The Importance of Uncomfortable Stories

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Rebecca D. Martin -Uncomfortable Stories3by Rebecca D. Martin

I was attending the first meeting of a multi-ethnic group that meets in my city. The facilitator asked, “What is something you appreciate about your culture?” That’s a difficult question for most white Americans to answer. I have trouble pinning down just what my culture is without throwing it in relief against other cultures, other ethnicities. After long thought, I decided that something I appreciate about my culture is our books. There is a wealth of Western philosophy and storytelling that has come down through the literature of my European ancestors and American contemporaries. But even as I said it, something rubbed uncomfortably in my mind.

When I was in college, majoring in English Education, American Literature was not my jam. But it was required, so I struck out and enrolled in Contemporary American Lit. To my horror, I found myself reading Richard Wright’s book Native Son. I read the initial chapters and then put the book down, and I could not, I could not make myself read the rest of the disturbing story. It was filled with prejudice, terror, murder, and dismemberment. Who wants to saturate their imagination with these things? I decided.  What good could come of reading this? I wondered. So, I withdrew from the class and retreated into a more comfortable mental space. I enrolled in an American Naturalism and Realism course, in which the stories were less challenging to my daily narrative.

Black poet Amiri Baraka tells the story from another side. His grandmother would return home from dressing white women’s hair and bring her grandson white literature for him to read, including Dickens. He tried those books, but the pictures they painted didn’t reflect the life he lived. Instead, he says, “I knew the stories of the Black South,” the stories of African American writers, like Richard Wright. Baraka was stunned by Richard Wright when he first read him, and in fact worried for the author’s safety. Surely someone was out to kill Wright for the kind of racial things he had put in print.

Poet Wanda Coleman says, “At home, I lived in a Black world and no matter what [books by white writers] I read, it did not reflect my life.” She discovered Richard Wright’s 1930s and 40s stories belatedly. Literature written by black men was taboo in her school until the late 1950s.

“Contraband,” she said. “You’d get suspended for bringing it on campus.” When she started reading what she calls Black literature—W.E.B. DuBois, Ann Petry—it felt like a rescue. “There was the entrance to my world as I was struggling to survive in it.”

I can still picture the withdrawal slip I filled out for that American Lit class back in college. Reason for Withdrawal Request: “I prefer to focus on a different type of literature. How naïve I was.

Franz Kafka once wrote in a letter to a friend:

Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? . . . What we need are books that hit us like . . . suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.

I keep thinking back to what I said in the racial unity meeting. Like Baraka, I was an avid reader as a child. I was formed by fiction, by the practice of listening and learning, of putting myself into the stories of others. But whose stories were they?

At worst, they were pretty escapism, (often with a troubling strain of racism.) But at their best, Dostoevsky and Austen, the Brontes, Marilynne Robinson had a lot to teach. There was Dickens’s Little Dorrit, which is about how being imprisoned can become a lifelong internal identity, and A Christmas Carol, which is a story but about social justice. Dickens’s British culture was my inroad, driving his stories into my soul.

Here is another reality, these good books say, when I listen. They show the oppressed, the poor, the forgotten, the economically-drained, the socially threatened, the wounded, the imprisoned, the worn down. Here is what you really look like, the best books show. Their words have been picks, pounding these forty years, though the cracks in my privileged consciousness have taken a painfully long time to appear.

What will drive the pick straight through and crack my world wide open? Another black poet, Toi Derricotte, asks, “How can we wake / From a dream / We are born into”? If Baraka’s experience told him nothing of the white world’s stories, how can I hope to understand his?

Baraka challenges:

Afro-American literature . . . is one of the most influential and important in the world. Particularly given the contest of its creation, in the cauldron of racism, racial violence, and dismissal. It reveals American lives, culture and history in a depth that nothing else is able to do.

Kafka uses that word, suicide, to describe what books can do to us. It is just right. I say to myself, “Self, you wealthy white woman. Give away the riches that are your white privilege. Lay your own story down. Let it be a suicide of sorts.”

I can choose to set aside my own narrative, and let others tell their stories, even if they leave me shaken. Because if I ignore the real narrative of this country, if I stop being formed and informed by the lives of others, what is left? And how can I wake from the dream I’ve inherited, a citizen of this mixed nation, if I won’t listen to stories that bite and sting?

_____________________

RDMartin_biophotoRebecca D. Martin holds a Masters in English Lit from the University of Georgia and has written for the Curator, Coffee + Crumbs, Relief Journal, Proximity Magazine, and Makes You Mom, among others. She lives in Lynchburg, Virginia, with her husband and two children, and, much to their consternation, she reads like crazy. Everything else is optional. She blogs at www.rebarit.blogspot.com.

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  • Yes – reading deeply and widely can change a life. I’m not sure who I would be without the influence of writers who have challenged me to be more and to view the world through various lenses that would not have been available to me in any other way.

  • sandyhay

    This is so true for me. The literature I have read of other cultures, even within our own, has opened my eyes to a world I would have otherwise missed or ignored.

  • I’ve definitely made a more conscious effort to read books (both fiction and nonfiction) by authors of completely different backgrounds. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Soon-Chang Rah, Christena Cleveland, Isabella Allende…. I love being stretched by these authors and their experiences.

    • Annie, I have appreciated your leadership in this effort, through the Red Couch Book Club and your own personal example. You and Leslie Verner are both very inspiring to me in this way.

      • Michele, Thank you so much for the encouragement! You have filled my heart this morning. 🙂

  • “And how can I wake from the dream I’ve inherited, a citizen of this mixed nation, if I won’t listen to stories that bite and sting?” Yes, yes, yes, yes!