The recliner and my reading aporia

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

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  1. Oh, Alanna. Thank you for teaching me a new word, and for helping me understand my squirminess (yes, that’s my word) about some of what I’m pushing myself to read. And Jon Snow made me laugh, but truly, I know nothing.

    I’ve been on much the same journey of late, as you know, but I don’t have the critical theory background, and I realize I need to start more actively working on that. Thank you for the references here. I am simultaneously incredibly jealous of your White Pine position and sympathetic to your concerns about your bias. Whew, that’s a glorious challenge to take on, and amazing self-awareness to be able to say “wow, what might get in the way of me doing my best possible job on this?”
    I think that approaching the task as reader and writer is key. When I think about my recent reading (and attempts to diversify my voices), I think about almost putting down Abdi Nazemian’s Like a Love Story because his descriptions of arousal in a gay Iranian teen were uncomfortable for me. I had to think, ” what do I know about this experience?” (Absolutely nothing). I’m so glad I stayed with it – the writing got better, and one of the characters is a carry in your heart for a long time character. Tommy Orange’s astounding writing carried me through the fact that he tore my heart out with There, There, while introducing me to a part of the Native American experience I hadn’t known existed. The best writing opens those doors and changes us, as Kylene Beers proposes in Disrupting Thinking.
    Your voice and thinking out loud are a gift and a waypost for me on this journey. Please keep sharing along the way.

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    1. Thank you so much, Lisa. The only piece of your comment I object to is this necessity to back up your thinking with critical theory….or at least your self-admonishment of not having those words….you have such expertise in so many areas. Glad that I could throw some Derrida your way. Both Like a Love Story and There, There had exactly the same effect on me. Is it up to the author to make their context more accessible for the general public? I think it’s a careful balance.

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  2. Alanna,
    Thank you for putting words to my thoughts and helping me to see, hear and feel the incredulity of the negative, often hateful, responses I receive when I try to make a “right of way” argument for oppressed, marginalized and otherwise ‘not seen or heard’ peoples.
    Unconscious bias and microaggressions are insidious ways to assert oppression under the guise of equality. It continues to be a journey of discomfort and joy for me to unravel my white cisgender settler women’s idea of social justice in light of my definition of equality – which is problematic in itself… my experience of equality through my lens and in my context of unspoken privilege.
    Thank you Alanna for helping me understand myself and all my relations through literature and walking right into people…

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    1. Thank you for supporting me, Maureen. It makes being publicly vulnerable a helluva lot easier when I get feedback like yours. I was a meeting of strangers formally awhile ago and someone outright said “I’m not going to even try to pronounce your name for fear of mangling it”. Try! Fail! Try again!

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  3. As a fellow tall person for whom chairs, tables, and other furnishings are often a source of discomfort, I sympathize with your husband!

    I find your use of the word “like” interesting. Something I realized somewhere along the way is that there is a profound difference between liking a book, personally, and recommending a book. You capture this when you described your spreadsheet with the various criteria. I’m not sure the other teacher who came back to you disliking Dionne Brand’s book has made this conceptual leap yet.

    I will often recommend books I personally didn’t like if I feel they are right for a particular person. This is especially true for YA novels. (I am just about burned out on dystopian YA, but hey, if that’s what someone wants, boy howdy do I have recommendations for days). As you point out, our distance in age from the target audience of these novels means we aren’t going to be experiencing them in the same way a younger reader will experience. So for me, when it comes to recommending, “did I like it?” isn’t even germane. Similarly, I don’t even ask, “Do I think young readers will like it?” as if it’s a binary. Instead I try to ask questions like, “Who do I think will like this?”

    Like you, I find myself somewhat inhibited in my embrace of unconventional writing styles in novels. Nothing makes me abandon a book faster than discovering it eschews quotation marks for dialogue! So I feel your pain reading a book with less conventional punctuation. I’m curious—do you think you might find it easier to read and evaluate the book as an audiobook in that case?

    You mention reading the Festival of Literary Diversity blog! On that note, there are many young adults out there on YouTube, blogs, and Goodreads who are reviewing books from their perspective. I’ve found this an extremely helpful way of keeping myself in touch with what younger people are thinking about when they read, how they choose what to read, and how they talk about what they read. (Hit me up on Twitter if you want any links to some of the people I follow!)

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    1. I am following your follow list, as we speak. Thank you for your comment. I think you’re absolutely right that if I could hear the author’s voice that punctuation would be a different idea….and that speaks to another intersection of 2020….where media and crossovers now are creating new texts that haven’t been categorized yet. I’m going to stick to my guns on this and say it’s ok for you to be abstract if you can also draw in a classical sense. Otherwise old fuddy duddies like me will become obsolete, and we can’t have that, now can we?

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  4. Alanna, thank you for this post! I am currently the English Dept. Head at a rural school; we’ve committed to offer only Indigenous (NBE) English classes for grade 11 next year. I have a wonderful teacher to work with (who has already taught NBE3U for 2 years) but there’s so much to learn. I am reading ‘Moon of the Crusted Snow’ and leaned so much from listening to Jesse Thistle. I’m putting a reading list together for rural, mainly white 16 year olds who probably have little understanding of the work of reconciliation. I know I have to rethink my own POV and privilege—-not easy. Thanks for your insights and for linking references! I don’t always reply to your posts but I really appreciate the way you share. You’re so inspiring!
    Llana Bruggemann 🙂

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    1. Hey Llana, please let me know as your list develops. There are a lot of people struggling to make these lists. If I can offer any insight, I’d be happy to collaborate. If you get a chance, Waubgeshig Rice did a webinar for the FOLD academy about writing suspense. I’ll definitely be adding it to next semester’s creative writing class. Thanks for your comment!

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      1. Hey, Alanna! Here are a few titles for those searching. They are intended for NBE3C/3U classes. Some have pretty mature themes/language. ‘From the Ashes’ – Jesse Thistle; ‘Moon of the Crusted Snow’ -Wabgeshig Rice; The Back of the Turtle – Thomas King; Seven Fallen Feathers -Tanya Talaga; Marrow Thieves -Cherie Dimaline; Son of a Trickster -Eden Robinson; Indian Horse, For Joshua, Medicine Walk – Richard Wagamese; Motorcycles and Sweetgrass -Drew Hayden Taylor; 21 Things You Might Not Know About the Indian Act; April Raintree

        Moon of the Crusted Snow is now an Amnesty choice, too! http://www.amnestybookclub.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Moon-of-the-Crusted-Snow-Amnesty-International.pdfI will check out the FOLD Academy—sounds interesting!

        Have good weekend. Stay warm 🙂 Llana

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