Sunday, April 13, 2008

Introduction for Jessica Benjamin's thesis

James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues” tells of two brothers who both know something about hardship: racism, the poverty of growing up in the projects, the narrator losing his baby daughter to polio, Sonny fighting to kick a heroin addiction. But their reactions are so different. The narrator doesn’t talk about his private pain; while Sonny, a jazz pianist, uses his music to explain how and what he’s feeling.

While reading Jessica Benjamin’s book, I kept thinking about “Sonny’s Blues,” how a story written in 1957 by a black man in Harlem, NY and a memoir written fifty years later by a white woman in Mankato, Minnesota have so much in common: the yearning for human connection; the struggle to communicate; the attempt to define family as much than just blood or social construct; the way the artist can turn his or her knowledge of hurt into art. When the narrator finally listens, really listens, to Sonny play the piano, he has this ephipany: “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we triumph is never new, it must always be heard. It’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness. “

Jessica Benjamin’s memoir of growing up lonely and female is a tale about suffering and triumph and delight. You may think you’ve heard the story before, but never like this. Never from this voice, never from this perspective, never in these images, and never from this artist. The writer is young, but the work is mature. It’s has emotion and insight. It’s has flawed and recognizably human characters and good story. It has poetry, lyricism—she can turn a phrase like nobody—but it also has power and punch, honesty and clarity. Benjamin is a writer who has something to say. She hits you where you live on more than one level and in more than one way; in fact, Benjamin can get you to feel competing emotions -- compassion, horror, and hilarity – all at the same time.

This isn’t just another memoir about childhood. This book is more than just another suburban girl’s coming-of-age story. It’s more than just another narrative about another All-American family’s dysfunction. This book concerns us all.

No comments: