I teach, and in most semesters, like some of your other columnists, I’m reading a significant amount of unpublished student work. This term, unusually, I’m teaching a reading class rather than a workshop. The course is called Incorporating the Political, and I’ve taught versions of it on three campuses, as an undergraduate literature course, a graduate reading/workshop class, and now, finally, a reading class for graduate students.
This means that I tend to reread A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry about once a year. It is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, and when I ask friends about the saddest book they’ve read, many of them will name this one too. This year, I was trying to decide which was more bearable: to assign it or not to assign it. I decided to assign it because I’m interested in what the students will say about it. It’s pretty long, but I don’t feel the length so much; still, we’ll discuss it in two halves. One writer friend of mine notes that its structure is beautiful, and we will talk about that in particular.
I am in the middle of rereading Solmaz Sharif’s Look. I read it when it came out and am reading it again. I read a lot of poetry. I appreciate this book’s fury and its wild love of people. I haven’t taught Look, but I’d like to consider doing so.
I’m reading Going to the Territory, essays by Ralph Ellison. My friend Whitney Terrell and I co-host a podcast called fiction/non/fiction on Literary Hub, and he pointed me in the direction of the opening essay in here when we were talking about an episode on race in publishing, and then I realized it would be perfect to teach, and then before I knew it I was carrying the whole book around everywhere. (Our podcast is about the intersection of news and literature.) I also ended up reading “20th Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” from Shadow and Act, also by Ellison, which was the essay we actually used for that episode. Whitney is incredibly well read, and his mental library of references is often different than mine, and it’s been great and horizon-expanding to be in conversation with him. It’s good we get along, because we communicate in basically every possible way, and almost every day when we’re working on an episode. We have only a few days between episodes.
I’m reading Later the Same Day, stories by Grace Paley. My friend Sharon Pomerantz reminded me of the wonderful story, “Zagrowsky Tells,” and I taught that story in Incorporating the Political, and now I’m rereading the whole book. Maybe another time I’ll assign the whole thing. Paley was an activist and a writer, and I think a lot about what it means to lead that kind of life. (I assigned July’s People by Nadine Gordimer for similar reasons.) Paley is also just flat-out incredible at voices.
I’m reading Playing in the Dark : Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, by Toni Morrison. I wanted to read these lectures because I found myself repeatedly going to a transcript of a different lecture she had given in 1975, at Portland State University, which included a remarkable passage about racism as a distraction. In it, she said not to explain yourself to your conqueror. “You don’t have to do it anymore,” she said. “You can go ahead and talk straight to me.” I’d like to do that, but it’s not always the easiest habit to break. So I thought I’d keep reading Morrison, because how could that not help me to form better habits, to be a better person?