I understood firsthand what a book could do when I read “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan.
It was the moment I learned that first-generation immigrants, like me, experience something called a culture clash. We oblige the demand of assimilation into American culture, while Americans tell us we don’t belong. Joining the rebellion, we fight our parents who lull us with pleas to honor tradition in a language we barely understand.
I was 12, and I didn’t even like reading, but Tan was a writer who looked the most like me (I’m three-fourths Vietnamese and a quarter White, not Chinese like Tan) and who incidentally knew the most about me.
Today, I’m no longer a clueless seventh grader, but a senior in college who is applying to graduate school. I want to be an academic, but where are the women writers and scholars who look like me?
In my own experience in the humanities, women rarely play leading roles in a course’s trajectory.
A syllabus from a survey of British literature class I took several semesters ago bore not a single woman author, even though professors like Anne K. Mellor at UCLA continue to do extensive research to revive the work of forgotten female writers from the 19th century. Freshman English courses especially rely on anthologized standbys, neglecting to integrate the vast amount of female scholarship being revived and created into the existing canon.
The historical marginalization of women and minority groups must be institutionally acknowledged to be reversed. But these histories must not be recorded and taught as peripherals to a normative narrative reserved for niched upper-division courses.
If one wants to read a piece by Charlotte Perkins Gilman that isn’t “The Yellow Wallpaper” or a sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that isn’t “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” one needs to enroll in a Women Literature class, a 400-level class unavailable to students unless they have ENG 200 and another 200-level English course under their belt.
The prospects look even dimmer if one is hoping to study the work of Asian-American women.
In an entry-level English course, women and ethnic writers are sprinkled in almost as an afterthought as instructors have traditionally canonized figures on the mind.
Even worse, the artistic experiences of female writers are taught in relation to male writers, with oppression serving as a prominent theme. As a result, literature written by women seems merely reactionary, written only because white privileged men were around to repress them.
It’s a backhanded objectification: Women writers aren’t valuable because they enrich our understanding of a human narrative, but because they are walking illustrations of the unfortunate consequences of oppression.
It is like saying the wife in “The Yellow Wallpaper” only writes because her husband confined her. Had she no inclination to write before him? Was she not trying to write out of her own volition? Not only are we not wholly teaching students about women writers, we are only teaching about them in a very narrow context.
When female and minority writers find their way into the mainstream academia, they become literary giants in their own right. Integrating their work into English courses requires additional effort from faculty members and an open mind from students, but it’s worth it.
Students like me won’t have to work so hard to find writers who look like them. They’ll already be there.
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