Thursday, September 6, 2018
September 6, 2018: Fall 2018 Previews: Major American Authors of the 20th Century
[This week I start my 14th year at Fitchburg State. For that momentous occasion, I decided to focus in this fall preview on one thing that has evolved for each class I’m teaching, and one that’s a bit more longstanding. Leading up to a special weekend update on my next book project!]
On the difficult decision to replace a long-time favorite text, and the opportunity it has opened up.
Despite the class’s title (one created in the late 20th century, of course), every time I’ve had the chance to teach the upper-level literature seminar Major American Authors of the 20th Century I’ve made sure to bring us up to the present, ending with a 21st century text. I’m not positive whether I initially used a different one, but for at least the last few sections it’s been the same novel in that slot, Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008). I’m a huge fan of Oscar in any case and setting, but it also works very well as a representation of many ways in which American literature and culture have evolved as we’ve moved into the 21st century (or, more exactly, in which our cultural works have begun to reflect longstanding aspects of our community and identity more fully over this period): the bilingualism, the pop culture allusions, the multivocal and nonchronological structure, the ongoing effects of the 20th century past on our society and identity (best captured by Díaz’s invented but profoundly representative concept of the fukú), and so much more. I’m not sure any 21st century American novel would work better in the culminating spot for a course like this.
Which is to say, it wasn’t the slightest bit easy for me to remove Oscar from the syllabus for this Fall’s section of Major American Authors. I had already placed my book orders by the time the #metoo movement accusations against Díaz surfaced in the spring, and it would have been simple enough to keep the novel on the syllabus at that point (and, for example, to address the accusations as part of our class conversations when we got to the book). I’m also not under any illusions that a fair number of the authors I feature in any particular course didn’t have various personal issues of their own, problems that might well in many cases even compare unfavorably to the accusations against Díaz. But at the same time, these particular accusations and their responses and effects are continuing to unfold in our own moment, in front of us, uncertainly and painfully, and so it felt appropriate to me to take a break from assigning (and thus asking students to purchase) Díaz’s novel—not to ban it and him from my classes in any long-term or permanent way, necessarily, but not to use one of my very few current syllabus spots on an author who at the very least represents some of the more troubling and ugly sides to dynamics of gender, sexuality, and power in our current moment.
If the decision to remove Díaz from the Major American Authors syllabus was a tough one, the choice of a 21st century novel with which to replace Oscar was far simpler for me. Our Fitchburg State Community Read text for the 2018-19 academic year is Celeste Ng’s wonderful debut novel Everything I Never Told You (2014), and I jumped at the opportunity to put her book on a syllabus of mine for the first time. Ng’s novel is a gripping mystery, a moving family drama, and a potent examination of multi-generational immigrant and ethnic American identities and stories, a combination of genres and themes that makes it another exemplary 21st century American book to be sure. But this will also be the first time I’ve had the chance to teach our university’s Community Read text, and I’m really excited to do so, to connect the students and class to the multi-part conversations and events that constitute our Community Read efforts each year (including this time a September talk by me on immigration in American history and identity, for more on which watch this space!). I continue to have mixed feelings about removing Díaz from the syllabus, and plan to revisit that question moving forward—but I have nothing but excitement when it comes to the chance to teach Ng’s novel, overall but this semester in particular.
Last preview tomorrow,
PS. What do you all have going on this Fall?