Academic Series Part I: Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative by Author, Ruth Reiniche

RuthREVIEW: SIGN LANGUAGE: READING FLANNERY O’CONNOR’S GRAPHIC NARRATIVE BY AUTHOR, RUTH REINICHE

There has been endless critical analysis about Flannery O’Connor, so much that I wondered if there was anything new to say. Well, it turns out there is. Ruth Reiniche’s Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative, provides a fresh and innovative look at Flannery O’Connor’s pictorial visions drawing from her early years as a cartoonist at The Colonnade, her progression from the linocut into living art or tableaux vivants identified in her characters, O’Connor’s symbolism comparted to fifteenth century still life paintings, to a look at her dualistic writing methods where Reiniche identifies elements of photography in her short stories and novels thereby constructing “verbal snapshots.” Sign Language is a study on the evolution of O’Connor’s pictorial text and how it is translated through various art forms that scholars, professors, students, fans of O’Connor, and serious writers could all benefit from reading.

Reiniche first focuses her initial attention on O’Connor’s undergraduate years at Georgia State College for Women where O’Connor worked as a cartoonist on a weekly paper, The Colonnade. O’Connor created linocuts to produce her cartoon images and added amusing captions beneath them. The cartoons are simple flat depictions in black and white and are quite charming. Essentially, this method is a type of printmaking that involves cutting or gouging a design into a sheet of linoleum which is later inked with a roller. It is similar to wood printing except that linoleum is much softer than wood, making it easier to manage. We’ve all seen linocuts, but perhaps were unaware of the technique. For instance, most are familiar with the famous linocut “Don Quixote” by Pablo Picasso. One of the many points I found interesting was Reiniche’s comparison between O’Connor’s cartoons in The Colonnade to well-known New Yorker cartoonists James Thurber, Helen E. Hokinson, and George Price. I particularly liked her comparison of Hokinson’s empty-headed rich society woman to the coed cartoons O’Connor illustrated for the campus newspaper. Reiniche suggests these depictions of Southern womanhood would later emerge in O’Connor’s fictional characters. In the cartoon images of women, O’Connor used clothing to interpret the various social cliques on the campus: “The “Girlie-girls” wear puffy sleeves and pinafores; “smart” girls wear glasses, sensible clothing, and saddle shoes: and WAVES (the woman’s section of the U.S. Naval Reserve stationed on the campus of Georgia State College for Women) are “far-sighted,” serious, and detached from the coed scene that surrounds them.” Unfortunately, Sign Language does not contain the images Reiniche so accurately describes, and I am sure the lack of images had something to do with publishing costs. It is easy enough to locate the cartoon images online which is what I suggest readers do. What is relevant is the cultivation of O’Connor’s flat, black and white linocut cartoons into what would later develop into some of her characters. Writers do not one day simply acquire a style or technique; it takes years to hone the craft. Whether you are an emerging writer or an established author, understanding O’Connor’s pictorial process is beneficial when considering your own development of character and scene and as a writer myself, I found it rather encouraging to see a master of fiction, like O’Connor, develop the flat characters (in her cartoons) and give them flesh and bones.

Reiniche contends that O’Connor pictorial text in O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood can be viewed through the same medium as a painter of still life and specifically fifteenth century vanitas. This is a fascinating correlation and I believe a very obscure one. Reiniche compares the scene in Wise Blood where Hazel Motes returns to his childhood home as a “virtual vanitas still life framed by skeletal shell of what use to be his home. Both Hazel’s head and the shell of the house have been described as skeletal or skull-like. In place of the candle, O’Connor has chosen two “twisted” envelopes” [Hazel lights on fire while he traverses his childhood home].” Skulls, snuffed-out candles, rotting flowers, fruit, maps, hourglasses, and gold are common symbolic objects found in vanitas, reminding us of man’s mortality (skulls, rotting flowers) pictured alongside the temptations of wealth (fruit and gold) with Hazel Motes burning letters symbolic of the snuffed-out candles in a vanita. The shell of the house is a skull and even Hazel’s head is also described as skull-like with his mother’s empty chifforobe as the heart of the home acting as a pseudo-coffin. Finally, Hazel leaves a note, what Reiniche likens to his memento mori (Latin for “remember you must die”) on his mother’s chifforobe, threatening to hunt and kill anyone who steals it. I struggled reading Wise Blood, but the vanita connection makes me want to revisit Wise Blood with new eyes. As a reader of O’Connor, I have realized that I only touched the surface of O’Connor’s religious motifs and symbols of redemption and man’s fall from grace. What Reiniche has discovered provides a deeper level between writer and reader. It magnifies O’Connor’s dualistic narrative between the real and the spiritual or the divine. The reader is not simply reading words on a page but experiencing O’Connor’s vision and in that way becomes an observer. Writers are known for their powers of observation, but this manner of observation has the effect of placing the reader before a framed piece of art in a museum.

Reiniche contends that O’Connor’s linocut cartoons evolved into “recognizable tableaux vivants that suggest the work of both classical and contemporary artists.” The tableau vivant which began more as a parlor game later progressed onto the stage, and are live recreations inspired by paintings, literature, mythology, and Biblical stories where individuals are staged to reconstruct an image. There is a theatrical aspect to living art even though the framed models are silent and frozen in time. Like Reiniche, I also saw visions of the characters and scenes O’Connor describes with concurrent images flashing before me as I read. It is quite easy to imagine her scenes framed in a tableau vivant manner. Moreover, the correlation between the tableau vivant and particularly post WWII images of women in advertisements was particularly interesting. We’ve all seen these offensive 1950s advertisements of men spanking women for serving flat stale coffee or images of a pregnant woman being able to resume her breakfast cooking duties now that she is on a morning sickness pill. Reiniche likens these advertisements to the tableau vivant—women being defined and staged into domestic roles of cooking, cleaning, and caring for the family. Although Reiniche explores all the female characters of Wise Blood, my favorite example is the character of Ruby, from the short story, “A Stroke of Good Fortune.” (Note, Ruby is “absent” from Wise Blood. If you read Sign Language, Reiniche provides a wonderful breakdown of the novel’s female characters in the published version of Wise Blood verses the manuscript version, as well as a thought-provoking reason for the “removal” of Ruby.) While Ruby did not make the cut in Wise Blood, her evolution from the manuscript into “A Stroke of Good Fortune” and her pictorial interpretation is fascinating. For those of you who are art teachers or creative writing instructors, this would be a wonderful teaching tool to demonstrate to your students. Reiniche describes Ruby as being “defined by the products advertised daily on television and in women’s magazines” and Reiniche remarks on her resemblance to a cartoon titled “The Crop” O’Connor did for the college yearbook. “The Crop” features a college girl’s head surrounded by groceries, captioned with “Where our pennies go.” Ruby contemplates herself in the mirror before ascending the stairs to her apartment and O’Connor describes her body as a funeral urn, or as Reiniche points out, the momento mori you would find in a vinata. Ruby doesn’t recognize herself in the mirror: “her head balanced like a big florid vegetable at the top of the sack…against her right cheek was a gritty collard green…[and] mulberry-colored hair stacked in sausage rolls around her head.” There is no difference between her and her sack of foodstuffs—her entire body is designed for consumerism and domesticity. I always rooted for Ruby. She desperately wanted control of her own body, her disdain for her pregnancy is palpable. This was before the Pill. Reiniche made me even more sympathetic for Ruby. It wasn’t just her future of child rearing and house duties, but her entire body had been constructed into the 1950s ideal housewife—a sort of slavery trapped in her female form.

I’ve often seen O’Connor’s characters as caricatures, over-exaggerated and over-the-top. Ruby’s struggle up the stairs is near annoying as are the internal complaints of the displaced father in “The Geranium,” and am I the only one who was glad the grandmother was murdered in “A Good Man is Hard to Find?” Most writers would say caricature is a bad thing, as bad as a cliché, but the characters in comics must be over-emphasized for effect, because you have a limited time to make a statement with sometimes only one action (think of O’Connor’s single-panel cartoons) and a caption. I find O’Connor’s characters more effective in shorter form and prefer her short stories to her novels. For myself, a little goes a long way with O’Connor’s characters. Yet, the characters I mentioned previously are not caricatures, but (and this is my opinion) only become fully articulated at the end where the reader undergoes a moment of understanding with the character. I think Reiniche sums it up well when she proposes that the difference between O’Connor’s novels and her short stories are that the novels are “virtual galleries of pictorial moments, [while] the short stories showcase one or two signs that reverberate throughout the story as a whole.” She refers to these pictorial moments in O’Connor’s short stories as “gestures” though some use the phrase” “moments of grace.” For myself, these “gestures” have more force behind them because O’Connor’s message is conveyed in the briefest form. Her short stories hit you hard. Reading Sign Language, I now understand how O’Connor became so efficient with delivering her message. She taught herself early on via her cartoons, reworking and reworking those characters into her fiction, designing characters you come back to time and time again, like the misfit or Ruby.

There are so many interesting points in Sign Language. Unfortunately, I can only touch on the ones that resonated the most with me and one of those points is how Reiniche employs the methods of French theorist and philosopher, Roland Barthes. Barthes created a technique for decoding photos in such a manner as to reveal a message. Reiniche uses Barthes’ system first the short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and later in O’Connor’s novel, The Violent Bear It Away. For brevity sake and because more readers are familiar with “A Good Man is Hard to Find” I will look at Reiniche’s treatment in O’Connor’s famous short story and how Reiniche’s identifies Barthes’ theory of studium and punctum and the effect those theories have on the text. (As a note of interest, Reiniche takes a step-by-step approach, distinguishing what she calls “verbal snapshots” in the novel The Violent Bear It Away and in doing so identifies a “double consciousness” that (and I agree) should be considered when reading O’Connor.) Not to oversimplify, but the punctum is the emotional response that the viewer has with the photo; it is more individual and outside the control of the photographer because it draws from the viewer’s personal experiences, whereas the studium is universal. The studuim may be what initially appeals to the viewer and provides recognizable symbols that reach across culture, religion, history, and affect the viewer congruently. I read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” at least annually and I reread it after reading Sign Language, employing these concepts of photography to the images conveyed. According to Reiniche “the studium of the photographic moment is the historical significance of the child juxtaposed with Stone Mountain. The punctum is the wave. The child’s wave as the family places the scene in the family’s present even though the grandmother tries to freeze the child in the past by calling him a “’pickaninny.’” Reiniche describes Barthes’ punctum as “an element in the photograph rising and shooting out of it like an arrow piercing the view and inflicting a wound.” I am huge fan of the American photographer William Eggleston whose photos of the American South have always translated into an O’Connor story for me. Eggleston is famous for his color photography and his images are of the common man and woman doing common things, much like O’Connor’s everyday person. Yet, they both draw out something much deeper and transcend the mundane. I think Reiniche hit the target here. O’Connor’s writing is dualistic in nature and is much like viewing a photo and uncovering O’Connor’s divine in the ordinary. There is an element of voyeurism in reading O’Connor I had not realized until I read Sign Language, as if I am looking through the camera eye of O’Connor and receiving her messages via her “verbal snapshots.” I’m not a poet, but I imagine this would be an excellent approach when constructing visual imagery, because the snapshots are rapid visuals designed to provoke a response. Creative writing instructors would do well to have their students examine stories through this method Reiniche points out as well.

If you are serious writer, the techniques Reiniche describes will make you want to reconsider your own visual text and methodology. Reiniche was inspired to work on this project when she was reading the unfinished copy of Why Do the Heathen Rage? where she discovered O’Connor’s pictorial method. O’Connor’s character, Walter Tilman, was writing a letter using photos. He arranged and rearranged photos and analyzed his visual message. Reiniche realized she had unearthed O’Connor’s technique via Tilman and recognized it is as a type of sign language, or the “visual metanarrative that coexists with the linear narrative” in O’Connor’s work.  This method reminds me of my own workshop experiences where instructors sometimes use visual prompts and assign writing exercises. What Reiniche has done for me by writing Sign Language and defining O’Connor’s pictorial technique is to provide me as a writer a new way of consuming and articulating imagery from mass media, photography, still life, abstract art, and on and on, a way in which to translate my own fiction, and of course, a much more profound appreciation for Flannery O’Connor’s work.

TO PURCHASE : Mercer University Press or Amazon

Link to Flannery O’Connor’s Cartoons: VIEW IMAGES

More About Ruth Reiniche: 

I have a B.A. from University of Michigan, a M.A. from Grand Valley State University, and a PhD. from the University of Arizona, and I have been a teacher my entire life. I taught GED prep in migrant camps. I spent a career teaching high school English. I have taught parenting to teen-aged mothers. During the recession of the 1980s, I taught resume writing and job seeking skills to unemployed adults. At nights, I taught basic math and reading skills in an Adult Basic Education learning center. To assist students who could not physically attend classes, I went to their homes as a homebound teacher. On the weekends I taught knitting classes. Most recently, I have been a Freshman Composition instructor at the University of Arizona. That was, as I heard someone say on television the other day, in the “before times.” Our world is changing. Social structures are realigning. Educational institutions are now re-examining what exactly it means to be educated and, consequently, what it means to be an educator.

I researched and wrote Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative in the “before times.” I now am reading O’Connor’s work as well as my own, with new eyes. As   O’Connor puts it, a text should enable “the reader to see the whole world no matter how limited his particular scene”[1]  When she said this, I believe she was not just talking about the twentieth century world of her present, but about the world that encompasses the past, present and future: the world as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.[2] Today (in the  “after-times”) , it becomes all the more important to read and interpret O’Connor’s Sign Language.

[1] O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. NY; Noonday Press, 1969.

[2] https://www.catholic.com/tract/glory-be-doxology

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Are you a Class Empty or a Class Full Person?

empty classroomScribe Stories From the Wren’s Nest:

What do you think when you see an empty classroom? The first day of school, summer break, COVID-19? Before 2020, we didn’t know this term, COVID-19. We would never have guessed our kids would one week go from classrooms to virtual learning, or that some kids in America would stop learning altogether because they didn’t have access to computers and WIFI. This isn’t a gloom and doom message, however. This is a celebration of what you can do even with an empty classroom. There are still opportunities out there to teach, to learn, and to be part of your community. So, when you look upon this apparently “empty” classroom, do you see the class empty or the class full?

Earlier in the year I signed up to be a mentor with The Wren’s Nest Scribes Program which is a middle school writing program that partners with KIPP STRIVE Academy to provide one-on-one mentoring between writing professionals and students. The idea is that we would meet once per week for an hour to teach the students how to write creative fiction. There was a plethora of different writers that volunteered from poets, script writers, obituary writers, to teachers. The kids were thrilled. This was the eleventh year of the Scribes Program and some of volunteers that volunteered this year went through the same writing program when they were kids. That tells you how successful and important the program has been.

Each year the students are given a new theme to write about and the stories are published in a book which debuts at the Decatur Book Festival during Labor Day weekend, EXCEPT for this year. This year, the stories are being published online on the Wren’s Nest website. I’ve gained a lot throughout my writing career from my mentors; it was time I gave back some of that karma. BUT, halfway through due to COVID-19, we stopped our hour long weekly meetings and went virtual. There are many great things about working online, but the one-on-one experience and getting to know the kids, about their lives, what inspires them, seemed to be lost virtually. They weren’t used to working via email and/or Google Docs. Some did not complete their stories for one reason or another. It was challenging to keep our scribes/mentees focused and writing when school had become so discombobulated; the world had become discombobulated. You can hardly blame them, especially with a world-wide pandemic hitting and school as they knew it ending, and everyone going into quarantine. School was already out when we all witnessed the senseless murders of African-Americans, and then the protests and riots broke out. The kids we worked with are predominantly African American. I wonder what they are thinking, how they are doing, and what they are doing with themselves this summer. I wonder what they will write in 2021.

Our theme for 2020 was “Twenty Years into the Future,” and most of the kids chose to write about apocalyptic settings. The stories tended to be a little darker than I imagined when I initially volunteered, but they are not without humor. The title of one story is called “Cat-Pocalypse.” I worked with a lovely young lady named Kaydance who envisioned a world where humans could no longer go outside due to high temperatures from global warming. The hiccup was that all the buildings were controlled by major corporations such as Google, Apple, Facebook, or Amazon and they were randomly starting to blow up. She left it at “To Be Continued.” Some of the other kids wrote for a few more weeks, but ended up stopping mid-story, leaving off with “to be continued” like Kaydance did. That was fine. That is just fine, because these kids and the volunteers are definitely class full type of people. They stayed the course when it was hard. Staying inspired to write, writing weekly, and sometimes writing at all is hard for WRITERS much less middle school kids who are writing on their own accord. It wasn’t a homework assignment. It was entirely extracurricular. The volunteers could have stopped, too, or not volunteered in the first place. I’m proud of these kids for continuing to write their stories during this challenging moment in history. I’m proud to have been a part of their creative world and I’m also proud of the other writers who showed up and stayed the course.

Please take the time to read and share these stories with others. The kids and volunteers worked very, very hard. The next posting of Scribe Stories will be June 26th, July 17th, August 7th, and August 28th with all of the stories be reposted on September 4th, the eve of the Decatur Book Festival.

Link to read Scribe Stories: https://wrensnest.org/scribes-spring-2020/

Future Mentor Opportunities: If you are interested in being part of the Wren’s Nest Scribe Program next year, please contact Jim Auchmutey at jimauch@gmail.com.

BE A CLASS FULL PERSON! 

Memoir Series Part III: Where Do The Stones Come From by Author, Ann Hite

Where Do The Stones Come From?

stonesGuest Blog by Author, Ann Hite

On my desk sits a pottery bowl of stones. One comes from the property where my grandfather was strung between two trees and beaten to near death. Another is flat and smooth and came from the Nantahala River during a record drought that reduced the river to a trickle and allowed me to walk to the middle. An orange smooth rock came from the family plot where my grandmother and mother are buried in a church cemetery, where one of my great grandfathers did the stonework on the chapel that still stands today. We all have stones scattered throughout our lives, weighing us down at times. These days we are aware of this more than ever.

Like a lot of people, I have spent the past few months confined within the walls of home. My “out in the world adventure” is one trip to the grocery store a mile down the road once a week. During these months “Roll The Stone Away” was released into the world. This is a crazy set of circumstances to deal with trying to promote and sell a book. Had you asked me at Christmas if I would be under a stay at home order in a little over three months, I would have thought the whole idea crazy. When COVID-19 invaded my state and life as I knew it came to a standstill, I thought this is the worst. Now we start rethinking a new normal, build a new road map.  Hard work and dedication will pave the way.

Then I watched a young black man shot and killed on a South Georgia street, where he jogged each day not far from his home. Ahmaud Arbery was killed by a father and son vigilante team because they thought he was breaking into homes. For two months or more, the public had no idea who had gunned him down. No charges against the men were filed until the video of the crime was aired on the news. I held my breath. Would the taking of black men’s lives ever stop?

The answer came last week in the form of two videos broadcasted close together on the morning national news. The first showed a black man on the ground with a white policeman sitting on his neck with his knee. Twice the man said, “I can’t breathe.” And more than once the citizen making the video pleaded with the police officers to let him up. I, like thousands of others, watched George Floyd die while the police officer’s knee remained on his neck.

Within minutes another video aired of a white woman, Amy Cooper, holding the collar of her dog so tight it was choking the poor creature, screaming at a black man, Christian Cooper (no relation), to stop videoing her. She goes on to tell Mr. Cooper she is calling 911. He calmly tells her to please do so. Amy Cooper screams that she will tell the authorities that he is threatening her life. Christian Cooper continues to video and tells her to say what she wants. When the 911 operator answers, Amy Cooper changes her voice from angry to one of fear and distress, explaining she is in Central Park and a black man is threatening her. This whole incident occurred because Christian Cooper asked Amy Cooper to put her dog on its leash because they were in a bird sanctuary, where animals are supposed to be leashed.

In the cases of the Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, arrests were not made immediately, and I shudder to think what would have happened to Christian Cooper in Central Park had he not videoed the encounter.

The old familiar shame that wrapped around me like a heavy coat in the winter, weighing me down, making movement forward slow—the same shame that resulted in the writing of “Roll The Stone Away”—reared its ugly head. I grew up in the thick of the Civil Rights Movement with a family that was extremely racist. At the age of ten, the racism in our house was taken for normal. My mother, brother, and I had returned from living on a military base in Germany. While this place was not perfect, it was more diverse than the small Georgia school I returned to in 1965.

What drove me to write this book was my desire to somehow work out my family’s racist history and the role it played in who I would become.

Still today I ask: What can I do to make up for the racist actions taken on black families by my family? How can I shed who my family was? What right as a white woman do I have to say I stand with you against these wrongs? Never once in my life have I been turned away from an establishment because the color of my skin is white. I have never had to worry about my daughters being arrested or killed by the police because they were racially profiled.

In 2015—one year after Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri—my beautiful grandson, James, was born. His father, my son in-law, is black. James is intelligent, handsome, and kindhearted. And when I give him a tight hug, I pray that by the time he becomes the upstanding young man he is meant to be, life will be different, that somehow racism with be eradicated from our land. But this is what my grandmother would have called “pie in the sky.” I have no doubt that racism will still be battled in our institutions, schools, government, and families. This country has had some of the finest leaders, but still racism spreads like a wildfire. As a child of ten, I watched protestors knocked to the ground by fire hoses and billy clubs. Now I watch protestors staring into the faces of police officers dressed in riot gear, ready to teargas them. I see the concern poured out about the destroyed property, but little mention of the young lives taken too soon. The electrical current that runs through these gatherings must be addressed in a calm, loving way. Am I so naïve for believing in goodwill, equality, and love?

What can I do to make this country into a better place for my grandson? A place where he can thrive, create, and build a bridge into the future for generations forward to travel?

What can I do?

Listen. Listen to what the young people in these crowds are saying. Let down my defenses. I don’t have to be the “good white person” forever spending my energy on overcompensating for my family’s racist past. Speak out against those that make passive/aggressive racist remarks in my presence. This kind of subtle racism is more lethal than a bullet in a gun. Be there. Really be there and aware. Stand up for the wronged.

May we somehow roll the stone away and reveal the power of love and acceptance for all.

TO PURCHASE Roll The Stone AwayFoxTale Book Shoppe or Amazon

To learn more about Ann Hite and her literature, please visit her author website: Ann Hite- A Southern Novelist, Storyteller From Birth

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Live the story you want to write!