"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Eng. 252: Sebastian Barry and Point of View

Sebastian Barry is my new literary obsession, ever since I finished A Long Long Way. I loved Annie Dunne, which is on my Focus list for my comps, and I wish A Long Long Way was on there instead--and I wish I had more time to read just for fun, to follow an author until you've exhausted everything they've written. It's the good kind of literary stalking. (The other kind can be found at AWP at the end of the month...) So I have no idea why I was nervous to teach the excerpt from The Engine of Owl-Light in our anthology, other than its subject matter would be disturbing to my Midwestern undergraduates. The first third of the story is in a strip club, the second on a boat where the characters argue about homosexuality in the Rasta culture, and the third where the characters witness a murder.

What's great about looking at contemporary writers is that they're still alive and you can either talk to them in person or you can find interviews and such things on You Tube. Brilliant. It's one of the reasons I like doing contemporary work as much as I do. I could have tried to contact Barry, but I didn't. Maybe I will at a later time. So I played a video interview where he is speaking of his novel The Secret Scripture, inspired by his great-aunt. After the clip finished, I had my students think of a person on their family tree who would make a great character, who has an interesting story to tell, where the puzzle of things surrounding them just doesn't all fit right. My students came up with some great ideas.

Then, on to Barry:

What I've learned about teaching, in general, lately, is this: it's obvious that every class is different. But why do I insist--to myself--on treating them all the same? I'm finally getting smart(er) about that. This class needs some time to think through their thoughts--on the page--before we get into a discussion. Now, that wasn't too hard, was it? Seriously. It makes so much sense in hindsight. This also makes the students who I know didn't read the assignment flip through the book to find the story and pretend to write something, like they're actually doing what they're supposed to. (It's hard to take when half your class is there because they think it's an easy creative writing class and boy, did they pick the wrong class if that's what they want...) So I had them write a reaction to the Barry excerpt. What did you think? And then I asked them to consider how these three parts of this story fit together. What's the connective tissue between them?

The discussion turned out to be great. Maybe I shouldn't have worried. (Of course I worry. I'm a teacher. And a Minnesotan.) But we talked about the reality vs. imagination that was going on, the denial that the characters face. It's easier to deny that there are gays in the Rastas, to deny that a murder has just taken place in front of you, if those people aren't human. In the strip club scene, the women are objects, not people; in the boat scene, gays aren't people; in the murder scene, the murdered person is not a person. As Ali keeps speaking in absolutes, "That didn't happen" or "It cannot be" or "It isn't," his character combines the objectification of people in these scenes into a social apathy towards what would be a moral issue. Of course, this brings up how and why that happens, and why Ali's character feels the need to do that. But it's interesting. And all of it plays very nicely into our weeklong discussion of Point of View, this detached observer of the narrator who shifts from a first person to third person back to first person.

We talked about language, about not overlooking the simple poetic devices like alliteration or not underestimating your verbs. I think that moment caught them a bit by surprise, for whatever reason.

Tomorrow (Thursday) and Friday is the launch of the Prairie Schooner Irish issue and it's going to be chock full of writing and talking about writing. Four of the writers published in the issue are coming to campus and there will be interviews with them, readings, and what I'm most invested in: the panel on contemporary Irish literature that I'm doing with Dr. Stephen Behrendt (who edited the issue), my friend Bret Shepard, and two of the visiting writers. We're going to be talking about the role of place and landscape in contemporary Irish writing and let the conversation flow where it may. The events will take place in the Sheldon Art Museum and here's a link to more information. Join us! It's going to be great!

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