Christopher writes about how literature can be a way to know ourselves and others.
“Drajem, this is the best book. Ever!”
Hyperbole aside, it was wonderful to hear this comment from one of my students at the end of last year. It’s rare to hear students speak so glowingly of the books we ask them to read, and as an English teacher, few things make me happier on a professional level than when students are engaged in learning.
Personally, it was thrilling to hear this exclamation about Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, a novel by Benjamin Alire Sáenz whose two male Latino protagonists are dealing with their sexual orientation. The two young Caucasian women sharing their enthusiasm with me are, as far as I know, straight. Wasn’t this something, I mused. How amazing that these readers could connect with this text that, on the surface, is so far outside their own experience.
In the early mid-1990s, shortly after moving to Seattle, I discovered Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story. It was a transformative experience as a (relatively) young gay man reading White’s autobiographical novel. Never had it occurred to me that a work of literature, a finely crafted book with beautiful and heart-wrenching language, could reflect the experience of a person like me. Similar to Catcher in the Rye, it captured youth and coming of age, replete with questions, challenge, and the rejection of societal norms.
Never, ever, throughout my entire educational experience was I asked to read a book with a gay man in a central or even supporting role. My experience of seeing myself and my concerns reflected in education was ZERO. In fact, literature I was exposed to in high school, college, and graduate school (in Seattle in the early aughts no less!) was devoid of any LGBT characters.
The problem of literature being taught in schools that lacks diversity is not new. This has been discussed for years. What is startling is that, for the most part, this depressing trend continues.
Recently, I asked Mom and Dad what books they read in high school and college. Dad remembers The Call of the Wild, The Red Badge of Courage, Billy Budd, Of Mice and Men, and Moby Dick. Mom’s list included Great Expectations, Silas Marner, A Tale of Two Cities, Of Mice and Men, and The Scarlet Letter.
Mark and I went to the same high school, and I wanted to see which pieces of literature stuck with him. He remembers A Separate Peace, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, The Stranger, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Lord of the Flies.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with these books. They are beautifully written pieces of literature. The Great Gatsby may be one of my favorite American novels—driving plot written in language that is pure poetry.
The problem, however, is that too many of these books that Mom, Dad, Mark and I read in school are books that are still taught today. This vision of who we are is so limited. The perspective of white Christian males was—and in most cases still is—over-represented on high school reading lists. Students in my district still read Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, and only this year will they not be reading To Kill a Mockingbird.
As a teacher of literature, I appreciate that there are classic texts that speak to students throughout time, drawing on universal themes and helping us to know and understand what makes us human regardless of when and where we live. As a lover of literature, I value this as well.
However, for far too long we have privileged these classics over the stories told by anyone other than white males. All students need to see themselves reflected on the page. They need to be able to relate to characters. They need to have experiences similar to the one I had when I read, finally, as a twenty-something year-old, that my experience as a gay man was worthy of being reflected in a book.
To see ourselves clearly, to understand and appreciate our own challenges and joys is important, but we also must understand others, appreciating our common struggles and what makes us human. Literature helps us in this regard. It builds empathy. The students I worked with last year who were reading Aristotle and Dante told me they enjoyed the book as much as they did because they liked the two protagonists and felt drawn into their story, which to them was real and relatable. In essence, they empathized with these characters, and discovered that, although different, there was much that they had in common.
Now, as always, we need to be exposed to the wild, wonderful, startling diversity of the world. We spend too much time demonizing those we do not know, setting ourselves apart, adding brick upon brick of ascribed motives and generalized hatred and veiled fear to our walls of separation. This is a huge risk as well as a huge waste. Living behind the wall becomes dull and joyless. Imagination rots. The seeds of greed and selfishness are all that can take root in barren soil.
Our soon to be President has built this fear, stoked the fires of mistrust, encouraged millions to demonize. Too many allowed him to lead them down this path. But I worry for myself that I commit a similar infraction when I paint those millions who voted for this man with a broad brush. They are—some of them—students I have taught, relatives I will see at the holidays, neighbors I pass when I walk the dog. They are not, en masse, demonic.
I don’t know that literature will help me make sense of the myriad emotions I feel this week. I know that reading has been a balm in the past and a roadmap to more deeply understanding the complexities of the human heart and the vagaries of our complex intertwining relationships.
I know that if I just live with my own anger and fear, and only surround myself with the familiar, that I am giving in to the narrative of us versus them, and they remain bad, wrong and unknowable. That is the narrative I despised all along.
I will continue to pick up books to know myself and to know others. It seems, at once, both not enough and exactly what is needed.