It's a Matter of Character

In Frances Sherwood's novel Green, the unworldly daughter of Mormon parents comes of age during the Beat era in a small California town. Fleeing an alcoholic mother who locks her in closets and a chauvinistic father who habitually wakes her from sleep to spend the wee hours of the morning scrubbing woodwork while he lectures her about cleanliness being next to godliness, Zoe McLaren searches alternately for freedom and sanctuary. She turns first to the freethinking family of her Negro friend Margo and then to a succession of otherwise marginalized individuals.

In Tony Ardizzone's story "Baseball Fever," an Italian American boy growing up on Chicago's North Side draws his own conclusions about whether to live according to the Baltimore Catechism sternly imparted to him by the Sisters of Christian Charity or to follow the creed of the "line-drive slugger's commandments" he's developed with his neighborhood cronies. A tragic accident during a Saturday morning sandlot triple-header leaves the boy racked with guilt and imagining that the rest of his short life will be spent lingering just outside the door to one of Hell's waiting rooms.

In Alyce Miller's story "Summer in Detroit," a sick-at-heart African American track coach revisits scenes from his youth. As he sits in the house of his dying German grandmother, from whom he has become estranged over the years, the man relives glorious summer afternoons that he spent as a child in his grandmother's flower garden. Counterpoised to these sunlit reminiscences are memories of the painful events that transpired during the Detroit riots that irrevocably changed his life and that of his family.

Alyce Miller The three stories described above have at least two things in common: they all offer interpretations of American cultural contexts and experiences, and they do so from a clearly defined generational perspective. Each story was recently published by an award-winning Indiana University professor whose work belies the old adage that those who can, do, and those who can't, teach. Frances Sherwood is a professor of English at Indiana University South Bend. Tony Ardizzone is a professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington, and Alyce Miller recently joined the faculty of the Indiana University Bloomington English department as an assistant professor.

Frances Sherwood followed her highly acclaimed 1993 novel Vindication, a fictional retelling of the life of eighteenth-century British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, with Green (1995). Sherwood's new novel explores the more recent history of the 1950s and 60s through the through the eyes of Zoe McLaren, a gawky seventeen-year-old afflicted with a nervous blink and a desire to learn about the world that lies beyond her family's Danish modern living room and restrictive Mormon beliefs. Sherwood says she is interested in outsiders, in marginalized points of view, and her books certainly give voice to that interest. In Vindication, Sherwood depicts Mary Wollstonecraft as a woman who lived outside the bounds of propriety and within a crowd of radical eighteenth-century intellectuals (including William Blake, Tom Paine, and William Godwin) among whom she was the only female. Similarly, Zoe McLaren, the heroine of Green is an outsider in nearly every context she encounters„in her own Mormon household, in the family of her left-wing intellectual friend Margo, and among the beats and hippies with whom she eventually associates.

Before Vindication was published, Sherwood herself was somewhat of an outsider in the world of publishing. Although she had already won two O. Henry awards, received a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and been a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, Sherwood could not find an agent willing to represent her novel. Finally, she took matters into her own hands and sent the Vindication manuscript, with what must have been a compellingly persuasive cover letter, to her "dream publisher," Farrar, Straus & Giroux. An editor rescued Vindication from the slush pile, and Sherwood's first novel subsequently appeared on the New York Times Notable Fiction List and was featured in Publisher's Weekly Top Novels of 1993. It was also nominated for the highly prestigious National Book Critics' Circle Award. Tristar Studios, proposing Jonathan Demme as director (Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia) and Ted Talley as scriptwriter, has just optioned the film rights for Vindication. Perhaps this is part of the reason Sherwood refers to Wollstonecraft as her patron saint.

To a certain extent, Vindication found a ready-made audience among feminists and historians. Green, on the other hand, offers readers an interpretation of more recent history„the prefeminist, convention-bound years of the Eisenhour era during which Sherwood herself came of age. One of her reviewers has noted that both of Sherwood's novels tease out "the drama of a feminist sensibility surfacing at a particular time and place. She writes with passion about abuse, alcoholism, and profound friendships between women." While the language (if not the subject) of Vindication is somewhat formal and staid, and the narrative is rendered from a cool, removed, third-person perspective, Sherwood has characterized the language of Green as distinctly "smart-ass American." Describing her wedding in a beat-pad, basement-room ceremony, Green's first-person narrator quips, "Needless to say, I was very aware that this was not a Mormon Temple with a baptismal tub in the basement or where I would get magic underwear for life and a secret name to get into heaven. Everything had happened so fast. I could not quite believe I was even getting married . . . I had to keep insisting to myself that this was the most important day of my life, . . . that marriage was marriage and I had better watch my step."

In the over-the-edge environment in which she eventually finds herself, however, Zoe "watches her step" to no avail. When her groom descends into drug-induced schizophrenia, Zoe is thrown back on her own meager resources and forced to find sanctuary wherever she can. Compared with Vindication, Green traces a more contemporary and personal development of feminist sensibilities and thus has a certain generational appeal. One could almost call it a feminist recasting of Kerouac's On the Road. The novel's section names ("Howl," "Lunch," "Dharma," "Road," "Kaddish") further reinforce the reference to Green's beat-generation literary precursors. Sherwood is currently at work on a novel that continues the stories of some of the characters in Green.

Like Sherwood, Tony Ardizzone also transforms his cultural milieu and personal history into the stuff of fiction. In the spring of 1996 Ardizzone will publish his fifth book, Taking It Home: Stories from the Neighborhood, a collection of stories that offers firsthand experience of old neighborhoods and old ways. As one of his reviewers has noted, Ardizzone "has a special capacity for appreciating the values of home and family, of ethnic pride and humor, and of street smarts." Several of his stories draw on Ardizzone's Italian American background and rely on a sense of tradition frequently offered in counterpoint to an engagingly contemporary sensibility, as the opening of his story "Baseball Fever" from Taking It Home illustrates.

Because just as the game has its men in black who call the balls and strikes, the fairs and fouls, the safes and outs, so my life has its crew of women dressed in black hoods, floor-length black robes cinched by beads, and oversized white bow ties. The Sisters of Christian Charity, to whom I was delivered at age six by my well-meaning parents for instruction and the salvation of my eternal soul. Imagine the toughest Marlboro cowboy driving the naive calf from its mother's shadow and then roping it, tying off its hooves, drawing out from the Pentecostal flames of the campfire the red-hot brands of Guilt and Fear, and then burning the calf's hide while it writhes and squeals like one of the Three Little Piggies being devoured by the Big Bad Wolf, and you have a fairly accurate picture of my life's early religious education.
Ardizzone's reviewers have noted that the stories collected in Taking It Home are rendered in "an unusual mix of styles that range from urban realism to comparatively experimental to sinister." Commenting on the evolution of his writing styles, Ardizzone says his approach has grown and changed with each book he has published. His first novel, In the Name of the Father (1978), advanced a spare, minimalist style in a story about three young men of different ethnic backgrounds coming of age in Chicago during the 1950s and '60s. He tried new stylistic forms with his short story collection The Evening News (1986), which garnered him the 1985 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. Ardizzone says he more fully explored some possibilities of first-person voice in his third book, a baseball novel called Heart of the Order (1986), which begins in Chicago and moves to the American South and West. In Larabi's Ox (1992), a collection of fourteen interrelated stories set in Morocco, Ardizzone says he worked with a level of language that was more complex than that of any of his preceding books. He allowed his language to be influenced by the rich history of Islamic art and architecture and to become more elaborate and ornate while at the same time retaining fundamental accuracy of detail. Larabi's Ox was selected by writer Gloria Naylor as recipient of the 1992 Milkweed National Fiction Prize. It also won a Pushcart Prize and the 1993 Chicago Foundation for Literature Award for Fiction. In addition, Ardizzone has been awarded two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships in fiction.

The novel Ardizzone is currently working on marks another departure in his style in that it contains elements of magical realism. In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu relates the stories of a Sicilian family's seven children who immigrate in three waves to America at the turn of the century. As the grandson of Sicilian immigrants, Ardizzone says that he knew all of his life that he would one day write a book about the immigrant experience. "I saved the material until I was older and more certain I'd get it right," he says. His book combines some stories told to him by his grandmother„his grandfather died before Ardizzone was born„as well as many he has simply imagined, based on reading and research in historical archives including the Library of Congress' collection of immigrant oral histories.

The stories that make up In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu include a chapter set in 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, at the outbreak of the Lawrence Textile Strike. This chapter, narrated by the family's oldest brother Gaetano, depicts the Italian strikers becoming so desperate that they sent their children away on trains to New York City to be clothed and fed. This and other chapters incorporate oral folktales and include characters who are animals, including a cruel overseer named Don Babbuinu (Sicilian for baboon) and his sad accomplice Don Gattu, a cat who witnessed the murder of his seven children and whose tears are so copious that a river forms wherever he walks. "When Don Gattu stands still," Ardizzone says, "minnows and tadpoles leap over his tail. The chapter's narrator, Ciccina Agneddina, claims that the mourning dove received its name because it drank so deeply from Don Gattu's salty river of grief that its coat turned gray and its cry became sad and plaintive."

Ardizzone says that he became a writer because he "envied the power that writers have" and he wanted to do what he envied. One of the most striking aspects of Ardizzone's work lies in his ability to convey powerful emotion without spectacularizing the feeling or reducing it to sentimentality. Ardizzone explains his approach to literary expressions of deep feeling: "Many writers learn to avoid sentimentality to the extent that when genuine sentiment crops up in their work, they run away from it. I think truly good writing risks sentimentality but doesn't indulge in it."

Like Sherwood's and Ardizzone's work, Alyce Miller's The Nature of Longing (1994), which won the 1993 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, moves beyond cultural boundaries created by gender, ethnicity, and race. Miller says the seven short stories and one novella in the Nature of Longing "are connected most obviously by their concern with the points at which races intersect." In the title story, an aging, secretly gay, black librarian in a small Midwestern town models his solitary life after the courage and refinement he admired in his long-dead Cousin Pearl. In "Color Struck," which reviewers have praised for its subtlety, a new mother's inability to think of a name for the albino child to whom she has given birth serves as a thin disguise for her inability to accept the infant. In "Summer in Detroit," a middle-aged, black, junior high school track coach spends an afternoon with his dying German grandmother who is white. While his grandmother hovers in the "narrow distance between sleep and death," the alienated middle-aged man (Franklin) revisits scenes from his youth that Miller renders with a compelling lyricism. She counterpoises the man's disillusionment about the dreams destroyed in the dark smoke of the Detroit riots against his memories of strolling through his grandmother's garden as a child on a summer afternoon:

. . . he looked out the window where the garden used to be. Silence reigned. Butterfly-wing silence, so quiet you could imagine the creatures' wings beating as they alighted on flower petals. At least that's what Freida had told Franklin so long ago, when they used to stroll through that once-flourishing garden, there in the old part of Detroit, where grasshoppers sizzled in the white heat of summer in the long, tall grass growing along her fence. And always, always, the butterflies fanning the air like so many orange, brown, and yellow angels. They vibrated over the brilliant flowers, touched down still trembling, then skipped lightly from cosmos to zinnias, the sun shimmering on their wings. As a child, Franklin feared the over-brilliant flowers might devour them.
The stories collected in The Nature of Longing focus on the unresolved and ambiguous moments in life that Miller says "are often underestimated." And although the stories depict characters grappling with problems that are inextricably tied to their race and/or gender, they are not stories about race. They are about people in situations made difficult by a diversity of cultural forces„race being one of those influences. Miller feels that because "we live in a racialized society, race is always a factor, even when it's not the immediate focus."

Miller says that she writes very "character-driven" fiction. Rather than setting out to write about abstract ideas such as racism or misogyny, she creates a character with whom she can empathize. Miller notes that "empathy with characters is essential. Even if you're writing, say, [about] the most despicable characters, you must be able to connect with them on the page, or else you end up with stereotypes or clichZ˙s." She gives an example of a recently written story called "Sorrow" in which the protagonist, a disaffected male academic, is given to pointless affairs with his middle-aged women students whom he disparagingly calls "the housewives." Miller explains that if she had set out to write about a misogynist in the abstract, he would have become a merely a target, and the story would very likely have deteriorated into "a futile and predictable diatribe. Instead," she explains, "I worked hard to 'become' the character, to discover his humanity, to explore the depth of his flaws." Miller thinks that it is the flaws rather than the perfections of human nature that make characters interesting. Miller has completed three more collections of stories that have all been individually published in literary journals. She is currently finishing a novel called Diva: My Mother's Song that she describes as "a love story" between a young girl of unknown paternity and her quirky mother, an aspiring opera singer, who dies suddenly when the girl is barely into her teens.

Miller comes to Bloomington from a year-long appointment as visiting professor of writing and literature at Ohio University where she was also the department's first choice for the tenure-track position they sought to fill. The chair of the Ohio University English department praised Miller as someone who "not only writes well, but teaches writing well." Miller says that her own writing gives her a clearer understanding of what her students struggle with in their own work. Miller does belive that the craft of writing fiction can be taught. "Writing is not just an intuitive act," she says, "and writers are not simply innocent, charmed vessels into which this elusive creativity flows. Good writing is informed by intellectual rigor and a keen eye for the world at large." She advises her students to read widely in all genres and to be willing to engage with contemporary writers: "A lot of contemporary writing by women, people of color, gays, etc., is challenging traditional notions of narrative, pushing boundaries."

While practicing their craft, these faculty members inspire, support, and encourage apprentice writers. Unlike Miller and Ardizzone, Frances Sherwood teaches only undergraduates, many of whom are nontraditional students. One such student, who herself wants to teach writing, praises Sherwood's ability to engage students and to free up their creativity. "Rather than being the typical cerebral teacher, she is a practitioner who is very excited about what she does. She's very uninhibited and uses her humor and commitment to writing to break down her students' inhibitions." Ardizzone has earned similar admiration from his students who comment on his willingness to take time to offer thorough and thoughtful responses to their work. "Tony makes it a priority to prepare students for the real world," says one student who goes on to point out that Ardizzone helps his students understand the processes and procedures involved in getting their work published. Ardizzone sees his prime objective as encouraging his students' productivity and helping them build the strength of character required to take a first draft through the necessary stages until it becomes a finished story. Like Flaubert, who told an apprentice to simply concentrate on "putting the black on the white," getting the ink on the page, Ardizzone and his colleagues encourage their students to get the byte on the disk and take it from there.

--Susan Moke