Analysis, Criticism, Polemic

“Gardens” before “Pride”: trading Austen for Silko

Find more of Joan Peters' artwork here:
Find more of Joan Peters’ artwork here:

First of all, I want to apologize to all of my remaining readers: this is not the sort of piece I plan to write on a regular basis. I am in a fitful state of limbo. I ought to be contemplating the next stage in my career as a critical educator or author but instead I worked myself into a contentious mood, last week, and disparaged Jane Austen’s writing. The whole row began when I reacted to a noxious excerpt beneath a blog-post-link on Facebook. Reading later, I learned that Young Adult Author Anne Ursu was addressing misogynous comments from alleged-literary-writers (read her post here) and the putrid gem surfaced in her supporting evidence:

I heard a teacher joke that forcing boys to read Pride and Prejudice in high school was turning them off from books for life. And, haha, hilarious. It’s an important work and gives students plenty to analyze. But we just can’t expect boys to appreciate the merits of the book, to engage with it, to grow as readers, because, girl book. We cannot ask boys to think outside themselves. They won’t do it, say these particular men who refuse to think outside themselves.

With apologies to Jane Austen connoisseurs, I also believe that Pride & Prejudice is not great fodder for teenagers. My good friend Gene rebutted:

I would never say Jane Austen was a feminist. She was forward thinking for her time but she does provide historical context for the rise of feminism. And JANE AUSTEN IS NOT BORING!!!!!!! I didn’t appreciate her until I was older and could see the beautiful layers to her writing. You are on my list, Mr. Gore!

He has a point. I am arguing from a weak position, since I failed to finish the novel in the laundry room of my dormitory eight years ago; my undergraduate wit may not have been up to the task. People with the taste for Brit-Lit (like my sister) digest those nuances more readily and I will condemn a historical fascination with the period.

Yet because her plot-lines concern the British upper and middle classes, Austen’s books inherently have colonial underpinnings. Everyone is groaning at me, now. Roll your eyes – get it out of your systems. Yes: I am playing the ‘colonization card’. The lives of opulence and leisure characteristic of these classes were sustained by the subjugation of colonized people – there was not an aspect of their economy that was not enhanced by—yes, I know I am being hard on the female characters, who were merely born into that—what I should say is that even something as simple as tea-time was a product of British Imperialism. Tea does not grow on Atlantic Isles. Their caffeine consumption was subsidized by militarization…

Begging to differ with Ursu’s teacher friend, I think Austen’s texts are far too palatable to a neoliberal, heteronormative male. Historic works like hers are part of a straw-doll feminism regularly used as fuel for archaic masculinities. I would much rather see Silko injected into high school lit-curricula —

Yes: I am biased. Leslie Marmon Silko is my favorite author of all time because she wrote “Ceremony”, whose half-Indigenous protagonist (Tayo) returns from the WWII battlefield to the plains and mountains of the American South-West, struggling desperately against the Spiritual quicksands of post-traumatic stress. I have my own relationship with PTSD and an affinity for indigenous literature. Now that my biases are laid bare, I am going to contend that students should know Silko long before Austen using “Gardens in the Dunes” as an example, since that text also features two sisters. Versus Mary & Elizabeth Bennett we will consider why little boys and girls should get their feminist buzz from ‘Indigo’ and ‘Sister Salt’.

Austen’s Bennet sisters were a beacon to white women (where are the WOC?) for decades because their voices are heard. They speak with as much nuance as their male counterparts. Far from being objects, Austen’s characters are complete, colorful, and roundly textured human characters; they are tailored with the same detail and sophistication as any comparable male character might be constructed by Austen’s male contemporaries. Bravo, Jane! However, Mary and Elizabeth still operate and draw their power-base from within the confines of a patriarchal society. Mr. Darcy merely appears as attractive from within that rigid limit-situation (Freirian thinking, here). There is no attempt to deconstruct the limit-situation, no move away from class-privilege in order to claim a female identity that transcends their society’s reference points. It troubles me to think that young ladies might project themselves into Austen’s characters and develop similar expectations for relationships: negotiating from below, invoking a world for themselves through male eyes. The Disney Princess mentality is not far removed from this.

Silko’s pair of sisters might be better described as proto-feminist. Indigo and “Sister-Salt” are among the final remnants living at the traditional gardens of “The Sand Lizard People”, who are captured and sent to separate ‘Indian schools’ after their mother’s disappearance and grandmother’s death. Tenacious Indigo declares that she will escape, just like her grandmother always did but… yes!: she ESCAPES and stumbles into the custody of an old-money-California-couple, Hattie and Edward. Indigo turns their paternalism inside-out. She is able to appreciate and assimilate to Hattie’s classy world for a time but, ultimately, makes a choice to return to her Sand Lizard way of life with an infusion of Western knowledge – not the reverse. It would be difficult for Indigo to be drawn into Hattie’s (and Elizabeth Bennet’s) ‘upper-crust’ because Silko has endowed the sisters with cultural pride and a strong matrilineal vein. In Silko’s texts women draw power from the Earth directly, saving wayward men. So close to success, Tayo nearly falters during “Ceremony” but… nah, I won’t spoil it.

With Silko, The Power originates in women – when Indigo and Hattie travel to Italy, they encounter multiple effigies of a fertility-goddess beloved to ancient Europeans… if Silko’s sisters are not feminist it is because they never needed feminism. Their matrilineal strand predates patriarchy, so their seeming acts of female empowerment bloom naturally from an indigenous persistence. That’s Silko.

I will try not to spoil the plot completely but I believe Hattie’s exposure to the indigeous women lends the book its feminism. For example, Sister’s control of her own sex-life. Sister Salt excepts money for sex from multiple men working on the dam project. She not only enjoys the sex but also makes enough to live by doing laundry, saving the extra money. Proper, white culture prefers women to be destitute drug-addicts when engaged in prostitution but Sister Salt makes a choice, validating the practice with ease. When she becomes pregnant, she chooses to only have sex with the father… eventually *wink*. It is inconceivable that Elizabeth Bennet would have such autonomy over her vagina – pre OR post marriage. For Sister Salt, there is no marriage… no need for the baby’s father per se …she goes from daughter to mother without losing her identity as Sister.

Many educators would balk at the prospect of discussing Sister Salt’s sexual choices, which shows little respect for the fact TEENAGERS ALREADY KNOW ABOUT SEX. We could have a robust, healthy discussion of Sister’s choices. Alternatively, too few instructors step past the literary elements in a thick-cut of Brit-Lit in order to appreciate the class and global-economic ramifications of daily tea-time. Oscar Wilde makes my point much more aptly (and subtly) in “A Picture of Dorian Gray”. Knowing the full depth of his sinister character, I read page after page of Wilde describing Dorian Gray’s imported merchandise and commodities. Having just finished “Orientalism” by Edward Said, my reading of those ‘boring’ passages was imbued with manifold layers of darkness: the subjugation of the mid-East, Burma and the Indian sub-Continent — thousands marching to the sea with Gandhi decades later… (okay, I’ll spare you the lecture…). Something I noted about Sister’s sex-life was how Silko grounded that in a distinctly Sand Lizard understanding of sex’s place in community life, not in rebellion or desperation. ps: ELIZABETH BENNET MUST HAVE A VAGINA, RIGHT?

Manifest Destiny looms large in “Gardens…” but I want to reinforce the gender element; Silko tints her men in “Gardens” with an empathic brush, creating characters we can mourn for when greed — yes greed— strikes. Silko’s women do not seize power from men, they retain power regardless of men. That is more disconcerting to The Patriarchy because feminism, a relatively recent phenomena, might still be branded as “new” and “hostile”. Earlier waves of (white) feminism followed a narrative where men possessed power first and women fought to obtain a piece but Silko’s women of color find their roots in a natural succession of female power – in Silko, as in the Laguna-Pueblo tradition that produced her, female power is original.

My Native American Literature professor (a Lakota man) said, “the penis always retreats after sex”. An instructor of mine in Belize (also male) quoted a Garifuna proverb as saying “A pumpkin cannot bear a watermelon,” which suggests that men and women both draw their essence from the maternal—the vine that nurtured us. Masculinities’ prior claims on society are debunked: society owes its coherence not to ‘great men’ but to thousands upon thousands of mothers who taught their children how to be and share family, the basic unit of community.

I will concede that my post-colonial criticisms are anachronistic, applied to a female author from the 19th Century. I am sorry, Jane; I respect your achievement for the intelligence and determination (and solid grammar) it required. I confess my delicious hypocrisy: I enjoyed both Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” AND Chinua Achebe’s critical shredding of that novel; the tension between hegemonic literature and post-colonial power-ups is dialectical, not paradoxical! Yet I cannot concede that I am wrong because my argument remains that the Austen text is less suitable for young men to read if they are to be freed from toxic masculinities. Jane Austen cast a beautiful glow upon the oft neglected potential of women in the British upper-class: human beings that deserve to be acknowledged. Yet Silko pays homage to women’s role as not only significant but foundational. Silko does not hightlight “women’s concerns” or give voice to a female culture as non-dominant; her worldview assumes that women are responsible for the entire Earth, just as much or even more than men. Women represent and restore order.

Additionally, “Gardens…” touches on expansionism, trade protectionism, religious hegemonies, and the theft of cultural object, to name a few. It’s loaded with still-relevant topics. Given that so many masculinities are drenched in neoliberal, radical individualities, Silko’s texts offer more direct moments of critical encounter for teens. The greatest flaw in my proposal is NOT that “Gardens in the Dunes” is too mature but that it literally has so many gardens: boys will need the patience to read the masterful, botanical descriptions that separates its action scenes — action scenes with guns, sex, liquor, a monkey named Lineas, and edible squash blossoms from Jesus Christ the Messiah.

—however beautifully layered, Jane Austen just cannot compete with that.

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