It's all about the narrative


About Books

Becoming Odysseus

Ulysses 3

I love the poem Ulysses,* the driving rhythm of the poetry, the solitary courage of the speaker — even the arrogance speaks to me at a certain level.  I hear its lines in my head many times throughout my day.  I guess in a way, we all want to be Ulysses.ulysses 2

But it wasn’t always like this.  When we were learning the poem in high school English class, the teacher asked us whom we identified more with, Tennyson’s hero or The Lotos Eaters.(She was the cool teacher.)**  Full disclosure here, I hadn’t actually read the latter poem; I was going totally on my memory of that section of Little Town on the Prairie where Laura finds the Tennyson book hidden away in her mother’s sewing.

tennyson book

Even so, I was firmly in the camp of The Lotus Eaters, even if it was a little tl;dr. Now it was the 70s, so slacker culture was in full swing, but it was more than that — I actively hated Ulysses.

When I was younger, the question had been easy:  “Where are the girl characters in this book?” Now, my cool girl persona didn’t permit me to ask the question out loud, but I had an awkward feeling when I read the third line, the only mention of any woman in the poem.  “Matched with an aged wife I mete and dole” –I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable when I heard these words, but there was no accessible way to articulate or even make sense to myself of what I felt.

It’s like when I studied Anglo Saxon in second year university.  Again I wanted to ask, “Where are the girl characters?” but nobody was asking that question at U of T in the early 80s.* ** I dealt with my anger by avoidance, and getting an extremely poor grade in my Old English course.

In those days, I didn’t consider myself a feminist:  I was a cool girl and I didn’t need women’s rights.  I could keep pace with the boys around me. I would rather get a C in an English course than admit what was bothering me.

All this changed when I had my first child.  Suddenly equality was not a given: it became something I had to fight for.  And I realized that feminism was simply that.

So there’s a whole chunk of the story that deserves its own blogpost, or even its own blog, but here I am, 47/50 on the Buzzfeed Feminist Scale. **** It’s been a journey through feminism, and also through reading, and I’m not sure how it happened, but  now I love Ulysses.  It’s become part of the fabric of my life as I age. *****

As for Anglo Saxon, I haven’t quite reconciled  myself to it completely.  But that year when two Beowulf   movies came out, I saw both of them.  I hope that counts.




*Tennyson here as opposed to Joyce. The latter work is the source of its own dysfunctional relationship, but I’ll save that for another post.

**for which I hated her.

*** and yes I know now that  the Angelina Jolie monster does actually play quite a large role in Beowulf.  In university, though, I never made it far enough through the thorns and swords to find out.

**** Well who can honestly say that she has never criticized another woman’s clothes or makeup?

***** (I just had to squeeze this in because it makes me so happy.) For my parents’ 50 th anniversary, my father wrote this poem, which recuperates and reclaims the original Ulysses in a true love song.

Ulysses plain




voices 2
So I’m looking for a good junk food book to burn off the stress generated by end of term and all the other activities I seem to find myself caught up in, and I end up reaching for Voices  from Chernobyl. ( I know , eh?  Usually it would be totally the other way around.)

I’m reading it with this soundtrack of THIS IS A NOBEL PRIZE WINNING AUTHOR blaring in the background, which makes it a little hard to focus on the actual literary text.  Anyway, there will be a Goodreads review about that sooner or later* — probably fairly soon, as the book is short and surprisingly readable given the subject matter.

But the Chernobyl stories have their own special resonances for me because I was pregnant with Em in 1986.  I was here in Toronto.  My parents were in Greece.  They were phoning me:  be careful; don’t go outside.  We were just waiting to see whether the wind from Eastern Europe would blow upwards and over the North Pole.

Later, I would have chance to meet mothers who had also had children in 1986 — and  weren’t as lucky in their location. But their stories aren’t mine to tell, and anyway I can’t tell them without crying.

Part of the book is about the workers who were sent in to clean up after the explosion. The speakers are quite specific about the heroism of these young men: they knew that there was a strong chance that they would die from the radiation, but they also knew that without their actions, the deathtoll would be orders of magnitude greater.  They went willingly because they knew their country needed them.

I had a student who had worked clean-up in Chernobyl.  I asked whether they were given any protective equipment, and he laughed a little (because he was a funny guy) and said, “There was no point.” I don’t remember laughing.

He was around Overland for quite a while because it took him a really long time to find a job in his field:  Canadian employers are somewhat wary of applicants who know a little too  much about certain topics.  However, last thing I heard he had a career-related job, and I assume he is still healthy.

When I think about this, I feel so fortunate.  In the obvious kind of way, to have had the luck to be able to raise my children in Canada.  But there’s also a more personal  reaction: I’m grateful to Overland for giving me the chance to hear these stories. Sometimes there were so many stories that I felt my head would burst. They were shocking, heart-breaking, but in their own way they were beautiful.  The dignity of the speakers gave human meaning to what had been incomprehensible newspaper headlines. It was an immeasurable privilege to be allowed to bear witness to them.

* and here it is

update:  this came up; it seems relevant somehow — US vs. Soviet heroism perhaps?

Character Building

This is Cá Kho, or Fish in Clay Pot
This is Cá Kho, or Fish in Clay Pot

So I’ve been away, blogwise, for two months, in the circumscribed world of the miniblog.  I am only just now emerging, blinking, into the bright lights of the Greater Blogosphere.

I was writing a reading journal of the French language novel Mãn by Kim Thuy.  Our students have been doing extensive reading of English language novels, and the miniblog was a way of keeping them company.*

How was it?  Well, some things were easier than I had imagined, but there were also some unexpected challenges.

I thought it would be hard to keep it real. It seemed that the only way to forge a connection with the students would be to manufacture artificial learning moments. This was based on the untested assumption that the reading would be easy for me.  When I read in French I tend to read fast and confidently.  I had never felt the need to be analytical about my reading before.  To be honest, I had always felt that I didn’t need to because my reading was essentially native level.  However, when I slowed down my reading and compared my process to that my students were probably going through, I realized that I was probably missing a lot of nuance, just as they were.

When I became aware of the process of my reading as an L2 reader, I found that I didn’t have to search for things to write about or fabricate reading “issues” to find empathy with the students.  My reading process was a lot closer to theirs than I realized, and we actually had a lot to talk about.    I had started off with a list of themes that I would somehow work into the narrative.  However, as time wore on, I ditched many of these and found that I was having authentic and unplanned reading “moments.”  The fish in clay pot story?  That one just happened like that and it wasn’t until I started to write about it I realized how perfectly it embodied the goal of extensive reading.

But some things were harder.  I don’t even feel comfortable saying this, but sometimes nobody read it.  To be clear, it’s not as if hundreds of people read every Teacherpants post, but I do have the sense of a group of readers that has developed organically.   My blog has evolved as part of a conversation with other bloggers, and these writers have been welcoming and supportive.  I have learned not to panic if one post has fewer views:  I know the readers will come back.  Also, if readership dips, I feel that I have options.  I can change my subject material, or my tone; I can also promote my writing more aggressively. In this case, I didn’t have that flexibility.  I had a limited group of readers and a prescribed task.  I didn’t promote myself much because I wanted  the project to retain its integrity.  I wanted the you in my sentences to be the ifp students, with their particular reading experience, rather than the people I talk to when I post on Facebook or write Teacherpants.

There were some low points.  Those statistics graphs  on the dashboard look awfully bleak when you’ve had a few straight days of zeroes.   Eventually, though, I got it.  It was a lot like one of those inspirational posters: “Write as if nobody’s reading it (because they’re not.)”**The lack of scrutiny gave me the liberty to play with the task a little, going off on tangents about Annie Lamott’s braids or Kim Thuy’s family life.  Also, paradoxically perhaps, my writing confidence has actually increased.  I started to write what I wanted to because I wanted to, rather than because of the immediate gratification of reader responses.  I’m often a little too immersed in the world of social media, with its competition for likes and views, so this was, as they say in the motivational speeches,  a character-building experience.

I also had to gear down my language. The readership and topic demanded a simpler syntax and less flashy vocabulary.  At first I winced at the repetitive pronouns and the flattened diction, but it wasn’t just that.  Without my bag of tricks — the wordplay, the ironically self-deprecating persona, the faux textisms — I felt disarmed, like Prospero with his drowned book at the end of Tempest, or Superman confronted with kryptonite.***I just didn’t know whether people would like me without all the flash.  I had realized that many successful bloggers have a much simpler style than mine, but I just didn’t know whether what I had to say was interesting enough to go unadorned.  Was it?  Hard to say given the utter lack of feedback (see previous paragraph), but I did manage to find power and beauty in the simple prose.  The clay pot post is probably my favourite of the series, and that one worked precisely because the language was so limited.

* You can read more about the miniblog  here  and here.  You can also have a look at the blog itself.

**  …. Teach as if no one’s listening, etc etc

*** A little grandiose?  Perhaps, but I’ve been on a metaphor-free diet for two months: it’s natural to overcompensate a little.

The Blog Within



Update on the reading blog:  91 views, 1 comment.

Very encouraging, but of course the real test is whether they come back.

Here’s the next post.  Did they ask for a disquisition on Vietnamese-French-Canadian literature?  No they did not.  Well, did I put some pretty pictures in to make the piece more appealing.

Teacher Pantalons







Teacherpants has spawned a blog within a blog, called somewhat unoriginally  The blog within a blog*.  It’s a reading journal on the French Canadian autobiographical novel Mãn by Kim Thuy.  I’ll be reading it in the original French.  I’m guessing that my reading level in the language is comparable with theirs in English.



The idea is to keep pace with my students as they read their book club books in English.   I will observe my reading process and post my observations; I will attempt to draw connections between what I am experiencing as I read  and the challenges the students face.  As I conduct this voyage of self-exploration, I hope to open channels of communication with my students, and perhaps provide useful material to my colleagues who are studying the book club phenomenon.  Or not.  Perhaps it will be a hopeless pastiche of humblebrag and navel gazing.  At this moment, I’d say it could go either way.

The task imposes some fairly strict writing guidelines:

  • to keep it simple without appearing condescending
  • to add enough detail to make it relevant without boring them to tears with analyses of French clause structure
  • to personalize it enough to make it relatable** without devolving into overshare

It feels strange to be so self-conscious about my reading.  I worry that I will run out of observations and end up with  “I read Chapter 5 this week.  It was hard, but I looked up the hard words in the dictionary, and now I understand it better,”  thereby conclusively proving to the students that reading is indeed supremely boring.  At the same time, I’m resisting imposing themes too early.  I kind of know I want to talk about tone, and about the temptation of translations, but I feel the topics will come up in due time.  Right now, I need to relax and just read.


UPDATE:  My supervisor has shared the link with the students and in the space of one day I have 60 views (out of 160ish students).  It’s on!  (I don’t know how many will be there for the second installment, though.)

* I kind of wanted  Matryoshka, but it was taken; plus, that would have been, I don’t know, appropriation of voice or something.

** I know, I know, probably you hate “relatable” but I’m owning it.  There is no word that works exactly the same way.  By that token, in my books, it counts as legit.

Teacherpants gets in touch with her bad punk self — in Book Club






On a Sunday morning, I’m perusing Google Image in search of a Mapplethorpe photo.  Well it’s not going to be one of those images.  I’m thinking about one of the iconic white lilies, but then I find something more appropriate to the mood: a dark rose against a stormy sky.  It’s the sign-off of my last book club post.

I also post a short paragraph telling the students how much fun I’ve had, and indeed I have.

My colleagues and I have been experimenting with an extensive reading project involving Facebook.  Each teacher chooses one book per term, and students may sign up to read any one of the books.  The teacher then sets up a Facebook group for the purpose  of discussing the text.  It’s been a very productive exercise pedagogically, raising interesting issues about the value of extensive reading and the dynamics of the use of Facebook as a medium for academic study.  My colleagues are studying these elements systematically as part of their research.

Personally, I’d like to focus on how this exercise made me feel.

The text I chose was Patti Smith’s Just Kids.  It’s her memoir of her years spent with Robert Mapplethorpe.  A fairly recent publication that’s received considerable media attention, it’s a fascinating record of the art scene in New York in the late 60s and early 70s.  It’s actually a little overwritten for my taste, but the students seemed to lap it up.

Framing the discussion was a blast.  I combined comprehension questions with ones that asked them to compare Patti’s life with their own.  I  interspersed these with assignments asking them to provide images of objects and scenes related to the events recounted.  The facebook feed is  alive with colourful images of  Andy Warhol and drabber shots of traditional 1950s family life.

Two things really made this memorable.  One was the way this novel intersected with so many contemporary events.  After setting up Google alerts for Smith and Mapplethorpe, I realized how newsworthy they still are.  Smith covered a Rihanna song and became a grandmother.  Mapplethorpe’s works were featured in prominent and often controversial exhibits.  Discussing the Chelsea Hotel led us to Leonard Cohen’s song, and we debated the relative merits of cover versions by Lana del Rey, Regina Spektor, and Rufus Wainwright.  If nothing else, the students acquired enough Western cultural touchstones to get them through an average wine and cheese party, and they probably figured out what NSFW means.

What really struck me, though, was the sweetness with which the students received this material.  These are, by and large, sheltered kids with very little exposure to homosexuality, recreational drug use, or even the general grittiness of Smith and Mapplethorpe’s lives.  Yet they followed the story of  “Patti and Robert” as if the couple were characters in a favourite tv drama.  When one student articulated how much she envied their way of life, I reframed it as a question to whole group.  I was surprised to find that many, like her, yearned for a life devoted to art and imagination.

When I look back on the book, I  think of the scene before the escape to the Chelsea:  the lice on the pillow, the open sores, the trench mouth — I mean, my God, who has trench mouth in this day and age? — but my students, all they see is beauty.  I’m not sure what this says about them, or about me, but it’s made the bookclub journey a magical one for all of us.

map flower

It’s a little counter-intuitive to see them in print form, but this book is amazing

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