Friday, January 29, 2016

Teaching tasty texts (It's all about the mouth-feel)

This morning I'll introduce my Postcolonial Lit class to Jamaica Kincaid's "Blackness," and I know from experience what complaints I'll hear as I walk into class:

I don't understand!

Why can't she just say what she means? I don't get it!

Who is this person and what is she doing?

It doesn't make sense!

And that's when I'll say, "Maybe it does and maybe it doesn't, but what else can a work of literature make besides sense?" And that's when we'll start talking about sound and images and rhythm and the feeling of words rolling around on the tongue, and before the end of class I'll make them read passages out loud to each other just to relish Kincaid's delicious sentences:
How soft is the blackness as it falls. It falls in silence and yet it is deafening, for no other sound except the blackness falling can be heard. The blackness falls like soot from a lamp with an untrimmed wick. The blackness is visible and yet it is invisible, for I see that I cannot see it. The blackness fills up a small room, a large field, an island, my own being. The blackness cannot bring me joy but often I am made glad in it. The blackness cannot be separated from me but often I can stand outside it. The blackness is not the air, though I breathe it. The blackness is not the earth, though I walk on it. The blackness is not water or food, though I drink and eat it. The blackness is not my blood, though it flows through my veins.
And on she goes, kneading the blackness until it feels mutable as a diphthong on our tongue, solid as a lump of clay in our hands.

I would generally use this kind of exercise to introduce poetry-phobic students to the visceral pleasures of poetry, but in this case we're reading what purports to be prose. Jamaica Kincaid writes in several genres, often simultaneously: her fiction is suffused with biography and poetry, and her nonfiction creates poetic worlds situated at a slight angle to reality. Students who have trouble comprehending "Blackness" as fiction should not be embarrassed but should instead congratulate themselves on having detected the work's essential hybridity. "If it's difficult to make sense of as fiction," I'll ask them, "how would you read it differently as poetry?"

And that's when I'll make them read passages out loud to each other. Some will not feel the rhythm or hear the delicious permutations of sound, but at least they'll have an opportunity to taste and see that the word is good. 

No comments: