Monday April 2. 2001
I've really been enjoying my International Women's Writing Course. The class basically consists of reading and discussing a number of novels written by 3rd world women. We've gone from Senegal to South Africa to Haiti and now we're in the Dominican Republic, and I've had my eyes opened in more ways than I thought possible. But the biggest, and perhaps most disturbing bit of enlightenment I've stumbled across is that these points of view are not being heard.
I've come to realization recently that the literature I was exposed to throughout grade school was overwhelmingly three things: 1) pre-twentieth century, 2) white, and 3) male. Think back to high school. Of the novels you were forced to choke down, how many were by women? God forbid, how many were written by women of color? And how many were written in the last twenty years? I did this little test, and I came up with exactly one, and I read it in my AP English class, senior year (it was Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat).
You know, I don't know why teachers are surprised when their students' eyes glaze over at the prospect of reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Grapes of Wrath. As a 17 year old in 11th grade, I stared at my literature book and was hard pressed to be inspired and identify with Nathaniel Hawthorne or Ralph Waldo Emerson. Think back to that time in your life. Your hormones were raging, you were brimming with the passion and sensuality of teenage life. You are not interested in something some white man wrote a hundred and fifty years ago. Thus, your eyes glaze over and you slip off into a stupor.
For the longest time, I really thought that anything worth reading, anything deemed "important" works of literature had to be something written 50 or 100 or 150 years ago. Good writing didn't happen now. All we had left was John Grisham and Stephen King. It sounds so stupid to me now, but that's how I thought. The writing selected in your average high school literature is appallingly narrow. The stories of ethnic women are non-existant, because they are deemed not important. They are women's stories.
I'm not just talking about literature, either. There's white man's history. Christopher Columbus was a great and gallant man who conquered new lands in the name of his sovereign queen. He also managed to obliterate the entire population of the island he landed on. And slave plantations really weren't that bad. No one in Europe knew about the Holocaust until World War II is over. On and on and on. It's gotten to the point that I'm beginning to question my own education. What do I believe?
How much did I miss? How much is the average child in a public school missing? It's not until I got to this class that I truly learned how horrifying and demoralizing apartheid was in South Africa. It's not until I took this class that I realized that Islamic men could take more than one wife. It's not until I took this class that I learned of the dictator Trujillo in the Domincian Republic who killed half his people before his regime ended. Aren't these things I'm supposed to know? Instead of going over the American Revolution one more time, instead of making me read 1984 for the third time, why didn't someone tell these stories?
Because they are such fascinating stories. They are the stories of women, strong women, women who could give up in the face of death, poverty, racism and sexual abuse, but did not. They are more inspiring individuals than a George Washington, a Hester Prynne or a Christopher Columbus. Yet they are pushed to the side, out of way, unimportant, because what women write isn't important. What colored women write isn't important. These stories are being lost, and we have to find them again.
A short reading list from my International Women's Writing Class:
So Long a Letter
by Mariama Ba (Senegal)
Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night
by Sindiwe Magona (South Africa)
Breath, Eyes, Memory
by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti)
In the Time of the Butterflies
by Julia Alvarez (Dominican Republic)
Isabel Allende (Chile)
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One Year Ago:
"Alicia suggested I vote Libertarian. She cocked her head and looked at me and said, "Yeah, you look like a Libertarian." What is a Libertarian supposed to look like, anyway?"