Professional Connection Column
Kathleen Carico, Editor
Critical Essays about Two Books in the Greenwood Press "Critical Companion" Series
Susan Elkins and John Nicklas
In this column, two colleagues share reviews of two books in a series called Critical Companions to Popular Contemporary Writers. The series features books about best-selling writers who have written several successful novels, many of which are on the crossover list of adult/young adult books. For example, works from Amy Tan, Dean Koontz, Michael Crichton, V.C. Andrews, Barbara Kingsolver, and Anne McCaffrey are often cited as favorites among young adults, and these authors are among the over thirty authors featured in the series.
Books about Jamaica Kincaid and Rudolpho A. Anaya are featured in this column. Susan Elkins' review of Jamaica Kincaid gives us a valuable summary of and reflection on the content of this volume about Kincaid's life and works. Susan's review also clearly shows the frame for all of the books in the Critical Companion series: a biography of the author, a chapter on the literary context of the author's works, a series of chapters each analyzing several of the author's best known works, and a helpful bibliography of related works and secondary sources.
John's review takes a different approach. Currently teaching 8th grade, John uses Anaya's Bless me, Ultima, in his classroom, and, in his review, he shares the context of his classroom and the background of the unit in which he uses the novel. He then goes on to explain how the critical information in this volume informs his own teaching. Both Susan and John share what they found helpful in each of these two volumes. In so doing, they also reveal to us what is available in the entire "Critical Companion" series. -kc
Jamaica Kincaid: A Critical Companion
review by Susan Elkins
Paravisini-Gebert, L. (1999). Jamaica Kincaid: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, Professor of Hispanic and African Studies at Vassar College, contributes a useful volume to the "Critical Companion" series as she spotlights Jamaica Kincaid and her most recent writings: At the Bottom of the River (1983), Annie John (1985), Lucy (1990), and The Autobiography of My Mother (1997). With this volume, Paravisini-Gebert not only provides teachers with a wealth of helpful background information about Kincaid-a gutsy writer not always easily accessible to readers-but she also provides a glimpse into the Caribbean/West Indian culture, history, and landscape which foregrounds much of Kincaid's work.
As all volumes in this series do, Paravisini-Gebert's volume -rich with information drawn from interviews with Kincaid and other published writings-begins in chapter one with biographical information that highlights the adolescent experiences which shape-shift as subject, theme, symbol, and character in many of Kincaid's writings. Born Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson, Kincaid grew up in St. John's, the capital city of the Caribbean island of Antigua. A British territory that did not achieve political independence until 1981, Antigua underwent intense, foreign-controlled development of the tourist industry during Kincaid's childhood. As a result, Kincaid observed the disappearance of a native Antiguan culture as many Antiguans, including her own mother, adopted "Englishness." Kincaid's first published stories in 1978, "Girl" and "Antigua Crossings: A Deep and Blue Passage on the Caribbean Sea"-both included in the short story collection, At the Bottom of the River -evidence her resentment toward and rejection of what she perceived as "fostered racism." Ultimately, this meant the rejection of her mother, Annie Drew, as well, for Kincaid felt that her mother embraced English and European ideals of womanhood, ideals she deemed as "prudery."
Paravisini-Gebert further traces the dissolution of Kincaid's relationship with Annie Drew as she highlights Kincaid's reaction to losing her mother's sole affection after three younger brothers are born; Kincaid's isolated withdrawal into a lifelong love of reading; her rudeness toward those who imposed the colonial life on her, especially her teachers; and, finally, her eventual departure from the island in 1965. Paravisini- Gebert explains that the weak relations between Kincaid and her mother, Kincaid's "adolescent impatience" and her stepfather's illness (which prevented him from working and forced Kincaid to leave school so she could help take care of her younger brothers) provided the impetus to send Kincaid to the United States to work as an au pair for a well-to-do family in New York. It is in New York, then, where Kincaid meets New Yorker writer Michael Arlen and begins to publish short stories about the Antiguan life she left behind.
In chapter two, Paravisini-Gebert continues by explaining Kincaid's unconventional path to writing fame, as she high-lights Kincaid's body of work. She begins with Kincaid's fictional autobiography, an oxymoronic, but apt, description as Paravisini-Gebert explains the most intriguing aspect of Kincaid's work as the "close connection existing between autobiography and fiction, particularly as [she] often offers both fictional and nonfictional versions of the same autobiographical episodes, allowing the reader to determine the closeness of the relationship between the two"(25). Thus begins Paravisini-Gebert's descriptions of Kincaid's many and varied works, e.g., At the Bottom of the River , Kincaid's first book of short stories, including "Girl"; Annie John , considered one of the best examples of the Caribbean bildungsroman tracing Annie's adolescence in Antigua; A Small Place , a biting non-fictional critique of the corrupt and poorly-managed Antiguan government; Lucy , another narrative work which picks up with Annie once she is in the United States; The Autobiography of My Mother , a "pseudomemoir" portraying a "larger than life" father figure; My Brother , Kincaid's second book of non-fiction, which tells the story of her brother Devon Drew and his struggle with AIDS, and most recently, In the Garden , a series of essays on gardening. Finally, in this chapter, Paravisini-Gebert points out some of the major themes of Kincaid's work, including the question of how to define and rewrite post-colonial West Indian history and culture, the relationship between the powerful and the powerless, and the necessary severance of mother/daughter ties as symbolic of Antigua's movement toward independence.
In chapters three through six, Paravisini-Gebert delves deeper into Kincaid's writings by focusing, story-by-story or chapter-by-chapter, on such elements as narrative point of view ( At the Bottom of the River ), genre, plot development, setting, character development ( Annie John, Lucy ), and theme. Too, Paravisini-Gebert provides what I think is one of the most helpful aspects of this series, alternative readings of each of Kincaid's works. In his recent book, Interpreting Young Adult Literature: Literary Theory in the Secondary Classroom , John Moore explains:
We can help our students understand what it means to know literature differently if we value multiple readings (or interpretations) over a single authoritative reading. Literary theory helps us understand that there are many ways to know texts, to read and interpret them . . . We need to expand our students' understanding of how they read; we need to teach students how to 'develop and defend their own interpretations.'(4)
In providing these alternative readings, Paravisini-Gebert complements pedagogical strategies for teaching literature, as well as student understanding that there are multiple ways of knowing/reading. For At the Bottom of the River and Lucy , Paravisini-Gebert provides a feminist reading, focusing on the works of Nancy Chodorow and Elizabeth Spelman as she explores the mother/daughter relationship and the postcolonial critique of feminist thought. For Annie John , Paravisini-Gebert offers a genre-theory reading which discusses and attempts to clarify the work's classification as a work of nonfiction. Finally, for The Autobiography of My Mother , Paravisini-Gebert offers a postcolonial reading as she looks at the decolonization theorist Frantz Fanon's presence in this work's character of Xuela and her ultimate rejection of Fanon's belief that political action brings liberation.
The volume ends with an extensive bibliography that includes titles of works by and about Jamaica Kincaid, interviews, recordings, and related works.
In her article, "Experience and Acceptance of Postcolonial Literature in the High School English Class," Patricia F. Goldblatt explains that as a speaker at Toronto's International Festival of Authors, Kincaid presented herself as "displaced . . . always travelling and seeking a place called home, but returning to [my] birthplace, only to leave again." Goldblatt ponders whether Kincaid and other postcolonial African writers she teaches (Mukherjee, Slovo, Achebe) are intriguing to her students because of their "restlessness, this constant seeking but never securing their roots" (76). Although I have never taught/read Kincaid's works to/with my ninth graders, I see great value in doing so in the future, especially with the aid of Paravisini-Gebert's extensive literary analysis. Paravisini-Gebert captures the restlessness of Kincaid, as pondered by Goldblatt, and helps the reader understand some of the underpinnings for that restlessness. Adolescents, especially, are restless and are constantly searching for, questioning, and rejecting their roots. Too, because Kincaid's work is largely autobiographical in nature, her works as explained and highlighted by Paravisini-Gebert , could serve as catalyst and mentor for students' own autobiographical writings. Carolyn Barros calls on Roland Barthes, a linguistic theorist and semiotician, when she says:
. . . narrative is simply there like life itself . . . international, transhistorical, transcultural . . . and might well be considered a solution to a problem of general human concern, namely, the problem of how to translate knowing into telling, the problem of fashioning human experience into a form assimilable to structures of meaning that are generally human rather than culture-specific. (5)
Through discovery and exploration of Kincaid's writings, as well as through writing their own personal history narratives, students could write about what makes them different from and similar to the girl whose voice they hear in Kincaid's writings-a voice they will come to understand more deeply and more appreciatively through Paravisini-Gebert's beneficial addition to the "Critical Companion" series.
Works Cited by Elkins
Barros, Carolyn A. Autobiography: Narrative of Transformation . Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1998.
Goldblatt, Patricia. "Experience and Acceptance of Postcolonial Literature in the High School English Class." English Journal , 88 (1998): 71-77.
Moore, John Noell. Interpreting Young Adult Literature: Literary Theory in the Secondary Classroom . Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1997.
A Resource for Teachers:
Rudolpho A. Anaya: A Critical Companion
review by John Nicklas
Olmos, M. F. (1999). Rudolpho A. Anaya: A Critical Companion . Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Many of us who teach middle school students can see evidence every day that young adolescents are in a unique phase of change in their lives. After leaving elementary school many begin forming cliques, seeking out other students with similar interests, or vying desperately to become part of a perceived "cool" or "popular" group. Too often, undue attention is placed on appearances, and middle school children begin to develop an adult awareness of the differences between people without the adult understanding of the more important similarities that bind us together. Different begins to be a negative characteristic that often leads to segregation or ostracism in high school. Yet most of the middle school students with whom I work have not yet lost their faith in the more positive aspects of the world, and seem to be at a stage in their lives in which they can learn better ways to see their world and interact with others.
The typical class I teach in my school breaks down demographically to 83% white, 8% black, and 9% various other cultures including Asian, Iranian, and Indian. Our school is further diversified through the inclusion of special education students in the regular classroom. Resource teachers are available to aid in the creation of differentiated curricula to meet the needs of these academically diverse classrooms that can range in one room from gifted to severe LD and even autistic. By the time they reach 8th grade, most students who have spent their lives in this county become accustomed to the diversity our system provides, creating an openness to new ideas and paving the way for a more serious look at socially constructed values that can impede communication between people of different cultures.
To take advantage of the students' backgrounds and this particular time of openness in their lives, I teach a multiethnic literature unit that focuses on teens with different ethnic backgrounds growing up in America, dealing with typical teenage problems, and as overcoming the obstacles of discrimination. This is a cross-curricular diversity unit that emphasizes the American citizenry of the characters, rather than the inherited ethnicity. The ethnic background is not neglected, however. I include a focus on the ethnic background of the characters with two purposes in mind: 1) To foster understanding of the impact of culture on our lives, illustrating particularly how that culture has the power to separate us from each other if we do not understand and value it; and 2) To highlight the similarities that connect us to each other despite our various cultural backgrounds.
I have collected a diverse selection of literature for young adults available to meet this goal, such as Shadow Brothers by AE Cannon , April and the Dragon Lady by Lensey Namioka, Candle in the Wind by Maureen Wartski, Children of the River by Linda Crew, and Dangerous Skies by Suzanne Fisher Staples. These and other novels I use give students an opportunity to learn more about the ethnic customs that are not familiar to them, and, more importantly, to recognize and relate to these characters as American teens dealing with many of the same problems they do. To be able to see that a character thinks and feels the way they do helps de-mystify the strangeness of "different" and emphasizes the security of "similar."
Problems I have faced in the past with this unit have had to do with the serious paucity of stories about teens with particular ethnic backgrounds in young adult literature. The challenge in my room is always to have diversity among the diverse. I constantly seek good novels about various ethnic backgrounds that would fit a variety of reading skills and interests, from high ability to low. Recently, I have noticed a glut of books about Asian teens, so many in fact that I have slowed my purchase of these titles so as not to risk that my multiethnic unit will take on a singular focus. The smallest section of my classroom library is the Hispanic/Chicano collection. Bless Me Ultima is one such book that fits well into my unit, but I tend to reserve it for my higher ability students, and even then, it can be a struggle. Therefore, I was very excited to discover Rudolpho A. Anaya: A Critical Companion , by Margarite Fernandez Olmos, which I saw as promising to at least partially fill the hole in Hispanic literature in my classroom by helping make Bless me, Ultima more accessible to my students.
Bless Me, Ultima is about a young Chicano boy growing up in the plains of New Mexico. The cultural landscape is rich with the heritage of two sides of the boy's family, the structure of the Catholic church, and the mysticism of an old woman named Ultima.
The difficulties students typically face when reading Bless Me, Ultima have to do with the strangeness of the Chicano heritage in our southwest, the lifestyle on the llanos , the Spanish words peppered throughout the story, the extraordinary symbolism meshed in the landscape, the boy's struggle for identity, and the differences in the childhood experiences of the story's characters. Yet, the goal of the unit is to get them to be more inquisitive about different cultures, to look past the facade of difference that can obscure the individual identity, and somehow find the similar. Therefore, I have found Bless me, Ultima to be an excellent book for this purpose. However, I have also found myself stumped as to how to deal with the few pesky problems that might turn a student off from an otherwise wonderful story.
The book gives invaluable information about the author and his story that helped me, as a teacher, piece through the more difficult aspects of the book and use my new understandings to shape my lessons. For example, Olmos has included a wonderful quote from the author on the first page: "Writing for me is a way of knowledge, and what I find illuminates my life" (1). I present this to students, then change "writing" to "reading," and I have their purpose for the reading Ultima : to let the knowledge they glean from the book illuminate their life. Sure, I could have said it, but they seem to pay better attention when the author says it for me. It is a connection between the book and them that they seem to value, and it begins the reading on a positive note.
Olmos goes on to give biographical information on Anaya's life, which mimics closely the boy Antonio's life in Ultima , offering yet another connection that can tie the student into the story. We learn that Anaya's struggles as a teen of ethnic background in high school are exactly what our unit is all about. And information about the Chicano culture, the least represented of the diverse backgrounds in our area, helps clear up students' misconceptions about the culture.
A Critical Companion then goes into a more in-depth study of each novel produced by Anaya. The section for Ultima is rich with material a classroom teacher can use. Topics include Narrative Strategy, Setting, Cultural Context, Language, Dream Symbolism (thank you!) Plot Development, Characterization, and Themes. Although each topic was informative to me, I will briefly discuss symbolism, a concept I have not found easy to teach to my middle school students. Unlike the high school classic Moby Dick , where symbolism is obvious (you can't turn your head on the Pequod without bumping into a symbol), symbolism in Ultima is one of the more confusing aspects of the book for my students. Because symbolism is so important to understanding the conflict within Antonio as he struggles for his identity, I have struggled to make it clear. A Critical Companion addresses my problem: Olmos identifies the major symbolism present in the novel and ties it straight to the evolvement of Antonio's character.
Feedback from students regarding their reading of Ultima has been positive. When students complete their evaluation at the end of the unit, they appeared to have generally enjoyed the story. One student said he chose the book because " it was about a Chicano family and it told about how Hispanics live in New Mexico. When I looked through the book and saw that some of the dialogue was in Spanish, it pulled me into reading the book." When asked what he had learned about people with different ethnic backgrounds, he responded, " I learned that no matter where you come from you will have family problems. People are usually made fun of because of their skin color, hair style, and accent. People are judged today more on their ethnic background than on their personal self."
Another student who read Ultima wrote, "This book was hard to follow because of the fighting between the two families and the debate about Catholicism." Despite that, he went on to write, ". . . To tell you the truth I loved this novel. I was sort of in a zone. I couldn't stop reading." When asked what he had learned, he replied, "I learned that even though people have the same ethnic background they can still have great conflicts. Also that most ethnic backgrounds have a lot in common with everybody else. People from different cultures can be very similar to me. I learned that I enjoy reading and learning about other cultures. I think I've re-found my love of reading."
A high level of interest from the students is important in a unit such as this, and the selection of novels used must be just as important. As the middle school curriculum changes to meet the needs of our millennium teenagers, sources for the classroom will need to keep pace. The benefit of resources like Olmos' A Critical Companion enable the classroom teacher to keep the expectations high, use literature that may fall outside the structure of the typical national curriculum, and build strong literary concepts in our students. If only someone had time to produce one of these for all the novels we use!
Works Cited by Nicklas
Cannon, A.E.. The Shadow Brothers . New York: Laurel Leaf, 1992.
Crew, Linda. Children of the River . New York: Laurel Leaf, 1991.
Namioka, Lensey. April and the dragon lady . Orlando: Harcourt, Brace & Company. 1994.
Staples, Suzanne Fisher. Dangerous skies . New York: Harper Trophy, 1996.
Wartski, Maureen. Candle in the Wind . New York: Ballantine Books, 1995.
Susan Elkins is a former secondary English teacher currently pursuing her doctorate in English Education at Virginia Tech.
John Nicklas is an 8th grade English language arts teacher at Blacksburg Middle School in Blacksburg, Virginia.
Reference Citation: Elkins, Susan and Nicklas, John (2001) "No Need to "Critical Essays about Two Books in the Greenwood Press "Critical Companion" Series" The ALAN Review , Volume 28, Number 3, p. 65.