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"It didn't turn out like we planned": Notes Towards Day 14 (Thurs, Oct. 20)

Anne Dalke's picture

I. coursekeeping

* circle up the chairs

* after class
we'll go straight over to the English House Lecture Hall to talk with S-LP
hoping we might have some time @ the end of class to brainstorm some questions we'd like to ask her...

* for Tuesday's class, please read the first 1/3 of
The Book of Salt (through Ch. 8, p. 84).
This is Monique Truong's first novel, which has received @ least 10 major awards.
(She's got a more recent novel, called Bitter in the Mouth, which I didn't like as much.)
I was first directed to this book by Alexander Tisman, a student in Critical Feminist Studies,
back in the day when I was asking students to select the books we read in our classes;
I've used it several times in Critical Feminist Studies, where we generally zero in
on the difficulty of representing sensual experience in language; for starters:
how represent the taste of salt in words?

I probably won't do what I've done in the earlier classes--
bring in salt, have you taste it and write about the experience--
but I did chose this novel for us because we are focusing on the challenges of representation,
* because it will help us to keep on complicating how race is represented in American literature;
* because the story is insistently intersectional, which seems, along w/ haunting, a key term for us here;
* because it's organized around some very famous photographs (we may do some close reading
of those images, cf'ing our own descriptions with Truong's); and finally, I chose it
* because it juxtaposes the experiences of the infamous modernist writer,
Gertrude Stein; her lover, Alice B. Toklas; and their home and salon in Paris after WWI,
with the experiences of their fictional cook, a Vietnamese refugee who is a gay man.
Their intersecting stories say a lot about class and gender--and even more about
the erasure (and objectification) of being Asian in a European city.

The author, Monique Truong, was born in Saigon, South Vietnam, in 1968; when she was 6,
she and her mother left for the United States as refugees of the Vietnam War. Her father,
who was an executive for a international oil company, stayed behind for work, but also
left after the fall of Saigon. Truong graduated from high school in Houston, Texas, got
a B.A. in English from Yale, then a J.D. from Columbia Law School. She worked as an editor
for an Asian American literary journal, and also wrote a monthly online food column.

She got the inspiration for this novel in college after she bought a copy of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook,
because she was interested in Toklas's famous marijuana brownie recipe. Intrigued to discover that
Toklas and Stein had had two "Indo-Chinese" (= South Asians) who cooked for them, she created
a fictional life for one of these men. Her novel's "about" race, sexuality, the diaspora, national identity....
you might watch for these themes; and/or attend to the lyricism of the prose,
to the sensuality of description (there's lots about food!),
and particularly to the relationships of sensuality and food
to representations of intersectional identities...

Unlike Getting Mother's Body, which is very much stripped down to dialogue (internal and external),
with no omniscient commentary, The Book of Salt is very layered, very complexly written: there
is much reflection, explanation, and elaboration of sentnces...

One of my Critical Feminist students wrote (on Serendip): "The Book of Salt is not so one-note.
A complex dish, in which the salty taste of gender merely offsets the many flavors of races
and nationalities and languages and journeys and class and wealth and clothes and family and....
This is the kind of story I want to read more of...this book achieves a kind of inclusiveness,
in which any and every person is relevant."

Truong's website says that she is "an intellectual property attorney, but she hopes that
you will not hold that against her. When she is not writing, which is most of the time,
she cooks and takes naps. She lacks many basic life skills such as knowing how to
drive a car, ride a bicycle, or read a map. She has been known to walk long distances
though, especially if there is a very good bakery located at the end of that walk."

Since Jody and I are going to Norris Square w/ our ESem,
we'll have a shortened class on Tuesday (and this class will go first)
we'll talk about Truong (probably the photographs she uses in the novel);
then I want to show you a 10-minute video about one of the gardens
@ Norris Square, "Villa African Colobo"; Franny, since you can't join us,
I'll ask you to watch the 30-minute version, plus another 30-minute
video about a second garden, ""Las Parcelas," and report on what you see...

II. But first! Your reflections on our discussion of Getting Mother's Body
[missing Amaka, Gabby, Kamara, Nkechi....]

I spent y’day evening reading through your postings, looking for intersections/
juxtapositions/differences/disagreements. Here are some of the patterns I saw:

Five of you focused less on intersectionality than on questions of inheritance,
or (to reverse the question): how much free will do we have,
to break away from familial scripts?

HannahC asked, for example, to what degree it is possible to “'rise above your Beedeism,”
as Homer’s mother, Estelle, claims she has;

asked similarly how separate our past selves are, how much they inform our present self;

asked, relatedly, how restorative Willa Mae’s treasure is, for the present family; and both

HannahS and Creighton worked a literary version of the same question:
how influential is the past on the present body (of fiction)? –-
as they developed extended reflections of a past novel (Faulkner’s
As I Lay Dying) with a present one, Parks’ Getting Mother’s Body).

Six of you worked very productively with the concept of intersectionality,
both in your small groups and in your postings. It was particularly interesting/
instructive to me to hear a number of you work through the idea of intersectionality
via the concept of a contact zone

Abby reported on her group’s identification of “the places our identities intersect
as contact zones in themselves…moments/spaces of interaction/expression that
can be violent, unsafe, and unpredictable,” as well as sites of “beauty and growth…
as a result of the pain and discomfort these spaces may foster. The complex,
colliding, complementing identities that we each hold give us meaning
in the same ways that they can leave us vulnerable to oppression and
the abuse of power.”

said that her group rejected the metaphor of “intertwining,”
which implies the “crossing” of “separate things”; “i am everything
that i am all the time… each individual nameable piece of my identity
is a contact zone for all others…each facet of identity is both
changing and being changed by every other small bit of identity.” 

Liv described herself, similarly, as a “collage,” and

Nyasa likewise described intersectionality as “the
conversation that our identities are constantly
having with each other.”

Swati developed a particularly striking example of this
process of colliding identities—one that she said actually
made her feel “queasy”: the way that solidarity for Hilary
Clinton “helps her assimilate into power structures
that Black and Brown woman have limited access to…”

Sula took a rather different take: "Acknowledging that
Dill does not lay claim to any identities...seems to gesture to
…our conflict in class…around addressing intersectionality.
We can express the experience of intertwined identities
all we want, but our language is limited in that we must
name those identities individually…the lack of identities
put into language offers up opportunity for a true
acknowledgement of Dill's complex personhood to
take place--one that is not constrained by a laundry list of identities."

lacking the language might actually
open up conceptual possibilities...]

Two of you, however, questioned the worth of what seemed to
you a too-abstract form of framing for reading the novel:

Franny, "Reflections": /oneworld/poetics-and-politics-race/reflections
me.mai.i, "class today": /oneworld/poetics-and-politics-race/class-today

Searching for that balance, I want to kick off our discussion today
by inviting a close reading of several individual passages,
starting w/ a couple that your groups focused on:

Alliyah, HannahS, Rosa on Willa Mae, pp. 30-31: "Everybody's got a Hole..."
HannahC, Franny, Anne on June, p. 173: "i feel like i done fell into the river of beedes..."
Nyasa's group on Teddy, p. 180

Then moving on (if time/interest) to several other passages from the last portion of the novel:
The songs of Willa Mae Beede, pp. 185, 218, 245, 255
The off-stage performance of the ring trick p. 208
Billy Beede, p. 257: "Folks take after they folks. That's the law of nature...."

III. So, with these experiences:
what does it mean to do a "close reading,"
(rather than using "modern political ideas/modes of identity"),
to "look at what is already there,"
to "start with the text and what it says by itself"?  
Is it actually possible to do this?
To read without a lens?
To see a text without a pre-existing framework?
To read not-politically?

[These are versions of the questions we've been asking about explanatory plaques in museums:
if an object is not explained to us, what explanations will we attribute to it? What lenses
do we bring with us?]

from Peter Rabinowitz, "Against Close Reading," in Pedagogy is Politics: Literary Theory and Critical Teaching, Ed. Maria-Regina Kecht (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1992), 230-243: :

"commitment to close reading may well be the cantus firmus in the multivoiced canon of contemporary criticism, the nearest thing we have to a shared principle....We tend to accept as a mater of course that good reading is slow, attentive to linguistic nuance (especially to figurative langauge), and suspicious of surface meanings....

close reading is neither the natural, the only, nor
necessarily the best way to approach a rests precariously on a number of shaky assumptions and...its our classrooms...needs to be questioned.

close reading entails a questionable notion of the psychology of the creator: it tacitly assumes that authors can...maintain such control over the details of their texts that..."every word in a good poem counts." It further assumes that the texts we have are the texts the authors wrote,..conveniently ignoring the interference of publication as an economic and cultural institution....

there are many different kinds of reading...the kind of activity depends on the reader...we read to satisfy our own needs and interests, and different initial concerns demand different kinds of interpretive privileging close reading we profoundly reduce this multiplicity....

Close reading inevitably brings in its wake a questionable literary hierarchy....the canon as we know it today...consists of a collection of those texts that respond varieties of close reading....teachers quite reasonably like to teach texts they can do things with....if you privilege close reading, you also tend to privilege figurative writing over the realistic portrayal of material social conditions, deep meaning over surface meaning, form over content, the elite over the popular, and indirect expression over direct....These acts of privileging in turn devalue certain kinds of voices....

one of the major problems with much current critical practice is the underestimate the extent to which texts can mirrors of the reader, who is apt to find in a text not what is really there but rather what he or she expects or wants to find.

...the arguments of critics who aim at revealing hidden meanings....depend fundamentally on the claim...that what is found is on some level "really" there...[but] the vexing question of where the text ends and the reader begins is made all the more difficult when dealing with readers who have been academicaly trained [and]...can transform almost any text into the particular kind of poetic utterance that she or she expects or desires it to be...

...if I am against close reading, what am I for?...the alternative seems clear: pluralism
...different writers in different social, historical, and economic contexts wrote for different purposes and with different expectations
....different for different reasons....every decision about how to read is a choice that opens up ceratin doors only by closing others...learning new ways of reading will allow us to enjoy a wider range of to deal effectively with the narrowness of our "standard" interpretive techniques.

from S.P. Connors and R.M. Rish, "Puzzle solving and modding: Two metaphors for examining the politics of close reading," in Reader: Essays in Reader-oriented Theory, Criticism, and Pedagogy 67 (2014), 94-118,

the myopic emphasis on close reading...constitutes a social justice issue in so far as this emphasis validates and sanctions certain texts, types of readers, and sets of literacy practices while marginalizing others....texts are considered for their complexity divorced from the social contexts in which they were written (and are read), students are considered through a deficit lens based on the extent to which their knowledge of text conventions assists in determining the meaning of the text, and students' literacy practices are considered invalid and deficient if they do not map neatly onto school-sanctioned ways of reading and determining meaning from texts....

New Critics proceeded from the asumption that meaning resides in the structures of a text where it awaits recovery by readers who are trained to look for it..."a close textual analysis through which the meaning embedded in the text would be revealed"...New Criticism was concernd with controlling not only how people read, but also what they read....

close reading describes a range of reading practices that involve closely attending to texts in order to determine their meaning....much as if one were solving a puzzle.