Questions for Margaret Blair Young

Salvador-202x300Recently, I sent Association for Mormon Letters President Margaret Blair Young a list of questions about her current projects with Darius Gray–a revision of their Standing on the Promises novel series and the feature film The Heart of Africaas well as her own work as a creative writer and AML president. Kindly, Margaret took time away from her busy schedule to answer them for me. 

I’ve split the Q&A into two parts. Answers to the questions relating to Standing on the Promises and The Heart of Africa will be featured on Modern Mormon Men sometime soon. Below are her answers to my questions about her earlier work, AML, and future projects.

NOTE: I plan to post the Q&A in its entirety on The Low-Tech World as soon as Modern Mormon Men runs the remainder of it.

Throughout your career as a writer, you’ve seemed to gravitate towards stories about marginalization within Mormon communities. For example, in your novel Salvador, your protagonist is a divorced Mormon woman who visits relatives who operate a fringe Mormon commune in Central America. Heresies of Nature centers around a character who has been severely debilitated by multiple sclerosis. What draws you to these stories? Why do Mormons need them?

What drew me to write Salvador?  My life.  You’d be surprised at how much of that is autobiographical.  Heresies of Nature?  My sister-in-law died of M.S.  I turned that novel into a play, and my sister passed away on opening night.  It was a remarkable experience for all of us.  My husband had already written a tribute to his sister on the playbill, so every audience member received that.  Cast members attended Nancy’s funeral, and Nancy’s nurses attended the play.  But obviously, I believe in dealing with hard issues.  If we don’t learn to deal with them, we will almost certainly lack empathy when others are hitting them.  We need to train our minds and magnify our faith as our children grow in this internet age.  They will come to us with questions to bridge what they learn in Sunday school and what they read online.  Our answers will need to reflect our knowledge and the example of who we are in this age and place of Mormonism; what we cling to as our essential and inviolate morality.  This is a dynamic religion.  We may still stand in holy places, even while acknowledging that many in the past became detached from their “better angels.”

Can you trace the DNA of your work as a fiction writer? Who has informed your work the most intellectually, stylistically?

My first influences were the classics, Moby Dick and The Brothers Karamazov being my first teachers.  And they were teachers.  I took Melville’s book with me to Guatemala and read it three times without anyone guiding me.The Brothers Karamazov was the first book I fell in love with.  It transformed me into a reader.  Before reading that, I cheated.  I read Cliff Notes.  Stylistically?  I read a lot of James Joyce, Alice Munro, Faulkner.  When I turned to Black history fifteen years ago, I read history books.  Seems like hundreds.  I find I’m actually more at home with historians now than I am with fiction writers.  A really good short story feels like dessert to me.

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In the Beginning, the End: Some Initial Thoughts on Susan Elizabeth Howe’s Salt

Salt Cover by Ron Stucki for Signature Books
Salt Cover by Ron Stucki for Signature Books

This past Saturday, my review copy of Susan Elizabeth Howe‘s new book, Salt, arrived. I’ll be reviewing it for AMV and expect to have my essay completed and posted sometime in the next month or two, but in the meantime I wanted to post my initial response to the collection.

While I haven’t yet read beyond the first poem, I’m anxious to sit down and keep company with Susan’s words, in part because of the first poem. As all stories arguably do, Salt‘s narrative begins with Adam and Eve–or at least with a revision thereof: his name is “Bob,” while she remains nameless. In the collection opener, “Python Killed to Save Woman,” Eve (I’ll call her) wrestles with a snake: “Lucy, / short for Lucifer,” the couple’s “pet python,” which they let “slither about [their] bedroom.” Probably not the smartest idea, as you can imagine, something Eve realizes the night she wakes because Lucy has “wrapped around [her]” like the snake would live meat. Which, of course, the woman is–at least to a hungry snake. Sensing the struggle beside him, Bob wakes and grabs his “Swiss army knife” to take care of the snake, but instead he gets “enmeshed” in the wrestling match, though not so much that he can’t grab the phone and call for help.

And that’s where this allegory of a poem leaves the pair: struggling for life in Lucifer’s tightening squeeze, Eve wondering “whose death” will come first, although the poem’s title is a clue as to who wins. Little matter, though, because in the end, of this poem as of life, death gets the last word (until Christ speaks up, that is).

Death: the heritage of a world fallen away from Paradise, the proper end of that system’s decomposition. By beginning Salt with Eden’s end, Susan reminds readers of their mortality, which was made possible by the Fall, and opens the way to explore the impact of death on life and language. Salt‘s opening poem, then, is a memento mori in a poetry collection that positions itself as a preservative–salt is, after all, essential to animal life. As such, it’s pretty valuable thing to have around. Hence Christ to his disciples: You are the salt of the earth–your presence here should preserve and thus extend the principles of Life. Hence Paul to early Christians: Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt–let your language tend toward preservation of the principles of life. Hence the implication of Susan’s title: here are some words dear to me as salt. May they preserve you as they have preserved me.

Here’s hoping.

(Cross-posted here.)

Mormons and the Fiction (and Poetry) of E Pluribus Unum

This summer I have another chance to teach a literature class rather than my usual course in freshman composition. This time around I’ll be teaching (in four short weeks) the second half of the American literature survey, which covers everything since 1900. Initially, I planned on assigning a number of novellas rather than an anthology, but my mind changed when I decided to focus the class on how the canon has been opened up over the past one hundred years to allow writers from a variety of backgrounds to participate in this thing we call “American Literature.” I’ll be calling the class “The Fiction (and Poetry) of E Pluribus Unum“ because I intend to focus on the way the canon has and has not embraced the beautiful and elusive American paradox of a unified community comprised of many–often discordant–voices. Plus, we’re going to be reading fiction and poetry. So there’s some wordplay there.

The text I plan to use is the second volume of the shorter eighth edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature. The Norton anthology, in many ways, , making it an ideal text to use with my class. I haven’t selected reading assignments yet, but I expect that I’ll include some of my undergraduate favorites–Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif”–as well as others that I’m unfamiliar with, but sound interesting–Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Lullaby,” Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Sexy,” Junot Díaz’s “Drown.” I’m also interested in other texts, like John Steinbeck’s “The Leader of the People,” which seems (tellingly) to have taken the place of “The Chrysanthemums” in the academic canon. I imagine these texts and the others will help us have some interesting discussions about the meaning of the E Pluribus Unum ideal. I especially hope to get them thinking about how and why we construct and reconstruct (a) canon(s). I also want to them to think about the voices that are still outside the canon.

For this reason, I’m planning on assigning three Mormon short stories and a few poems. Mormons, that is, will be our case study of a community of American writers who have not yet been given a place in today’s multi-cultural canon–even though their numbers are comparable to other communities–the Jewish and LGBTQ communities, for example–that are reasonably well-represented in the Norton anthology. My hope is that the Mormon works I bring in will spur a discussion not only about the ongoing “fiction” of E Pluribus Unum–the never-ending (and ultimately impossible?) task of bringing more voices to the table and truly being one from many–but also the limitations and ethics of the canon model itself. Should we even have a canon, after all, if its overriding structure demands that we value one voice over another?

Canon debates are always fun, and I wouldn’t be opposed to having one here on AMV, but before we do so, I want to solicit your help. As I said, I’m planning on using three Mormon short stories and several poems. Which do you recommend? My only stipulation is that they much be accessible free to students via online archives like those of Dialogue and Sunstone. I don’t want to make them purchase any more books than they have to. The Norton anthology is expensive enough.

In asking this question, of course, I am also asking us to create a kind of Mormon canon of short stories and poems–which means I’m asking you to include some works at the expense of others. Feel free to justify and defend your choices.

Carry On: A Reminder of Black Beret Sunday

Marron bannerI’ve been a little quiet lately on AMV because of dissertation work, but I’ll be finishing Zane Grey’s surprisingly excellent (so far) anti-Mormon novel Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) sometime next week, and I expect to have a lot to say about it (and Ed Harris, for that matter).

Before tomorrow (2/3) comes, though, I want to remind everyone about Black Beret Sunday. Don’t forget to take this opportunity to raise awareness about Mormon Art and Literature by wearing a black beret, a maroon-colored item of clothing, and/or a cockroach pin. I know many people–including me–have certain reservations about the ethics and effectiveness of Sunday activism, but I am sure the following death threats I have receive will steel your nerves and lend conviction to your soul:

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Thoughts on Teaching and Mormon Assimilation

Since Kent’s post on a free online Mormon literature course, I’ve begun thinking about what Mormon texts I could use in a survey class on nineteenth-century American literature[1. Is a class solely on nineteenth-century Mormon literature too much to hope for?] and how I could justify their place on the syllabus.[2. The fact that I feel I need to justify their place is part of what this post is about.] In some cases, like the millenarian poetry of Parley P. Pratt and W. W. Phelps, I think I could easily place them with early American Protestant poems and hymns that express similar millennial longings. I could also find a place for poems by Eliza R. Snow and Emmeline B. Wells among American women poets of the West, as critic Nina Baym has done in a recent work.

Nephi Anderson and other early Mormon fiction writers could also be worked into a syllabus. In some ways, after all, their fiction is not unlike the works of late nineteenth-century African American writers like Charles Chesnutt and Frances Harper, who also used the short story and novel forms to explore the problems and potentials of assimilation, social passing, and identity. At the same time, however, the works of Chesnutt and Harper have the advantage of belonging to a minority group whose basic narrative has already been well-incorporated into the broader American narrative. When teachers go to teach Iola LeRoy, that is, they don’t have to teach students from the ground up about racism, slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction, racial stereotypes, and Jim Crow–the issues these text are responding to. They usually have high school and college history classes–not to mention the tireless efforts of social activists–to thank for at least some basic student knowledge about these issues.

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David M. Clark remembers Richard Cracroft

David M. Clark, author of The Death of a Disco Dancer remembers Richard Cracroft and recommends a couples of Cracroft’s essays.

Wm writes: David M. Clark, who you may know as the author of The Death of a Disco Dancer, emailed me the following tribute to Richard Cracroft. I’m pleased to be able to bring it to you.

With great sadness, I learned of the passing of Richard Cracroft, the great BYU English professor and the beating heart and soul of Mormon literary criticism.

Dr. Cracroft was intelligent, jovial, irrepressibly optimistic and exceedingly generous. Not all great scholars are great teachers, but he was known and beloved as both. He was, in my mind, the consummate BYU professor – scholarly, accomplished, unpretentious, open-minded yet fully committed, fully believing, an unapologetic disciple.

I was one of the lucky students that got to know him reasonably well. Not only was I fortunate to take a few of his classes but I was also fortunate enough to be an American Studies major when he was running our fledgling little program. His love of literature, particularly literature of the American West (Twain, Cather, Stegner et al.) was infectious. He loved the humanism of Stegner and Cather and the humor of Mark Twain (summed up he said by the incongruity inherent by the collision of Eastern values with the hard realities of the Frontier — akin to a “belch in the parlor”). He always (always) accentuated the positive. I learned from him that the Mormon experience, even the experience of a middle-class, suburban, know-nothing Mormon punk like me was relevant and maybe even compelling. Continue reading “David M. Clark remembers Richard Cracroft”

Review: A Few Good Mormon Novels

So there’s several Mormon novels I read that I kept meaning to review, but never got around to it. They were there in the back of my head, screaming at me, “Tell the world about us!” I looked compassionately at those great works of art and said, “Okay, I have a duty to you for making my life that much better. Okay.” So these are going to be fast and dirty, but they’ll be better than the guilty silence that has waited impatiently the past several years. So here’s a handful of some of the best Mormon Literature that I have come across the last several years:

Pictograph MurdersTHE PICTOGRAPH MURDERS

by P.G. Karamasines

Written by AMV’s very own Patricia Karasamines, this novel still has left a very vivid impression on me, despite the fact that it’s been probably six or seven years since I read it. It’s the story of Alex McKelvey, a Mormon convert who participates in a BYU sponsored archaeology dig in Southern Utah. Alex is a English/folklore student at the Y and a naturalist, so although she isn’t actually studying archaeology, her interest in the Southwest and the myths and culture of the Native Americans makes her interest in participating in the dig more than believable. At the dig, a disappearance and possible murder occurs, which leads us into an intriguing plot involving the possible involvement of mythological figures, culture clashes, and a tight, interesting thriller plot.

The characters in the novel were well drawn and intriguing, especially Alex (and, interestingly enough, her Siberian husky Kit), as well as the portrayal of the Native American mythological figure Coyote. Character driven in a magical realism setting, this was an achingly beautiful novel, despite masquerading as a thriller. The evocative language Karamesines uses, especially when describing Southern Utah’s emotional beauty or  using her archetypal brush to paint new visions on Native American mythology. Being a lover of mythology, cultural exchange, and poetic prose, this book was right up my alley. Beautifully written, intelligently plotted, and deeply satisfying, I would heartily recommend The Pictograph Murders to nearly anyone.

Continue reading “Review: A Few Good Mormon Novels”