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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

May 15, 2019: Spring Semester Reflections: Chopin and Far in American Lit II

[April showers bring May flowers, and May flowers bring, besides Pilgrims, the end of another semester. So this week I’ll share a few reflections from my Spring 2019 semester, leading up to a special weekend post on what’s ahead for the summer and beyond. I’d love to hear your Spring reflections in comments!]
On the delightful surprises that come with juxtapositions of stories.
As I wrote back in my semester preview post, I added a couple new short texts to my very-familiar American Literature II syllabus. One of them was one of my favorite American short stories, Sui Sin Far’s “In the Land of the Free” (1909). I’ve written about Far’s story about as often as I have any single literary text, not only in this space but in my third book, for multiple online writing gigs, as part of this recently published Oxford Research Encyclopedia article on “The Chinese Exclusion Act and Early Asian American Literature,” and I imagine in a few other places I’m forgetting right now. Which is to say, I would have said that I had about as clear an existing take on Far’s story as I did on any work. But besides the obvious and awesome benefit of getting student perspectives, adding a text to a syllabus also opens it up through the other texts that surround it, and I experienced that effect very fully with the pairing of Far’s story and another short story in that same week, Kate Chopin’s “The Storm” (1898).
Pairing Far’s story with Chopin’s text opened up both works in complex and compelling ways. I should note that I had already started to rethink aspects of gender and motherhood in Far’s story as a result of the wonderful student paper I highlighted in this post (and indeed, my experience teaching Far in that online American Lit II course went a long way toward convincing me to bring her story into the in-person class as well). But with Chopin’s story in the mix, I began to think more actively about whether the couple’s experiences in Far’s story might destroy their marriage, and more exactly whether the wife and mother in “Free,” Lae Choo, might seek solace with another man as does Chopin’s protagonist Calixta. Because Far’s story focuses so fully on its themes of immigration and exclusion, and because through that lens her married protagonists seem to be entirely on the same page in their quest to reunite with their stolen child, it’s easy to lose sight of just how differently the two characters react and act at times. Indeed, the husband and father, Hom Hing, limits his wife’s freedom to act in ways that are not dissimilar to (if certainly not identical to) the government’s actions in the story. Does that mean that infidelity or other marital strife is in the couple’s future? Who knows, but Chopin’s story pushes us to consider such possibilities.
Pairings always work both ways, of course, and Far’s story similarly allowed me to reexamine Chopin’s text (which I have taught in every American Literature II section for more than a decade, making it a very familiar one as well). In particular—and this is likely a startling admission from someone who has defined himself so fully as a Dad for the last thirteen-plus years, but it’s the truth—I had never focused very much on the character of Bibi, Calixta’s young son. We know his absence from the home during an approaching hurricane, along with that of her husband/his father Bôbinot, is an initial source of concern for Calixta that she forgets in the passion of her own sexual storm, although she still seems genuinely relieved and happy to see him and welcome him home at the story’s end. But all those points are still really about Calixta and her emotional and psychological states. What about Bibi’s perspective, though? What might the future hold for his young person, a child who is part of a seemingly far more stable home environment than the boy in Far’s story (and certainly that home is not threatened by exclusionary laws and bigotries in the way that Far’s is) yet who, we see all too clearly, occupies a world full of its own fraught adult realities? If it were ever possible to overlook such questions (and for this reader at least it had been), Far’s story demands that we consider them, one more beneficial effect of this serendipitous pairing.
Next reflection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Spring reflections you’d share?

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