Category Archives: Books

PLOT LINES AND ADAPTATIONS: MARKETING BOOK CLUB (APRIL)

For National Poetry Month, we read Gloss by Rebecca Hazelton, part of the Wisconsin Poetry Series. Our book club consists of Alexis Paperman, publicity assistant and grad student studying library information science; Morgan Reardon, marketing assistant studying English literature and American Indian studies; and Julia Knecht, exhibits and data manager.

Hand holding a book with a pink cover, background is sandy beach and waves crashing behind.

Morgan’s favorite poem was “Recast, Again,” in the first section of the book, “Adaptations.” The poem beautifully captured the feeling of a child’s helplessness and how we can be observers in our own lives. She interpreted this poem to be describing the speaker’s childhood of witnessing a failing parental relationship and how the speaker wants to shield their own child from its effects. The imagery really brought the reader in, as though they too were lying on the ground watching the rest of the world float by: “I spent most of my childhood watching / the clouds / revolve while I stayed still.” The way the poem is structured, in short stanzas spread across the page, evokes the drifting of the clouds. This poem also explores how our memories can shift and trick us into believing in things that never happened, but the point is that it doesn’t matter. The speaker is looking toward the future, toward the person listening to these words.

Julia especially enjoyed the poems “Group Text” and “Why I Don’t Believe.” “Group Text” is a nuanced portrayal of modern friendship in a digital age, detailing a group text exchange between friends that bounces seamlessly between philosophical queries and poop emojis. It explores how a digital medium influences our social exchanges, such as how the speaker is “just three dots, shimmering.” She is a witness, always on the cusp of contribution. “Why I Don’t Believe” takes a painful look at the fading relationship between mother and young son, best summarized by the line “I am in an unequal relationship / with a toddler.” The poem is a startling portrayal of motherhood that strays from the straightforward narrative of limitless motherly love to consider socialized conflict that arises as children age.

Alexis wanted to say the whole collection was her favorite, however, when pressed, she decided on “Recast” and “Largest Hands.” The idea of “Recast” is not exactly new. It is the description which Rebecca Hazelton utilizes that illuminates roles of women: “the glaring lights of a delivery room after she’s moved the story along.” Indeed, there are times when that line has resonated with Alexis—that what she is doing is simply moving the story or plot of someone else’s life forward. She thinks that many of the moments presented in Hazelton’s collection will resonate with women. Strong imagery is one of the things that appeals to Alexis in poems. Hazelton’s poem “Largest Hands” is filled with such imagery as it describes the functioning of the dollhouse. Underneath the first layer of “Largest Hands” is again the questioning of what forces in life create a fragile ideal that leaves the soul wanting. It is hard to properly do justice to the poem in a simple excerpt; however, here is the line that drew Alexis in: “Where are the children? They were too expensive.” It is the fourth line in, and, without the context of the poem as a whole, may not mean much. Still, Alexis hopes you take the time to read both poems as well as the rest of Rebecca Hazelton’s collection.

Overall, we thought this book was an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. The way Hazelton plays with structure really adds to the depth of her poems. She weaves the concept of people portraying themselves in different ways to themselves and others throughout each piece. She comments on this using the metaphor of Hollywood, describing people as actors who perform on and off set. Along with discussing the sense of self, these poems also examine sexuality, relationships, and power. The cover image, lipstick smudged off of a pair of slightly agape lips, feeds into the idea that we cultivate an image for ourselves in the public eye, but that the way we cover and disguise our inner selves cannot be easily taken off. These poems fit well together, and though some of them stood out for us personally, it felt like they were a part of a cohesive collection. A reader with any level of experience reading poetry will be able to connect with Hazelton’s words.

On the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day

Earth Day was a resounding success because the organizers didn’t try to shape a uniform national action. They empowered ordinary people to express their passion for the Earth in whatever way they chose from wherever they were. . . . It was a moment of rare political alignment that elicited support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, city slickers and farmers. . . . Never could [my father] have imagined that a day dedicated to the environment would inspire millions to action and alter the course of history.

—Tia Nelson, from the preface of Gaylord Nelson’s Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise

In 1970, an estimated 20 million Americans celebrated the first Earth Day. Founded by former Wisconsin senator and governor Gaylord Nelson (1916–2005), the event increased public awareness of conservation work, helped spur the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and led to the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. We asked our authors and editors what Earth Day means to them.

Brian DeVore, author of Wildly Successful Farming

Brian DeVore

To me, Earth Day means community. As Aldo Leopold’s land ethic reminds us, we are all part of a larger community, one that includes plants, animals, watersheds, and soil microbes. If we are to do right by that community in this age of the Anthropocene, it will require working with nature as a not-so-silent partner. I’ve been on many farms that have done this by blending the “wild” and the “tame”—such boundary-blurring doesn’t produce the clean precision we Homo sapiens believe we want, but it most certainly generates the messy resiliency that we need.

John Hildebrand, author of Long Way Round

John Hildebrand

Fifty years ago, I sat in Crisler Arena at the University of Michigan listening to Gaylord Nelson and others at the first Earth Day and promptly forgetting everything they said. But I still remember the music—Gordon Lightfoot’s “Black Day in July,” a song about the 1967 Detroit riot. I’d worked on a Ford assembly line that summer and a year later rode a bus to classes through Motown’s gutted streets. So Earth Day is forever linked in my mind to a burning city. Why? Because to love the earth means loving all of it, not just the pretty parts.

Dr. Steven Love, editor of Native Plants Journal

Dr. Steven Love

My celebration of Earth Day typically looks like any other workaday. The fact is, I generally pay very little attention to this one-day environmental event. Not that I reject principles of conservation. In fact, I think we should all adopt lifestyles in which we conserve water and other natural resources,  create habitat for creatures whose world we share, make decisions that reduce human impact, protect our pristine natural areas, and generally make the world a better and more sustainable place to live. My problem with Earth Day is that I believe we should live these principles every day, not celebrate them once a year.

Arthur Melville Pearson, author of Force of Nature

Arthur Melville Pearson

For George Fell, every day was Earth Day. For all he accomplished, he seldom if ever stopped to celebrate because there always remained so much more to do. This Earth Day, marking a milestone anniversary, I plan to stop and think of all The Nature Conservancy has accomplished over the last half century. And the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. The Natural Land Institute. And the many organizations and individuals of the Natural Areas Association. Thanks to George. The next day, I’ll get back to work for all the challenges and opportunities that yet lie ahead.

National Poetry Month: Poetry for the Present

April is National Poetry Month—and we could all use a little extra poetry lately. Five University of Wisconsin Press poets share a poem from their recently published collections.


Ganbatte by Sarah Kortemeier

Cover image for Ganbatte

Kortemeier: Most of my work means something different to me now than it did when I wrote it; this poem definitely does. Hold on. We need each other, all our collective strength, all our love.





春 [haru] Japanese. Spring.

The sun hides under
the days. Lift them away, like wet planks
from a storm-wrecked house.
One removed, two—a breath,
a cry, a light
strikes a smudged, thin face—
and there is the spring, broken, starving,
still alive. Hoist her out.


If the house by Molly Spencer

Cover image for If the House

Spencer: In these days of sheltering, I’ve been thinking a lot about Linda Gregg’s poem, “We Manage Most When We Manage Small.” It strikes me today—years after writing it—that “Love at These Coordinates” is about managing small in a particular place and in a time of bewilderment, much as we all are now. It’s about focusing on what’s concrete and at hand, and it’s about keeping at it, hanging in there, trying again in hope—with no guarantee of results, and despite the impermanence of everything.


Love at These Coordinates

Put the window here. No

put it here. Where
the leaves are about to burn
and blow away. Keep sweeping

over the bare place
where
you thought you left

your body—breezeway
strike plate
tread of the stair.

Here is the sill
where at the end of

every winter I have tried
to force the paperwhites
to bloom.


Fruit by Bruce Snider

Snider: In this time of social distancing, it’s easy for us to feel disconnected from one another. I wrote “The Average Human” thinking about the imperceptible ways we’re always connected, even across place and time.





The Average Human

breath contains approximately 1044 molecules, which, once exhaled,
in time spread evenly through the atmosphere


                so today I took
in the last breaths of James
Baldwin Marie Curie Genghis
Kahn my great great grandmother’s
breath entering me beside the breath
of a Viking slave boy immolated
on the flames of his master’s
burning corpse. I inhaled
African queens Chinese
emperors the homeless
man with the bright blue
coat down the street. If oxygen
is the third most plentiful
element in the universe, moving
through us like Virgil through
the underworld, how long
have I tasted the girl
drowned among cattails near
the murky shore? In ancient Egypt
a priestess packed a corpse with
salt but not before a breath
escaped that two thousand years
later entered me or at least
atoms of it, a molecule. Plato
theorized atoms in 400 BC
and this morning outside
Athens I took in his last breath,
my lungs damp crypts
where Charon’s oars dipped
into the black waters of the River
Styx, not knowing who would
pay the ferryman and
with what coin on what tongue.


No Day at the Beach by John Brehm

Brehm: I chose this poem because it speaks to the sense of shared vulnerability, as individuals and as a species, that we’re all feeling right now.





Field of Vision

Our survival cost us our happiness,
always scanning for lions
stalking us on the open

savannahs—is that
a panther or just wind
in the tall grass moving?

The carefree became
a big cat’s satisfied sleep.
The rest of us are here,

five million years of fear
hard-wiring our brains
to be on guard, to look

for trouble, for the one
thing wrong with this picture,
whatever the picture might be.

Now we do it out of habit,
even when there’s no reason,
when we’re perfectly safe,

walking out each morning,
naked, under the baobab trees,
into the lion’s field of vision.


Queen in Blue by Ambalila Hemsell

Hemsell: Almost every poem in my collection is in some way about the deeply intertwined nature of death and birth, violence and creation. This poem imagines the return to a vital and animalistic existence amidst the breakdown of capitalistic society. The poem posits that there is joy to be found somewhere in the alchemy of gratitude, love, and survival.



joy

joy spreads like blood on the sheets, love, and we are black
blooded thieves, turnip takers in our lucky rabbit skins.

whiskey makes the good heart powerful and we thump thump
our drums until sunup. chant ourselves hoarse through the smoking

wet cedar. the system of currency and want has lost its sway. I have now
only the natural sorts of hunger. with that in mind, let us feast.

with that in mind, let us cleave the river from the bank with the cosmic axe.
feed the deer from our pockets, the oatmeal we ourselves were raised on

and will raise our children on again. with that in mind, ravage me.
have you seen the quiet way in fog the dawn barely breaks? it is treason

for the day to enter with so little ceremony. I want fireworks. I want
the slaughter of lambs for our holy days, but each day is holier than the last.

as we plummet from our high banyan seat the short switch beats the rug,
the golden beets are slow to come and you, love, accept my hurricane

to your stout trunk, accept the natural uprooting. the bevel meeting of me to you,
god, speak on the smoothing of stone by water, and the fitting of stone to stone.

we are meek walkers on the once lush globe. now, among the perishing, we count
our blessings and shed our shoes.


Ed Garvey and the tradition of Wisconsin Progressivism

Today is the 2020 Wisconsin Spring Election (for more information on voting, visit MyVote Wisconsin). Author and local journalist Rob Zaleski shares his motivation for writing Ed Garvey Unvarnished: Lessons from a Visionary Progressive.

In 2011, shortly after Republican Scott Walker was elected Wisconsin’s governor, Ed Garvey, a dynamic and widely respected progressive activist from Burlington, and I had 17 in-depth interviews. We discussed a myriad of issues related not only to Walker’s victory but to Garvey’s remarkable life—including his sterling accomplishments as an environmental crusader and three failed attempts at public office. Those interviews, we figured, would make for an engrossing, thought-provoking book.

In our final interview, Garvey revealed that he was about to seek a publisher for a second book he’d been working on about his time as the executive director of the National Football League’s players union. Fascinating guy that he was, I doubted there was a market for both his book and the one I was writing about him.

After Garvey succumbed to Parkinson’s in February 2017, I was taken aback by the many glowing tributes to him—not only from his many friends and admirers throughout Wisconsin but from media voices and politicians across the country.

“Ed Garvey was a hero to progressives in this state,” my colleague Natasha Kassulke pointedly noted over lunch. “And progressives have never needed a hero more than now. Rob, you’ve got to finish your book.”

She was right. So I went back to work, and in September of this past year—some eight years after Garvey and I met at his suburban Shorewood Hills home for our first interview—UW Press published Ed Garvey Unvarnished.

The Garvey name, I’ve discovered, still resonates. A number of readers have expressed their amazement at how candid and brutally honest Garvey was in our interviews. Several were intrigued by the access he afforded me—and the fact that he trusted me with many of his deep, personal feelings on a variety of issues.

But, as anyone who knew Garvey well can attest, brutal honesty was his trademark. It’s who he was. As for trusting me with his most sensitive inner-thoughts, I believe it had to do with the sense of urgency he felt from the moment we sat down for that first interview: he was fully aware that the clock was running out.

First and foremost, Garvey wanted to remind people of what he had stood for his entire life. But he also felt he hadn’t received his due for his work on behalf of the National Football League Players Association—a view that is shared in the book by two former NFLPA players’ reps: Pat Richter, who went on to become athletic director at the University of Wisconsin, and Mark Murphy, now president of the Green Bay Packers.

Prior to Garvey’s hiring as the NFLPA’s executive director in 1971, most players worked part-time in the offseason. They had virtually no job security. Then, the average NFL salary was $24,000. Today it’s about $2.7 million.

“Look at what players have now,” Murphy marveled. “This was Ed’s dream. People thought we were crazy when the players went on strike in 1982 and demanded a percentage of the league’s gross [profits]. Our rallying cry was, ‘We are the game,’ which of course is true. Now the players do get a percentage of the gross, and everybody views it as a great system that’s working well for everybody. And it’s mainly because of Ed.”

Much as I admired what Garvey had accomplished in his NFLPA days, it’s not the main reason I wanted to do this book. I have interviewed thousands of people during my 30-plus years in the newspaper business. But no one quite like Ed Garvey.

Yes, he had a hair-trigger temper. And yes, he could be viciously sarcastic. In heated debates, he wouldn’t hesitate to go for his rival’s jugular. But I’ve never met a public figure—certainly never a politician—who was as decent, as forthright, and as determined to speak the truth as Ed Garvey. And I wanted people to know what a fascinating and unique person he was.

When he took a stance on a particular issue, he never checked the opinion polls or conferred with a bunch of high-falutin’ consultants. He did it because he believed it was the right thing to do. While he felt the Republican party was controlled by selfish, bigoted, wealthy old men, he routinely criticized the Democratic party for catering to the same well-heeled special interests as Republicans.

Ed Garvey, I came to realize, truly was one of a kind. My hope is that younger Americans who read his words will be inspired to seize his mantle.

Rob Zaleski is a freelance writer and award-winning columnist. He spent twenty-six years writing for The Capital Times in Madison.

A Cinema of Obsession

In honor of global celebrations for International Women’s Day, we share a guest post from Mariah Larsson. Her recent book, A Cinema of Obsession, is the first to focus on the life and career of notable Swedish director and auteur Mai Zetterling.

As representations of women in film have been heatedly debated, Mai Zetterling’s life and career provide important perspectives. When Zetterling’s first feature film, Loving Couples, premiered in 1964, she was one of very few women filmmakers in the world. After having worked as an actress for more than twenty years, she entered into the European art cinema scene and struggled to claim a space as an auteur, a film director who was also considered a great artist. During the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, she would break a long and winding path, beginning in the male-dominated art cinema institution, continuing into television and documentary, feminist film festivals and filmmaking, and commercial television as well as feature films, ending with ceaseless struggles to finance various projects during the final years of her life.

Provoking controversy and scandal on several occasions until her untimely death in 1994, Zetterling was prolific in her work on documentary, short film, feature fiction films, and television, while also writing novels and short stories. Politically, she claimed to belong within a leftist intellectual tradition, and she was for a while under investigation by the MI5 (the United Kingdom’s counterintelligence and security agency). Nevertheless, the ideology expressed in her films dealt with a deep romanticization of cultures on the margins of mainstream Western society. Her films are visually striking and their narratives often controversial, focusing on gender relations and alienation. Representations of sexuality and gender were both conservative and radical at the same time; paradoxical, often strongly symbolic.

Zetterling made many of her films in her native land of Sweden, though for the majority of her life she lived abroad. She is associated with the country of Ingmar Bergman and films with adult material. Her years as a film star in Sweden were brief, as she moved to England in 1947 shortly after a successful guest appearance playing the titular role in Basil Dearden’s Frieda (1947). In contrast to Ingmar Bergman, with whom Zetterling had worked (starring in Music in Darkness in 1948) and with whom she was often compared, there has been very little or even near to nothing written about her for an international audience.

One reason for Zetterling’s overlooked position in film history is that her work, to a large extent, seems to have fallen between the stools. It is no coincidence that the feature films she made within her native art cinema institution are the ones of her oeuvrebest recorded in film history: Loving Couples, Night Games (1966), The Girls (1968). Feature films were for a long time considered the highest form of moving image storytelling, and European art films were categorized in accordance to nationality. In addition, as the women’s movement in film began to highlight Zetterling’s work in the 1970s and 1980s, her films featuring female protagonists were the ones that were screened and remembered. However, Zetterling’s career was independent of national borders—as well as independent of genres and formats. She worked in Denmark, Greenland, the UK, France, and Canada. Her various productions focus alternately on male and female protagonists and Doctor Glas (1968), Vincent the Dutchman (1972), or her contribution to the 1972 Munich Olympics documentary, Visions of Eight (1973), are no less engaging than The Girls or Scrubbers (1983).

Zetterling navigated the changing industrial and contextual structures of the film and television industries during her career, sometimes successfully, at other times less so. Her path was, indeed, winding, but it mirrors the experiences of several other women directors, even today.

[Note: A collection of Mai Zetterling’s films with English subtitles is now available in a DVD box set: Mai Zetterling’s samlade verk, released by Swedish Studio S Entertainment (region 2).]

Mariah Larsson is a professor of film and literature at Linneaus University. She is the author of The Swedish Porn Scene: Exhibition Contexts, 8mm Pornography and the Sex Film, and the coeditor of Swedish Cinema and the Sexual Revolution: Critical Essays.

Announcing the Results of the Wisconsin Poetry Prize Competition

Out of nearly 900 entrants, Diane Kerr and Carlos Andrés Gómez have been selected as recipients of the Brittingham and the Felix Pollak Prizes in Poetry by Natasha Tretheway, nineteenth U.S. Poet Laureate. Three runners-up have also been identified by Trethewey and selected by series editors Ron Wallace and Sean Bishop to have their collections published by the University of Wisconsin Press next spring: Carlina Duan, Anna Leigh Knowles, and Christopher Nelson.

Text Box: -more-
Diane Kerr (photo: Ruth Hendricks)

Diane Kerr mentors poets through the Madwomen in the Attic Creative Writing Program at Carlow University and is the author of the collection, Butterfly. Her work has appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Mississippi Review, and Pearl, among others. She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Kerr’s forthcoming Perigee follows a speaker’s emotional reckoning with a traumatic secret she felt pressured to keep during her girlhood. In varied lyric narratives, these poems reinforce that shock and suffering have no statute of limitations.

Carlos Andrés Gómez (photo: Friends & Lovers Photography)

Carlos Andrés Gómez is the author of the memoir Man Up: Reimagining Modern Manhood. His work has been featured in numerous publications, including New England Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and BuzzFeed Reader. A graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, Gómez is originally from New York City. Fractures, Gómez’s debut collection, is composed of poignant poems produced by a speaker at the breaking point, casting an uncompromised eye toward both brutality and tenderness. This collection navigates the realm of identity, interrogating race, gender, sexuality, fatherhood, and violence.

Carlina Duan

Carlina Duan teaches at the University of Michigan and authored the collection I Wore My Blackest Hair. She earned her MFA from Vanderbilt University. Jasmine An praises her forthcoming Alien Miss, “Duan wields her craft with keen intellect and infinite generosity in this ambitious collection that tenderly ushers into existence a glorious host of voices. Hailing the collective grit that undergirds racialized womanhood in America, her poetry becomes a radical invitation to celebrate clear-eyed and unflinching joy.”

Anna Leigh Knowles (photo: Michelle Elliott)

Conditions of the Wounded is Anna Leigh Knowles’s debut collection. Originally from Colorado, she teaches in Quito, Ecuador, and holds an MFA from Southern Illinois University–Carbondale. Judy Jordan says, “A poetry of narrative tension, lyrical beauty, and incredible, breath-stealing, imagination. These poems show place as a reliquary of trauma but they also show how joy and love can rise in even the most broken places. Grief struck and haunted, these are points of hope and light in a way only poems can be.”

Christopher Nelson

Christopher Nelson, founder and editor of Under a Warm Green Linden and Green Linden Press, will also have his collection, Blood Aria, published as part of the series. According to Boyer Rickel, “In meditations ranging from a child’s incomprehension of a father’s violence to the suffering of those cast out for their sexual desires to the horror of mass shootings, the poems of Blood Aria pulse with an urgency that is both anguished and exalted. And transformative. To experience poems as passionate, as charged with wisdom as these is to enter into a kind of spiritual quest.”

Submissions for the next competition will be accepted between July 15 and September 15, 2020.

UW Press Colophon

About the University of Wisconsin Press
The University of Wisconsin Press is a not-for-profit publisher of books and journals. With nearly 1,500 titles and over 8,000 peer-reviewed articles in print, its mission embodies the Wisconsin Idea by publishing work of distinction that serves the people of Wisconsin and the world.


For more information on the Wisconsin Poetry Prizes, please visit https://uwpress.wisc.edu/series/wi-poetry.html

“Part group memoir, part something more magical”: Intern Book Club (February)

This month we read The Toni Morrison Book Club, a group memoir by Juda Bennett, Winnifred Brown-Glaude, Cassandra Jackson, and Piper Kendrix-Williams. Our book club consists of Alexis Paperman, Publicity Assistant and grad student studying library information science; and Morgan Reardon, Marketing Assistant studying English literature and American Indian studies.

Morgan’s Thoughts

Before reading this book, I already knew it was special. The cover was the first thing I noticed, its brilliant colors and gorgeous silhouette catching my eye. It is certainly different than what we’ve read for this club before, part group memoir and part something more magical. As a reader and admirer of Toni Morrison, I was very excited to dive into this. At first, I was a bit concerned about how all four authors would have their voices heard in the book, but the way it was structured was actually very compelling, and each person’s voice shone throughout. Each author got their own section that started out with a secret, a small introduction to their chapter that often featured the group’s memories of the writing process, which was really interesting to see. Through these secrets and the following chapters, I felt like I really got to know these authors, like they were sitting right beside me and telling me their stories. These authors shared some of their darkest times with me, and some of their best. I felt like and still feel like I know them, and that if I met them, we could just pick up our conversation. These stories were full of vulnerability and love, and I could feel the heartbreak and hope as it was spread across the pages. The way the authors’ memories and the words of Toni Morrison were woven together will stay with me for a long time. I have already recommended this book to many of my close friends, and it will definitely be sitting on my shelf among my favorites.

Alexis’s Thoughts

I’ve been looking forward to this book for nearly a year. By the time the book was actually in my hands I began to question myself. Could a book really live up to a yearlong anticipation period? Surprisingly, to me, this book surpassed this year of build-up. It’s shocking that such a small book, 196 pages, can be doing so many things. This book acts as memoir, literary criticism, and a continuation of conversations both old and new. As I read each of the authors’ sections, I felt as if I were beginning to make new friends. The secrets that are shared, the memories and emotions, allow you to begin to know each of the authors—glimpses into their lives, into the ways Toni Morrison speaks to each of them. There is an anticipation about the relevance of Morrison in each separate occasion of the authors’ journeys in life. No matter who you are or what stage of life you’re in, I truly believe you will take something from this book. I’m reading it now as a grad student and seeing reflections between this book and my studies on race. I’m making connections to theories and readings that I’d been struggling with. Already, I plan on rereading this book in the future.

Our Conclusion

When Morgan and Alexis discussed the book before writing this post, we decided that this is one of our top-tier books. It is a book we would place next to Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith and Citizen by Claudia Rankine.

Four Writers and a Funeral

On Toni Morrison’s birthday, we share a guest post from Cassandra Jackson. She is an author of The Toni Morrison Book Club along with Juda Bennett, Winnifred Brown-Glaude, and Piper Kendrix Williams. Uncle Bobbie’s will host the authors for a reading and signing tonight (2/18) at 7pm.

On June 25, 2018, I sent a group text to Piper, Winnie, and Juda: “My father needs to die. He is suffering and it is so terrible. If you pray, please ask for this part to end.”

I knew that my message had no business in a pop-up notification on a phone, that it would snatch my friends away from dinners, books, and children. Winnie would have to sit down, Juda would stand up, and Piper would cry. But it never occurred to me that I should not tell them what was happening in my world even though I was in Alabama and they were scattered along the line that divides Pennsylvania from New Jersey.

I had arrived in the South with my husband and children to visit my parents for a week. Over the course of those days, my father, who had lived with bone cancer for years, went from playing with his grandchildren to writhing in pain in his hospice bed. If I was to survive his transition from life to death, I needed the three of them to see me do it, to say it back to me, to let me know that the surreal was now real.

We call ourselves the Toni Morrison Book Club, but I am never sure if that name belies too much or too little of what we are. For those who have never been in a book club, the name just means people who talk about books. Those who have participated in a book club probably wonder at the deadly seriousness of one that focuses on a single author, and one of the most acclaimed and sophisticated at that. But our book club is probably not so different from theirs. We talk about human experience, gliding seamlessly between fictional characters and our lives.

As ordinary as it might sound, a book club where friends talk about books and themselves was a radical departure from the thing we had spent years learning to do. Three of us are scholars of literature and a fourth is a sociologist. We have been trained to cultivate scholarly distance and the veneer of objectivity. We say “the ways in which” rather than “how,” “meanings” rather than “the message,” and one of us (I won’t say who, but his name rhymes with Buddha) occasionally sprinkles a bit of French into everyday conversation. When our students judge characters, we remind them that characters are “constructions,” and we redirect them to think about what the character means rather than who the character is. If they tell us what the author meant to say, we tell them that the author (whether living or not) is dead because we do not have access to authors’ thoughts and even when we do, intentions are not art. In these ways, we do away with writers as people and thus kill off ourselves too.

When Juda knocked on my office door rambling and gesticulating about a book that would abandon all that, I thought, sure, why not. I have long been done with writing books of literary criticism that no one but a handful of specialists would read. But when he said the book would be about Toni Morrison, I said, “Have you lost your mind? Boy, if you don’t get away from my door—” But for him, Ms. Morrison’s work would make the perfect jumping-off point. Who more ideal for a book in which writers think about the relationship between literature and their own lives than the woman who, upon finding out that she had won the Nobel Prize for literature, told a committee member, “If you’re going to keep giving prizes to women—and I hope you do—you’re going to have to give us more warning. Men can rent tuxedos. I have to get shoes. I have to get a dress.” But after years of watching scholars argue over the meaning of Ms. Morrison’s work like she was the last cocktail at the Modern Language Association open bar, I had made a quiet pact with myself: Better to die of thirst than sit at that hot mess of a bar. I made Morrison my not-so-secret side-chick who I taught and loved on in class but refused to write about publicly.

In the end, Juda tricked me into it. You’ll have to read the book to find out how, but suffice it to say that he is one sneaky BFF, and I am forever grateful for his conniving.

We met, and talked, and wrote about Toni Morrison’s novels, ourselves, and the world. In one conversation over cupcakes and tears, we moved from Song of Solomon to the death of Philando Castile, a black motorist murdered by police, to Winnie’s son, who she had to warn to be careful, even though no amount of careful ever seems to be enough. Our fear and anger settled over Juda’s table like a thick fog until Juda spoke in a shaky voice, adding himself and Alton Sterling, also murdered by police, to the mix.

This is how our secret lives emerged—things that you think you can never talk about—your brother who hates black people, the gay boy you tried to turn, the white boys you hid from your mother, the tourist visa your family used to immigrate permanently to this country. We decided to center the book on this concept of secrets, the things that we had learned to say with each other’s help. And somewhere in the process, though I am not quite sure of the precise moment, we became something else—not simply friends or colleagues but something overlapping and converged—at once multiple and singular.

I cannot say precisely when we became the Toni Morrison Book Club. But for me, the signs of this merger coalesce around moments of shared grief. In 2017, I was cleaning my attic when my husband called to say that my brother—who was, as far as anyone knew, healthy—had died of a heart attack that morning. I made the necessary calls to my family, still unable to fully process his death. Then I texted TMBC to let them know that I couldn’t meet: “My brother died this morning. I have to go to Alabama. Not sure when I will be back.” They all wrote back immediately, their messages sounding like words one would direct to someone who has been shot. That’s when I realized that the words “Your brother died” had made me feel like I’d been shot—they had penetrated my body, cutting and burning before my mind could understand or accept what happened. I stared at my phone and to my surprise, I was no longer alone in the attic.

We never set out to be this to each other. It felt, instead, like we were just doing what Ms. Morrison would have wanted us to do, telling our own stories as if language was the only thing that could save us. So when we got word in the summer of 2019 that Ms. Morrison had read part of our manuscript and wanted to see more, we were thrilled and scared. Would she see the gift that she had given us? Would she understand that this book was our thank you? Or, would we be remembered as the four nitwits who needed to write a whole-ass book just to tick off the great Toni Morrison?

We would never find out what she thought of The Toni Morrison Book Club. On the morning of August 6, 2019, I sent the following text to TMBC: “Toni Morrison died last night.”

Cassandra Jackson is a professor of English at The College of New Jersey and the author of Violence, Visual Studies, and the Black Male Body and Barriers between Us: Interracial Sex in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction.

Which organization should you donate to?

As we consider the causes that matter to us around Giving Tuesday, author Megan Hershey discusses the value in supporting local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

We all want to help. We want to aid displaced Syrians in finding refuge, support Venezuelans in the face of hyperinflation, and assist Mozambican families rebuilding in the wake of Cyclone Idai’s devastation. We want to prevent these catastrophes by promoting democratization processes and supporting development efforts—to see health systems strengthened and disaster response teams trained and funded.

Yet, for most of us, figuring out how best to give to these efforts poses a challenge. Which organizations are trustworthy? What about overhead costs? Who is positioned to do the most good?

Then there are the debates over whether foreign aid is a life-saving good or a broken system that requires a drastic overhaul. Should we take a market-based approach or work to better weave political freedom into our understanding of development? It’s enough to exasperate even the most dedicated household philanthropist.

Yet, there is good news. While we’ve been asking how best to give, spirited, locally established, and deeply embedded nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have sprung up around the world and quietly gone to work on their communities’ toughest problems. Research on these NGOs spanning the last thirty-five years shows that they have had positive effects on development issues. These are the players that have embodied the injunction to “think globally, act locally.”

My recently published book, Whose Agency: The Politics and Practice of Kenya’s HIV-Prevention NGOs, offers a close look at the inner workings of these small, local organizations. Though they typically lack large advertising budgets and name recognition, they manage to achieve a great deal thanks to their local knowledge, community connections, and inherent adaptability.

When looking for an organization to support—whether in response to a humanitarian crisis or with an eye toward development—here’s why you should consider supporting a locally founded organization:

  • Access: Local NGOs operate in the areas where they were founded and often hire employees from their communities. They also usually do not need special permission to access an area in crisis. This means donations go directly to the people who need it most.
  • Embeddedness: They have relationships with local leaders and powerbrokers. While there can be tensions between NGOs and the people they reach, they are well placed to build trust, which facilitates service effectiveness.
  • Flexibility: This is a local NGO’s secret weapon. They may be constrained by donor requirements on how they can spend money; yet, when individuals give to these organizations directly, the NGOs can use those funds quickly, for the greatest needs, without dealing with too many restrictions.

You may have to do a bit more legwork to find these organizations. Read news stories and international NGO publications carefully to see what local NGOs are mentioned or ask friends who have traveled to those regions. Many governments also have NGO coordinating bodies that make NGO registries available. Do your due diligence, read up on the organizations you plan to support, ask questions, and build a relationship with someone at the organization if possible. But don’t be afraid to support local NGOs; you can be confident that your gifts will have a bigger impact, and you might even feel happier, too.

Photo of Megan HersheyMegan Hershey is an associate professor of political science at Whitworth University.

 

 

 

 

 

African Studies Association 2019

This week, the UW Press has been exhibiting at the annual African Studies Association Conference in Boston. The conference is wrapping up, but if you’re attending, there’s still one last day to stop by booth 314 for discounts on books and journals. And if you’re not in Boston, here’s a look at our new and notable titles in African Studies.


Holding the World Together, edited by Nwando Achebe and Claire Robertson

Holding the World Together, edited by Nwando Achebe and Claire Robertson

Featuring contributions from some of the most accomplished scholars on the topic, Holding the World Together explores the rich and varied ways women have wielded power across the African continent, from the precolonial period to the present. This comprehensive volume, focusing on agency and avoiding stereotypical depictions, features essays on the representation of African women, their role in national liberation movements, their incorporation into the world economy, changing family and marriage systems, economic impacts on their lives and livelihoods, their unique challenges in the areas of health and disease, and their experiences with religious fundamentalism, violence, and slavery.


Health in a Fragile State, by John M. Janzen

Health in a Fragile State by John M. Janzen

Based on extensive field research in the Manianga region of the Lower Congo, Health in a Fragile State is an anthropological account of public health and health care in the 1980s and 1990s after the collapse of the Congolese state. This work brings into focus John M. Janzen’s earlier books on African health and healing, revealing the collaborative effort by local, national, and international agencies to create viable alternative institutions to those that represented the centralized state. With this volume, Janzen documents and analyzes the realignment of existing institutions and the creation of new ones that shape health and healing. 

Throughout, Janzen explores the manner in which power and information, including science, are legitimized in the preservation and improvement of health. Institutional validity and knowledge empower citizens and health practitioners to gain the upper hand over the region’s principal diseases, including malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid, and HIV/AIDS.


African Economic History, edited by Mariana Candido, Toyin Falola, Toby Green, and Paul E. Lovejoy

African Economic History

African Economic History publishes scholarly essays in English and French on the economic history of African societies from precolonial times to the present. It features research in a variety of fields and time periods, including studies on labor, slavery, trade and commercial networks, economic transformations, colonialism, migration, development policies, social and economic inequalities, and poverty. The audience includes historians, economists, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, policymakers, and a range of other scholars interested in African economies—past and present.


Spirit Children, by Aaron R. Denham

Spirit Children by Aaron R. Denham

Some babies and toddlers in parts of West Africa are considered spirit children—nonhumans sent from the forest to cause misfortune and destroy the family. These are usually deformed or ailing infants, or children whose births coincide with tragic events or who display unusual abilities. Aaron R. Denham offers a nuanced ethnographic study of this phenomenon in Northern Ghana that examines both the motivations of the families and the structural factors that lead to infanticide. He also turns the lens on the prevailing misunderstandings about this controversial practice. Denham offers vivid accounts of families’ life-and-death decisions that engage the complexity of the context, local meanings, and moral worlds of those confronting a spirit child.


Ghana Studies, edited by Carina Ray and Kofi Baku

Ghana Studies

Ghana Studies is the journal of the Ghana Studies Association, an international affiliate of the African Studies Association. Published annually, Ghana Studies strives to provide a forum for cutting edge original research about Ghana’s society, culture, environment, and history. All of the scholarly articles in Ghana Studies are peer-reviewed by two anonymous referees, coordinated by an editorial team based in both North America and Ghana. Since its first issue in 1998, Ghana Studies has published significant work by leading scholars based in Ghana, the United States, Canada, and Europe. In addition, Ghana Studies features occasional material, source reports, and book reviews. It also serves to provide official notice of fellowships and prizes awarded by the Ghana Studies Association.