More Kosova-Mississippi Connections

May 13, 2003

William Faulkner accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1950 (Source: www.emersonkent.com)

William Faulkner accepting the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature, December 10, 1950 (Source: www.emersonkent.com)

If you have browsed this blog, you know that in the winter and spring of 2012 my Kosovaran students and I spent many hours talking and writing about hope.  We did so in response to William Faulkner’s 1950 Stockholm Address, where the Noble Prize winner urged young writers to resist the despair generated by atomic bombs that ended World War II but left us all with one question: “When will I be blown up?”  This terrifying question, Faulkner believed, had placed writers under “a curse,” one that seduced them to write “not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all without pity or compassion.”  Such writing, Faulkner claims, no matter how brilliant, comes not from the “heart” but from the “glands.”

To free writers from this curse, Faulkner challenged them to write about the “conflicts of the human heart in conflict with itself” because “only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”  Once accepting this “duty,” writers would quit spawning more despair over our persistently violent world; instead, writers would hold fast to their truths about our capacities for stupidity and brutality but, at the same time, provide evidence, however limited, of our capacity as mere mortals to think intelligently and to act with “courage and honor,” with “compassion and sacrifice.” Such writers, Faulkner argued, become “pillars” for readers, supporting them with hope that we might “endure and prevail.”

If you will scroll the menu of topics on the homepage of this blog, you will see that we discussed the grounds for hope at the beginning of the course, when we talked and wrote about Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a play that ends with Linda Loman stunned by her husband’s suicide but also with Willy eager to give his life to make his son Biff “magnificent”; and at the end of the course, when we searched for hope in Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s novel that ends with the fire-bombing of Dresden, with a firing squad executing an innocent man, but with Billy Pilgrim’s humane tears and with leaves budding on the trees.  We had the same discussion about Gaines’s novel A Lesson Before Dying, a story that ends with the execution of Jefferson, another innocent man, but also with his teacher Grant inspired by Jefferson’s courage and at one with the community from which he has long felt alienated.  We encountered Faulkner’s challenge to writers again in discussing his own “Barn-Burning,” a Mississippi story that traces the violent and futile history of blood-vengeance but also the possibility of escape from the cycle of violence through compassionate and daring action, a topic central to the current and future Kosova as it struggles to emerge from centuries of violence between Serbs and Albanians.

Remembering these powerful and moving conversations about despair and hope shared with my students at the University of Pristina, I encouraged my students at MSU to measure our philosophers, films, and Western American novels by Faulknerian standards, attending especially to his insistence that writers have a “duty” to ‘lift readers’ hearts’ with hope.  You’ll find the novels and films described briefly in the last posting, as well as a photo of my co-teacher, Dr. John Bickle.  Here, you’ll see the essay topics the students took up after extensive discussion and journaling on the grounds for hope in times of violence and injustice.  Linked to each assignment, you will also find some of my students’ faces as well as their thoughtful responses to these questions.  Please read and enjoy!

**Please click on the students’ pictures below to be directed to their essay responses.**

Assignment on The Big Sky

Rebekah Boden

Rebekah Boden

Please write a critical essay on A. B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky, focusing on the character of Boone Caudill.

Your essay should identify at least three characteristics that best define Caudill’s character to clarify why novelist Wallace Stegner calls Boone a “doomed” hero of the frontier.  What qualities strike you as heroic?  What qualities undercut that heroism?  How and why is Caudill doomed?  Does his doom result from his heroic virtues, from his flaws, or from both?  Does his doom result from forces exterior to his character?

You should support your claims about Caudill with specific examples and relevant quotes from the novel.  Your analysis of Boone should also offer illuminating comparisons or contrasts drawn from the films “Shane” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”  Further, in formulating your thesis (your claims) on Boone, draw on the philosophical ideas from at least two of the following thinkers: Mill, Kant, French (“Ethical Revenge in Westerns”), Vico, Roche and Hösle, French  (“The Death of Death”), Appiah, Lind.

We encourage you to review your journaling responses to the novel and/or your notes on the philosophers to gather ideas for your paper.

Assignment on The Man Who Killed the Deer

Molly

Molly Beckwith

Please write a critical essay on Frank Water’s The Man Who Killed the Deer, focusing on the character of Martiniano.

Your essay should draw on at least two of our readings from Aristotle, Young, Wolf, Sommers, Nietzsche, and Matthew 5-7 to frame your assessment of Martiniano as a morally responsible resister of a corrupt culture.  You should support your claims about Martiniano with specific examples and relevant quotes from the novel and with illuminating comparisons or contrasts drawn from the films “Hombre” and “High Plains Drifter.”

Once again, we encourage you to review your journaling responses to the novel and/or your notes on the philosophers to gather ideas for your paper.

Assignment on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Ryan Smith

Ryan Smith

Please write a critical essay on Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, focusing on the character of McMurphy as a sane Western hero or as a psychopath.

Kit Warren

Kit Warren

You should support your claims about McMurphy with specific examples and relevant quotes from the novel and with illuminating comparisons or contrasts drawn from the film “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and from any other film or novel we have discussed.

Matt Bartee

Matt Bartee

Drawing on your response to journal question #5 on Part IV of the novel, you should also frame your analysis of McMurphy’s motives and actions in definitions of psychopathology and moral heroism.

The Kosova-Mississippi Connection

February 25, 2013

I have thought daily of my students in Kosova over the eight months since my return to the USA.  Thanks to emails from Besa, Gezim, Arlind, and Ragip, the seven time zones that separate us seem a bit less immense.  They all report missing me as much as I miss them, a sentiment that means more to me than they may realize; they report, too, that the research writing they did in our Twentieth-Century American Literature class has served them well in subsequent courses, particularly on their major paper on Toni Morrison.

(L to R) Armind, Arlind, Fidan, me, Bajram, Laurita, Dafina, Shkodran, Ragip, Albana, Gezim, June 2012

behind Judy and me, (L to R) Besa, Fidan, Blerta, Kadrie, Edita, Merita, and Xhemile

behind Judy and me, (L to R) Besa, Fidan, Blerta, Kadrie, Edita, Merita, and Xhemile, June 2012

In my next email to these four students and to their 18 colleagues, I will urge them to return to this blog, where they can reminisce with me about our six months together and, just as important, where they will discover how much they continue to influence by writing.  As it turns out, this blog has served as a rough draft for a book I have written.  Titled Writing Visions of Hope: Teaching Twentieth-Century American Literature and Research, the book narrates our collaborative reading and writing in these two courses.  More than an account of writing-to-learn pedagogy, the book narrates my students’ stories and ties their lives to modern and contemporary literature of the Balkans as well as to the literature of America, 1901-2000.  This book will appear, I’m guessing, in May or June of 2013, one year after my departure; it will be published by Information Age Publishing.  I will certainly alert all my blog friends as well as my students when the book enters the world.

Additionally, the journal Pedagogy, published by Duke University Press, will soon publish an article on my work with these Kosovaran students, focusing primarily on our study of poetry.  This piece, titled “Considering Claims and Finding One’s Place,” should also reach print sometime in 2013.

I also hope that my Kosovaran students will return to this blog to see how they continue to influence my teaching here at Mississippi State University.  In the fall of 2012, for instance, I taught a writing course for first year students.  Remembering how much my students at the University of Pristina enjoyed journaling on poetry, not only to learn how to analyze the poems but also to find personal connections to the poet’s stories, I used the same approach with these young American students, who read, among other poems, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” one of the poems my UP students read.  Using the very same journaling prompts I assigned in Kosova, I asked my students to study the “five-haired beard of wisdom” and other figures and details that taught us to see the beauty of this grotesque fish and to hear the speaker’s joy as she decides to “let the fish go.”

But, remembering the energy of my Kosovaran students, prompted by our readings, as they narrated their lives, I asked these American students to consider writing an essay, grounded in their journaling on Bishop’s “The Fish,” that narrates one of their own experiences in the world of nature, one that changed the way they think about nature and their own place in the natural world.  Many students took this option, one which produced some of the best writing of the semester.  Attached, you’ll find a sample of this nature writing, Trip Kennon’s essay on “The Face of the Ozarks.”

John Bickle, Professor and Head, Philosophy & Religion (Source: Univ. of Cincinnati)

John Bickle, Professor and Head, Philosophy & Religion (Source: Univ. of Cincinnati)

This winter/spring semester, with philosopher Dr. John Bickle, I’m team-teaching a Humanities course for third-year undergraduates, a course that blends studies in philosophy—Dr. Bickle’s department—with readings in Western American novels focused on the Frontier experience—my department.  Our students also relate their readings in philosophy and literature to classic movies on the American West:  “Shane,” the 1953 film on the clashing destinies of cattle men, “sod-busters,” and loners like Shane; “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” the 1962 cinema that examines frontier justice, juxtaposing the rule of the gun with the rule of law; “Hombre” (1967) and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), films that explore the tension between selfishness and self-sacrifice that informs the heroic code.

A.B. Guthrie, Jr. and his daughter Gus Miller (Source: Main Hall to Main Street, University of Montana)

A.B. Guthrie, Jr. and his daughter Gus Miller (Source: Main Hall to Main Street, University of Montana)

Drawing again on my experience with students at the University of Pristina, I asked my American students to keep a journal as they read our first novel, A. B. Guthrie, Jr.’s The Big Sky (1947), the story of mountain man Boone Caudill, the ‘white Indian’ who ironically clears the way for westward expansion even as he flees from mid-nineteenth century American civilization east of St. Louis.  For their first essay, we asked the students to “identify three characteristics that best define Boone Caudill’s character to clarify why novelist Wallace Stegner calls Boone a “doomed” hero of the frontier.  What qualities strike you as heroic?  What qualities undercut that heroism?  How and why is Caudill doomed?  Does his doom result from his heroic virtues, from his flaws, or from both?  Does his doom result in part from forces exterior to his character?”

Cover of A.B. Guthrie's The Big Sky

Cover of A.B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky (Source: amazon.com)

To help students to gather material for this essay, we asked them, just as I asked students in Kosova, to journal in response to analytical questions like these below, focused on Part Four of the novel, where Boone seems so happy with his Piegan wife Teal Eye, but then gets caught up in trail-blazing to Oregon and in jealousies that lead to his shooting of his dear friend Jim, the man whose life he had earlier saved from the frozen mountains:

  1. Boone has reached the age of 29, Teal Eye 22.  How would you describe the sources of Boone’s happiness in this relationship and in his life as a Piegan?
  2. What evidence do we see here that the end draws near for Indians and for mountain men?
  3. How, why does Boone get drawn into Peabody’s Oregon project?
  4. Boone’s fatal choice to trail-blaze for Peabody leads to even stronger evidence of nature’s brutality and indifference to men and their “manifest destinies.”  Find at least three passages that use description to develop this naturalistic theme.
  5. What qualities in Boone stand out here as he and Jim face death by freezing and death by starvation?
  6. Look up “pantheism” in the dictionary.  Do you see any pantheism emerging here?  Who seems to think most deeply about the spiritually of nature?
  7. We see Boone’s love for Jim even after it appears that Jim has betrayed him.  What sequence of bad news and mistakes leads to Boone’s suspicion of Jim?  How do the causes and effects of Boone’s rage help you to understand Stegner’s notion of Boone as a “doomed” hero?

As of this writing, the students haven’t written this essay yet, but their brilliant responses to these journaling prompts, which they shared in class—just like we did in Kosova—bode well for some wonderful essays.

In addition to these undergraduate courses, I have taught two MA-level courses: in fall 2012, Writing Center Tutor Training, in spring 2013, Composition Pedagogy.  Writing Center pedagogy, of course, focuses on one-on-one teaching; I went into this course with great enthusiasm, having seen conferencing work so well at UP as my students moved through three drafts of their research papers on Death of a Salesman, A Lesson Before Dying, or some other work of their choice.

I approached the Composition Pedagogy course with equal enthusiasm, remembering that many of my students in Kosova aspire to become teachers.  I recalled, too, that all of my UP students responded generously to my request to interview them concerning their literacy histories, particularly as those histories relate to their memories of the 1990s wars in the Balkans and to their aspirations as students and professionals.  After my American MA students had read and journaled on several articles focused on how we learn to read and write and on how we might best help students in our classrooms to develop these literacies, I asked them to write a narrative essay, focusing on their own literacy histories, on their own writing processes, or on their observations of a master writing teacher (see assignment pdf), a request preceded, of course, by rough drafting and peer response sessions—precisely the strategies that worked so well in Kosova.  If you will click on the attached files, you will find the excellent responses of Kiley, Aaron, Kayleigh, Jessica and Sharon; you will also see them depicted below.

DSCN0931

(L to R) Kayleigh Swisher, Aaron Grimes, Sharon Simmons, February 2013

(L to R) Jessica Moseley, Kylie Forsythe, February 2013

My Students

I have been blessed with wonderful students at the University of Pristina.  They and their families suffered so much in the 90s, and now they lead impossibly complicated lives as they juggle commitments to family and to jobs.  But they still make time for MA studies and remain sweet tempered and hopeful about the future.

After our last classes, the Monday/Thursday students and the Saturday students took me to coffee, a fine old Albanian tradition.  I offer these pics as proof that they like me!  The ‘student’ sitting on my lap (my wife Judy) likes me most of all ;).

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King and Logos–Deductive and Inductive Reasoning: Part III

May 5, 2012

I began the next session by returning students’ papers on A Lesson before Dying, congratulating them on their solid work, and inviting them to meet me during office hours if they had questions about my comments and their grades.

Returning to our discussion of King’s letter, I said that effective logos, the substance of any argument, requires more than presenting evidence in support of a claim, that it requires leading the reader through the evidence toward a conclusion, using deductive and inductive methods of reasoning.  To begin demonstrating the inter-connectedness of the deductive and inductive processes, I referred them to three sentences on the board, quoted below, each extracted from King’s fifteenth paragraph, the one alluding to Martin Buber and Paul Tillich and their condemnation of segregation as sinful.  Together, the three sentences, I said, represent a syllogism, a three-part deductive statement:

Major Premise: All laws that degrade the human personality are unjust.

Minor Premise: Segregation laws degrade the human personality.

Conclusion: Segregation laws are unjust.

All syllogisms, I explained, begin with a major premise, a generalization about a class or genus—all laws—a premise that King rightly assumes his primary audience, the clergymen, will accept without challenge.  The minor premise, I continued, then makes a generalization about a member or species of that group, “segregation laws,” asserting that they “degrade the human personality”; therefore, the deductive logic runs, if the major premise is true, and if the minor premise is true, then it necessarily follows that all segregation laws are unjust.

The Logic of Deductive and Inductive Reasoning (Source: TOKnow-11)

“But where,” I continued, “has King provided his proof—beyond these allusions to Jewish and Christian theologians—that supports the minor premise, that segregation laws ‘degrade the personality’?”  Hearing no response, I referred the students to King’s fourteenth paragraph, where King presents abundant and passionate evidence that “segregation laws degrade the personality,” and he does so, I explained, by using inductive logic, which begins with an hypothesis, then moves through a series of experiments or examples to confirm or contradict the hypothesis.  I then referred the students to the inductive outline of King’s fourteenth paragraph, which answers the clergymen’s question about waiting for freedom and, in so doing, tests the hypothesis about the degrading effect of segregation:

Hypothesis: Segregation laws degrade the personality.

Results of Testing Hypothesis:

Experiment #1: “Vicious mobs” lynch your family members.

Experiment #2: “Hate-filled policemen…kick…brothers and sisters.”

Experiment #3: Twenty million African Americans live in an “airtight cage of poverty.”

Experiment #4: African American children are excluded from amusement parks, and fathers have no explanation.

Experiment #5: African American adults are barred from motels.

Experiment #6: African American women and men are never accorded respect, never called by their names; they suffer, therefore, a “degenerating sense of nobodiness.”

Conclusion: Segregation laws degrade the human personality.

After reviewing this inductive process, I asked the students to note that the inductive conclusion becomes the minor premise for King’s syllogism two paragraphs later.  This blending, I said, quoting from Questioning,

shows that our minds work inductively, helping us interpret to experience, and that our minds also work deductively, helping us to reason from our discovered premises to further conclusions.  Persuasive writing…makes transparent this blending of inductive and deductive thought.  To put it negatively, had Dr. King omitted paragraph 14, with all its examples—proofs—of the damaging effect of segregation laws, then his minor premise in paragraph 16, that segregation laws damage the personality, would be a logical fallacy.  That is, King would have been guilty of begging the question, the fallacy of assuming as proven the very idea that needs to be demonstrated.  (156-57)

This blending of induction and deduction, I continued, also further strengthens King’s ethos, as “he offers his readers cool logic and sound evidence to persuade them that they cannot ask his followers to ‘wait’ any longer for freedom” (157).

Finally, I asked the class to recall King’s deliberative purpose, to advise the clergymen and all Americans to guarantee the country’s ‘enduring and prevailing’ by rising to its high ideals of brotherhood.  Such a purpose, I said, moves him away from judicial discourse, away from accusing and defending, and toward meditational discourse, striving “to bridge the gap between ‘you,’ the clergymen who have criticized him and the racists who have jailed him, and ‘we,’ the victims of segregation”(157).

To support this claim, I asked the students to consider one more sentence on the board, a line rich with parallel rhythms and imbedded figurative language that, together, help us hear and see his vision of unity as he praises blacks and whites working together:

They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.

By juxtaposing these contrasting images, I said, King not only praises those who have carved the “tunnel of hope” but also invites his critics and those “white moderates” to join in the carving. We see this invitation again in his last sentence, where he urges all his readers to share his hope that “in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”  As noted in Questioning, “by saving this inspiring image for the end of his letter, the point where he hopes to have won supporters, not vanquished opponents, King has shown that arrangement works together with parallelism and metaphoric language to move his readers toward embracing a positive common destiny” (158).

Cover of Black Elk Speaks

Cover of Black Elk Speaks (Source: Wikipedia)

As we neared the end of the session, I reminded the class that our next meeting would focus on an excerpt from John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks, another passionate call for justice and ‘prevailing’ through unity.  Neihardt, I explained, was a white poet from Nebraska, but his book grew from extended interviews with Black Elk, a holy man of the Lakota tribe, whose vision of tribal and world unity died in 1890 at the Battle of Wounded Knee, where the US Calvary crushed rebellious Native American tribes.  From the point of view of the US government, I further explained, Wounded Knee affirmed the doctrine on “Manifest Destiny,” the idea that God ordained white people to move always westward, acquiring land by purchase or by force so that the nation could grow and prosper economically.

However, I continued, from the Native Americans’ point of view, the US government committed genocide at Wounded Knee, a crime made even worse by herding Indians onto reservations, essentially concentration camps, places where Indian culture died and survivors felt utterly broken in spirit, which explains the extremely high rates of unemployment, alcoholism, and suicide on reservations, then and now.

Cover of The Way to Rainy Mountain

Cover of The Way to Rainy Mountain (Soure: Wikipedia)

We would read another excerpt for the next meeting, I noted, this one from N. Scott Momaday’s book The Way to Rainy Mountain.  Another Native American with Kiowa and Cherokee blood, Momaday, I said, wrote his book in celebration of Kiowa culture, a culture also crushed when the US Army forced them onto the reservation at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and deprived them of their Sun Dance, their religion.

Finally, as they read these works, I asked the students to keep Kings’ “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in mind and to reflect on what the three works have in common as protests of injustice and as pleas for unity.  “And think of historical patterns in these passionate writings, too,” I said, noting that Neihardt recorded Black Elk’s vision in 1932, when King was a small child, and that Momaday wrote about the fate of the Kiowas in 1969, one year after King was assassinated.  To help them find a personal focus for their reflections, I distributed the following journaling prompts, asking student to pick one and to fill up at least a page of their journals in response:

  1. Describe a holy man or woman from your culture that you have found inspiring.
  2. What feelings do you have as a Kosovaran as you read about a vision that strives to avoid genocide?
  3. Narrate a memory of a grandparent and an old custom.
  4. What do you think Dr. King would say in response to these readings?

Photo Tour 9: More Prishtinë with Judy

May 23-30, 2012

The following pictures are from various sites and Judy and I visited in and around Pristina while she was here. She even required a police escort at one point (in truth, the law officers were just as curious as she was to see what was behind the locked gate).

<<Note: captions forthcoming–please check back soon>>

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Lahiri’s “Sexy” at the American Corner & in the Park

May 2 & 9, 2012

Mark Lake, Educational Director for the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention

Mark Lake is a fellow American in Kosova. He is the Educational Director with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. As part of his program, Lake offers English conversation courses for students at the American Corner.

I joined his class on May 2 and 9 to lead them in a discussion about Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Sexy.”  For the first class, we met at their usual place, the American Corner in the National Library on the University of Pristina campus. For the gathering on the 9th, we met at local park instead because the library was closed in observance of Europe Day.

**Click on the first image to view pictures in a larger, “slideshow” format.

Poets Remembering Parents, Part II

April 21, 2012

Li-Young Lee (Source: timesunion.com)

Turning our attention to Li-Young Lee’s poem “The Gift,” I began with the obvious but important fact that Lee’s poem establishes as we come to it from the work of Plath and Dove, namely, that men share with women this intense need to remember their fathers clearly, to ‘get back’ at them or to them, to understand them and love them, perhaps to forgive them, perhaps to get past them.  “Do you recall from the introduction what distinctions Lee’s father achieved?” I wondered.  Several voices responded with “physician to Chairman Mao” and “political prisoner in Sukarno’s Indonesian jail.”  “Right,” I said, “and our editors also credit Lee with using the same techniques that Dove used in resurrecting her remorseful but menacing father, relying on multi-sensory appeals to recreate his father and to remember him faithfully and accurately.”

Noting that the word “gift” never appears in the poem, except in the title, I asked, “What is it?”  Arlind responded with “his ‘stories,’” Dafina with “his ‘tenderness’ and ‘discipline.’”  Praising both answers, I asked how Lee uses sensory imagery to reveal that tenderness and firmness.  We then explored Lee’s use of synecdoche and metaphor, the “voice” that sounds like “a well of dark water,” the “hands” that embrace Lee’s young face but also raise “flames of discipline” over his head (ll. 1-13).  We then noticed the long-term effect of these remembered images, as Lee sees himself, years later, lifting a splinter from his wife’s hand with the same healing gentleness that his father had ‘planted’ in his hand decades before.  “And how does Lee express his gratitude for these gifts?” I asked.  Edita responded by citing “what a child does….I kissed my father” (ll. 33, 35).

“When you juxtapose Lee’s poem to Plath’s “Daddy,” or even to Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, what do you realize about the American family and about the need of grown children to look back and understand their parents?” I asked.  This prompt led to some interesting comments on the need of children to reconstruct family narratives of justice and love as well as stories of injustice and abuse.  “What do adult children receive, other than some joy and lots of pain, from remembering such stories?” I wondered.  “Is it just about assigning blame, condemning mom or dad for what we have become?  Or about kissing the parent who loved you well?”   Wisely, Merita responded, “It’s more about the adult child making a choice, saying ‘you had the wrong dream,’ or ‘I’m through,’ or ‘I choose to pass on your love to my family.’”

Applauding this perceptive insight, I asked the class where Louise Glück’s poem “Appearances” stands on spectrum of remembering family narratives and choosing what the next chapter will be.  After Laureta read the poem aloud, I reminded the class of the introductory comments on Glück’s “complex family relations,” her psychoanalysis to deal with the resulting pain (3000), and then asked where they saw pain and coping mechanisms in the poem.  We quickly caught the reference to being “analyzed” but also the humor, the reference to portraits of her and her sister hung “over the mantel,/ where we couldn’t fight” (ll. 2-3).  When I asked what she remembers about her mother, we reviewed key descriptors of the “strong,” ‘controlling’ woman who valued “order,” who grieved always over another daughter who died, who “ministered to” her living sister and, in so doing, “damaged the other” (ll. 28-36).  “So what does the adult child now realize about the consequences of her mother’s unequal love?” I asked.  Besa rose to the challenge: “She understands that because she always wanted to be “child enough” for her mother, she became “too obedient,” too ready to be shaped—“If you want me to be a nun, I’ll be a nun”—to earn her mother’s approval (ll. 26, 43-44).

Yusef Komunyakaa (Source: Indiana Review)

“Yes,” I responded, “and such realizations can liberate the adult, as we saw in Biff at the end of Salesman.  Isn’t it interesting that when adult children take a different route than the parents took, they usually do not try to ‘kill’ the parent, as did Plath; on the contrary, they try to preserve the parent, as did Biff.”  I then asked if they could recall where Yusef Komunyakaa got his name and how that naming might relate to the instinct to preserve the parent.  No one remembered, so we scanned the introduction for this sentence: Komunyakaa “adopted the lost surname of a Trinidadian grandfather who came to the United States as a child” (3075).

Noting, too, the statement that Komunyakaa devoted his poetry to restoring black faces—from rural Louisiana, from Bourbon Street, and from Vietnam—that have been ‘erased’ from cultural memory (3075), we sought to discover how he remembers his father in “My Father’s Love Letters.”  After Fidan read the poem aloud, we spoke of this illiterate alcoholic mill worker, who asked his son to write his love letters to his wife, “promising to never beat her/Again” (ll. 6-7).  “But what else does Komunyakaa refuse to erase?” I asked.  Arben answered, listing the tools of his trade, the “carpenter’s apron,” the “gleam of a five-pound wedge” that “pulled a sunset/Through the doorway of his toolshed” (ll. 12, 22, 24-25).  “Right,” I said, “and he also remembers that his father could look at a blueprint and instantly know ‘how many bricks/Formed each wall’” (ll. 30-31).   Asked for his conclusion, Arben added that the drunken brute also seems to be a true craftsman, an artist “almost redeemed by what he tried to say” in his letters (ll. 35-36).

Thanking all for their patient, insightful readings, I asked for volunteers to read from their journals about their parents.  Bajram responded with a full-page tribute to his mother, the “goddess” who never failed him as he grew from childhood to adolescence and manhood.  Though he had not attempted poetry, we all praised the poetic quality of his prose, poetic in the sense that it relied on imagery from her kitchen table, site for buttering home-made bread and learning letters, and from his bedside to stress her nurturing tenderness, and from the war—school doors closed, soldiers ruling the streets—to stress her dignity and courage in a time when ethnic cleansings made it difficult to sustain either quality. Thoroughly impressed by Bajram’s tribute, I thanked him for celebrating the ‘gifts’ his mother provided, much as Li-Young Lee had done in his poem about his father.

Teaching A Lesson Before Dying: Part 1

March 31, 2012

Ernest Gaines

Ernest Gaines in church (Source: African American Literature Book Club)

This posting introduces Ernest Gaines’s 1993 novel A Lesson Before Dying, which I have been reading with my students.  The two postings that follow highlight their responses to the novel.

Set in the share-cropping world of rural Louisiana in the late 1940s, this novel features the teacher-student relationship between Grant Wiggins, a thirty-five year old African American teacher, and Jefferson, a twenty-one year old, semi-literate African American on death row for a murder he did not commit.

Jefferson has, in fact, committed theft, as his attorney acknowledges at the murder trial, explaining to the all-white jury that his impoverished client panicked at the scene of the murder, looting the liquor store cash register as the murderers and their victim, the owner, lay dead at his feet.  But surely, he reasoned, this black “boy” could not be smart enough to plan a robbery and murder: “Why, I would as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this” (8).

Initially, Grant resents and resists his new charge, thrust upon him by his Tante Lou, to go into the local jail and, over the few months before Jefferson’s execution, to persuade him to go to his death feeling like a man, not like a “hog.” How, Grant wonders, can anyone expect him to reverse the legacy of slavery, the three-hundred-year-old cultural conviction that black ‘boys’ need not expect education or justice, need not aspire to the American Dream.

A Lesson Before Dying

Cover of Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying

In addition to tracing these interconnected themes of racism and justice, of literacy and liberty, this masterful novel also explores the relationship between Grant and Reverend Ambrose, the parish preacher, and between Grant and Vivian, a strong woman and committed teacher stuck in a bad marriage she seeks to end.  Naturally, the old black preacher and the young black agnostic come into constant conflict, for Ambrose wants Grant to teach Jefferson to “kneel” before he dies; instead, once committed to the process, Grant insists that he will teach Jefferson to “stand.”  Grant and Vivian also experience tension but of a much different sort, for their truly tender love story gets entangled with her Catholic faith and with a passionate cane-field conception that precedes her divorce.  Yet the conflict with Ambrose and the tensions with Vivian open Grant’s eyes to the futility of his own anger, a transformation that softens his heart and strengthens his resolve to coax Jefferson to his feet.  By the end, Jefferson walks to his death, having learned from Grant how to write his way to manhood; in turn, the student has taught his teacher the value of compassion, courage, and community.

Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo

February 16, 2012

Cover of Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo

Cover of Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo

In 2001, when assistant district attorney Philip Kearney left San Francisco for Kosova, he found himself driven by generous motives: he wanted to help “rebuild” this former Serbian province shattered by a decade of ethnic warfare (4). He would do that rebuilding “under the blue flag” of the UN, serving as a prosecutor of war criminals. But early in his brilliant book bearing the title above, Kearney acknowledges that his selfless wish to help heal the Balkans rooted in personal needs: his mission would help him to squelch the “feeling” that his life “was half over” yet he had not made his “mark” (2). He would fill the “hole” in his life, then, by helping Kosova restore the rule of law.

Early on, Kearney’s mission filled that hole, giving him a sense of “vigor and purpose” that he “hadn’t felt in years” (21). Yet after a year of service in Kosova, where Kearney found the justice system truly in “tatters” (14), one might have forgiven him had he returned to the comforts of San Francisco and written a judgmental book about the cowardice of some Kosovarans who won’t bear witness against murderers and rapists (84), and about the incorrigible corruption of some police and judges: “the same people who were supposed to be upholding the law were the people I needed to go after” (197).

But instead of complaining at home, Keaney stayed to pursue his mission, for the Balkans “had gotten into [his] blood” (224). Having lost himself in Kosovaran stories of suffering and endurance, of courage that sometimes overcomes terror, Kearney no longer had time to worry about making a mark.

Mesmerized by Kosovaran stories, Kearney quickly discovered the hatred—“still very real and still very alive”—that threads through both Albanian and Serbian narratives (39). Those hatreds, now and always, have made “retributive murder…commonplace” in the Balkans, and Kearney found in Kosova “no justice system to reign in the violence” (45). With no rule of law, either during or after the war, Kearney heard stories of Serbian death camps, where Albanian women suffered beatings and rapes daily (159), and of raids on Albanian homes, where rapes in front of family members preceded the lootings (108). Kearney also heard stories of Albanian retribution; one such case involved an Albanian with an AK-47 slaughtering a dozen Serbs, including a four-year-old boy, in front of a store (56). “Nobody here,” Kearney concludes, “has clean hands” (226).

To work toward ending this cycle of hatred and vengeance, Kearney used his Kosovaran courtroom to persuade both sides that “justice had to be blind—especially to ethnicity” (243). Sharing the UN’s commitment to “conquer ancient tribalism and replace it with the rule of law” (256), Kearney argued passionately that atrocities “committed either by military winners or losers” must be prosecuted by one high standard of human conduct, especially when committed “against the civilian population” (257, 259).

Amazingly, Kearney and his legal team won convictions against both Serbs and Albanians. Predictably, however, set-backs followed, like the acquittal of a Serb Kearney thought he had put away (268), and then the 2005 Supreme Court decision that “with the stroke of a pen” reversed “convictions we had fought so hard to achieve” (282). Yet even such reversals, Kearney hopes, persuades Serbs that international tribunals can be fair to “both sides of the conflict” (268).

Looking back on his mission, Kearney stresses two key lessons he hopes that we all take from his narrative: that “good governance takes time,” and that “our need to engage actively in the broader world” remains “stronger than ever” (294, 295).

Additional Links about Kearney

Radio interview with Philip Kearney and Verena Knaus, Here On Earth: Radio Without Borders, Wisconsin Public Radio, February 17, 2009

Interview with Philip Kearney, San Francisco Chronicle, March 1, 2009

Philip Kearney, Richard Reeves*, and Geoffrey Robinson^, Rising Above Oppression, Panel Discussion at Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, April 24, 2010

*Richard Reeves, Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin
 Airlift - June 1948 - May 1949 (Simon & Schuster; January 5, 2010)

^Geoffrey Robinson, "If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die": How Genocide
 Was Stopped in East Timor (Princeton University Press; November 16,
2009)

The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo

February 15, 2012

Cover of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo

Cover of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo

Nine years have passed since Paula Huntley published her superb memoir, The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo.  Narrated in journal format, Huntley’s book records her experiences in 2000-2001, just one year after NATO troops drove Serbian forces out of Kosova.   Naturally, after a decade of civil war, most Kosovarans had suffered all the horrors that go with urban warfare and displacement, and when the shooting stopped, many Kosovarans found themselves homeless and jobless, and everyone found that the educational and legal systems had suffered the same battering.  So when Paula Huntley and Ed Villmoare chose to come to Pristina, they did not come as mere observers.  Instead, they came to help, Paula by teaching English as a second language to Albanian students, Ed by working through the American Bar Association to help Kosova to rebuild its legal system.

Paula Huntley

Paula Huntley, author of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo (Source: Ms. Huntley's website--click image to view)

Having just re-read this inspiring book, I must applaud the way Paula and Ed came to help.  Eschewing know-it-all posturing, they couched their offer to help in compassion for those who had suffered so much and in full awareness of their own limitations.  Describing Ed’s need to “do something” in response to the wide-spread agony, Paula records her doubt that “Ed really believes he can do anything of great significance here.  He is a man of few illusions.  But he is also a man of character and compassion.  He can’t just do nothing” (29).  Similarly, three months into her teaching, Paula wonders if she has “really [done] anything to help” (129).

Ed Villmoare, Paula Huntley's husband

Ed Villmoare, Paula Huntley's husband (Source: Ms. Huntley's website--click image to view)

They also came to help as partners and peers with the Kosovarans, fully expecting to learn as much as they teach and to receive as much as they give.  This respectful stance, their doubts about effectiveness notwithstanding, earned Huntley and Villmoare the trust they would need to help Kosovarans build a future on a foundation of justice and learning

We can see that earned trust in the stories that Kosovarans come to share with Paula and Ed.  In working with his legal assistant Blerta, for instance, Ed hears the story of her mother’s gang-rape, a war crime that has silenced her mother permanently (179).  Similarly, in teaching stories such as Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” Paula engages Ermina and other students in eager discussions of marriage as a relationship shared by “equal partners,” not by a jailer-husband and his prisoner-wife, too often the case, says Ermina, in Pristina (183).

By starting her book club in her Pristina home, Paula also used Ernest Hemingway’s stories to generate more discussions on the power of language to assert human dignity and to effect positive change for Kosova.  In reading Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, for example, Paula and her student-guests reflected on the old man’s wisdom: “It is better to be lucky.  But I would rather be exact.  Then when luck comes you are ready.”  Naturally, this quote led to discussion of the old man’s tremendous suffering as he battles the great fish, then, thanks to the sharks, his failure to bring the great fish to the dock.  But once again, the old man’s words—“a man can be destroyed but not defeated”—helped her students to realize that the old man had not been defeated, that, in Paula’s words, he had “won self-respect and the renewed respect of the villagers.  He maintained his dignity and showed courage in the face of overwhelming adversity” (167).

First meeting of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo

First meeting of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo (Source: Ms. Huntley's website--click image to view)

With such courage placed within reach through language, Paula’s students began to think of “overcoming” their Kosovaran  “adversity” as a realistic goal, particularly if, like the old man, they became “ready,” a condition made possible by education and a willingness to use their “new words” (204).  Without these new words to “express their fears, frustrations, angers, desires, and ambitions in ways other than violence,” Paula concludes, Kosovarans can have no hope for the future (150).  Neither can we.