Lit She Loves, Jan Ackerson: The Giver

 Please offer a warm welcome to Jan Ackerson, a good friend and newly-published writer. Her book of micro-fiction, Stolen Postcards, is set to be released in late summer this year.
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I want to live in the world of The Giver, by Lois Lowry.

It’s a world without the things that make me the saddest:

There’s no hunger.

There’s no poverty.

There’s no inequality.

There’s no racism or intolerance of any kind.

There’s no war.

Every child is welcomed into their family. Everyone is treated with politeness and respect. Every person works at a job that is uniquely suited to their abilities and interests, and all jobs are equally valued.

In short, it’s a perfect world—except that it isn’t. Because it’s a world that has embraced sameness in the cause of safety, conformity in the cause of contentedness, obedience in the cause of orthodoxy. There’s no place in the world for freedom, for individuality, for creativity.

When I first read this book, I was stunned by the way Lowry drew me into the story and then, with each page, peeled back the attractive skin of this place to reveal the horrors beneath. It’s a book designed to make the readers ask is this the inevitable consequence of… and then to finish that question with some current social or political trend. The beauty of her writing, though, is its utter neutrality: liberals are likely to think this is conservatism gone awry, and conservatives are likely to think exactly the opposite. In actuality, The Giver shows us humanity gone awry, and then it gently points us to the solution.

I taught Language Arts to learning disabled teenagers for thirty years before I retired. During that time, I taught The Giver perhaps a dozen times—each time, I had students tell me that they’d never read an entire book before, but that they loved this one. I remember well the wide-eyed looks of astonishment when the first little blemish in Jonas’s world was revealed, and the discussions about whether it’s better to have safety or freedom.

I love this book, and have read it perhaps twenty times, but I loved it even more after reading Lowry’s acceptance speech when The Giver won the Newbery Award. You can find a .pdf of that speech at this link: Newbery Speech

I’ve never been a person who conforms—always several steps out of fashion, more liberal than most people in my circle, more conservative than the general culture, dismissive of gender expectations…you get the idea. Being different is a lonely thing to be, but reading The Giver validates my belief that there’s more value in nonconformity than in Sameness.

Author Bio: Jan Ackerson is a freelance editor and short story writer who lives in rural Michigan. She enjoys traveling with her husband, playing with her granddaughters, and doing small acts towards social justice. Her website is www.superioreditingservice.com.

Lit I Love, Title 14: Possessing the Secret of Joy

476ee8c39063bb52945567c829139f15Back in the olden days, I used to save room for thick books in my suitcase. They had to be long enough to last a week, but even then my husband and I tried to be “carry-on only” travelers, and I still had to leave room for pesky things like clothes. That spring I toted Possessing the Secret of Joy, by Alice Walker, in my bag.

For days, I swayed in a hammock that hung from the cement ceiling of our room’s patio in Mexico. Peafowl strutted by with chicks-in-tow. And though I was squarely in the heart of paradise, my head was far away. A character named Tashi-Evelyn was pulling me into the incredibly unjust world of the Olinka in a fictional village in West Africa.

It’s a strange thing to be on a romantic trip with your spouse while reading about female genital mutilation. I hadn’t really heard of it before, and picking up a smartphone to a gain a curiosity-satisfying Google search wasn’t possible yet. So the idea of such a methodical destruction of female sexuality was horrifying to me, and I was learning about it and its affects through this novel. I wanted to keep reading and stop reading at the same time. It was such a vile thing to live through. It made me nauseous, but I couldn’t abandon the story. I needed to know what would happen.

And as bizarre as this practice was, there’s Tashi-Evelyn in a misguided attempt to identify with her community,  choosing to go through it. It was a risky move and she pays for it with her life, eventually.

If the name Tashi is familiar and you haven’t read this book, it’s because she appears in Walker’s novel, the Color Purple. In that novel, we learn that Celie’s children, Adam and Olivia had been adopted by a missionary couple. Adam falls in love with Tashi while in Africa and wants to marry her and bring her back to the States. Before that happens, though, Tashi undergoes circumcision and facial scarring. Adam has the Olinka scar his face, too, in solidarity. The Secret of Possessing Joy takes its plot from this part. We see Tashi’s life unravel, her journey from Tashi to Tashi-Evelyn, what led up to the circumcision and its aftermath.

Like the Color Purple, this novel delves into women’s rights, sexuality, and how our right to control our bodies is so intrinsically tied to our souls.

I read a review that scorned Walker for narrowing down women’s sexuality to the vulva (see the dedication of the book), but I think that reviewer missed the grander point. This story is about a culture that didn’t allow women to control what already belonged to them. It’s not that their whole sexuality was lived through their vulvae, it’s that those in power in the Olinka tribe made the decisions that ultimately disfigured the tribe’s women’s sexuality. What Walker does is, at least on a fictional level, hand Tashi her personhood back and puts a microphone in her hand. She gives the one who has no voice a way to speak, and that is incredibly powerful.

There are so many good literary reasons to read this: use of flashback, deep POV, and Walker being one hell of a writer, but the fact that she has been able to let someone who’d normally not have a voice tell the story, is profound. In my wildest writing dreams this is where I would land. Using prose to perfection and using it to make a powerful point.

 

Are there books that changed your understanding of the world? Of women? Of sexuality? Of cultures other than your own? What have you read that was so amazing, the superb writing was beside the point?

 

Thanks for reading!