September 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s

Friends,

I dislike some folks’ comparisons to Fitzgerald for this month’s read. Not because there aren’t parallels, not because I believe we shouldn’t let books — and people — be in conversation with each other, but because I generally take issue with assigning “debut” novelists “a great” to whom they seem to harken back, as if lending legitimacy to their work is somehow necessary. Especially given the lessons and themes of these novels. Keep reading if you’re curious as to why.

Writers are writers. Their voices are their voices. Their stories are their stories. And that should be enough. That said, if you’ve read The Great Gatsby, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on whether this literary parallel holds value. So many have made it. And if you haven’t read that American classic, I suggest you carve out time to do so. After all, September 2020’s author inscription mentions the “green light,” and in a world where we all need a beacon of hope to some degree or other, I’ll invite you to imagine what significance it might have — both now and in the future.

But first, here is your task, should you choose to accept it:

Please join me in reading one of my very favorite pieces of modern American literature, Stephanie Powell Watts’ No One is Coming to Save Us, which was published in 2017 by Ecco Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. If you finish early, read or re-read Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. For several reasons, considering these books side-by-side may prove a worthy exercise — just not for the reasons I take issue with above.

I love each and every one of you. And I’ll see you back here the week we welcome fall.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

When the Example Isn’t One You Should Follow

Some time ago, I mentioned that when the right time arose, I would return to the Reading Words category. Friends, that time is now. Before you read any further, please take some time to carefully investigate the following: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/22/how-racist-was-flannery-oconnor.

Thanks for doing that. It’s critical to understanding what you’re about to read, something that after considerable thought, I cannot remain silent about. As with many things in life, we should all learn to listen and digest fully before we respond, but equally important as knowing when to “shush up” (as we say down south) is knowing when speaking out is the reasonable thing to do. Usually it’s in moments where there’s a truth that needs to be delivered and someone won’t be ready to hear it.

With that spirit in mind, I must confess that I am more than a little disappointed with The New Yorker and Paul Elie. And yes, I am disappointed with both, separately. That matters here, for folks who are newly entering these sorts of conversations (welcome, by the way!).

First, the undercurrent notion that we are ALL just now taken with the central idea they share suggests that for many, many, many years, many, many, many people have not been. Or at least presupposes it, which is almost worse. Perhaps in some areas, by some folks, this is true. Perhaps for Elie. Perhaps in New York or D.C. (Elie’s haunts). But if that is the case, why not just say so? Meanwhile, to oversimplify or otherwise obfuscate who racism is relevant to, EVEN AND ESPECIALLY using academic language, is to miss a point so large that the author might’ve been better off remaining silent.

Don’t worry, it gets worse.

Second, the article makes plainly clear another troubling but longstanding trend: Northeastern Bastion of Liberalism Giants telling the “uneducated masses” (many of whom already live and Do The Work in their daily lives) how it is that they should think, speak, and feel on the issues these Giants are only more recently starting to care (speak/act) about in any real, concrete, constructive way. Read that again, slowly. I know it’s a lot to digest. But it must be digested.

Sure, there’s been a lot of very public attempts to “understand” this issue, but like so many other troubling “studies,” rarely if ever are the voices of those who live this reality given an equal platform, compared to those who seek to distantly finger-wag whilst they hide every mirror in their homes from themselves.

Curious behavior? You bet.

And third, Elie’s limitations in his understanding of whiteness and critical race theory are so loud that they scream off the page. He doesn’t even have to say that much for the critically-aware reader to see it. Contrary to what Elie would have you believe, understanding the effects of racism on white culture (and vice versa) is absolutely, without a doubt, CENTRAL to dismantling racism. And understanding history and southern culture, whether or not Elie likes it, also matters a great deal.

The especially troubling takeaway here is Elie’s hubris. Not just in his refusal to award any merit to the previous points, but in his belief that attacking others’ attempts to address them somehow “counts” as him doing the work he needs to do. Writing about the work is not the work, Mr. Elie, Sir. Especially when you’re determined to take a deliberately half-informed view.

Is that an uncomfortable realization? Sure. Is it necessary? Absolutely. As a white man of considerable northeastern privilege, and as someone who has devoted his professional life (with much acclaim, I might add) to the study and publishing of Great American Literature, Elie is the last person who should be taking the easy way out, wagging his Ivory-Towered Finger at others’ attempts, as messy and complex as they are or aren’t.

Perhaps most damningly, the work he presented is just backstory to the work he should have written, that The New Yorker should have published, that we should have had the privilege of reading from someone whose voice is well-regarded and the holder of considerable power. But Ryan, I hear some of you asking, what should the work have been? Simple. A courageous look inward.

How Racist IS Paul Elie? How Racist IS The New Yorker? Hiding behind the article that got written is academically sloppy, personally lazy, and culturally tone-deaf beyond belief. I expect better. You should too. Instead, for now, we must settle for another pandering excuse of the one they’re willfully hiding behind.

Ain’t it a damn shame … again.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

P.S. Want a better example? See here.

TIME got it closer to right.

A long time ago at that.

"Gone With The Wind?" Not So Fast.

First, we digress:

I have a confession to make. I, proud and also sometimes horrified daughter of the American South, read Gone with the Wind (GWTW) for the first time last year. My rite of passage — some might even say birthright — was finally complete. What followed next were grandiose plans to draft a Reading Words post about my multi-faceted experience, borne largely of increasing frustration with how the American South gets disproportionately crucified for the atrocities people everywhere still commit, centuries after Union white folk declared victory over Southern sin. If you’re trying to imagine what that post might’ve looked like, think less “Southern apologist” and more “look in the mirror, America” (see here also).

The issue is that I never quite got there. My anger at non-Southern elites was so strong that it blinded me. If we were such a backwards people, worthy of denigration after denigration after denigration, then why did folks who spun these tales also continue to buy our land and appropriate our culture, among other perplexing behaviors? The answer is that the behaviors aren’t really perplexing at all — they’re predatory, and the people who perpetrate them are monsters hiding in plain sight.

See how quickly this type of response digresses? Needless to say, I never published my impassioned early attempts. Why? Because I’d hit a critical impasse: myself. Like it or not, I wasn’t ready to produce the response I needed to share. Owning that was my first step towards maybe one day sharing it. That was easy. The hard part was not knowing when — if ever — I’d be strong enough or clear enough to take this work back on.

What a healer time can be! Today, a year (and really thirty-some) later, I’m finally ready. Though I’m still quieting my shaky knees (this is vulnerable work, y’all!), today I’m properly ready to commence the work I intended to begin last year. Starting today, I’m stepping fully into my calling, fully into my heritage, and beginning with a reckoning by way of Margaret Mitchell and her polarizing oeuvre, Gone with the Wind. Come with?

In the presence of greatness:

It’s always a little uncomfortable to read something where the author is held up as “a great.” You’re, by the magic of reading, connected to someone else, from another place or time, and that person just happens to be whoever they are, and you’re … well, you’re you. Does anyone else ever feel this way? No? That’s okay. The good and the bad of this particular situation is that, in ways that might surprise you, Mitchell’s greatness is qualified by another uncomfortable truth. That qualification makes her more relatable for some, sure, but we’ve got to stop and consider what else we’re doing when we put conditions on greatness in the first place.

Work with me here…

Not only is Margaret Mitchell the author of one of America’s defining pieces of literature, but she’s also a woman, and a woman who won the Pulitzer in the 1930s. As momentous as this might initially seem, paradoxically, by percent, more of these awards were given to women in that era than in today’s (at least for Novels/Fiction). Don’t believe me? Go ahead, look it up. In fact, by the time you read this, it will have been more than half a decade since a woman held that distinction. And that’s not okay. We cannot run from this fact.

Here’s where the nasty qualification comes in to play. When in the course of celebrating Mitchell’s achievements, we start to sound like this —

Yes, isn’t it wonderful? A woman wrote something worth the Pulitzer in the THIRTIES! That must make her EXCEPTIONALLY good!!”

— we end up creating more problems than we do good. And it doesn’t just begin and end with giving Mitchell her dues. The trouble with this line of thinking, taken to its furthest end, is that it presupposes either that (1) women have become less capable of writing things worthy of such high praise, or (2) the publishing industry has become less capable of finding women with award-winning voices. Neither alternative is palatable, or frankly, true.

That said, not unlike popular but misinformed opinions about the South, these ideas carry weight, and that weight makes it harder for women to break through, at least in the ways our sisters did before us. That this month we read a Pulitzer Prize winner is indeed something notable. That we don’t read more of them is also. This is precisely why being in the presence of greatness — and all the qualifications that come with it — is uncomfortable. Somewhere deep down, we know there’s got to be more to the story.

Things get complicated:

Then we get to the real controversy. We need to acknowledge immediately that Mitchell’s perspective is controversial. By modern standards, eulogizing a way of life that we now find repugnant feels … off-putting at best. But that’s also why, all these years later, she remains an essential read.

For some people, that discomfort means we should #cancel Margaret Mitchell, move on, and replace her voice with others who “get it right.” Listen up, folks. I need you to hear me when I say that that line of thinking is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. Make no mistake, we need to make room for more voices at the table, but removal of voices like Mitchell’s from the national discourse means we create opportunities to forget what it is we find unacceptable, and why it is we find it so in the first place. That task is hard enough in the modern world. We don’t need to make it harder by removing data from our set.

In today’s world, we cannot simply remove things we deem morally base, pretending like they never existed, in service of so-called cultural purity. Or at least, we cannot do this without also creating a dangerously muddy situation for present and future generations. Here’s why: it calls our own motives into question. Who owns the “cultural eraser” matters just as much as who owns the original “pencil,” my friends. And rarely if ever do people in power have the purity of intentions that we’d hope.

Just so we’re all clear, it is very possible to have “pure” motives and also do things that aren’t quite so clearly good. Anyone who tries to assuage you, saying things like, “questionable motives don’t apply to me or my party or my country (etc.),” is quite simply unaware, or aware and untrustworthy. Period. Both situations can be rectified by you becoming and remaining a strong critical thinker. I urge you, please do this now if you haven’t already. Let’s chat if you’re not sure where to start.

I say all this with love. Love and accountability are not mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, in today’s world, we’ve prized finger-pointing more than selfless and brave ownership of fault, and I’m afraid that’s because we’ve lost sight of what matters in the first place. (Hint: it’s not power.) If this country is to move forward in any constructive, united way, we must un-learn the bad habits we’ve picked up over the last… oh, forever… or else risk becoming a lot closer to the world Margaret Mitchell wrote about and a lot further from the one we’re supposedly building towards. Everyone, do yourselves a favor and spend a minute thinking about that idea. Things just got a lot more complicated, didn’t they?

Suddenly, it’s hard to know how to respond:

As a Southern woman, it’s easy to get caught in the crossfire of potential, competing responses to this text. In one version, I lift Mitchell up as the literary great she is and always will be, despite her greatest detractors’ efforts, and get labeled an apologist. In another, I take her to task, get accused of forgetting that the mores that governed her words and actions, and the words and actions of the characters she created (further back in history, still) were necessarily different from our own, and learn that I’ve been equally problematic.

In either scenario, or any middle-ground offshoot I try to strike, something critical gets lost. We must, must, must understand, Dear Readers, that understanding an issue fully means trying to understand it from multiple perspectives. This does not mean we must agree with these perspectives, but our disagreement does not magically excuse us from trying to understand — far from it, actually.

Allowing ourselves to have a singular read on something, whether by our own choice or by letting someone else prescribe that singular read for us, is dangerous. The minute we allow that is the minute we compromise our freedom. It’s possible to give that freedom away all at once, but it’s also possible to give it away incrementally, like sand particles getting swept away from the beachfront, so slowly that hardly anyone notices, until it’s too late. No matter the rate we give this freedom away, we are in grave danger. Protect that freedom, folks. Allow for multiple reads — of books and of life.

I don’t know about you, but with that critical awareness, I’ve started to question everything about my initial reaction to GWTW, and nearly as much about my life alongside it. Did anyone else have this reaction — maybe not right away, but after enough time had passed in these overlapping ruins, those we’ve read about and those we’ve lived through? I hope so, I really do. I hope we had the strength to allow for some level of uncertainty, to sit in the unique discomfort that comes from realizing we all live in glass houses, that none of us are sinless, and that every single one of us can still do something to make this vast, ruinous world just a little bit stronger for tomorrow, today.

Love, Scarlett in Ruins:

Somewhere in the middle of reading GWTW for the second time, this time with you, it hit me: that internal struggle I thought was the reason I couldn’t respond? It might in fact be the response — or maybe the first attempt at one. All I had to do was recognize that the fear I faced was a speed bump, not a stop sign.

Perhaps I knew this already. Perhaps I’m not giving myself enough credit. You see, in one of the earliest drafts of last year’s intended response, I included a notable piece of marginalia. It read: “OK, Scarlett, it’s time.” While I wish I’d listened a little earlier, I also know that it’s what we do with the messages we receive that ultimately defines our lives, not how long it takes for us to receive them. That’s the bridge between last year and today, the book and this life, what mattered to me and what really matters.

The world is considerably harsher today than it was during my first read of GWTW. In this time of immense uncertainty, I’d like to encourage us to remember the lesson of the speed bump — slow down, pay attention, and safely crest into what’s next. We have a unique opportunity before us, Dear Readers, and that is to lean in to the bump, to ask ourselves some gravely important questions in whatever slower moments we can find. There are a million ways to ask, but here’s one humble starter among them: As the world rages around us, what are we willing to stand for? And, if we do not stand, what do we forfeit by extension? (Yes, forfeit — we only lose things when we’ve stood and then fallen. We forfeit when fear of falling causes us to never even try.)

When I wrote to myself one year ago, I never would’ve dreamed that in my first moment of bravery, scribbling marginalia alongside a really crappy draft, that today we’d be here, in this absurd and historic space. Never would I have dreamed we’d be talking about anything more than regionalist b.s. Never would I have dreamed that we might instead be talking about the fate of our country — or indeed, the world. Yet here we are, for the foreseeable future, on the precipice of ruin or rebirth.

The good news is that none of us live through this alone. We have each other, which is to say that we have love. In this we are made wiser, heartier, capable of facing odds the likes of which we have never seen. The world could rage around us, but through love we are made worthy warriors — warriors who take nothing for granted, warriors who wait on no tomorrows, warriors who fight for others’ Taras as much as their own, warriors who know that no matter what else gets lost, the things that matter are never truly gone. Let the winds rage.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

TIME’s “Special Issue on the American South”

“[…] I grew up, as we all did, on tragedy and promise, past and present, myth and music.”

Edward Felsenthal

Editor-In-Chief, TIME

From the Editor,  August 8 / August 13, 2018 Special Issue on the American South

This weekend I sat outside on our not-quite-level, not-quite-presentable, not-quite-sittable porch. Plastic patio furniture and a small outdoor rug made this possible, covering its loose paving stones and the holes between them in a setup that functions less as a disguise and more as a bandage until we can fully address the brokenness.

That the porch is falling apart isn’t a reason for us not to be there. We love it and we know it will take time to shore up its foundation. Even as we’re cursing the coffee that doesn’t sit, the chairs that can’t help but rock, the ankles that won’t do anything but roll, we find joy in this part of our home. It’s broken, but it’s ours. And that means something.

We’re aware of this all the time. But this weekend, as I sat there with my magazine, TIME’s Special Issue on the American South, I was even more tuned in to the irony of my porch enjoyment. The physical experience of sitting on our busted porch is about the closest analogy I can draw to what existing as a native Southerner up North feels like. It’s really hard. And also full of holes that subject people to destabilization, consternation, and occasionally, grief.

Go ahead, chuckle, that was intended. However, the after-effects of my busted porch and Southernness (that I’m a Southerner with a love for porches is not lost on me) can be unsettling, and it would be gauche to laugh at that reality. What reality am I speaking of? It’s complicated, but here’s the short answer.

Best case? People offer unsolicited advice about ways I can improve it (the porch, me), hide it (the porch, me), and maybe — if I’m really, really lucky — manage to convince the powers that be that it (the porch, me) never actually existed in its current state. Worst case? When I am silent, I am complicit. When I speak up, I must be complaining, ungrateful, or — my personal favorite — just not adjusted yet.

Sure, some of my views are unpopular. This is, I believe, largely because they’re uncomfortable. But Heavens to Betsy, if they are uncomfortable, that’s because they are intended to be. As uncomfortable as my opinions may seem to others who seek to silence them, I promise, it is much more uncomfortable to live the experiences that spur their development.

I wish more people would open their eyes to this reality, not so that I am pitied (please, spare us all from that), or that I’m cast aside (one person’s discomfort does not make another’s experiences less valid), but so that we can continue to dialogue and grow in our capacity for solidarity and love. Together. This is important work on the larger scale, but it cannot begin until eyes, hearts, and minds are open to doing it, even when it’s hard, even when it’s unpopular, even when “likes” and “followers” and “retweets” are on the line.

I acknowledge that this is difficult in our post-modern, teched-up, brand-obsessed, lightening-speed world, a world where you’re only as good as your last win or your competitor’s last loss. I fully see that. I too live in that world. Which is why I know it’s so hard. But I implore us, dear readers, to push past the pressures we put on ourselves, in order to do the work we’re capable of doing once we opt to actually do it. That’s part of why this blog exists, to lean in to those challenges, and to address them from a place of love. Because in the long run, love wins. Every time. Every. Damn. Time. Sometimes, it just takes awhile longer.

What keeps me going? Knowing I am not alone, however alone I sometimes feel. Friends. Family. Neighbors. Occasionally, strangers. Many of whom will go unnamed or unrecognized by the larger world, because these people are here to do the work, rather than get recognized for something that cheapens or exists by proxy of it.

You know proxy work when you see it. It’s what’s done when the right light is shining, at the right time of day, in the correct month of the opportune year, when it’s sexy and exciting and, like, so on-trend. You also know when actual work is being done, which is basically any time the former isn’t. You probably won’t read about it or hear about it. But if you look around, you’ll see it in your everyday lives. Small acts of resistance. Small acts of courage. Small acts of love.

Where can you find them? Get off the internet, first of all. Get out into the world. Form and keep loving, supportive relationships with people and places that you are willing to love and support in return. That, my friends, is one of the greatest privileges any of us will have in our short lives.

Never underestimate the power this brings you. Not just the power of social capital, but the kind of power that exists when you have real humans in your real life who really love you, through whatever ups, downs, successes, failures, opportunities, or challenges come your way. In this may you be blessed — and, of equal importance, may you also realize your blessings.

And then honestly? Sometimes you don’t find blessings, they find you. In this case, TIME’s Special Issue found me, by way of a loving and supportive husband, who knew what I needed in this season of my life. The magazine — by all accounts a national (read: Northeastern) authority, provided a surprise blessing this weekend. I was surprised to get it, sure, but the contents were just as arresting. Boasting inclusions by Jesmyn Ward, and about Stacey Abrams and 31 other incredible humans, all of whom are Southern, it rocked me to my core.

Why? This South wasn’t a South of people who traveled to it or through it, looking only for reasons to react to it for one brief moment in time, on a short assignment or for periodic gain. No, it was a South of Southerners, in all their complexities, however beautiful, turbulent, or painful. Even more importantly, it was a South of Southerners in their own words. Edited, I’m sure. But in their voices just the same.

Please, stop and contemplate the magnitude of that reality. Someone in New York City, the cultural capital of the Northeast (or, as many New Yorkers will tell you, of the world), decided that this was something worth pursuing. Which means that someone in New York City thought that New York City wasn’t the only place with opinions worth hearing, stories worth telling, histories worth teaching.

I assure you, this is radical. It’s also just. Which is exactly why, through most of my Saturday afternoon spent reading on that old, busted porch, I cried. I cried tears of relief and exhaustion. Tears of acceptance and renewal. Tears of knowing that, for one brief shining moment, someone in New York City suggested that, perhaps, the South deserves another read, and for reasons that may surprise its readers.

This is an important moment in our cultural history, America. And, contrary to what we’re taught in school, our history is not over. In fact, it is constantly unfolding, and we are the actors. We are the ones who will decide what our children and their children and their children learn. What do we want them to remember? Why? With whom? These are all questions we should be asking ourselves. Many already do, and it shows in their work, whether or not the rest of us are aware of it yet.

Meanwhile, we can do more to help this work come into focus, and garner the attention and support it deserves, in all its forms and places. That’s the other part of why this blog exists. I sincerely wish that more people knew about the forward motion already in progress — and, to clarify, this work is far from new. No single person has “the answer” to any of our most intractable problems, just as no single person can take credit for our most glorious successes. It is our responsibility to recognize good work around us, and to give credit where it’s appropriately due, especially when that work is not our own.

I’m talking about the work incredible humans have done over decades, over centuries, to elevate our understanding, further our conversations, and improve our treatment of each other. Oftentimes, this work comes from places that “mainstream” America might not have guessed. Politicians and academics, sure, but also chefs, nonprofit founders, novelists, struggling neighbors working multiple jobs to make ends meet, you name it. And again, to be perfectly clear, it’s not always White, Middle-Class Men in these roles. The people changing history are not always those in positions of power.

If you’re wondering whattttt?, then I encourage you to dig a bit deeper in whatever learning or research you may have already started. Once you do, you’ll find that the examples are too numerous to count. To reduce them to a list here would be to miss the point almost entirely.

First, I’m not in the business of ranking people. Second, I’m not in the business of prescribing explicit instructions for anyone’s journey through life. I am in the business of asking questions that could inspire journeying in the first place. Especially knowing how transformative journeying together can be.

To that end, I hope this space is not your destination, but your beginning, or perhaps your renewal. We are all here to learn, to listen, and to love greater than we did the day before. If this space takes us even one small step forward, then I will have succeeded. This is  — and I am — a work in progress.

And I know I cannot do this alone. So, I would like to issue a commendation, share a thank you, and offer a prayer that this good work continues. Not just with TIME, but with other people who find the courage to present stories that are complex (be wary of the term “real”). It must continue, but the work must also grow, it must welcome new voices, it must act in fact how it purports to believe and do elsewhere.

Make no mistake. This is difficult work. It comes with as many scuffs and bruises as it does medals and successes. But that is where the magic happens. In that uncomfortable, unruly, unpresentable growth. Not just when it’s timely, not just when it’s relevant, not just when it looks good. But now, because it’s critical, and because it always has been.

Before we go, I wish for you: a profound, abiding love for your roots, wherever and however deep they grow. May you also know love for the roots of others. May you recognize that love takes work, but may you also possess the courage it takes to practice it daily. Because that alone is a blessing worth examining, worth protecting. No matter where you call home. God Speed.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

northxnc_3.13.18

To find this Special Issue, visit TIME’s website here.

To discover why TIME created this issue, read Edward Felsenthal’s From the Editor here. You might recognize the opening quote from this piece if you read his.

And, if you don’t know much about Mr. Felsenthal, here’s some more information from TIME’s Media Kit. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that he’s a Southerner.

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle