In last week’s class, four writers explored their sexual coming-of-age experiences from multiple directions. Rather than making the “sexual orientation” session code for “LGBTQI literature,” I wanted students to rethink the stereotypes we take for granted in heterosexuality, too.
To that end, we read poems and stories not only from women thinking about other women and men thinking about other men, but also men thinking twice about their relationships to women and vice-versa. I’m still looking for world literature on sexuality from a non-binary gender perspective, though; so, if you have any ideas, please, email me at kscopeproject [dot] nyc [at] gmail [dot] com.
Junot Díaz, the widely acclaimed Dominican-American author, and Alison Bechdel, a lesbian graphic memoirist and cartoonist from Pennsylvania, reappeared from last year’s syllabus. You can check out Díaz’s story, “How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie)” in his longer short fiction collection, Drown (Riverhead, 1997). His story takes the form of a mock “how-to manual;” his protagonist, a very insecure young man, gives some pretty pathetic advice for getting different kinds of girls to mess around with him. He now teaches in the Comparative Media Studies/Writing Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, if any of you are looking to bridge creative writing and computer science in the near future.
Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), was recently transformed into a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical that left New York to tour the country in 2016. The memoir tries to figure out the logic behind her father’s potential suicide, countering his closeted homosexuality with her own choice to be outspoken and self-accepting of her queerness. The full archive of Bechdel’s syndicated cartoon strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, is free online.
New readings included poems by Joumana Haddad, “I Don’t Remember,” and Reinaldo Arenas, “As Long as the Sky Whirls.” Born in Beirut, Lebanon in the Middle East, Haddad is a prominent women’s rights activist and artist in the Arab world; she has been described as a “risqué writer who loves to be hated.” Her poem, translated from Arabic, describes a woman measuring her strength against her male lover’s; by subordinating him, she achieves power hitherto inaccessible as a straight woman. In fact, her collection of essays on Arab femininity, I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman (Saqi Books, 2011), is in the process of being made available to the public at the New York Public Library chapter right down the street from Columbia’s main campus.
A prolific, devastatingly imaginative writer, Arenas had a much sadder backstory. Born in communist-era Cuba, he was imprisoned for “ideological deviation” (code for, among many other things, “criminalized homosexuality,” since heterosexuality was the established “ideological norm”) and publishing his writings abroad. After trying to escape prison and being recaptured, he was brought to El Morro Castle, a maximum-security facility for violent criminals. He kept up writing by receiving paper and pencils in exchange for writing letters for illiterate inmates sending letters to family and friends.
However, he was caught, punished severely, and gave up writing until he was released a few years later in late 1970s. Although he escaped to Miami, Florida by the early 1980s and was able to live openly as a gay man thereafter, he did not live through the historic HIV/AIDS epidemic in the U.S.’s gay community; after developing AIDS, he committed suicide in 1990. I would recommend checking out this recently released interview with him in the New Yorker shortly after his advent to the U.S., his memoir Before Night Falls, and his novel, Farewell to the Sea (full catalog on NYPL).
As usual, here you can find the packet for last week on sexual orientation and tomorrow’s session on race. Up to date writing prompts can be found here; I hope many of you are planning to submit your original writing to the blog sometime very soon! Here are last week’s notes for tricks from each writer to try in your own writing, too:
And don’t forget, our final author– Bangladeshi-American storyteller Sahar Ullah, co-founder of The Hijabi Monologues— visits class tomorrow, which is EXTENDED FROM 6-8PM. Don’t miss Sahar or the pizza; please, do your best to show up on time!