El Salvador: Birthdays

This past weekend was my birthday. I’m really close with my family, so it’s not always easy to be away from them during celebrations. However, living abroad has the unique advantage of celebrating in new ways.

First, my school department took me to El Zócalo, one of my favorite Mexican restaurants in El Salvador. I was donned with a sweet sombrero and cape as the waiters sang and brought me flan.

Second, three of my classes on Friday threw me a little party: cake, ice cream, soda, balloons, silly string, even a picture of me on the dry-erase board.

And I got a cake from my school department!

Also, I learned about a fun little tradition: “Mordida! Mordida! Mordida!” How it works is… well, if you don’t know, I’ll just let you experience that one for yourself.

Lastly, my other family came to my house Friday night, and we enjoyed homemade tacos, fun, and games.

All in all it was a wonderful birthday. So many people sang for me, brought me food, cooked me food, gave me gifts, and warmly wished me a “Feliz Cumpleaños.” Gracias a todos! Wonderful country. Wonderful people.

Read This: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

[Here is a piece of advice if you want to be better read and don’t know where to start: besides the “canonized” classics (Western AND non-Western), try reading Pulitzer Prize winning fiction or Nobel Prize authors. When I’m looking for new, contemporary fiction and I’m not sure what to read, I’ve recently been going to the most recent Pulitzer Prize winning novel that I have not read.] 

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[Don’t worry, no spoilers here! ]

Viet Thanh Nguyen is the 2016 Pulitzer Prize winning novelist of The Sympathizer. Though born in Vietnam, at four years old his family fled to the United States after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Nguyen now is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Southern California.

“‘No one is righteous, no, not one…'”

This verse, Romans 3:11, might be an appropriate summary for The Sympathizer and an especially poignant reminder for the American idealist.

Over three-quarters of the book takes place as a confession from the main character (unnamed throughout), a Vietnamese political prisoner, to his communist commandant. He is a mole, a communist spy that has spent years as a captain for the southern republic of Vietnam. After the fall of Saigon, he escapes as a refugee to America. There he continues to act as an informant and operative for the communist party before he returns to Vietnam with a small reconnaissance party only to be captured by his communist comrades and forced to write and re-write a satisfactory confession over the course of a year. The book concludes with a self-revealing climax about the character, the reality of war, and human nature.

In his novel, Nguyen writes the main character as a living embodiment of contrasts and duality. He is a bi-racial bastard, the secret love child of his Vietnamese mother and his father, a French priest. He is in southern Vietnam as a mole, a sympathizer for the communist north. He is a strange amalgamation of East and West: he studied in America, speaks perfect English, understands the culture, and almost feels at home there as a refugee. He is a mole with a conscience, constantly struggling with his role in the revolution. He truly sympathizes with both sides of everything: both sides of the revolution in Vietnam and in some ways both sides of the world (East and West). His struggle is not a negation of identity (in contrast to a faceless character towards the end of the book) but rather a doubling of it. Thus, in perfect story form, Nguyen himself explores the duality of the Vietnamese American, perhaps best captured in the book’s opening lines.

“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess…. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear.”

Additionally, Nguyen explores the abuse of power from all angles: the Americans, the southern Vietnamese, and the northern Vietnamese. No one is innocent, as the character realizes.

Finally, uniquely, Nguyen isn’t really directing his novel towards white Americans. In a Q & A with Paul Tran, Nguyen implies his desire to “directly [confront] the history of the American war in Vietnam from the Vietnamese American point of view.” However, it’s not a novel to describe the Vietnamese to whites.

“I did not want to write this book as a way of explaining the humanity of Vietnamese. Toni Morrison says in Beloved that to have to explain yourself to white people distorts you because you start form a position of assuming your inhumanity or lack of humanity in other people’s eyes. Rather than writing a book that tries to affirm humanity, which is typically the position that minority writers are put into, the book starts from the assumption that we are human, and then goes on to prove that we’re also inhuman at the same time.”

So there you have it. I recommend the book. It’s thought-provoking and challenges our assumptions. And it is written from a unique and powerful voice. Enjoy!

That’s Not Old English! (how to act like a total tool…and enjoy doing it!)

You know the person…the type of person who tries to act so sophisticated, like they know everything. They’re the people who say “That’s sooo bourgeois.” You know, like this…

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And yet, all of us secretly enjoy when we’re the overly smart ones. When we can stop someone and say, “Actually, you’re wrong…” with our noses in the air (okay, let’s not put our noses in the air). So, if you’ve always desired this kind of moment, here’s a great piece of trivia to flaunt in someone’s face.

SHAKESPEARE IS NOT OLD ENGLISH. And if Shakespeare is not Old English, then Dickens and Austen most certainly don’t fit in that category. I have heard many times how somebody was turned off because they didn’t realize the book was written in Old English (actually, I saw this on a book blog recently…gasp!). So if you hear someone say that, prick your ears up because they’re probably wrong.

The most important piece of Old English literature is Beowulf, our oldest manuscript being from around 1000 CE (the story itself probably far older). Old English is basically unreadable to English speakers today.

Not only is Old English unrecognizable, even Middle English (e.g. The Canterbury Tales written in the late 14th century) is extremely difficult for most modern readers.

Shakespeare was actually writing in early modern English while authors such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens were writing in late modern English.

So there you go! Go sound smart with your friends…

And when you have a chance, check out this awesome interactive resource put out by the BBC (HERE).

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“Anne Frank Today is a Syrian Girl”

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Anne Frank side-by-side with Rouwaida Hanoun, a Syrian 5-year-old wounded last week. (Getty Images)

I love how literature stirs the imagination, takes us to Fairy Land, Camelot, Narnia, Middle Earth, and beyond. And based on my own worldview, I don’t see these motifs as escapism but actually congruous with my own beliefs in a way (another discussion). Nevertheless, literature is also supposed to keep us right where we are  open our eyes to the harsh realities around us that we miss. For a long time I have been moved by WWII literature though I have yet to read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.

A NY Times op-ed piece published yesterday by Nicholas Kristof entitled “Anne Frank Today is a Syrian Girl” is a poignant reminder that “History rhymes.” There is a world crisis  happening right now, but too often I’m stuck in the past reading about how horrific life once was. Kristof cites some of the fears for aiding or sheltering refugees, national security being chief among them. He attempts to abet those fears, but I think some of us need to rise above even that and understand that risk should not prevent aid.

Some day there will be new literature with the Syrian Refugee Crisis as its setting. Will I be able to say that I was part of the solution or part of the apathy?  Right now, regrettably, I’d have to say the latter.

HERE is a link with a list of organizations you can support. Let’s do something. Myself included. Oh, and if you haven’t already, check out this powerful video at the bottom.

[Teacher’s note: I thought this post might be especially helpful as a tie-in to current events when teaching material such as the Holocaust or Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, etc.] 

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Resources (Literature and Beyond)

Okay, so this is my first full week teaching…exhausting. But exhilarating as well! I’m blessed to teach what I love. And when you teach what you love, you LOVE finding great resources. I’m very fond of various teaching methods, especially visuals and those that increase interaction. Thus, I wanted to share (unashamedly hoping some of my students find this post) one of the neat tools I’ve come across: infographics from Course Hero. HERE is their Pinterest board, and HEREis their teaching resource website. We’re beginning to study Chaucer next week in my British Lit. class, so maybe someone will stumble upon this infographic before seeing it in class.

The Top and Bottom of My Wish List

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My reading list is BIG… REAL BIG. And it’s always growing. At times I make the mistake of going out and buying a book as a way of adding it to my list even if I’m not ready at that exact moment to read it. Bad idea. Because by the time I get around to reading the book, something else has been added to my list, and it’s jumped to the top. I have lists in my head, lists on my computer, lists in the form of purchased books on my shelf. However, probably the most thorough and consistent list I have kept is on Amazon. Thanks Amazon…because I don’t always buy those books from your website; it’s just a handy way to catalog the books I’d like to read. So I thought it’d be fun to revisit my reading wish list and see how it’s evolved (or how it hasn’t). Thus, I will share my five oldest added books and my five most recently added books, none of which I have already read. Some of them represent areas that I already know a lot about and want to know more; others represent areas both of ignorance and fascination.

Oldest… (all added in 2010)

Newest… (all added in 2016)

 

So that does it! This has been an interesting experiment. Does anyone else want to share some of their list? Or add to mine with a good recommendation?

“What is Literature for?”

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HERE is a wonderful video put together by The School of Life group. As in everything, we should not assume that our learners have answered the question: “Yes, but why is this important?” As a literature student and teacher, I know why I love my subject. But do my students? We need to help make that connection for them. If we really believe it’s important, let’s not assume.

In class we will be examining the importance of literature, but I do not have time (this year) to incorporate this video into my lesson plan. I wanted to post it, though, for any of my students or other teachers who might enjoy its content. Weighing in at just under 5 minutes, it’s a great tool to ignite this discussion: “What is literature for?”

 

Learning to Love to Read

The Libreria Acqua Alta in Venice:

*This is the first post. If you aren’t familiar with the purpose of the blog, please check out the page “Mr. Caleb” to learn more.

Like nearly everything in life, reading is a discipline. It takes time and practice to develop good reading skills. But for many people I know, there’s also that book (or series of books) that really made them fall in love with reading. For me, it was The Chronicles of Narnia. There’s something powerful about tapping into our imagination… something that I hope happens this year in our classes. Personally, I think a room full of books is magical and inspiring in and of itself. So click here to read Buzzfeed’s “The 30 Best Places To Be If You Love Books.”