Fiction Series Part I with Author, Susan Zurenda: Review of Bells for Eli, A Novel

IMG_1203Bells for Eli by Susan Zurenda: A Review

There are some books that you enjoy so much when you near the end you sort of panic and force yourself to stop reading. Thirty pages towards the end of Susan Zurenda’s novel, Bells for Eli, I had such a moment and deliberately set the novel on my nightstand to take up the next day. I don’t often pace myself or even cut myself off for the mere pleasure of extending a good read, but I did so with Bells for Eli.

 Bells for Eli is told by an older Adeline, called Delia, reflecting on her years growing up with her first cousin, Eli. More than just a first cousin, he is her neighbor, her best friend, her true (and forbidden) love. Bells for Eli begins in August 1978 and flashes back to 1959 when Eli drinks lye, permanently damaging his esophagus. He undergoes surgeries and extremely painful procedures, and as a young child is unable to even eat—his mother grinds up food and inserts it into his stomach—and then moves forward as Delia and Eli grow up. The narrative has a dreamy quality, beginning with the prologue when Delia falls asleep in the cemetery, wakes up to the Green Branch town clock’s bells chiming, then contemplates herself and Eli while walking home. From the prologue forward, you are on edge waiting for the other shoe to drop. During scenes when Eli drives his new Camaro on Christmas day or when he climbs the bell clock tower, I held my breath. A handsome and reckless young man in adolescence, Eli falls in love and tries desperately to replace Delia with another version of her in Isabel. Despite his tragic accident, Bells for Eli is a celebration of Eli’s life.

The novel’s point of view—told from the point-of-view of first-person observer and protagonist, Delia Green—resembles the point-of-view in The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald—I will say I consulted Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway and mulled point-of-view over, wondering if this was a hybrid between first-person central and first-person peripheral. Is that possible? Who is this story about?  It belongs to both Delia and Eli. Notice the similarity between their names. Is that coincidental? I don’t think so. I think the bells ring for both characters; they are both central to the story. They both suffer, learn, and love equally, but yes, the “I,” or the first-person narrator retelling this story is Delia, and she is the clear protagonist. Eli’s surgeries, the pain, being an outsider throughout his childhood all shape his life, but these events also equally shape Delia’s life. This point-of-view is tricky and masterful on Zurenda’s part. I seriously pondered it, wondered about the choice, and then considered how the point of view creates empathy. Sympathy and empathy are different creatures. This book is about empathy. If Eli told the story, we could commiserate with him, but only to a point, especially if he constantly complained about pain. Having that distance from the actual pain creates a sense of empathy which defines both Delia’s and Eli’s character. Ultimately, this choice in narration works because there is enough distance from Eli so that the narrator doesn’t become whiny; rather, Delia learns and changes and at the same time the reader learns and changes.

The story is a reflection from an older narrator, but when Delia recounts being four-years-old or sixteen-years-old, or whatever age, the voice, imagery, the setting, the dialogue, the action is captured from the perception of that age and time. This is difficult to pull off and shows a level of control not all authors possess. It’s tempting and much easier to speak in the narrator’s current voice. In Bells for Eli, you forget, as a reader, the “I” here is the older Delia and feel like you are experiencing what she felt at age four, at age sixteen, and the narrative supports it via historical and/or cultural references—some of them quite humorous. Though the novel has its tragic moments, it’s imbued with amusing anecdotes that rocketed me straight back into my own childhood and teenage years. I had a vivid sensation of being a child and standing before a rack of Barbie clothes encased in plastic with pure want coursing through my veins when Delia’s friend Gloria boasts about her Barbie’s Executive Career outfit. Zurenda takes you back to a place in time with references to Dark Shadows (a vampire soap opera my own mother watched), Delia’s Ziggy tee-shirt, or Delia and Eli being “placed in the red group, the top group” after reading from “Friends Old and New, Dick and Jane readers.” Oh, I recall this same process in grade school! In addition, some of my very favorite images are from the viewpoint of a very young Delia, describing Uncle Gene’s eyebrows as “caterpillars,” or imagining the white flowers of Mimi’s magnolia trees as popcorn. Thinking like a child, a teenager, a young adult and making the dialogue or imagery realistic for the age while maintaining the narrator’s voice is no small feat.

Now onto bells. Bells, bells, and more bells. As the title suggests, you need to pay attention to bells. One of my favorite literary devices is the symbol. Most organized religions use bells in rituals or services; some say the sound of a bell is the voice of God. Ringing bells are used to warn, as alarms to wake us, to honor people, to celebrate, to announce someone’s arrival, to ward off evil spirits. I could go on and on. Each time a bell appears in Bells for Eli, whether it is the clock bell tower in Green Branch or the doorbell at Magnolia Manor, new levels of meaning surface, and I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf’s chiming Big Ben and Zurenda’s bells have the effect of deliberately jarring the reader from the narrative. Woolf is reminding us that time is not linear. We live in the past, present, and future. We live in our heads, like Mrs. Dalloway; likewise, we relive Delia’s past, connecting it to her present, and ultimately the bells reinforce the fluidity of time with no beginning, middle, or end.

The bells also provide an auditory text. When a specific tune or chime was identified, I literally stopped and listened. Eli loves bells, and they play a significant role in his life. Zurenda’s bells are not arbitrary. When Delia and Eli visit Magnolia Manor, for example, “he nearly fell into the hedge jumping out of the car to get to the door and ring the bell.” Not only is this a wonderful example of something a kid would just do (I recalled fighting with my sisters over elevator buttons and doorbells), it says something important about Eli’s character. He is more connected to the divine, closer to it than others, because he faces a near death experience as a young child. He lives his life on the edge because of the mental and physical pain he undergoes. Attempting to escape the cruelty of his childhood, and desperate to fit in, he takes dangerous risks that revolve around bells because they help him escape his thoughts. In adolescence, Eli becomes heavily involved with drugs, simultaneously escaping and experimenting, always looking for something deeper, mapping out his philosophy. When golden bells make heavenly music during an LSD trip, they represent Eli’s need for peace. The bells remind the reader that time is brief, to wake up, live in the moment. In a world largely driven by visual imagery; it’s refreshing to read a novel that relies so heavily on sound imagery.

Thematically, Zurenda questions how love can transcend societal norms, but the book also explores loyalty and the strength of friendships and family. In addition, there is a sense of mystery that surrounds the main plot that keeps you reading which mirrors what happens between Delia and Eli. Bells for Eli is aesthetically pleasurable to read—the cultural imagery, bell symbolism, allusions to John Donne’s poetry—and is a real gem for Southern literature.

TO PURCHASE Bells for EliAmazonBookshop.orgBarnes & NobleEagle Eye Book Shop

TO CONTACT SUSAN ZURENDA: susanbzurenda@gmail.com

More about Susan Zurenda:

After teaching literature, composition, and creative writing to thousands of high school and college students for 33 years, Susan turned her attention to putting a novel in her heart on paper, the genesis of which started with a short story that won a fiction prize some years ago. She is delighted to present her debut novel, Bells for Eli, to readers on March 2, 2020. During her years of teaching at Spartanburg Community College and then as an AP English teacher at Spartanburg High School, Susan published short stories and won numerous regional awards such as the South Carolina Fiction Prize (twice), the Porter Fleming Competition, The Southern Writers Symposium Emerging Writers Fiction Contest, The Hub City Hardegree Contest in Fiction, Alabama Conclave First Novel Chapter Contest, and The Jubilee Writing Competition (twice).  Since 2018, she has published six stories in literary magazines. For future events and to learn more about Susan Zurenda, please visit: www.susanzurenda.com.

Please leave comments, like, and repost on social media! 

 

Feeling Naughty? Tune into Bad to the Bone, a Poetry-themed Radio Show on melodically challenged

tony-hernandez-JO2ryr8t7f8-unsplashReplay of Bad to the Bone melodically challenged Poetry Show If you missed my Bad to the Bone themed poetry show on melodically challenged with K.B. Kincer last time around, you are in luck because WRAS-Album 88, Georgia State University College’s Radio Station-Atlanta is replaying it this week. Tune in Thursday, July 23rd OR Sunday, July 26th at 7 PM EST. For local listeners turn your radio dial to 88.5 FM. To Tune in Online visit link: WRAS-Album 88

 

Author Event: Ruth Reiniche presents Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative July 16th, 7PM EDT

Ruth Reiniche presents Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative

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If you have enjoyed my academic series with author Ruth Reiniche, please consider attending her discussion hosted by the Georgia Center for the Book Event on July 16th at 7PM EDT where you can discover more about Reiniche and her book Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative.

TO REGISTER: Eventbrite Attendee Registration Link

TO PURCHASE SIGN LANGUAGE:  Charis Books & More, An Independent Feminist Bookstore or via Mercer University Press

Academic Series Part III: Re: Leora Watts and the Ill-Fitting Pink Nightgown by Author & Guest Blogger Ruth Reiniche

GA CollegePhoto of Georgia College Admission’s Building, Alma Mater of Flannery O’Connor

Re: Leora Watts and the Ill-Fitting Pink Nightgown

Mrs. Watts was sitting alone in a white iron bed, cutting her toenails with a large pair of scissors. She was a big woman with very yellow hair and white skin that glistened with a greasy preparation. She had on a pink nightgown that would have better fit a smaller figure. (O’Connor WB 33)

     Since Dawn has been kind enough to give me this space, I want to talk about a project I have been working on for about a year now. It is an extension of my “sign language” analysis and my working title for the project is Sign Language: Stitching a Landscape. My argument is that telling our stories, regardless of the style of the text, will alter the landscape of our perceptions and of our lives. My project focuses on women’s stories. I believe it is crucial to know the thoughts and desires of the women who lived before us and it will be necessary for the women that follow us to know what we valued, how we faced fear, and how we loved. As evidenced by my work on Flannery O’Connor, the voices of texts that are not the printed word, but are given form by narrative, have long compelled my attention. The texts I am examining in my current research are “hand-made.” When a writer incorporates the construction of a “hand-worked” text such as a weaving, a quilt, or a knitted garment into the plotline of her novel or short story, the fictional work bursts open in a way that could not be accomplished by other means. These kinds of texts are highly gendered. For several years I have been collecting works in which writers have embedded “hand-made” pieces to construct characters and to indicate context by illustrating patterns and motifs from the larger world. Essentially, it is a way of holding the past, present, and future in the palm of one’s hand. My contention is that when these “hand-made” items appear, they speak with a sign language that transcends time and place. It is most often a language of feeling that is expressed in a woman’s voice and by the work of her hands.

       This, strangely enough, takes us back to Leora Watts’s “pink nightgown.” In my work on O’Connor, I referenced how she uses paintings, ads, and films, mostly generated by males, to amplify her narrative. However, it is O’Connor, herself, who assembles the objects that visually define her female characters: the pink nightgown, a nail clipper, a dandelion hair accessory, a chifforobe, a broom. I see O’Connor as the designer and maker and her characters as her creations.  I, now, want to move beyond that work and into the hands and minds of makers and their creations who are embedded in pieces of literature.[1] Why are they there? Do they fit my “world in the palm of the hand” criteria?

      I will now describe two short examples from novels that I am currently analyzing.

     Early on in her novel Northbridge Rectory, Angela Thirkell uses the knitting in a mother’s hands to illustrate the enormity of facing the presence of inconceivable dangers. Mrs. Villars is a young rector’s wife whose responsibility it is to organize the “war work” of her husband’s first parish. We join Mrs. Villars as she discusses the connotation of the word “living” with her parish knitting group, all of whom are working on some war project: knitting garments to supplement the uniforms of British soldiers (WWII).[2]

‘It is quire dreadful,’ said Mrs. Villars, putting down her knitting (which was mittens for her younger son in the Royal Air Force), ‘the way some people behave with words so that you cannot use them. “Living” has almost got out of control’ (6).

This was the tenth novel I had read by Thirkell, so I was accustomed to her way of bringing the outside world into the context of the small English village, but Mrs. Villars’s mitten arrested my attention.  Why was she knitting mittens for a soldier? Thanks to Google, I found knitting patterns officially designed for soldiers’ mittens. Requirements for these mittens included olive drab yarn and the addition of a trigger finger to the basic mitten shape… a trigger finger.[3] Mrs. Villars had probably knitted various sizes of mittens for her son as he grew up and she now sits in her parish knitting group making him adult size mittens that require a trigger finger. No wonder she is obsessed with the slippery connotation of the word “living.” Knitting a mitten, for Mrs. Villars, is a hopeful act of faith that her son will be alive to wear them when she finishes. In this one sentence Thirkell uses this mitten with a trigger finger juxtaposed with the word “living” to open the door to the world war raging outside of this fictional English village as well as in the real world that roiled around Thirkell as she wrote in 1941.

     While Thirkell’s mitten serves as a metaphor for a mother’s wish to protect her son, a quilt serves as a metaphor for a life in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In the novel, as Baby Suggs is dying, she calls out for color.

There wasn’t any except for two orange squares in a quilt that made the absence shout. The walls of the room were slate-colored, the floor earth brown, the wooden dresser the color of itself, curtains white, and the dominating feature, the quilt over an iron cot, was made up of scraps of blue serge, black, brown and gray wool—the full range of the dark and the muted that thrift and modesty allowed. In that sober field, two patches of orange looked wild—like life in the raw. (46)

An analysis of the life of Baby Suggs, born a slave and living with intolerable loss is too complex to carry out in this space. The two orange patches, however, speak directly to us as readers, reaching out beyond the frame of the work, in the same way that characters in O’Connor’s single panel cartoons did. Those two orange patches impel us to look over the landscapes of our own lives and wonder. What if we knew we would have only two orange patches? Would we go on? Would it be worth it? What are we to do about these orange patches presented to us by Toni Morrison?

     To me, it is the contemplation of these questions that necessitates the need for storytelling in our lives. I know I do not stand alone when I think of Mrs. Villars’s mittens as I make masks for my grandchildren to wear to school or when I consider the patchwork of a valued human life…a life that matters.

 

Works Cited:

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Penguin, 1987.

O’Connor, Flannery. Wise Blood. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1949.

Thirkell, Angela. Northbridge Rectory. Great Britain: Hamish Hamilton, Ltd., 1941.

[1] These are some of the texts with which I am working: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, Beloved by Toni Morrison, A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, In Love and Trouble by Alice Walker, A Single Thread by Tracey Chevalier, The Professor’s House by Willa Cather, Northbridge Rectory by Angela Thirkell, and on and on.

[2] https://www.pinterest.com/pin/155022412145736074/

[3] https://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/soldiers-mittens

https://olive-drab.com/od_soldiers_gear_gloves_mitts.php

UPCOMING EVENTS:

July 16: Presentation at a Georgia Center for the Book Event Link 

Eventbrite Attendee Registration Link

TO PURCHASE SIGN LANGUAGE: Mercer University Press or Amazon

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

PLEASE SHARE ON YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA, LIKE, AND LEAVE COMMENTS HERE! 

Academic Series Part II: An Interview with Ruth Reiniche, Author of Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative

Relaxed HeadshotAn Interview with Ruth Reiniche, Author of Sign Language: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Graphic Narrative

Why Flannery O’Connor? What attracted you to this project? Are you also an illustrator, a photographer, or an artist of any kind?

While I was working as a secondary English teacher, I pursued many areas of study that led me to this project: child development, psychology, film, the fiber arts, and summer employment with Michigan Council of the Arts. I traveled all over Michigan to take classes from the various universities. When Grand Valley State University, only a ten minute commute from the high school where I was teaching, offered an M.A. in Literature, I decided it was time for me to return to my first and most steadfast love. I began to take every author study class available. Inevitably, I enrolled in a class on Flannery O’Connor taught by Dr. Avis Hewitt. Our first assignment was to read Wise Blood. It stopped me in my tracks. I had never read anything quite like it before. At this point my literary studies had become focused around illustration and pictorial technique and I became obsessed O’Connor’s process. Dr. Hewitt pointed me toward a fellowship that allowed me to read the Wise Blood manuscript in the O’Connor Collection at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, GA. After that I was hooked, and I began to spend summers in Milledgeville reading manuscripts, all in pursuit of solving the mystery of O’Connor’s artistry.

From start to publication, how long did it take for you to conduct the research and write Sign Language?

I focused on O’Connor during both my M.A. and PhD. studies, writing papers and attending conferences while spending part of each summer in the O’Connor Collection reading manuscripts. When I began the research, however, I really did not envision that a book would emerge as the product of my work. I think I was mostly enjoying slipping into the sense of connection and timelessness evoked by directed study. I try to nurture that kind of joyfulness found through research in my Freshman Composition students at University of Arizona. The idea of the Sign Language book began to take shape after I had retired from teaching high school and when I began my doctoral studies at the University of Arizona.

How do you think Flannery O’Connor would have reacted to the adaptation of her novel Wise Blood into a movie? What do you think about the movie?

Most writers are not happy with the movie versions of their books. I would imagine O’Connor would be the same way. I see books and movies as separate creative endeavors unless the author is directly involved in the film production. The movie is John Huston’s marketable construction of O’Connor’s novel.

What else did you want to say about O’Connor’s pictorial texts that perhaps was cut from your book?

I think the most prominent missing element of my book is illustrations or images. These were not cut; I simply could not afford to pay to use them. The images that I discuss are all available online, however. Link to Flannery O’Connor’s Cartoons: VIEW IMAGES

I read a 2011 article in The Guardian  about O’Connor’s cartoons and the writer compared her linocuts/cartoons to Persepolis: A Story of Childhood by Marjane Satrapi. Could you envision O’Connor writing and illustrating a graphic novel if she were alive? 

I thought a great deal about this question. I think O’Connor would be very interested in today’s graphic novels. However, there many variables when considering whether she would actually have done the illustrations for a novel in the contemporary manner. First, the linocut is a very time-consuming process. Second, I think the single panel cartoon was her oeuvre. It really allowed her to frame that “gesture” which indicates “where the real heart of the story lies” (O’Connor in Thompson).

I have been thinking about what kinds of graphics O’Connor might like. How would her iconic characters respond to taking static shapes? How would her message differ? I agree with The Guardian article that the early cartoons have similarities to the graphics drawn by Marjane Satrapi in her graphic novel Persepolis. 

The most striking similarity, of course, is the use of stark black and white ink which in itself is a choice that predicates a certain sign language. O’Connor’s cartoons, however, are fashioned to tell a story in a single panel and using a caption where Satrapi’s formulate a sequential narrative and all that entails.

I, then, began to think about what a graphic novel of O’Connor’s work might look like. What types of illustrations would she like in adaptations of her novels? I chose two examples that, in my opinion might align with O’Connor’s particular narrative. The cover of Octavia Butler’s Kindred by Damien Duffy and John Jennings illustrates the use of gesture in a way that, to me, is reminiscent of the style of O’Connor’s graphic narrative.

I also think the cover of the first Walking Dead comic by Robert Kirkman and Tony More would be in a style that O’Connor would like. Though, the main character appearing as the American cowboy might not be to her liking, but I think that the American dystopic street scene would appeal to her very much.

This exercise was fun, but it probably tells much more about my interpretive analysis than it tells about Flannery O’Connor.

I loved your comments on the comparison of Ruby from “A Stroke of Good Fortune” to Picasso’s “Girl before a Mirror.” Did you discover any other similar pieces of famous art, not mentioned in Sign Language, that you saw in O’Connor’s characters?

As I wrote about O’Connor’s characters, I referred to an actual collection of images I had put together that visually resulted from my character interpretations.

The Wise Blood characters come from a kind of upside-down world where the opposite of what the reader expects happens. They possess a unique amalgam of realistic and bizarre behaviors creating a tension that compels and captivates readers throughout. The WB characters are the most like the characters that inhabit O’Connor’s single panel cartoons. They reach beyond the frame uttering “captions” that upend stereo-types and clichés: “ Momma don’t mind if you ain’t a preacher” (34); “I’m going to preach a new church—the church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified” (55).

I always pictured Hazel Motes as walking dead through a dystopic, postwar, cold war America. Eastrod, the small town that he left to go to war has disappeared and he no longer seems to find a welcome anywhere. He has no home. The memory of his mother’s and grandfather’s warnings reverberates throughout the novel and serves as momento mori underlying each scene. The concept “still life” along with the Vanitas (example) by Barthel Bruyn the Elder embody Hazel Motes in my imagination.

It took a little research for me to formulate a visual image of Enoch Emory. What exactly is his heart’s desire? Enoch is a complex character who functions under the demand of a single emotional directive. He simply wishes to be loved and taken care of like the zoo monkeys he resents. My Enoch image is the gorilla in the movie poster for the 1949 film Mighty Joe Young . That movie marks a movement from the gorilla suit to stop motion animation. When Enoch dons a gorilla suit (now passé), he is not transformed into the beloved ape of the film. That cinematic, movie poster image is upended and we are left with poor Enoch, the somewhat repulsive, unlovable zoo employee, now clothed in a moth-eaten, scruffy gorilla suit.

I have a strong affinity toward Sabbath Lily. Being taken care of by a man seems to be her only way of survival in the American urban milieu that engulfs her. She simply wants a husband, home, and family. Her desire for the potato peeler reveals her desire for a kitchen in which to peel those potatoes. She imagines that Hazel Motes can give her this life which for her has been pictorially constructed by advertisements. Sabbath Lily has obviously studied the images of the domestic goddesses portrayed by advertisers and uses any tools available to recreate herself. I would look at 1940’s Coca Cola advertisements when writing about this side of Sabbath Lily’s character. She attempts to personify the “Coke girls” with no accessories and no means. O’Connor pushes Sabbath Lily’s character development deeper when she creates and frames the “unholy family” portrait in Sabbath’s last scene in the book. I envisioned a dark version of Leonardo DaVinci’s “Virgin of the Rocks” when I wrote about Sabbath Lily in this scene holding the “new jesus.”

I am old enough to remember desiring pink baby doll pajamas. While many O’Connor critics think of Leora’s ill-fitting pink nightgown as a way to laugh at her, I prefer to think of a young Leora that might have desired this nightgown in the first place. I also prefer to think it once fit her figure, but as she aged and as her existence became more difficult to maintain, she turned into the distorted figure confronted by Hazel Motes. In my mind, I always represented this Leora with the picture on the front of a 1950’s Simplicity sewing pattern displaying these shorty pajamas .

Annie Lou Jackson Wickers (Hazel Motes’s mother), Sara Ruth (“Parker’s Back”), Mrs. Greenleaf, and Sabbath of the manuscript are represented very distinctly in my mind by Dorthea Lang’s photos of depression era women.

I poured over pictures of child evangelists to get a vision of Lucette Carmody. I finally decided on Aimee Semple McPhearson. Lucette is the only present female and a pivotal character in The Violent Bear it Away. It strikes me that it would be interesting to do a study of Lucette, the girl in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” and the girl in “A Circle in the Fire.”

I kept these images in a file on my computer while I wrote. It is important to remember, though, that my visualizations are based on Flannery O’Connor’s sign language coupled with my own experience and perception. This is exactly how she meant it to be, I think.

Sign Language was not written as a discussion of racism, which you clearly state, race and racism cannot be overlooked in O’Connor’s works and I’ve read some controversial letters O’Connor wrote to friends. There is quite a bit of ambiguity around this issue. Do you have a simple answer regarding the issue of racism and O’Connor?

Every day I rise at 5:00 AM. I sit at my table which, at the moment, is piled high with books and papers because I have not had anyone over for dinner since March. There is a soft breeze mummering with sounds from the Sonoran Desert drifting through my open window. These mornings are my time for writing and no matter where I go or what I do in the future, I know I will always think back on my desert house in the mornings. However, If I slightly change my position, I can see the plumes of smoke rising from the Buckhorn Wildfire that has been raging here in Arizona for weeks. Even though my desert dwelling offers solace, it also is a source of isolation from the coronavirus. Daily, on the television, I have watched America rage and burn. My heart breaks as I listen to the plaintive voices that arise with anger, protest, and grief. We do not exist in a vacuum. American literature does not exist in a vacuum. Times change. Perceptions change. Tolerations change.

Based on the current state of flux in America, I feel that there is not and there should not be a simple answer regarding racism and O’Connor. We must move forward, always, in truth. We must listen to myriad voices…voices that will interpret through generational and cultural lenses.  We can take direction from O’Connor’s own words in her 1961 letter to Betty Hester when she wrote, “In the future, anybody who writes anything about me is going to have to read everything I have written in order to make legitimate criticism…” (HB 442). Paul Elie, in his June 22, 2020 New Yorker article evaluates the dilemma we, as O’Connor scholars,  are facing in this way:

After her death, the racist passages were stumbling blocks to the next generation’s

encounter with her, and it made a kind of sense to sidestep them. Now the

reluctance to face them squarely is itself a stumbling block, one that keeps us from

approaching her with the seriousness that a great writer deserves.

How did you manage you PhD project and ultimately decide on it? For others contemplating a PhD what advice would you give regarding the process?  

As I have already noted, my PhD. experience was rather out of the ordinary. When I knew that I was going to retire from a high school teaching career, I began to think about things that I still wanted to do in my life. I had determined that I was going to move from Western Michigan to Tucson, Arizona to be part of my grandchildren’s lives as they were growing up. The next thing on my to-do list was to earn a PhD. in literature. I applied at the University of Arizona and was accepted by the English Department into their doctoral program. One thing that simplified the graduate studies process for me was that I did not intend to search for a tenure track position and leave Tucson. This gave me freedom that I would not have had otherwise. I was able for the first time in my life to study and learn without the pressure of employment. I have continued to work as a lecturer in the Writing Program at UA. This accomplishment has marked one of the best phases of my life.

 Are you planning on doing any writing conferences or speaking engagements about what you discovered in Sign Language? If so, when and where?

July 16: Presentation at a Georgia Center for the Book Event Link 

Eventbrite Attendee Registration Link

TO PURCHASE SIGN LANGUAGE: Mercer University Press or Amazon

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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Works Cited

Butler, Octavia, John Jennings and Damian Duffy. Kindred: A Graphic Novel

      Adaptation. New York: Abrams, 2018.

Elie, Paul. “How Racist was Flannery O’Connor?” New Yorker, 15 June, 2020,

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/22/how-racist-was-flannery-oconnor

Accessed 22 June, 2020.

Kirkman, Robert and Tony More. The Walking Dead Vol. 1: Days Gone By. Beverly

Hills: Image-Skybound, 2004.

O’Connor, Flannery. Collected Works. New York: Library of America, 1988.

—–The Habit of Being. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979.

—–Wise Blood. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1949.

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. New York: Pantheon, 2004.

Thompson, Phillip. “Flannery O’Connor in her Own Words.” Grace & Violence: 23 April,

  1. https://kudzucorner.wordpress.com/2016/04/23/23-april-2016-flannery-oconnor-in-her-own-words/