Apr 16 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 05: Nicole Cuffy’s “Steal Away”

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Midwest Mod Squad no. 05: Nicole Cuffy’s “Steal Away”

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 04 here)

Nicole Cuffy is a New York based writer with a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from the New School. Her storySteal Awaytakes place in the early twentieth-century sharecropping South.

If the focus of the essence of Arp’s story “Gormley” is on an individual at an individual moment, one might say the essence of Nicole Cuffy’s story “Steal Away”[1] is much wider in scope. Instead of the individual, the essence of “Steal Away” focuses on things like political economy and multiple individuals, family dynamics and cross-cultural relations between whites and blacks, as well as between Southerners and Northerners, as we see below:

The North was a different country, one that would demand Irving’s assimilation. The North would ruin him for the South, so that on the rare occasion Irving made it down to visit his parents—and they would only very rarely get to see him, their son, their only child—he’d be a stranger, an outsider….

To hold your children down to keep them near, to hold them down because they needed a good measure of get down in them to survive, was slavery. But to send her only baby upriver knowing she’d hardly ever see him again was also slavery.[2]

Compare this to a passage from Faulkner. Compare how both Cuffy and Faulkner both use the words assimilation and slavery:

What he [Houston] did not comprehend was that until now he had not known what true slavery was—that single constant despotic undeviating will of the enslaved not only for possession, complete assimilation, but to coerce and reshape the enslaver into the seemliness of his victimization.[3]

But now to the political economy and cross-cultural relations in “Steal Away,” for that is the essence of Cuffy’s story:

And Lysee [the landlord], harangued as Reggie said he looked, must be making a profit somewhere. He must be, or else he wouldn’t let their debt go, a debt built on joint notes, on poor crops, on overpriced fertilizer and seed, on seventeen percent interest rates, on crooked mortgages. It fired Hester up. She’d counted Lysee as a good one—never spoke an impolite word to any of them, never forced them to sign anything they couldn’t read, never tried to cut in on them on how to live their lives outside their work. Yes, he overcharged for supplies in his store, set up interest rates on their advances and rations money that kept them in debt, mortgaged their animals and wagons so they couldn’t sell them, but Hester had never held any of that against him. That was just how business was done in this country.[4]

It’s as if Cuffy’s narrator is saying Hester was fine with the landlord Lysee stealing from them here in there––if the reader interprets stealing to mean skimming off the top, and fine to mean that such skimming was to be expected in that particular time and place.

But now the unexpected intrudes into Hester’s life: Lysee says the banks have stolen the land out from under him (even though the loans he took out were likely legitimate). Because Lysee has lost the land, he expects the banks to replace Hester and her people with tractors and other advances in agro-technology. In the meantime, Lysee will confiscate their cattle and chickens, constituting a new form of plunder for the sharecroppers.[5]

So first Hester’s home and food supplies are taken from her and her family, then, while they’re consoling themselves by singing some blues to one another,[6] they get interrupted by the arrival of a neighboring wealthy planter, Mr. Simon Russell and an out-of-towner named Mr. Ashbury.[7] Hester’s family and friends are then asked to perform their music for the whites instead of for themselves. Their music––that is, their art, their spirit––is appropriated under the guise of it being appreciated.

And the white men’s appetite for that appropriation is insatiable. They ask for one song after another. But when Russell and Ashbury ask for a blues song, they are denied by Hester’s people, with the excuse given that it’s inappropriate to sing blues on Sunday.[8] Yet that denial also indicates that the blues they were singing before whitey arrived were something precious, sacrosanct. Despite having many things stolen from them, over the years and at that moment, Hester and her folk will keep certain treasures to themselves. They will not submit.

NOTES

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[1] Nicole Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, selected by Roxane Gay, eds. Kim Winterheimer and Sadye Teiser, (Bend, OR: The Masters Review, 2017) 171–86.

[2] Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 177–78.

[3] William Faulkner, The Hamlet, (New York: Random House, 1940) III, ii, 1, p. 210.

[4] Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 180.

[5] Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 179–80. On the use of the word “plunder,” see Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015) 9, 11–12, 20, 119.

[6] Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 181.

[7] Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 181–82.

[8] Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 184–85.


Apr 5 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 02: Materials for Investigation

Mark Twain in Athens

Midwest Mod Squad no. 02: Materials for Investigation

(Read no. 01 in this series here.)

Let’s now see who the subjects of investigation are:

New Pop Lit is a publishing organization putting out contemporary short fiction. As a publishing group it appears to be placeless and ageless, for there’s nothing on their About Page to indicate otherwise. Incidentally (or as the investigation proceeds we may say, not so incidentally) three of the six stories I read from here all took place within a school setting. New Pop Lit appears to want plot-driven stories over style evangelists and politics disguised as fiction. The first six writers I read were:

  • Jon Berger of Saginaw, Michigan and his story “Eighty Pounds.”
  • Kathleen M. Crane, a contributing editor at New Pop Lit, and her story “Red Panties and a Guitar.”
  • Tianna Grosch from the woodlands of Pennsylvania and her story “Unraveling.”
  • Clint Margrave of Los Angeles and his story “The Fetus.”
  • A. K. Riddle of “in the Middle of Nowhere, Illinois” and her story “The Professor.”
  • Don Waitt of Tampa and his story “Raquetball.”

*****

Five on the Fifth is also an ageless, placeless publication putting out contemporary short fiction. One recent story I read was a horror (?) tale “Jonah and the Frog,” set mostly in a (New Orleans?)  bar by James Wade. I’ve read at least half-a-dozen stories of his over the last few years, and he happens to be someone I know personally. I know he’s from Texas and is currently engaged in a cross-continental drift across America. And this reminds me of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s memoir, A Life … Well, Lived (2015) where he reflects on how, sometime between the 1990’s and the Aughts, it became better to be called an American songwriter, rather than just a Texas songwriter. Therefore, I don’t know if I would call James Wade (or if he would call himself) a Texas writer.[1]

*****

The Masters Review is a publishing house out of Bend, Oregon. Its sixth volume of contemporary short fiction contains ten stories selected by Roxane Gay, two of which stood out well in front of the others. Coincidently (or not), not only do these two stories both fall under the genre of historical fiction, but both writers are from New York:

Chris Arp is a rather unknown quantity (much like Pop Lit and Five on Five), but he does disclose graduating from NYU’s Creative Writing Program. His story “Gormley,” is set somewhere in the mid-nineteenth-century British Empire. Nicole Cuffy is a New York based writer with a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from the New School. Her story “Steal Away” takes place in the early twentieth-century sharecropping South.

*****

Belt Publishing of Cleveland, Ohio is an outfit that caters to readers and writers of all things Midwest. I’ve recently read two chapbooks that they’ve put out, but don’t let their small size fool you. The contents of both Edward McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern (2016) and Mark Athitakis’s The New Midwest (2016) are quite concentrated and deserve multiple readings.

McClelland is based in Chicago, and his is a book of regional language and dialects. Athitakis lives in Phoenix but is a native Midwesterner. His book surveys the literature from that region from about the last 100 years with a focus on works since 1960.

Like Alfarabi’s four questions, mentioned in no. 01 of this series, I will mostly be using these two books as tools to analyze and understand the stories under consideration.

*****

The next post in this series will begin to analyze all of what’s mentioned above.


NOTES

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[1] Ray Wylie Hubbard with Thom Jurek, A Life Well, Lived, (Wimberly, TX: Bordello Records, 2015).