Thursday, February 27, 2014

Olaudah Equiano

Here is the latest update on World Lit 2.  It is going very well, and I am enjoying my students, as I hope they are enjoying the class.  We began with shock and awe - "A Modest Proposal."  Then we lightened up considerably with Tartuffe.  The following week we had a snow day, and last week we covered Equiano.

I had to offer a disclaimer at the beginning of class.  Olaudah Equiano is one of my favorite people, notwithstanding he has been dead for over 200 years.  Why?  It's hard to explain, but when I first read The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano in graduate school, I so enjoyed his writing, his tone, his story, his travels.  His conversion narrative is told beautifully.  He ended up marrying a white English woman and they had two girls together.  His wife Susanna Cullen died, their first daughter Anna Maria died, and then Equiano died, leaving their second daughter Joanna an orphan at the young age of two.  So much about her life attracted me, a biracial girl living in London in the early 1800s, that I decided to write a historical novel about her.  After a year of research and writing, I decided the novel needed some more drama, so I added the story-line of Equiano's sister, with whom he was kidnapped.  They were separated before they reached the coast of Africa, and he never saw her again.  His description of their separation is gut wrenching.

Equiano begins his narrative with descriptions of his native Africa.  I believe he was born in Africa, as he claims in his memoir, though the eminent professor and researcher Vincent Carretta has uncovered documents that suggest he may have been born in South Carolina.  Equiano describes the kidnapping, transport in a slave ship to Barbados, and then to South Carolina.  He was purchased by a British naval officer, Charles Pascal, and served him for several years, during the 7 Years War.  After the war Equiano believed he would be freed, but he was sold to another master, much to his horror.  After working for this second master for several years he earned enough money to purchase his own freedom.  He spent the next few years traveling and eventually settled down in England, becoming intimately involved in the abolition movement.  Fellow abolitionists persuaded him to write his memoirs, to bolster the abolitionist cause.

My students had a difficult time with the text.  Written in 1789, The Narrative does have some difficult vocabulary, but I am so familiar with the text, I forgot how I reacted to it the first time I read it.  After we had spent the class discussing the text, the students warmed up to it a bit, but I just have to accept that not everyone is as enamored with Equiano as I am.  Alas . . .

Thursday, February 13, 2014


For the second week of our World Lit 2 course, we discussed Tartuffe. This is much lighter fare than "A Modest Proposal," and most of the students really enjoyed it.  The author of TartuffeMolìère, is almost the French equivalent of Shakespeare - he is revered and admired -- through not as prolific.  Tartuffe is a comedy of manners, and all the characters are 'type' characters -- foolish father; obedient daughter; hypocritical religious figure; wise, witty maid; hot-tempered son.

Tartuffe is the epitome of a hypocrite - seemingly very holy and religious, but wasting no time in seducing his host's wife when alone with her.  Orgon, the husband/father in the play, is so taken in by Tartuffe he disinherits his son and leaves all his worldly goods to this near-stranger.  Orgon only believes Tartuffe's perfidy when he catches Tartuffe in the act.

As this is the first time teaching this text, I did not anticipate what questions would  yield good discussions.  We ended up having rousing discussions on morality, fidelity, adultery (just by calling it adultery we are making judgments about it, one student pointed out), and arranged marriages.  The class includes two male students from Africa - Egypt and Kenya.  They have seen arranged marriages and polygamy firsthand, so we had a fascinating discussion on these topics, with students taking wildly different positions on the topics.  This is what makes teaching so stimulating, so invigorating, so fun!  Take a text written in the mid 1600s, and find relevant themes for 2014.  Wow!

Here is a link to the text, for those of you who want to read it:

Sunday, February 9, 2014

An aside . . . on finding the right word

Allow me to digress for this post, and write about writing.

For about 7 months I have been reading TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann. Or rather, I've been picking it up and putting it back down.  McCann mixes historical and fictional characters, in Ireland and America, from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s.  So far, so good. I'm enraptured by some of his writing, and aggravated by other passages.  We encounter Frederick Douglass giving a book tour in Ireland, and Brown and Alcock, the first two men to cross the Atlantic in an airplane. There are no chapter headings, and little guidance for the reader, other than dates when the action moves from one time period to another, either backwards or forwards.

I tell my students that they need to demonstrate they know the standard conventions of writing; then they can break the rules.  McCann is a luminous writer. . . and he likes to break the rules.  He breaks one rule frequently. Fragment sentences.  It's hard for me to even write one!  Here is an example, taken from near the end of Brown and Alcock's trans-Atlantic flight:
        It is close to sunrise--not far from Ireland--when they hit a cloud they can't escape.  No line of sight.
        No horizon.  A fierce gray.  Almost four thousand feet above the Atlantic.  Darkness still, no moon, no
       sight of sea.  They descend.  The snow has relented but they enter a huge bank of white.  Look at this
       one, Jackie.  Look at her coming.  Immense.  Unavoidable.  Above and below.
But then,  just when I get frustrated and want to put the book down, McCann pens a paragraph like this one:

       Stories began, for her, as a lump in the throat.  She sometimes found it hard to speak.  A true
       understanding lay just beneath the surface.  She felt a sort of homesickness whenever she sat down at a
       sheet of paper.  Her imagination pushed back against the pressures of what lay around her. . . The best
       moments were when her mind seemed to implode.  It made a shambles of time.  All the light
       disappeared. The infinity of her ink well.  A quiver of dark at the end of the pen. . . The elaborate search
       for a word, like the turning of a chain handle on a well.  Dropping the bucket down the mineshaft of the
       mind.  Taking up empty bucket after empty bucket until, finally, at an unexpected moment, it caught  
       hard and had a sudden weight and she raised the word, then delved down into the emptiness once


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Traveling through World Literature . . . Join me

This is our second snow day . . . this week!  So, as I'm housebound, I thought I'd begin a new weekly blog series.

I'm teaching a new class this semester - World Literature 2!  I've been teaching World Literature 1 for six years, and we cover texts from the beginnings of known literature - Gilgamesh - to Shakespeare.  World Literature 2 picks up in the 17th century and moves through the centuries to the present day.  How does one choose literature over such a vast period of time and covering the entire world.  I don't!  The editors who put together World Literature anthologies have that daunting task.  All I need to do is choose which of the offerings in the textbook to include in the class.

Our class began last week, so for the next 14 weeks, take a trip with me.  I'll share each week what text we covered in class, how the students responded to it, and even share links to the text - when available - if you have the time and inclination to read it yourself.

Last week we read "A Modest Proposal" out loud in class.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the essay by Jonathan Swift, in it he proposes a drastic solution to the problem of poverty and starvation in Ireland in the early 1700s.  The Irish women should sell their 1-year-old children to British aristocracy, who may then eat them for dinner.  This will solve the problem by not saddling the women with babies they can't feed, and provide much-needed income.

The tone throughout Swift's essay is one of reasonable thoughtfulness.  A few of my students -- I hadn't warned them in advance -- actually thought Swift was serious.  Of course they "googled" and found out it was satire. According to John Simon in a book review he wrote about Jonathan Swift, His Life and His World, by Leo Damrosch, Swift wrote "what is the greatest satire in English (and perhaps any language), "A modest Proposal," which proves by careful arguments -- satistical, mathematical and social -- that the solution to impoverished Ireland's problems is the eating of babies and the selling of their carcasses."

So we began the semester with a little "shock and awe."  After discussing what satire and irony are, and the conditions in Ireland at the time the essay was written, my students understood and even enjoyed the text.  Here is a link so you can read the short essay for yourself.  Let me know what you think.