It's funny how books chosen almost randomly can seem to interrelate. So, for example, I recently decided to read April Sinclair's 1994 novel Coffee Will Make You Black because Dorothy Allison mentioned its "furious, charming adolescent" lesbian (okay, bisexual) protagonist in an essay in her collection Skin. I'd heard of Coffee Will Make You Black before, but had never gotten to around to it because I hadn't realized it had a gay character, and then the e-book went on sale for a couple of dollars, so I went with it.
And I'm glad I did. The story, which appears to be at least partly autobiographical, takes place in the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s. It follows the African-American narrator, Jean "Stevie" Stevenson, from junior high to high school, against the backdrop of the political and cultural changes of the time. But it also traces her own changes, and those of her peers: one kid begins as a scrawny, goody-goody nerd (as Stevie and some other girls see him, anyway) and metamorphoses into a Black Power militant, organizing actions in their high school. Stevie comes from a mixed family: her dark-skinned mother has middle-class aspirations, but married a lighter-skinned man who never had or perhaps lost such ambitions early on. He's a manual worker, drinks too much, and is constantly being corrected by his wife for grammar and other class-related infractions. But they soldier on. Stevie is good in school, but also wants to have friends. Her best friend moved to another neighborhood a year or two before the book opens, and Stevie hasn't found anyone to replace her. She's drawn into hanging out with some less ambitious girls, to her mother's anger and frustration -- and fear, that peer pressure will lead Stevie to get pregnant and drop out of school. This doesn't happen (spoiler?), happily.
Stevie's emerging racial consciousness is encouraged by her grandmother, also dark-skinned, who has her own business, a successful fried-chicken restaurant. She drops her g's and says "ain't," but she knows her own worth despite her daughter's chiding, and she's a lovely if somewhat stereotypical character, who gives Stevie the affection that Stevie's mother finds it difficult to express. For whatever reason, Stevie seems to have a core self-approval that allows her to be friends with girls whose lives will take them in different directions than hers without surrendering herself altogether. I kept worrying that she was going to cave in, but she never did, which was a relief after reading (not to mention knowing) about kids who go along with the crowd until they're damaged and find it much harder to repair themselves. Sinclair followed Stevie to college in her second novel, Ain't Gonna Be the Same Fool Twice, which I'll probably read before this year is out.
As soon as I finished reading Coffee Will Make You Black, I picked up Ruth Moore's first novel from 1943, The Weir. I've read and discussed two of Moore's later books here before. The Weir is an impressive debut, I thought, though I wasn't happy with the ending, which seemed forced onto the story rather than developing out of it. Still, Weir had her command of small-town and island life in Maine from the start, and overall I enjoyed the book as much as I did the other two I've read; I'll continue reading her novels.
Something struck me, though, almost immediately. I noticed that the family constellation in The Weir was very similar to that in Coffee Will Make You Black, with a crusty grandmother, conflicts and worries about the children's future, and so on. At times during the first fifty pages or so I had to stop and remind myself that I was reading about 1940s Maine rather than 1960s Chicago. This was mainly because both 1960s Chicago blacks and 1940s white Maine fishermen had what looked to me like similar ambivalences about education, manual work, money, and relations between insiders and outsiders. Can black folks / islanders trust white folks / summer people (or "foreigners"), make friends with them, intermarry with them? Can our kids move on to better lives without despising their roots? What should be done about those kids who aren't interested in finishing high school, let alone going to college? What about those who could move on but choose to stay? I often have the feeling that many of the differences that people see between their group and other groups are illusory. Of course that may not be because the differences don't exist in reality, or that there are no differences; it may just be that writers of fiction tend to rely on similar themes and models, regardless of whom they're writing about. Still, moving from one novel's environment to the next, I felt more continuity than difference.
I began reading Swinging on the Garden Gate: A Spiritual Memoir by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, originally published by Skinner House Books in 2000, before I read either Coffee Will Make You Black or The Weir. I decided to give it a try because I was intrigued by the subject, an avowedly bisexual woman's quest to integrate her religious life and her sexuality. I got bogged down about a third of the way through, however. For whatever reason -- autobiographical accuracy, literary convention, "spiritual" convention that requires that the seeker hit bottom before finding enlightenment / salvation -- I found Andrew an unrelieved drag. I am being too mean there, I know; not everyone has an easy life, and as someone who spent much of his youth in a haze of self-pity I am in no position to condemn her. But as she tells it, her childhood and adolescence had no positive aspects at all, not because of poverty or racial or class oppression, not because of her family, not because of her peers, not because of abusive religious teaching -- but because she seems to have suffered from what someone (Angelo D'Arcangelo, maybe) called a "spiritual vitamin deficiency" that kept her drooping well into adulthood.
Again, this is not a condemnation: I'm talking about temperament, not anything that is her fault. It's not her fault that she felt alienated from her female body, which made adolescence unpleasant. Still, Stevie Stevenson (who, as I said, appears to be as much her author's autobiographical projection as Andrew is in her memoir) has a harder time of it: severe monthly cramps, nausea, for a couple of days during each period. (Compare too, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, which addresses similar bodily alienation in adolescence with more insight and richness.) Yet Stevie's much more interesting to read about than Andrew, with more going on in her head. As for her sexuality, Andrew appears to have come of age sometime in the 80s, in a liberal religious and political environment, not in the early sixties before the Women's Health movement, women's spirituality, and other cultural upheavals changed the way women and girls saw their bodies. Yet Swinging on the Garden Gate begins (in the twenty-first century?!) with an adult Elizabeth Andrew still depressed about her body and her bisexuality and hoping to advance spiritually in a retreat environment. You'd think that the LGBT Christian and other religious trends hadn't already been active and influential in such circles for three or four decades by then. Yet (as of page 52 out of 175 or so) no awareness of these possibly helpful resources was evident to me.
Speaking of spirituality, I found a strange dissonance going on in Andrew's account of her spiritual development. On the one hand, as a child she's somehow closer to God as children stereotypically are, she knows better than the adults around her who are tangled in the coils of Organized Religion and its confining traditions and rituals; on the other, she feels almost a vocation and wants to be part of the rituals and traditions of her Organized Religion. On yet another hand, she's ignorant about God and his plan for her, being naïve and ignorant and undeveloped, but she still somehow knows better than anyone around her what God wants and expects. Maybe all these stances can be reconciled, but I don't think so. It seems to me that if God did exist as a vaguely paternal superior being, he could have been more helpful as Elizabeth Andrew trod hopelessly through her slough of despond. For that matter, I wonder if the adults around her were as unhelpful and clueless as she makes them seem, or if she shut them out herself, as many kids do. Self-pity is one thing; self-righteousness is another; the two combined are downright toxic.
It's true, you got to cross that lonesome river by yourself, but at the same time you never really do it alone, especially in a time and place (she's not living in Afghanistan under the Taliban, for heaven's sake) where so many other people are walking the same paths and have had a lot to say about their experiences. This seems to me of a piece with the isolating individualism of the Culture of Therapy, which I wouldn't criticize so much if it worked better, if it produced more positive outcomes instead of fostering an ongoing dependency on leaders, workshop leaders, life coaches, and such people.
Maybe I should try to clarify what I mean by "spiritual"; I'm an atheist, after all, and I don't believe in spirits. I agree it's not the best word, but I don't know of a better one, and fussing over specific terminology for abstract concepts is often a way to waste lots of time. When I use the word "spiritual" I'm thinking by analogy of the difference between mind and matter, melody and invidual notes, rhythm and individual beats, the individual frames of a movie and the illusion of motion that succeeding frames produce. Neither in itself is bad; only trying to isolate them and rely on one to the exclusion of the other. So, "spirituality" means attending to the continuity, the connection, between individuals and the different components of their lives, but also of the continuity between themselves and society and the world. "Spirit" in this metaphorical sense is the illusion of wholeness, connection, as opposed to the illusion of separateness and isolation. We are at the same time discrete individuals and inseparably part of the whole, without which we couldn't exist. That's probably not an adequate explanation, but I hope it will do for now.
According to her website, Andrew is now a "spiritual director" as well as a writer and writing teacher. I thought I found more genuine spiritual insight in The Weir and Coffee Will Make You Black, though neither book has pretensions to such, than in Swinging on the Garden Gate. (I also kept thinking of the passages I quoted in this post as I struggled to read it.) I intend to finish Andrew's book, but I found it offputting enough that it may be some time before I continue. I'd generalize from that: with a few exceptions, I've found more spiritual insight and value where they aren't advertised or promised than where they are. But that's just me.