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Rosellen Brown Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: 1939. Career: Instructor in American and English literature, Tougaloo College, Mississippi, 1965-67; instructor in creative writing, Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont, 1976, and University of Houston, Texas, 1982-85. Since 1989 instructor in creative writing, University of Houston. Visiting professor of creative writing, Boston University, 1977-78. Awards: National Endowmment for the Arts fellowship, 1973, 1982; Guggenheim fellowship, 1976; Great Lake College Association best first novel award, 1976, for The Autobiography of My Mother; Janet Kafka best novel award, 1984, for Civil Wars; Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year, 1984; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters award, 1987, for literature; Ingram-Merrill grant, 1989-90.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Autobiography of My Mother. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1976.

Tender Mercies. New York, Knopf, 1978; London, Hutchison, 1979.

Civil Wars: A Novel. New York, Knopf, and London, Joseph, 1984.

Before and After. New York, Farrar Straus, 1992; London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1993.

Half a Heart. New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.

Short Stories

Street Games. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1974.

Plays

The Secret Garden, with Laurie MacGregor, adaptation of the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett (produced, 1983).

Poetry

Some Deaths in the Delta, and Other Poems. Amherst, University ofMassachusetts Press, 1970.

Cora Fry. New York, Norton, 1977.

Cora Fry's Pillow Book. New York, Farrar Straus, 1994.

Other

A Rosellen Brown Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose. Vermont, Middlebury College Press, 1992.

Editor, The Whole World Catalog. N.p., 1972.

Editor, Men Portray Women, Women Portray Men. N.p., 1978.

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Critical Studies:

Conversations with American Novelists: The Best Interviews from The Missouri Review and the American Audio Prose Library, edited by Kay Bonetti. Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1997.

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Rosellen Brown's characters—adults, teenagers, and children alike—are living on the edge, from the beginning to the end of her novels. These works start from the premise of lost innocence and move through the various permutations of damage that the condition wreaks upon the psyches of sensitive individuals. All of Brown's fictional marriages are in one stage or another of breakdown; most of her adolescents are experiencing extreme forms of alienation; all of her characters experience the cruel contingency of fate in the form of unhappy coincidence, accident, or death.

All of the novels use conditions of shock and horror to start off the narration. Tender Mercies begins with the boating accident of a young married couple. Through his macho bravado, the husband rams a motorboat, which he does not know how to steer, into his swimming wife, severing her spinal cord and rendering her a quadriplegic. The Autobiography of My Mother is narrated in part by a woman who, although she doesn't always take money for it, conducts her life somewhat like a prostitute. Meanwhile, her lawyer-mother encounters a series of clients whose conditions in poverty, jail, or the insane asylum are intended to horrify (though the mother herself is stoic as she submits to a forceful vaginal exam administered by black female convicts who want to demonstrate why they are angry). The civil-rights activist parents in Civil Wars are appointed legal guardians of children who have been raised by estranged relatives—estranged because they support the Ku Klux Klan. The orphaned daughter attempts suicide more than once. In Before and After, a middle-class, do-good family discovers that their son has murdered his girlfriend in a fit of rage at her name-calling.

As if these events were not enough, the narrations go on to describe how such crises, disasters, and shocks inevitably erode marriages. At the end of two of the three novels that are narrated by married partners, the spouses experience a qualified resolution of their relationship. In the third, the wife, after tolerating situations that would try the patience of Job, finally decides that she is through with her marriage. Working at the extremes of human experience, Brown analyzes the profound question of how much sadness the human mind is capable of absorbing without snapping. The human reader, however, may not be capable of absorbing all of Brown's plots, characters, and tone of sadness without losing interest. Although the plots are unique and different, the angst-ridden tone remains the same from one book to the next. Furthermore, the climaxes often arrive after too much delay. We may find ourselves reading on from morbid curiosity, simply to find out what happens: Did Jacob really kill his girlfriend, will Helen actually commit the suicide she obsesses about in her diary, will Renata's depression lead to insanity?

Brown's favored mode of narration contributes to this feeling of monotony: She switches back and forth between the interior monologues of her two main characters, usually spouses, whose private hatreds and sense of isolation become plots of their own, disconnected from the other half. These two subplots carry the narration without the necessary connection that makes for a coherent novel. Lacking are normal dramatic scenes that link characters: Caught between scenes of high-pitched crisis and interior monologues of despair, the scenes of quotidian family intercourse that do occur are laden with a sense of the ailing marriage and impending doom. Brown illustrates how such sadness permeates spouses' relations with their children, parents, and friends—as well as with each other.

Though all the novels rely heavily on plot, suspense, and character, they go lightly on place description and a kind of omniscience that one becomes accustomed to in the postmodern novel: an omniscience that contains a forgiving irony and mutes the pain of contemporary married life. Brown creates beautiful moments in characters' heads, but rarely are they communicated to other characters, especially spouses. Perhaps this is her own version of postmodern consciousness: She perceives life as a series of private, disconnected moments rather than a crescendo toward a good or bad ending. Postmodern or no, however, there is only so much blood, guts, and gore—of body or mind—that one can take and still have a good read.

The poetry volume, Cora Fry, contains some of the same sentiments and events as the novels, such as a serious accident. This suggests that the writing is closely autobiographical, which is no problem in itself. In general, however, I think that human beings either like the angst of specific other beings or they do not. There are certain kinds of angst, or expressions of it, that we relate to better than others. And some readers may not like angst at all. Reading Rosellen Brown is a highly personal experience; hers isn't the angst for everybody.

—Jill Franks

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