Dining With Others
A Cultural Studies Review of Toi Thomas' Eternal Curse: Giovanni's Angel
by Lynn Perretta
What is Cultural Studies?
Cultural studies is a branch of literary criticism that branches from New Historicism and is influenced by structuralism and post-structuralism. (Purdue) Cultural Studies combines multiple disciplines: feminism, history, philosophy, media theory, among others. The subjects of the work determine just what discipline Cultural Studies is focused through. Cultural Studies is like New Historicism in that it seeks to understand how culture influences literature. It is not, however, as concerned with historical context of that influence. It does look at the effects of Cultural Hegemony (how minority cultures are subjugated into the dominant culture), Agency (the ability of members of a culture to act for themselves and in their own best interest), and the effects of Globalization on cultures. (Wikipedia)
What is Cultural About Paranormal Fantasy?
One of the worst things that an author can do to themselves is get a degree in Creative Writing. I know. I have a degree in Creative Writing. I will say this: there is a lot of good that comes from it. The studies that I had greatly improved my writing. I was given a rigorous study in different elements of fiction. I was taught to evaluate works not only as a reader in literary criticism but also as a writer to see how the different elements are at work in a story. It is important, as a writer, to understand how others use the craft because it can help us.
Something bad also comes from a degree in Creative Writing. You have laid upon you, pretty much from your first class, that there is a difference between Literature and Genre Fiction. Most of my teachers actually looked down on us writing in genre, as they didn't think it would allow us to display and work on the skills that we were to focus on in our degree. If you are a writer and you know that the work that calls to you, that stirs in your gut, that keeps you awake at night with conflict or infects your dreams with ideas is, in fact, working within a genre, and if you listen to your professors as you study your degree, you're likely to doubt your own ability as a writer. Sure, your story is good. It interests you.
But ... it will never be good enough. It will never be good enough to serve in that place of Literary Canon. It does not matter that critics will tell you that "...we need both kinds of books" (Harold). I will not get into this further, because I feel the inspiration of a blog post. I have my own theory about how this idea comes about because, well, Harold points out almost immediately how preposterous the idea is, though I'm not sure he acknowledges the implication or effect of supporting it.
I will say this: I think that the idea of "genre" and "literature" being separate stories is - well - flawed. Take a moment to consider what books you have been told are works of literary merit. Some of them are genre works. Now Harold et al. will tell you that they have literary merit because they transcend their genre. I say that they have it because, well, they have literary merit. A book being in a genre should not define whether or not it can or whether or not it has to do more work to have literary merit.
In reading Eternal Curse: Giovanni's Angel, there is literary merit here. Thomas spins for us a love story, one that grows slowly through trials, shattered expectations, fear, and all the other emotional ups and downs that make up a good romance. This is decidedly a Paranormal love story, and Thomas also makes no bones about that fact. Mira and Giovanni are our primary characters and, obviously, the focus of the romance in the story. While the marriage of Mira's rational world with Giovanni's fantastic one feels at times a little clumsy, when I step back to consider it a moment, it should be. These are not, rational and fantastic, two ideas that should fit together neatly into anything, be it a scene or a story. Interactions should feel rushed at times, and unsure at others.
What really brings Eternal Curse to life and exposes the story's literary merit, however, is the exploration of Other.
Confession time: I was surprised to learn that Mira was a black woman. I had followed the first few chapters unaware of this fact. It was not jarring to me, because the reveal was given in a very clever way: through the eyes of someone else surprised to see what she looked like - not so much her ethnicity, though, as her age. Why the late reveal? Only the author can truly answer that. I can say why the late reveal works from a literary perspective.
The body of Western Literature is full of works from white Europeans, mostly men, though women have made their mark in the last two centuries. Anyone not white was instantly, whether by intent of the author or simply understanding of culture, cast as Other. This included the presentation of Jews in literature. This included the presentation of Africans, of Indians, of Native Americans, of Pacific Islanders, and any other group that white Europeans came into contact with that were different from themselves. Consider Dances With Wolves in which the Native American culture is so important and vital to the story. It is a tale of a man's journey to be coming Other. Think about the almost otherworldly presentation of native Africans in The Heart of Darkness. You do not get more Other than some of the African characters in that story ... except maybe Kurtz, but again, we exploring the after-effects of his journey to Other.
There is such a large tradition of otherness in literature for anyone who is non-white that if Mira's ethnicity is introduced too soon, the reader may expect some understanding of her Otherness. And she isn't. Mira is a holder of Agency. She is a self-determining woman. She is a successful entrepreneur. She has had her own failed relationships, and had made the mistake of keeping herself tied to them, just as many of us do. In her case, it is through financial means, her business, rather than social means, her friends. She is not just integrated into her society. She is at the head of it, leading rather than following. While she has her insecurities, she is a confident and strong woman.
But she needs to be from the legacy of Other. Mira has, almost immediately, and intuitive empathy for Giovanni's Otherness and how deeply it affects him. She can only have this if she comes from that legacy of Other. For her, that legacy is two-fold. Not only is she ethnically Other, she was socially Other as well. She was an Orphan, like Giovanni, who was picked up and cared for by others. Several parallels exist between Mira's own distant relationship with her Benefactor and Giovanni's strained relations with those who try to care for him. The distances have different causes, but are similar all the same.
This legacy of ethnic Otherness gives Mira an intuitive understanding of Giovanni. It does not have to be explained to us. We as readers expect her to have it the moment we learn about it. While the social legacy, her past as an orphan, is important to understanding Giovanni on a conscious level, her ethnic legacy is vital to understanding him on the intuitive level. It is that unexplainable level (should be in a good romance) that helps to fuel the fires and insecurities of budding romance.
Through Mira's eyes, we get to explore the mystery that is Giovanni. Even he does not know what he is. In part, his call to Mira was to find out the mystery of himself and bring some end to his own torment. He is a man plagued by nightmares, isolated from the world for fear, and without the one thing that grounds us no matter who we are: the sense of self - who am I?
Giovanni is a strange creature. Is he man, a demon, an angel, or is he something else altogether? Throughout Giovanni's internal musings and Mira's own investigations of him the reader is given tid-bits of knowledge to help them form their own idea of what he is and what his dreams and visions mean. He is more than a mystery, however. He is a giving soul, doing what he can to keep his ailing companion alive and comfortable, and help Mira when she needs him. He paints the world around him, turning his isolated estate into something that feels, at first, like a fantasy world. Mira likens it to a mystic garden.
There is also a sense of grounding and reality that crashes down upon the characters. Mira finds herself caught up in the wonder of the moment. She experiences Giovanni, his companion, and their home, as something wonderous. Her reaction is not unlike other literary treatmens of Other, when the author is enamoured with a new culture or new religion, and presents it, from an outsiders perspective, as something perhaps grander than it is meant to be. We could talk about grand Maharaja's, or simply discuss the bravery of Pochahontas. The temptation when we encounter the Other and become enamoured with it is to pick it up, to place it upon a pedestal, and exaggerate all of the things about it we find so grand. Mira does that with Giovanni so beautifully.
And when the reality of what she has done comes crashing down upon her, when she realizes that whatever else Giovanni is, he is not very unlike her at all, she has to find a way to cope within herself and face the reality before her. Whatever lofty visions she had of Giovanni and his home, he is a man. He is lonely, and he is afraid. And when all of his Otherness is stripped away, he is not so unlike her at all.
Wrapping up the Ideas
The exploration of Otherness is something that is a mark of works with literary merit. We see that exploration occur in Frankenstein. It is the mark, good or bad, of The Heart of Darkness. Thomas spins this exploration very well into her tale of romance. Both the romance and the exploration inform each other, making each a little richer for the experience.
Check out her work at her website. You will be able to read samples of the work there, however you will have to wait on purchasing the book itself. While Eternal Curse: Giovanni's Angel began its life in self-publishing, it has recently been picked up for traditional publication. Our congratulations to you Toi.
To everyone else: good reading and good writing.
Harold, James: http://nonsite.org/issues/issue-3/literature-genre-fiction-and-standards-of-criticism (by the way, an interesting read, though long, where he both supports this idea of "two kinds of books" and undermines the argument all at the same time)