Recently, I taught Louise Erdrich’s “The Red Convertible.” The story focuses on two Chippewa brothers, Henry and Lyman, and their relationship after Henry returns from the Vietnam War. During our discussion of the story in class, someone asked a question about the text and some of our previous readings that caused me to think well past the end of our session. The student posed the following question, “Why can’t we read this story [and others] as a universal text?” Initially, I simply responded by stating that we cannot ignore aspects of the story that lead us, as readers, to take the story within a specific context. In regards to “The Red Convertible,” we need to read it in relation to our country’s history and current policies towards Native Americans.
On the surface, I understand the question and, in fact, can see how we can read texts as universal. Ernest Gaines encountered novelists such as Faulkner, Steinbeck, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and others when he entered a library in California in 1948. He became drawn to these authors and their stories because he found something he could connect to in their works, even though the works did not focus on people like him or the people he knew. Universal themes and topics drew Gaines to the writers listed above. The authors drew him in because they either wrote about the South, the landscape (no matter where that land was), peasants, and community. These topics reminded Gaines of Louisiana, and he decided to write, partly, because he did not see himself or those he knew in the texts. Gaines is only one example of many that follow a similar pattern of reading and starting to write.
We also need to keep in mind that we continue to read certain authors (Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, and others) partly because of the universal themes in their works. We can argue about why those authors continue to hold such prominence on our shelves, and that discussion is something we need to have. However, we cannot look past the fact that the stories they tell contain universal themes of love, death, familial issues, and things that connect us together as humans.
In response to the student’s question, another student responded by stating we need to remember representation and voice when reading stories, novels, and plays. We cannot ignore, at least in “The Red Convertible,” the ethnicity of Henry and Lyman. Even though Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” eschews racial markers, we cannot read that story outside of the lens of race because Morrison foregrounds race from the very beginning when she writes that people referred to Twyla and Roberta as salt and pepper. We cannot even read a play like Tennessee Williams’ Cat on A Hot Tin Roof as a universal text. While there are aspects that cross racial and gender lines, we cannot ignore some of the underlying issues that populate the play. The same has been said about Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Othello.
A similar discussion arose during some interviews leading up to the premier of Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In an interview with Time, star Elizabeth Moss and Atwood, responded to a question about “nonwhite, and nonstraight” characters that appear in the adaptation and not the book, Moss said,
We wanted the show to be very relatable. We wanted people to see themselves in it. If you’re going to do that, you have to show all types of people. You have to reflect current society.
A question I get asked a lot in interviews: Do you gravitate toward feminist roles? This is a question I struggle to answer because I don’t necessarily feel like they are feminist roles. I feel like they’re interesting women. The Handmaid’s Tale is considered one of the great feminist novels. I actually consider it a human novel about human rights, not just women’s rights.
Moss’s response presents the story as universal (human rights) and not solely focused on the rights of women.
Immediately after Moss’s comments, Atwood followed up by saying, “Well, women’s rights are human rights unless you have decided that women aren’t human. So those are your choices. If women are human, then women’s rights are part of human rights.” Teresa Jusino on The Mary Sue, notes that the key in these comments comes from labeling the story as universal, thus placing women as other: “The only reason why one would hesitate to say women’s rights instead of human rights is if they consider women to be other.”
This all leads me back to the class and comments that followed the ones mentioned above. Before concluding, someone moved the needle a little and asked why we claim to want to move past race and racism yet keep talking about it in the literature we have read in the course. In part, the question, coupled with the question about whether or not we can read the texts as universal, works to push women, African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and others to the side so that the focus gets shifted. This came at the end of class, so I did not have time to fully address it, but I took up the conversation at the start of the next period.
Before the next period, I began to think about how to approach the question posed at the end of class. Essentially, I pointed out to the class that we need to talk about these issues because we have not moved on. I should have mentioned Confederate Memorial Day in Alabama and Mississippi that took place last Monday, but I totally forgot. Instead, I talked about the removal of Confederate and white supremacist monuments in New Orleans and the appearance of Richard Spencer on Auburn University’s campus a couple of weeks ago. Both of these events highlight that we have not, no matter how much we claim, moved forward to the point where every citizen receives equal treatment and respect.
Through positioning our understanding of the texts as conveying universal themes and questioning why we still read these texts, we subvert the voices that the texts seek to illuminate. We claim they are not as significant as our own. Even though we can connect to narratives in a universal manner, we do not need to deny the voices and positions that those stories seek to convey to us as readers.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.