Wednesday, December 11, 2013
December 11, 2013: Semester Recaps: Short Stories, Then and Now
[Wednesday is my last day of classes, so all week I’ll be highlighting some AmericanStudies takeaways from the Fall 2013 semester. Add your thoughts and fall recaps in comments, please!]
On the benefits of connecting voices and texts across the centuries.
This fall I had the chance to teach for a third time in Fitchburg’s Adult Learning in the Fitchburg Area (ALFA) program, and I decided to push my expectations—both of the program’s very impressive students and of my own work in the class—a bit further than in either previous course. I’d ask them this time to read two short stories for each class meeting, one from a contemporary American female author (which had been the course’s original planned focus) and one from a 19th (or turn of the 20th) century American female author whom we should better remember (which is obviously the kind of project I’m passionate about). Besides asking us to juggle those multiple texts and all their possible topics and frames, this plan would also require us to put seemingly very distant—chronologically and in many other ways—voices in conversation with each other.
It worked, and did so in a couple distinct but equally significant ways. For one thing, some of the pairings helped us to think about identities, issues, and communities that have not changed nearly as much as we might expect—or, at least, that face many of the same challenges and histories today that they did a century and more ago. When we discussed two stories by Chinese American authors, for example—Sui Sin Far’s “Mrs. Spring Fragrance” (1912) and Gish Jen’s “Who’s Irish?” (1998)—it was remarkable how many moments and details seemed interchangeable, felt as if they could have been part of either story and community with equal accuracy. Although the stories are narrated very differently (Far’s by an outside third-person narrator, Jen’s a first-person narrator who is also one of the story’s main characters), even their voices feel quite similar, particularly in their use of humor and irony to provide a lighter touch on what could be very serious and even dark cultural conflicts. Had I not provided the publication dates, it would have been easy to locate the two stories much closer to one another in time, a telling reflection of the persistence of immigrant American identities, experiences, and communities.
On the other hand, some of the pairings reflected and embodied sweeping changes in their settings and subjects, shifts that were likewise eye-opening about American history and culture. For example, I paired Kate McPhelim Cleary’s “Feet of Clay (1893) with Sandra Cisneros’ “Woman Hollering Creek” (1991), as both portray young women moving to a new, Western world with new and far from ideal husbands. Yet despite those central similarities, and despite the way in which each author contrasts the protagonist’s prior perspective with her current realities, what struck us most were the differences: not only between Cisneros’ Mexican American protagonist and McCleary’s Eastern and Anglo one, but also in the worlds to which they moved—the stark Great Plains frontier of McCleary’s Kansas contrasting so fully with the strip malls and suburban worlds of Cisneros’ Texas. And, in perhaps the most time period-related difference of all, the contrast between McCleary’s ending, with her protagonist seemingly trapped forever in this place and marriage, and Cisneros’, with hers making an escape from her abusive husband with the help of a strong female mentor. Some of the things that have changed from then to now, that is, seem pretty positive.
Next recap tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Fall classes, work, or other happenings you’d recap?