some thoughts on emily brontë's wuthering heights

Cover of 1943 Random House
edition with woodcut illustrations
Emily Brontë published Wuthering Heights in 1847, under a pseudonym. Brontë died the following year, at age 30. It was the only book she would ever publish.

How did an isolated young woman, a parson's daughter from a remote area of Yorkshire, who never married, rarely left home, and hated travel, come to create this story of ferocious passion and violent revenge that would shock her contemporaries, and enthral audiences into its second century?

The existence of Wuthering Heights is one of the great arguments against that wrongheaded advice to writers: "write what you know". (Remember this the next time someone tells you that Shakespeare couldn't have written his plays, because he was working-class, and had never been to Italy.) How did Brontë create it? With her talent and her imagination.

* * * *

Wuthering Heights is one of my most beloved novels; sometimes I think it is my favourite book of all time. I've just finished watching the 2009 adaptation from PBS's Masterpiece Classic, and it's my pick for best "Wuthering Heights" film.

I know the original 1939 film, with Lawrence Olivier and Merle Oberon in the lead roles, backward and forwards; I'd seen it several times before I ever read the book. I love that movie like an old friend, and it's a decent rendition of the novel in many ways. It is Olivier, after all. But it's greatly limited by the Hollywood standards of its era.

There's been a slew of film adaptations through the years. A 1992 version with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche had me diving for the remote, but most I haven't bothered with. On this page, the keeper of the Wuthering Heights flame online reviews several with her own specific standards. For me, this 2009 two-parter was the best. I don't need to see another.

* * * *

To say Wuthering Heights was scandalous in its day is an understatement. It was shocking. People detested it; at least one critic called for it to be burned. When the writer's identity was revealed (posthumously), the firestorm only grew. This was written by a woman?? The book became one of the most shocking pieces of English literature of all time.

Emily Brontë hadn't created a proper Victorian heroine who would select her proper gentleman. No Jane Austen here. Brontë created one of the great anti-heroes of all time, the passionate, jealous, bitter Heathcliff, dark both in features and demeanour, driven by passion and revenge. In Catherine, Brontë created a strange wild-child of a heroine, a woman whose attempts to shoehorn herself into social conventions would lead to hatred and despair, trapping multiple generations in Heathcliff's powerful vengeance.

Title page of same edition.
I found this (and a similar
Jane Eyre) in London, in 1985.
Victorian audiences were shocked by the depictions of sexual love and of vicious cruelty. But the true scandal was that Brontë's work challenged classism and racism, the subjugation of women, religious hypocrisy, and the entire moral structure of its times.

In one sense, Wuthering Heights is West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet: why is this love forbidden? And because society says it is, terrible things happen.

But those terrible things happen because Heathcliff won't accept his fate, and bends his entire life to a single-minded pursuit. Wuthering Heights is about forbidden, cross-class love, about thwarted passion, but above all, it is a story of revenge.

* * * *

Nineteenth Century British literature was my thing in university, and along with Bleak HouseWuthering Heights was for me the best of the best. I remember to this day a lecture in which my favourite professor, Elaine Scarry, presented the structure of Wuthering Heights as a mandala: concentric circles that take the reader closer and closer to the centre, preparing you for communion with the godhead, then gradually take you out again, releasing you step by step from the spell. The godhead, in this case, is the passion of Heathcliff and Catherine. If you diagram the novel, you may be surprised to learn how little you actually see the lovers together. It's as if their passion can only be looked at indirectly, and for short periods of time. The reader will be blinded by the light, or scorched by the heat.


dispatches from ola 2014, part 3: hip-hop programming in the library

My final post about the OLA Super Conference sessions I attended saves the best for last. "Sub-Urban Beats: Hip-Hop Programming in the Library" thrilled me with possibilities. Even more exciting, it was co-presented by two librarians from the Mississauga Library System who are youth specialists, Erica Conly and James Dekens. They worked with Damon Pfaff, of the Now Creative Group and Marcel DaCosta, a street dancer, community artist, and arts educator whose performance name is Frost Flow. Frost Flow is part of the Mississauga hip-hop collective Ground Illusionz; you can see some of his work here on YouTube.

The presentation began with two points of theory: an introduction to hip-hop culture, and to the concept of transliteracy. Transliteracy is a current buzzword meaning:
...the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks.
This covers the now-aging buzzwords media literacy and digital literacy, but also takes in visual literacy (you remember our comics and graphic novels discussions), sign language, music, dance, and any number of other forms of communication. Transliteracy promotes the idea that all forms of communication are valid, and that we communicate best when we are able to move across and between different communication platforms. For the theoretical minded - which does not include me - there's some good information on the site Libraries and Transliteracy.

[An aside. As I read about transliteracy, I see that some of my best successes at the library (so far) have involved this concept. I created and am promoting book lists that use colourful images of book covers, for use by both customers and staff . They are eye-catching, but more than that, they're designed for people who learn and remember more through images than through words. Our posters, handouts, and tickets for teen programming are also transliterate, associating each event with a graphic icon. I'll show some examples in a future post.]

The brief history of hip-hop culture in the presentation was fascinating and one I hadn't heard before. By now I've run into at least four or five different versions of the origins of rap, break-dancing, and hip-hop culture. I used to protest - "That's not true! I read that it began..." - but now I realize that the differing stories are all true, to some extent. The histories of cultures and countercultures are not linear and directly traceable back to point A and point B. Histories - perhaps especially histories of counterculture movements - are multifarious and diverse, and hip-hop is no exception. I like the way this is expressed on the website Global Awareness Through Hip Hop:
Hip Hop is the constantly evolving spirit and consciousness of urban youth that keeps recreating itself in a never-ending cycle.
The definition of hip-hop culture at this session had, for me, obvious parallels to the punk movement: the stripped-down, DIY culture, the raw immediacy, stories of lived experience, stories that speak to the need for self-expression, performer and audience as community and quite literally interchangeable. Both hip-hop and punk are countercultures that have been co-opted into the profit-making mainstream, but even capitalism can't kill them. The true expression of these cultures die the moment they are commercialized, but other expressions are simultaneously kept alive - on the street, in tiny clubs, on the internet. For a view to how hip-hop culture is being successfully used in education, see Hip Hop Genius.

So now take hip-hop culture, view it through the lens of transliteracy, and mix it with our library mission: life-long learning, community engagement, creativity, and innovation. Throw in a heavy dose of the core values that we bring to all our services: communication, empathy, understanding, and collaboration. A librarian who is an advocate for youth, a suburban break-dance performer, an arts educator, a large open space, some vigorous community outreach... and hip-hop programming in the library is born.

The result is a heady mix that has the potential to engage young people who may not normally see themselves represented in the library.

Photo: James Dekens, Mississauga Library

Photo: James Dekens, Mississauga Library

Photo: Erin Baker, Mississauga Library

Hip Hop Evolution - the program that Erica, James, and others at our library have presented - is a dance program that's not about the dancing. James emphasized: "It's about the ideas, the background, the creativity, the learning, the storytelling. And the program will be different depending on who's involved and where it's held."

I recently saw the documentary "Brooklyn Castle," about a Brooklyn, New York junior high school with a world-class competitive chess program. It ties in nicely with this quote by the hip-hop artist RZA, who is also a competitive chess player, and who compares hip-hop to chess. (No link available.)
Chess is like hip hop. Hip hop is a way we found to express aggression and even violence without having to physically perform it. Chess is like a duel. It's like a swordfight but it's all done on 64 squares on the board. All your aggression, strategy, cunning is left into a game. To me, it's a way to get that energy out.


march 19, 2003: don't call it a failure. it was a huge success for so many.

Eleven years ago today, the US invaded Iraq.

This unprovoked invasion of another country that had not threatened the United States was justified by the pretense of finding weapons of mass destruction (which the US knew did not exist), and as payback for 9/11 (which the US knew Iraq had no part in), and by ridding the world of Saddam Hussein (who was trained and financed by the US). Many such rationales were advanced, including a Christian crusade against Muslims.

None of the stated rationales for the invasion mentioned the massive profiteering that would reap trillions in profits for a long list of corporations. The names of those companies are not household names, but they are well known to Dick Cheney.

Canada did not join the merry invasion, as the United Nations refused to sanction it. Had Stephen Harper been Prime Minister at the time, Canadian Forces would have gone to Iraq, and would have died there.

No one knows, and no one will ever know, the full extent of the death and destruction that this invasion and occupation caused. One highly reliable source puts Iraqi deaths at about 175,000 and Iraqi wounded at 250,000. 4,489 US servicepeople were killed in Iraq, and at least 100,000 wounded. Many of those wounds would lead to permanent disabilities. These figures do not include more than 3,480 suicides.

We have no idea how many Iraqis, Americans, and Brits suffer from PTSD and other psychological and emotional illnesses from having been exposed to, and participated in, so much violence. The US has mostly turned its back on these casualties, leaving families and private charities to struggle with the consequences.

There is, of course, another side to the story. The Halliburton Corporation enjoyed more than $39 billion from the Iraq War. Halliburton is but the most famous of the many war profiteers.

Not one positive thing came out of this war. Not one. If you believe that deposing Saddam Hussein was somehow a silver lining, consider that your belief may be based on your privilege of being unscathed by the war. Consider, too, that the US supported Saddam Hussein's regime for decades, and financed the chemical weapons that were notoriously used against both Iranians and Iraqis, and were subsequently advanced as an excuse for both the 1990 and 2003 US invasions.

Many thousands of US soldiers quietly refused to participate in the war against Iraq, once they learned the truth. A small number of these soldiers spoke up about their opposition, and some of those came to Canada.

The Canadian Government of Stephen Harper turned its back on those brave men and women. But the Canadian people have not.


march break for teens at our library

I've just finished my first March Break (the Canadian equivalent of Spring Break in the US) in my new position as a youth librarian. It was exhilarating and a lot of work, but not nearly as exhausting as I imagined.

March Break was great for many reasons. One, I have great support from a senior librarian and manager who appreciate my efforts. Two, I am part of an amazing team of people who pitched in so I could devote myself more fully to programming, and who encouraged me daily. Three, so many amazing people lent their time and energy and expertise to the library, presenting programs that the teens loved.

And last, but maybe first, March Break was great because I love spending time with teens. I enjoy children's libarianship, but my favourite customers are always the older kids. Teens are a natural fit for me. This is fortunate for my career, too, as enjoying working with teens is apparently pretty rare. A niche!

So here's what we did this week. I cannot take credit for this great lineup, as all but one program was in place before I was hired; I slotted in my digital storytelling program to the one available space. I made posters and flyers, did the publicity, and of course ran the actual programs.

Monday: Mad Science
Volunteers from Let's Talk Science led teens in extracting DNA from a banana, making "DNA code bracelets," and GOOP, a DIY Silly Putty. This is a graduate student- led program, and the volunteers who help out are undergraduates. The leader was amazing.

Tuesday: Create Your Own E-Book
Using Galaxy tablets that Samsung donated to our library system, teens wrote stories using Storybird. I hope to roll this into a monthly Teen Writers Club program.

Wednesday: Learn to DJ
DJs Terry and Anthony of Scotia Entertainment gave a presentation on life as a professional DJ, then teens tried their hand at beat-mixing. This was a huge hit, and almost full, despite the snowstorm raging outside.

Wednesday evening: Games Night
Our "TAG" (Teen Advisory Group) presented a cozy late-afternoon of board games, card games, and video games.

Thursday: Act with the Youth Troopers
This was the best program! Unfortunately, it was also the most difficult program to market, and consequently, our lowest attendance of the week. Volunteers from the Youth Troopers for Global Awareness led a small group in movement games and improv, using our bodies and minds to express what concerns us. The kids who participated absolutely loved it. Our problem is it's very hard to explain! I talked about this with some of the young men who participated. They suggested calling it "Fun Stuff".

Friday: Robotics
Volunteers from Theory6 Robotics instructed on the basics of robotics, the led the group in a design challenge. Three teams each had to build an arm that would lift a buckyball one foot in the air. Like the Let's Talk Science program, this was led by a grad student, but the assistants were high school students. The grad student is studying mechanical engineering, and wants to pursue a career in science education. He will be a brilliant teacher.

Friday evening: Movie Night
Free movies on a cinema-sized screen, teens only. (I was home on the couch while this was going on!)

* * * *

As I said, I didn't plan March Break, as I wasn't in this position yet, but I have planned a full lineup of programs through the spring. I had flyers and posters ready, to promote our spring programs during March Break.

Through the spring, we have: DIY bookmarks, t-shirt art, container gardening (for Earth Day), altered pages (black-out poetry and other book art), shred art (crafts with shredded magazines), zine creations (more crafts with magazines), and Saturday Teen Writers Club. And of course, this is in addition to our Teen Book Club, which meets monthly - my favourite program, of course.

* * * *

If you get the impression that I'm loving my job, you're reading me right. The only thing wrong with the job is that it's temporary, and it cannot be extended or become permanent at this time. This means I have no choice but to apply for other librarian positions that may open up, and hope to return at a later date when the position may open up again, as a permanent position.

In this context, "permanent" means benefits, including paid sick time, paid vacation, and an extended health plan, which only full-time, permanent staff qualifies for. Currently only one-third of non-management library staff is permanent full-time.

A permanent position also means your job continues, including if you take a temporary job elsewhere in the system: you can get a trial run at different position, then go back to your permanent job. My permanent position is a part-time library assistant in the department where I now work. It would mean a hefty cut in both salary and responsibility, so it's a job I hope never to see. I'm not overly worried about this, but on the other hand, when I go permanent, full-time as a librarian, Allan and I will celebrate.


kind of a not-funny story: ned vizzini, youth fiction, and suicide

It's so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself.

That's the first line of Ned Vizzini's excellent 2006 youth novel, It's Kind of a Funny Story. By the time I read the book this year, the author was already dead. Vizzini committed suicide last December; he was only 32 years old.

Those facts alone are tragic. But now that I've read this book, I find Vizzini's death even sadder. On some level, I chide myself for that: every person's life is of equal value, and every early death is a loss. But we feel the way we feel, and Vizzini's suicide feels, to me, inexpressibly sad, a monumental loss.

Vizzini wrote youth fiction in a natural, straightforward voice, with deep insight and wry humour. It's Kind of a Funny Story is a slightly fictionalized account of the onset of the author's depression as a teenager, and the five days he spent in the psychiatric unit of a hospital in Brooklyn, New York. It's a funny book, often poignant, sometimes very moving, always very honest. It's an excellent book, and was made into a very good movie in 2010.

Vizzini's work touched the lives of millions of young people. We can be sure that untold numbers of teens and young adults with depression recognized themselves in Craig Gilner, the intrepid narrator of It's Kind of a Funny Story, who is trying to save his own life, trying to believe that his life is worth saving.

Vizzini was a very talented writer, and was hugely successful. He found the kind of success as a youth author that I used to dream of - that I worked very hard for, but did not achieve. It's easy to speculate that Vizzini's early success contributed to his depression, but I think those easy answers are just as easily wrong. He was depressed. He sought help, he got help, but eventually his depression overwhelmed him. This happens to successful people, and it happens to people whose depression prevents them from ever achieving success. It happens to talented people, and it happens to ordinary people. For every Ned Vizzini, David Foster Wallace, and Anthony Lukas who kill themselves, there are thousands more, whose names we never know.

Suicide is called many things: cowardly, selfish, crazy. I find all of these judgements strange, and wrong. One of my little missions is, when I hear or read someone speaking ignorantly about suicide, to  always counter with a more compassionate perspective. Empathy really shouldn't be too difficult: imagine being in so much pain that death seems like the only option.

There is another thing about suicide: shame. In most western countries, suicide is among the three leading causes of death of people between the ages of 15 and 44, and the second leading cause of death between ages 10 and 24. And these figures do not include suicide attempts, which are much more frequent. (Figures from WHO and NIMH.) Most of those deaths also represent survivors: the loved ones left behind. I know many people whose lives have been touched by suicide, including my own and my partner's. Yet it's still rarely spoken of. Many families still change the cause of death in obituaries and fabricate stories for family history. Attitudes about mental illness have changed and are changing, but the stigma associated with suicide speaks to how much work remains.

I wish Ned Vizzini was still here to write more great teen novels, or to do whatever else he wanted. I hope his work has made life a little more bearable for some of his readers.


best of wmtc, 2013 edition

The wmtc greatest hits page has been updated with the best posts of 2012, as chosen by my partner and editor.

About this year's picks, Allan says: "I tried to be a bit more ruthless this year. Also you should highlight our Spain trip and also the tag "what i'm reading" since so many of those are great." All right, sir!

Thanks for reading and sharing my posts, and thank you always for your support.


lessons from wisconsin and michigan: tim hudak's threat to ontario workers is not over

Last September, when Tim Hudak announced that he intended to break Ontario's unions, it came as no surprise to labour activists. The head of Ontario's Progressive Conservative Party, cynically framing the issue as one of "choice," talked about "right-to-work" - a familiar euphemism for union busting - and repealing the Rand Formula. That 1946 Canadian Supreme Court decision ensures that everyone who enjoys the benefits of belonging to a union contributes union dues, which in turn ensures that union workplaces can survive.

And that, in turn, sets a standard for all Ontario workers, union or not. This is one time the expression "a rising tide lifts all boats" - usually applied in defense of regressive economic policies - actually does apply. Union work sets a standard in any community for decent pay and humane working conditions. Unions are a bulwark against the low-wage economy that has decimated working conditions in the United States. Without unions, the gun goes off on a race to the bottom.

Union workers throughout Ontario understood the threat and mobilized. Then, two weeks ago, Hudak rescinded his right-to-work plan. Activists throughout the province cheered, and with good reason. It was a significant win. But has the threat truly passed? And can we trust Hudak? Can we take him at his word?

First, we should acknowledge why Hudak changed his tune. He didn't wake up one morning thinking, How can I make life better for the average Ontarian? He took right-to-work off the table because of our resistance. Union workers and the a good portion of the general public made so much noise about right-to-work that members of Hudak's own party began to see the issue as an election liability. In other words, the fightback worked. And now, if we consider the battle won, if pack up our tents and return to complacency, we'll be blindsided when the next threat hits.

And what is the next threat? Hudak himself said (emphasis mine):
This ‘right-to-work’ issue just doesn’t have the scope or the power to fix the issues that are threatening 100 per cent of the manufacturing jobs in Ontario. So if we’re elected, we’re not going to do it — we’re not going to change the so-called ‘Rand Formula.’ Our agenda is a lot bigger, and a lot more ambitious, than that.
Right-to-work is only one torture instrument in the shock-doctrine toolbox of this anti-labour, anti-human agenda. Consider this New York Times story, "Wisconsin's Legacy for Unions," about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's union-busting tactics:
Mr. Walker’s landmark law — called Act 10 — severely restricted the power of public-employee unions to bargain collectively, and that provision, among others, has given social workers, prison guards, nurses and other public employees little reason to pay dues to a union that can no longer do much for them. . . . . [Act 10] bars public-sector unions from bargaining over pensions, health coverage, safety, hours, sick leave or vacations. All they can negotiate is base pay, and even that is limited: any raises they win cannot exceed inflation.”
Now compare this to one slice of Hudak’s "Million Jobs Act".
The Tories say that, if elected, they would save $2 billion by freezing public sector wages across the board. In an earlier announcement, they said they would find even more savings by slashing 10,000 jobs in the education sector.
Exactly how does freezing wages and slashing jobs create jobs? Ontario is bleeding manufacturing jobs as corporations chase the higher profits gained from a low-wage workforce in countries without health, safety, and environmental protections. Instead of mounting a real response that would protect good jobs and strengthen our communities, our politicians can only talk about corporate tax cuts... which lead to cutting social services... which means squeezing the people who provide those services... who are more likely to be unionized workers. Corporate tax cuts don't create jobs. They weaken our economy.

Hudak can try any number of sneaky methods of union-busting, or, if elected, he can slap right-to-work back on the table. That's what happened in Michigan. The right-wing National Review ran a story called "The New Wisconsin," which details how Michigan quietly became a right-to-work state.
Yet before anything could happen in Michigan, the right-to-work movement needed to overcome at least one more obstacle: [Republican] Governor Rick Snyder, who had announced during his race [in 2012] that right-to-work would not be on his agenda. He called it “too divisive” — a label that must have seemed entirely fitting as he watched Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, his neighbor across Lake Michigan, suffer through 18 months of partisan strife. The unions thought they detected weakness and began to push for what would become Proposal 2, a 2012 ballot initiative to enshrine collective bargaining in the state constitution, effectively putting compulsory unionism beyond the reach of right-to-work reformers.

“This turned out to be a priceless gift,” says Mike Shirkey, a Republican legislator and right-to-work ringleader. “It gave us the entire summer to frame the debate and let us tell voters that we’re not out to destroy unions but to protect workers’ rights.”
Snyder was elected in November 2012, and right-to-work was passed the following month.

In Wisconsin, with unions out of the way, the drive to destroy the fruits of the labour movement has begun: state Republicans have introduced a bill to repeal the five-day work week.

Don't let this happen here.

Thanks to Michelle for her amazing research and to James for continuing to keep me informed.