Monday, December 15, 2014

The South Asian Literature Final Exam

This afternoon, my South Asian Literature students did the final examination. I drafted the questions last night, after a two day struggle as I noted in my previous blog post. Looking at these questions, neither I nor anyone else, I suppose, can believe that it took me a rather long time to create them. For two days, my mind was simply unable to do what I desired.

Eventually, I created three questions, from which the students were required to answer two. I am willing to present the questions here, for whatever they are worth:

1) Discuss the situation of the Parsees in Bapsi Sidhwa's The Crow Eaters and how they deal with it.

2) Discuss one of the characters in Bapsi Sidhwa's The Crow Eaters.

3) Discuss the relationship between any two characters in Romesh Gunesekera's Reef.

Certainly, I could have created a question dealing with narrative techniques or artistry in general. However, considering that the class comprises students of different disciplines, spanning the spectrum from mathematics to exercise science, I decided to ask questions that would be fair to everyone. If this was a class of only English majors, I would create at least one question on the artistic dimension of the literary works.

With the teaching and the final examination over, I am bracing myself for grading the answer scripts, a task that can be full of surprises but is always interesting and refreshing. One of the surprises is simply that a student majoring in, say, biology or economics might be the one with the best performance in an examination like this one, which, according to conventional wisdom, is outside that student's field. In a liberal arts college such St. Olaf, however, such surprises are not uncommon. That, at least, has been my experience.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

My South Asian Literature Course Just Ended

My South Asian Literature course ended yesterday, if I can frame things that way. In any case, yesterday we had our last class of the semester. We still have to prepare for the final examination, scheduled for Monday, barely two days away.

I don't know about other professors, but creating examination questions is rather challenging for me. Every time I teach a course, it is a different experience from any previous offerings of the course. My thoughts about any literary work change, influenced by various factors, such as the books and other writings I read all the time.

There is also the fact that rereading a literary work yields new insights. Then, each class of students is different in many ways from any previous class, resulting in different discussions of any given literary work. Nor is the sequencing of the readings constant from year to year. I also complicate matters more because I like to include, in the course, a text or texts I have never read.

In view of all this, I cannot simply give the students questions from past examinations. I have to think hard in efforts to capture the uniqueness of each iteration of the course. Since we did not manage to get to the end of Gunesekera's Reef, our last text for this semester, I have also to figure out how to incorporate this text in the examination., or how to give students the opportunity to use or invoke it. I cannot omit it entirely, since we have spent considerable time and effort on it.

That is the challenge I am facing this weekend. However, I am not overly concerned. I have always encountered such challenges and produced what I consider suitable examination questions.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

We Are Reading Gunesekera's "Reef"

This is the last week of classes for this semester here at St Olaf College. We are reading, in my South Asian Literature course, Romesh Gunesekera's Reef, a novel I had taught before. We are a little more than half way through it, going at a comfortable pace. Everybody is tired at this time of the semester, and I have told my students that I do not believe the reading of any work of literature should be rushed or done under pressure.

Rereading Reef, I am enjoying the discovery of aspects of it that I might have missed the first time around. For example, I am gaining a better understanding of Mister Salgado, one of the main characters. I have shared with my students my sense that he is eccentric, what with his obsession with lists, for example, which the narrator, his servant, describes thus:

Early on I learned the value of making lists from watching Mister Salgado. He was a great one for lists. He would listen to The Mikado and write page after page of lists: shopping lists, laundry lists, book lists, betting lists, things-to-do lists, diary lists, repair lists, packing lists, record lists, larder lists, letter's to write lists (p. 33)

No less peculiar is his habit of using the same tooth brush, never replacing it, according to the narrator, "until there was practically nothing left but the plastic handle. I would watch the bristles get shorter and more squashed day after day, until sometimes I myself would go and buy him a new one and place it in his mug" (p. 19-20)

In class today, I waxed profusely about Gunesekera's narrative skill. To illustrate this, I read the following passage, which invites much comment on account of its use of language and figures of speech:

We drove for hours; whistling over a ribbon of tarmac measuring the perpetual embrace of the shore and he sea, bounded by a fretwork of undulating coconut trees, pure unadorned forms framing the seascape into a kaleidoscope of bluish jewels. Above us a tracery of green and yellow leaves arrowed to a vanishing-point we could never reach. At times the road curved as though it were the edge of a wave itself rushing in and then retreating into the ocean. We skittered over these moving surfaces at a speed I had never experienced before. Through the back window I watched the road pour out from under us and settle into a silvery picture of serene timelessness. We overtook the occasional bus belching smoke or a lorry lisping with billowing hay; we blasted through bustling towns and torpid villages. We passed churches and temples, crosses and statues, grey shacks and lattice-work mansions.

This description of the Sri Lankan countryside, I find not only vivid, but very pleasant to read, and I shared my thoughts about it with the class.

There is, of course, much to say about Reef, as is the case with any work of literature worth the name. There is no way we can grasp and express the plethora of meanings it can generate. A literary text signifies ceaselessly, as Roland Barthes would say. Someday, hopefully, I will write more about this remarkable novel.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Book Reviewed in "The Zumbro Current"

My book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, has just been reviewed in the "The Zumbro Current," the newsletter of the Zumbro Lutheran Church, located in Zumbrota, south eastern Minnesota:

Book Review: Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences

The Abner Haugen Library at Zumbro Lutheran Church has a copy of this extremely helpful book on cultural differences between Americans and Africans. It is written by Joseph L. Mbele, a Tanzanian scholar who currently is a professor of English at St. Olaf College. Anyone traveling to another country or continent would find this short book well worth reading. A few of the topics covered are: eye contact, personal space, gender issues, gifts, how “time flies, but not in Africa.” Both my wife Ann and I recommend this 98-page book.
-Duane Charles Hoven. "The Zumbro Current," October 2014, p. 7

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Reading Bapsi Sidhwa's "The Crow Eaters" in Context

A few days ago. I wrote an update on my South Asian Literature course. As I noted, we are working our way through Bapsi Sidhwa's The Crow Eaters.

Students--two on each day--are taking turns making presentations, with the rest of us joining in, any time, with comments and questions, which help to augment or critique the presentations.

I have told the class that we are trying to decode the text, thereby generating meanings. I have told them that this helps us to understand how a text means, an idea prominent in contemporary literary theory. L have cited, in particular, Roland Barthes's S/Z: An Essay, a stimulating, book-length study of Sarrasine, a short story by Honore Balzac.

The Crow Eaters presents the life of the Parsees, a small minority group in India that came there centuries ago from what is today Persia, pushed out by Arab expansion.

The Parsees retain their traditional Zoroastrian religion, which largely distinguishes them from the Hindus and Moslems. I wanted my students to gain some knowledge of this religion, to complement what they learned about Hinduism and Islam through reading Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable and Ahmed Ali's Twilight in Delhi respectively.

The Crow Eaters depicts the struggles and triumphs of Freddy, an entrepreneur, who, while trying to improve the condition of his family, has to contend with a troublesome mother in law who lives with them. At the same time, we observe how he copes with the British who are the colonizing power. He tries his best to thrive under those circumstances.

Before the Thanksgiving Break, which ends this weekend, I gave the class an examination consisting of two questions. Each student was required to answer one question.

One of the questions was "Discuss the image of women in the works we have read in the South Asian literature course." I also noted that they could include the film "Salaam Bombay," which we had watched. The second question was "Discuss the Western influence or presence in the works we have read. I explained that "Western" in this context means British and American.

The students tackled these questions quite well and some of their answers were outstanding. Whether they dwelt on Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable, Ahmed Ali's Twilight in Delhi, Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost, Bapsi Sidhwa's The Crow Eaters, or the film "Salaam Bombay," they displayed a good, nuanced understanding of the issues.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Update on my South Asian Literature Course

My plan for the South Asian Literature course this semester has undergone some changes. After teaching Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable, we moved on to Ahmed Ali's Twilight in Delhi. However, hardly had we gone beyond the half-way point than my health, which has been uncertain for many months, deteriorated, and I had to be hospitalized again, at the Abbot Northwest Hospital in Minneapolis.

Fortunately, after slightly over a week, I was released. During my absence, an English Department colleague graciously stepped in and taught Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost. When I heard that she was teaching this novel, I was delighted, having taught it myself several years ago, as part of the South Asian Literature course.

Upon resuming my teaching of the course, a week ago, we started reading Bapsi Sidhwa's The Crow Eaters. When I was choosing texts to use this semester, I made a point of including Sidhwa, largely because I wanted some example of writing from a Pakistani writer. Having taught The Crow Eaters before, as well as Sidhwa's other novel, Cracking India, I knew that Sidhwa's writing is accessible to undergraduate students.

We are approaching the midway point of this novel now. Then, we will read Romesh Gunesekera's Reef, another novel I have taught before. Like Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost, Reef affords memorable insights, from a fictional point of view, into the Sri Lankan experience.

Time seems to have gone by very fast, and I know we will not be able to read Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown. What a pity. In the future, I plan to change my strategy: I will use Rushdie's novel early in the semester, to ensure that my students have some experience of reading and reflecting on this very gifted, albeit controversial writer. I also doubt if I will be able to introduce any poetry, although I prepared myself to teach some poems from that part of the world, such as Michael Ondaatje's.

Though I have some regrets, I take solace from the fact that by the end of the semester, my students will have a fairly good idea of South Asian Literature, a tradition that, rich and vibrant as it is, appears rather remote to many people.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Reverend Al Sharpton Speaks at St. Olaf College

The Reverent Al Sharpton spoke at St. Olaf College this evening. The event drew a large crowd from far and near. After being introduced, Al Sharpton went on stage. Having offered his thanks, he declared, at the outset, that though Americans tend to shy away from talking openly about race, he was going to talk about it.

He did, offering a memorable account of how the racial situation has evolved in America during his lifetime. When he was a young man, he said, nobody, in their wildest dreams, had the idea that a black person would ever become president of the USA. The election of Barack Obama, he said,  and particularly his re-election, is a sign of progress. He also gave the example of BeyoncĂ©, an artist who  is embraced by Americans of all races, whereas in his youth, the situation was very different.

While acknowledging progress, he dwelt at length on enduring problem, giving incisive accounts of events such as the recent police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and several such cases from the east to the west coasts.

Reverend Al Sharpton urged the young generation to believe in their ability to effect positive change. Instead of taking on many issues, each one should strive to define specific goals and work diligently to achieve those goals.

He offered a unique perspective on various issues, saying, for example, that when he tells Black people that they are sometimes accountable for the problems they face, he gets some negative reactions. He also said that his idea of civil rights embraces the rights of all groups of people who are in any way discriminated against or disenfranchised--blacks, Latinos, women, gay and lesbian people, Muslims, and so forth. He brought into his talk references to places beyond the USA, such as Palestine and South Africa.

Al Sharpton spoke about the issue of race without alienating anybody. Instead, he won applause and standing ovations with his insights, fairness, eloquence, and sense of humour. He charmed the audience with his jokes. He noted, for example, that people think he just pops up wherever there are problems around the USA. The truth, he said, is that people call him to those places.

After his talk, he was taken to a reception room where he interacted with people informally. He gracefully took photos with anybody who wanted to take a photo with him. My two daughters and I stepped forward to take a photo, and then my eldest daughter brought out Al Sharpton's book, Al On America. Reverend Al Sharpton right away offered to sign it, while reaching for a pen. It was a most touching, unforgettable experience.