Thursday, May 16, 2019
May 16, 2019: Spring Semester Reflections: Celeste Ng in Capstone
[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 how a class full of writers can offer distinct and valuable takes on a familiar text.
As I mentioned in the preview post for last fall’s Major American Authors of the 20th Century course, I decided to add to that syllabus a book I had never taught before: our 2018-2019 Fitchburg State Community Read book, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You (2014). Through the work in that class, as well as other Community Read events including my own series-opening lecture on American immigration histories and stories and some conversations about it with Adult Learning in the Fitchburg Area (ALFA) students, I’ve spent a good bit of the last year thinking and talking about Ng’s novel. So when I decided to use it as the Literature text in this semester’s section of my English Studies Senior Capstone class (we read one shared text for each of our department’s four concentrations; the last couple times I had used Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s wonderful novel Americanah in that Literature slot), I imagined these conversations about Everything would run parallel to those others of which I’ve been part throughout the year.
To some degree that was true—we talked a lot about the themes of culture and heritage, of immigration and ethnicity, of gender and sexuality that Ng interweaves throughout her novel; and talked as well about how she links those issues to specific, complex characters like college-bound Nath. But if there’s one overarching through-line in my Capstone course (and really in the class by default, although I believe I do emphasize it even more than some of my colleagues when they teach the class), it’s writing: the students are working on assembling and framing their Senior Portfolios, a departmental graduation requirement; we read multiple books that focus on writing, including Steven King’s wonderful On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft; and we talk throughout the semester about how, whichever track the students are officially part of, they all have the potential to be Professional Writers (one of our tracks) if they are interested. And as my many years of reading those senior portfolios have made clear, that’s not just a hypothetical concept—our English Studies majors, all of them, do indeed graduate with diverse and deep training in writing, and thus bring those experiences and skills to their readings of any and all literary texts.
When it came to their readings of Ng’s novel in particular, this class full of writers opened up a couple of aspects of the text on which I had not focused nearly as much in my many prior engagements with it. One central focus of our discussions was the very precise and nuanced way that Ng uses narration and perspective—in some ways the novel is narrated by a conventional third-person omniscient narrator, one who can move between different characters’ perspectives and also exists outside of any of them; but both the suddenness with which she makes those moves (sometimes within a single sentence) and the ambiguities that she leaves in each perspective (tied to the titular ideas of what we do and don’t say, share, and know) distinguish her use of that conventional literary device. Moreover, our discussions also touched a good bit on the novel’s complex status as a historical novel that features multiple time periods/settings, and thus briefly but importantly introduces pop culture contexts (for example) from across those distinct eras. That’s one of those writing skills that is easily overlooked, but few things are more important in a novel about history, culture, identity, and community than such contextual details. Thanks to sharing Ng’s novel with this class full of writers, I had the chance to think a good bit more about such vital elements of writing.
Last reflection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Spring reflections you’d share?