18 April 2007

My head is full to bursting..

I have so much to say right now.. I hope I can do even half of it justice.

First, I received the following via email today:

DEAR /t,

Thank you again for shopping at Spring Hill Nursery. The items listed below have been shipped and are on their way to you.

SHIPMENT SUMMARY--------------------------------------------------
Ship Date: 04/18/2007
Items Shipped:

Qty Item Item
Shipped Number Description
------- ------- ------------------------------
Whee! And sh!t! at the same time. I'm not ready to plant the front yard yet! It *SNOWED* last week?! HOW can I possibly be ready to dig my fingers into that (cold! wet!) dirt and trust that it will nurture tender young roots?! (Fortunately, I have a gardening consultant who is much more reliable than Francisco who told me that I just needed to keep the little plants' dirt moist and cover them at night if I'm going to leave them outside until I'm ready to plant them in a week or so. Whew!)

Second, which chronologically should have been first, I finished reading Leaving Atlanta last night. It is a wonderfully written, very engaging and true-to-life telling of a terrible time narrated through the voices of 5th-graders. It left me wanting to know more about that time in our country's history, wanting to know why this was the first I'd heard of a series of African American child kidnappings and murders that occured during my lifetime (1979-1981). It left me.. conflicted. Not because of any lack of attention paid to the events portrayed between it's covers, but because it ended before the end.

I think..?

It didn't finish the story - we don't know what happened to any of the major characters (save one), we don't know whether they ever caught the person(s?) responsible for the kidnappings and murders.. the story simply ends. In the middle. Of their lives, and their (broader) deaths.

And I've chewed over why this bugs me in the back of my head all day. I really can't say that I think it's any failing on the part of the author, nor of her skill in crafting a story - in fact I found the story gripping and engaging and had to force myself to put it down to go to sleep several times. Rather I think it's an internal compulsion within myself to have things end.. neatly. Which is in stark contrast to.. well, reality. Things *don't* end neatly. (The obvious example is the 33 lives abruptly ended amidst terror and panic and confusion on Monday.) Ends are rarely tied up in a neat little package (except, of course, in knitting.. which leads me to wonder about why it is a craft that tends to bring me such comfort, but that's for another time). There is rarely (never?) An Answer(tm).

This echoed itself in my world rather strongly today. I'm on a team of faculty, staff, and students working to complete an 18-month process of inquiry and examination into the equity of outcomes for students of color at my university. We are working on completing the draft of the fifth (and next to last) piece of what will become our final report - the only remaining piece is the conclusion - and today we had a spirited and useful discussion centering on two sources of data that appear to present conflicting evidence. Both sources are based on relatively small samples of students - and therefore neither can be considered conclusive or definitive. There is, objectively, no reason to favor one source over the other. But subjectively, one source seems to fly in the face of the personal experiences of several members of the team. We, as a team, are struggling to present these data in a way that won't muddy the already cloudy water surrounding "diversity" on our campus. We all want there to be a single, definitive story, An Answer(tm) that announces itself loud and clear in bright shining neon, a solution that is based on solid fact, not interpretation or reconciliation of conflicting data sources. A solution that fits with our experiences and that tells the story we think is Real(tm).

As a statistician and a social scientist, I know that such clarity never exists in the study of human society. I *know* that there is never a single story, that there is at most a common thread woven into a myriad of individual tapestries. We each bring to common experiences our own set of lenses and filters that shape our perceptions and remembrances of them. Just as the three narrators in Leaving Atlanta brought their own life's knowledge to the common experience of what is now referred to as "the Atlanta child murders".

I believe that any good book will not just tell a story, but leave the reader with something to mentally chew on. Tayari Jones has achieved that end in Leaving Atlanta, at least for me, but I doubt it's the meal she expected to be leaving her readers with. I haven't explored all the courses or sampled the myriad flavors, but I expect that this will be a meal I'll not soon forget, even if I find it difficult to digest initially.


when she said...

The author's note at the end talks about the real-life aspect of the murders and how it all wound up, I'm pretty sure. It made me feel like the story was finished - settled and unsettled at the same time.
Do you remember seeing PSAs on tv that said "It's ten o'clock. Do you know where your children are?" I think those were a result of the kidnappings and murders in Atlanta. Maybe the fervor and fear never made its way to the midwest, but I remember visits from Officer Friendly and serious talks with mom and dad.
I thought it ended perfectly (even though I didn't want it to end) ... leaving Atlanta.
I'm glad you liked it.
I'm hlaf way through "The Untelling." I caught myself holding my breath while I was reading it this morning on the train, so I think it's safe to say that it's also pretty engaging. (And I wish I could read it now, because I am anxious on the main character's behalf.)

when she said...

that was me, by the way.

Mazzie said...

Apparently, I need coffee.

Tayari Jones said...

Thank you so much for this kind post. I am having a hard hard hard week. So this was just so nice and so needed. I really, appreicate it.