By Henry Greenfield
On Wednesday September 21, 2011, in the atrium of the Wright Museum, the English Department hosted a faculty reading. Chuck Lewis, professor of English and chair of the writing program, Christi Clancy, visiting professor of English and writing and Shawn Gillen, professor of English and chair of the journalism program, shared their creative writing with students and fellow faculty. Their pieces were a lot like Beloit: simultaneously local and international, quirky but levelheaded.
Take Chuck Lewis’s piece for example. It opens with a girl shopping for Barbies in Wal-Mart. Could he have picked a more quintessentially Midwestern scene? But the girl is strange. She wants a Taliban Barbie. A Wal-Mart employee tells her that Islamic fundamentalism isn’t a good look for Barbie. Barbie can be anything she wants, he says, motioning towards the wall of dolls, marveling at the choices provided by American consumer culture, but ironically forgetting that an eternity spent as a plastic blonde with big boobs and a tiny waist isn’t much of a choice.
Lewis isn’t cynical, though. He appreciates that Wal-mart and Barbies are our culture, for better or worse. Later, when the Wal-Mart employee is watching CNN, he notices that the CNN graphic has changed. He thinks of his dead wife and wonders what she would think of the new graphic. Presumably she liked the old one. Whatever your opinion of cable news, it is our culture. We were raised on it, along with Barbies and Walmart. Nostalgia for the old CNN graphic is real.
Christi Clancy’s short story also takes inspiration from American consumer culture. Set in the suburbs, Clancy’s metaphors come from aisle nine instead of pristine visions of nature. For Clancy, one doesn’t smell like a rose, one smells like Channel No. 5. In her story, the divorced father drops his kids off at their mother’s house like someone “at the drop off bin at Blockbuster.” The father’s girlfriend compares getting a man to buying a house.
But commodities aren’t only used as metaphors. They have emotional weight too. When the daughter puts her face in her father’s pillow, she is almost brought to tears by the smell of Axe because it reminds her of her father.
Although the setting is local – think Anytown, U.S. – Clancy shifts perspectives to widen her lens. And at the end of the piece, that lens becomes international when a teen age boy with a video camera records the stories climax, wondering how many views he’ll get in Japan if he posts the video on YouTube.
We are presented with a picture both local and international. This is America in 2011. In Clancy’s story, the mother routinely goes to a friend’s house for margaritas, tacos and reality TV And why shouldn’t she. What’s more American then margaritas, tacos and reality TV?
If Lewis and Clancy describe America today, Shawn Gillen describes it as it once was. He read from the historical novel he is currently working on, about the Our Lady of The Angles school fire. Set in 1950s Chicago, Gillen describes a very different city then the one we know today. Neighborhoods that are now predominantly black were Irish and Italian. For the Italian heroine, a German might as well be from Mars.
She embodies the same deep history her city has inherited. She wears her grandmother’s clothing, which came all the way from Italy. She plays with rosary beads, a religious tradition.
Her love interest seems to represent the naiveté of the 1950s. Before going off to war they lie next to one anther in bed. His nakedness makes him seem vulnerable and fragile to her. When he returns, he doesn’t seem so delicate. She wonders if she could still make him cry.
All three pieces describe who we are as people, as Americans and as Beloit students. They describe where we are going and where we have been.