Ancestry

Let’s Discuss — Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

From my birth when they went undetected, to my baptism where they upstaged the priest, to my troubled adolescence when they didn’t do much of anything and then did everything at once, my genitals have been the most significant thing that ever happened to me. Some people inherit houses; others paintings…or a famous name. I got a recessive gene on my fifth chromosome and some very rare family jewels indeed (401)

With Middlesex Eugenides offers a historical and psychological narrative through which circular, personal, candid and humorous storytelling combine to create a mythological account of a uniquely American experience: how a teenage girl named Calliope Stephanides became a man named Cal.

I say this book tells a uniquely American experience–how is that? One conventional explanation would be Cal’s family history. His grandparents are Grecian Turks; immigrants who came to America via Ellis Island in the early 20th century. Cal’s grandparent’s are transplanted into Detroit to assimilate to and enrich American culture, to seek the traditional American Dream; freedom, job, house, car, wealth, family…children–and this is where things also get “unique”. Cal’s grandparent’s children would technically be considered sister and brother and first cousins. That’s right. First cousins. See…Cal’s grandparent’s have a secret–they are husband and wife, and brother and sister (the book goes into detail about how this came to pass) On top of that, Cal’s father/uncle, Milton, is married to his cousin, Tessie (Cal’s mother/aunt/second cousin?) Following? Drawing a diagram helps.

Against a black background they swim, a long white silken thread spinning itself out. The thread began on a day two hundred fifty years ago, when the biology gods, for their own amusement, monkeyed with a gene on a baby’s fifth chromosome […] Hitching a ride, the gene descended a mountain and left a village behind…Crossing the ocean, it faked a romance, circled a ship’s deck, and made love in a lifeboat…It took a train to Detroit […] And then the gene moved on again, into new bodies…it took an entrance exam…it dated a future priest and broke off an engagement…always moving ahead, rushing along, only a few more curves left in the track now, Annapolis and a submarine chaser…until the biology gods knew this was their time, this was what they’d been waiting for…my destiny fell into place (210)

So sometimes when in-breeding occurs genetics can get a little tricky, or as I’m calling it unique. In a way, Cal’s genes are uniquely the same, too much of the same. Her grandparent’s secret eventually leads to a daughter/niece named Calliope, who will tell readers the story of her beginning, and other life experiences from the viewpoint of her much older self, a man named Cal. At times it was as if Calliope’s growing pains mirrored America’s. Through this generational epic the reader glimpses at wars, immigration, race riots, white flight, cultural revolution, etc.

This story is intriguing to me because it delves into a subject I have very little knowledge of–hermaphroditism. I know about gene mutations, but haven’t explored that particular mutation on the fifth chromosome; the one that manifests as a gateway to intersexual ambiguity. I think it’s fairly accurate to say hermaphrodites, while having always existed, are still taboo in most hyper-sexualized, western cultures. And so by tackling a taboo subject so elegantly, I feel like Eugenides wrote something that really challenges the notion of normality…

And so strange a new possibility is rising. Compromised, indefinite, sketchy, but not entirely obliterated: free will is making a comeback. Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind (479)

Reading about Calliope’s self-discovery about her body, family, gender, sexuality, love and acceptance was refreshing and–you guessed it–unique.

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Let’s Discuss — Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver

The outside press, when they look at this case, will be asking only one thing: what is in the best interest of the child? But we’re Cherokee and we look at things differently. We consider that the child is part of something larger, a tribe. Like a hand belongs to the body. Before we cut it off, we have to ask how the body will take care of itself without that hand (338)

Pigs in Heaven is the sequel to Barbara Kingsolver’s great novel The Bean Trees. I didn’t realize this was the sequel until I was about to start reading. I picked up a book I hadn’t heard of, in good faith because I trust the author. I love Kingsolver’s writing style and the characters she creates. They’re familiar. I talk more about this familiarity in my write-up for Prodigal Summer. Anyways, as I was saying, Pigs in Heaven is the follow-up–so what’s it about?
 
Kingsolver presents readers with a story about family and community and what it truly means to have a “home”. She asks: what are you a part of? what’s a part of you? And which is more important?
 
This story of Taylor and her illegal* adoption of Turtle might leave you conflicted. Is her home with the people who love her, or is it with her people**? I personally thought it should be the former. I couldn’t get over the feeling that the Nation, more specifically, Annawake Fourkiller, wanted Turtle just because they were legally entitled to her. They were not morally or emotionally connected to her. Especially, Annawake. She assumed many things about Taylor’s relationship with Turtle. And while her concerns*** over Turtle’s future of fitting in were valid, I didn’t believe they were genuine. Annawake, didn’t care for Turtle. Annawake cared about the Nation’s reputation…or better yet the symbolism behind taking Turtle from her white family and placing her in a house with people who looked like her (but were still by some definition strangers)
 
But I get it. There’s this pressing need or pressing belief to need to be connected to your history and culture…for many reasons related to reality. Surely, Turtle couldn’t grow up believing she was white. A mirror and peers would tell her otherwise. And it would be sad to never know anything about those who came before you and gave you life. Still…that’s accepting the assumption that Taylor would willingly choose to let Turtle lead a life of ignorance. And based on what we know of Taylor, I have a hard time accepting that. Don’t we give foster parents the benefit of the doubt? Maybe not…

 
Annawake Fourkiller represented what I thought to be a staunch preserver of tribal membership. In contrast, I found Sugar Hornbuckle, Taylor’s mother’s cousin (?) to be much more inviting when it came to discussing community. Sugar Hornbuckle may or may not be 1/16 Cherokee, but she’s still part of the Nation and her children are part of the Nation and her home is in Oklahoma among other members of the Nation. Sugar tells Taylor’s mom, Alice, that she doesn’t need to look or live a certain way to be Cherokee, she just is, if she chooses**** to be… I do find it somewhat ironic even the whitest of people can belong to the Nation if they find a name on a list. Their diluted blood and Anglo-Saxon appearances mean nothing. They are still of the community. Yet Taylor is criticized by Annawake on the basis of her whiteness and subsequent inability to raise Turtle properly. The good news is it all works out in the end…

It’s been maybe five years since I read The Bean Trees, and while some of the details of that book are not fresh in my mind, I still feel something along the lines of joy when I think about it. So expectations were raised with each page turn of Pigs in Heaven. And now I ask myself: did Kingsolver disappoint? was Pigs in Heaven worthwhile?

The answers to both questions are no.

Kingsolver offers readers a myriad of entertaining characters and surprisingly, this turns out to be both a good and a bad thing. The characters are hodge-podge–too mismatch and eccentric to be believable (in my opinion) I mean Jax, Barbie, Gundi (?) the list goes on…They’re all funny and interesting, but not realistic. And their humorous dispositions don’t mesh well with the very serious issue at hand; Turtle being taken away from the only mother she knows.

*begins in The Bean Trees 

**Cherokee–Native Americans

*** i.e. potential feelings of isolation and/or alienation related to appearance that may affect social behavior

****choice is a funny word here because to be a part of the Nation and vote, you have to locate the name of someone who you can prove is related to you by blood in records known as the Dawes Rolls . You’re shit out of luck if you can’t prove it, or if your family member didn’t have records, or for someone reason or another their name isn’t on the list (which is the case for some Black Cherokees and Freedmen)