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Questions 18 Through 22

Questions 18 Through 22

Some more questions from Stephen Burt:

18. How often are readers from “marked,” or subordinated, or “minority” subject positions, asked to read as if they were not coming from those positions, to look at a literary work as if we were cisgendered, or male, or “middle American,” or well-off, or white?

19. How often are readers from “unmarked” or majority or until-recently-the-majority subject positions asked to read as if they were not coming from those positions, to look at a literary work as if we were Filipino, or Icelandic, or black?

20. Are the “asks” (or demands) in questions 18 and 19 demands of the same kind?

21. How often are readers unfamiliar with carpentry, or particle physics, or runway fashion, or haute cuisine, or Latin, asked to read as if we already recognized references to those fields?

22. Are the “asks” (or demands) in question 21 demands of the same kind as those in questions 18 and 19?

A charming retired gentleman participated in a novel workshop I taught in the DC area, and during a routine discussion of verisimilitude we debated the importance of authentic detail on the reader’s experience. He’d spent most of his life at sea—career Navy—and assured his fellow workshop members that, love him or hate him, the author of The Hunt for Red October hadn’t spent much time on submarines.   This student actually rather enjoyed Tom Clancy’s cold war tomes, although he admitted that in this particular case part of his pleasure arose from sneering at the implausible or inaccurate detail. I declined his offer to peruse his annotated copy of the novel.

31 Questions: Some Answers

31 Questions: Some Answers

Earlier this year I posted a link to a most excellent piece: Stephen Burt’s THIRTY-ONE QUESTIONS AND TWELVE APOLOGIES BY WAY OF A THANK-YOU NOTE FOR THE 2013 VIDA COUNT, and at the time I promised to write in response some of the questions. Life intervened, but I did want to return to that project, if only because I was so deeply stimulated by the original article. Here’s the first post:

Stephen Burt’s Question #9:

Is it possible to read a piece of literary writing without imagining that the author has an age, or a profession, or an ethnic identification, or a height, or a weight, or a race?

Well, yes, maybe, but which of us has the opportunity to read anything with the identifying information redacted—other than contest judges that is. For the rest of us, the publisher conveniently plasters images of the author on the cover and everything else we want to know is neatly summarized in the biographical notes. The message couldn’t be clearer: A person like you will enjoy reading something by a person like this.



It occurs to me that when I say that I am disinterested in my students’ excuses, many people hear me saying, “I don’t care.” Disinterest is one of those words with a slippery and probably disappearing meaning. The word I’m using means this: the state of not being influenced by personal involvement in something; impartiality. I may (or may not) be genuinely sorry that the dog ate your semester portfolio. But, burden that it might be—all that gummed up 20# paper clogging up your vacuum, all those vowels clogging Fido’s intestines—it’s not my burden, nor is it my problem to solve.

At the beginning of the school year, back in my middle school days, the students would line up six deep at the desk in the morning with an array of pre-teen drama. Usually it was related to the various things they couldn’t, wouldn’t or didn’t do, or things that were done to them by others in line, and the reason why these things should matter to me. There were more mystery ailments than on a year’s worth of daytime TV.   Many days I felt much like a benevolent king, holding court as his minions approached the throne, my tribute their carefully crafted tales of young adolescent suffering.

Kimbilio 2014

Kimbilio 2014

So this is the week of updates on my other projects. I’m so excited to be hosting in July the second summer retreat for Kimbilio. Find more about the project and about the application process on this webpage.

And here, from the Book Country blog, is an enchanting blogpost about the Kimbilio experience by the equally enchanting young woman, pictured above:

The Importance of Meaningful Writing Communities by Khaliah Williams

Sometime in the autumn of 2006, I decided that I wanted to be a writer. I took several writing workshops at The New School in New York City, where I worked. I often found myself scribbling down ideas that would be the foundation of my novel (still in progress) in notebooks during my hour long commute between the village and The Bronx. Getting in the way of my writing ambitions was the problem of my full time job. My writing life, I wrote in my graduate school applications, exists in stolen moments at the office and crowded subway cars. I wanted more.

Click on this sentence to read the rest of the post.  

Arisen from the Sickbed: Photos from the Winter 2014 Residency

I really was sick as dog for the entire residency.   And I really do only have two outfits.  Photos by the amazing Alissa Whelan.


An Article About Pedagogy

An Article About Pedagogy

Last year I was interviewed by Catherine Buni for The Writer about culturally responsive pedagogy.  At the end of the article you’ll find a fine and representative listing of craft texts .

What books do you turn to for guidance? And what books are you missing?
By Catherine Buni | Published: January 6, 2014

Last spring, novelist Gish Jen published her first book of nonfiction, a fascinating book calledTiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self. In it, Jen explores how the intersection of culture, of East and West, informs the stories she tells, indeed, how culture informs the stories all writers tell.

Tiger Writing is about writing. Tiger Writing is about art. It is also about the assumptions that underlie the standards by which art is judged. In an interview soon after the book’s release, Jen said, “With globalization in full swing, it’s a good time to take stock of our ideas about art and what ideas about art are in other cultures.”

You Have Been Judged and Found Wanting

You Have Been Judged and Found Wanting

I love calling it the Smackdown—even if the action has more in common with psychological warfare than it does with “professional” wrestling.  Don’t get me wrong: there are as many boors and bulldozers in creative writing workshops as in your garden-variety fraternity house or state legislature (redundant, I know), and that ilk is always more than happy to tell you your work sucks and that blowing up that spaceship full of babies was a dick move.  But those of us better trained in the ever-so-elegant ceremonial détente of the creative writing workshop understand the importance of guiding our peers with a more delicate touch.  There are more sophisticated ways of pulling the plug on content that doesn’t meet our approval.  The repertoire of the acculturated includes:

  • The friendly amendment:  “What if instead of a dismembered cadaver, you had the character find….”
  • The displaced (usually prudish) objection:  “Personally, I don’t have a problem with foot fetishes, however…”
I Ask Marta About…THE SMACKDOWN!

I Ask Marta About…THE SMACKDOWN!

Have you ever gotten the smackdown?  Or seen someone get it?  How’d you feel about that?

This is complicated.

I feel like I need to preface my answer(s) with some background that situates me as a writer in this conversation.  As I said in one of my comments, I have such a love-hate relationship with identity politics.  This is because, on the one hand, I have felt silenced and/or unheard in damaging ways, some of which are related to my “identities” – especially as a woman and a lesbian. Sometimes oppression really does take the form of a cultural trespass that can be silencing:  As though the white gaze isn’t bad enough, now here it is masquerading in blackface?  The male gaze in drag?  Heteronormativity chumming around as a fag hag?  What do you do with that, if you are a black writer, a female writer, a queer writer?  How do you get out from under that gaze, how do you talk back to it, when it’s now gone stealth?

Marta Asks Me About My First Time

Marta Asks Me About My First Time

<iMarta asks:  You’ve expressed a great deal of openness with what we are calling “cultural trespass,” with authors writing across lines that can sometimes feel dangerous — race, class, gender, sexuality, etc., even when writers don’t always “get it right.”  Have you always felt this way? Or was there a time when those boundaries around voice and identity felt more rigid to you, like boundaries you needed to protect?

For better or worse I came of age before the heyday of cultural studies.  Even the youngest among the professors at “progressive” Macalester College was strictly old school in his approach to literature; with the exception of a brief foray into Native Son during my senior year in high school,  it’s likely across my entire “formal” education that any work I read by a person of color I read because I chose to and not because I was assigned to.  Good, bad or indifferent, representations—in any media—of people who looked like me or lived the kind of life I lived were few and far between.  Culture, therefore, was mostly lived experience.  It was the eclectic music on the stereo and a family field trip to see the touring Pearl Baily production of “Hello, Dolly” and Nikki Giovanni on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson—as well as her first books of poetry delivered by my cousin who was in graduate school at Yale.


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