Pushkin and the Queen of Spades
By Alice Randall (Houghton Mifflin, 288 pp., $24)
The author will read at
Davis-Kidd Booksellers on May 4 at 6 p.m.
One day, when she was a child, Alice Randall came home from school and announced that Columbus had discovered America. "Discovered for whom?" asked her father, disappointed that his daughter didn't recognize that people lived in the land before the explorer's arrival. Randall learned a lesson from that encounter: "I knew I had to think about things from a variety of perspectives, and not be afraid to ask questions," she says. As a writer, the grown-up Randall has become a kind of explorer herself, claiming ground that was once the sole province of others. Unlike Columbus in the Americas, however, the taken-for-granted inhabitants of her literary lands are often those in power and not so easily overlooked.
In 2001, Randall's first novel, The Wind Done Gone, was released into an acrimonious firestorm. The book, which was a correctional parody of Margaret Mitchell's Pulitzer Prize-winning classic Gone With the Wind, turned the antebellum novel's themes of survival, romantic love and class structure on their heads: The narrator in Randall's reading is Cynara, the biracial half-sister of a thinly veiled Scarlett O'Hara character known only as "Other." Though The Wind Done Gone was a best sellernovelist Harper Lee and historian Shelby Foote were among its admirersit also inspired much-publicized hostility: Mitchell's estate objected to Randall's co-opting Gone With the Wind's "beloved characters," and some readers viewed the inversion of the original text as practically sacrilegious.
Randall's forthcoming book, Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, may not be as controversial as her debut, but it too claims occupied land. The book's ironically named protagonist, Windsor Armstrong, is an African American woman who rises from impoverished Detroit roots and unwed motherhood to become a professor of Russian literature. Like Randall, Windsor is Harvard-educated, and her son, Pushkin X, is named for both the late civil rights leader and the 19th-century Russian poet (who was one-eighth black). But Pushkin X shares none of his mother's interests or values: He's a superstar professional football player who loves the rap music of Tupac Shakur and is engaged to Tanya, a blond-haired, blue-eyed Russian lap dancer. As Windsor struggles to accept Pushkin's choices, which seem so different than her own, she is forced to reframe her Motown childhood and confront the abuse in her past that keeps her from seeing the beauty in her son's life.
Windsor's father, Leoa man Randall characterizes as a racistcould not perceive the beauty in white people. Consequently, Windsor wasn't allowed to express her sense of injury that the cultural ideal of beauty included only the blond-haired, blue-eyed models she saw on television and in the movies. Because of her resemblance to these women, Pushkin's fiancée appalls Windsor, who hasn't yet escaped her own childhood prejudice. According to Randall, this type of isolation is protective and hard to let go of, but is ultimately constraining. "When you are a racist, you fail to see the beauty in the children, the women, the music and the aesthetics of the other," says Randall. "That's a weird kind of irony, when oppressed groups benefit from their insularity. In Pushkin, I look at the wounded aesthetic of a black woman who wishes to have her son pick someone who looks like her and shares her sense of beauty. Eventually, she comes to realize that every child has the right to make his or her own romantic and sexual choices."
Randall moved to Nashville in 1983 to write country songs (with Matraca Berg she co-wrote the Trisha Yearwood hit "XXXs and OOOs"), and she clearly enjoys playing the role of contrarian. "Part of moving to Nashville for me was the reclaiming of country music, because it's a black musical form too: The banjo is an African instrument, for example, and Elvis and Hank Williams were strongly influenced by black musicians." Randall's deconstructive approach, however, is grounded in postmodern critical theories that hold the reader responsible for a text's meaning. In Pushkin, for example, Windsor describes her experience as a black woman reading Charlotte Bronte: "Good little boogie black girls all over America have read and reread Jane Eyre. Many experience it as a satisfactory, if incomplete, translation of their grandmother's experiences in Georgia or Alabama into the gentrified and gentling English countrysideand into the Queen's English. They quicken with me at the possibility that Rochester's wife, albeit crazy and imprisoned in the attic, was a woman of color."
Randall isn't interested in imprisoning Windsor in a victim's role; only a few paragraphs in Pushkin deal with her abusive childhood. Like Cynara in The Wind Done Gone, Windsor's traumatic upbringing causes much pain but is empowering in the long run. "The story is not about Windsor's experience as the child of a bad mother," Randall says. "Though she is a severely abused child, she is not defined by that experience. Rather, she is defined by her relationship to the present and by trying to show up and be the absolute best mother possible."
Recovering from injury, and even prevailing as a result, is a recurrent theme in Randall's work. At times, the debate that swirled around The Wind Done Gone threatened to overwhelm this point, along with the book's literary value. The book survived legal attacks by the Mitchell estate, however, and went on to win numerous awards, including the Free Spirit Award and the Literature Award of Excellence presented by the Memphis Black Writers Conference, and was a finalist for the NAACP Image Award. "In The Wind Done Gone, I'm writing about a text that had injured me, but with Pushkin I'm writing about an author that has sustained me," says Randall, who hopes the new book will appeal more to her core audience of those concerned with social issues and less to those interested primarily in controversy. "It's a more positive message about a more obscure figure; fewer people know about Pushkin, and of those fewer still know that he is Afro-Russian."
In the antebellum South, the "one-drop rule" determined whether someone could be sold on the auction block: It took only one drop of African blood to make a person a slave. By taking back literary ground once marked "Whites Only," Randall turns the one-drop rule on itself: Her Pushkin is as black as Tupac. (Significantly, both men died in a gun battle.) By claiming the blackness of white-dominated conceptssuch as the Russian poet, the antebellum South or country musicRandall encourages readers to make sense of a text from the outside, bringing their own beliefs and social settings into play with those of the writer, rather than accepting the text at face value. Regardless of gender or racial background, readers can then claim both worldviews as their ownthough this is a selective process: "If they put Queen Elizabeth up on the auction block," Randall says, "I'm not sure if I would take her."
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