“Umbrellas and Bottles” by Stuart Christie

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Foreword

I’m delighted to announce the publication of an important volume from the University of Mississippi Press, Teaching the Works of Eudora Welty Twenty-First-Century Approaches, which includes an essay of mine about teaching Eudora Welty in Hong Kong, with direct and attributed input (discourse, photos, storyboards, and images) from some remarkable young people who helped me understand Hong Kong better when I most needed it. During October and November 2014, I tried my best to listen and to learn as events unfolded. Here, with the benefit of hindsight, I tried to represent my students’ views to the outside world—even or especially when they disagreed with one another—under the gaze of Eudora Welty, whose mythologies from far away brought us all so much closer together. I dedicate this essay to my students and to this particular class at that particular time. I will always remember. ❤️

An except from
“Umbrellas and Bottles: Teaching Welty in the Hong Kong Classroom”

Inspired by E. M. Forster’s short stories, Welty’s mythical quietism held solid and magical realms equally sacred. Welty embeds the transcendent in the everyday without poisoning the capacity of either, as we saw in some of Welty’s photographs. We looked, for example, at “Sunday Morning” Welty’s fetching image of an African American girl in her Sunday best, holding a broad umbrella against the sun (fig. 1). The photograph is famous for the play of oppositions that the black-and-white medium only accentuates—dark and light together enjoin aspects of vulnerability and protection that the umbrella gathers to itself.

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Figure 1. Welty, Sunday Morning. Ca. 1935. Copyright @ Eudora Welty, LLC.

The diverse uses of the umbrella as a mythically realized object became all too clear once the Umbrella Movement gathered force. Early on, student protestors had used the umbrella only functionally, shielding themselves from the blows of police batons and pepper spray. As the occupy zones took on a more permanent aspect, students signified the “yellow umbrella” ubiquitously and variously, as protest aesthetic: as an emblem of protection (fig. 2), iconicity transformed by function as umbrellas became crafted into zip-up tents or as a surface to write on (fig. 3).
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Inspiration now traveled rapidly in both directions, from Welty’s text to Hong Kong context and back again. My students and I began to isolate earlier examples within the Welty corpus where a single object may serve to propagate an entire imaginary. My students and I had routinely observed how myth demands the transformation of realism, which, we supposed, takes the materiality of object-status for granted. In a well-known interview, Welty had recalled, for example, that her short story “Livvie” was inspired by the photograph of a bottle tree (fig. 4) she had taken for the WPA (Prenshaw 91). Could not any everyday object once mythologized, we speculated, also encompass and sustain a world?

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Figure 4. Welty, Bottle Trees. Copyright @ 1941 Eudora Welty, LLC.

In “Livvie” the bottle tree serves not only as a symbol linking everyday use to a particular belief or worldview—as a spirit-catcher protecting African American homes from evil spirits, for example—but also inhabits “real” and mythical significance concurrently. Baby Marie, the friendly, traveling saleswoman, crosses the threshold into Solomon and Livvie’s house with ease; Cash, the intended, must break the bottles on the tree before he can enter to incite Livvie’s desire. My students reported that the Umbrella Movement had inspired a bottle tree, too, fashioned from the empty bottles of drinking water that had been used, on more turbulent nights, to wash pepper spray and tear gas from protesters’ eyes (fig. 5).

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Figure 5. The Water Bottle Umbrella. Photograph by Janet Lau.

Work Cited:
Prenshaw, Peggy WhiLman, ed. More Conversalions with Eudora Welty. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1996.

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Stuart ChristieStuart Christie is Head of the Department of English Language and Literature. [Click here to read all entries by or about Stuart.]

 

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