Cultural Alienation

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)

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Let’s Discuss — Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas

This is a story about a broken man’s desperate attempt to piece together his part of the puzzle that is the American Dream. Unemployed and virtually homeless, readers will follow his last four days in the city, as he tries to find a place for his family and tuition money for his children’s education. The pressure to provide these things is overwhelming and the nameless narrator must succeed, or risk losing his wife and their three young children. In the concrete jungle of New York City, he has two options: fight or flight.

Ruminations on his current situation combined with flashbacks reveal how this man became broken, and arguably how this man was doomed to be broken from the start. He views himself as a social experiment, and it’s clear he feels race is a defining variable. For many who don’t usually read things that offer racial discourse, his infusion of the race issue might be slightly off-putting. In this book, blackness and whiteness matter; it matters when he tries to find an apartment, when he plays golf, in his relationships, when he gets coffee. It matters.

I found the first-person rambling/stream-of-consciousness to be poetic, raw, intellectual and true. Sometimes I felt bad for him. Sometimes I could relate. And other times I was frustrated with him. I mean, you wonder how someone so talented and with the opportunities he’s had, can become so broken. Every once in awhile, he’d become too hermetic–I couldn’t get into his head. For example, it was endearing to hear him talk about his kids, but sad to hear him talk about leaving them forever…You want to root for him, but there’s hopelessness.

I did raise an eyebrow at a few things…like why couldn’t his wife work too? and why couldn’t his children go to public school until they were more financially stable to send them to private school? I couldn’t help but think he was trying to maintain some remnant of the wasp lifestyle for his wife. When you’re broken spiritually and financially, maintaining an image is usually pretty low on the priority list. And yet I know this was intentional–another challenge of marrying a blue-blood. I also thought it was interesting that he kept mentioning his Irish and Native American heritage because it didn’t really help him out. It didn’t make him any less black…maybe it made him more acceptable to his wife and their white friends…I don’t know, it was just odd. I guess it was another struggle with identity.

Here are a few quotes (of many) that I liked:

It’s a bad idea to put on music while trying to make a plan. It may be that I need to stop listening altogether. Dylan makes me feel alienated and old; hip-hop. militant. Otis Redding is too gritty and makes me think about dying young. Robert Johnson makes me feel like catching the next thing smoking and Satan. Marley makes me feel like Jesus. (26)

I know that drunks, madmen, and corpses make for lousy dinner guests. But I also believe that there’s a them and they believe that they are good, and I know that if I had what they have–privilege, money, and numbers–I’d tear this fucking place down. (124)

There’s a limited amount of space for people, any people anywhere. And on the inside of any powerful institution, especially for people of color, that space gets smaller and stranger. Most white folks believe the reason you’ve come in is to uplift your people. But you can’t bring your people inside, except compressed into a familiar story that’s already been sanctioned. And you wouldn’t be there in the first place unless you were a recognizable type: the noble savage, Uncle Tom, the Afro-Centric, the Oreo, the fool. (147)

Thomas’ antihero acknowledges the subtleties of the race question in everyday life. It’s a very powerful and engaging narration. If you don’t like to discuss race (for whatever reason) I don’t think you’ll be able to appreciate this book.

Let’s Discuss — Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father (13)

Things Fall Apart tells the story of Okonkwo, a much respected man in his community. Okonkwo, a very authoritarian-like figure, is driven solely by his preoccupation with power and rank. This is traced back to his relationship with his father, a lazy and non prosperous man. Regardless of circumstance, Okonkwo is able to hold everything together…that is until things fall apart.

It’s easy to read this novel and admire its simple and folkloric prose. If you’ve ever wondered why a tortoise shell is uneven and lumpy, this book will tell you why. There’s definitely something fable-esque(?) about it.  At times the story is so straightforward and uncomplicated, I found myself wondering when any actual conflict would ensue. Okonkwo seems to have everything under control. He’s a stern man–mean even. And he won’t be overcome by any other.

It’s also easy to read this novel and conclude Okonkwo holds a negative attitude toward women. He associates questionable* traits and actions with women. Accusations and criticisms of men behaving femininely are thrown around frequently. So…I would say in order to “enjoy” this book, the reader may have to step out of the mindset which tells them to be offended (if offended) and realize that’s just how it is… e.g:

It was a crime against the earth goddess to kill a clansmen, and a man who committed it must flee from the land. The crime was of two kinds, male and female. Okonkwo had committed the female, because it had been inadvertent (124)

So when do things fall apart? Ironically, they begin with Okonkwo doing something considered feminine and then being sent away for seven years. Okonkwo being the thriving creature he is, fairs well during his absence, but what he returns to is too much, even for him. His village has been divided in two by a new threat; men who look and live nothing like Okonkwo.

It’s hard to read the last fifty pages of this book and not feel resentment towards the white men who come and take over their villages. The thing is, despite how extreme or violent the penal system seemed for Okonkwo and his fellow villagers–it was their system. Their system eradicated the imbalances. It functioned…until the white man arrived, like a virus, spreading their faith and governance. Okonkwo cannot overcome this power struggle, but he refuses to let another man tell him how to lead his life. And so Okonkwo becomes a martyr.

*By questionable, I mean generally perceived to be bad. I say questionable because for obvious reasons I beg to differ.