Leveraging Leadership: A Natural Struggle for Power

In the untamed wild, an alpha will always emerge to take control. In her shocking new novel, The New Wilderness, Diane Cook explores the importance of leadership. When Carl first talked with Bea about leading together, saying “ I think you’re powerful. And I think we could be very powerful together”, she was skeptical. Bea thought the group was better off making decisions as a group, so she didn’t really see a need to step up and side with Carl. He warned her that she would need her someday, but she didn’t fully believe him. When she returned from her time in the city, that someday comes. Carl exploits Beas’s absence and the arrival of fresh newcomers to establish himself as the leader and to remove the biggest obstacle in his way, the group consensus. In the wilderness, the only way to acquire power is to take it by force. Carl does not allow any other member of the Community to take his power as leader of the community. He commands the respect of the Newcomers and ensures that no one challenges his authority, until Bea aggressively does so. On the other side of the spectrum, Glen and Debra have no authority with their “consensus” methods and no one else is willing to command as much authority as Bea and Carl, the “true” leaders of the Community. Carl’s rule shows his strengths and weaknesses as while he is a good hunter and is good at teaching others, his ego gets in the way. He often sleeps with women in the community even though he is in a relationship with Val, and he lets the newcomers starve Anges and Glen. Infuriated to see Glen and Agnes thinner and less nourished than the rest of the group, Bea knows she needs to make a move. Bea takes advantage of Carl’s weakness by sleeping with him in order to regain her power in her community and save her family. Carl does not actually want to lead, just for people to go through him, allowing her to take the reins as the de facto leader of the Community. With her newfound position, she fixes the food inequality between the Newcomers and the Originalists. However, doing so requires her to abandon Glen for Carl, sacrificing part of their relationship. 

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An Examination of Motherhood in this Compelling CliFi Novel

In Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness, Bea experiences internal conflicts as a mother through her relationship with Agnes, as well as her relationship with her own mother. Throughout the story, Bea is conflicted about whether it is safe for her to bring Agnes back to the city, or if she herself even wants to take the responsibilities of a mother expected by the urban society she comes from. Bea wonders where and if she will ever find happiness and if Agnes and Glen even belong in that happiness. Often, she thinks about leaving the wilderness and returning to the city, but she also understands her responsibility as a mother. When Bea finds out her mother died months earlier, Cook writes, “Bea’s heart stopped for a moment. Her burning cheeks turned icy. Leaning toward Agnes’s face, with cold emphasis, she pointed to her own thumping chest and repeated, ‘My mother is dead. Mine.’ There. She felt her grief crawl back into her own arms and was so warmed and comforted by it, she almost smiled. Her mother was back with her, safe, where she belonged” (133). When Bea can allow this reality in, she begins to enter a slight mania where all her thoughts and wonders begin to seem possible. Bea’s internal conflict now reaches a point where she leaves in a hurry and Cook cleverly fuels Bea’s ambivalence and has Bea resisting to look back at her husband and child. The possibility of returning to her old life and seizing happiness seems far more attainable now than ever, and she acts on this opportunity. The comfort of “what was” gives Bea an irreplaceable high that sparks her inner soul and drive for living.  

Kate and Andrew

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Marriage and Memory in Burnt Sugar

Subjectivity can be traced throughout Avni Doshi’s novel Burnt Sugar and exists in its very framework, with an unreliable narrator telling her story through details from her insulated perspective. The novel’s central story around memory and its loss portrays how memory itself is fluid, and can change or be erased naturally or deliberately. Tara’s memory is fading, a process that frees her and imprisons her daughter, who is not afforded the same luxury and must carry the baggage for the both of them. Antara’s living memory is her own – it both anchors her to her difficult past and isolates her from her present life and marriage. An interesting theme within the novel is Antara’s closed off relationship with her husband Dilip with whom she is uncomfortable sharing her inner thoughts and struggles to confide her feelings. Their distanced relationship is an outcome of Antara’s childhood trauma and inability to share her past to others. This alienation connects to an overarching theme throughout the novel, reflecting on how the past affects the present, as the main character carries the weight of her past into situations in her daily life. Another interesting theme in the novel Burnt Sugar is how marriage is perceived differently by Antara and Tara. Antara sees is as an escape from her mother and the conformity of her childhood, while Tara views marriage as a conspiracy to confine her from really living. The everlasting present life of familial relationships and marriages can’t escape the burden of a subjective memory. 

By: Emmy, Julia, Bella, Sarah

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The New Wilderness: Parallels to our Climate Crisis

Diane Cook’s dystopian novel has trail blazed its own genre that is becoming increasingly relevant in our daily lives: climate change fiction, or cli-fi. With carbon emissions becoming a global problem as well as the diminishing presence of nonrenewable energy, the plot Cook develops serves as a demonstration of the potential future state of our global society if steps are not taken toward sustainability and environmentalism. Cook presents the difference between the cleanliness and raw purity of nature juxtaposed with the apparent “cleanliness” of urbanization, which is inherently false.

Diane Cook

While the human environment created in urban areas may be clean and comfortable for the humans themselves, the environment has to suffer as a result. In a more nomadic state living off of the land, however, the environment and mankind coexist as one, grappling against one another in the everlasting battle for survival. Agnes and Bea, two of the plot’s protagonists, fled the city in Agnes’s childhood because she became extremely sick due to the poor air quality and environmental conditions in the city. The reader later learns that she is not an anomaly. When Bea returns to the city to take care of her Mother’s estate after her death, she learns of other children who take ill as Bea did when she was a child, and that the numbers of similar instances such as these are becoming more common, with many of them ending in death.

While some may scoff at the prospect of people taking sick due to poor air quality, Cook presents us with a future that is not so distant. The Community of those who live in the Wilderness may experience the hardships of a more labor-intensive life, but they experience the raw purity of nature rather than the false cleanliness presented in domesticated life. By no means is this a call to return to a nomadic state of life, but rather an opportunity for humans to recognize the cost of innovation. Eventually, the capacity of innovation will exceed the abilities of humankind and the planet to capture it and use it as a force for good. Our climate is one of the most authentic things that encompasses all humans, and Cook’s presentation of two extreme circumstances: untamed but environmentally untethered versus falsely sanitized but comfortable illustrates how far humanity has come in the last millennium and how we will sustain our planet for the next.

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Real Life and Emotional Alienation

Throughout the new novel, Real Life, by Brandon Taylor, the main character, Wallace, fails to foster a single healthy relationship due to his inability to access his emotions and tendency to utilize his scientific nature, which leaves him observing others rather than socializing with them. One example where Taylor dramatizes one of Wallace’s unhealthy relationships occurs in his professional life with Simone and Dana. Wallace takes abuse from both, and they both prevent him from being able to work uninterrupted and efficiently. Wallace is trapped between calmly accepting this abuse and lashing out against them, and this duality leads him to do neither thing effectively. Wallace’s attitude also affects his relationships with his friends, such as Cole and Vincent. Cole and Wallace have always been close, and as a result Vincent is aggressive toward Wallace. Vincent is overly confrontational, and often tries to begin altercations or confront Wallace about the issues Vincent thinks he is causing. In this way, Wallace and Vincent’s relationship is similar to Wallace and Dana’s. When Vincent cheats on Cole and Wallace calls him out, he spins the blame onto Wallace, and Wallace accepts it. Living as a black gay man in the Midwest, he often experiences condescension from his white friends: sometimes subtle, sometimes outright. It is rooted in many of his interactions. He is so accustomed to coping with these aggressions that he cannot speak up–partially because they won’t understand, and partially because he is used to limiting the space he occupies. Especially as a child, Wallace was conditioned to believe in his insignificance, and had to create barriers to try to protect himself from these intense emotions. As he moves further from his past, Wallace becomes familiar with alienation from the people he is surrounded by: Alienation as a gay, black man in a white institution, alienation from emotion, and alienation as an outsider in his friend group.  

Art by Stephanie Singleton – On the volatility and solitude of working in science
https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/brandontaylor/i-dont-miss-being-a-scientist-except-when-i-do
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Keeping it Real

Brandon Taylor

Brandon Taylor’s Real Life tells the story of Wallace, a young, gay, black student studying in the rural Midwest. Despite his best efforts to distance himself and keep his personal life hidden, Wallace faces racism, drama and toxicity in the workspace. This coming-of-age novel illustrates Wallace’s fight with society’s standards, along with his internal fight as a young man who has not yet fully accepted himself. While Wallace’s friend group is primarily queer, the conversations involving their sexualities are often avoided and viewed as taboo. As Brandon Taylor’s novel Real Life progresses it becomes increasingly obvious of the overall tension and taboo around homophobia that Wallace particularly feels.

Wallace, Cole and Vincent are openly gay; however, Wallace is confused with his friends’ levels of comfort displaying their intimacy in public. Wallace is confident in his sexuality, but he prefers private relationships and the intimacy that stems from them. Although Cole and Vincent have been together for seven years, when they kiss at the picnic table, “Wallace looked away because it felt too private to watch them” (19). The publicity of Cole and Vincent’s relationship sharply contrasts Wallace’s expectations for one. To him, the relationship should be between two people. Similarly, Miller values privacy and separates his connection with Wallace as a romantic interest and as a friend. Though he is developing real feelings for Wallace, he is still unsure about his sexuality and his involvement with another man. When the two are alone, Miller is affectionate towards Wallace, however as soon as they go into the public, “tentatively, reluctantly, they became separate people again” (42-43). Miller is ashamed of his emotions and afraid to show his friends how he feels about Wallace. The friend group’s complex dynamic illustrates the Bildungsroman literary genre. Wallace and the people around him are continuing to grow into themselves, and this is only possible due to their struggles with sexuality.  

As Brandon Taylor’s novel Real Life progresses it becomes increasingly obvious of the overall tension and taboo around homosexuality that Wallace particularly feels. Wallace’s noted examples of alienation and loneliness in the book can be related to the continued physical and sexual abuse he endured as a child, but also to his family’s status on homosexuality and its connection to their Christian faith. In the fifth chapter where Wallace discusses his past trauma with Miller, he shares that his family- specifically his grandfather- was not fond of homosexuals, stating that if “you go out there and you get AIDS… then it’s over, you die”. Miller “didn’t need the lights on to know he was talking about” him. In the eyes of God, many Christians like his family feel being gay is a sin so “unholy” that you forfeit your right to live amongst others in life. You are sent to hell for your sexual attractions towards the same sex. This is easily the most negatively impactful part of Wallace’s past, in that no matter what he does in life he knows his family will not support him in his decision of a life partner, and that no religion or faith could save or protect him, for his family taught him that God would be disgusted at his actions just like them.  Wallace was set up for failure by his parents due to their unacceptance of his sexuality, which not only affects Wallace’s social and emotional development in this Midwestern environment, but unfortunately is an all-too relatable situation for many people that deal with issues of sexuality and homophobia.  

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The History, Style, and Gender in The Shadow King

The way that war and conflict break down the gender dynamic in Kidane’s army is particularly interesting – after all, they are all driven with the same motives. Aster’s gradual transition into a position of power puts her in direct conflict with Kidane – she leads in the exact manner her husband expects her not to, exemplifying her bravery and almost masculine qualities. The Italian’s observations of the women during the battle also shows that the misogyny and marginalization of women, especially in a military setting, is not exclusive to Ethiopia, but rather is a view held worldwide. This observation, of course, about the marginalization and discrimination against women in the 1930s, is far from a novel idea or a groundbreaking development. Instead, it serves as a sobering reminder of the monumental obstacles faced by these women specifically during the colonial time period. 

The structure of narration, with Chorus, Interlude, Photo, interweaves multiple perspectives – a hallmark of carefully-crafted postmodernism – as well as anchors the novel firmly in its rich historical context. The hopping back and forth of the focus character – from Hirut, to Kidane, to Ettore (an Italian Soldier) to the Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie creates a fascinating array of viewpoints and complex characters. Mengiste allows the reader to empathize and understand the motivations of every character she writes, and it’s impossible to define any one character as a “good” or a “bad” person, but rather they maintain the realistic quality of being incredibly developed and unqualifiable. The novel itself is intrinsically postcolonial, but the way that it is written has postmodernist qualities, giving rise to a highly interesting hybrid work. 

I enjoy how the book is African history, in a typical World War II Novel we see a very European point of view or American. Not only does this put a twist on the culture we see the war from which is one of the most unique aspects of the book, but we also see it through the lens of female characters, making this novel even more distinct. Mengiste’s novel is an incredibly successful marriage of a traditional historical fiction war novel and a feminist-themed book, and The Shadow King will not soon be forgotten by anybody that reads it. 

The novel not only changes the way we see war through the lens of gender, but it also takes place in Ethiopia. This allows the book to reveal what war was like during this perilous time around 1935, something that is mostly unheard of because most literature about World War II has a European focus, and the majority of texts that are about the campaign in Africa focus on Rommel and his invasion. So, this makes the story even more interesting since so little is taught about the fighting in Ethiopia in particular. 

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Assault on the Black Female in This Mournable Body- Reagan Russell and Max Santopietro

In this novel Mournable Body, assault on the black female body is a reoccurring theme. So far in the novel, there have been two different physical attacks on two different women. The first woman to be attacked is Gertrude, one of Tambudzai’s hostel mates. She is described as dressing in a promiscuous fashion. Therefore, Tambudzai as well as the other passengers on the combi can rationalize her assault. However, the second attack on Mako, another one of Tambudzai’s housemates, is more confusing to Tambudzai This is because unlike Gertrude, Mako is a devout follower of religion, and wears “baggy sweats”. “With Gertrude, the reason for what happened was clear”(82). However, with Mako, there is no evidence that allows Tambudzai to rationalize this assault. Similar attacks that happened to two different women, encourage Tambudzai to question what drives the assault of the black female body, allowing her to reflect on her role in the assault. She realizes that she too is at risk of becoming a victim of this assault.

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Three Important Relationships Developing In Burnt Sugar

Avni Doshi
Amy Tan

There are three core relationships that Avni Doshi creates in her compelling novel. A relationship with herself, one with her husband, and one with her mother. Each of these relationships are complex as well as not linear, and the imperfections of them shape who Antara is. Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar puts forward three important themes and topics that stand out to readers. The first theme follows Antara’s trauma from her past and turns herself into her own worst enemy. She struggles to be present in every situation she encounters because she always reverts to her horrible childhood in which she had an absent father and horrible relationship with her mother. Simple daily topics, such as diets and playgrounds, turn into complex reminders of her past struggles. Each of these reminders re-enforce Antara’s trauma and instills in her that she is some sort of an outsider in the grand scheme of things because of her relationship with her mother. The second takeaway so far has been exploring the relationship between Antara and Dillip, her Indian husband who had immigrated to America during his childhood. Learning more about the nature of their dynamic’s steps from the dialogue between them, their families’ comments about them, Antara’s opinions of Dillip, and from Tara, who is insightful in understanding the true nature of their relationship. Dillip’s Americanized background is emphasized in his misunderstandings about Antara’s life, experiences, and history with her mother. Dillip fails to comfort or sympathize with his wife because he does not understand the essence of the problem. He loves his own mother and does not understand the complicated relationship between Antara and her mother. Paired with his insensitivity for Antara’s difficult life, the lack of attention, and the minimal comfort he gives her, Dillip may never be able to resolve the tensions of their marriage that have existed since the beginning of their marriage. Our Lit Circle observes that Avni Doshi explores the idea of hybridity we read in Zaddie Smith’s works in her own novel as she constructs a strained relationship between Antara and her mother, Tara. Doshi demonstrates the complexity of an unconventional mother-daughter relationship, as Antara resents her mother for the way her mother selfishly raised her, but in contradiction is her greatest caretaker. Antara’s had an absent father growing up, yet she blames her mother for trauma even though she was a single mother. To understand a mother-daughter relationship as complicated as this one, one must see where the resentment strives from and the decisions that have shaped one another to reach this place. Nonetheless, Antara and Tara cannot seem to spend much time without each other. The conflicting characterization of both women and their clashing behavior reveal their own similarities.

Sami, Eugenie, Kate

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The Unique Perspectives of Maaza Mengiste in The Shadow King

The Shadow King tells a story of WWII struggle from two unique perspectives: that of Ethiopian history as well as women’s part in it. In my experience, classroom lessons about WWII are usually Eurocentric and ignore the conflict’s effects on the non-Western world. Mengiste’s book accomplishes the opposite, creating a narrative centered on Ethiopian people from the writing of an author who, as Alex Preston of The Guardian notes, was forced flee the country due to violence at a very young age. 

We are also very interested in this novel because it challenges “how we automatically position history in terms of what men did” (Mengiste). This is a very important example to set in our modern society as we are finally having open conversations about the gender stereotypes around us. Her novel helps to overcome the gender barriers around war and conflict.  Thus, I love how she depicts women in a war of her home country which Mengiste claims she “never heard about growing up” (Mengiste). She is creating an example for the female leaders of the future to look at and dream big. She is letting them know that they cannot be barred from making an impact and changing the world which I believe is a very important narrative. 

One of our biggest takeaways so far is the destructive power of war. Mengiste emphasizes this through repetition in many different scenes of the novel. Mengiste also presents war as a means for humans to express their darker anger and are changed as a result. After Kidane has seen war and taken a life all he wants to do is die. Another important aspect is the gender and class-based power dynamics. Aster has had her physical autonomy taken away through her marriage to Kidane. In order to restore her sense of power, she chooses to dominate women who are lower class than her, including her servants and the wives of her husband’s subordinates. 

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jan/18/maaza-mengiste-interview-shadow-king-language-war-always-masculine

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