Wednesday 30 September 2020

Feminize your canon: Alice Dunbar-Nelson

 In April 1895, the up-and-coming poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, whom Frederick Douglass had dubbed “the most promising young colored man in America,” saw a poem by a young writer, Alice Ruth Moore, accompanied by a photograph in which she appeared stylish and beautiful. He wrote to her immediately at her home on Palmyra Street in New Orleans, expressing his admiration, and they began an intense epistolary courtship that lasted two years. Six months in, Paul was declaring. “I love you and have loved you since the first time I saw your picture.” He called Alice “the sudden realization of an ideal!” She combined beauty with literary talent and the feminine accomplishments appropriate to an upper-class young woman of the day: “Do you recite? Do you sing? Don’t you dance divinely?” They modeled themselves self-consciously after Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, another pair of lovers and writers whose romance began by letter. Paul referred to “This Mr. and Mrs. Browning affair of ours,” and Alice, after they’d married, reflected on her role as a wife who was at once muse, colleague, and practical support: “We worked together, read together, and I flattered myself that I helped him in his work. I was his amanuensis and secretary, and he was good enough to write poem after poem ‘for me,’ he said.” The Dunbars embodied the aspirational ideal of the educated, cultured African American, allowed access to the white halls of fame and power as long as they were willing to remain, flattened and fixed, in the roles of representatives of their race.

Such a role did not allow for physical passion and disorder. When the couple met in person, the refinements of their written courtship became scrawled over with violence. In November 1897, in what Paul described as “one damned night of folly,” he raped Alice, leaving her with internal injuries. Five months later, the couple eloped. The marriage lasted four years, and ended as violently as it had begun, with a drunken beating. Alice left, and never returned. Paul tried to woo her back with letters, but she answered only once, with a single word delivered by telegram: No. When he died of tuberculosis in February 1906, at the age of thirty-three, she found out by reading a notice in the newspaper. Yet despite their estrangement, Alice worked hard after Paul’s death to keep his reputation and his work alive, reading his poetry in public and, in 1920, editing The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, a hefty anthology of “the best prose and poetic selections by and about the Negro race,” including many selections by Paul, but also her own poetry and selections by writers from James Weldon Johnson to Abraham Lincoln, with the “Caucasian” writers denoted by an asterisk. (Alice’s portrait, rather than Paul’s, appears as a frontispiece.)


Brief though it was, Alice Moore’s marriage to Paul Dunbar has tended to overshadow her achievements as a writer, even though she outlived him by three decades and married twice more. For many years, according to Katherine Adams, Sandra A. Zagarell, and Caroline Gebhard, the editors of Recovering Alice Dunbar-Nelson for the Twenty-First Century, a 2016 special issue of the women’s literature journal Legacy, her marriage was “the only thing making her visible and the primary thing obscuring her from view.” That ironic combination, a spotlight partially covered, is a fate she shares with many talented wives of famous men. The variety of names she adopted—Alice Ruth Moore, Alice Dunbar, Alice Moore Dunbar, Mrs. Paul Dunbar, Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar, Alice Dunbar Nelson, Aliceruth Dunbar-Nelson, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson—reflects the basic tension between a woman’s marital identity and her declaration of herself as an author. Highly educated, with a strong belief in her own talent and determination to make her own living, Dunbar-Nelson was a New Woman, that protofeminist figure who dominated American culture at the turn of the twentieth century, yet she also recognized and embraced marriage as essential to a woman’s social standing. “It is not marriage I decry, for I don’t think any really sane person would do this,” she wrote in “The Woman,” a story in her first collection Violets and Other Tales, published in 1895. But despite this declaration, the same piece contains voluminous arguments in favor of the single life. Critics who have wanted to pin her down to one identity, one genre, or one set of beliefs about race or gender, have struggled to do so. Appreciating the variety of her work requires a nuanced attention to the many layers of her life.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson was born on July 19, 1875, in New Orleans. For a writer who otherwise documented her life meticulously, and whose diary, correspondence, and reams of unpublished writing exist in an extensive archive, she was mostly silent about her early life. In one letter to Paul, her distress is palpable when he presses on the sore point of her origins: “Dearest—dearest—I hate to write this—How often, oh how painfully often, when scarce meaning [to] you have thrust my parentage in my face.”

As a light-skinned Black woman operating within the blunt racial binary of post–Civil War America, that silence signifies both shame and strategy. In her hometown of New Orleans, Dunbar-Nelson had a third option for a racial identity. Before the Civil War, the city’s population was divided between whites, enslaved blacks, and free gens de couleur, light-skinned Creoles of French or Spanish descent, who were a powerful and elite social group. This was the identity Dunbar-Nelson claimed for herself, and the figure who dominates her early short stories. She likened the “true Creole” to “the famous gumbo of the state, a little of everything, making a whole dilightfullly [sic] flavored, quite distinctive, and wholly unique.” It was also a status that carried little weight outside New Orleans, in a world where the color line was brutally policed. In several stories, Dunbar-Nelson explored the anxiety of passing and the pain of colorist prejudice. Her short story “The Stones of the Village,” dramatizes the bullying and exclusion that her light-skinned hero endures from both the black and white boys of his village. 

But instead of trying to claim a place among his own people, the boy decides to pass as white. The story traces his Dickensian journey from his grandmother’s village to a job working for an elderly book dealer in New Orleans, and then via a legacy in the old man’s will to college, law school, and eventually marriage to a white woman and a position as a respected judge. Throughout his career his fear of being exposed drives him to overt and virulent racist treatment of “Negroes.” Eventually he learns that an up-and-coming African American lawyer knows his true identity but agrees to keep it quiet in exchange for fair treatment in court. Her unpublished story “Brass Ankles Speaks” hews closer to Dunbar-Nelson’s own experience, narrated by a speaker who describes herself as “white enough to pass for white, but with a darker family background, a real love for the mother race, and no desire to be numbered among the white race.” Her anger throughout the piece is directed at darker-skinned Black people who tease and ostracize her, resenting both her ability to pass and her decision not to.

Eleanor Alexander, the author of Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow, a biography of the Dunbar marriage, detects in Alice’s status anxiety and her flashes of contempt for her much darker husband an attitude of internalized racism, or at least classism and colorism, that caused her to distance herself from the designation “Negro.” But other critics make the point that she proudly declared herself a “race woman” and that her identity as African American was never “masked” or concealed from readers. “This is a writer who embraced and labored incessantly on behalf of black people, including herself, and understood that work to require an interrogation of belonging—a refusal to make a piety of it,” write Adams, Zagarell, and Gebhard. Dunbar-Nelson grew up in an era preoccupied with questions of racial belonging and definition, which included a campaign to capitalize the word “Negro” as a question of dignity. She seems, however, to have resisted the idea that race was reducible to labels or symbols, exploring it instead as a variable, and highly individual, lived experience.

According to Alexander, although Dunbar-Nelson saw the category “Negro” as denoting a formerly enslaved person and thus distanced herself from it, her own family history was more closely embedded with slavery than with free Creole society. On the scraps of evidence afforded by birth certificates, name changes, and city records, Alexander pieces together the origins of Alice Moore as the daughter and granddaughter of women who were formerly enslaved. Her father’s identity is uncertain, as is the question of whether he was married to her mother, or whether Alice and her older sister had the same father—either way, he was not part of her life. Alice’s mother, Patsy, and grandmother, Mary, worked as servants and washerwomen, as many Black women did: part of a huge labor force that helped clean and clothe the upper classes. Together they made sure that Alice and her sister, Leila, were shielded from this work and kept away from their employers’ homes—a common protective strategy by servants, who knew the sexual exploitation and violence that routinely went on in those homes. Instead, Patsy and Mary worked to consolidate a class status for Alice and Leila by giving them an education they themselves had not received. Alice was first sent away as a young teenager to Southern University in Baton Rouge, and graduated from the prestigious Straight (now Dillard) University in New Orleans in 1892 with a teaching qualification. 

Teaching offered a route into elite society for African American women, who dominated the profession (in Washington, D.C., a few years before Alice moved there with Paul, women made up more than 80 percent of the city’s Black schoolteachers).

Alice’s first book was published in 1895, when she was barely twenty years old. Violets and Other Tales was a multigenre collection of poetry, stories, sketches, and essays rooted in New Orleans Creole society—“pieces of exquisite art,” as Paul, who was courting Alice when the book was being published, described them. Its reception in the press is a reminder of how absolute the division was at this time between works by Black and white artists. In the African American press, the book and its author were effusively praised, as much for what they represented—the “best of the race”—as for the specifics of the work. The Daily Picayune, the city’s white-run paper, denounced it as “slop”—which Gebhard argues was punishment for “having crossed the color line by presuming to submit it for review at all.” Interestingly, Dunbar-Nelson used the same pejorative years later when reassessing her early collection, which is undeniably sentimental, as was the style of its era. But its themes would linger into her next, and today best-known, collection, The Goodness of St. Roque, and Other Stories (1897), even though she left New Orleans for good the following year at the age of twenty-one.

In 1897, Alice moved to New York City, where she worked with writer and activist Victoria Earle Matthews at the White Rose Mission, a settlement home for working-class Black girls on East Eighty-Sixth Street. She continued to write, working on an unpublished collection of stories about the new community in which she found herself. She was a clubwoman, the main arena for African American women’s activism at the time, and an active supporter of women’s suffrage. In 1902, when her marriage to Paul Dunbar ended, Alice moved to Wilmington, Delaware, and began to work as a teacher at Howard High School, where she had an intimate friendship with the (considerably older) school principal Edwina B. Kruse, one of several important relationships with women over the course of her life. She stayed at Howard until 1920, when she was fired for her political radicalism. For Dunbar-Nelson, teaching was both a creative outlet and a form of political engagement: she wrote plays for her students to perform, and shared with her friend W.E.B. Du Bois a belief in the transformative power of the classroom for African Americans, and the importance for Black children of stories that centered Black characters—lamenting in her essay “Negro Literature for Negro Pupils” that “for two generations we have given brown and black children a blonde ideal of beauty to worship, a milk-white literature to assimilate, and a pearly Paradise to anticipate, in which their dark faces would be hopelessly out of place.” In her diary, which she kept daily for most of her life, she also recorded less lofty reactions to the daily grind of the classroom, as in this outburst from 1897: “Exhausted? I feel like a dishrag. 62 untamed odoriferous kids all day… Fiends, just fiends pure and simple.”

Throughout her time in Delaware, Dunbar-Nelson’s activism continued. She wrote for Du Bois’s The Crisis on women’s suffrage and became a field organizer for the campaign in Pennsylvania. In 1916, she married Robert J. Nelson, a journalist and politician, and together with him edited and published a progressive newspaper, the Wilmington Advocate.

In her diary, she also detailed the romantic relationships she had with women, including the Los Angeles–based activist Fay Jackson Robinson and artist Helene Ricks London, in entries that are sometimes tortured, but often frank and celebratory. They reveal a woman who, in private, was not afraid to cast off the constraints of respectability. In 1928, she described an evening with a group of women who were, like herself, married clubwomen: “We want to make whoopee… Life is glorious. Good homemade white grape wine. We really make whoopee… Such a glorious moonlight night.” Selections from her diary were edited and published in 1984 by Dunbar-Nelson’s literary champion Akasha Gloria Hull as Give Us Each Day, a landmark in Black feminist literary history and a vibrant glimpse into the writer’s inner life, now unfortunately out of print.

In the twenties, the cultural and political explosion of the Harlem Renaissance swept Alice Dunbar-Nelson up in its trail, even though she had not lived in New York for many years and was still based in Delaware. Her poetry, much of it written earlier, was rediscovered through its appearance in journals and collections like The Crisis, Opportunity, and the 1927 collection Ebony and Topaz. She was friends with most of the leading lights of the era, especially Du Bois and the poet Georgia Douglas Johnson, but she had her differences with them, too. She critiqued the novelist Jessie Redmon Fauset’s generally well-received novel Plum Bun, rejecting the “injudicious laudation” that she worried was coming to a Black writer purely on the basis of race. She wanted a bigger frame, and laid claim to a white literary canon that was as much her heritage as any other, writing a scholarly dissertation on Wordsworth, with whom she shared a love of nature. One of her best-known poems celebrates the natural beauty of a violet in nature by contrasting it with the artifice of its copy in an urban setting, where the idea of the flower calls to mind: “florists’ shops, / And bows and pins, and perfumed papers fine; / And garish lights, and mincing little fops / And cabarets and songs, and deadening wine.”

Despite her early reputation as a poet, during the twenties Alice Dunbar-Nelson found her voice more and more as a journalist. She wrote a syndicated column, Une Femme Dit, and contributed a wealth of reviews and essays to newspapers and magazines. She was an in-demand speaker and although she was rarely paid well for it, she recognized the importance of maintaining a public profile against the twin forces of gendered and racial erasure. In her diary she was open about her constant struggle for money, lamenting in 1931: “the depression hit my royalties!” But she also blamed herself for her inability to find a stable footing in a field dominated by white men. Her work was so often uncredited, unpaid, or both. “Damn bad luck I have with my pen,” she wrote in her diary. “Some fate has decreed I shall never make money by it.” Yet in her energy and appetite for life’s pleasures, from the literary to the human to the natural, Alice Dunbar-Nelson celebrated beauty and freedom to the end of her life. Thanks to the scholars who’ve fought to resurrect her legacy, she may finally have the broader recognition she deserves, as a prolific, politically engaged writer whose poetry is only the beginning.

(Source: The Paris Review)

Tuesday 29 September 2020

Widow wins legal fight for IVF with husband's sperm

 A widow has won a legal battle to have IVF treatment using her late husband's sperm after a ruling by judges.

The man - identified as JB - died from cancer, but had stored sperm in the hope of one day starting a family.

He left instructions in his will, however, he did not sign the necessary forms before his death.

His widow instructed lawyers to go to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, and judges ruled in her favour.

The man lost his life in 2019 after he and his wife, identified as SB, consulted doctors about starting a family.

The court heard that when JB stored his sperm he gave written consent for it to be used for intrauterine insemination - a method of conception where sperm is introduced directly into the uterus.

Following his marriage, JB made a will which stated that his donated sperm should be donated to his wife for as long as possible and for as long as she may wish.


Day before he died

However, medics discovered the day before he died - when he was unconscious - that he had only completed forms which provided consent to intrauterine insemination.

Doctors have told SB that her best chance for conceiving children is through in vitro fertilisation (IVF) - a different technique in which eggs are removed from the body and fertilised in a lab.

However, JB had not signed the necessary forms needed for his reproductive material to be used for IVF.

This prompted her legal team to go to Scotland's highest civil court to obtain an order which would allow JB's sperm to be used in this way.

They argued that JB had given permission in his will for his semen to be used for IVF.

Effective consent

Lawyers for NHS Grampian did not oppose the move but the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) was unable to conclude that JB gave effective consent for the purposes of the legislation governing the matter.

Their lawyers stated that the will did not make reference to the creation of embryos or to the purpose to which sex cells were to be used.

However, HFEA's legal team argued that if the court should find the necessary legal requirements were met, the authority considered there would be no impediment for SB to begin IVF treatment.

On Friday, judges Lady Dorrian, Lord Glennie, and Lord Woolman ruled in favour of SB.

Lady Dorrian - who gave the judgement - ruled that the man's statement in the will meant that he intended his sperm to be used in IVF treatment.

The court ruled that the terms of the dead man's will amounted to effective consent to the use of his sperm for IVF treatment.

Lady Dorrian wrote: "It is the sort of provision that would only sensibly be made by a man contemplating his death in the near future, and seeking to make his wishes clear."

(Source: BBC)

Monday 28 September 2020

First mothers

 I have been fascinated by Queen Nanny of the Jamaican Maroons for years. In fact, I have been trying to write about her since I graduated from college. The Maroons were communities of fugitive slaves and free Black people, some who, after the British took the island from the Spanish in 1655, fled to the mountains, and others who later escaped British plantations to join them. They resisted for eighty-four years. The Leeward Maroons, led by Cudjoe, and the Windward Maroons, led by Nanny, waged the first Maroon War from 1728 to 1739. Despite their small numbers and lack of military equipment, they raided plantations for supplies, liberated enslaved people to reinforce their ranks, and killed more white people than were able to kill them. The Maroons successfully prevented the British from expanding into Jamaica’s interior until they negotiated a peace treaty and land allotments to each of the different factions on the island. The free towns they established at the end of the First Maroon War still exist today.

Nanny was declared a national hero in 1976. Her face was put on the Jamaican $500 bill. I had a rudimentary understanding of her story growing up, but the first time I saw her depicted in fiction was in Michelle Cliff’s novel, Abeng, which I read as an undergrad. Nanny’s story is part of a buried history of Jamaica that the heroine, Clare Savage, a light-skinned and middle-class Jamaican, isn’t taught. As a consequence of that ignorance, Clare is raised to uphold a system of colorism and white supremacy. Cliff takes the beginning of Nanny’s story directly from Maroon legend: “In the beginning there had been two sisters, Nanny and Sekesu. Sekesu remained a slave. Some say this was the difference between sisters. It was believed that all the island’s children descended from one or the other.” Unlike Sekesu, Nanny “carried the secrets of magic into slavery,” which she used to free herself and others. Cliff confers a moral purity on Nanny that she denies Sekesu.


Cliff describes Nanny preparing for war, cowrie shells in her hair. Later, when Nanny meets with the leader of the Leeward Maroons, the “only decoration was a necklace fashioned from the teeth of white men.” Nanny was known for being a military strategist and though in legend she emerged from the kingdom of the Ashanti, in Cliff’s telling Nanny draws her knowledge of battle from the “Dahomey Amazons,” the Mino of Benin, an all-female army in the Kingdom of Dahomey. Nanny was known for being a powerful spiritual leader, an “obeah woman,” and Cliff describes her as a master of disguise who stuns soldiers with her spells. She even recounts a popular legend where Nanny is known to have stopped bullets with her ass.

But Cliff’s Nanny never speaks. She never becomes a fully realized character. So I thought, I could do that. And then later I thought, Who am I to think I can write this? Still, I’ve tried over the years, picking up the project and abandoning it. Nanny is a historical figure of huge proportions, but the written record about her is minimal. In Cliff’s version, after being betrayed by Cudjoe, who refuses to join forces, she is killed by William Cuffee, a “Black shot,” hired by the British to fight in Black militias against the Maroons. It is documented that Cuffee tried to claim a reward for her murder in 1733, but there is no other mention of her death in written texts. In fact, there are three more written references to Nanny in the seven years that follow and they demonstrate that she was still alive.

Though I haven’t lived in Jamaica since I was five, the allure of Nanny feels personal. Her story provides a reprieve from the nearly constant theater of Black pain and suffering that is the history of the Americas we’re taught. At a time when Black women on the island were seen as easy prey for white men (such as, for example, Thomas Thistlewood, a plantation manager and owner who recorded every slave woman he raped over a thirty-seven-year period in his diaries), Nanny was a woman who became famous for terrorizing white people.

Like Clare Savage in the novel, I’d been taught to react to acts of injustice with politeness. My mother would scold me if I spoke badly of my father, even behind his back, even though my anger was because I’d seen him beat her. What did it even look like for a woman to rebel with violence? Part of my interest in that question and in Nanny was stirred when I took a trip to Jamaica in college. I went to their rural town in the mountains to meet my paternal grandparents for the first time. Like the Maroons, they still lived as subsistence farmers. Their part of town had no streetlights. I had never experienced such suffocating darkness, but my grandparents could move around without even a flashlight. During the day, I saw my grandmother, who was rail thin and diabetic, disappear into areas of dense vegetation holding a cutlass and emerge with something for me, bananas or a piece of sugarcane. I had a vision, then, for Nanny. The drawings of Nanny I’d seen looked more like my grandmother, with her hair always tied with a plain white headwrap, than like Cliff’s Dahomey Amazon warriors.

On that same trip, I met a cousin whom I hadn’t seen since I was a child, but who had since been disfigured by a vat of acid thrown on him by his wife. He later forgave her; they’re still together to this day. I listened to adults talk about him as if he were mad and about her as if she were evil.  Later, when I saw her in person, I noticed some relatives were polite to her face but whispered about her when she was out of earshot; others shunned her outright. I never found out what my cousin did to stir her anger, but I had witnessed men do unspeakable things. And I had been expected by the women around me to be quiet and forgive them for it. In Jamaica, I kept seeing glimpses of the matrilineal society in which Nanny lived, quickly obscured by misogyny. Sekesu was the victim; I knew her well. Nanny was the hero who I wanted to be. But I didn’t know how, so I started imaging her.

After college I worked at a public defender’s office doing fund-raising, but also paralegal tasks like answering letters from prisoners seeking a lawyer to handle their appeals. The letters were desperate and described a level of brutality that haunted me. One of the first letters was from a woman who said she was being raped by prison guards and punished for speaking out by being locked in a solitary housing unit. I started writing about Nanny as a way to counteract feelings of complete helplessness. I didn’t save any of my early drafts. I learned later that for me to connect to characters that I’m writing, I need to put a real piece of myself into each of them. But back then, I was writing about Nanny because she was everything that I wasn’t.

On my trip to Jamaica, the year before, I had read excerpts from Karla Gottlieb’s biography of Nanny, The Mother of Us All, in a bookstore in Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston while waiting for my flight home. I skimmed through and landed on the description of Nanny that Philip Thicknesse, a British captain who fought in campaigns against the Maroons, had written in his memoir. He called her the “Old Hagg,” and described her as wearing “a girdle around her waist … with nine or ten different knives hanging in sheaths.”

In my version I had her carry a cutlass for protection and foraging, but I didn’t believe the version of her that Thicknesse described. Gottlieb had deemed it an exemplary piece of “exotica,” a style of writing typically used by white men at the time to write about nonwhite people. Still, even the version I wrote of Nanny didn’t feel quite human. What I had learned about obeah growing up centered around fear, never liberation. My most superstitious aunt taught me to track the hair I shed, my nail clippings, even to count my underwear because all of it could be stolen and used by your enemies to work spells against you. But obeah was instrumental in resistance to slavery and its practice was outlawed on plantations. I didn’t understand Nanny’s version of obeah, but in my writing, it became Nanny’s tool for violence. I didn’t employ the kind of magical realism I would later use in my first novel. Nanny was just magical. Bullets were shot at her, as in legend, but they didn’t pierce her flesh. She could make trees shift and move, use magic to generate a kind of piercing noise that made only white men’s ears bleed. In reality, her power came from her knowledge of guerrilla warfare, tactics like forest camouflage. Her incantations were more likely blessings that fortified her people’s courage as they went into battle. In historical accounts, the Maroons reportedly used noise to disorient and intimidate British troops while attacking them—yelling, banging on drums, blowing horns like the abeng (made from a cow horn). But my version drew from legends about Nanny’s exceptional ability rather than from corroborated historical accounts and oral histories. My Nanny was flat, a representation of all the violent things I wanted to do in this world because I felt weak.


When the pandemic began, I found it hard to focus on the novel I’d been writing, set in a present day that no longer exists, so instead I tried to write about Nanny again. I ordered Karla Gottlieb’s The Mother of Us All and read it in its entirety. According to Gottlieb’s research, in 1740, the British granted Nanny and her people land. William Cuffee couldn’t have killed her in 1733. Cudjoe did sign a peace treaty on behalf of the Leeward Maroons, but so did Quao, a leader of the Windward Maroons who in some oral histories is Nanny’s brother and was described in Thicknesse’s memoir as having deferred to Nanny’s orders. Both treaties specify that the Maroons have to hunt down and return escaped slaves, as well as fight alongside the British in the case of a slave rebellion.

After the treaty, the Maroons became enforcers for white slave owners. Michelle Cliff includes this truth in her novel but absolves Nanny from blame by declaring her dead. But the land granted as a result of the treaty in 1740 was written to “Nanny a free Negroe and the people under command.”  The real story blurred the line between the two sisters in the legend—Sekesu, who accepted her own slavery and the doctrine of white supremacy, and Nanny, who because of her exceptional abilities supposedly rejected it outright. I was no longer sure if I wanted to write a book about a figure like Nanny, who was inspiring but also deeply problematic. I thought that it was the end of my project.

I’ve lost the urge to put all my faith in a single hero. Throughout the uprisings this summer, I’ve watched a mass movement of people fight to dismantle white supremacy, together, as a collective force. In her book, Gottlieb suggests a possibility that there might have been more than one Nanny. The name is an anglicized version of the Ashanti word nana, a title of respect given to leaders and elders, and the word ni, meaning “first mother.” In British Jamaica, Nanani became Nanny. William Cuffee might have in fact killed one Nanny, only to have another rise up and become more powerful.  In Thicknesse’s memoir, he described seeing the Windward Maroons’ “Obea women,” multiple women, wearing the teeth of dead British soldiers strung together as “ankle and wrist bracelets.”

I’ve decided to write about more than one Nanny; the one who died in 1733 and the one who lived. I’m writing about another woman, Akua, who in oral history was elected by other slaves as the “Queen of Kingston,” and was one of the architects of Tacky’s War, a slave rebellion in 1760 that the Maroons were instrumental in suppressing. What strikes me most about all of these women is not how exceptional they were, but how, together, they exposed how weak white supremacy was. British forces on their own weren’t strong enough to defeat the Maroons. They needed “Black shots,” like William Cuffee, and when they failed, they tried importing Miskito Indians from Central America. People from both companies kept deserting to join the Maroons, making their ranks even stronger. The planters and slave masters who encroached on Maroon territory lived in fear.

 Nanny became our hero, but even when she failed, other women kept resisting. The idea that there is a beginning and an end, a single leader and a single traitor to a movement, is an illusion. Even Sekesu may have resisted. Female slaves resisted exploitation by men like Thomas Thistlewood by running away whenever they had the chance, when they couldn’t fight. “Nanny” could have acted like a protective cipher, a label for a moving target, while the many women who struggled to bring forth the empire’s collapse went about their work, unnoticed but no less powerful for it.

(Source: The Paris Review)

Sunday 27 September 2020

Japan newlyweds can receive up to ¥600,000 to start new life

 Couples who get married from next April can receive up to ¥600,000 to cover their rent and other costs as they start a new life, provided they live in a municipality adopting Japan’s newlywed support program, government sources said Sunday.

As the nation’s ultralow birth rate is attributed mainly to the tendency that people marry late or stay unmarried, the government will try to boost the number of marriages in the nation by enhancing the program to provide a larger sum and cover more couples, said the sources at the Cabinet Office.

To be eligible, both husband and wife will have to be under age 40 as of the registered date of marriage and have a combined income of less than ¥5.4 million, up from age 35 and ¥4.8 million under the current conditions for aid of up to ¥300,000.

Newly married couples in Japan can receive up to ¥600,000 to cover their rent and other costs to start a new life from next April, provided they live in a municipality adopting the country's newlywed support program, government sources have said. | REUTERS

Only 281 municipalities, or 15 percent of all cities, towns and villages in Japan, had adopted the program as of July as they must shoulder half the expenses, but in a bid to increase that number, the central government will bear two-thirds of the costs from fiscal 2021, the sources said.

The program is part of government efforts to address the low birth rate. Married couples tend to have two children, although the average number of children a woman will bear in her lifetime was only 1.36 last year. A record-low 865,000 babies were born in 2019.

An economic incentive is deemed effective to encourage people to marry since 29.1 percent of single men age 25 to 34 and 17.8 percent of single women cited a lack of funds as a reason they stayed unmarried in a 2015 survey by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.

(Source: JT)

Saturday 26 September 2020

Japanese firm launches world's first UV lamp that safely kills coronavirus

Major light-maker Ushio Inc. has recently launched an ultraviolet lamp that can kill the coronavirus without harming human health — the first of its kind in the world.

The Care 222 UV lamp, which Ushio developed together with Columbia University, is expected to be used for disinfection in spaces where people keep going in and out and the risk of contracting the deadly virus is high, such as on buses, trains and elevators and in offices, the company said.

UV lamps have been widely used as an effective means of sterilization, notably in the medical and food-processing industries. But conventional UV rays cannot be used in spaces where there are people, as they cause skin cancer and eye problems.

Ushio’s new lamp, however, emits UV rays with a wavelength of 222 nanometers, as opposed to the conventional 254-nanometer wavelength, making them lethal to germs but benign to humans.

Ushio Inc.'s Care 222 ultraviolet lamp is set up at the company's head office to disinfect the air and surfaces below. | KYODO

At this particular wavelength, the firm said, UV rays cannot breach the surface of the skin nor the eyes to bring about cancer-causing genetic defects and other damage.

When attached to a ceiling, within six to seven minutes the Care 222 inactivates 99 percent of viruses and bacteria in the air and on up to a 3-square-meter area on the surface of objects some 2.5 meters away from the lamp.

A recent third-party study by Hiroshima University confirmed the 222-nanometer UV rays are effective in killing the new coronavirus, Ushio said.

The 1.2-kilogram Care 222 is about the size of a hardcover book and has a price tag of ¥300,000.

The company said it only accepts orders from medical institutions for the moment but will serve other customers once production catches up with demand.

Ushio has also teamed up with Toshiba Lighting and Technology Corp., a subsidiary of Toshiba Corp., to develop general-purpose lamps with Care 222 emitters installed to cater to a broad range of situations. The companies aim to release such products next January.

(Source: JT)

Friday 25 September 2020


 On translating Nathalie Léger’s Exposition.

Exposition is the first in a triptych of books by Nathalie Léger that intertwines Léger’s mother’s story with that of a female artist or celebrity.

You could say that Exposition is about the Countess of Castiglione. Considered by many in Europe to be the most beautiful woman alive, Castiglione was probably the most photographed person of the nineteenth century. Born in 1837 in Florence, she was sent to Paris in 1855 to plead the cause of Italian unity at the French court, as an instrument of soft power, essentially. Unfortunately, she had terrible social skills, and it didn’t go well. She became the mistress of Napoleon III but overstepped her social position at the court and was soon asked to leave. Beginning in 1856, she had herself photographed hundreds of times at a high-end studio, spending her family fortune. She would often restage scenes from mythology but also moments of glory from her life at the French court. Some of her portraits were even presented in the International Exposition of 1867. As late as 1871, Castiglione was asked to intercede with Otto von Bismarck to discourage a German occupation of Paris. This point, the end of the Second Empire with which she was so identified, seems to mark the beginning of Castiglione’s decline, and she lived out her days in increasing isolation in her funereal Paris apartment until her death in 1899. However, she remained a legend in urban lore, granting viewings to her admirers and taking long nocturnal walks through a Paris that had changed around her.


Exposition is about the Countess of Castiglione, but it isn’t a biography. The genesis of the book was Léger’s attempt to curate an exhibition of photographs of Castiglione for a museum. Léger ran into some problems, the museum management didn’t share her enthusiasm for Castiglione, the exhibition never happened, and Exposition is her endeavor to come to terms with the difficulty of her subject. It’s also about Léger’s mother, and the way both she and Castiglione were unable to control their own fates. Léger’s writing often has a telescopic effect: one woman collapsing into the next; one woman’s life rendering certain facts of another’s visible. I think of it as a tool that allows her to broach big subjects that might be unwieldy with other methods. And so, shifting from one woman’s story to the next, Exposition becomes an interrogation of female self-representation and agency, but more than that, an exploration of what it means for a book to be about anything at all.

What is it to be captivated by a subject and to try to capture it? “For years,” Léger writes, “I had thought that to write you needed, at the very least, to master your subject. Many reviewers, famous writers, and critics have said that to write you have to know what you want to say. They repeat, hammering it home: you have to have something to say, about the world, about existence, about, about, about. I didn’t know then that the subject is precisely what masters you.”


When one submits to a subject, it is not necessarily a benign or unambiguous force. Castiglione is thorny, difficult to pin down and often unlikeable. Your average portrait subject can’t sink a museum exhibition; perhaps the more personal format of a book was better suited to the extremities of the project anyway. Ultimately it’s the power of Léger’s obsession that drives the story. We know that obsession is a corrosive force, a vampire, a thing with hooked claws. But obsession also preserves. Obsession communicates, reinforces—translates. And as the translator of Exposition, Léger’s alchemy of obsession and repulsion, submission and mastery is precisely what I had to convey.

Other people’s obsessions are always a dangerous thing to become involved with, and no one knows this better than the translator. Every job has its dangers and its attractions, and sooner or later any translator develops her methods for inhabiting a mind that is not her own. For me, the best approach is usually to craft a careful distance from the material; if you want to gain perspective on a subject, you can’t be sitting on top of it. Before I began, I pored over portraits of Castiglione, read about her. In a rare books collection, I turned the brittle pages of an album dedicated to her, turned them with something like reverence, the album’s fragile spine resting in a book cradle. At some point, a woman came into focus: alluring, repugnant, everything I already knew she would be.

Léger isn’t the only person who has been fascinated by Castiglione; for over a century, she’s been an irresistible subject. The first person on the list must be Castiglione herself, who never would have gone to such prodigious lengths and expense to record her own image without the considerable force of self-obsession. And then there are the men. Besides her husband, Napoleon III, and her various other lovers, Castiglione was a gay icon in her lifetime. (This is a phenomenon that is much older than you might think: before Judy Garland, there was Castiglione and others like her.) So many of her images were well-preserved because the French dandy Robert de Montesquiou (who, besides being an Olympic bronze medalist in 1900, was Proust’s inspiration for Baron de Charlus) purchased as much of her estate as he could after her death, keeping together a trove of pictures and artifacts that would otherwise have been dispersed.

And so Léger is simply one of the most recent in a long line of people to be moved by Castiglione’s force of fascination. But Castiglione was never my obsession, nor even my subject.


I came to know Exposition not through an interest in Castiglione, but through an interest in Léger’s work. Like most American readers, I first encountered her Suite for Barbara Loden. As in Exposition, the eponymous filmmaker’s story is interwoven with that of Léger’s parents’ failed marriage (as the final book in the triptych, The White Dress, would do with the story of the performance artist Pippa Bacca). Reflections upon reflections, one woman’s life within another’s, and another’s, and another’s. That is, it was a formal question that hooked me, a way of telling a story against the grain. More than any book I’ve translated, Exposition made me wonder what, as the translator, is my subject. The question may seem either self-evident or nonsensical, but let’s follow Léger’s thinking and define “your subject” as “what masters you.” That is, what was it that obsessed me as a translator?

I know that it has something to do with immersion. What is it that I am immersing myself in? What is my material, what is it that makes up the world of the book? It’s tempting to say “language,” that’s a trope we hear enough. But words can be dead matter—what infuses them with living spirit? Instead, I would say that I am obsessed with, immersed in, the movements of a mind. For me, literature has always been a way of being close to other people. There is nothing more interesting than someone else’s perspective, and the sheer excess of a book’s hundreds of pages are the perfect opportunity to indulge my obsession in their obsessions. Not the content of those obsessions, exactly, but their form. It’s the way idea connects to language and gives it shape.

Exposition tracks the movements of an erudite, restless mind. Its fragmentary, probing style draws on a rich array of artistic and literary references, joining together the past and the present, the personal and the public, the abstract and the tangible in order to leap from one place to the next. What I love about it is that it is a book that is always in motion. It’s the same thing that makes it indefinable in terms of subject, outside of the relationality of the women whose stories it tells. What mastered me were gestures, movements, forms I would shape and reshape, returning again and again until they were right. If anything, by the time I’d finished translating it, Castiglione had ceded her position in my mind, nudged aside and balanced by the acute and personal pain of Léger’s family story. It’s a book that comes alive in the connection of its figures, the way that language comes alive when it connects with thought, giving shape to emotion, intuition, insight.

It’s unsurprising, when I flip back through my translation of Exposition, that Léger arrived at this conclusion before I did. There I find, written in my own words but more so hers, that to have a subject is to give something form, and that this is an act of tremendous concentration, of giving something shape in language:

It would be best to leave it at what the painters say on the subject: “I hold on to my motif,” Cézanne told Gasquet. Cézanne, clasping his hands. He drew them together slowly, joined them, gripped them, made them fuse together, merging the one into the other, Gasquet recounted. That’s what it is. “This is what you have to achieve. If I go too high or too low, it’s all ruined.” What is my motif? Something small, very small, what will be its gesture? I look at her face in Portrait with Lifted Veil from 1857, her eyes downcast, her mouth so weary, tight and thin, her air of mourning. This woman’s sadness is frightful, a sadness without emotion, true self-defeat, an inner collapse, desolation. Photography can create an image of it, but to make a motif of it, something more is required; one must use words to bring things together slowly, so to speak, join them, fuse them.


The English translation of Exposition will be published by Dorothy, a publishing project, this September.

Amanda DeMarco is a translator living in Berlin.

(Source: The Paris Review)

Thursday 24 September 2020

At the ends of the earth

There is nothing better for a child than to grow up at the ends of the earth. There’s not much traffic there, so the asphalt is free for roller-skating, and parents don’t have to worry about any bad guys roaming around. What business would a bad guy have on a dead-end street?

The apartment that we’re living in when I’m first old enough to go down to the street on my own is on the third floor of an elegant old building with elegantly crumbling plaster, bay windows, enormous double doors for an entrance, and a wooden staircase, the monstrous head at the end of the banister has been worn to a shine by countless hands. Flora Strasse 2A, Flora Strasse 2A, Flora Strasse 2A. The first words I learn after mama and papa are this street name and this house number. That way if I ever get lost I can always say where I belong. Flora Strasse 2A. Squatting in the stairwell of that building, I learn how to tie my shoes. Just around the corner, on Wollank Strasse, is the bakery where I’m allowed to go shopping by myself for the first time in my life, at age four or five, when my parents send me down with a shopping bag and the magic coins that they’ve counted out to buy rolls for breakfast. The bakery has hand-carved wooden shelves and a cash register where the cashier turns a crank before she puts the money in. A bell chimes when the drawer is opened. Wollank Strasse comes to an abrupt end a few hundred meters farther down, at a wall. That’s the end of the line for bus number 50. My parents don’t have to worry about any bad guys roaming around, what business would a bad guy have on a dead-end street? In those days, they send me down to the courtyard to play by myself in the sand, a large fir tree casts its shadow on the sandbox, and when dinner is ready my mother calls down to me from the window. There’s a dance school on the second floor of our building, from the courtyard you can hear the tinkling of the piano and the voice of the teacher instructing her students in the steps.

On the other side of the wall, past what I know as the end of Wollank Strasse, the elevated train goes by. It runs to the left and to the right, but neither of those directions is open to us. One station farther to the left, but on our own side of the wall, my grandmother lives together with her husband and my great-grandmother in a two-room apartment, in one of those Berlin tenements with one courtyard after another. To reach their apartment you have to go all the way to the third courtyard back from the street. The building is actually on a corner, and if you could enter from the other side, their apartment would be at the front. But since that side has been declared a part of the border strip, the passable part of the street comes to an abrupt end just shy of the corner, at a wall. In this neighborhood, where my grandmother and great-grandmother live in their tenement, it’s always winter. When I look at the snowflakes in the greenish glow of the streetlights, I feel dizzy, coal is hauled up from the cellar, the third courtyard is paved with concrete, and the ash cans in the courtyard are always surrounded by puddles or dingy reddish snow. Baths are taken only once a week in this household, since the bathwater has to be heated in a special furnace. The only ventilation for the bathroom comes from a tiny window that can be opened with a metal rod mounted above the toilet, a rod that I believe is infinitely long. It runs the entire length of the ventilation shaft, beginning in the bathroom and continuing across the top of the pantry (which is separated off from the kitchen) until it finally reaches that tiny window, which I never actually see. In the kitchen, there’s a big, round glass jug on the floor filled with fermenting grape juice that’s supposed to turn into wine, but sometimes it turns into vinegar. 


On the sideboard I see a canning jar full of the leeches that my grandmother has to apply to herself to prevent thrombosis. When I spoon out the pear compote for dessert, I look uneasily at the leeches and the lids of the jars. My grandmother doesn’t wash the dishes under running water, she uses two bowls that she pulls out of the kitchen table like drawers. In my great-grandmother’s bedroom, where I sleep too when I spend the night, a lacquered wooden clock with golden numbers ticks throughout my entire childhood. This room, which is never heated, is also where my great-grandmother stores her pepsin wine, and she keeps her knitting inside the compartment of the unused tiled stove. In that same compartment, alongside her knitting, she also lays the pins that she removes from her hair before going to bed, undoing her bun and letting her long, gray braid fall down her back. When I look from the bedroom or the living room down to the street, which isn’t a street anymore, I can watch the soldiers on patrol, or count the elevated trains that pass, running left and right. I see the strip of sand, the fluorescent lights, the snowflakes swirling in their green light, then the barricades, the watchtowers, and the wall, behind that the train tracks, behind the train tracks the garden plots, and behind the garden plots an enormous building with many windows, perhaps it’s a school, or a barracks. On Sundays, when I come to the tenement house where my grandmother lives with her husband and her mother, it always smells like roast pork, steamed potatoes, and cauliflower; it could be the roast pork, steamed potatoes, and cauliflower that my grandmother has prepared, but it could be from the neighbors. You never know.

Shortly before I start school, we move to Leipziger Strasse 47. A boxy pair of blue-and-white high-rises, ours is twenty-three stories tall, the one next door is twenty-six; these are the first buildings to be finished along the grand socialist avenue that leads to Potsdamer Platz, at least that’s how it would be described today. But during my childhood Leipziger Strasse doesn’t lead to Potsdamer Platz, instead it comes to an abrupt end just shy of Potsdamer Platz, at the point where the wall turns a corner. That means that the West is there to the left of our building, and the West is also there farther along, where the wall turns the corner, just past the end of the line for bus number 32. I learned about that on Wollank Strasse, in the Berlin neighborhood of Pankow. But there are other things that I didn’t learn in Pankow. 

In Leipziger Strasse, when we move in, there’s just the pair of buildings where we live, a supermarket, a school, and two apartment buildings that were seriously damaged in the war, nothing else. In Pankow, I learned to ride a bike in the public park, I fed ducks in the palace gardens, I dragged my feet through the autumn leaves when we went for Sunday strolls in the Schönholzer Heide. Now there’s nothing around us but mud. My walk to school leads through the mud of the giant construction site, my walk to the supermarket leads through the mud of the giant construction site, my walk to piano lessons leads through the mud of the giant construction site. In the mud, I find a twenty-mark bill, it’s green. If I hadn’t found that bill in the mud—a miracle!—I surely would have forgotten by now what a twenty-mark bill looked like back then. Our Sunday strolls take us down the smaller streets that branch off from Friedrich Strasse to the west, since that’s the only place with asphalt where I can roller-skate, the asphalt is bright gray and smooth, and we can walk down the middle of the street, since there isn’t any traffic there. What business would a driver have on a dead-end street?

The high-rises keep growing and filling up with people, including children who become my friends in school. When my friend in the building across from ours oversleeps, we see the one dark square in the seventh row of windows, between countless little bright squares, and we call to wake her up. The construction of socialism is always tied in my mind to this construction site where I live. To the left of our building is the high-rise that houses the Springer publishing company, but that’s on the other side of the wall, as if the wall were a mirror reflecting our evil twin back to us. And farther along, near the bend in the wall, roughly across from my schoolyard, the upper half of a building can be seen, its facade displaying not only two glowing cursive letters, BZ, but also a glowing clock. Throughout all of my years in school, I read the time for my socialist life from this clock in the other world.

We live on the thirteenth floor. On the thirteenth floor, a child starts to wonder about certain things, for instance, if it would be possible to balance on the balcony railing. I decide against it, for reasons that I no longer remember, but it’s a close call. Sometimes, when I forget my key to the apartment and my mother isn’t home yet, I stand at the hallway window facing west, passing the time by counting the double-decker buses that come and go from the Springer high-rise. We don’t have double-decker buses in the East. From thirteen floors up, I have a good perspective. Depending on the time of day, the buses come every five or ten minutes. One day I set a record, I count twenty-six buses. At some point we move into a larger apartment, which means moving to the sixth floor. A high-rise that large is like a city unto itself, and changing apartments just means rolling up or down a few floors, from one space to another, hauling the furniture up or down in the elevator. Living on the sixth floor isn’t just an advantage from the standpoint of my survival, since the temptation of vertigo isn’t so strong, it’s also an advantage because when all three elevators are out of service, it doesn’t take so long to climb the stairs. Whenever I climb up or leap down the shallow steps of that stairwell with its smell of piss and dust, its walls painted a rusty red, I think of our geography teacher’s advice that in case of a nuclear attack we should take shelter in the stairwell near the banister. The nuclear attack never comes while I’m living on Leipziger Strasse, there’s only a small earthquake one night—we and many of our neighbors run down the rusty red stairwell with its smell of piss and dust, our sweaters pulled over our nightshirts, all the way down to the ground floor, where we stand outside the giant block that has spit us out, looking up at it with concern and considering the possibility that all twenty-three floors might fall on our heads, but that doesn’t happen either.

At the age of thirteen, a child starts to wonder about certain things. For instance, whether both people have to stick their tongues out when they French kiss, or just one person at a time. The ABCs of kissing are recorded on a scrap of paper that’s grown crumpled from repeated studying. My school friends and I always bring it with us when we venture into the ruins of the Deutscher Dom on the Gendarmenmarkt, where we discuss the hierarchy of kisses and test out our conclusions with a series of experiments: a kiss on the hand—respect; a kiss on the forehead—admiration; a kiss on the cheek—affection; a kiss on the mouth—love. In these ruins we always have the sky above us. In our dusty clothes we return home to our newly built apartments. As childhood gradually turns into something else, and Leipziger Strasse finally becomes a real street instead of a construction site, we move. 

My mother has seen enough of these blue-and-white boxes, we move into an old building on Reinhardt Strasse at Albrecht Strasse, diagonally across from the Deutsches Theater. Looking out the window of my childhood bedroom, I now enjoy a stunning view—across the lots that bombs left clear—of old Berlin apartment houses silhouetted against the sunset. The sun still sets in the West. At some point, Reinhardt Strasse comes to an abrupt end at a wall. A hundred meters from our house is the end of the line for bus number 78. Now that I know the ABCs of kissing by heart, a boyfriend takes me to the ruins on Museum Island. A birch tree is growing on the ground level. To get to the second floor, you have to climb the birch and then carefully cross over to the cracked marble floor. Up there, a white Venus stands in front of the burned-out windows of the gallery. There is nothing better for a child than to grow up at the ends of the earth.

—Translated from the German by Kurt Beals


Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967. Her previous books include The Old ChildThe Book of WordsVisitationThe End of Days, and Go, Went, Gone.

Kurt Beals is an associate professor in the department of Germanic languages and literatures at Washington University in St. Louis. He has previously translated books by Anja Utler, Regina Ullmann, and Reiner Stach.

From Not a Novel: A Memoir in Pieces, by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Kurt Beals. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

(Source: The Paris Review)

Wednesday 23 September 2020

A medieval mother tries distance learning

Imagine you’re a mother, living in the ninth century, and your son is handed over to your husband’s political rival for “safe keeping.” You are miles away. There are no emails. You are living in what was once Charlemagne’s great empire, now being contested by his heirs. Even though you’re an aristocrat, you’re isolated. You do want to make sure your boy is growing up good, strong, devout, and, most importantly, respectful to his royal captors, who are punishing your husband for his disloyalty. You’re afraid for your son, body and soul. Also, you want him to remember you.

And as aristocrat, you have certain privileges most other women (peasants, really) of your time do not. Having survived the rigors of childbirth, you’ll likely live longer. Your clothes are finer, your diet heartier. In some cases, you wield political power behind the scenes and, when your husband is away at war, you are the face of the operation; all are answerable to you. (If you had been a queen consort, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, you would have ruled an empire.) You have some education. You can read, but perhaps you never learned to write, which meant at the time that you weren’t truly literate. Literacy is for clerks, but you have access to those.

Your son, William, is fifteen. His younger brother—your other son—was a baby when he, too, was taken away. You don’t know him. William is older and might listen, even from a distance. What do you write to him?

Before we go any further, there is something you should keep in mind. All medieval literature is derivative. That’s not to knock medieval literature. Not in the least. Originality is overrated. We fetishize it, but mainly because we can’t admit it doesn’t really exist. In the Middle Ages, they weren’t only not trying to be original, but originality was highly suspect. If you wanted to be taken seriously, you emulated the ancients. Aristotle for philosophy, Augustine for self-flagellating autobiography. When medieval writers committed their ideas to parchment, there were tried-and-true models they could follow. Didn’t matter what it was. Poetry or Biblical commentary or chronicles or rental accounts … and the rule certainly applied to advice literature.


That is what the duchess, Dhuoda of Uzés, decided to gift her son. The Liber Manualis is a handbook of her wisdom, one that he should read, internalize, and apply to his own young life to navigate the complicated feudal politics of the age. 

Though there are other such books in this genre, Dhuoda’s stands out. First of all, it’s rare that we have a book composed by a woman in this period. I’m a medieval historian, and speaking for the weirdos in my tribe, we cherish anything of this nature we can get. Second, its abundance (some might say overabundance) of maternal touches gives us a window into Dhuoda’s turbulent, emotional existence. Despite her relatively privileged life, things weren’t easy for her. We empathize with her, even though she seems a bit smothering. Though I’m Jewish and Dhuoda was devoutly Catholic, her advice sounds, on the whole, like it came straight out of my mother’s mouth. Or my aunt’s. If they lived in a castle and had nowhere to go.

We get a picture of Dhouda’s daily life in some small details she reveals. It’s clear that she’s lonely in Uzés, without her family. 

Her only companion is a female attendant. Her feeling of isolation was probably lessened, somewhat, by having a library—she talks to her son about looking through books and trying to find the right words to write. When the pandemic hit, I was reminded not only of Dhuoda’s isolation, but of her handbook, divided in eleven parts. It served as a kind of medieval lesson plan for distance learning. It’s not completely a one-to-one comparison—most parents now are at home with their children, rather than away from them—but her story hits so many familiar beats: learning outside classrooms, general gloom and doom, and, occasionally, glimmers of hope.

What got Dhouda into this pickle? In two words: the husband. He made bad (or, rather, unlucky) choices. But she doesn’t badmouth him to William. She’s careful, diplomatic. There’s frustration, but it simmers underneath. In this sense, ninth-century gender politics are still with us in 2020. In the end, she stands by her man.

Instead of Zoom, teachers in the Middle Ages had a feather off a bird and a sheet of parchment, and when the lesson came, it plopped down in front of you as a hundred-and-twenty-page Latin manuscript. And just what was a medieval mother’s education curriculum for her son?

Well, first and foremost, there’s lots of advice about loving God, praying to God, loving priests, praying with priests, loving your dad, praying for dad, and so on. That part’s nobody’s favorite. There are sections of her book that are laughably impossible for any son to follow, no matter how saintly he might have been (and William was certainly no saint): “I urge you to be a perfect man.” There is very practical advice for William’s tricky political situation, in which the young man (under pressure) had to swear fidelity to the future king Charles the Bald: “Accommodate yourself to greater and lesser men,” she counsels. “You are far from me, and so must continually take note of that yourself.” It’s when she goes off script, and gets less formal and more personal, that things start to get interesting.

She says to him if fornication “should tickle [his] heart” that he should fight it with chastity—after all, he will be irresistible to “harlot women.” And he will have to, she yells, “fend them off!” Reading this section from our perch in the twenty-first century, it’s interesting to note how it is different from the advice given to young men today, where the focus on sexual abstinence is more imposed upon girls than boys. Dhuoda’s lesson also involved the medieval version of warning against “boys will be boys.” She told William that it wasn’t only bad women, but also his “lascivious companions” that could lead him astray. Dhuoda’s ideal was that William either keep his “body in a virgin state” or his chastity within the “bond of the marriage bed.” Though she must have known how difficult it would be for William to comply. To that end, she could only counsel, “Courage!”

Because this was a world without modern medicine, Dhuoda also had some choice advice for what William should do if he were to get sick (in short: pray). Dhuoda herself seemed to be frequently sick. And she, like so many of us in this quarantined world, was deep in debt. At the end of her little book, she tells William that she’s borrowed a lot of money, “not only from Christians but also from Jews.” (This was a world without banks.) If she should die, she asks that he should see that her debts are paid off like the good son she hopes he’ll be.

William did nothing of the sort. He eschewed all her good advice on being a good vassal to his lord and got himself killed during a rebellion against Charles seven years after receiving her book. So Dhuoda’s curriculum didn’t help William much, in the end. But maybe it helped me understand, here in 2020, with schools shuttered for the fall semester, that advice given at a great distance can only ever go so far.


Esther Liberman Cuenca is assistant professor of history at the University of Houston-Victoria. She has published in Urban History, EuropeNow, and Studies in Medievalism.

(Source: The Paris Review)