On Confederate Monuments and American Literature

I teach African American Literature, from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth century. Like many people, the past few days I have found myself explaining things that I thought didn’t require explanation. Among these things is that Confederate statues are not war memorials as generally understood, but monuments intended to memorialize and romanticize the Confederacy, a nation explicitly founded to defend the right of whites to enslave black children, women, and men. We take it for granted that statuary of Nazi military leaders from the war years are better suited to museums than public squares; but statues of leaders of armies mustered to preserve slavery are somehow treated differently. Research demonstrates these Confederate monuments were erected—many during the Civil Rights era—to validate narratives of white supremacy, to commemorate not individuals but a way of life dependent upon inflicting exceptional physical and psychic violence upon black children, women, and men. An estimated sixty to twenty million people died in the transatlantic slave trade. Somehow, the personal pain of these black children, women, and men, the murders, rapes, and other violences of slavery, are glossed over by the mythology these statues help perpetuate. As I point out to students, so successful has this propaganda been that many have never questioned the ethics of marketing plantation houses—sites of sustained racial terror—as romantic wedding venues.

So how is this about literature? For those who are unaware, Documenting the American South has made available an unprecedented number of novel-length narratives by those formerly enslaved, in which they recount portions of their experiences of slavery. (I say portions because many refrained from recounting fully what they witnessed or experienced out of respect for Victorian conventions.)

The full-length narratives most commonly taught are by Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, and sit firmly within the canon of American Literature. Douglass is considered one of the greatest orators and rhetoricians of American letters; Jacobs is a master of a variety of literary forms, weaving them together to craft a compelling and persuasive account which students find absolutely gripping. (She spent seven years hiding in a crawl space to prevent her children being sold.) These narratives remind us in deeply personal ways of what slavery meant to those enslaved, while also being among the nineteenth-century’s most important literary works.

For those who prefer fiction to non-fiction, there is also the genre of the neo-slave narrative, essentially a modern work set during slavery. Many neo-slave narratives have proven to be critical successes: Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad won the Pulitzer, as did Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1988), and Edward P. Jones’ The Known World (2003). Octavia Butler’s Kindred is always popular when I teach it; so is Sherley Anne Williams’ Dessa Rose.

It’s obvious to literary scholars and students: we read and interpret narratives all of the time; our understanding of the world is shaped by the narratives we encounter. And often we don’t realize what those narratives are—as the saying goes, a fish can’t tell you the colour of water. But sometimes events reveal narratives some weren’t even aware of, and that’s where I’ve found myself the last few days, having to argue that the Confederacy wasn’t an underdog nation we should honour for adhering to its foolish beliefs in the face of overwhelming odds, but a nation founded to defend racial terror as a  way of life.

Images are of advertisements placed following the Civil War, as African Americans sought to locate family lost through slavery. See: http://informationwanted.org/ and https://www.hnoc.org.

MA Grad Alexandra Fournier: Literary Editor

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I’m sitting in an old farm kitchen in New Brunswick right now, reading The Maritime Edit, an absolutely stunning quarterly magazine “devoted to highlighting the heritage and lifestyle of the East Coast.” And on the contributors’ page, under the title “Literary Editor,” is a name I know very well: Alexandra Fournier. A UWaterloo MA English graduate, Fournier convocated in 2016 with a Masters in Literature, after completing a thesis on the adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) as The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012-2013). Keen-eyed Waterloo folks might catch that her  “Essential Reads” column in the current issue of The Maritime Edit includes a mention of another one of our English alumna.

Globe and Mail interviews Dr. Clive Forrester

You may know Dr. Clive Forrester of English at University of Waterloo–he’s an expert in applied linguistics, with a specialization in forensic linguistics. What that description doesn’t  tell you is that he is also an expert in Jamaican Creole. Which meant, when the Globe and Mail needed an expert on the ways in which patois has become part of Toronto, of course they interviewed Dr. Forrester. You can read more about how the popularity of patios has been met with mixed reactions at “Di soun in di city.”

Stolen Poetry, Unsuitable Animals, and Engl 460D

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There are multiple reasons to consider taking Engl 460D: Contemporary Literature of the United Kingdom and Ireland with Dr. Murray McArthur this fall (MW 2:30-3:50), not least of which are the professor, the topic, and the readings. There are six books total on the reading list; four novels, and two collections of poetry. I decided I should play the Facebook game where you turn to page 100 and type the third sentence of each book: except that the two volumes of poetry have been swiped from the university library I am currently sitting in. In other words, Dr. Murray is teaching poetry this term that is so compelling people commit crimes to own it. So you’ll have to settle for just the novels, award-winning, award-nominated, amazing novels. How can you read that sentence form Zadie Smith and not want to know more? Or not sigh in resignation with Ian McEwan? Page 100!

Angela Carter, Wise Children
I offed the false eyelashes, snitched a handful of Lady A.’s cotton wool to wipe off my make-up.

Margaret Drabble, The Radiant Way
It could not bear the bright inspection of another’s sorrow.

Ian McEwan, Saturday
This, he told himself, is the democratic process, however inconvenient.

Ali Smith, Girl Meets Boy
And the writer of Metamorphoses needed, who really really needed a happy love story at the end of Book 9 to carry him through several much more scurrilous stories about people who fall, unhappily and with terrible consequences, in love with their fathers, their brothers, various unsuitable animals, and the dead ghosts of their lovers.

Zadie Smith, NW
See them paintings your dad sells sometimes, the dots with the secret pictures?

Image credit: Zadie Smith, The Heroine Collective


Two truths, one lie: English 362 edition

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Did you know English 362: Shakespeare 1 is being offered in fall 2017? Dr. Ken Graham will take you through comedy and tragedy alike. One semester! Six plays! Three of which you no doubt already know in some form, because they are so ubiquitous in our culture. In recognition of that pervasiveness, I created a version of “two truths, one lie” with Dr. Graham’s reading list. I’ve taken all six plays which will be studied this fall and cited two truths and one lie about each. Can you spot the lie?

Much Ado About Nothing
1) The song “Sigh No More” by Mumford & Sons quotes Much Ado About Nothing
2) The original Muppet Show had a recurring plot featuring Miss Piggy as Beatrice
3) The lead vocalist of Green Day composed the music for a rock adaptation titled These Paper Bullets

Twelfth Night
1) A 1937 version featured Orson Welles as Orsino and Tallulah Bankhead as Viola
2) A teen-movie adaptation featured Tanning Chatum as Orsino
3) English Heritage staged Twelfth Night as a choose your own adventure event

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
1) A Urania moon is named after the character Puck
2) Terry Pratchett parodies the play in his 1992 novel Lords and Ladies
3) The play was banned in certain U.S. counties during prohibition

Richard II
1) Unlike most other plays by Shakespeare, it has never been adapted for cinema
2) The fourth quarto contains a later excised reference to indelicate behavior in stables
3) Kevin Spacey has played the lead

Henry IV Part One
1) Orson Welles adapted Henry IV Part One, incorporating dialogue from The Merry Wives of Windsor
2) Tom Hiddleston invented a drinking game based on recurring tropes
3) This is the first of threee Shakespeare plays in which Falstaff appears

Henry V
1) Coach Dinklage inadvertently quotes Henry V in the Amanda Bynes vehicle She’s the Man
2) A 1796 book of fan fiction claimed to be authentic letters penned by those mentioned in the play, passed down by a descendant
3) A post-modern interpretive dance version received a National Endowment for the Arts American Masterpieces in Dance Award

Midsummer pitcher: Canadian retailer thekingsmistress

(and now for the lies: 2, 3, 3, 2, 2, 1)

Comically speaking with Dr. Linda Warley


Dr. Linda Warley was recently interviewed by Inside Arts about her research and book. We are please to share just a bit of the fine reporting Inside Arts does about our campus culture.

Comics to graphic texts

Comics means everything from the serialized comics in newspapers to sophisticated works of art in graphic form. We tend to use the term graphic novel to encompass all forms, but in our book Canadian Graphic, the essays look very specifically at graphic books that are not novels, but are based on autobiography (writing about the self) or biography (writing about another ‘real’ person). The subtitle of our book is “Picturing life narratives.”

The genre is generally associated with Marvel superheroes; but Canadian work does not always fit with that genre – not at all! They are often anti-heroic; in fact, they are sometimes downright mundane in terms of the everyday-ness of the lives depicted.

This is the first book-length publication that specifically focuses on Canadian authors, and that was the most important thing to Candida Rifkind, my co-editor, and me. While there are many well-known Canadian comics authors such as Seth and Chester Brown, they tend to be subsumed into North American lists and studies rather than being recognized specifically as Canadian authors.

When we were reading submissions for the book, we were really impressed with the kind of sophisticated analytical strategies that the authors brought to the genre – the kind of nuance they identified in the graphic texts.

Are graphic texts a good way into studying literature?

They can be! We have to develop new forms of literacy, and I think that’s fine – things change. Teaching graphic texts in undergrad courses is a wonderful opportunity to teach students about reading at a critical distance. Unlike literary texts, you’re looking at pictures and words, the frames on the page and their arrangement, the amount of white space, the colours — all those elements.

Graphic texts (or comics) have not been particularly valued as a form of literature until quite recently. But graphic texts are definitely a dominant form now and are taught in universities and high schools; libraries including, academic libraries, have large collections; and there are plenty of publications and conferences focused on the genre.

A few favourite graphic texts

I find the memoir Tangles by Sarah Leavitt about her mother’s dementia is really moving; and Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chas is about the author’s relationship with her aging parents – something I can really relate to. That’s what the graphic form can do: for instance, when the artist draws the narrator in a state of real anxiety or anger, it can be conveyed in a really powerful way in an image; you can look at it for a second and feel that rage or frustration.

Among Canadian graphic texts, I would say Chester Brown’s Riel is a deeply thoughtful and well historicized work about the Northwest Resistance. I’ve used it in my Métis literature class because it gives a basic background and really interesting insights into the final years of Riel’s life – and it’s a fast read. Chester Brown is very self-conscious that he is representing the story as a non- Métis, so there are footnotes and other para-textual material. And there’s no question of Seth’s influence and power: his visual style is instantly recognizable and he has an international reputation.

Who would be interested in Canadian Graphic?

Scholars of autobiography would use it, many of whom look at multi-modal texts – texts that are not traditionally just written. There is a lot of interest in Canadian courses. Last week I was in Montreal and went to the Drawn & Quarterly bookstore (Drawn & Quarterly is a leading publisher of graphic texts), and it was nice to see the book is carried there — especially given it’s a scholarly book in a mainstream store. Words Worth Books here in town sells it, and McNally Robinson in Winnipeg held a book launch for us. So, it’s being sold to the general public.

It’s a very readable book. The writers did an excellent job making their essays accessible to a broad audience. In fact, that’s one of the reasons it won the Gabrielle Roy Prize: readability is one of the criteria.

For me, it’s a career highlight, to win that prize for a book of criticism. And, my colleague Win Siemerling won the Gabrielle Roy Prize last year; it’s remarkable that two profs in the same department at Waterloo have won the prize two years in a row. I think it really does say something about the strength of Canadian studies here.

Read more from Inside Arts.

Summer reading: or, trapping a nine-year-old

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It must be that point in the summer when children are driving parents a little crazy; I am constantly asked “what are your children reading?” We have a secret: we trap our children places where there is little to do except pick raspberries, build sandcastles, and read whatever books are around. Notably, we bring the first book from series my nine-year old has refused to read at home. Inevitably, he picks one up, reads it, and then wants to know why I didn’t pack the rest of the series–pretty much guaranteeing more reading will happen upon return. Here are some of the top successes:

Percy Jackson. I asked the students in UWaterloo’s Harry Potter class what series they liked best after Rowling’s, and Rick Riordan’s series won hands down. My son read the first book in February on an island; he couldn’t wait to get home and find out what happened next. Bonus: he now knows Greek mythology inside out.

Artemis Fowl: A generation was raised on the tales of this boy criminal.

The Name of this Book is Secret: I read the first two pages aloud, and then it was snatched from my hands so it could be consumed more quickly.

The Land of Stories: I admit, this one was introduced by my son’s teacher. But every time he sees one in a bookstore, he raves about it. All I know is the author was on Glee.

Tuesdays at the Castle: Plucky heroine, animated castle, and adventure; it’s a bestselling series for a reason.

Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls: Online reviewers report girls are devouring this book. It is incredibly satisfying.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library: author Chris Grabenstein manages to write adventure novels about reading and books. He has collaborated with James Patterson who has also proved a hit with a trapped child.

Capture the Flag: this is the first in a series by Kate Messner. It is very American in orientation, but it’s also one of the few middle grade adventure series that features a black male child as a protagonist.

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Lumberjanes: A graphic novel series set in Miss Qiunzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types. Wins for the catch phrase “What the Joan Jett?” and references to other female figures of note.

Neil Flambe Capers: One would think murder mysteries for children featuring a tween chef would be a hard sell—but apparently they have just the right mixture of wit and adventure.

Spy School: Booklist writes of Stuart Gibbs’ series “This romp is a great choice for reluctant readers of either gender.”

Lemony Snickett: Familiar to most—I tried to find them second hand since they do seem to be quick reads.

Look Out for the Fitzgerald-Trouts: There are only two books in the series so far by Canadian author Esta Spalding, but they’ve been well received. Children in a blended family living on a tropical island + hijinks = The New York Times gave it a positive review.

Eva Ibbotson: Ibbotson hasn’t penned a series, but her books have been such hits that more have been requested.  The Secret of Platform 13, Dial-a-Ghost, and Monster Mission were all massive hits.

Galaxy Games: The first book in the trilogy is split between Nevada, Japan, and outer space. Finding light-hearted middle-school summer reading with ethnically diverse protagonists can be challenging, but this is great fun, if difficult to track down.

The Creature Department: Buzzfeed described the first book as “a bit like if you took Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Monsters Inc. and shoved them in a TARDIS.”

Rita Williams-Garcia: I’ll admit, the first book in her award-winning series hasn’t been cracked yet. But we still have time this summer!