Reading Queer Work with Students

I’m not technically a teacher. I work in a high school, I read texts with high school students, but I’m not a teacher. I’m not bound by State or Federal curriculum requirements. I don’t give tests. I’m not employed by the high school and when choosing what to read with students, no one is checking in to see if what we read is “school appropriate”.

What we read is “student appropriate” instead–the right text for the right student (I meet with students one-on-one a few times a week, so I am able to read one book with four students and another book with a different four students etc). I recognize I am in a unique position to be able to make such choices.

I’m about to choose texts for this school year and I’m running into a question I never thought I would ask: how do I read queer texts with high school students?

The first texts we read of the semester I read with all students and I’m debating between two pieces:

  1. “Psalm in the Spirit of Amnesia” a poem by Julie Marie Wade published in PANK 11.1 Spring/Summer 2016
  2. “Origins of Dress” an essay by Christina Quintana, published in Nimrod International Journal 59.2 Spring/Summer 2016 (unavailable online, but keep an eye out for my upcoming literary magazine review of Nimrod for New Pages)

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Both pieces are by lesbian authors, although Quintana’s essay is more focused on sexuality and its presentation than Wade’s.

Quintana discusses being a lesbian and her relationship with wearing dresses through a series of vignettes. On the one hand, I think high school students will have no problem relating to a piece about how we are judged by what we wear. On the other hand, I’m asking students to relate to a lesbian protagonist and I’m concerned that this might shut down any conversation about the piece’s literary content.

For Wade’s poem it would be an insult to the author to discuss the content and not discuss why she expressly names her sexuality in the poem. I’m asking students to see themselves in a lesbian narrator.

Gay-agendaBut engaging students to empathize and see themselves in characters and situations that might be different than their own is my goal! So, why do I feel I’m promoting the “gay agenda”?

I know some of my students come from conservative and/or religious families, but I’m less concerned about offending someone, than I am about not being able to have a conversation. When I was in high school, I would shut down if an adult mentioned sex or sexuality in any way. I would literally be terrified to speak because I didn’t have the language to know I was ace, only that I found the whole idea of sex disgusting.

My students aren’t me and I know that. But I’m looking for advice on how to meet students where they are, even as I tell them that queer content is just another thing to read, another experience to understand.

Any thoughts on which piece I should read with my students? Does anyone have any advice on reading queer material with high school students? If you’ve done it, how did it go?

Thank you for your thoughts.

A Poem a Day Challenge

Last Friday, Joyce Carol Oates read her poetry at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago.. To be honest, I didn’t know Oates was a poet. I knew her more for her short stories (specifically “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”) and the novel Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (which I took out from the library recently but have not had a chance to begin).

As a writer, I tend to introduce myself as the writer who writes everything but poetry. I write fiction, nonfiction and drama. End of story.

But I’m coming to realize that the end of the story, is really just the beginning. I wound up sitting next to a woman at the reading who said she had spent the last three years writing a poem a day. That struck me as feasible and a simple way to gain comfortability in a genre where I have the least experience.

As I pursue female authors this year, I’m extending my own reach as an author and I encourage you to do the same.

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Books By Women: The New Jim Crow

For anyone interested in racial justice, this nonfiction book is a must read. Michelle Alexander writes an academic and accessible text on how the American prison system is the new form of racial segregation and control, targeting mainly black and brown men. She argues that the prison industrial complex is the new Jim Crow.

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I first read this book last December and with every page I was floored by own ignorance. Of course, I was vaguely aware of NYC’s “stop and frisk” laws and racial profiling, but from my privileged position as a white-passing young woman from suburban Connecticut, the experiences of those convicted as felons (often for petty drug crimes) was an alternate reality. The brutality of dystopian governments and police was happening in the neighborhood bordering mine, not just within the pages of fiction I read. That’s the thing about this book: it puts together the dots in a way that is instantly clear and leaves you wondering, How was I ever so blind? I know there is still so much more for to learn.

The second time I read this book, was in the past few months, reading the text with junior and seniors in high school. This is probably what makes Alexander’s text even more of a game changer in how we talk about race and racial justice: it’s accessible. She breaks down the complexities of the legal system without dumbing them down. She explains the history of SWAT teams, the War on Drugs and how police make their arrests and receive their funding. She digs into the root causes of the imprisonment of young men of color and you learn something with ever page. People who have a greater background in racial justice can still benefit from the clarity and precision of her argument.

I wish this book were written today. It would have been a very different book, or at least a book that included information on the murders of Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and Sandra Bland to name a few. She might have included information on die-ins and Black Lives Matter. But maybe not. It may have been outside the scope of her research at the time. Hopefully in subsequent editions of the text, she will include a forward or an additional chapter.

One aspect of her work I appreciate the most is her acknowledgment of the areas she does not cover. She tells the reader right from the start that this book focuses on the incarceration of men of color, though she knows women of color are also suffering.

The book is (obviously) heavy material, but I would recommend it. It’s a necessary read for necessary conversations Americans need to start having about race, segregation and incarceration.

Keep reading. Even when it’s hard and even when you’re challenged and floored by ideas, keep reading. Next up The Terrorists of Irustan. 

Books By Women: Love in a Torn Land Joanna of Kurdistan

A little over a year ago now I studied abroad in Istanbul, Turkey and current Turkish politics is my historical niche. My last semester in college I completed independent research on Turkey’s pro-Kurdish political parties and Turkey’s cultural genocide of the country’s Kurdish populations. Briefly summarized, Kurds are a Muslim ethnic group with a majority of Kurds located in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Kurds have been systematically discriminated against and outright killed based on their ethnicity, with Saddam Hussein bombarding Iraqi Kurdistan with chemical attacks in 1988 in the Anfal campaign. There is no separate state of Kurdistan. For extensive information on abuses against Kurds, please check out the Kurdish Human Rights Project.

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My research into pro-Kurdish political parties and the knowledge I’ve sought to join the movement for Kurdish rights globally has led me to begin a historical fiction novel set in Turkish Kurdistan in the 1990s and my research for this novel led me to the book: Love in a Torn Land: Joanna of Kurdistan: The True Story of a Freedom Fighter’s Escape from Iraqi Vengeance. joanna of Kurdistan

I’m not sure how to describe this book. On the one hand, it’s a biography, written by Jean Sasson, who lived and worked in Saudi Arabia and has written multiple books through interviews with Middle Eastern women. But the book is narrated in first person from Joanna’s perspective. The writing reads as if it were a transcript compiled from the various interviews with Joanna, but to be honest I’m not sure how it was written. I’ve contacted Sasson to ask and hope to hear from her soon.

The writing didn’t have a lot of details which would have drawn me into Joanna’s story of growing up in Baghdad, marrying a Peshmerga Kurdish freedom fighter and surviving the Anfal Campaign. Hers is a story of survival, but I had difficulty investing myself because the writing didn’t put me into the scene. I can’t blame either Sasson or Joanna for this. Sasson explains in an interview on her website, that while speaking with Joanna, Joanna was often too traumatized to provide details, making the writing process far more difficult.

The book provided me with some of the cultural and historical information I need for my own project and it’s a great start for readers interested in modern Middle Eastern history who may not have a strong background.  As you read, you learn about Kurds, Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, the Iran-Iraq war, and many details people living in the west don’t have access to or wouldn’t think to ask about. And even if you know some of the facts already as I did, having a human perspective is far more compelling and real than all the statistics and academic research you could ever compile.

I’ll keep you updated if I hear back from Sasson! In the mean time, keep reading.

Up next: Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia.