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A WRITER'S WALK

REVIEW: THE FIVE WOUNDS

The Five Wounds. Kirstin Valdez Quade. W. W. Norton & Company, 2021.

 

I used to live in a village in Northern New Mexico that had a morada. On Good Friday, which is today, April 15, 2022, in the church year, I would witness streams of people, people I knew, from the surrounding villages making their way on foot up to the little  stone and clay Oratorio de Jesus Nazareno. There were the old and bent with their worn canes, young women pushing strollers, my propane man in his dark green coveralls, teenagers with their gang tattoos, all making holy pilgrimage.

 

Historically a morada was a meeting place for Penitentes, a Catholic male lay sect that included in its worship a Good Friday reinactment of the crucifiction. The Five Wounds takes place in a fictional Northern New Mexico town near the real town of Española, which has a role in the book. Its main character is a perpetual screw-up––a loveable, irresponsible alcoholic, whose mother presses her uncle to give him the honored role of Jesus in the Good Friday reinactment, hoping it will inspire change in him. Amadeo, wanting to be admired, chooses to have nails driven through his hands, rather than being roped to the cross. Spoiler: there is a character arc. Amadeo grows. His teen, unmarried, pregnant daughter, who comes to live with him after years of estrangement and is more responsible than he, grows.

 

There was a lot I loved about the book. I had read a short story collection by the author, which was good, but Five Wounds is several cuts above; Valdez Quade comes into her own in this complex story. Because I spent seven years living in Northern New Mexico, my funny bone was frequently tickled, and tears of empathy flowed. Because I taught high risk youth for so long (in Northern New Mexico and places far-flung), I knew the authenticity of the young women in the school for pregnant and parenting teens. I recommend the book to New Mexicans especially, to anyone who wants to know New Mexico better, and really to anyone who loves a well crafted, all too human story. 

 

There are surpassing realizations to be gleaned and gems of quotes. Maybe most significant to me, because I have long had difficulty with the meaning the church gives to Good Friday, was Amadeo's epiphany, a year after being Jesus. It has a ring of truth to me: "To feel a little of what Christ felt, Tío Tíve said over a year ago. And what Christ felt was love. Amadeo doesn't know how he lost track of this. Love: both gift and challenge." The revelation that more than sorrow, more than pain, more even than sacrifice, it was love.

 

One of the main characters is moving toward death through a good portion of the book, and I will leave you with this: "This is death, then, a brief spot of light on earth extinguished, a rippling point of energy swept clear. A kiss, a song, the warm circle of a stranger's arms––these things and others––the whole crush of memory and hope, the constant babble of the mind, everything that composes a person––gone. 

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Louise Erdrich's Latest, THE SENTENCE

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. Harper, 2021.
 
What follows is less a review and more a scattering of notes on ideas that were important to me in my reading of Erdrich's latest novel, The Sentence.
 
Following her post-modern pattern of multiple narrators much less than usual, this book has a central narrator, Tookie, an Ojibwe woman who lives with her husband Pollux (what's already not to love when a character has such a name?), also Indigenous. Tookie works in a bookstore clearly modeled on Erdrich's own Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, where much of the book takes place. The real and the literary bookstores both specialize in Native literature and art, and the owner of the novel's bookstore is even named Louise. Louise has mostly cameo but significant appearances in the story. The book definitely made me want to visit the real store, which is totally doable, now that I live in a bordering state.
 
I've read several recent novels where the coming pandemic is hinted at, but in The Sentence, we are plunged into it full-on with all the confusion we experienced in the beginning about how to protect ourselves. Also in real time are the events surrounding the murder of George Floyd. Meanwhile, a major character in Tookie's narration is dead—a former customer who haunts the bookstore and, specifically Tookie. This is all the summary you're going to get.
 
The ghost, Flora, is a White wannabe Indian, who fulfills several functions literarily. She serves as a mirror for the Indigenous characters' own identity issues, as she has pasted together an identity from other people's lives in the hope that it will prop up the possibility that she actually is Indigenous. As Penstemon, one of the book sellers, says, "Flora knew there would be a reckoning, that someone… would figure out that she'd pulled together elements of other people's lives to fake her own. The thing is, most of us Indigenous people do have to consciously pull together our identities. We've endured centuries of being erased and sentenced to live in a replacement culture. So even someone raised strictly in their own tradition gets pulled toward white perspectives." Flora is also a mirror for me––a White woman who is still, in my seventies, working out my own identity issues.
 
In this and other Erdrich novels, she gives space to her own ethnically mixed heritage—Ojibwe, German-American, and French. Not all Indigenous authors who are of mixed heritage do this, or if they do, they seem to want to gloss over the non-Indigenous side of who they are. As someone who is culturally but not ethnically mixed, I value this in Erdrich. I feel the complexities of my own life are validated by her, even though that's probably not her intention. In The Sentence, Flora's wannabe status and the identity questions the other characters grapple with as a result of her hanging around in life and in death, bring the issues to the fore. In another neat acknowledgement of the non-Native part of the author's heritage, the bookstore employs a young German man, and Erdrich explains why he's important to the store. All the other employees are Indigenous. In another place, Penstemon is thinking of tattooing her body with red and blue lines to protest the Federal Government's blood quantum rules. The red lines would divide up her Ho-Chunk, Hidatsa, Lakota, and Ojibwe portions, and a blue line would delineate her Norwegian area. Tookie asks where she'd put that blue line. She answers, "Around my heart. I really love my mother." And I loved that.
 
Tookie and Pollux, who have some wonderful, substantial conversations throughout the book, have a conflict over Flora, and their conflict reflects something I think about. Tookie calls Flora a ghost, and Pollux, influenced by his Indigenous ways, doesn't want to hear it. Throughout the haunting they've been dancing around the subject because of it. There's this lovely conversation between Tookie and Jackie, one of the bookstore employees:

'He won't tolerate talk of ghosts and supernatural business, will he,' said Jackie.
'He said "otherworldly" so he's on guard against himself,' I said. 'He won't talk about that stuff, but he'll talk about the next life. He's setting one up for the both of us.'
'You've got a good husband. How does he go about setting it up?'
'He's pretty much using songs and stories, maybe some work with pipes and feathers.'
'He's a sort of spiritual carpenter.'
 
I love that idea—a spiritual carpenter.
 
It was in Minneapolis that George Floyd was murdered by a policeman, setting off huge protests around the world but especially there where the book is set. In this story there is a wonderful sense of community embedded in the protests. Tookie mentions the flags representing different groups that have come together––BLM and Pan African flags, AIM flags, rainbow flags. And true to what I've experienced of traditional Indigenous gatherings, it's the grandmothers who "were putting out the call for us to work with our tobacco, sing healing songs. Now jingle dancers were gathering at the George Floyd memorial." Grandmothers lead. Grandmothers call. Maybe I especially like this because I'm becoming a grandmother, and I hope I can lead now and then for the good.

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REPARATION

Samantha Maltais

REPARATION

 

 

An aspect of racial justice that is often difficult to think and talk about is reparation––difficult because the idea of making restitution can be overwhelming. It's easy to think that the injustice has been so great that no effort at reparation can come close to righting the wrongs. Then it's easy to give up. In my essay "The Obligation," published in DoveTales International Journal of the Arts, guest-edited by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Liberian poet and professor, I wrote about a step-by-step response to injustice, the final step of which is restitution. But restitution doesn't have to be global in its scope; it can be undertaken in small increments by individuals like you and me. 

 

One of the ways I've found to make restitution for Indigenous genocide (both actual and cultural), which is foundational in historical and present-day North America, is to make monthly donations to the American Indian College Fund. It's one small effort but, I think, an important one. Here are some reasons I've chosen this:

 

• 84% of K-12 curricula currently do not teach Indigenous history beyond the 1900s.

• More than 12,000 individuals have served in the US Congress, and only 22 of them have been Indigenous.

• There are only 3,400 Indigenous doctors in the US.

• On demographic forms, "Indigenous" or "Native American" is often not a choice; selecting "Other" as a racial category is not inclusive representation.

• Indigenous lawyers make up less than 0.5% of all lawyers in the US.

• Fewer than 10% of people consider themselves knowledgeable about Indigenous issues and do not know how or where to access more information.

 

Samantha Maltais, the Wampanoag woman in the image on this page is pursuing a law degree at Harvard, thanks to a three-year scholarship from the American Indian College Fund. She writes, "I am the first in my tribe to attend Harvard, even though our homeland is right off the coast of Massachusetts. I do it to fix a broken system and to protect Native communities for generations to come."

 

I took a side trip here from posting book reviews because I think it's important to think about how we can make reparation for the grave racial injustices from which we continue to benefit if we are White and living in North America.

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Black, White, and The Grey

 
Black, White, and The Grey: A Story of an Unexpected Friendship and a Beloved Restaurant. Mashama Bailey and John O. Morisano. Ten Speed Press/Lorena Jones Books. 2021.

 

 
What could happen if a White, working class, Italian American, male entrepreneur decided to buy a dilapidated, abandoned, formerly segregated Greyhound bus station, built in 1938 in Savannah, Georgia? What could happen if his vision was to turn the building into an upscale restaurant, having no experience running a restaurant but loving food? What if he was determined to have a Black chef as his business partner, although he knew no Black chefs? What if part of his goal was to unite this Southern city through exceptional food?
 
What happened is remarkable and was marked by a tremendous load of uncomfortableness. In the words of John Morisano, known to his friends and family as Johno, "Together we set out on this journey to learn from each other and live a life that I could have never dreamed would be so fulfilling while simultaneously being so damned uncomfortable: uncomfortable running a business I knew nothing about; uncomfortable in my relationship to race, class, and culture; uncomfortable learning so much about myself and human decency from the most unsuspecting people and places; uncomfortable in our successes; uncomfortable with our failings, my failings."
 
Mashama Bailey, the Black woman, who became Johno's business partner and co-author of this heartful food memoir, was a chef but had never been an executive chef. She also embarked on a steep learning curve—learning to trust herself as the executive and a full partner, and particularly in partnership with a White man. She writes, "Something I needed to figure out was whether I distrusted Johno because he is White. And whether history had conditioned me to automatically distrust White people. The answer is, yes, my suspicion is an inherent bias. My distrust subsided when I began to exercise my voice, my power."
 
This book is not a theoretical treatise on solving race problems in America or even a practical how-to guide. It is real, as if it is all happening in the nitty-gritty dirt of the dish pit (I had to look up what a dish pit is, even though I read a lot of food memoirs). What comes out of the dish pit, hopefully, is sparkling glasses and plates, clean pots and pans. Bailey describes what comes out of this tough, courageous, committed partnership: "Once we began to use our combined voice to not only build a business but to create a self-sustaining business culture, my suspicion resolved. We had to have each other's backs first before I began to believe him and before our team would ever begin to trust us."
 
The book's format is unique, making clear whose voice we are reading: Mashama's words are in bold, dark print, and Johno's in regular font, hence lighter. I'm sure that was a conscious choice. Their writing process was also fascinating to this writer, but no spoilers on that.
 
Black, White, and The Grey is a story about the boldness, honesty and triumph of a consciously chosen intercultural, interethnic friendship that has created a culture that impacts a Southern city with a history of enforced segregation and present-day de facto segregation. I refer to an "interethnic friendship" because it is a scientific fact that there is only one race—the human one. And yet, this is a book that is very much about an everyday, deeply personal grappling with race relations in the United States. The Grey, incidentally, is the name of the restaurant, which comes from its location in the former Greyhound depot.
 
Food memoirs, at least the ones I'm drawn to, are always about more than food, and they're often about healing. As Johno says, "Food can cure many ills." And Mashama writes, "Restaurants play a big part in changing people's perspectives. Eating together humanizes. When you are sitting across the table from someone it's easier to see your similarities than your differences." This story could be an intimidating example of what we all should be doing—taking on racism in our everyday lives, and we most definitely should be finding ways to do that actively. I found encouragement in some final words from Johno, "Quite simply, the Grey is our work in progress." It helps me recognize that we are all, individually and collectively, a work in progress.

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