It’s hard for me to write scholarly work, though I’ve been told by poets and scholarly writers alike that I’ve a scholarly mind. I’m sure this stems from what the English language is to me as an origin—it’s my third language, and one that was largely self-taught, cultivated in the ten or so years in which I moved from home to home and lived with different strangers who constituted my foster families. If there was anything I learned from being lonely—from knowing my parents had given me up for a third of my life—it was how to read. But reading can be done in secret: it was a shock to my teachers and biological family how progressive I was with English, since they thought I had no access to language when I was alone. They forgot that access can always be cultivated in the strongest-willed learners, especially when left alone.
For most of the academic school year, I teach scholarly writing, and I’m at good it, if we translate the misnomer “good teacher” into curriculum vitae results, in what my students do with their exact essays afterwards: win awards and scholarships, find jobs, and earn placements into grad school. I know how to teach what sounds good on paper.
But I would hardly call myself a scholarly writer; in fact, I’ve been singled out for my shortcomings in crafting articulate, novel arguments. Is it the English-is-my-third-language problem? Not in one stereotypical sense. Reading and writing in my primary working language is not an intuition: I sometimes spend hours translating a single, one-paragraph e-mail. I know what individual words mean, but collective meanings are wildly different, and arguably, the most ambiguous in English—a language where the written characters don’t imply finite tones and primary meanings. English is one of easiest languages to learn, but hardly the easiest in which to learn how to think and write.
At my school, a lot of writing teachers follow the new composition curriculum—that is, to say, seemingly everybody but me—and teach an essay called the Literary Narrative, the coming-into-language story. I stray away from it because I find the personal narratives too reliant on “Let me talk about my life for 3-4 pages with less regards to acceptable, college-level work.” That, and I’m biased: I don’t want to hear, much less, read literacy narratives in which students thank their loving families for their privileged lifestyles. I’m unfair: I’m thinking of the students who grew up with 9-bedroom houses and estates and horses and private jets and infinity pools—it’s that ridiculous and not unheard of at the U of A. And though I’ve met and worked with plenty of students whose lack of family and affluence parallel mine, I resist the urge to open my heart a little: I don’t want to envy someone because they had stronger paths to their literacies. This, of all things, starts with our families and what our parents did or didn’t do to introduce us to language.
So I’m a bitter teacher on the inside and a limited scholarly writer on the outside. My sense of literacy despotism has, at worst, limited my ability to interact and engage with others: at times, I am that teacher who shuts up her students because I don’t want to hear their stories; I am the colleague who fuels battles I know I’ll win. Is it selfish of me to want to retain my power of the English language—a tongue I work very well in, not to lend credence to an unbearable ego here—regardless of how difficult it is for me to maintain that power? Maybe, but what writer, scholarly, creative, or otherwise, doesn’t want to know her words are provoking a reaction in someone else? We want the “A,” we want the book, we want, of all things, for the persons who matter to acknowledge and challenge our values, biases, and assumptions.
And it’s hard for me to listen when I know I’ll feel something—envy, anger, sadness, even a mixed sense of pride and guilt in my successes. This is my literacy narrative, or one part of it.
The second part has to do with the aforementioned pride and guilt and a boy whom I consider a brother. Though we didn’t meet till I was eleven, we were born and raised in Hayward, Calif., a sleepy, down-on-the-dumps San Francisco East Bay suburb. It’s where Oscar Grant III was born and raised, where Michelle Le was abducted and murdered, where Matt Amaral started a controversy about the role of the teacher in his call to Steph Curry to not visit his high school. Evan and I knew about these trajectories of “the typical Hayward person” and our life ambitions, at fourteen and eleven, was to get out.
This sounded easy, except for the part where we were wards of the state of California because our parents weren’t around. Most of the kids’ parents weren’t around; mine were in the next suburb, actually. They just didn’t want me back yet. Yet—the slim possibility of getting to live with my real family in a minute, three-lettered word. Nobody knew this but Evan.
He was positive my parents would take me back. So Evan prepped me for the day: any parents, according to him, would be impressed at a literate daughter. But not just the “I can read the alphabet” kind: what about one who could read poetry in English and German because the foster home library had a copy of Paul Celan’s Lichtzwang? Sure. I memorized the poems in both languages; I read them to Evan after lights out and after we’d snuck to the oak tree in the backyard.
I wasn’t at a total disadvantage. The man I considered my foster father was German and had a library of German literature that paralleled Belle’s materialistic love for The Beast, if I’m to say she returned to him for his books; I spent years hidden in his library stacks. Evan’s biological mother was an English teacher who read the Harlem Renaissance genre to him. Between our faculties and abilities, I became the model student. I knew how to recite this end with the right amount of take-me-back, parents, I’ll love you forever:
The Eternities went
for his face and beyond
slowly a blaze put out
Years later, I visited Evan in San Quentin. We joked about the typical Hayward man; he was the fatalistic example. He applauded me for having the gumption to learn and use language to make my life a free one. Remembering Celan in the meticulously stark visiting room jilted me: this was a Holocaust survivor who wrote in his native German in France. His alienation was his language or mother tongue: even though he reinvented his German grammar—“[rendering] up its Nazi contamination,” as Carolyn Forché writes in her introduction to Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness – he was destroyed by it.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.
I’m still learning to accept the fact that we don’t choose our families. But we can be graceful about it.