Speaking on Their Own Terms: Trans Women and Representation – Timothy Lyle

Timothy Lyle

Initially, I had planned to compose a blog post structured by hashtags and infused with tweet-able moments about how and why I use social media in the literature classroom. But after careful consideration of recent current events, I have changed my mind—an often frustrating decision that is indicative of a life-long penchant for revision, to be sure.

Because I am teaching my core literature courses around “the dangers of the single story” and “why narrative matters” this semester, I feel compelled to join creative acts of cultural production, intellectual pursuits, and acts of political resistance with the following post.

Last week, North Carolina lighted social media on fire and ignited activist passions for social justice by calling an emergency special session and by hurrying a significant anti-LGBT piece of legislation through both the House and the Senate. Among the many disheartening components of the North Carolina House Bill 2 (known mostly as HB2) is a stipulation that bans transgender individuals from using restrooms and other public facilities that match their gender identities unless they have successfully changed their birth certificates—despite the difficult barriers that prevent them from doing so, if they choose to in the first place.

If you might be thinking that North Carolina’s legislation is an isolated attempt to police gender and rob trans folks of their safety and the dignity to relief themselves in peace, I would encourage you to familiarize yourself with similarly problematic bills circulating in or threatening to emerge from the following states: Kansas, Minnesota, Tennessee, Michigan, and Georgia.

In and out of a variety of states, a troubling tendency persists that captures the attention of an English professor. Not only are trans folks suffering unthinkable levels of everyday discrimination, but they are also subjected to everyone else’s narrativization of their identities and their lived experiences. Throughout media coverage, in legislative halls, and during everyday conversations, trans folks remain subjected to unsubstantiated claims of predatory behavior, pedophilic inclinations, and overall perverse dispositions. Under the guise of a rhetoric of privacy, fueled by steadfast “protection” of the heteronormative/cisnormative nuclear family, and shaped by rigid, binary understandings of gender identity and its relation to an interpretation of genitalia at birth, non-trans individuals regularly direct inaccurate, incomplete, and oppressive narratives of trans identities and experiences.

As a corrective to a host of cisnormative constructions of transgender people, I would like to use this blog space to offer narratives and resources to our readers that self-identified transgender cultural producers shape themselves. In so doing, I encourage you to ask what else comes into view when trans folks become the content creators of their own stories—or at least become key players. How do the very questions that underpin these narratives shift dramatically? Because these severely marginalized individuals rarely have access to mainstream cultural production venues, readers have to search harder to discover their voices, especially the voices of those who reside at the complicated nexus of race, gender, sexuality, and class in America. Below, our blog readers will find a starting point for reorienting themselves or for at least hearing divergent voices often suppressed in favor of intensely dispossessing accounts.

Aspiring cryptologists out there in the blogosphere might quickly notice that my list of 6281969 is a nod to the historic Stonewall riots in our neighboring New York City on June 28, 1969—an act of everyday resistance that is often credited with helping ignite the modern-day LGBT liberation movement. What you might not realize, however, is that narrativizations of this paramount act of issuing a resounding NO! to routine discrimination, disempowerment, and perverse use of authority started when trans women of color, homeless queers, sex workers, and other gender non-conforming people fought back.

Unfortunately, though, with the normalization of the LGBT movement—massaged by a politics of respectability—the contributions and voices of these community icons fade into the background or disappear all together. For a recent concrete example, look no further than the boycotted film Stonewall (2015) directed by Roland Emmerich.

Taking my cue from the soon-to-be-released short film Happy Birthday, Marsha (centering the life of Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson and her contributions to the Stonewall Riots), I am offering a list of 6/2/8/1/9/6/9 to share transgender women of color content creators that you should know in a variety of creative and political circles.

6 Books

6: Books by Trans Women of Color/Queer People of Color to Read

  • Janet Mock, Redefining Realness (2014)
  • Ryka Aoki, Seasonal Velocities (2012)
  • Lovemme Corazon, Trauma Queen (2013)
  • Toni Newman, I Rise: The Transformation of Toni Newman (2012)
  • The Lady Chablis, Hiding My Candy (1997)
  • Sharon Davis, A Finer Specimen of Womanhood (1985)

2 Blogs

2: Blogs by TWOC/QPoC to Surf

  • Monica Roberts, The Trans Griot
  • (Various), Black Girl Dangerous

8 Social Media Leaders8: TWOC/QPoC to Follow on Social Media

  • Laverne Cox
  • Angelica Ross
  • Cherno Biko
  • Janet Mock
  • Lynn Cyrin
  • Reina Gossett
  • Geena Rocero
  • Brooke Cerda Guzman

1 Organization1: TWOC/QPoC Organization to Support

  •  Trans Women of Color Collective

9 Films - New Media

9: Films or New Media Titles by, about, or starring TWOC/QPoC to View

  • Tangerine
  • Her Story
  • Orange is the New Black
  • Happy Birthday, Marsha (in post-production)
  • Laverne Cox Presents the T Word
  • FREE Cece (to be released in 2016)
  • MAJOR! (in post-production)
  • Mala Mala
  • Paris Is Burning

6 Historic Figures to Learn6: TWOC/QPoC Historic Figures to Learn

  • Sylvia Rivera
  • Marsha P. Johnson
  • Miss Major Griffin-Gracy
  • Sir Lady Java
  • Tanya Walker
  • Carlett Brown


9 Things to Avoid9: Things to Avoid Saying to TWOC

  •  “Have you had the surgery?”
  • “You are so passable. I would never know.”
  • “______ would really help you to be more feminine or masculine”
  • “How do you have sex?”
  • “What bathroom do you use?”
  • “Can I touch your hair?”
  • “That pronoun thing is just too confusing for me.”
  • “This reminds me of RuPaul’s Drag Race? I love that show!”
  • “So your boyfriend/partner is gay, right?”

 

What’s Up With the Girls? – Christina Carlson

Christina Carlson

gone-girl-book-cover

Several years ago, I taught Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl as part of a course called “What We’re Reading Now.” At the time, I saw it as a response to life in America after the economic bust of 2008. But since then, I’ve started to wonder if it reflects a different kind of cultural trend. This rethinking is largely based on a couple of “copy-cat” novels, notably The Good Girl by Mary Kubica, and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. All three have moody, blurry greyish hardback covers. All three utilize names and dates in their chapter titles, referring to journal entries or the times of particular recollections and the individual to whom they are attributed. But most notably, all three feature an unreliable female narrator, the “girl” of the title. The extent to which they are unreliable varies: Flynn’s girl is a manipulative sociopath, while Kubica’s, though still a liar, is more sympathetic and has an almost defensible reason for her lies. The girl on the train, the most sympathetic of the three, is an alcoholic who has blackouts.

girl on the traingoodgirl

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whether the inclusion of “girl” in the title of these later novels is an attempt to capitalize on the success of Flynn’s book is debatable; but either way, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. There seems to be something about using the word girl in the title that attracts attention. This is in spite of the fact that none of the titular girls are, in fact, girls—two are in their mid-twenties, the third in her mid-thirties. They are intelligent, educated and could be employable if not for their unreliability. They are women, yet I suspect to call them that would diminish the appeal of the books. Can you imagine a novel called Gone Woman? Why wouldn’t that sell? There are probably several reasons, none of which have anything to do with alliteration.

Perhaps it is because none of these characters act like mature women, despite their age. Perhaps it is because the word “girl” carries with it the promise of something still unfolding, unpredictable, maybe even uncontrollable. Perhaps this is what makes the three main characters unreliable narrators—an as of yet unformed sense of self, an unstable moral compass. The reason I’ve been thinking about it is that recently, while I was working at the Scholastic Book fair at my daughter’s school (she is in first grade), I came across a book titled Girl, Stolen about a sick, blind girl who is taken while sitting in the back seat of her mother’s car. My blood ran cold: same kind of title, same kind of cover, similar premise, but this time marketed to actual girls.

girl stolenNaturally, I bought the book. When the other volunteer rang it up, she got a warning message that the book contained “mature content” (don’t worry, it’s for me—I promise!). I won’t lie about being concerned. It’s one thing (and perhaps not a good thing) to use the notion of girlhood to connote unreliability to adult readers. But I wonder what the implications are for girls who are themselves in the throes of that liminal time? I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet—perhaps I will be surprised and it will turn the conventions of this emerging mini-genre on its head and give us a clear-headed young woman who finds a way to save herself and thus paves her own way to a mature adulthood. At least that’s what I hope. If not, you can be sure my daughter won’t be reading it anytime soon…

Words I Loathe (part 1) – Aaron Rosenfeld

Aaron Rosenfeld

As my students know, I loathe the word “relatable.” They know because I always tell them, usually early in the semester, and there is always a casualty (and to those unfortunates, I offer an overdue apology, along with my unstinting gratitude for supplying me with my teaching moment).

I had not even heard the word “relatable” until about 10 years ago. In his “On Language” column in the New York Times, Ben Zimmer traces the evolution of the word “relatable” from “able to be related,” as in a story that can be told, to the new usage, “something you can relate to.” He partly blames the influence of television: mass culture requires mass relatability. Since television traffics in flattery of its target demographics, “relatable” is a proxy for profitable. As long as characters on screen offer easy access to fantasies of “they’re just like me,” albeit slightly better looking and with better apartments, our eyes stay glued to the magic mirror.

The problem with “relatable” is that, like the passive voice, it dupes the reader by smudging out the subject. When I say something is relatable, I mean I can relate to it. But, instead of taking responsibility as the one that does the relating, with all the attendant limitations and qualifications that attribution implies, “relatable” pretends what I experience is actually a quality of the object. This might seem like a venal sin, but it has mortal consequences for the intellect.

Vladimir Nabokov, one of the great literary stylists of the twentieth century, calls “impersonal imagination” (Lectures on Literature, 4) the reader’s most important tool; identifying with a character is “the worst thing a reader can do” (4). We need “scientific” aloofness to balance emotional intuition if we are to recognize the specificity, the otherness, of the author’s experience. When we identify, we replace the author’s experience with our own; we find – yet again – our same old selves. I can think of no greater horror than being sentenced to bump forever against the bars of my own brain. Say goodbye to the sudden insight that might cause us to reevaluate who and what we are; say goodbye to the exhilarating leap into strangeness.

“Relatable” is the perfect word for a narcissistic age, insisting on the adequacy of the receiver’s experience, even though perhaps the most important reason for reading is to acknowledge our own incompleteness. Writing about student evaluations, Mark Edmundson tells of a professor’s solution to this form of self-satisfaction:

It’s said that some time ago a Columbia University instructor used to issue a harsh two-part question. One: What book did you most dislike in the course? Two: What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to? (Harper’s, September 1, 1997)

Edmundson’s cheeky professor raises a real issue. When we cannot relate, maybe we ought to look inward; the fault is not in our books, but in us.

I will admit, I have heard reasonable defenses of “relatable.” Just the other day, a student pointed out, “it doesn’t mean others have to relate, only that I do.” Maybe so, but framing it as a matter of relatability at all presumes we are central to the business at hand. Do authors write for us? Or do they write for themselves, out of a fascination with a feeling, a voice, a story, or a texture that they feel compelled to put into words? If it is the latter, then we are not the destination; we are no more than a bathroom break along the way.

Or, you might argue, “relatable” is like “edible,” just a way of describing whether or not something is ingestible by mind instead of mouth. But not exactly: “edible” describes an empirically verifiable state of being – either something can be eaten or not – the burden of which rests entirely with the object proposed as food (unless we mean it figuratively as hyperbole). Our ability to relate to a work of literature, in contrast, evolves depending on the effort we put into it. A shovel will always be inedible, no matter how good you get at chewing.

Edmundson and Nabokov point to how “relatable” makes intellectual laziness an approved category. We all have a tendency to treat the new things we encounter as confirmation of what we already know. This is how Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” became a poem about following your own path in life rather than a poem about self-deception and regret. Writers play with expectations—they trick us into thinking we are reading something familiar, only to twist it into something new. When we reflexively reduce what they have written to confirmation of our half-formed thoughts, we get it exactly wrong; in our rush to hear our common sense reflected back at us, we miss the meaning entirely.

Ultimately, calling something “relatable” undoes the real work of reading. Reading means hearing the voices of the others that inhabit the texts we read. Some effort is required. Empathy is not a thing that we all simply have in equal measure, it is to be cultivated, and reading is a tool for this end. Reading well can make all things “relatable,” but this is the outcome, not the precondition for our encounter with a work of art or literature.

A work of literature is only as large as the mind that contains it. So next time you find yourself thinking about whether a work is “relatable,” I have a suggestion: look for what is not “relatable” in the text; that is where you are most likely to find its genius. But I imagine you knew that’s what I would say.

 

 

 

 

 

Why English? – Anna Clark

Anna Clark

Often when I ask my students why they chose an English major, they’ll tell me stories about how in middle school Harry Potter seemed more real than their best friend, or how they’ve compulsively written short fiction since the second grade. I love such answers. They make English feel like destiny. For these students, the question isn’t why major in English, but why major in anything else. Passionate and determined, they’ve long known English was it.

For others, though, the decision to study English is a bit more fraught. After all, what do you tell your parents? Harry Potter and short fiction are great, but they’re not going to pay rent. What exactly can you do with an English major?

 

I was one of these others. I too have always loved reading and writing, I too found friends in books, but I’m also pragmatic to a fault. As a kid, I would reply to the “what do you want to be” question with “actuary!” or “orthodontist!” My ambitions were always firmly tethered to reality. By the time I reached high school, I knew I’d be a doctor—a cardiologist, to be exact. I started volunteering at a hospital; I watched The X-Files for gory autopsy scenes; I imagined myself with a white lab coat and stethoscope, professional, serene, gainfully employed.

So what changed? For one thing, when I got to college, I discovered I didn’t actually enjoy science and math classes—or at least as much as I did my humanities seminars. I was far from home in a big city, and I wanted more than anything to connect with people and make sense of a vast new place. My humanities classes—English and philosophy especially—helped me do just this. Taking them was like being initiated into a special club of really smart people who knew everything about everything. Being part of this club, or at least one of its wannabes, made me feel that I was participating in something big—what I said, the arguments I made, mattered. It was an amazing sensation, better, even, than the calm serenity of knowing what I’d do when I graduated.

Late in my sophomore year, I told my dad I was declaring a double major in English and philosophy. He made the kind of tight grimace usually reserved for taxes and plumbing repairs and muttered something about postponing retirement. But my pragmatism didn’t disappear when I switched out of premed. I started hunting down workstudy gigs that let me practice the writing and analytical skills I was getting in my English seminars, first taking a job writing press releases for the fine arts department, then becoming a tour guide at a local art museum, and then eventually finding an internship doing PR and sales for a summer music festival. These jobs didn’t pay much—I was always babysitting on the side—but, paired with the work I was doing in my major courses, they helped me plausibly imagine myself into many different careers: advertising, PR, publishing, museum education, arts administration. Before college, none of these pursuits were on my radar, but the people I was meeting who did these jobs seemed happy. They had autonomy and respect and intellectual engagement. And they too had studied things like English and philosophy. When I interviewed for work, I found that my major came across as serious rather than frivolous. It told prospective employers not only that I could write and communicate, but also that I was capable of puzzling through hard ideas. It told them that I possessed the kind of knowledge and abilities that matter to thoughtful people in creative fields.

In the end, my dad needn’t have worried. I found a job almost as soon as I graduated, helping with arts education at the same small museum where I’d been a tour guide. I stayed there while I earned a masters degree, and then worked in non-profits for nearly two years before returning to grad school for a Ph.D. (probably the least pragmatic decision I’ve ever made). I enjoyed those years, and in truth, I think I could have stayed in any one of those careers and been happy. I love being an English professor, but this job, just like my college major, is a choice. Studying English prepared me for where I am now, but it also prepared me for many other meaningful kinds of work.

 

I don’t mean to minimize English majors’ very valid concerns about employment. In lots of ways, I was lucky. And of course, no future is a sure thing. Circumstances that can’t be predicted close off some roads and open up new ones. Interests change. But for all these reasons, for someone who likes to read and write and think, I believe that English, in its own strange way, is one of the most pragmatic majors out there. It’s not an end in itself—you won’t graduate and “do” English. But that’s exactly why it’s so great. It changes with you. You can make it and remake it into what you want it to be. It translates itself into opportunities you can’t yet name.

Maybe you’ve always known you were going to be an English major. Maybe, to your own surprise, you find yourself considering it. Either way, welcome. It’s a worthy destiny. It’s a fine choice.

Book lists are important – Christina Carlson

Christina Carlson 

Book lists are important. When I was in grad school, we would exchange lists of our top five favorite books on first dates; if the lists didn’t pass muster, there was no second date. [Symbol] The books we love give insight into who we are, so I think it’s a useful exercise in self-knowing to identify our favorite books and what they might say about us. These are mine:

  1. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte. Gave hope of finding true love to bookish girls everywhere. Basis for my first published article, as well as a high school paper that earned an A+ despite the fact that I used “their/there/they’re” incorrectly throughout. (Thank you Ms. Longo!)
  1. To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf. My favorite of all her novels—a work of true beauty. It was also my first introduction to modernism, so I felt it upped my game as an English major. And, it helped me earn a distinction on my PhD comps. (Thank you, Dr. Steiner!)
  1. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Another stunningly beautiful novel. My first introduction to magic realism—mind officially blown. Stood at a bus stop in the cold reading rather than wait the five minutes it took to walk home because the ending was just that compelling and I had to finish it. (Thank you Mr. Ostrowski!)
  1. The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon. This is a bit of an outlier on my list. Truthfully, I don’t remember much beyond the fact that I thought it was the cleverest things I’d ever read, hands down, and that it reminded me a little of Gatsby on acid. I won’t read it again because I’m afraid I won’t like it the second time! (Thank you Dr. Hala!)
  1. Possession, AS Byatt. The softer side of post-modernism—this is what a Booker Prize winner looks like. Knew about it in college but actually read it on a graduation cruise. It was worth the wait. (Thank you Dr. Kolmar, and Princess Cruise Lines for keeping it in your library!)

So what do you think—any surprises? Questions? I think this blog is interactive, so let me know…

These are a Few of My Favorite Things – Aaron Rosenfeld

Aaron Rosenfeld

Here’s a game: It’s called “These Are a Few of My Favorite Things.” Pick some works of art you really like, in different mediums – poems, novels, songs, paintings – and see if you can find a common thread, of style or theme, that suggests a logic to your choices. What do your choices reveal about your attitudes and expectations of art? About you?

I’ll try. I’m thinking of three objects: one poem, one work of art, and one popular song. Here are the objects:

One poem: Philip Larkin, “Talking in Bed” (1964)

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds about the sky,

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind

One song: John Prine, Angel from Montgomery (1971)

I am an old woman named after my mother
My old man is another child that’s grown old
If dreams were lightning and thunder was desire
This old house would have burnt down a long time ago

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go

When I was a young girl well, I had me a cowboy
He weren’t much to look at, just free rambling man
But that was a long time and no matter how I try
The years just flow by like a broken down dam.

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go

There’s flies in the kitchen I can hear ’em there buzzing
And I ain’t done nothing since I woke up today.
How the hell can a person go to work in the morning
And come home in the evening and have nothing to say.

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go
One painting: Edward Hopper, Room in New York (1932)

M. Hall Collection of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
M. Hall Collection of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Here’s what I love about each of them.

I love how the Larkin poem turns love into syntax. Many people see a failed relationship here. Maybe, maybe not. But the poem suggests that the outside world cares even less for the couple than they do for each other. Eddie Arnold sings “Make the world go away;” the world has already gone away, and here they are. But it is “still more difficult” to find words because they at least are trying. Then the poem ends with a fussy syntactic distinction. If they can’t find words both true and kind, they would settle for words not untrue and not unkind. The distinction seems small, but it is the difference between a romantic, sentimental poem and a naturalistic one. The poem measures truth and kindness in syntactic, rather than cosmic units, and holds out the hope – dim though it may be — that syntax might rescue us from loneliness.

In Prine’s song, I first love the way Prine puts himself fully in the character of the woman speaker, and the song completely ignores the incongruity of the gravelly male voice singing “I am an old woman…” (listen to Bonnie Raitt’s version if you want to hear it in a gravelly female voice). I also love the specificity – the angel is from Montgomery. But what I really love is his/her plaintive confrontation with idealized romance that has grown up and old – “when I was a young girl, I had me a cowboy” but now “there’s flies in the kitchen.” As for Larkin, romance in the world is subject to constraints – not the shaping force of syntax, but of time’s chisel. The simple accompaniment, the bone-dry phrasing, the brief upward lilts in the chorus “make me an angel, that flies from Montgomery” that immediately plunge back down to earth. The song is so poignant because we hear in the character’s voice the last gasp of dreams that are about to wink out. Similarly to how Larkin remembers that “talking in bed ought to be easiest,” Prine’s speaker’s dreams are still alive, if barely; just enough to make the present intolerable by comparison.

In the Hopper painting, love is again all but flown. Stylistically it reminds me a little of “Mad Men” (though the chain of influence would have to be the other way around).

madmen

In Hopper’s painting, the couple sits in the room, separated by thick swaths of color. They look in the same direction, but at different objects – he at his newspaper, she at her fingers on the keys of the piano. They are each absorbed in their own way – he in reading, she in thought – sharing the frame, yet separated by a vast gulf. Love is again made subject to constraints, this time of space. Hopper captures the postures of emotional distance, similar to how Larkin captures its syntax, and Prine captures the sound of its voice.

So clearly I like my art depressing. But I think it’s more than that. All three are what I would call “thick” – simultaneously minimalist and expansive. In the Hopper painting, the thickness is literal, in the lines, shapes, and colors; in Prine, it is in how he lingers on a powerful feeling and extends it out across multiple dimensions – past, present future, its internal and external settings; in Larkin, the thickness is in the brevity of the moment that he captures and elaborates – his subject is merely a hiccup, a moment of hesitation between words.

All of these works bring intense, concentrated focus to something very small, very particular. I think this is the same reason I prefer Vermeer to Breughel, Dickinson to Whitman, Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” to REM’s “The End of the World as We Know It.” Even if the latter works can be summed up by a title, their themes are broad and they work by association; they over-flow with a cacophony of images that surround the central idea. You don’t so much contemplate them as bathe in them.

Larkin, Prine, and Hopper don’t circle outward, they burrow inward, concentrating on a small piece of the world within, giving it shape and dimension; quite literally, concentrating it. Complex emotions are made momentarily complete and visible, and therefore momentarily manageable. I think as someone whose mind works more like Whitman’s (ok, don’t I wish!), always skittering outward to new sets of associations, I yearn for the stillness, the quiet, the complete and full moment even if it is full of pain.

Ultimately, I think I love how these works thematically bring the yearning for the sublime down to earth. Robert Frost says in “Birches,” “earth’s the right place for love / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” I like this notion. All three of these works stuff the ideal into the box of the real. Sure it’s sad and the box might be a coffin, but in a weird way, the juxtaposition affirms the ideal by showing its death: the ideal might be something we cannot have, but it is something we cannot well live without. When the dream is gone, all that’s left is to be “Comfortably Numb.”

 

 

 

 

What I Read Wednesdays – Alyssa Quinones

Alyssa Quinones

 

For me, Wednesday is the day of the week that causes me the most stress. I spend my Tuesday evenings and the entirety of my Wednesdays with my nose in a book. As a grad student, having two lit classes back to back that are novel-based is no small feat. The permanent dark circles under my eyes and coffee shakes in my hands are a representation of my perpetual tiredness. But the one thing that makes it all worthwhile—I’m greatly enjoying the books that are being brought my way, books that, if it weren’t for these courses, I probably would have never picked up myself. My Images of Women in Modern American Literature class has been one of my favorite courses I have taken in my collegiate career. Books in that class have not only broaden my scope but have also pushed against my comfort barrier. They have made me cry in sadness and in anger, but have also made me immensely happy. Everyone should read them.

americanah

One of those books is Americanah by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This book was a roller coaster of emotions for me, and after Adele dropped ‘Hello’, I couldn’t handle life anymore. If you occasionally jam out to ‘Flawless’ by Beyoncé (if “occasionally” means every day) than you already know who this woman is. Beyoncé sampled words from Adichie’s Ted Talk entitled “We should all be feminists” in her hit song.

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie gestures in Lagos,Nigeria, Tuesday, Sept. 16 2008.(AP Photo/George Osodi)
Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie gestures in Lagos,Nigeria, Tuesday, Sept. 16 2008.(AP Photo/George Osodi)

Adiche, with her authoritative voice and boundless humor, takes you on a sensational journey of race, love, and class by transporting you from the past and the present to tell an unforgettable story about a young woman named Ifemelu. What makes this book so important is how acutely relatable it is because it is of our time. It is rooted in our decade, in our history. The prominence of technology, internet culture, sense of community within the blogging world, the 2008 election and the microscope held over race in America as a result are all aspects of what makes this novel such a prominent and essential part of our culture.

From the beginning of the novel, it becomes clear to the reader that Adichie has a firm grasp and understanding of what makes people tick. Her narration is a flawless examination of race through the lens of “otherness.” We perceive of race through Ifemelu’s eyes whilst in America and in Nigeria, where race is something she never had to truly acknowledge. Back home, the issue at hand wasn’t race, it was class. While going to college in Nigeria, Ifemelu is bogged down by bouts of discontentment. She wants a better life and education for herself.

One of the main complications I had with this novel was the protagonist herself. Although I greatly enjoyed the novel and found Ifemelu’s strength, perseverance, and intelligence to be refreshing to read, I came away with mixed feelings. Ifemelu’s general fickleness and self-sabotaging manner made her a difficult character to like at times. Her relationship with her old boyfriend Obinze conflicted me the most. Unlike a majority of my classmates, I did not view this as a love story and, by the end, was not rooting for the two to be together. But like every relationship Ifemelu has in this novel, she finds a reason to end it. Curt, her first American boyfriend, commonly referred to in her blog posts as the “hot white ex”, provided her with a life too easily lived, too comfortable. His race, wealth, and high social standing provided her with numerous ways to better herself and her standing whilst in America, but she sabotaged herself out of the relationship. She was playing a role if you will, involving herself in an experiment. She was happy, but not content. Her second American boyfriend Blaine, an African-American professor at Yale with high intellect and a false sense of maturity, appeared at first to be the perfect man. Before they had begun dating, Ifemelu could see their lives together quite easily. Once together, the only basis of longevity in their relationship was Obama’s campaign for the presidency. She found it difficult to fit in with his friends. Again, she found pleasure, but she wasn’t content. Obinze was the great love of her life, having met at school in their youth and dating into University, they had a strong and seemingly unbreakable bond. Bouts of depression and feelings of hopelessness regarding her situation caused Ifemelu to feel outside of herself and give up on the relationship.

At times during my reading, Ifemelu came off as petty and selfish. Now and again, her behavior is what caused me to find this book so harrowing to read. I’m fairly certain I had to stop reading out of anger and frustration at least 5 times towards the end of the book. (Note to self: ‘Friends’ is always a great distraction when literature or real life becomes too stressful. Naps help too.) Though, looking back on the novel, now I see that, that is something Adichie was blatantly trying to do. She is able to find the balance between impactful characters that both entertain and enrage whilst offering an important social and cultural commentary.

I hope I didn’t come out sounding too preachy in this post, but my class discussions are only 2 hours long, and I’m fairly sure half of the class would have crucified me for my opinions on Obinze x Ifemelu (#Obinelu? #Ifeminize?). I think I may be the only one who feels this way about Ifemelu. I’m sure the Internet dwellers are sharpening their pitchforks, but, even though I had my problems with the two protagonists of this novel, it was still one of the greatest novels I have ever read. I hope my interpretation of Ifemelu as a character can spark some conversation. She is a character that, like any human being, is riddled with many flaws, but flawed characters are usually the most interesting ones to read.

The end of Americanah brought with it a sense of longing and melancholy. I found I was not yet ready to leave the story or the characters within it. I wish we got to see more of Obinze’s point of view. Although I disagreed with some of his actions, I found him to be a very fascinating character and his time in England was some of my favorite parts to read in the novel.

Although I wasn’t the biggest fan of Ifemelu and Obinze as a couple by the end, I liked the idea that there is a certain dullness to life without the one you love. They both were living a life removed of color because the person they wanted to be with was no longer in it, a life of black and white, separations and categories, decisions and paths, all leading them to their true adventures.

One of the many securities of literature is that it can offer its readers an escape from their lives. In light of recent events in Paris, please stay safe and love one another.

Major Day ’15

Students met Anna Clark, Timothy Lyle, and Ivy Stabell to discover that the English Major at Iona College is a degree for the 21st century.

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Anna Clark, Ivy Stabell, and Timothy Lyle at Major Day

#WeNeedDiverseBooks, and that’s what many Iona English courses offer.  So students on Major Day were happy, because English.

Why English? Because English moves us beyond phonies.

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All students matter.  Their success matters, too.  That is why diverse books matter.

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English can make a difference in one act, in one meeting, in one tweet, in one hashtag.  Imagine what an English class, an English minor, or an English major can restore.

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Professors can learn as much from students as students can from professors.  Yes, English can restore, invigorate, collect, unite, and inspire.

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Diverse books invite everyone.  So, you are invited, too!  Follow us on Twitter, and we’ll follow you.  Let’s meet our needs.

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Susan Tolivier from Sociology: Yes!

 

Starting Convos – Dr. Dean Defino

Conversations start when two or more people share something in common.  It may be something very basic, like standing in the same place at the same time (“Do you know if the bus is running on time?”; “I think that penguin just winked at us”), or something more profound, like a shared passion.  If you have come to this blog, it is most likely because you share a passion for books, for stories, for words, and the ways they work on our senses and our imaginations.  Here you will find others who share that passion.  And so a conversation will begin.

What will we talk about?  The things we love.  Sometimes we will simply want to share our passions by recommending the things we love to each other.  Sometimes we will feel compelled to explain; other times, we will be forced to admit that we don’t fully understand.  That’s good.  This isn’t a thesis or a project, but a place to meet and be enthusiastic.  Not necessarily as students or teachers or scholars or critics, but as amateurs, a word that originally meant “lovers.”

We’ve all had that experience of reading a book or poem, watching a movie or a play, and suddenly falling head-over-heels in love with it.  Not the sort of love we feel for concepts, ideals, or community, but the messy, irrational, trip-over-ourselves-to-tell-others kind of love.  That’s what we want to celebrate here.  Will we try to convince each other that we should all love these things too?  Of course.  That’s what we do when we are passionate.  That’s what connects us.  That’s what starts conversations.

So to all lovers of stories, of words, of the music and noise, beauty and horror, virtue and vice of reading—whatever it is we love to read: I say to you, welcome to the conversation.

~Dean Defino