“Writing is a community practice,” Garza says. “When we write, we write with others. We always write with materials that are not our own.”
In last week’s episode of Novel Dialogue, Cristina Rivera Garza reflected on why and how writing, for her, is both a creative process and a political act. Stories, as Garza says elsewhere, “produce reality.”1 Although we often turn to fiction as a diagnostic tool to understand the world, literature can also bring new worlds and new possibilities into being.
As a teacher, I suspect that this worldmaking capacity is also true of reading. In the literature classroom, the writing that teachers assign sends a message to students about what stories are valuable as tools of knowledge production and transmission. As new organizations like We Need Diverse Books and hashtags like #OwnVoices proliferate, we are learning to de-center an elite white heteronormative canon and to introduce students to narratives that resonate closely with their own experiences. These initiatives are an invitation to think about how storytelling can create community, provided authors are aware of the shared experience their language invokes.
To this end, Rivera Garza’s decision to write and teach in Spanish is a model for how storytelling can become an activist practice. As Rivera Garza notes in last week’s episode, she is not writing in a foreign language, but rather in the second most spoken language of the United States, which is the second-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. Hence the importance of teaching in this language as well. As director of the nation’s first Ph.D. in creative writing in Spanish, Rivera Garza’s prioritization of Spanish opens a new space to tell stories in the language in which they were experienced. “Writing is a community practice,” she says. “When we write, we write with others. We always write with materials that are not our own.”2
I have seen my own students rise to the challenge of repurposing language to frame their own worldviews. This past summer, I invited my class to produce creative final projects rewriting canonical texts to adapt them to their own lived experiences. One student rewrote the lyrics to the Black liberationist hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to reflect on the racial justice protests of the moment. This student’s new lyrics revealed how little the world had changed from the one depicted in the mid-century films on our syllabus. Yet the rewriting process also allowed the student to articulate a place for herself in a long tradition of activists writing in the language of liberation.
In her essay titled “Keep Writing,” Rivera Garza reminds us that language is “a form of opposition that always takes us elsewhere; to that other, unthinkable place inside ourselves. Because it is only through writing that the here is founded. Because the now.” Those of us who teach would do well to keep this oppositional power in mind. The resources we give to our students help them understand their place in our classrooms and in the wider world.
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