As Us

A Space for Women of the World

The Truth from Youth and Elders as Discovered in Susan Power’s SACRED WILDERNESS and Steve Berman’s RED CAPS

Review by Chip Livingston

SACRED WILDERNESS

Novel by Susan Power
Michigan State University Press

Paperback, 238 pages

February 2014

 

RED CAPS

Short stories by Steve Berman

Lethe Press

Paperback, 216 pages

February 2014

 

 

Out of the mouths of babes and seniors often comes the truth unvarnished. It seems those least encumbered by the filters between thought and word speak most directly, and by turns must act more authentically on instinct or from inspiration. We get muddled in the middles of our lives, stuck between desire and action, by the self-conscious polling of political correctness, by weighing the potential consequences with the reward of initial satisfaction. We limit ourselves to “approved” behavior of institutionalized subordination, systemic expectation, and thus suffer the equation: colonization of mind = colonization of spirit = colonization of body.

 

To follow the impulses of the heart, to love liberated from capitalistic hierarchy, religious oligarchy and western civilization’s patriarchy, for some, will mean being ostracized to the fringes of society. Outcast. Outlawed. Possibly locked up and called demented. The young are prone, propelled by hormones and rebellion, to act with natural investigation; and the old, we hope, experienced enough to recognize the insignificance of public opinion compared to self-realized joy and wisdom. And if we don’t have precocious teenagers or beloved elders in our lives to remind us, perhaps, as readers, we can learn the futility of conformation from literary characters rather than by our own trials and errors.

 

Two recent publications – SACRED WILDERNESS by Susan Power and RED CAPS by Steve Berman – reflect upon the trajectories of colonized love and reject the notion of affection-by-oppression. Take Power’s character Gladys Swan, for instance, an Ojibwe elder who acts by intuition, dismissing her daughter’s misgivings about Gladys taking a job with a rich St. Paul socialite who specifically wants to hire an American Indian housekeeper.

 

Do you really want to be reduced to some kind of throwback stereotype from the Dark Ages? Honestly! A maid for some rich lady in a mansion?” her daughter, Binah, asks, but Gladys responds that it is something she feels she is meant to do. (p. 8)

 

This lady doesn’t need a maid so much as something else. I have to go figure out what that is,” Gladys tells her, also recognizing her daughter’s anger. But Binah’s outrage isn’t only at the racial makeup of her mother’s new job placement; as a native academic, she’s angry at the objectification of American Indians as romanticized historical figures and defensive against any suggestion of dehumanization. Binah’s also separated from her white husband, a poet, who doesn’t want to separate but acknowledges their impossible-to-solve dynamic, how they were “fatally stuck” in an endless debate he didn’t want to compete in. He tells Binah: “The care and maintenance of your precious wound trumps us all.” (73)

 

Seventy-four-year-old Gladys recounts a number of her own husbands and lovers, native and non, and even begins a new romance, with a white Minnesotan, in one of the subtexts of this stunning and beautiful novel of four women, “clan mothers,” including the Virgin Mary, who’s finally allowed, in SACRED WILDERNESS, to share her own story in this book.

 

Presenting Maryam’s story itself is a strike against colonial thought. In the section “Clan Mother of Memory,” we witness first contact between the Kanien’kehá:ka and a Jesuit missionary who shares the worldview of Christianity. A husband among the Mohawk stands up with a question for the missionary:

 

Where are the women in your story? You have heard us talk of our Mother, the Earth, and Sky Woman who came down to get everything started. You have met our Clan Mothers whose wisdom is so cherished we rely on them to select our leaders … When you tell us these stories empty of women, they cannot walk properly on their one leg. They sound unfinished because they ignore half the world.” (130-131)

 

The “conversations” between the Black Robe and the Mohawk people are briefly echoed in the peace negotiations of Frank and Binah, but it is the elders in this magical and meaningful book that set the examples of decolonizing hearts. And these really are just subplots; to suggest this brief treatment of SACRED WILDERNESS acknowledges the enormity of this book’s span is worse than erroneous.

 

This is just a hint of some of the minor storylines. SACRED WILDERNESS expounds on so much more and debunks all types of stereotypical expectations of a “Native American novel.” Moreover, it’s FUNNY. Imagine if you will one scene in which the Virgin Mary is reading Sherman Alexie’s poetry while hiding inside a confessional in Louise Erdrich’s Minneapolis bookstore.

 

Colonialism is just one story, so why don’t we tell ourselves another one?

 

In a somewhat similar way, author Steve Berman turns the archetypical and mythic around in RED CAPS, a collection subtitled “New Fairy Tales for Out of the Ordinary Readers.”

 

If I’d read this book when I was a teenager, I might have avoided some of the hackneyed personalities I tried on before finding and being my authentic self. Actually I was quite comfortably and actively gay when I was a teenager, with a serious boyfriend, a secret boyfriend, my last two years of high school, but it was the absence of other examples of our attraction that kept that relationship secret. I desperately searched for the briefest glimpse of someone else like us, and the closest I found was on the Wednesday night airings of “Dynasty,” in which Steven Carrington might appear with his companion, the sexy closeted senator Bart Fallmont. But even then, those portrayals of potential gay adulthood were examples of what I knew might be possible one day, but Berman gives us examples of gay and lesbian teenagers already living their lives as openly and proudly as their more numerous heterosexual counterparts.

 

The thirteen short stories in RED CAPS aren’t so much about being gay as they are about being young and pursuing love; that alternative element of their relationship is just another characteristic and, especially with this being a collection of “speculative fiction,” a homosexual predilection is probably the most mundane “demon” these teens are confronting. The sexual orientation itself is always secondary, allowing these delightfully real characters to face the unexplained, encountering and embodying a transforming yearbook, bloodthirsty killers, magic maidens, changelings, fairy folk, ghosts, and a French speaking tooth sprite, among others.

 

The characters also face real world, contemporary problems like depression, bullies, school projects and parents with cancer. These are the kids I wished I went to school with. And these are the kinds of stories I wish I had available as a teen reader. And though the collection is marketed as a young adult title, to pass it up because you’re no longer a youth is to miss reliving some of your favorite firsts: first love, first dance, first kiss.

 

Young adult literature being marked as a “fiction of firsts,” in an interview published online at the Out in Print blog run by Jerry Wheeler, Berman tells Gavin Atlas about the attraction of writing for and about young people: “Think of how many new experiences happen to us between the ages of fourteen and eighteen years old. … Writing about first time experiences is a powerful thing; it’s a greater impetus on the author than mere nostalgia,” Berman says.

 

And why decolonize the fairy tale?

 

In another interview, on the Chelsea Station Magazine website, Berman asks Will Ludwigsen, “What fairy tale can a gay or lesbian kid identify with? Cinderella? Who sweeps ashes anymore? Or wears glass slippers?”

 

Berman shares: “I wanted to tell stories that could happen now that dealt with cell phones and yearbooks and still have elements of the fantastical.”

 

And he’s done it. RED CAPS is a fantastic achievement, a collection of award-winning realistic and speculative, and yes, also “gay,” stories that I think even my straight nephews and nieces would find themselves in. I found myself on every page. Like I said, it’s a book that I selfishly wish had been written thirty years ago when I was looking for myself in “Dynasty’s” Steven Carrington – I come much closer to the magical nerds I meet in RED CAPS.

 

The poet Robert Lowell wrote, “If youth is a defect, it is one that we outgrow too soon.”

 

Mark Twain told us, “Wrinkles should merely indicate where the smiles have been.”

 

Likewise, the young and old, loveable, fallible protagonists in Berman’s stories and Power’s novel remind us not to get stuck in the messy middle.

Chip Livingston.hedshot. photo by Gabriel PadilhaChip Livingston is the author of the story collection, NAMING CEREMONY (2014), and two collections of poetry, CROW-BLUE, CROW-BLACK (2012) and MUSEUM OF FALSE STARTS (2010). His work has appeared in Ploughshares, New American Writing, Court Green, Mississippi Review, and on the Poetry Foundation website. Chip teaches creative writing in the low-rez MFA program at Institute of American Indian Arts. Visit his website at http://www.chiplivingston.com.

 

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