Langston Hughes, The Big Sea

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. 1940. U of Missouri P, 2001.

Summary of Work
This autobiography of Langston Hughes’s life details some of his life experiences from his early twenties into the end of his twenties and the beginning of the Great Depression. When he was a child, his parents split, and he lived with his mother for a time. He remembers having his parents try to get back together in Mexico, but that was the year of the great earthquake in Mexico City, and so his mother got scared and they went back. He was sent to live with his grandmother in Kansas and to go to school, and she was a proud woman who would never do service jobs for white people to earn a living. When she died when he was just before his teenage years, he went to go live with his Aunt. During this time his Aunt took him to a Christian church, where they were praying over people to be saved. Everyone had gone up but him, because he believed he would get to see Jesus in the flesh, and he did not want to be dishonest about coming to Jesus. Finally, filled with guilt that he is the only one who hasn’t been saved, he comes to the front at the alter, and his Aunt is overjoyed. That night, he cries over having lied. His mother remarried, and he liked the man. Hughes was elected the poet for his school (it was integrated) because people made assumptions that all black people had rhythm and could dance, so they must be able to write poetry. He wrote his first poems there. He admits that his entire life, he rarely majorly edited poetry once it was down on the page. He also admits that most of his poetry and other work was written when he was miserable or unhappy rather than when he was happy.

In his late teenage years, his biological father wrote to him that he wanted him to come down to Mexico. His mother was upset about it, but he went anyway. There, he found out that his father was considered very American because all he cared about was money, but he was wiser than other Americans that came to Mexico because he was interested in keeping and saving his money. He hated Mexicans and many black people, and all poor people. Hughes was fairly miserable his first year there, because his father was always trying to force him to hurry places, and because he had to do bookkeeping and was no good with numbers. He got so angry at his father that it made him physically ill and he couldn’t eat for weeks, which landed him in a hospital that cost his father $20 a day to keep him there. After he was feeling better, his father sent him back to the US.  But the next time he went down to stay with his father, he spent more time to learn Spanish and became better friends with the Mexicans in town. A German woman also stayed with them (she later became his father’s wife), and she made the space more pleasant. His father expressed that he wanted to send him to college somewhere in Europe and have him come back to Mexico to be an engineer, but Hughes said he wanted to be a writer and did not want to go learn things he was no good at. His father told him that writers made no money and that if he was going to pay for college, Hughes would go where he wanted him to. He would also not be allowed to leave Mexico until he agreed to his father’s wishes.

So in order to escape, Hughes started tutoring Mexican children so they could speak English. Word spread that he was good at his job, and soon he was able to raise his rates and take on as much work as he wanted. He also got offered two jobs at colleges to teach English, and he took both jobs because scheduling worked for him. While working these jobs, he is lucky to narrowly escape death because a man who the German woman’s relation was working for thought that the German girl was sleeping with Hughes, and he, enraged, came to the house, shot the girl in the head three times, and went in search of Hughes to kill him, but couldn’t find him because he wasn’t home. The girl miraculously survived, and the man was sentenced to twenty years in prison.

Hughes had made quite a bit of money, and he started thinking that he did want to go to college, but in NYC at Columbia. He and his father fought about it, but eventually his father agreed to send him there. On the train to New York City, he was mistaken as Mexican and when he said he was black, white people in the South would not serve him. He remembered the struggles of living as a black man in the US, and contemplated why it was so difficult for white people to interact with black people in the US when it was so easy for them to do so in other countries. He spent a year at Columbia, only to find he really disliked college, and so he quit and started looking for a job. But his father at that point had cut him off, his mother was looking for work and struggling, and he could not find a job that would take him, even if it were available, because he was a black man. He finally found a job working at a shipyard, and in the meantime he was having some of his poetry published by Crisis magazine. Alain Locke wanted to meet him and he had met several major figures of the New Negro movement, but he told Locke no because he was nervous and because he knew that Locke wouldn’t be able to get his way around the docks very easily and it could kill him if he weren’t careful. Before Hughes sets off to sea on his first voyage, he tosses all his books from college into the ocean, ridding himself of their weight both literally and figuratively.

Hughes set sail to Africa eventually and landed in many ports to find that the Africans did not consider him a black man because his skin was more brown than black. This astonished him, and he also saw the terrible effects of colonialization. He recalls having to watch a prostitute and a young girl coming on board in hopes of receiving money, and receiving no money but being forced to have sex with all the men on board who were interested, which was a group of about 30 men. He tired of this type of exploitation as well as the economic exploitation. As they were about to leave, he bought a red monkey, and many of the other soldiers did as well. There were adventures on the ship with those monkeys getting loose and winding up drowned or in missionaries’ beds or in the masts, but eventually all were caught. There were also many more antics and debauchery, and all the men were fired upon returning to the US. Hughes made his way to Cleveland, where his family was staying, and found himself penniless in order to make it there with the monkey, named Jocko, who he had bought for his younger brother. His mother was very upset to have it in the home, but his stepfather and brother liked it, so the monkey stayed. Then his stepfather’s mother came to town, and his mother had an ally to protest about the monkey. Then when his stepfather had the monkey out on the town one night and it got scared and destroyed the carpeting of a pool table, it cost them 25 dollars to have it replaced, and his mother was furious. Not long after Hughes left to go back to sea, she sold the monkey.

His second voyage, he got off to stay in Paris, but found himself unable to get a job because he was not a musician, dancer, or performer. He makes friends with a Russian dancer who got sick and whose company had dissolved, and who had no money. They share a cheap room, and she finds a job before he does. He finally gets a job as a doorman and then, through someone who liked his poetry, found a job as a dishwasher and then a cook. When the club he is working at goes nearly bust, they tried to fire the head cook, and he brought out a knife and threatened everyone, and they let him stay. And when they tried to fire Hughes, he threatened them again, so he got a job as a waiter. During his time there, he saw many fights and other antics. The Russian lady got a job at La Havre, and she leaves him, very sad. He then falls in love with a girl named Mary, who is very well-to-do. But when her father finds out what she’s been doing, first she is very chaperoned, and then she is forced to leave. Soon after that, he spends some time with Alain Locke, who is in town, and then when one day he is waiting on a famous poet, he shares his work. The poet “discovers” Hughes, and then he became wildly popular and many people came to the club looking to get a photo with the poet. He has more poems published but is never paid for them.

When the club had to close down for refurbishment and because of lack of business, he goes with some Italians to see Italy. He has enough money to enjoy his time, and Locke is also there and takes him to Venice and they enjoy their time. However, while in Genoa, he has his passport and all his money stolen, and the US embassy and consulate refuse to help him, so he lives homeless and in poverty, unable to get a job that will pay him enough to either get back to France or to find safe passage to America. He finally gets passage as a workman on a ship bound for NYC, and he is nearly kicked off in Spain for being late back to the ship, but he makes it back to the US with a quarter more than he had in France when he first landed. He makes his way to Washington, where his relatives are, and they want him to work in the Library of Congress, but it has too many needed qualifications and Hughes needed work, so he started working doing wet wash laundry for twelve dollars a week. His mother and the relatives had a dispute, and so he found them different accommodations, and they struggled to make ends meet. Carl Van Vechten contacted him and helped him publish a book of poetry at this point, but the elitist community would not welcome him or his mother because they were poor.

He makes his way back to Harlem in hopes of going to college, but he can’t get a scholarship. He talks of meeting Van Vechten and Jean Toomer, who could pass as white and refused to be labeled a “Negro Artist” much to critics’ dismay. He also met Zora Neale Hurston, who he had a good relationship for years until a dispute over a co-writing project. He speaks of Vechten and his parties, the decadence of the Harlem Renaissance and how the area was a victim of its own image. Hughes finally makes a bit of money off of some poetry, works as a personal assistant for a time, gets patronage to go to college at Lincoln, and visits and explores the South and takes a short voyage to Cuba and Jamaica, which he liked very much and would have kept doing if he hadn’t had to go back to college. During his final college years, he wrote a survey of the issues of the color line at Lincoln college, where all white professors taught a nearly all black student body. The founder of the college came up to him at graduation to tell him that as time passed, he would see that there was no way for him to do what he did in founding the school unless he could have had white patronage and made concessions. Hughes disagreed with him.

Around this time, he also received patronage to write and finish his novel Not Without Laughter, which he wishes would have been better because it is about the best of his family members. He receives a major literary award for it. He tries to write other things, but the white patron dislikes his work, and finally they part ways, and it makes him sick like he was with his father. He remembers all the decadence and security he experienced and remembers seeing the other people in the street starving because of the depression, and he remembers the disgust the white chauffeur had over being forced to drive a black man places. He went to the doctor to see what was wrong and spent a lot of money doing it, was told first he had a Japanese tape worm, and then told by a white doctor that he had no such thing. Then he got tonsillitis and had to have them out, using up the last of his money from the Park Street patron. After that, he immediately got better from his illness brought on by anger over the patron. It is during this time that he had his dispute with Hurston over the play they had been working on, and while it had been in production, it had to be shut down over the dispute. After that he went to Haiti and decided that he would make money writing for a living, and at the time of writing the autobiography, that is what he had done successfully.

Discussion of Work
This book gives an adventurous story about Langston Hughes’s life during his twenties. Its major dealings in terms of themes that cut across works of African American writing are the color line, economic oppression and poverty, travel narratives, and artistry, particularly writing and music. Hughes regularly comments on the struggles of being a black man, particularly when it comes to finding housing or a job. While he knows that other races are discriminated against, he knows they also have an easier time finding work, which makes all the difference. And he struggles with the knowledge that many of the black elite are not interested in changing the situation because they feel that there can be no progress unless they tell the white people what they want to hear. He states that while the Harlem Renaissance was happening, the majority of the black communities in America felt nothing change in their situation or economic or social standings. Economics and travel go hand-in-hand for Hughes, who travels in order to get money, which he can never keep as he comes back to the US, or even as he simply travels from one country to another. Job opportunities do not change, and while he doesn’t experience the same type of color prejudice, he does experience it in that the natives of the countries he visits dislike him for being a threat to their jobs.

Artistry is the other large portion of this narrative. He shows several of his poems and discusses when he wrote them and why. Much of his work was strongly influenced by blues songs and structures, which can be seen throughout much of his poetry with the AAB writing format, just as many blues lyrics are written. He also talks about how dance and music were a rich part of many black people’s lives, specifically citing the many rent parties and house parties he went to, some of which were certainly to help pay people’s rent, but others which were just hosted to be hosted. He provides several examples of printed up tickets for these events. He states that these parties were the spaces where he liked to be because black artistry was not put on display for racist white audiences. His understanding of what it is to be a black man or a black person in general is changed and given more value in an all-black space.

However, he also discusses the problems that come with the assumptions that all black people have rhythm and can dance and sing: he could not dance or sing, and those were almost the only jobs available to him in Europe and even in the US. The stereotype led to success for some, but not for long for many: once they were injured or could no longer work or could not work the grueling schedules or create enough new material, they often died in poverty. It ultimately narrowed black people’s options and avenues for success, even as it provided a rich culture and outlet for many. In discussion of his own work, he also talks about how a narrow view of what black artists should create doomed his work Fine Clothes to the Jew because critics and general public readers alike felt that the dialect and blues structures should not be used in his art: white people saw enough of that elsewhere, and writing was supposed to highlight the best to show people that black artists were capable of high art. The strict rules placed upon what a black artist could write or create further limited what people read, and who could be successful in the field of art.

Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Diaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. 2007. Riverhead Books, 2008.

Summary of Work
Yunior, the late boyfriend of Lola de León, narrates the story of Lola’s brother Oscar, who is the victim of what Yunior calls a fukú, a curse of death or destruction in the New World. He states that the whole curse is connected directly with the Trujillo regime, particularly Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina. The only way to ward of the curse is to create a zafa, and Yunior, believing the curse has passed to him, wants his storytelling to be his zafa.

When Oscar was little, his family lived in new Jersey, and they were very proud of their beautiful son. He had two girlfriends, a true Dominican boy, but soon the threesome falls apart. From then on, Oscar cannot get a girlfriend, and he descends into eating and becomes morbidly obese. He has two friends, but even they leave him out when they get girlfriends. Despite his sister Lola and his Uncle Rudolfo trying to get him to lose more weight and participate in masculine activities so he can get a girlfriend, Oscar decides to focus on science fiction and writing, and he goes to Santo Domingo to be with his Nena Inca for a time.

When he gets home from his visit, he meets Ana Obregón, a smart girl in his SAT prep class. He immediately falls in love, but they never date. They grow to be good friends, but when her boyfriend Manny gets back from the Army, their relationship ends. Oscar gets into Rutgers, and he hopes that he will be able to turn his life around when he is in college. However, he quickly finds out that since he didn’t change anything about himself, life is still miserable and he is still a loser.

The story then turns to Lola’s past, and she narrates. Lola always felt controlled by her mother and then always made a point to find ways to be defiant, but after her mother Belicia is diagnosed with cancer, Lola feels powerless. To regain a feeling of power, she cuts off her hair and she runs away to be with her boyfriend Aldo, and she loses her virginity to him. She finds that living with Aldo and his father is not any better than her previous situation, and when she calls Oscar to meet with him, he brings the entire family. She is caught, and she is forced to go to Santo Domingo and live with La Inca. There, she is able to feel free and happy after awhile, and she joins the high school track team and starts dating someone. She also gets to learn about her family’s past, and this helps her to find some relief from the bruja feeling that she regularly encounters.

Yunior discusses the history of the de León family, starting with Belicia. La Inca took Beli in after having lived a terrible life with an adoptive family. La Inca strives to give her a better life than what she had experienced as a child, and sends her to a private school. Her behavior causes all the children to be afraid of her, and Beli makes no friends. However, when she becomes a teenager, she starts to develop a body that men go crazy for. She decides that she will use this as a way to attract attention from her crush Jack Pujols, and they have sex in a broom closet and get caught. It comes out that Pujols is already engaged to a girl from a wealthy family, and Beli is crushed when Pujols is sent to the army. Pujols was also closely connected to the Trujillo regime, placing her in a dangerous spot even if she didn’t realize it.

After that affair, she refuses to go to school and she gets a job as a waitress at a Chinese restaurant. Beli has a couple of men interested in her at that time, but she doesn’t get involved with either of them. Then, out dancing one night, Beli meets the Gangster, another person with direct contact to Trujillo and influence in his regime. She falls in love with him and becomes pregnant, but because the Gangster is married to Trujillo’s sister and Beli is only the mistress, the pregnancy causes his wife to take revenge by beating her near to death and causing a miscarriage. Nearly dead in the cane field she was beaten in, Beli sees a Mongoose with lion’s eyes and it leads her out to the road. When she gets well enough to travel, La Inca sends her to New York City, knowing that if Beli stays, she will most likely be killed by the Trujillos. On the airplane, she meets the man who will be the father of her children.

While at Rutgers, Oscar has tried to commit suicide, and Lola ask Yunior to look after him while at college, and he shares a dorm room with him. At first he has little interest in Oscar because he is far too busy with dating multiple women, but when his girlfriend dumps him over infidelity, he puts a lot of effort into helping Oscar. At first Oscar tries to work out and do what Yunior suggests so he can get fit and get a girlfriend, but because he is constantly made fun of, he quits. Yunior is angry and leaves Oscar alone. But then Oscar falls inlove with a Puerto Rican girl, and they start spending a lot of time together. But when she finds a boyfriend, she stops spending time with her. Oscar gets so angry that he rips things off her walls and yells at her for leaving him, and then he tries to commit suicide again by jumping off a bridge onto the freeway. However, he is saved by the same Golden Mongoose that his mother saw, and he hits the median of the road rather than the road itself. The next year, Yunior leaves, but after he starts dating Lola, he moves back in with Oscar for the Spring semester. Lola left Santo Domingo and in her pain over having to leave, broke contact with her boyfriend and all friends, slept with an older man for $2000, and then when her boyfriend died in an accident, gave the money to his family before she left.

Yunior then tells the story of Abelard Luis Cabral, Belicia’s father. He was a successful doctor, and he had two daughters with his wife. They are rich and socialize with the Trujillos. But when his oldest daughter Jacquelyn hits puberty and becomes a beautiful woman, Abelard worries that Trujillo will want to sleep with her, as he had done that with many other girls from prominent families. He decides they will stop going to parties and social occasions, at least leaving Jacquelyn behind. His wife, his mistress, and his friend all give their opinions, but he doesn’t act on them. Then, when Trujillo asks Abelard to bring Jacquelyn to a party and Abelard outright disobeys the order, Trujillo has Abelard arrested for speaking ill of him. Abelard is sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison, and it is there that he finds out that his wife is pregnant with another daughter. When Beli is born, her mother dies in an accident and she is adopted by her mother’s relatives, only to then be sent to be a slave to another family. Her two other sisters die mysteriously, and her father dies in prison. La Inca, Abelard’s sister, finds Beli living in a chicken coop with a horrible burn on her back, given to her when she disobeyed an order.

All of the de León family goes to visit La Inca in La Capital, and Oscar loves it. He stays a month longer than the rest of his family, and he falls in love with a prostitute. He is good friends with her but never gets to have sex with her, just like all his other relationships. Ybón, the prostitute, has a boyfriend, the head of the police force. When he gets pulled over with Ybón drunk in the car one night, Ybón kisses him in front of her boyfriend; he takes Oscar to a cane field and nearly beats him to death. When Oscar is healing, Ybón, who had been beaten as well, tells him that she will be marrying the Captain, and Beli books a flight for Oscar so he can get out of Santo Domingo. However, when Oscar gets back, he borrows money from Yunior and flies back to the Dominican Republic. He spends another month pursuing Ybón, and he also does research about his family and the Trujillos and writes a book about it. he sends the manuscript off before he is murdered in a cane field by the Captain’s men.

Yunior and Lola break up after Oscar dies, and within a year Beli also dies of cancer. Nearly a year after Oscar’s death, Lola receives a package. It contains a manuscript and a letter: the manuscript is a space opera, and the letter tells Lola that she should expect another manuscript in the mail that will detail how to rid the family of the fukú that forever haunts them. However, the package never arrives in the mail. For Yunior, the only bright note in the end of Oscar’s long and sad life is that he eventually sleeps with Ybón and finally gets the romantic relationship he always wanted before he died.

Brief Note on Themes
This work is a diasporic novel and a work of magical realism. Díaz mixes US pop culture with Latin American pop culture, creating a world that is mixed culturally and through genre: things that might happen only in the world of fiction and pop culture, such as the mongoose episodes, make their way into reality, blurring the line between reality and the mystical, a perfect example of magical realism. Díaz also explicitly references works such as Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is a work of magical realism. The characters in Díaz’s novel also parallel those in Márquez’s novel, with the children not being able to break free from the curses of the parents. Storytelling to rebuild the past plays a large part of the magical realism, as Yunior makes up events that he does not have information for. It also allows for a larger discussion of the terror of the Trujillo regime during its years of power in the Dominican Republic.

Human sexuality, particularly sexual roles in Dominican culture, runs throughout the book. Dominican men are supposed to be hypermasculine, sleeping with many women and being unfaithful to their wives, always having a mistress or another woman to run after. Trujillo, in a place of power, becomes the most virile Dominican man, sleeping with the most beautiful women in the country whenever he wants to. Women are then characterized as objects of sexual desire, but their sexuality is also a freeing power for them, as when they use their sexuality to defy the societal expectation and standard, they gain freedom and agency. Similarly, love and family life play a large part of this story: love for people seems to bring about the violence of the curse, and the two seem to regularly work against each other, although it might also be argued that it is the combination of the two things that leads to a zafa to ward off the family curse by the end of the novel.

The novel itself, representing diaspora, shows the embodiment of immigration: Belicia is the first generation, Beli doubly so because she is first placed in a school where she doesn’t fit in with the culture, and then again when she moves to New York City and must remake herself again. She is outside of her home country, and has escaped from death, and yet has lost a space to belong. Similarly, Oscar is an outsider because he does not fit cultural standards from either culture he belongs to, US or Dominican culture. He stands in a liminal space between cultures and also stands as an intermediary between family members, and he regularly fails at achieving any success in either sphere. Lola experiences similar troubles, especially as she is torn from the US, only to not long later be torn from the Dominican Republic, where she feels much more at home, back to the US, where she feels less connected to an identity or culture.

Amy Tan, “Two Kinds”

Tan, Amy. “Two Kinds.” 40 Short Stories: A Portable Anthology, Third Edition. Ed.

Beverly Lawn. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009.

 

Summary of Work
Jing-Mei Woo introduces her mother as a woman who believes that people can be anything they want in America, that it is a land of opportunity and fresh starts. Her mother came to America after losing everything in China, her husband and children. She works as a maid in the US, and regularly brings home magazines containing information and stories about people’s genius children. She tests her daughter regularly for genius, starting by trying to make her Shirley Temple (ending with a terrible haircut that has to be cut off in a male, Peter Pan style, to save it) and ending with determining her daughter will learn to be a piano prodigy. By that time, Jing-Mei hates her mother and what she is putting her through, wondering why she won’t just let her be herself, ordinary. Her mother trades cleaning for piano lessons with the deaf Chinese man down the hall. When Jing-Mei learns he is deaf, she decides not to worry about making mistakes as long as she keeps with the rhythm. Since she practices over at the deaf man’s house for two hours a day, no one hears her making the mistakes.

Then, she hears her mother talking to a neighbor about how good of a piano player she is, and she decides to end that idea once and for all. When her parents put her in a talent show (by this time, they’ve saved up enough money to buy her a secondhand piano), she determines that even though the piece they’ve chosen for her, Pleading Child, is not hard, she will not work to memorize it or practice very hard. At the performance, she starts out beautifully, but then doesn’t know the right notes because of her lack of discipline and practice, and she humiliates herself and her parents. The only person in the crowd clapping is her deaf teacher. Her parents make her stay the whole talent show and talk to people afterward. A young chess prodigy who is her neighbor tells her she is not a genius, further humiliating her. She determines that this performance was the end of it, and she’ll never have to play piano again.

However, the next day, when four o’clock rolls around, her mother insists that she practice, dragging her over to the piano. She says she doesn’t want to play, and her mother tells her that she must because there are only two types of children, those who are obedient and those who follow their own path, and the only type of child in her home is obedient. Jing-Mei says that she wishes she weren’t her mother, and when that doesn’t get under her mother’s skin, she says she wishes she were never born or dead just like the rest of her family. This breaks her mother’s heart, and she never insists her daughter play piano again. Years later, she doesn’t get As in school, then doesn’t get into an ivy league college, and then drops out of college. Her mother never talks to her about the piano. Then, when Jing-Mei is in her thirties, her mother offers her the piano. Jing-Mei finds this to be some sort of offering of forgiveness. She never takes the piano, but does admire it. She tells her mother that she’s not sure she could even play it, and her mother says she’s sure she could, but the issue is the same: Jing-Mei never tried. When her mother dies, and she starts cleaning up her mother’s things for her father, she has the piano tuned and refurbished. Then she sits down and pulls out the old sheet music, and she finds herself playing pieces of the song she played so poorly as a child. Then she sees another song on the other half of the sheet music, and plays it, and she realizes that just as her mother said, they were two halves, two kinds.

Brief Note on Themes
Family relations, individual identity, and cultural expectations are the main themes running throughout this work. The mother-daughter relationship particularly highlights cultural expectations: while they are in America, the mother still holds the same social expectations for how the household will be run and how her child will act and behave. Jing-Mei is caught between two worlds as the daughter of an immigrant; she has her family’s culture and expectations, but she is also dealing with American cultural expectations. Her mother also holds some of those expectations in her version of the American Dream, thinking her daughter will be famous if she just works hard enough.

The story is a form of Bildungsroman, with the daughter not really fully coming to her own identity or of age until she can accept the gift of the piano and learn what her mother really wanted of her: for her to try to get better at something rather than simply accept a life without making an effort to better oneself. There is also a sense of cultural understanding and individual communication that happens in the final scene, where cultural barriers are broken down and Jing-Mei can really identify with her mother for the first time.