Global Literature: An Active Experience

The English 255 course description as listed on the CUNYfirst website is as follows: “A historical study of the diversity of modern and contemporary Anglophone literatures and related literatures translated into English encompassing the complex transnational an postcolonial nature of much modern writing in English.” When considering how this course should have gone, it seems rational to break down this description and to see how well the course actually went about fitting it.

The first section deals with the selection of works included in the “historical study” of the course. In our section, we read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the poetry of William Butler Yeats and T.S. Elliot, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Junot Diaz’s Drown, Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. When many professors go about choosing which works a class will read for the semester, they will refer to a certain cannon of literature. This does not necessarily, today, have to refer to that old-school cannon where one would have been made to believe that the only people writing anything in the world were white men. The commonly accepted requirement for a book to be included into the cannon is that it must have been influential in shaping modern culture while, of course, being of some higher level of literary brilliance. Some works from our selection stick out like sore thumbs when this distinction is made: Junot Diaz’s Drown, Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.

In making this assertion that those four works do not fit into a cannon, it might seem like a contradiction is being stated, as all of these authors are the ones which would have broken the confines of an all-white male cannon… if they were worthy of being included in that high classification. The fact is I didn’t feel that they were good enough to make the cut. It is not a fact, however, that women or peoples of other races do not have a place in the cannon. The New York Public Library’s Books of the Century exhibition, held in 1995, listed a broad spectrum of writers in their cannon, including Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, Federico García Lorca, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, James Baldwin, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Chinua Achebe, and V. S. Naipaul. What distinguishes these authors from the four we read, I feel, is their ability to move their readers in such a way that they have a lasting effect on the whole of society. I have personally read works by Morrison and Achebe and they have stayed with me throughout my reading experience because of the way that their works transported me to the world they created, making me feel for the characters in them.

Out of all the works I have designated as non-cannonical, Junot Diaz’s work was the only one I had difficulty categorizing, as stories like “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl or Halfie” are bathed in such realism that they are especially easy to relate to. But did it move me? Does it stand apart from all of the other coming-of-age stories lining bookshelves at the library today? No, I don’t think so. Richard Wright’s Native Son does a much better job at showing what the pressures of growing up as a minority marginalized in a white world can do to a person, simply for the fact that it moved me to such a degree that it made me look at the world slightly differently after reading it.

See, the problem many have with a cannon is they are unsure of who the authority categorizing and determining the literary value of works should be. I say the readers, themselves should determine it. Works which move readers, shaping their ideas about how the world is, or how it should be, and even those whose content has been universally accepted as having affected the world in some permanent way are the ones we should be reading. Dreams from My Father, a work focusing on Barack Obama’s community organizing with no literary skill could never fit into any of those categories. The Sun also Rises, though, a work which defines an era by means of a gripping tale, is sure to move the average reader, and for this reason it does belong in the cannon, white male author or not. The same can be said for the other works penned by white men which we read this semester. Again, this is not because they were white, but because the content of the works stands out as being great literature according to the definition I provided before.

I can see many arguments arising stating that though the four non-cannonical works might not fit into the cannon, they do work with the second part of the course description, namely that they are “encompassing the complex transnational an postcolonial nature of much modern writing in English.” All four of the works deal with some transnational or postcolonial theme, sure. But there are other works which fall into this designation while still fitting the definition of a work that belongs in the cannon. The NYPL’s exhibition had a whole section devoted to colonialism and its aftermath, composed of works by authors of many races and both sexes. Again, Chinua Achebe is a perfect example of one of these works, and it will stay with me, influencing my view of the world far more intensely than Maxine Hong Kingston’s work will.

Now, I don’t want to make it seem like I know all the answers. I don’t. How can one know which works will affect their class, especially in such an institution as Queens College, where the student body is as diverse as they come? How can new works be reigned into the cannon if professors keep assigning the tried and true works universally agreed upon as great by academia? I think the answers to these questions depend upon what type of experience the professor wishes to create with his or her students. As a student studying to become a teacher one day, I can only answer for myself how I would go about approaching that ultimate question: what books will I teach?

I feel that Global Literature should be an active experience. By this I mean that reading should never just be a student with a nose in a book, understanding the story for the story’s sake and leaving it at that. In a class with the title Global Literature, I feel that discussion is extremely necessary. These works are supposed to be the modern classics, works of struggle and change. Thinking about what they mean, on a global scale, should be a prime concern of the students reading them. How they relate to one another is another great question to consider. Also, this is meant to be a historical study. The historical background of a work is important to consider, as it is always greatly influential on its formation. These three points depend upon conversation to be made. As each student has had a different experience with the world, each of their impressions of a book can yield new insight to other students in the class. This active experience of engagement with a work is what distinguishes great books from dull ones. If a book can inspire great conversation, that means it has the capability of expanding one’s view of the world. Unfortunately, blogging never yielded these conversations, and in class, discussion seemed a mythical concept.

As a reader and English major, what I will take away from my experiences in my undergraduate level English courses is my memory of the conversations I’ve had about these works and of the way they’ve made me feel personally. The works by the white men, then, will stick with me because at least they made me feel something. However, if this course ran the way I described before, with open conversations occurring as a natural aspect of the course, I don’t think it would matter, really what was taught. Any work which described “the complex transnational an post-colonial nature of much modern writing in English” would suffice so long as the class were consistently engaged in active discussions about these works and the influence they have upon the reader and the world.

So to answer the question of how English 255 should function, I say that all of the works should first fit the description, of course. Then, the professor should consider their literary value, as Great Works are sure to stick to a reader simply for the fact that they know that they are great, and they will have to know them in their future career as an English major. If non-cannonical works are introduced, though, the only way it can be insured that they will stick with a reader is if discussion is fostered about them. Even the Great Works will have a more lasting and meaningful impact on a reader if those works are openly and thoroughly considered on a historical, global and personal scale. Just as the cannon should not be limited to white men, reading should not be limited to the passive experience it has been traditionally known for. Reading, especially today in a world filled with limitless avenues leading towards instant gratification, should always be an active experience.

Comments

Tall Tales

Maxine Kingston’s “The Woman Warrior” is different from any work I’ve ever read mainly because of its constant allusion to the spiritual / mystical realm. The American ghosts, for example, refer to anyone not of Chinese ancestry. Also, Maxines mother swears in this last section that she slit her daughters tongue to prevent her from being tied. She also suggests that the family bang pots together to keep the frog from swallowing the moon during an eclipse. While these odd stories might estrange many readers, for me they were reminders of my late mother. With her, stories were always embellished to impossible degrees until they became unbelievable. With Maxine’s mother, this was a part of a tradition lost; the stories, it seems to me, were her mothers way of keeping them alive. With my own mother, they served to keep me interested in her. The overlap there is what kept me interested in this work.

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Clash!

Culture shock is represented as an impossible thing to survive in the last two sections of Woman Warrior, ”Shaman” and “At the Western Palace.”

The titles themselves are hints at how different Maxine’s mother was perceived in China and in the west. In “Shaman,” the story of her mothers success in school and eventually her success in her home town as made possible by her newfound knowledge of medicine, as well as her power to deal with ghosts. She is therefore represented as being larger than life, powerful, supernatural, and confident. And, more importantly, she earns the reverence, although sometimes fearful, of her daughter when she tells her the stories of herself in China.

America, however, is not so kind to her. There, she must work at a laundromat to earn a living – nothing fancy or supernatural about that. There, she is resentful of her children and her sister because of the burden they put on her. Maxine removes herself from this section, almost as if she does not want us to know her reaction to knowing that Blue Orchid is not the powerful force she once was. This is especially vivid when Moon Orchid’s forgotten husband points out how old they look, and this is after they themselves noticed this change in each other.

The woman is a shell of her former self.

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Reporting Crimes

On the last page of “White Tigers,” Maxine Hong Kinston explains that she is like a swordsman because “the idioms for revenge are ‘report a crime’ and ‘report to five families.’ She is not the woman rushing out to behead those that stand in the way of her ambitions. She does what she can.

In “White Tiger” this reporting of crimes is literally done when she talks back to her employers to fight back against their blatant racism. She worries that her “small person’s voice” will have no impact on the world, but it is clear that now she has figured out a solution to this problem: she writes.

Small voice or not, Maxine’s words pinpointing the injustice of her family’s forgetting her aunt are loud and clear for the whole world to hear. The story of the impossible situation of the woman, and of her family’s unthinkable punishment: erasing her from the memory of the world.

“Now, after fifty years of neglect [she] alone devote[s] pages of paper to her,” unafraid of the Chinese belief that she will be haunted by this ghost. This makes Maxine a warrior.

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Forgotten Dreams

There once was a time when we all wanted to believe in Barack Obama. His passionate tone, the gleam in his eyes, his eagerness towards change. And looking back at the section on Chicago in Dreams From My Father we can see what motivated him to be this way, and seeing that his motivation was genuine makes Obama a more believable sort of person.

However, the juxtaposition of this man and our current President left me quite perplexed. The Obama we see in this section is frustrated by bureaucracy and disunity among his people in the working class. This spirit is seemingly nonexistent today, with his constant appeasements of the conservatives and, as Junot Diaz said in his New Yorker article, a lack of a central story that drives his experience in office.

If Obama was planning on writing this work to help advertise himself for office, he made a serious error – for it makes us expect more from him than it seems he can possibly give.

Comments

Comments

I commented on:
John Stippell’s “Hard to Choose”
Haani Karim’s “Junot Diaz #2”
and Caitlin Machicote’s “Drown.”

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I don’t mean to be a follower, but…

My favorite story from Junot Diaz’s collection, Drown, is “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl or Halfie.” But how could it not be?

People are all self-absorbed, really. What they most like to read are stories they can forge some sort of connection to, and this piece works best at this due to the fact that we have all been in some version of the position Yunior is in. Embarrassment, as caused by one’s family and past, is a universal experience. There are always the awkward pictures you don’t want people to see, and the unattractive features of your family’s lifestyle or dynamic you’d like to keep hidden from friends and lovers. Connecting with Yunior’s experience, hiding the government cheese and pictures of him in his native country and of his afro, is easy.

But deeper down, past our human self-involvement lies a deep-seeded problem many of us struggle with on a daily basis: low self esteem. While we know Yunior is getting laid on a pretty regular basis, we also know that this whole section is his speech to himself, prepping him to be cool enough for the girls he desperately wants to get involved with: don’t panic, be prepared, don’t sweat it. This is even more clearly illuminated with this striking piece of advice he gives to himself: “Tell her that you love her hair, that you love her skin, her lips, because, in truth, you love them more than you love your own” (87).

Those of us who have stared into the eyes of a perhaps potential lover who we felt was in a much higher position than ourselves in the dating caste system know what it is to struggle through this sort of situation. We can therefore  truly value the skill with which Diaz recreates it in this story.

Comments (3)

Brave Realism

Much of the literature I enjoy is born out of struggle. Whether it be personal, national, or even galactic (Hitchhiker’s Guide, anyone?) struggle, I feel that the only works worth reading are those which are written in such a way that they make it easy for the reader to truly understand and empathize with what they are going through. This is no easy task, of course.

To many, it might seem that verisimilitude is easier to achieve than fiction, but this is surely not the case. To be able to create a complex, deep character which makes decisions and behaves in a believable manner takes talent. Junot Diaz, then, is extremely talented. Speaking as a girl who grew up in a lower-middle class Ecuadorian household, I can vouch for many of the descriptions of life Diaz writes about in many of his stories, especially “How to Date a Brown Girl, Black Girl, White Girl.” His discussion of hiding anything that might clue visitors in to your less-than middle class living situation mirrors how life was growing up in my household, and I was able to feel a sense of compassion towards him and his struggle.

Even when he writes about the larger-than life Ysrael, he makes sure not only to show the reader how pitiable his condition is, and the effect it has on people, but how he struggles with this situation, pretending to be a superhero blessed with the power of invisibility to help him get through the day.

This depth of character involves us in the plot more than a romantic, ideal or aesthetic-driven plot ever could.

Comments

The Fury

When I first began reading William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury”, I was truly impressed by the author’s stylistic choices, in terms of giving a voice to what seemed, at the time, to be each of the lead characters in the book. This, I felt, would give a reader a real sense of the plot, as well as to make them feel more deeply connected to and involved with the characters, themselves.

One can only imagine, then, how furious I was when the last chapter was not told by the last remaining character, Caddy. This is especially because I felt that her perspective was the one which would have been most valuable and even essential to truly understanding the plot. All of the other characters were somehow motivated by Caddy to become tragic figures, and to experience the effect this had on her through reading a section of the novel told from her own perspective would have been a perfect way to wrap up the work.

Faulkner’s decision to focus on making the reader feel a sense of vindication by means of showing them Jason’s downfall was not a wise one. Who cares about Jason, anyhow. After reading the conclusion, all I really want to know is what became of Caddy? How did she get her hands on so much money? What pushed her to become so sexually liberated? The fact that Faulkner built up her character to such an extent that it has made me, and most likely many other readers, feel some sense of connection to her, is admirable. But his choosing to leave us hanging is nothing more than fury-inducing.

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Revelations

In Jason’s section we find out that Quentin really has killed himself and that Jason senior has recently died from complications of his alcoholism. It also becomes apparent that Caddy’s marriage fell apart due to her illegitimate child whom she has named after him. Jason, then, lost his job her former husband promised and now is forced to work at a shop in town. It is still unclear, though, where Caddy is getting her money which she has been sending her daughter.

Comments (1)

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