Pandemic. Social distancing and quarantine. Relocations and job losses. The breakneck shift to online learning. My own bout with COVID-19. It’s been a rough semester.
I want to thank you all for hanging in there. I can’t tell you how much I miss our Tuesday and Thursday mornings together and how much I miss listening and talking to you about some great (and maybe not so great) books. Fingers crossed, masks on, hands thoroughly washed – – we’ll be back together on campus.
For your final writing exercise, here’s what I’d like you to do: write a letter from yourself on Thursday, May 14, to your pre-pandemic self. Looking back over the past couple of months, what advice, consolation, warnings would you give to that earlier version of yourself, the one for whom COVID-19 was not even a term and who had no clue about the massive disruptions about to commence. You can add this as the last entry in your reading journal by Friday, May 15, at noon.
By Tuesday, May 19, I’ll have read all of your journal entries – – collective and individual – – and be in possession of your final grades. I’ll post these to iLearn. (The final COVID-19 indignity – – having to travel back in time to the 1990s to navigate and use the iLearn interface. Ay dios mio.) If you’ve done pretty much all of our writing exercises – – the short bits on Yesika Salgado, the journal entries on Annihilation and Jemisin, etc. – – you will earn an excellent grade.
At this point, it looks like almost nobody will be on campus in the fall. (There may be a very, very few studio and lab courses held face-to-face for some period of time.) Some of you may be swimming smoothly in the online environment, others may not find it so salubrious. In either case, I urge you to stick with it. You are all smart, important, and lovely human beings. And, as we emerge from the Hydroxychloroquine-saturated ruins, we’re gonna need every single one of you to help rebuild things – – and rebuild them better. Until then, stay safe and healthy and sane.
For this week, let’s continue the collective reading journal. For Round 2, pick three different stories from N.K. Jemisin’s How Long ’til Black Future Month. Each of your commentaries should be around 250 words. As you write, think about the continuities between the worlds that Jemisin depicts and our own world. What do these worlds share in terms of setting or environment? How are characters driven by similar goals? How are their challenges and conflicts similar to our own? In other words, here’s the question I want you to consider as you reflect on and write about three new stories: in writing about other worlds – – in writing “science fiction” – – in what ways is Jemisin writing about our own world and offering us a critical perspective on this world?
Let’s start reading N.K. Jemisin’s How Long ’til Black Future Month.
In a way, this book could be seen as a follow-up to VanderMeer’s Annihilation – – both probably occupy the science fiction and/or fantasy shelf at your local book store. Jemisin made a big splash with her “Broken Earth” trilogy – – The Fifth Season (2015), The Obelisk Gate (2016), and The Stone Sky (2017). (If you enjoy How Long, I strongly encourage you to check out the trilogy. Even Jemisin seems to believe that the long narrative is more her forté.) Each of the three novels has won a Hugo Award – – one of sci-fi’s highest accolades. In the trilogy, Jemisin engages in some heavy-duty world-building – – the extended narrative takes place on an Earth-like planet racked by environmental and geological change. Each novel also explores issues of race and gender, and Jemisin has been associated with the “Afrofuturist” school of contemporary fiction, art, music, and cinema.
As its title implies, How Long ’til Black Future Month engages – – sometimes directly and sometimes more elliptically – – with issues raised in the discussions around “Afrofuturism.” Science fiction and speculative fiction often focus on a central tension: the future is new, but the future also repeats the past. An important question for Jemisin then: how do these stories propose a “future tense” for race and racialized identities? What changes? What remains the same? How does Jemisin use speculation – – the creation of unfamiliar situations and characters – – to explore race?
As the “Broken Earth” trilogy also makes clear, power and power structures are central to Jemisin’s alternative worlds. This includes the resilience of hierarchy in new, alternative circumstances, but also the resilience of struggles against hierarchy. How central is resistance to her fiction? Do you see new and/or surprising forms and modes of resistance in the short stories? In what ways does the sci-fi/fantasy genre allow Jemisin to foreground power and resistance as central social and existential challenges?
Finally, Jemisin is acclaimed for her prowess at world-building, something we saw VanderMeer exercising in Annihilation. What do Jemisin’s alternative worlds look like – – think of VanderMeer as a context? Can you notice any patterns in the basic dimensions and circumstances of Jemisin’s worlds? Does she seem to have any favorite tropes or logics when she builds her worlds? Some readers see Jemisin as both an Afrofuturist and an environmentalist. Though her physical and ecological worlds may be very different from ours, can you discern an attention to environmental issues and fates in her fiction? How would you classify her as work as “eco-fiction” – – i.e. as fiction that responds to today’s climate change and its consequences?
For How Long ’til Black Future Month, instead of individual reading journal entries, we’re going to keep a collective reading journal. This means that you’ll want to start by selecting three interesting-looking stories, reading them, and writing about them in our class journal. You can access the journal and instructions here.
For this week, let’s finish reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. And, you’ll need to complete another reading journal entry for this last half of the novel. (To to this, simply insert a page break into your existing reading journal on google docs and label it “Annihilation: Part 2.”)
Things get pretty crazy in the final chapters of Annihilation. [Spoilers ahead.] One of the things we may know for sure: the expedition meets its untimely end – – in a variety of ways. The biologist is the “final girl.” And yet, the novel prods us to ask: is the biologist even really “the biologist” anymore?
One important motif that this section of the novel underscores is: transformation. After inhaling the freaky spores inside the “Tower,” the biologist reports her fears about her own “contamination” and subsequent transformation. Can you list all the literal transformations that seem to occur in Annihilation? The dolphins with human eyes are one obvious example, but try to make as complete a list as you can of other physical/material metamorphoses. What do these transformations seem to tell us about Area X? How does the biologist respond to the transformations she witnesses or suspects? Does this response change? How does “transformation” play into her understanding of Area X? Ultimately, she settles on a description of Area X as a “thorn,” “a long, thick thorn so large it is buried deep in the side of the world. Injecting itself into the world.” What do you make of this image of Area X?
Obviously, the biologist is also transforming, especially in terms of her consciousness and sense of identity. In at least one of these changes, she seems to begin to understand more about her husband and her relation to her husband. Equally, her relationship to nature seems to change. How does she approach nature at the beginning of the novel? How does she understand her relationship to nature by the end of the narrative? Hint: what does her statement towards the conclusion – – “Our instruments are useless, our methodology broken, our motivation selfish.” – – tell us about this change? Earlier in the story, she talks about the need “to wage a guerrilla war” against Area X. Is this still her attitude toward Area X by the end of the novel? Another way of thinking about this shift is through the list of spaces she provides at a certain point in her story: “A swimming pool. A rocky bay. An empty lot. A tower. A lighthouse.” What seems to unite these spaces? Or, more importantly, how do these spaces chart the shift in her relationship to place and nature?
Finally, the title: Annihilation. Who first uses this term in the novel? How and why do they use it? In the final pages, the biologist asks herself: “Was I in the end stages of some prolonged form of annihilation?” We usually think of annihilation as meaning extinction or total obliteration. By the time you finish VanderMeer’s book, do you think this meaning is still relevant? I.e. is VanderMeer trying to encourage us to think differently about “annihilation” and the idea that we can completely erase or destroy something – – including nature? In VanderMeer’s sense, who or what is the most “annihilated” person in the book?
Let’s spend the next couple of weeks reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation (2014). Your first reading journal entry on Annihilation will be due next Thursday, April 16, at 5 p.m. For this entry, read up to the end of Chapter 2: Integration. To make your entry, simply insert a page break (Insert Break > Page break) into your existing google doc and title it “Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation Part 1.”
VanderMeer published Annihilation in 2014 as the first installment of his “Southern Reach” trilogy – – followed by Authority (2014) and Acceptance (2014). (For those of you who’ve seen Alex Garland’s 2018 movie version of Annihilation – – the book is very different.) Prior to the “Southern Reach” trilogy VanderMeer had established himself as a leading figure – – author, editor, anthologist – – of the “new weird” movement in contemporary literature/narrative. It’s hard to define this subgenre, except maybe to say that “weird” fiction appears to bend the boundaries of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. “Weird” narrative typically explores worlds that are very much like ours, but at the same time eerily and strangely off-center or off-kilter. Many readers and critics point to Poe, Lovecraft, Borges, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez as precedents for the “new weird.” (Besides VanderMeer, a couple of my favorite “new weird” writers are Finnish writer, Leena Krohn, and American short story writer, Kelly Link.)
At the center of Annihilation and the “Southern Reach” trilogy is Area X – – an anomalous zone that emerges largely without explanation somewhere on the U.S. coast. Annihilation‘s interest in place and setting borrows from a variety of sources: ecology and environmentalism, the “world-building” framework of fantasy fiction, and even MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) like Runescape, EverQuest, and World of Warcraft. In a sense, our hero – – the Biologist – – simply explores a new, strange environment, a place that both challenges and enchants her. Whether or not Annihilation also borrows a kind of detective plot – – decoding the truth beneath the mystery of Area X – – is a question that pushes the reader forward even as it seems to offer less and less interest to the Biologist. I think first kind of question to ask yourself as you start Annhiliation is pretty simple: what makes this place strange? That is: what elements of the novel’s setting are weird and what makes them weird? Can you see any patterns in this weirdness? How do the various characters react to the strange features of Area X? What does this tell us about the characters and the ways they think?
In a lovely interview, VanderMeer talks about encountering and recognizing the “unexpected eruptions of life” in “broken places” – – environments that have been disrupted, fragmented, and transformed by human activity:
The Biologist also seems to be drawn to “broken places” even before she enters Area X. Early in the narrative, she declares that she qualifies for the expedition because she “specialized in transitional environments.” Later, she tells us that she became a biologist mainly thanks to the overgrown swimming pool in her backyard. Take a look at this description of the “abandoned” pool and the way the Biologist describes her relationship to it. Is the swimming pool at all like Area X? Does this fugitive episode help us to understand her relationship to Area X? As importantly, how does the Biologist’s relationship to Area X change over the first two chapters? How does her relationship to Area X differ from her companions’ relationship?
For me, one of the most interesting things about Annihilation is our relationship to the Biologist – – who is both a narrator and (a kind of) protagonist. What do we know about the Biologist? How important is her identity as a scientist to her character and her experience in Area X? What quirks and contradictions can you see in her character? What does she seem to “see” or recognize in Area X that other characters don’t? What do you make of her relationship to her comrades? And, what do you think about her as a narrator? She shows us Area X but she also seems to hide a lot from us. Can you make sense of which events, facts, experiences, beliefs she chooses to disclose and which she chooses to conceal? How much do you trust her as a narrator?
Finally, a motif to think about as you move forward in the novel. Later on, we find out that the Biologist’s husband has a “pet” name for her: “ghost bird.” The term “ghost” comes up a lot in the first couple of chapters: “ghosting through her syntax,” “a ghosting of prior words,” “ghost scripts,” “the ghost of some hypnotic suggestion,” the apparition of the Biologist’s husband in the kitchen, etc. What is a ghost? Is Area X a haunted place? Sometimes, I wonder if Annihilation might actually be a fundamental text in the emerging discipline of “hauntology.”
Below, you’ll find some stray reflections on Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric – – surely one of the most powerful, complex contemporary poems. These reflections are only meant to prime the pump for your reading journal. I almost always find that I see things and understand things in literary texts most helpfully through conversation and discussion. So, think about these reflections as my effort to get a conversation going.
Not sure what I mean about a “reading journal”? See this post. I’ll check on your reading journals for Citizen next week – – so you definitely want to have your journal ready by Thursday, April 9.
Rankine published her book in 2014 – – on the eve of the Trump Era. The volume won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry and several other significant literary awards. It even made the NY Times bestseller list in 2015, a rarity for poetry. There are probably several reasons for this breakthrough into popular (or at least middlebrow literary) culture – – Rankine’s direct engagement with well-known subjects and scenes (from Trayvon Martin to Hurricane Katrina to Selena Williams), the “prose” quality of its poems, its mix of word and images. There are probably lots of other reasons as well. Why do think Citizen captured so much attention in 2014/2015?
One really central feature of many of Rankine’s poems is her use of the pronoun “you” – – often, it seems, in place of the more expected “I.” It’s probably worth paying attention to this motif. Take the first “poem” – – the one about Sister Evelyn: who is the “you” here? what effect is Rankine after by deploying the second-person singular? The use of this pronoun seems to shift between poems. In the second poem we see both “I” and “you” – – why? are these different people? if they are the same person, why two pronouns? A few poems later, we have the “you” in a car at night. But here, again, the “you” seems to shift between the speaker and their companion. Maybe the “you” works in at least two ways – – to “split” the speaker between object and subject and/or to interpolate the reader (as addressee) into the events, emotions, dilemmas of Citizen. What do you think?
A central theme in Citizen seems to be the interplay of “erasure” and visibility – – figures, events, and subjects are either rendered invisible or spectacular. This reminds me of the dilemma W.E.B. Du Bois explored in his tour de force, The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. Du Bois opens that book by describing the peculiar (but common) experience of b/Being in a racialized society:
Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.
DuBois is seen and recognized here – – but the way he’s seen and recognized as a “problem” also paradoxically makes him invisible as a person. Rankine seems to echo this paradox in the opening to the second section of Citizen, where she talks about Hennessy Youngman. The speaker describes a kind of anger that “responds to insult and attempted erasure simply by asserting presence, and the energy required to present, to react, to assert is accompanied by visceral disappointment: a disappointment in the sense that no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived.” Citizen then launches into an extended reflection on Serena Williams and what her angry outbursts on the tennis court signify. Can you make sense of the visibility/invisibility paradox in this section? Can you see other sections of Citizen which also engage with this racialized dialectic between recognition and erasure – – what Rankine refers to elsewhere as being “hypervisible”?
Finally, the “lyric” poem of Citizen tries to break free from poetry in a variety of ways – – most obviously by adopting the conventions of prose. The book also mixes media – – image and text, video and writing, drama and poetry. Sometimes the images mixed into Citizen seem to amplify or illustrate the poem. For instance, what do you make of the “deer” (?) picture that closes the first section? I’m really fascinated by the sixth section of the poem, titled “August 29, 2005/Hurricane Katrina” and the various “Script[s] for Situation video” that follow. What is a “script” and how is a “script” different from/similar to a poem? What kinds of events seem to “scripted” here? What role(s) do the images inserted into these scripts play? This section “quotes” or cites images and other texts (cf. a birth certificate, Franz Fanon, Ralph Ellison, Frederick Douglass, etc.). Why is this section in particular so “multi-textual”? What is the relation between Rankine’s voice and all these other voices? How does all this citation confuse or challenge the way we might “normally” read a poem?
Citizen is a rich, complex text, and I’m sure it’s posing questions to you that are different from some of the ones I point to. You can follow my bread crumbs and/or use your reading journal to explore the questions you find – – to describe how the text poses these questions and how you reading may or may not answer or clarify them.
Finally, I hope you’re all maintaining. These are the strangest times in my lifetime (stranger even, imo, than experiencing 9/11 from my home base in the Bronx). I desperately hope that you are staying healthy and reasonably sane. At the least, reading Citizen and the other texts on our syllabus might distract you from more immediate worries. Perhaps, Citizen et al. can even supply some helpful equipment to think through our present moment.
So many curveballs at once. The seismic changes to our class will have serious effects on evaluation and grading. Here’s the new global grading regime in our class for the rest of the semester:
If you submit all online assignments on time, you will receive a grade of “A.”
If you submit 80% of online assignments on time, you will receive a grade of “B.”
If you submit 50% of online assignments on time, you will receive a grade of “C.”
If you cannot submit any online assignments, contact me pronto.
Your online assignment submissions should satisfy the minimal requirements that I set out in terms of word length etc. I will be clear about deadlines. I’ll keep a running tally of assignments so that you can be sure you’ve submitted them.
Okay. So I’ve been thinking a lot about how to keep the course going under present circumstances. I like the Qualtrics discussion question set-up – – but it is proving very inefficient and not very comprehensive. That being said – – here is the final arrangement that I’ve settled on (with one possible change – – see very end):
We’ll keep reading our way through the syllabus – – there’s so much good stuff that is profitable and pleasurable to read.
The reading journal. Instead of answering discussion questions for each class, you’ll keep a reading journal for each text we read.
What is a reading journal? A reading journal is a place where you record your responses to a text – – where you explore questions, try figure out puzzling things about a text, begin to develop your ideas about what a text means or what the significance of a text.
How is this reading journal thing going to work?
Every Thursday, I’ll put up a blog post that offers some general reflections about a text and includes some broad questions. This is simply designed to give you some seeds/provocations as you read/make your way through the text.
You’ll have one week after that first blog post to create an entry in your reading journal. The entry should be at least five hundred (500) words.
Use the journal entry to describe and reflect on your response to the text. It’s good to focus on a some particular things in the text – – an image, character, line, poem, plot event, etc. Or, to focus on a particular question about the text that nags at you. (I’m not going to be grading your journal for correctness – – but do your best to make the entry as readable as possible.)
Your journal entry will be a google doc. You’ll need to create this doc and title it: “English 602 Reading Journal: [your name].” You’ll also need to share this doc with me. (Here’s how to share a google doc.) Use my gmail address to share the doc: email@example.com. When you set up sharing make sure that you allow me to comment on the doc – -i.e. click on the “Can comment” option in the sharing window.
One week after the first blog post, I’ll start browsing through your journals. I’ll comment – – but this will not be evaluative commentary, simply my response. I’ll mark your reading journal complete for that week.
Towards the end of the semester, I’ll ask you to write a longer, more formal reflection piece. This will not be a critical or analytical essay. Instead, think of it as a reflection on your reading journals.
Now, if you’ve made it this far: I’m pretty concerned that we’re rapidly losing any real interaction within/around the course. Maybe Facebook can help to solve this? Help me out by answering the poll below.
There will be no assignment due for Thursday. And, the bookforum is canceled.
As you may have heard by now, “remote” instruction will continue through the end of this semester. This represents a pretty big shift from a two- to three-week hiatus in classroom instruction. Obviously compounding this change – – many of you are moving or in transition, stressed about losing employment, and sharing widespread anxiety about health, the economy, and the future. I will need a bit of time to – – yet again – – re-adjust things.
For now, between Thursday and the end of spring recess – – try to take some time to read Claudia Rankine’s dazzling book-length lyric poem – – Citizen.
Check your email a couple of days before the end of spring recess (March 29) for further updates. As always, feel free to email me. I will be holding virtual office hours tomorrow between 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. Look for a zoom link in the morning.
In the meantime, as you fasten your seatbelts, remember: stay healthy and we’re all in this together – – whatever gets decided in D.C., Sacramento, the SF State Administration building, mutual aid is our most dependable ally.
I’ve posted a new set of writing questions for Yesika Salgado’s Corazon. See below. The password is the same: “Hanley” (without quotation marks). Think about the questions and submit your response by 5 p.m. on Tuesday. (If you encounter any technical problems – – try switching to a different browser.)
I hope you’re all staying well and not feeling too distant from school and our class. I’d like to do our scheduled bookforum on Thursday – – but this will require a lot of technical re-engineering. I’m not sure if the payoff would be commensurate with the labor. Stay tuned.