Louise Erdrich’s Literary Children (Ploughshares)

My essay, “Louise Erdrich’s Literary Children” is now available on the Ploughshares blog here. Here is a little of what I discussed of my favorite novelist’s approach to children in her novels, especially The Round House and LaRose:

Erdrich’s most recent triptych of novels—The Plague of Doves (2008), The Round House (2012), and LaRose (2016)—all feature children more prominently than adults. In each case, children are confronted with a many-layered moral question that their experiences over the course of the novel will help them to process. Notably, adults do not offer clear moral guidance. They do not have all the answers, and sometimes their answers are even harmful because they lack awareness of the context surrounding the child’s concern.

The Round House, narrated in first person by teenaged protagonist Joe Coutts, asks urgently, “How should a son handle the violent rape of his mother?” From the first sentence onward, this question is implicit in every interaction, even before Joe knows his mother has been raped.

…Erdrich demonstrates her maturity as a writer by choosing not to rush through this cataclysmic event in the life of a family. She appreciates fully how a single event can trigger feelings that move both spatially (from person to person and place to place) and temporally (within the same person or place over time, even over generations). Continue reading…

As a writer and editor, I am continuously in awe of Erdrich’s ability to sustain moral complexity through the experiences of children without exploiting them or using them as passive carriers of adult ideals.

Christian & Buddhist Worldviews

My Q&A response on the Progressive Christianity website this month was a really tough question: Buddhists tend to think of God as a manifestation of creation; Christians think of God as separate from creation. Do you understand that distinction?

Buddhist and Christian concepts of creation span a full spectrum of beliefs, with some Buddhists even perhaps aligning more closely with some Christians than their fellow Buddhists, and vice versa. So what’s the best way to answer this? I opted to share two examples of a Buddhist and Christian mindset from famous novelists Yukio Mishima and Victor Hugo. Here’s an excerpt of my response, which you can read for free here. (Just scroll down past the locked Matthew Fox article.)

[In Mishima’s Spring Snow,] Honda envisions “God” is the inevitable forces of all reality, churning one impermanent feature into another, obliterating free will wherever it tries to assert itself as separate. It’s really important to understand that this is not a bad conclusion in Honda’s eyes even though he fights it emotionally. Actually, it perfectly foreshadows how his friend’s beautiful life will unfold again and again in each reincarnation across the series.

By comparison all the great drama and angst of Victor Hugo’s much beloved character Jean Valjean in Les Misérables depends very much on a vision of reality and God that accommodates free will. … Unlike Honda, Valjean’s whole existence rests precisely in what choice he makes for himself—to be the best or worst of men. It creates an expectation of judgment by a neutral force, outside the ordinary forces of reality: implicitly, God as represented by the good bishop.

What is clear to me when I read Mishima and Hugo as two compelling examples of Buddhist and Christian worldviews, is that we don’t get a “free pass” on difficult questions by picking one versus the other. Both require a form of rebirth and reckoning with ourselves and the world. It is a rich dialogue, to say the least.

“Autopsy of a Stillbirth” (Progressing Spirit)

I am grateful today to be sharing a poem from my growing Nag Hammadi collection in the Progressing Spirit newsletter (subscriber access only). Here is an excerpt from the poem, which juxtaposes some of the difficult experiences and questions around miscarriage with verses from the apocryphal Gospel of Truth:

You loved her.
The book of her life cannot be read with the naked eye.
Her holy Word, a folded wing, rustles between the atria.

This broken filament you place inside
your lover’s cavernous ventricle.
Together, you are defibrillating the dark matter.

Is she the voice of God?
You already know. Still, you trace her
through microscopes and hadron colliders,
listening for a wingbeat,
the First and the Last.

This poem, along with two other poems I drafted this week during a workshop at The Cabin literary center in Boise, have now raised the total pieces in this collection (tentatively titled Apocryphal Monologues) to nearly 20. However, I’m hoping to compose at least 5 to 10 more pieces before finding a publisher to give it a home.

“Drying Tatami” & “Failed Adoption” (Sweet Tree Review)

This month has been a busy month of poetry publications! Sweet Tree Review has published two of my poems, a concise prose poem called “Drying Tatami,” and also “Failed Adoption,” which is based on how I experienced our family’s failed adoption of two children in the 1990s. (This experience left such a strong impression, in fact, that my twin sister and I went on as adults to adopt — thankfully without the same heartbreaking result.)

What’s coming: In August I am anticipating several essay publications and at least one poem. I’m also hard at work on drafting a new novel set in mid-19th century rural Japan during the peak of Buddhist persecution. I expect to be working on this novel for the next year or so, but I’ll be sharing some of my research on the blog. There were moments during the 19th century when it appeared Buddhism might be scrubbed from Japanese identity. Sometimes I’m amazed at how it not only survived but even experienced a bit of a renaissance during this fascinating moment in Japan, when the country was opening up to the outside world for the first time in hundreds of years (or, more accurately, when Japan was becoming something that could even be called a modern “country”).

Drying Tatami

You lay out the rice straw on the suspension bridge to bind it. Every three
years, replace the wisteria. When the bridge sways, sag vine—slice…

Continue reading

Failed Adoption

It was snowing in Chicago when the plane landed,
must have been the time taken for the father
to walk two toddlers across a terminal

the same hour bitter-cold in Idaho,
and a pack of dogs in the sheepfold

It was intestines ballooning over wool, it was red on black gums
It was the ewe bleating against the cinderblock wall while the dogs tore while the mother stood for the tender thing
when she made for the door and for the propped gun…

Continue reading

Thank you, as always, for reading my work! You can read the full Summer 2017 issue of Sweet Tree Review here. I especially enjoyed the luminescent “Loss of Mass” by Steven Pan: Scientists once believed they / could weigh the human soul. / In the beginning, you were a / flush of frenzy and copper. / Now, time has decolorized / your fever.

Photo credit: “Iya Valley Vine Bridge,” © Karl Baron.

“Moscow” (Plath Poetry Project)

I am delighted to say that my poem “Moscow,” after Sylvia Plath’s “Berck-Plage,” is now available in the Plath Poetry Project’s June Retrospective.

Telescopic bulge, distended by water—
the waterpark slide has an unfocused blue glow.

Spigot for lollipop-yellow kids on plastic donuts,
one shot after another, film rippling under wrinkled feet.

Flash-flash the sky flares then flattens to slate.
A boy wipes his hand over it and starts again.

How do they find the courage to plunge and plunge?
I sweep chlorinated beads from my shoulder and swim doggedly…

Read the whole poem

About the Plath Poetry Project

Between April 1962 and February 1963, the final months of her life, Sylvia Plath separated from an adulterous Ted Hughes and moved with their young children to London. She experienced England’s coldest winter in 100 years, cared in isolation for her frequently sick children, and faced the underwhelming reception of her now-celebrated novel The Bell Jar. During that time she wrote 67 poems, including many that are widely regarded as her finest work. The record of this productivity, anthologized in sequence and with date-stamps in her Collected Works, shows the fluxing process of one of the greatest poetic minds of the 20th century.

The Plath Poetry Project was begun to encourage writers to engage with Plath’s work and follow her writing schedule between April 1962 and February 1963. Every day that she wrote a poem, the editors of the Plath Poetry Project post that poem and share prompts and encouragement. It is a great project for thinking about one’s own writing process.

(If you enjoy writing poetry personally or professionally, it’s not too late to get involved. You can subscribe for reminders and writing prompts, and to receive the monthly retrospective.)

“Dirge for Pronghorns Poisoned in the Harsh Winter” (Cirque)

My poem, “Dirge for Pronghorns Poisoned in the Harsh Winter,” has been published by Cirque Journal in Volume 8,2. Cirque is an Alaska-based journal that publishes writing and artwork from Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Here’s an excerpt and link to the full poem.

Like the grave prows of Norsemen cutting the sea to Valhalla, like the prows black and curled and caught in the wind, caught out-flung and glazed and held aloft by the freezing rain, fifty strong the black-browed pronghorns set out across the white hills, fifty strong the far-runners crossed the unbroken swells and pitched through snow as through sea froth left to freeze where it spilled—and bedded on an ice dam… Continue reading (p. 77)

This poem is based on an actual incident: fifty pronghorns died in Payette, Idaho, after consuming Japanese yew last winter. It was heartbreaking, and I felt I should find some way to honor the deaths of these beautiful animals. Thank you, as always, for reading my work.

Image: Pronghorn antelope at Gibson Lake in southern Oregon, not far from the borders of California and Nevada, seen in May of 2017. © LeeAnn McDonald, BLM

Chernobyl, Icon & Memory

My essay “Iconography of a Disaster: Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl” was published today on the Ploughshares blog. 

Narratives about catastrophic events tend to compress over time. Episodes come to be presented in a certain order, leading to a standard meaning that becomes iconic. Yet the iconic version of the story is not the factual version of the story. It is not an objective reality but a symbol, a form of shorthand, or, as the dictionary has it, “an object of uncritical devotion.” Continue reading

I hope you’ll read it. I’ve become curious about icons and memory, that is, how we come to cling to certain images that anchor our understanding of events. In the essay I look at how Nobel winner Svetlana Alexievich explores this idea through interviews with survivors and resettlers of Chernobyl after the nuclear reactor meltdown. 

What are your icons? How did they become your interpretive key for understanding the past? 

“Scar Tissue” (The Wild Word)

The Wild WordMy poem “Scar Tissue” is now available in The Wild Word Issue #17: FILTH. I approached this unique theme from the perspective of illness, in particular the death of my grandmother from appendix cancer.

To read the whole poem, click here, or read the excerpt below:

Before the industrial
revolution hospice meant rest
for any traveler.
Energy is involved now, a sweaty
sheen on the window pane,
the hum of the nurses’ bodies (the traveler
is cold to the touch but she breathes
in a plastic press [deflated but oxygen is flowing])

…………………………………

Signet cells kings’ rings gathered
and were scraped off the wall
of the abdomen with a needle.

The scar tissue knotted
inside her,
the salvific mouth tears
at her delicate intestinal
tissue. What healed her, the doctor explains,
is now starving her. What his knife
couldn’t penetrate
is the beneficence of the body…

…………………………………

Thank you for reading my work.

~Cassandra

Land, Family, Failure, Prayer

Yesterday my article “Land, Family, Failure, Prayer: Reflecting on Wendell Berry’s Farmers’ Manifesto” appeared in the Progressing Spirit newsletter. The full article is available, to subscribers only, here. You can also read Wendell Berry’s poem online here. It’s a wonderful (if challenging) poem, and I encourage you to read it.

An excerpt from the article appears below, with a few afterthoughts from me:

Farming is and always has been a way of life that benefits from inherited, localized knowledge. It does not reward the new and newfangled, although it does embrace mindful, grounded experimentation.

… In pre-modern (pre-capitalist) Japan you’d be likely to encounter whole villages made up of a single extended family or cluster of three to four extended families all working the same land. Longevity on the land was honored, with a line of distinction drawn between families who settled the land prior to reaching the land’s capacity for development and those who arrived after. The latter class of families was not allowed to develop new land and had to wait for a plot of land to open up in the natural ebb and flow of family generations before they were allowed to claim a spot. In the meantime, they earned their right to that land by working for the ancestral families, building up knowledge and experience, proving they could be trusted. Not coincidentally, new families were not permitted to invite the ancestral god of the village into their homes until they had lived as many as five generations there.

I continue to be awestruck by how drastically industrialization has transformed the meaning of family. True, it made possible the wonderful freedom of individuality–the ability to choose for oneself how one would like to live. That definition of individual freedom now presumes to be the American Dream rather than a larger, more complex dream achieved by families and communities together, in unity.

What I’m trying to say is that freedom too often comes at the expense of community. In particular, industrialization of society took away the ability of a community to count on a person belonging to it and therefore the ability to leverage the privilege to belong over against the need to pull one’s own weight. Now, because it is possible to opt out of one community and join another at will, all too often that is what we do. If we don’t like the rules, we leave. To refuse some freedoms and advantages for the sake of a community’s health is the mark of maturity in a person, yet the temptation to stretch for ever greater and greater freedoms is just so powerful!

So is there a happy medium between belonging as a non-negotiable in a community, and finding ways to overcome outmoded rules that unnecessarily oppress members of a community and threaten the vitality of it? How do we find a reasonable balance between freedom and belonging?

Sustainability as Community Practice, Not Individual Effort

Even in 1877, most rural areas of Japan committed no more than 12 percent of their agricultural output to cash crops. That means 88 percent of what they were growing in their fields was for subsistence—that is, for feeding their large families composed of both blood relations and married relations as well as multigenerational servants and tenants. This information, from Thomas C. Smith’s The Agrarian Origins of Modern Japan, is interesting not merely because it gives us a portrait of what “sustainability” looked like in communities before industrialization took hold but because it points to an oft-overlooked quality of sustainable agriculture: there is no such thing as food security unless the whole community is committed to it.

Over and over again, Smith’s research points to the mutual support offered by large family groups in order to survive. True, smaller branch families had to offer more labor to the head family in exchange for borrowing tools and resources (including water and fertilizer, both expensive commodities). But the head families also dedicated labor to the land of the branch families! This was especially true during planting season, Smith explains, when each field had to be planted in a window of a few hours, a day at most, so that the next field could be planted and the next and the next in quick succession, while the rice seedlings were in peak condition.

Today one can find all sorts of websites about sustainable farming, urban gardening, “bug-out” planning (in the event of a major crisis), and so on. After three years of working with these various resources and farming on my own quarter-acre lot for a family of four, I can tell you I am disturbed by one common and regular oversight that Smith’s research makes painfully clear: communities achieve sustainability, not individuals (or even, for that matter, nuclear families).

This is common sense. If I have a gorgeous garden and a field planted with crops and a pig, goat, and chickens when a true “bug-out” situation occurs, how long will I maintain those resources without violence? But what if I lived in a large complex of buildings and land with an extended family (loosely defined) upwards of 50 people? Even better, what if I live in a cluster of four or five such families, all of us managing land that has belonged to our collective families for a couple hundred years? How do the odds of survival look for each of these groups?

The struggle, then, is not so much in merely learning the physical skills of growing crops and raising animals and doing so consistently from season to season but also in learning how to coordinate these things across one’s family or chosen community. Among other things, ancient Japanese families dealt with these delicate social dynamics by employing the following strategies:

  • Selecting a clear leader who speaks for the family as a whole (but does not simply dictate decisions!)—often a leadership role that is inherited from parent to child
  • Consensus building in private before ever inviting public discussion, especially in front of outsiders
  • Correcting deviant and dangerous behaviors with successively harsher punishments: private warnings, public embarrassment e.g. by banging pots and pans outside the offending person or family’s house, all the way up to the harshest action of expelling a person or branch family from the community
  • Worshiping and carrying out shared religious rituals, in particular for a god associated with the family over many generations (that is, a god who was unique to the family and community, not a universal entity)
  • Trust graduated over generations of work on the land, so a latecomer family to a village might not be allowed to own land or place a statue of the family god in their home until the first arrivals were grandparents or even had already passed away

These practices reveal that sustainable lifestyles did not follow the trajectory of an individual human life or a single nuclear family’s life but rather it was a multi-generational and highly collaborative effort that required social skills, self-restraint, and the ability to take a long view of the impact of one’s actions on the land and the community.