ALL OF THE
QUESTIONS REQUIRE THAT YOU REFER TO
THESE FOUR TEXTS:
=Sherman Alexie, “Superman and
=Isabel Allende, “Reading the
History of the World”
=the “Transcript” of the
interview between Michiko Kakutani and President Barack Obama
=Alison Bechdel, Fun Home
I expect a QUOTE from each text.
Make sure to use the formats we have reviewed! Please write an essay—not a
list. As always, please do more than just list examples and then stop—I expect
a patient and challenging conclusion to the essay.
Please do NOT refer to any
outside sources or to our other readings, such as The Great Gatsby.
There are THREE questions. Choose
ONE. Please do not copy the question—just indicate the letter of your choice.
A) In all of these texts, these
writers speak of how reading allowed them to claim their identity, to raise
their voice, to see their world more clearly, to find the words they had been
unable to say. Refer to a specific example of this process from each
of the texts. Which readings
(or types of readings) are mentioned? What sort of effects did these readings
have on the people reading them? What might be significant about the choices
they made or the reactions they had?
B) In all of these texts, these
writers speak of reading and writing as a social process, one that
deeply involves their families. Refer to a specific example of this process
from each of the texts. Which readings are chosen and shared? Who shares
them with whom? Why and how might these exchanges of texts and ideas matter?
C) In all of these readings, the
writers recall that they were very curious about a range of different texts. In
what ways were they influenced by “classic literature” and in what ways did
they also search for inspiration in texts that might not be considered
“literature?” Refer to a specific example of this process from each of the texts. Which
readings (or types of readings) are mentioned? What sort of readings seem to
have the most profound effects on each author? What might be significant about
the types of readings that they chose and considered most influential?
It is worth 8
points (all-or-nothing). It needs to be emailed in a Word file (or just
“pasted” into an email), by NOON on Thursday, June 10th.
To get 8 points,
you need to:
—Write at least 600
—Refer to ALL four
—Refer to specific
and relevant statements. Please include a quote from EACH of the texts, and
when you “quote,” follow the formats we’ve reviewed.
—Do more than write
a “list” of references. What MATTERS about the statements and texts you chose?
One more key
Unlike all of our previous assignments, this one will NOT
feature the option of sending me a “draft”—you have two weeks to do this, SO
GET IT RIGHT!
“Transcript: President Obama
on What Books Mean to Him”
Michiko Kakutani, the chief book critic for The New York Times, interviewed President Obama about literature on January 13, 2017 at the White House. Here are excerpts from the conversation, which have been edited and condensed.
**NOTE from Prof. McQuillan: The questions are not numbered in the original text. I just added the numbers so that we can refer to specific questions more quickly. Some brief information about authors has also been added in brackets.
1) These books that you gave to your daughter Malia on the Kindle, what were they? Some of your favorites?
I think some of them were sort of the usual suspects, so The Naked and the Dead [by Norman Mailer] or One Hundred Years of Solitude [by Gabriel Garcia Marquez], I think she hadn’t read yet.
Then there were some books I think that are not on everybody’s reading list these days, but I remembered as being interesting, like The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, for example. Or The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston.
Part of what was interesting was me pulling back books that I thought were really powerful, but that might not surface when she goes to college.
2) Have you had a chance to discuss them with her?
I’ve had the chance to discuss some. And she’s interested in being a filmmaker, so storytelling is of great interest to her. She had just read A Moveable Feast. I hadn’t included that, and she was just captivated by the idea that [Ernest] Hemingway described his goal of writing one true thing every day.
3) What made you want to become a writer?
I loved reading when I was a kid, partly because I was traveling so much, and there were times where I’d be displaced, I’d be the outsider. When I first moved to Indonesia, I’m this big, dark-skinned kid that kind of stood out. And then when I moved back from Indonesia to Hawaii, I had the manners and habits probably of an Indonesian kid.
And so the idea of having these worlds that were portable, that were yours, that you could enter into, was appealing to me. And then I became a teenager and wasn’t reading that much other than what was assigned in school, and playing basketball and chasing girls, and imbibing things that weren’t very healthy.
4) I think all of us did.
Yeah. And then I think rediscovered writing and reading and thinking in my first or second year of college and used that as a way to rebuild myself, a process I write about in Dreams From My Father [Obama’s own memoir].
5) That period in New York, where you were intensely reading.
I was hermetic — it really is true. I had one plate, one towel, and I’d buy clothes from thrift shops. And I was very intense, and sort of humorless. But it reintroduced me to the power of words as a way to figure out who you are and what you think, and what you believe, and what’s important, and to sort through and interpret this swirl of events that is happening around you every minute.
And so even though by the time I graduated I knew I wanted to be involved in public policy, or I had these vague notions of organizing, the idea of continuing to write and tell stories as part of that was valuable to me. And so I would come home from work, and I would write in my journal or write a story or two.
The great thing was that it was useful in my organizing work. Because when I got there, the guy who had hired me said that the thing that brings people together to have the courage to take action on behalf of their lives is not just that they care about the same issue, it’s that they have shared stories. And he told me that if you learn how to listen to people’s stories and can find what’s sacred in other people’s stories, then you’ll be able to forge a relationship that lasts. But my interest in public service and politics then merged with the idea of storytelling.
6) What were your short stories like?
It’s interesting, when I read them, a lot of them had to do with older people. I think part of the reason was because I was working in communities with people who were significantly older than me. We were going into churches, and probably the average age of these folks was 55, 60. A lot of them had scratched and clawed their way into the middle class, but just barely. They were seeing the communities in which they had invested their hopes and dreams and raised their kids starting to decay — steel mills had closed, and there had been a lot of racial turnover in these communities. And so there was also this sense of loss and disappointment.
And so a bunch of the short stories I wrote had to do with that sense, that atmosphere. One story is about an old black pastor who seems to be about to lose his church, his lease is running out and he’s got this loyal woman deacon who is trying to buck him up. Another is about an elderly couple — a white couple in L.A., — and he’s like in advertising, wrote jingles. And he’s just retired and has gotten cranky. And his wife is trying to convince him that his life is not over.
So when I think back on what’s interesting to me, there is not a lot of Jack Kerouac
, open-road, young kid on the make discovering stuff. It’s more melancholy and reflective.
7) Was writing partly a way to figure out your identity?
Yes, I think so. For me, particularly at that time, writing was the way I sorted through a lot of crosscurrents in my life — race, class, family. And I genuinely believe that it was part of the way in which I was able to integrate all these pieces of myself into something relatively whole.
People now remark on this notion of me being very cool, or composed. And what is true is that I generally have a pretty good sense of place and who I am, and what’s important to me. And I trace a lot of that back to that process of writing.
8) Has that continued to be so in the presidency?
Not as much as I would have liked. I just didn’t have time.
9) But you keep some form of a journal?
I’ve kept some, but not with the sort of discipline that I would have hoped for. The main writing that I’ve done during the presidency has been my speeches, the ones at least that were important to me.
10) How has the speechwriting and being at the center of history and dealing with crises affected you as a writer?
I’m not sure yet. I’ll have to see when I start writing the next book. Some of the craft of writing a good speech is identical to any other good writing: Is that word necessary? Is it the right word? Is there a rhythm to it that feels good? How does it sound aloud?
I actually think that one of the useful things about speechwriting is reminding yourself that the original words are spoken, and that there is a sound, a feel to words that, even if you’re reading silently, transmits itself.
So in that sense, I think there will be some consistency.
But this is part of why it was important to pick up the occasional novel during the presidency, because most of my reading every day was briefing books and memos and proposals. And so working that very analytical side of the brain all the time sometimes meant you lost track of not just the poetry of fiction, but also the depth of fiction.
Fiction was useful as a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day and was a way of seeing and hearing the voices, the multitudes of this country.
11) Are there examples of specific novels or writers?
Well, the last novel I read was Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. And the reminder of the ways in which the pain of slavery transmits itself across generations, not just in overt ways, but how it changes minds and hearts.
12) It’s what you said in your farewell address about Atticus Finch, where you said people are so isolated in their little bubbles. Fiction can leap —
It bridges them. I struck up a friendship with [the novelist] Marilynne Robinson, who has become a good friend. And we’ve become sort of pen pals. I started reading her in Iowa, where Gilead and some of her best novels are set. And I loved her writing in part because I saw those people every day. And the interior life she was describing that connected them — the people I was shaking hands with and making speeches to — it connected them with my grandparents, who were from Kansas and ended up journeying all the way to Hawaii, but whose foundation had been set in a very similar setting.
And so I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful.
And then there’s been the occasion where I just want to get out of my own head. [Laughter] Sometimes you read fiction just because you want to be someplace else.
13) What are some of those books?
It’s interesting, the stuff I read just to escape ends up being a mix of things — some science fiction. For a while, there was a three-volume science-fiction novel, the Three-Body Problem series —
, who won the Hugo Award.
— which was just wildly imaginative, really interesting. It wasn’t so much sort of character studies as it was just this sweeping —
15) It’s really about the fate of the universe.
Exactly. The scope of it was immense. So that was fun to read, partly because my day-to-day problems with Congress seem fairly petty — not something to worry about. Aliens are about to invade. [Laughter]
There were books that would blend, I think, really good writing with thriller genres. I mean, I thought Gone Girl [by Gillian Flynn] was a well-constructed, well-written book.
16) I loved that structure.
Yeah, and it was really well executed. And a similar structure, that I thought was a really powerful novel: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff.
17) I like those structures where you actually see different points of view.
Which I have to do for this job, too. [Laughter]
18) Have there been certain books that have been touchstones for you in these eight years?
I would say Shakespeare continues to be a touchstone. Like most teenagers in high school, when we were assigned, I don’t know, The Tempest or something, I thought, ‘My God, this is boring.’ And I took this wonderful Shakespeare class in college where I just started to read the tragedies and dig into them. And that, I think, is foundational for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings.
19) Is that sort of comforting?
It gives me a sense of perspective. I think Toni Morrison’s writings — particularly Song of Solomon is a book I think of when I imagine people going through hardship. That it’s not just pain, but there’s joy and glory and mystery.
I think that there are writers who I don’t necessarily agree with in terms of their politics, but whose writings are sort of a baseline for how to think about certain things — V. S. Naipaul, for example. His A Bend in the River, which starts with the line, “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” And I always think about that line, and I think about his novels when I’m thinking about the hardness of the world sometimes, particularly in foreign policy, and I resist and fight against sometimes that very cynical, more realistic view of the world. And yet, there are times where it feels as if that may be true.
So in that sense, I’m using writing like that as a foil or something to debate against.
20) I’ve read that Lincoln loved Shakespeare his whole life, but when he was dealing with the Civil War, reading the history plays helped give him solace and perspective.
Lincoln’s own writings do that. He is a very fine writer.
I’d put the Second Inaugural up against any piece of American writing — as good as anything. One of the great treats of being president is, in the Lincoln Bedroom, there’s a copy of the Gettysburg Address handwritten by him, one of five copies he did for charity. And there have been times in the evening when I’d just walk over, because it’s right next to my office, my home office, and I just read it.
And perspective is exactly what is wanted. At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted, the ability to slow down and get perspective, along with the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes — those two things have been invaluable to me. Whether they’ve made me a better president, I can’t say. But what I can say is that they have allowed me to sort of maintain my balance during the course of eight years, because this is a place that comes at you hard and fast and doesn’t let up.
21) Is there some poem or any writing or author that you would turn to, say, after the mass killings in Newtown, Conn., or during the financial crisis?
I think that during those periods, Lincoln’s writings, King’s writings, Gandhi’s writings, Mandela’s writings — I found those particularly helpful, because what you wanted was a sense of solidarity. During very difficult moments, this job can be very isolating. So sometimes you have to hop across history to find folks who have been similarly feeling isolated. Churchill’s a good writer. And I loved reading Teddy Roosevelt’s writing. He’s this big, outsize character.
22) Have you read a lot of presidential biographies?
The biographies have been useful, because I do think that there’s a tendency, understandable, to think that whatever’s going on right now is uniquely disastrous or amazing or difficult. And it just serves you well to think about Roosevelt trying to navigate World War II or Lincoln trying to figure out whether he’s going to fire [George B.] McClellan when Rebel troops are 20, 30, 40 miles away.
23) I watched some of the civil-rights-movement documentary mini-series Eyes on the Prize after the election.
It was useful.
24) You do see how far we’ve come, and in the space of my lifetime.
And that’s why seeing my daughters now picking up books that I read 30 years ago or 40 years ago is gratifying, because I want them to have perspective — not for purposes of complacency, but rather to give them confidence that people with a sense of determination and courage and pluck can reshape things. It’s empowering for them.
25) What books would you recommend at this moment in time, that captures this sense of turmoil?
I should probably ask you or some people who have had time to catch up on reading. I’ll confess that since the election, I’ve been busier than I expected. So one of the things I’m really looking forward to is to dig into a whole bunch of literature.
But one of the things I’m confident about is that, out of this moment, there are a whole bunch of writers, a lot of them young, who are probably writing the book I need to read. [Laughter] They’re ahead of me right now. And so in my post-presidency, in addition to training the next generation of leaders to work on issues like climate change or gun violence or criminal justice reform, my hope is to link them up with their peers who see fiction or nonfiction as an important part of that process.
When so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify — as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize — is more important than ever.
There’s something particular about quieting yourself and having a sustained stretch of time that is different from music or television or even the greatest movies.
And part of what we’re all having to deal with right now is just a lot of information overload and a lack of time to process things. So we make quick judgments and assign stereotypes to things, block certain things out, because our brain is just trying to get through the day.
26) We’re bombarded with information. Technology is moving so rapidly.
Look, I don’t worry about the survival of the novel. We’re a storytelling species.
I think that what one of the jobs of political leaders going forward is, is to tell a better story about what binds us together as a people. And America is unique in having to stitch together all these disparate elements — we’re not one race, we’re not one tribe, folks didn’t all arrive here at the same time.
What holds us together is an idea, and it’s a story about who we are and what’s important to us. And I want to make sure that we continue that.
27) I know you like Junot Díaz’s and Jhumpa Lahiri’s books, and they speak to immigration or the American Dream.
I think Lahiri’s books, I think Díaz’s books, do speak to a very particular contemporary immigration experience. But also this combination of — that I think is universal — longing for this better place, but also feeling displaced and looking backwards at the same time. I think in that sense, their novels are directly connected to a lot of American literature.
Some of the great books by Jewish authors like Philip Roth or Saul Bellow, they are steeped with this sense of being an outsider, longing to get in, not sure what you’re giving up — what you’re willing to give up and what you’re not willing to give up. So that particular aspect of American fiction I think is still of great relevance today.
“From Books, New President Found Voice”
NOTE: Kakutani has written about Obama’s love of reading before. The following excerpt is from an article she wrote just after Obama was first elected in 2008.
HINT: We’ll be paying close attention to some of the phrases from this excerpt as the semester continues. The photo of Obama is from his days at Columbia University in New York.
1) Like Dreams From My Father, many of the novels Mr. Obama reportedly admires deal with the question of identity: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon concerns a man’s efforts to discover his origins and come to terms with his roots; Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook recounts a woman’s struggles to articulate her own sense of self; and Ellison’s Invisible Man grapples with the difficulty of self-definition in a race-conscious America and the possibility of transcendence. The poems of Elizabeth Alexander, whom Mr. Obama chose as his inaugural poet, probe the intersection between the private and the political, time present and time past, while the verse of Derek Walcott (a copy of whose collected poems was recently glimpsed in Mr. Obama’s hands) explores what it means to be a “divided child,” caught on the margins of different cultures, dislocated and rootless perhaps, but free to invent a new self.
2) This notion of self-creation is a deeply American one — a founding principle of this country, and a trope addressed by such classic works as The Great Gatsby — and it seems to exert a strong hold on Mr. Obama’s imagination.
3) In a 2005 essay in Time magazine, he wrote of the humble beginnings that he and Lincoln shared, adding that the 16th president reminded him of “a larger, fundamental element of American life — the enduring belief that we can constantly remake ourselves to fit our larger dreams.”
“Reading the History of the World” (1995)
NOTES: Isabel Allende, the daughter of a Chilean diplomat, was born in 1942 in Lima, Peru. Isabel moved from Peru to Chile, where she was living and working at the time her uncle, Salvador Allende, the President of Chile, was assassinated during an army coup, assisted by the CIA, in 1973. “In that moment,” she says, “I realized that everything was possible–that violence was a dimension that was always around you.” The Allende family did not think that the new regime would last, and Isabel Allende continued to work there as a noted journalist. However, when it became too dangerous to remain in Chile, the family went into exile in Venezuela. Allende’s first novel, The House of the Spirits (1985), established her as a significant writer in the tradition of “magical realism” associated with the Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Allende has written numerous novels, an autobiography, Paula (1995), and stories for children. Allende has spoken of the “wind of exile” that makes it necessary to recover memories of one’s native land. In this essay, she invokes the act of reading as one way to salvage these memories.
* * *
[P1] Reading is like looking through several windows which open to an infinite landscape. I abandon myself to the pleasure of the journey. How could I know about other people, how could I know about the history of the world, how could my mind expand and grow if I did not read? I began to read when I was very small; I learned to read and write practically when I was baby. For me, life without reading would be like being in prison, it would be as if my spirit were in a straightjacket; life would be a very dark and narrow place.
[P2] I was brought up in a house full of books. It was a big, strange, somber house, the house of my grandparents. My uncle, who lived in the house, had a lot of books–he collected them like holy relics. His room held a ton of books. Few newspapers were allowed in that house because my grandfather was a very patriarchal, conservative man who thought that newspapers, as well as the radio, were full of vulgar ideas (at the time we didn’t have TV), so the only contact I had with the world, really, was my uncle’s books. No one censored or guided my reading; I read anything I wanted.
[P3] I began reading Shakespeare when I was nine, not because of the language or the beauty, but because of the plot and the great characters. I have always been interested in adventure, plot, strong characters, history, animals. As a child, I read children’s books, most of the Russian literature, many French authors, and later, Latin American writers. I think I belong to the first generation of writers in Latin America who were brought up reading Latin American literature; earlier generations read European and North American literature. Our books were very badly distributed.
[P4] Books allow me to see my feelings put into words. After I read the feminist authors from North America, I could finally find words for the anger I had all my life. I was brought up in a male chauvinist society and I had accumulated much anger, yet I couldn’t express it. I could only be angry and do crazy things, but I couldn’t put my anger into words and use it in a rational, articulate way. After I read those books, things became clearer to me, I could talk about that anger and express it in a more positive way.
[P5] The same thing happened with politics. I was aware of injustice and misery and political violence, but I couldn’t express my feelings until I read about those issues and realized that other people had been dealing with them for centuries, and had already invented the words to express what I was feeling.
[P6] I have often been separated from my mother, whom I love very much. She now lives in Chile and we write a letter to each other every day. We talk about what we’ve read or what we are writing. I do it first thing every morning of my life, even when I’m traveling. It’s as if I were writing a journal. It’s like having a long conversation with her; we are connected by a strong bond. This same bond also connects me to my daughter, who is living in Spain, because when I write the letter to my mother, I make a copy that goes to my daughter, and they do the same. This is becoming a very strange network of letters.
[P7] My mother is a much better reader than I. My reading is very fast, hectic, disorganized and impatient. If I’m not caught in the first few pages I abandon the book. My mother, however, is very patient and goes very slowly. She is the only person who reads my manuscripts, helping me to edit, revise, and correct them. She has a strong sense of poetry and such good taste. She’s very well-informed, very cultivated, very sensitive, and loves reading.
[P8] I have tried to give my children the love of books. My daughter is a good reader. She’s a psychologist and has to read a lot of professional books, but she loves novels, short stories, poetry. My son, however, doesn’t read any fiction. He’s a scientific person with a mathematical mentality. I’ve tried to imagine how his mind and heart work, without nourishment from books, but I can’t. He’s a great boy, but how can he do it? I don’t know.
[P9] My uncle, Salvador Allende, who was President of Chile before he was assassinated during the military coup, hardly affected my life. I liked him and loved him, but only as I do other relatives. He was the best man at my wedding. I was never involved in politics, and never participated in his government. (I became interested in politics only after the coup.) He was not a very strong reader of fiction, actually. He was always reading reports, essays, books about politics, sociology, economy, etc… He was a very well-informed person and he read very fast, his eyes practically skimming across the page to get the necessary information, but when he wanted to relax, he would rather watch a movie than read.
[P10] During the three years of Allende’s government, any Chilean could buy copies of “Quimantu,” the state publishing house, for very little money, the equivalent of two newspapers. In this way he hoped to promote culture. His goal was that every single Chilean could read and write and be able to buy as many books as he or she wanted by the end of his term.
[P11] My own experience of life, my biography, my feelings, my self as a person, affect my reading. The writer puts out half the book, but I read the book in my unique manner. That is why reading is so interesting; we as readers don’t have passive roles, but very active ones. We must integrate into the text our own experiences of life and our own feelings. While we are reading a book, we are constantly applying our own knowledge.
[P12] Our backgrounds determine our strengths and interests as readers. Many themes that are extremely popular in North America are impossible for me to read because they aren’t part of my culture–I just don’t care about them. For example, I can’t relate to those books by daughters who write against their mothers. But If I read a book by Toni Morrison or Louise Erdrich that deals with being a woman and part of an ethnic minority, I can relate to its content. Also, I like Latin American authors very much, especially Jorge Amado, Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Juan Rulfo, Jorge Luis Borges, and many others. There are a few Latin American women writers that I enjoy as well, but they have been badly distributed and poorly reviewed. Latin American literature has been an exclusively male club, to say the least.
[P13] I have met many people, including well-informed, educated people, who actually take pride in the fact that they haven’t read anything by a woman. Recently, I received a clipping from a newspaper. It was a public letter to me from a Chilean entertainer apologizing because he had never before read any of my books because I am a woman. He wrote that he never read any literature written by women. After he made a special effort to read my books, he felt he must apologize to me and say that I could actually write.
[P14] I will always be interested in programs of illiteracy because it is such a common problem in my continent. Too many still cannot read or write, only a few can afford books or have the habit of reading. To me, not reading is like having the spirit imprisoned.
“The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me”
==by Sherman Alexie
Los Angeles Times, April 19 1998
Sherman Joseph Alexie Jr. (born October 7, 1966) is a Spokane-Coeur d’Alene-American novelist, short story writer, poet, and filmmaker. His writings draw on his experiences as an Indigenous American with ancestry from several tribes. He grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation and now lives in Seattle, Washington. His best-known book is The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), a collection of short stories. It was adapted as the film Smoke Signals (1998), for which he also wrote the screenplay. His first novel, Reservation Blues, received a 1996 American Book Award. His first young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), is a semi-autobiographical novel that won the 2007 U.S. National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and the Odyssey Award as best 2008 audiobook for young people (read by Alexie). His 2009 collection of short stories and poems, War Dances, won the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Alexie was the guest editor of the 2015 Best American Poetry.
P1] I learned to read with a Superman comic book. Simple enough, I suppose. I cannot recall which particular Superman comic book I read, nor can I remember which villain he fought in that issue. I cannot remember the plot, nor the means by which I obtained the comic book. What I can remember is this: I was 3 years old, a Spokane Indian boy living with his family on the Spokane Indian Reservation in eastern Washington state. We were poor by most standards, but one of my parents usually managed to find some minimum-wage job or another, which made us middle-class by reservation standards. I had a brother and three sisters. We lived on a combination of irregular paychecks, hope, fear and government surplus food.
P2] My father, who is one of the few Indians who went to Catholic school on purpose, was an avid reader of westerns, spy thrillers, murder mysteries, gangster epics, basketball player biographies and anything else he could find. He bought his books by the pound at Dutch’s Pawn Shop, Goodwill, Salvation Army and Value Village. When he had extra money, he bought new novels at supermarkets, convenience stores and hospital gift shops. Our house was filled with books. They were stacked in crazy piles in the bathroom, bedrooms and living room. In a fit of unemployment- inspired creative energy, my father built a set of bookshelves and soon filled them with a random assortment of books about the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, the Vietnam War and the entire 23-book series of the Apache westerns. My father loved books, and since I loved my father with an aching devotion, I decided to love books as well.
P3] I can remember picking up my father’s books before I could read. The words themselves were mostly foreign, but I still remember the exact moment when I first understood, with a sudden clarity, the purpose of a paragraph. I didn’t have the vocabulary to say “paragraph,” but I realized that a paragraph was a fence that held words. The words inside a paragraph worked together for a common purpose. They had some specific reason for being inside the same fence. This knowledge delighted me. I began to think of everything in terms of paragraphs. Our reservation was a small paragraph within the United States. My family’s house was a paragraph, distinct from the other paragraphs of the LeBrets to the north, the Fords to our south and the Tribal School to the west. Inside our house, each family member existed as a separate paragraph but still had genetics and common experiences to link us. Now, using this logic, I can see my changed family as an essay of seven paragraphs: mother, father, older brother, the deceased sister, my younger twin sisters and our adopted little brother.
P4] At the same time I was seeing the world in paragraphs, I also picked up that Superman comic book. Each panel, complete with picture, dialogue and narrative was a three-dimensional paragraph. In one panel, Superman breaks through a door. His suit is red, blue and yellow. The brown door shatters into many pieces. I look at the narrative above the picture. I cannot read the words, but I assume it tells me that “Superman is breaking down the door.” Aloud, I pretend to read the words and say, “Superman is breaking down the door.” Words, dialogue, also float out of Superman’s mouth. Because he is breaking down the door, I assume he says, “I am breaking down the door.” Once again, I pretend to read the words and say aloud, “I am breaking down the door” In this way, I learned to read.
P5] This might be an interesting story all by itself. A little Indian boy teaches himself to read at an early age and advances quickly. He reads “Grapes of Wrath” in kindergarten when other children are struggling through “Dick and Jane.” If he’d been anything but an Indian boy living on the reservation, he might have been called a prodigy. But he is an Indian boy living on the reservation and is simply an oddity. He grows into a man who often speaks of his childhood in the third-person, as if it will somehow dull the pain and make him sound more modest about his talents.
P6] A smart Indian is a dangerous person, widely feared and ridiculed by Indians and non-Indians alike. I fought with my classmates on a daily basis. They wanted me to stay quiet when the non-Indian teacher asked for answers, for volunteers, for help. We were Indian children who were expected to be stupid. Most lived up to those expectations inside the classroom but subverted them on the outside. They struggled with basic reading in school but could remember how to sing a few dozen powwow songs. They were monosyllabic in front of their non-Indian teachers but could tell complicated stories and jokes at the dinner table. They submissively ducked their heads when confronted by a non-Indian adult but would slug it out with the Indian bully who was 10 years older. As Indian children, we were expected to fail in the non-Indian world. Those who failed were ceremonially accepted by other Indians and appropriately pitied by non-Indians.
P7] I refused to fail. I was smart. I was arrogant. I was lucky. I read books late into the night, until I could barely keep my eyes open. I read books at recess, then during lunch, and in the few minutes left after I had finished my classroom assignments. I read books in the car when my family traveled to powwows or basketball games. In shopping malls, I ran to the bookstores and read bits and pieces of as many books as I could. I read the books my father brought home from the pawnshops and secondhand. I read the books I borrowed from the library. I read the backs of cereal boxes. I read the newspaper. I read the bulletins posted on the walls of the school, the clinic, the tribal offices, the post office. I read junk mail. I read auto-repair manuals. I read magazines. I read anything that had words and paragraphs. I read with equal parts joy and desperation. I loved those books, but I also knew that love had only one purpose. I was trying to save my life.
P8] Despite all the books I read, I am still surprised I became a writer. I was going to be a pediatrician. These days, I write novels, short stories, and poems. I visit schools and teach creative writing to Indian kids. In all my years in the reservation school system, I was never taught how to write poetry, short stories or novels. I was certainly never taught that Indians wrote poetry, short stories and novels. Writing was something beyond Indians. I cannot recall a single time that a guest teacher visited the reservation. There must have been visiting teachers. Who were they? Where are they now? Do they exist? I visit the schools as often as possible. The Indian kids crowd the classroom. Many are writing their own poems, short stories and novels. They have read my books. They have read many other books. They look at me with bright eyes and arrogant wonder. They are trying to save their lives. Then there are the sullen and already defeated Indian kids who sit in the back rows and ignore me with theatrical precision. The pages of their notebooks are empty. They carry neither pencil nor pen. They stare out the window. They refuse and resist. “Books,” I say to them. “Books,” I say. I throw my weight against their locked doors. The door holds. I am smart. I am arrogant. I am lucky. I am trying to save our lives.
ENG 30: INTRODUCTION TO LITERATURE
PROF. GENE MCQUILLAN
SPRING 2021 FINAL EXAM
ALL OF THE QUESTIONS REQUIRE THAT YOU REFER TO
THESE FOUR TEXTS:
=Sherman Alexie, “Superman and Me”
=Isabel Allende, “Reading the History of the World”
=the “Transcript” of the interview between Michiko Kakutani and President Barack Obama
=Alison Bechdel, Fun Home
I expect a QUOTE from each text. Make sure to use the formats we have reviewed! Please write an essay—not a list. As always, please do more than just list examples and then stop—I expect a patient and challenging conclusion to the essay.
Please do NOT refer to any outside sources or to our other readings, such as The Great Gatsby.
There are THREE questions. Choose ONE. Please do not copy the question—just indicate the letter of your choice.
A) In all of these texts, these writers speak of how reading allowed them to claim their identity, to raise their voice, to see their world more clearly, to find the words they had been unable to say. Refer to a specific example of this process from
each of the texts
. Which readings (or types of readings) are mentioned? What sort of effects did these readings have on the people reading them? What might be significant about the choices they made or the reactions they had?
B) In all of these texts, these writers speak of reading and writing as a social process, one that deeply involves their families. Refer to a specific example of this process from each of the texts. Which readings are chosen and shared? Who shares them with whom? Why and how might these exchanges of texts and ideas matter?
C) In all of these readings, the writers recall that they were very curious about a range of different texts. In what ways were they influenced by “classic literature” and in what ways did they also search for inspiration in texts that might not be considered “literature?” Refer to a specific example of this process from each of the texts. Which readings (or types of readings) are mentioned? What sort of readings seem to have the most profound effects on each author? What might be significant about the types of readings that they chose and considered most influential?
It is worth 8 points (all-or-nothing). It needs to be emailed in a Word file (or just “pasted” into an email), by NOON on Thursday, June 10th.
To get 8 points, you need to:
—Write at least 600 words.
—Refer to ALL four texts.
—Refer to specific and relevant statements. Please include a quote from EACH of the texts, and when you “quote,” follow the formats we’ve reviewed.
—Do more than write a “list” of references. What MATTERS about the statements and texts you chose?
One more key thing>>
Unlike all of our previous assignments, this one will NOT feature the option of sending me a “draft”—you have two weeks to do this, SO GET IT RIGHT!