Sunday, April 21, 2013

Joyce Carol Oates and Lynching

Joyce Carol Oates at the LA Times Festival of Books
Lynching and its effect on the small community of Princeton, N.J., in 1905 is the subject of Joyce Carol Oates' new novel just released.

Its title, The Accursed, says it all.

Speaking at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, she explained how she came to write this book.

She is especially interested in the way Christian pastors at the seminary in Princeton did nothing about a lynching that occurred locally.

These events did not even get into the newspapers.  "Lynching is a secret that white people don't know or pretend they don't know," she said.

Patt Morrison interviewed Joyce Carol Oates

Oates did extensive research to understand lynching and life in Princeton in 1905.

"It took decades just to get a law against lynching," she said.  "But then the men [accused of lynching] were usually acquitted."

Efforts to pass an anti-lynching law in Congress were defeated by the filibustering of Southern senators.  A federal law was never passed, but the civil rights legislation of 1960 helped to stop lynchings.

Oates compared this history to efforts this week to pass gun control legislation, again stopped in the Senate by the threat of filibuster.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone, a theologian at Union Seminary in New York City, was an important influence on her new novel. 

Her 2006 novel Black Girl, White Girl is about a young black woman in the post-Vietnam War era who knows that someone in her family was lynched in 1949.

In The Accursed, she includes real historical characters, such as Woodrow Wilson, Upton Sinclair (who lived in Princeton in 1905), and the man who was then president of Princeton Theological Seminary, who says at one point in the novel, "We do not entertain any new ideas here"  (words she found in official descriptions of the seminary in the early 1900s).

"Not having new ideas was considered a good thing," she said.  "You can send your boy here--there will be no atheism, no Darwinism in the courses."

During the question-and-answer period, two people came forward with questions about "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?," her most famous short story.  

She said that its original title was "Death and the Maiden" and that her writing was influenced by a medieval painting of "a beautiful girl with blonde hair looking in a mirror--with Death standing behind her."  (Three murders in Arizona profiled in Life magazine in 1966 also prompted this story.)

She changed the title as a tribute to Bob Dylan and his song "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue."

The second questioner asked, "What does the writing on Arnold Friend's car door mean?"  

"It's up to the individual reader," she said, noting that a reader's experience of a story is a separate event from the story itself as written.  Readers complete details of a story for themselves.

One person asked why Oates has joined the community on Twitter.

"It's a short genre," she said. "140 characters," and thus challenging.  Tweets are "a terse, short way of communicating."  They're "like aphorisms, the last line of a poem."  She added that some of her tweets are trivial but that she is "trying to do Twitter with more poetic resonance."

Oates said that she along with most of the nation had been riveted by last week's bombing at the Boston Marathon and the ensuing search and capture of the suspects, and Twitter was one way of responding to that.

"Twitter is a community of people who are committed to thinking about something," she concluded.

Issues that are "roiling, seething" in the US and that she cares deeply about are gun control, terrorism, and the mistreatment of women in social media.

Joyce Carol Oates signing The Accursed

The Accursed is a Gothic novel and includes the supernatural.  Oates likes to try writing in various genres.  She promises that the mystery is solved by the end of the book--unlike some novels that leave the reader guessing.

However, she says, the narrator cannot bring himself to talk specifically about the details, so the reader does have to guess a little.,0,3635471.story

She began this novel thirty years ago but set it aside for other projects. 

Her husband died unexpectedly in February, 2008.  After writing a book about losing him (A Widow's Story), she was grateful to move on and have a big researching and writing project to work on, this book just published.  See this review with a photo of the couple early in their 47-year marriage:

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