Eight of the twenty poems selected for the upcoming Art of Poetry event at the Hickory Museum of Art were written by students of mine at Catawba Valley Community College. Congratulations to Jaycey Deal, Jason Dunford, Brianna Friday, Ethan Hoge, Morgan Jenkins, Mikayla Parsons, Abby Rodriguez-Meneses, and Samantha Stephens. Please join us at the museum next Saturday at 2 p.m. for a tour of the exhibits accompanied by readings of the poems inspired by the paintings and sculptures on display.

 

In “The Fashion Industry: Free to Be an Individual,” one of the sample student essays in The Norton Field Guide to Writing, Hannah Berry analyzes two magazine advertisements for shoes—one for Clarks and one for Sorel—which she claims “encourage us to break free from the standard beauty mold and be ourselves” (95). While Berry’s examination of the ads often demonstrates an impressive eye for detail, at times her descriptions fall short, and what she cites as “confident individuality” (95) departs from the clichés of advertising only in superficial ways.

Fig. 1 Clarks Ad (Clarks)

The ad for Clarks (fig. 1) features a young woman in profile playing what Berry refers to as “some kind of trumpet” (95). The vagueness of her description seems inexplicable considering the ease with which anyone with internet access can now conduct a quick image search for brass instruments, or anything else, to find a name in question. In addition to forgoing a quick search for the identity of the instrument, Berry does not explore why the ad’s designers may have chosen a marching euphonium rather than a smaller B-flat trumpet or cornet for the model to hold.

Posing the model with a larger horn—one longer than her torso—makes her look diminutive, as if she is a child playing a grown-up’s trumpet. The fringed ankle socks she wears, typically worn by little girls rather than women, further accentuate her childlike quality. Though her adult French twist hairstyle and suede high-heels might counter the girlish elements in the ad, instead the incongruity creates a curious mix that evokes band nerd less than latter-day Lolita—not a “unique personality [raised] onto a pedestal” (95), as Berry observes, but rather an unsettling male fantasy à la Humbert Humbert.

Fig. 2 Sorel Ad (Sorel)

In contrast to the childlike woman atop a pedestal, the model in the Sorel ad (fig. 2) appears to have no tolerance for the romantic notions of chivalric code. If she were asked to stand on a pedestal, she might shoot it instead. Rifle in hand, she sits in a gilt chair, with one foot propped on a crystal chandelier—one that she presumably shot down from the ceiling only moments earlier. (Witness the plaster dust in the air above the wreckage.) Ostensibly, the focal point of the ad is her footwear, a devil-red, fur-trimmed variation on the classic L. L. Bean Maine Hunting Shoe. But in fact those boots lead the viewers’ eyes to her bare legs, untouched by the plaster dust that powders the floor directly beneath them. Conveniently, she is not sullied by the destruction but appears instead clean and carefully posed, the skirt of her dress raised and pushed aside to reveal her upper thighs. Along with her thighs, the feathers on the shoulder of her dress indicate—whether intentionally or not—that she is prey as well as predator. The centrality of her legs in the ad serves not to highlight her individuality but rather to objectify her.

The legs of the woman in the Clarks ad figure prominently as well. Though she is modestly attired, her little black dress elongates and emphasizes her model-thin legs, and its A-line skirt echoes the bell shape of the horn—as if, perhaps, she is something else to be played.

Along with the impressive eye for detail that Berry’s analysis demonstrates, her essay is admirable for its structure; it gracefully moves from introduction, to thesis, to description and analysis of each ad. Those aspects alone warrant her essay’s inclusion in The Norton Field Guide to Writing. But it’s a valuable model for another reason as well. As Berry writes that the “purity” signified by the model’s white dress is “completely contradicted by the way she wears it” (97), she reveals the contradiction inherent in her own assessment. Rather than depicting the woman as an individual, the ad objectifies her in typical Madison Avenue fashion. And that discrepancy in Berry’s analysis offers students a possible starting point for their own textual analyses.

Works Cited

Berry, Hannah. “The Fashion Industry: Free to Be an Individual.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg, 2016, pp. 94-99.

Clarks. Advertisement. Lucky. Sept. 2011, p. 55.

Sorel. Advertisement. Lucky. Sept. 2011, p. 65.

Wordplay Day

Posted: September 24, 2018 in Teaching

Scrabble Retro Edition

Later this morning, the students in my 8 o’clock class will tear the plastic from these retro-edition Scrabble sets and begin Wordplay Day, a new feature in my classes this semester. Once every two weeks, the students will play Scrabble in teams of two to foster collaboration, along with boosting their word power and creative problem-solving skills. Let the games (and the learning) begin!

As a young child, I was mystified by my parents’ interest in estate auctions. Though the auctioneer’s chant intrigued me, I could no more understand his rapid-fire bid-calling than I could my parents’–and all of the other adults’–inclination to stand stock-still in the blazing sun, raising their hands only occasionally to signal a bid.

Once when I had endured standing for as long as I could, I wandered away from my parents and climbed atop one of the tables. For me, it simply offered a respite from standing; I didn’t think of it as a sale table. But when my mother appeared before me a few minutes later, she said, “The auctioneer’s going to sell everything on this table. If you don’t climb down, he will sell you, too.”

As I remember those words of my mother’s now, I can almost feel the splinters burrowing in my palm as I pushed myself away from the point of purchase. Though I had contemplated life with other parents, the ones that I had were tolerable, and I had no desire to be sold to the highest bidder.

I never became an auction-goer, but I share my parents’ fascination with objects from the past. And I can trace the allure of artifacts back to those outings with them. Rather than standing and listening to an auction chant, I prefer the quiet pastime of browsing the shelves of antique shops and thrift stores. What appeals to me about such excursions is the possibility of the unexpected find: most recently a set of wooden letter blocks at Picket Fence Antiques, and earlier a chair from The Crow’s Nest and a student desk from Diversity Thrift (all of which are pictured here).

For me, the serendipity that comes with thrifting and antiquing is akin to the discoveries of the writing process. Though the journey doesn’t always lead to unexpected treasures, when I persist–whether as a browser or a writer–I eventually find something of value that I did not seek.

 

Collage head shot by Richard McGee

Perhaps it was my questioning faith in the salvation of technology that led me to disconnect from Facebook when Easter converged with April Fool’s Day. Deactivating my account wasn’t a response to the recent revelations about data breeches but rather another step in my ongoing efforts to limit my screen time.

Along with reducing the number of personal hours that I’ve spent on my phone and laptop, I devoted the school year to a revised curriculum that aimed to strike a balance between on-screen and off-screen endeavors. My students maintained blogs but also composed snail mail once per month. They drafted each essay by hand in class and revised each handwritten draft in class on their laptops.

Trying to convince students of the value of beginning their work on paper was difficult but not nearly as challenging as separating them from their phones. Once those digital devices were tucked away in backpacks, some of their owners powered off as well, like androids themselves, disconnected from their vital components. How could anything as primitive as pens, journals, and physical textbooks (no e-books permitted) animate students in the digital age? Despite the hard sell of low-tech class days, I persevered, bearing in mind these research findings:

  • Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, who has studied generational differences for twenty-five years, has observed a significant shift in teenagers’ behaviors and emotional states beginning around 2012, the year when the proportion of Americans owning smartphones first exceeded fifty percent. Twenge’s findings present a portrait of adolescents who are psychologically more vulnerable than those of previous generations, and the evidence that links depression to smartphone use leads Twenge to recommend that parents limit their teenagers’ screen time.
  • In “The Science of Handwriting,” Keim Brandon explores how his belief in the benefits of writing longhand finds scientific support in recent studies. Keim recounts a five-year research project conducted by Virginia Beringer, an educational psychologist at the University of Washington, that demonstrated second-, third-, and fourth-graders’ ability to write more rapidly and express more ideas when they composed by hand. Along with Beringer’s study, Keim outlines brain-imaging research conducted by Karin James, a cognitive neuroscientist of the University of Indiana, Bloomington, revealing that learning cursive activates multiple areas of the brain that remain dormant when we type.
  • Natalie Phillips, an English professor at Michigan State, and her neuroscience-collaborators at Stanford conducted brain scan research revealing evidence that close critical reading of literary novels activates regions of the brain unaffected by casual reading (Phillips ctd. in Vedantam, par. 13).

Simply put, putting pen to paper, studying literary texts that place demands on us as readers, and turning away from the screen contributes to our intellectual development, and studying literature and reading away from the screen benefits our emotional well-being, too.

In early May, near the semester’s close—and one month into my two-month break from social media—I began reading my students final reflective essays, which included these observations:

[T]his journey was a real wake-up call for me. It made me realize how much I do not pay attention in class and how much I depend on my devices. This class has taught me there are times to use your devices and times not to. I also found some good apps to keep me on task while using my laptop. One app called Self-Control lets you block certain websites for a set amount time so you can get your work done.

English 131 has helped me understand more why we are supposed to read books and even given me a passion to want to pick up a book on my own . . . English 131 helped me better understand the books that we read, whenever we would go over certain parts of the book together as a class. Discussing what was going on in the chapters we were supposed to read didn’t just help me understand the book, but it made me more interested in it since I knew what was going on

Now as I write, and the semester draws to an end, I have seen my writing improve because I am more aware of what I am actually writing, or at least it feels like I care more about it because I have realized that my iPhone, PlayStation, laptop, and TV are not as important as I made them out to be at the beginning of the semester. Taking time away from the screen has been an enlightening experience where I have learned a lot about myself and about learning. I have learned that the relationships you build, the connections you make are what really will make me successful . . .

As for me, now at the end of my second month away from social media, I feel reinvigorated. I’ve read more, I’ve written more, I’ve generated more ideas, and I feel more creative and less anxious. Though I’ll reactivate my Facebook account, I know that I’ll use that platform less—and in general spend fewer hours of the day experiencing the world mediated by screens. I haven’t lost my faith in digital technology, but I see it now more as a trinity with pen and paper, those other ways that words are made flesh.


Keim, Brandon. “The Science of Handwriting.” Scientific American Mind vol. 24, no. 4, Aug. 2013, pp. 54-59. Academic Search Complete. Accessed 11 Nov. 2013.

Twenge, Jean M. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/, Sept. 2017, Accessed 24 Jan. 2018.

Vedantam, Shankar. “A Lively Mind: Your Brain on Jane Austen.” NPR: Morning Edition, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2012/10/09/162401053/a-lively-mind-your-brain-on-jane-austen, 9 Oct. 2012, Accessed 31 May 2018.

A few weeks ago I received an email from a student I didn’t know asking me how to submit his work to Cantos. He had conducted some research that led him to believe that I was “in charge” of LR’s student-run literary magazine. In my reply, I wrote that I was not the faculty advisor, but that I encouraged my students to submit their work and hoped that he would do so as well when the magazine begins its next reading period. (I also forwarded his email to my two colleagues who serve as the magazine’s faculty advisors.)

Cantos cover photographs by Brianna Miller (2017) and Daniel Kiser (2018)

The student’s inquiry left me wondering what research led him to believe that I was “in charge” of the magazine. Googling “Cantos Lenoir-Rhyne” confirmed my hunch: the third site in the list of results was my blog.

I am grateful that the posts that I’ve written about Cantos led the student to email me, which enabled me to put him in contact with the magazine’s advisors. And if you are another LR student who has found my blog through an online search for Cantos, I encourage you to submit your work as well. Since the magazine does not have an online presence–at least not yet–the announcements for its next reading period will be posted on campus bulletin boards. Once the reading period begins, you will be able to submit your prose, poetry, artwork, and photography to cantos@my.lr.edu.

Good luck to all of you who submit your work for consideration, and congratulations to all of my students whose work appears in the pages of Cantos 2018 and 2017:

Cantos 2018

  • Artwork by Diana Nava (ENG 131.05, Spring 2017) 4, 13, 17, 28
  • “The Gift October Gave,” 9, and “To the Boy,” 19, poems by Kati Waldrop (ENG 231.01, Fall 2014 and ENG 281.02, Spring 2015)
  • Untitled haiku, 33, by Marcus Chapman (ENG 131.03, Spring 2018)

Cantos 2017

  • “Bitter Sweet Love,” 10, poem by Laura Barrier (ENG 131.05, Spring 2017)
  • Artwork by Bridget Strother (ENG 131.09, Fall 2015) 11
  • “Fascism,” 15, “Police,” 34, “Climate Change,” 49, and “Assault,” 51, artwork by by Kati Waldrop (ENG 231.01, Fall 2014 and ENG 281.02, Spring 2015)
  • “Another One Down,” 17, “Bones,” 45, and “Falling,” 48, poems by Ghia Smith (ENG 131.02, Fall 2013)
  • “Inheritance of Wrath,” 23, “Living Water,” 25, and “Sea Fever,” 40, poems by by Kati Waldrop (ENG 231.01, Fall 2014 and ENG 281.02, Spring 2015)
  • “Lonely,” 41, a poem by Demetrich Curry (ENG 131.01, Fall 2016)
  • “Scarred,” 47, a poem by Haylee Carpenter (ENG 131.02, Spring 2016)

In Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, the narrator recalls how she and her childhood friend Tracey watched snippets of Top Hat over and over to study Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ dance routine for “Cheek to Cheek.” Recounting Tracey’s knack for forward-winding the video tape to the exact moment she sought, the narrator observes that “she [Tracey] began to read the dance, as I never could, she saw everything” (56). As I read those words, I realized that Tracey’s attention to detail and her ability to see “the lesson within the performance” (56), was the same practice of close study that I require of myself and my students.

Just as Tracey learned the steps of Astaire and Rogers’ dance by watching Top Hat, my students and I drew lessons from Swing Time this semester: learning how a writer can use a nonlinear narrative to underscore the role of music and emphasize the narrator’s “weird state of timelessness” (149), and how leaving a narrator unnamed reinforces her shadow identity.

Along with Swing Time, my students and I studied Robert Beatty’s Serafina and the Black Cloak, as part of my commitment to teaching texts that dovetail with campus cultural events and requiring myself to read different books each semester, as my students are required to do. Yet while the lessons that my students and I could learn from Swing Time were clear to me, I was uncertain initially of what we would glean from Beatty’s novel and how I would approach it in the classroom.

One of the challenges of teaching Serafina and the Black Cloak was that it would directly follow Swing Time, a sprawling literary novel that places considerable demands on readers, due in no small part to its nonlinear structure. After the experience of studying that novel, how would we approach one written primarily for middle schoolers? I pondered that question as I planned the course and decided that we would explore it in the context of YA fiction, examine Serafina as an archetypal heroine, and consider the various genres that it draws upon, including fairy tale, fantasy, gothic mystery, and historical fiction.

Though I anticipated discussions of the familiar themes and devices that Beatty employs, —in particular the tropes addressed in our supplemental readings on YA fiction and fairy tales—I did not foresee that the pairing alone of his novel and Smith’s would prove highly instructive, serving as a primer for narrative variety. Our back-to-back reading of Swing Time and Serafina and the Black Cloak threw into sharp relief the differences between character- and plot-driven novels.

In addition to illustrating variations in the novel as a form, studying Swing Time and Serafina and the Black Cloak back to back offered me and my students the opportunity to consider what our responses to those disparate novels revealed about our own inclinations as readers. For me, the act of reading Swing Time and other literary novels is an act of immersion. I do not feel as if I am reading a novel the way I do when I read a work of genre fiction, such as Serafina and the Black Cloak, so conscious am I of its formula. But for many other readers, familiar devices do not detract from a narrative and may in fact be part of its appeal. Reflecting now on the disparate novels that my students and I studied this semester, I recall Serafina’s own thoughts about reading as she and Braeden explored the Vanderbilt’s library: “She marveled at how this one room contained the thoughts and voices of thousands of writers, people who had lived in different countries and different times, people who had told stories of the heart and the mind . . .” (187-88).

Stories of the heart and the mind: that’s another way of thinking of our work over the course of the semester, both the texts that we have studied and the ones that we have written—all of which have offered lessons through their words.

Works Cited

Beatty, Robert. Serafina and the Black Cloak. 2015. Disney Hyperion, 2016.

Smith, Zadie. Swing Time. 2016. Penguin, 2017.

Annotated Bibliography

Beatty, Robert. Serafina and the Black Cloak. 2015. Disney Hyperion, 2016.

Blending elements of fairy tales, gothic mystery, fantasy, and historical fiction, Robert Beatty’s young-adult novel Serafina and the Black Cloak chronicles the title character’s quest to solve the mystery of the Man in the Black Cloak and his link to the children who are one by one disappearing from the Biltmore Estate.

Bettelheim, Bruno. Introduction: “The Struggle for Meaning.” The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Random, 1976. pp. 13-19.

In his introduction to The Uses of Enchantment, which examines fairy tales through the lens of Freudian psychoanalysis, Bruno Bettelheim explores the importance of fairy tales in children’s’ moral development, focusing on how the form and structure of the unambiguous narratives of fairy tales provide images with which young children can structure the daydreams that help them make sense of their lives.

Collins, Billy. “Snow Day.” The Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46707/snow-day, Accessed, 17 Jan. 2018.

The speaker in Billy Collins’ poem “Snow Day” meditates on the “revolution of snow” (1) as he listens to the radio announcements of school closings, steeping himself in the pleasure of the sounds of the whimsical names of the preschools and the sights of the little girls playing outside in the “grandiose silence of snow” (37).

Makant, Jordan. “Thought Twice; It’s Not Alright.” Impossible Angles. Main Street Rag, 2017. pp. 18.

One of the poems in his debut collection, Impossible Angles, Jordan Makant’s “Thought Twice; It’s Not Alright” responds to Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan’s 1963 folk song “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” featured on his album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The speaker in Makant’s poem observes that “Dylan was lying” but that his lie was “the measure of true love”(18).

Richtel, Matt. “Blogs vs. Term Papers.” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/education/edlife/muscling-in-on-the-term-paper-tradition.html, 20 Jan. 2012, Accessed 17 Jan. 2018.

In “Blogs vs. Term Papers,” Matt Richtel reports on the debate in higher education on how best to teach writing in the digital age. While some professors have followed the lead of Duke University’s Cathy Davidson, replacing the traditional term paper with shorter, more frequent blog assignments, their detractors—including Douglas B. Reeves, columnist for The American School Board Journal and William H. Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review—argue that blog writing lacks the academic rigor that fosters critical thinking. For Andrea Lunsford, professor of writing at Stanford University, pitting blogs against term papers creates a false opposition. Rather than replacing term papers with blog posts, Lunsford requires students to produce multi-modal assignments: term papers that evolve into blogs, websites, and video presentations.

Smith, Zadie. Swing Time. 2016. Penguin, 2017.

Shifting back and forth from the distant past of the narrator’s childhood in north London to her recent days—in New York and West Africa—the novel swings in time as the narrator recounts two intertwining stories: one of her childhood friendship with a classmate who possess a gift for dance (that she herself lacks); the other of her decade-long stint as a personal assistant for an international pop star. In the prologue, as the narrator watches a clip of Astaire dancing with his shadows in Swing Time, she realizes that she has spent her life in silhouette, first as a shadow to her friend Tracey, and later to her celebrity employer, the Madonna-esque Aimee. In the narrator’s words: “I had always tried to attach myself to other people . . . I had never had any light of my own” (4). To underscore the narrator’s shadow identity, Smith never names her; throughout the novel she remains the unnamed “I.”

Twenge, Jean M. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/, Sept. 2017, Accessed 24 Jan. 2018.

Jean M. Twenge’s article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” focuses on her research into the behaviors and emotional states of young people born between 1995 and 2012—a generation she calls “iGen”—who differ markedly from their predecessors who came of age before the advent of smartphones and Instagram accounts. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, who has studied generational differences for twenty-five years, observed a significant shift in teenagers’ behaviors and emotional states beginning around 2012, the year when the proportion of Americans owning smartphones first exceeded fifty percent. Twenge’s findings present a portrait of adolescents who are psychologically more vulnerable than those of previous generations, and the evidence that links depression to smartphone use leads Twenge to recommend that parents limit their teenagers’ screen time.

 

Serafina and the Black Cloak / LR Playmakers

Blending elements of fairy tales, gothic mystery, fantasy, and historical fiction, Robert Beatty’s young-adult novel Serafina and the Black Cloak chronicles the title character’s quest to solve the mystery of the Man in the Black Cloak and his link to the children who are one by one disappearing from the Biltmore Estate.

Staging Serafina—as the Playmakers at Lenoir-Rhyne University recently did—poses a number of challenges, not the least of which involves condensing the action of a novel to a one-act script. With impressive economy, the Playmakers captured the spirit of Beatty’s novel. Using minimal set pieces, props, and costumes, projecting screen images on either side of the stage, and breaking the fourth wall, their production of Serafina and the Black Cloak conveyed a strong sense of both character and place.

Breaking the fourth wall proved particularly effective for the Playmakers, offering one solution to the problem that adapters face, namely how to convey information the audience needs, but that characters would not say in dialogue. Speaking directly to the audience at the beginning of the play, Serafina (Callie Cope) recounted how she and her father, the Vanderbilt’s machine mechanic, live secretly in the basement of the Biltmore mansion.

The Biltmore house, itself, remained a presence throughout the play as a backdrop in the form of a triptych of painted cloth panels draped over black curtains. Actors entered and exited through the openings in the curtains, creating the appearance that they were entering and leaving the mansion.

Entrances and exits occurred frequently and rapidly, with six of the ten actors performing multiple speaking roles (two to four) and many also playing additional nonspeaking roles, including rats, horses, trees, tombstones, gallery portraits, statues, and ventilation shafts.

Lightning-fast costumes changes required minimal alterations in appearance: an actor in theatre blacks pulling on a horse mask, for instance. Such simplicity served the story well, underscoring its place in the realm of fantasy, where the lines between human and animal blur and shift.

To fashion a sense of the vast forest that surrounds the estate and the action that takes place there, director Elisabeth Bokhoven integrated clips of the actors filmed in the woods. In the scene where Serafina’s Father, “Pa” (Chase Fowler) reveals where he found her (50-52 in Beatty’s novel), Pa and Serafina become a tableau vivant, frozen on stage, as the large screens that framed them projected a film clip of Pa in the woods, the camera following him through the trees to the spot where he finds the bundle that holds the infant Serafina.

No stage production of a fantasy story can create the special effects that a film can, but integrating film into a stage production with innovative set and costume design, and actors breaking the fourth wall, reminds audiences of the immense possibilities of theatre when dramatists use their imaginations to develop creative solutions. What the Lenoir-Rhyne Playmakers brought to life in their adaptation of Serafina and the Black Cloak displayed the real magic of the craft.

Works Cited

Beatty, Robert. Serafina and the Black Cloak. 2015. Disney Hyperion, 2016.

Serafina and the Black Cloak. By Robert Beatty, adapted by Elisabeth Bokhoven, Callie Cope, Chase Fowler, Milissia Kocelik, and Heather Osterer, directed by Elisabeth Bokhoven, performances by Callie Cope, Chase Fowler, Caleb Hoyle, Milissia Koncelik, Ashton Pesterfield, Hannah Saunders, Ariona Smith, Taylor Thomas, and Corey Smith, LR Playmakers, 14 Apr. 2018, Lenoir-Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.

In Lee Smith’s tribute to Flannery O’Connor, she wrote of the transformation she experienced as a college student when she read O’Connor’s fiction for the first time. I thought of those words of Smith’s—and of the words of O’Connor’s that inspired them—when I received a gift from a woman who was a student of mine more than a decade ago. Last Saturday I was working at my desk when the mail carrier dropped the package on the porch. What I found inside was a picture of O’Connor in a gold-colored peacock frame, the bird wreathing O’Connor as her own pet peacocks had circled the writer on her farm, Andalusia, where she lived the last years of her short life.

Along with the framed picture, the student enclosed a note with these words: “I think of you often. Thanks for changing my entire academic life by introducing me to the amazing Southern women writers!”

Those writers included Smith, whose whole notion of the short story was upended when she read O’Connor for the first time. In Smith’s words:

[S]omehow I had got the idea that a short story should follow a kind of recipe, like a Lady Baltimore cake. Conflict, suspense, resolution; a clear theme; an ending that tied it all up in a neat little bow. Yet when I read that famous last line of  “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” I realized that nothing was wrapped up here—instead, a whole world opened out before my astonished eyes, a world as wild and scary as life, itself. (19)

A world opened before my eyes, too, when I first read O’Connor and Smith. And for me as a teacher, there is no greater honor than the opportunity to witness whole worlds open before my students’ eyes as they read those writers for the first time.

And Aine, what can I write of your expression of thanks? That it’s as exhilarating and astonishing as the words of those writers. Thank you!


Smith, Lee. “Revelation.” Flannery O’Connor: In Celebration of Genius, edited by Sarah Gordon, Hill Street, 2000. 19-20.

The title of Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time evokes not only the Fred Astaire film of the same name, but also the structure of the narrative, itself. Shifting back and forth from the distant past of the narrator’s childhood in north London to her recent days, in New York and West Africa, the novel swings in space and time as she recounts two intertwining stories: one of her childhood friendship with a classmate who possesses a gift for dance (that she herself lacks); the other of her decade-long stint as a personal assistant for an international pop star. Long before readers know how the friendship and the job end, they learn that both ended badly. In the prologue, as the narrator watches a clip of Astaire dancing with his shadows in Swing Time, she realizes that she has spent her life in silhouette, first as a shadow to her friend Tracey, and later to her celebrity employer, the Madonna-esque Aimee. In the narrator’s words: “I had always tried to attach myself to other people . . . I had never had any light of my own” (4). To underscore the narrator’s shadow identity, Smith never names her; throughout the novel she remains the unnamed “I.”

Along with the dual storylines of the narrator’s shadow identity, she chronicles changes in how we communicate, rendering the novel not just the story of the “I,” but also a meta-narrative: a story of the construction of stories, themselves. Swinging in time from her pre-digital childhood to the dawn of the now-ubiquitous smartphone, the narrator recounts the fundamental shifts in our interactions. When her mother remarks that she, the narrator, is addicted to her phone, the narrator says, “‘This is how people work now,’” to which her mother replies, “‘You mean: like slaves?’” (154). The mother’s notion of technology’s power to own us echoes Smith’s observations of social media in her essay “Generation Why?

In Swing Time—published six years after “Generation Why?”—email messages, texts, and social media posts shape the events that precipitate the novel’s conclusion. After the narrator loses her job as Aimee’s personal assistant, she receives a .pdf file of the non-disclosure contract that she had signed ten years earlier. Seeing in hindsight that she had given Aimee ownership of that decade of her life, the narrator states: “I wanted to burn her house down. But everything you need to burn somebody’s house down these days is already in your hand. It was all in my hand—I didn’t even have to get out of bed” (434).

Though exposing Aimee’s wrongdoing online might be perceived—and eventually is—as an act of moral conscience, the narrator is motivated not by integrity but rather by a desire to inflict harm. Similarly, ten years earlier, the handwritten letter that ended her friendship with Tracey could be construed as one that Tracey sent out of a sense of duty, as Tracey herself claimed. But in fact her aim was to hurt the narrator. The juxtaposition of Tracey’s letter and the narrator’s email illustrate the potentially far-reaching effects of acting on impulse in the digital age. Reflecting on Tracey’s handwritten letter, the narrator “think[s] of it as the last truly personal written letter I ever received, for even though Tracey had no computer, not yet, the revolution was happening all around us” (349).

After the narrator reads Tracey’s letter, she burns it. But ten years later she cannot burn the incriminating images of their childhood dance after Tracey’s video goes viral. Her video does burn in a sense, whenever it’s pulled from the internet, but it rises again and again like a phoenix from its ashes. For Tracey, posting their provocative, albeit innocent, mimicry of Aimee’s own video is an act of editing the narrator’s life, the way that Tracey had edited the ballerina stories they penned as children:

‘No: that part here.’ ‘It’d go better if she died on page two.’ Moving and rearranging things to create the greatest impact. Now she had achieved the same effect with my life, placing the beginning of the story at an earlier point so that all that came after read as the twisted consequence of a lifelong obsession. It was more convincing than my version. (438)

As an antidote to Tracey’s viral video, the narrator writes her memoir (the novel), a sweeping narrative rife with the complexities and nuances absent from the abbreviated stories of our news feeds. Reading Swing Time in the wake of the revelations of Facebook’s most recent data breach—and its political consequences—calls attention to the novel’s prescience. Narratives that rival the truth have the menacing power to convince.

Work Cited

Smith, Zadie. Swing Time. 2016. Penguin, 2017.