Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

"Treasure in the Ground": Notes Towards Day 13 (Oct.18)

Anne Dalke's picture


* Maia is placing us in Taft Garden
Melinda will select a site for Thursday
(near Jody's class, since we will join them
for a short movie and discussion @ the end of class...)
reminder to Han Bin re: report on yr selected site

welcome back!
how was break.....?

* Jody and I divvied up your proposals,
and responded to them on-line:
expect you to do 1-2 hrs/work each week on this;
can discuss in conferences

* writing conferences ALWAYS get messed up after break;
check the on-line schedule-->Irene, Cathy, Hanbin tomorrow morning;
Francesca (9:15?) and Maia (10:45?) on Thursday

* for Thursday's class,
please finish Parks' novel

* reminder that she'll be speaking @ 7:30 Thursday night in
McPherson Auditorium, Goodhart Hall, that I expect you to be there
(some of you to ask your questions!)--and that there will be a
dessert reception afterwards in Thomas Great Hall

* Your 7th 3-pp. paper is due this Friday @ 5 p.m.
This will be the first draft of a two-week project.
You've already begun to think about questions you want to ask S-L Parks,
and we'll talk about these more today.
Your assignment for this paper will begin w/ a question you want to ask of the novel:
an analytical question that will take you into a deeper understanding of the work.
For Thursday's class, come with your question and three places in the novel that you have marked,
which you might work with to explore this question. It should be a question you don't know
the answer to, but are really curious about. The novel doesn't have to give you a single answer,
but you should be able to use it to help you explore the issues/aspects/characters that
you are curious about. We'll do a full-class writing workshop with some of these.

One possibility might be to read it through the lens of Pratt, Butler, LeGuin, me ("slipping"),
the articles on play or the market...another would be to dig into a concept within the text
(Billy becoming her mother, "getting her body," the idea of a "hole," etc...)

questions about this?

* also a reminder that we're cancelling class next Tuesday (Oct. 25)
for a field trip, 3-7 p.m., to the Norris Square Neighborhood Project:
Latino Culture, Youth and Gardening, a profound (and profoundly
underfinanced!) site where shifting identities and altering environments
meet, a visible example of many of the questions we'll be exploring from
here on out. (My daughter Marian is the landscape and garden coordinator
there; we will be given a tour by several h.s. interns who work w/ her,
and then have a conversation w/ them; some of them may have
questions about college access for you...)
I'm expecting everyone to go on this trip; you need to tell
me today if that will be a problem for you (make-up work?)

II. Getting Mother's Body
We'd asked you to post last night some initial reactions to Park's novel.

Turn to the person next to you, share what you wrote
(missing 5 of these--Cathy, HanBin, Morine, Rachel, Toni).

Let's now go round, and hear where/how each of us is entering the novel;
we'll have to table some of these questions 'til we've all read more of the book,
but I'm hoping to build a large-group discussion around some of these initial reactions.
A reminder, as we do this, that we're all practicing listening:
really trying to hear what each of us is saying,
thinking about where that might be coming from...

Then: What are your reactions to others' reactions?

(not more about what you said, but responding to what your classmates noticed...)

To close:
What questions do we have going forward?
What do we want to ask S-L Parks on Thursday night?

Some notes for possible use:

Parks explains in an interview that this novel is
"a deep and reverent bow to William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, which also has characters on a journey dealing with a dead relative. So many of my plays have been about the dead. But the novel was really born in the landscape of West Texas, where we spent time when my father was with the Army in Vietnam. I love the big sky and arid landscape of that place. The characters came out of that landscape and the story came out of those characters. Then there was Faulkner's novel, which I had read eight years before."

So though it wasn't initially on our syllabus--we're featuring it because Parks is coming this week, so it's a great chance to talk to an author!--it fits beautifully into the concept of our course, about the interrelationships of identity and environment.

Parks is primarily a playwright, and this novel has many qualities of a play. A NYTimes reviewer wrote, "Parks brings a dramatist's skills to her fiction...she loves the sound of people's voices...knows how a conversation pings idly back and forth between two people sitting on a porch in the kind of town where when you want to know the time, you look up at the sun. And she understands how characters drive a story, how their desires propel them into conflicts that form scenes and how each scene kicks the story farther along, making it feel inevitable."

Another critic said that theĀ  novel's prevailing question of inheritance is not whether Willa Mae's treasure is buried with her (since we already know that Dill has taken it), but rather whether Billy will turn out like her mother. ''I don't favor no Willa Mae,'' she insists.

Reading notes from "Equation for Black People Onstage":
* a refusal to be " a singular mode of expression";
"the Klan does not always have to be outside the door..."
* "what happens when we choose a concern other than the race problem to focus on?
...the realm of situations showing African-Americans in states other than the
Oppressed by/Obsessed with 'Whitey' state...where audiences are encouraged
to see and understand and discuss these dramas in terms other than that same old shit"
* "The-Drama-Of-the-Black-Person-as-an-Integral-Facet-of-the-Universe"
* "...encouraging myself to listen to the stories beyond my default stories..."
* "we African-Americans should recognize this insidious essentialism
for what it is: a fucked-up trap to reduce us to only one way of being..."

The Role/Effect of Humor here?
(@ least) two effects (from a long-ago class on "Thinking Sex":
preservative (defuse situation/preserve status quo), and/or
revolutionary (call up its unstability/unsettle its presumptions).
Parks says humor happens when you "get out of the way," that
laughter is a very powerful way (not of escaping but) of arriving on the scene
How is it functioning for you in the novel?

What are your reactions to Dill/the presentation of Dill?
Terrell Tebbetts, "Treasure in the Ground: Getting Mother's Body's Dialogue with As I Lay Dying": In a move unrelated to plot but central to theme, Parks makes the Beedes' neighbor Dill Smiles a hog breeder. Dill has allowed her breeding sow named Jezebel to farrow in her own bed. The would-be patriarch has unknowingly found the perfect imitation of the patriarchal role: she owns a female, breeds it, owns its offspring, and uses them for her own profit. Dill is a man-woman participating in the patriarchal system of comodification.

The question of form:
Suzan-Lori...was eager to distinguish her work in style from the more familiar domestic conventions of say, Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun....Maybe that was because her teacher at Mount Holyoke was Jimmy Baldwin, the author of a famous essay called "Everybody's Protest Novel," in which he criticized...belligerent ideologizing in some black fiction writing....Parks's writing has always been as much a product of Western postmodernism as of African-American consciousness and the black experience, an unusual amalgam of the two. In this she had a literary prototype in Adrienne Kennedy, one of the earliest African-American women writers with more on her mind than race. "It's insulting," Suzan-Lori once said at a public symposium. "It's insulting when people say my plays are about what it's about to be black, as if that's all we think about, as if our life is about that. My life is not about race. it's about being alive." And she added, "Why does everyone think white artists make art and black artists make statements? Why doesn't anyone ask me ever about form?"....Parks had been carefully schooled in the formalist breakthroughs of the postmodern school. Like other members of that movement, notably Gertrude Stein in The Making of Americans....for example, she is very preoccupied with deconstructing the English language....And she is deeply concerned with identity and how the presence of the Other helps both to define and to obscure our sense of ourselves....her work has been influenced a lot by music, both jazz and classical, from which she derives her concept of what she calls "repetition and revision"--that is to say, revisiting and revising the same phrases over and over again....But it cannot be denied that Suzan-Lori is also writing plays about race. (2004 Hunter College Symposium)

The question of an "equation" (from "Elements of Style":
badmath: x+y=meaning, ability to make simple substitions, clarity;
characters [misread] as symbols for obscured meaning rather than simply thing itself;

cf. NYTimes Review: "as with a lot of contemporary American plays, there's not much more than meets the tissue of imagery or ideas underneath the surface of this novel, nothing that repays the effort of rereading, even if the first time around the book is lots of fun. As refreshing as it is to encounter characters who want things, and badly, Parks hasn't endowed Billy Beede and her family with all the complexities and contradictions of real people. Their personalities are organized around fairly simple its preoccupation with family power struggles and legacies...nuance is not its strong suit.

Neither is any sense of mystery. The absence of such spooky moments in Getting Mother's Body makes all those echoes of As I Lay Dying -- a novel animated by weird, elemental forces and really not a work to which any first-time novelist wants to invite a reader's comparison -- even more bewildering. Faulkner's vision has been rendered by Parks into something considerably less rich and strange, an uninspiring destination, however enjoyable the trip."