to evaluate my choices. The change in environment has provided me with new opportunities for activism, but my natural tendency is to do what feels good (and, therefore, what is easy). I enjoy attending classes, studying, and being with my family. While that is what I want to do, I also want to contribute to my community in other ways. I haven’t quite figured out how to make it work because I enjoy being with Sandy and when I am not with her, I feel unsatisfied and become fixated on wanting whatever activity I am engaged in to be over so I can return to her and our life together.

I have had to think about my desires and responsibilities this semester, and the discussions in Feminist Theory 455 have stirred me with questions and concerns, as well as feelings of guilt, that I naturally avoid. I am currently in the process of choosing what to do with my voice and my ideas, and my completion of this project is currently having a ripple effect on other areas of my life.

For my Feminist Theory 455 Activism Project, I chose to work with the campus organization, Unity, on its annual National Coming Out Day activities. When I first moved to Macomb, I had e-mailed various faculty and staff contacts from the Women’s Center and Unity, hoping that Sandy and I would participate in community activities together. Although the responses were helpful, we were presented with other issues. There are different campus organizations for faculty and students. At first, I hoped that we could overcome (or ignore) the formal labels for the student and faculty/staff groups, but it’s near the end of the semester and we haven’t yet figured out what to do. I convinced Sandy to attend the second Unity meeting with me, but she didn’t feel comfortable and she thought the meeting wasn’t productive. I agree with her that the weekly meetings aren’t particularly productive, but I am interested in the political activities.

Had I not known about this project, I might have lost interest in the Unity meetings, but it gave me incentive to make my time productive. I decided that I would attend Unity meetings without Sandy. It wasn’t easy because I had to drag myself out of the house at night, when I wanted to remain at home. It is easier for me to participate in activities during the day (especially during the morning) than at night, but campus groups typically hold evening meetings.

So, in September and October, I attended weekly meetings, as well as separate meetings with the political committee. By the second political meeting, I was asked to be the chair coordinator for National Coming Out Day. I felt overwhelmed by the request because I feel overwhelmed when given a leadership position. It isn’t the position of being a leader, but the responsibility of the title that intimidates me. I am a responsible person, and when I take on a responsibility I simultaneously experience a great deal of stress. When I returned home after agreeing to chair NCOD, I regretted my decision and felt anxious. We had less than four weeks to plan the events for NCOD, and I didn’t want to be responsible for its failure or success. I also felt that I was under prepared, but I now realize that I feel that way most of the time, even when I am adequately prepared.

Through my participation in NCOD planning, I learned about my fears and insecurities. I also learned about my personality and my qualifications as a political organizer. The learning experiences that I was afforded and the achievements of the NCOD events were valuable, but the challenges that I faced were powerful deterrents. I was stressed out over my work load for a few weeks, and even though everything worked out, my impulse in the future will be to avoid that stress. I don’t always know what the best choices for me are, but I do try to be conscious and make positive choices.

The actual NCOD events were successful because they made an impression on the campus community. Just by having Unity and NCOD events on campus, we are exposing students, faculty and staff to important issues that are often invisible to most people. We had decided to connect Unity, a group some students might perceive as simply a self-centered organization for promoting alternative lifestyles, with a positive community-oriented activity that would help dispel this simplistic notion. The bake sale that we held on Monday, October 10th earned approximately sixty dollars to be donated to the local domestic violence victim’s services unit. It wasn’t as much as we would have liked to donate, but it was something. Students and staff were responsive to the bake sale, even if they did not buy anything. We had a rainbow flag up and students from Unity who interacted with the campus community. The event not only brought attention, but positive attention to Unity. It also reminded people about domestic violence because we connected the bake sale to Take Back the Night. The interweaving of issues and events is an action that I hope Unity will continue to embrace, because it helps to support the name and purpose of the group itself.

Just as the bake sale raised awareness in the campus community, the NCOD “Let’s Talk about It” Gathering made Unity visible to Western Illinois University students, faculty and staff. Approximately twenty-five people showed up at the gathering, most of whom were Unity members. We discussed National Coming Out Day, hate crimes, same-sex marriage, bisexuality, and other pressing issues that people asked about. Most people listened, but there were some who engaged in the discussion. I was happy that a reporter for the Western Courier attended the event, giving attention to NCOD and recognizing Unity’s efforts to encourage openness. For the most part, the gathering ran smoothly, with a few challenges that were out of my control.

My contributions to NCOD were also contributions to a feminist political agenda because they were made in response to issues that are relevant to me as a lesbian and a feminist. Through my work with Unity, I am aware of the importance of political action in the form of organized activism, but I am also aware of the importance of political action in the form of personal choices because they are both political. My routine behavior and organized participation are both activisms because they involve conscious decisions and visibility.

Reading Response to Audre Lorde's "Poetry is Not a Luxury"

Jessica Mason McFadden
WS 455: Feminist Theory -WIU
“Poetry Is Not a Luxury”
August 2005

In “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” Audre Lorde weaves poetry and feminist theory together. The essay was a remarkable work of poetic theory: a genre in itself. She refers to the human inner voice as “magic,” emphasizing its power (15). As individuals, our voice is who we are. It is also who we might become. When women use their voices, they are able to break out of the silence that they have been bullied into by racist and sexist ideologies. Lorde raised my awareness of my own fears about writing poetry. Every time I write poetry, I am making a powerful statement because writing requires choice. I choose to write. I write for myself and for women. I write as a twenty-year old-feminist-lesbian-daughter-sister-partner-student-liberal-woman.

There are times when I feel intimidated, as though what I have to say doesn’t matter. Fear interferes with my authentic voice, and has the power to turn my poetry into words without meaning or necessity. Lorde makes a distinction between the distracting nature of word play and the simplicity of words that are meant to convey clear-cut issues. My voice does matter, and I want to be less ambiguous about my messages. If I write a poem about a passionate relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, I want to let the reader know what my words imply. Over the years, I have been taught (in school) that my stories aren’t good enough, that I need to change my voice in order to write “clever” poetry. It is often difficult to ignore discouragement. In fact, sometimes it is difficult to detect when the unnecessary words are interfering with the simple message. I need to fight that tiny critical voice that interrupts the sound of my own voice. My experiences and thoughts are significant. They ought to be heard and I need to hear the stories of other women’s experiences because sharing creates a community.

Although Lorde writes to the individual poet, she also writes to a community of female voices. She persistently encourages women to use their voices to be empowered. Writing poetry requires confidence. Lorde’s inner strength allowed her to listen to her own authoritative voice rather than modifying her behavior to fit rigid writing standards. If you read traditional books on writing poetry, much of the focus is on the arrangement of words. A budding writer will probably be discouraged by the pretentious attitude many writers have toward beginners. Luckily, Lorde solves this problem by eliminating that exaggerated hogwash with the theory that poetry is always within us, and therefore, easily accessible. Through her personal experiences as a poet, she found her identity. Unlike other theorists, she doesn’t approach feminist theory with a step-by-step plan. Instead, she provides women with a genuine inspiration and a solid foundation for the feminist movement. She informs women that they have all of the necessary tools within themselves to work for change.

The focus on the self is what stands out in Lorde’s essay. It is so easy to become caught up in meaningless conventions, such as adhering to grammarian folklore or avoiding white after Labor Day. There are overt as well as hidden principles that have been created by hierarchical institutions to govern American society, and instead of rebelling, people often take what seems to be the easier road: compliance. Lorde’s metaphors and prose could be summed up with one question: Why should we comply? Asking that question is a necessary part of the process of giving up trying to please the patriarchal world and giving in to the beautiful world of womanly intuition. Poetry doesn’t have to be written to please a male audience; poetry comes from an authentic place within the mind and soul. Every woman has the power within herself to be vocal. Audre Lorde’s poetic language heightens the impact of her theory. She describes the woman’s place of power as “neither white nor surface,” but rather suggests that “it is dark, it is ancient, and it is deep” (15). By describing darkness as something incredibly beautiful that needs to be embraced and tended to, Lorde is challenging society on two levels. Not only is she challenging the literary connection often made between darkness and evil, she is also using darkness as a metaphor for the oppression of the African American woman.

For a feminist, poetry is a powerful way to end silence and to reclaim autonomy. The poetwoman embraces written and spoken voice. Audre Lord’s essay reinvents and reclaims poetry by encouraging women to share their stories without the interference of wordplay. She suggests that women need poetry because it is their greatest means for freeing their inner voices. Poetry is truly the “Black mother within us,” as Lorde so insightfully writes (16). Her essay has given me a new way of thinking about poetry. By writing poetry, we are challenging and breaking down some of the most oppressive barriers that we are up against. Women can voice their plights whether they are fighting for the right to have an abortion, escape an abusive relationship, or marry a same-sex partner. Whatever the stories are, they are necessary to the feminist movement. In celebration of this article, I have included two poems.

The Relationship Awareness Project: Health Concerns for LGBT Community

Jessica Mason
WS265 Sexualities and Orientations - UB
Prof. Bernadette Hoppe

The Relationship Awareness Project:
A Summary of the Preliminary Process

The idea for this project wasn’t my own. My partner, Sandy and I were having coffee at the Be True To Yourself Coffee house, before it burned down, in early September. I was excited at the thought of the project suggestions provided for us on our course syllabus, especially the prospect of having a sex toy party. While reading aloud the suggestions to Sandy, I anxiously admitted that I would not be satisfied unless I came up with an original project idea of my own. Moments later we were discussing how crummy it was that the form I filled out at my new dentists office, didn’t have space for me to identify my relationship- so I had circled married and specified beside it that the marriage was not legally, but that I am partnered. Sandy suggested I do my project to improve the situation in medical facilities. In fact, she suggested that I write to physicians to inform them of the situation. At first I didn’t want to commit to an idea, in case a better one came along, but it didn’t, and I realized that creating an awareness and making this effort would be not only an adequate project, but also an admirable achievement.

Although a sex toy party sounded exciting, I decided to wait on that, and perhaps have a party for pleasure in a non-course credit related environment. Initially, my goals for the project surpassed the time constraints and caliber of the assignment. This was apparent in my project proposal. Professor Hoppe seemed confused and asked me to narrow my project idea. Receiving feedback from Hoppe at such an early stage was a helpful learning experience for me because certain issues were brought to my attention. I wasn’t brief and clear enough about exactly what I was planning on doing. I was concerned about being descriptive, and as a result, made a very simple project seem like a complex one. My project proposal also reflected that my plans were too extensive for a twenty five hour assignment. I needed to take a step back and simply state what I was planning to do: research health care projects and programs and write letters to health care offices in the area. Professor Hoppe offered the advice that I do some internet research on health care programs aimed toward creating a healthier environment for GLBT members of the community in health care facilities. From the brief searches I initially conducted on line, I wasn’t able to find extremely relevant information, but after trying different key words, I came across some very interesting information.

As my project log of hours reveals, October was my month of research and preparation. The information that I collected didn’t drastically affect the final products (letters) in my project. Doing the research, however, was beneficial because in order to successfully reach a goal, you need to do your homework : background preparation. Research was an integral part of this project, and it raised my awareness. Some of the information that I collected is included in my project notebook. Although I couldn’t find much local information off of the internet, Massachusetts’ GLBT Health Access Project was reviewed in the American Journal of Public Health, which I considered a reputable source. I highly recommend the report, Health Concerns of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Community. It addressed many significant points, although it didn’t offer any information that directly related to my goals. It was more of a general report on the invisibility of the GLBT community as health care consumers. Although it revealed information about Massachusetts, the issues for the community are the same across the country.

Most of the work for this project was completed in November. During this month, I reviewed my sources, planned and wrote drafts of my letter, completed a survey as part of the project, and sent the letters out. During min-November, I was becoming worried that the project wouldn’t end up fulfilling the required twenty-five hours. Again, my darling Sandy came to the rescue and calmed me of my debilitating anxiety, simply suggesting I add something small to my project: a survey. A survey was ideal because it would add to my awareness on the subject and involve outside parties. I created the survey in a few hours time.

Because I didn’t know if I was going to be able to create a significant and appropriate survey, I conducted a search on google.com looking for a free survey format. Using a “trial survey” was risky, but I didn’t have any other options and using a professional program would enable the participants to easily fill in answers without having to copy and paste the survey into a new email. Since this was an extension of my original plans, I wasn’t depending on the survey, and this made it easier to prepare and send out. After completing the questions on the trial site, I began to prepare the list of survey participants. This was confusing and complex, and I couldn’t seem to access certain aspects of the website in order to edit my title. Unfortunately, although I had a better turn out than I expected, the program I used sent it out without adding my name to the survey and with an incorrect title attached (Movie Rental Survey, which was the template that I was given to work with.) I’m honestly not sure how that happened, but I did receive some emails in response asking if this was something I sent. Luckily my email address was attached, so all was not lost and people were able to figure out it wasn’t junk mail. Of course, that didn’t work for everyone, and my father deleted his.

The survey wasn’t the major component of my project, but it was a great idea and I think it was just what my project needed to be complete. I had been interested in hearing other opinions on the subject, and this served as a helpful final section to my project; it was a great way to fulfill the required hours. The results that I received are included in the project binder. Those individuals who completed the survey are people that I am acquainted with. If I had done this survey as my whole project, I would have done much more in terms of contacting a broad base of individuals of different backgrounds. Also, I would have spent more time preparing the survey, making the questions direct and simple and using reputable sources as guidelines for creating a valid survey. After I had finished the survey, I sent it to more than a hundred people right away, because I was afraid of losing information on the website I was using. So, making the survey on a free trial template on line was not the best way to complete a survey, but it was practical for my purposes. As soon as I sent out the survey, I began receiving responses, so I hurried to present Sandy with my survey. She pointed out that I used double negatives in my questions and that the range of strongly disagree to strongly agree wasn’t the best format for my questions, and in fact, made it more confusing. Luckily, there weren’t many questions in the survey, and everyone’s answers were consistent, so I guess they didn’t feel too overwhelmed with the negatives or the choices.

There were just under twenty responses to the survey, expressing a range of opinions. Since I knew the people filling out the survey, I was able to predict some of the responses, but there were also some answers that surprised me. Most individuals knew how they felt about the ‘Marital Status’ question, but some were unsure about how they felt about what should be done or whether or not it was limiting. This just reveals that there are many individuals who do not think twice about these options because they are heterosexual or married. One individual added a note that the question of sex in the survey was confused with what should have been a question of gender. The individual who noticed this obviously is informed of the general confusion between sex and gender. I couldn’t change the format of the question from sex to gender on the survey, because that part of the question was permanent, but her response made me frustrated because I am not sure what the best thing for physicians to ask is. My way of trying to make this inoffensive, since I couldn’t take away the word sex in the question, was to provide an option of other, so those who found the question troubling could express that- as only one individual did. This is significant issue, and it has been brought to my attention in various classes, but no one seems to offer a way or handling the confusion of sex and gender. If sex refers to a vagina or a penis, and not a male or a female, then the question should be sex : vagina, penis or other. When I filled out the survey, I picked female as a sex, and female meant vagina to me, and I can identify with a vagina for sex more than a female gender, but the question was about sex not gender. It is difficult to address this situation because this misconception is so strong and widely accepted, and I don’t know how we can possibly make this happen any time soon. If gender is a variety of identities, then the options of male or female are far too narrow, and the question should not be followed with options, but rather a blank space to be filled in. Although the goal of my project was not to address the sex/gender confusion, this confusion is central to larger goals for improvements in health care facilities.

Overall, I was successful in reaching the goals that I initially set for this project. I wrote a strong letter to over sixty health care providers, learned more about the situation than I knew to begin with, raised the awareness of strangers and acquaintances, and hopefully made a difference in the way at least one person thinks about the GLBT (etc) experience of health care in the United States. I am proud of what I attempted to do and what I accomplished, even though it was a small step in comparison to the big picture of the need for change. The projects and organizations that I came across on line were encouraging, and if I chose to become further involved in this commitment to change, I know great sources to start with.

Readers and Writers Connect over Identity: Henry Louis Gates Jr. Jamaica Kincaid, and Alice Walker

Jessica Mason McFadden
ENG 380
Dr. Balderson -WIU
November 18th 2005

*Source citation not required for assignment

The Race-Romance:
Readers and Writers Connect over Identity

The relationship between readers and writers is unbalanced: readers have needs that writers satisfy, whereas writers have needs that most readers will never satisfy. A writer wants her work to be read and a reader wants to read a writer’s work, but the pleasure that the reader receives is often more abundant than the pleasure that the writer receives. Writers have to be exhibitionists if they want their work to be read, and readers depend on them to fulfill this expectation, but readers are seldom held to such high expectations. No one keeps tabs on readers—they come, they go. Readers may be indifferent, silent, reserved, loud, or critical. They may read in private or public, for a hobby or a class. They may read one essay, but skip the next. They may start a book and never finish. Readers have choices.

Writers have choices, too, but they are different. The reader is at ease in her position, and she may never think of the writer when she reads. The writer may be at ease in her position, but she must think of the reader when she writes. At some point and to some degree, a writer must consider her readers. The writer and the reader do share a common feature: they both think of themselves. The reader decides what she likes and doesn’t, what she cares about, and how she relates to the writing. The writer decides what to write about and how to write about it, and she often writes about her life. While the writer considers her reader, the writer’s identity (and perhaps soul) is her primary source of inspiration. Self is central to life, just as identity is to writing.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Jamaica Kincaid, and Alice Walker all have multifaceted identities, with at least two identifiable common features: all are writers and all are black. Race is a facet of their identities that has inspired and shaped their essays, and being writers allows them to communicate with a population of readers. Writing about race is one way that Gates, Kincaid, and Walker embrace their identities. They have stories that need to be written and read. Well-rounded readers need to read stories from multiple perspectives (familiar and unfamiliar). When writers write about race, they write about what it means to be human by sharing their experiences, interpretations, and perspectives. Writing about race also allows writers to look deeply into their experiences, giving significance to what might have remained unnoticed. By embracing their identities, writers are also honoring life.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. honors life by writing about his experiences as a black man in his informal essay, “In the Kitchen.” As a writer, Gates is vulnerable because he has put a story that he values on paper. At the same time, he is untouchable because once his work is published it takes on a life of its own. The subject of the essay is very personal to Gates, but he encourages readers to honor life by allowing them to observe and enjoy the details of his life, a life that may be unfamiliar to the reader.

Gates makes “In the Kitchen” accessible to a range of readers by writing with sensitivity. At first, he introduces names that are familiar to most readers regardless of racial or academic background, such as Crest, Colgate, and Walter Cronkite (233). He then introduces a vernacular that is less familiar to one audience (the non-black audience)—using names such as blue Bergamot hair grease—and subsequently introduces vernacular that is widely understood in predominantly black communities but unfamiliar to readers in predominantly white communities. Readers who aren’t familiar with black culture are likely to be unfamiliar with the kitchen and Jesus Moss, but Gates is sensitive to that unfamiliarity (234).

Gates eases into previously unwritten territory, progressing from cultural features that are trivial to those that are impressive. He explains each term, process, and hair style in detail. For example, when Gates explains that “straight hair with a hint of wave” is called a “Do-rag,” he includes background details and familiar names to provide an image for his readers (237). Sammy Davis, Jr. and Nat King Cole are widely recognizable names that support Gates’ credibility as a writer and representative of the black community in the United States. The images that central (unfamiliar) characters in the essay invoke are just as vivid as those that the famous characters invoke because they are all connected to the narrator.

Gates’ narrative voice is captivating. It is simple, approachable, and comical. Gates’ wit is one rhetorical strategy that successfully renders his writing accessible. His account of Mr. Charlie Carroll and the phrase, “a white man told me,” exemplifies Gates’ humorous perspective on life (234). Mr. Charlie Carroll’s validation of his words with “a white man told me” is disturbing from a historical standpoint, but Gates makes light of it, focusing on the meaning that it held in an intimate, familial setting. Many of the elements that Gates includes in the essay are realistic, and even so, he makes cheerful humor of the idiosyncrasies of his own and others’ communities. He placates academic readers with acceptable sentence structures and rhetorical strategies, and pleases nonacademic readers with his casual, nostalgic tone.

While many academic essays are written for an academic audience, Gates’ essay is accessible to both academic and nonacademic readers. Most academic writing produced in the United States caters to readers who are European American and speak Standard American English, but “In the Kitchen” caters to underrepresented, disregarded readers in black communities. Gates recognizes black culture in the United States as significant. He comfortably tells a story that is simple and close to his heart—one that hasn’t been told before. “In the Kitchen” honors Gates’ identity and offers readers a place to honor familiar and unfamiliar identities.

Jamaica Kincaid, like Gates, honors her identity in her writing. Although Kincaid shares some common beliefs with Gates, she also presents her readers with bold statements that aren’t always easy to digest. Born on the island of Antigua, Kincaid’s ideas are important to local and international populations. In the essay, “Garden of Envy,” Kincaid honors her identity by connecting her personal experiences with the impersonal qualities of gardening. She is led by a confident inner-voice, which is obvious to the reader because her thoughtfulness (innovations, contradictions, and indecisions) inform the essay.

Kincaid’s narrative voice is declarative, even when she is unsure. The first sentence of the essay, “I know gardeners well (or at least I think I do, for I am a gardener, too, but I experience gardening as an act of utter futility),” is an example of her declarative device (379). After she claims that she knows gardeners well, she thinks about her claim. It doesn’t seem as though she is second-guessing herself, though, because she is still in charge and she is not afraid to change her mind as long as she can decide for herself. Kincaid also generalizes, claiming that “gardeners always have something they like intensely and in particular, right at the moment you engage them in the reality of the borders they cultivate” (379). This technique of generalizing is not obvious because her narrative personality is strong and honest.

Kincaid’s generalizations have a place, but they do not dominate the essay. She also includes specific images, such as the “memory of that smell of the rose combined with the memory of that smell of the grandmother’s skirt” (380). Kincaid’s thoughtfulness is evident in her prolific paragraphs of careful details and significant meanings. The alternating structures of commentary, emotion, detailed imagery, and gardening terminology give readers a sense of balance when they approach Kincaid’s unabashed writing. She hides nothing and she is true to herself, qualities that protect her from having to defend every opinion. Kincaid’s hardened tone suggests that she takes her ideas seriously, and therefore, respects herself. Her writing expresses elements of her identity with strength and confidence.

Identity is central to Alice Walker’s work. In her essay, “My Daughter Smokes,” Walker addresses the consequences of smoking from a very personal standpoint. The topic of smoking may not interest readers, but Walker addresses smoking through a comfortable framework—the family. Walker’s essay is primarily concerned with the impact of smoking on intimate relationships, although she also includes lighthearted details from her experiences with smokers that casually carry the reader into the vital messages. Like Kincaid’s “Garden of Envy,” Walker’s essay is very personal. Her thoughtful nature is apparent in the balance of ideas she creates to convey the intimate relationship between family and smoking. Walker’s self-disclosing title, “My Daughter Smokes,” sets the mood for the essay and demands attention from a diverse population of readers because it implies elements of personal testimony that Walker includes.

Intimate characters are the primary influence in Walker’s essay because they allow Walker and her readers to empathize, despite the negative consequences of smoking. Walker’s intimate characters also make “My Daughter Smokes” a timeless essay because she includes two distant generations of people who are connected by a struggle with smoking. She describes what her daughter looks like when she is smoking, with “her feet on the bench in front of her and her calculator clicking answers to her algebra problems,” before she passionately admits that seeing her daughter smoke is painful (688). While Walker could have chosen a negative image of her daughter, she didn’t. Instead, she introduced her daughter and the act of smoking with an innocent, loveable image of a young woman doing her homework. The image warms the reader up to Walker because sensitivity and compassion are at the heart of her concerns about smoking. Walker isn’t threatening to readers because she isn’t judgmental. She doesn’t scold or nag smokers for their choices, and this earns the reader’s trust (especially if the reader happens to be a smoker). Walker’s sensitivity to her readers is evident in the identifiable natures of characters in the essay, but it is also evident in her ability to relate to the characters. Walker has an insider’s perspective on smoking, not only because her father and daughter smoke, but because she, herself, smoked in eleventh grade. With honesty, Walker is able to look each of her struggles with smoking. Just as Walker empathizes with her daughter and father, readers empathize with Walker. Her compassionate personality and ability to relate with people are qualities of great leaders, leaders who radiate flexibility, understanding, and goodness. As an influential writer, Walker is interested in human connections, and this connects her to readers because they can sense her desire to connect across difference (whether generational, racial, ethnic, or sexual). She presents readers with relationships that people share, good and bad, and in this essay she focuses on two intimate relationships in her life. By narrating human interactions, Walker requires that readers reflect upon the delicate aspects of life and the importance of identity for experiencing dignity in life.

Each facet of a writer’s identity provides a format for perspectives to be formed, changed, supported, or criticized. Race, class, gender, and sexuality are lenses through which writers analyze and discuss life. The writer’s identity inspires and shapes her ideas and rhetorical decisions. While identity isn’t evident in every genre or style of writing, it is always a part of the writing process, and it is clearly an important element in essays by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Jamaica Kincaid, and Alice Walker. Being both a writer and reader are aspects of a writer’s identity, which explains why writers often write about their personal writing process. As humans, we form self-concepts and perspectives on life through our intuitions and social interactions. Our complex and ever-blooming identities are projected through our self-expressions. We express identity constantly, as we communicate with our earthly surroundings (material and human). Identity is the thing that grounds us and the thing that allows us to let go; it is our center.

Hunting Humans: Rick Bass's "Why I Hunt: A Predator's Mediation"

Jessica Mason McFadden
English 380 (Balderson) - WIU
Paper 3
September 30th 2005

*Source citation was not required for this assignment

Hunting Humans

Five years ago you could have found me hiding under my covers, praying to a god that I no longer believe in with my eyes shut tightly—but not anymore. These nights I offer up a two minute thanksgiving for the sake of karma; I look out into the darkness and I recognize the shadows as objects in my house rather than the faces of my dead grandfathers. It feels good to open my eyes, but I’ve traded in that old ignorant twinkle for a steady calmness. I still duck and cover when an insect the size of my pupil is within five feet of me, but from a distance I know that I am not so different from the tiny creature. If I am a predator, I am not the kind of predator who hunts but rather the one who kills out of fear. I prefer the role of the prey— it suits me well. I avoid conflict: I prefer spending time at home with my wife, I weigh less than 100lbs, and I have been notorious for becoming paralyzed with laughter upon being attacked by testosterone-laden family members. If a human or other animal my size or larger were to want me for dinner, I would be an easy target though my meat wouldn’t feed a family of four.

As a member and supporter of the earth’s weak little peacekeepers (small humans with loud voices), I can say that despite Rick Bass’s honorable honesty, I found “Why I Hunt: A Predator’s Mediation” to be a threat to womankind. Not all women are vulnerable, but with weapons the hunter can make most anyone his prey. There are predators in the United States who hunt women the way Bass hunts elk. If Bass’s non-human targets are replaced with women and children, the essay has quite a different effect on the reader, though the arguments don’t change. When Bass describes his love of “sitting in some leaves, completely hidden and motionless—waiting, and waiting” (63), I picture him waiting in a park for an unattended child or an unaccompanied woman. My concerns about Bass’s instincts aren’t neurotic. I’m a loving woman who occasionally hugs trees and wants to feel safe in the world—not a card carrying member of PETA. My own instincts, like Bass’s, usually prevail; they told me not to go in the woods with Rick Bass or buy into his “Predator’s Meditation.” Bass’s hunting and the kind of hunting that isn’t sanctioned in the United States are eerily similar. He fails to draw even a fine line between hunting for sport and hunting for personal pleasure; they both tempt him to give into his urges. This wouldn’t be a problem if his instincts didn’t threaten the well-being of potentially vulnerable humans (prey, according to Bass).

All humans feel temptations to defy cultural norms: some men like to dance to Tina Turner’s wildly energetic songs wearing only high heels, some lovers want to be handcuffed to the bedpost and spanked, and some women want to walk around town with their shirts off. I admire Bass’s rebelliousness—his desire to stir the reader up and break all the rules—but frankly, the sadistic nature of his desires are troubling. At the end of Bass’s essay I am still left wondering how he is able to turn off his predator instincts when fall turns to winter.

Bass filled his predator’s defense-guised-as-meditation with natural images of the predator-prey relationship, but his predator-logic was faulty. Bass doesn’t feel comfortable hunting predators; it feels unnatural to him (63). Hunting predators isn’t any different from hunting prey; when predators are hunted they become prey. A sea lion may hunt and kill a penguin for an afternoon snack, but that same sea lion may be hunted by a shark at supper time. Bass doesn’t take the time to consider that there is a continuum between predators and prey. No one wants to be the prey of a bigger and faster predator, not even Bass.

Although Bass claims that when he hunts, he hunts for something he “must have” (63), his drive to hunt, kill, and eat deer and elk is not a matter of life or death. He attempts to justify his desire by arguing that it is part of his basic survival. It’s almost as if he is playing pretend in autumn. Bass fancies the idea that his behavior is a survival mechanism. His most convincing argument is that the meat gives him strength and makes him feel “alive” (63). While the pleasure-argument may be natural for Bass, it wouldn’t go far in the court room. If Jeffrey Dahmer were to write “Why I Kill: A Murderer’s Mediation,” readers would be fascinated, but most of them wouldn’t volunteer to share a cell with him. As an outspoken predator, Bass offers the reader a few admirable but unconvincing arguments. I want to agree with him, but when I remind myself that each ritual he delights in ultimately ends in death; it is impossible.

Human Chaos in Barry Lopez's "A Presentation of Whales" and Scott Russell Sander's "Buckeye"

Jessica Mason
ENG 380 Paper 2
Prof JR Balderson - WIU
September 16th 2005

Note: we were not required to cite our sources for this assignment!

Human Chaos

Was it just a coincidence that I had my first—televised—encounter with sperm whales only a day after I read Barry Lopez’s essay, “A Presentation of Whales”? Was my strong spiritual response to Scott Russell Sander’s “Buckeye” a sign that I, too, will feel the ghostly presences of my beloved kindred when they leave this world? No way! I am not a mystic. I am not supernaturally connected to sperm whales or spirits, but I will admit that I entertained self-important thoughts while reading both essays. Not only did I stare at the professional headshots of the writers before I read their essays; I adored them and empathized with their visions.

Perhaps nature writers are advantaged: they can be scientific and not be perceived as being such by non-scientific readers. After all, the word ‘nature’ generates images of the earth and all of its sensory treasures, whereas ‘science’ generates images of laboratory coats, long calculations, laborious extractions, and obscure words like genome, polypeptide and spermatozoa. Nature writers are free to incorporate various genres in their writing, which interests a broad population of readers. Readers are attracted to writing styles that reinforce their subjective perceptions of themselves and the world. A readers’ opinion does not necessarily indicate the success or failure of a writer, but rather the state of mind of the reader when she approaches the piece. This is also how we approach people and events in our lives. We are animals, and therefore we must engage with nature. While Barry Lopez and Scott Russell Sanders have a keen sense of the innate connection between animals and landscapes, they are also grounded in their perceptions of human behavior and aware of their own humanness.

A writer makes assumptions about her reader, and those assumptions allow her to write confidently. Barry Lopez’s concern for places and animals, for instance, is transposed to the reader because he assumes that the detailed images of nature he describes speak for themselves. Lopez connects his visual spectrum with higher elements: historic references, scientific facts, philosophical questions, environmental issues, and cultural practices. If the stone horse wasn’t located on high ground to the north of an arroyo (428), and was, instead, easily accessible to a mainstream population, many people would hastily look upon it as an old, unimportant statue and move on in a matter of minutes. Some people would attempt to move it, and others might mark it up or even try to sit on it. The chaos of human behavior would have disrupted the intimate tranquility that Lopez achieved in his encounter with the stone horse.

When he is alone with the horse, Lopez makes psychic connections with various worlds. I have to admit, reading “The Stone Horse” made me wonder if perhaps illegal substances were involved in his journey. There is no stopping him once he sets his eyes on something. Every image that he encounters spurs other images—exact details of shape and size, historical characters and activities, geographical facts, social issues, complicated assumptions. I am not even sure we should classify Barry Lopez as a nature writer, but I suppose “nature writer” is more encompassing than anything else we could call him. His intimacy with landscape is tranquil, but the heavy layers of information in his essays are lively. As Lopez voyaged through many twists and turns to find the stone horse; he had to leave his car to move past a barricade of boulders. The expedition allowed him to connect with a piece of natural history that would have been taken for granted by most humans.

If Lopez wasn’t alone with the stone horse and its surroundings, the writing may have assumed a mood of overt chaos, as in “A Presentation of Whales,” where human voices occupied the location, disrupting Lopez’s intimate stillness. Instead, Lopez is concealed from the reader. The narrative is broad: it is open to the dramatic influences of a number of characters and chronological details. Lopez knew that the complexity and variation of the human species would be best demonstrated through a sperm whale-crisis narrative.

I was disturbed by “A Presentation of Whales,” but it wasn’t Barry Lopez’s fault. There aren’t any clear distinctions between the villains and the heroes in this story; so the only ones I could trust not to have self-righteous motives were the wise whales and the dispassionate narrator. From the insensitive drunks to the scrutinized scientists, the whale-tale is a classic display of humanness. Each character or group of characters wished they knew the “right” thing to do for the dying sperm whales, but (instead of working together) they inflated their own ideas and belittled the ideas and efforts that others put forward. Crises always reveal that human behavior is preposterous! The only voice of reason is the sound of the sperm whales as they lay dying. Lopez captures the power of the sounds as being “like children shouting on a distant playground—and able to sort a cacophony of noise: electric crackling of shrimp, groaning of undersea quakes, roar of upwellings, whining of porpoise, hum of oceanic cables” (444). This prolific description is only one sentence, but it exemplifies the long sentences and level of detail that Lopez is capable of. The writing itself is well-worth the read, but Barry Lopez really knows how to move the reader. When he ties various points of view together through real-life characters, he examines the contradictory ways of humans and the ultimate chaos of our behavior. Some characters wanted to help the whales and they thought that blaming other humans would solve the problem; still others took photos of and stepped on the moaning whales. It’s outrageous, but it’s not surprising.

I continued to envy trees and other non-cognitive organisms while reading Scott Russell Sanders’, “Buckeye,” but for less hostile reasons than those I entertained while reading about sperm whales. It is not surprising that “Buckeye” is a well-respected essay, nor that Sanders is a well-respected writer. His story conveys powerful messages about essential natural processes: grief and death. Sanders’ fosters a nostalgic quality in the reader with his profound insight and simplicity. The title clearly represents the main natural element in the story, and similarly the narrative—which is a story about humanness—is composed around the natural object (buckeye).
The intimacy that Sanders observes between his father and the trees he closely held onto is similar to the intimacy created between Lopez and the stone horse, but, in this case, Sanders is a third party. The nature that Sanders writes about is viewed as precious by the characters in the narrative. We learn about buckeyes from both a dialogue involving the father figure, as well as through Sanders’ narration. Sanders describes the power of memories and love while describing images of objects. For instance, when he writes, “The wooden box on my desk holds these grazing deer, as it holds the buckeyes and walnut plank and the farm auction and the munitions bunkers and the breathing forests and my father’s hands” (611), he connects human emotions to human possessions. Although the images he lists aren’t scientific or historical, they are still objects in his immediate landscape. Alone, they are solitary objects, but together they create a story of human life.

Curiosity and neediness attract humans to philosophy, in a similar way that they attract humans to religious dogma, cults and magic. Fortunately, nature narratives draw on human interests in various disciplines without simultaneously wreaking havoc on society. Writing helps us create and understand ideas. Personal values and scientific information are often used interchangeably by Barry Lopez and Scott Russell Sanders. Unless the reader is indifferent, both writers prove they are capable of illustrating essential elements of the human experience in both public and private moments. As readers, we are bonded to Lopez and Sanders because of our role in the innate chaos of human interaction.

For the Goddess Too Well Known, by Elsa Gidlow (One of my favorite poems)

by Elsa Gidlow

I have robbed the garrulous streets,
Thieved a fair girl from their blight,
I have stolen her for a sacrifice
That I shall make to this night.
I have brought her, laughing,
To my quietly dreaming garden.
For what will be done there
I ask no man pardon.
I brush the rouge from her cheeks,
Clean the black kohl from the rims
Of her eyes; loose her hair;
Uncover the glimmering, shy limbs.
I break wild roses, scatter them over her.
The thorns between us sting like love's pain.
Her flesh, bitter and salt to my tongue,
I taste with endless kisses and taste again.
At dawn I leave her
Asleep in my wakening garden.
(For what was done there
I ask no man pardon.)

The Tragic Representation of Repressed Femininity in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

ENG 258 World Literatures
Dr. Rahman - WIU
February 9th 2005

The Tragic Representation of Repressed Femininity in
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

Although colonization is an obvious tragedy in Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, his narrative is also a tragedy about self-rejection and self-hatred, which is manifest in Okonkwo’s aggression and fear of femininity. As a tragic warrior, Okonkwo’s greatest battle is with himself. Okonkwo’s rejection of his father, Unoka, is the beginning of his long struggle with self-acceptance. He clings to dichotomous gender roles in his struggle against feminine influences—including those embodied in his family members and the earth—in order to destroy the femininity in himself, and this leads to his destruction. Humans are multifaceted creatures who are best able to move freely along continuums—we defy dichotomous labels of masculinity and femininity, yet those labels strongly influence our sense of identity and comfort in ourselves. Because he allows dichotomous labels to determine his self-worth, Okonkwo feels like an outsider and is tragically consumed by feelings of otherness, fear and self-hatred.

Just as Okonkwo cannot separate himself from his father, he cannot separate his son, Nwoye’s, identity from his own. As Achebe’s narrator describes, Okonkwo is “not a man of thought but of action” (1053). Okonkwo’s impulsivity and critical spirit is a symptom of his self-rejection. He criticizes his son for not being driven to be masculine, but he does not reflect on any resemblances that he and his son may share, believing that Nwoye is hopeless because he is weak like his mother and grandfather (Achebe 1051). Okonkwo rejects his connection to his son in order to preserve his own sense of security, which is dependent on his ability to maintain an image of masculinity.

Nwoye represents the gentler and more reflective qualities in Okonkwo, qualities that Okonkwo fears and represses in order to uphold a masculine image. Though he desires to be in control of every element of his life, he does not have control of himself or those around him. Okonkwo is easily disturbed by anything that he deems weak, including his son, Nwoye, with whom he feels greatly disappointed. He does not attempt to understand Nwoye, and instead, blindly rejects him in order to maintain his belief in strictly dichotomous gender roles.

Similarly, Okonkwo does not recognize or acknowledge potential shown by his daughter, Ezinma, because he is fearful of how it might reflect upon or expose his own femininity. Okonkwo isn’t able to accept her personality because he isn’t able to accept his own. He praises Ezinma, but he cannot do so without commenting on her femaleness, for example, when he tells Obeirika, “If Ezinma had been a boy I would have been happier. She has the right spirit” (Achebe 1051). From his male-centered perspective, he does not see Ezinma as an autonomous individual with potential, but as a woman with unusual potential that is useless because she was not born a man. Okonkwo feels sorry for himself, wishing that she had been a boy instead of being happy that he has a female child with a strong spirit. His spirit is never at ease because he compulsively struggles to put his surroundings into categories, as being either masculine and decent or feminine and inferior.

Okonkwo is critical of the world around him because he is critical of himself. He meets a tragic end because his self-hatred and rejection of parts of his being cause him to act out in a destructive manner. He is driven by his emotions of disgust for anything remotely feminine and overcome by a need to prove his own masculinity. Even though he has allowed the young man to call him father, Okonkwo does not think, but immediately acts on impulse when he is faced with the choice of whether to kill Ikemefuna. Okonkwo chooses to kill his son because “he was afraid of being thought weak” (Achebe 1049). He thoughtlessly destroys anything that threatens to come between him and masculinity, not coming to terms with his actions or repenting for his betrayal of Ikemefuna, but instead, continuing to ignore and reject his feelings of remorse.

Okonkwo’s rejection of his feelings is also, in part, a rejection of the earth because the earth is associated with femininity and embodied in the figure of a goddess. Okonkwo rejects passivity and peacefulness because he equates those qualities with weakness. His disregard for the earth is unmistakable when he beats his wife, Ojiungo, during the community’s Week of Peace. Though such an act was easy for Okonkwo to commit, others considered it “unheard of to beat somebody during the sacred week” (1035). Okonkwo’s violence contrasts with the peacefulness that is associated with the earth goddess, and his extreme reactions and lack of restraint reflect his need to repress his own femininity. Violence is the only means through which he feels he can express his inner hostilities and self-hatred in a masculine manner.

Okonkwo’s self-hatred is manifest in his volatile personality—he is driven toward violence and uncomfortable with anything less aggressive. He does not escape his inner battle with his own feminine qualities, and as a result, he meets a tragic end. He cannot accept femininity in others because he is incapable of accepting it in himself, and this renders him isolated from his community. Suicide was merely another one of Okonkwo’s attempts to assert his aggressiveness in order to gain control. It was also an act that was offensive to the earth (1112). Okonkwo does not escape from or overcome his struggle with self-hatred. Instead, he makes a final attempt to destroy what he fears most—losing control. He ends his own battle as most battles end, in violence, never accepting himself or peacefully coming to terms with his fear of femininity.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. “Things Fall Apart.” The Bedford Anthology of World Literature. Ed. Paul Davis et al. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997. 861.

Life of the Landscape: Non-traditional Characters in Michelle Cliff’s "No Telephone to Heaven"

ENG 258 Essay 3
Dr. Rahman - WIU
April 25 2006

Life of the Landscape:
Non-traditional Characters in Michelle Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven

In No Telephone to Heaven, Michelle Cliff challenges the European American literary tradition on multiple levels—not only by incorporating the Jamaican dialect into dialogue and alternating between English and Jamaican manners of speech, but also by constructing non-traditional (and often non-human) characters. While Cliff includes traditional characters, such as Clare, she also includes characters that are not traditional, creating a striking flow of communication between the two types of characters. There are three prominent types of non-traditional characters that Cliff constructs in the novel: elements of the Jamaican landscape (Ruinate), supernatural forces (encompassed in Sasabonsam), and the ancestors (Clare’s grandmother), but for the sake of time, I will examine Ruinate and Sasabonsam. As characters, these non-human yet living presences evoke in readers the idea that life is not a narrow concept, but instead a complex one that cannot be labeled or understood in a single way.

Just as life itself is multifaceted, so too is the experience of the citizens of Jamaica. More specifically, this connection can be seen in the interaction between each type of non-traditional character. The Jamaican landscape and Sasabonsam interact both directly and indirectly. These interactions emphasize and symbolize the importance of landscape, spirituality and family in achieving a sense of belonging, as well as in the human experience. It is in these interactions that Cliff comments on the complicated nature of the journey to find and create an identity while suffering from the oppressive power of colonization. In a broader sense, she comments on the obstacles that colonization creates for any mass of people.

Cliff introduces her readers to the concept of ruination at the beginning of the novel. It is, in fact, the first concept that she introduces, which serves to strengthen its role in the narrative, as well as to set up its role as an actual living presence in the story. Ruinate is not always directly labeled as such; sometimes its presence is evident in individual objects and descriptions of the Jamaican landscape. Cliff sets up a working definition of ruinate as a term “used to describe lands which were once cleared for agricultural purposes and have now lapsed back into…‘bush’ (1). Its presence is not only a background for the human characters, but also an entity with which they interact and identify in their daily lives. During the first scene, Cliff’s narrator describes the khaki uniforms worn by the group of people in the back of the truck as “practical matter…a matter of survival. They were dressed to blend with the country around them—this dripping brown and green terrain” (5). In this way, ruinate is personified in both the landscape and the clothing worn by those people who were on a journey of survival. Cliff’s description of the terrain is both an element of the setting, as well as a character itself, and this is evident in the intimate relationship that Cliff constructs between human characters and the ruinate that surrounds them. She describes the country as “dripping,” which implies that it possesses a life-like quality. The landscape, then, lives as a human character might live. The human characters dress to blend themselves into their environment, and this interaction is both present explicitly and implicitly. It is explicit in the sense that they are externally and physically becoming part of the landscape through their dress, and implicit in the sense that their dress implies that they identify with the landscape as though it is a living entity.

Cliff describes the landscape as frequently as she does the human characters—
details describing the landscape are interwoven into every scene and often, it is in her descriptions of the landscape that the life of Jamaica is most conspicuous. This is most evident in Cliff’s description of Clare’s grandmother’s farm, which had been “left by the family to the forest…to ruination” (8). The forest itself is a character, a character that beholds the life of Clare’s ancestors and the spirit of a pre-colonized Jamaica, as well as evidence of the devastation of colonization on its spirit. Cliff’s description of the landscape in this scene is the foundation for the stories that follow. The scene encompasses all three of the non-human yet living presences in the narrative, introducing readers to Clare’s grandmother, the landscape of ruination, and the mythological name, Sasabonsam, that is given to the spirit of the forest. The forest represents both death and life as factors involved in evolution. It also represents wilderness that cannot be suppressed, and therefore acts as a metaphor for the human spirit. Even if the landscape is burned and destroyed, it possesses a life-force that is powerful enough to return again and again. From an evolutionary perspective, the landscape is stronger than humans in that it possesses the power to be re-born almost immediately after it has been destroyed. The forest carries the spirit of the Jamaican people because it carries a spirit of survival against the destructiveness of domination and colonization.

The landscape is the voice of the people who have no voice—Clare’s ancestors no longer have a voice to protest, but the landscape and its ruination speak and protest for them. Cliff describes one dimension of the landscape and its role in the narrative, saying, “the grandmother and her husband, and their son who died before them…were wrapped by wild vines which tangled the mango trees shading their plots, linking them further to the wild trees, anchoring their duppies to the ground” (8). This description elicits an image of the forest as an all-consuming or devouring force and implies that in death the three have become part of the landscape. Although the ruination was caused by destructive forces (colonization, struggle, death), it also physically and symbolically protects the people who suffered. The forest takes in the bodies, and so the bodies become part of the landscape and the spirits of the bodies live on in the forest. The relationship between the landscape that became the forest and the people who once struggled to survive on the land is evidence of Cliff’s construction of elements of the landscape as characters in the novel. Through this image of the Clare’s ancestors’ bodies blending into the landscape, Cliff gives the forest a voice that is not human yet is very much a living presence in the narrative. Even though “the place had a different patter of sounds altogether,” it still has a voice and it speaks of what it once was, what it now has become, and what it might be—of peacefulness, ruination, and hope (9).

Like the landscape, the presence of Sasabonsam is particularly notable in the opening and final chapters, but through those explicit depictions is also implicitly conveyed throughout the narrative. Cliff introduces Sasabonsam, the “fire-eyed forest monster,” as a figure that is part of the landscape yet distinctive from the landscape itself because it represents a mythological and spiritual figure at the heart of the forest and its ruination (9). Sasabonsam is present in the character, Christopher, who through that monstrous urge that overtakes him causes destruction and then eventually leads him to assume the position of the Watchman. Christopher, as a human character, speaks throughout “Chapter II: No Telephone to Heaven,” while Sasabonsam speaks at the end of the chapter. Although Cliff does not identify a speaker, the voice in the final paragraphs of the chapter may be understood to be the voice of Sasabonsam. The voice says, “ NO TELEPHONE TO HEAVEN. No miracles. None of them knew miracles. They must turn the damn thing upside down. Fight fire with fire. Burn…Catch a fire…Do this or give up the ghost” (50). By including a voice throughout the story without identifying a speaker, Cliff challenges the traditional European American literary tradition. Her organization of ideas forces readers to consider not only what she is trying to do with Sasabonsam, but also with character construction as part of the narrative form. It makes sense that the speaker may be understood as Sasabonsam because of the themes of fire and burning that are evident throughout the narrative. The figure of Sasabonsam provides readers with an opportunity to connect the landscape with an ancestral and spiritual presence, all the while remaining within the context of a history of colonization.

If readers understand the passage as being spoken by the voice of Sasabonsam, they will also be able to accept Sasabonsam as a non-traditional, non-human yet living character that has a voice. The voice of the landscape and the voice of Sasabonsam are two of the strongest voices in the narrative, and they both carry the same message about the struggle for survival amidst oppressive conditions. The voice of Sasabonsam is expressed on its own, as well as through Christopher/Watchman. Cliff transforms Christopher into Sasabonsam when she describes Christopher’s state of mind just as he is about to brutally kill the family for whom he worked. “He asked his grandmother’s forgiveness…A force passed through him. He had no past. He had no future. He was phosphorus. Light-bearing…He was the carrier of fire” (47). This moment bears similarity to passages throughout the narrative that are about Sasabonsam, as well as to those passages that are spoken without an easily identifiable narrator. Cliff mentions each separately, but they are all connected by the theme of fire. The fire-carrying nature of Sasabonsam is both literal and metaphorical. Christopher carries a fire in his mind and body that he unleashes in the form of physical violence against his oppressors. The fire in his mind is also a literal fire that is created by the colonial people at the end of the novel, as well as a fire in the spirit of all of the people of Jamaica (ancestral and living) who have suffered and continue to suffer from the oppression caused by colonization.

Ruinate and Sasabonsam are concepts that are, in most instances, foreign to European American readers. Michelle Cliff introduces both concepts to her readers in order to critique colonization, exposing it as the source of destruction from which fire and ruinate result. By including each type of non-traditional character, Cliff challenges the domineering nature of the European American literary tradition, creates a context and family with which other characters interact, and critiques the long-lasting consequences of colonization.

Works Cited

Cliff, Michelle. No Telephone to Heaven. New York, NY: Penguin, 198

The Failed Translation of Ideals into Action Electra’s Struggle with Existentialist Freedom in Jean-Paul Sartre's "The Flies"

English 258 World Literature
Dr. Rahman - WIU
March 7 2006

The Failed Translation of Ideals into Action:
Electra’s Struggle with Existentialist Freedom in The Flies

Walter Kaufmann claims that under the individualist freedom of existentialism philosophy, “all man’s alibis are unacceptable: No gods are responsible for his condition; no original sin; no heredity and no environment; no race, no caste, no father and no mother…not even an impulse or a disposition…Man is free” (qtd. in “Existentialism”). Existentialist freedom, according to Kaufmann’s definition, is an individual’s freedom from attachments to people and ideas, and therefore freedom to accept total responsibility. In The Flies, Jean-Paul Sartre constructed complex characters in order to support and divulge the complexities of the narrative’s central theme of existentialist freedom. Kaufmann’s description of existentialist freedom is a good starting point for the analysis of The Flies, but I propose that there are also two major components of existentialist freedom: the ideal of freedom and the act of attaining freedom. These two components serve as a further refinement of Kaufmann’s definition, and I will develop them in this essay.
Most characters in The Flies reject ideals of existentialist freedom, but there are a few characters who embrace those ideals to varying degrees. Electra, in particular, strives to be free, and in doing so, she embraces ideals of existentialist freedom. Although she grasps ideals of freedom, she—unlike her brother, Orestes—does not embody existentialist freedom because existentialist freedom is not merely an ideal; it is a lifestyle that can only be achieved through a translation of thought into action. She does, however, embody the condemning aspect of existentialist freedom—the cost of individual freedom. Using Jean-Paul Sartre’s claim that “man is condemned to be free” (“Jean-Paul” 695), readers can view Sartre’s construction of Electra as both an attempt to represent the untranslatable ideals of freedom and the struggles that inevitably arise when people encounter freedom. Electra strives to be free, and endures the condemnation of this effort, but her extreme ideals and impulsive nature prevent her from being able to confidently follow through with her desires and plans.

When Sartre first introduces Electra, he gives the reader the impression that she desires freedom and is not afraid to speak her mind. Her desire for freedom is implied in the monologue in which she boldly approaches the sacred statue of Zeus with irreverence. Electra’s lively and rebellious spirit is evident when she physically rubs her body against the statue and says, “I, too, am bringing you offerings, while all the others are at prayers. Here they are: ashes from the hearth, peelings, scraps of offal crawling with maggots, a chunk of bread too filthy even for our pigs” (Sartre 706). While other citizens of Argos are deeply repentant to Zeus, Electra heartily makes fun of and disrespects him. She is not afraid of Zeus and is keenly aware of the lack of justice in the practice of repentance, which indicates that she possesses existentialist qualities. Electra is brave and bold in her skeptical attitude toward Zeus—instead of turning to the gods for comfort and hope, she turns away from them and thinks for herself.

Sartre develops Electra’s intense desire for existentialist freedom in the early interactions that she shares with Orestes. Electra speaks freely and openly about her plight, but makes it clear that she does not feel guilty or responsible for any of the injustices that have been committed in Argos. She explains that she is a victim of injustice, and because of that she is aware of her outsider status. When Orestes asks her if she has a friend, she responds, saying “No, I’m quite alone. Ask any of the people here, and they’ll tell you I’m a pest, a public nuisance. I’ve no friends” (707). Electra’s dissociation from Argos and its people, as well as her lack of nationalistic pride, are examples of her existentialist mindset. She is bitter, and her bitterness is a manifestation of her extreme ideals of freedom. At the same time that her words reveal her ideals, they also reveal her outsider status, which, in turn, renders her capable of achieving existentialist freedom by providing her with the opportunity to accept responsibility for her choices.

Sartre illuminates the possibility and promise of existentialist freedom in his early construction of Electra. Up until Orestes realizes his own inherent freedom as a man and avenges the death of his father, Electra is the character that best exemplifies existentialist freedom. This is most apparent in Electra’s words and actions during the “Dead Men’s Day” ceremony, when she attends verbally challenges Aegistheus and the belief system that rules Argos (699). When Aegistheus disapproves of her decision to wear a white dress to the event, Electra claims that she has chosen to wear her “prettiest dress” because she has no reason to fear. “I am not afraid of my dead, and yours mean nothing to me” (717). Electra thus asserts her freedom on multiple levels: by wearing white, by speaking of her guiltlessness, and by directly challenging the power of Argos, the gods and the dead. Her decision to wear white symbolizes her rejection of Aegistheus and the power that he has asserted over her, and it is exceptionally rebellious because the color publicly challenges the peoples’ source of comfort and symbolizes freedom from the repentant way of life that is required by the belief in Zeus as god of death. Her ideals are manifest in anger and rebelliousness, which implies that they are particularly intense, but her fearlessness also implies that she possesses the strength and freedom to make choices on her own behalf. This proves that Electra is led by her ideals of freedom—she is not led by fear of the dead and the gods, but instead by her own concept of and desire for justice.

Whereas the people of Argos feel indebted to the gods and free themselves of personal responsibility through the act of repentance and obedience, Electra is a separatist who breaks away from the gods and citizens of Argos in order to gain autonomy as a victim. Electra speaks to Orestes about her separation, claiming that “everybody here is sick with fear...And I…I’m sick with hatred” (708). Electra separates herself from the safety of her surroundings (where everyone is “sick with fear”), and her separateness is manifest in her heightened emotional state of hatred. Her desire to disassociate with her surroundings is evident in her hatred, but it also implies a desire for autonomy because she assumes the role of the victim by blaming those around her for their actions. She recognizes and values her separateness, which implies that she, in turn, desires a sort of existentialist freedom, but she does not look inward for freedom. Instead of fully taking personal responsibility for her actions, Electra looks to an ideal of freedom in the fantasy of her long lost brother for comfort. If she was able to take responsibility for her own actions and focus on her own choices, she wouldn’t be consumed with hatred. Electra’s separatism is a form of freedom, but her obsession with the fantasy of revenge destroys her ability to fully realize the freedom that she inherently possesses.

Electra, like the citizens of Argos, does not recognize her inherent freedom and mistakenly looks for it in others. It is obvious that Electra looks for freedom in her brother when she admits to Orestes that she was waiting for the brother of her dream, imagining his strength in comparison with her weakness (721). Here, Sartre begins to draw a distinction between Electra and Orestes, and therefore between the ideal of freedom and the reality of freedom. Electra admits that she is waiting for freedom, and this implies that she understands freedom as something that will happen to her by actions committed by someone other than herself. Even though Electra differs from the people of Argos in that she realizes that repentance does not bring freedom, she shares a similar quality with them—both seek freedom in external sources instead of within themselves, and this ultimately prevents any of them from making freedom a reality (by translating their ideals into action). The people of Argos seek freedom through their belief in the gods and Electra seeks freedom through her belief in her brother.

Electra places all of her trust in Orestes, hoping that he will protect her and commit the actions that she has dreamt up, but her distance from freedom is evident in her reaction to Orestes when he accepts his own inherent freedom as a man. Orestes, who exemplifies the process of recognizing the freedom that is inherent in all men and in himself, attempts to explain his freedom after he has avenged the death of his father, saying, “I am free, Electra. Freedom has crashed down on me like a thunderbolt” (733). Orestes achieves existentialist freedom by translating his thoughts of freedom into action and accepting responsibility for his actions without regret, but Electra does not achieve freedom because her actions were not in line with her ideals. Initially, she wants to participate in avenging her father’s death, but she never conceives of what it would be like for her to do so (she depends on Orestes and does not imagine what it will feel like to be responsible for her actions).

At the moment that Orestes realizes his freedom—through his translation of thought into action—Electra says, “Free? But I—I don’t feel free…Something has happened and we are no longer free to blot it out” (733). Electra’s reaction to Orestes’s declared freedom reveals that she has not realized (or translated) her own ideals of freedom. She loses sight of herself because she is preoccupied with the ideal of her brother as hero, and this prevents her from thinking through her plans and taking responsibility for her actions. She doesn’t commit the act of murder herself because she is not resolved in her desires. Electra attempts to act on her fantasies through her brother, but this is incompatible with existentialist freedom because she herself is not practicing agency (making choices and accepting responsibility for her actions).

While many characters in The Flies reject the freedom of personal responsibility, there are a few characters that embrace it to varying degrees. Electra embraces ideals of existentialist freedom, and unlike most other characters, she rejects the comfort of repentance throughout most of the play, feeling like an outsider in her community. She is primarily interested in the idealistic forms of freedom, but despite encouragement from her brother, Orestes, she is unable to translate her ideals into action. Electra embodies the condemning aspect of existentialist freedom because she struggles with her own desires for and fears of freedom. Attaining freedom isn’t easy, and in the end, it is Electra’s dependence on her brother as an agent of freedom that prevents her from realizing her own existentialist freedom.

Works Cited

“Jean-Paul Sartre” The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: The Twentieth Century, 1900—The Present Book 6. Eds. Paul Davis et al. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 692-696.

“Existentialism.” The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: The Twentieth Century, 1900—The Present Book 6. Eds. Paul Davis et al. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 746.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “The Flies” The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: The Twentieth Century, 1900—The Present Book 6. Eds. Paul Davis et al. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.

Defiant Characters in Isabel Allende's Portrait in Sepia

English 358 - WIU
Dr. M. Allison
February 21 2006
Paper Pioneers:

Defiant Characters that Challenge Gender Stereotypes in Isabel Allende’s
Portrait in Sepia

As humans, we often assume that deviance is dichotomous—humans are either deviant or normal, but it is more realistic and inclusive to examine deviance in terms of a continuum where each person and behavior has a place. In order to expose and comment on the struggle that humans face with social norms, writers often create fictional characters that embody high degrees of deviance. Writers use defiant characters to critique social norms and stereotypes, as well as to create a balanced fictional population of characters in which there exist varying levels and types of deviance.

Isabel Allende challenges traditional gender roles by constructing characters that defy and deviate from their prescribed roles. In her novel, Portrait in Sepia, female characters challenge gender stereotypes in different ways and to varying degrees. Whereas Paulina challenges gender stereotypes through her entrepreneurial drive, Nivea challenges gender stereotypes through her quest for and attainment of information, as well as through her political work and active pursuit of a relationship with Severo. As defiant characters transform the story, they simultaneously transform society because they challenge our assumptions, as readers, about the relationship between gender and behavior.

Paulina del Valle stands out in the midst of other characters in Portrait in Sepia as a powerful matriarch, corporate commander, and legend. She is legendary because Allende’s narrator, Aurora, describes her as being larger than life for most of the novel. Paulina’s physical enormity and spectacle is in accord with her extravagant energy and spiritual presence, brusque voice, immovable stubbornness, and ambitious capitalist competence. Nineteenth Century expectations for women to be docile and nurturing do not stop Paulina from acting upon her ambitious urges and corporate talents. Aurora describes her grandmother’s defiance when she recalls that Paulina “defied the males in her family to marry Feliciano Rodriguez de Santa Cruz, the man she had chosen for herself” (21). Paulina also “launched her husband in a commercial enterprise linked with the transcontinental railroad—one that made them enormously wealthy” (7). Allende constructs and conveys Paulina through the eyes of a female narrator. If one of Paulina’s sons was describing his mother, it isn’t likely that he would describe her in such an affirmative manner, but Aurora describes Paulina from her perspective as a woman and granddaughter who is, of course, at a genetic and generational distance from her grandmother. Aurora describes Paulina as being defiant because she practices agency (making decisions on her own behalf) and as entrepreneurially talented because she possesses the power of persuasion.

Allende does not describe Paulina’s entrepreneurial role as passive, but as active. Paulina does not convince or influence her husband, but “launches” him into the railroad industry. Here, Allende’s word choice emphasizes Paulina’s power, not as a persuader, but as more of a dictator. While Paulina’s aggressive and dominating personality may render her unlikable, it, more importantly, renders her defiant. Paulina’s relationship with Severo exemplifies her role as an authoritarian leader. When Severo first arrives in the United States, Paulina greets him by insulting the statue of Christ that he carries in his arms, saying, “the first thing we do will be to get rid of that monstrosity” (27). Although Paulina grew up surrounded by Catholicism in Chile, she instinctively and deliberately insults the religious statue. Her disrespect for Catholicism and religion in general is evidence of her deviance. She doesn’t deliberate before speaking, she just speaks her mind. When she disrespects the statue, she also disrespects the religious institution. This is an extreme form of defiance because Catholicism is a notoriously patriarchal institution.

By rejecting the statue, Paulina rejects her prescribed gender role as a subservient, devout woman. But she goes one step further than rejecting the statue—she symbolically spits in the institution’s face when she calls it a monstrosity. Paulina’s rebelliousness implies that she rejects the gender role forced upon her by a culture inundated with patriarchal religiosity. The bold nature of her words suggests that secularism is a part of her capitalist ambition. Paulina’s ambition is evident in the way that she conducts and manages her personal relationships as though they are business deals. She looks for opportunities for financial gain when Severo comes to live with her because he is a man, and therefore, has the potential to expand her enterprise. The strategy that Paulina uses to recruit the men in her life is to be overbearing and candid. When she recruits Severo, she notifies him, “I’m not asking you to think, that’s my job. You keep your mouth shut, watch, listen, and report to me” (32). She does not present or propose, but dictates her plan for Severo’s future. Paulina’s voice dominates her conversation with Severo, just as it does every conversation in which she participates. Her personality is aggressive and overpowering.

Paulina is a transgressor because she behaves in a way that is associated with another—male—gender role. Even today, ambition is a quality that is traditionally valued in men and scorned in women. A male authoritarian may be unpopular because of his corruptness, but he is not out of place. Paulina, on the other hand, has an authoritative personality that is out of place because she is a woman. Her defiance as an authoritarian individual is magnified by her defiance as a gender-transgressor. Isabel Allende challenges gender stereotypes by giving Paulina so much power and allowing her voice to dominate other characters’ voices, as well as the text itself.

Paulina, however, is not the only defiant character in Portrait in Sepia that challenges traditional gender roles. Although their voices do not dominate the novel, both Sor Maria Escapulario and Nivea challenge gender roles. Nivea, in particular, is a character that exemplifies what it means to live according to her own interests and standards rather than thoughtlessly following the guidelines of appropriateness that have been dictated by a patriarchal society. Despite contrary influences, she takes an active role in her destiny by making choices, being conscious of her surroundings, and taking advantage of accessible resources.

With encouragement from Sor Maria Escapulario, Nivea discovers her inner voice and realizes her desire to become involved in the struggle for women’s rights and suffrage. Nivea’s curiosity is so unusual and poignant that Escapulario “violated the rules of the school, which had been created for the specific purpose of turning students into docile creatures” by engaging with Nivea in progressive conversations (25). Both characters are defiant because they think for themselves. They do not allow fear to keep them from exploring their interests, and they commit an act of great defiance by embracing and sharing their ideas. In an environment that subjugates women by suppressing their ability to voice their opinions, the act of exchanging ideas is remarkably rebellious.

Allende’s voice comes through Sor Maria Escapulario when she warns Nivea that “the path of rebellion is strewn with danger and sorrow; it takes a great deal of courage to travel it” (26). Allende includes this warning to suggest that defiance is risky, and that each of her characters have to decide how much they can afford to lose. Paulina, Sor Maria Escapulario and Nivea are all defiant characters, but they are defiant in different ways. For most of the novel, Paulina is willing to risk losing her place in heaven (if such a place exists), but she is not willing to risk her life and financial credibility by conducting business without men involved. Escapulario risks engaging in conversations with Nivea, but she is not willing to leave the convent and the protections that it offers women who do not wish to marry. Nivea is willing to risk rejecting the institution of marriage for the sake of engaging in the struggle for women’s suffrage, but she is not willing to give up marriage after she realizes that she loves Severo. Defiance is a personal process, requiring that each individual decides what she is willing to sacrifice in the process. Allende makes this point by including a variety of defiant characters, characters that are similar in certain qualities and degrees of defiance and different in others.

As a character that defies the traditional gender role prescribed to women, Nivea is highly conscious of her position and deliberate in the decisions she makes. Nivea takes an active role in her relationship with Severo—she initiates their romance, marriage and erotic explorations. Sensing that Severo is hesitant and awkward, she takes charge, asking, “Do you think you could ask me humbly to marry you, Cousin? Tell me, for example, that I am the one woman in your life, your angel, your muse, or something in that vein? Invent something, man” (118). Nivea knows what she wants from Severo, and she isn’t afraid to ask for it. She does not wait passively for him to propose or desert her, but instead proposes marriage with charm and cleverness besides. Nivea is a free spirit. She follows her own instincts and rationality rather than blindly following the rules and standards of passive behavior that are traditionally valued in women. Allende’s construction of Nivea as an active character challenges the gender stereotypes that separate men and women into active and passive roles (as well as into public and private spheres).

Defiance is inevitable in societies where social norms, governance, and laws exist. Sometimes defiance is manifest in deviant actions, while at other times defiance is manifest in abstract forms, such as symbolism and metaphor. Just as different forms of deviance exist, there are also degrees of deviance that influence and challenge social expectations for human behavior. Paulina directs her energies to money-making endeavors, Sor Maria Escapulario directs her energies to education, and Nivea directs her energies toward political, educational, and personal fulfillment. By creating defiant characters that rebel from traditional gender roles, Allende’s novel becomes a critique of those gender roles. The critique not only serves to dismantle patriarchal assumptions, but also to transform those assumptions through role reversal.

Works Cited

Allende, Isabel. Portrait in Sepia. New York, NY: Perenial/HarperCollins P, 2001.