That’s all, folks. You’ve done it!
Having read a syllabus sampling some of last year’s most lauded books, which book do you think people are most likely to be still reading in 2120? And which is the least likely? Do of course explain your choices with an example from the text.
NOTE: Since The Handmaid’s Tale is still going strong after 35 years, another 100 wouldn’t be as challenging for it to last, so it’s off limits for this assignment.
Throughout The Tradition, lyrics focus on names—proper names to be always remembered such as Emmett Till’s and Mike Brown’s (or Sandra Bland’s), but also literary props given to James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Essex Hemphill, and Avery R. Young, among others. Throughout, the poems’ speakers complicate their pronouns, which are literally words that refer to and replace proper names, as one of numerous ways The Tradition renames the world in an Adamic fashion.
Paying specific attention to one poem, technique, or theme, explain why you—you—believe these lyrics are comprehended by the title The Tradition. To what traditions do the poems refer, and how does their reinvention of “traditional” forms from supposedly disparate traditions shape your understanding of what and how The Tradition means? For the purpose of this assignment, focus on a poem other than “The Tradition.”
Part II of The Tradition begins with “Duplex,” which you will notice shares a title with a poem in Part I. In fact, we’ll encounter two more duplexes in this book. The duplex is said to be Jericho Brown’s most noteworthy formal innovation, combining the sonnet with the ghazal — love poems from Western and Eastern traditions — while incorporating the patterns of the 12-bar blues song, a distinctly African American chord progression.
The term “duplex” certainly recalls the spatial dimensions of poetry’s division and organization into “stanzas” (“rooms”), but it also evokes a house divided, home to disparate and even incompatible elements such as those we confront as a nation, as well as those embodied by Brown himself, a gay Black man raised in the Baptist church, for example.
plans for a duplex (via Etsy)
Compare the two poems (so far) titled “Duplex.” In your responses, discuss:
- the content or meaning: what do they have in common and how do they differ?
- the form: what does Brown’s distinctive duplex form bring to (1)?
Beyond the fact that Vuong first made his reputation as a poet whose Night Sky with Exit Wounds (2016) won plaudits for fusing trauma with beauty while commemorating his forebears, his first novel and Jericho Brown’s Pulitzer-winning The Tradition share more than superficial similarities. Indeed, we’ll encounter a perhaps surprising set of shared motifs. In a review of Vuong’s novel, Roxane Gay (whom you’ll remember as a sort of matron saint for Yazz’s Unfuckwithables in Girl, Woman, Other) observes that “He writes the body so well. . . . I wanted to sit with each line and just feel it as deeply as I could.” Likewise, the lyrics that comprise The Tradition constellate around the Black, queer body.
- Read through Part I aloud, preferably in a room with great acoustics, such as your bathroom.
- Note the titles.
- Respect the line breaks.
- Listen for surprises in these first 16 poems and make notes of them.
For your reading response, share a question you really have (not one that can be just looked up) about these poems so far.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is the fourth consecutive epistolary novel we’ve read. Recall the letters from Celestial to Roy, from Roy to their fathers, from Aunt Lydia and from Offred, each to a future “you” they actively construct through and (don’t just imply but) implicate by their narration.
As we’ve discussed in class, the epistolary form is as old as the novel, but consider why contemporary novelists are returning to it, and why such novels were attracting acclaim last year. Consider how Little Dog’s letters to his mother Rose differ from the letters in Jones’s and Atwood’s novels.
For your reading response this week, draw upon the text as ever to consider why a writer who never reveals his “real” name would write a letter to someone who can’t read. How does this dynamic affect your understanding of this novel?
An American Marriage ends with the end of Roy and Celestial’s marriage, each of them headed in new directions, toward what Celestial calls “communion” (304). Roy points out that he and Celestial are “not your garden-variety bourgeois Atlanta Negroes,” so how is their marriage (and its circumstances) typically “American,” as well as indefinite enough to demand the indefinite article “an” (5)? How does the end affect your understanding of the title, taken as a whole, as a theme, and in the significance of each individual word? Of course, draw upon the text, its motifs and characterizations.
An American Marriage is “about” mass incarceration, but it also engages challengingly with concepts we’ve been encountering all semester, from racism and bias to the supposed opposition between art and commerce. In exploring these concepts against the backdrop of our criminal “justice” system, Celestial’s dollmaking is a powerful motif.
Onesie sold by Southern Sisters Designs, an ostentatiously “America Strong!” online shop. Just imagine the parents who would find this cute.
Her big break comes when her doll representing Roy as a baby in prison blues wins her a prestigious prize from the National Portrait Gallery. Though her newfound prominence arguably could have brought attention to — and perhaps overturned — Roy’s wrongful conviction, Celestial argues that “What is happening to [Roy] is so personal that I didn’t want to see it in the newspaper”; moreover, “I wanted to have my moment to be an artist, not just a prisoner’s wife” (64, 67). It takes Walter, Roy’s cellmate who turns out to be his biological father, to explain that publicly acknowledging her marriage to an imprisoned man would only confirm what “‘everybody already thinks [about her having] fifty-eleven babies with fifty-eleven daddies; that she got welfare checks coming in fifty-eleven people’s names'” (67).
Is Roy entitled to his anger? If so, how so, and to what degree? In the long, painful process of coming to his realization about Celestial’s plight, what has Roy learned—regarding marriage, the condition of women, the condition of Black women, and about Celestial specifically, not to mention himself?
In “What The Handmaid’s Tale Means in the Age of Trump” – repurposed as the introduction to our edition of that novel – Atwood responds to “questions I am often asked” about its feminism, views on religion, and supposed prescience. Published just six weeks before the debut of the Hulu series to which it makes extensive reference, the piece might be regarded as a promotional piece, its repurposing in new editions of the novel an advertisement for the 2019 graphic novel “it is being turned into,” as well as the Hulu show.
“by the author of The Handmaid’s Tale”
So when The Testaments arrives – to enormous anticipation, a sensation months before its release on September 10, 2019, unambiguously announcing itself as a sequel “by the author of The Handmaid’s Tale” – to which Handmaid’s Tale is the novel referring, and to what extent? From your reading through chapter V, do you think The Testaments is strictly a sequel to Atwood’s earlier novel? To what extent does it refer to the graphic novel or the (importantly) ongoing Hulu series (both projects that bear the imprimatur of Atwood’s involvement) or not? As usual, draw upon the text, in this case The Testaments, for your response.
For Atwood, her publisher, and Hulu, The Handmaid’s Tale has been a bonanza. While the 2016 election had elicited a spike in sales of the novel, it was the 2017 TV series that made The Handmaid’s Tale the most-read book on Kindle, as her publisher revealed to NPR that sales had risen by 60% that same year. Likewise, what came to be called “The Handmaid’s Tale Effect” boosted Hulu’s subscription rolls to 17 million.
Atwood, “Consulting Producer” on set of the pilot episode (photo: Hulu)
For class, you’re watching only the first four episodes: the first batch Hulu released on April 26, 2017, plus one. What do you discern to be the series’ relationship, intended or not, to the novel? Be specific, citing both texts to support your response.
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) violates the VCU Course Bulletin’s description for ENGL 347 Contemporary Literature. While there is no dispute whatsoever that Atwood’s most prominent novel is “internationally prominent,” it was not published within “the past thirty years.”
Photo: Kate Canfield, June 2017
However, as we’ve discussed, we will also be reading Atwood’s The Testaments (2019), which shared the Booker Prize with Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other last fall. That novel is a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, and we will devote some attention to whether The Testaments stands on its own.
Meanwhile, your assignment this week is to find, through chapter XV,
- one example that is still relevant (or even more so) in 2020, and
- one that is so groaningly, obviously 1980s that it no longer makes sense to you.
As always, be specific, citing the text and explaining your choices. Keep up the good work!