Opening Literary Windows to Better Understand Our World
May 6, 2022 § 6 Comments
By Candy Schulman
It began during the pandemic lockdown. Teaching my nonfiction writing workshops to Zoom rectangles, I could hear Black Lives Matter marches outside my 14th floor Greenwich Village apartment. Their voices made me understand that my own reading habits and recommendations to students were still not diverse enough.
My millennial daughter pointed out that I was drawn to work by women whose lives mirrored mine. These writers made me feel less alone in a complex world. One weekend my daughter’s friend read aloud the first paragraph of Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami: “If you want to know how poor somebody was growing up, ask them how many windows they had….If they had none, or maybe one or two, that’s all you need to know.”
Kawakami’s first novel, Heaven, was about bullying. This heartbreaking, deeply disturbing allegory transported me back to my childhood in Brooklyn—where I too had been bullied at fourteen, 6,894 miles away from Osaka. My essays on bullying were similar to Kawakami’s experience, and also different. Reading diverse authors emphasized the universality of the human condition.
Next my daughter recommended Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a historical novel spanning 300 years, from Ghana to American slavery and beyond. It was so disturbing that I could not read it before bedtime. In my classes I’d often paraphrased Kafka’s claim that the job of an artist is to make us uncomfortable, not happy. Gyasi’s horrifying descriptions of the mistreatment of slaves emphasized Kafka’s view that “We ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?”
As writers we need to “wake up” in order to surprise our readers and create original voices. With over two million books published worldwide, I was grateful for my daughter’s guidance. I’d introduced her to reading and was always proud that she grew up to love literature. Now she was teaching me.
I followed her recommendations as if she were my book club leader. Minor Feelings, by Cathy Park Hong, illuminated her shame, depression, and racial identity struggles as the daughter of Korean immigrants in America. As soon as I read the last page of Hong’s hybrid memoir of personal experience and cultural criticism, I put it on my syllabus. An Asian American student emailed me: “Minor Feelings changed my life. Thank you.”
I studied books and styles I might never have read before. In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado is an inventive memoir about psychological abuse in a love relationship between two women. Its innovative structure where each chapter is crafted around a narrative trope made me think anew about ways we order our essays and memoirs.
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang, a Chinese American coming-of-age story begins, “Back when my parents and I lived in Bushwick in a building sandwiched between a drug house and another drug house…” Her first paragraph was the lengthy kind I urged my students to divide into shorter morsels. Yes, a writer could break the rules—once traditional craft is mastered.
One night in class, after workshopping a student’s personal essay written in the second person, I warned that the “you” voice was tricky and rarely effective. A student recommended “A Letter to My Mother That She Will Never Read,” a second person epistolary essay by Ocean Vuong. His brilliant lyricism, in spite of numerous transitional spaces, was the kind I warned students often made prose feel jumpy. I changed my mind when saw how effortlessly Vuong achieved it in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
Writers need to stretch and grow. I tell my students that learning to write is a lifelong process. My essay style has evolved over the years. Broader reading tastes have enabled me to penetrate new boundaries in style, format, chronology, and language. All writers can spread our literary wings across oceans. After 35 years of teaching, I’ve expanded my knowledge about the craft of writing—as well as systemic racism, slavery, immigration, and prejudice.
My teaching syllabus has evolved from mostly white voices of women who’d grown up with more than one or two windows in their house. The daughter of first-generation Americans, I was raised in a modest Brooklyn house with five windows. My apartment today has eight windows. I keep opening them as wide as possible, inviting a wide array of today’s literary voices into my writing life and my classroom.
Candy Schulman is an essayist, memoir writer, and creative nonfiction professor at The New School in New York City. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Longreads, Salon, among others. Her work has been featured in anthologies including Flash Nonfiction Funny (Woodhall Press), Same Time Next Week (In Fact Books/Creative Nonfiction), and forthcoming Embrace the Merciless Joy (McSweeney’s). Candy has twice won the Best Essay Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors and notable honors from Best American Essays.
[…] Opening Literary Windows to Better Understand Our World […]
Many thanks for sharing these resources which otherwise I would not have known about. Grateful for this piece and expanding our minds.
A thought provoking essay offering a wide array of book suggestions, excellent for readers and writers alike.
Thank you, I’ve read some and added others to my own list. There’s some excellent Native American writers out there as well.
I enjoyed the theme of windows as a proxy for wealth and privilege. Of choice, my husband and I occupy a basement apartment with two small windows. My daughter and her family occupy the other two floors of our large and beautiful home. It’s workable situation, made better by lots of mirrors and 4k windows!
A lovely reminder of reading-writing synergy.