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Can I Forgo Foregrounds?

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Emily Levine


Essay 9

Can I Forgo Foregrounds?

In 1980, Paula Gunn Allen wrote an essay,“Kochinnenako in Academe: Three Approaches to Interpreting a Keres Indian Tale.”  First she presented a Keres-tribalinterpretation, then a modern feminist interpretation and finally a hybrid ofthe two, what she calls a Feminist-Tribal interpretation. Within theseinterpretations, Allen seemed to form a model of the world, as she understandsit: a harmoniously balanced ecosystem with no foreground. The centrality ofwomen is a key motif in this ecosystem coexisting with an evenness ofrepresentation.  More specifically,men and women are represented evenly with no one gender more important orpowerful than the other, but the main lens of the story is that of the womanand therefore she, as the center of the story, connects all of the otherelements. In this model “there are no heroes, no villains, no chorus, nosetting…no minor characters” (Allen, 241); these are ideas that mirror the“structural framework” of tribal stories. This model is opposite to the“fictional form” of Western writing, with its “heroes, point of view, conflict,crisis, and resolution” (Allen, 242), which offers a misleading and culturallybiased perspective on the original story. Allen’s model describes the way she wantsthe world to be represented, with everything of equal importance workingtogether for some bigger purpose.

In the course of reading BarbaraKingsolver’s novel Prodigal Summer,which contains many of the same factors represented in Allen’s balanced modelof the world, I noticed that the structure of Allen’s essay does not actually reflectthe model it describes. There is certainly no harmonious balance within it andin fact, since she is arguing a thesis, she introduces conflict withininterpretation. Similarly, since she is interpreting the story, she isinevitably creating a foreground by picking and choosing points and giving herown opinion, which makes some aspects more important than others. While her ownanalytical essay may not have used this model, Kingsolver’s novel can bedescribed by it, as well as be used to challenge it as a model for any westernnovel.

The main similarity between Prodigal Summer and Allen’sinterpretation of the Yellow Woman stories is that the women are valued, andmore importantly that each woman is able to help create harmony and balance inher world. Many of the Yellow Woman stories “are about her centrality to theharmony, balance, and prosperity of the tribe” (Allen, 227). Similarly, thewomen have a central role in ProdigalSummer without being in conflict with the men. There is none of the powergradient a modern feminist might be looking for. Instead, the gender roles arebalanced and no character is more important than another. Prodigal Summer, like the Yellow Woman stories’ combines tribalbalance and gender focused feminism. For example, Deanna is at complete harmonywith her surrounding ecosystem. To her, no one living thing is more importantthan the other. Each organism works together in the web of predators and preyto balance the surroundings. She explains to Eddie Bondo why killing a predatordoes so much damage to an ecosystem: “One mosquito can make a bat happyfor…fifteen seconds before it starts looking for another one…but one bat mighteat two hundred mosquitos in a night…who has the bigger influence on otherlives?” (Kingsolver, 179). Deanna’s particular role in this ecosystem issimilar: she “preys” on the local hunters, preventing them from disturbing thisnatural harmony.

Lusa also thinks like the Keres. Throughthe course of her story, she comes to realize that the aspects of her life allfit together in harmony for some greater purpose. At first, after Cole dies,she does not know why she stays on the farm: “I was mad at him for dying andleaving me here, at first. Pissed off like you wouldn’t believe. But now I’mstarting to think he wasn’t supposed to be my whole life, he was just thisdoorway to me. I’m so grateful to himfor that” (Kingsolver, 412). Cole’s death leads Lusa to find a greater purposefor her life. She helps to balance out the lives of Cole’s relatives, planningto adopt her cancer-ridden sister-in-law’s children, and finding a way to keepthe farm in the family. Like Deanna, she accepts the role of predation in thegreater harmony of her world. For example, when she and Rickie spy a coyotewalking in the woods near Lusa’s goats, Rickie offers to go and get his riflebut Lusa tells him not to. When Rickie asks her if she knows what those thingseat, Lusa responds, “I imagine it could kill a goat, or a kid, at least…[don’t]you think it’s more likely to kill a rabbit or something?” Rickie asks if sheis “going to wait around and find out” and Lusa says, “I think I am. Yeah” (Kingsolver407-408). Lusa accepts that death and loss can happen and is comfortable withthis cycle of life, this bigger purpose.

There is balance and harmony in theoverall structure of Prodigal Summer, too. No one story is moreimportant than another; each is braided into each other evenly with no one maincharacter and no real crises. As Allen explained in her essay, in

tribal literatures, the timing of theforegrounding of various elements is dependent on the purpose the narrative isintended to serve…[tribal] tales will make a number of points, and a number ofelements will be present, all of which will bear some relationship to thesubject of the story…each of these elements will receive its proper due.(Allen, 241)

Kingsolversimilarly uses the balance of various elements to represent a larger picture ofeverything connected in some way. Besides weaving the plots of the threestories together, Kingsolver subtly repeats words and phrases to connect eachcharacter to the other. For example, Lusa and Deanna both get a glimpse of therare luna moth with its “pale-green” (Kingsolver, 65) wings, although theexperience means something different for each of the women. The most striking exampleof Kingsolver’s use of repetition with a difference is how she starts and endsthe novel. She uses the same imagery and phrases in the first and finalchapters:

But solitude is only a human presumption.Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life and underfoot; every choice is aworld made new for the chosen… if someone in this forest had been watchingher—a man with a gun, for instance, hiding inside a copse of leafy beechtrees—he would have noticed how quickly she moved up the path. (Kingsolver, 1and 444)

Onfirst reading, it is not completely clear who is being talked about; a secondreading suggests that the beginning chapter is about Deanna while the finalchapter is about a coyote. By relating the female figures so closely in symbolsand language, Kingsolver makes the point that they are similar, and connectedin the web of life.

ProdigalSummer, does not,however, entirely reflect tribal-feminist ideals. It is a Western fictional novel,and each of the three stories does represent a distinct point of view, that ofDeanna, Lusa, and Garnett, each experience internal conflicts. Deanna and Lusaare both indecisive about the right thing to do and who to trust. Should Deannakeep Eddie Bondo around? Can she believe what he says? Can Lusa forgive Cole’sfamily for the harmful things they said about her? Walker is stuck in hismemories, nostalgic for his dead wife, obsessed with Nannie’s new age organicways. These characters’ anxieties are very different from the Keres, who “canbest be described as a conflict-phobic people” (Allen, 238). Although Lusa,Deanna, Garnett and Nannie are not ever in an actual battle or fight, theirinternal conflicts sometimes lead to a clash of opinions and a quarrel. Deannaand Eddie Bondo have completely different views about coyotes. Eddie Bondoconsiders them an “enemy” from his experience on his family ranch and huntsthem (Kingsolver, 176). Deanna feels the need to protect coyotes from hunterslike him because she “[feels] like they should have the right to persist intheir own ways” (Kingsolver, 177). Deanna says to Eddie, “Don’t you get it? Tokill a natural predator is a sin” and he responds, “You’ve got your rules, I’vegot mine” (Kingsolver, 179). Garnett and Nannie argue daily about evolution andnature and have trouble seeing each other’s point of view: Nannie calls Garnetta “bitter old man” (Kingsolver 216) and calls her a “bra-burning Unitarian”(Kingsolver, 220). This name-calling highlights the difference between herevolutionary and his god centered world views. In these kinds of conflictingviews on the world, there is no harmony or balance of opinion and therefore no possibilityof “unified-field” (Allen, 244) of perception as in the Keres stories.

The complex character development in eachof the three descriptive plots also distinguishes Prodigal Summer from a tribal story. Kingsolver’s focus onindividual psyche is not tribal. The novel does not explain a ritual, as theYellow Woman stories do, or give a reason for why the world is the way it is asother myths do. This novel interweaves many intricate plots with threecomplicated characters, and provokes thought, interpretation, and manyquestions; in this way it contrasts with tribal narratives that offer simple explanationsfor a bigger idea through symbols and storyline. As Allen explains, the Battleof the Seasons story, for example, is “in reality a narrative version of aritual”; in general, most Yellow Woman stories “in their original form detailrituals.” An Anglo-European rendering of one of these stories would certainlyuse “classist, conflict-centered patriarchal assumptions as plotting devices”which would “dislocate the significance of the tale and subtly alter theideational context” of the ritual story (Allen 225-226). While Prodigal Summer may not containpatriarchal assumptions, it is still distinct from tribal stories because it containsa conflict-centered plot.

Allen explains that “traditional peoplesperceive their world in a unified-field fashion that is very different from thesingle-focus perception that generally characterizes western masculinist,monotheistic modes of perception” (Allen, 244). But, I have found that it isimpossible to write an interpretive essay which models Allen’s ecosystem,trying to interpret without foregrounding, and not to actually argue, but tocompare and contrast two equally represented opinions with one balancing theother is impossible. I have pulled out certain aspects of both Allen’s ideasand Prodigal Summer, isolating somepoints from others and thereby making those more important. I notice in myargument the same problem in Allen’s past essay. Structuring an argument in adifferent way does not hide the fact that I am still arguing different points.While I have successfully diminished the masculinist, monotheistic mode ofperception in my interpretation, I have failed to perceive the world of thisstory in a unified-field fashion. The only way for me to see the whole story onan equal playing field is to let it speak for itself: telling the story thatthe whole world is connected, forgetting the details and conflict, and forgoinginterpretations.


Works Cited:

Allen,Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recoveringthe Feminine in American Indian

Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1980.

Kingsolver,Barbara. Prodigal Summer. New York:Harper-Collins Publishers, 2001.