English instructors recommend politically pertinent pieces
March 6, 2017
In honor of National Reading Month, The Daily Illini spoke with a number of instructors from the University’s English department to ask for help cultivating a short list of recommended readings relevant to today’s political and cultural climate. The list is not exhaustive, but it provides more than enough material to peruse over spring break.
“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison
This novel by Ralph Ellison is centered around an unnamed narrator whose blackness makes him invisible. It’s characterized by many as a “Bildungsroman,” a genre dealing with coming-of-age stories.
“In an era where the United States in general was feeling pretty optimistic about stuff in the post-war era, Ellison’s novel is a really important intervention into stakes for African-Americans at the moment,” said John Musser, department of English instructor. “It was against the backdrop of things like that – integration, segregation, Jim Crow laws and the great migration – that kind of paints the conceptual strokes of Ellison’s novel.”
Musser said that the narrator’s experience of race makes his way of life “difficult to see, perceive, or empathize with,” effectively rendering him invisible and pushing the metaphor that Ellison uses throughout the novel.
Ellison’s novel was published in 1952. Musser said it’s what made him care about literature and credits the novel with his decision to major in English when he first read it about 10 years ago.
“I never before encountered a novel that told me so much about the world I was living in and did it in a way that was both beautifully written and important,” Musser said. “The way Ellison speaks to the reader is one in such that you can’t ignore what he’s saying.”
He noted that the book has a contemporary resonance, citing the Black Lives Matter movement, the “Say Their Names” campaign, and protests against police brutality.
“There’s no better moment to be having a conversation about race within this country, certainly within the past five years, and definitely since the election,” Musser said. “This is a conversation that’s not ending anytime soon, and what I appreciate so much about Ellison’s way of thinking is that it is always one that is complex and systematically created.”
“Northanger Abbey” by Jane Austen
“Jane Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’ makes fun of the Gothic genre: Its heroine, Catherine Morland, has read too many Gothic stories and then sees paranoid plots everywhere,” Eleanor Courtemanche, associate professor in the English department, wrote in an email.
The novel was originally published in 1817 after Austen’s death, although she wrote it over a decade prior. It was Austen’s first novel.
“In response to the feeling that everything is ‘crazy’ right now, and that our current political situation is either unprecedented or a terrifying slide into the past, I’ve been turning to novels in the Gothic genre,” Courtemanche wrote. “In the Gothic, at least as it was formulated in the 1790s, an innocent girl is held captive by some kind of rogue patriarch (it can be her father or a religious leader) enabled by some larger system of unreason. When these books were written in the 1790s, they represented a British reaction against the fear that their neighbor, France, had suddenly gone crazy and descended into Revolutionary terror.”
Courtemanche drew ties between the Gothic genre and Jordan Peele’s recently released film “Get Out.” In the movie, a white woman brings her black boyfriend to her parent’s house, where he enters an unexpectedly dangerous situation.
“The Gothic does a good job of depicting the feeling that your creeping sense of unease is suddenly actually real, and the threat is real and you’d better try to escape,” Courtemanche wrote. “This movie feels urgent (as well as funny) because it speaks both to the larger history of American racism and to the current political crisis, which for a lot of people feels like the whole nation is suddenly and violently being dragged into a dark past.”
Notably divergent from the Bildungsroman and the Gothic, food-related writing is favored by English professor Curtis Perry. Food writing comes in many forms – fiction, non-fiction, memoirs and cookbooks, to name a few.
“I like food writing, which has a lot to do with globalization and migration and plurality,” Perry wrote in an email.
Perry said he enjoys Jennifer 8. Lee’s “Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” Gustavo Arellano’s “Taco USA,” John T. Edge’s “Southern Belly” and Anthony Bourdain’s travel and food essays.
“I choose novels for a variety of reasons, but part of the appeal is to have the chance to try to inhabit an unfamiliar point of view,” Perry said. “I suppose that can be relevant to questions of xenophobia and immigration. I tend to be seek out writers who will tell stories from points of view that I can’t necessarily anticipate.”
Perry wrote that he enjoyed Lee’s “Fortune Cookie Chronicles” in part because of his youth, from working in a Chinese restaurant to becoming a line cook in a Chi-Chi’s.
“Food cultures are one of the places where cultural crossings are most tangible. The food I love in the U.S. is immigrant cuisine – often hybridized for U.S. ingredients or palates over time,” Perry wrote. “Everything has a history, and literature can give you access to that. And the cultivation of historical imagination is among the most powerful tools there is for the basic task of learning to think with other minds.”
“Kindred” by Octavia Butler
Butler’s novel takes on a multitude of genres to give readers a sampling of the slave narrative while also making a commentary on race relations in the ’70s.
“A novel that straddles historical fiction and science fiction, Kindred’s protagonist travels through time from California of the 1970s to a plantation in the antebellum South,” Jennifer Bliss, lecturer in the English department, wrote in an email. “Butler’s writing is compelling, and her novel depicts the brutality and the complexities of both individuals and institutions.”
The piece features an interracial couple, and while the narrative is fictional, the historical context in both the early 1800s and 1970s is accurate.
For anyone who prefers comics instead, Bliss recommends the graphic adaptation of “Kindred” by current University instructor Damian Duffy and former University professor John Jennings.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood
Bliss also recommended this dystopian novel, where the reader follows the protagonist Offred through her daily life in the Republic of Gilead, a place under totalitarian theocratic rule.
“While amazon.com sold out of copies of George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece ‘1984’ in the days following the 45th president’s inauguration, I think Atwood’s disturbing gender-based dystopia deserves just as much attention,” Bliss wrote. “It’s brilliantly written and sometimes creepily accurate, depicting a society in which the oppression of women is central.”
Atwood’s novel was published in 1985, but many of the oppressive circumstances she warned about in the past are voiced as concerns by protesters around the country today. Just one day after the presidential inauguration, women and their allies took to Washington, and cities all across the nation, to march for the protection of their rights.
“‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ speaks to a deep fear in many women’s lives — and you should read it before watching Hulu’s upcoming adaptation,” Bliss wrote.
“In Defense of a Liberal Education” by Fareed Zakaria
Fareed Zakaria is an Indian-American author and journalist with a weekly foreign affairs column in the Washington Post. He wrote about how the focus on skills-based education discredits the benefits of learning the liberal arts. He argued that liberal arts give students a way to think critically and analytically, as well as express themselves more eloquently.
David Wright, associate professor of English, recommends Zakaria’s non-fiction piece for its contemporary merits and his own connections to the higher education system.
Wright said Zakaria makes a “sort of smart, compelling argument” that in a contemporary context and in college settings, value is placed more on training-based education rather than liberal arts education, and Wright said that’s a reduction.
“I think that when we come to college, it isn’t necessarily just to get a better job, it’s in fact to be a better citizen, a more fully realized human being and citizen our country but also the world,” Wright said. “I think that we do well as a society to remember those values and to try to espouse them and not neglect them.”