Monday, May 25, 2015

The Challenge

My lower division course on early Brit Lit had low, low enrollment, so I got reassigned to an Intro to Lit course.  I was expecting it, and it's okay by me.

I was talking to a colleague (who's a person of color and a campus leader in anti-racism work), thinking about what to teach, and we thought about how it would be to teach only literature by people of color. 

For me, it would be a challenge.  It would be a lot of work, because I usually teach really dead folks from England.  I don't teach more modern stuff often, not poetry, nor novels, nor short stories, nor drama.  And most writing by people of color in English is more modern.

But my colleague was encouraging me, and I just might do it.

I've got three dramas that would do well, and that I've taught before, Raisin in the Sun, M. Butterfly, and What Mama Said.  And there are plenty of short stories, some of which I've taught before.  My colleague suggested a novel.

But poetry?  I was thinking initially of reading some poems by and trying to Skype in a poet I know.  So, I'd appreciate suggestions for poetry.  I especially would appreciate some sonnets, because I find teaching sonnets a good way to get into poetry.  For me, the strict form helps me read the verse, and that helps me teach verse, and that helps me teach non-formal poetry, too.

I'm also thinking of teaching Persepolis.  I've never taught a graphic novel before, but I've read it, and it's really interesting.

So, wisdom of the internet, what poems would you teach?  What short stories?  What novel?

30 comments:

  1. I love teaching graphic novels, although the interesting thing is that I can't mark up the books the way that I do for "normal" books. I'm teaching Persepolis this coming fall and looking forward to it.

    I'm revisiting book choices for my Crime and Punishment course, which I'm teaching again next year. I was going to use Doubt as my contemporary play, but I hadn't thought about M. Butterfly. Hmm.

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    1. What Now, M Butterfly is great in the classroom. Tess Onwueme's What Mama Said is also really good to teach.

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  2. I have a poetry anthology recommendation: Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, ed. Camille Dungy. $17 on Amazon. It's varied in form and yes, includes sonnets! Or a single-author volume: Rita Dove's Mother Love, the Persephone myth, mostly sonnets and sonnetlike poems.

    Novels: My top choices might be Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John, (which I'm teaching next year), Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and Lan Samantha Chang's Hunger (which I'm also teaching next year).

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    1. Oh, Meansomething, that sounds great! Thanks! I do like Sherman Alexie. I'll have to look for that. (The suggestion from my colleague is I think, Native Speaker. Do you know it?

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    2. I read Native Speaker years ago and would not have thought of it as an exciting book to teach undergrads, though Chang-Rae Lee is certainly a good literary writer. How soon do you have to decide?

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    3. I should have decided already, but as long as I pick stuff that's readily available, I probably have until mid June.

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  3. Anonymous11:24 AM

    Check the archives of the Poetry Foundation's Poem of the Day email. They routinely feature the work of African American poets-- there is a lot out there.

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  4. Thanks, Anon! That's very helpful!

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  5. Anonymous2:47 PM

    For sonnets, there is no one better than Claude McKay! I've also used some poetry by recent US laureate Natasha Trethewey in the classroom (for example, check out "Flounder" and "History Lesson") and they went over well - a nice mixture of formal elements, images, and metaphors to talk about. (a second Anon, not the 11:24 one!)

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  6. Oh, this is great! Thanks second Anon!

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  7. I second the Natasha Trethewey suggestion. She wrote a particularly interesting series of poems about the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. And when it comes to Sherman Alexie, I really prefer his poetry to his prose, although I think my students would disagree. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is good because then you can show the movie Smoke Signals, which is fun.

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  8. BEST play by an African-American woman: "Trouble in Mind" by Alice Childress. It's about a company of black actors putting on a play about slave time. The director is a well-meaning white liberal man who is trying to help the black actors. It comes to a head, and the female lead has a confrontation with the white man. It is tremendous. It shows how even well-meaning whites can really, truly screw up, and how important it is to be self-aware when it comes to race and gender. I cannot recommend it highly enough. I found it in this short anthology, but I think that you can buy single editions from a script company or something: http://www.amazon.com/Plays-American-Women-1930-1960-Applause/dp/1557834466/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1432600604&sr=8-4&keywords=trouble+in+mind+alice+childress.

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  9. Anonymous12:49 AM

    I suppose Toni Morrison is too obvious, but I've had great success with *The Bluest Eye*. How about Louise Erdrich, Linda Hogan, or Leslie Marmon Silko? (I'm more familiar with their prose, but they all write poetry too.) And Octavia Butler, of course - "Speech Sounds" is a great post-apocalyptic short story.

    A third Anon.

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    1. Great suggestions, Anon. I've only read a bit by Butler, but the short story sounds good!

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  10. Anonymous7:58 AM

    I like Richard Wright's haiku which have been collected and published as Haiku: This Other World (and have the advantage of being not only a haiku, a form that students are familiar with, but haiku done with attention to the Japanese tradition, which means you have seasonality and pivot words—which students often aren't familiar with. The analysis in the back of this volume covers these aspects, so it should be easy to get up to speed.).

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    1. That's interesting! Thanks!

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  11. Anonymous9:40 AM

    I know I am REALLY old fashioned but I have always liked Mother to Son by Langston Hughes and The Color Purple by Alice Walker.
    ChrisinNY

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    1. Langston Hughes for sure, and short stories by Walker, I think. Thanks!

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  12. Ooo, ooo, ooo! I have the novel for you: Kindred by Octavia Butler. I used it in my Intro to Fiction class this semester (and I've taught it before) and the kids loved it. There's just so much you can do with it; we taught in conjunction with introducing feminist theory but it's exceptionally versatile. Really, I love this novel and I love teaching it. Highly recommend!

    As for poetry, here are a few things I've used before:
    Claude McKay's If We Must Die (sonnet!)
    Yusef Komunyakaa's Facing It
    Gwendolyn Brooks's We Real Cool
    Faiz Ahmed Faiz's When Autumn Came
    Nikki Giovanni's Sometimes
    Langston Hughes' Dreams
    Judith Ortiz Cofer's El Ovido
    Agha Shahid Ali's The Wolf's Postcript to Little Red Riding Hood
    Nellie Wong's Can't Tell

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    1. These area great! Thank you! (I love We Real Cool)

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  13. Third the Natasha Trethewey recommendation. She has a fabulous historical sensibility, and her latest book of poetry "Thrall" touches on earlier time periods in ways (colonial racial categories) that might work for you.

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    1. Super, thank you! (I've actually seen her read, and she's really good!)

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    2. Isn't she? Not that I have tons of experience, but I think she's the best reader I've ever heard. She's based in my city and I've gotten to hear her read a bunch of times, including her first official reading as Poet Laureate, which she did here.... also went to a live moderated conversation between her and Rita Dove. I met her at ASA about 10 years ago in the book exhibit and have been buying everything by her since -- she's really a historian's poet. I would loooooove to be in a master class like the one here: http://www.hurstonwright.org/poetry-prose-and-the-historical-imagination

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  14. Also, I've been reading Tracy K. Smith's Life on Mars lately and really liking it.

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  15. Shane in Utah7:21 AM

    I'm a twentieth century guy and a "postcolonialist," so most of the literature posts around here go over my head. At last, a comments field I can contribute to!

    Let me second (or third) the suggestion of Claude McKay, who was obsessed with the sonnet form throughout the 1910s and 20s ("If We Must Die" being the most famous example).

    I'd vote for any of Langston Hughes's poems from Montage of a Dream Deferred, or any of his short stories from Ways of White Folks.

    Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (novel) or "Sweat" (short story)

    Derek Walcott's "Light of the World" (poem) and/or Ti-Jean and his Brothers (play)

    Andrea Levy's Small Island (novel, set in Jamaica and England in mid-C20; on the long side, but a quick and appealing read)

    Salman Rushdie, short stories from East/West

    Octavia Butler yes!

    And then there's Africa: Chinua Achebe, Zoe Wicomb, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ben Okri are some old favorites. And then there's a whole new generation of writers especially from Nigeria, whom I confess I haven't explored much: Chris Abani, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Teju Cole. I can expand if you want to explore...

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    1. I would love you to expand, please, Shane! These are helpful, thank you!

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  16. richard7:54 AM

    I second Shane in Utah's suggestion of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Teju Cole. In addition to being very interesting writers and thinkers (and photographers, in Cole's case), they seem to be interested in engaging directly with their audiences. You might be able to swing an appearance, electronic if not in the flesh.

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  17. So, what do I know? But I'd echo the Adichie recommendation - I loved Half a Yellow Sun. Also, Jumpa Lahiri, and I think her short stories are better than her novels.

    Also, Ruth Ozeki's Tale for the Time Being is really good, and plays both with her identity and those of various people around her on a small island of the west coast of Canada. It might be interesting for your students who come from small rural places because some of the dynamics are global, some very local...

    Caryl Phillips, too -- I read The Atlantic Sound, which is non-fiction, but his new novel plays with Wuthering Heights. Don't know his other fiction, others here will know more.

    Zadie Smith: I haven't read her more recent work (NW6) but enjoyed both On Beauty and White Teeth.

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    1. Thanks, Susan! I appreciate your contributions.

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  18. Yes for Claude McKay's sonnets! Also, a second thumbs up for Komunyakaa. I also love teaching Lucille Clifton's "at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation ...." and Sekou Sundiata's "Blink Your Eyes."

    I love M. Butterfly. Also, what about Kazuo Ishiguro? I love Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior, too, and the chapters can stand as short stories.

    Gloria Anzaldua and Cherry Moraga.

    I like thinking about this.

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