I am exceedingly frustrated at not having enough time to sit down and read this book. Tahar Ben Jalloun, an author who emigrated from Morocco to France in 1961, writes this tiny book about a big topic and structures it with questions from his daughter (“What’s a racist? Is any race better than another?”) that he attempts to answer. The rest of the tiny volume contains response essays by Patricia Williams, David Mura, Lisa D. Delpit, and William Ayers.
Yesterday I spent a couple hours with volunteers in MoveOn.org to call voters in areas with close congressional races and urge them to vote…preferably for the Democratic candidate. Pretty cool to go to a complete stranger’s home, meet other strangers, and then all of y’all (one of my favorite southernisms – all of y’all) call people across the country. When I asked one guy I called if he was following the race there, he said, “Me? Hell, no! I’m an artist. Art has nothin’ to do with politics!” I got off the phone and thought, ‘Well, that is one ignorant artist!’ Art and politics have been bedfellows ever since a monarch paid a jester to entertain or a poet to compose a paean to the state. Pure art? No such thing. And the artist who says s/he is not political has just uttered a political statement.
I can’t tell if I was discouraged or a bit more hopeful after my calling shift. Some people refused to say for whom they would vote; I respect that. But so many people were not voting, had stopped voting, weren’t interested. How does that happen in a democracy? How does one discard such an important right?
I finally found the essay which describes Noah Webster’s attempt to distinguish American English from British English through orthography. Geoffrey Nunberg writes the following in “The Persistence of English“:
Even at the time of American independence, the linguistic differences between America and Britain were as great as those that separate many languages today, and the differences would have become much more salient if Americans had systematically adopted all of the spelling reforms that Webster had at one time proposed, such as wurd, reezon, tung, iz, and so forth, which would ultimately have left English and American looking superficially no more similar than German and Dutch. (11)
OK, it looks as if adding “z” to make the plural of “wurd” may not have been Webster’s idea and I fabricated my own plural. Ah, well. Works for me.
I learned how to pronounce J.M. Coetzee’s name correctly this morning. I’ve been saying “Coat-zee,” with the accent on the first syllable. But in my first class this morning, Davide, who is from S. Africa, corrected me with the proper Afrikaans pronounciation. The “oe” sounds more like the “e” in the French “je.” Actually, the first syllable of “Coetzee” sounds exactly like the French “que.” The accent is on the first syllable. The “t” is a really hard “t” followed by an equally hard “z.” And then it gets interesting. The final “zee” is pronounced as two syllables and sounds like “zee-yeh.” The closest I can get in an American English transliteration might be “Kut-zi-yeh.” Ack!
At any rate, I stood in front of my freshman comp. class explaining my research project on Coetzee’s Disgrace and Davide raised his hand and said, “It’s Kutziyeh,” and I got to have one of those phenomenally yucky moments of acknowledging how ignorant I am, even though, as I said to the class, I’ve got a blessed Ph.D. that is now almost two decades old; I’ve written plenty plenty academic papers; I speak German — and still, I was unable to correctly pronounce the name of the author about whom I am currently writing an academic paper. Phmeh. Ignorance. It happens. Important to acknowledge it, correct the mistake, go on, learn from the mistake. American arrogance is a good thing to take down many notches.
I enjoyed the writing we did. We wrote everything we knew about our research topics in five minutes. Then we re-read what we wrote and wrote down any questions, notes about gaps in our knowledge, places we wanted to investigate, observations about our work so far. I noticed I was focusing a lot on Coetzee himself rather than on the novel. I also am trying to do too much. And my original idea of reading Sindiwe Magona’s Mother to Mother alongside Coetzee’s Disgrace to get at the answers for why I feel so uneasy about the portrayal of Black S. African characters in Disgrace…well, that might not be the way to go. But I’m still not sure. Will have to see after more research and thinking.
a really cool thing about blogging with classes is i get more comments on my postings…course all the comments i found in my email this morning were from mepz (a.ka. Jared), which was fine, cuz the comments were interesting. check out Jared’s poetry at his wordpress blog. on one of his comments, mepz warns me not to correct his spelling or grammar or he’ll never post again…i would NEVER do that…blogs belong to each writer and whatever you put on your blog or however you write comments on my blog is up to you. that’s one of the reasons i like using blogs in class, because they’re your space on the web, your writing corner in the blogosphere. my hope: blogs encourage you to develop your own voice, practice your writing, read others’ writing.
I hope blogging works out for most folks. Riley says he hates computers. Matt and Dustin keep stealing the wiki lock. Lawrence says he’s having fun. Lori has a cool picture of Uniqua on her blog. Madeline has the awesomest (awesomest = really not a word) blog title ever. Dave’s research is inspiring.
I can count on my astute writers in ENG102 at Calhoun to keep me on my toes. Toni D. let me know in her comment to my previous post, that I need to write more about Gertrud, and so I’m going to take Toni’s advice and use this space to remember and pay tribute.
The last time I saw Gertrud was August, 1984, near Dusseldorf. This picture shows Gertrud, her youngest son, Gert, and me. My stay with the Sachsers during summer of 1971 changed me irrevocably; I became a more conscious citizen of this world. Here’s a one-paragraph excerpt from an article I wrote a while back called Guided Floundering:
Then I spent the summer after my junior year as an American Field Service exchange student living with a German family, and my world tilted. I learned that my book knowledge about war paled next to the stories of my host parents, who had dodged American and English bombs. European media in summer 1971 showed me pictures of the Vietnam War and the People’s Republic of China that were unavailable in the States, and I learned that our freedom of press was partial and biased, not absolute and objective. And because many people told me that the words they connected with my country were “poverty,” “racism” and “ghettos,” I also learned that others did not see us the way we saw ourselves. When I returned to Connecticut at the end of that summer, I jettisoned all plans for college and worked as a waitress so I could save enough money to travel. I left for Berlin at age 18, and I didn’t know when, or if, I would return.
In 1971, World War II had been over for just twenty-six years. Not enough time for decimated cities to recover entirely, not enough time for forests to repopulate fully, not nearly enough time for Gertrud to stop flinching every time a jet flew overhead while we picked gooseberries in the backyard. If anything taught me the psychological, physical, and spiritual costs of war, it was Gertrud’s reaction to the sound of a machine overhead. Gertrud lost most of her immediate family, and when we visited the graves in Wuppertal, and when Gertrud talked about being sent with other children by train to Austria, I learned even more about the irrevocable scarring war incurs.
I remember Gertrud as a big-hearted and ethical woman. She fussed when one of the kids did something silly, but she always looked as if she enjoyed the silliness. You can tell this by the two pictures I’m posting here. The last time I saw Gertrud, she was very involved with the Evangelical Church (Evangelische Kirche) and she had given some guest sermons, I believe. Faith enlivened her.
Moments I remember from that first summer: Gertrud showing me the house, explaining the bathroom, introducing me to Lutz the cat. Every morning, the family ate a kind of oatmeal-milk soup that got cooked overnight. Finally, Gertrud noticed I never ate much and told me I really could have an egg or something. Second or third week of my stay and when Mama came upstairs to change the bed, I finally got the courage to ask her if all Germans always slept at night with only half their body covered up. I had not yet figured out the complexities of a well-made German bed, which takes the cover, folds it in half, and lays that across the bed. I had been simply getting in between the cover and not unfolding it. Mama Gertrud got me straight. Every once in a while, Gertrud gave me change and Ralf and I or Gert and I would bike to the ice cream store, buy cones of hazelnut ice cream that got wrapped up in white paper, bike like mad to get home, and then we’d sit around the table and cool off with the treat. I was always amazed the ice cream never seemed to melt on our ride home.
I know Gertrud is at peace, and I thank her for her generosity and her love, both of which helped a naive sixteen-year-old American girl grow up a little bit more in a home three thousand miles away from her family’s home.