In RWW, we aren’t teachers of literature per se. Still, the spectre of the literary ideal can show itself in our workshop classrooms for reasons from the pedagogical (as mentor texts) to the administrative (curricular requirements).
In Advanced Writing, an elective class for seniors, Mariana and I are taking students through a fiction-writing unit. As we blithely assembled a set of short stories as mentor texts, it dawned on us — more slowly than I am proud of — that with minimal exception, our short-story mentors were all writing about women in peril.
In an effort to ground what has in the past been a scurrilous unit, both teaching-wise for us and writing-wise for students, we required students to ground their stories in some real-world element. We read an excerpt from Black Water, Joyce Carol Oates’s retelling of the Chappaquiddick incident from Mary Jo Kopechne’s viewpoint. Then, because they are exquisite examples of the form — and because Mariana and I love them so much — we read “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by JCO and “Victory Lap” by George Saunders, for plot/characterization and character/p-o-v, respectively.
Lo and behold, a young woman is preyed upon in each of these three unconnected stories. Ha ha, we laughed. How art imitates life, we laughed. We then went about the business of selecting short-story material for students to “read like writers” while we are at NCTE later this week, intending to offer an oeuvre of stories representative of sex- and region- and race-diverse viewpoints.
Here’s what we came up with in our initial brainstorm:
- “Hairball” by Margaret Atwood
- “Brownies” by ZZ Packer
- “Welcome to the Monkey House” by Kurt Vonnegut
- “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor
In “Hairball,” a woman undergoes surgery to remove an ovarian cyst and then has her job stolen from her by her married lover. The little girls in ZZ Packer’s Brownie troop suffer both racial and disability slurs. Kurt Vonnegut’s 6-foot asexual heroine is abducted and raped inside a futuristic museum of the Kennedy Compound. And in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the grandmother “would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
How much of what we teach — in English and other curriculum — reminds students of the perils of patriarchy but without the empowerment? How do we balance our content to provide windows, mirrors, sliding glass doors, AND those heavy doors that take effort, will, discomfort to open, as Amy writes about so eloquently here.
I face a similar struggle in my class of sophomores. Our curriculum calls for a literary analysis, yet the suggested texts typically depict the great suffering endured by a variety of marginalized groups. (It just occurred to me in writing this why so many high school students still prefer to read about superheroes.)
In our persistent efforts to give voice to the voiceless without beating the same very-much-alive patriarchal horse, we turned to some more recent fiction by writers of color. Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires includes a story called “Fatima, the Biloquist: a Transformation Story,” in which a young Black woman who attends a mostly-white private school seeks to embrace her Blackness. The title story in Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut collection Friday Black exposes the grave danger inherent in American consumerism from the perspective of a retail clerk who, literally, is above it all. I also love to use Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me” as a quick write prompt.
Alas, if art needs must imitate life, we can find ways for students to see triumph and celebration without oversimplifying their experience. Or putting them in even more peril.