Time to make some changes to the language policy of this blog. I don’t have patience to manage two separate literature blogs, one in Finnish, one in English, but from now on I will be posting in English about books that I have read in that tongue, esp. if they haven’t been translated in Finnish. By doing so, I feel I might actually connect with people with similar literary tastes.
I ’ve been lately worried about how quickly, due to economic recession and the changing political climate, Finland has turned inwards. It shows particularly in people’s reading habits and our access to world literature. We used to have better stacked bookstores some ten-twenty years ago; now of course those who read in English order their books from online vendors. But it saddens me that when one walks into an average bookstore, not much else is found in English than Jojo Moyes or Marian Keyes (not to undermine chicklit, of course).
I should hoist a flag every time I run across a novel in English, which is not a global bestseller. Really. Let alone novels in other languages. But also as a reader I have a responsibility to do something about it. Be more active. Make more noise.
Ernest J. Gaines (b. 1933) is an Afro-American author from Louisiana, who has spent his career around universities, residencies and creative writing programs. Many of his novels have been filmed, and his most known novel must be A Lesson Before Dying (Vintage, 1993). A lot of his writing is set on historical Louisiana, and he has also returned to live at his roots after retirement.
A Lesson Before Dying depicts the encounter of two young Black men, a schoolteacher and a prisoner waiting for electrocution, in late 1940s. Jefferson has been convicted of killing the owner of a local liquor store, though he does not remember the event, and with great likeliness has only been at the wrong place at a wrong time. Grant has been his teacher some years ago, and is persuaded to meet the young man in order to bring him back to humanity and his senses before the execution day.
The main theme is heavy, and the novel could have easily become a grim socio-political pamphlet on ethnic profiling, but Gaines chooses another, more communal approach. Anger and frustration are underlying emotions when the two men meet, sharing Aunt Emma’s fried chicken served with yam. It takes a long time for Jefferson to get over the humiliation of the courtroom sessions, where his intelligence was compared to that of a hog. The death sentence also affects the community, not only the nearest and dearest of the young man. People are slowly beginning to question the rights of the white folks to determine the conditions of black lives.
The narrative around education is as interesting as the main storyline. Grant has not returned home after university because of homesickness, but only to be close to the woman he loves. Vivian is also a teacher and a single mom still married to a runaway husband. The school Grant runs is situated in a church, and besides firewood, they also have a shortage of chalk. He has two young women, former students, working as assistant teachers, possibly without pay. Most of all he is frustrated to see the community repeating the pattern of self-hatred and marginalization, despite the efforts of formal education.
Food is abundant in all settings of the novel, and one of the key arenas of female power. Grant, who lives with Tante Lou, her grand-aunt who brought up her mother and himself, has to be careful about his eating outside. Tante Lou is deeply hurt is she hears that he has had dinner at Rainbow Club, the colored people’s drinking den in the nearby town. Gumbo becomes a reconciliatory meal between the main characters, eaten in the prison cell straight from the pot.
Besides being a story of an unlikely friendship between two men, and a love story, the novel is a commemoration of women’s lifelong friendship. The two childless aunts are the true stronghold of the community, those who take on their wayward relatives’ kids and try to bring them up as God-abiding citizens.
Overall, the description of both genders is balanced and emphatic. I couldn’t have guessed the gender of the author, if the book cover had not been shown. Literary machoisms are rare in the narrative. Apart from drinking and an interest in car models, the men don’t express their masculinity in stereotypical ways. Grant is even bold enough to discuss bedroom failures. He is not sure if the relationship will last if the couple continues living in the bush of Louisiana.
I didn’t know much about Cajun culture before reading the novel, but it seems to have interesting remnants of Frenchness. The ethnic and racial divions are deep also between the ”colored” people, not only between the whites and blacks, and the ”mulattoes'” prejudices seem more pronounced than the white community’s.
Although I had no trouble understanding the language of the novel (for instance the Black English portrayed here is quite academic), I could have benefitted from a short cultural foreword. The historical layers of the novel were so rich that a foreign reader automatically misses some of the nuances. Particularly the religious dimension was interesting, and Grant’s own position as an agnostic teacher in a deeply religious community seemed painful.
Thanks to my friend Päivi for carrying the novel from Toronto. It must be one of the most surprising texts I will come across this year, as I am now mainly staying here in the FinnLit ghetto. Monolingualism is very bad for the brain, and reading English language novels in translation feels like treachery, if one has once invested years to academic Eng.Lit. studies.