Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys. An ill-fated couple struggle with race, class, and gender inequality in a socially oppressive tropical paradise. The arranged marriage of Antoinette and her (unnamed) husband quickly disintegrates into distrust, abuse, and betrayal. As Antoinette’s husband is in control of the dowry, he moves himself and his Jamaican-born wife back to his home country of England, where Antoinette is further isolated.
This book resonated with me, and brought back memories of my time in Hawaii in an abusive relationship. The racism Antoinette experiences as a white Creole growing up among newly the emancipated native Jamaicans, and later, living among native Dominicans, is similar to the modern-day racist attitudes in the Big Island of Hawaii. If you are white and visiting Hawaii and have money, you are politely tolerated. If you are white and living in Hawaii and do not have money, you are a haole. Haole destroyed the Hawaiian kingdom in 1893, stole the Hawaiian islands and ruined the native Hawaiian economy in 1898, and forever cheapened the native Hawaiian culture when Hawaii became the 50th state of the USA in 1959.
Antoinette was leaning back against the pillows with her eyes closed. She opened them and smiled when I came in. It was the black woman hovering over her who said, ‘Taste my bull’s blood, master.’ The coffee she handed me was delicious and she had long-fingered hands, thin and beautiful I suppose.
‘Not horse piss like the English madams drink,’ she said. I know them. Drink drink their yellow horse piss, talk, talk their lying talk.’ Her dress trailed and rustled as she walked to the door. There she turned. ‘I send the girl to clear up the mess you made with the frangipani, it bring cockroach in the house. Take care not to slip on the flowers, young master.’ She slid through the door.
‘Her coffee is delicious but her language is horrible and she might hold her dress up. It must get very dirty, yards of it trailing on the floor.’
‘When they don’t hold their dress up it’s for respect,’ said Antoinette.
Pejorative language. WSS is a parallel novel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847).
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Three Men in a Boat AKA Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) (1889) by Jerome K. Jerome. Three chums and a dog take an English boating holiday on the Thames. Cheerio and tally-ho, the chaps had a jolly good time in-between Keystone Cops-eque hijinks.
I discovered I read this on May 2, Jerome’s birthday. Somehow that seems fitting.
We passed a very pretty little hotel, with clematis and creeper over the porch; but there was no honeysuckle about it, and, for some reason or other, I had got my mind fixed on honeysuckle, and I said:
‘Oh, don’t let’s go in there! Let’s go a bit farther, and see if there isn’t one with honeysuckle over it.’
So we went on till we came to another hotel. That was a very nice hotel, too, and it had honeysuckle on it, round at the side; but Harris did not like the look of the man who was leaning against the front door. He said he didn’t look a nice man at all, and he wore ugly boots: so we went on farther. We went a goodish way without coming across anymore hotels, and then we met a man, and asked him to direct us to a few.
He said: ‘Why, you are coming away from them. You must turn right around and go back, and then you will come to the Stag.’
We said: ‘Oh, we had been there, and didn’t like it—no honeysuckle over it.’
‘Well, then,’ he said, ‘there’s the Manor House, just opposite. Have you tried that?’
Harris replied that we did not want to go there—didn’t like the looks of a man who was stopping there—Harris did not like the colour of his hair, didn’t like his boots, either.’
‘Well, I don’t know what you’ll do, I’m sure.’ Said our informant; because they are the only two inns in the place.’
‘No other inns!’ exclaimed Harris.
‘None,’ replied the man.
‘What on earth are we to do?’ cried Harris.
Then George spoke up. He said Harris and I could get an hotel built for us, if we liked, and have some people made to put in. For his part, he was going back to the Stag.
An instance of pejorative language. Jerome’s sequel to TMIAB is Three Men on a Bummel.
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No-No Boy (1957) by John Okada. Immediately after WW2, a Japanese-American college undergraduate struggles with racism and self-respect. After two years in a Japanese-American internment camp, and another two years in federal prison for refusing the draft, Ichiro Yamada returns to Seattle to face the hatred of his fellow Japanese-Americans, the hatred of non-Japanese-Americans, and his own self-hate.
NNB is a powerfully revealing story about the ugliness of patriotism, nationalism, and racism, which seems to repeat itself with perplexing regularity throughout history.
Excerpt of 1943 Leave Clearance Application Form administered to interned Japanese-Americans:
Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?
Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization?
“Bobbie was like that. Me and the other guys, all we talked about was drinking and girls and stuff like that because it’s important to talk about those things when you make it back from the front on your own power, but Bobbie, all he thought about was going to school. I was nodding my head and saying yeah, yeah, and then there was this noise, kind of a pinging noise right close by. It scared me for a minute and I started to cuss and said, ‘Gee, that was damn close,’ and looked around at Bobbie. He was slumped over with his head between his knees. I reached out to hit him, thinking he was fooling around. Then, when I tapped him on the arm, he fell over and I saw the dark spot on the side of his head where the bullet had gone through. That was all. Ping, and he’s dead. It doesn’t figure, but it happened just the way I’ve said.”
The mother was crying now, without shame and alone in her grief that knew no end. And in her bottomless grief that made no distinction as to what was wrong and what was right and who was Japanese and who was not, there was no awareness of the other mother with a living son who had come to say to her you are with shame and grief because you were not Japanese and thereby killed your son but mine is big and strong and full of life because I did not weaken and would not let my son destroy himself uselessly and treacherously.
Ichiro’s mother rose and, without a word, for no words would ever pass between them again, went out of the house which was a part of America.
Pejorative language. Okada was a Japanese-American student at the University of Washington when Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japan. He and his family were interned in 1942. After passing the 1943 Leave Clearance, he became a Japanese translator in the United States Army Air Force. Today he is interred at Evergreen Washelli Memorial Park. NNB is Okada’s only novel.
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To the Lighthouse (1927) by Virginia Woolf. An overbearing patriarch and a brooding matriarch intermittently discuss whether they shall go to a lighthouse. The Ramsay clan visits Scotland’s Isle of Skye, have guests for supper, and experience inner emotional turmoil. I found I had little resonance with this novel. Many of the passages were poetically interesting, but the book, as a whole, was tedious.
How trifling it all is, he thought, compared with the other things—work. Here he sat drumming his fingers on the table-cloth when he might have been—he took a flashing bird’s-eye view of his work. What a waste of time it all was to be sure! Yet, he thought, she is one of my oldest friends. I am by way of being devoted to her. Yet now, at this moment her presence meant absolutely nothing to him: her beauty meant nothing to him: her sitting with her little boy at the window—nothing, nothing, He wished only to be alone and to take up that book. He felt uncomfortable; he felt treacherous, that he could sit by her side and feel nothing for her. The truth was that he did not enjoy family life. It was in this sort of state that one asks oneself, What does one life for? Why, one asked oneself, does one take all these pains for the human race to go on? Is it so very desirable? Are we attractive as a species? Not so very, he thought, looking at those rather untidy boys. His favourite, Cam, was in bed, he supposed. Foolish questions, vain questions, questions one never asked if one was occupied. Is human life this? Is human life that? One never has time to think about it. But here he was asking himself that sort of question, because Mrs. Ramsay was giving orders to servants, and also because it had struck him, thinking how surprised Mrs. Ramsay was that Carrie Manning would still exist, that friendships, even the best of them, are frail things. One drifts apart. He reproached himself again. He was sitting beside Mrs. Ramsay and he had nothing in the world to say to her.
Woolf committed suicide by drowning in 1941. Her suicide note to her husband:
Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.