Reading Group Questions And Topics For Discussion
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1. Referring to her own husband, Rose tells us early in the novel, "I've never trusted him." How exactly does the issue of trust play out in Rose's life?
2. What happened in Rose's childhood to make her so "afraid of night and day and everything in between"? And what caused the "sunshine walls" of her marriage to Charlie to turn so abruptly into a stifling prison?
3. It is in the context of this ambivalent marriage that Connie May Fowler first introduces the paradox of her "sweet poison" metaphor, or the sugar cage. How does the idea of the sugar cage work, and how does it come to represent the arc of the novel as a whole?
4. Describe the different "cages" with which each of the novel's characters must contend, and explore the individual journeys each character takes.
5. By the end of Sugar Cage,
do you believe any of the characters have found/will find personal freedom? Who will remain imprisoned (whether by sorrow, fear, or bigotry)? Explain.
6. By the time Inez Temple dissolves the "haunting" grains of sugar at the bottom of her glass in the novel's closing paragraphs, Fowler has treated us to a remarkably expansive journey through recent American history. Many of the signature events of the last half-century stand as powerful backdrops to the events in the novel, from the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, to the assassination of Dr. King in 1968, to the grisly conflict in Vietnam. Discuss the effects of Fowler's decision to punctuate and color her fictional characters' experiences with shades of a much larger and more familiar story -- the modem American experience.
7. What does Rose mean when she says she has let Charlie' "hot wind bum me to a crisp"? Standing in her cramped kitchen with Emory's letter tucked in her apron pocket, Rose invests the ordinary aroma of an apple pie with out size significance. The smell, with its all-American suggestions of "domestic peace, happy homemaking, perfect children, and all that other malarkey," starkly belies the reality of Rose's situation. What is Fowler doing here? Why does Rose feel that if she bums her pie, her life will be finished?
8. Why do you think Fowler tells the story through the eyes of nine different characters? How would the novel be different if it were told only from the perspective of Rose? Emory? Inez?
9. Which character would you say is the most "reliable" narrator? Why?
10. What is the significance of the recurring image of the heron in Sugar Cage?
What is happening in each of the heron's appearances?
11. What other symbols and images emerge and tellingly recur throughout Fowler's novel? Consider, for instance, the ebony jewel, Black Beauty, the 'cane fields, goldfish, and the Coquina Motel. What does each represent?
12. What similarities and differences exist between the willfully enchanting magic of Soleil Marie, the mambo, and the involuntary magical visions of Inez, the self-professed descendant of a long line of "good, old-fashioned witches"? Is their Voodoo all of a piece? Do you suppose Inez will. continue to recover, in her dreams, the lessons and traditions of her ancestors? 13. "It was the smell of sugar, and it was so sweet and strong it caused a picture to crawl up in my mind. It was the picture of a woman...pregnant with a rising belly." Why does it make perfect sense that Emory automatically associates sugar with conception? What is going on here? Discuss the significance of sugar in Emory's life.
14. In referring to the vast Indian burial grounds of Florida, Fowler subtly evokes the dark legacy of the Native American genocide. Along with the loss of countless lives, the ancient traditions of spiritual magic and intimate communion with nature have all but disappeared in North America. The mass graves commemorate the inestimable tragedy of a heritage forever lost. Discuss how this theme dramatizes and informs the following: Soleil Marie's frightening isolation in Miami; Luella's oddly comforting dreamscapes in Junior's garden; and Inez's powerful sense of affinity to the engraved ebony staircase in the mayor's mansion.
15. What kind of a man is Burl Junior Jones? What do we learn about him in his brief, haunting narrative? "It is my awful luck that I did not come home to my true self until too late." Beyond his name, what do you suppose Junior's true self might be? What might Fowler be leaving unsaid here? To what degree does Charlie, in the end, "come home" to himself? What about Rose and Eudora?
16. What specific techniques does Fowler use to distinguish the voices of her narrators? How is it that each is almost instantly recognizable?
17. Who was Charlie's mother? What sort of childhood did he have? How are his experiences reflected in the dynamics of his adult life? Discuss his impromptu homecoming. Is Charlie changed by this experience? Explain.
18. "Truth will come easily because, child, shiny buttons will never blind you. Wolf cries, crocodile laughs, snake words shining like pearls will never blind you. But my grandbaby, even though you may never be blind, you may not always know what you see." At the close of the novel, Inez recalls these words spoken by her grandmother for the second time. How is Grandmama's prophecy both challenged and confirmed over the course of the book? Although Inez is literally blinded by the rake at Junior's gravesite, in what ways does her uncommon ability to "see" come to shape the entire course of Sugar Cage? A Conversation with Connie May Fowler Q: Sugar Cage began as a short story written to fulfill a writing assignment for a graduate fiction workshop. Who inspired you to develop it into your debut novel? Who or what inspired you And at what point in the process did you begin to sense the enormity of your project, with its sprawling historic scope and rich evocation of love's magical healing powers? A:
Sugar Cage started life as a short story titled "The Auction" and was written to fulfill a class assignment. My professor at University of Kansas, Carolyn Doty, encouraged me to try to transform those tentative twenty pages into a novel. I was petrified and had no idea of where to begin. The story was set in Kansas -- which is a place I didn't understand deep down in the recesses where writers truly do their work. So I changed the setting to Florida, which was the place I was deeply homesick for, and the novel immediately began to take shape. I simply took it one day at a time, immersing myself in stories that were as familiar to me as my own skin. In this way Sugar Cage is a memory book-as many first novels aretorn from the pages of my own childhood experiences and family legends. Q: In interviews, you've said that you "write what you know," often drawing directly from your own experiences to develop the subjects and themes in your fiction. How does Sugar Cage, in particular, reflect your childhood in Florida? A:
I had a most unconventional childhood. Poverty and violence were ever present but mitigated by truly magical moments-usually moments when a connection was established with a person outside the family (for instance, the women Inez Temple is based on) or with nature. In terms of the details of the book, much of it is factual. Charlie Looney is based on memories of my own father. I was a child when Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. brought the civil rights movement to town. The Jewels were styled after my parents' best friends. When the women became widows, they, like the women in the book, became fascinated with crystal balls, tarot cards, and parapsychology. Because during part of my childhood, we lived in a tenement motel, I was exposed to many kinds of people-all races, ages, religions. All of this is drawn upon, in Sugar Cage and, I might add, subsequent novels. Q: How did you address the challenge of creating nine distinct and instantly recognizable voices? A:
When I was small I had a speech impediment and because it was difficult for me to verbalize, I listened -- a lot -- so I became the proverbial fly on the wall, listening to the stories around me, soaking in people's stories and speech patterns. I think it was back then that I fell in love with the rich tapestry of the English language. So writing in nine different narrative voices was not a problem. Keeping their lives on track, however, was an entirely different matter. I had file folders overflowing with information on each character and a giant chart with their life lines mapped out. If I changed, for instance, the date of one character's birth, it upset my entire fictional universe and everyone's life would be affected. Q: Emory is the only figure to narrate his story both as a child and as an adult. As a result, we are able to witness firsthand how his boyhood experiences and relationships directly influence his impulses and actions as a man. Tell us about how you created Emory. A:
I relied on my knowledge of men I knew, men I'd grown up with, mainly my brothers Jimmy and Bubba and my childhood friend, Scott Morse. Q: Which other characters' voices presented particular challenges to you as a writer? A:
The main challenge was to keep the voices consistent. So, for instance, if I was going to work on Rose Looney's narrative, I would reread her previous passages so that I would be immersed in her voice and world. Q: Did you know where the novel would end when you began writing? A:
Yes. The end of the novel was always there for me and I wrote toward it. The images of Soleil Maria flying and of the soldier returning home acted as visual lighthouses for meguiding me through the narrative and these people's lives. Q: Inez Temple is an unforgettable character. Did anyone in your own life serve as her model? A:
Yes -- the love she showed Luella and the life-saving role she played in the little girl's life were taken from my own experience with a woman named Vivian (Inez is very much related to the Miss Zora character in Before Women Had Wings). Physically, I patterned her after a woman I knew in Kansas. Q: How did you come to be familiar with Voodooism? Were you influenced by any other artists who have also drawn on African and Haitian religious traditions (i.e.: Zora Neale Hurston, Ishmael Reed, Chinua Achebe)? A:
As a child I knew people who believed in grassroots forms of Voodoo and was, of course, fascinated by it and virtually all other forms of religion that I happened to encounter. But I also did a sizeable amount of research in which I relied primarily on anthropological, religious, and sociological texts. As for Zora Neale Hurston, her work continues to have a tremendous influence on my writing. Q: One of the most striking aspects of the novel is the way Soleil Marie's Voodoo rituals are so thoroughly intertwined with her Catholicism. Is this religious hybrid one of the legacies of European colonialism in Haiti? What exactly is the history behind this? A:
Yes. As the catholic priests spread Christianity and Catholicism throughout Haiti, Voodoo didn't go away, it simply cross-dressed. So while the priest thinks the parishioners actually know that the Virgin Mary is Erzulie, the Voodoo Goddess of Love, in disguise. But this phenomenon isn't restricted to Haiti. Theologians call it the localization of religion. Q: Sugar Cage vividly relates the uneasy tensions and violent undercurrents of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. What role did the adults and teachers in your own life play in the struggle? How do they inform your ideology and politics today? A:
My mother was one of the most Leftist individuals I have ever known. My father, to put it succinctly, was not. Fortunately, it was my mother's politics and sense of justice that rubbed off on me. I'm proud to be a liberal -- and to me that means a person who believes that all folks have an inalienable right to be treated with dignity and fairness and kindness -- for their humanity to never be denied them -- and that's our duty to not give this idea simply lip service but to actively work in our communities to try to effect positive change. Q: What themes do you find yourself consistently addressing in your work? A:
The changing face of religion in an increasingly technological society. How do we transform the burdens and sorrows of the past into a viable and hopeful future? How does the individual live a balanced and decent life if he is divorced from nature? Humankind's duality-good versus evil, tolerance versus intolerance-and its effect on families and individuals. Q: How does the writing process work for you? In the eight years since the publication of Sugar Cage, how has your writing evolved? A:
I think I am just beginning. Writing is an amazingly intricate activity -- the process is as mysterious to me today as it was the first time I ever put a pen to paper. And I'd like for it to stay that way. But I'd also like to get better at it. Maybe that's what I love most about writing-every time I sit down I am presented with the opportunity to clarify a problem, to test my intellect and creativity, to hone my perceptions and insights, to write with a greater measure of honesty. Q: What other books would you recommend that reading groups add to their lists? A:
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith. Q: What would you most like readers to get out of this novel? A:
Insight into the lives of the characters which in turn sheds light into their own lives. Q: What is next for you? Are you working on a new project? A:
My latest book, Remembering Blue,
will be published in January 2000. And I've started work on my next project, a murder mystery titled The Problem with Murmur Lee.