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Arts & Culture

“The Revelations of Asher” experiments with social justice, identity

In innovative amalgam of narrative, poetry, analysis, Jeanine Staples dissects human trauma

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 8, 2017

What does “supreme love” have to do with social justice movements? Jeanine Staples, associate professor of literacy and language, African American studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Pennsylvania State University, addressed that question when she spoke Thursday in Pembroke Hall about the relationship between romance and social movements. She discussed her ethnographic research on identity — specifically that of heterosexual women involved in romantic relationships — which is the topic of her book “The Revelations of Asher: Toward Supreme Love in Self.”

Though the book focuses on romantic and sexual relations as a window into the tenets of emotional estrangement and misguided love in the United States, it was intended to be something quite different. When Staples first began her ethnographic study, she intended to link the experiences of black women in post-9/11 America with those of women of color in fundamentalist Muslim nations. However, as she wrote, a connection emerged between terror on an interpersonal level and “Terror,” such as that which occurred on 9/11, on a larger scale. In this manner, Staples explores how “impacting, meaningful external revolutions are provided by meaningful, internal revelations.”

Failing to confine itself to any one genre, the book is an innovative take on research analysis, experimenting with form, data presentation and storytelling. Throughout the novel, Staples plays with various techniques, compiling what is better described as a collage than a book into what she calls a “new literacies event.” The text, around 600 pages in length, consistently engages the reader through its dynamism and innovative presentation. 

The book spans from factual to abstract, written as interspersed analysis, narrative and poetry. Staples begins with a recollection from her childhood and then transitions into an authentic conversation with her reader, assessing the anecdotes that she has collected and explaining their implications in contemporary society.

Much of the text is devoted to clarifying the book’s layout and intention in an accessible way while consciously catering to an academic readership. In one instant, the reader follows the stories of young black women discussing their crushes, then encounters an experimental poem on trauma, all while Staples breaks the fourth wall to discuss her motive for including the scenes.

The section devoted to narrative amasses the experiences of women involved in the ethnographic study, each told through the lens of a group of distinct characters. The anecdotes, which center around themes in heterosexual relationships including abuse, breakups and abstinence, function as allegories for a larger cultural assessment. Each of the characters, or “fragmented selves,” represents reflections on the shared experiences of educated, black, Christian, heterosexual, cisgender women. Staples follows their stories as they experience various revelations, and the readers watch while each character’s unique perspectives on everything from God to ideal prospective husbands evolve.

Periodically, Staples creates an interlude for poetry relating to cultural events, specifically 9/11. Some poems also focus on her character’s lives, touching on various traumas including rape and child molestation through the characters’ own voices. Other times, Staples inserts e-mail exchanges, bible quotes and Q&A sections, playing with the presentation of amassed data and the boundaries of traditional prose. Throughout the book, Staples identifies specific speakers and themes through untraditional fonts, highlighting and even changes in the color of the text.

Staples’ work ultimately revolves around a question posed by musician Rachelle Ferrell: “‘How can there be peace in the Middle East, when there’s none at home?’” Her text approaches the question within the parameters of a locally accessible narrative. She reveals to readers how by defying toxicity at home, women can approach an ultimate assertion of selfhood and oneness, a “supreme love” which “heals and saves people.”

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