The Craft of Intersectionality: Teaching Revision 13
This is a continuation of our posts on teaching revision, most recently this one. If you’d like to contribute a guest post or response, please contact me at m [dot] salesses [at gmail etc.].
About a week ago a writer friend posted something on Facebook about a student not wanting to make her story clear and comparing it to “Hills Like White Elephants.” The point being, I guess, to argue for ambiguity as a kind of complexity. I’m assuming this as the argument out of–honestly–generosity, and because I’ve had many students in Intro to CW courses make a similar kind of argument, for example: not wanting to name the race and gender of their protagonists, because then the character could be “anyone,” or purposefully obfuscating something that happens in a story so that you can’t tell what it’s supposed to mean or even be, because this supposedly makes it complex.
In reply to this post I said somewhat facetiously that I blame literature courses, not because of bad teachers, but because of how students are sometimes taught to “appreciate” or value a book. I’ve been guilty of teaching this way too–and I don’t actually think it’s a bad thing–introducing a book that I know students will not understand, and then trying to lead them to an appreciation of the text through a continuous revealing of the book’s layers of complexity. I do this sometimes with Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee or Lily Hoang’s Changing, and I like teaching this way at least once a semester, trying to expand my students’ horizons of what a book can be. The danger, perhaps, is in the equation that seems to imprint itself that: “true” literary merit = inability to understand without literary training.
(A side note: Dictee, in fact, may not be understandable even with training, but that book’s sometimes-illegibility makes a point about what is culturally legible, and this is rarely the point that students make when they purposefully force their their fiction into “ambiguity.” Dictee attempts to overthrow our idea of literary merit, while these students are usually attempting to buy into what they believe has literary merit.)
To come back to the raceless, genderless protagonist is to come to an opposite understanding of complexity. It is to come to the conclusion that emptiness is complex. Again, the argument is that one can fill in the emptiness with whatever one brings as a reader. (At one time, this actually may have been the way I was taught “universality” or the “everyman” character.)
This never ever adds complexity. Take for example the sentence: “Jamie rode across the vast landscape and stood before the giant monument, wondering what it could mean.” Compare it to “Suzy Kim rode her Schwinn bicycle over the caved-in roads of Houston to the chalk-white statues of presidential heads, where she shivered under their imperial gazes.” Okay, both are bad sentences. But give me a break. Many students seem more drawn to the first sentence, the mystery there of all we don’t know. And perhaps they are filling in the blanks with their own experience in a way that they cannot with the second sentence. The second sentence, however, has far more potential, possibility, and complexity–because of its specificity.
Imagine later in the story a man snatches away both characters’ glasses and they end up back at the monuments, unable to see. Now, with the first example, I’d be left wondering what it means and my experience would be the only thing I’d have to try to read the meaning of those actions and symbols. With the second sentence, I’d have both the specific context and my personal experience to read into it. For students who want to encourage multiple readings, what you get with the first example is either: a. so many readings that there is no meaning to the story (so why write it–we could get the same readings from staring at grass, an activity that would also bring with it our own experiences), or more likely b. zero readings, because most people don’t want to read a story where the mystery of what something means in a story gets in the way of the mystery of life.
Let me explain what I mean by this. Even (especially) Dictee means nothing without the complexity of the world from which its audience reads. The point of the student who creates the raceless, genderless protagonist is either to write to a reader who is a kind of alien, who lives in a world that also has zero context and so can understand how to read a story without context, or it is to write to a reader so benefitting from the norms that he (a straight, cis, able, white, upper middle-class male, etc) believes that his experience is everyone’s experience and so reads the unspecific character as “anyone” only because anyone is always ever himself. The unspecific vastness and monument gain meaning only if you actually do read in a very specific context of those norms and assume they apply to the character and to everyone and everything else in the story.
Now, perhaps a student still takes a lack of clarity as complexity. This decision isn’t so far-fetched (after all we are taught to read books in a certain way, under certain norms, and with certain expectations). As the writer goes on writing the story, it actually becomes more limited by the limitations of those unspoken norms, and therefore becomes less complex. What kind of relationship problems, family problems, work problems, economic problems, racial problems, gender problems can the unspecific character have? Only unspecific/general ones–“in a failing relationship” (with whom?), “unloving parents” (why?), “about to get fired” (from what?), etc. The further point is that it is difficult for these general problems to gain complexity from each other (a failure of craft). The character Jamie is about to get fired because Jamie is stressed out from a failing relationship that is failing because Jamie has unloving parents–that’s maxing out the potential. This, indeed, would require the person reading to fill in all of the blanks with his own experience. Suzy Kim, on the other hand, can suffer from specific problems–an emotionally abusive white girlfriend who is extremely rich, parents who gave her up when she came out and with a white partner, a job in a nursing home that has begun to mean nothing to her as she’s seen how her girlfriend lives on her inheritance and as Suzy has started to question her position as a Korean woman attending to rich but also disempowered white folks. You see my point, I hope.
If you don’t, though, it’s that a. intersectionality only happens with specificity–with clarity about a character’s positionality, ideals, desires, etc–and b. intersectionality adds complexity–and a complexity that actually draws far more from our experiences in the real world and the mysteriousness of this world that is itself extremely complex.
To come at it from another angle, I’m always telling my students to find ways to raise the stakes. As various specific and clear intersecting contexts and conflicts are added, they add stakes not only on their own but in how they, well, intersect. The world is complex, and to create a complex story requires a lot of clarity about how characters fit into a complex world. I’ve found (and many writers can attest) that as hard as I try to make everything clear, to say exactly what a story is about, my readers always find something else that it could mean. This is not because of obfuscation, but because the world and the readers living in it are so damn mysterious. The complexity comes not from any ambiguity about what a story is supposed to mean or who a character is supposed to be or what is actually happening, but from exactly the kind of ambiguity the student says she wants–the difficulty of squaring a story in which the author believes she has written a clear meaning with the complexity of how that meaning bends when it meets a reader from the context of our messy, screwed-up world.