Who are the "new" voices in American literature? What is it that they are adding to the conversation? What is it they are demanding from the conversation? In what directions are these writers pushing the dialogue, and to what end? These questions typify the conversations that define contemporary American culture and are forcing us as a society to come to terms with the distances which we impose between one another as a result of "otherness" such as race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, and so on. A unit on American literature by women lends itself particularly well to this interrogative way of reading. It gives us opportunities to witness the changing landscape of the dialogue within and outside of the "canon."
The interest in women's writing and women's studies that began in the 1970s reminded us that the "American" voice (if there is indeed such a thing) is not the voice of one group, but is inclusive of and characterized by many groups. Specifically, reading black women writers alongside their more "established" white women counterparts, we see that the conversation is blown wide open. In
A Room of One's Own
, Virginia Woolf argues that in order for the female writer to write, she must, without exception, have access to certain economic and physical comforts. But today, the dialogue is no longer restricted to Woolf's parameters. The women writer/artist in America particularly has access to pen and paper. She has opportunities to make a room of her own. She is not doomed to walk into the sea, put her head in the oven, overdose on pills, or live her days in the depths of psychic terror. Even in the powerful and in some senses representative black women's narrative that Morrison has crafted with
, the author takes the terror of slavery and of a mother murdering her baby, and transforms it into the story that leads her to a version of
. The fact that Morrison wrote
in between suggests strongly that black women writers need to take apart the stories they have been told, and must reassemble them to make a better sense. Black American women writers, in the words of Alice Walker, "seem always involved in a moral and/or physical struggle, the result of which is expected to be some larger freedom" (5). It is in these texts that we find hope.
In this unit students will examine representative pairs of American texts by women for their similarities as well as for their inevitable differences. In order to better read the "one immense story -- the same story for the most part -- with different parts of the immense story coming from a multitude of different perspectives," (Walker 5) we will read: Chopin's
Their Eyes Were Watching God
, Walker's "Saving the Life That is Your Own" and Tillie Olsen's "Silences," Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" and Hurston's "Sweat." Also included is poetry from Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde, and songs by Lauryn Hill, and Ani DiFranco.
We read, as many woman writers have said, to save our lives. That's a loaded phrase. Certainly we "save our lives" in the sense that Rich recognizes that reading is a matter of survival. (Though it is ironic that Woolf, Plath, Sexton, et. al. were not saved by their writing.) But we also read to save the stories, to preserve the histories, to capture the experiences, and to find ourselves in the pages. We "save our lives" with each story we read, write and tell because "This," as Morrison says in
, "is not a story to pass on" (275). Take this seemingly ambiguous statement as you will: Reading American women's writing, especially pairs of texts, makes clear that Morrison means we cannot pass on telling the story, that it is somehow her, and our, moral obligation to share the stories, to pass them on. We cannot afford to forget, lest we forget parts of ourselves. We hope our students enjoy the texts for their aesthetic value, but we want them also to better understand the texts themselves and the issues at hand, and to arrive at a greater degree of self-knowledge as well. Reading traditionally undervalued voices black women, specifically alongside their more canonically ensconced partners, is hopefully one way to get there.