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    illustration of a kid and birds

    When the Other Has Wings

    A review of The Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor by Amy Alznauer and Ping Zhu

    Aarik Danielsen

    August 3, 2020
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    My son could fill an entire volume of “notable quotables” by himself. One of his earliest gems was born of exasperation as he approached my wife and asked, “Mom, how do you make friends with a bird?”

    In this aim he follows after Flannery O’Connor and her lifelong fascination with winged creatures – like her characters, the odder the better. In a new book, author Amy Alznauer and illustrator Ping Zhu display how one of America’s most wonderful, unsettling writers stepped providentially toward her fate by making friends with birds.

    The Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor is ostensibly a children’s title, though Alznauer dedicates it to “highly intelligent adults and precocious children,” quoting O’Connor. Indeed, Alznauer and Zhu convey the seamlessness between the stages in O’Connor’s life; she lived and forever lingers at the fulcrum of preternatural wisdom and purposeful eccentricity. O’Connor gawked at God’s splendor on and off the page. She was impressed early and perpetually with his willingness to create everything with perfect utility yet fearfully and wonderfully strange.

    Like the best children’s books, Alznauer’s words recognize the cleverness of their audience; they never condescend or talk down. Zhu’s work reminds us that illustrations shouldn’t flatten the world either. Fluent in the grammar of both abstract and representational art, her work is full of dimension and color, symmetry and asymmetry, life and breath. The Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor holds potential enough to inspire its youngest readers, and to stoke the smoldering embers of curiosity in its oldest.

    The book’s first scenes demonstrate how far removed young O’Connor already was from the world of self-serious adults. Zhu masterfully wields negative space; in a two-page spread, she separates O’Connor – at her drawing table, scratching out simple, affectionate portraits of chickens – from the demands of her mother with almost an entire page of green carpet. She might as well be football fields away, the distance born from a sort of holy oblivion.

    O’Connor’s sketches soon manifest in three dimensions, as she begins raising her own birds. “She even managed to train a bantam by glaring at it so long it backed away,” Alznauer writes, subtly introducing O’Connor’s eventual way with prose. Her writing would go on to gaze unflinchingly at violence, mortality, and disordered faith. When “she needed things to write about . . . she took to staring.”

    O’Connor soon morphs into a strange bird herself, or simply shows her true feathers. “People didn’t want to see any old chicken; they wanted a weird one,” Alznauer writes. “There was something about strangeness that made people sit up and look.”

    She gathered flawed and funky birds into her flock, then folded them into stories, “because in stories you can make things as strange as you like. You can make people fly and headless chickens live.” Alznauer fills each page with delightfully absurd details. Those within earshot of O’Connor’s stories compared her voice to “climbing stairs” or “singing.” “As she read, her voice took on every bizarre, tragic character she’d created and brought them to life,” Alznauer adds.

    O’Connor displayed little desire in catering to the sensational wishes of rubberneckers; rather, her interest in the weirdness of every living thing leaned toward love. Her attention to the contours of the grotesque was born of an essential interest in the truth and the mysterious powers of creation and redemption.

    When O’Connor’s mother rebuked her thousand-word stare as unseemly, she delivered a line that says more than a dozen volumes on writing could: “No writer should ever be ashamed of staring.”

    “How strange to find something large and beautiful rushing in with all that sadness.”

    Her father – “her greatest fan” – not only tolerated but emboldened her peculiar obsessions, but he died before her sixteenth birthday. In the midst of this great loss, she experienced limbs waking through the sensation of pain. Against a field of pastel shapes and lovely, arching angles, Alznauer writes, “She felt her heart filling up with grief but even more with wonder. How strange to find something large and beautiful rushing in with all that sadness.”

    Bearing this simple stigmata, O’Connor reached a new plane of empathy – for the strange human creatures that populated her fiction, and the readers who needed to reckon with them. “She wanted her stories to be as strange as death and to burn with sorrow and hope,” Alznauer writes. Looking with life and death lodged behind her eyes liberated O’Connor to spot “some hidden strangeness” in “tractors and fence posts and long dusty roads, but mostly . . . birds and people.”

    After a brief run in prestigious literary circles up north, the sapping effects of lupus led O’Connor back to her family’s Georgia farm. There, she expanded her menagerie with the not-so-humble peacock, a most confounding creature. When the bird arrived by train, it bared its pride “and a thousand haloed suns seemed to gaze down,” Alznauer writes. The tail-feather display seemed to O’Connor “like an unfurled map of the universe.”

    O’Connor surrounded herself with these living ciphers until her death in 1964 at age thirty-nine – precocious as ever, years before her time. In the final spread, Zhu’s blotted blue clouds, suggesting heaven’s city limits, are shot through with silver streaks and renegade feathers. “And if you stare really hard, you can almost see her rising up and sailing above the world,” Alznauer writes, “her silver crutches trailing out like wings and her blue eyes flashing, the brightest, oddest bird you ever did see.”

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    An illustration from the book by Ping Zhu

    On face, the budding O’Connor of this book would seem to have little in common with the subject of an essay that was published on the same day: “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?” by Paul Elie. The answer being quite racist indeed, unfortunately if unsurprisingly. Elie’s essay revived a conversation about how this reflects on the substance of her beloved work.

    Against the din of different voices, I paused to ask whether it was worth it to introduce my son to O’Connor in any fashion: either now as his traveling companion into the mystery of birds or, later, as a supremely talented tangle of all the best and worst of us.

    But none of this is news to Alznauer, who has absorbed an enormous amount of information about O’Connor, reading every sentence she published, traversing the same Georgia clay her feet tilled, spending time with her earliest drawings and productions – and learning from the longstanding criticism of numerous black authors who penetrated O’Connor’s work with their own unsparing gaze. In a counter-essay she explores what several of them, from Hilton Als to Alice Walker and others, made of it.

    The artist Benny Andrews, O’Connor’s contemporary from the same part of Georgia, chose to illustrate one of her stories posthumously even in light of the knowledge that she “would not have given me an audience during her lifetime.” But “she confronts the leaping flames and churning waters. I’ve looked into her works, and I have found revelations.” (Alznauer is curating a future joint exhibit at Emory University on Andrews and O’Connor.)

    “There’s a woman I love, she’s really hostile, Flannery O’Connor, she’s really really good,” said Toni Morrison, who devotes an essay in The Origin of Others to a race-centered story in which “O’Connor exhibits with honesty and profound perception her understanding of the stranger, the outcast, the Other.”

    This understanding of the Other is the first step toward an ideal described by the late writer Brennan Manning, who called Christians to mature “in tenderness to the extent that we are for others – all others – to the extent that no human flesh is strange to us, to the extent that we can touch the hand of another in love, to the extent that for us there are no ‘others.’”

    “Good is another matter. Few have stared at that long enough to accept that its face too is grotesque, that in us the good is something under construction.”

    It isn’t that O’Connor’s sin of racism is absolved by her art. But in her art there are the clues to repentance and redemption. O’Connor, unfazed by the blemishes she saw in other people, would be the first to admit that her own blemishes must be reckoned with as well. Like chickens, she seized us by the neck and trained us to stare – at our neighbors and ourselves in the mirror. She wrote in an essay, “Most of us have learned to be dispassionate about evil, to look it in the face and find, as often as not, our own grinning reflections with which we do not argue, but good is another matter. Few have stared at that long enough to accept that its face too is grotesque, that in us the good is something under construction.”

    Meanwhile, the evil strain of racism that contributed to forming her lives on in the world my son inhabits and explores. I often wonder what will become of him, worry over all life has in store. But remembering his question, my pulse slows, and I exhale. Mom, how do you make friends with a bird?

    His inquisitiveness, his connection with living things, his reveling in idiosyncrasy – these are gifts that lead to others, as imperfect as they may be. From curiosity, compassion; from compassion, wisdom; from wisdom, inner strength – strength that he’ll need to stare down all that comes his way. Can literary inspiration help impart these gifts?

    Like O’Connor, Alznauer and Zhu hope to make staring people of us all until we make friends with birds, and with one another. My ever-shifting instincts say to introduce him to O’Connor. But rather than offer passive encouragement, I’ll counsel him to reinvest the curiosity that follows in the hope of a world even more fully human than hers.

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    Contributed By

    Aarik Danielsen is the arts editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune and an instructor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He writes a weekly column for Fathom Magazine, and his work has appeared at Image Journal, Entropy, Think Christian, and more. Follow him on Twitter: @aarikdanielsen.

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