Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ha Jin on evoking empathy

In and earlier post, Language Study #3: empathy, I wrote about empathy's allowing people, including students,  to work alongside each other successfully.  Literature exercises one's empathy.  It has the potential to do so more than other kinds of writing (see Literature and History).  Students, I hope, come out of each encounter with more ability to imagine and, therefore, to empathize.

In his essay collection, The Writer as Migrant, Ha Jin remarks on this literary capacity.  The excerpt below comes from the chapter called "The Spokesman and the Tribe," in which he criticizes Chinese novelist, Lin Yutang.  For now, I offer this excerpt without further comment--except for the parts I have put in bold to emphasize Ha Jin's descriptions of the difference between novels and essays, and between successfully and poorly imagined literature.

There are two other weaknesses that must have stemmed from Lin Yutang's vision of himself as a cultural spokesman of China.  First, the narrator tries too blatantly to present Chinese culture to a Western audience.  There are passages that read like miniessays about Chinese women's education, Chinese medicine, and Chinese belief in the balance of the Five Elements in making marriages.  These passages are not blended into the dramatic context, block the flow of narration, and result in prose that feels crude and unfinished.  Such crudeness is not merely a technical blunder.  It reveals the novelist's inadequate vision.  Just as a creative writer should aspire to be not a broker but a creator of culture, a great novel does not only present a culture but also makes a culture;  such a work does not only bring news of the world but also evokes the reader's empathy and reminds him of his own existential condition.  If a novel by which the ambitious author will stand or fall, he should imagine what kind of cultural order the book may enter into should it succeed.  Lin Yutang obviously did not entertain such a vision and indulged himself too much in explaining China.  Throughout Moment in Peking, the narrative reveals that the book was written only for a Western audience.

Jin, Ha.  The Writer as Migrant.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. 17.

Language Study #5: "details" of language

Ideally, students learn to understand details of language well enough to shape it themselves and see how others shape it.

The "details of language" occur in words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, stanzas, pages and books.  They involve vocabulary, semantics, syntax and grammar.  The more students understand how to identify and use these details, the more they can shape language to their desired ends.  Important to instruction is recognizing both publicly and privately the satisfaction derived from such shaping.  That satisfaction does not come automatically, even in this particular sketch.  At times, the desired end or audience grows foggy and the writing gathers lines in a journal but little else.  Recognizing the trial-and-error, the drafting, the eventual nature of successful composition has become perhaps an even more important ingredient in today's writing instruction.  The fastfood/electronic/digital culture tends to reward instantaneous action.  The faster the better.  Writing, though, at least the kind that brings personal satisfaction to me, involves several stages of invention, re-invention and polish.  The shaping occurs over time.  Consider a book like John Wideman's novel, Philadelphia Fire, which sports across the page like one of its street ball stars on a West Philly basketball court.  Even such apparently free-wheeling approaches demand forethought, first runs at the basket, responses from fellow reader-writers, then a "tedious" return to the detailed choices about words, phrases and sentences.  What do you want to convey about the bombing of a West Philly neighborhood?  And to whom?  What style and arrangement of words will work?  What's available to me.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Language Study #4: be open to discovery

Ideally, through analysis and expression, students learn to appreciate the building blocks of individual and community health.

People see roles and identities for themselves.  For example, in NYC this summer [2002] with an unusually high number of guests, my natural interest in the city's transportation systems has blossomed into a heavy flower sometimes bending the stem of sociability.  I see my role as primary street guide who can scout and propose routes routes that, especially in this heat, will produce the least wear and tear on the group.  Knowing which bus or subway goes nearest which location saves people physical and psychological energy they can use to watch people, explore buildings or just enjoy the rhythms of the city.  As with most compounded interests, these led me to take my role and identity into unrelated arenas.  Here personality and its general inclinations overlapped with my perceived role this summer and my year-round identity as responsible one.  Ann's speaking to me about being "teacherly" served as a primary catalyst to seeing the guide-gone-awry phenomenon.  My own willingness and ability to consider my actions complement her expression.  These, then, are the building blocks of individual and community (i.e., family) health.  In schools, where students and teachers  enter a  prescribed learning environment, appreciating such dynamics allows the educational relationship to grow in healthy directions.  An openness to discovery characterizes genuine learning.  Teenagers face the challenge of recognizing this while forming their roles and identities.