Hamlet and the Tribal Elders

I recently read a very interesting article about Shakespeare’s outsized influence on Western culture. Author Stephen Marche goes so far as to argue that Shakespeare was the most influential man in history. He’s overstating his case, it seems to me, but it’s a fascinating piece nevertheless. Among other interesting tidbits is the fact that Shakespeare is responsible for there being starlings in North America. In 1890, a Shakespeare enthusiast with an ornithological bent had a plan to introduce to America every species of bird mentioned in Shakespeare. The sixty starlings he released in Central Park liked America so well that they have now multiplied to 200 million. I’m not sure that really counts as evidence that Shakespeare was the most influential man who ever lived, but it’s mighty interesting.
And here’s a choice anecdote from the article:

There’s a famous anecdote, beloved by Shakespeare professors, about an anthropologist named Laura Bohannan who went to study the Tiv tribe in a remote corner of the Nigerian interior during the early Sixties. It was the rainy season in Benue, when the Tiv can’t work and can’t perform the rituals that anthropologists like Professor Bohannan study. Instead, the Tiv start drinking in the morning and they tell stories all day. Eventually they asked Bohannan for a story, and it just so happened that she had a copy of Hamlet with her. She decided to give it a try.

The questions began immediately, from the first scene. The Tiv could not understand why the ghost would come for Hamlet. It wouldn’t be the duty of a son to revenge his father, but the duty of his father’s brothers. They also heartily approved of Claudius’s marriage to Gertrude, which is a problem if you want the play to make sense. An old man commented to his companions: “I told you that if we knew more about Europeans, we would find they were really very like us. In our country also, the younger brother marries the elder brother’s widow and becomes the father of his children.” It took the anthropologist several attempts to untangle this knot of contention, but the whole play required a separate Tiv explanation. When Hamlet confronts his mother, the audience erupted in “shocked murmurs.” How could a son scold his mother? Hamlet, as written, was all too unbelievable. So the Tiv insisted on straightening it out for the anthropologist. Once they had corrected the play, though–explaining the chains of magic and revenge that fit the Tiv worldview–they enjoyed it. “Sometime you must tell us some more stories of your country,” one of the old men told Bohannan. “We, who are elders, will instruct you in their true meaning, so that when you return to your own land your elders will see that you have not been sitting in the bush, but among those who know things and who have taught you wisdom.”

There’s more where that came from in Stephen Marche’s article in The National Post. I commend it to you.

Audience Participation Friday: Your Unwritten Monographs

Earlier this week I mentioned the work of rural sociologist Mary Grigsby, who is writing a book on catfish noodling, with the tentative title of Fishing for Collective Identity—The Intersection of Gender and Class in the Identity Work of Rural Men and Women Noodlers. Melinda Speece suggested that we devote an Audience Participation Friday to the subject of “Mary Grigsby-esque” sociology topics (rural or otherwise) that are important but overlooked. I think that’s a great idea.
So here’s your APF assignment. Give us the title of the sociological monograph that you want to see written, and give us a brief summary of its content. Here’s mine:

“Stepping On It: The Origins of NASCAR in Southern Popular Culture”
In the 1970s, the pop culture contributions of the Southern white male revolved around the idea of rapid–and frequently motorized–escape from trouble and/or commitment. In popular music (e.g., The Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin Man,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps,” “Freebird,” “They Call Me the Breeze,” or almost any other of their songs), on television (e.g., “The Dukes of Hazzard”), in the movies (e.g., “Smoky and the Bandit”) the Southern Male’s state of perpetual flight serves as a metaphor for his existential angst amidst the changing mores of American society in general and Southern society in particular. This rootlessness and existential unease reach their apotheosis in stock car racing: unmoored from the narrative of rising danger and rapid escape, speed becomes an end in itself, forever circling, never arriving.

How about you? What are the monographs you’ve been wanting to see?

The King’s English – Commemorating the KJV

The Authorized Version (or King James Version) of the Bible turns 400 this year. Here’s an interesting video that has been floating around the Internet for a couple of weeks at least, in which a clever poet works a hundred phrases from the KJV into a three-minute poem, thereby demonstrating how deeply the KJV has influenced the English we speak every day.

This video comes from a website called KingsEnglish.info that examines some of the most well-known phrases from the KJV and talks about how those phrases get variously used and misused, understood and misunderstood in our daily speech. It’s worth a few minutes of your time.

Feechie Legislative Alert

If you know the Wilderking books or The Charlatan’s Boy, you know that feechiefolks aren’t the most political people around. Maybe a little tribal politics every now and then, but when it comes to the legislative, judicial, and executive branches, they mostly leave it to the civilizers. But a couple of blog readers (thanks Wendy May and David King!) have brought to my attention a legislative issue that feechiefolks can really sink their teeth into.

Did you know that in Texas it is illegal to grabble catfish? (You may know the practice as ‘noodling,’ ‘hogging,’ ‘stumping,’ ‘dogging,’ or ‘grabbing’). The idea is to stick your hand into a hole where a big catfish lives; then, to quote Dobro Turtlebane, “When you waggle your fingers in front of his face, he’s sure to grab aholt of you. Then you pull him out. Only he’s going to be trying to pull you in.” If you’ve read The Bark of the Bog Owl, you’ll remember the triumphant moment when Aidan (accidentally) catches a catfish by hand, to the delight and astonishment of the feechies. If they had been in Texas instead of Corenwald, Aidan would have been subject to a fine of up to $500.

The feechiefolk of Texas are striking back, however, and not by invading Houston or flinging stone-tipped spears at passing vehicles. They’re pushing a pro-grabbling bill through the Texas legislature. According to a Wall Street Journal Article, the charge is being led by noodling enthusiast Brady Knowlton (this is obviously a civilizer code name–his real name is probably Brado Gillgrabber). Brado told the WSJ reporter that he loves “the heebie-jeebies you get underwater, in the dark, with this little sea monster biting you.” He lovingly recalled the first time he went noodling. His arm, he said, ended up looking like “the first stage of a chili recipe.”

Brado is experiencing some opposition from those finicky line-and-hook fishermen, who say that it’s unsporting to reach into a fish’s hole and pull it out. This is a remarkable thing for a line-fisherman to say. If there’s a case against catfish noodling, surely it’s not because it’s less sporting than line-fishing. (A more relevant criticism involves fish populations: a mother catfish who might not bite a baited hook could be grabbled out and leave a clutch of eggs unprotected). Catfish noodling is specifically legal in some states, specifically illegal in others, and not addressed one way or another in most states.

One other favorite detail from the article is the grabbler who got mixed up with a beaver and had to get thirteen stitches in his chin. But I think the best tidbit in the whole article is the rural sociology professor who is writing a book called Fishing for Collective Identity—The Intersection of Gender and Class in the Identity Work of Rural Men and Women Noodlers. You can’t make this stuff up.

Anyway, it’s good to see feechiefolks finally getting involved in the democratic process. Apparently Missouri feechies are pushing their own pro-noodling legislative agenda. There’s a regular sawgrass-roots movement afoot.

If you want to read the whole Wall Street Journal article about the effort to legalize catfish noodling in Texas, click here. And if you live in Texas, you might want to call your state senator forthwith. Feechies are making their voices heard, and any politician who ignores the feechie vote is asking for trouble. Feechies are building a bridge to the future. No wee-feechie left behind. They’re reaching across party lines to put government to work for working families. A catfish in every pot!

Dream Big. Take Action. Get a Book

Many thanks to those of you who have already given to Ellie’s Run. This offer is good through noon on Saturday, 5/21.
Seven years ago a ten-year-old girl named Ellie, a family friend of ours, saw some pictures of an urban slum somewhere in Africa and was deeply moved. I don’t know if it was the first time she had seen images of real poverty, but it was definitely the first time the images had ever had an impact on her. She wanted to do something about it. Her parents were wise enough to honor their daughter’s softness of heart and seize the opportunity. They started organizing a 5K race and fundraiser they call Ellie’s Run for Africa. The motto of Ellie’s Run is “Dream Big. Take Action”; a little girl’s big dreams have grown into something good. Through the years the event has raised over a quarter of a million dollars for schools and orphanages in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya–home to a million souls, but not one government school.

The bigger story, of course, is not what is happening at Ellie’s Run, but what is happening in Nairobi. Yesterday I met Irene Tongoi, a Kenyan woman who runs New Dawn Educational Center in an impoverished village on the outskirts of Nairobi. She’s a delightful and gospel-soaked woman with her own big dreams for the poor of her city. Her school makes a secondary education possible for young people who otherwise have no real prospects for getting out of the slum and breaking the cycle of poverty and violence and drugs.

Ellie’s Run is this Saturday, May 21. If you live in Middle Tennessee, I hope you’ll come. It’s a lot of fun. If you can’t come, you can be give to Ellie’s Run (and, more to the point, New Dawn Educational Center) anyway. I’ll make you a deal: if you give $25 to Ellie’s Run–$25 being the the fee that a parent in Nairobi would pay to send a child to school for a term–I’ll send you one of my books. I know there are cheaper ways to get my books…this is a ‘premium’ like they have on the Public Television fund-raisers.

Just go to www.elliesrun.org, check things out, and if it looks like something you’re interested in helping with, click the ‘Donate Now’ button on the right. Include my name in the comments section, please.

Once you’ve given, get in touch through the “Contact Me” form on the right and tell me which book you’d like me to send you, and the mailing address I should send it to. Your choices are:

  • The Bark of the Bog Owl
  • The Secret of the Swamp King
  • The Charlatan’s Boy
  • The World According to Narnia
  • Saint Patrick

I know you’ve got a lot of people clamoring for your charitable donations, but if you’ve got margin in your budget, this is a good place to give.

This short movie gives a nice overview of Ellie’s Run:

Cicada Lit Contest Winners

Audience Participation Friday always astonishes me. I say, “Let’s write about X,” and a good many of you say, “OK,” and you pour tremendous creativity into the thing and produce some really good writing. I didn’t always (or even usually) get that when I taught college English and could give people Fs if they didn’t try. I didn’t get the impression that many of you already had cicada stories and poems in your back pockets ready to whip out in the event that somebody should put together a cicada lit contest. No, you said, “Cicada literature? Sounds good to me,” and you put your shoulder to the wheel. Or your hand to the plow, for those of you who prefer agricultural metaphors.Read More

Audience Participation Friday: Cicada Lit Contest

Every thirteen years, the cicadas of Brood XIX emerge from the ground and molt and mate and click and whistle and make a nuisance of themselves for a couple of weeks like a plague of Pharaoh. They lay their eggs in the trees and die, and the new nymphs–cicada grubs–burrow into the dirt beneath the trees. There they live in subterranean darkness for thirteen years, sucking on juices from the tree roots (not surprisingly, they like apple and pear trees when they can get them). In the thirteenth spring, the first day the soil temperature reaches 67 degrees, they begin tunneling out. In every yard with mature trees, hundreds–even thousands of them–crawl up the tree trunks by night and shed their exoskeletons, emerging not as grubs but as red-eyed cicadas that are really quite beautiful. They’re white and tender and utterly vulnerable when they first emerge, and any bird that was enterprising enough to bestir himself by night could gorge himself without leaving his tree.
Any one cicada can make ample noise on its own. But the millions of them that come out simultaneously are a wall of sound, to borrow a phrase from record producer Phil Spector. Their collective sound is a pulsating whistle that, if I remember correctly (it’s been thirteen years, after all) sounds exactly like a flying saucer from a 1950s B-movie (Brood Nineteen from Outer Space!). Combined with their red-eyed, otherworldly appearance, it makes for a very impressive effect, as suggested by the poster to the right, created by Nashville artist Joel Anderson of Anderson Design Group.

The facts of a cicada’s life, it occurs to me, are rich fodder for poem and story. There’s a lot of pathos in this business of waiting underground for thirteen years, then coming out into the sun for a couple of glorious weeks to sing one’s song with millions of like-minded friends (assuming one isn’t eaten by a bird or consumed by tree ants before one’s wings have dried). After thirteen years of utter obscurity, literally being trod underfoot, to be the talk of Nashville (or Cincinnati or some other city, depending on your brood) for a brief while–there’s a poem or story there.

Or consider the Rip van Winkle-esque possibilities. A lot can change in thirteen years (or seventeen years, if you’re a member of Broods I-XIV). I didn’t live in my current house, for instance, when this generation of Brood XIX burrowed into the ground. I picture the cicadas in my yard looking at me and saying “Who are you? And what have you done with Mrs. Lish?” But they’re a lot better off than the cicadas in the slash-and-burn subdivisions who tunnel out to find that their trees are completely gone.

Or what about the “straggling broods”–smallish groups of cicadas that come out the wrong year? Apparently they’re more vulnerable than the periodical cicadas who come out when they’re supposed to. I think the brood’s survival depends in part on the sheer fact that there are more of them than their predators could possibly eat. Just the phrase “straggling brood” makes me want to write a poem. How would you like to be the cicada who convinced his peers underneath the tree that it was time to tunnel out? (“Great, just great! I told you this was the twelfth year, and you just insisted it was the thirteenth!” “I thought it was the thirteenth.” “Well do you see any other cicadas on any other tree trunks?”)

We’re kicking off Audience Participation Friday a day early this week. The topic is cicada-related literature, and there is a prize involved. Write a poem or a story or an essay or a scene from a play involving cicadas. If you have direct experience with periodical cicadas, feel free to write a personal memoir. I will accept entries through 11:59 pm CDT on Sunday, May 15 and will announce the winner on Monday, May 16. The winner will receive a signed, remaindered copy of my rare (i.e., out-of-print) book, The World According to Narnia. The remainder mark (or, as I like to call it, the mark of authenticity) is clearly visible.

You may want to do a little research on cicadas. You’d be amazed at the little facts that are just tossed out in the most off-hand manner by cicada researchers but are pure gold to the cicada poet/essayist/playwright. For example, cicadas are fascinated by weed-eaters and swarm around anybody who is brave enough to operate a weed-eater in cicada time. A great place to start your research is Cicada Central. Those links on the right range from whimsical to dead-earnest scientific research. The University of Maryland site includes cicada recipes.

Special consideration will be given to anyone who eats a cicada and writes about it. Haikus, of course, will be dismissed out of hand.

One last thing: this is an amazing time-lapse movie of emerging seventeen-year cicadas. It should inspire literary greatness.

Bubba and the Mnemonic Device

I worked in a cabinet shop for a brief while. I was teaching Tuesdays and Thursdays at Vanderbilt and so had some time on my hands on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I had recently finished my PhD, and it was a pleasure to do hand-work after so many years of almost exclusively head-work. As it turned out, I wasn’t very good at cabinetry. I’ve wondered how many hours Scott, the cabinet shop owner, devoted to fixing my mistakes after I had left for the day.
The only other employee at the cabinet shop was an old boy named Bubba who lived in the neighborhood. Bubba was a miracle on two legs. I’ve never known a grown man who could talk like him. He could talk for an hour uninterrupted as easily as you or I could eat an ice cream cone–long, involved anecdotes about family reunions that disintegrated into bottle-smashing brawls; diatribes about who all thought they was better than Bubba and how and why they wasn’t (with copious examples); oral histories of local feuds, byzantine in their involvements and complicated by step-siblings and half-siblings with split loyalties, all related with a loving attention to detail that you might expect from an archivist at the Daughters of the American Revolution.

I have forgotten nine-tenths of the remarkable things that Bubba told me. If I had only kept a pen and notebook handy, I don’t suppose this blog would ever suffer a slow day. I do remember his coming to the shop one Monday and announcing that he had gotten married over the weekend. No small part of Bubba’s pride and pleasure derived from his conviction that marriage represented a significant step toward the respectability that, in his mind at least, seemed always to elude him. His narrative of the weekend’s happy events was frequently punctuated by the declaration (or was it an imperative?), “I respect you, you respect me!”

One of Bubba’s favorite themes was his own commitment to hard work. Usually he started embroidering this theme shortly after arriving (an hour late) and sometimes kept at it until he had to leave (an hour early). Bear in mind that Bubba never really mastered the skill of talking and working simultaneously. He’d rest an electric sander on his thigh and wax eloquent. The sander, of course, was turned off. It would be hard for us to hear him if the sander were running. Scott, the boss, didn’t mind as much as you might think. “At least Bubba can’t put a gouge in the panel of a cabinet door if his sander’s turned off,” he said.

One day Bubba had been going on about how he wasn’t afraid of hard work, and a day’s work for a day’s pay had always been his motto. “Not me,” I said. “I try to do as little as I can get by with, short of getting myself fired.” I was just trying to get a rise out of Bubba, who, frankly, had lost some of his rhetorical fire. And didn’t it send him? “Whooooop!” he said. “Scott, you ain’t going to believe what Jonathan just said! Said he didn’t care about the work! Said he was just getting by! Half-stepping!” He shook his head at the boss. “That’s what comes of hiring PhDs.” It had recently come out that I had a PhD. Bubba wheeled on me. “So, Mr. PhD. I reckon you know everything.”

This was shaping up nicely, this break in the monotony. I decided to keep things rolling along. “That’s right, Bubba,” I said. “I know more or less everything.” Bubba thought on that a minute, wheels turning. “All right, then,” he said. “What’s the firing order on a Chevy 350?”

He had me there. But I hoped I could get partial credit just for knowing that the answer would be a combination of the digits one through eight, with each number used once and only once. I made an educated guess: “1-8-2-7-3-6-4-5.”

“Hah!” Bubba barked. No partial credit. “Gotcha! It’s 1-8-4-3-6-5-7-2.” He strutted around a little bit, but he soon took pity on me in my ignorance. “I’ll tell you the secret to remembering,” he said in conspiratorial tones. “It’s just a old-timey date–1843–and then 6572. 1-8-4-3-6-5-7-2. Easy as that.”

I’ve never since needed to know the firing order for a Chevrolet 350. But if ever I do, I’ve got Bubba to thank for the mnemonic that will get me through: an old-timey date–1843–then 6572.

Jeffrey Overstreet on the Muppets and Self-Promotion

Jeffrey Overstreet, author of the Auralia Thread series, has an excellent article in Image Journal today–the second of a two-part series in which he reads The Muppet Movie as a parable of the creative life. It caught my attention because I have recently introduced my kids to the Muppet Show. Last time I saw the Muppets, I was too young to appreciate how much creativity and love went into that work. I’ve tried to picture Jim Henson in a room with investors trying to raise the money to make his dream a reality: “It’s a variety show with puppets, see. The host is a frog and we’ll have about six elaborate sets for each weekly show…”
But I digress. What struck me most about Jeffrey’s article had nothing to do with the Muppets.

You can try to stir the writer’s life and the self-marketer’s life together, but they’re oil and water. Publishers sent me a guide detailing what “successful” authors do: Build websites about themselves. Create their own fan clubs on Facebook. Pursue their own endorsements. Volunteer to blog on “influential” websites. Organize readings, book-signings, and giveaways.

Following instructions, I feel I’m standing on a street corner wearing a sandwich board with my picture on it and shouting, “I’m awesome! Go tell everyone I’m awesome!”

Later, coughing dust across blank pages, I fail to find any sparks of inspiration. Do I even want to try again? How can anyone find inspiration in the midst of so much striving and pressure? I careen between embarrassment and an egomaniacal fever that comes from self-promotion. On a good day, I read nice notes from readers. On a bad day, I feel like a fraud.

I’ve never heard this expressed so clearly, but it gets right at the trouble with this new world order in which publishers expect authors to devote themselves wholeheartedly to self-promotion. It’s not simply that self-promotion is time-consuming. The real problem is that can short-circuit that part of the creative process that requires quiet and even a kind of apparent aimlessness.

Here, again, is the link to that article. I commend it to you.


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