Monday, December 03, 2007

Last Day of Classes + Brother to Brother + Winter

Today marked the final meeting of my classes for the fall quarter; the undergraduate fiction writing classes ended last Friday, and this week I'll be holding conference and office hours for students in those classes, while the graduate fiction writing class met for the last time tonight. As in all my past years, the students were a joy and though I'll see many of them this week and receive their revised short stories next Monday, I already miss working with them. But this was probably the toughest quarter I've had since I came to the university. It often felt like tunneling through an immense iceberg with a blunt spoon, while also trying to direct traffic behind me. The greatest difficult, in addition to the whirlwind schedule and the isolation has been the sheer amount of material to be read thoroughly; because other university duties don't cease I've more than once come close to (crossed) my physical and mental limits in terms my ability to process everything, though I'm glad to say that as in past extremely rough years, I haven't stinted an iota with the students' work, but it's been rough. I realized a few weeks ago that I could barely type out a blog post after one particularly brutal week, and even reading things online--whether emails, articles and the news, or the many blogs I link to and love to read--has been difficult. Now I find I have to wear my eyeglasses (which I probably need a new prescription for) or I start seeing double when I look at computer screens and get severe headaches, though I'm hoping that the break will clear this up a bit.

Still, as I said, I'll definitely miss the students, whom I eagerly looked forward to seeing (my hands bearing marked up manuscripts, as they can attest) every week, and whose individual voices really have been coming through in their stories. Since all three classes wrote and submitted at least two stories or novel/novella chapters (for a total of around 70 total, plus the two from my graduate fiction thesis advisees, which were about 5-7 each), I've had an opportunity to witness the development, in the case of the introductory students, of individual voices and styles; in the case of the advanced undergraduate students, of much more complex, inventive and rich narratives that approach graduate-level work; and in the case of my graduate students, of mature manuscripts of short stories and novels beginning taking shape.

A few things I learned from this recent triad of fiction classes and from discussions with the other graduate advisees:
  1. More students are interested in and willing to try writing novels, and a few have already written them by the time they start college (and have even contacted publishers and agents, I've learned) or before they're required to in the novella portion of the fiction major advanced sequence;
  2. Raymond Carver remains the most beloved and most influential of the writers we read, while stories by Hemingway, Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Donald Barthelme also remain perennial favorites;
  3. Stories by contemporary writers like Susan Minot, Jhumpha Lahiri, Junot Díaz, Haruki Murakami, and Victor Pelevin are also very popular, and students are able to take them apart and discuss them with considerable sophistication; and, for the first time in one of my classes, a student said that Toni Cade Bambara's "The Lesson" was the most useful story she read in the class (yea!);
  4. I've read stories about ninjas, "care bears," a conscious, inflatable male doll, many characters living in the cities of or suburbs near Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, and a several people with multiple personalities or personae, as well as several stories told backwards, and one revolving around the concept of the double helix;
  5. While the intro students were not so fond of Chekhov's "The Kiss," the advanced undergrads, who read a number of his stories, appeared to get quite a bit out of reading his work, and I personally enjoyed reading all the Chekhov stories and could do so again and again, because every time I do so more nuances come through;
  6. Reggie H.'s suggestion to use Z. Z. Packer's stories in Drinking Black Coffee Elsewhere in the advanced sequence was one of the best I've received in a while, and after I reread the collection this summer, I've finally become a fan;
  7. Many students have already discussed topics such as religion, sexuality, and so on while in high school, so they generate less controversy than they once did, though race continues to be a tricky subject;
  8. Junot Díaz was one of the most galvanizing visitors I've ever had a hand in bringing to campus (thank you, JD!), in part because he really doesn't brook any BS, and knows how to get right to the heart of topics, like a lightning bolt;
  9. Among the intro fiction students, the status of fiction vs. (creative) nonfiction remains contentious, and the issues of truth and authenticity in fiction, and fiction's relation to nonfiction writing, require continual discussion;
  10. 10) Lots of students, like people everywhere, go to Wikipedia first, since that's where Google often sends them, so perhaps scholars and creative folks should do our best to ensure that the entries there are as accurate as possible;
  11. You should think twice about referring to films as analogies from any period before 1995, unless you're talking about pop extravanganzas or Hollywood blockbusters, since undergrad students today were born, well, between 1990 and 1994-5. Even films like Mulholland Drive, The English Patient, and The Silence of the Lambs, which all seem so recent to me, came out when they were still pretty much in infancy or very small, and there's no guarantee they've seen them, let alone read about them. Star Trek, Stars Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, and any similar films exist in a separate, well-known and deeply traveled realm (but then I felt the same way when my professors referred to films from the "classic" era of Hollywood studio filmmaking, and I didn't come to love some of those films until I was in my mid-20s);
  12. Students at every level to do not shrink from more formally or thematically experimental stories, so they should be part of the curriculum;
  13. For once several students were less fond of one of my favorite stories, Octavia Butler's "Bloodchild," so I'll have to find a new Butler story as a substitute, since I always want to include a SF story or two, especially one by her, in the mix;
  14. Having an online course site, with a dynamic discussion component, remains a useful element of fiction writing courses, though mimetic realism remains far and away the dominant mode, other than SF, in which students write stories;
  15. Most students who are interested in majoring or minoring in writing, whatever their other majors or interests (be they drama students, mathematicians, future doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, you name it), still love to read, particularly love to read novels, and not only gravitate to the various long-championed works in the American literary canon, from 17th century poetry through, yes, the likes of the Roths and Updikes (though students continue to cite Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf, J.K. Rowling, etc. as favorites), despite what right-wingers like to claim, but also...Shakespeare! T'is true, they read Shakespeare, they can talk authoritatively about Shakespeare's plays, they thronged last year's events centered on the One Book One University-selected Othello, and they take courses in Renaissance literature, which means they read, analyze and write papers on non-contemporary British literature written by authors other than Shakespeare, etc.....

In the spring I'll be teaching a huge lecture course, which ought to be interesting. Which reminds me, I need to start preparing for it pretty soon....


Brother to BrotherI'm delighted that Lisa Moore's RedBone Press has reissued the landmark anthology Brother to Brother, which Joseph Beam, the editor of In the Life, conceived before he passed away, and which the late Essex Hemphill edited. Originally published by Sasha Alyson's Alyson Publications before it went out of print, Brother to Brother gathers together work by an array of writers (and some artists) from the mid-to-late 1980s, one of the seminal periods in Black gay male writing, and remains one of the central texts of Black queer male literature, just as it's an important work in late 20th century African-American and American literature. It heralds an era when AIDS struck so many silent, when "identity" was not a bad word, when queer had yet to gain currency and "gay" was still uttered in hushed tones, and when a new generation of Black queer male writers, empowered by literary and activist predecessors from the Harlem Renaissance to Malcolm X and James Baldwin, from Phillis Wheatley to Fannie Lou Hamer and Audre Lorde, were willing--daring, really--to sing their--our--own songs.

I say "our" because it was also a crucial book for me, since I published my second short story ever, and first anthologized piece, "Adelphus King," in its pages, and had the greatest fortune to witness Essex at work as an editor, firm, visionary and gentle, before he died. It's an experience I learned a great deal from and will never forget. The new edition has an introduction by Dr. Jafari Sinclaire Allen (hey Jafari!) and an afterword by Blackstripe founder Chuck Tarver (hey Chuck!). Lisa and RedBone have been publishing a number of books I've recommended on this blog, from Ernest Hardy's award-winning Blood Beats: Vol 1, Demos, Remixes & Extended Versions, to Ana-Maurine Lara's remarkable first novel Erzulie's Skirt, and it's exciting to be able to recommend another volume from this little publisher, whose vision, determination, and activism really give me and quite a few others out there tremendous hope. If you don't have a copy of this book, buy one, and urge your library to get purchase one as well. And above all, enjoy it!


Winter's definitely here. This past Saturday morning it snowed here in Chicago, and by the evening it was a slushy mess. My car went from being covered with leaves, because the trees didn't turn until the last minute (and some are only now fully golden or orange) to being covered with snow, then with ice. Most of the snow and all the ice melted yesterday, thankfully, because this afternoon it was freezing, though when I came out class tonight another front had rolled in, and it was a little warmer, though still very cold. I wanted to walk over to the beach to see what the lake looked like, but I ran out of time and couldn't manage it. I haven't seen the sun in days; I often feel like living in Chicago in every season other than summer would be great preparation for living on the moon. Tomorrow, a student noted, we're supposed to get more snow. I hope it bypasses us, though that doesn't seem likely. I've been carrying environmentally friendly salt, a scraper, a can of lock de-icer, and a shovel in my car, though, since last winter, just in case.

1 comment:

  1. Well, *I* know how rough this quarter has been. And can't wait for us *both* to recharge on the sands!!

    Love you, miss you, can't wait til you get home.