Pushcart 2015: LaToya Watkins, “The Mother” from Ruminate, #29

"The Geneaology of Jesus – A Countdown to Christmas" by Jessica Lynette

“The Geneaology of Jesus – A Countdown to Christmas” by Jessica Lynette

The Visits done died down a little bit now. Some still come. The rustlers like this one sitting in front of me. They still ask bout Hawk. Bout how he came to call hisself the Messiah. Bout who his daddy is, but I ain’t got nothing for them.
I look out the window I keep my chair pulled up next to. Ain’t no sun, just cold and still. Banjo lift his head up when he see my eyes on him but it don’t take him long to let it fall back on his paws. He done got his rope a little tangled up. Can’t move too much with it like that, but he can breathe and lay down. He alright. I’ll go out and work out the knot when I can – when this gal leave.
It’s cold out there, but I ain’t too worried bout Banjo. He got natural insulation. I’m the one cold and I’m on the inside – supposed to be on the inside cause I’m a person. I ain’t got no insulation though.

Character; setting; diction: three of the mainstays of fiction. And this story – a story about storytelling – is a master class on all.

First, diction. Diction, in good fiction, informs and is informed by character. Watkins has chosen a first-person narrator, and for this character, that means a story written in dialect. It’s not easy to write in dialect. I don’t even like using the word “dialect” since it hints that there’s a standard of normal and everything else is other, but it’s a word useful in linguistics, without any hint of valuation, to describe a subset of spoken language characteristic of a particular group, a twist on language that is understandable to those outside the dialect group, but has its own rules and quirks. Dialects quickly become stigmatized (even academia or medspeak, dialects used by the highly-educated; linguistics doesn’t discriminate, that’s what amateurs are for).

I often have trouble reading stories written in dialect because they tend to include lots of apostrophes. Those apostrophes indicate absence; missing letters. More normality indicators. One of the reasons I like the way Watkins has written this story is that she’s left out the apostrophes. Yes, “about” is “bout”, but that’s different from “’bout”, I think. Visually, it’s cleaner, easier to read. Symbolically, I prefer it too: it doesn’t scream, “Something is missing here!” The word is just spelled differently, because that’s how it’s used in the dialect. She also avoids apostrophizing –ing’s by just including the –ing. Few of us speak in written English; all the little things, “gonna” and “wanna” and “yeah” show up, even when we write “going to” so why not just write it, and let people read it as they hear it, which is probably with the elided “g” anyway. We get the idea; we know how Ms. Hawkins – oh, hell, call her momma, that’s who she is, not Ms. anything – speaks. Her word choice, her sentence structure, aside from pronunciation – number, tense, vocabulary – provides the information we need to hear her as she speaks. Poking our eyes out with hundreds of apostrophes isn’t necessary. Bravo.

Setting and character are also interwoven:

I pretend in my mind I was raised here and not on 34th. Just pretend I been on the East side all along. On the East side where good-time whoring didn’t never catch, even if being strung out on drugs did. Where snow come to cover up the dirt in places where grass don’t never grow, like icing covering up chocolate cake or brownies or anything dark and sweet. The East side. Where you be happy poor and don’t try to pretend you can whore your way out. I just pretend in my mind I was brought up poor and wasn’t never no whore.

Again, we know exactly what the East side is, though I wasn’t sure what it was the East side of. It doesn’t matter. And don’t kid yourself, we all try to whore our way out. We’ll meet a few young ladies in this story who aren’t whores in the sexual sense, but they sure are trying to whore their way out (or in, perhaps): they’re reporters. As momma says, “… I know her kind. She want her story. She’ll cry to get it.”

That moves us into the story of the story. The unveiling is multi-layered and wonderful, a little at a time, so I’m not going to play spoiler.

The story gets into several issues, but storytelling itself is central. The stories we tell ourselves. The stories we tell others. Stories passed on, misunderstood (deliberately or not), abused. Stories retold for the wrong reasons, and the right reasons. Stories that doom us, and stories that save us. Stories that save others. Momma is a goddess of stories, and she’s got one that never seemed to matter to anyone until her son, some kind of self-proclaimed Messiah, died in a cult mass-suicide. But she’ll only give her story to someone who needs – and deserves – it.

I think bout my last conversation with Hawk. He talked bout earthly fathers and his heavenly one. “Well, you know in one them books, Matthew, I think, when everybody get to begetting somebody else?” She nod her head. “Well, Hawk told me that ain’t had nothing to do with Jesus momma. That’s all bout Joseph. The step-daddy.”
“That’s right. The genealogy in that book is Joseph’s,” she say, nodding her head. She interested in what I got to say now.
“Well, if the Jesus, the one you and half the world think was the Messiah, and his disciples ain’t care nothing about who was and wasn’t his real daddy, why we always trying prove DNA and mess today?”

Some stories are more important than others. And some stories are more important in how they’re told, and why. Momma is absolutely correct: with all the fuss in Matthew (and Luke) about the Virgin Birth, when push comes to shove, Matthew gives Joseph’s genealogy as Jesus’, until it comes to the last line, when all the begatting turns into “and Joseph was the husband of Mary.” Biblical scholars explain there’s a reason Matthew did this: he was writing for a Jewish audience, and this type of genealogy, linking Jesus to the patriarch Abraham, was important in fulfilling scriptural promise. Mary’s lineage just won’t do for that (Luke uses it in his gospel, though he too includes Joseph). Biblical scholarship is complicated.

The stories we tell, how we tell them, to whom. And why.

Pushcart selected this story from Ruminate Magazine, a journal ” created in April 2006 by a group of fellow writers, artists, and believers who wanted a space for the thoughtful expressions of those who are nudged forward, backward, and sideways by faith in God” and featuring ” short stories, poetry, creative nonfiction, and visual art that resonate with the complexity and truth of the Christian faith”. Some stories are complicated.

In an interview for the UT/Dallas newspaper, Watkins, a doctoral student and instructor, explained her motivation for telling this story: “I wanted to explore the black, matriarchal experience in West Texas since it’s a place that never saw slavery firsthand. It was a place with imported segregation; that separation wasn’t forced, but understood.”

The stories we tell. They matter.

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