Tim and I bought a recliner yesterday. I had to put aside my ‘interior designer hat’ for the adventure because it came down to user experience more than user interface in the end. The fella struggles to find all things tall enough to be comfortable, often buying things too wide just so that they’re also long. I’ve started to buy him really exciting socks since they’re on display anyway so much because his pants are always a few centimetres too short. So he settled on a chair that is soft and comfortable and long enough to support his ankles and it will take 6-8 weeks to arrive. I won the design battle on two fronts: colour selection and one that will recline down and out so it will stop hitting the wall and protruding 6 feet into our living space. His comfort has always butted heads with my desire to make things cute and hobbit-ish. But why oh why does comfort have to mean ugly? It’s a bit similar to living with Gulliver.
This brings me to the point of why I need to write today. I am finding that pushing myself outside of my reading comfort zone is making me question everything I know about writing….and as a creative writing and English teacher, that is unsettling, to say the least. I really enjoyed the classes on Jacques Derrida, deconstructionism and how there are certain modes of expression and communication that are privileged above others. I agree with his truth exploration that inherent in every text there are cultural assumptions….whether its a book or a recliner….the designer of that object is both navigating and expressing various truths. Derrida calls this discomfort with the complexity of privilege: aporia.
I have waited a decade to become an honoured member of the White Pine selection committee for the Forest of Reading program. Our goal this year is to take all of the best Canadian young adult fiction and narrow it down to just 10 diverse candidates that we think will appeal to young adults in the Ontario education system. So we’re reading everything. Literally, 38 books have been delivered already and we’re only two boxes of the projected six in. I’m not overwhelmed yet. Instead I’ve made a diligent spreadsheet of my personalized rating system with criteria set out for us to describe ‘worthy’ material. I am taking precise notes on my impressions as I read so that I will be able to share and defend material at a later time.
I have always been a big fan of the program as a reader and as a librarian, but as I’m switching directions in education again, now as a full-time English teacher (online and face-to-face) for the first time since 2003, I’m thinking about writing as much as reading. So with my wealth of experience and education, when a reader asks for a book recommendation, I always come back to these three things that I look for to determine quality: audience, form and purpose. When I teach creative writing (or creative anything!), we’re just playing with these same 3 variables over and over again. But the more I read, the more I realize I know nothing (Jon Snow), and so it just pushes me to read more.
I’ve tried to intentionally diversify my reading, and a big proponent of that push has been getting to know the Festival of Literary Diversity blog. I’ve tried to push myself to intentionally read about experiences right out of my wheelhouse so I also try to read everything on the Amnesty International bookshelf. It surprises me that people who work with a diverse body of students don’t do the same. I had a teacher, a regular user of the library, come and ask for a new recommendation so I handed her What We All Long For by Dionne Brand. Now if there is a Canadian matriarch of literary diversity, I’d say it’s probably Dionne Brand. In fact, I’d put money on a bet that Dionne Brand was once a professor of Jael Richardson at the University of Guelph. So the teacher came back a few days later and said “I didn’t like it.” This happens a lot to librarians, as you can imagine, but in the back of my head I’m thinking “You didn’t like it? Ok name me any black, female, or LGBTQ author that you do like, and then we can talk.” Ok maybe I was pushing this teacher’s buttons by giving it to her in the first place, but I wonder, at what point does what we ‘like’ as educators need to come second-place? Isn’t it our job to be able to guide all of our students to good reads that suit their contexts? Or are we just going to keep perpetuating this cycle of having the colonial/settler way define what ‘good’ is despite the risk of alienating our students over and over again. At the very least, aren’t there some texts (as Jacques Derrida says) that are not enjoying the privilege of mainstream acceptance that are worthy of love and respect?
I’ve talked about my journey to uncover the history of Indigenous people in the world that I’ve never been taught before. I’m trying to reeducate myself and so I’ve focused on reading a lot of literature by Indigenous authors. From my humble point of view where I struggle is that there is a puritanical part of me that still feels jarred at the commonplace nature of swearing and sexuality and frankly, really descriptive violence. Eden Robinson‘s Son of a Trickster was like my go-to conversation starter for a year just trying to move myself forward. We formed this astoundingly successful staff book club based on this book, and we still reference a particularly offensive dinosaur as our inside joke. I hestitate to lump Eden’s style in with the Indigenous canon, but I’m also remembering one of the first Indigenous voices that rocked my little settler heart: Ruby Slipperjack and her book Honour the Sun. 30 years ago Slipperjack’s book really pushed the boundaries of what I thought was too edgy for teen consumption. Back then I was a hip, liberal feminist writer, and I was shocked. Shocked, I tell you. I’m growing more and more certain that the cultural earthquakes I’m feeling are because my cultural understanding of what young adult reading entails is not the same as what is appealing or even suitable in other cultures.
Still, I also get where the resistance that this teacher feels is coming from. I’m just halfway through my second-ever book by a Sikh author and I’m struggling to like it myself. I think it might be as much to do with the fact that I’m now 30 years older than emerging Canadian voices and I have a profound respect for punctuation. I’m finding the book itself to have scattered moments of brilliance in it but overall it feels disjointed and under-edited.
I’ve earned the privilege within my profession to be deemed finally ready to be a part of this selection committee. Yet, I continually ask myself: Can I overcome my middle-aged, cisgendered, heteronormative white woman biases to select books for the wide diversity of young adults? God, I hope so. I hope that my individualism based on my journey as a woman, a cancer survivor, a sister, a mother of an autistic teen, a wife of an immigrant, someone who has struggled with chronic pain, someone who has survived 3 years in a foreign homogeneous culture, someone who has witnessed unspeakable horrors and joys can have the empathy required to appreciate someone else’s truths no matter how far removed they are from my own context.
I don’t have answers, my friends. Just observations. And aporia. Lots of aporia.
If you have time to go deeper, and you’ve watched the embedded video on Derrida, check out this article by Chris Boeskool about crossing barriers of privilege to communication: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/when-youre-accustomed-to-privilege_b_9460662