Novel Approach

From The Guardian UK, an interesting story highlighting the Changing Lives Through Literature program that is certainly worth a read.

Novel approach: reading courses as an alternative to prison

In Texas, offenders are being sent on reading courses instead of prison. Could it work in the UK?

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When I Was Huckleberry Finn

Michael D. Sollars, Ph.D., teaches literature and writing at Texas Southern University. He has published widely including the books Twentieth Century World Novel and Encyclopedia of Literary Characters. His research includes the generative nature of reading and writing on individual growth and the realization of personal goals.

Reading and writing are pursuits that have transformed my life in simple and complex ways. I teach literature and writing at a major U.S. university where I share with my students what I know from literature and the real world, as these two worlds often influence and explain each other.

Reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a youth produced a longing for adventure and memories that have remained with me. I gained a quick affinity for Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the real name of the author. Twain and I are from the same state of Missouri, he on the Mississippi River side to the east, and I on the Missouri River side to the west of the state. These two books, written with Twain’s “pen warmed up in hell,” acted as one of the catalysts that urged me and a friend, two 16-year-old youths, to float alone down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. But even the best plans encounter trouble. On the morning we were to leave, my friend backed out, jumped ship. To this day I can still hear his mother’s stinging words on the telephone that he was not going.

I was left to journey alone from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Kansas City, to St. Louis, and then on and on to New Orleans, over a 50-day ordeal. I crossed thousands of hot summer river miles in my 10-foot wooden boat, encountering many travails like sorties of attacking fist-sized flies and marauding mosquitoes, river pirates, threatening town folk, whirlpools, isolation, stints of boredom, night phantoms, loneliness, often sleeping in deserted all-night laundromats, and then near drowning, all thanks to Mark Twain and his fiction. But I learned much. I was living literature, and literature was living in me. I was a Mark Twain and Huckleberry of the twentieth century, making for ports along the famous river routes. I stopped at numerous other celebrated cities like Memphis and Natchez in completing my quest to the legendary Crescent City.

The romance of literature certainly also ignited the burn of harsh reality. One incident in particular occurred when I eventually floated into Louisiana. A guard from the infamous Angola prison patrolling near the river spotted me, a possible runaway. He briefly interrogated me, but after he was satisfied with the veracity of my answers, he soon befriended this hungry, lost, and near-penniless river rat. This benefactor took me to prison.

I spent one night in Angola, locked behind the formidable prison walls bejeweled with towers and spotlights.  I ate dried peanut butter on hard bread and slept on a vinyl couch. Within the brig’s walls I glimpsed the perpetual isolation and dread staining the faces of the inmates. This picture remains etched in memory. My “incarceration” was for one brief night, a tale filled with such irony that even the witty Mark Twain would smile at with approval; the celled men were enduring an eternity of marked time like those in Shawshank Redemption. I recalled Huck saying: “What’s the use you learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?” His words, while witty, seemed hollow at the moment.

I made the river trip alone, but my solo ordeal was not without recompense. Since that long-ago summer my high school buddy has confessed that he was wrong in not following through in our adventure, as that he has since found it too easy to back out of difficult situations and not thrust forward in life. I have lived the other life.

We are constantly traveling a road to self-discovery. Who am I? Why am I here? How long will I be here? What is life’s purpose? Captain Ahab encounters this in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. For some the road is long, labyrinthian like a meandering river, oval like a runner’s track, elliptical like a comet’s trajectory, and seemingly endless and repetitive like that for Albert Camus’ Sisyphus or Franz Kafka’s Joseph K. in The Trial. For others, the path is an easy bus ride across town, the shortest distance between two points—a straight line. These latter people are those I envy, for my path has been the former, the wandering about sort. Like some of you, I have worn out numerous pairs of cushioned soles traversing these marathon routes. This object or destination of discovery may already lie within us, but hidden like a treasure. We have scant maps for our purpose or pursuit, so often we go about life blindly choosing between roads well traveled or, as Robert Frost described, the road “less traveled.”

Reading literature can offer the needed map to self-discovery. I tell students every day that through reading and writing they will arrive at a closer personal understanding of themselves. Of course, there is no easy “X marks the spot” to find the well-hidden treasure. Literature leads us to the threshold, but never offers the final answer. It’s not a cookbook. Ernest Hemingway wrote in 1935: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”

Today, I am much closer along the path of self-realization, though I admit that I still have a long way to go and I will not be traveling alone. Fortunately, there are many more books to read.

 

Invisible Man and the Socially Conscious Classroom

Dana Edwards Prodoehl is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Marquette University. Her research areas include African American literature, identity studies and social justice.

I’ve always found a kindred spirit in the narrator of Invisible Man. And, this is a strange experience to share with others—often it is met with disbelief and confusion. For one thing, I am white. For another, I am a woman. Neither of these realities is shared by the titular character. But, somehow, even with our extreme differences, when I read Ralph Ellison’s beautifully-penned descriptions of Invisible’s thoughts and actions, it is hard for me to not see myself in him. John F. Callahan, Ellison’s longtime friend and biographer, recounts a similar connection, although he is an Irish Catholic from New Haven, who, like me, ostensibly can share nothing with an African American from the segregation-era south:

“Yes, that’s me, I felt when I finished Invisible Man…Because I felt out of place at Jesuit Holy Cross I found a kinsman in Invisible Man, who was somehow an outsider at his Negro college.”

Is it a mutual experience of being an outsider, as Callahan posits, that draws the narrator and the reader together? Or, is there something deeper going on in these narrator/narratee relationships?

Mikhail Bakhtin might be useful here: he suggests that in order for narrative, especially short story and autobiography, to be effective, it must build relationships with its readers, who may or may not see themselves in the protagonist. This echoes both mine and Callahan’s experiences with the novel: even though we do not see ourselves in the protagonist explicitly, we are able to connect with him through a construction of mutual subjectivity—as any good reader understands, the narrator’s “I” often becomes the reader’s “I.”

What this means for me, as a good reader, is that when Invisible tells me about his run-ins with the Brotherhood or Ras the Destroyer, I imagine what I would do if placed in similar situations. Essentially, I become one with the narrator in ways that, given my racial, gender and historical identities, seem incomprehensible. The cause of such synergy is the author’s creation of sympathetic characters and my role as sympathetic reader. The result is a transformative experience for the reader: whereas on the first page, we stand outside the rhetorical structure of the novel, by the last page, we become part of, and are thereby changed by, the rhetorical structure.

As many academics know, fall is job search time again. And, preparing my own job documents has led me to ruminate on my ideal course: a semester-long exploration of how Ellison’s novel can affect social change. But, can I offer students a text simply because its contents have changed me? If we truly do believe that literature can have a transformative effect on students, then why not expose them to works that transformed us as professors?

Assigning such works will grant students exposure to a handful of lessons necessary to creating a more socially just world: 1) the idea that knowledge is created through exegetical practice and ongoing conversations, 2) contingent on the first, once they see how knowledge is created, they will be more able to take an active role in creating knowledge for themselves, and 3) students will, ideally, share their knowledge with others, both inside and outside the university.

To return to Ellison, I don’t think it is unwarranted to suggest that he had this kind of ripple effect in mind when writing his novel. We must only look to the riddle of Invisible’s grandfather for evidence: “Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.”

Without minimizing the deeper layers of this scene, the advice suggests that the listener gain, hold, and apply knowledge in order to ultimately subvert that which controls them. For the grandfather, this is the American system of segregation. While neither we, nor our students, may be struggling under the same yoke, we can take the lessons gained from knowledge and employ them to right the wrongs we see in the world, as the grandfather prompts his son and grandson to do.

Gay Young-Adult Literature: A Floodgate of Possibilities

Recently, the national news has been peppered with troubling stories involving the gay young adult community. In light of such events, I found this entry to Changing Lives, Changing Minds especially powerful. In this piece, author Angel D. Matos Caro reminds readers that literature can inspire the possibility of personal awakening amidst social and cultural resistance.

Angel D. Matos Caro is a graduate student currently working towards a Master’s in English education at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus. In addition to teaching freshmen composition, his interests include the Bildungsroman, psychoanalytic and anthropological criticism, and young-adult literature. He is currently writing his thesis on the roles of social exclusion and sacrifice in the Victorian novel.

I discovered gay young adult (YA) literature in my senior year in high school. A classmate lent me a copy of an Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow Boys and assured me that it would forever change the way I viewed life. He was right: The novel not only helped me come to terms with my inhibited sexuality, but it also granted me the opportunity, for the first time in my life, to fully identify with the characters and issues in a literary text.

Moving from New Jersey to Puerto Rico at the age of eight was a drastic change in my life, for not only was I being fully incorporated into a Hispanic environment predominantly influenced by the Catholic faith, but also because I noticed that people had extremely narrow prescriptions for my role as a male in society. I recall my grandfather asking me questions every time that I visited him, such as ¿cuántas novias tú tienes? (How many girlfriends do you have?) I even recall classmates mocking my affinity for “feminine-oriented” hobbies such as reading, writing, and designing clothes for my stuffed animal collection. (The fact that I had a stuffed animal collection was more than enough needed to raise a few eyebrows.) Sanchez’s YA novels not only helped me deal with these social and cultural issues during my late adolescence, but they were ultimately the impetus for my increasing affinity towards, and intellectual interest in, the gay YA genre and literature in general.

While pursuing my bachelor’s degree in English, I was fortunate enough to have received training in the areas of literary study and criticism, but my concentration was in the areas of generative linguistics and applied language studies. However, after graduating, I was able to engage with literature for leisurely purposes rather than scholarly ones, and I took this opportunity to delve into gay YA fiction. Amongst the novels I read were Perry Moore’s Hero, David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, and Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will be Useful to You.  Through this journey I noticed how rapidly the genre of gay YA fiction was developing and how its authors were zooming out from the narrow focus on the coming out process to the wider range of issues that current gay teens encounter.

Despite the sense of inclusiveness and self-affirmation that these novels granted me, the absent narratives about the coming out process signaled a rift between my reality as a Puerto Rican gay male and those of the fictional characters portrayed in recent gay YA literature. As I returned to my collection of novels in order to understand this tension, the answer became apparent: the representation of the coming out process within the literature is influenced by social, cultural, and racial factors, such that the depiction of the turbulent relationship between certain socio-cultural backgrounds and homosexuality seems to be overshadowed by the ostensibly progressive perspectives of gay males portrayed in novels with white middle- or upper-class protagonists.

In due time, I realized that the genre of gay YA literature granted me a sense of emancipation and inclusion as a gay man, my multiple identities as a Puerto Rican male raised in a predominately Catholic environment greatly disrupted these feelings. More so, I became aware of the major influence literature has had in my life and, more importantly, of the social value that literature has within my diverse socio-cultural positions (as a gay man, as a Latino, as an English major, as a bilingual, as an American, and even as a middle-class Puerto Rican return migrant).

This personal awakening to the social value of literature has drastically altered my intellectual and personal affinities toward the study of English.  My interests shifted from generative and applied linguistics to the representation of social tensions amongst sexual and cultural identities in YA literature, and more importantly, the role that social exclusion has in the literary coming-of-age process. Delving into this new area was not easy, especially considering that YA literature is viewed mostly as a tool to instill certain values and ideas amongst its readers. Though it is true that literature can contribute towards the development of these ideals, this utilitarian view is blind to the value of the social, cultural, and spiritual self-enrichment fostered by literary engagement, and it particularly undermines the humanistic and political nature inherent within the genre of contemporary gay literature. After all, this genre of literature not only shifted my ideological views of contemporary societies, but it also opened a floodgate of endless literary and academic possibilities. Although I am now critically analyzing what many deem to be “adult” literature, I will always recognize the literary and social value of gay YA fiction, and I will continue to honor it as a primary driving force of the way I view and approach life and academia today.

Tune In: CLTL on Sirius XM Radio

Attention visitors, readers, and contributors alike – tomorrow the Changing Lives Through Literature program makes XM Radio debut!

Tomorrow, Tuesday, October 12, The Bob Edwards Show will feature Fairfax County’s Changing Lives Through Literature program on Sirius XM Radio. The program begins at 8 A.M. and will be replayed and available on podcast.

For more information, please visit:


The Practice of Writing

Writing is often a cathartic process, one that can transform the writer in a way that, occasionally, is not instantly obvious. Sometimes, like in the following essay, the writer doesn’t know what their writing, or why, until they’ve written it.

Alex Lockwood is a former journalist and PhD Candidate in Creative Writing at Newcastle University, UK, exploring the importance of affect in the production of literature and creative writing practice. He is also a lecturer in journalism at the University of Sunderland.

Last month, an actor performed the first story I’ve written about my father.

My father went missing in 2007 after my step-mother found him lying in the gutter after a drinking binge. Thirty years of marriage and another unfulfilled promise to give up alcohol was enough for her. He soon moved into a bedsit, but is now presumed homeless. We won’t presume worse.

The story begins here: Picking him up from the gutter. The piece was performed in the ‘100 Faces, 100 Stories’ installation that took place in a brick courtyard round the back of the homeless charity Crisis in Newcastle, North East England. The installation aimed to raise awareness of people’s stories of homelessness, alcohol abuse, incarceration, violence, rehabilitation, achievements and friendships; the highs and lows that the charity’s service users call everyday life.

Crisis shares its building with the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. Some of their users’ stories are part of the installation and are as difficult to summarise as they are to comprehend.

None of these conditions describe my circumstances, but Crisis works to create a community through training and the provision of care between homeless and non-homeless alike. I once ran a workshop on interviewing skills; writing this piece was another chance to contribute.

It was easier than I thought. I wrote four pieces. The first was the story of a Scottish homeless man. The third told the tale of an African immigrant, Jeremy. The story about my father slipped in between them before I knew I had written it (this is also how I get out of bed in the morning; I distract myself with narrative while moving my arms, my legs…).

When director Alan Lyddiard told me he wanted to use my piece as one of two to be performed on the opening night, I downplayed the impact it might have on my wellbeing. Being the son of an alcoholic, anything to do with my father is met with a numbness that, according to Roy Baumeister of the Psychology Dept at Florida State University, is much to do with social rejection. I wrote the piece in my father’s voice as I remember it. How will I feel hearing an actor interpret this? I’m not sure. I’m still coming to terms with the inconsequential fact that the actor and I have the same name.

My ambivalence is, I think, due to the feeling I have that I’ve yet to fulfill my potential as a writer – and also, my father. Are the two linked? Yes, of course. But I know writing this piece has been a watershed. Not from three years of living with a homeless father, but thirty years of living with an absent one.

In Empathy and the Novel, Suzanne Keen argues that there is no proven evidence for the altruistic benefits of literature or novel reading. But what about writing itself? What other proof do I need than knowing that writing this piece—and having it appreciated—has helped me address my relationship with my father. It has also allowed me, in the fullest sense, to contribute more. Since writing this piece, I have completed the draft of a novel and an academic book chapter. In whatever articulation it finds, a blockage has been removed in my capacity to contribute to life.

A few weeks ago I took part in a debate on ‘the limits to freedom’ organised by The Great Debate. On the same panel was a journalist who talked about her research into alcohol and freedom. I Googled her before the debate; I was envious of the quantity of her output and certainty of idea. Before the debate I was, my partner said, the most nervous she had seen me.

The journalist put forward her argument. ‘Britain doesn’t have a problem with alcohol,’ she said. ‘The state is too quick to restrict freedom of personal choice. It treats adults as children.’

In some respects, I agreed with her. Except that part about Britain not having a drink problem. The journalist lived in London. Outside London, Newcastle has the largest homeless population in the UK and one of the worst drinking problems. A joke is that Newcastle is as far as the Scots get on the Glasgow-London train before being kicked off (my father is from Glasgow). Perhaps a more relevant explanation, as reported this month by the North West Public Health Observatory, is that there is a north-south divide in the misuse of alcohol. The north has a history of heavy industry and working class poverty. When heavy industry disappeared, Newcastle rebuilt its economy around the service industry—the ‘alcohol economy’. It is Europe’s third most popular bachelor party destination.

Members of the audience suggested the London journalist had never spent a Saturday night in Newcastle. I suggested that alcohol destroys not just those who abuse it, but those around them. I used the example of my father. It felt okay to talk about it, finally.

When I sat down to hear my father’s story performed. I realized that writing it was both instrument and evidence in exploring, and moving past, narratives that had limited me in life: how much I could contribute, cope with, and care about my potential and my community. And as the practices of living seem easier to me now, so does—strangely enough—the practice of writing.