Mao Tse-tung once declared women capable of supporting half the sky, but according to PEN/Faulkner Foundation President and GWU prof Patricia Browning Griffith’s new novel, Supporting the Sky, Mao was only half right: Some women are trying to uphold the whole shebang. The Chairman’s saying was relayed to Griffith several years ago when she was hosting a visiting Chinese Faulkner scholar, and suddenly her narrator’s dilemma clicked. Rosemary is dedicated to living in the exciting mishmash of cultures she finds in Washington, but she is torn between the quiet hum of her East Texas roots and the hubbub she lives with in D.C.
In writing Supporting, Griffith seems to have stopped a crowded No. 90 bus and forced each person into conversation. The gardening ladies of Northwest, the AIDSWalkers of Capitol Hill, the alterna-kids and gang-bang-attired teens of District high schools, the slick-lawyer family types, they all breeze in and out of the story like suburbanites without a commuter tax. The scene keeps shifting, too, traveling from the narrator’s home in Adams Morgan to Georgia Avenue, over the Anacostia River, to the Hill, and back. Crossover is part of the author’s point in this inside-the-Beltway tale; Griffith’s is the D.C. that keeps so many of us living here—a decidedly different one from the polarized version often portrayed outside the District line.
Diversity in D.C. sprouts up like churches on 16th Street, but it’s the complications that ensue when cultures rub up against each other that interest Griffith. “Race—that’s our major issue, how we deal with these problems….More people than you’d know deal with racial issues [in their writing]. The reviewers don’t focus on it. Perhaps they’re afraid,” she says.
So Griffith chose a sheltered East Texas transplant whose ex-husband has abandoned life as a politico and whose 16-year-old daughter has taken up with a sweat-suit-and-gold-chain-wearing African-American teenager, a development that proves to be quite a test of baby-boomer white liberal guilt.
Griffith’s PEN/Faulkner activities include the Writers in the Schools program, which once featured Amiri Baraka speaking with students at a high school in Anacostia. “Baraka talked about rap coming from the roots of black poetry,” recalls Griffith, adding that afterward the class’s teacher said, “Nobody crosses that river.” For Griffith, that kind of crossover makes trying to support both halves worth it.
Griffith reads at 2 p.m. on Sept. 2 at the Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. For reservations call (301) 654-8664.