Notes on Teaching Nonfiction in an English Literature Class

This essay, by Rob Nixon in the Chronicle of Higher Education, prompted a few thoughts on my own interest in teaching nonfiction in literature courses.  http://chronicle.com/article/Literature-for-Real/64453/.

I happen to enjoy mixing it up with nonfiction in my literature courses.  My two favorite courses, which are part of our Asian Studies Program, are Asian American Literature and Modern Indian Literature.  Because I am teaching students largely unseasoned in the actual experiences of Asian Americans or with only a vague understanding of the history of India, nonfiction and documentary materials become a vital spine to these courses.  And geeky history minor that I was in college, I just can’t resist injecting historical context into my literature courses—theory, post modernism be damned.

Thus, we have read Nehru’s Tryst with Destiny, reports on the Gujarat riots, the street photographs of Raghubir Singh, Youtube documentaries about comfort women, links to Wikipedia, Q & As with nonfiction authors.  The fear of course, is that students then treat novels as pure explication of ‘the real’ or ‘the documentary’ and conversations will be leadenly literal.  But what I’ve discovered is it’s this informational grounding that makes them better able to swoop and dive intellectually, wrestle with the back and forth spirit narratives in a novel such as Comfort Woman, or the playful sexual politics of M. Butterfly, and now the phantasmagoric imagination of Woman Warrior.  I’m not sure I would have been able to push them stylistically without this historical and documentary foundation.

Where the rub comes is when I ask them to critique photographs, documentary materials or nonfiction as literature.  They can’t look at these works as anything but transparent, as a transmission of pure information, rather than an act of creation, selection or narrative emphasis.  This came up when I recently asked students to respond to a series of photographs by Ansel Adams of the Manzanar camp experience.  They were very observant of the details in the photos, expressing surprise at how ‘normal’ and happy everyone looked.  When I tried to introduce a conversation about the aesthetics of the photos—Ansel’s attempt to portray a certain stolid heroism to Japanese-Americans, the later criticism that he was aestheticizing or romanticizing this tragic experience—I drew only blank stares.  To treat nonfiction as a form of literature, with its own stylistic choices, is often hard to tease out within the undergraduate classroom.

Then there is the creative writing classroom, where we often teach memoir or ‘creative’ nonfiction (a designation that irritates me—why does nonfiction need this little modifying flourish—is it to reassure those right brain arty English majors—don’t worry you still get to be artistic and don’t have to worry about facts?)

When I came to my university for a campus visit, I was asked about any new courses I might want to design.  One I proposed—and have yet to implement—is “Moral Nonfiction.”  That is, I was interested in students reading and developing their own extended projects around works that derive from a sense of moral outrage or drive or moral questioning; to force them out of themselves to explore a topic that, in their mind, has some moral implications.  We might, for instance, read Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, or my friend Helen Benedict’s portrayal of women Iraqi veterans in The Lonely Soldier, or Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day.

Memoir, confessional memoir, dysfunctional childhoods, intense mother and daughter relationships are the stuff of the creative writing classroom.  But the fantastically alert skills they develop, their quivering attention to their own states of mind, can not only be applied to the landscape of memory and self, but the external landscape of their towns, their cities, their neighbors, their strangers.  Nonfiction can be a way of re-envisioning or ‘re-seeing’ the communities they live in—and I use community in the broadest sense.  I want them to use nonfiction as a way to examine the environments they are living in, to raise all kinds of interesting questions about how they have chosen to frame a person, an issue, a place, and perhaps let them in on the notion of nonfiction as a form of literature, not just reportage.  I hope too that such a nonfiction might propel them into other fields—sociology, psychology, science.

Of course this is the bailiwick of any working nonfiction writer, who are the world’s most promiscuous generalists—they make a profession of dilettantism, in the best sense.

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One Response to Notes on Teaching Nonfiction in an English Literature Class

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