This is the second in a series of guest posts from writers who, like me, are contributors to Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing. You can read the first in the series here.
Please welcome Mary Rice.
"And what do I say to my children? Honesty has always been the bottom line between us, but did I really want them going through this with me during their final difficult years in college? On the other hand, how could I shut them out of this most important decision of my life?" - Audre Lorde, from A Burst of Light: Essays on Living with Cancer
I admire women who, as storytellers, explore virtues in subtle, non-self-conscious ways. In the memoir excerpt above, Audre Lorde outlines the conflict in negotiating a personal plotline of living with breast cancer. As Lorde faces the decision of undergoing invasive and expensive treatment or letting nature take its course, readers begin to see the complexity of her circumstances.
On the surface, her dilemma is whether to be honest with her children about her disease and the reality that she will die. A deeper problem is whether treatment and fighting for her life demonstrates greater integrity than surrendering early to her mortal ailment. For Lorde, the question of what is virtuous sustains the tension of the narrative. Whichever decision Lorde makes will carry consequences not only for herself, but for her family. Bravery is not demonstrated merely in the choice, but in the acceptance of whatever happens afterward. That acceptance, grounded in honesty, gives her narrative power.
Let's look at the virtuous explorations of two other women authors—Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and Barbara Kingsolver -- who both negotiate questions of virtue in interesting and admirable ways that are also literary.
"Suffice to say, I was the first member of our family to finish college and the first to marry out of my race. As my husband and I began to raise our family, and as I sought for ways to live agreeably in Anglo-American society, my memories of Manzanar stayed far below the surface." - Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, from Farewell to Manzanar.
Houston’s memoir of her experiences at Manzanar, an American camp of concentrated Japanese citizens during World War II, was assuredly about herself. Even so, Houston spends much of her narrative about Manzanar discussing her family she arrived with, as well as the family she came to know through friendship and trust. She worked to harmonize family life and personal satisfaction. Houston mentioned that she married “out of her race” as a confession to Japanese readers and as a way to assert honesty with herself. Describing the ways in which she sought to live “agreeably in Anglo-American society” as a Japanese woman married to an Anglo man, simultaneously suggests acquiescence to a system while interrogating it.
"I thank Virginia and Wendell Kingsolver, especially for being different in every way from the parents I created for the narrators for this tale. I was the fortunate child of medical and public-health workers, whose compassion and curiosity led them to the Congo. They brought me to a place of wonders, taught me to pay attention, and set me on an early path of exploring the great shifting tension between righteousness and what’s right." - Barbara Kingsolver, Author’s note, The Poisonwood Bible.
Kingsolver reasons in her author’s note that even though her parents are not literally in the text, they make it into the book because they were the ones who took her to the Congo, taught her the observational skills necessary to be a gifted writer, and started her on a long journey of trying to figure out the balance between “the righteous and what’s right.” Kingsolver’s statement suggests, just as Lorde’s and Houston’s did, that the virtuous action does not necessarily fit tidily in one recognizable place. The “shifting tension” Kingsolver delineates in her author’s note is precisely the mechanism by which narrators are bound together in story and authors are bound to the narratives they have designed.
Lorde's, Houston's, and Kingsolver's writing explores the claim that truth is important to most people, but how truth interacts and entangles in life, is relative. It is that kind of realization that I admire when I read and I hope makes it into my work when I write.
Mary Rice writes frequently about the methodology of narrative in the context of folklore, geography, women’s studies, literacy, linguistics, and teacher education. Her work has appeared in many journals and collections. Her book Adolescent Boys’ Literate Identity was named Outstanding Publication of the Year by the Narrative SIG of the American Educational Research Association.
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