music and literature save lives

August 24, 2012

My friend, Julie Jung, designed a graduate course at Illinois State called “Rhetoric Saves Lives” (scroll down to ENG 590 Seminar in Rhetoric and Composition Studies, almost at the bottom on the right-hand side). From Julie’s course description: “Titled ‘Rhetoric Saves Lives,’ this seminar argues that scholarship in rhetoric can and does productively intervene in discourses that threaten the lives and livelihoods of beings on this planet.*” And the asterisk signals a note at the bottom of the course description — I’m including the note not only as an example of citation and gratitude but also as an example of Julie’s humor, which always cracks me up:

* I am grateful to my colleague Professor Angela Haas for arguing so persuasively that rhetoric does in fact save lives in response to my once saying that our work as rhetoricians isn’t like “brain surgery, because, you know, we don’t save lives or anything.” Accordingly, she inspired not only the title of this course, but also the very course itself.

As an undergraduate at an experimental college, I pestered my beloved literature professor with questions and comments such as the following: But how can literature make a difference? What does literature have to do with reality? Aren’t we destroying the literature by picking it apart? To which, my beloved literature professor answered, “How is my job any different from that of a plumber or a carpenter?”

Thirty-five years later and I’m reading a collection of contemporary Iranian literature with a group of alumni from that same college and with that same literature professor. Strange Times, My Dear: The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature, edited by Nahid Mozaffari, offers a corrective to our mis-information and monolithic stereotypes about Iran. Literature is dangerous — on the back jacket of the collection, Dick Seaver of Arcade Publishing explains that the Office of Foreign Assets Control (Department of the Treasury) warned the company that without a permit, the publisher would face consequences: a million-dollar fine and ten years in prison. What is the danger in this collection? Iranian writers describing their home, country, culture.

Reading Ahmad Mahmud’s excerpt from the first chapter of his novel, Scorched Earth, about the first days of Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980, I kept thinking, ‘Why isn’t this required reading in high school, in college world lit. courses?’ The excerpt offers confetti pieces of the start of war and its inexorable normalcy.

This evening, I’ll attend a concert, the first of the 2012 Twickenham Fest three-concert series. I’ll listen to the world premiere Speaking for the Afghan Woman by William Harvey, an American composer, who lives in Kabul. Scroll down and read the Program Notes for a quick introduction to Afghani literature, music, and the feminist, Meena Keshwar Kamal, the founder of RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan). (There’s a fantastic exhibit on RAWA at Second Life.)

How do music and literature save lives? They combat ignorance. Listen to more about William Harvey’s work with his organization, Cultures in Harmony, or read this review of Shiva Rahbaran’s Iranian Writers Uncensored: Freedom, Democracy, and the Word in Contemporary Iran. Have at it. Go save some lives.

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ignorance is NOT bliss, or how to pronounce “Coetzee”

October 24, 2006

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.


narrator in Magona’s novel

July 21, 2006

I’m about 2/3 done with the novel. The bulk of the middle part of the novel is about the narrator’s childhood and young adulthood. It seems as if the story has strayed, but I don’t think so. If the narrator wishes to explain her son’s conditions of living to Amy’s mother, then explaining her own conditions must appeal to Amy’s mother in some way. I’m not sure how this will read alongside Coetzee’s Disgrace. One thing is that Magona’s novel is in many ways the story of the narrator becoming a reluctant mother. Disgrace offers a narrator who faces his failure as a father at the moment his daughter needs him most: her rape. I wonder if the narrator in Mother to Mother will feel that she has failed her son at the time he needs her most: the moment he kills Amy. But the narrator says she is not surprised her son has killed. Her novel is an attempt to explain that.


mother to mother

July 18, 2006

Magona, Sindiwe. Mother to Mother. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.

This project I’m working on is totally cool. A group of current students and graduates of the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies, which used to be Johnston College for a lot of us old fogies involved, got together by invitation from Bill McDonald, our literature guru professor. Bill retired in 2005 after being one of the founding faculty of Johnston (1969), and the profound effect he’s had on his students over the decades manifested in our group discussions in April, 2005, when we all met in Redlands — a scholarly, familial, aesthetic reunion made possible by Kathryn Greene’s wise and caring philanthropy. Eventually, after a lot of email wrangling, we decided to do a collective book on J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace.

Disgrace was my first read of anything by Coetzee, and I went on to read Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man. Although Elizabeth Costello is a curious pastiche based on actual lectures Coetzee delivered on animal rights (that’s simplified), it may be my favorite so far, mainly because of the talk about the novel, the African novel, and other big writerly topics that Coetzee handles with sharp guffaws.

So, what am I taking on for this project? I’m following my discomfort. The places my hackles bristle. What might those be? 1) portrayal of Black S. Africans; and 2) Lucy’s silence about rape. I’m looking at racism, and I’ll start with my own. Why have I not read any Coetzee until now? Precisely because he is Afrikaaner, white S. African. Not a good reason. But I do get frustrated that when U.S. readers think of S. African writers, I’m bettin’ that Athol Fugard and J.M. Coetzee are the first two that come to mind.

My experience with S. African literature is limited, but I’ve tended to read and teach Black S. African writers like Bessie Head, Miriam Tlali, Alex LaGuma, and Mark Mathabane. Reading Disgrace, I felt off-center, as if Coetzee’s novel and I were weighing down one side of a scale; we needed those other writers — Tlali, LaGuma — to sit next to us on the other part of the scale and balance things out. In other words, there was just something wrong with Coetzee’s view of things, something missing, something skewed. I’m using Coetzee’s name instead of the narrator, because this same kind of skewing appears in the other novels.

I’ve chosen Sindiwe Magona’s novel, Mother to Mother, to read along with Disgrace in order to study my sense of imbalance. Mother to Mother is also post-apartheid; set in 1993 on the eve of elections, it deals with an historical event, the murder of a white American woman, Amy Biehl. Magona’s novel is written in first-person narrative in the voice of Mandisa, the mother of the youth who killed Amy; Mandisa writes to Amy’s mother.

In her “Author’s preface,” Magona says that the Biehl case gave a lot of information on Amy, and then asks, “And yet, are there no lessons to be had from knowing something of the other world? The reverse of such benevolent and nurturing entities as those that throw up the Amy Biehls, the Andrew Goodmans, and other young people of that quality? What was the world of this young woman’s killers, the world of those, young as she was young, whose environment failed to nurture them in the higher ideals of humanity and who, instead, became lost creatures of malice and destruction?” (v)

Interesting that Magona parallels Amy Biehl and Andrew Goodman, one of the three civil rights workers murdered in Philadelphia MS in 1964. Almost thirty years after Goodman’s murder, Amy Biehl is a Fulbright scholar who “had gone to South Africa to help black people prepare for the country’s first truly democratic elections” (Magona v).