Shall we dance? – Zadie Smith’s Swing Time

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So, the length of time between posts will have already demonstrated to you that I failed spectacularly at my own challenge to read and review the Bailey’s shortlist before the winner was announced. For what it’s worth, I did in fact read and make copious notes on Stay With Me which was a deserving nominee and I promise I will upload my thoughts in more detail soon (I can partially compensate for this half-baked effort by providing a link to the author, Ayobami Adebayo’s thoughts on the integral themes of infertility and marriage here). I did though, fall at the first fence (pun absolutely intended) in reading the rather hefty The Sport of Kings. I hauled my copy to France (and now back again) and promise to revisit and indeed to finish soon. In my paltry defence, I have in the interim produced a rather awesome brand new tiny person who has taken up rather a lot of time and energy and so I hope to be forgiven.

Failing as I was to get into The Sport of Kings, I was quite easily tempted away by Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time. It received rave reviews on publication last year with many declaring it to be her “masterpiece” or “finest novel yet” and it has earned Smith her second Booker nomination (the first being for On Beauty which I thoroughly enjoyed). What then, is all the fuss about?

The novel traces the diverging paths of two childhood friends from the same Willesden estate. Both girls have parents of different races: Tracy’s indulgent mother is white, her primarily absent and sinister father, black (the right “way round”, we are told); where the unnamed narrator’s mother, fierce in intelligence and opinion, is black and her father, hapless postman, is white. The girls share a love of dance and though Tracy is the one with the talent that seemingly offers a route off the estate, our narrator is the one who leaves for a life as personal assistant to Aimée a pop superstar.

To describe this novel as a coming of age story or about race or female relationships is to reduce it to its component parts. It is extraordinary in terms of its scope and construction: yes, it is absolutely about coming of age and race and female relationships but it is so multifarious, so carefully and thoroughly layered that it, fittingly, resists those labels. Identity is shown to be relative and unstable, absolutes are undermined and selfhood shown in perpetual fragility. Smith’s writing is intricate in its exploration of identity and its distillation of intersecting influences like race, class, gender. Dance, the central motif, is portrayed throughout as a leveller of these (and many other) factors symbolising possibility and connection.

 “a great dancer has no time, no generation, he moves eternally through the world, so that any dancer in any  age may recognize him”

It is though a strange read. I spent the first two thirds in appreciating how incredibly skilled Smith is and simultaneously feeling rather disappointed and let down by the story and a sense that this was perhaps stylish construction over substantial emotional depth. I had loved the outrageous audacity of the narrative voice in White Teeth and felt short-changed by the quieter, more controlled tenor of the narrator here, unsure how much I really cared about her. By the time I had finished though, I am pleased to say that I was, quite literally, moved to tears.

Post-pregnancy hormones? Sure. Also, the focus on maternal relationships in the closing pages – I lost my own mother three and a half years ago and had just given birth to our first child, a daughter of my own, when I read it. But, it is also Smith’s unerringly precise and incisive observation that hits those nerves so brilliantly. Swing Time is indeed, disciplined, mature and elaborately plotted but it is also rich and raw in its excavation of what it means to be human and how we truly relate to those arounds us.

The Ladies’ Paradise, Émile Zola: ‘a poem to modern activity’

This was not my first encounter with Zola but it was certainly my first successful one. When I was seventeen I tried to read L’Assomoir in French and, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not get very far. I’ve always been a bit wary of texts in translation for the simple reason that a bad translation can ruin a wonderful book; a wariness much exacerbated by some rather dry, dense translations of Sartre which put me off him for a good while. Brian Nelson’s translation of Au Bonheur des Dames suffers no such impediments and unfamiliar with the story (in spite of the BBCs recent adaptation) I thoroughly enjoyed it, cracking through all 432 pages at speed. It was especially fun to read during a road trip across the south of France which encompassed Zola’s hometown of Aix-en-Provence.

The reader is drawn into the compelling and colourful world of the grand department store, The Paradise, with the same force that it entrances and fascinates our heroine: the young and innocent Denise Baudu. In the opening pages, Denise and her brothers Jean and Pépé arrive in Paris in search of their Uncle and stumble across The Ladies’ Paradise. The effect is immediate and emotional: ‘this building which seemed so enormous, brought a lump to her throat and held her rooted to the spot, excited, fascinated, oblivious to everything else.’ The shop windows are an orgy of energy and colour where the…

…umbrellas, placed obliquely, seemed to form the roof of some rustic hut, beneath which, suspended from rods and displaying the rounded outline of calves, were silk stockings, some strewn with bunches of roses, others of every hue – black net, red with embroidered clocks, flesh-coloured ones with a satiny texture which had the softness of a blonde woman’s skin…

Throughout the novel we are treated to these sensuous, vibrant descriptions of the shop and its wares. Consumption is sexualised to the point of fetishism, the calculating owner Octave Mouret sees his customers – the ladies of Paris ‘pale with desire’ – as objects for seduction: ‘His sole passion was the conquest of Woman.’ The act of selling becomes one of erotic manipulation and the great sales that structure the novel constitute moments of collective abandon, exemplified in the final climactic sale, ‘In the trousseau department’, where:

…all discretion was abandoned: women were turned round and viewed from below, from the ordinary housewife with her common calicoes to the rich lady smothered in lace; it was an alcove open to the public, whose hidden luxury, its platings and embroideries and Valenciennes lace, deprived the senses as it overflowed in costly fantasies.

Mouret’s personal seductions are as numerous and successful as those of his shop, until of course, he meets the steadfast and ‘gentle’ Denise who will not be so easily overwhelmed. Indeed, through Denise ‘the women’ will ‘have their revenge’ as predicted to Mouret himself early in the novel.

Accompanying this strain of eroticism runs a parallel current of violence; the above description of the ‘calves’ is one of many in which the body is distorted and dismembered into fragments: ‘the mirrors made the departments recede further into the distance, reflecting the displays together with patches of the public – faces in reverse, bits of shoulders and arms’. The disturbing image of the mannequins, figures of the female body, decapitated ‘each one had a little wooden handle, like the handle of a dagger, stuck in the red flannel which seemed to be bleeding where the neck had been severed’ is emblematic of the violent commodification of the female body Mouret deals in.

The Paradise itself is figured as a machine, albeit a machine that is ‘based on the flesh and blood of Woman’ and as such it is rendered a symbol of a nascent modernity driven by capital and technology. Zola set out his intentions in his notes; he wanted to write, ‘the poem of modern activity. Hence a complete shift of philosophy: ‘no more pessimism, first of all. Don’t conclude with the stupidity and sadness of life. Instead, conclude with its continual labour, the power and gaiety that comes from its productivity. In a word, go along with the century, express the century, which is a century of action and conquest, of effort in every direction.’ This ‘effort in every direction’ is captured in the relentless expansion of the physical building even at the expense of the old, family shops in the vicinity and of course, at the expense of those families themselves. The new, specifically urban space of the department store is characterised by ‘the crush’ of the crowd and the ‘madness in the air’ that brings with it.

The productivity of Mouret’s machine is inextricable from a Darwinian brutality that sustains both the structure and the dominance of the shop. It is destructive and frequently figured as ‘monstrous’ in its mechanisation and power. Even Denise whose ‘coming was to be a revenge’ is shocked ‘by its brutal operation’. Indeed Denise who is characterised throughout as ‘gentle’ and acts as a humanising influence on both man and monster cannot stem the ‘force which was carrying everything before it.’

Inexorable progress and forward propulsion beat through the novel like the shop itself, ‘regulated and organized with the remorselessness of a machine: the vast horde of women were as if caught in the wheels of an inevitable force.’ It surges forward, driven by Mouret’s speculative approach, attention fixed firmly on the future as the present dissipates into money already made and the next sale holds promises of greater profits; The Paradise remains a machine clothed in luxurious silks – and all for a reasonable price.

The Passion of New Eve, Angela Carter (1977)

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The Passion of New Eve follows the transformative punishment of Evelyn (who begins the story as a young Englishman) that sees him surgically re-sculpted into Eve. Evelyn impregnates and abandons the inchoate Leilah who once danced “a dance called the End of the World, to lead the unwary into temptation –“ and is left bleeding and sterile by the Haitian abortionist. Evelyn flees the streets of a nightmarish, dissolute imagining of New York for the unforgiving sterility of the desert. There he is captured and cast before Mother, an absurd rendering of a fertility goddess who:

…had reconstructed her flesh painfully, with knives and needles into a transcendental form as an emblem, as an example, and flung a patchwork quilt stitched from her daughters’ breasts over the cathedral of her interior, the cave within the cave.

Mother exacts vengeance on Evelyn for his crimes against women and intends the re-enactment of the Immaculate Conception until she flees. In her flight, Eve soon comes under the power of Zero the poet, with one eye and seven (soon to be eight) wives whom he rapes and beats, raging against the moviestar and “dyke” Tristessa, object of Eve’s obsession, who he believes has stolen his fertility. The revelation of Tristessa’s own secret follows before the third and final phase of Eve’s journey begins: she is captured once again and finds herself a maternal comfort to the Colonel of the boy soldiers who weeps at her breast. Ultimately the apocalyptic vision of the novel comes to fruition in the multi-factioned civil war; the skies burst with flames and Eve must move forward, at once towards her past and future.

Carter’s prose is described as “pyrotechnic” in a quotation from The Observer on the front cover and that it certainly is. Graphic, colourful and lurid Carter crafts a surreal dystopia structured around mythologies and iconographies of the sexed body. It is through these mythic re-imaginings that Carter exposes the inherent inadequacy of the binarism that underpins them: a matriarchy founded on motherhood is a matriarchy defined by phallocentric conceptions of femininity as evidenced by the symbol of the “truncated phallus” by which those women define themselves. The images that Evelyn is shown during his metamorphosis in order to feminise him psychologically reinforce a phallocentric conception of a femininity that is passive, malleable and receptive: “…sea-anemones opening and closing; caves, with streams issuing from them; roses opening to admit a bee; the sea, the moon…”

The body in this world is amorphous and through Eve/lyn’s transformation and indeed through the absurd Tiresian figure of Tristessa, Carter excavates the connections and disparities between “the essence and appearance”. The opening passages detail Leilah’s ritualised robing in which the reflection of her body in the cracked mirror (an image that recurs throughout the novel) acts a blank canvas for her to decorate and costume as if for some grotesque carnival:

…applying rouge to her nether lips and the purple or peony of scarlet grease around her mouth and nipples; powders and unguents all the colours of the rainbow went on to the skin in the sockets of her eyes…

Leilah’s performance and manipulation of the body in a way foreshadows the blankness and potentiality of Eve’s rebirth. Once Evelyn’s emasculation is complete she exists as “a tabula erasa, a blank sheet of paper, an unhatched egg. I hae not yet become a woman, although I possess a woman’s shape. Not a woman, no: both more and less than a real woman.” Eve learns to perform her new sex whether in the role of Zero’s eighth wife, Tristessa’s lover or as comfort to the boy soldier who weeps. However, “to become” a woman in this novel is to be defined by phallocentric expectation of womanhood as symbolised in the rapist Zero, the murderous boy soldier and the “mythic and monstrous” Mother. The body exists as an instrument of performance but the performance is of a gender defined by sex: even Tristessa, whose “name has all the poignancy of hopelessness in its whispering sibilants” is forced to embrace the gender expectations intrinsic to his biology.

The ideas Carter dramatizes here are articulated explicitly in her work The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, published the year after this novel in 1978. It is heavily informed by a variety of feminist writings, not least of all Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous, and if these questions of gender and performance interest you I would also recommend digging into some Judith Butler. Next up for me… am I finally going to crack into The Luminaries?

Feminism, Islam and the importance of complexity

When I sat down to write this post on Saturday morning, it was going to be about literary Christmas presents. Something fun and frivolous for the pleasingly alliterative festive season. However, in my pre-post pottering I came across this article by Laurie Penny. Entitled, ‘This isn’t ‘feminism’. It’s Islamophobia’, it raises various ideas about the assumption of feminist authority by far right commentators to derail and distract from discussions of structural sexism in the West with Islamophobia. I have been following the response she has received – albeit intermittently due to various travels and familial duties –  both on Twitter and in the comments section below the article itself and as such I felt moved to offer my tuppence, however insignificant that tuppence might be.

A great deal of the criticism Penny has received for this article objects to the stereotyping of different gender groups – in particular white men – and expresses outrage that it is not an article condemning oppressive practices at work in the name of Islam. Both these responses, to me, miss the point that Penny is making: this is not an article about radical Islam, nor is it an article about gender stereotyping, it is an article about language and the appropriation of that language in the name of hypocrisy and hatred. This is something she sets out very clearly in the opening paragraph, “the rhetoric and language of feminism has been co-opted by Islamophobes, who could not care less about women of any creed or colour.” Penny is calling out hypocrisy and with it an insidious brand of misogyny that dresses itself up in words like freedom and equality and, in doing so, muddies the inherent value and meaning of those words. The ‘equal’ West and the ‘oppressive’ Middle East is a dangerous and false dichotomy that plays out across a broader media and political narrative but it is particularly infuriating when, as Penny points out, it is crassly politicised by organisations of the far right whose own records on gender discrimination are themselves so questionable.

Any discussion of discrimination leads to stereotyping in some degree: by its very nature it necessitates the catergorisation of groups of people be it white men or Muslim women (though it’s interesting that one is defined by race the other by religion). This is always going to be reductive and until the language of political debate and discourse starts to privilege complexity and nuance over quotability it will continue to be so. I’ve been wanting to write a post about contemporary political rhetoric for some time and whilst the finer details of that future post are still ruminating among cobwebs somewhere dusty at the back of my brain, this article speaks to some of those ideas. I can’t bear watching politicians speak, whether it’s on Newsnight or in the Commons the priority is to deliver simplistic, quotable one-liners that will play well with whichever demographic they are playing to (look at me generalising and stereotyping there…). We should require of our politicians and commentators on both the left and the right (what could be more reductive than that?) that they embrace complexity and nuance; they should be complicating issues not artificially simplifying them. We need complexity and the culture of the soundbyte negates it.

The response to Penny’s article exemplifies this: to identify one issue – the appropriation of feminist language and rhetoric by Western politicians both to propagate Islamophobia and maintain the fundamental inequalities of Western society – does not diminish nor deny the importance of another, let’s say the suggestion of gender segregation in universities or the stoning of women for adultery. It’s not an either-or discussion. It should go without saying that Penny stands against those latter two and, importantly, just because she has written what I think is an articulate and provocative comment piece on the former doesn’t mean she is, necessarily, privileging it.

Journalists like Penny go out of their way to complicate debate and that is exactly what this article is doing. The subtext of “West good Islam bad” that permeates so much of both the media and political narratives (again note the geographic v. the religious there) is not only unhelpfully reductive in the extreme but downright insulting, not just to the women who are still, relentlessly, fighting for a voice and making themselves heard but to those women, like Penny, like Caroline Criado-Perez, who are so frequently told that they have a voice, so why don’t they stop their whining and just shut up?

Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson

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This novel is the second recommendation from that fabulously gifted friend mentioned in my last post. If you have already encountered Written on the Body, I’m sure you’ll be able to gather why it was mentioned in the same breath as DeLillo’s  The Body Artist. Both novels are concerned with the human psyche and exposing the relationship it bears, or in this case, exploding the relationship it bears to the gendered body.

The opening line of the novel links love with loss in posing the question, “Why is the measure of love loss?”. The structure of this one line introductory paragraph effectively encapsulates the undulating movement of the narrative that is to follow. The narrator weaves a story through memories of and reflections on the nature and experience of love and the loss of that love. The physical body – as the title would suggest – lies at the centre of this narrative. Love is examined through the body and the connection of bodies.

The narrative voice is technically genderless. The voice has girlfriends and boyfriends but is never identified as male or female to the reader. The result is not, however, the strange sense of dissociation of psyche from physicality that one finds in the DeLillo but instead an intense and bodily exploration of sexual subjectivity. Even the body here, if only the narrator’s body (a point to which I will return), is stripped of gender and with it any social gender constructs or preconceptions that the reader brings with them. Winterson herself once commented in an interview that, for her, “a love story is a love story. I don’t care what the genders are if it’s powerful enough. And I don’t think that love should be a gender-bound operation.”

In many ways, this novel reads as a mediation on the disconnect between the body as a vehicle for a gendered consciouness and the experience of love through that same body. This is one of the things that I struggled with: the novel, in denying the narrative voice a gender would seem to be aiming at the transcendent power of love. The problem I have is that the same narrative gives the body primacy within the novel. It feels contradictory. The narrator has no gender but is defined by sexual encounters and experiences of the body. The attempt to tie love to the physical and in the same moment to deny the relevance of gender to that physicality seems to fall over itself and as a result it just doesn’t quite work.

Another problem is the nature of the language, I found it very uncomfortable to read in places. Now there’s nothing wrong with that; a good book should certainly make you squirm, should ask questions of its reader and one of the text’s successes is definitely its undermining of romantic cliché. Again though, in exposing the failure of language through a sort of corrupted lyricism, the graphic sexuality somehow at odds with its own imagery, it ties itself in knots. How can the depth and truth of love be figured as textual, as “written on the body” as a name “scored… into my shoulders” if language ultimately constitutes failure? The narrator tells us that, “Love demands expression.  It will not stay still, stay silent, be good, be modest, be seen and not heard, no.  It will break out in tongues of praise, the high note that smashes the glass and spills the liquid.” And yet even the simplest expression of that love is deplored as “unoriginal”.

Am I missing the point here? Of course the text is straining past the constructs and conventions of gender and love; it embraces the contradictions I’m grappling with as inherent to the experience of love in a world where sexuality and gender are increasingly dissociated. I’m just not quite sure I buy it.

All of that said, it does make for a fascinating read. As you can probably tell, I have got myself into a bit of tangle over it and I would be very keen to hear from anyone who may be able to help me unpick it all in the comments section below…

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The Body Artist, Don DeLillo

The Body Artist

I read this on the recommendation of an incredibly gifted friend. She and I had almost parallel lives before we met three years ago: we both grew up in Kent, were direct contemporaries at Cambridge (sitting in the same seminars without really knowing each other) until three years ago we ended up teaching together. More spooky than this mysterious alignment of our fates is the correlation of our interests: we love the same kind of books.

So, as I commented airily that I would like to root my Master’s dissertation in something to do with gender and sexuality in contemporary literature, it should have been entirely unsurprising when she replied that her undergraduate dissertation had been about gender and the body in Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist and Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. Thus, I attribute this particular literary encounter to her exceptional taste.

The Body Artist marked a shift in scale for DeLillo; a novella really, published in 2001, it followed the 800 page masterpiece Underworld and it offers a far more intimate experience. The prose is strange. The reader floats through precise moments of thought, experience and feeling; the opening has an air of unreality about it as it follows the intricate motions and interactions of an individual consciousness. Giles Foden in his review for the Guardian identified this as “an example of radical hyper-realism”, and I am inclined to agree. The minutiae of each moment is magnified and just as a leaf placed under a microscope appears – though we know it to be a leaf – as an unidentifiable jumble of lines and shapes, so this normality – though we recognise it to be normality – appears distorted and fragmentary in DeLillo’s hands.

The mind we are drifting through belongs to the eponymous body artist, Lauren Hartke, eating breakfast with her husband Rey in a house on the coast that they have rented for six months. As ever, I am reluctant to offer spoilers but this story is not really about what happens next; it is about the aftermath.

We learn that Rey has killed himself in his ex-wife’s appartment. We read his obituary and it is here that Lauren’s story really begins. As a body artist Lauren transforms her body onstage, she uses her body as an instrument with which she absorbs identities and psyches that are not her own.

As Lauren grieves, she finds an enigmatic, spectral figure that literally haunts the house, sitting on the edge of the bed in his underwear. He repeats fragments of conversation from her past and seemingly, from her future recalling Rey’s voice, manner, feelings with the same accuracy as the audio recorder she becomes fixated upon. The man offers ripples and echoes of Rey and indeed of herself.

The intensity with which Lauren experiences her own physicality becomes a vehicle for her grief: she pumices, plucks, bleaches her body until it is blank, almost ungendered. She finds herself detached from the temporal; the line blurs between performance and reality. She does not just assume other genders, other identities but she becomes them.

It is an eerie and compelling work excavating the experience of loss. In doing so, DeLillo interrogates the fabric of both societal and personal gender constructions. The assumed connection between the psyche and the body is dissolved by grief, by trauma; identity is not achieved through performance but performance replaces identity.

In our world, rigid conceptions of gender and sexuality are collapsing in on themselves. The space between categorisations – gay, straight, female, male – is contracting; these pigeonholes seem increasingly simplistic, reductive even. What DeLillo explores in The Body Artist though, is how these indistinctions open up another space between the psyche and the gendered body, the one no longer dependent upon, nor necessarily connected to, the other. The result may well be as The Salon puts it, “an expert mind-f***” but it is also a work compelling, provocative and raw.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

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I finished this novel yesterday. I was lying stretched out on the carpet of my living room floor at home in Kent. Continuous games of football were being booted about noiselessly on the TV and the members of my family were variously packing, travelling, napping and enjoying the sun; the family cat Luna came and watched me for a while before yawning and going to find something more interesting to do. So I lay on my stomach for a good couple of hours, utterly engrossed and hoping that no-one would notice that I was weeping.

It has been a long time since a novel has made me cry like that and perhaps an even longer time since I have read a novel with such compulsion. I purchased it absent-mindedly after reading Zadie Smith’s essay that I believe now forms the introduction to this edition (it also opens Smith’s eloquent, personal volume Changing My Mind which is lovely and worth a read in and of itself). Smith describes her first encounter with Their Eyes Were Watching God. She describes taking it “to the dinner table, still holding on to it, as we do sometimes with books we are not quite ready to relinquish”: I cannot imagine a time when I would ever want to let it go. Indeed, I’ve offered to lend it to a dear friend and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to physically part with it, not just yet anyway.

The story is that of Janie Starks who stretches “on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her.” In search of “singing bees for her” Janie sits at the front gate “waiting for the world to be made.” It is here that she kisses a boy, that “shiftless Johnny Taylor”. The reader is taken with Janie through three subsequent marriages, each one entirely different in character. I don’t want to, in fact, I won’t tell you any more about the plot because you need to (and I mean that as a real imperative); you need to read it, to feel it for yourself.

The language is astonishing in its lyricism, the opening lines of the novel, much like the moment we first meet Janie, are stunning:

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.”

The words glow quietly off the page whispering as you rustle onto the next, yes, this is something special, come and feel with us. And feel we do. In Janie we encounter a character who, as Janie’s grandmother famously points out, being a black woman at this stage of American history, “is de mule uh de world.” Zadie Smith writes that “it hurt my pride to read it” and aspects of this novel are deeply painful. I found the matter-of-fact discussions about how to beat your wife difficult to read, I also found myself shaking with fury and disgust at the nerve of that Mrs Turner woman (you’ll understand when you get there).

This makes it sound like hard work though and it is nothing of the sort. For all the practical impossibility of Janie’s freedom; that is what lies at the heart of this book. Janie’s compassion for an old donkey; the sadness you feel for her with the realisation of “the rock she was battered against”; her capacity for true “self-crushing love” and the “glow” she feels when someone (again you’ll know when get there) teaches her to play chequers rather than expecting her to watch.

Zadie Smith’s introduction discusses the connection she feels to the novel, not just as a writer-reader but as a black woman; she explores the complexity of colour-blind reading and her joy as a fourteen year old at “the marvellous feeling of recognition that came with these characters who had my hair, my eyes, my skin, even the ancestors of the rhythm of my speech.” The tributes on the back cover in addition to Smith’s are from Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Oprah Winfrey.

I am a twenty-seven year old white girl from Kent. I have no real understanding of what it is to be discriminated against, nor of the heritage that bears and I don’t want to claim a fraudulent connection with Janie Starks or Zora Neale Hurston – I am conscious of that even as I type. And yet, in spite of myself, I, like Smith, find myself moved “to say things I wouldn’t normally. Things like: She is my sister and I love her.”