A friend of mine recently told me about a wise practice she is incorporating into her life. She did not describe it as wise, but I now realize that it is. At the time I thought, “It is really good that you are doing that. That will help you with your time there.” It was not until this past week that I realized I should be doing the exactly the same thing.
One of my closest friends from college has moved to Rwanda to work on a literacy project with an NGO there. (Yes, I know, she is awesome) Having lived in Africa before (Senegal) and traveled extensively around the continent, she describes Rwanda as perhaps the most beautiful country she has ever been to. To prepare for her move she has begun learning Kinurwanda and studying up as much as she can on the country’s history.
Which is a difficult history. And the wise thing that Tristen is doing is that she is alternating. She alternates what she reads. After she reads a book about Rwanda she then reads about something– anything else. Again, the stories of Rwanda are difficult. From horrifying memoires of genocide to frustrating histories of corruption, she told me you can’t read too much of about it back to back with out becoming depressed or discouraged.
I thought: that makes sense. You shouldn’t cry during every book you read. This sounds like a sane thing Tristen is doing as she settles in and adjusts to a new home. I thought: this girl is so smart and self-aware. This is why we are friends.
A week or so after my conversation with Tristen I finished the book Design Flaws of the Human Condition by Paul Schmidtberger, an ex-pat writer living in Paris and very nice guy. His novel is about an unlikely friendship between adjunct professor of English Ken and business-woman Iris. Their adventures in New York City only begin in anger management class, and it simply gets funnier from there.
It turned me into that annoying person in the cafe who is smiling at their book and laughing out loud far too often for it to be cute. Design Flaws was a literary breath of fresh air. It reminded me of people I know, college and the eager-beaver East Coast. Reading it was like listening to a story being told by one of my funnier friends (Tristen, Brandon, or Becky for example).
In the weeks just before reading Design Flaws, I’d hit a wall. Some might call it the end of the semester, but I could not focus on the books I was reading. I crawled through them without enjoying the process. What was wrong? Thinking back to Tristen’s method of reading I realized that I was not alternating, and maybe I needed to.
My research topics are no picnic or romantic comedy. They are now that I think about it, pretty depressing. While in Paris, I’ve focused on: colonialism, postcolonialsm, slavery, race sciences, and language conflict. Not so sunny. Even the novels I’ve been reading: Wide Saragasso Sea, Under the Volcano, The Awakening, all downers!
I am a lover of comedy and generally happy person, and for my mental health I must start alternating.
So that I will no longer embarrass myself in cafes I will increase my intake of happy stories.
So that I will look less often at the people around me and grumble “Orientalists, all!”
So that I will avoid ranting.
I will alternate.
This concept might apply to music as well! Now where did I put that Motown Christmas CD…
**This post is dedicated to Tristen Edwards (whom I wish had a blog), my free Harvard DAPA water bottle (“3/4 of Harvard Students Alternate”) and to the Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore in Paris.
Filed under: Dust | Tags: cartography, fisk, geography, ghost trails, journal, maps, mississippi, river
Some readers may remember my quest earlier this summer to see for myself the striking maps of the “Mississippi Ghost Trails.” They were found and drooled over, but little did I know that it was not the last I would see of these maps…
Needless to say I gasped out loud when, while moving inordinate amounts of literary magazines to a table marked “FREE” outside of Shakespeare and Company, I saw this journal in the stack:
Mantis: A journal of poetry & translation out of Stanford concentrated its sixth issue (Summer 2007) on “Geographies.” The citation for the cover art is correct: “Plate 22-8 from the Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River–Fisk, 1944 Report.” Interestingly, the editors highlighted a key from the map and reproduced it below their citation. I’m not sure if this is a symbolic move or for those who might actually try to read the map.
Mantis’ goal are somewhat vague, concerning linguistic and culture diversity. The editors hope their Geographies issue “can itself contour the complexity and richness of global poetic culture,” that it “comprises something other than a poetic atlas in which to pick destinations for literary tourism, but rather manages to juxtapose the wealth of lyric voices active, across the map, in all their difference” (8-9). I’m not sure distant highlighting distance “across the map” and “literary tourism” are from each other, or whether that truly speaks to geography.
This is a less than striking thematic use of geography or maps, but there is one clever piece in the journal whose literary geography is provocative. Because I like dictionaries (yes, I do, James), New England (I think this is true), and poetry, I enjoyed Maria Hummel’s “A Geopoetic Dictionary of New England: Selected terms from the landscape of New England poetry.” The entries I most fancied included:
Archive: another word for a river, “a glance of history fleshed in the fish” (David Roderick, “Riparian”)
Boggy Acre: a place a snake might fancy (Emily Dickinson, 986)
Brattle Street: an avenue where a small boy tears past you, “his arms full of lavender plunder, lilacs he’s bringing home for his mother” (Gail Mazur, “Lilacs on Brattle Street”)
Swamp: 1. the “endless/wet thick/cosmos, the center/of everything”; 2. a place of great transformation to traverse but ultimately enriching (Mary Oliver, “Crossing the Swamp”) (72-78).
This piece takes the opposite approach of what I understand to be that of the editors. In Hummel’s piece, literature defines geography. But Mantis seems to desire that geography define its literature. Both directions can be interesting, and I think I attempted both in my senior thesis on Bayou Literature. But at the moment I find more powerful the way that literature depicts and defines geography, often shaping that image or definition in the minds of the readers. Then what are the implications of that effect, to come to know a land or water through literature?
But I must thank the editors of Mantis, for now I own a beautifully printed book with these ghost trails on the cover and “Half Moon Bayou” featured on the center of the page. It is often that I judge a book by its cover.