I’m in the midst of attempting to formulate something brilliant for an upcoming project… so far I’m feeling a little incoherent. Earlier this spring, I read and re-read Randall Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits; it’s a great book–complex and twisted and frustrating and sad… it’s one of those books that I truly believe everyone should read, but no one I know has. Sad. But I’ll keep pushing it.
(plot spoilers– but the book is so good that the plot really isn’t the main thing, so feel free)
Horace is a black teenager in a rural community in North Carolina. The community is as many rural communities are: heavily influenced by religion, race, a sense of history and continuity– redemption after slavery, proving racial equality–, being “respectable,” ideas of family and generation and respect for elders and the past and the upward, promising trajectory of history and ‘the race.’
Horace is gay. He is tormented, quite literally, by the fear of his family and church exposing and condemning his sexuality. He goes a little crazy–he sees bird men and ghouls and a mysterious double of himself that orders him to shoot the pastor–and then, horrifyingly, shoots himself.
This is awful. It is sad when it happens in a novel and tragic when it happens, as it too often does, in reality. What I intend to look at, however, is not a simple reduction of this novel to a pre-figuration of the “It gets better” campaign- which, obviously, is problematic on many levels- instead I intend to examine the effect of Horace’s suicide, which he postpones until it can be witnessed by his uncle, the preacher, on the community as a whole.
I believe that a community is created by the mutual credence given to a set of stories. That set may exclude as much as it includes–the stories of the unsuccessful long shot, the insufficiently brave, the missed chance that is never reclaimed… these are not stories that are precisely profitable for a community’s sense of self and are not, therefore, usually prevalent in its collective mythos. I believe that stories of homosexual members of the community are most frequently included within this subset of excluded stories. Horace’s suicide, which, as I mentioned, is witnessed by his uncle, forces an acknowledgement of the previously ignored. He destroys the assumption that “none of us are like that”, or that “that’s a white thing” by dramatically–theatrically– forcing everyone to look.
I plan to examine this book and the ideas of community and homosexuality and suicide and religion… my thoughts are circling around a re-formulation of the centrality of history and of memory to the idea of the self. If community is created by mutual credence given to a set of stories, then all (all!) that is needed to fundamentally change that community is a change in the stories that are told and believed.
At least, these are the ideas that are percolating in my little house tonight.