Suffering can be complicated. There are times our sufferings seem to us completely meaningless. The solution here is simple: we wish these sufferings not to be. Yet there are other times our sufferings seem meaningful to us. Caring for an aging parent or undergoing persecution for one’s politics can seem this way. To say that we wish these sufferings not to be is too simple.
If we accept the relative truth of the above assessment, how then do we construct a coherent theoretical account of suffering? Is suffering something redemptive, able to be integrated into the development of a self toward the good, or is it something strictly deleterious? Is there a way to assemble a theory that could coherently account for the possibility of either option? We could do as the high and late medievals did, and say that suffering is always a good, in that it draws us closer to the suffering Christ.1 Or we could do as the modern project did, and say that suffering is always bad: it is an unnecessary aberration, a surd, that needs to be eliminated.2 Both these theoretical accounts are coherent, but they are so at the expense of doing justice to the actual human experience of suffering, which—as suggested above—remains stubbornly ambiguous.
In order to construct an account of suffering that does full justice to its ambiguity, we cannot turn without revision to medieval or modern theories. What then should we look to? One possible alternate way forward, thankfully available to us now, are the works of modern literature.
From even a cursory glimpse at literature in modernity, it is notable how many of its works do not attempt to reduce the complexity of suffering, but give full voice to both its meaningless and meaningful sides (Mrs. Dalloway, Housekeeping, and Salvage the Bones are just a few examples). Can we then construct a theory of suffering that remains continually open to the ambivalence we find represented in literature, while still retaining a level of theoretical coherence? Can a second order of theory be soundly built upon a first order of literature? And can theological thinking, in the history of which there has been a great deal of reflection on positive and negative valuations of suffering, be an ally in this effort? Cynthia Wallace’s Of Women Borne is an attempt to show how these questions can be answered in the affirmative.
Throughout history, women have borne the brunt of suffering, of pains both cultural and natural in character; and women’s writing reflects this reality. As Wallace puts it, “Women have been exploring questions of suffering and redemption for as long as they have been writing in English” (8). From Julian of Norwich through to Louise Erdrich, suffering and redemption have been central topics.
Though many other references are woven in, Wallace looks principally to the writing of four women: Adrienne Rich, Toni Morrison, Ana Castillo, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. All four authors share a commitment to exposing and addressing oppression, but they also insist that their subjects are not completely defined by the powers attempting to subjugate them (in this way, all four writers bear similarities to Gloria Anzaldúa’s indelible Borderlands/La Frontera). In the midst of a variety of imposed difficulties, women repeatedly escape reductive forces and articulate new modes of liberation. These new modes complexly intertwine experienced problems with their solution.
This is how redemption of suffering happens in general, though particular details will always be schematized in a way that cannot be assigned from above, instead coming from the individual herself. Rather than a unilateral praise or condemnation of suffering, Wallace wants to say: suffering is not always redemptive, but it can be. Such a nuanced position, requiring continual discernment, is precisely what we see in the literary prose of the above authors. Their narratives allow us to practice our imaginations in the kinds of judgement needed to decide whether a particular suffering is either purely redemptive, strictly injurious, or some mixture of the two (and, if the latter, how the complicated threads of these experiences are to be sorted).
The following symposium approaches Of Women Borne from multiple angles, though each approach is notably personal. These are issues and this is a book that really matters to the participants’ lives.
James Cochran offers a multilayered assessment in his piece, interweaving the pandemic crisis, environmental degradation, the connected degradation of agricultural laborers, and the potential importance of Wallace’s ethics of reading for classroom pedagogy. Cochran’s many different sites of engagement with Of Women Borne show just how productive this text can be for serious ethical reflection.
Mariana Alessandri has given us a remarkable entry in our ongoing conversation about Of Women Borne. It is on the one hand a thoughtful assessment of the damage and the value Catholicism has had for Latinas. It is on the other hand a profoundly personal and vulnerable meditation on how theology can play an important liberating role amid the felt fragility of pandemic life.
Suzanne Bost’s contribution takes the form of a moving and exploratory letter, addressed to Wallace herself. It specifically presses issues raised by Wallace’s interlocutors of color, and poses the question: “What does it mean to join?”
Throughout, Wallace’s text resists the temptation of reduction. So also the discussion that follows stages an enriching and lively dialogue by continually circling back to the key issue posed by Of Women Borne, the redemption and non-redemption of suffering, or “how beauty and pain and goodness meet and argue and mingle in the twenty-first century” (84).
Suffering with Cynthia Wallace
The Coronavirus pandemic rounds out everything we do these days. For some of us it’s pushed to the forefront: those who live in certain cities, work certain jobs, have elderly relatives, or are immunocompromised. Others of us make it the focus of our daily lives by inhaling too much news. The group to which I belong have begun to invest in comparisons; we read dystopic literature to turn our imaginations on. Why not raise the psychological ante with a little Oryx and Crake or Station 11? I, and maybe others who belong to this group, want to know what’s at stake in all of this. What are we missing out on? What can we learn? How should we be acting? How much worse will it get? Instead of plunging into our screens, we are trying to make meaning of our dangerously-close-to-absurd lives. There must be a lesson in here somewhere, and books have the power to dig it out for us. Most of these lessons come in the form of fear and imagination. What really makes a human life human? asks Margaret Atwood in Oryx and Crake. Is the past worth keeping alive? asks Emily St. John Mandel in Station 11.
Even before the pandemic, Cynthia Wallace was a questioning and imaginative reader, virtues on full display in Of Women Borne. Wallace is asking specifically about the suffering of women as it is displayed in literary texts, and her questioning is not satisfied by simplistic unitive narratives. Wallace reads books for their questions too, specifically about the suffering of women. She is not content to dismiss women’s suffering under the umbrella of patriarchy or oppression. There is more to it. Wallace is excruciatingly careful to locate and avoid philosophical mines like romanticizing women’s suffering, and pithy sayings like “it happens for a reason” and “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.” She addresses the overanalyzed suffering that Eve apparently brought on for all women in a way that doesn’t feel boring or overwrought. Like many of us are doing right now, Wallace turns to literature to help us find truth, in part by calling upon Chimamanda Adichie’s assertion that fiction is true (168). For both Wallace and Adichie, we can learn from characters who never existed. Thus, Wallace uncovers some of the truths behind the suffering of women, and even if you haven’t read the four main authors she discusses, you can still learn something about how to read (and avoid reading) the suffering of fictional women. Along with Adrienne Rich, Toni Morrison, Ana Castillo, and Chimamanda Adichie, Wallace pulls from philosopher Simone Weil as well as various figures from decolonial and feminist theory.
Wallace begins Of Women Borne asking about the connection between suffering and compassion (3). She points us to Annie Dillard, who says that an author suffers to bring about something good for her readers, and she challenges the now widespread aversion to and suspicion concerning voluntary suffering (8, 10). The conversation had been all but closed: women’s suffering is bad and we need to end any discussion that dares to ask after its value. Wallace refuses this easy narrative and plunges into the dangerous possibility of the redemptive power of suffering. At every step Wallace is careful, reminding me of someone who walks on hot coals without getting burned. She reminds us at crucial intervals not to mistake her local conclusions for global ones, and not to assume she’s repeating age-old (and now discarded) clichés about the power of pain. Wallace reads not just novels but commentaries on them and literary criticism in adjacent fields, like feminist theory and liberation theology. Wallace states that she is
concerned not just with the structures of ethical reading but also with the question of suffering as a theme, of women’s suffering and sacrifice as a social phenomenon making both texts and bodies. What of bones and flesh, of political rhetoric and labor relations, of the hands that hold the spines? (33)
Of Women Borne asks after reader and author, and how suffering brings them together.
In chapter 4, Wallace studies Ana Castillo’s written relationship to Roman Catholicism, particularly to liberation theology. The problem is obvious by now: Catholic Latinas are supposed to be made in the image of Mary, the mother of God, which in Tey Diana Rebolledo’s words, means “dutiful mothers, wives, daughters, teachers, nurses, and other helpful, nurturing, compassionate figures of all kinds” (134). But Wallace also notes that the tradition of Latinx feminist theology (and, I would add, mujerista theology) argues that Catholicism also empowers Latinas. This results in what Wallace calls “ambivalence” but also “optimism” towards Catholicism (134). For many Latinas, including myself, Catholicism is somewhat of a pharmakon: it stirs up trouble and also soothes it down. Wallace’s reading shows how in Castillo’s books, Catholicism is neither fully rejected nor fully embraced. It is critiqued and shown to be liberatory.
Castillo and other feminists critique classical liberation theology on several grounds, one of which is the absence of the “feminine principle” (146). Mujerista theology doesn’t suffer from quite the same sin, says Wallace reading Castillo, but it still may place too much emphasis on a theology that some Latinas reject (147). But the field of liberation theology seems equipped to handle criticism and the range of religiosity of its readers. Following Gustavo Gutierrez, Wallace reads liberation theology more as a method than a set of beliefs. To engage with liberation theology, one need only invert one’s attention and adopt a point of view that privileges those at the bottom. In doing this, one can always read a given situation from the ground up, watching what is going on to, from, and about those in the lowest rungs of society. Despite Castillo’s ambivalence toward Catholicism, her books still privilege some of the least consulted actors, like the M.O.M.A.S. (Mothers of Martyrs and Saints) in So Far from God (147, 154). These are women who have lost a child to oppressions of various kinds, “sacrificed like lambs in the slaughterhouse of various oppressions” (155). The M.O.M.A.S., as well as some scenes from The Guardians, pick up on common themes in Roman Catholicism: martyrdom, piety, love, miracle, and most importantly, suffering. Wallace ends her chapter by linking reading from the perspective of the poor or oppressed can give a person the courage to act. She concludes that reading alone doesn’t bring about justice, but it can inspire us to seek justice (167).
Can reading inspire us to seek justice today?
Right now, as the death toll in the US climbs past 100,000, we could use some of our time to contemplate human suffering. We need not conclude that the pandemic happened for a reason, nor that those who perished from it are atoning for the sins of their fathers. But what do we tell our children? Is it an act of God? Nature? Crake was the god of Snowman’s stories told to the non-human children in Oryx and Crake. They loved to hear about their “creator,” as do some of us. We are storytellers and readers, both, and we can—right now—look to literature for ideas about how we might think through this time. Ours is not the first pandemic in history, but it might be the first that Wallace has witnessed. Hopefully she will write a sequel using the literature that is certain to arise from the ashes of Coronavirus.
Wallace ends Of Women Borne by writing about her personal suffering, the miscarriage she suffered as she was editing the book. It must have been unreal to have meditated on the suffering of women, especially as it pertained to pregnancy, miscarriage, labor, and delivery and then to experience one of those things. No doubt Wallace got challenged by the words she had written, even while she was still pregnant when life still held together. The miscarriage was unexpected, she tells us, it happened at a time deemed relatively “safe” by doctors. Wallace’s courage in writing about how her suffering tested her beliefs inspires me to write about a suffering that awaits me and threatens to upend me any day.
My elderly parents live one block away, and my now-demented father with a battered heart and roughed-up lungs is convinced that he will die from Coronavirus. Every day I have to make the decision whether I should visit. The choice is risky, which Wallace says is necessary. Do I risk life as a potentially asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic COVID-19 carrier, or do I stay home and not spend time with my parents in what may be my father’s last days? Wallace writes, “We suffer because we are vulnerable to cultural norms, to social expectations, to bodily limitations” (225). The expectations of a daughter are that I honor my parents. I want to spend time with them daily and did so before the pandemic. But now, when social distancing has become cast as a moral imperative, how do I decide what to do from day to day? How do any of us?
Wallace says that reading about miscarriage changed her experience of miscarriage, and I believe that reading always does—indeed, it must—change our experience. I assume the opposite is true too: our readings are informed by our experiences. If Wallace had had the miscarriage first, she would surely have read Purple Hibiscus differently. Reading Of Women Borne has forced me to think about my imminent suffering. How will I—and all of us—deal with the suffering that has touched some of us already and will find the rest of us in the coming months? Wallace asks, “For whose sake will I choose to suffer?” (227). I would suffer alone for my parents’ sake if necessary, but I can’t know. How many of us are inadvertently waiting for death to take our loved ones? What are we doing, then, cooped up in our boxes willing time to pass only to screech on the brakes when someone coughs? What are we to make of this time, which passes in slow motion but kills in a matter of hours?
Wallace writes, “The suffering that results from the human condition of limitation and frailty, or the suffering that is inescapable, cannot be assuaged by someone else’s suffering, but redemption can be found in the meaning we derive from our own suffering: we can buy back the good by learning to learn from pain” (228). Suffering can be redemptive, but Wallace insists that there is no one meaning for all suffering. Only an individual can create a kind of meaning and narrative around their own suffering. Whatever happens with my parents, I will have to be able to look back on it and say that I chose what I thought was best in the face of a lack of evidence. I will need to learn from the pain, which, if they die in the coming months, will be severe.
Like the characters in Ana Castillo’s books, my parents are Catholic. They are comforted by the types of platitudes that Wallace dismisses: Everything happens for a reason. It was my time. This belief of theirs is the thing I hold onto more tightly than anything. If I accidentally pass on a virus that I don’t even know I have and they die from it, they will die believing that it’s their time. This is the most comforting belief I could ever imagine. They will not blame me, nor will they judge me. This belief, which at first glance the least risky is in fact the riskiest: it helps me decide if I should visit or not. They may be the only two people around who, afterward, won’t have believed that I killed them. The rest of the world might judge me for not exercising enough caution, for being selfish, for not seeing what was right in front of my eyes. But like good Catholics, my parents will have seen through this world to the next and have staked me right into God’s plan. My parents are not liberation theologians but their theology is liberating. Reading Of Women Borne has changed the way I see reading and suffering, and though I do not walk away with a mistaken sense that all suffering hides deep meaning, I have become more open to the idea of situating, and even narrating, my certain future suffering.
6.4.21 | James Cochran
“What will you do, once your hands are again free?”
I first read Cynthia R. Wallace’s Of Women Borne: A Literary Ethics of Suffering in graduate school when I was working on a seminar paper on eco-feminism and eco-theology in Ana Castillo’s The Guardians. More recently, I reread Wallace’s work on suffering and wrote this essay in the midst of two events that resonate well with Wallace’s subject: COVID-19 and my mother’s tibial fracture. Because Wallace so successfully interweaves her own personal narrative into her literary analysis, I begin this essay with a brief reflection on these two recent events. Then, guided by Wallace’s focus on “critique and embrace,” I transition to a short reading of agricultural labor and suffering in Ana Castillo’s The Guardians. I conclude with an invitation for more sustained conversation about a pedagogy informed by Wallace’s literary ethics of suffering.
The suffering caused by COVID-19 is obvious, with more 356,000 deaths—and continuously climbing—at the time that I write this. As I read Wallace’s reminder to remember the specific gendered and racialized components of suffering, I read tragic articles about the impact of COVID-19 on women and people of color. In their recent article “How Millions of Women Became the Most Essential Workers,” Campbell Robertson and Robert Gebeloff document how frontline workers are predominantly women—and specifically women of color:
Likewise, Helen Lewis warns of another way that this pandemic will inflict suffering on women: “Across the world, women’s independence will be a silent victim of the pandemic” as they are forced to take on the extra unpaid labor of childcare.1 I would love to hear more from Wallace about her reading practice and what it can teach us during a pandemic. Would she adjust her model of literary ethics at all? What parts of her reading practice seem particularly relevant for our current circumstances?
While I read about the global suffering and death caused by COVID-19—and our lack of adequate systems to swiftly confront such a crisis—I have had a more personal experience of suffering. Two weeks ago, I learned that my father was hospitalized for what he thought was a heart attack. While he was hospitalized, my mother fell off a ladder and broke her leg. She army-crawled back into the house to call an ambulance. Every few feet, I later learned, she cried out in pain, rested a moment, and then resumed crawling.
During the week of my mother’s hospitalization, I repeatedly heard friends and family exclaim, “She’s a tough woman. She doesn’t give up.” I agreed. Because of COVID-19, the hospital didn’t allow any visitors. My mother and I spoke often on the phone, and I would ask her about her pain: “Is your pain any better? Is it still a nine?” How could I understand her suffering? How could I read it? And how could I respond?
I find Wallace’s entire work provocative as she seeks to understand and answer these kinds of questions about reading and responding to suffering. What I find most refreshing about Wallace’s reading is her refusal to present clean and straightforward solutions. Her analysis does not conclude with a step-by-step how-to guide for reading suffering; instead, she emphasizes that reading and rereading is a messy, risky process:
Again and again, in Of Women Borne, Wallace concedes that her analysis isn’t—and shouldn’t be—all-encompassing; she insists on the difficulty of interpreting: “The writings I have been studying both do and do not represent in any sense of the term, and that is one of their primary ethical lessons: the limitations of any reader’s reading, the way justice is called for, again and again, and yet continues to slip just over the horizon. We both can and cannot recognize ourselves in texts. We both can and cannot learn from them what we ought to do” (214). Reading and responding to suffering is difficult, risky, and messy. I really appreciate Wallace’s recognition of our human limitations, even as she urges us read, act, and learn from each other and from literary texts.
While I enjoy all of Wallace’s readings, her reading of Castillo’s works still stands out to me. Selfishly, I want to hear more from Wallace about the environmental suffering depicted—and potentially redeemed—in the novel. Throughout the chapter, Wallace notes the impact of environmental racism on Latinx people: “Interwoven with many Chicanas’ enculturated expectation of suffering are numerous concrete material sufferings that attend their raced, classed, and gendered subject positions: environmental racism, sweatshops, and deathly migrant work, enforced sterilization, urban violence” (137).
I keep reading and rereading Castillo’s The Guardians through Wallace’s argument that Castillo’s novel and other texts “manifest a paradoxical stance of both critique and embrace of Christianity, of particular cultures, and of suffering itself as both bound up with oppression and source of empowerment for ethical action” (xiv). Throughout The Guardians, the land simultaneously serves as a source of suffering and a source of empowerment. As Castillo’s novel makes clear, agricultural labor results in a disproportionate number of pesticide-related illnesses. Of course, many of these laborers have been Latinx workers, and, as Mike Davis and Justin Akers Chacón recognize, many of these laborers have been women: “In the years 1930–1950, women comprised up to 75% of all food processing workers in agricultural industries. In California, the majority of these were Mexican, both citizens and otherwise” (277). Regina’s experience, as a “little girl” “work[ing] in the fields” reflects this historical reality. She critiques the suffering caused by a system of agricultural work that does not care about the workers themselves. “All the summer crop dusters will fly low, spraying pesticides on the nearby farmlands, not to mention on the workers” (48).
Contrasted with this oppressive agricultural suffering is an ethically-engaged practice of farming. On the same pages that she critiques the use of pesticides, Regina presents alternatives, like “farmers’ market[s],” “pesticide-free vegetables,” composting, and “container gardens” (48, 50, 52). Regina shows how labor-intensive farming and gardening can be, and how this activity surely results in tired bodies, but the labor is a “productive pain” (to use Wallace’s term) that sustains life for others. Because of The Guardians’s intertextual references to Paradise Lost (through, as Wallace explains, characters named Milton, Uriel, Gabriel, Michael, and Rafael ), I find it difficult not to read the novel’s reclamation of agricultural labor as a response to God’s curse of painful toil and labor in Genesis 3.
As I use Wallace’s theories to guide my reading of Castillo’s novel, I hear Wallace warning to remember that “there is a content to literature, that literature does importantly point somehow to enfleshed reality” (35). Too often, in my own readings, I allow my theoretical lenses to guide—or perhaps take over—the literary texts. Thus, I find Wallace’s attitude toward “high” theory inspiring even if challenging. Although Wallace clearly engages with—and remains guided by—“high” literary theories, she insists on turning away from the “body of theory” to instead “attend to women’s literary writing” throughout the body of her work (xv, xvi). Wallace’s approach—engaging with “high theory” primarily in her first chapter and then shifting attention toward women’s literary writing—is impressive, and the result is a series of intelligible and sophisticated close readings. Wallace’s scholarly approach—in addition to her reading practice—is one to emulate.
I want to hear more from Wallace about the place of her reading practice in the classroom. On the last pages of Of Women Borne, Wallace calls us to “walk into our classrooms, create our syllabi, humbled by the fact that there is always more we are leaving out of the reading list or the lecture or the discussion, usually without even realizing it” (230). Instead of falling into paralysis over our inability to craft the most representative or socially just syllabi, we need to create the syllabi that we can, while remaining open to change. Wallace’s ethics of readerly attention reminds me of David I. Smith’s understanding of charitable reading (in contrast to consumerist reading). Smith’s 2011 essay offers a variety of classroom interventions—from reducing students’ reading loads to focusing on specific “longitudinal thread[s] throughout the semester’s readings” (20). Smith’s strategies resonate with Wallace’s call for us to “seek communities (or seek to create communities) that will bring together differences and allow us to challenge each other” within the classroom and other spaces (230). As a writing center administrator and writing teacher, I would love to learn more about what Wallace’s reading practices mean for our pedagogical practices. How do we teach a risky, attentive practice of reading? How might we apply such a practice when reading students’ writings? How would Wallace’s ethics of reading challenge some of our current teaching practices?
For the chance to think through these multiple sites of questioning with a deeply thoughtful dialogue partner, I am grateful for the opportunity to revisit Wallace’s work. The entire text is engaging and thought-provoking, but the conclusion is so rich, as Wallace outlines and wrestles with her model of literary ethics. I want to keep reading and learning from Wallace, just as her work concludes. I suppose her conclusion is the point, though. Wallace does not have—and does not pretend to have—all the answers, and she invites readers to join her in thinking through a literary ethics of suffering. The final sentence of Of Women Borne turns toward the reader, asking, “What will you do, once your hands are again free?” (231). I look forward to the conversation.
Castillo, Ana. The Guardians. New York: Random House, 2007.
Davis, Mike, and Justin Akers Chacón. No One Is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border. Chicago: Haymarket, 2006.
Lewis, Helen. “The Coronavirus Is a Disaster for Feminism.” Atlantic, March 19, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/03/feminism-womens-rights-coronavirus-covid19/608302/.
Robertson, Campbell, and Robert Gebeloff. “How Millions of Women Became the Most Essential Workers.” New York Times, April 18, 2020. https://nyti.ms/2xuWTes.
Smith, David I. “Reading Practices and Christian Pedagogy: Enacting Charity with Texts.” In Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning, edited by David I. Smith and James K. A. Smith. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011.
Helen Lewis, “The Coronavirus Is a Disaster for Feminism,” The Atlantic, March 19, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/03/feminism-womens-rights-coronavirus-covid19/608302/.↩
6.4.21 | Cynthia Wallace
Response to James Cochran
One of the best ways I know how to honor a story is to listen to it carefully, ask good questions, and then answer with a story of one’s own. That’s exactly what James Cochran has done by honoring us with a personal reflection as well as three major questions about the ethics of reading in pandemic, Ana Castillo’s representations of environmental suffering, and pedagogical practices.
In the weeks between our two essay drafts, we saw a groundswell of action protesting police brutality and honoring Black lives, exposing what Ibram X. Kendi has called “the old virus of racist terror”1 that far predates the novel coronavirus. With Kendi, Cochran reminds us that race, class, and gender play a devastating role in communities’ vulnerability to COVID-19. This is an essential reminder that while some suffering is inevitable, part of the shared human condition, most suffering is exacerbated by structural injustice: particularity abounds, and there is no single story of this pandemic.
In Of Women Borne I develop an ethics of reading that combines what I call the ethics of readerly attention with the ethics of literary representation. The book seeks to intervene in discussions of literary ethics that developed in the late 1990s, discussions that were often either abstractly theoretical or naively hopeful about the effects reading can have. In conversation with Adrienne Rich, Toni Morrison, Ana Castillo, and Chimamanda Adichie, plus feminist theorists and liberationist theologians, the book showcases how the language of giving oneself for another—language prevalent in much of the New Ethical Criticism—has significant gendered and religious resonances and troubling implications. At the same time, I argue, these literary writers show that suffering, while it must be understood in its raced, gendered, classed, and other particular contexts, may also have ethical wisdom to share.
Ultimately, the book insists, we need to consider both which texts we read and also how we read them. In the classroom, this means that I go out of my way to assign texts by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, books by women and others sidelined for their gender or sexuality. I do this not just in classes on feminist and decolonizing literatures and theories but also in Life Writing, a second-year course where we read Ta Nehisi Coates’s “Letter to My Son” to learn about the letter genre and Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed to learn about coming-of-age memoirs. I assign Rich’s “Notes toward a Politics of Location” and have students write reflectively on their own social and geographic locations, inviting them into a more self-aware relationship to the assigned readings. Simone Weil famously writes that the ethical question par excellence is, “What are you going through?” To it, I add, “Where are you coming from?”
This concern with syllabus content is with the ethics of representation, and while old-school theorists may be suspicious about literature’s capacity to meaningfully represent reality, my students in general aren’t. The place I have to coach them more is in the ethics of readerly attention—which looks a lot like close reading.
In the classroom, this means bringing attention back to the text, again and again and again. For instance, in a seminar on women writers and activism last year, my very bright students would often read the assigned text but want to have free-wheeling associational conversations about politics. It became a comic bit for me to intervene by raising the assigned book for all to see. “Yes,” I would say. “Yes, these are crucial insights. Keep talking about this over coffee later. But for now, please give me a page number.”
I didn’t want to shut down the political application—far from it. But I think one of the most powerful ways to counter the political morass resulting from a sound-bite- and hot-take- driven public discourse is careful, sustained attention to a text, and that takes discipline to develop. I’ve started to use the language of tethering and anchoring, inescapably material metaphors, in class conversation and on papers I mark: “Can you tether this claim to textual evidence? Can you anchor this assertion in the text?”
Suspending our agendas to really listen, to be open to surprise, is hard and humbling work. It is also slow work. I’ve tried to cut my reading loads, a painful but productive strategy Cochran also mentions. In one first-year writing course, I assigned a short book as both the first and the last text to be read and invited students to reflect in their exams on the experience of rereading. Knowing what we do about cognitive bias and its effect on the body politic, I’ve come to see these combined practices of deepening self-awareness, sustained attention, and reading across difference as skills our societies desperately need, skills with profound political effects.
Cochran demonstrates such effects in his closely attentive reading of The Guardians, which links the novel’s representations to cross-disciplinary analyses of migrant labor. He expresses a wish for more discussion of the environmental suffering depicted in the novel and then beautifully answers his own request, convincingly showing how Castillo depicts the land and agriculture as source of both pain and life.
Here in Canada, farm workers have recently emerged as one of the most vulnerable populations in the COVID-19 pandemic, intersecting with the populations of women and people of color Cochran notes.2 The gendered, raced, and economic dynamics of the pandemic remind us, again, that systems of injustice and particular social and geographic locations result in dramatically different experiences and disproportionate sufferings.
In such a context, reading—fiction and nonfiction, narrative and poetry—can be both a comfort and a provocation: narratives can offer us escape in stress or the relief of self-recognition (a particular gift for marginalized people); accurate data can settle our fears or help us to make good choices in fraught situations. At the same time, exposure to other stories, stories from other literal and figurative locations, remind me of how problematic it is to generalize from my own experience.
This is the kind of reading I believe we all need to be doing to move forward in a politicized and striated pandemic: carefully attentive, alert to particularity, purposefully seeking stories pushed to the periphery of public life. Such reading can be a balm for the marginalized and a goad for the privileged: it can help us, together with our students for those of us who are lucky enough to teach, find our way through the novel coronavirus—and the not-at-all-novel virus of injustice.
“Migrant Advocacy Group Demands Ontario Shut Down Agricultural Sector amid COVID-19 Spike,” CBS, June 29, 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/windsor/migrant-farm-workers-demand-sector-shut-down-1.5631324.↩