Posts Tagged ‘Mississippi’

Book Review: Biloxi by Mary Miller

BiloxiBiloxi by Mary Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: Mary Miller is my colleague in The W’s MFA program in Creative Writing. I’m a big fan of her work.

Biloxi is a hilarious read, though it’s not laugh-out-lout funny, outlandish, or bawdy. Mary Miller’s humor, to my mind, consists more of taking wry, sardonic pot shots at contemporary culture in a loving, even complicit way. Her novel is not driven by plot; instead it presents a complex character study. Louis McDonald, Jr., her rather clueless yet lovable main character, navigates a personal crisis after his divorce, and the point is not how well he succeeds or even how he learns or grows (though arguably, he does). The point is that we understand him and explore his world, a world Miller knows intimately, from its burger joints to its sad strip malls, beaches, and casinos. Or maybe the true main character is Layla, the dog, and we are like her, lapping up every tasty morsel, every slice of bologna Mary Miller tosses on the kitchen floor for us, occasionally nipping at a brother-in-law or running off only to return to our new home after awhile to see what other leftovers may be lying around. This novel is introspective and insightful, though it doesn’t offer easy answers as much as it offers a mirror onto the 21st-century, mid-American consumer culture we all inhabit, like it or not.

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Book Review: Heavy by Kiese Laymon

Heavy: An American MemoirHeavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kiese Laymon’s memoir is an important book for our time and a great read! It is immediately more personal than many since he addresses each chapter to his mother. Understanding that relationship is the lens through which Laymon examines race, gender, sexuality, and abuse in his own life and through his experiences in Mississippi and across the nation. It is a story of growth and maturity, in which Laymon does not shy away from his own complicity in oppressive social structures. As a young man, he commits petty crimes and witnesses gang rape. He also recounts his own experience of sexual abuse as well as ‘discipline’ that might now be considered child abuse, but was accepted at the time. Yet Laymon’s goal seems to be to understand the deep sources of this abuse and how these experiences have shaped him and those around him. He also does not shy away from the troubles in his own relationships or his issues with gambling. For all the difficult subject matter Laymon takes on, this remains a memoir steeped in the optimism of “black abundance,” and it speaks to all Americans, regardless of gender or race. You owe it to yourself to read this book.

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Meet Me at the Book Festival

IMG_0089One of the great developments for writers in recent years has been the inception of state-wide or regional book festivals across the country. Mississippi holds its @MSBookFest in August on the Capitol lawn, and I’ll be there next weekend, August 17, for the fifth year. My first time, I went as a volunteer. My second year, I went as a writer with Barrier Island Suite, and for the past three years, I’ve gone to represent The W with our magazines, writing programs, and the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium at an organization table. I don’t get to hear as many of the great readers that way, but I do get to meet a lot of people and talk about writing and publishing in our state.

The readings take place inside the capitol building in the air conditioning. Our tables are outside in the shade, so the heat is never too unbearable, though last year we got some rain! Here’s some of what I’ll be missing out on inside. Mary Miller will read from her novel Biloxi, Kiese Laymon will read from Heavy. They will both also be at the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium this fall, so I will get a chance to hear them in October. There are many other panels with luminaries liek Joyce Carol Oats and Ann Patchett, as well as writers you may not have heard of, but whose work will delight.

John Bateman and T. K. Lee will be outdoors with me on Author’s Alley, where small press writers can represent their own books, and there are bookstores, food tents, and live music. It’s a great way to end the summer and start off the school year (if, like me, you’ll be heading back to classes soon). And it’s free! The only things you’ll need money for are books and food. Come enjoy a lovely Saturday (here’s hoping for good weather again!) in Jackson, Mississippi. And if that’s too far for you to travel, find the book festival in your state! More and more, it seems like something states are doing, and that’s great news for books, reading, and culture!

Book Review: Miss Jane by Brad Watson

Miss JaneMiss Jane by Brad Watson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s no wonder Watson’s latest novel was nominated for the National Book Award. Watson presents us with compelling characters whose lives explore contemporary issues in a setting of historical fiction. The title character, Jane is born in the early 20th century with a birth defect that leaves her incontinent and unable to have children or maintain normal social relations. We see her from the day she is born and follow her and her family into adulthood as they struggle with and adapt to the implications of her condition. She cannot stay in school, yet she is bright enough to be able to learn on her own how to read and do math. She is naturally curious about herself and about her sexuality, though she is unable to fully explore that side of her life. She is intensely aware of the fertile life on her Mississippi farm, and seems more in tune with life than many around her as she accepts the body she was born with.

Watson’s portrayal of the character based on his own great-aunt is warm and sympathetic, even as his understanding of the family dynamics and the struggles Jane’s parents and sister must go through. His portrayal of rural life in Mississippi in the 1920’s and 1930’s is spot-on and a significant part of the value of this book. The relationships of men and women who work on the farm, the struggles to eek out a living from the soil during hard times, and the bone-wearying life of a country doctor, perhaps Jane’s greatest and most lasting friend, serve as the perfect foil for her own struggles and add to the rich portrayal of Southern country life.

Miss Jane is not always an easy read, as it takes on difficult issues of gender and race, yet we are much the wiser for it.

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Book Review: The Secret of Magic, Deborah Johnson

The Secret of MagicThe Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Secret of Magic is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Inspired by a true case of a WWII serviceman who was singled out and arrested on a bus in the North Carolina, then brutally abused while in custody for insisting on his most basic civil rights, Deborah Johnson weaves a magical realist tale combined with realities of the the early Civil Rights era. Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund figure in the novel, and 1940’s Columbus, MS, provides much of the backdrop for the fictional town of Rever). Invented characters and events, as well as a novel within the novel, provide Johnson the magical elements needed to weave an important statement on race relations in the past, present, and future South.

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Where do we go from here? One faculty member’s perspective

[The following is a column originally printed in the Commercial Dispatch, Columbus, Mississippi, on Sunday, February 7.]

I ended a recent letter stating MUW needs to look to the future and be proactive. The issues of changing our name or merging with another university appear to be behind us for now, and no matter what our positions have been, we must face the reality that we remain Mississippi University for Women. We are capable of facing the tough challenges ahead, so the question that will determine our future is: How? I believe we must stick to our mission and capitalize on our strengths.

Clearly, the budget is our most pressing issue. We must work diligently to assure fair and adequate funding from IHL, including a funding formula that does not discriminate against small teaching universities. MUW and any other university in this category must receive the small school supplement because we do not have access to as many grants, we do not have graduate students to teach our classes, and we do not have the economies of scale of the larger research oriented institutions. Yet the small schools serve a segment of the population that would not succeed in a large university environment. MUW has the smallest enrollment in the state, yet we are currently denied the small school supplement. This situation must be rectified.

We must also join alums in a capital campaign to raise private funds to offset some of the losses in state revenues due to the current budget crisis. Donations to our general fund will help us meet our immediate needs, and donations to scholarships will help offset increases in tuition, which MUW has requested along with the other IHL institutions. Higher tuition will not hurt our students, if we can help them find more financial aid to help cover the costs.

Maintaining access to higher education must remain one of MUW’s primary goals. Despite tuition increases, MUW remains the best value in public or private colleges in the state. In order to improve in this area, we also must find new ways to reach segments of the population who haven’t had access to higher education, while maintaining our unique mission.

Online education has been promoted as one way to “save the ‘W,” yet it seems unlikely that MUW will become the next University of Phoenix. One of our strengths is our small campus environment. which does not fit with a large online presence. Yet students are more likely to have full-time jobs and families. They are used to online classes and they demand some online options . Yet MUW must be careful how we implement them. Rushing into a major online presence would be detrimental to our image and our mission, and we may not be able to compete with other institutions who have a head start in this area. We must continue to develop the highest quality online or hybrid programs and classes that offer flexibility and a personal approach. Students will choose a class that is well organized over one that is not. They will choose a class where the instructor communicates with them and answers their questions promptly. And they will choose a class from an institution with a reputation like MUW’s.

To maintain and polish our reputation, MUW must reaffirm its mission as a small, liberal arts and professional university with a woman’s emphasis. It is easy to claim a woman’s mission, but it is another thing to define what that is and to show that it is still valuable. Many of our alumnae have extolled the benefits they received from attending MUW. In comparison to other women in their graduate programs and professions, they report they are more empowered to take part in discussions and participate in their fields. They do not even consider taking a back seat to their male colleagues, while many of their female colleagues do. Women students at MUW have not been coddled or protected. On the contrary, they have been challenged to succeed in ways that are not as available in traditional coed institutions.

It is true that MUW admits men, and the number of male students has steadily grown. Clearly these men find value in a university with a woman’s emphasis. As we reaffirm our woman’s mission, we must also evaluate how we can best serve this part of our demographic.

Men as well as women benefit from small class sizes and personal attention from faculty and advisors. Beyond the small college experience, our male students benefit from a woman’s emphasis where issues of gender are at the forefront, and men benefit from learning in a collaborative teaching environment. The men at MUW learn valuable skills for working with women in leadership positions, which are skills they will need in a modern work environment where more women are becoming managers and executives.

MUW also offers leadership opportunities to men. We have had male Student Government Association Presidents and officers. We have fraternities, and our male students are active in other student groups. Men at MUW do not take a back seat to women, but they also do not assume they will take the front seat. In many ways, men at MUW learn to compete and cooperate better than they would in an environment where they still have an advantage because of their gender.

MUW must market itself as the right choice for both men and women because of its woman’s mission, not despite it. To do so, MUW must tout its successes. We must let the world know about our alumnae and alumni who have gone on to successful careers. We must also promote our many successful programs, from art exhibits and auctions, to music concerts, theatre productions, and literature conferences such as the Eudora Welty Writers Symposium and Tennessee Williams festival, and to our excellent programs in Education, Nursing, Culinary Arts, and Business (to name but a few and leave out too many). MUW is a vibrant campus serving the needs of its students and benefiting the community at large, and too often we are too humble about our accomplishments.

Finally, MUW must reaffirm our woman’s emphasis by engaging in a dialogue about how we define it and why it is vital to the MUW experience. This must not be a topdown process, but must come from our three main constituent groups: faculty and staff, students, and alums. These three groups, more than any others, must define our future. Our alums are our link with the past and tradition, but they are also our first line of support and they are committed to our future. Our faculty and staff, including administrators, represent continuity. Many of us have been here a decade or more. We are engaged with students every day, and we all participate in the governance of the university. Our students are our present and our future. They can best tell us why they chose MUW, how it meets their needs, where we need to improve, and what our prospective students want and need. Only a process that truly engages the university community as a whole and from the ground up will have a chance of uniting that community and renewing the strength we need to face the challenges that lie ahead.

Just say No (to merger)

First a bit of history…. a little over 15 years ago in June, when I was a relatively young grad student who had just defended his dissertation and was out on a job interview, I awoke to the public radio station reporting news of a planned merger for the school where I was about to interview. This was a little unsettling, to say the least. The school was MUW, where I’ve been teaching ever since.

At my interview with the division head (we had 8 divisions then, instead of 4 colleges), I timidly asked about the news. “Oh, that will never happen,” Ginger Hitt reassured me. And she was right. Then, as now, the alums of Mississippi University for Women went to bat for their alma mater. Then, as now, they wrote letters, made phone calls, made personal visits, and made it clear that the first state supported university for women should not be closed or merged.

Today we face the same threat, this time ostensibly due to the current budget crisis, though there is little evidence that merging MUW (and merging Alcorn, Valley, and Jackson State) will have much of an effect on the budget. When there are financial or other difficulties, someone always seems to call for closing the traditionally African American universities and the women’s university. It just so happens that we are also the smallest universities in the state. Never mind that many students are better served in a small, teaching university than in a large research university. Some will always believe that bigger is better, but for many students who need a more personal education, it is not. Our successes can be witnessed by the passion and political savvy of our many alums, who have already begun to mobilize in our support.

Fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have guessed I would still be here and would be facing the same threats again. But I have grown to love the W and to respect what it stands for. I have worked hard over those years to be a part of what makes this university great, and I have seen the tireless efforts of many others. I would hate to see that legacy lost if MUW were merged with Mississippi State, as Governor Barbour proposed in his budget today. We would lose our identity and many of our core faculty, if that happens. Our students would lose the opportunity to learn in the environment that best fits them (if it didn’t, they would have chosen one of the larger schools). I have heard from many of my students and from many alums who have told why MUW was the right place for them at that point in their lives.

That is why they support us — because we offer an educational opportunity that can not be matched or duplicated, and it has made a difference in their lives. They have already organized two meetings, on in Jackson yesterday and one in Columbus next Sunday. My hat is off to the long blue line!