Some random thoughts on Bambara: I haven’t been able to teach an ethnic lit course for a while but I am glad to have the opportunity again. After Tancredo’s ridiculous call for literacy tests this last week and also the crazy comments I hear from my students in the hallways I can’t think of anything more important at my school. Sadly we only have one ethnic lit course a term offered though I wish there were more. Also to spend three hours a week talking about Sherman Alexie and Luis Valdez is an incredible opportunity. Shared experiences I admire so much.
The demographic of my school does not quite match the demographic of the town of Springfield and so I feel the course is necessary. Crucial for more aware and well rounded students. Recently I read that only 9% of college professors are Latino and so I feel needed somehow. Like my degree is needed too. Hard to explain. I rarely feel needed in my work. But I feel I have a perspective somehow needed in the midwest.
And because of this course I have been able to return to the writing of James Alan McPherson and of course Toni Cade Bambara. I think I first read Toni Cade Bambara at Colorado State in an intro to lit course. The first time I read the short Gorilla, My Love was in that course. I’ll never forget how it reminded me of my sister and how we always felt duped by the adult world around us. The way I always distrusted adults who seem to throw us away as kids. And as I revisit Bambara’s work I am more and more impressed by the use of dialect and of course the resistance her characters have to institutional education and the seemingly false reputation of institutional education. The idea that school and college will save us somehow.
And of course the dialect and the aesthetic of presenting such a real-world language matches concerns I have of representing the spanglish or mix of english and spanish I grew up with. I obsess over this in my own work. The risk of pushing away an audience. I can’t get out of my mind an editor who wrote me the following: You can’t expect our readers to know what this means. No one I knew spoke the spanish I learned in spanish class and like Richard Hugo suggests that language means more to me than it ever could to a reader. It has to. It also reminds me of how no one spoke correct grammatical english at school or at home.
This perhaps illustrates the connection between Latino representation and the representation that occurs in African-American authors’ books. Representation and even a celebration of how people actually speak. I talk about representation that occurs within the literature more than I talk about the stories. I can’t help it I like form. The voice is so unique to me and so real. Very similar to the voice that happens in Junot Diaz’ collection Drown and of course the voice within Susan Lori Parks Top Dog Underdog. I’m talking about creative literacies that represent how language is much richer in neighborhoods than in schools.
Also maybe I love the work because of her focus on the oppression of youth as in Salinger’s work. As in Tobias Wolff’s non-fiction work. I also like the way her characters–always young girls–don’t take shit off no one.
Dana Gioia writes that as teachers we should be honest about what we read and what we love. To be honest about what speaks to us as writers as well as readers. And I have to say her stories speak to me more than Hemingway, Woolf or even James Joyce. The so-called classics.