Monday, January 2, 2012

Day Two: "What Ernest Says" by Sue Miller

Identity. Influence.

For me, in reading this short story, I'm interested more in the characters who are not present than I am by Barbara, the 8th grade white girl in a predominately black school. The story reads as if it takes place in the 50's because of the way the classroom is divided by race but then again, it could just as easily describe the divisions often made by students of various cultures in an effort to disassimilate or to reclaim their cultural and socilogical identities in a society that has been pushing them to "blend" in in order to succeed.

Barbara's parents, the ones who send her to this particular school in lieu of the private school that their peers send their children to, inhabit the story only to demonstrate why Barbara is faced with a series of disturbing sexual encounters. In an effort to "expose" Barbara to many things, her parents left her exposed and vulnerable to the unexpected pressures that come from being white in a black world, in a world her parents clearly were never part of.

The pressure Miller subtly and perfectly portrays through Barbara is this: Don't let them see you flinch. Don't let them know you doesn't understand what they're saying. Don't let them know about the all white church you go to or about the confirmation you're planning for. Don't let them know you want to be somewhere else, with your own kind too just like they want to be with theirs. Don't let them know that you know you are an outsider, will always be one. Don't let Ernest know you are a good girl and that you don't understand what he means when he tells you what he wants to do with you, with your body. The pressure is to assimilate while the others all struggle to do the opposite. Barbara can't reclaim her unique identity in this setting. Her parents have made sure of that. Barbara didn't have a chance to develop hers. You can't reclaim what you never laid claim to.

Sue Miller is a new read for me. Aside from "Inventing the Abbots," I was unfamiliar in general with her writing but I'll definitely be reading more. To be able to do so much with a short story of only 5 pages is amazing. Talk about a story with layers and layers and layers.

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