Humanitas: Star poems and an antihero who shares his creator’s struggle
In the latest edition of Humanitas, a column focused on the arts and humanities at Yale, a new novel casts a man with a stutter in the lead role, a digital project helps readers visualize the legacy of plantation in the Caribbean, and an astronomy-inspired poetry project puts a new spin on the notion that our fate is “written in the stars.”
For more, visit an archive of all arts and humanities coverage at Yale News.
Claiming central space, with a stutter
There have been many literary characters who stutter. But seldom has there been a stutterer who is the central character, says John Whittier Treat, professor emeritus of East Asian Languages and Literatures.
In a new novel, Treat, himself a lifelong stutterer, bucks that trend. In “First Consonants,” which will be published this month by Jaded Ibis Press, the main character, Brian, decides to seek solace in the Alaskan outback “after a lifetime of punishing both the innocent and guilty around him for his debility.”
The book, he insists, is not autobiographical. Yet every description of Brian’s stammer has its origins in Treat’s experiences, he explained in a recent essay in Literary Hub. “My stutter has receded over the years, but the worst of it made me who I am today,” he wrote. “When my younger brother began to stutter himself, I beat him mercilessly in the bedroom we shared; Brian mugs a stranger on the street. I no longer try to hide my stammer from those closest to me; Brian chooses a wife with her own history of impediment. Both Brian and I have sought solace in places no one else goes.”
“I originally wanted to write a novel where the stutterer was a hero,” Treat recently told Yale News. “I originally wanted my character to save the world because in literature, particularly Western literature, stutterers are court jesters or are morally flawed in some way. Their tragic flaw often results in tragedy. I was very tired of that depiction, so I wanted to do something different. But when I actually wrote the novel, I couldn’t really make Brian a hero because it just didn’t conform with lived experience for me.” Without revealing too much of its plot, Treat says the novel climaxes with a conflagration in the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska. (“What I can say,” he adds, “is that the ending is ambiguous.”)
In his essay, Treat said he hopes to share his novel with “readers who may not have given this perhaps most marginal of disabilities its due consideration. That I have to do so with words is the irony of the writer estranged from the very materials he is consigned to work with,” he wrote.
The afterlives of plantation in the Caribbean
How can Caribbean literature help teach us about the region’s complex biodiversity and the histories and cultures of its people? That’s the question explored in the work of Hannah Rachel Cole, the 2022-2023 Postdoctoral Fellow in the Environmental Humanities at the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration.
In her digital project, “Botanical Imaginaries,” Cole offers interactive maps of plant migration in a region she describes as “one of the most altered botanical regions in the world.”
“The specters of its plantation history, as well as the legacies of resistance to that system, infuse the botanical imaginaries of Caribbean texts,” she writes. “These reveal that monoculture’s hold on people and plants has never been complete; alternatives were always hiding in plain sight. By showing the diverse alliances of people with flora across generations, these texts enrich imaginings of what comes after monoculture on the islands of the Caribbean.”
The work is inspired by literary texts from Cuba, Trinidad, and Martinique. Learn more about the projects here.
Poems become constellations in Monica Ong’s ‘Planetaria’
For her latest poetry project, Monica Ong Reed, a digital designer in the Yale University Library, created a poem called “The Star Gazer.” Set on a planisphere — a kind of star chart that lyrically maps the constellations of the Chinese night sky on any given date and time — the project allows a reader to turn the map to a particular date and hour, revealing a series of poems that change over the course of a year.
That poem was part of an exhibition of visual poems by Ong on astronomy, called “Planetaria,” that until recently was on view at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. “‘Planetaria’ is a series of astronomy-inspired poems that I created as way to work against this idea that our lot in life is written in the stars,” Ong said in a video interview about the exhibition on the Poetry Foundation website. “You hear that phrase tossed around a lot, and when I think about what we’ve all been through, particularly women and folks from marginalized communities, I always ask myself: ‘Who does that actually benefit when we say that, and how might we re-imagine those narratives?”
Ong’s visually engaging poems explore such themes as motherhood, women in science, and diaspora identity, among others. Viewers and readers can engage playfully with the works through a Viewfinder, illustrations, broadsides, and the planisphere in a way that invites them to think in new ways about the night sky, gender, culture, and belonging in our universe. The Institute Library in New Haven featured the exhibition last year. Hear Ong — whose collection of visual poems called “Silent Anatomies” was selected by poet Joy Harjo as the Kore Press First Book Award in Poetry in 2015 — talk about the exhibition and read some of the poems in the Poetry Foundation video.
Pioneering urban historian and architect honored
The National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. this week named Dolores Hayden, a professor emerita of architecture, urbanism, and American studies at Yale, the recipient of its annual Vincent Scully Prize. The prize, named for the late legendary Yale architectural historian, recognizes excellence in practice, scholarship, or criticism in architecture, historic preservation, and urban design.
In a ceremony to be held on Oct. 3, Hayden will make a presentation on the concept of “urbanism of care” — the idea that a city’s investment in infrastructure should go beyond water supply systems and schools to include childcare centers in workplaces, free kindergartens, and public kitchens — and why the United States has lagged behind many European countries in promoting such principles.
“With her focus on the politics of place, gender studies, and urban planning, Dolores Hayden is a true pioneer in using the built environment to document the history of gender, class, and race,” said Aileen Fuchs, the president and executive director of the National Building Museum.
Giving voice to the unseen
In his book “African Ecomedia: Network Forms, Planetary Politics,” English professor Cajetan Ikeha discusses the 2017 film “Thank You for the Rain,” which in one scene pictures Kenyan farmer and activist Kisulu Musya standing with his family and lamenting, “Why can’t we be seen?” Musya is referring to communities like his own in Africa, poor and disproportionally challenged by extreme weather events such as drought or flooding as a result of climate change.
Iheka ensures that Musya and others suffering a similar plight are clearly seen in his newest book, which was recently named the winner of the 2022 Ecocritical Book Award by the Association for the Study of Literature and Environmental Leadership (ASLE). Earlier, it was awarded Yale’s 2021-2022 Samuel ’60 and Ronnie ’72 Heyman Prize.
“African Ecomedia” takes Kisulu’s question “why can’t we be seen?” as its animating impulse, writes Iheka in an essay on the ASLE website. “It does this by foregrounding representations of environmental violence and extractive practices in African visual culture: namely, mineral mining, electronic recycling, commercial agriculture, and ‘trophy’ hunting. As I write in the introduction, ‘Africa is the other repressed and invisible factor in the operations of media infrastructure as the continent remains at the margins of intellectual discussions and geopolitics despite its major contribution to global modernity and the supply chain.”
Judges for the ASLE award said, “The book begins and ends with a piercing analysis of the film ‘Black Panther’ and discloses the centrality of African ecomedia to the working of global capitalism, communication technology, and popular culture. Iheka’s book stands out among a growing body of environmental media studies by drawing attention to African art, history, and Black diasporic culture in making network forms — forms, Iheka argues, that are always political and extractive.”
Situating Irish literature in a world context
Joe Cleary, professor of English, has won the Robert Rhodes Prize from the American Conference for Irish Studies (ACIS). The award honors Cleary for his book “The Irish Expatriate Novel in Late Capitalist Globalization” (2021), which examines how Irish writers engaged with the wider world in the post-Cold War era “in the contexts of a shift of the center of gravity of the Anglophone world literary system from England to the United States and the contemporary rise of China,” Cleary wrote.
“Through a series of erudite and adept readings of a select number of contemporary Irish authors including Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Deirdre Madden, Joseph O’Neill, Mary Costello, Naoise Dolan, Aidan Higgins, and Colum McCann, Cleary masterfully sketches a map of literary networks between Ireland and East Asia, America, and the Global South, illuminating the possibilities generated by Irish expatriate fiction,” said the ACIS in announcing the award. “Through his incisive discussion of the dynamics of expatriation, Cleary exposes the economic inequalities that underlie modern society and highlights the ways that these disparities threaten the future of literary readership and production.”
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