The Danger of a Single Author

Mrs. Bond started this conversation:

Few things before reading the tweet thread and this post:

  1. Understand and acknowledge tweets are conversations. They are often open-ended, uncomfortable, and attract mansplaining. Tread thoughtfully.
  2. Good-faith responses include other ideas and resources. (We know what disingenious, bad-faith ones look like)
  3. I am not here to debate anyone’s humanity.

Drafting my thoughts in my mind, my first instinct is to tell the story of a long-awaited and much-anticipated family reunion/celebration. My father turned 80 on Thursday, and my mom planned an amazing destination vacation for all three of us sisters, our spouses, and their six grandchildren, and my oldest son’s girlfriend was included, too. My sons are the oldest grandchildren at 26 and 23, and the youngest grandson is 16. We are a loving family and care about one another very much. And, we are also fraught, as it seems most US families are now, with differing opinions about racism, politics, masking, vaccines, climate change, economics, etc. (My parents lean toward centrist/liberal, and vote Democrat.) Like reading a novel and not looking at it through my teacher’s lens, I can’t seem to be in large social situations without taking a writer’s anthropological stance and observing the fascinating interactions. But that’s probably just a coping mechanism to get me through potentially emotional scenarios. We had an unspoken accord not to bring up any ‘controversial’ topics (see: debate anyone’s humanity) and focus on my parents’ love for us and ours for them.

It mostly works out.

Because for us, it has to.

We are at the point where we can still tell each other we love each other and set our boundaries. My father might be sliding into dementia. (I am not ready to process that yet.) Some things he said to my younger son were harmful. The words broke my son’s heart. We talked about it, cried about it, and my son knows that I, his brother, and dad are here for him 100%. My younger son is the one who is most like my father–they have enjoyed a loving kinship and bond since my son was born. And yet, my dad still said harmful, fatphobic things. His filter was gone, and this week, I had to weigh confronting him about it or just working it through with my son. And no thank you- I don’t need advice on this.

For some children, that’s not available to them. They are trying to survive, literally survive, for existing.

Let’s get to the authors we love.

I realized during processing Mrs. Bond’s tweet that authors do not keep us safe, and by safe I do not mean they should or should not. I am not talking about white comfort. Not at all. If anything, the word safety is meant to challenge us and then come to our conclusions about what keeps us mentally healthy and out of our flight, fight or freeze modes. We simply cannot exist in hypervigilance. (Ask me how I know). One of my dearest colleagues in my (relatively) new district is moving on to another district. She got along great with our admin, and she and I both recognize some of the transphobic and homophobic microaggressions. We recognized some of the harm induced by other colleagues. I can weather it out, and for her mental and physical health she’s making a change. This summer has been spent bracing myself for next year and what I can and can’t control (and yes, I mentally swim back to that’s all “bullshirt” anyway).

Authors do not keep us safe. When I read John Irving’s Cider House Rules in my early 20s I felt energized and galvanized with my and my mom’s pro-choice views/stance. When I read Catcher in the Rye in high school, I found a character that gave me an emotion I still can’t describe by wanting to just hold Holden’s hand and tell him I got him. It was going to be okay. (It wasn’t going to be okay.) I could list almost 1000 books over my lifetime where I may not have felt safe, and that was a good thing. But– and this is the stake in the heart–not once did I know something about the author that would have betrayed my trust and love for their writing. It didn’t occur to me to look. Books allowed me to find new voices, thoughts, ideas, questions, and travel in my mind when I was stationary. And as my teaching research, resources, and reading expanded, I brought the lessons of my growing up (moving multiple times, different states, one other country (Iran), and the core of my family moving as this unit until we sisters married and started families of our own. That embedded culture shifts and grows roots, depending on what we need to thrive.

However.

I’m getting to the point, I think. Not making any promises.

Authors, it turns out, can also break our hearts. When JKR exposed clearly and decidedly she’s a transphobic TERF, I had the cis-hetero privilege of being able to take my time to process, research, and explore those terms and what was happening. Many of my friends did not. Their grief and the harm JKR manifested on them is as destructive as Dolores Umbridge adding another scar to the already heavy emotional and traumatized lives they’ve endured. They found love and magic in the Harry Potter books, and their love was destroyed.

When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie did her famous TED Talk, “Danger of a Single Story” many of us English teachers found a way to present a palatable (see white comfort) means to express a critical concept to students how literature can embrace empathy, our shared humanity, and love.

And, when I read Americanah, I got a glimpse into her ideas about being Nigerian-born versus American/US Black thoughts. Okay. Cool.

AND: it also turns out she’s transphobic.

Here we are (again), with an author who came to us with sharing their work and words AND problematic and downright harmful ideas/actions (looking at you, Alexie).

Now: the conversation and scholarly discourse around love the work and not the author is available and ready. This isn’t what I’m talking about, I don’t think…

I’m talking about love. And setting boundaries. In Alex Shevrin Venet’s work, Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education, (2021)she discusses “unconditional positive regard”:

Unconditional positive regard isn’t limited to a therapeutic approach: Alfie Kohn (2005) built on Rogers’s work with the concept “unconditional teaching” to apply unconditional positive regard to the classroom. Kohn argued that schools promote a kind of conditional acceptance when they elevate achievement and obedience rather than building community and relationships. Unconditional teachers accept students for who they are, not what they do. Unconditional positive regard is a stance I take in relationship to my students. The message of unconditional positive regard is, “I care about you. You have value. You don’t have to do anything to prove it to me, and nothing’s going to change my mind.” I sometimes try to imagine myself radiating unconditional positive regard like a glow around me when I walk into a classroom. But I also actually say those words to my students in ways that fit our relationship. I make sure to tell them I care about them, regardless of what they accomplish or achieve in our academic work together. This care infuses all of my teaching choices, from personal interactions to learning design. Importantly, unconditional positive regard stands in opposition to savior mentality and deficit thinking.

Venet, Alex Shevrin. Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education (Equity and Social Justice in Education): 0 (p. 98). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

(Follow Venet on Twitter: @AlexSVenet)

Coming back to Adichie: she does not hold “unconditional positive regard” for all humans. And I’m left with the conclusion, for myself and students, to be aware and cognizant that her positions as a human, not necessarily as an author, may harm students. Full stop. It is my responsibility as an English teacher to share this with students, and find other writers and voices. Her positions as a human, I’m now realizing, are the big umbrella. Novels are finite. Books are bound. The “off the page” questions are engaging, amazing, and breath life into works but they are limited because the author chose harm and violence. She will have to reconcile with her heart, soul, and spirit on this. But I am not going to subject students to it, and I also think I have a responsibility to tell them why.

And, perhaps, just perhaps: the bigger conversation is what do we do not if but when we find out what authors have problematic pasts, ideas, and downright hate.

An idea: let’s just keep seeking others out. I truly love Mrs. Bond. I adore Mr. Rademacher. I love #DisruptTexts and so many other educators who are willing to give me processing time and support, because it’s NOT FOR ME. It’s for the children we teach and love. No saviorism. No “be kind” garbage. Years ago when I was confronted with having to teach To Kill a Mockingbird I reached out to other educators I trust (trust does not equal comfort) and received an outpouring of ideas and mindful framing.

This is the letter I wrote my daddy for his birthday. I didn’t imagine I would share it publically. I’m going to, though, because at this point of the journey, my dad did make me a better parent for sons. He’s shown us all what it’s like to be a good man, full of love for his family, and I can take it the next step for when he has hurt my son, we are now able to take it the next step and learn and grow. I realize this is a paradox. I understand this isn’t conclusive or comfortable, and expresses cognitive dissonance. I see hurt and I see love.

My sons are better than I am. They have taught me so much. My students are better than I am, even with misinformation. They trust me when they share their personal stories of their own bigotry and misconceptions. and I am here for them and here to help guide them. As we’re curating authors and texts for our classrooms, I will keep Mrs. Bond’s questions and ideas centered in my mind and heart.

And that is love.

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