Besides being a literary writer, I also teach research writing to undergrads—an exciting topic, in my opinion. Research makes us true literary citizens.
“Imagine that you enter a parlour…” Kenneth Burke writes. He had me at hello. Discovering what others are saying about the things we’re interested in allows us to rethink not just our assumptions, but our opinions, attitudes, and behavior. By reshaping our minds we discover new things → by expressing those new ideas we add to the conversation → others begin to rethink → the conversation expands ever onward. It’s some kind of wonderful.
In my MFA program this semester, we’ve focused quite a bit on using research to improve our literary work, looking at different styles of research writing.
Kristen Iversen, in Full Body Burden, reported government secrets.
Judith Kitchen, in Half in Shade, perhapsed about old photos.
Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, explored the natural world.
Leila Philip, in A Family Place, used historical archives to narrate her family history.
So imagine my excitement in discovering A City within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It’s clear, unbiased*, and well-documented research that opens my eyes to a period of my life that shaped both myself and my children (who are white, black, and mixed). My personal history is deeply affected by the history of the city—and I cannot understand one without knowing the other.
Many of us ignore our history. We need Lauren Weisberger to remind us (preferably through the mouth of Meryl Streep) how much we are influenced by our collective past.
“…This… ’stuff’? I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean. You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? …And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.”
I’m a second-generation Dutch Canadian who lived for a decade as a minority in a primarily black neighborhood in Michigan. I’ve got a lot of work to do, figuring out what it all means. And nothing could make me happier.
*I know there is no such thing as unbiased. Still.