Steven Harvey & Sonja Livingston–On “Brief Encounters” and “Sputnik 2”

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On “Brief Encounters”
Sonja Livingston
Dreamlike. Wistful. Bittersweet. That’s how students described Steven Harvey’s “Sputnik 2,” in my undergraduate Creative Nonfiction class at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).  Every week, students take turns selecting a piece from Judith Kitchen and Dinah Lenney’s wonderful anthology, Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction, and lead the class in a discussion of craft and content.
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Valerie Dinavo with “Brief Encounters”

In this case, student Valerie Dinavo selected Harvey’s essay, in which the writer imagines the night he’d stood with his parents looking up into the sky to see Sputnik 2. Harvey doesn’t remember that long-gone night, but knows he was there to see the satellite with his parents based on a letter he’d read, and uses the bulk of his micro-essay to imagine how the scene unfolded. Our class used the essay to discuss the role of imagination in nonfiction, and the line between essayistic imagination and fiction. We lingered over the language, and the reverberation of image and sound—the way the glow from his father’s match echoed the light in the sky, and his parents’ faces were illuminated “for a moment like two crescent moons”. We read the last paragraph a second time and wondered over the haunting image of  “nails driven into the tread overhead, that coffin-lid of stars,” and of the ending, of the boy and his parents who “stood in a darkened field together and looked into the heavens.”
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Madeline Barber

That’s when I looked to the young woman beside me and noticed her notebook brimming with stars! Madeline Barber had sketched a boy standing in a meadow looking up into the sky. She’d taken some liberties, adding a cow and spaceship to the scene, but had labeled her drawing “Sputnik 2” and had clearly sketched out what we’d been discussing. One of the perks of teaching in a school known for its fine arts program (VCU has the #1 visual arts program in a public university in the country) is that my writing classes include a good share of visual artists who doodle on feedback and incorporate visual elements into their essays and, and sometimes, sketch their contemplation of class discussions!

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On “Sputnik 2”

Steven Harvey

Why does a cow float through the night sky of my nonfiction? It is curious. The essay, “Sputnik 2,” was chosen from the anthology Brief Encounters by Valerie Dinavo for Sonja Livingston’s creative writing class at VCU, and while listening to a passage being read aloud, student Madeline Barber doodled a picture of a boy standing in his pajamas in a field of flowers looking into a night sky filled with stars, and off in the corner is a tiny cow that is nowhere in the text. The boy has a wondrous expression on his face, as he stands calm and relaxed, and all of that seems to fit a piece about a child gazing into a late-night sky. Even the space ship off to the side makes sense since I am writing about the time that my family and I observed Sputnik 2 flip-flopping through the stars. But the cow being beamed up into the space craft—where did that come from?

1824685114What Madeline cannot know from the brief selection she heard is that the passage is the ending of my memoir, The Book of Knowledge and Wonder, which Judith Kitchen, who co-edited the anthology, chose to publish with Ovenbird Books. It is the story of the suicide of my mother when I was eleven which I reconstructed from over 400 letters that my grandmother gave me. It was a hard book to write. Most of the events before her death I had forgotten, and the knowledge I learned while researching what happened as I was growing up, though invaluable to writing the book, often brought sadness. I rarely get emotional at the writing desk—writing is my job—but several times in the course of composing this memoir I held a letter in one hand, touched the discovery in words on the screen in front of me with the other, and lowered my head.

In the end, though, reading my mother’s letters some fifty years after her death offered solace as well, comfort mixed in with the sadness. “When I read them, I got to know her—for the first time, really—know her and miss her,” I wrote near the end of the book. “Miss her, not some made up idea of her.” The letters and my book do not bring her back—I know the loss is permanent and irrevocable—but while I wrote about her every morning for five years, the pain, that had been nothing more than a dull throb, changed in character, becoming softer, more diffuse, and ardent, like heartache. To me it was miraculous, and writing the book ultimately filled me with wonder.

The Book of Knowledge and Wonder is extensively researched. The facts, though often upsetting, mattered to me and were my teacher. In addition to the letters, I relied on photographs, family documents, interviews, and stories my grandmother told my wife. I viewed TV shows from the past, listened to the songs of my childhood, visited my old hometown, and rode Google Earth to the very motel parking lot where I viewed Sputnik 2. There is even a crucial doodle on an envelope that my dad drew of my mother before I was born that upon careful examination revealed the tension brewing in our young family.

But the truth of this story goes beyond the facts and requires a leap into speculation which happens throughout the memoir, including the passage that Madeline heard. “In my imagination,” I begin, recreating the images as best I can of a reunited family: the glowing faces of my parents as they light cigarettes in the cold, and the sweep of the red ash when my dad points to the satellite casing crossing the sky. I admit that I cannot imagine this moment without thinking about the night that my mother, abandoned by my father, sang “Fever” by Peggy Lee forlornly to the record player, or the day my mother died when I hid under the stairs and looked at the “nails driven into the treads overhead, that coffin-lid of stars that still haunts me.”

But those thoughts do not erase the fact that my mother and I collaborated to write our story, her words mixing with mine. “I took my mother’s words into my mouth like milk,” I wrote, “and fed our story.” It is a gift which we share—a marvel, really—and one which almost did not happen. Yes, I wrote milk. I don’t know where Madeline’s cow among the stars came from, this gift of the creative mind in the presence of words spoken aloud which in itself is a mysterious process, but I hope it was born out of that feeling of wonder which is the bedrock of my book.

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Madeline Barber’s Sketch

*****

Steven Harvey is the author of a memoir, The Book of Knowledge and Wonder and three books of personal essays: A Geometry of Lilies, Lost in Translation, and Bound for Shady Grove. A selection from his memoir was chosen by Cheryl Stayed for The Best American Essays 2013. He is a Senior Editor of River Teeth, a founding faculty member in the Ashland University MFA, and the creator of The Humble Essayist website (the-humble-essayist.com).

Sonja Livingston is the author of two lyric essay collections, Queen of the Fall, and Ladies Night at the Dreamland. Her first book, Ghostbread, a memoir of childhood poverty, won the AWP Nonfiction Prize. Her writing has been honored with a New York State Arts Fellowship, an Iowa Review Award, an Arts & Letters Essay Prize, a VanderMey Nonfiction Prize, and grants from Vermont Studio Center and The Deming Fund for Women. Sonja’s work is widely anthologized, including, most recently, in Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women. She teaches creative nonfiction at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Colin Hosten on My Favorite Essay to Teach: “The Middle Passage” by V.S. Naipaul

I often use the second semester of the first-year writing program where I teach as an opportunity to explore rhetoric through different forms of storytelling, including poetry. In particular, I include a short unit of creative nonfiction, primarily as a way to interrogate our expectations of and obligations to truth (whatever that means) in storytelling. I encourage my students to notice how a writer’s “voice” might change from fiction to creative nonfiction—or, more remarkably, how it might not change. V.S. Naipaul’s The Middle Passage provides perfect fodder for our discussion.

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The book is a seminal example of modern travel writing, but I focus on the first two essays in which Naipaul, now living in London, makes the return voyage by sea to the West Indies—the middle passage—and arrives at his birthplace of Trinidad. The island is the backdrop for most of Naipaul’s fiction, including the linked stories of Miguel Street, told in first person by an unnamed narrator who treats the motley crew of characters on his titular street with unassuming respect and appreciation: “A stranger could drive through Miguel Street and just say ‘Slum!’ because he could see no more. But we who lived there saw our street as a world, where everybody was quite different from everybody else. Man-Man was mad; George was stupid; Big Foot was a bully; Hat was an adventurer; Popo was a philosopher; and Morgan was our comedian.” But in returning to Port-of-Spain in The Middle Passage, Naipaul himself might have been one of those people dismissing it as mere slum, describing the country as “unimportant, uncreative, cynical.” He portrays the people as “unsure of themselves, having no taste or style of their own.”

Both of these versions of Trinidad seem so real when we read them. Which one is closer to the truth?

This line of questioning allows us to consider the role of storytelling in creative nonfiction, identifying the narrator as a device completely distinct from the writer. What we think of Naipaul the writer should not necessarily color how we read him as a writer. Usually, this idea seems obvious to my students, who are all sophisticated critical thinkers able to separate their emotional reactions from their intellectual work. At this point, I share some more background about Naipaul the writer. In addition to his often scathing, hyper-critical remarks about the West Indies, he has (in)famously said that women are prevented from being the literary equals of men because of their “sentimentality, their narrow view of the world.” Most of my students—and, I’d imagine, most rational people—disagree with this sentiment to the point of disgust.

At this point we read the essay again.

What’s different? How have our impressions changed or not changed? Here, I encourage my students to pay attention to the ways in which language is tied up in identities, how rhetoric can be used to project iterations of our selves onto the page and into the world. It’s a nuance of which I need to constantly remind myself. Naipaul has a complex legacy in Trinidad; he is arguably one of the most accomplished writers of the twentieth century, our lone Nobel laureate in Literature. But Naipaul himself has all but disowned Trinidad as the land of his birth. Reading Naipaul often leaves me feeling disconnected. I don’t understand how someone who writes so beautifully on the page could say such ugly things about the place where he was born.

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Yet I, too, left the island, and have not returned.

One of the first people Naipaul introduces in The Middle Passage is a man named Mr. Mackay, who laments, “You can’t blame some people for not wanting to call themselves West Indians.” In grad school, I wrote an essay that charts my ongoing attempt to reconcile my existence as a citizen who feels more at home in another country. Trinidad is a unique and beautiful island, perched three miles off the coast of Venezuela at the southern tip of the West Indian archipelago. The country is rich in diverse culture, food, music, festivals. The beaches admittedly aren’t the best in the Caribbean, but they’re still magnificent, and its location so close to the mainland (besides propping up a fossil fuel industry) creates a vibrant set of flora and fauna that sustains a small but growing ecotourism business. Locals joke that God must live somewhere on the island for it to be so charmed. I don’t know about God, but certainly many of his followers do, which in part made it a hostile place to grow up as a gay man. Partly because of its colonial history, partly because of its religiously conservative culture, and partly because it is still figuring itself out as a relatively young republic—the end result is that I fled the island and made a new home for myself in Connecticut, where I can be married to the man I love without fear of legal or other reprisal.

And that’s why I love teaching Naipaul’s essay. It reminds me and my students that reading can be complicated and conflicted. It helps me demonstrate the importance of critical reading that acknowledges and embraces the responsibility of the reader to be conscious of her own biases. Every time I read from The Middle Passage I learn something new, about writing, and about myself—which is ultimately what I want for my students.

****

HostenColin Hosten’s work has appeared in such outlets as The Essay Review, Essay Daily, OUT Magazine, Spry Literary, and the Brevity blog. He is a freelance children’s book writer and editor, and teaches in the undergraduate writing program at Fairfield University. He lives in Connecticut with his husband and their dog.

Creighton Nicholas Brown: “On Common Books, Civic Engagement, and Claudia Rankine’s ‘Citizen'”

When I arrived at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, to register for my first semester as an undergraduate student, I was handed a copy of Neely Tucker’s Love in the Driest Season (2004), a memoir detailing the experiences of Tucker, a foreign correspondent, and his wife volunteering in an HIV/AIDS orphanage and the eventual adoption of their daughter. After I moved into the dorms, much of orientation was devoted not only to navigating my first year of college, but also to discussing the common book with my fellow orientation club members and our faculty advisor. Then, once classes were in full swing, we took a break for three days of symposium, which centered around the ideas presented in Tucker’s life narrative. National and international speakers came to campus to discuss global poverty and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. My early English professors worked the text into their classes juxtaposing Love in the Driest Season with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1992) to discuss the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic or highlighting the theme of poverty to discuss hunger locally, nationally, and globally.

The goals of this long-established program, which mirror the mission of Concordia, is three-fold: to “stimulate an intellectual discussion among faculty and students,” “introduce students to academic life through a common read and academic discussion,” and most importantly for me as a student at the time, to “learn about issues that shape our world today and in the future.”[1] Reading Love in the Driest Season early in my undergraduate education deeply impacted my time at Concordia College and has continued to shape my scholarly activities and the work I do with my own students at the University of Kansas.

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Well-chosen common books have the power not only to foster faculty and student engagement across campus, but also they offer students an opportunity to critically think about their own subjectivities, the communities they inhabit, and how they can positively influence the affairs of the world through their vocations and civic engagement. Common books, particularly creative nonfiction, demonstrate the strength of narrative to provide alternative forms of knowledge often ignored by those in positions of power and connect the work we do specifically in the Humanities—and more broadly at the university—to issues facing us locally and globally, preparing students to be both critical readers and writers and ultimately civically engaged citizens.

* * *

My first fall as a doctoral student in the English Department coincided with the first year of the KU Common Book.[2] This was new campus-wide initiative aimed at providing in-coming freshmen with intellectual opportunities to engage in meaningful dialogue and foster critical thinking. Faculty and instructors were encouraged to work the text into their courses as appropriate. Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays (2009) was the inaugural choice.

After reading the first essay in her collection, “Time and Distance Overcome,” I was excited to teach Biss’s work in my first-year writing courses.[3] But as I worked my way through the rest of the essays during new GTA orientation, I realized the rest of the collection did not measure up to the first essay. I began to wonder how my students would connect with Notes from No Man’s Land, which to me registered as underdone meditations on heterosexual whiteness, particularly my students who did not identify as such.[4] I chose to teach “Time and Distance Overcome”—only.

The next three years featured one benign selection after another—none of which ever really spoke to the aspirational goals for the program as outlined by KU First-Year Experience and the selection committee. Each of these texts in their own way was glaringly white and did not address issues facing the campus or larger Lawrence, KS, community and did not unpack issues shaping the world my students would be entering after graduation. Then, after a particularly charged and quite-rightly confrontational Chancellor’s Town Hall responding to incidents of racial and gender discrimination and violence on campus, the new KU Common Book for Fall 2016 was announced: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015).[5] I was thrilled! I often use some of Coates’s long-form articles to discuss race, class, and gender in my composition classes. The committee had chosen a book that spoke to more than just my white students, bearing witness to systemic injustice and white privilege. Their choice was timely, and for me, marked the moment when the KU Common Book reached its full potential. I was on fellowship for the 2016-2017 academic year, so I missed the opportunity to teach this important piece of epistolary creative nonfiction.

This year, however, I am back in the classroom and have loved every minute of working through Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), this year’s KU Common Book selection, with my students. Similarly to my experiences teaching Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place (1988), on the first day with the text my students grappled with—and many rejected—the sadness and anger presented episodically in the first section of Rankine’s lyric poem.[6] My mostly white students struggled with the toll that micro- and macroaggressions take on the everyday lives of nonwhite, non-heterosexual, non-cis-males. This led to a discussion in which we unpacked the title of Rankine’s collection and what it actually means to be a citizen of the United States. To underscore this, we worked through our founding documents, identifying the Three-Fifths Compromise, the absence of women, and the dismissal of Native Americans as “savage.” Using Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Nina Simone’s haunting cover of “Strange Fruit,” and Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage,” we charted a brief history of blackness in America, moving from slavery through the Civil War and Reconstruction, from the rebirth of Klan in the early twentieth century to the Civil Rights Movement and ending with police violence and our contemporary political realities. This contextualization helped my students to stop resisting Rankine and begin to listen to what she is saying.

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On the second day with Citizen, as with A Small Place, my students began to explicate deftly the issue of white spaces in Rankine’s second section—my favorite as a reader. This section brings together Hennessy Youngman’s philosophy on the cost of black art for the artist with Serena Williams’s racialized experiences as an African American tennis player. Rankine takes inspiration from Zora Neale Hurston, who remarked, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” to describe Williams in this still predominantly white sport (25). The racism faced by Williams in three different—and very related—moments from her career opened up a discussion about heteronormative white spaces. We talked about classrooms and universities as traditionally white spaces and identified other spaces that historically privilege whiteness. I asked my students to think about times when they were the other in a particular place and what that felt like. After letting them freewrite for a bit, I asked for examples. My students hesitated, and after waiting patiently, I decided to tell my students about my experiences as a queer person entering new spaces, meeting new people, and always wondering who is safe and who might not be. This is the first time I have purposefully and overtly come out to my students during my teaching career. My example worked, and my students began to share their experiences. This section of Citizen and this activity connected our discussions of race, class, and gender in the classroom to the issues we are facing as a nation.

Over the next few class periods, my students eagerly engaged with the remaining sections of Citizen. Once we finished Rankine’s collection, my students began working on their proposals. My composition course has four major projects each building on the one before. They begin with their project proposals in which they outline an issue of race, class, or gender they would like to spend the rest of the semester researching and writing about, and move through annotated bibliographies, researched essays, and revisions of their researched essays into oral presentations. As my students are developing their individual topics of inquiry, I hold conferences to discuss their topics and help them focus and refine their inquiry questions. Again and again, my students remarked how their research interests stemmed from our discussions of Citizen and how that intersected with their individual major areas of study and future vocations.

I have never been prouder as a teacher: My students were connecting our work in my Humanities classroom to their studies in other fields and thinking about how this might be reflected in their future professional lives.

* * *

[1] You can read more about Concordia College’s Summer Book Read here: Summer Book Read.

[2] You can read more about the KU Common Book here: 2017 KU Common Book.

[3] You can read more about this particular essay here: Marissa Landrigan on Eula Biss’ “Time and Distance Overcome”.

[4] You can read a positively different take on Biss and her titular essay here: Silas Hansen on “No-Man’s Land” by Eula Biss.

[5] The Chancellor’s Town Hall was also designed to respond to what was unfolding at the University of Missouri in the Fall of 2015.

[6] You can read my reflection on teaching Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place here: My Favorite Essay to Teach: Jamaica Kincaid’s “A Small Place”

* * *

BrownCreighton Nicholas Brown is a doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas, where he teaches in the English Department. Currently, he’s completing his dissertation, (Un)Disciplined Subjects: Postcolonial Life Writing and Contemporary Imperial Discourses. Creighton also serves as Contributing Editor and Social Media Editor at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. He is both a Cobber and a Jayhawk. Creighton lives, writes, and dog-walks in Lawrence, KS.

Listicle: Resources for Teaching Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter”

I visited several creative writing courses last week, and Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter” was mentioned several times.

  • Find the original essay, published in The New Yorker, here.

Here are some resources for teaching and reading this essay:

  • Find Lynn Kilpatrick’s piece for Assay’s “In the Classroom” series, here.
  • Sarah M. Wells’ article, “The Memoir Inside the Essay Collection: Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth” (on the entire book), here.
  • Find Ned Stuckey-French’s commentary on the author, the essay’s form and context, including additional reading resources, here.
  • Find Jill Christman’s reflections in Essay Daily, including classroom exercises, here

If you have other resources, please let me know and I’ll add them to this page.

Thank you!

-Renée

The Context of “Disobedience” — by Michael Estes

I teach English Composition at a diverse community college, and for the past few years I’ve asked my students to read Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” Teaching “Civil Disobedience” excites neither me nor my students with the thrill of encountering an innovative text, but surprisingly, the context of my teaching has made it new.

The first layer of novelty lies in the fact that most of my students haven’t heard of Thoreau. Whatever they’re teaching them in those high schools (pronoun vagueness intentional, and I’m a former high-school teacher), Transcendentalism isn’t high on the list. Both Thoreau’s beard and his diction are unfamiliar to my students, but with the help of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s autobiography lauding Thoreau’s eloquence on the importance of “noncooperation with evil,” we quickly discover that he’s preaching a familiar theme: what’s legal is sometimes the opposite of what’s right.

ThoreauA second layer of novelty stems from the relevance of a 165-year-old essay to my students’ educational paths. As we read Thoreau’s description of the inferiority of the American government to the American individual in statements such as “This American government . . . has not the vitality and force of a single living man” and “[The American government] does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate [emphasis original],” it’s hard not to think of the stories my remedial Composition students have told me about complacent English teachers in their pasts, and we discuss whether or not the current American government educates and how much vitality it seems to have to invest in the cause of keeping the country, or its citizens, free. In my students’ experiences and those of their peers, is the public-school system more invested in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, or constructing it?

This leads to a final source of contextual novelty for “Civil Disobedience”: race. Thoreau exhorts his readers to be jailed if necessary before they contribute their poll taxes to a government that, in his view, wishes to use tax money to conduct the Mexican War and thereby spread slavery. His experiment in civil disobedience occurred in the inevitable context of his status as a Harvard-educated white male, and he spent one night in jail. Imagining for a moment that black men had the option of paying poll taxes in 1849, how would Thoreau’s experiment have been received at the time if he had been black? What laws and legal practices today are immoral, and what happens to those who resist them?

Three quotes from “Civil Disobedience” that have been particularly relevant to my students’ discussions of law, morality, and the relationship between police and citizens:

•  “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.”
•  “A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences . . . and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.”
•  “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

Before reading Thoreau, my students write an essay about an event in their own lives that changed who they are, and I’ve learned from these essays that the contexts of many of my students’ lives are very different from my own. I don’t pretend for a minute that bringing “Civil Disobedience” to their attention is a form of letting my life be “a counter friction to stop the machine” of social inequity that characterizes some of their lives. But as a teacher, using “Civil Disobedience” in the context of a classroom mostly filled by people whose lives somehow demonstrate civil society’s disobedience or betrayal of the social contract has proven valuable. Pedagogically, it’s exciting to see students respond passionately to an essay they had no intention of having a meaningful encounter with and discover its connections to the contemporary world. Personally, I would love for it to have the potential to help, in Thoreau’s words, “prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.”

***

Estes photoMichael Estes teaches English in Louisville, Kentucky, in the company of his wife and two daughters. His poetry has appeared in Boulevard, RHINO, The Potomac Review, and elsewhere.

Martin Luther King Day 2017 — Online Teaching Resources

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In English Composition courses, I usually assign Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I’ve heard from students that they really appreciate having that reading included. My students also respond very strongly to “Learning to Read and Write” by Frederick Douglass.

It’s possible to listen to MLK read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which is especially useful in an online-learning environment. Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute has other excellent resources and curriculum suggestions.

Ned Stuckey-French provides fantastic analysis and context of Martin Luther King’s “Letter” here.

Thank you to Nancy Peck for suggesting the inclusion of original source documents. You can access MLK’s documents through http://thekingcenter.org/archive.

For contemporary and current resources, this NPR report is a useful start: “Ferguson in the Classroom: How One College Took Up Race and Policing This Semester.” The November 2015 NPR report discusses this NYU class developed by Professor Frank Leon Roberts. You can find Roberts’s #blacklivesmatter syllabus and other resources here.

In additition, here is a link to “13 Significant Books on Civil Rights for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.”

For creative writing courses, and departments, it’s essential to consider Claudia Rankine’s keynote address at AWP/LA (2016). Rankine adapted that address into an essay for The Writer’s Chronicle, found here. Rankine’s masterpiece Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf) should be considered essential reading.

Please also consult the Syllabus on Black Feminism from Melissa Harris-Perry, here.

Here at Assay, you will find our resources and pedagogy articles useful. Here are a few suggestions:

On James Baldwin:

On Civil Rights:

On Empathy:

If you have other classroom resources that you wish to share, I’ll add them to this post as I receive them. Many thanks!

Reading List: Essays that Define the Essay

The following is a list in response to a request for suggestions of “an essay, accessible to undergrads, defining the literary essay (not academic or comp/rhetoric).” Thanks to Dinty W. Moore and so many others who took part in this Facebook thread. If you have other suggestions, please leave a note, and I’ll add it to this list. (Of course, we were pretty excited to see suggestions from our pages, too!) Where possible I include a link to the piece.

Atwan, Robert. “Notes Towards the Definition of an Essay.”

Didion, Joan. “On Keeping a Notebook.”

https://www.penusa.org/sites/default/files/didion.pdf

Jessica Handler’s “Favorite Essay to Teach” about assigning Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” might be useful. Find it here.

Hampl, Patricia Hampl. “The Dark Art of Description.” (Indirectly defines the literary essay.)

–. “Memory and Imagination.”

Harvey, Steven and Ana Maria Spagna. “The Essay in Parts.”

Hoagland, Edward. “What I Think, What I Am.”

Lott, Brett Lott. “Toward a Definition.”

Ozick, Cynthia. “She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body.”

Sanders, Scott Russell. “The Singular First Person.”

Stuckey-French, Ned. “Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing.” (Lots of suggestions to use this for undergrads and grad students. Some report greater success using this with higher-level undergrads & grad students.)

We’d love to see more essays that define the essay. Consider submitting one to Assay!

Favorite Essay to Teach: Sui Sin Far’s “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian” by Brenna M. Casey

When I teach Sui Sin Far in my classroom, I start with indignation.

Far was a woman of firsts. In the second half of the nineteenth century, she was the first writer of Chinese ancestry to be published in English in North America. Far was one of the first voices writing from newly forming Chinese and Asian American communities. These communities, themselves, were a product of the forced migrations of workers in the brutal coolie trade, indentured and carried across the Pacific on retrofitted slave ships to fill the gaps in labor left by the abolition of slavery at the end of the U.S. Civil War. Far was the first writer to acknowledge the presence of Chinese women and children living in burgeoning Chinatowns, billed all too conveniently by the U.S. and Canadian governments as the temporary sojourn of bachelor laborers. Born to an English father and Chinese mother, Far is one of the earliest thinkers to contemplate multiraciality in an American context. She remains a smart and prolific writer whose work across multiple genres—reportage, fiction, and essays—ushered in the twentieth century. Her currently uncovered works (many of which were penned anonymously or signed with a pseudonym including her given name, Edith Maude Eaton) number some 250 published pieces in over 40 periodicals throughout Canada, the U.S., and Jamaica. Sui Sin Far’s work should be as prized and familiar as Henry David Thoreau or Mark Twain. And yet, no one of my students has ever heard her name.

This, I tell students while pantomiming a frustrated flip of the seminar table, is an all too familiar story for women writers in America. Especially, I say waiting a freighted beat, for women of color.

editheatonphoto1“Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian” is organized as the title suggests: a palimpsest of thoughts, memories, conversation fragments, and anecdote that, taken together, form the collagic and painful coming to consciousness of Far’s own racial difference. Despite her ability to pass as a white woman, Far is insistent on enunciating her Chinese heritage. This insistence often results in Far’s immediate vulnerability in the dangerous era of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The form bespeaks the content. Identity formations are a process; the effect of Far’s prose is cumulative. Only as a catalog of Far’s own excruciating education do seemingly inconsequential social interactions take on the stifling weight of Far’s feelings of being between, “something different and apart.”

The essay was written for the New York Independent in 1890, but its content is eerily prescient. Students transiting in their own early adulthood identify with the formative experiences of childhood cruelty and mean-spirited inspection by their peers. Without fail, students of all different backgrounds table a two-part question ubiquitous on college campuses: “Where are you from?” Then: the coded, casual, and insidious racism of the follow-up, “No, where are you really from?”

Far also insists on particularizing her experience as a woman. One episode of “Leaves” relates an unwanted sexual advance from a naval officer who visits Far uninvited. He wants to tell her, he says, about all “the sweet little Chinese girls” he met while stationed in Hong Kong. While we never learn how this incident ends, the menace of its beginning lingers. The officer laughs a little when he introduces himself and Far writes, “The laugh doesn’t suit him somehow—and it doesn’t suit me, either.”

I love to teach this essay because it isn’t perfect. In its do-gooder enthusiasm, Far sometimes reasserts the prejudice she seeks to dismantle. As in the moment when Far is confronting her own ethnic biases and writes that two Chinese men she glimpses in a store are “uncouth specimens of their race.” In another anecdote, Far is tracing commonalities between herself and the black population of Jamaica—a radical moment of interracial solidarity—but never questions the infantilizing characterizations deployed upon a servant class. These encysted bigotries, are not without their merit. They demonstrate to students that ethnic and racial identities are not fixed. Rather, they are untethered from individual bodies, visually unsurveillable, and consolidated only through careful engineering—made and remade by whomever is controlling the narrative.

“A bird on the wing is my emblem of happiness,” writes Far, encouraging her reader to leave natal places and known landscapes. Her travels across North America reveal national differences and parochial similarities “After all I have no nationality and am not anxious to claim any,” Far concludes, wresting indignant control of her own narrative, “Individuality is more than nationality.”

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Photo credit James Bernal

Brenna M. Casey is a writer and educator based alternately in Prague, Czech Republic, and Durham, North Carolina. She teaches literature and creative writing at Duke University where she is completing her doctoral work in the Departments of English and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Notre Dame. She is currently a regular contributor at Ploughshares and you can read her work here.

Jenna London on “The Shepherd’s Life” by James Rebanks

The Shepherd’s Life is a place-based memoir in which the author describes his life as a traditional shepherd in the Lakes District of England in the 1990s and early 2000s. Through his vivid descriptions, reflections, explanations, historical background and scenes, James Rebanks implores the reader to re-evaluate preconceived notions about the shepherding lifestyle. Rebanks argues that the shepherd’s life is a choice and, for many, a calling. Rebanks provides personal, scientific and philosophical details dealing with nature—primarily farmland and sheep—that convinces the reader he is a reputable source. The Shepherd’s Life is divided into four main sections: Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring. Rebanks could have just as easily separated the book into the major periods of his life. But instead, he uses the section titles to illustrate an intrinsic connection with nature. Rebanks’ general purpose is to inform the reader about this lifestyle that suffers from many stereotypes. In doing so, the author also portrays his deeply rooted sense of place and connection to the land. Rebanks does not use his memoir for self-discovery. Instead, he provides the reader with information he has already learned.

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On a personal level, Rebanks examines his relationship with his father. However, this theme is secondary to the larger picture of the book: the narrator loves life as a shepherd and wants to dispel misconceived notions about this profession. Rebanks gives the following description of the Lake District:

“For many it was a place of escape, where the rugged landscape and nature would stimulate feelings and sentiments that other places could not…But above all I would learn that our landscape changed the rest of the world. It is where the idea of all of us having a direct sense of ownership (regardless of property rights) of some places or things because they are beautiful or stimulating or just special was first put into words…. Arguments were formulated here that now shape conservation around the world.” [7]

Rebanks addresses how humans and the natural environment in a specific region are interconnected. The setting couldn’t simply be plopped someplace else without having a significant impact on the premise of the book. Rebanks states that the Lakes District is of ecological importance on an international level. In this manner, nature represents an ever-changing entity worthy of further exploration. Suggesting that the land prompts humans to feel something is empowering to nature, as is the notion that conservation principles have been formulated based on this geographic location. However, the idea of people having ownership over the land suppresses the environment.

Domestic animals—sheep—are a fundamental aspect of both the narrator’s identity and his livelihood. He demonstrates a largely symbiotic relationship with the livestock: people provide the animals with food and shelter. The sheep provide people with wool, sustenance and—perhaps most importantly—an identity and life’s purpose. Throughout the book, Rebanks provides the reader with an intimate view of a shepherd’s daily activities, thoughts, and mindset, as is evident when he describes an annual sheep sale.

“…But, as important [the sheep] goes to one of the top flocks, Turner Hall where he will be looked after and given a chance to breed with some of the best ewes. For weeks after the sales I miss seeing him each day, as if once I had a van Gogh on my wall and now it is gone.” [173]

Rebanks enables the reader to see how this lifestyle is a business with an emotional component. Most readers—whether they are interested in art or not—know who van Gogh is, and can understand the extent to which a piece of his artwork is cherished. Therefore, any reader could sympathize with the author, whether or not she can relate to having a similar relationship with an animal.

Throughout the book, Rebanks demonstrates a passion and admiration for the livestock without anthropomorphizing them. Rebanks’ overall tone is one of authority and confidence. While he reveals a great deal of admiration and respect for sheep, Rebanks seldom suggests the lifestyle is an easy or unflawed one. Instead, he provides a wealth of information about a little-known profession that requires a deep understanding of and dependence on the land. For example, he writes: “The best sheep have a sense of their specialness, and this ewe seems to know that she is one of the stars.” [168] Here—as is typical throughout his book—Rebanks regards sheep with respect and suggests they are a species capable of thoughts. But he does not suggest that sheep are capable of the same thought process humans have. Rebanks argues that the ancient life of shepherds is one of choice, not one of misfortune or poverty. Rebanks is not necessarily making this way of life out to be more glamorous than it actually is. But he does argue that this physically demanding livelihood is special and worth saving. Writing candidly, Rebanks easily convinces the reader that his convictions to farming are genuine.

He illustrates several generations of families to whom everything centers around sheep and the land, giving precedence to the needs of the animals before their own well-being. These actions are incredibly empowering to the environment. At the same time, however, the land and animals are manipulated to serve human’s needs. Nature is both empowered and suppressed in the following passage:

“Trimming sheep feet. Rescuing lambs from being stuck in fences. Mucking out the stalls. Trimming the muck from the tails of ewes and lambs. As you drive past, you wouldn’t notice them, but they add up over time. Landscapes like ours are the sum total and culmination of a millions little unseen jobs.” [55]

In this example the environment (via animals) is oppressed because it is controlled and manipulated by humans. Lambs are stuck in fences that wouldn’t exist if humans hadn’t put them there. Feet and tails trimmed for humans’ aesthetic wishes. But one could argue that those same tasks give the environment a sense of empowerment. In another passage, though, Rebanks mentions that dinner isn’t served until the animals have been cared for. The sheep are given priority over human’s needs, which is also empowering towards the animals.

The length of his individual musings range from a few words to entire paragraphs but average a sentence or two. Rebanks incorporates musing primarily within passages of scene and summary rather than writing passages that are exclusively musings. For example, he writes:

“Tough farms were not places to get rich, but they offered opportunities to those willing (or forced by necessity to take a chance)…If you had a big lowland dairy farm with good soil, you probably looked down your nose a bit at these farmers on marginal land. These tough farms are two months behind in the growing season…” [58]

This moment of reflection is in the “you” point of view and appears to be prompted by the need to define “tough farms.” The reflection serves to describe via comparison. Rebanks refers to a generic person in the shepherding community who is embedded in the lifestyle. Nature has multiple roles in this passage, including educating the non-familiar reader. But most interesting is how nature contradicts itself. It not only provides a humble livelihood (not places to get rich) but also represents a status symbol (if you had…you probably looked down your nose…). This nature-centric passage is another example of the concurrent suppression and empowerment of nature. Rebanks does not romanticize the life of a shepherd in this passage. Even the individuals “looking down their noses” are not depicted as having glamorous or “easy” lives. These aspects add depth to the story and represent how both the placement of musing and the musing itself are critical in molding a work of nature writing.

Editor’s Note: For the next three issues of “In the Classroom,” we’ll be sharing three pieces by Jenna London. You can read each one individually, or read all three together, for example, as a classroom assignment to support the reading of each book Jenna analyzes. Up next, Rick Bass’s “Nine Mile Wolves” and Terry Tempest Williams’s “Refuge.”

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j_london_picJenna London lives and writes in upstate New York. She is an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in E the Environmental Magazine, AMC Outdoors, Berkshire Living and others under her pre-marital surname of Kochmer.

Chauna Craig on James Alan McPherson’s “Umbilicus”

Editor’s Note: In light of recent events, Assay is working to fill its spring issue with work that focuses on social justice in nonfiction teaching, reading, writing, across all disciplines that claim nonfiction. All approaches to texts are welcome. Deadline: January 1st, but we are reading now. Please see our call here at Assay’s new Submittable Submission page.

We’re looking for work like this, which first ran in our “In the Classroom” series in 2015. We are proudly reposting it today.


 

Baltimore, 2015.  Los Angeles, 1992.  Detroit, 1967. Los Angeles (Watts neighborhood), 1965, etc. Race riots, urban revolts, rebellions, uprisings. Whatever the media calls the cycle of public eruptions of outrage over racial injustice in this country’s history, we live in a society where the history of racism continues to shape reactions and decisions, even seemingly small ones like whether to accept help when a car breaks down on the side of a road.

James Alan McPherson’s “Umbilicus” was one of my favorite essays to teach in 1998, when it was reprinted in that year’s Pushcart Prize anthology. Thoughtful, complex, vivid—it taught me. Seventeen years later the essay remains a model of nonfiction writing for how effectively it combines narrative and reflective meditation and demonstrates how personal experience is often weighted by larger cultural forces.

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James Alan McPherson

McPherson’s narrative begins in the late fall of his first year as a professor in Iowa when a friend urges him to get out and explore the countryside, to take a chance and expand beyond his careful circle of home and work. He does so, and his spirits are reawakened: “I began to reconsider the essential importance of risk to the enterprise of life.”

The story really begins when the casual touring ends. His car’s engine smoking on the side of the road, McPherson begins to walk for help. A pair of white men in a pickup truck offer a ride.

When I first read this essay, I thought immediately of James Byrd, Jr., who encountered white men in a pickup in Texas and didn’t survive the meeting. He was tied to the truck by a rope and dragged three and a half miles, his head severed somewhere on that road. What makes McPherson’s essay especially powerful is that Byrd was murdered the year after it was first published. McPherson couldn’t have drawn on that story while writing, as I did when reading. But he drew on everything his life had taught him to the point those men stopped their truck, and we see his mind wavering between the risk of trust and the history of distrust.

He writes,

“The two of them seemed to be laborers, or at least farmers. The gun rack stretched across the rear window took my memories back to the terror of that long road I had traveled to this place. There was the truck, the gun rack, the white faces, the road. But they did not have the oily Southern accent. I accepted their offer, and the passenger moved over and allowed me to take his seat.”

Soon, however, the men volunteer proof of their trustworthiness. They insist that they “like the colored.” When they discover that there are no tow trucks at the service station, they devise a plan to tow the car themselves:

“There’s a rope on the back of this truck.  We can drive on back and tie that rope to the front bumper of your car. Then we’ll just tow her on in to Cedar. You can pay us what you were gonna pay the tow truck, plus we’ll do it for less money.”

Though we have no concrete reason to suspect the men of ill intentions, they are not kind either. They expect to be paid. They expect gratitude for the bargain. Through dialogue and careful characterization, readers are led to identify with McPherson’s growing wariness.  No proof of malice, but no proof of benign intentions either.

The best essays reflect the world, not as we want it to be, but as we experience it. We rarely get incontrovertible evidence to support our hopes or fears. We make the best decisions we can in the moment, while all of our human bias, fears, hopes, risks, denials and confusion compete for consideration. “Umbilicus” embodies the drama of individual risk and retreat in the context of history. As darkness falls and McPherson grows desperate, he agrees to the white men’s plan. They tie his car to their truck, and they start driving. Roads that seemed fairly smooth before now feel foreboding as McPherson tries to steer a dead car, unable to see much, relying on the white men’s skills and care, his only remaining sense of control his brake pedal. He reflects on how “…the old life lessons came back. There has never been a life-affirming umbilicus between black and white.” The rope is no longer in his mind a lifeline, but a danger; the men are no longer rescuers but “two drunk white men” putting his life at risk.

McPherson admits that he acts from this “reduced frame of reference.” I had no trust left in me. He hits the brakes, sending both vehicles into the ditch, even as the rope, the umbilicus, holds. Though at the end of the essay he walks away, we realize that no one ever really walks away from a dead car or a broke-down Baltimore, or Los Angeles, or Detroit, etc. “Umbilicus” lingers in the reader’s mind, not only because the writing is sharp and vivid, but because it awakens our own (often secret) doubts about the rhetoric of race in this country.

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10679674_10205306037194106_650969032157442128_oChauna Craig’s essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Lime Hawk Review, Terrain.org and Superstition Review.  Her work has been honored as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays, and she’s won fellowships to Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and Hedgebrook Writers Retreat.  She teaches at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.