The Neighborhood Writing Alliance’s 2012 Every Person Is a Philosopher Annual Benefit is just around the corner on June 7! Our featured speaker will be Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of the New York Times Bestseller Wench. For the first time ever, we’ll be hosting a virtual book club in the weeks leading up to the event! Each Wednesday we’ll be posting a piece from the Journal of Ordinary Thought related to themes in Wench along with discussion questions for the book. Make sure to read last week’s guest post from Dolen Perkins-Valdez, launching the book club! And, if you’re new to NWA, read about who we are here.

Today, we’ll look at “Haikus: Sequence of Genetic Improvement” by Sharon F. Warner, originally published in “The Search,” the Spring 2007 issue of JOT.


Sharon F. Warner

Many years ago
People were commodities
They were bought and sold

Our ancestors were
Paired in couplings masters chose
To enhance the breed

Slavery is past
We choose our own partners now
Children are a chance

In this brave new world
Cell banks now are being formed
With our DNA

Soon all races can
Choose characteristics of
The children they want

Will the race improve—
By race, I mean human race—
With this kind of choice?

And one selfish thought—
Had my parents had this choice,
Would they have made me?

1. In her piece, Sharon writes, “Our ancestors were / Paired in couplings masters chose / To enhance the breed.” In what ways does Wench defy and complicate this stereotype? In interviews, Perkins-Valdez has said that one of the questions she tried to answer with Wench was whether a slave woman and a master could truly love each other, but the answer proved to be even more complicated than she anticipated. What draws the masters to the women in Wench? The women to the men? Does the situation of slavery render any true relationship impossible, merely a matter of breeding or lust, as Sharon suggests?

2. In her piece, Sharon’s discusses masters trying to enhance the race, then raises modern questions about genetics, including her “selfish” question: “Had my parents had this choice, / Would they have made me?” The women in Wench are just as concerned about their children, and how their characteristics—the ones they can choose and the ones they can’t—will help or harm them. Lizzie is one of the central characters of Wench and her desire to free her mixed-race children, especially the daughter she hopes will “pass,” drives most of her actions in the novel. When Sweet, one of the other slave mistresses staying at Tawawa House, the resort where much of the book takes place gives birth, Lizzie imagines Sweet’s master discussing how soon to put his slave-born infant to work in the field.

Despite her fervent desire to free them, Lizzie is terrified of losing her children because she knows that they are the only stable relationship she has. Mawu, the slave who puts forward the idea of running away to the other women, also tells them that after her master sold all three of the children she had born him, she stopped caring for and nursing their fourth child together. Children provide comfort and unconditional love in the cruel world of slavery, but all the women must confront and live with the fact that their children belong to someone else. How do each of the three women’s (Lizzie, Mawu and Sweet’s) reaction to this define their personality?  In the world of slavery, do you think children are a blessing or curse to the women?

3. When Lizzie first starts sleeping with her master, Drayle, his wife Fran responds with cruelty to Lizzie. When Lizzie becomes pregnant, Fran is filled with a debilitating sadness—she is unable to have children. The relationships between slaves and master can be horribly brutal for the slaves, but how do they affect the white women forced to watch their husbands’ betrayals? Do you feel sympathy for Fran?

Please post your thoughts and ideas in the comments, and feel free to suggest questions or ideas for next week’s virtual book club!