Love Does Not Make Me Gentle Or Kind-Chavisa Woods
-Graceland (Paul Simon)
It seemed eerily significant that in the same week that I first met Chavisa Woods, scenes of youthful violence and victimization filled the media outlets. YouTube videos of teenage girls in Florida bloodying one of their own were broadcast ad nauseum; over four hundred children of a polygamous sect in Texas were taken into protective custody; and Virginia Tech noted one year since its on campus massacre. A societal landscape of pervasive brutality and ubiquitous perdition. This also is the milieu of Woods’ short story collection, Love Does Not Make Me Gentle Or Kind. Her stories are at once a true-life chronicle of growing up absurdly in rural America and a surrealistic survival book on how to transcend the same.
Readers may have trekked some of this toxic terrain before with writers like Dorothy Allison, but Chavisa Woods leads us through these narratives with a Doris Lessing-like metaphysical clarity.
It is the author’s understated, wise beyond her years psychological perceptions that are the binding emulsion of this collection. In response to an interviewer’s comment on this, Ms. Woods response was,” Don’t they say it’s the mileage not the years that matter?” Indeed.
It is a mark of the writer’s syntactical brilliance that she opens this book with a textbook precise description of the honeysuckle plant only to then adroitly immerse the reader in the paradoxical childhood realm of vulnerability and acute awareness. “Where I was growing up, violence was as common as a sneeze”, Ms. Woods stated to me matter- of- factly. Characteristically the children in “The Smell of Honey” have become acclimated to an atmosphere of violence to the point where this acclimation has become their device for survival. This is a reoccurring thread throughout the book.
The vivid characters and scenarios are depicted with such sagacious nuance, that the reader is drawn into a childlike vision of rich metaphor that belies the knife sharp actuality. It is both a trenchant literary memoir and a searing indictment of a pitiless society. “Sundown in the Land of Lincoln” tells of a novice African-American grade school student who realizes that “People were processing the information of him and trying to fit him into the category of human being, without compromising the integrity of their own status…” Later, his dilemma is only finally resolved with a magical jolt of cultural and chemical shamanism.
By the time the reader reaches only the third story, “Kicking”; they find themselves vicariously enveloped in the complex vortex of adolescent sexuality. In just four pages, the writer vibrantly brings alive all the fear, anticipation and wonder of youthful physical discovery. All of this in what is ostensibly a short description of everyday playground shenanigans. This alternating sensibility of empowerment and vulnerability is the vehicle that transports and thereby transforms those who partake in all of Chavisa Woods’ art. It is an artistic statement that brings to mind the observations of French philosopher Jacques Lacan and his extensive explorations of his concept of “the Other.” In other stories, the female protagonists respond to their exploitation with a violent, brutal act. Mutilation or dismemberment is not disallowed. At the same time there is always a transcendent panoramic truth, both ontological and emotional that fills the page.
“Never Enough” is a narrative from her book that has a section that Ms. Woods often delivers as a performance piece. In it, the narrator, a female proto-punk dyke Holden Caulfield type declares: “ Or maybe I don’t believe in GOD anymore, ’cause my God was always talking about how he died for me and I had to die and be reborn for him all the time, or else spend all my afterlife dying, and I only have the energy to die for one thing at a time right now, and right now I’m dying for love. Maybe I’ll die for love right now, and later I’ll die for God. Or maybe I already died a little for God. Anyway. Fuck it.”
It is in fact, the philosophical undercurrent of these stories that drives them and distinguishes them from the genre of transgressive literature. And it is not as if these stories necessarily unfold in an orthodox linear manner. It is more accurate to say that the brilliantly descriptive prose barrels the reader through a Hieronymus Bosch like tunnel of images and deep perceptions. One rich in societal and psychological revelations. These seemingly shuffled chapters of one novel suggest progression and development simultaneously with freeze frame cinematic scenes that stop time for both the characters and reader. Beyond the constraints of linearity, the author is free to impart to the reader incidents in scenarios that are unbounded by cause and effect. What then surfaces and are truly experienced by the reader are the most profound of emotional and at the same time political truths.
Chavisa Woods’ prose explodes the connection between patriarchal tyranny and fascism. It is within that spectacle of explosion that the contemporary American Zeitgeist becomes illuminated. Love Does Not Make Me Gentle Or Kind is as much an indictment of the ignorant and sadistic among us as it is of the collective atmosphere of indifference that nurtures the same. What level of indifference must exist in a society that celebrates ignorance and pain? Is this indifference the only natural human response to an unfeeling, modern super- sized technological environment? And to what degree are these factors the result of a system of Darwinian economics?
Only the best narrative writing can provoke as this collection does. This is an extraordinary book. Woods’ impeccable use of language involves the reader in a high level of intense vicarious physicality, while it provokes an equally intense emotional and intellectual response. This is well crafted art in the form of effective, dynamic literature.