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Katharine Sherrer

Katharine Sherrer has 4 articles published.

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In another life, Katharine Sherrer spent her days weaving, reading, and traversing moors covered with wildflowers. In this life, she is a junior literature major with a minor in history at Goucher College. Her pop-culture interests span across genres and demographics. She reads classics and contemporaries; memoir; criticism; young adult sci-fi/fantasy; queer, postcolonial, and feminist theory.

Book Review: The Odyssey, Translated by Emily Wilson

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Picture source: kensandersbooks.com

I read The Odyssey my sophomore year of high school, and the beautifully antiquated English and repetitive, ornamented epithets of the “wine-dark” sea and “rosy-fingered” dawn were not enough to entice me towards forming a personal connection with the text. Instead, I viewed the androcentric narrative of a man’s journey home after plunder and conquest as yet another ‘universal’ story that excluded, essentialized, and violated women. Call me naive, indeed I was; yet, it should come as no surprise to those well-versed or even peripherally familiar with classical studies that the boys’ club mentality of the discipline has a fraught history with welcoming female scholars to its elite ranks. In 2018, Emily Wilson became the first woman to publish an English translation of The Odyssey. Wilson’s introduction moves nimbly between the ancient world and the modern one. She presents a convincing argument for rendering an ancient text using frank, modern English. In effect, Wilson has authored a translation student readers will find accessible, casual readers enjoyable, and hopefully academic readers ideal for teaching and worthy of scholarly acclaim.

In her introduction to the translation, Wilson begins by defining an epic poem. According to Wilson, The Odyssey is an epic “in the sense that it is long, and in the sense that it presents itself as telling an important story.” On the one hand, The Odyssey’s elevated style, the regular poetic rhythm of dactylic hexameter (in Wilson’s translation iambic pentameter) and use of an assortment of formalistic language unassociated with the common dialects of ancient Greek peoples during any single time period, place the text in an elevated realm. On the other hand, Wilson notes how Odysseus’ story deviates from what modern readers may expect of an epic narrative in that there is no individual moment of climactic victory. Unlike “Jason claiming the Golden Fleece, Lancelot glimpsing the Holy Grail,” or modern examples such as Harry defeating Voldemort: “In The Odyssey, we find instead the story of a man whose grand adventure is simply to go back to his own home … For this hero, mere survival is the most amazing feat of all.” A central tenet of Wilson’s introduction is that Odysseus’ story is fundamentally tied to its roots in antiquity; yet, The Odyssey’s themes—of migration, ambiguous morality, homelessness and hospitality, fidelity and infidelity, deity worship, and the aftermath of violence and war—continue to carry profound relevance in the canon of Western literature, as in our contemporary world.

Wilson summarizes the contentious debate over the date of The Odyssey’s conception and the text’s authorship. The closest scholars have come to establishing consensus on the composition date of The Odyssey is sometime between the late seventh and late eighth centuries BCE. Long before the poem was transcribed, diverse versions and sections from the work were performed by bards as a form of entertainment for the elite families of ancient Greece. The poem’s origins in the oral tradition establish an additional level of complexity regarding the composition date and authorship of The Odyssey. Even if there existed a single author and scribe with an independent vision, the story of Odysseus predates The Odyssey as a written text.

The debate centering around The Odyssey’s authorship has therefore been similarly argumentative. In the nineteenth century, for example, Homeric scholarship was divided between the Unitarian and Analytic schools. The Unitarians believed that the poem was “not an aggregate of earlier, shorter compositions, but … composed by a lone author with a single overarching structure in mind.” Whereas, “[t]he Analysts, by contrast, argued that the epics [The Odyssey and The Iliad] were produced by many different hands.” Although it may be tempting to imagine Homer, “the poet,” as a single individual—most likely a man—Wilson invites readers to “question the notion that a unified structure and coherent creative product must necessarily be seen as the result of an individual’s work.” Modern readers familiar with the various forms of storytelling born as a result of advancements in technology may be more adept at viewing Homer’s text “as a mostly unified whole … which was created by multiple different people, over a long period of time.”

Migration, plunder, conquest, nationality, colonialism, and physical and racial Othering, are all recurring themes of The Odyssey. Wilson walks a careful line between using modern theoretical work in her introduction, while not utilizing terminology that evokes anachronistic interpretation in her translation. For example, while many modern translators have used the word “savage” to describe the cyclops, Wilson avoids the application of terms that carry connotations associated with British colonial history. Such terminology may cause readers to incorrectly map European colonialist practices on to those of ancient Greek peoples. In contrast to modern fears regarding migration, hospitality—albeit among elite, adult men—is a core motif of The Odyssey. Hospitality and the fair, honest treatment of strangers, or “guest-friends,” signifies for Odysseus whether or not an individual or a community is civilized. Wilson writes, “The word … xenos can mean both ‘stranger’ and ‘friend’; it is the root from which we get the English word ‘xenophobia’, the fear of strangers or foreigners, as well as the sadly less common ‘xenophilia’, the love of strangers or of unknown objects.”

The roles of women and the navigation of gender dynamics in The Odyssey are likewise rigorously addressed in Wilson’s introduction and translator’s note. Wilson discusses the text’s strong emphasis on female sexual fidelity. Although Odysseus has multiple affairs during his absence, the narrative rewards Penelope for remaining sexually chaste. Penelope’s fidelity to her husband, her role as the loyal partner, is paralleled with Agamemnon’s wife’s betrayal which results in the war hero’s tragic death. In regard to translation, Wilson does not use language that eroticizes the murdered slave women’s bodies at the text’s obscene conclusion: “in the scene where Telemachus oversees the hanging of the slaves who have been sleeping with the suitors, most translations introduce derogatory language (‘sluts’ or ‘whores’), suggesting that these women are being punished for a genuinely objectionable pattern of behavior, as if their sexual history actually justified their deaths. The original Greek does not label these slaves with any derogatory language.” Furthermore, Wilson refrains from presenting female beauty as a catalyst of male conflict, as in Christopher Marlowe’s famous words on Helen’s face: “the face that launched a thousand ships.” Directly translated, Helen’s face is described as “dog-like” and Wilson employs the verb “hounded” to describe the role of Helen’s objectified body during the Trojan War. Wilson emphasizes the patriarchal imaginary of The Odyssey, rather than attributing male actions to an essentialized aspect of women’s sexuality.

Wilson’s contemporary English translation flows effortlessly. Unlike many modern translators, Wilson engages poetic structure. She uses (unrhymed) iambic pentameter (five metrical feet, unstressed/stressed) the most common meter in regular English verse found in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton. Moreover, Wilson states, “Homer’s language is markedly rhythmical, but it is not difficult or ostentatious … My translation is, I hope, recognizable as an epic poem, but it is one that avoids trumpeting its own status with bright, noisy linguistic fireworks, in order to invite a more thoughtful consideration of what the narrative means, and the ways it matters.” Linguistic flourishes may have a pseudo-scholarly effect; but in reality, our grandparents’ English, or the English of their parents, is no closer to the ancient Greek than our modern tongue.

The Odyssey is a story that encompasses many themes modern readers will find familiar: “loyalty, famil[y], migrant[ion], consumerism, violence, war, poverty, identity, rhetoric, and lies.” However, this ancient text displays foreign characteristics as well: Gods move among men, and men move between the worlds of the living and the dead; sea monsters, sirens, and cyclopes inhabit the earth; nymphs live autonomously on islands, although mortal women are confined to their marital homes; and cunning Odysseus, who has survived against unimaginable odds, is trying to return home. At the conclusion of Wilson’s translator’s note, she invites her readers to imagine Odysseus’ story as one would a traveler, inviting him in with all the “warmth, curiosity, openness, and suspicion” that hospitality entails. Odysseus is a military leader, migrant, mass murderer, husband, and father. Above all, as the first lines of Wilson’s poem indicate, he is no ordinary hero: “Tell me about a complicated man / Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost.”

Emily Wilson is a professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her translation of The Odyssey has received widespread critical praise.

 

Book Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

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In the fictional Mississippi town of Bois Sauvage, Jojo assists his grandfather to slaughter a goat. It’s Jojo’s thirteenth birthday, and he narrates for the reader: “I want Pop to know I can get bloody.” Yet, when Pop makes a slit through the goat’s stomach, exposing the animal’s innards, Jojo finds he has trouble concentrating. The goat’s meat will contribute to a special meal for Jojo’s birthday. He recognizes the goat’s death—unpleasant as it may be—constitutes an act of nurturance as he follows Pop into the house: “[a] trail of tender organ blood … that signals love” dripping in his grandfather’s wake. Jesmyn Ward’s novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, is full of moments like this one— moments that weave the bitter in with the sweet. On the surface, Ward’s fifth book is about a Southern family’s experiences of coming-of-age, addiction, terminal illness, and incarceration. As the narrative unfolds, Ward reveals Sing, Unburied, Sing to be a series of unflinching character studies, reflecting how the legacy of slavery still haunts Americans to this day.

The bulk of the novel is narrated by Jojo and his mother Leonie, the two taking turns back and forth, chapter by chapter. Leonie is in a tumultuous relationship with the father of her children, Michael, a white man who is serving time in the notorious state penitentiary, Parchman. Leonie works shifts at a local bar and gets high with her friend Misty. When she’s on meth, Leonie believes she can see the phantom of her dead brother. Her brother, Given, was killed years ago. He was shot by a cousin of Michael’s in an act of violence. The sheriff, Michael’s father, claimed it was a hunting accident. Michael’s sentence is almost up, and Leonie, Jojo, his three-year-old sister, Kayla, and Misty—whose boyfriend is also in the prison—take a trip up north to Parchman to bring Michael home. Thus, the central journey of the novel takes shape: a road-trip to Parchman penitentiary.

Leonie’s father, River (or Pop), served time in Parchman in the late 1940s. There is a story River tells Jojo, about a boy named Richie, whom he knew in Parchman, that River can never bring himself to finish. The ghosts of lingering souls find earthly forms in Ward’s novel, and Parchman, too, appears as a kind of specter: a prison with a history of being a labor camp, housing primarily black men through the 20th-century, in which death was often the result of a sentence. River describes for Jojo how the land up north, where Parchman is located, is distinct: “…fields stretching on, the trees too short with not enough leaves, no good shade nowhere, and everything bending low under the weight of that sun: men, women, mules, everything low under God.” On a phone call with Leonie, Michael says of Parchman: “This a place for the dead.” Parchman appears suspended in time, a physical reminder of the legacy of American racial violence— a timeless, open wound.

Over the course of Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward illustrates scenes of healing and sickness in gorgeous prose. Leonie’s mother, Philomène, is sick with cancer. Philomène was a healer in her youth. She tells Leonie that her mother’s midwife taught her all she knows of restorative herbs and plants. On the road, Kayla gets sick in the car, and Leonie searches for tincture ingredients in the woods surrounding a dilapidated gas station. She recalls what Philomène once told her: “…if [you] look carefully enough, [you] can find what [you] need in the world.” Leonie is skeptical: “Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds.” Ward writes with compassion about Leonie’s cynicism, her poor parenting choices, and her drug abuse, but never in a way that neglects honesty. The brilliance of Sing, Unburied, Sing is made tangible in the subtle, emotionally driven interactions between family members.

Ward’s latest novel is an ode to the lingering effects of historical trauma. The ghosts of America’s fraught and recent past materialize amidst the characters of the present. Moments of heartbreak occur most vividly in instances when the characters are unable or unwilling to care for one another. It is the absence of physical gestures of love, rather than acts of violence, which render Leonie’s and Michael’s connections to their children so challenging to witness. Yet, just as River cares for Jojo, Jojo cares for Kayla— and his care is ceaselessly tender. Leonie observes of her children: “…they turn to each other like plants following the sun across the sky. They are each other’s light.”

Sing Unburied Sing is an unconventional road-trip novel, a ghost story, and a stark, lyrical depiction of the rural South. Most memorably, Ward’s novel is a masterfully crafted representation of how America’s past continues to inform the present.

Sing Unburied Sing was the 2017 winner of the National Book Award, a finalist for the Kirkus Prize, Andrew Carnegie Medal, Aspen Words Literary Prize, and a New York Times bestseller. Jesmyn Ward is the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She teaches English at Tulane University.

Book Review: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

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Picture source: https://www.amazon.com/Exit-West-Novel-Mohsin-Hamid/dp/0735212171

“In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.” With these words, Mohsin Hamid opens his fourth novel. Exit West is a short, elegant book which proves to be a timely commentary on the nature of migration. The main characters, Nadia and Saeed, must leave their war-torn country. The method with which they choose to proceed is through a magical doorway. Such doorways have emerged all over the globe, opening the floodgates of sovereign nations. Through these thresholds of mystical transference, Hamid emphasizes not the act of travel itself, but rather the complexities and fluidity of what it means to be a foreigner or a native, and in doing so troubles the assumed stability of these categories.

Exit West begins in an unnamed, Middle Eastern country where Saeed and Nadia, students at a local university, meet in a class on corporate identity and product branding. Nadia wears a long, black robe that covers her body like a sheath. However, she steadily informs Saeed that she does not pray. Saeed is taken with Nadia at once, and the two begin to develop a friendship. Nadia later tells Saeed that she wears her conservative garments “so men don’t fuck with me.” Nadia is independent and lives alone, a rare choice for unmarried women in her country. Not long before meeting Saeed, she informed her family that she planned to move out. Her abrupt decision caused the family to sever ties with her. In this way, Nadia’s parents and sister are established as elusive entities. Indeed, as the civil war begins to tear at the seams of her country, neither the reader nor Nadia will have closure as to the fate of her family.

Unlike Nadia, Saeed lives with his parents, as is common for unmarried men in his country. His mother was a schoolteacher, and his father continues to be a professor at a nearby university. Saeed’s parents are affectionate and gentle. These qualities are likewise reflected in their son. As the friendship between Nadia and Saeed becomes a courtship, the two confront the rapid decline of their country into a permanent state of warfare. The rebel militias are establishing strongholds in pockets of the city, and the government is finding it increasingly challenging to pacify aggrieved citizens. Gradually, the city becomes a haggard jigsaw puzzle of divided territories.

At first, it is not the centers of such newly established territories that prove dangerous, but rather the checkpoints dividing them. Over time, however, the rebel militants begin to infiltrate the lives of those close to Nadia and Saeed. War is an “intimate experience, combatants pressed close together, front lines defined at the level of the street one took to work, the school one’s sister attended, the house of one’s aunt’s best friend, the shop where one bought cigarettes.” Once, Saeed’s mother thinks she sees a former student of hers firing an automatic rifle from the open bed of a truck. She imagines the man’s shooting stops when he sees her, but she cannot be truly certain it was her student. In another instance, Saeed’s neighbor is targeted for belonging to an ethnic denomination accused of being disloyal to the militants. The neighbor’s throat is cut and blood seeps through the floor above the family’s apartment, a dried, burgundy stain forming on the ceiling. In yet another moment, Saeed brings Nadia supplies for her apartment, apologizing that he could not find flowers. “Do you have a gun?” she responds. Such delicately wrought passages shine a light on the enduring banalities of daily life during wartime.

Eventually, Saeed and Nadia decide they must find a way out of their native country. From the beginning of his book, Hamid has provided glimpses at magical doorways through which thousands of migrants from the Global South are entering wealthy, Western nations: “Rumors had begun to circulate of doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away … a normal door, they said, could become a special door, and it could happen without warning, to any door at all.” Nadia and Saeed purchase passage through one of these forbidden escape routes. Traveling through a doorway is described as being born and dying at once. Yet, despite the ambiguity of the doors through which Saeed and Nadia travel—the island of Mykonos they initially land upon, and the uninhabited townhouse they later occupy in London, are unambiguously framed—as both of these locations currently house a plethora of people whose native lands are uninhabitable due to war, or climate, or a combination of the two. Hamid is clear that the reverberations of a global immigrant crisis, sparked in no small part by European and American hegemony, will be felt in the West.

Interspersed throughout Exit West is a series of vignettes that show the reader glimpses of unnamed characters as they interact with those who are flooding, with increasing frequency, into the world’s wealthiest nations. As the story of Nadia and Saeed’s partnership unfolds—a partnership that is born equally of love, obligation, and necessity—the reader is continually reminded of the transformative nature of time in a rapidly globalizing and transitory society. The absurdity of the concept of nativeness is brought forward by Hamid, as he shows how immigrants render countries unhomely and foreign to some of their citizens. Hamid notices how those with “light skin” in America tend to be more outraged by the perceived threat of immigrants, than those who are in actuality native to the land America was established upon. He does this with a thoughtful, extended prose style; often leaving the reader with images invoking a deep, sensory response. Through the utilization of magical realism, Hamid envisions a future that may not be far away.

Hamid’s latest book has been a contender for, and the recipient of, numerous awards. The novel is a favorite of the former president of the United States, Barack Obama. Exit West was named by the New York Times as one of “The 10 Best Books of 2017.”

Book Review: The Art of Starving

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Picture source: www.blackgate.com

Sam J. Miller’s, The Art of Starving, follows the story of a young man who believes that through starvation he will acquire special powers. The less he eats, the more his senses sharpen. Miller’s protagonist, Matt, is a queer, high school junior living in a poor, rural town in upstate New York. Matt’s first-person narrative begins in late autumn, and the cold, repressive weather mirrors the outset of the story. Matt’s sister, Maya, has recently skipped town without explanation. Maya’s character is tough and independent. She likes rock and roll and claims that she left to record her band’s first album in Providence. But Matt feels that something must have happened to her, that someone must have hurt her to make her leave without being entirely honest with him. And he thinks he knows who did. There is a boy, Tariq, who Matt suspects Maya had been seeing before she left. Matt believes that Tariq and his friends know something about or had something to do with Maya’s disappearance.

As Matt deprives his body of food, he begins to cultivate his senses. He can smell, associating heightened, pungent scents with people or feelings; see sharp, dream-like visions of his sister and estranged father; and hear, somehow perceiving the internal sentiments that his classmates and mother are the least likely to divulge. Matt’s mother works at a local pig slaughterhouse cleaving massive chunks of meat and bone with heavy machinery. When she comes home from work her hands smell of pig’s blood. The factory provides the family’s source of income, as well as being the town’s primary place of employment. However, with the rising economic pressure to outsource factory work, the plant may be in danger of employee cuts or, worse yet, permanent closure.

Matt empathizes with the acute stress his mother feels as a community leader in their small town and as a single parent. Her husband left when the children were little. In one passage Matt recalls how in childhood he imagined that his father was a king, a villain, a sensitive artist, yet he knows that what he truly wishes for is a parental figure who he can relate to intellectually as well as emotionally. As the book progresses, Matt’s relationship with his mother is perhaps one of the most touching arcs of the text. Miller’s depiction of an imperfect, deeply loving parent-child relationship illustrates his aptitude for writing with emotional sensibility while portraying genuinely caring, flawed characters.

Matt is dedicated to practicing The Art of Starving because he imagines that through hunger he will be able to magically manipulate his senses and surroundings. He believes that this cultivated power will place him at the helm of his tumultuous life. However, Miller shows his readers that when bodily denial becomes obsessive, it is often indicative of more than simply the food itself. There are many ways in which we can deny ourselves sustenance.

Although the narrative in Miller’s story is beautifully rendered, it does not glamorize mental illness or anorexia. As Matt comes to terms with what his body hungers for and desires, his sexuality and eating disorder become intertwined: “Your body’s hungers are simple. It’s the mind that makes things complex, spinning a web of stories and fantasies and prejudices around something as basic as love, until we crave the stories more than the love itself” (Miller, 2017).

Miller understands that there is no simple cure for mental illness. Unlike many young adult novels that spin fanciful tales of recovery around a romantic partnership, The Art of Starving, evades this trope. The relationship that grows between Matt and another character in the story does not act as a panacea.  Miller’s writing is sparse, yet the narrative he weaves is as absurdly magical as a Grimm’s fairy tale.

The author’s debut novel is a tender story about what we all hunger for, be that food, sex, love, power, respect, acceptance, or internal serenity. The Art of Starving reminds us that, ultimately, we alone can heal ourselves. And moreover, that healing may be the most spellbinding, gratifying special power that one can practice and hone with care over time.

The Art of Starving (HarperTeen) is currently on the ballot for the Hugo and the Nebula Awards. Sam J. Miller will be at the Baltimore Book Festival, which takes place the weekend of September 28th-30th, as part of the tour for his latest novel, Blackfish City (Ecco Press; Orbit). He will be participating in panels on LGBTQIA science fiction, futuristic cities in fiction, and the politics of resistance in speculative fiction. To learn more about all of the authors coming to Baltimore for the event visit: baltimorebookfestival.com

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