"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.

The “LibraRYAN:” A New Monthly Reading Experience Curated by Yours Truly

Friends,

As some of you know, I am writing a fiction series. The first book is currently at the self-editing stage, the second exists as an outline, and the third is more concept than reality at this point in time. If you know an agent who loves all things girlboss, food, and unconventional love, then I’m that agent’s person and it would be great if you could introduce us. I have a feeling we’d have fun conversations. For now, I’m so grateful for the privilege this lifestyle affords — creativity, the ability to make my own schedule, and having my time valued as much at home as it is by society — whether or not my work finds commercial success.

Don’t get me wrong. It hasn’t all been sunshine and daisies. There are days I have writer’s block so bad I can’t see straight, there are days I am fully capable but still dread writing (usually when a scene hits too close to home), and there are days I feel like I could write for days but then, invariably, life has other plans. This is all normal, I’m learning, and that learning is at least half my enjoyment at this stage. The other half is a mixture of generalized giddiness and an acute sense of purpose. I am blessed beyond measure.

There is, however, one thing about which I am constantly in conflict — unhappily at that (yes, it’s possible to have conflict and also to be happy, and no, this is not one of those times). As part of my early writing process, I’ve become exceptionally selective about what I read. That’s the political way of saying I haven’t done much reading at all — not if you don’t count the the things I’ve read as research for the series I’m currently writing. That’s work … and that’s different.

Those who know me will find this shocking. Those who don’t may also have some questions about my choice — and with good reason. While I’m generally not here for making people feel like they have to justify every decision they make, in this case, an explanation is 100% warranted, so I’m bossing up and sharing it. Here it goes:

I am first and foremost an empath. This means when I experience something, I tend to absorb it right down to my core. This is true whether the object of my concern is connected to me superficially or on the deepest levels. So, as a measure of both professional responsibility and as a way to guard my tender heart, I decided to step back from the heavy work that is losing oneself in the midst of others.’

At the time of this decision, I was all-too-caught-up in the security blanket that reading afforded me. Under the heading of “reading” all I’d really been doing was silencing myself, like I’d been doing for as long as I can remember, just under different titles and pretenses. Thankfully, with some chutzpah and an incredible support network, I put a stop to that behavior, hard as it was to do.

Come to think of it, taking reading away from myself was one of the hardest choices I’ve ever had to make. Necessary, but incredibly difficult. Especially because I had no idea when, if ever (it felt like), I’d allow myself to have it back in the same way — voracious reading, selfish reading, all-hours-of-the-day-and-night reading, the kind of reading people spend lifetimes reading and writing about.

My decision might be controversial, but it definitely paid off, because here I am, book one nearly done, looking ahead to the future, and having trouble deciding if I want to smile or cry from the sense of pride and accomplishment I didn’t know I could feel.

Then there’s the matter of what else this means.

Now that I have a strong handle on my own writer’s voice, and what I’m able and willing to contribute to this strange blue planet, I know I can trust myself to move forward, uncompromising in the special nature of these gifts, but flexible enough to allow myself back in to the metaphorical sandbox of life’s many wonders.

Looking ahead, past the heaviness of actually doing this life, I have a lighter, companion ambition in mind. The first order of business is to restore my reading privileges — though believe me when I say I’ll be monitoring myself for the types of behavior that inspired me to take my earlier hiatus (self-doubt, being overly self-critical, obsessive editing for no good reason, etc.). Those of you who know me in real life, please continue helping me in this regard. You’re all trailblazers — especially those of you who, without any promise of recognition, unwaveringly stand alongside me as I do the messy, uncoordinated work of clearing paths in the first place.

Now we get to the fun part!

Starting this month, there will be a new category on this blog. I’m going to call it The LibraRYAN, a playful reference to both my name and my love for reading. Each month, I’ll select a topic or theme, pick a few books that fit into that category, and share my experiences with them. To be clear, the resulting posts will be more personal essay than book review, and that is by design.

I do more “review-y” work through the Reading Words category, and that will remain a space dedicated to thoughts on specific works, presented one at a time, with the near sole intention of promoting that good work. I stand by that category, and will hopefully have reason to populate it with new content soon, but its greatest strength is also one of its greatest limitations — it leaves no room for you. The conversation basically begins and ends with “there is this great thing, and I want to make sure you know about it, because it is a great thing.”

At this point in my career and life, that feels pithy. I’m not in middle school. I don’t do book reports anymore (there’s a time and place for that, it’s just not here or now). I’m also not a book critic, in personality or by choice, so instead of making my singular commentary meatier and/or more cutting, I’d like to elevate the blog overall by including more voices, more frequently, in the hopes of building (or maybe simply inspiring?) a stronger community. If indeed you’ve read this far (a large ask, I’m aware), you’re probably wondering, “great, Ryan, but how will you do this?” Don’t worry, I’ve got you.

The answer: The LibraRYAN.

Many of you are readers — or else, why would you be here, certainly at this juncture in a long blog post. As far as I’m concerned, there are endless opportunities to connect through this shared identity, and the internet can feel like a super isolating place, so I’d like to address both of those points in one swoop. With The LibraRYAN (a new category on this blog, not a new standalone project), we’ll get to read some neat books together, which we’ve chosen together, and then, together, respond. Other than timeline and topic specificity, and my request (insistence, actually) that we keep things civil (differences of opinion never need to degenerate into attacks of any kind, ever), the rest can evolve as we do. Here’s how I see this starting at the very least:

At the end of each month, I’ll select a topic or theme to guide our reading and conversations for the month to come. I will announce that here, on the blog, as well as on social media (@rvmcgonigle). Once that happens, I’m happy to consider all thoughtful recommendations for what we could read until the first day of the month we’re intending to read them. By the end of that week, we’ll have our list of possible reads. You may choose as many or as few as you like from the list. No matter which books we choose, we’ll all have the rest of the month to read them and reflect on our experiences (pictures, essays, drawings, the options are pretty endless). By the last week of the month, I’ll post an essay, and you’re welcome to either share or guard your individual response, whatever makes you feel happy and safe. Either way, the cool part is that we’ll have already shared these specific experiences, and by extension, made the world a little bigger and a little smaller at the same time. Think about that for a minute … pretty neat, right?

Since I dislike procrastination, let’s kick this off right now, with March 2020 being our “starting month.” Welcome to The LibraRYAN Reading Group, loves. I’m so glad you’re here.

The LibraRYAN: March 2020 Reading Group

This month, we’ll focus on love and/or marriage. Suggested works may include both topics or just one. I’ve gotten us started by selecting two nonfiction books from authors whose work I don’t already know, Molly Millwood’s To Have and to Hold (2019) and Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women (2019). At least one more book would complete my rotation. Who has the right fit (or several)? If it moved you, challenged your thinking, or both, I’d love to hear about it. Ideally it’d be written no earlier than the past decade (2010-forward), so that it will be accessible to most folks in a variety of places; however, I’m not opposed to considering recommendations that fall outside this boundary where a thoughtful case can be made. You’re game? Great! We have until March 1st to solidify our shared reading list. Let’s make it happen, shall we?

Flournoy’s “The Turner House”

I am not Black. I am not from Detroit. I only have a couple siblings. I have never experienced the death of a parent or the foreclosure of a home. But I am a reader. And I’m recommending that everyone read The Turner House by Angela Flournoy.

If you are unfamiliar with this author or her debut title, you can spend some time familiarizing yourself hereherehere, or here. That’s what a lot of you will do, I’d be willing to bet, but the best advice I can give is to locate a copy of The Turner House and read it for yourself.

Once you do, you’ll find that the work is masterful. It handles complex, emotionally-heavy subject matter with grace and accessible import, empowering the reader to reconcile competing forces like obsession and denial, failure and progress, or sickness and health, among others.

You cannot read Flournoy’s work and miss these elements. They are anything but furtive. However, as you read, I’d encourage you to ask yourself what their roles in the novel might be. See if you can do this without centering yourself. Especially if you:

  1. Are not Black.
  2. Are not from Detroit.
  3. Have only a couple siblings — or maybe no siblings at all.
  4. Have never experienced the death of a parent or the foreclosure of a home.
  5. Have no idea what “centering yourself” means (if this is the case, do the work and look it up!).

To be absolutely clear, this work is important. It tells an important story — and I’m not just talking about the one bound by a couple hundred pages in Flournoy’s novel.

Remember that.

This     work     is     important.

At least as important as you.

At least.

That’s as good a place to start as any.

Get moving.

Swyler’s “The Book of Speculation”

“It’s very easy for someone like you or me to get lost in an object, to accept certain ideas as fact without proper exploration.”

Mr. Churchwarry to Simon, p. 180

The Book of Speculation

Have you ever noticed how humans tend to seek the simplest, swiftest explanations for the situations we face? Look around — you’ll see that we all end up falling into this trap at one point or another (and probably repeatedly).

You may also notice that we have a strong urge to resist simple definition. Humans are funny creatures. We crave simplicity as we try to understand the world around us, but we go berserk the minute someone provides a simple explanation for something close or important to us.

Yeah, I fall into that trap too, and I try very hard to remain aware of it. One of the ways I do this is by finding opportunities to get out in the world. I go places, I meet people, I read books, I eat food, I work, I volunteer. In everything I do, I am here to listen, to learn, to fight against the trap. My hope is that, in the process, I expand my brain, elevate my understanding, and grow in my capacity for solidarity rather than fear. But it can be hard. Really hard. And sometimes isolating, because loads of people don’t share this view of the world.

I’d been looking for something that would help bridge the gap when I stumbled across Erika Swyler’s The Book of Speculation. Perhaps fittingly, the book was not what I expected. For those of you with interests in the circus, coastal life, book culture, or intergenerational stories, Swyler’s novel could be for you. Her storytelling — and her capacity to weave a story, within a story, within a story — is notable. But I’d like to pull back from that, and resist the urge to give you a standard book review.

What most impressed me about this particular novel was its sense of place. Swyler’s command of culture on Long Island dances off each page. She makes place a character worthy of discussion, something I see rarely in modern writing. We’ve become so introspective it hurts. Not the case here. Not by a longshot. Not if you know where to look.

At once a fine critic and a fierce advocate, Swyler shows all who are willing to see about a Long Island most will never choose to encounter — a Long Island that is at once beautiful and brutal, homey and alienating, historic and changing, rooted and disappearing. It’s the “and” in those phrases that matters. It’s the idea that a culture, a place, a person, or a thing can be more than the simple characterizations we create when we stop at speculation.

I have written here and elsewhere about those dangers. I speak from experience. As a North Carolinian living on Long Island, it makes my heart hurt when I hear individuals rail against what they think my home is, only to later hear these individuals’ plans for capitalizing on it. And, as a Long Islander by marriage and address, I’m becoming equally bothered by the reductivist views people have about this culture. Why? Because it’s one of my homes, it’s part of me, and no place is that simple, dammit. I feel obligated to love and protect it, for its own sake, as it is. It’s a force that cannot be stopped.

This story of home and obligation, of protection and love, is written all over Swyler’s pages. So if you missed it, go read her book again. It’s the undercurrent, the heart from which her novel beats. And, as with most things in life, if we resist the urge to over-simplify, to read only at the surface level, we might just see it, we might just find that it’s worth keeping. But certainly, don’t forget to enjoy the magic Swyler prepared along the way!

***

P.S. Curious about speculation, or Swyler, or both? Start here, then find another circus 😉

(1) This interview Erika did for Newsday back in 2015. I was already a fan before I read this, and now I see why. She gets it. If you’re wondering what “it” is … read the interview, or better yet, read her book.

(2) This interview she did for New In Books. Wait ’til you get to the part about whac-a-mole. Then tell me you can’t conjure a great childhood memory or two afterwards.