Guest Post, Jacob M. Appel: Transcending the Particular

Transcending the Particular: Why All Stores Do not Matter Equally

 

Jacob AppelShakespeare and I have far less in common than meets the eye.

On the surface, we’re both Caucasian, male, reasonably well-off for our times, and, in the eyes of my students, roughly the same age. And, as it happens, we also write plays—although his have received a somewhat more enthusiastic reception. For the time being, at least.

That’s roughly where the commonality stops. Shakespeare was English, and left countless artifacts to prove it, as every huckster in Stratford-upon-Avon will assure you. Meanwhile, in Shakespeare’s day, my forebears, a motely crew of impoverished fishermen, brick layers and subsistence farmers, struggled to survive the brutality of the Russian Pale. They practiced a rigid breed of Orthodox Judaism, spoke Yiddish, and suffered the brutality of Cossacks. Novels and plays were likely as alien to them as the church bells of London. Later, those relatives who survived the Pogroms found their way to the gas chambers of Poland. To describe Shakespeare’s drama as my cultural heritage, merely because of the demographic characteristics enumerated above, would reflect the worst of whiggish anachronism.

I emphasize this context, because I want to explore an argument advanced by a Sacramento high school English teacher, Dana Dusbiber, in a Washington Post op-ed last summer, in which she argued against assigning Shakespeare to her inner city students, a majority of whom are low-income kids from minority backgrounds. She wrote:

“….I enjoy reading a wide range of literature written by a wide range of ethnically-diverse writers who tell stories about the human experience as it is experienced today. Shakespeare lived in a pretty small world. It might now be appropriate for us to acknowledge him as chronicler of life as he saw it 450 years ago and leave it at that.”

I do not mean to dismiss the entirety of Dusbiber’s argument: Certainly, students should be able to relate to the literature that they read and a strong case can be made for allowing young people a say in designing their own curricula. Having exposure to literary role models with whom they can connect is essential if we are to welcome a diverse generations of future writers. My concern with Dusbiber’s column is that it does not just dismiss Shakespeare, but embraces a philosophy, increasingly present in literary circles, that writing does not transcend context. One might as easily argue—and I think this would prove a grievous error—that Frederick Douglass lived in a remote antebellum world of chattel bondage, so why read a slave narrative? Or dismiss the distinct rural feminism of Willa Cather, because nobody dwells in sod houses any longer. What makes great literature, as I see it, is precisely the opposite: The ability to capture your own “pretty small world” in a way that speaks to people nothing like yourself.

One need not be African-American to be moved by Richard Wright’s Native Son or Jewish to connect with Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer—or, I’d like to hope, to see the commonality of experience endured by Bigger Thomas and Yakov Bok. The joy of reading lies in recognizing the universality of human experience lurking within the particulars: seeing your own tedious cousin in Jane Austen’s William Collins or an ex-girlfriend in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jordan Baker, or, I have no reason to doubt, a friend or acquaintance lurking in the great oral narratives of Latin America or Southeast Asia—even though one has not grown up in 19th century Britain or Jazz Age Long Island, has never stepped foot in the Andes or the Mekong Delta. When in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, she describes the “long littleness of life,” I understand instantly, even though my politics and lived experience might prove closer to Shakespeare’s than to hers. Whitman’s “multitudes” may be vaster than my own, but the moments of overlap leave me breathless. Growing up as a Dumbo-eared, funny-looking child with a lisp, I remember discovering Pecola Breedlove in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and feeling a deep kinship with her—not to suggest, obviously, that my suffering was anywhere as severe as hers, but I cannot emphasize enough the solidarity, and solace, I found in our parallel fantasies.

Great stories look outward. What is the point, after all, of speaking to people who share your own values and experiences and sensibilities? I wish to emphasize very strongly that this observation is not directed only or primarily at minority writers. Quite the opposite. Far too many of today’s celebrated A-list literary figures are upper-middle class white men who write specifically for people precisely like themselves. (Brooklyn Heights, I hear, crawls with them.) They are often enabled by a publishing industry populated by editors who share similar lived experiences. That is not to say that one cannot cull worthwhile, transcendent truths from Sutton Place or Westchester County—as, for example, does John Cheever—but that many authors no longer seem to be trying. Similarly, a resistance exists to reading about people different from ourselves, or to do so primarily to witness their differences, in lurid exoticism disguised as open-mindedness, rather than to enjoy our similarities. So much of publishing has become inward looking—about marketing to specific audiences, branding, and targeting insular literary communities. I want my students to write for people as unlike themselves as possible. The stories that matter most, at least to me, are not those that merely capture an unknown world—but those that bring me a world I do not know and teach me how it reflects or connects to my own.

With increasing frequency, when I speak at conferences or on panels, audience members ask some variation of the question: Can I write effectively about people whose backgrounds and lived experiences are fundamentally different from mine? (It is worth noting that the questioners tend to by an extremely diverse lot—far more so than the audiences at these events.) To my surprise, and dismay, authors I admire are increasingly answering “No.” I think this approach is misguided, but also tragic. Needless to say, it is much harder to write about cultures and experiences distant from one’s own—and the room for error is significantly greater. Exploration is not an excuse for carelessness or stereotype. But do we really want to create a literary world where the next Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee can’t write about heterosexual couples? Or in which William Styron, whose Sophie’s Choice rivals The Diary of Ann Frank as the most compelling of Holocaust narratives, confines his intentions to Tidewater Virginia? I believe we should be encouraging our students to write about people far different from themselves—to hope for empathy rather than to fear appropriation. (This is a distinct issue, I believe, from the serious problem of the chronic underrepresentation of certain stories and groups in mainstream publishing, but the two matters are often—and, in my opinion regrettably—conflated.) I dream, maybe naively, of a world where we tell each other’s stories, and do so with such insight and identification, that they truly become our own.

So back to Shakespeare.

A host of plausible reasons exist for reading less Shakespeare. But I’d hate to believe that one of them is that he doesn’t speak to low-income minority students. To me, that sells those students short. I’d hope that their teachers can find a way to show the relevance of Hamlet’s doubt or Macbeth’s ambition to their own lived experiences, much as my teachers were able to do for me. Obviously, students of all backgrounds should also be introduced to the universal human experience found in writers who “look” nothing like Shakespeare. But there’s a magic to discovering that someone very much unlike oneself—let’s say a playwright who lived on a distant island more than four centuries ago—shared recognizable fears and longings.

If literature cannot bring us together, what can?

Guest Post, Dixie Salazar: Dippity Don’t

Dixie Salazar picture

        “Imagination is More Important than Knowledge”   Albert Einstein

Growing up, I always felt different. Of course I struggled with this, trying desperately to fit in, reading in the dark, trying to strain my eyes so I might need glasses because one of the “popular girls” wore them and I thought they would give me access to her status. When the surfer girl look came along, I was again, out of sync, with a mass of kinky/curly hair that only went straight when I set it on huge orange juice cans slathered with Dippity Do, even attempting to sleep on this torture contraption, so I’d be acceptably straightened for school the next day, only to have my smooth cap of hair spring back into a froth of frizz as soon as the morning fog hit. Next came ironing—my hair, that is. I wanted that parted in the middle, straight down the sides Cher look, with a long, silky rope of hair that swung down to my waist. But I gave this up after singeing the side of my face, not the in look I was going for.

I’ve now made peace with my hair; in fact, I celebrate my hair, along with all the other differences that plagued me growing up. It turns out they are all the best things about me and they help me to appreciate and participate in the arts. So here’s my rant against uniformity, and I don’t think it’s overstating the fact to say that uniformity is a danger facing our entire country. Just look at the current state of national politics.

 

Rant #1 Uniforms: Parents and teachers love them, but aren’t they the first step toward cookie cutter soldiers, mass-produced to join the ranks of the corporate/military assembly line? I don’t know how I would have made it through school or my first mind-numbing job without the crutch of daydreaming my next day’s wardrobe. I loved putting together unique colors and styles and being creative with fashion. I still do. And unlike teenagers and gang bangers, I don’t want to look like everyone else.

Rant #2 Paint Nights: Where everyone pays a fee to put on a smock and follow a stroke by stroke demo from a so called artist, to supposedly unlock their hidden talents. And they each go home with an almost exact replica of the leader’s painting, and they are all the same and they are all happy and brag the next day about discovering the artist lying dormant within them for so long. Please! All they unlocked was the hidden copyist lurking inside. This is just wrong…on so many levels it would take several more blog posts and a lot more ranting to deconstruct.

Rant #3 MFA poetry products: O.K. This one may make me unpopular, but I can’t be the only one who feels this way. I’m talking about MFA produced/work-shopped poetry.  I swear that it has a smell (not fragrant). Three lines into reading one of these poems, my nose is twitching and my eyes begin to glaze over. It’s obvious the writer has mastered quite well the template for pleasing his/her professors. Granted, there may be imagination at work at times and even adept writing, but it remains static within the normalizing template. They were very smart, industrious students and they’ll become smart, industrious teachers and editors who’ll direct the next generation down the same rutted path of boring mediocrity. And we now have a tautology, a closed self-perpetuating system as well as a love fest. The students give their professors glowing evaluations so they can keep their jobs and the professors in return give the students glowing recommendations so they too can get jobs and …and they publish each other and read to and applaud each other. And most people who don’t understand (read) poetry accept it and go away reinforced in the fear that they just don’t get it.

 

Granted, the hot mess that is current politics won’t be easily solved by eliminating uniforms, paint nights, and MFA poetry, but unless we change our intrinsic value system and promote creative individualism and critical thinking over the mass consumption of acceptable, locked in place ideas, we are doomed to be ruled by those who would have us all look, think, talk, dress, act and vote alike.

One of the side effects of creativity is empathy. It’s impossible to relate to someone who is different from you if you can’t begin to imagine their situation or their plight as one you might experience yourself. Nurturing imagination in children is a crucial step toward creating a world where we value differentness and otherness. Walt Whitman said, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I become the wounded person.”

And finally, in the words of Alice Walker, “This is a wonderful planet and it is being destroyed by people who have too much money and power and no empathy.” I would just add that it’s being destroyed by people who have no imagination.

Guest Post, Elijah Tubbs: A Curse Stole My Voice

Stuttering

The Curse of the Bambino plagued the Boston Red Sox to not win the World Series for eighty-six years after a poor decision where managers sold their star-player, Babe Ruth, to rival team New York Yankees in 1918.

Oh, Babe! they cried.

In an ethereal moment, a lunar eclipse and thick mist, the Red Sox finally won the World Series in 2004, sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals.

Will it take a lifetime for my curse to lift too?

My curse: misfire in my brain, disconnect from thought to mouth to sound then out into others ears. I choke on inanimate objects, words or phrases, sound lodged deep in my throat begging to be free, to be heard the way it’s meant to be heard.

Stuttering left me naked with raw and tender skin, ready to be picked apart by crows since age eight. My stutter defined me throughout school. It doesn’t help that my face contorts like sour candy has gotten stuck in the right side of my mouth either, looking as if there actually is something terribly wrong happening.

No one even knows what causes this, or how to fix it.

Read aloud; talk to your gerbil, Zippo; practice sound like a four year old scribbling on their zoo phonics worksheets. Exercise your voice! work on speaking normal—just a few suggestions from parents, friends, teachers and speech therapists over the years.

Many great minds have been stutterers – look at Winston Churchill, someone said to me somewhere. Fuck Churchill, I want to order a carne asada burrito from Filiberto’s like everyone else without being asked, sorry can you say that again? twice when I pull through the drive thru.

Oftentimes I cannot introduce myself without someone asking if I have forgotten my own name.

A lot of great people are a lot of things and stuttering has almost nothing to do with it, except for the fact that stuttering lead me to empathy, and assumedly those other great men too.

My stutter has allowed me to place myself in another’s position regardless of if I have had that same experience because in the end the person who has Tourette’s, or a lazy eye you just can’t miss has been looked at the same way. And for that I am indebted to my curse because today no one can seem to identify with anyone different from themselves and that’s dividing us as a single people.

Does that make me great or are those great people great because of their status, or talent, and happen to stutter too?

Did years of ridicule also lead to empathy for them? Is empathy the key to their wide spread success?

I don’t know, I’d like to think so.

You don’t know what you’re taking for granted, something as natural as speech. Just as I take for granted the fact that I can pull up my own pants, watch an ocean’s wave crash on the shore and notice salt on my skin, or pick a spoon up and feed myself without dribbling whatever soup I’m eating all over myself staining my shirt.

Fortunately though, like all things subject to time and its corrosive nature, my stutter is fading away.

Time is the only solution that has proven itself, for me. Great, long, lengths of time of constantly being giggled at or questioned or treated like a poor sap whose head isn’t screwed on the right way then persevering through it all, similarly to those unfortunate Red Sox fans.

Still I stutter daily though, hourly even, but now I can at least get a sentence out every now and again, have a real conversation with someone.

My voice is being heard and taken seriously.

Did anyone laugh at Churchill standing high above, pious and profound like, preaching hope to his country? If so, did it tank his self-esteem like mine?

I picture him giving a speech like a truck motor having trouble turning over and his people all gathered there shrugging their shoulders at each other wondering why.

I am not eleven anymore and neither are you, we are not in a classroom or at recess, but there are people who still comment disrespectfully, actually ask if I have forgotten my name and just chuckle and snicker when clearly I am different. Maybe it’s a way to fix the awkwardness for them, a nervous reaction; maybe they’re just an asshole.

Regardless of intention, it still hurts. Treat me like Winston Churchill or Julia Roberts or Bill Withers or Jorge Luis Borges or any other class act that stutters because I’m positive you wouldn’t laugh in their faces, at those “great minds”.

How often is a voice heard? Hello, goodbye, may I take your order? yes I would like…, my name is…, how’re you?, nice to meet you… et cetera. My voice is heard every single day and the simplest words and phrases are lost, jumbled up in the cavernous void of my synaptic trenches tumbling backwards up my throat and out my mouth to you.

Be patient please, with me, and everyone else different from you.

We are all great men and women here, you and I.