World Literature, Week 4

This week we’ll be discussing Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden. In addition to reading the text, you can rent the 1994 film online (directed by Roman Polanski).

1) I usually have students, in groups, research the following topics to provide a better context for the play: (1) Ariel Dorfman; (2) President Savador Allende (government/policies of); (3) Augusto Pinochet (dictatorship of);(4) President Patricio Aylwin (policies and Rettig Commission/Report).

2) In anticipation of their first paper, we also discuss New Historicism. New Historicism (along with Reader-Response Criticism and Postcolonial Criticism) is the other major literary criticism we should consider in World Literature. New Historicism places the literary text alongside sociological and historical texts dealing with the same time period, in order to see how the fictional and the presumably non-fictional “talk to” and inform each other. BUT, to New Historicists, history to a certain extent is just another literature: constructed by certain authors and subject to interpretation, mis-interpretation, and re-interpretation. (There is an interesting but dense/nerdy article about New Historicism, as well as Postcolonial Criticism and others, on the Bedford Literature site.) History is not a context for understanding literature: it is a co-text. (Confused? Don’t be confused. Just consider these questions… What kinds of historical documents outside of the literary text seem especially relevant for shedding light on the literary? How are social and political values contemporary to the literary text reflected or refuted in that text? This can lead to questions about economic divisions and even male/female relationships.)

3) Questions we consider in discussion (which I’ve surely stolen from other sources): a) What was the function of the commission to which Gerardo was appointed? What is Paulina’s opinion of the commission and of Gerardo’s role in it? b) Does Gerardo change as a character throughout the play? Does your impression of him change? Explain. (What is your opinion of him?) c) Does Paulina’s character change throughout the play? Explain. What is your reaction to Paulina? d) What is the purpose of the last scene of the play in the concert hall? With what impression does it leave the audience?

4) In the comments section below, you might just post your own reactions to the film and the characters.

Here’s the first paper assignment:

Paper #1: Postcolonial Criticism and New Historicism
English 201-OL01 with Professor R. Russell

DUE: Monday, October 15, 7 P.M. Submit your final paper using the “Paper #1” link in the “Submit papers here” folder under the tool bar. Late papers lose points.

ASSIGNMENT: Choose one of the following two critical approaches to analyze either Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden.

CRITICAL APPROACH ONE: POSTCOLONIAL CRITICISM. As discussed in class last week, postcolonial criticism looks at “the interactions between European nations and the societies they colonized in the modern period” (Bahri). Consider the following questions in relation to Things Fall Apart: How did the experience of colonization affect those who were being colonized while also influencing the colonizers? How were colonial powers able to gain control over non-Western societies? What were the forms of resistance against colonial control? How did colonial education and language influence the culture and identity of the colonized? (In addition to the novel itself, you will want to consider some of the background information you and your classmates gathered on Pre-colonial and Colonial Nigeria.)

ADVANCED OPTION: In Week 4, you read a short excerpt from Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible. If you would like to read this novel in its entirety, research the Belgian Congo during the second half of the 20th c., and write a postcolonial critical analysis of TPB, have at it! I would imagine you could also write an interesting postcolonial comparison paper between TPB and TFA.

CRITICAL APPROACH TWO: NEW HISTORICISM. As discussed this week, new historicism argues for a side-by-side reading of literary and non-literary (historical) texts, usually from or about the same time period as the novel; in short, new historicists study the historical context alongside the literary co-text. Look at information about Pre-colonial/Colonial Nigeria and Things Fall Apart or info about Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship and Death and the Maiden. Consider: What kinds of historical documents outside of the novel seem especially relevant for shedding light on the novel/play? How are social and political values contemporary to the novel/play reflected or refuted in the novel?

Caution: Once you have chosen one of the two approaches, you will first need to do some (further) research about the country and time period. In addition to the novel you are analyzing, you should have two (2) additional articles to provide a context (or co-text) for your analysis.

Your paper should have a specific, sophisticated thesis statement (based all or in part on the questions provided above) in your introduction paragraph: this is what you will spend the remainder of your paper defending with examples from the texts (both articles and the novels). Include direct quotes from the novel/play and the articles and be sure to adhere to MLA format (in-text parenthetical citations and Works Cited). For more on thesis statements, you might review the “Writing About Literature” page at the Online Writing Lab.

FURTHER REQUIREMENTS: This paper should be typed, double-spaced, with one-inch margins, in 12-point, Times New Roman font. Be sure to include a proper heading (your name, my name, the course, the date) and header (your last name and the page number in the top, right-hand margin of each page). Your paper should have a dynamic title (that is, something other than “Paper #1;” the title can be as “simple” as “A Postcolonial Critical Analysis of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart“). Do not include a cover page. Your finished work should be 3-4 pages in length. (Further tips on formatting here.)

Reminder: Be sure to write in the active, present tense and in the third-person. Even though you read the novel/play in the past, it still exists in the present. Do not use pronouns like I, me, my, you, your, we, our. I understand that you are the writer behind the scenes writing the paper. Be objective in your analysis.

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World Literature, Week 3

Sorry! Sorry!––I did not forget about you. This last week of September has ended more with a bang than a whimper.

Anyway, here are some resources we use for discussion of Things Fall Apart.

1) Postcolonial Criticism. As we explore World Literature from a 21st c. perspective, we begin to consider the field of Postcolonial Criticism or Postcolonial Literature/Studies: “the study of the interactions between European nations and the societies they colonized in the modern period” (source). In Things Fall Apart, we see the beginnings of British rule in Nigeria. This gets into issues of translation, as well, which we should explore in a future class (most of the works for this class, after all, have been translated; the writer makes a political decision to either write in English or to write in a native language). I think the most important questions in postcolonial criticism become: How did the experience of colonization affect those who were colonized while also influencing the colonizers? What influence is left from the European nations during these modern times of postcolonialism? (That is, after these once-colonized countries have gained their independence: how are European influences still seen in these independent nations? (This leads to the first paper students write for the course, which I’ll post next week.)

2) As we shared resources this week on Pre-Colonial, Colonial, and Post-Colonial (Modern) Nigeria, one student noted the Library of Congress site (“Country Studies: Nigeria”) as being an excellent reference. (And it is, James; it is.)

3) I also usually mention The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (one of my favorite novels–and one of Oprah’s!), the story of a missionary family who move from Georgia to the Belgian Congo in 1959. This polyphonic narrative (“a story of many voices”) tells the tale of their struggles and the struggles of the country itself (as it achieves independence) through the perspectives of the four Price daughters and their mother. You can read an excerpt here.

I also sometimes give them Chris Abani’s essay “The Lottery” (from The New York Times), which discusses the mob violence he witnessed as a child in Nigeria during the 1970s.

4) A few questions for consideration in writing: 1. How does Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” (from which the title for Things Fall Apart comes) relate to Achebe’s novel? What are themes/messages that are similar in both works? 2. The chi or personal spirit is a recurring theme in the novel: a spiritual belief important to understanding the main character Okonkwo. Interpret this proverb, spoken of Okonkwo: “When a man says yes his chi says yes also” (27/Ch. 4). Trace further references in the novel to the chi (hint: Chapter 14). What role does Okonkwo’s chi play in shaping his destiny? 3. Consider Aristotle’s definition of tragedy and the tragic hero. In what ways do you see the plot of Things Fall Apart and the protagonist (main character) Okonkwo as adhering to conventions of Western tragedy and the tragic hero? In what ways might they depart from Aristotle’s definition?

4) Question for the comments section: What was the most significant passage/scene in the novel? (Many students choose Okonkwo’s exile. Some others, of course, when the missionaries arrive. What do you think?)

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Creative Writing, Week 3

1. READ THIS >> “Trading Stories: Notes From an Apprenticeship” (Jhumpa Lahiri; The New Yorker, 13 June 2011).

1a. While you’re at The New Yorker site, let’s all READ THIS, TOO >> “Creative Writing” by Etgar Keret (The New Yorker, 2 January 2012).

2. TO CONSIDER >> “The Writer’s Life.” Where do you write best and when? How do (or how will) you schedule time for writing in your daily life, both this semester but also long-term? Feel free to post your responses in the comments section.

3. TO WRITE >> “But she came back.” (I feel like I stole this from another source, which I can’t remember right now to credit.) Anyway; write 2 pages of either pure fiction or creative nonfiction on a topic of your choice. The other stipulation is that everyone’s response must end with that sentence: “But she came back.” You’ll have to do some of what we educators call “backward planning” and decide how you will get to But she came back. Post your responses below.

4. Don’t forget to continue >> your writer’s notebook.

“When I became a writer my desk became home; there was no need for another.” ––Jhumpa Lahiri

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A Return to Sympathy in the 19th Century.

I’ve taken over 19th Century American Literature this semester for a colleague (Effie), who usually teaches the course. Week 1 was just a general discussion about the time period; students were asked to respond to the prompt, “What do you imagine life was like in 19th century America?” It was much lovelier than a powerpoint or Prezi; just the 19 or so of us sitting around imagining what life might have been like; such a return to sympathy, this. I cannot abide the new Blackboard and have rather cast off technology this term. Let us return to books of paper and the smoke of chalk dust, pupils. Let us live life, deliberately, in the woods.

I gave them Rip Van Winkle and excerpts from Edgar Huntly and sent them off on their way. I hope they did/do not fall asleep in their assignment: and not wake up after November to find us all living in some Randroid plot.

Tomorrow we will need to discuss, then, the American Gothic. Luckily, old Cyrus Patell from NYU has a three-part lecture on it. I think we’ll watch at least a snippet from Part II.

And end with Benjamin West’s Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, that is set under the Elm; where PA was founded; where Waldegrave (wood’s grave) is found murdered in the first chapter.

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World Literature, Week 2

In World Literature this week we’re starting Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe), which I always think students will have already read but am always surprised, still, how many have not anymore.

We always start, of course, with Yeats. I remember reading this poem in the days after September 11th; when I was just starting observation work at a charter high school in Queens; and how the students flew into a panic. That Yeats must have seen it all already (knew it all already): of this, the teenagers were convinced.

1) Read William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” (1920).

2) Read the first part of Things Fall Apart.

3) Students are usually divided into five groups to research the following topics: the author, the Igbo people, Pre-Colonial, Colonial, and Post-Colonial-Nigeria.

4) You might begin to post questions/comments you have about the novel, and about Yeats’ poem. You might begin to speculate: what is the connection between the two?

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Creative Writing, Week 2

Sorry! Sorry! This first week of classes has rather gotten away from me that I neglected to post up some resources for “Creative Writing, Week 2.” Two days late & a few bits short, here it be. (Though some of you might still post answers to the Proust Questionnaire from last week, yes?)

Creative Writing, Week 2      _

1. READ THIS >> “To Do” by Jennifer Egan; author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit From the Goon Squad. (“To Do” was published in The Guardian on 22 July 2011.) If you have time, you might read some of the other short stories from The. Guardian’s 2011 summer special.

2. TO WRITE >> “Exercise #1: A Life in 25 Items.” In the comments, record a life, an entire life (either yours, someone else’s, or a fictional life: you can tell us which it is (but you don’t have to)) in exactly 25 items (no more; no less), similar to how Egan deconstructs her narrative into an outline format. These do not have to be 25 complete sentences. If you have time, feel free to provide your peers with some feedback. Or just read them and marvel. A life; an entire life; so orderly and clean; and yet.

3. TO WRITE >> “Exercise #2: Six-Word Memoirs.” Last year, the creative writing students & I, with contributions from college staff & faculty, put together a zine of six-word memoirshere were the original guidelines. Try this on your own; perhaps even print out your memoir on business cards or write it “real-nice” on a notecard to hang up or give to someone special. If you need help, listen to this segment from NPR’s Talk of the Nation (3 February 2010).

4. CONTINUE >> Your writer’s notebook. Remember that you should be adding at least five new entries/items per week.

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” –E. B. White


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World Literature, Week 1

I’m teaching World Lit this semester both online and in person. We’ve switched to Blackboard 9 at school; Blackboard 9, how I loathe you.

In addition to reviewing the syllabus and expectations for the course, the first week we look at work from Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz, as well as excerpts from South American writer Eduardo Galeano’s collection Mirrors.

Here’s a taste of it!

World Literature, Week 1        

  1. Background materials:
    1. Review a map of the Caribbean, noting of course the location of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
    2. Listen to “A Look at Haiti’s Political History” (National Public Radio, 18 January 2010) and read over “Haiti’s History: Revolution, Subjugation” (CBS Sunday Morning, 18 January 2010).
    3. Watch at least an excerpt from Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates’ documentary “Haiti and the Dominican Republic: An Island Divided.”
  2. READ/REVIEW the following:
    1. “A Little While” (Edwidge Danticat)
    2. “A Year and a Day” (Edwidge Danticat)
    3. LISTEN to >> “Unspoken” (Junot Diaz reads “Water Child” by Edwidge Danticat)
    4. PDF >> “Wildwood” (Junot Diaz). Unfortunately, you’ll need a
      New Yorker account to read this text.
  3. READ the excerpts from South American writer Eduardo Galeano’s collection Mirrors (translated by Mark Fried), a collection of descriptive vignettes that seek to encapsulate the entire story of the human race: see the New York Times review for more; two additional Galeano stories from Mirrorshere.
  4. Many of Galeano’s vignettes are “origin stories:” his creative interpretation of how certain aspects of our culture and human psyche first came into being. Taking a cue from Galeano, post a short (2-4 paragraph) origin story of you: “Where did you come from? Who are you? Where are you going?” and anything else you’d like to include. Feel free to write in either the first-person (“I” pronoun) or even the third-person (“she/he” pronoun). Post your response in the comments section below: see my example.
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