So says Edgar in Donald Barthelme’s “The School.” Here at the end of the winter semester, that’s the first summation that comes to mind. Granted, no orange trees died on my watch, but the understatement feels right.
As an instructor, this has easily been my most stressful semester in fourteen years. It’s mostly due to practical struggles: to days having that annoying habit of lasting just 24 hours, to the lousy combination of MWF sections and an often-arduous commute, to stepping in to an instructional role for which I was not prepared — quite literally. Having agreed to take over a section mid-semester for a colleague, I found myself abruptly teaching not just a course I’d never taught before, but one with an extensive reading list: five novels, a short story, a play, a handful of secondary sources, of which I had read precisely zero. I was already doing triple prep, and had redesigned the syllabi for each of those over the winter break.
I guess it was nuts to have added the fourth class, but the promise of funds to support a much-needed research trip was reason enough. I managed to read ahead for about two weeks, then found myself reading right along with the students. (To my good fortune, they were a lovely group — understanding, patient, enthusiastic.) The challenges of moderating class discussion in such a situation were exactly what you’d expect; I’d forget plot points or confuse the characters’ names, or be unable to quickly locate the passage the discussion needed, when it needed it. Luckily the instructor I’d taken over for supplied me with extensive notes and powerpoint intros to each text, so I wasn’t entirely at sea. The particular focus of the course — the immigrant experience in American literature — wasn’t something I’d ever formally considered, but its critical lens was one with which I was familiar as a result of some scheduling difficulties during my MFA that caused me to enrol in a seminar on Postcolonialism. The graduate course was an enormous challenge; I had virtually no background in critical theory. My grad courses to that point had been pretty MFAish; this was a course for doctoral students. The prof was smart, tough, and discerning. I had never in my life considered the meaning of the word “colonialism.” In short, I was a dummy — but “dummy,” in my experience, is an excellent position from which to learn, provided that you accept that status.
That semester — Winter 2004 — was a strange time in my life. It was the last semester of my MFA. Personally, I’d describe myself as having halfway awakened from a deeply traumatic experience that nearly ended, at minimum, my graduate career before it began. I wasn’t yet recovering, but I was slowly processing what had happened, beginning to believe it might not have been my fault. The first step for an addict is admitting they have a problem — but isn’t that the victim’s first step as well? So much of the first two and a half years of my MFA are an absolute blank in my memory. I have vague recollections of some truly insane poetry workshops. I can’t remember anything from the lit courses I took. But that seminar came back to me quickly this year, illuminated by my colleague’s beautifully-chosen texts, books I doubt I’d have found my way to on my own. Of all of them, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony shook me in a way I could not process as I struggled to teach it, conscious of my certainty of its greatness but unable to articulate its profundity.
Ceremony is a challenge for the average undergrad, especially for the average undergrad who has not read, as assigned, Nancy Gilderhus’ “The Art of Storytelling in Leslie Silko’s Ceremony,” which capably outlines the novel’s belief system and narrative structure, both of which are common to indigenous literature but at odds with the linear, monologic, hierarchic Western tradition. The novel tells the story of Tayo, a mixed-race WWII veteran returning to his Laguna reservation after the horror of the Bataan Death March, during which he witnessed the violent death of his cousin. Tayo suffers from PTSD, which the Army doctors attempt to treat through isolation, the mystery of “battle fatigue” one they can identify but not cure. Tayo returns to the reservation and isolates himself, afraid of others, afraid of himself, afraid of the triggers that send him back into his nightmare. The novel is the story of his growing understanding of what happened to him, what caused the violence: not himself, not the Japanese, not even the white supremacist culture that exploited and then disenfranchised Native soldiers, but “the witchery” — best described as an evil force that manipulates and damages all living things. Near the end of the book, Tayo faces a choice: to perpetuate the cycle of violence, seeking revenge and righteous justice, or to break the pattern by controlling his own fear and anger. No spoilers, but I’m sure you can guess which one he chooses.
It had been a long time coming — fourteen years — but that novel woke me up the rest of the way. I hate writing that, recognizing how much was lost in all that time, but I’m glad to finally be able to say it. Sometimes strange is good, and this was a good strange — not a confusion, but a defamiliarization. Trauma persists in the mind, encoded in one’s thinking until that thinking is changed, and Silko’s novel changed my thinking. “It’s reformatting my brain,” I wrote to a friend. The experience of teaching that class had a ripple effect — piling on to my workload and level of stress, yes, but also showing me patterns in my own life, in my own experience as a woman in a patriarchal field and culture, and giving me the mental and emotional agency I needed to start effecting change — such that when a young woman in my modern poetry class asked, after the midterm, “Are we going to read any women in this class?” I rewrote the syllabus, adding three more poets I’d never studied myself. Imagine that: eleven years studying poetry and the only female modernist I’d ever been taught was Marianne Moore. For those who still require empirical evidence of the existence of patriarchy, there you have it.
The year keeps getting stranger. As I write this, I am simultaneously engaged in or observing several conversations regarding AWP15’s anonymous letter, in which some men in the literary community were identified as sexually abusive and / or violent. All but one name on the list was familiar, previous allegations having been made publicly and officially by named accusers. But one name came as a shock to many. (There’s an account at Coldfront that reports the outrage of the poet’s supporters, which also links to one at Quaint that contextualizes the letter’s existence; I don’t feel like linking because I don’t feel like ping backs are my ally right now.) I don’t know this person — I’d never even heard his name before this weekend — but the response to his being named is recognizable: the poet is highly regarded by men and women alike. The accusation is inconceivable to those who know him; they’ve had nothing but positive experiences with him. They are angry and confused and they want answers. They are, frankly, among my worst nightmares. So I am trying to engage, both to understand their refusal to believe that something they thought to be true may not be. I like to think that I typically take that position regarding contentious issues. But I’m also trying something new: I’m trying to be understood, to explain where a letter like that comes from, what it means that it exists in the first place. What it feels like to have your voice silenced, to be made a stranger to yourself.
Eventually, I’m pretty sure, the new gerbil’s going to walk in.