Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Book #26: Outlaw Women

"My children were of me alone, of the wild blood boiling along the earth, of me and all that lived; of none and of all.  Then I found I had Jewel."   -William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

I've been sleepless thinking about who my grandmother really was.  You see, I've been toying with writing a section of my novel in her voice.  Over the weekend, I had brunch with my dad and we listened to a tape recording of her talking about her childhood, the war, falling in love in an internment camp....  My dad made the tape during a trip to Cape Cod a few years ago, shortly before her Parkinson's got bad.  The tape intrigues yet frustrates me, because all the while I feel that my grandmother is trying to say what's expected of her.  She's trying to preserve for posterity an image of herself as the good daughter, the self-suffering wife, the devoted mother.

I long to gain access to the other side of her identity - the secrets and unspoken truths she harboured all her life.  The moments when she surprised herself by acting out of character.  What she would say, if she could speak from beyond the grave.

This is the kernel imbedded in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, which I was reading over the weekend for the first time (even ex English profs haven't read everything by Faulkner).  It's the story of Addie Bundren on her deathbed and into the afterlife, told from the perspectives of fifteen different narrators, including her four legitimate children and one love child, Jewel.  Before dying, she expresses her wish to be buried in her hometown, Jefferson, Mississippi, and the novel chronicles her family's efforts to honour that wish, dragging her homemade casket by horse and carriage across the brutal landscape.  While all the narrators have their own unique ways of seeing Addie, the section where she reflects upon her life from beyond the grave makes all the other sections pale.  What we get is Addie's scathing denunciation of her marriage (which seems hardly more than a random occurence) and her ambivalent meditation on motherhood.  Motherhood seems to draw out her sadistic streak, and although she is possessive of her children, she is no less repulsed by them, a steady flow of babies who arrive without rhyme or reason.  Ironically, Jewel is closest to her heart, perhaps because he is the only one born of desire.  All these taboos are laid bare - with poignancy and beauty - in Addie's monologue.

I'm reminded of something Toni Morrison once said in an interview: "Outlaw women who don't follow the rules are always interesting to me, because they push themselves, and us, to the edge.  The women who step outside the borders, or who think other thoughts, define the limits of civilization, but also challenge it."  (No coincidence that Morrison wrote her master's thesis on Faulkner).

Listening to the tape of my grandmother, I find myself listening not so much to what she's saying as much as to her stammers, repetitions and evasions and I wonder what repressed "outlaw" possibilities they mask over.

Photo from: here


Naomi said...

Great blog! Characters such as Madame Bovary have always been fascinating because they became outlaw women. On the other hand my favourite Jane Austen's characters seemed to live in fear of becoming outlaw women!

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

I agree with you.... I still shudder to think what might have become of Marianne Dashwood if she hadn't come to her senses....

Naomi said...

Marianne could have ended up like Lydia Bennett unless saved by another Mr. Darcy-type character! What about Fanny Price's mother who married for love and fell well below her sisters' social circles?

Stephen and Janet Bly said...

What a treasure. . .that audio from your grandmother! Hope you get to write that story with her as the inspiration.

Janet Bly


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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.