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.