Foreword | August 02, 2016
Foreword: Family Practice
One doesn’t have to look far to find literature about the stuff of family—its importance and often its discord in our lives. The oldest writings dramatize the significance yet precariousness of family histories–—from the totem poles of the Pacific Northwest to the writings of ancient China, Assyria, and Egypt—which record and retain records of ruling families to validate lines of power, succession, and inheritance. Much classic literature has to do with family. Dickens mixed harsh realism with fantasy in writing about lost family connections and families of choice or exigency. Twain described the found or made family in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the falseness of then-current racist ideas of blood inheritance as the definer of identity in Pudd’nhead Wilson. Shakespeare dramatized the most dysfunctional Sophoclean families in some of his best-known plays: King Lear, Hamlet, and even Romeo and Juliet.
Family function and dysfunction are central themes in many of the standout novels of the last half-century. Toni Morrison’s Beloved shows the ways slavery warps and disfigures families, inflicting physical and psychological scars that never fade. In the twisted morality that slavery produces, a mother’s killing her baby becomes an act of love. In Winter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell’s seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly protects her mentally-ill mother and two young siblings as she goes in search of her meth-addicted father. It is a brutal yet beautiful tale showing both the wrenching destructiveness and powerful resiliency of families. Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth portrays the tumult of London at the turn of the millennium, where the complexities of history, class, and human choice are at play in a story about the families and friends of two World War II veterans, British working class Archibald Jones and Samad Iqbal, an intellectual Bengali waiter. Samad’s twin sons show the conflicts arising from culture and family, as one of them thoroughly accepts English culture and pursues genetic science while the other falls into religious extremism.
Edward St. Aubyn’s five Patrick Melrose novels are a perfect divine comedy of surviving the worst sort of family life. Most recently, Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan Novels follow the volatile friendship of two women, Elena and Lila, from childhood in a rough neighborhood through academic careers, loves lost and found, motherhood, labor movements, and their work lives. All the while, they feel deeply conflicted about family, and the extended families of the neighborhood, flying there for comfort and breaking free when the rules get too confining.
This issue’s story “Somewhere Else” by Charles Harmon is a comic tale of how quickly a family can break apart. The protagonist, Mark, father of two, is forced by his outraged wife to “break up” with his best friend over an incident of domestic violence that has ended his friend’s marriage. Mark is stunned that that’s all there might be to a split—one angry act, and it’s over. His own marriage is not in the best shape, and Mark acts out by having long makeout sessions with his autistic son’s twenty-four-year-old virgin babysitter—a young Christian woman who is surprisingly in control of things.
In Cynthia Robinson’s “Maison des Oiseaux,” a couple is suffering even more dramatically. Della and Peter’s college-aged daughter vanished, and their marriage falters as Della begins drinking. Tasked by their counselor to work on repairing their relationship, they travel to Morocco, where they meet Joseline, a young Belgian woman in the company of some dangerous-looking men. They rescue her with the intent of helping her get home, and Della grows increasingly angry at the young woman’s obliviousness to her own safety.
Mathew Baker’s wonderful language- and math-conscious story “The Golden Mean” describes the life of Tryg, a high-school math genius and member of two blended families, one suburban and one rural. Because his divorced mother and father share custody, he has to move between the two, which in Tryg’s mathematical way of thinking means that the families are two intersecting sets, with himself as the only member in common. While he may be only “a fraction of a son,” since he’s never entirely with one family or the other, there is still an inestimable joy in the full sum in this life.
In Susan Engberg’s short story “Breath of the Trees,” Deirdre is a mother of two children who is also taking care of the three school-aged children of an acquaintance undergoing cancer treatments. Despite her feelings of inadequacy, she rises to the necessity of caring for these three children whose mother may die, as all of them bond as a “family” for a few days. It’s a story about being a shepherd and caretaker of children, and how these jobs enlarge the adult self, even though they may not change the core self formed during childhood.
Dan Musgrave’s essay “Worry” is about a temporary relationship between a young man and an ape. As a college junior on academic probation, Musgrave begins volunteering in the ape house of a zoo where he wins the trust of a senior female bonobo. His success at this work radiates beyond the zoo to his academically rigorous college, where he “began to receive small but essential second chances.” When the bonobo “Worry” becomes pregnant unexpectedly, Dan moves into the ape house to monitor her. Although he longs for the normal life of a twenty-something, he reminds himself that his residence in the ape house is voluntary and unique. He realizes that his relationship with the ape—which has in a sense become his “primary” relationship during this time—is like human relationships in more ways than he might have expected.
Dionne Irving’s essay “Treading Water” is about being an African American who has lived what she calls “a very white life” among friends, colleagues, a husband and in-laws who are almost all white. She writes, “My friends, my extended family, they are good, well-meaning people. They are loving, they are accepting, they are generous, but they are people who take their privilege for granted. They don’t have to live in fear of what may happen to them or to their children at an innocent pool party.” The essay describes the vulnerability of being in a position where one can unexpectedly and suddenly become an outsider by virtue of race.
This summer’s poetry includes William Woolfitt’s historical pieces looking at how marginalized and dispossessed populations use music as their means of emotional, artistic, and spiritual expression. Farmers, laborers, prisoners, the enslaved, and the displaced sing to create a kind of mental home and to resist and challenge various forms of oppression. Peter Cooley’s poems contemplate mortality, transcendence, and the relation between the self and the ongoing life around it. Gazing at a hunter’s moon, a rook, and the “panoply of stars,” the speaker probes the protean nature of presence and absence—“Whatever was before invisible / this next second is form in multitudes.” Corey Van Landingham directs our eyes to an old bridge being dismantled, a prison turned into a tourist spot, and paintings by the fourteenth-century Italian artist Giotto. Exploring the link between old and new, past and future, the speaker rejects any easy notion of progress. Rather, she speculates on the role of violence in the progression of history, both personal and public.
Bonded by a love of music, jazz authority Bill Russell and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson were inseparable for nearly two years, from 1954 to 1955. It was a platonic relationship forged in Chicago, where they both lived for a time. During the years she was on radio and then television, Russell was at Jackson’s service as companion, confidant, and all-around little brother. He was one of the few in her coterie who was ready to give her the unvarnished truth about her performances. His journals, full of drawings, newspaper clippings, and her playlists, give a close look at the life and times of the country’s greatest gospel singer, whose lavish contralto voice electrified the crowd in the March on Washington, at Martin Luther King’s funeral, and in over thirty albums that included four “golds.”
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