Recently, for City Kids’ writing program, the kids were learning about nonfiction, first person narratives and linear vs. non-linear story lines. As an example of a nonfiction, first person narrative, we read the book I am Jazz, an autobiographical account of a little girl who is transgender (we also read parts of an interview the author gave when she was older).
When we choose literature to be an example of a genre, a literary device, or some other literary category, we can choose whichever literature we want as long as it fits the parameters of the class—we can be as inclusive as the parameters allow. However, sometimes, teachers may not have widely representative literature in their classes because they rely heavily on the long-standing, established canon. And they may feel that a book about a transgender girl, for example, is a book that is a special topic and not well suited for a general class on first person narratives.
When we choose literature according to the established cannon, and maybe because other choices may make us uncomfortable, we are affirming only a small slice of humanity, and we send the message that other people’s stories do not matter, that those people do not matter. We also reinforce whose story is worth reading, thinking about, and discussing. At the end of our class, our students would have understood what an autobiographical narrative is regardless of whose story we chose to read. And because we read Jazz’s story, we also had the opportunity to talk about what it means to be transgender from the perspective of a child, and that was great. (Our kids love hearing stories written by other kids!) But because this class was a writing class, we spent most of our time discussing how the book represented the genre of autobiographical narratives, and that was great, too.
When considering literature choices, we have to be aware of the pitfall of treating stories like Jazz’s ONLY as a learning opportunity to talk about transphobia, but never about genre or literary devices like linear vs. non-linear storytelling. Stories by writers who are marginalized in some way are often relegated to subject-only assignments—meaning, some educators might consider a transgender narrative for a class on LQBTQ authors, but they might never consider that text for a non-LGBTQ centered class. When teachers always relegate texts by marginalized authors to special, subject-only assignments, they are reinforcing the marginalization of the author, and the text as well. For example, if an educator is teaching Kate Bornstein’s’ A Queer and Pleasant Danger or Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness for a class about transgender narratives, that’s great, but if that teacher would never include these texts in a class about Women in Literature, or American Memoir, or American Literature, or anything else more general, then these authors are re-marginalized.
Of course, narratives that highlight marginalization do need to be discussed for their subject matter—they offer insight, cultural critique, and counter narratives that should never be glossed over only to discuss literary strategies either. But we also need to ask some questions about how we approach these texts in general: Are we treating the texts themselves, the craft of the story, the very writing itself with justice? Do we treat these texts as literary things or just as cultural things? Do we respect these texts as valuable pieces of writing? Or do we just exploit these texts for their marginalization-ness and nothing more?
Certainly, it is not a new thing to challenge literary canons, and many educators are already working hard to be inclusive in their textual choices. If you would like to tell us how you go about making your selections for your writing classes, please feel free to tell us in the comments; we would love to hear from you.