Black Ice: layers of reminiscences

Let’s focus on chapter 7. We have started to discuss the ways that Cary’s narrative is crafted. I have identified elaboration and reflection as ways that she develops her narrative. She takes her time, returns to a phrase (such as “turn it out”) or an idea (Pap’s stories) and reflects back and forth. This is noticeably different than Tobias Wolff. If his is a fast-car ride on the roads of his past, without much in the way of back-seat driving from the adult author, Cary’s stays mainly in place. Think of her out on the pond–but not skating, walking, observing.

So, chapter 7 provides two good examples of the ways Cary elaborates her narrative, takes her time: the pot-smoking episode in the first half of the chapter; the next day out on the pond in the second. And in both cases, the episodes are layered with reminiscences that, as she puts it, the author audits. Notice the way she works Shakespeare (sonnet 64) and Alice in Wonderland and African storytelling into the layering of memory–it’s quite impressive. There is a reminder here, if nothing else, that autobiographical writing, whatever the focus, needs the same sort of development and depth we expect from other genres. And perhaps particularly so if it is going to take on something such as racial identity.

In this way I audit the layers of reminiscences, checking one against the other, mine against my schoolmates’. I trust the memory of my resentment…. But it’s also true that my memory is a card shark, reshuffling the deck to hide what I fear to know…. (127)

I suggest that in this layering, the author also moves forward on a key element of her conversation: the complications of race. If the book overall has the purpose of showing what it means to grow up black in America, from the author’s perspective, then this chapter complicates that perspective by indicating that there is room for error.

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Black Ice: Crafting the Conversation

Cary foregrounds the purpose of writing Black Ice with the figure of “conversation”:

The narratives that helped me, that kept me company, along with the living, breathing people in my life, were those that talked honestly about growing up black in America. They burst into my silence, and in my head, they shouted and chattered and whispered and sang together. I am writing this book to become part of that unruly conversation, and to bring my experience back to the community of minds that made it possible. [6]

This evokes an agenda that seems to make Cary’s narrative closer to Douglass’s than to Wolff’s–something more public and community oriented than personal and private. Certainly, Douglass would be included as a key, original member of the community of “narratives” and narrators that she evokes. The reference to songs suggests to me that Cary’s “unruly conversation” works very much like the metonymyic figure of the slave songs in Douglass’s slave narrative. A figure of interpretation and communication–and one that complicates the very act of communication that is taking place before our very eyes and ears.

However, if we were to think of Black Ice, therefore, as less stylistic, less story and more polemic or politics than Wolff’s novelistic memoir, we would miss the fact that there is a good deal of craft throughout this narrative. That craft, I would argue is (as with Douglass, and with Wolff) inseparable from the conversation. Cary participates in the conversation and joins the community as a writer, one who can craft her story. We will take that up in our final discussions. For now, I wanted to list a few elements of her craft that I have noticed–and that I would recommend you consider not just for grasping this book and its purpose, but also for your own writing. These are ways that autobiographical writing gets developed and is made meaningful. As we will all be focusing on doing that, they are worth exploring.

  • Character. Might be strange to think of a parent as a ‘character’ in your autobiography. But they need to function that way in writing, even if they were that way in your life. Notice how she describes her father [p. 11] through the description “my father was a student of judo.” She doesn’t leave it there. She develops it, as a novelist would a character, by helping us see what that means. Note how she ends with a wonderful simile–that shows us the character of the father and the world in which she lives, all at once: “It was like watching a carnivore sit down to porridge each night.”
  • Exposition. The tea dance [p. 13-14]. Exposition means information–might think of it as plot detail. Think of it as the context for her story. We get that here. But notice that we don’t just get details. She turns the exposition into a mediation on the underlying issue: cultural difference. This is a story about moving into a different world. So “tea dance” initiates the larger, more pressing difference that she describes in terms of language and interpretation: “incompatible languages.” Much as we saw with Frederick Douglass (who is, of course, expected to give lots of exposition–factual details, setting, etc), Cary is also effective in combing explicit statements of detail with more subtle implications of difference. Again, think of his slave song passage. The key for both is that we don’t simply get a resume listing of details: first this, then this, then this. The exposition serves the purpose of understanding. I think of exposition in autobiographical nonfiction as critical reflection: where the personal narrative and the argument reinforce each other. We see this in the science fair story (p. 16), where “story” is presented as part narrative, part criticism (“rebuke”). This is a way this ‘unruly conversation’ works in the narrative.
  • Scene. Exposition tends to beĀ  temporal and chronological–happening in time. A version of that focused on space and place would be the description of scene. Cary’s description of the First Night service when she first gets to St. Paul’s [53] offers an effective scene. What makes it effective is that the scene opens onto the issue of difference. She uses it to elaborate the earlier ideas of ‘unruly conversation’ and cultural difference by offering contrasting scenes. She is showing us what she is feeling–what is playing out, presumably, in her head. Voices talking back: once again, the details turn a focus on communication.
  • Structure. At the end of This Boy’s Life, we discussed the idea of the narrative structure. I offered the analogy of film structure which has a specific dramatic structure of conflict being resolved through three acts. We can see something like that in Black Ice. And in particular, we can think of the ‘turning point’ that is central to film structure: a problem (in response to an initial disturbance) plus a surprising complication that needs to be resolved by the end of the narrative.
  • Elaboration. “Turning out.” Notice how she takes this vernacular phrase and small detail–original said by Jimmy–and doesn’t leave it alone. She stays with it, puts it to work. In effect, she turns out what turning out means. One lesson is not only to find significance in what she elsewhere calls a “small” detail (her mother’s cigarettes), but when you find one, stay with it, go further with it.
  • Quotation. She quotes James Baldwin [78]. The book is give to her by a teacher. So, part of the story; but also made part of the story in using it to elaborate. Remember that autobiography is nonfiction. We deal with other texts, with quotations–or at least, you can think about the ways that doing so would be effective. She also beings with quotations–her three epigraphs.
  • Metaphor. She does like metaphor, as she tells us [89]. Thus, even though we do get metonymic details (those that focus on language and conversation), we get more metaphor than we see with Wolff. At the same time, notice that the metaphor doesn’t feel arbitrary. In fact, it becomes part of the focus: not just a metaphor, in this case, but a focus on her interest and grasp of metaphor. There is, of course, the title to consider.
  • Dream/Nightmare/Reverie. These not only show up in several places. Cary really puts them to work. I am thinking in particular of the extended reverie we see at the end of chapter 7, where she weaves in Pap’s stories with her exploration of the ice (and earlier in that chapter, weaves her memory of her tonsil operation into the pot-smoking experience in the woods. From a stylistic view, we can think of writing about a dream (reverie) or nightmare in autobiography as an interesting mix of metonymy and metaphor: highly symbolic, perhaps even fantastic, images and material–but ones which at some level, at least mentally, emerge from body and from connections to the real world of the writer. The poet Yeats titled his first autobiography: Reveries over Childhood and Youth. Thus autobiography itself can be thought of as reverie.