I approached this review with a lot of trepidation. I am not a schooled poet. I took exactly three writing classes in college, and I haven’t read nearly the amount of poetry that someone who professes to be a poet ought to have. I have written many poems, but I didn’t really figure out what a poem was supposed to be, for me, until I took that one poetry class (Jimmy Barnes, BYU, “writing poetry”) about ten years ago. So beware and bear with me. I’m coming at this from a very unschooled angle.
Field Notes on Language and Kinship is, essentially (I think) an observation on poetry and the way it fits into LDS culture in particular. Chadwick explores, in turn, how to read poetry (don’t force interpretation, instead give way to the language), why to write poetry (poetry can “give shape to ideas… that might otherwise be too diffuse”), why to read poetry (poetry is often intended to be mediation—an act of “moving” and “softening” for a reader and for the poet, and thus might draw them closer to God, the gospel, or other redeeming forces/ideals.)
The first story Chadwick relates in the book is about his grandmother who loved to hike, and went on many difficult excursions during her life. At each hike’s summit, or endpoint, she would collect a rock and label it. She collected these rocks in a jar. And Chadwick inherited this jar—chose it from his grandmother’s possessions after she died. As a boy, it intrigued him—rocks from all of these high points of his grandmother’s experience.
I believe this book is a similar rock-collection for Chadwick, only instead of pieces of granite, he has assembled poems to mark high points, important conflicts, switch-points and turns in his development as a human being and as a reader and writer of poetry. Each of the sections focuses on a different aspect of his own relationship to language and how it developed and was influenced by life events, whether that be his mission, his mentors in college, his explorations of Sonosophy, his wife’s first pregnancy, the birth of a child, a sister struggling with infertility, and of course the time and attention he spent putting together Fire in the Pasture. more
Over the past couple weeks I’ve received two emails from Alex Caldiero announcing projects he’s involved with. The first is a Kickstarter campaign, the second a new book.
As a native of Sicily, Alex spent his childhood in the shadow of Mt. Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe. Using the funds to be raised by their Kickstarter campaign—titled “Living with Etna”—Alex hopes to return to Sicily as the tour guide for emerging filmmakers Laura Kisana and Isaac Caldiero (Alex’s son), who hope to document the relationship between the mountain and the people who inhabit its slopes.
When I first watched their project video and read through their proposal, I recalled the instruction God gave to Joseph Smith in March 1833 that those involved with building his kingdom ought to make it their “business and mission” to “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people.” There are, of course, many ways to fulfill this counsel. One of them may include supporting (however we’re willing and however we can) projects like the one Alex and Co. hope to undertake with this trip and the documentary that would flow from it. more
So, I finished Eric Jepson’s novel, BYUCK. I found it hilarious, heartwarming, and refreshing. The description of BYU (and Happy Valley) culture from the perspective of someone who wasn’t bred and born in it, who could therefore look at it from an outsider’s perspective, delighted and amused me. As I read the story, I remembered my own bemused feelings entering happy-valley culture for the first time. And I breathed a deep sigh of relief that I do not live in Provo anymore.
It also brought memories of a story I wrote about six or seven years ago that was very similar (not in writing quality, but in subject matter, characters, setup.) Nobody has read it except for my family and the editorial board at Covenant, who eventually tabled and then rejected it, saying the audience was too narrow for them to spend money to publish it. I’m grateful for that now, because it wasn’t very well written and I needed the time to learn how to write properly before critics got at it.
But I found myself wondering, after I finished BYUCK, and as I looked back on the experience with Covenant: where is the place for that sort of writing; for the works of LDS writers writing about our LDS culture? And where is that sort of writing going, now that things are changing so drastically in the industry? Could this sort of writing appeal to a general, not just LDS audience, and how would we accomplish that?
There are some stories that are more narrowly focused on an LDS audience (and I’d argue BYUCK is an example of that; inside jokes only Mormons would get, mormon dialect, etc). There are some one could argue might appeal to a broader audience–Moriah Jovan’s Magdalene, Steven Peck’s Scholar of Moab. But would they?
I’m wondering, too. What if something amazing, and literary, and focused entirely within the LDS experience (aka the Great Mormon Novel) would be considered even generally marketable by anyone. What if someone did write something along the lines of Potok’s works. Would anyone read it (and of course, *we* would. But would anyone beyond the world of LDS lit advocacy read it?)
I was thinking about how in general, people who consume LDS fiction are looking for an uplifting story that will make them feel better about their life and the challenges of being LDS in a world that’s not too kind to us. That’s often why I read it. I want an inspiring story about pioneers, or an uplifting romance (guilty) or something that makes me laugh at and love the absurdities of my culture and my life (like BYUCK, or Joni Hilton’s work).
And when we look at the audience for literary fiction, there are other issues. Is Mormonism really taken seriously enough, considered fascinating enough, to be a worthy subject of study? In general I feel like religion is out of vogue in the literary world. Maybe that’s pessimistic of me.
My question is, where is our audience? Do we have to channel things in a commercial direction, create the sorts of plots LDS readers will enjoy, in order to feed them some more complex and even controversial stuff? And if we’re trying to write to a general audience, what do we have to do to make it consumable to that audience? What have others done? What are some success and failure stories?
In her essay “The Ends of America, the Ends of Postmodernism,” critic Rachel Adams argues suggests that twenty-first-century American fiction has been moving in a transnational direction as “a constellation of authors” have resisted “the stylistic and conceptual premises of high postmodernism” by focusing instead on “the intensification of global processes” that have developed over the last half-century (250).[i] Using Karen Tei Yamashita’s excellent novel Tropic of Orange (1997) as a model, she describes this new focus as “American literary globalism,” a kind of post-postmodernism that builds upon certain conventions of postmodernism (like fabulation), yet has an entirely “new set of genealogical, geographic, and temporal referents,” including an interest in the global politics, multiethnic perspectives, geopolitical cleavages and tensions, border crossings, national and transnational relations, economic flows, and polyvocality that characterize contemporary globalized society (see Adams 261-265). For Adams, this literary globalism opens up a “shared perception of community whereby, for better or worse, populations in one part of the world are inevitably affected by events in another” (268). It is the new direction American fiction is headed.
It would be incorrect, of course, to suggest that Mormon novelists have embraced “American literary globalism” as Adams defines it, or even a kind of “Mormon literary globalism” subspecies. While transnational concerns have had a place in Mormon novels since the days of Nephi Anderson, these novels hardly constitute a majority within the still-developing genre. In fact, I think the relatively small number of writers producing Mormon literature today is enough to explain why more novels aren’t being written that address Mormonism from a global or transnational perspective—especially when you consider that most Mormon novelists who are able to find publishers for their work come from the United States and have strong ties to Utah and the Mormon Corridor. As Mormon fiction goes, Nephi Anderson remains the most important immigrant Mormon novelist. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but Mormon poetry, with poets like Alex Caldiero, has fared much better in this respect.)
We know you’ve heard this one before, but please bear with us:
So a Jewish grandmother walks on a beach with her beloved grandson when a big wave suddenly sweeps the boy underwater. “Dear God Almighty,” cries Grandma, “how can you do this to me? I suffered all my life and never lost faith. Shame on you!” Not a minute passed by, and another big wave brings the child back to her arms safe and sound. “Dear God Almighty,” she says, “that’s very kind of you, I’m sure, but where’s his hat?”
An oldie we know, but a true classic. What is this joke really about? more
I have been super impressed with both Fiona and Terryl Givens, authors of the masterful (it’s not hyperbole, it’s that good!) theological work The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. In both their writing, and in the interviews I have heard/read them give, I have been inspired. Terryl Givens has rightfully received a lot of attention in the past for his previous books, but with this round of interviews for The God Who Weeps that I have read and listened to, I have also been super impressed with Fiona’s articulate voice, engaging ideas, and her powerful spirituality and identity. So I approached her about doing an independent interview, to which she graciously conceded. I was thrilled that she put the thought and care to engage in a long and fruitful interview. Lots of amazing stuff! Perhaps my favorite interview I have ever conducted, due to the time, thought, informed intelligence, and spirituality Fiona infused her answers with. So here it is:
MS: First, in a nut shell, tell our readers a little about yourself. About your conversion to Mormonism, your professional and literary background/ interests, your relationship with Terryl, your family, and anything else you would really like our readers to know about the intriguing Fiona Givens.
FG: I converted to the Church in Germany where I was working as an au pair during my gap year between graduating from New Hall School, where I had been head girl, and university. The preceding summer I had spent in earnest prayer, trying to divine God’s will for me and my future, as to that point, I had taken very little interest in it myself. The answers were totally unexpected and unanticipated. Shortly after arriving in Germany, I met a lovely lady with whom I became fast friends. I was happy that she liked to talk about God, as He was uppermost in my mind. Eventually she took me to her “church”–a gathering of people in a room on the second floor of a building. What I felt when I entered that sparsely attended meeting was something I had never felt before–a spiritual warmth that was inviting. And I was happy for the opportunity to learn more. That being said, I had no intention of leaving Catholicism, secure in its position as the longest standing Christian faith tradition.
However, the spiritual experiences that ensued in my conversations with the missionaries were nothing short of Pentecostal and I was eager to share my transformation with my family, who responded very much like Gregor Samsa’s family in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The two years following my baptism were very painful. I had left in the detritus of my baptism not only a rich and vibrant faith tradition but my family, whom I had shaken to the core, wrenching their ability not only to comprehend me but to communicate with me. I had brought a rogue elephant into our family room. It is still there. The wounds are still palpable. However, due in large measure to the kindness and love of Priesthood leaders, my wobbly legs were strengthened and, amazingly, I did not use them to flee a still alien religion, an alien culture and alien language.
Through a set of miraculous circumstances I was granted a multiple entry visa to pursue a degree at Brigham Young. I met Terryl the first day of our Comparative Literature 301 class with Larry Peer. Terryl was seated on the back row. I was seated on the front. He was self-effacing. I was not. We were married a year later. He pursued a PhD in comparative literature and I pursued the raising of our children while taking a class a semester, when possible, to keep the little grey cells functioning amidst the barrage of babyspeak. more