Thursday, September 15, 2011

Review of Love Does Not Make Gentle or Kind -- Chavisa Woods


Love Does Not Make Me Gentle or Kind
Chavisa Woods

The images and stories in Chavisa Woods’s fiction are as grotesque as they are beautiful. She doesn’t turn her head from the most difficult of stories. The result is a collection of fiction that pays as much respect to its subjects as it does to the English language. Love isn’t easy in these stories – it’s often confused, coupled with tragedy, and sometimes a horror of an experience – but the characters continue on. The characters have their wheels spinning in place, but no matter the pain, there’s still the hope of something else, even if that something else is distraction. 

Woods’s stories are addicting and sensuous.  When the reader falls into the sticky trap of their images, they will find themselves startled and conflicted along with the characters. The narrators are hard to differentiate, and it’s this blurring of perspective that makes the stories in the collection so intimate. The stories touch not only on the violence that seems coupled with poverty, but it takes on the patriarchy and racism, among other –isms. The story’s politics are as woven into the fold as the lyricism that punctuates them, and the result is work that challenges the reader.

The stories’ structures vibrate along with the plot’s events and mimic their peaks and dips. The story “Years of Spring” finds a speaker who is lost in her head, lost in the midst of neglect. And so, the events of incest, sisters clinging to one another, are not portrayed as a form of escape – tunneling inside one another – but of fantasy. The stories are able to portray the truest effects of abuse, heartache, and violence: the crippling isolation, the echo-like dullness of a world seem made for other people. These effects are reflected in the actual structures of the stories. In the story, “The Smallest of Actions,” a father smashes a lap over his daughter’s head and the story itself then busts apart: the language and the order of events reflect this fissure, this explosion of violence. This attention to writing makes Woods an exciting writer to watch. The stories are layered and chiseled into pieces with many layers. The universes of these stories is complete, all of its parts working to churn out work that resonates.

The lines between fantasy and reality are blurred so that the speakers are sometimes hard to distinguish: the tragedies and stories are woven through the darkness and through the chiseled prose. Woods plays with the idea of fantasy in the story “Sundown in the Land of Lincoln.” Here, a black boy is introduced to an all-white classroom. Of course, he is taunted and beat up. Of course, there are classmates who are brave despite their fear and take him in, befriend him. The piece of the story that reaches past convention is the piece that results in the boy disappearing. Here, Woods plays not only with fantasy, but with the way race is dealt with. Woods frames the piece with the narrator’s relatives’ definitions of the color black, and what ties this story’s elements together is that each definition revolves around the idea of absence.  Can race be dealt with if it is eliminated? Woods is able to tackle a familiar subject by twisting its parts, using fantasy as her tool of choice.

Women are given their chance to shine in this collection of stories, but the acts of revenge are often bittersweet and as tragic as the abuses they have suffered at the hands of lovers, fathers, and others. “Mr. Bunny” has a man raping his love because she was too open about her sexuality. The resulting revenge of this woman is not satisfying or righteous. The results are mind-numbing, and the reader and female protagonist both seem to walk straight into fantasy instead of glee or freedom. This book’s characters are poor and isolated and the violence only further pushes them to the margins, to the outside. Tackling such abuses and injustices is no easy feat, but it’s Woods’s keen descriptions and use of fantasy that make the stories work.

Woods opens the collection with “The Smell of Honey,” a story that revolves around a girl hacking away at the honey around the house in an effort to get rid of the sweet smell. The smell is linked to her sexuality and childhood, to the way she feels dirty by her sexuality and the loss of her childhood. Woods writes how, “The vines went flying. All her life went flying with them. Her virginity flew with a sharp snap against the kitchen window and fell into the dirt where she hacked it unrecognizable.” And yet, no matter what this girl does, she can not rid herself of the sweet smell. Not even the death of her abusive father can rid her of the smell. In fact, the death of the father results in the death of the last shards of innocence the child had left. She can’t get rid of the honey anymore than she can get rid of the past.

The only criticism that could be said about the collection is that they are knee-deep in the mud of tragedy. However, such a criticism would seem cheap, as if the world’s sadnesses shouldn’t or can not be written about. Woods is able to respect her subject matter and is able to grapple with difficult subject matter. The balance needed to write about tragedy is a difficult one to meet, and this writer is more than up for the challenge.  Woods doesn’t pity the women in this book, and she doesn’t make them powerless. Instead, the women do the best they can in a world stacked against them. The tragedies echo well past the page, much like “a black flower blooming in [the] mind.” People die, people hurt one another, and family knows best where the softest parts of our skulls and shells exist. These stories are not for the faint of heart. Chavisa Woods’s stories show us that love may not make people gentle or kind, but it continues just the same


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