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This story is set in the 1950s. Gloria St. Clair's great grandmother, Great Mam, is a displaced Cherokee--one of the Bird Clan's "Beloved Women" who "keep track of things"--who moved from her tribal home in Tennessee to Kentucky with the white man whose children she bore. Gloria's father, a coal miner, decides that the family should take Great Mam back to Tennessee for a last visit before she dies.
The journey is a disaster, revealing that remnants of Cherokee life have been reduced to poverty and tawdry tourism. Gloria realizes, though, that Great Mam's heritage has survived, not in the place she came from, but in what she has passed on to her great granddaughter: Great Mam has given Gloria the nickname "Waterbug" after the creature that, according to Native American myth, retrieved the earth from the bottom of the sea, and in remembering this and all the other stories Great Mam told her, Gloria becomes the next one whose task is to retrieve the past, to "keep track of things."
This 15-line poem considers how, through the ages, dwarves have been ridiculed. Something about their appearance makes us, in our "big, proper bodies" laugh at them. We "snicker" at the immensely obese as well, even as we are aware of the danger to their health. Then the narrator takes us one step further: "And imagine the small political base / of a fat dwarf."
In the final stanza, the "we" becomes restricted to the narrator and his friends, who are socializing over dinner and can "hardly contain" themselves. But does that let the rest of us--the complicitous larger audience--off the hook?
A night on the town with two friends turns into "an attack of nerves" for Vasilyev, a law student. The three students spend the night drinking and visiting houses of prostitution; Vasilyev is horrified and repulsed by the women, who he thinks are "more like animals than human beings." The social problem of prostitution becomes an obsession; he is so fixated on finding a solution that he is in moral agony. His friends, among whom is a medical student, are concerned only with his health; they take him to a psychiatrist who "cures" Vasilyev with bromide and morphine.
As much about the abusive treatment of women, and the clash of traditional and contemporary mores as it is about the HIV/AIDS pandemic, this beautifully crafted novel tells the story of a nineteen-year-old Mosa (for mosadi--woman) who has already lost two brothers to AIDS. The reader is caught up in the mega-deaths and non-mention of the dreaded acronym, AIDS, as the story unfolds. At their brother’s gravesite Mosa’s one remaining living brother is halted as he shovels in the final loads of earth: "All around him were fresh graves . . . He looked at the not fresh, fresh graves, and noted the dates of birth. Young people who had died prematurely . . . He had known about their long illnesses, their deaths and their funerals." (p. 20)
The author is the first (and only) female judge of the High Court of Botswana and a human rights activist. She is internationally renowned for bringing about the Dow Case, which challenged Botswana nationality laws; she argued successfully for revisions allowing women to pass their nationality on to their children.
Summary:A Kiowa Native-American, so obese he looks "like a grand piano in soft sculpture," visits the narrator's office. The Kiowa is a teacher and lover of words, but back home on the reservation, the old sources of inspiration are gone--"the old stories disappear"--and he knows "at the center of himself he is starving." (The obesity comes from this desperate need for feeding!) The narrator, who is probably a writer and teacher herself cannot help him.
The narrator is a Vietnamese husband who has a beautiful, flirtatious wife. They have been living in the New Orleans area for more than a decade, arriving in America after the fall of South Vietnam. The husband tells a remarkable story about the lengths to which he has gone, both in Vietnam and in America, to intercept and discourage his wife’s extra-marital interests. The narrator is humorously self-deprecating and matter-of-fact.
In Vietnam, he was a spy for the Americans, and able to "bring fire from heaven" in the form of American rocket attacks to scare off his wife’s would-be lovers; in America, he adapts to the local culture by consulting a "low-down papa" voodoo specialist. What follows this consultation is a hilariously told sequence of events that succeeds finally in winning the wife’s loyalty.
The text explores the experiences of a nurse practitioner in an inner city OB-GYN (Obstetrics & Gynecology) clinic and four of her women patients, from a fifteen-year-old homeless pregnant child to a mature woman struggling with cancer. Another of her patients is pregnant and drug addicted; a fourth suffers from pains that come from buried memories of sexual abuse. The stories of all four patients weave in and out of the narrator's own stories about herself, her own health and illness experiences, her own respectful appreciation of the female body.
The speaker is en route by plane from San Antonio to Mexico City to visit Mexican relatives on her father's side of the family. At the airport she had remembered that "in Mexico they don't like hair / under your arms . . . " and is struggling, before landing, to deal with this in the tiny bathroom, with a disposable razor hastily purchased at the airport.
Also before landing she has to negotiate a mix up over declaration forms--"the stewardess . . . has given me the wrong / one assuming I'm Mexican but I am! / and I have to run up the aisle and ask / for a U.S. citizen form instead because / I'm well how do I explain?" When she arrives in Mexico City she is ready for her relatives, "armpits clean as a newborn's soul" and presents herself "like the good girl my father would have them believe I am."
The author tells the story of two Native-American (Chippewa) families whose lives interweave through several generations during the years 1934-1984. The primary setting is a reservation in North Dakota. The main characters, Marie and Nector Kashpaw and Lulu Lamartine, are colorful, sympathetic people caught in a love triangle that endures for most of their adult lives. "Love medicine" represents an attempt by a Kashpaw grandson to assure once and for all that his aging grandfather will love and be true to his wife and cease "hankering after the Lamartine." The plan ends in disaster when corners are cut and the authentic old Indian customs for preparing the "love medicine" are circumvented.
There is a strong sense of the blending of cultures--religion, medicine, commerce, education all take on the distinctive qualities of an evolving mixed culture. Displacement and disenfranchisement are a fact of life, taken almost for granted, with humor, but not without a response. "They gave you worthless land to start with and then they chopped it out from under your feet. They took your kids away and stuffed the English language in their mouth . . . They sold you booze for furs and then told you not to drink. It was time, high past time, the Indians smartened up and started using the only leverage they had-federal law." (p. 326) So begins an initiative to establish a gambling casino; "gambling fit into the old traditions . . . . "
Couser, long interested in autobiography, explores the ethics of representation in biographical writing, and in particular, the ethics of representing vulnerable subjects--for example, the aged or very young, the sick or impaired, or those who are "socially or culturally disadvantaged." He is concerned with representation of people who are intimately connected to the biographer, either as family members, or in some other "trust-based relationship." Couser argues that the relationship between vulnerable subjects and their biographers is analogous to that between patients and their physicians and that therefore principles of bioethics should be applied to such life writing, especially the principles of autonomy, nonmaleficence, and beneficence.
Couser explores life writing and betrayal (Chapter 1), outlines how he will apply the principles of biomedical ethics and ethnographical ethics to life writing (Chapter 2), and applies these principles to examples of collaborative autobiography (Chapter 3). He then critiques in detail Michael Dorris’s memoir about his adopted son, The Broken Cord (Chapter 4); the work of Oliver Sacks (Chapter 6); memoirs of euthanasia (Couser calls these "euthanographies"), Saying Goodbye to Daniel: When Death Is the Best Choice, by Julia Cassutto Rothman; Rescuing Jeffrey, by Richard Galli, and But What If She Wants to Die, by George DeLury (Chapter 7). Finally, in the last chapter, Couser considers how investigation of the human genome might influence the "scripts" of our lives and hence life writing, and also how life writing might be a counter discursive force against genomic essentialism.