Affectionate Bears and Hostile Humans

“Why do you knock me away without certainty of what is true?” 

— Toni Morrison 

In the beginning of Toni Morrison’s novel, A Mercy, I witnessed the first act of expulsion that takes place in the novel when Florens is uprooted from the life she knew with her mother, her minha mãe, and is used to pay off an outstanding debt. At this point, Florens is young and according to Lina, from the state of her teeth is only seven or eight when she is brought to her new home (11). That being said, Floren’s memory of her expulsion is tainted with the memory of her mother begging: “Please, Senhor. Not Me. Take her. Take my daughter” (37). As I continued to follow Florens’s growth, it became clear that this first memory of being given up by her mother seems to amplify the vulnerabilities and fears that begin to develop as her attachment to the blacksmith grows fonder and leads to another form of expulsion later on in the novel. 

While A Mercy does not follow a linear narrative in terms of time structure, I often found myself returning to the text at various points in the novel to discern character intentions and events that were initially confusing. For example, when I returned to the page that Florens talks about being lettered, I stumbled across the profound observation that the blacksmith makes to Florens about the interactions between bears and humans: “They will approach, run to us to love and play which we misread and give back fear and anger” (11, emphasis added). I will admit that when I first engaged with Florens’ retelling of the blacksmith’s observation, I was a bit confused. That being said, I underlined the phrase “which we misread” and continued reading the novel, pushing this image of an affectionate bear and a hostile human at the back of my mind. 

That is until Florens shares the details of her long anticipated reunion with the blacksmith and I am again reminded of the affectionate bear. Upon her immediate arrival, Florens notes: “I lose the fear that I may never again in this world know the sight of your welcoming smile or taste the sugar of your shoulder as you take me in your arms” but once she learns that she must be left behind because of Malaik, Florens shrinks into a younger version of herself. She even points out that this
happens twice before: “the first time it is me peering around my mother’s dress hoping for her hand that is only for her little boy… Both times are full of danger and I am expel” (174-175). It is evident that Florens is threatened by the young boy and worries that his existence places her at a disadvantage, “As if he is your future. Not me.” It is clear that Florens has become possessive over the blacksmith and seeks to monopolise on both his love and affection, and Malaik’s presence prevents her from doing this. Yet, in this particular scene I am not reminded of the affectionate bear, but rather the frightened girl hiding behind her minha mãe’s skirt before being handed over to a strange man, I am reminded of the first instance I am introduced to Florens’s vulnerability and I am surprised that her fear of abandonment has hardened her and in turn, makes her a threat to young Malaik. 

In our canvas discussion about the blacksmith’s reaction to seeing young Malaik on the floor and Florens’s observation that he is not “there when it [the blood] comes, so how do you know I am the reason? Why do you knock me away without certainty of what is true?” (183), Dr. Beth McCoy asked the following question: “@Molly and Sandy: definite expulsion. Given his *reading* of the situation that even Florens says isn’t wrong, are you prepared to defend the harming of a child (a classic Morrison trap for her readers).” While it is agreed that any act of violence towards a child is unforgivable, it also becomes clear that the blacksmith shares in that same position when he does exactly what Florens’s fears and expels her from his home, choosing the boy over her. Nonetheless, Florens’s response to the blacksmith’s outburst is significant because it depicts how she copes with being expelled from his presence, a place she was so eager to call her home: “Are you meaning I am nothing to you? That I have no consequence in your world?” (185). While these questions are directed at the blacksmith, I can’t help wonder if Florens is also thinking of her mother. 

The language that Morrison uses in her novel often challenges me, as a reader, to consider exactly what is being said and how it is conveyed. Particularly in the chapter where Florens is expelled from the blacksmith’s home, I am looped back to part of the blacksmith’s phrase, “They will approach, run to us to love and play which we misread and give back fear and anger” (11, emphasis added) or in other words, which we misinterpret. On that note, it seems significant that Morrison gives Florens’s mother the last word of the novel, as an attempt to offer a correction to Florens’s interpretation of her first expulsion: “I said you. Take you, my daughter. Because I saw the tall man see you as a human child, not pieces of eight” (214). Even in her confession, she points out that Florens is regarded as a “human child,” and again I am left thinking of the earlier sign that Morrison gives us in the opening chapter about affectionate bears, hostile humans, and misread interactions.

Intent and Consequence in the Big Short and The Turner House

In my first reading of The Big Short, to say that I was confused was a bit of an understatement. I couldn’t wrap my head around the lack of responsibility that Wall Street displayed in response to the 2008 Housing Crisis. While Micheal Lewis’s book functioned more so as a literary textbook, throwing random bits of information that framed a series of events, whereas in Angela Flournoy’s novel, The Turner House, character development and her usage of flashbacks played a central role in humanising the ways in which I was able to make sense of the 2008 Housing Crisis and the importance of deciphering intent and facing the consequences of our actions.

In the final chapter of The Big Short, Michael Lewis posits that the problem with money was that “what people did with it had consequences, but they were so remote from the original action that the mind never connected the one with the other.” I will admit that when I first read this sentiment, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. But when I read The Turner House and returned to the comfort of narrative prose, I found myself questioning how characters like Lelah, for example, deal with their shortcomings and cope with the resulting consequences of their actions. Early on in my reading, I was able to focus specifically on Lelah and the relationship she had with her daughter and position within the Turner family with the help of the novel’s usage of the third person omniscient point of view. Having all of the thoughts and feelings of the Turner family, specifically when it came to Lelah, made it all the more accessible when attempting in deciphering how she confronts the consequences of her gambling addiction. Unlike The Big Short, The Turner House sets the scene, so to speak, and we see how characters develop through their actions by first establishing their intent or Mens rea.

 For example, when Lelah is forced to leave her apartment, she chooses to ignore the calls from her daughter Brianne and refuses to seek help from her siblings. Instead, she opts to take up residence in her vacant family house.  In her reasoning behind her decision, Lelah makes the point that, “A house with electricity couldn’t be classified as abandoned, and an individual with a key to that house didn’t fit the definition of a trespasser.” I was particularly interested in this line of reasoning primarily because it highlights exactly what the legal Latin term Mens Rea refers to: guilty mind. According to Cornell Law School, Mens Rea refers to criminal intent or a guilty state of mind that is required in order to convict someone of a particular crime. According to Lelah, she does not consider herself a trespasser because she holds a key to the house, yet, the very definition of trespass, as defined by Cornell Law School, is “the act of knowingly entering another person’s property without permission.” Just because Lelah had a key for the house does not necessarily mean she had permission to enter her family house. The question of whether or not Lelah was trespassing however, is not a question of her integrity but rather the consequent actions that follow.

Lelah, unlike those in The Big Short, was well aware of the fact that she was an addict. In the description of her gambling addiction, there are instances in the novel where she recounts that she should have walked away from the gambling but couldn’t. There was something irresistible in the act of gambling that Lelah simply could not resist. Lelah’s addition, highlighted the very problem that those in The Big Short may have confronted. In Chapter 6 of The Big Short, it is evident that the casinos were most successful in helping gamblers delude themselves, offered them a sense of “false confidence” as Lewis puts it. This seems to be demonstrated particularly well with Lelah, who also benefits from the false confidence that Lelah herself acknowledges at the end of Motor City, when she recalls:

It wasn’t Vernon’s fault she’d ended up a gambler; she would never say it was… When she felt like she was flailing, back on Yarrow not doing anything worth anything with her life and tired of being alone, she could sit right here, put her hand on the chalky surface of the chips, and be still for a moment in the middle of all the commotion of the casino floor (50).

I found this particular exploration of Lelah’s connection to gambling indicative of the lack of depth that was evident in The Big Short. As I’ve pointed out in numerous discussions, Lewis’s novel rightfully condemns the gamblers of The Big Short, and we as readers, are eager to categorise them as villains. Yet, in The Turner House, one can’t help feel sorry for Lelah because she isn’t depicted as a villain. Her state of mind isn’t one of self-destruction, she’s just trying to cope. But one of the questions I have been asking myself through all of this is, can the same be said for people like Michael Burry, who knew exactly what he was doing when he placed bets against the crappy loans. If there’s anything The Turner House explores in relation to The Big Short, I think it has more to do with examining character intent and positing how they are able to move forward. When I consider Lelah and her desire to be her own woman, free from the shackles of the patriarchy, I consider the fraught relationship she has with Brianne, whom she urges to be independent and not rely entirely on Robbie. If I were to consider Brianne’s perspective of Lelah, I might argue that she believed her mother to be harsh and overly critical, but when given the background of Lelah that we have and considering her own previous relationships, it’s evident that Lelah’s intent is not push her daughter away, but to protect from dwindling down a path that she herself can’t seem to escape from.

While Lelah’s intent is not to cause harm, the consequences of her overprotectiveness result in Brianne pushing her away. That being said, it’s a shame that those responsible for the housing crisis were not confronted with the consequences of their own actions, but rather received quite large bailouts instead.

Deceitful Exchanges and Tumultuous Storms Depicted in Shakespeare’s King Lear

Shakespeare’s King Lear deals extensively with the theme of expulsion as depicted through characters like Cordelia, Kent, and King Lear himself and connects almost immediately with seemingly unconventional terms like swap and liquid. According to Investopedia, swap refers to an agreement between two or more parties exchange monetary value of an asset for another. As for liquid, the Oxford English Dictionary, defines the term as a material substance in that “condition (familiar as the normal condition of water, oil, alcohol, etc.) in which its particles move freely over each other,” and typically symbolizes renewals and rebirths- which tend to occur after certain expulsions.

Our first encounter with the expulsion of a character occurs as early as the first Act of the play, in which Cordelia’s refusal to flatter Lear with excessive proclamations of love results in her immediate disownment, disinheritance, and exile. This is is conveyed in Lear’s spiteful declaration:  “Cornwall and Albany, With my two daughters’ dowers digest this third; Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her” (Act 1. Scene 1). By redistributing his land and wealth so that Goneril and Regan can consume Cordelia’s share, Lear is essentially swapping Cordelia’s rightful land over to her sisters. Even Lear’s trusted confidant, Kent, is banished from his service simply because he disagrees with Lear’s impulsive decision to punish Cordelia’s honesty and reward Goneril and Regan’s deceitfulness. 

Therefore, as the events unfold later on in the play, it is of no surprise that Goneril and Regan plot against Lear to diminish the remaining power that he holds. Their fight for control is first demonstrated in the dispute between Lear and Goneril about the disorderly conduct of his men and is later exacerbated when Regan gets involved. Together, both sisters seek to condescend and attack Lear from both sides as they argue over the amount of men he should be allowed:  

Goneril: Here, me, my lord. 

What need you five-and-twenty, ten, or five,

To follow in a house where twice so many 

Have a command to tend you?

Regan: What need one? (Act 2, Scene 4)

It is clearly evident that by allying together on their efforts to reduce Lear’s authority, Goneril and Regan leave him no choice but to remain dependent on them. Later on in this scene, Lear must face an ultimatum: either live without his men or be cast out from both Goneril and Regan’s estates. Unfortunately for Lear, this swap of power for shelter pushes him closer to the edge of madness. Thus, when faced with this ultimatum, Lear lashes out ruefully against his daughters and goes as far to refer to Goneril and Regan as “unnatural hags” and promises: “I will have such revenge on you both, that all the world shall- I will do such things- what they are yet, I know not but they shall be the terrors of the earth!” (Act 2, Scene 4). After this declaration, Lear hastily exits because he would rather walk the heaths than swap his power for shelter, and as a result, Regan orders that Lear ought to be locked out of her estate.

That being said, while the theme of expulsion is deeply connected to the consequences of swapping land from one rightful person (Cordelia) to two less deserving people (Regan and Goneril), liquidity seems to play an essential role in understanding the ways in which Lear’s toxic tyrannical demeanour is cast out and replaced by a more sympathetic perspective. If we consider the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of liquid alongside the storm that is raging on after Lear has been cast out from Regan’s estate, then we might better understand the symbolic cleansing that Lear undergoes as a dynamic character. According to the 2006 film adaption of King Lear, the storm that Lear is forced to endure is depicted as a rainstorm. Rain often connotes despair and rejection, but has also conveyed emotional cleansing and renewals of both the mind and soul which often appear in various works of literature (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, etc.).

It is interesting to note that Lear’s immediate reaction to the storm is to refer to it as both contentious and pitiless, almost as if it were a manifestation of the injustices that he has suffered at the hands of Goneril and Regan. While the storm is indeed tumultuous, I believe its function is paramount to the change Lear undergoes as a dynamic characters in two ways. The first being that it strips him of his entitlement and forces him to endure the storm as a human being as opposed to a former king. This is clearly evident when Lear refers to himself as a slave to the storm and continues to berate himself as: “A poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man.” The storm forces Lear to concede that he is, in fact, not at all powerful nor can he always have or be in control. That being said, Lear’s exposure to the lack of protections that his subjects have endured during his reign forces him to recognise his own shortcomings as a ruler, which is evident in his declaration: 

“Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en

Too little care of this! (Act 3, Scene 4)

The monstrous storm brings out a kinder, gentler side of Lear that we have never encountered before and forces him to challenge his perspective both as a member of the ruling class and as a father. In fact, once reunited with Cordelia in Act 5, Lear prefers to avoid confrontation with Regan and instead spend the rest of his days with Cordelia, living jovially and at peace with one another- even if it means living in confinement. Lear’s passivity is certainly uncharacteristic of him, but it’s not at all surprising that this ease of heart occurs once the storm has passed.

Phenylethylamine: The Chemical Composition of Love

For all my fellow romantics, this one’s for you. Featuring Octavia Butler’s Clay’s Ark and Anastasia: The New Broadway Musical 

Phenylethylamine [phe·nyl·eth·yl·amine]

It’s the reason why we get butterflies in our stomach when we think of our significant others. It’s the reason why we feel nostalgic when we leave our homes. It’s what every Disney princess sings about (except Moana). It is the feeling of euphoria. And it is the answer to the question that Stephen asks Rane after her refusal to love a child that will look like Jacob, it is the chemical composition of love.

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Adulthood Rites and Female Genital Mutilation

Out of the three books that complete Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy, her second installment Adulthood Rites was my favorite for more reasons that I can count on my hands. But the main reason why I loved Adulthood Rites was because of Akin’s character. He was intelligent, brave, and loyal – all very admirable traits I wish more people I knew had.

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The Brown Girl’s Dilemma

Something woke up in me when I read the Contract and Social Change. Not an epiphany, but more of a moment of realization when I read the lines, “In Jamaica, with a different set of racial/color rules, I count as “brown” rather than “black,” since blackness isn’t determined by the “one drop rule” (any black ancestry makes you black) as it is here. So brown constitutes a recognized and relatively privileged social category of their own, intermediate between white and black.”

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Vampiric Literature, Fledgling, and Loyalty

My first encounter with vampire novels was The Twilight Saga, and yes, I was team Edward. But after having completed the saga, I noticed a peculiar dynamic in Vampiric literature that I would later see in other novels like that of the Vampire Academy series, the Dark Heroine series, and Fledgling.   Continue reading “Vampiric Literature, Fledgling, and Loyalty”

Marriage, Shakespeare’s Elizabethan Era, and Modern Day America

After discussing the significance of the use of the word “eye” and the role physical beauty has in William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, it sparked some debate about marriage in the Elizabethan era and its relevance in Modern Day America. Was this because of the patriarchy and the social constructs of Shakespeare’s time, or was this simply just a case of love at first sight? Continue reading “Marriage, Shakespeare’s Elizabethan Era, and Modern Day America”