Relating to the Journey of Change

by Rachel Wicks

First, I would like to take a moment to apologize for the posting inconsistency during the past few weeks. I have been extremely sick for the past month and it is unbelievably difficult to compose literature articles with a 101 degree fever.

I’m still not recovered in the slightest, but I refuse to let my responsibilities towards this blog slip through the cracks during the end-of-semester rush. Therefore, without further ado, I would like to discuss active reading strategies.

During my time as the intern for the CLTL blog, there has been one main idea that I have seen continuously referred to again and again: putting one’s self in the shoes of a fictional character. I first encountered this idea when I personally attended one of the CLTL meetings held at UMass Dartmouth, which you can read about here.

When I first started working for the CLTL, I was still rather uncertain on how exactly literature was being used as a means of alternative sentencing. I did not see how reading books could have an effect strong enough to be a form of sentencing in the first place, but on the day I attended the CLTL meeting in person, I finally understood that what makes reading such a powerful method of change is that the readers are being encouraged to actively identify with the characters in the story.

Therefore, I came to the conclusion that members of the CLTL program, both attendees and facilitators alike, undoubtedly benefit from directly employing active reading strategies.

The main strategy in place by the CLTL, of course, is the aforementioned character relating. Most books are written so that the main character is set up to be someone that anyone can relate to, whether the reader is identifying with the situation of the character, the personality, the background, the dialogue, the emotion, etc.

More often than not, the main way that writers can make their characters relatable is by placing them in situations of failure. For example, The Old Man and the Sea would be pretty boring if Santiago had caught that fish on his very first try. It’s through this character’s struggle to succeed that we relate, as opposed to the success itself, since struggle is far more universal than success is.

However, there may one day be a case where relating to a character may be particularly difficult. If this is the case, it can probably be safely assumed that this is a purposeful choice by the writer, but even so it may be necessary to actively force oneself to think from that character’s perspective, instead of being able to slip into their shoes and see out their own two eyes with ease.

Forcing oneself to relate may be difficult at times, but I would argue that stories that are a little harder to relate to can be some of the most powerful. Throughout my readings over the years, I’ve noticed a pattern. When an author writes a character to be particularly unlikable, to the point where one cannot see themselves as the character, this character often undergoes a catharsis throughout the course of the story, and suddenly the reader, who was once so against this character, finds himself sympathetic to the character as they undergo emotional change.

Perhaps the character starts out cold hearted but, in the end, finds love. Perhaps a character begins with an embedded idea that no one is to be trusted, but as the story goes on, they learn to trust and understand that it’s okay to rely on others.

No matter the case, if you encounter a character who, unlike other stories you may have read, is essentially a gaping void of where human empathy should be, watch how they change over time. It’s quite possible that you might find yourself changing with them.


My Stories, My Identities: Reflections on Experiences as a Reader of Robert Cormier’s Novels

courtesy of Random House: of Random House: of Random House:

Robert LeBlanc is a Ph.D. candidate in literature at the University of Rhode Island. His dissertation research focuses on notions of publicness and subjectivity in Christian leftist texts. He has taught writing and literature courses at the college level.

I suppose I became an active reader at a fairly young age, and I remember looking out for interesting books at school or at the local public library. During my first few years as a reader, my interests were normal ones for a young boy in the 1980s: dinosaurs, baseball, cars. I would read or leaf through a few children’s reference books about cars or the American Revolution or the Red Sox, and then after a few weeks it was onto another topic to read about.

At a certain point this habit of reading took a turn toward stories. I began to realize that I liked some stories for themselves, independently of what topics and settings were featured in their pages. If the story was told with a certain rawness or intensity, if the words really leapt off the page and begged me to read on toward the conclusion, then I could enjoy reading a story just for its own sake.

In the fifth grade, I began to devour a wide range of young adult novels and short stories. I was enjoying—in a secondhand, readerly way—the experiences that different narratives brought to life, and I also started to develop a real appreciation for writers with a daring style. Some writers avoided the typical plots and worn-out phrases and went right for those moments of odd insight that would bring me back to certain passages again and again.

Even after I had raced through certain books, I would turn back to my favorite descriptions and stylistic flourishes within their chapters to marvel at the way the words reached out across the gap of communication to strike me with an almost physical force.

Readers who grew up as part of my generation will remember that the young adult market was at a saturation point in the late 80s and early 90s. Many classic YA novels that had defined the genre in the 60s and 70s were still in print or at least sitting on the classroom bookshelves, and new writers were churning out novels at a rapid pace.

I began to drift toward the novels of a particularly daring writer, one whose works (according to my teachers) even challenged their labeling as young adult fiction in their increasing experimentation with postmodernist form and controversial content. This writer, Robert Cormier, also fascinated me because I learned that he was born in my hometown: Leominster, Massachusetts.

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Criminalization of Urban Space and Formation of Identity


Chris Magno is a doctoral student and teaches Radical Criminology in the Department of Criminal Justice, Indiana University Bloomington. He is now writing his dissertation on how crime becomes political capital in Philippine politics. He is the author of the book Corruption and Revolution: Joseph Estrada and the Uprising of the Urban Poor in EDSA III, soon to be published by Ateneo de Manila University Press.


“Criminal community” is the popular identity of a place within the larger urban poor region where I conducted research for my Masters Degree at the University of the Philippines. Although I completed my thesis after one year of living and working in the community, I am still contemplating how the community acquired the image of criminality.


The community is located on the public land of North Triangle, Barangay Pag-asa Quezon City, in the Philippines. It is surrounded by many governmental, commercial, and transportation establishments.


Despite the fact that the community is surrounded by commercial establishments, governmental social service offices, and headquarters buildings, 60% of the adult members of the 5,000 families (as of 2001) who live in the community are unemployed, 40% are employed.  Seventy percent of the employed work in private companies, 25% is self-employed and 7% work in governmental offices. All of the people who live in the community lack security of housing, 70% have no health care and, and 30% of the children ages 5-16 are illiterate. Among the unemployed, the most common modes of survival include prostitution, pick-pocketing in the nearby mall, stealing, drug dealing, and illegal gambling games such as jueteng.


The community started to gain its criminal identity when President Ferdinand Marcos criminalized squatting through Presidential Decree 772 in 1975. During this time, the North Triangle community experienced demolition and the burning of their houses. Many were put in prison for violent resistance against demolitions. When P.D. 772 was repealed after the lifting of martial law, the community’s criminal identity was retained and reinforced by the illegal activities of some community members in surrounding establishments. For example, a gang member who lived in the community killed a Philippine Science High School student for refusing to surrender his wallet during a robbery. There were also weekly incidents of hold dapping of buses, taxis and jeep-neys (Philippine public transportation) that stop around the community.


The image of criminality has a huge impact on the lives of the community. The daughters of a resident named Sonia, for example, were not accepted as sales clerks in a nearby department store when its human resources officer learned that they were living in North Triangle. Teodora’s son was not accepted in Philippine Science High School even though he passed the school entrance exam and had a high GPA. I also observed that Catholic residents cannot go to church in nearby high class subdivision because they are usually halted by community guards and chased by dogs. Most of the time residents cannot acquire care in the highly specialized hospitals because they are not capable of paying the required deposit, which only residents of upper level subdivisions can afford.

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Lost Souls Gaining the World

photo by f-l-e-x

While studying for the ministry, David G. Sarles began substitute teaching in the New Haven public schools and have been teaching since. He began running also then, up and down East Rock, and has been running more or less since then. But his running pales in comparison to those inmates who circle prison yards thousands of times to compete in marathons.


Last December, the high school writing class I teach read the CLTL post on “The Real Cost of Prisons.” One of these graphic stories was about a 15 year-old busted on a drug charge. It moved the students; however, they were anything but shocked. “Oh, yeah,” said Jermania, “That is just like my sister’s friend who got caught just talking to a friend who turned out to be a lookout. She’s in a juvenile home.” Delphine remarked, “Kids on my block are always offering me stuff.” Others replied with stories of crack houses, dealers, and runners they know from their exurban Long Island towns, most of them middle class communities.


They see some of their acquaintances getting sent up but can’t know what life behind bars is like. How much can those behind bars relate to prison life when they are back on the outside? The writing class can tap into the CLTL site and read and relate to the stories posted. Reading and discussing one of CLTL’s stories, Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” offers Delphine and her writing classmates an impression of what it’s like to fail to resist tempters. CLTL blogs provide a glimpse of writers who work with those who walk the line between the streets and prisons.


It’s all but impossible, it seems, for the bars to disappear for prisoners. One of our role models, the photojournalist Taryn Simon, documented lives of exonerated prisoners in her book The Innocents. Simon’s eye into the lives of former prisoners, many from maximum security prisons, piqued the interest of my writing class. How can those returned to society after years of time served for crimes they did not commit know what to do in life on the outside?


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Reading: The Gateway to Understanding

the pinballsNicole Beaudoin is a master’s candidate in the Professional Writing Program at UMass Dartmouth. Currently, she works with the University’s web team and teaches Business Communications as a TA. She has a passion for literature, writing and especially dogs. 


Personal growth and understanding usually comes with vast and tumultuous learning experiences. Through life we slowly acquire new skill sets, knowledge about our surroundings, others and ourselves. We see the world and what it has to offer and what it can do to someone, both good and bad.  Simply put: we learn how the world works.

But what happens when we are sheltered from the “real world” by no fault of our own?

One book in particular that coaxed me into reality was The Pinballs by Betsy Byars. This young adult novel chronicles the lives of three foster children living with the Masons, a seasoned foster family. The foster children–Carlie, Harvey and Thomas J.–did not have a stable figure in their lives until they arrive at the Masons. They lived through abuse (emotional and physical), abandonment and the family court system. Bouncing from one place to another, controlled by fate, they are pinballs. Through the course of the novel, they gain each other’s trust and finally become a family.


Reading this novel as a budding teen, experiencing uncertainty, low self-esteem and imbalanced hormone levels, I tried to identify with the characters. They were unlike anyone I had ever met and like everyone I had met all at the same time. The characters were seemingly normal adolescents going through trials that I could never imagine and trying to find their place in world. Our lives, although vastly different, connected on an emotional level.


I recognized myself in these characters. As humans, we share the common bond of human experience. I learned that not everyone lives a serendipitous life but you can endure bad experiences and make the best of your situation.  You have choices in life even though you cannot always control your surroundings. You can heal. You can learn. You can live. You can love.


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Our Words, Ourselves


henrymiller1 rick bass

 by Christopher Eisenhart

Any time we communicate, we have an opportunity to invent ourselves for our audience. Literature is no different.  When we read a new story, just as when we meet a new person in our lives, we take cues from what they say and how they say it to see whether or not we trust their account, what their biases are, and whether or not we’ll decide to like them.

The following excerpts are taken from two short pieces of literature. They each carry the same purpose:  to begin the story and to introduce the antagonist. But along the way, what they also do is “invent” and tell us an awful lot about the narrators themselves.  And that’s where I’d like to focus our attention.

So please take a minute to consider each…and this’ll work all the better if you’re willing to read each excerpt aloud…


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