Guest Post, Jacob M. Appel: Transcending the Particular

Transcending the Particular: Why All Stores Do not Matter Equally


Jacob AppelShakespeare and I have far less in common than meets the eye.

On the surface, we’re both Caucasian, male, reasonably well-off for our times, and, in the eyes of my students, roughly the same age. And, as it happens, we also write plays—although his have received a somewhat more enthusiastic reception. For the time being, at least.

That’s roughly where the commonality stops. Shakespeare was English, and left countless artifacts to prove it, as every huckster in Stratford-upon-Avon will assure you. Meanwhile, in Shakespeare’s day, my forebears, a motely crew of impoverished fishermen, brick layers and subsistence farmers, struggled to survive the brutality of the Russian Pale. They practiced a rigid breed of Orthodox Judaism, spoke Yiddish, and suffered the brutality of Cossacks. Novels and plays were likely as alien to them as the church bells of London. Later, those relatives who survived the Pogroms found their way to the gas chambers of Poland. To describe Shakespeare’s drama as my cultural heritage, merely because of the demographic characteristics enumerated above, would reflect the worst of whiggish anachronism.

I emphasize this context, because I want to explore an argument advanced by a Sacramento high school English teacher, Dana Dusbiber, in a Washington Post op-ed last summer, in which she argued against assigning Shakespeare to her inner city students, a majority of whom are low-income kids from minority backgrounds. She wrote:

“….I enjoy reading a wide range of literature written by a wide range of ethnically-diverse writers who tell stories about the human experience as it is experienced today. Shakespeare lived in a pretty small world. It might now be appropriate for us to acknowledge him as chronicler of life as he saw it 450 years ago and leave it at that.”

I do not mean to dismiss the entirety of Dusbiber’s argument: Certainly, students should be able to relate to the literature that they read and a strong case can be made for allowing young people a say in designing their own curricula. Having exposure to literary role models with whom they can connect is essential if we are to welcome a diverse generations of future writers. My concern with Dusbiber’s column is that it does not just dismiss Shakespeare, but embraces a philosophy, increasingly present in literary circles, that writing does not transcend context. One might as easily argue—and I think this would prove a grievous error—that Frederick Douglass lived in a remote antebellum world of chattel bondage, so why read a slave narrative? Or dismiss the distinct rural feminism of Willa Cather, because nobody dwells in sod houses any longer. What makes great literature, as I see it, is precisely the opposite: The ability to capture your own “pretty small world” in a way that speaks to people nothing like yourself.

One need not be African-American to be moved by Richard Wright’s Native Son or Jewish to connect with Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer—or, I’d like to hope, to see the commonality of experience endured by Bigger Thomas and Yakov Bok. The joy of reading lies in recognizing the universality of human experience lurking within the particulars: seeing your own tedious cousin in Jane Austen’s William Collins or an ex-girlfriend in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jordan Baker, or, I have no reason to doubt, a friend or acquaintance lurking in the great oral narratives of Latin America or Southeast Asia—even though one has not grown up in 19th century Britain or Jazz Age Long Island, has never stepped foot in the Andes or the Mekong Delta. When in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, she describes the “long littleness of life,” I understand instantly, even though my politics and lived experience might prove closer to Shakespeare’s than to hers. Whitman’s “multitudes” may be vaster than my own, but the moments of overlap leave me breathless. Growing up as a Dumbo-eared, funny-looking child with a lisp, I remember discovering Pecola Breedlove in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and feeling a deep kinship with her—not to suggest, obviously, that my suffering was anywhere as severe as hers, but I cannot emphasize enough the solidarity, and solace, I found in our parallel fantasies.

Great stories look outward. What is the point, after all, of speaking to people who share your own values and experiences and sensibilities? I wish to emphasize very strongly that this observation is not directed only or primarily at minority writers. Quite the opposite. Far too many of today’s celebrated A-list literary figures are upper-middle class white men who write specifically for people precisely like themselves. (Brooklyn Heights, I hear, crawls with them.) They are often enabled by a publishing industry populated by editors who share similar lived experiences. That is not to say that one cannot cull worthwhile, transcendent truths from Sutton Place or Westchester County—as, for example, does John Cheever—but that many authors no longer seem to be trying. Similarly, a resistance exists to reading about people different from ourselves, or to do so primarily to witness their differences, in lurid exoticism disguised as open-mindedness, rather than to enjoy our similarities. So much of publishing has become inward looking—about marketing to specific audiences, branding, and targeting insular literary communities. I want my students to write for people as unlike themselves as possible. The stories that matter most, at least to me, are not those that merely capture an unknown world—but those that bring me a world I do not know and teach me how it reflects or connects to my own.

With increasing frequency, when I speak at conferences or on panels, audience members ask some variation of the question: Can I write effectively about people whose backgrounds and lived experiences are fundamentally different from mine? (It is worth noting that the questioners tend to by an extremely diverse lot—far more so than the audiences at these events.) To my surprise, and dismay, authors I admire are increasingly answering “No.” I think this approach is misguided, but also tragic. Needless to say, it is much harder to write about cultures and experiences distant from one’s own—and the room for error is significantly greater. Exploration is not an excuse for carelessness or stereotype. But do we really want to create a literary world where the next Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee can’t write about heterosexual couples? Or in which William Styron, whose Sophie’s Choice rivals The Diary of Ann Frank as the most compelling of Holocaust narratives, confines his intentions to Tidewater Virginia? I believe we should be encouraging our students to write about people far different from themselves—to hope for empathy rather than to fear appropriation. (This is a distinct issue, I believe, from the serious problem of the chronic underrepresentation of certain stories and groups in mainstream publishing, but the two matters are often—and, in my opinion regrettably—conflated.) I dream, maybe naively, of a world where we tell each other’s stories, and do so with such insight and identification, that they truly become our own.

So back to Shakespeare.

A host of plausible reasons exist for reading less Shakespeare. But I’d hate to believe that one of them is that he doesn’t speak to low-income minority students. To me, that sells those students short. I’d hope that their teachers can find a way to show the relevance of Hamlet’s doubt or Macbeth’s ambition to their own lived experiences, much as my teachers were able to do for me. Obviously, students of all backgrounds should also be introduced to the universal human experience found in writers who “look” nothing like Shakespeare. But there’s a magic to discovering that someone very much unlike oneself—let’s say a playwright who lived on a distant island more than four centuries ago—shared recognizable fears and longings.

If literature cannot bring us together, what can?

Guest Post, John Messick: Remarks on a Jar of Squirrel

I didn’t become a trapper during my first winter in Alaska because I aspired to be the last mountain man. I lived in Fairbanks, and about halfway through December a family of squirrels started to eat the insulation out of my roof.

It gets cold in Fairbanks in the winter. Really cold. My fiancé, Mollie, who is also a writer, says that the winter can be hallucinatory. The only time I’ve ever been colder came during the season I spent at South Pole Station, Antarctica. There are no squirrels at the South Pole.

The damn squirrels burrowed into my eaves. They scattered pink insulation onto the snow like confetti. At three in the morning, the whole family scampered to a spot just over my head and scratched woodchips down onto my face. More than once, I woke up with hives because chunks of fiberglass had found their way onto my sheets. The squirrels chittered and chattered and systematically replaced my perfectly good insulation with a spruce cone cache. Spruce cones, you should know, are not very warm.

I had to do something—I was desperate. So, I borrowed a crate of number one marten traps from a guy at work, baited my sets with a smear of peanut butter, and pretty soon the bodies started to pile up.

I started getting more sleep. My heating bill stabilized. But something about a killing those squirrels didn’t feel right, and I couldn’t bring myself to toss the bodies into a dumpster. I left them dead and frozen in a bucket on my porch. I guess it had something to do with use value, with wanton waste.

Even in death, even though they’re just squirrels, I imagined they might still have some worth. I thought: life isn’t confined to a singular purpose—and that also applies to tree-dwelling rodents. The meaningful steps of existence branch outward, downward, to leaves and roots and connected sinews, shifting and expanding, taking on new roles and titles, just as I am not merely a ‘writer,’ but am also a teacher, a hunter, a gatherer, a meaning-maker, a preservator. It occurred to me, as I contemplated what to do with those squirrels, that all creatures carry a multiplicity of talents, and so I couldn’t throw the bodies into the dumpster.

Instead, I opened a copy of the University of Georgia Extension canning cookbook and found a recipe for canned squirrel: “Soak meat one hour in brine made by dissolving one tablespoon salt per quart of water,” the book said. “Rinse. Use preparation procedures and processing times recommended for poultry, omitting the salt.”

In Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking, I found no fewer than five recipes for prepared squirrel. I asked around to see if anyone had ever eaten squirrel.

“Down south I have. Up here, not even the pine marten eat them. They probably taste like a spruce cone,” said the guy who had loaned me the traps.

I wasn’t deterred. When I had a halred-squirrel-1248232f-dozen squirrels in the bucket, I brought them inside and set about the task of turning a nuisance into a meal.

You should know that these were not the fat and fearless squirrels that inhabit university quads across the lower 48. The red squirrels in my roof were smaller, chipmunk size at best, with thick fur and muscles made for life at 50 below zero.

It took two hours to finish the skinning and deboning. When I was done, I hadn’t even harvested enough usable meat to fill a pint jar. My plan was a bust. I tossed the meat scraps in a Ziploc and they spent the next two years getting freezer burned. Eventually, I did what I had tried so hard to avoid. I threw the meat away.

It’s been half a decade since my first winter in Alaska, and the need to reconcile those things that must, by necessity, be destroyed has only clarified with the passing seasons. I’ve discovered that my attempts at preservation aren’t so much efforts in sustainability, but part of the practice of discovering diversity. If only the garden’s harvest will help me remember last summer, if only the fur hat can help me retain warmth, if only my essays can teach me to understand my own motivations, then I will know that balance is possible.

Like the failed attempt to can those squirrels, I don’t always find a way to that perfect place where everything becomes multi-functional. But I try, and some of it seems to work. Mollie is an avid gardener, and even the flowers she grows –nasturtiums—are edible. The trees in our yard, which must be cut as a fire buffer, become winter firewood. This fall, our cupboard is filled with jars of smoked salmon, and halibut spills from our freezer. When possible, we render the unused fish heads into winter food for our dogs. Weekend hiking trips have begun to double as berry-picking expeditions.

When everything must have some pragmatic value, it’s easy to lose track of the deeper impact of language. As a new English teacher at a small college up here, I don’t always balance the needs of my students with the demands of my own writing. I struggle constantly to find the space where the story I want to tell and the poetics of describing it fit together properly.

The last image: the inside of our cupboard in winter. The smoked red salmon jars cascading into the orange of canned carrots. Piles of raspberry jam, blueberry jam, rosehip jelly, wild cranberry sauce, canned chickpeas. Pickled things—fiddleheads, cucumbers, sauerkraut, zucchini, mustards. Mollie’s tinctures and balms and herbal teas, things she made from dried wild plants.

Often, before I go to bed, I will open the cupboard and marvel, not at what we have preserved, but at the array of colors, at the beauty of food encased in glass. Standing there, I imagine a world where everything becomes useful, becomes beautiful, a world where I will have time to write and still manage the thousand other activities I have taken on, where I can find a way to make positive use of the troubled parts of myself.

To find symmetry amid such diversity is an act of almost religious significance. Like finishing the last stitch of a quilt and panning outward to discover a work of astonishing complexity, I believe these connections can draw together the limitless parts of myself. Still, the fact remains: there is no jar of squirrel on those shelves. One does not achieve balance without casualties.

The Fiddleback

The FiddlebackThe Fiddleback is a free, independent, online arts & literature magazine that features poetry, fiction, nonfiction, interviews with artists and musicians as well as book and music reviews. Our guiding principle is cross-pollination: We believe in mixing and colliding artistic disciplines to attract a diverse readership and promote work that asserts itself. We believe in giving our contributors the spotlight, in limiting ourselves to small, quality-driven issues. Above all, we believe in never underestimating our readers.

Five Dollars / Five Days Summer Fundraiser: Send us a literature submission (any genre) between June 1 and July 1 along with a $5 reading fee and we’ll not only respond to your submission within five days, we’ll also tell you what we loved, hated, or felt ambivalent about in your work. You get a quick turnaround with ink, we pocket a little cash to support The Fiddleback. Details at

Recap: bell hooks at ASU

Each week here at Superstition Review, we like to showcase the talents of our interns. This week’s piece comes from Samantha Allen on her recent discussion with author bell hooks. 

Feminist writer and cultural critic bell hooks visited Arizona State University’s Tempe campus to speak about race and gender in a historical context. Earlier in the day some of our staff at Superstition Review were given the opportunity to participate in a small group discussion with bell. This discussion covered everything from the recent ban of ethnic studies in Tucson, to the novel The Help, to evangelist Billy Graham’s changing religious views. A prominent theme of our talks centered on the idea of community. “Communities,” she said, “are what give us the strength to live our convictions even in the face of hostility.”

As bell illustrated through stories from her personal life, these “communities of resistance” aren’t always free of conflict. She shared stories about the people in her life who have acted in ways that are harmful to her and to her views, all the while doing good by supporting her in her work, or by making great strides towards promoting racial equality. She called this contradiction “multiple intentionalities” – when people or groups do both harm and good. How do we cope with these contradictions? Do we ignore the good in someone’s actions because they have also done wrong? Do we overlook the unpleasant qualities so we can continue to idealize them as saints and angels? We live in a binary culture that has no place for contradictions. bell hooks used a story about a conflict in the humanities department at Berea College, where she teaches, to discuss how the inability to deal with multiple intentionalities can become an impediment to building communities of resistance. Even when the goals are the same, it’s easy to be divided by our differences.

This message of importance in building communities of resistance seemed to resonate deeply with everyone in the room. It’s no secret that Arizona has been the battleground for a number of contentious political issues in these past couple of years. The actions of our state legislature have given Arizona a particular reputation for intolerance, one that conflicts with the values of the Humanities Department at Arizona State University. The ASU Humanities department celebrates diversity and the commitment to social justice. The very act of getting together to discuss these issues with bell hooks is a step toward building a similar community here in the heart of Arizona. Although this state is mired in ideological conflict, it’s important to remember to act with loving-kindness, as bell pointed out in our discussion. No one is black and white; no one acts in only one direction. The concept of multiple intentionalities is particularly applicable to the current cultural climate in Arizona.

In the end, the discussion with bell hooks left me with this thought: as artists, writers, and readers, it is our job to tackle these contradictions in life. The human tendency to do good with the right hand and harm with the left is, perhaps, the very thing that drives us to create. How else can we make sense of ourselves and our world with all its contradictions if not through art? I’m thankful to be a part of the community here at Superstition Review, where our interns, contributors, and readers are all committed to the art that makes sense of our crazy, convoluted world.

Spring Reading Series

Monday, March 16th Superstition Review will be hosting the first reading of its Spring Reading Series. Arizona State University Creative Writers Cynthia Hogue and Peter Turchi will share their poetry and fiction. The reading will be held in the Cooley Ballroom at the ASU Polytechnic Campus at 7:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public. The reading is generously sponsored by the Student Affairs organization at the Polytechnic Campus and is catered with organic food shares donated by the CSA. Our menu includes:

Swiss Chard Boules Stuffed w/ Chili Pepper Risotto
Roasted Vegetable Dumplings w/ Dipping Sauce
Local Orange Pico de Gallo w/ Tortilla Chips

Cynthia Hogue has published nine books, including an electronic chapbook, Under Erasure, in (December 2007), The Incognito Body (2006), and two co-edited editions, Innovative Women Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Interviews (2006), and the first edition of H.D.’s The Sword Went Out to Sea, by Delia Alton (2007). Among her honors are an Arizona Commission on the Arts Project Grant and a MacDowell Colony Residency Fellowship, both in 2008. Professor Hogue taught in the M.F.A. program at the University of New Orleans before moving to Pennsylvania, where she directed the Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University for eight years. While in Pennsylvania, she trained in conflict resolution with the Mennonites and became a trained mediator specializing in diversity issues in education. In 2003, she joined the Department of English at ASU as the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry.

Peter Turchi is the author of five books: a novel, The Girls Next Door; a collection of stories, Magician; a non-fiction account of the exploits of treasure hunter Barry Clifford, co-written with the subject; an artist’s exhibit catalog, Suburban Journals: The Sketchbooks, Drawings, and Prints of Charles Ritchie; and Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. He has also co-edited, with Charles Baxter, Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life, and, with Andrea Barrett, The Story Behind the Story: Twenty-Six Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He has taught at Northwestern University, Appalachian State, and the University of Houston, and for 15 years he directed and taught in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. He now teaches and is Director of Creative Writing and the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University.

Join us Monday, March 16th to see these talented writers present their original work. I personally have found the readings not only enjoyable and enlightening, but inspirational to my own work as a writer. I have found few experiences to be as motivational as attending a live reading with contemporary authors. The readings have grown increasingly popular over the past year since the magazine first began the series, and our upcoming reading looks to be our most popular to date. We here at Superstition Review are excited to have such respected authors representing the magazine. We look forward to seeing you all there.

written by Alisha Allston