The Question of the Canon.

Is there room for canonical literature in 2010, or are there simply too many authors, too many films, too many artists, and too many distractions in our modern age for the work of the 20th century “greats” to be revered, read or even recognized?  Why would I sit through seemingly painful reading sessions of The Sound and the Fury when I could revel in the writing of Junot Diaz, catch the latest 3D film featuring a soundtrack by the world’s most elusive musicians, download the month’s best-reviewed records, or play Angry Birds on my iPhone?  Do we still possess the patience and generosity necessary to interact with these kinds of texts or are these traits simply a thing of the past, replaced by the sense of instant gratification that is demanded of in the era of Netflix?  I feel these questions hit at the heart of what our class set out to explore as we covered a variety of texts, each unique in origin, style, and impact.

It was fairly clear that the works of Conrad, Faulkner Elliot, and perhaps even Hemingway and Yeats, left our class fairly unfulfilled, that perhaps reading these texts felt more like a burden than an opportunity to expose ourselves to some of the most respected writing of the 20th century.  It’s also fair to state that the more modern readings had a tendency to capture the attention of the class, to spark interest in a particular author’s experiences, and led to a more welcoming and eager discussion.  So then what do we make of these seemingly dated texts?  Are they worthless and deserve to be cast from our curriculum, their dreaded titles never to appear on another syllabus?  Do we keep them around as a keepsake, framed and placed on top of the bookshelf, their spines never to be cracked again?  Do we place ourselves in slavish debt to their literary impact and continue to teach them out of mere obligation, highlighting the same passages in our discussions as the ones featured on SparkNotes, so we can make our lives a bit easier?  Or, do we sit down with these texts and try to uncover why they’ve shaped our educational experiences, regardless of how futile our initial attempts may be?  These questions can’t be answered definitively.  A few months ago I would have told you to throw out the canon and give me something I can feel, but emerging from this course, I would select the final option, even if my experiences reading such texts weren’t always satisfying.

The main influence in this decision was the recognition that a great text doesn’t always have to grab you in the first 4 lines, it doesn’t have to hypnotize you by the close of the first chapter, it doesn’t have to induce panic towards the climax, and it doesn’t even have to reward you as it concludes.  Now this is not to say that texts that do not fulfill such criteria are not examples of great writing, most of my favorite writing does in fact fit into this category.  And much of the writing that compiled the syllabus for this class fulfills these criteria as well.  Drown, The Woman Warrior, and Persepolis are all incredibly composed works of art that are inviting, inspiring, exciting, and subtly dense.  However, a great text can also be one that frustrates, troubles, provokes, and ultimately haunts you, as it dares you to return to its pages and discover its relevance, regardless of the hurdles of language, theme, style, or time.  For this simple reason, I feel these titles have been included in the canon, not because their messages are so overwhelmingly brilliant or their compositions so elegantly crafted, which they often are, but simply because they trouble our conceptions of well-written literature and leave us questioning our capabilities as readers and thinkers.

I hate to sound too predictable or too ambivalent to choose a side, but my suggestion for this course lies in the teaching of both the canon and of modern literature, with careful attention placed on where the ideas brought forth in these texts overlap, so we as 21st century readers can gain an appreciation for all texts, regardless of their legacy.

As for the course itself, I feel it was a successful experiment.  I feel that most professors would have taken the safe route and assigned texts that have been proved competent and led the course along in a highly detailed manner, highlighting all the points that literary critics have deemed worthy and assumed the expected role of a required course.  So if for nothing else than daring to do something different, I offer my gratitude and respect to Prof. Gross.  Basing the course on the foundation of the blog was also something I found beneficial.  Having a forum to express ones thoughts and reactions allows for a deeper connection to the text and the ability to participate in a more thoughtful and expressive manner is greatly appreciated, sometimes words escape us and its nice to have a way to capture them when they reoccur.

With the benefit of hindsight I can say that I would have liked to engage more with these texts and brought more to our discussions.  I do, however, feel that I truly gained some insight in the often intimidating and puzzling world of literature through my experiences in this class.   I can’t say that I’ll forever grant my full attention to each and every piece of writing I come across, assigned or otherwise, but then again, how much can one expect of a music-pirating, instant-queuing, iPhone addict who reads all the wrong books?

Sincerest thanks to Prof. Gross and the class in general, especially Michael Z. whose ever-intimidating, inspiring, and impressive blog posts display qualities that very well may be reminiscent of the canon he feels so strongly about.

Cheers.  Go Knicks.



I have to start by saying that Southland was easily my favorite novel of the semester.  I found that reading it was a thoroughly rewarding experience.  And Revoyr’s ability to incorporate e so many different aspects of culture and history while still developing a genuinely intriguing narrative is quite impressive.

For this reason I feel I have to address the questions that were asked at the culmination of our reading of The Namesake, particularly the question is it necessary to omit certain aspects of society, such as history, class, and diversity, in order for a novel to recognized as a beautiful and/or evocative?  Judging by the praise I’ve given Southland thus far for including those very aspects, one could rightly assume that I would disagree with this statement.  As meticulously crafted as Lahiri’s novel was, overall, I’d have to say it was pretty boring.  Additionally, I felt as if I gained very little from it, other than being very-well acquainted with the a Bengali family from New England that doesn’t actually exist, living a life detached from the circumstances of reality.  Southland, however, is a rich text, and reading it is an experience.  The characters, the circumstances, the history…all of these factors breathe life into this text.  So much so that I feel if I were to find myself in South LA, I might not feel so out place, I might even be able to pick out a few sights I feel I recognize.  With that said, I feel that the inclusion of this kind of reality is not only welcomed, but necessary, in order to construct a truly captivating text.

Southland also succeeds is meeting the goals of this course, specifically the objective of portraying the life of a modern Asian American individual, as Jackie Ishida is representative of many living in this day and age who are quite far removed from their history, who are burdened by silence and the ignorance of their past.  Though I do not belong to any singular heritage, I can certainly identify with Jackie’s desire to understand the circumstances of her being, to explore that which has been withheld.  This to me is supremely rewarding as I can form a bond with this character, whereas in other texts we have covered, the distinct heritage of the characters has prevented me from doing so.



In this last section of The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston grants us with an account of her experiences growing up.  Of the many strange aspects of her life, her inability to communicate seems to be the most troubling.  Burdened by the over-bearing presence of her mother, who’s voice was “strong and bossy”, Maxine was unable to explore and develop her own voice out of fear.  She feared that the Chinese “would capture [her] voice for their own use”.  This fear eventually led to her inability to speak at all.  Upon entering school, Maxine reports feeling powerless, unable to communicate with her peers and only daring to speak when she was reading out loud, simply because she “did not have to make up what to say”.  I feel that this line is critical to the understanding of Maxine’s silence, as it reveals that it wasn’t simply that she was unable to speak, it was that she had serious difficulty in expressing her thoughts, finding the words that could adequately represent her feelings.  Perhaps the reason for this that where no words for her to use, nothing in the English or Chinese language that could express the state of being in-between two opposing cultures.  Her ability to communicate would not flourish until she was able to break free from the expectations of her culture, separate herself from her oppressive heritage and embrace an education and a life of her own in the country of her birth.  This seems to strike at the heart of The Woman Warrior, as I see it as an attempt to convey the struggle of reconciling two distinct backgrounds, and to find the words that speak for the individual who is in-between them.


Brave Orchid

Maxine’s mother, Brave Orchid, is a very troubling character.  Her behavior often conflicts her words, leaving Maxine with the burden of interpreting her mother’s true character, weeding through the stories and bizarre behavior to find bits of truth to string together.  I’m not sure if there is such a distinct difference in Brave in these 2 stories, sure there is a difference of age between the narratives, but the almost total absence of Maxine from “At the Western Palace” makes it difficult for me to gauge just how much has changed in her mother.

One aspect that is certainly constant throughout her life, and I feel is particularly defining to her character, is her obsession with the traditions, customs, and expectations of her homeland.  It’s as if Brave left China only in the physical sense, her heart and mind still dwells 7,000 miles away.  She denounces the United States as a “terrible ghost country, where a human being works her life away”.  She claims that when “In China, I never even had to hang up my own clothes”.  She champions her life in China, expresses her regret for leaving it in the first place, but fails to mention the circumstances that brought her to America; the violence, injustice, isolation, and suspension of life brought along with the onset of Communism.  This aspect is completely absent from Brave Orchid’s psyche, as he persistent in her beliefs that China has not changed, only she has.

What is even more problematic is her insistence on following the traditions of her past in a country that does not recognize such actions.  In the case of her sister, abandoned by her husband, left to live in solitude in China, Brave Orchid relies on the customs of China, that a man is obligated to his wife and forces her to confront the man who left her decades prior.  However Brave does not recognize that her husband has adopted an American life, put China behind him and chose to live in the present, and expects him to reform to the expectations of his native land.

This is particularly troubling for Maxine as her mother encourages her to adopt these same beliefs and show reverence for a “home” that she has never seen.  She is forced to deal with the delusions of her mother, decipher what is fact and what is false, see the living and breathing individuals that her mother simply refers to as ghosts, and forge a life for herself that is separate from the delusional expectations of her mother.


The Courage of Kingston

Maxine Hong Kingston is an individual who is clearly no stranger to her heritage for her chinese ancestry is the primary source of her identity.  Though she possesses much reverence for her culture, she is clearly unafraid to be critical of its traditions and practices.  For this very reason, I feel she deserves the right to be called a woman warrior.  Where others have blindly or cowardly followed the expectations of their heritage, Kingston has identified the shortcomings of her background and attempted to correct through through her writing.  Unlike those before her, Kingston believes mightily in the power of women and the fact that she would even write these stories is a testament to that.  To address a lost relative, shunned by her family because of circumstances beyond her control, is an incredibly brave action.  As a heroic writer Kingston gives life to a person who was thought of as never have existing and attempts to correct the circumstances of a tragic situation.  As she states, “a swordswoman got even with anybody who hurt her family”.    He retelling of the fabled Mu Lan story is equally admirable as she reinvents the tale, highlighting the true capabilities of a female warrior, to be compassionate and caring as well as devastatingly dangerous and powerful.

To believe in the power of women meant to be shunned by her family and rejected by her peers, yet Kingston achieve more for herself than was allowed.  Though she was unable to lead armies into battle and smash the oppressive force like Mu Lan or raise her long-forgotten aunt from the depths of the afterlife, her courage and fierce independent spirit enabled her to discover the power of language and the written word.  For these reasons I feel that Kingston has achieved the status of a true, modern woman warrior.


Dreams of Obama

I would have to say that I disagree with our professor when she stated that assigning this text was a mistake.  I’ll admit, it may not have been the text I was most looking forward to, enjoyed the most, or even gained the most from, but it seemed to resonate with our class in a very important way.  Whether you belong to the skeptics or the perhaps naive believers, what Dreams from my Father did was force us to consider the authenticity, the honesty, and the integrity of its author.  As our professor pointed out, to claim this memoir, or any memoir a all, as a work of nonfiction is a bit of a stretch.  There is no way, short of documenting every waking moment of your life, to recall all of the fleeting moments of one’s existence.  Conversations become misconstrued, insignificant acts become pivotal, the minor becomes major, etc.  Hindsight and a lucrative publishing deal allow one to recreate their past, portray a certain type of existence that may be more appealing, more admirable, or more interesting.  Obama’s case, to me, is no different.   His familial life was certainly unique, his childhood certainly atypical, and the circumstances of him achieving success are certainly worthy of recognition.  Though he may not have been planning his presidential campaign in 1995, when the book was published, he was clearly aware of his status and how he may improve upon it.  However, rather than taking the “John McCain” route and creating a hyper-idealized reinterpretation of his past, Obama’s approach is much subtler, attempting to portray his life as one that is much more ordinary than one would assume.  There are no romanticized episodes to be found in his text, just a man speaking confidently of his accomplishments and plainly about his experiences.  This normalization of his experiences is exactly what makes it more appealing to his readers.  This text aims, and succeed, in introducing Obama as someone you could bum a cigarette of off or take turns tossing up shots from the foul line with.  Considering the circumstances of his life, his writing is far too ordinary, his honesty so overwhelming that it can easily be seen as exaggerated.  This does not make him any less of a captivating individual, it simply allows for the recognition of his intelligence and capability.


The Namesake

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake is a novel of expectation.  Primarily, like many authors, she is expecting her reader to possess a certain level on interest in the subject of her writing, the experiences of an immigrant family in the United States.  Just by being registered for this class, one would be right in assuming that I do have an interest in this topic.  Secondly, Lahiri expects her reader to be patient and observant.  Her writing is perhaps some of the most descriptive I’ve ever encountered, unashamed to let each and every detail develop into a fully realized image.   Now, coming off of a recent delve in Hemingway and Junot Diaz for another class, her writing was something I initially found, for lack of a better term, indulgent, and at times even tiresome.  As the story progressed and I found myself becoming more interested with the character of Gogol and became more generous with the text, and began giving her writing the attention it deserves.  Additionally, it is Lahiri’s expectation that her reader be aware of the middle-class lifestyle that the Ganguli’s subscribe to.  The issues that these characters face are far different from those who do not have the benefit of achieving a college-education or the support of stable finances.

The expectations Lahiri places on the novel’s central character Gogol become the driving force of the narrative.  From the very onset of his existence, Gogol is expected of.  He is expected to have a name worthy of a Bengali, to speak the language of his family, to uphold the many traditions of his culture, and to identify, respect, and befriend all other Bengalis.  Simultaneously, Gogol is expected to develop healthily, learn the language of his country, adhere to the facets of his American identity, achieve a level of comfortability with himself, and emerge from all of this feeling fulfilled and satisfied.  These demands often result in a great deal of conflict between his double identities, a conflict that he could never resolve.  Gogol spends years inhabiting only his Americanness only to succumb to the expectations of his Bengali culture in his marriage to Moushumi, and then finds himself suddenly betrayed by these actions and is left in solitude.

At the culmination of the novel, Gogol inhabits the room in which he struggled to escape as a young adult, clutching a book authored by his namesake.  Lahiri leaves us with this image in order to convey that Gogol has been granted a fresh start, a new foundation for which to construct his identity upon.  Now comfortable with his heritage and well-aware of the trappings of his country, Gogol is finally fit to fulfill his own expectations.


Blogs to blog about:

Haani – Junot Diaz #2

Jess Spinosa – I don’t mean to be a follower, but…

Michael Z – Insert Title Here: A Struggle for Answers


Hard to choose.

As evidenced by my last post, I really enjoyed Diaz’s work in Drown, so choosing a favorite story is proving to be a difficult task for me.  However, in response to our discussion on How to Date…, I have decided that it ismy least favorite story of this collection, though it’s important to note that my least favorite Junot Diaz story is much better than most of the reading I’m assigned throughout a typical semester.  I recognize and respect the shift in style that Diaz employs in How to Date…, and I feel that it is in many ways very effective, and judging by the reaction of our class, very appealing to many readers.  But, when compared the other stories in Drown, I feel it is really lacking in what I love about Diaz’s writing.  The captivating prose, the vivd and often unsettling imagery, and intimate character relationships of  stories like Edison, New Jersey, Drown, and Aguantando is exemplary of what is great about Diaz.  In reading these stories I feel the rumble of emotion stirring in my gut and the creeping anxiety brought upon by the character’s struggles.  How to Date… is an entirely different type of narrative, an attempt by Diaz to place his reader at the center of his writing, however what he may not realize is that he does a finer job of this with the prose style that introduced him to the world.


I really like Junot Diaz.

Since having read Diaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao for one of my courses last semester, I’ve been a fan of Diaz’s work, in particular his writing style.  Though a bit intimidating at first, because of frequent use of spanish words and phrases and references to Dominican culture, I find that once accustomed to these elements I am able to comprehend the basic meaning of these words and the significance of his references.  Beyond that, I feel that Diaz has an incredibly cinematic style of writing.  With each passage I cannot help but envision these scenes and see these characters living and breathing and interacting.  What is even more impressive about this is that Diaz is a very minimal writer, in the sense that in his descriptions we only get small pieces of these characters and environments, never a fully realized representation.  In spite of this, Diaz makes these characters and their interactions so authentic that I find myself drawing from my own thoughts to aid in the completion of his characters and settings.

His narrative style in Drown is a bit more haphazard than what I had experienced in Oscar Wao, which, for the most part, followed a linear path. However, his rapid delivery, subtle language, and ability to grab and hold my attention is very much the same.  Though only halfway through this collection, I can see the connections occurring and the possible trajectory of these characters before me.  Much of this credited to Diaz’s ability to never reveal too much about his subjects, only just enough to keep interest so that a revelation can occur made in a later story or at the completion of the book.  His style is so unique, so entrancing, and so fresh that I cannot help but be taken ahold by his writing.