Monday, 26 September 2011

American Born Chinese

I briefly mentioned Catholic Manga a little while back (click here to see the book they produced for World Youth Day) so it's now time to mention a Graphic Novel which has set new standards, Gene Yang's American Born Chinese, which was the first Graphic Novel to be shortlisted for the National Book Award.

The book deals with questions of American Chinese identity by bringing three apparently unrelated tales together with an unexpected twist. One of these tales is a fascinating reworking of the story of the Monkey King from the Chinese classic, Journey to the West.

Yang reimagines this Buddhist classic as a Christian tale because, as he explains in this fascinating interview, "there is an idea within Christianity of intention behind your identity, that there is this outside agency that actually intended you to be who you are. Asian Americans tend to be caught in a place where we don’t fit into our culture of origin and we don’t fit into the culture we find ourselves in. Thus, this idea of intention is very powerful and that was what I wanted to explore."

"[T]he two biggest pieces of my identity," he explains, "are my ethnicity and my religion [Yang is a Catholic]" but that doesn't mean that he produces Catholic propaganda. Far from it. As he has explained elsewhere his philosophy is to "live your faith and then write your life."

Yang has also published The Rosary Comic Book but American Born Chinese is his masterpiece (so far). You can see and hear him speaking briefly about it here.

So how might we incorporate this book into our lessons? I can suggest two ways. Colin Teevan's knockabout version of Journey to the West is sometimes performed in schools so American Born Chinese would fit in well here. 

At another level, I was speaking the other day to some 6th Formers who are looking at the issue of identity in novels such as Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger and Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Yang's novel would, at the very least, provide some interesting contextual material for anyone looking at this whole question of identity.

And finally, while we're loosely on the topic, it's worth remembering that Yang isn't simply introducing a western religious concept into Chinese literature. Christianity, like Buddhism, may be a foreign import into China but, like Buddhism, its been around for a very long time. If you want to explore the topic further I'd recommend Jean Charbonnier's Christians in China: AD 600 to 2000, Liam Brockey's  Journey to the East: The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579-1724 and Jonathan Chaves' book about the Catholic priest, artist and poet, Wu Li.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Catholic Radio for Schools

This looks like it might be interesting. Here's a list of UK schools already involved.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Half Blood Blues

I have written before about the via pulchritudinis, the way of beauty, which Pope Benedict has made so much of during his pontificate.

It was Paul VI who first referred to artists as people "who are taken up with beauty and work for it".  John Paul II called them "ingenious creators of beauty" and Benedict XVI, in 2009, "the custodians of beauty".

I was reminded of these comments when I came across this passage in the Booker-shortlisted novel, Half Blood Blues. One of the Jazz musicians who suffered under Hitler is trying to explain the importance of his art towards the end of the book:

"I tell you what I know. The world's damn beautiful. But it's an accidental beauty. What we do, it's deliberate. It's the one damn consolation you can offer not just your own life, but other lives you ain't even met."

There is much here that Catholics can agree with - the beauty of the world; the importance of art; the life lived for others - even if we wouldn't accept that it's "an accidental beauty". There are some interesting discussions to be had about the philosophies of life espoused in the novel but I don't think it's too outrageous to suggest that John Paul II's words from his Letter to Artists might provide us with one interpretative tool: 

"In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption."

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Writing Advice from Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway on Writing is an extremely useful and interesting book. I wouldn't encourage my students to accept Hemingway's advice uncritically but I would certainly want them to read it. 

There are problems with taking passages out of context but, nonetheless, Larry Phillips has done us a service by publishing many of Hemingway's comments about the business of writing in one volume. Take these words, for example: 

"Actually if a writer needs a dictionary he should not write. He should have read the dictionary at least three times from beginning to end and then have loaned it to someone who needs it. There are only certain words which are valid and similies [sic] (bring me my dictionary) are like defective ammunition (the lowest thing I can think of at this time)."

That should set the cat among the pigeons.

And what about these thoughts?

"I can write it like Tolstoi and make the book seem larger, wiser, and all the rest of it. But then I remember that was what I always skipped in Tolstoi... I don't like to write like God."

There was a humility about Hemingway which is sometimes forgotten. By not telling the reader everything - by not playing God - he made a virtue of our human limitations and through those very limitations created writing that was not simply spare and vigorous but, often, very beautiful too.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Paul Claudel

I briefly mentioned Paul Claudel the other day but could have said more. (To see a lot more download an interesting Communio article here.)

Claudel has not always been well served by translators but it is just about possible to track down some of his poems in English translation. They sound better in French of course. Here is a reading of the lovely 'La Vierge à Midi'. And here's another with the words.

Fortunately one or two of his prose writings are still available, including this wonderful essay which I shall write about separately another time.

And if you're looking for a slightly longer school play than usual - as analysed here by Hans Urs von Balthasar - The Satin Slipper comes in at just under eleven hours :)

Monday, 12 September 2011

Literature and Prayer

Pope Benedict recently returned to a topic which appears to be close to his heart: the role of artists in the Church.

In his weekly audience he spoke of the ways in which art "resembles a door open on to the infinite, on to a beauty and a truth that go beyond the daily routine" and specifically mentioned Paul Claudel, the great Catholic poet and dramatist.

What I really like about the pope's comments was the way in which he started his talk: "In this period I have recalled several times the need for every Christian, in the midst of the many occupations that fill our days, to find time for God and for prayer." Easier said than done? Well, it depends, at least in part, on our conception of prayer.

According to the Pope, "The Lord himself gives us many opportunities to remember him. Today I would like to reflect briefly on one of these channels that can lead to God and can also be of help in the encounter with him. It is the way of artistic expression, part of that “via pulchritudinis” — the “way of beauty”, of which I have spoken several times and whose deepest meaning must be recovered by men and women today."

Pope Benedict has spoken of the Way of Beauty before but this is, I think, the first time he has explicitly linked Art and prayer: "some artistic expressions are real highways to God, the supreme Beauty; indeed, they help us to grow in our relationship with him, in prayer. These are works that were born from faith and express faith. We can see an example of this when we visit a Gothic cathedral: we are enraptured by the vertical lines that soar skywards and uplift our gaze and our spirit, while at the same time we feel small yet long for fullness...."

"Dear friends, I ask you to rediscover the importance of this path also for prayer, for our living relationship with God. Towns and villages throughout the world contain treasures of art that express faith and beckon to us to return to our relationship with God. May the visits to places filled with art, then, not only be opportunities for cultural enrichment — that too — but may they become above all moments of grace, incentives to strengthen our bond and our dialogue with the Lord so that — in switching from simple external reality to the more profound reality it expresses — we may pause to contemplate the ray of beauty that strikes us to the quick, that almost “wounds” us, and that invites us to rise toward God."

It puts a different gloss on what we're doing as English teachers.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

The Cross

Next Wednesday 14th September is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The day is being marked in one Catholic Church in London by a performance of The Dream of the Rood, the great Old English poem in which the cross on which Jesus was killed tells its own story. You can find the text (and translation) here or here. And you can hear it being read (in the original Old English) here.

The name of the poem itself is perhaps a little misleading because, as Mitchell and Robinson point out in their Guide to Old English, the poem has no title in its original manuscript: "It has also been called A Vision of the Cross," they explain, "which is perhaps more suitable."

Whatever you call it, it is a remarkable poem and has an amazing immediacy:

I remember the morning a long time ago
that I was felled at the edge of the forest
and severed from my roots. Strong enemies seized me
on their shoulders and set me on a hill.
Many enemies fastened me there. I saw the Lord of Mankind
hasten with such courage to climb upon me.
I dared not bow or break there
against my Lord's wish, when I saw the surface
of the earth tremble. I could have felled
all my foes, yet I stood firm.
Then the young warrior, God Almighty,
stripped Himself, firm and unflinching. He climbed
upon the cross, brave before many, to redeem mankind.

Mitchell and Robinson point out that the personification of the cross could have been suggested by old English verse riddles such as Riddle 30 on this page and Riddle 53 on this page, both of which may have been riddles about the cross. These riddles (and many others like them) are wonderful resources for the English Teacher.

But what about the obvious objection that all this is just too obscure for the classroom? I would argue that Old English can be fun. Students enjoy hearing and attempting to decipher what is of course their own language. And as for the subject matter: we cross ourselves with great frequency. We have crucifixes on our walls (and maybe even round our necks) so why not bite the bullet and have a poem about this central Christian image too?

Saturday, 3 September 2011

More Dickens. More Chesterton.

The fact that Chesterton is so quotable means that he has not always been taken as seriously as he should have been. Here are a couple more of his comments from his wonderful book about Dickens:

"Dickens had all his life the faults of the little boy who is kept up too late at night. The boy in such a case exhibits a psychological paradox; he is a little too irritable because he is a little too happy."

"[Certain Moderns] permit any writer to emphasise doubts ... for doubts are their religion, but they permit no man to emphasise dogmas. If a man be the mildest Christian, they smell 'cant'; but he can be a raving windmill of pessimism and they call it 'temperament'."

Catholicising the Curriculum - Part 2

The second part of my article on Catholicising the English Curriculum is now available online. The first part is available from the link posted here. I hope some of the ideas might prove interesting.

You can download the whole magazine here.