Asni: Multimedia Art & Design
Bees and Mockingbirds
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- In this newsletter:
- *** Living in the Wairarapa: Pleasant People
- *** News and Current Projects
- *** Cool Things Friends Do: Diane Severson Mori
- *** Bees and Mockingbirds
Living in the Wairarapa: Pleasant people
Home ownership seems to drag in its tow a whole ream of social interactions a renting person never has. Back when I was in the process of buying the place, I got to meet the good people at the South Wairarapa council, and a couple of the local property lawyers. The council people were great: When I commented on the lack of information in the property file, and confessed that it tickled my curiosity to find out how long the house had been there, and when the extension in the back of the house was added, the lady who deals with the property information offered to get me in touch with someone she knew who had lived there in the past. She was as good as her word: a few days later she called me up and gave me the name of a man who works at the local petrol station, and who apparently had grown up in this house. I am shamefaced to confess that between then and now, I still haven't managed to follow that up, but I will. One day. And I'll make sure to report!
I get calls from tradespeople who want to sell me stuff. I've been getting these calls ever since I lived here, mind you, but previously, when someone asked to speak to the home owner, I just told them I was renting, and hung up. The other day, someone called up to talk to the home owner about insulation. I thought, "hey, that's me!" – The government is offering a subsidy to get New Zealand homes better insulated. I thought, "hey, free money, I should check that out." New Zealand houses are conspicuous for being drafty, damp, and hard to keep warm in winter (though I'm happy to say my own house is probably the warmest and least damp I have lived in since I shifted to New Zealand, and *bless* my wood burner) – and the government has come to realize that this is actually taking quite a toll on people's health (I can vouch for that!), and hence the health services budget, as well as the productivity index. Good thing someone in the government does know some maths.
I set up an appointment to have the house checked out and get an estimate, but when the day came along I was busy with something or other, and clean forgot about it. The lady who had called me was persistent, and set up a second appointment. Same thing happened (I have leaky brain syndrome). But yes, she called up again, and set up a third appointment. The young man who came (after making the trip to Featherston once in vain) was seemingly not the least bit put out by it. He had a look under the roof, and among the pilings, then came to sit at my kitchen table, and while he was drawing up his estimate and telling me about the materials they use, we got to talking.
Having noticed that I work from home, he asked what I do, and when I said I design websites, he promptly said he was looking to have a new website done. When he left, he commented on my name – it was pretty, he said, and unusual. "Not where I come from", said I, and at the same time realized that unlike so many other people, he had not started the conversation with the perpetual question, "Where are you from". He then told me about his German-Samoan grandmother with the high cheekbones, who was a head taller than his Malaysian-Samoan grandfather. Gee, I thought, the German colonial effort. If this is what it amounts to in the end, I think I can live with that.
Perhaps that question, "where are you from?" really is some sort of indicator which allows me to estimate, early in the acquaintance, if it is going to be a worthwhile human relationship or not. People who I get along with, as a rule, don't ask. They most certainly do not insist otherwise, when I say "I'm from Featherston".
Come to think of it, nobody asked me that either at the Martinborough Mitre Ten, when I drove down there that same day, in order to acquire a new lawnmower. The electric lawnmower I bought only a few months ago on Trademe, while being nice and clean and quiet and easy to handle (all good), unfortunately wasn't quite up to the job. When it did a big smoke and stink over a spot of long wet grass I was trying to mow, and refused to start ever after, and the Carterton electrician charged me 30 bucks for telling me they couldn't fix it, I caved in and decided to get a petrol lawnmower after all. A new one, from the store! The cheapest one at Mitre Ten was only 100 bucks more than what I paid for that old thing. I have to admit, my lawn has been much tidier ever since.
The fellow who sold me the lawnmower quietly accepted that I was going for the cheapest model, and he didn't seem to feel that this decision entitled me to any less of his attention – he even thought he couldn't take a phone call the store manager handed to him, while he was getting the mower ready for me to take home. This in stark contrast to an experience I had recently at the Featherston train station, when the young lady at the ticket counter thought that her phone call was more important than selling me a ticket, while the train was already honking, about to pull into the station. There are only five trains a day. They come at scheduled times. One might have thought ... but oh well.
I assured the lawnmower man that I was not in a rush, and after he'd taken his call, I asked if he could also enlighten me on the subject of window paints while I was there, since I have a paint job to do at some stage – not during the winter rains, though! He pointed out a nice looking colleague as their expert on paints. This guy first offered to help me lift my new lawnmower into the back of my car, then got down on the topic of window paints, and other handy hints, in very great detail. Having exhausted the subject, but seemingly reluctant to part with the conversation, he then proceeded to gardening and weather patterns. I can't say that I minded terribly. You know, just when I thought I was *really* getting too old and fat for this!
He spoke with a Celtic accent which I couldn't pin down as Scottish, Irish or perhaps Welsh, but seeing as I am highly allergic to the "where are you from?" question myself, I avoid asking others under almost all circumstances. He eventually mentioned that he'd grown up in a rural area in Ireland, not unsimilar, in terms of weather, to the Wairarapa. I suppose I casually mentioned something about the weather in Germany. Then again, I guess walking into a hardware store in New Zealand, as a woman, AND making it clear that the items purchased are intended for one's own use, is the equivalent of wearing a huge big sign saying "single" in bright bold letters.
The lawnmower man winked at me, in a friendly way, as I left. I guess I should go and buy those window paints sometime. Maybe in spring.
New artwork: Fantastic Journeys: Coming Home :: inspired by Ursula Le Guin
News & Current Projects
This month, I've been able to wrap up (more or less) a couple of long term projects. First of all: another Earthsea – excuse me, "Fantastic Journeys" painting done! This is one out of two paintings I started before I had the exhibition at Thistle Hall in 2010, and didn't manage to finish in time.
The painting is inspired by a scene from Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books – the very end of The Farthest Shore , though the painting relies heavily on the description of the same story event in Tehanu : Having lost his wizarding power after crossing the Underworld, and fixing the hole which had magic leaking out of the world, Ged/Sparrowhawk gets a ride on the ancient dragon Kalessin's back, back to Gont and Re Albi, where he once was a wizard's apprentice with old Ogion, and where he left Tenar all those years ago. In fact, the dragon drops him right at Tenar's feet – on the cliffs behind the old house, where she has come to watch the sunset.
This is the perfect place to officially announce my upcoming exhibition at the Carterton Events Centre, from 5 December 2012 to 13 January 2013 (dates may be subject to change). I plan to exhibit the entire Fantastic Journeys series, all 14 paintings including the two new ones – provided they'll all fit on the available plinths. This seems to be a bit of a question mark, but I will start lobbying the decision makers from now on, and hope that people will be supportive of making it happen. I also plan to integrate some harp performances with the exhibition – and of course, there will be prints and things for sale. Maybe even the calendar I was planning to make when I started painting this series! But it's still early days for making definitive plans. I will keep you posted!
The exhibition space in the Carterton Events Centre foyer is administered by Wai Art - it is quite a nice, airy modern space with glass walls on two sides, so there is lots of natural light. My Song in Green Sharp Major is exhibited there already. The new Events Centre has been inaugurated only last year, and houses a stage & auditorium, several rooms which can be booked for various events, classes etc, and the Carterton branch of the Wairarapa library service. Seems like a perfect space for doing a bit of a cross-media project!
Among other things, the Carterton Events Centre will host Ian McKellen on Stage, the famous actor's one man show project to raise funds for a Christchurch theatre damaged by the earthquakes. So I will be in very good company! I don't have tickets for Ian McKellen's show though – I hesitated a little too long, pondering if I could justify the expense, and unsurprizingly, it's been sold out for weeks ... if someone has a ticket and does not want to go, please let me know. :whistles:
The rest of the month has been largely taken up with web design and web programming work. I have done some updates on Julie Comparini's site – mainly converting the page to php and setting up an online content management system, to make it easier for her to keep the site up to date. Most of this is "behind the scenes" work, so there isn't much to show off: I did design a new events calendar for her, which you can view and admire here.
Teaching myself PHP programming from books has certainly been an uphill struggle – not, by any means, because I am a woman and too dumb for it (sad, but I think I actually need to say that!!!) – but often I had to force myself to stay focused on the exercises, certainly in the beginning, when I was mostly just copying reams of code, and changing the value of a variable here and there. Not very inspiring work!
Meanwhile, I have got to the stage where I can solve my own programming tasks independent of any pre-fabricated scripts – and I have begun to quite enjoy the problem solving aspect of the work. It appeals to a part of my brain which I also enjoy using, once in a while. :D
I probably swore a few times over Julie's CMS system, but I am very happy with the result: I now have a content management system which is optimized for the specific requirements of a musician or stage performer, and which I will be able to implement in other similar websites as well, with much less work. It can do most of the things one could have done with a Drupal System – and a few things Drupal can't! – without anything near the bulk of a full blown Drupal installation.
I also flatter myself that it is much more straightforward, less confusing and less time consuming to use: having the practical experience of what a musician might need to put on their website, definitely comes in handy when one is trying to optimize the workflows! Such as for instance, knowing precisely which ones of the little words it would be really quite handy to automatically translate, so one does not have to type everything twice in a bilingual website. Beat that, Drupal!
Having successfully tackled this job, has given me the much needed boost of confidence to work my way through some programming issues I'd got stuck on with my new photography pages – they are now online! It may not look too much different from what's been there for the last few months, but wait and see what it can do! I am pleased to announce that I now have a database setup which is a lot more complex than anything I have programmed so far, but will (I trust) allow me to manage the huge bulk of photos I have taken over the last eight or nine years in an efficient manner. Such as, being able to cross-reference things. Which, believe me, will come in *very* handy with a couple thousand photos. Have a look here.
Now that the site works how I want it, I can focus on gradually setting up more galleries and filling them with images, and I will be making more prints available by and by. If something tickles your fancy, please use the "request print" link in the meanwhile! And the good news for my German readers: I have already started setting up a German version. If you want to keep up to date with new additions, please follow my StarsongStudio Facebook page!
The latest additions to my garden have been a passionfruit vine I bought from the off-shelf for $4.69, and which I hope will survive winter – and a wind shelter for my cherry tree, constructed from wood prunings and a knot of strangleweed which I pulled out of my lilacs the other day. I flatter myself that it looks faintly elvish, in an Alan Lee sort of way. I was worried the construction might prove too flimsy for the local weather conditions, but it has already withstood a couple of stiff breezes we've had lately.
Speaking of getting plants from the off-shelf: the cabbages I am currently growing come from the one at the local supermarket, two packs for 50 cent each. So far, none of the plants has died, and some are already growing a healthy head (I see more sauerkraut in my future). And I've finally managed to cultivate some spinach - another two 50 cent packs, I did loose about half a pack of those, but the remainder have made a great addition to my dinner table. They've still got another meal or two in them at least.
The other day, I invested another 50 cent in a very poorly looking vine of something described as "ruby wonder – add a touch of the tropics to your garden" – which looked like it had caught a bad cold. I have no clear idea what it is supposed to look like in a healthy and blossoming state, but it seems to respond well to a nice, warm and sunny spot on my windowsill, so I might eventually find out. It's not just that it's a cheap way of getting plants for the garden, with a bit of luck: it tickles my gardening ambition to see if I can nurse the poor buggers back to bloom. No plant deserves to die on an off-shelf. Save money, and save a life!
Further in home improvements, I am now the proud owner of a proper dining table with six *matching* chairs. I've had to ask my guests to bring their own chairs for the last several society events I've held at my house, which really is an unacceptable situation in the long run, and so I've been browsing the used furniture stores in Featherston, Carterton and Masterton for some decent and affordable chairs. But the ones I found either had wobbly legs and other vexing defects, were pot ugly, or cost an arm and a leg.
Fortunately there is Trademe, and while it may not be the best place to find a lawnmower, it really is a treasure trove for inexpensive, and sometimes genuinely glorious furniture. The Wairarapa farms and homesteads seem to be full of local-made, durable, often quite beautiful items – usually solid, locally sourced wood. I've bought my huge, solid rimu office desk from someone in Martinborough when I first moved here, and a few items since. On occasion I've sold them straight on, when it wasn't what I wanted, or the mattress didn't fit. The choice of dinner table and chairs was between something really cheap but a bit grotty, something medium cheap but quite nice looking and tidy, and something still not very expensive, and really beautiful and well made. I hope it is a good sign, in terms of the place I have arrived at in my life, that I chose the latter option – those are chairs I'll be quite happy to keep until I need no more chairs.
I went to pick them up at a historical homestead on the Masterton-Castlepoint Road, which I knew well from driving past. The place is currently owned by a friendly, down to earth couple who told me they'd been sailing around the globe for six years, selling bits and pieces of the farm in the process. They came back to settle some six years ago, and have done an amazing job of converting the old farm building, farmhand accommodation, and stables, into guest apartments with all the mod cons, while preserving their historical character and charm. The place is operated as a homestay, and when I expressed my interest, the owner was happy to show me around the guest buildings, with obvious enthusiasm for the work they had done. I asked him about the builder he's using, and told him about my house and the improvements I would like to be able to make one day (such as, fixing up the shed and setting it up as a gallery and sales room), and in the end we shook hands, I gave them my card, they gave me theirs, and he was delighted to have met me.
If any of you are planning to visit New Zealand, and looking for a place to stay in the Wairarapa which is simply gorgeous, quiet, and a very genuine "New Zealand experience", I'll be happy to pass on the contact details. The owners are looking to sell the property, in order to acquire a larger farm, so if you've been Dreaming the Dream, here's your opportunity! The place is beautifully situated, in great shape, and about 15 minutes drive from Castlepoint beach – that is, unless you get stuck behind a herd of cows, as I did! The property is part of a small rural settlement, there is (or used to be) an artist studio, and I think there is a cafe or a dairy, for basic shopping needs. Shops in Masterton are c 1/2 hours scenic drive away, and Wellington is about a 2 hour trip - either along the motorway, or by train from Masterton. There is farmland attached, and a forest block is also for sale. Email me for more information! This is a test. Maybe there is a future for me as an online real estate agent. ;)
Cool Things Friends Do: Diane Severson Mori
I have known Diane since we studied together at the Akademie für Alte Musik in Bremen – I can't recall if she was in the same year, or the year after me, but we overlapped for most of the term of my studies. She was part of the crowd of Scandinavians, Americans, Hungarians and Austrians who made up the bulk of the "international" students at the Akademie, and who I was hanging out with most of the time. We did some concerts together at one stage, she jumped in for the singer I usually worked with at the time, and I think she may also have asked me to play on one of her own projects.
Shame we never followed that up! Like most people from that part of my life, I lost touch with her for many years, but recently found her again on Facebook. And lo and behold, she is also a massive, and very active fan of all things Science Fiction and Fantasy! Most notably, she has been working as a narrator for the Hugo award winning podcast magazine StarshipSofa, and produces her own segment, PoetryPlanet.
She also continues to pursue her singing career, which she tells me, has been picking up again lately, after she went on baby break a couple of years ago. But best let her tell it in her own words!
"I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, USA and while my mother is very musical (a church organist and a fine singer), she didn't study music. I decided to go to the University of Wisconsin - Madison to study Music Education and quickly realized that I wasn't actually much interested in directing a bunch of hormonal high-school students in a choir, but rather more interested in learning how to sing well and that my dream of becoming a teacher could still be realized as a private teacher of voice, a by-product of doing a Vocal Performance degree in the States."
"I read a lot as a child. At some point, I think it was in 4th grade, a friend introduced me to a book called The White Mountains , by John Christopher – a dystopia about how the people of Earth are enslaved by aliens and one young boy is instrumental in freeing Humanity. After that I was hooked. I didn't read much of anything fictional while I was studying at the UW, but while I was studying Early Music in Bremen, a friend rekindled my interest in the genre by lending me The Lord of the Rings (which I had somehow missed up until then!). What fascinates me about the genre is the pure imagination involved, the wonder of discovering new worlds and creatures, and yet the utter applicability to our own world and lives. It's also comforting to me somehow to imagine what our world *could* be like if a few things were different. Mostly, I find SF to be one big thought-experiment."
"I perform occasionally as a soloist, mostly doing oratorios or cantatas and the like for churches' yearly big performances, also weddings and funerals and such. Recent and upcoming performances include 2 separate programs of music by Hildegard of Bingen, both as a soloist and as a member of a small professional women's vocal ensemble; "Bach and in Honor of Bach" as soprano soloist; A friend's wedding in Hong Kong. Currently, I'm not singing regularly with any professional ensembles. I find it very difficult to get myself out there with a toddler in tow. Hopefully that will change in the near future. My son will be going to Kindergarten soon and I'll hopefully have more time to pursue my musical career. I do help out singing with a semi-professional vocal ensemble "Raggio di Sol", a small choir made up of 10 singers. We sing mostly baroque and renaissance music which is right up my alley."
"After many years as a professional singer and voice teacher, I kind of slipped into doing voice acting for the podcast magazine StarshipSofa. Tony had heard a recording I did on MySpace and was so in love with it that he just had to play it on the podcast, even though it had nothing to do with Science Fiction. Thereafter we corresponded occasionally and I was a guest a couple times on the short-lived original Sofanauts shows. When I mentioned once that I read aloud to my husband before bed, Tony, as he is wont to do, sprang into action and required that I narrate a story for him. That was Infinity Syrup by Laurel Winter on Aural Delights show No. 10. Now, I'm officially the poetry editor for the podcast, I also do the occasional story narration as well. "
"The most special aspect to StarShipSofa is really what Tony Smith brings to it. His enthusiasm for the material and the people he works with is palpable and so contagious. Also, it is constantly evolving, and is really a collaborative effort. One thing that has kept me involved with the podcast is the community. It won the Hugo for best FanZine, which it is quintessentially. Tony is the host and puts the show together, drumming up the authors and their stories, the narrators, the artists, the reviewers, the scholars and scientists who do the fact articles, and all the other people who are involved. We all do it because we love doing it and for no other reason really. Certainly not a monetary reason. The other people intimately involved in the show and quite a few who aren't but who contribute regularly to the forums are quite a wonderful bunch. Of all the forums I've been involved in this one has always been very welcoming and civilized. No flaming or nastiness, just a lot of good old-fashioned discussion and encouragement."
When I stepped back from the narrating I was doing for the podcast (because of the birth of my son) Tony basically stopped running poetry. I was really disappointed by this because while recording poetry I found that I really enjoyed it. Recording poetry forced me to spend the time that is requisite with poetry to really gain a full understanding for a poem. And I feel like a podcast is an ideal medium for poetry since you can repeat ad libitum. Anyway, it came to me that I could do a regular column for the podcast featuring poetry and thus give others the opportunity to hear more SF poetry. I produce the segment as often as I can, which turns out to be about every 2 months. In each edition I focus on a particular theme, like Time Travel, First Contact, Coming Home and the Rhysling Awards so far and the Moon coming up. I usually include some news: awards, conventions and readings that are relevant to SF poetry and point the listeners to interesting poetry related articles on the web. I don't do much in the way of interpretation of the poetry, but come to find out, as a result of the survey I recently posted, people would like more of that sort of thing as well as interviews with the poets.
Q: How would you define science fiction poetry? What makes it science fiction, and how is it different from other poetry?
Suzette Haden Elgin, the found of the SFPA and an author I admire and whose novels I've enjoyed, says that there are two elements to Science Fiction poetry: A science element and a narrative element. That may seem obvious, but if a poem doesn't have both, we shouldn't call it SF poetry. Even though Poetry Planet is part of StarShipSofa, which mainly covers Science Fiction, I'm not at all adverse to poetry with fantastical, surreal or mystical elements..
Bees and Mockingbirds
On my, admittedly eclectic, reading list this month has been a remarkable book which I picked up quite at random at the library: The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore by one Hilda Ransome. Google does not tell me who Hilda Ransome is, or might have been. The book was first published in 1937, is widely cited as the one authoritative study on bees and their place in mythology, as well as the history of beekeeping (all the way back to stone age rock paintings), and has been reprinted quite recently by Dover Publications. Google brings up quite a few recent reviews and blog entries which make reference to the work. But no indication whatsoever, as far as I could ascertain, of the identity of the author. There is a Hilda Ransome on Genealogy.com, but she died before the book was published, and there is no indication as to what she might have done with her life, beyond being born in Kent, and dying in Detroit, Michigan.
One would assume that the author of the book held or holds an academic degree. Was she connected to the Cambridge ritualists, a group of classicist and anthropologist scholars influenced by the work of James George Frazer, author of The Golden Bough? What she writes about the strong connection of the bee symbol to the ancient Mother Goddess cults of the Mediterranean, instantly brings to mind Robert Graves. Only, The White Goddess wasn't published until 1948. There is, of course, abundant biographical information about James Frazer, Robert Graves, and even the Cambridge Ritualists (yes, even Jane Ellen Harrison) to be found on Wikipedia, and elsewhere on the internet. Of Hilda Ransome, Google only seems to know that she wrote that one book. For all we know, it might be the pen name of the Great Goddess herself, come to advocate the "feminine monarchy" of her favourite creature. Hilda – Hulda – Frau Holle?
Why would I read a book about bees? Well, they are fascinating critters. They seem to weave their way through contemporary popular culture in unobtrusive but ever present ways. When I was a kid, there was a popular cartoon show on TV whose main characters were a feisty worker bee and her good-for-nothing drone friend. The show, called Die Biene Maja (Maja the Bee) was based on a children's book by Waldemar Bonsels , first published in 1912. More recently, the bees have been outed on TV as aliens from another planet, in the fourth of the new Doctor Who seasons. Not the first time bees crop up in Doctor Who, either – there is a beekeeper in Delta and the Bannermen, and one might well think that his bees are aliens, too. And doesn't Sherlock Holmes retire to a life as a beekeeper?
When I was living in Brazil as a teenager, there was a popular song about a abelha rainha (the Queen Bee). Much later, I encountered a similar invocation of the Queen Bee in a blues song, it might have been Taj Mahal, and apparently the term also crops up in the traditional African repertory. This tickled my curiosity. What's up with this Queen Bee, does it have any specific significance, perhaps a reference to a well known story or myth? I asked a friend of mine who is of part-African extraction, via Jamaica, but she thought it was just a general term of praise. Hilda Ransome, however, tells me that the bee symbol was part of the hieroglyph which signified "pharaoh" in ancient Egypt. And there seems to be some sort of connection to the sphinx.
As an artist, I find the way that symbols, metaphors and images resonate down the ages, creating intuitive, subconscious connections even when the original meaning has been long buried by the proverbial sands of time, endlessly fascinating. This is a way of thinking which is diametrally opposite to the logical, problem solving facilities required in say, web programming. Bees, for one, are associated with everything that is light, warmth, nourishment, healing, and peace. And sensual enjoyment, not to forget – witness the use of honey in wedding ceremonies in many cultures, and the time-honoured metaphor of the honey-sweet kiss.
When I think of bees, I think of drowsy summer afternoons full of humming and the smell of flowers. I think of sweet-scented wax candles giving light and warmth on a winter's day. I think not only of the sweet taste of honey, but also of its healing properties. I think of a creature who has managed the ultimate ecological lifestyle: not only do bees not harm a living thing in order to feed themselves, they actually benefit the plants they collect honey from, by pollinating them and ensuring their species' survival. They are not entirely harmless though: they do have a sting, and when provoked, in sufficient numbers can even kill a human. They die themselves, in the process of stinging, though. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that the bee was the only animal which came from, and could still go back to Paradise. I better hope, despite alarming news about pesticides and/or a bee epidemic killing off the swarms, that they continue to stay with us here on Earth.
True to my promise, I have finally rectified a long standing omission and read Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Wikipedia tells me: "Nelle Harper E. Lee (born April 28, 1926) is an American author known for her 1960 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which deals with the issues of racism that were observed by the author as a child in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Despite being Lee's only published book, it led to her being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom of the United States for her contribution to literature in 2007."
To Kill a Mockingbird does not "deal with the issues of racism". That is a blatant oversimplification of the themes of the book. It is about racism, yes, but racism is only one manifestation of the much broader phenomenon the narrative deals with, which is prejudice. In any of its forms.
First of all, there is young Scout, the protagonist (and the author's alter ego), who is struggling with everyone's expectations that she will "grow up to be a lady". She likes to read, she likes to play adventure games with the boys, she likes to wear overalls, not frilly dresses. She is terminally bored by what she perceives as the mindless chatter of ladies at tea parties, and very upset when her aunt moves into the family home and imposes her idea of who is "appropriate company". Calpurnia, the family's black cook, is not someone she is allowed to visit at home – but neither is she allowed to invite a white "lower class" school friend for dinner.
Discrimination, prejudice, racism, the author says, start right here: If we "must walk in another person's skin to understand them", then how can we do that, if society's taboos and unquestioned assumptions do not allow us to get to know them properly, and find out what their point of view might be, in the first place? Why do we always have to put people into boxes? "There is only one kind of people", Scout asserts, "and that's people". A rare person who truly lives that belief. And those who do, invariably risk social ostracism and even open hostility – a fact Scout learns the hard way, when she and her brother become the victims of a vindictive attack aimed to "punish" their father for defending Tom Robinson in his trial.
The "issue of racism" is obviously "dealt with" in the novel's central event, the trial of Tom Robinson for alleged rape. No one in their right mind believes that he actually committed the crime, but he is sentenced nonetheless, simply because it is unthinkable that a black man could be acquitted when accused by a white man or woman. But Tom Robinson, at least, has the support of the entire black community, as well as that of lawyer Finch, and a few others among the town's professional people. The injustice which is committed against him, is noticed – and there are signs that eventually, things might change.
Which is not something that can be said of Mayella Ewell, the woman who accuses him. Daughter of a good-for-nothing father who cashes his welfare cheque to buy alcohol, and brutalizes his daughter, she shows signs of wanting to lift herself out of the family mire, but she has no one to turn to for help. The school authorities have long given up on their legal duty to make sure the younger Ewell children attend school. Too much trouble. The society ladies who gather in the Finch family's living room to discuss charitable projects for "savage tribes" in India, treat the Ewells as outcasts, untouchables. They are not objects for charity projects. Their children certainly don't get invited over for dinner by any respectable family. They are White Trash, and it is safest to just ignore their existence completely.
I wonder if the fine irony of Harper Lee's description of this particular scene even registers with most readers? We don't exactly sympathize with what Mayella Ewell does – and neither are we told what becomes of her after the trial. But the author makes is quite clear that she is a victim of her circumstances just as much as Tom Robinson – who is the only person who ever offered her his help, and his pity. But what a presumption, a black person feeling pity for a white person! After all, those who deal out charity, do by this very act assert their own superiority.
From what I hear, the situation of black people in the US isn't quite as grim any more as it used to be – though I gather there is still room for improvement. But that does not mean that Harper Lee's book is the least bit out of date – precisely because her observations of the attitudes and small everyday acts which add up to huge injustices are so keen, and so universal.
The novel was a bit of a freak success. Published in 1960, it would have resonated strongly, seeing that the Civil Rights movement was then in full swing. The book was an instant bestseller, won the Pulitzer prize, got made into a movie only two years after publication, and has been translated into some impossibly large number of other languages. To this day, it remains one of the most widely read books in English speaking countries, and part of the standard English literature curriculum in schools. However, as Wikipedia also informs me, "In the 33 years since its publication, [To Kill a Mockingbird] has never been the focus of a dissertation, and it has been the subject of only six literary studies, several of them no more than a couple of pages long." — citing Claudia Johnson in To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries, 1994
To Kill a Mockingbird was Harper Lee's first novel, and her only one published to date. There has been persistent speculation about the reasons for this – including a rumour, which despite all evidence to the contrary, seems to be hard to kill, that her childhood friend Truman Capote wrote the book. This rumour is based on a claim Capote made when the novel was first published, and which frankly, reeks of pure professional envy. It seems more likely that Lee's contribution to Capote's non-fiction book In Cold Blood was larger than has been acknowledged. But such are the politics of gender in the arts. And yes, there was also the lovely Southern writer colleague who insisted, in public, that To Kill a Mockingbird was a book for children.
Harper Lee herself has said that she did not want to have to deal with the publicity another time, and that she had said what she wanted to say, and did not wish to repeat herself.
As to the Presidential Medal of Freedom of the United States, awarded to her by, of all presidents, George W Bush, for "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors": my inner cynicist wonders if they gave her the award for writing the book — or for keeping quiet ever since.
Arohanui, from Asni