Again, and Again

Poet Saeed Jones’s review of Toni Morrison’s new novel God Help the Child starts like this: “When we talk about Toni Morrison, we are also talking about what it means to thrive in the midst of well-manicured and eloquent hostility.” It wasn’t until after I finished reading his piece—and it’s a great piece, an incisive and short dive into the what is the what of Toni Morrison and her work—that I remembered I began a review of Morrison’s two-books-ago novel Home, in 2012, with similar words, though framed as a question: “How to write about Toni Morrison?” I had to write something, so I went with what I associated with her at that time: nostalgia for high school English; my and my friends’ somewhat vague, though earnest, admiration of her work. Jones’s review does a bit more, saying that Morrison’s newest novel offers us “an opportunity to meditate on the tension between the idea of the artist and the reality of the artist herself.”

He goes on to explain:

“[Morrison’s] name becomes shorthand for a republic of women and black artists with ‘no home in this place’ to borrow a phrase from Morrison’s Nobel lecture, people who create, reclaim and celebrate art that is intent on offering something of use back to the people whom it illuminates.”

What intrigues me about this sentence is how it stakes a claim and interrogates said claim; Jones seems to be saying, even affirming, yes, these people—this “republic”—do create and share art with these aims, but also warning: don’t talk in brushstrokes, don’t manhandle the meticulous, don’t assume authority. In other words: What republic? Who’s running it? How do they want to be called?

I haven’t read Morrison’s latest book yet, but I’ve found myself recently wanting to return to those I have read: Paradise, The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Home. The end of the semester seems to mark a desire to change the patterns in which I am reading. I’ve made a strong commitment to reading books predominately by women this past year—due in part to my role in Kenan’s Visiting Writers Series—and yet I feel myself turning away from this commitment in a kind of fatigue. I voluntarily read a sequence of women-authored memoir and essay collections this spring—many either implicitly or explicitly about the need for more women to tell their stories and claim their emotions openly, through writing and documentation—and somehow felt exhausted, despite my identifying with that “republic,” or wanting to feel that identification more forcefully. I was exhausted by these texts because I was exhausted by the pattern they created—which meant, in effect, the pattern created for them, authored by the “republic” of bookbuyers, of book-categorizers, of Amazon “you might like lists,” shuttling these titles along into lists that circled back in on themselves: women-authored, women-facing fiction/nonfiction written for women. Circularity is of course not necessarily insularity, but equating them makes for easier marketing, easier categorization.

My response to what’s happening right now in Baltimore has largely been to read—that which I can make time for, that which I am already reading that I can stretch to relate, in my mind, to Baltimore. Jones’s review belongs in this camp; so does Director of Duke’s Islamic Studies Center Omid Safi’s On Being piece (“Between Nepal and Balitmore”); so does, somehow, Leanne Shapton’s memoir/art book Swimming Studies; so does Duke mathematician Anita Layton’s Good Question. The latter, as in Jones’s Morrison review, both stakes and interrogates a claim: We have all sorts of data at our fingertipson healthcare trials and treatments, crime statistics, and weather patterns for example. But how do we use the data to make the best and most ethical decisions? Watching mainstream media reports of and from Baltimore, I’ve become more cognizant of another kind of circularity—the circularity of my audience to newscasters seemingly determined to quickly, easily, and efficiently reinvent the wheel, to calibrate outrage on the same level with each new act of violence. This determination is one poised to offer, consistently, effect without cause: in other words, to say these things just keep happening. This is the claim, but where is the interrogation of said claim?

The weight of this realization feels important—like a smaller-scale, self-authored but outward-focused recalibration. It feels sort of like how I feel reading and then talking, with one or two others, about Toni Morrison. Whether in 2006 or 2015, this has felt like a process of uncovering new truths. How do we use the data to make the best and most ethical decisions? We reject amnesia, first of all, and in doing so, understand why the shorthand has come to be—and maybe we reject that, too.


On Publishing and Self-Preservation

It is a curiosity of 2015 that when sitting in your office, computer open, you can see news unfold while missing the nugget of actual news entirely. There is a few-minutes’ range in which the article link is published, and then article link gives way to original commentary, and original commentary—often humorous—replaces the news nugget itself. Such was the case earlier this week when suddenly my social media feeds became bloated with references to Harper Lee (yes, that Harper Lee). I missed that few-minutes’ range and arrived for exclamatory tweets invoking Lee’s name, and silly riffs on the title of her sole published work, To Kill a Mockingbird. I’d find out, with the few-seconds’ handiwork of typing “Harper Lee” into Google, that those riffs on that one title were purposefully to-the-point: Lee’s publisher announced earlier this week that Lee, at age 88, would publish her second book, a prequel-of-sorts to Mockingbird.


I heaved a metaphorical sigh of relief—now I was in-the-know, part of the zeitgeist tide, and could craft my own response. I did so without much digging, and with the comfort of conversational immediacy; on Twitter, I could be brief and briefly insightful about the matter, without having to write, or even think out, a think-piece first. And so I took aim at the jokiness which seemed to dominate the social media response to Lee’s news. Why was it radical that she publish another work at her age? Where was our acknowledgment of and appreciation for a life lived outside of, but in tandem with, an outstanding literary work that has endured since 1960? I thought it said something about our collective [in]ability to celebrate the lifelong work of an accomplished woman writer, about how the news disrupts easy categorization of Lee as a reclusive crone. It was just earlier this week that an obituary for Australian author Colleen McCullough went viral, with its sharers calling attention to the demeaning language with which the author described the deceased’s physical appearance. I wonder if Lee’s eventual obit would read similarly, focusing on her decision not to publish another work until her later years.

These are all, of course, imaginary wanderings, just as the jokes were, and are. What unites them, I think, is an impulse toward self-preservation: an urge to be remembered for that statement issued five minutes ago, whether it be a joke, like one I saw from numerous Twitter authors, “2 Kill 2 Mockingbird,” or a subtle admonishing of said jokes, like my statements. The anxiety I feel before publishing a quip online is interlinked with my anxiety about whether or not these snatches of conversation serve any purpose other than to mark territory in the digital sphere.

These anxieties, and these published statements, traffic in emotionality; their publication grounds emotions in time, so that we may revisit them, and think that is what I felt then or why did I feel so protective over Lee’s oeuvre? I see, and participate in, this slow albeit frenzied charting of cultural consensus, and think, do these tweets a canon make? There’ve been several articles published over the last few days that muckrake the dirty, ethically knotty details of the announcement regarding Go Set a Watchman. In uncovering details that a 180-character dispatch cannot, these articles question whether Lee’s ‘decision’ to publish was actually her decision in the first place, given her physical and mental capabilities, and her lawyer’s perhaps-too-convenient discovery of the new manuscript. These articles include no quotes from Lee herself—because Lee herself didn’t issue any, at least until The Guardian reported that Lee was, allegedly in her own words, “alive and kicking and happy as hell” about this second novel being published.

“Alive and kicking and happy as hell” may be a genuine sentiment, or it may be another emotion byte intended (and perhaps engineered) both to provoke and appease, and perhaps inspire a feeling of intimacy, of connectedness, with the much-mystiqued author herself. The statement almost reads like a tweet, and in a way I can see it unfold on my feed along with every other exclamation and every other joke, in which we fashion ourselves closer and closer to said cultural touchstone—be it Harper Lee, or her novel(s), or anything else. There is, ostensibly, a certain type of participation encouraged here: a participation in the preservation of other people’s lives, and the lives of their ideas. Maybe the jokes keep coming because we assume a collective understanding of said person, said idea, said touchstone. And, in the United States, To Kill a Mockingbird functions as a touchstone indeed, if its ubiquitous inclusion in grade-school English curricula is any indication. I haven’t read it since ninth grade, but I know the plot and its themes front-to-back. I know both are still relevant, given the ways our histories have moved since 1960. I know I want to read it again, especially after hearing about the coming of Lee’s second book.

In the conclusion of Jessa Crispin’s vehemently-titled New York Times editorial (“Don’t Do It, Harper Lee”) about the Harper Lee hoopla, Crispin proclaims:

We have been greedy. One great book is enough. The appetite for more Harper Lee (and more J. D. Salinger, among others) stems from wanting to recreate that first encounter. That moment we went from not having read To Kill a Mockingbird to having read and loved To Kill a Mockingbird.

But we can’t wipe the past and go back into it anew. And sometimes when our high expectations come crashing down, it’s not only our emotions that bear the brunt of the fall. Sometimes we take others out with us.

I don’t question the significance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but I do question, and bristle against, the tyranny of pinning certain works of literature to categories like “great” or “awful”—and especially the suggestion that we do so before they are published, before we, as readers, can engage with the material itself. I bristle, in a similar way, against the rapidity with which our responses to the news align in one way or another, and the extent to which our jokes repeat themselves so as to draw us farther from each other, or else closer to our own self-image. And sometimes we take others out with us: we perpetuate stereotypical images that feel close because, paradoxically, they feel far away: an aging author, in a small Southern town. The perpetuation of these images gives me ethical qualms; so does the lack, or murkiness, of information surrounding Lee’s agency in publishing her second novel.

What to do, then? I’m conflicted. If this new novel is indeed published, I imagine I’ll read it. In the meantime, I’ll seek out more information. I’ll also seek to engage that which already exists: a well-written novel about race in America, which feels relevant to me in a way my 14-year-old self couldn’t have imagined. I imagine the same would be true for many of us.


Listening Work

Last weekend, Elizabeth Lauten, the communications director for a Republican representative, apologized for criticizing Sasha and Malia Obama’s appearances at the annual White House turkey pardon. “Please know that these judgmental feelings truly have no place in my heart,” she wrote. “Furthermore, I’d like to apologize to all of those who I have hurt and offended with my words, and pledge to learn and grow (and I assure you I have) from this experience.” Lauten formally resigned.

At the National Book Awards ceremony this year, author Daniel Handler—otherwise known as Lemony Snicket—introduced author Jacqueline Woodson, the winner of the Young Adult category—with a joke about her race. “I clearly failed, and I’m sorry,” he wrote later, in a tweet. “My remarks on Wednesday night were monstrously inappropriate and yes, racist.” He donated $10,000 to the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and agreed to match up to 100,000 for other contributors.

A Huffington Post journalist apologized for being a member of the media. The NYPD officer who killed Eric Garner said, “I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner.” He did not use the words “I am sorry.”

As I began to write this piece, Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana published a “Note to [Their] Readers.” He explained that the magazine now has reason not to believe the rape claims of a UVA student the magazine reported on in a high-profile news feature several weeks ago. “We are taking this seriously,” Dana writes, “and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.”

In her notes for “All Apologies,” the last essay in the collection Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss explains that for source material she tracked instances of the word “sorry” in national newspapers from the past 30 years (No Man’s Land was published in 2009). The essay catalogues and arranges apologies in a way similar to what I’ve done above. In between recounting official apologies issued on behalf of the U.S. federal government—for the victims of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, for Japanese internment—Biss weaves her own:

“Stop,” my brother told me. We were standing in the yard with rakes in our hands. My little brother was not a skinny kid anymore. He was fully grown, and we stood facing each other suddenly as adults. “You always do that,” he told me, “and then you think you can just apologize. If you were really sorry, you wouldn’t do it again.” (Biss, 193)*.

The Lauten incident came up in a conversation with my parents the other day. When does an apology feel genuine?, my mother wondered. This question feels new to me now, as much as I’ve been taught—implicitly and explicitly, and since preschool—to think about it, and to Do the Right Thing in turn. When I was younger, the course to apology felt much more clear: If you do something wrong, say you’re sorry, and mean it. And so: when I was five, I shoplifted a small model Dalmatian from Blockbuster; 101 Dalmatians had just been released. I felt so bad about it that I confessed an hour later to my parents, who brought me back to the store so I could apologize to the manager. He accepted, sheepishly. I think, this week, of “Criming While White,” but I did not offer this story, or any other story, in a tweet.

That question my mother raised feels new to me now, I think, because it’s not easy to answer. It’s not easy to answer because its response depends—upends—on the person, or persons, for whom an apology is intended. And that circles back to another question, which feels to me like the question, and often goes unsaid: Who, or what, compels us to act?

Right now, and this week in particular, I feel small. This feeling remains as I pull at my small strands of short hair, thinking that when I reach the ends, answers will rebound, and I’ll feel more than the meeting of my fingertips. This feeling of smallness is ironic—dangerous, even—because I know that my various layers of privilege out-embody me. I decide this week to catalogue recent cultural apologies, to try to focus on something specific. There is anger, and violence, and racism, and I am overwhelmed, and I feel sorry that I am. I am overwhelmed right now in witnessing social spaces where empathy seems secondary, and yet I am complicit in holding those spaces because of my skin color. I write to puncture that space, but I also write with the fear, and guilt, of taking it up.

“If I apologized for slavery, would you accept?” This question forms one small line at the bottom of page 196 of Biss’s book. It would be easy to miss if you were reading quickly or unattuned to Biss’s economy of sentences or the way she fits big inquiries into small spaces. This is probably one of the lines that made reviewers find her book provocative. It is part of why I find her book provocative, and necessary.

I think of her writing as active listening. I read a voice that is frustrated, and pained, and aware of its power—and therefore further frustrated and pained. I read a voice that listens: as a journalist, to black communities in San Diego; as a neighbor, to the history of Rogers Park, in Chicago. I am talking about this book a lot right now with people I am close to who look like me, and who look like Biss: white, well-educated, middle-class. It is an easy point of connection. Admitting to the desire for this connection is not as easy. I want people who look like me to read it because it offers a model of self-inquiry and self-critique that is uncommon, and uncommonly public.

I am sensitive; I have always known this about myself. The thing I fear the most is doing the wrong thing. (Do the Right Thing). Through 12 years of prestigious and progressive public schooling and through most of four at Duke, I often prefaced contributions in class with “I’m sorry” or “I’m not sure if this is right, but…” Then I learned, through a professional workshop, that I didn’t have to apologize, as a woman, for taking up space or for having ideas. Throughout those 16 years none of my peers held me accountable for that. Many of them, of course, were doing the same thing.

Throughout 16 years of progressive education I did not often engage in conversations about race, either with those who share my skin color or with those who do not. I did not have the language, despite believing I did, to place myself among others. I did not have the language to place myself.

Ideally apologies are as much about self as other. They reflect, they incur, sympathy, sometimes empathy, and they are self-reflexive in turn.

Apologies are ideal because they are impossible. When the words are said and when the reparations are paid, the body remains. I believe in the body, even when I am most cerebral. I dance with my body; I also write with my body, and listen with my body. I attend a demonstration. I don’t say much, other than I’m glad to be here. I join the chant of “Black Lives Matter.” I thank those who organized it. I listen. I bookmark a lot of articles by a lot of different voices and I read them. I look at news images. I listen. I critique my listening. I realize it is a privilege to listen. I listen because I should not have to be told to do so in the first place.

“I listen as much to my own imaginings, as I watch those fleeting glimpses of my thoughts cross my consciousness, as I listen to others,” Dr. Wahneema Lubiano writes, as part of the new “No Apologies” campaign at Duke. “And I know that my work, my affinities, my life, are all richer for that listening. Listening is my way of recognizing the beckonings from others that might not be noted as easily when I am only hearing my voice speaking.”

I consider what the world would look like, what our conversations would look like, if we replaced “work ethic” with “listening ethic.” I write in order to do so. I write to try to make that which out-embodies me visible, and to claim it, and to interrogate it: that is the responsibility and product of having privilege and choosing to listen. This is not an exceptional action; it is an everyday practice.

“Listening does its own work,” Lubiano continues, “[it] is a result of strength, of endurance even against a long history of marginalization—yes, but it is at the same time a muscle, the deployment of which makes a social world possible.”


*Excerpted from the essay “All Apologies,” from Notes From No Man’s Land, by Eula Biss. You can listen to a collaborative reading of the essay, produced by Ninth Letter and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, here.

Ethics around Campus: Two Cities Talking

Where does this piece start? Where does the conversation begin?

Say it begins in a room on West Campus, at the bottom of a building, beneath exposed orange pipes. Gathered around a table, in the same place where last week Eula Biss sat, are two South African writers—one a librettist and composer, the other a journalist and blogger. Gathered around them is a mix of people: they are racially diverse, they come from Durham, they come from Duke, they come from both. They come into the city, and into this campus, and into this room, at different points in time. Some come into the room after the discussion starts. Some say that they have just moved to the city from Brooklyn, and from elsewhere. The librettist and journalist have moved to Durham for just a month, to share their stories with people like the ones who’ve come here to share theirs today.

Neo Muyanga and Khadija Patel are the inaugural recipients of the WiSER-Duke Visiting Writing Fellowship. The new cross-institutional program, between Johannesburg (the University of the Witwatersrand) and Durham (Duke), is designed to grant accomplished non-academic writers the chance to work within academic spaces. I first became interested in the program because I read that one of my former professors, Sarah Nuttall, would be helping to facilitate the exchange. Then I began reading about the two fellows’ work—about Muyanga’s compositions and co-founding of the Pan African Space Station, and about Patel’s journalism for South Africa’s Daily Maverick and her current book project on Mayfair, a suburb of Johannesburg. Enthralled by what I now knew, I expected to sit, further enthralled, as the two talked about what they do. There would be probing but mild-mannered questions from the audience about their work, and we would eat nice food and leave feeling happy with ourselves.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion writes in The White Album. In her first book, The Balloonists, Eula Biss quotes her back: “‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ writes Joan Didion, with a certain skepticism. We also live by the stories we tell.” I like how Biss, with the same skepticism, re-fashions Didion’s words in order to say something not only about our tendency, as humans, to narrativize in order to make meaning. Biss seems to be suggesting that we’re bound by these stories, in our action and inaction. And I’d go further: that which binds us in turn renders us, and our stories, necessarily incomplete.

I like the different angles Didion’s and Biss’s words create. I felt these angles take shape during the event at the Forum for Scholars and Publics. The conversation with Muyanga and Patel was formally structured around the term “black money”—referring to the rise of the black middle class in Johannesburg but also, I found out, to the trajectory of the black middle class in Durham. The conversation hinged on the stories its participants were willing to tell, about how race, urban development, and economic power interlock in Durham. We think there’s a connection here, the South Africans said. I’ll give you my context if you give me yours.

The first response: this conversation should begin elsewhere—downtown, outside the academy, in a black church, or library, or other community space. This sentiment—that the conversation is necessarily incomplete—is one I don’t often hear voiced so plainly during on-campus discussions about Duke and Durham. I appreciated it, as much as I appreciate how necessary it is to hold these types of conversations on campus. The comment gave the event texture, and gave spirit to the comments and questions that followed, things that piggy-backed off each other, like: who do cities belong to, and how does that ‘who’ factor into how cities are designed? If cities from Durham to Brooklyn to Johannesburg are modeling themselves into a universal currency of artisanal hipness, who’s able to ‘play’ in these spheres, and who’s left out? When we imagine the cities—and realities—of the future, do we envision the oppressed rising to extreme wealth? Do we want the realities we live with now?

Muyanga and Patel responded back, fashioning the audience comments into reflections on their experiences of Johannesburg. I caught Muyanga afterward and brought up my research project in Dublin, how I’d been investigating the closure of an arts space in the city center. My story didn’t really have a point; it served as a sort of proof that I’d studied the types of things we all spent an hour talking about. I realize now that being in that room and sharing something about living in Durham would have been enough. I have lived in this particular city for almost six years now. I know my knowledge is incomplete, but that gives me fuel—as does sitting in a room on West Campus, sitting alongside others, and placing ‘our’ cities in conversation.



On Wednesday, sophomore Lara Haft convened the Coffeehouse and asked all of us to turn off our normal audience-participation mode (read: quiet, no thumbs tapping on screens, no murmurs to disturb the performers). Disturbance, she explained, should be the norm for this event. She reminded us—or, explained—that this was a poetry slam, and we—slouched and standing and sipping nice drinks—would need to give to the performers so that they could give back. “So, that means snapping,” Haft said, demonstrating, “and if you like what they’re saying, if it speaks to you, say mmmm!”

Senior Destiny Hemphill performs at “Apartness: Race, Gender, and the Ethics of Storytelling” this past Wednesday.

And mmmms were said. We gave so that they could give back. The evening—under the heady title “Apartness: Poetry, Race, and the Ethics of Storytelling”—began with a slew of diverse slam poets from Duke and Durham and everywhere in between. There was a high-schooler who spoke with elegant immediacy about her race and family history; there was G Yamazawa, a Durham native and the 2014 National Poetry Slam Winner. He performed poems about identity and growing up as a North Carolina-born Japanese-American (“Make some noise if you grew up in an immigrant household!”). His language drifted in and out of conversational Japanese; his parents and his grandmother were in the crowd, laughing in response to G’s family jokes.

I’d attended spoken word events before, but perhaps never listened as closely. I was struck by how all the poems performed on Wednesday spoke so distinctly to where each of the performers comes from: their families, their ethnicities, their histories. Each piece was inextricable from its speaker; each piece was unapologetic presence. Collectively, they felt like origin stories unfurled in real time. Lara, who spent her summer as a Kenan Summer Fellow conducting oral histories with woman veterans of the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements in Birmingham, Alabama and Cape Town, South Africa, respectively, shared a poem about what it felt like to be a “wannabe poet with a research grant.” I edited Lara’s letters home over the summer but hadn’t met her in person until this week. Through her letters, I had one idea of her story and how she came into this particular research project. I watched (and edited) as she moved through different communities and physical geographies, trying to reconcile her outsiderness—her apartness—in each one. In her powerful final piece, she writes about her journal from the summer, which was unexpectedly destroyed:

I flipped gingerly through the soggy pages, taking stock of everything I’d written. Since I’d started the notebook, at the beginning of the summer, I’d filled 157 pages. There are doodles, to-do lists, notes scribbled during my interviews. There’s the first version of these blog posts, notes to self, drafted poems about parking lots, single mothers, and mince-meat pies. There’s Eileen’s kitchen table, where she shows me newspaper clippings and I give her computer lessons. There’s the scent of frying samosas in Davinia’s kitchen, where her stories of anti-apartheid marches blend with the sound of bubbling oil.

I realize it’s not a moral or perfect phrasing I need for my poems, but these flickering, precarious images. It’s these moments, suspended in ink, over which I feel like a guardian. There’s a certain ink-blotness of time, a blurring that seeps in from the edges. Decades leak like open water bottles, memories fade to pinks and oranges. Stories of the past warp and whither, from time or misspellings or the solubility of ink.

Reading something on paper and hearing it in person are never the same, right? Each form gives a different effect; each encounter with the material produces a different response. During the panel that followed the performances, Professors Adriane Lentz-Smith (Duke) and Randall Kenan (UNC), along with G Yamazawa, talked about the preservation and passage of stories from their different disciplinary perspectives. They talked about what their work aims to do; as a historian, Lentz-Smith explained, she “pushes people to inhabit,” whereas a poet might “push people to see.” All storytellers, they agreed that the ethics of storytelling are endlessly complicated, but that there is worth, after all, in the telling. The worth circles back to the ethical responsibility of the teller. It’s about “making your choices visible,” Lentz-Smith said. Coming together that evening and listening to each others’ stories felt like an exercise in visibility—an acknowledgement of apartness, but a movement, if even for a few hours’ time, toward togetherness.


A Roundup on “Relatability”

Ira Glass took to Twitter recently in an annoyed response to Shakespeare in the Park. “@JohnLithgow as Lear tonight: amazing. Shakespeare: not good. No stakes, not relatable. I think I’m realizing: Shakespeare sucks.” When I first saw Glass’s tweets, I thought he was being sarcastic. Surely he thinks Shakespeare speaks Truth. Besides, Glass is a straight white male, well-educated, a paragon of 20th and 21st century American artistic accomplishment (having originated the popular public radio program This American Life). Shakespeare is part of the canon to which Glass must admit he’s beholden. This is the canon he must in some way relate to, the canon that told him what storytelling was and helped him think about what it could be. After all, as Tom Jokinen proposes in Hazlitt, This American Life’s story structure resembles that of the Bard’s many plays.

Let me back up: This piece—the one I’m writing right now—isn’t really about Shakespeare, or the ways in which T.A.L. is like Shakespeare, or what did Glass really intend when he tweeted those super-mean tweets about Shakespeare? As Jokinen suggests, maybe these are fruitless interpretational impulses, reminiscent of grade-school lessons on Symbolism 101. Interpretation removes us from the personal, tells us that an emotional response (“Shakespeare sucks”) isn’t subject matter for classroom discussion. There’s purpose in this restriction: to characterize the writer’s style, to understand narrative coherence (or incoherence), to distill broad insights about how humans create meaning in life.

But what of the visceral, emotional experience of reading? How do we read? Why do we read? Who is reading? Last week, New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead posted “The Scourge of ‘Relatability.’” She criticizes Glass’s knee-jerk “unrelatable” charge. “To demand that a work be ‘relatable,’” she writes, “expresses a[n]… expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her.” I thought, yes! When reading, when experiencing art of any kind—heck, when living—we should reach outward. Go beyond what we think we know. Be open. Like the final two sentences of Leslie Jamison’s essay collection The Empathy Exams: “I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.”

But doesn’t this start by flexing our emotional muscle? Giving ourselves over to the knee-jerk because it’s what we feel first? There’s Ira Glass saying, “Shakespeare sucks,” and then there’s a black teenage woman reading, in English class, book after book authored by white men, detailing the exploits of white people, thinking, and maybe saying, “I don’t like this. None of these characters look like me, and none of these stories look like mine.” Do we create space for these things to be said, for this failure of relatability to be teased out? Do the essays we read—in The New Yorker, in the New York Times, in Slate, in Hazlitt—do justice, in their interpretational thrusts, to the multiplicities of reading experience? Really, is there justice done in mainstream-media’s proliferation of essays written by largely white men and women about Ira Glass’s offhand response to Shakespeare?

I spent a long time yesterday reading Jed Perl’s essay “Liberals Are Killing Art.” I didn’t want to, but I fell into the trap, my siren song: the long, controversially-titled essay about art. Perl would claim ‘art and justice’ is a problematic linkage, same as ‘art in education’ or ‘art in society’ or ‘art and politics.’ He contests that art exists in an independent sphere, apart from, say, war or public education or you eating your ham-and-cheese sandwich at lunch.

I find arguments like Perl’s tiresome at best, dangerous at worst. These are the same arguments that use statements like “art has transcendental power” to alienate lived experience from creative expression. These are also the arguments used to justify the egregious underfunding awarded, at least in this country, to artists and creative professionals who labor, just like the rest of us do, for something Perl relegates to the nebulous, the abstract, the “transcendental.” These are the arguments that call art “the imagination interacting with the world” while citing the work of mostly white male artists. It’s a posturing of empathy. It’s also a failure to acknowledge that ‘the world’ is made up of radically diverse people living radically diverse lives, lives that don’t fit into “easy platitudes about getting along and we’re all the same,” as Christian said in a recent Project Change email exchange. 

I’m wondering a lot lately about how we create space in American classrooms for the sharing of stories and experiences that are not accounted for in the canon or in the mainstream. About how I think we have a responsibility to, as a friend said yesterday, a “conscious diversification of what we consume—from food to television to literature.” A responsibility to reach outward, to reject passive, self-reflexive relatability. I’m also wondering whether we can and should legislate the same for people whose races, ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, stories, ideas, feelings are still not granted significant (read: the space afforded to Shakespeare) space or authorship—whether in a curriculum or in a think-piece about relatability.

I’m wondering about my over-reliance on the “we,” about how it assumes universality. It also assumes that people want to try to relate to one another, to owe each other attention, an eager ear, space to be.

“We who?” This is Teju Cole’s Twitter biography. It is also a sly, biting mandate to be open. To call out postures of empathy and universality as, well, postures.

Twitter is an exercise in relatablity, in experimental empathy. I think it bends toward openness. Glass himself is a Twitter neophyte; he just “joined” this year. And with his Shakespeare tweets, Glass pouted, in the same way that many people (myself included) do from time to time on Twitter. Life is messy for all of us. For some of us, that messiness is compounded in ways that are, thanks to history, policy, curricula, social systems, media, et al., left dangerously dim to those of us who say “our canon” and think it represents the U.S.’s—and the world’s—actual demographic breakdown. I like to think Glass’s tweets were actually sly mandates to be open, to grant legitimacy to the idea that Shakespeare’s work could, for someone, feel unrelatable. That that feeling, and its articulation, are worth attention. That one day, that essay is the one we’re (emphasis on the “we”) sharing.