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Florence in Words

On Louise Meriwether

For Feminist Press author Louise Meriwether's ninety-third birthday this week, the Borough of Manhattan's President, Gail Brewer, declared the day to be Louise Meriwether Appreciation Day, and presented her with a beautifully painted plaque detailing some of her accomplishments, The audience of nearly 100 of Louise's fans, young and older, black and white, enjoyed the party at CUNY's Graduate Center, drank the bubbly, ate the birthday cake, and, most of all, took their places before the audience and the camera, all wanting to say what Louise meant to them. Yes, it went on for hours. And,yes, The Feminist Press at CUNY, who had arranged the party, sold copies of Daddy Was a Number Runner to people who knew the book but were buying for their grandchildren!!! I want to acknowledge Cheryl Hill, the new director of the Harlem Film Company, for inviting me to speak. This is what I said.

Exactly forty years ago, the Feminist Press republished Daddy
Was a Number Runner
by Louise Meriwether, allowing me forever after to call myself Louise’s publisher as well as her friend. I was betting on a winner. In 1970, when it was first published, Publisher’s Weekly said the novel “breathes reality and heartbreak…A rough, tender, bitter novel of a black girl struggling towards womanhood and survival.” Paule Marshall, who reviewed the novel in 1970, praised the novel’s “vitality and force behind the despair.” She continues, “It celebrates the positive values of the black experience: the tenderness and love that often underlie the abrasive surface of relationships…the humor that has long been an important part of the black survival kit, and the heroism of ordinary folk.”

As publisher, I was smart enough to include a short essay by James Baldwin, also published in 1970. He writes: “We have seen this life from the point of view of a black boy growing [up]…[but] I don’t know that we have ever seen it from the point of view of a black girl on the edge of a terrifying womanhood.”

I also decided to invite the black critic and professor, Nellie McKay, who was at the University of Wisconsin, to write an Afterword. It, too, is worth the price of admission. (And it’s one of the great pieces of criticism we have from Nellie, who died young of pancreatic cancer.) Nellie McKay sees the novel not only as “well-crafted,” but also as “captur[ing] the essence of a historical time and place in the experience of black people.” She sees the book as a “tribute to poor, uneducated, black women, who, through centuries of watching their men being ground down by poverty and racism, continue to live each day with the assurance that conditions will improve. Expecting little for themselves, not from lack of self-worth, but because they understand the politics of race, gender, economics, and power, they scrub floors, wash windows, and absorb racist and sexist insults, so that their children can have better lives than their own.”

When the twelve-year old Francie says she wants to be a secretary, her teacher tells her that she should be setting her sights towards cooking, sewing, or domestic work. Francie has not seen a black secretary or teacher, but the novel makes clear that she sees sex workers, the daughters of neighbors, on the street daily. One more note about this novel that I believe all of you should read, especially if you are concerned about the sexual abuse of children. This is a fact of life Francie has to deal with every day, not only from perverts who follow her into the movies or onto the roof of her building, but even from an occasional Jewish merchant. No, this child does not tell her parents. Somehow she suspects that telling them would result in catastrophe for the family. Somehow, she knows that she must deal with the abuse through wit and ultimately with the aid of a strong kick, and in the novel, she knows that other girls her age do as well.

Still, how can I claim this is a comic novel, and one that will hearten your belief in the strength of humankind, in the strength of what Louise calls, as the subtitle of the novel, “Yoruba’s children?” The sharing from family to family, and from those that have to those that don’t; the grief expressed not only for one’s family but for one’s neighbors; and the strength of all who can sometimes find it possible to laugh rather than cry over their losses. One person who helps Francie’s family is her mother’s sister, who is unmarried and hence could independently decide to take full time employment as a domestic in a white family. She uses some of her money to help her sister and to treat her children when they come to see her. She certainly brightens Francie’s days from time to time.

(Reading the novel again this weekend, I was reminded of my father’s asking me many times about whether I had dreamed a number the night before, and at least once or twice I could remember giving him one and feeling very excited about it. Though I didn’t understand what the dream had to do with anything, I heard my mother’s crying when my father arrived with very little cash, having lost his money on an unlucky number. And I remember also the time he could pull off a $100 dollar bill to pay for a coat he wanted to buy me for my thirteenth birthday.)

I want to conclude by mentioning a screen play Louise has written that would make a fine film. Perhaps there is someone here who has the clout to look at that. And of course there is Louise’s new work. At 90 she began to write a new novel and though I’ve not seen any of it yet, I’m betting on her. She is my role model, and if you are looking for a role model, I may be willing, in the spirit of Francie’s family and other members of Yoruba’s children, to share her with you.
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Homage to Kazuo Ishiguro

I read Ishiguro’s first novel, A Pale View of Hills, as part of the course on “Memory in Fiction and Film” taught by Professor Robert White, last fall at Hunter College. As I’ve noted in other blogs, I’m a very fast reader, and with dense fiction, such rapid reading may cause me to lose significant detail. I get the outline, but I may be, in the end, puzzled because I’ve missed a clue here or there. And so I had to read A Pale View of Hills a second times time more carefully, in order to note, several pages before the end, a clue that firmly establishes the narrator as “unreliable.” She was, herself, responsible for the death of her own daughter. This shocked me as an allegedly reliable reader, and it also made me wonder about Ishiguro as a novelist. What is he really after?

So I bought two other novels. The Remains of the Day, well-known also as a successful film (which I had not seen), also has at its heart another kind of unreliable narrator, one who is so focused on his correct working behavior as butler in an important British house that he closes his mind not only to the politics of his employer, but even to the suffering of his own father. The novel also moves forward through the memory of the narrator, who unevenly understands the import of what he had once closed his mind to.

Never Let Me Go is a dystopian novel, set in a community of children seemingly without parents, given an idyllic education with recreational features, as though to produce well-rounded citizens. They are eventually told that they were being prepared to be organ-donors and the “carers” for other organ-donors. Again, memorable moments in the novel arise from memories of questions left unanswered, or answered partially, the chief of which has to do with the possibility of escaping their chosen fate.

Still unsatisfied, still wanting more, when next in a book store, I picked up When We Were Orphans, and in some ways, this novel may answer some of my questions about Ishiguro’s view of what he is doing. I mean general questions like “What is it that Ishiguro wants his readers to think about, to understand, to gain comfort from, or feel endless pain about?” I have had this sense from the beginning, especially since the first novel I read, A Pale View of Hills, was set mainly in a Japan following the two bombings, and only sideways and most indirectly focuses on a mother’s inability to deal with the suicide of a young daughter. In some ways similarly, in When We Were Orphans, the novel I’ve just finished, the young British boy who grows up in an idyllic Shanghai with idyllic parents and even an idyllic Japanese friend close to his age, becomes a world-famous detective, able to solve important international cases. Can he, in war-torn Shanghai find his parents who disappeared almost two decades ago? Can he find his boyhood Japanese friend? And how much responsibility has to be placed on the British for the destructive opium trade. This novel strikes me as more ambitious both politically and structurally than any I’ve read thus far. I am also certain that the plot pushed me to read too quickly. I am going to read this novel again, for I’m certain I need to.

And I am writing these notes very quickly, in the hope of finding others who enjoy Ishiguro’s fiction and would be willing to write about one or another of his novels, or about a theme. I’d be glad to give space to a brief or several page-long essay about some aspect of Ishiguro’s fiction, or to a comment about what I’ve said here, too quickly and too briefly. Read More 
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