In Memoriam: Toni Morrison

This morning’s news broke my heart: the great Toni Morrison is dead. I found tears coming to my eyes when I understood that no more great works could come from this titan of world literature. I have only read two novels by Ms. Morrison, and I have seen and read some of her interviews, watched part of a documentary on her. But her impact and influence has been significant upon my literary development.

My senior year in high school, Morrison’s Song of Solomon was part of our AP English curriculum. I had begun working on a novel, been reading more sophisticated novels, and thinking seriously that down the line, I would be an English professor. Song of Solomon was indeed quite a hefty, challenging novel, and I sat with my pink highlighter in hand, trying to mark the important passages. And after reading chapter after chapter, something finally hit me: Morrison used recurring symbols and motifs. And in my late teenager’s mind, that’s how I realized what real literature was – it had symbols! There was something about Morrison’s language and imagery that was built into the structure of the novel in a deeper way than anything else I had read. It made a profound impression on me, and I would indeed say that book was what really taught me what Literature with a capital L was.

Flash forward years later to 2018. I am in my MFA program at Warren Wilson, in my third semester, and we are required to write a long analytical essay of 30-45 pages. I want to study omniscience, and I am adamant that I use Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as my key text. My advisor concurs, but also insists that I add a second novel in which I will study omniscience. He suggests Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and refines my topic to looking at how omniscience moves in scene and zooms in and out. I agree to that, as I feel I need to become more familiar with Morrison’s work, and knowing that she is truly one of the greats of modern literature. I’m also happy to have a second female author whose work I will analyze, especially a minority woman writer. Part of the challenge of writing my essay is that I have to select the passages I analyze myself.

Morrison’s novel is not entirely written in omniscience; in fact the omniscient passages are limited. Once I do hone in on the two chapters of each novel I will analyze and compare, I noticed that there is a parallel between the novels. In each novel, there is a “groundwork” or “hologram” chapter in which the themes and ideas of the whole novel are encapsulated in one chapter. This is usually fairly early on in the novel. I do indeed study how Morrison uses omniscience, and what also strikes me significantly is Morrison’s use of diction. Her word choices really do a lot to create the setting, work with the themes of the novel, and add a layer of complexity to her fiction. For example, the way she describes the Breedloves’ neighborhood and house is very detached and apathetic, the family dynamic is very detached as well. This is crucial, because this sets up the contrast to what will happen to young Pecola Breedlove in the novel, and how her community by and large ignores this tragedy. In one of the obituary articles I read this morning, Morrison noted that one of her goals in writing was to bring attention to one of the most vulnerable members of society: a young black female. This is exactly what she does in The Bluest Eye.

I recently returned from a Warren Wilson alumni conference where I taught a class on diction. Naturally, I used a few passages from The Bluest Eye. Morrison is really a master of language and diction, and anyone who is interested in this topic should read her work critically.

I recall that once in an interview several years ago, someone asked her about the canon, given that she herself is African-American and the canon has largely been white male and needs to be diversified and more reflective of American society. Her answer was simple–“add to it.” Morrison read all the greats of the old canon as a child. I think this is something all minority writers need to do, even if they choose to diverge from it or even bash it. Nobel laureate poet Derek Walcott (whom I got to see at a very small talk at the University of California San Diego several years ago) also was very well-versed in the canon, though he is considered a key representative of Caribbean writing.

The literary community has indeed suffered a devastating loss, but I suppose Morrison would want us to move forward while also understanding American history, specifically, Black history. She has left us a lot of good ways to do this through her writing.

 

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In/On Character

One phrase or oft-repeated concept that a writer might see on agents’ websites is that they are looking for character-driven fiction or strong characters. We might comment on someone we know who has a lot of quirks and a colorful personality as “a real character.” Children (both old and young!) love fantasy and mythological novels and media such as Harry Potter or The Game of Thrones because they delight in the archetypes and gods and goddesses and wizards and mythical figures that we do not see today in our very prosaic, pragmatic world. Someone might dismiss a novel as boring because of flat characters, or find a Hollywood blockbuster dull because the characters are nothing unique. In the opera world, we have to play a character and draw upon a number of conventions, as well as what the music indicates. Actors have to create a character without the tool of music, generate an entire human being who is separate from oneself, but that still draws upon him or herself. An icebreaker question at parties or literary events might often be, “Who is your favorite character from a book or movie?”

Why are we obsessed with characters, and take them so seriously? Why do some people hate a novel because the protagonist is “not nice” or unlikable? Why is there a whole industry of costumes and paraphernalia for us to purchase to dress up in for Halloween or other events? Why do some irrational fans detest an actor or actress personally, when he/she is merely playing a role? Why do virtually all religious traditions have sacred stories With characters of great religious figures that we refer to even thousands of years later? What does all of this mean?

Character gives us a starting point, someone to identify with and therefore we can launch the narrative. Many literary theorists would say that characters drive plot, or that plot really is just characters and what happens to them. We become attached to a character and go on a journey with them. I think roundness of character relates a lot to specificity. Nobody is one-dimensional, and what endears us to people is their quirks and various facets. How do they react in different situations? Because no two people will react in the same way to the same stimulus.

On the page, someone who is unique will grip our attention rather than “someone we have heard of before.” In highly plot-driven fiction, there is the danger of characters being flat, because they are there to serve the story’s (and therefore, the author’s) mission. Conversely, in literary fiction, plots can lag because nothing really happens, but we get a sense of real, rounded people. the best writers accomplish both. This is not an easy task, because creating complex characters is in itself an art, and then creating a strong narrative arc is also a challenge. In my work on literary retellings in the last semester of my MFA program at Warren Wilson, I found that the most successful retellings drew upon characters and themes from the original Urtext, so to speak, but fleshed them out or were able to take on a new life of their own in the retelling. John Updike and Jean Rhys were both successful in this regard with their novels Gertrude and Claudius and Wide Sargasso Sea, respectively.

In opera, as an emerging professional soprano, I am learning the importance of committing to character. This is a greater challenge than it is in straight acting, for we have the additional layer of music. To create the music ourselves, from our body, takes a tremendous amount of technical mastery and attention. The integration of character and music takes time. The majority of opera performed today, the arias we learn, are from much earlier historic times and from Europe. Therefore as American singers, we have arguably extra work with imagination and understanding the literary conceptions from earlier times. And, just as in straight acting, we are often playing or inhabiting characters that are very different from ourselves, And we must make that leap to completely immerse herself in character and lose all self-consciousness, which is the enemy of creating character in performance.

Literature and acting are two of our oldest creative impulses as human beings. We observe and we re-create. We like to tell stories, and any individual who jumps out at us as unique makes for an interesting character. We also like to observe and have the innate faculty of seeing and reflecting. As long as there are human beings, as long as we are social beings who interact with each other, there will be the phenomenon of character. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.

The Culture of Enabling and the Bystander Effect

As we have recently seen in our political charade how one corrupt politician has covered for another crony, we must ask ourselves why this happens. This raises the issue of enabling, and of not speaking up when we see injustice or unethical behavior.

Politically, there is a lot at stake for those who choose to whistleblow. Elected officials may lose constituent support and not be reelected. Appointed individuals may be asked to resign or simply dismissed. Individuals in either category may be aware of the wrongdoings, (innocent) bystanders, but may simply not speak up for whatever reason, assuming that others will do so or that justice will be served, that somehow correct activity will be spotted and punished. In our political situation, we can blame the Republicans for having put Trump up as a candidate in the first place. That was origin of the chain of disastrous events that have been going on in Washington for the past few years.

Also plaguing American (and even global) society in recent times is the whole #MeToo movement, which has taken place on both high level (think Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose) as well as ordinary day-to-day level interactions between men and women. One of the perpetrators cited in the Charlie Rose case was his Executive Producer, Yvette Vega, who knew of Rose’s lewd behavior, but told Rose’s targets that that was the way he was.

So that raises another interesting point–women are sometimes complicit in men’s bad behavior. Women perpetuate negative cycles, as can be seen in many patriarchal cultures where mothers may blame their daughters for being raped or harassed or for the way men treat them badly. This was a topic that a professor had raised in graduate school in an international education class, and it is sadly true through not only the developing world, but also in the industrialized West.

Ordinary good people are sometimes complicit in enabling bad behavior. I recently experienced a situation in which I was completely blindsided by the leader of a group despite having done nothing wrong. And yet others in the group did not speak up for me. The bystanders allowed the group leader to have too much power.

What do we do, then, if we are in such a position where we see bad behavior, and it could potentially have negative consequences for us if we report it? Or if we like the person who has been behaving badly toward others, for they have not behaved badly toward us and have been our supporters, mentors, advocates?

These are not easy questions to answer, but I think we have to speak up as much as possible. Is it not more noble to do the right thing even if we have to face the consequences? Or, if we are not able to take action, because of direct to ourselves or even our livelihood, we need to be very aware of that and admit our hypocrisy in the situation in which we are engaged. This has to be a case-by-case basis, and sometimes there are overt situations which require speaking up and even taking legal action if necessary, but there other situations which may require more subtle action.

At the bottom of this discussion is the issue of character. We need to be educating students about the importance of good character, and our educational institutions, even higher education ones, need to place an emphasis on this. My alma mater, Stanford University, seems to be busy admitting the future twentysomething billionaire entrepreneurs who often show moral depravity and even sociopathic tendencies–think Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. Granted, 99% of the students are not this extreme and we have to take into account developmental stages of young people.

But our society really needs to think more about valuing ethics over fame, power, and money. Why don’t we make America ethical again?!

Important Questions on Privilege and Power

In the past few months, discussions of privilege and power have come up in both professional and personal aspects of my life. I feel I am in a position to see both sides, as I have been both treated well by white mainstream culture as a minority, but have also been in a very bad academic situation which was both racist and sexist (and just terrible to students in general), and experienced a lot of racism while growing up. I have been speaking with people who feel very wronged, and with people who have no clue about differences. Sometimes I have seen reverse racism, which I think is equally as destructive as racism. I have seen outright insensitivity—and also its variant of ignorance.

Over the years, I have worked with extremely diverse populations and done a lot of work with international education in addition to higher education (in which I hold a master’s degree). So how do we heal rifts and divides? These are very complex issues, and the unfortunate Trump regime has brought a lot of negative aspects of race and privilege out of the woodwork. This has shown us that many people feel there is a downside to diversity and political correctness, and perhaps teaches us that we have left some people out of the discussion, no matter how wrong we feel they are. We have to be careful to avoid simplistic and knee-jerk responses and actions as liberals. We cannot threaten or implicate people just because they belong to a certain background. Doing so only creates more animosity and tension. We all need to inform ourselves with hard data and statistics to get the facts straight. But then we need to act with empathy.

So here are some questions that I feel are important for discussion. Unfortunately, despite my best attempts to avoid dichotomizing, I have created a dualistic model here. However, this does not simply mean white man versus minority woman. There are many white men who are in disadvantaged positions, and the recent Chicago mayoral election of Black lesbian Lori Lightfoot has raised many qualms that she is not necessarily “of the people.” Many of us may be in situations where we are in a position of privilege as well as situations in which we are not.

For those in positions of power or privilege, or who may be PERCEIVED to be in such positions, consider the following:

-Is it possible that you are not aware of the fact that you do hold some privilege due to your birth, SES, race, or favoritism? Self-awareness is key.

-Are you aware that others may feel your privilege and power as a threat? This is not to fault to you, but just to make you conscious of how you are seen.

-You and your ancestors may not at all have played a part in it, but are you aware of the roots of racism in America, especially with regard to slavery, the extinction of Native Americans, and immigration policy?

-You and people in your circles may personally be wonderfully supportive, nondiscriminatory, and nonracist. However, there is such a thing as institutionalized racism and if we look at the statistics, we cannot deny that there is still a lot of discrimination toward minority groups.

-What you might consider an innocuous comment might be perceived as a micro-aggression by the other person.

-Skin color does indeed make a difference and hold an advantage in American society. If you have never been in the physical minority before, visit a country or culture opposite to yours, and you will understand.

-I personally believe as an artist or writer that you have the right to include other cultures in your work or to create things in a style of a culture that is not your own. However, have you done it in a sensitive, informed, and culturally-appropriate way?

For those who are part of any sort of minority group or PERCEIVE themselves to be in such positions, consider the following:

-While hard data shows us it is true that white people generally hold more power and advantages in American society, be careful not to lump all white people together and make assumptions. A power-hungry white male Ivy League dean is not the same as a second-generation Hungarian factory worker in Cleveland. Many white people who appear successful now have come from disadvantaged backgrounds and worked their way up the class system.

-Rude, hurtful, or unpleasant remarks people have made to you may have come from a place of malice. Or they may have come from a place of ignorance or without any ill will. Is it possible in some situations you may be reading into things due to previous bias and negative mental filter?

-How are people really treating you/what are their actions? They may not be using the right terminology that is considered politically correct or culturally sensitive, but are they ultimately respectful and goodhearted? Don’t get obsessed with language.

-What baggage are you carrying that may affect your day-to-day life? While I agree we cannot deny the statistics that show there still is indeed a disturbing amount of discrimination on many fronts, be sure to work on your own mind, body, and soul to be able to distinguish between what is self-caused unhappiness versus that from the outside world. This is a very Buddhist/Asian perspective, and it is most important to start with ourselves, to have peace of mind before we attack or accuse others.

-Just as all white people are not the same, not all minority groups are the same. While this might sound like a no-brainer, sometimes there is a conflation of too many issues that do not apply across the board. Some minority groups might be privileged in certain ways, while disadvantaged in others. For example, an upper-middle-class gay male will still enjoy advantages if he is white and male, though he may face discrimination for his sexual orientation, as we can see with dynamic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg. Indians in America are the most economically successful minority group in the country and are highly educated; however, we have a different skin color, and most of us do not practice the mainstream religion of Christianity, so we may experience discrimination in ways that other minority groups do not.

-Many minorities are of immigrant origin and have opted to come to the United States. So, their narratives are not necessarily one of oppression as they would be for other groups who were brought here against their will, or who were already here and exterminated through genocide.

-Hostility and anger will get us nowhere. Work in constructive, positive ways. Build bridges, find allies.

We still have a long way to go with healing a lot of rifts and divides in American society. But hopefully these questions can help foster peace, communication, and constructive action.

A Response to Richard V Reeves’s Op-Ed in The Guardian

Just this morning, I read the article by Brookings Institution researcher Richard V Reeves on how elite university entrance is rigged, an op-ed written in light of the recent scandal with college prep fraudster William “Rick” Singer being caught for bribing and highly unethical activity to get children of the wealthy into prestigious universities.
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/12/us-college-admissions-scandal-corruption-rigged
I am irate, as my alma mater of Stanford was one of the schools cited in “Operation Varsity Blues” (the FBI’s name for this bribing for admission scandal). Yesterday, the president of the Stanford Alumni Association sent out an email condemning what has happened:

Dear Stanford alum,

By now you may have seen news that the U.S. Justice Department has charged several dozen people around the country, including Stanford’s head sailing coach, as part of an alleged bribery scheme to try to win the admission of prospective students to a number of U.S. colleges and universities.

This behavior runs completely counter to Stanford’s core values. The university has consequently fired the head sailing coach, who later today pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering.

The university has issued a public statement here:https://news.stanford.edu/2019/03/12/stanford-statement/ and the President and Provost have published their own blogpost on this situation here: https://quadblog.stanford.edu/2019/03/12/the-sailing-case-and-our-resolve/

No evidence has been presented indicating that the conduct of the head sailing coach involves anyone else at Stanford or is associated with any other team at Stanford. However, we will be undertaking an investigation to confirm this.

As I hope you know, the integrity of our admissions process is absolutely central to the mission and purpose of our university. We will consequently continue working to actively address this situation so as to regain your trust in that process.

Sincerely,

Howard E. Wolf, ’80
Vice President for Alumni Affairs, Stanford University
President, Stanford Alumni Association

A necessary statement to assure is that the institution will not tolerate any sort of corrupt or unethical behavior.

I would like to comment on Mr. Reeves’s intelligent article. The key points he makes are that Singer’s behaviors were rightly caught and apprehended by the FBI, the whole system is corrupt and rigged in favor of the affluent, legacy children are admitted preferentially, as are the children of major donors, and that upper-middle-class families can afford to give their children tutoring, prep classes, and any sort of educational advantages possible. He also concludes by saying that these Ivy League and elite universities perpetuate socioeconomic inequality, and that the whole system is unfair. Mr. Reeves is British-educated, at the no-less-elite Oxford University (where I myself was an exchange student during my junior year, and which I would argue is even more unequal than any American Ivy League university), and holds a doctorate from the University of Warwick, a public research university. His body of work is quite impressive and is exactly the sort of highly-researched, intelligent, liberal writing that we need. He writes of his own background in a NY Times Op-Ed piece from two years ago:

which describes his own background, but again, makes some generalizations about American society. There were some things in The Guardian article that nettled me, a few sweeping generalizations again that seemed to ignore a more complex picture.

Both while at Stanford and after, I have sometimes felt that it is by and large an upper-middle-class institution, in terms of its ethos. The student body did seem to come from this socioeconomic stratum, and I have seen also how the upper-middle class is able to send their children to good private schools or live in wealthy areas where the school districts are very good but the housing costs are very high. The majority of my Indian-American peers were from well-to-do suburbs of big cities and from more prosperous families. I, in contrast, grew up in a very middle/lower-middle-class college town in the country in the Midwest, the daughter of Indian immigrants, and it was certainly a loving sacrifice for my parents to send me to a school like Stanford. I was fortunate that my parents valued education, that my father was a college professor, and that I got to visit a few campuses before applying for undergraduate admission. My public schooling was quite mediocre. My high school offered only one AP class, and I was able to take another AP exam on my own and do well enough to give me advanced standing in one subject in college. A number of students in my school did not go to college, or if so, they attended ordinary public institutions that were not at all selective. At Stanford, I often felt dazzled and bewildered, that I was truly on a different planet and with a very different social class of people. But the experience did indeed offer me mobility, as I had escaped my small town completely by my own efforts and volition. I also had other friends from the area in which I grew up who had a similar background, some of them children of immigrants, and some of them not. And some students who were quite bright were not able to apply to and attend private universities, so Reeves’s point does hold true in terms of economics playing a big part of one’s higher education.

But still, Mr. Reeves overlooks that quite a high number of students who attend the elite schools in America are children of immigrants, self-made, and whose parents made sacrifices to send their kids to top institutions of higher education. There are also a number of very ordinary middle-class and lower-middle-class students who attend elite universities (some of my closest college friends were from these backgrounds), and students who work during college in order to help support themselves. Also, the big schools’ large endowments mean that they offer loans and scholarships (if only Stanford’s generous package now offered existed when I was in college!), and the admissions are need-blind.

There is the issue of legacy students, but from what I have seen, the children are no less worthy of admission to Stanford than their parents and are highly accomplished in their own right. But I have indeed often questioned this system and felt it unfair, wondering if I did not get in to some universities because a legacy student who was equally or less qualified did. In terms of wealth, I had also wondered if I didn’t get into one of the Ivy League schools to which I applied because another girl with a similar profile came from a wealthy family. In the past couple of years, Harvard has come under fire and is being investigated for discriminating against Asian-Americans; having looked at some of the data from around the time of when I applied to college, I suspect I could be one of those who was not admitted due to this alleged racial bias. There is no question that children of donors and ultra-wealthy are being admitted and alarming fashion – Jared Kushner is indeed a prime, horrible example. At top public universities, there are also a number of very wealthy students who come from out-of-state and more and more, overseas. This has raised a lot of questions in places like California, where in-state residents have been protesting that they have been shut out due to wealthy internationals who pay more.

I can somewhat agree with Mr. Reeves’s point that these universities perpetuate elitism and inequality—but to a certain point and to a certain amount of the population. My feeling is that Mr. Reeves has commented on the recent scandal in a bit of a knee-jerk fashion, that he has overlooked the complexity of the picture of who attends Ivy League schools, that he does not see the subtleties of class mobility and class-crossing in the United States (would the son or daughter of an executive in Britain work at a pizzeria in the summer? I doubt that), and that he is overgeneralizing what is indeed true about the rich and upper-middle-class to all of the applicants to elite universities. Britain is an extremely class-conscious society, and though they acknowledge it openly unlike us here, there is a more ingrained sense of one’s place and perhaps even less mobility.

He fails to recognize that the top universities in the US also happen to draw the best minds and talents. If you are a physics genius, but happen to be the son or daughter of a doctor, are you admitted only because you are upper-middle-class? I think not. I recently have been involved with interviewing prospective Stanford students, and I have been impressed by the intelligence and ability and public service of these kids.

Stanford is very different from a Harvard which is very different from a Georgetown. This is very important to understand. Stanford is a younger university and an engineering school, and in any STEM-focused university, there is a no-BS atmosphere, due to the amount of work students must do.

In sum, does money contribute to and affect one’s higher education and class status? Absolutely. Is there inequality in the elite institutions? Yes, but not to the degree Mr. Reeves suggests, or at least not in the way he describes it. Do we need to do more as a society to work on reducing inequality? Absolutely yes, and it is dangerous how our society is becoming more and more class-stratified. Am I critical of Stanford University and other elite institutions? Yes. Am I a product of them? Yes, but I do think critically and don’t follow things blindly. And perhaps that is the first step toward reducing inequality and creating a more democratic society.

Oscars 2019: My Two Cents

I found this year’s crop of Oscar nominees to be all very strong and enjoyable. Last year, though the premises of many of the films were good, I felt they didn’t deliver. Of course, there were certain films and performances I liked more than others. Let’s have a look at what I saw, and what I thought! In no particular order (SOME “SPOILER” INFO FOR SOME FILMS):

-Bohemian Rhapsody. Don’t mind what the critics say–this film was hugely enjoyable. Part of the difficulty may be that it has been billed as a film about Freddie Mercury, but if viewers perceive the film as a biopic about the entire band of Queen and it being a sort of musical biography, based around the songs, it makes a lot more sense. Queen fans and musicians will rejoice to see how various songs came about. That said, of all the members of the band, Freddie gets the most attention. Rami Malek deserves the best male actor Oscar. Not just for his musical performances and embodiment of Freddie Mercury, but also for the fact that his character has to cover a very wide range of emotions and scenes. He has to be shyly introverted, but also flamboyant, sexually avaricious, tender, and driven. Gwilym Lee as a dead-ringer for Brian May also does a wonderful rounded nuanced, subtle job, which should not go unnoticed. The film takes us right back into the 70s and 80s and the musical cultural that era. It’s what a great film should be–well done and very entertaining.

-Can You Ever Forgive Me? This is a gem of a film, well-crafted, well-acted, without a lot of flash, but so enjoyable from start to finish. Melissa McCarthy is absolutely terrific in this dramatic role, she creates a very rounded portrayal of Lee Israel, who is a most unlikable character. And it is no surprise that Richard E. Grant is nominated for an Oscar, because he absolutely steals the scenes playing the smooth-talking, gay English gentle(con)man. The on-screen chemistry between McCarthy and Grant is phenomenal, and this film should have been nominated for best picture, actress, and director.

-Roma. A stunner. This film deserves to go down not only in Oscar history, but in film history. It harkens back to the era of Italian neorealism films, and at the very least, it should be immortalized in the Criterion Collection ASAP. Visually, it is gorgeous to look at, and the emotion feels so close and real, thanks to the genius of Alfonso Cuarón (of whose films I am a fan). Certainly, Yalitza Aparicio does a marvelous job as a first-time actress and is a worthy contender for best actress. The simplicity of this film is deceptive, because it deals with a lot of complex subject matter, sophisticated themes, and issues of class and race. At times heartbreaking, at other times heartwarming. Note the symbolism of water associated with Aparicio’s Cleo. Marina de Tavira’s mother is certainly well done, but it is not extraordinary, and her part feels so minimal that I confess I’m surprised she was nominated for an Oscar.

-The Wife. I saw a slightly abridged version on an airplane, and I only wished for more. I confessed I was resistant, was afraid the theme was just clichéd. However, the film is the well-acted, and well-directed, that I was immediately hooked. It might remind viewers of an Ingmar Bergman film, which is not surprising considering that director Björn Runge is a Swede. Very tightly focused and intimate, both Jonathan Pryce and Glenn Close do a marvelous job as a longtime couple whose tensions come to the surface as they arrive in Stockholm for him to be honored with the Nobel Prize. Sometimes the story felt a bit thin, that it needed a little bit more to it, and Close’s scenes as Joan Castleman is a young woman were minimal, as were scenes about Pryce’s writing career. We truly feel what Joan feels; with a minimum of gestures, we see everything she’s experiencing through her facial expressions–we all know a Joan. The ending feels a bit odd and rushed (again, it may be due to the abridged version I saw). As above with Tavira, I think the role is well done, but not extraordinary.

-Green Book. This film drew out the most frustrated reactions from me. It is a very fascinating subject. Peter Farrelly has brought to the big screen a fascinating musical figure that even those of us were musicians have never heard of. And when he actually chooses to, he explores some complex topics related to race, especially in scenes between Tony and Don with good dialogue. Mahershala Ali is very well cast as the difficult, guarded Don Shirley, and brings a degree of nuance to the performance. Many people have commented that it is not entirely accurate, and Don Shirley’s family protested quite sharply. However, my problem with the film was that it was overall just very superficial. Farrelly could have dug deeper, gotten into more of the racial issues sooner–it was 2018/19 and we viewers know what has happened in history, so get us to the meat of the story ASAP! My other major problem with the film was Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lip. Mortensen is always a strong and interesting actor, but here I feel his portrayal of a Bronx Italian man did not move beyond caricature. He is certainly affable, and an interesting character, but the accent and the choices did not convince me Mortensen was really inhabiting someone else. To me, this was a casting problem. Bobby Cannavale or another Italian-American actor could have been a better choice. But we have to give Farrelly an A for effort, as it was a sizable task to take on a film like this–it was brave and necessary at a time like this in American history, where black-white relations are still under negotiation.

-The Favourite. I knew what I was getting into when I saw it. I knew it was a Yorgos Lanthimos film, and having seen The Lobster, my suspicions were correct: it is bizarre. The tone is just as dark and odd, as is the lighting. And overall, the film just feels at times silly. We don’t know anything about the backstory or history; everything is on the surface, it feels like it is there more to serve the director’s vision. What is this film supposed to be? A dark comedy? An Art Film? What are the motivations and reasons for things, beyond what we can see in Emma Stone’s Abigail? While Stone did a surprisingly good job and convincing English accent, and the always-wonderful Rachel Weisz was deliciously scheming, I did not feel Olivia Colman was regal enough to play Queen Anne. In this film, we see the what and the how, but never the why. The art direction was indeed superb, as were the costumes. But this kind of trying to be artsy for the sake of it comes across as pompous and annoying.

-A Star is Born. Mixed reactions. A writer friend had warned me that the script was weak, and I concur. Bradley Cooper is certainly an excellent actor, but the cause and effect (especially with how Jack and Ally fall in love) just doesn’t add up. At times the story just feels ragged and we wonder how things got to where they are. It feels like a collection of scenes, without a really through-composed storyline: scenes in search of a movie. Lady Gaga is surprisingly very good and deserves her Oscar nomination. When she is stripped of her fuss and feathers as a performer in real life, she truly has a vulnerability and ordinary girl-persona that is truly believable. (I have always felt that she is a better interpreter than she is an original artist; everything she does of her own accord as a pop singer is always derivative of someone else). We don’t get enough of her in the film, as the film focuses more heavily on Jack. Sam Elliott is indeed reliable and strong as Jack’s brother, but again, I think it’s nothing extraordinary. Overall, I felt this film was overrated.

I have to give a shout out to Mary Poppins Returns. Though the story is weak and odd (do kids really want to hear about mortgage payments?), the movie is pure entertainment and absolutely drop-dead gorgeous on the big screen. With a cast of superb actors (including a cameo from Dick Van Dyke!) and wonderful music, it’s a treat for kids of all ages. My elderly father said he was transported back to childhood and left the theater with a huge grin. Lin-Manuel Miranda really deserved an Oscar nomination (my father is a new fan), as did director Rob Marshall, and everyone who worked on any visual and costume elements.

I’ll stop here – it’s time to have dinner and watch the Oscars!

MLK Day: A Belated Tribute to My Black Mentors

Greetings to my readers and Happy Belated New Year! My hiatus has a simple explanation: I was finishing all of my final work in order to graduate with my MFA on January 12. It’s been a challenging yet rewarding past two years in the Warren Wilson program, but I am grateful and have no regrets.

In a world where black people still face so much discrimination, where there is senseless shooting and violence against them, I would like to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by paying tribute to the black mentors I have had at almost every stage of my education. And even where black people are not facing violence, there is still subtle racism. I’m proud to say that I have had black mentors who dispel bad stereotypes and images.

In my undergraduate years, my departmental advisor in anthropology was Professor James Gibbs. I remember profoundly one of the most important pieces of advice he gave me was, “You must learn to develop a tolerance for ambiguity.” As an impatient 20 year old, it was a hard lesson to learn! His wife, Professor Jewelle Taylor Gibbs, herself an accomplished academic at Berkeley, was a guest lecturer in one of my classes. During my master’s degree program in higher education, I did not happen to have any black professors or advisors. However, what was significant and inspiring was the number of black students in my program who were in academia and doing graduate work in the field. During formal studies of music in musicology, I was very fortunate to have an advocate in a difficult time, Professor Naomi André, who had not only an impeccable pedigree and abilities, but also a tremendously classy and warm personality. I have been fortunate to study opera singing with Professor George Shirley, a legendary tenor, with whom I feel have only scratched the surface of all he knows as an artist. Rightly so, he was awarded the National Medal of the Arts in 2014 by President Obama.

More recently, in the Warren Wilson program, I had the young and brilliant Danielle Evans for an advisor my first semester, who is a first-rate intellectual and fellow Columbia lion! I was also fortunate to have a book discussion seminar just recently with T. Geronimo Johnson, who awed us all with his ability to be both didactic as well as inclusive with students’ feedback. I sincerely hope he writes a craft book for fiction writers. Also important to my writing training is auto-didact and encyclopedic-knowledged writer Keith Hood, a pillar of our local writing community.

I count myself fortunate in that I have had these great role models who are first and foremost artists and academics and teachers, beyond the label of “black.” I am fortunate that I have had so many great black role models, and only wish others could as well. That might help with alleviating some of the racism that still sadly pervades our society. Here is my gratitude to these women and men of letters, who just happen to be black.