Our origin stories and histories, often among our most cherished narratives, help us look back in time in order to understand the present. They wrestle with two questions in particular: “where did we come from?” and “how did this come to be?” In essayist Esmé Weijung Wang’s eyes, these lead to the most urgent question of all: “what do we do now? What on earth do we do now?” This is both the mindset and the starting premise of this course on using poetics in community history writing. Participants will learn to engage in creative exploration of a local past of their choice; they will read widely in the field of the literary essay, contrasting lyrical tellings of local histories written by Joni Tevis, William Least Heat-Moon, Sarah de Leeuw, Sonya Bilocerkowycz, and José Orduña; and they will practice leveraging literary precision and intent in writing about their own chosen facets of a local or community history. As a foundation, participants will experiment with an array of research methods designed to bring minute clues from the past into surprising focus. Participants will then explore their findings’ literary dimensions with guided writing prompts and collaborative workshopping sessions.
Description: Writing from life is at once personal and communal. The literary essay, defined first by searching and second by strange discoveries uncovered by the solitary mind, is often surprisingly invested in social participation and in illuminating the wider collective. This talk prepares participants to create their own writing from life by introducing the nuts and bolts—and the simplest but most powerful poetics—of the contemporary protest essay. This talk will draw on short examples from the field’s trend toward local political involvement, searing community insight, and historic recovery by writers like Aisha Sabatini Sloan, Siku Allooloo, José Orduña, Sarah de Leeuw, and Zadie Smith. It will outline and present a literary toolkit accessible to anyone inclined to explore their own lived experiences of power and privilege on the page, a practice participants may engage for reflection, exploration, healing, and teaching.
Excerpt: I recently taught a short intensive course in creative writing—“Nonfiction Bootcamp.” My students traveled from Carleton University’s School of Journalism (Ottawa, Ontario) to spend five weeks in a Yukon-based experiential learning program, Stories North. The program addresses one of the most pressing issues in the Americas: that of Indigenous sovereignty. Stories North asks: how can we collectively explain, hold ourselves to account, and shift away from the inequities and injustices and ignorance around Indigenous peoples?Full post here.
“Comminglings of Law and Literature” aptly titles much of this piece, but the truth is that the more you read, the closer you will come to a life-sized, pink, papier-mâché moose. Opening excerpt:
I am presently on a Fulbright in Whitehorse, Yukon (northwestern Canada) to write essays. Politics-wise, this year gives me a little window through which to watch Indigenous land claims unfold in the Yukon, and pedagogy-wise it gives me time to observe the special relationship that Yukon College (the future Yukon University) maintains with the territory’s fourteen Indigenous First Nations.
Though I’m researching/writing full time, I’ve also been thinking about the pedagogy of Indigenous literature. I’m wrestling with this question: in what ways can and should an Indigenous literature course engage local Indigenous politics?
This question fits into a much larger one, of course. I.e., what are the special pressures—and the special opportunities—that local histories, local memories, and local politics present to instruction in the humanities? Particularly in a community-based, post-secondary teaching context?
This piece includes a crash course on Yukon’s colonial history. Then it turns to a Yukon College English class and their reading of artist/political scientist Lianne Charlie’s pink, life-sized, papier-mâché moose. Full piece here.
Research and teaching often cross-pollinate. A favorite example comes from the semester I taught lessons in ekphrasis in a creative writing workshop.
Rarely does a visiting writer sit down for the Friday morning craft talk and introduce a concept that I go on to use every day – every day – after. But this is exactly what happened when José Orduña, essayist, professor of English at the University of Nevada, and author of The Weight of Shadows visited.
The concept Orduña shared was this: one must have an occasion to write.
He showed us a photograph of the U.S.-Mexico wall and pointed out that while certain prominent political voices are calling to “build the wall,” the wall already exists. Indicating the wall in the photograph, Orduña said: “this is my occasion to write.”
“The occasion to write” helps me link two different course goals in my Introduction to the Nonfiction Essay: one goal is to expose students to contemporary trends in nonfiction. Another goal is to coax students into writing beyond themselves. I recently created an ekphrastic writing assignment to combine these, relying on art, history, and conversation to multiply students’ own occasions to write.
My composition course on race and mass incarceration includes a semester-long partnership with stellar research librarian Paula Roper. The University of Missouri Library featured our work in their newsletter. Here’s an excerpt of the piece, by librarian Jennifer Gravely:
Paula introduced students to the library and demonstrated the stages of research required for the assignment. Corinna says, “Paula incorporated passages from Alexander’s book, linked them to references from Alexander’s endnotes, and demonstrated research steps that exactly mimicked the assignment’s requirements. Paula was also on board as our class librarian: she met with students one-on-one, answered emails, and supported individual research processes.” Paula then adapted this lesson, splitting the information into smaller lessons Corinna could integrate into her online course.
A tiresome, albeit necessary question: what are the rules of truth in nonfiction? In this Brevity post, I find Niklaus Luhmann, German sociologist and systems theorist, useful in de-centering the debate. Excerpt:
The true/false binary that’s useful in science is, I submit, of dubious service to literature, for it’s not art’s project to lie. And I can’t, at the moment, think of any art or genre that claims falsehood. Imagination, sure. Surreality, hyperreality, fantasy—yes, yes, yes. But none of these are properly understood as false. Metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche are among our basic literary tools. Hyperbole, irony, personification, imagistic juxtaposition, even the objective correlative—none of these tools are for lying. We use them to communicate.
[…] Yet for categorization (read: library organization) purposes, does it even count as nonfiction? is a crucial question. Still, is there a way the term “nonfiction” could serve beyond these implied thumbs-up/thumbs-down, yay/nay, qualified/disqualified, on the shelf or off it, true/false stakes?
If yes, maybe we have to skyhook the practical, organizational impetus of genre. This is what I propose: maybe we can treat “nonfiction” selectively—sometimes as a genre, but also sometimes as a lens of reading.Full post here.