I’m an English major. It is a language of conquest.
What does it say that I’m mastering the same language that was used to make my mother feel inferior? Growing up, I had a white friend who used to laugh whenever my mother spoke English, amused by the way she rolled her r’s. My sister and I tease Mami about her accent too, but it’s different when we do it, or is it? The echoes of colonization linger in my voice. The weapons of the death squads that pushed my mother out of El Salvador were U.S.-funded. When Nixon promised, “We’re going to smash him!” it was said in his native tongue, and when the Chilean president he smashed used his last words to promise, “Long live Chile!” it was said in his. And when my family told me the story of my grandfather’s arrest by the dictatorship that followed, my grandfather stayed silent, and meeting his eyes, I cried, understanding that there were no words big enough for loss.
English is a language of conquest. I benefit from its richness, but I’m not exempt from its limitations. I am ‘that girl’ in your English classes, the one who is tired of talking about dead white dudes. But I’m still complicit with the system, reading nineteenth-century British literature to graduate.
Diversity in my high school and college English literature courses is too often reduced to a month, week, or day where the author of the book is seen as the narrator of the novel. The multiplicity of U.S. minority voices is palatably packaged into a singular representation for our consumption. I read Junot Díaz and now I understand not only the Dominican-American experience, but what it means to be Latina/o in America. Jhumpa Lahiri inspired me to study abroad in India. Sherman Alexie calls himself an Indian, so now it’s ok for me to call all Indians that, too. We will read Toni Morrison’s Beloved to understand the horrors of slavery, but we won’t watch her takedowns on white supremacy.
Even the English courses that analyze race and diasporas in meaningful ways are still limited by the time constraints of the semester. Reading Shakespeare is required, but reading Paolo Javier and Mónica de la Torre is extra credit. My Experimental Minority Writing class is cross-listed at the most difficult level, as a 400-level course in the Africana Studies, Latina/o Studies, and American Studies departments, but in my English department, it is listed as a 300-level. I am reminded of Orwellian democracy: All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."
I’m so busy that I barely have time to breathe (I mean, I should be reading a French play right now, but sometimes you just have to type things out), which is great because I don’t have time to think about my mistakes. I’m on top of all my classes, am applying to grad schools, have taken on uber amounts of responsibilities for the newspaper, and am volunteering for campaigns with the Democratic Party.
Today I had my first day at my publishing internship, where I read a collection of Pearls Before Swine comics. I work in the most beautiful, cosmopolitan part of downtown Kansas City, and when I walk from the parking lot to the office, I remember that this is exactly what I have wanted since I was nine. Independent young city girl, a writer, an editor, relying on nobody but herself. And you know what? I’ve worked hard as hell to get myself here. It’s exhausting, but it feels so incredibly satisfying to know that I earned the scholarships which allow me to live in Cambridge and KC (the latter perhaps not so glamorous to the East or West Coast crowds, but we don’t all come from parents with six-figure incomes) and I earned two paid jobs, even as a senior in college. Did I mention? I’m an English major.
But here’s the important part of this post: I don’t want to play down any of my hard work, but I also happen to be lucky. Millions upon millions of people in the States work as hard as I do, but their conditions trap them from gaining my successes. I am privileged to come from a frugal family which values education above all else. I was taught priorities from an early age, namely, to live within my means (a difficult lesson, but one I learned when I began working for minimum wage at fifteen) and focus on my education. Other twenty-one year old kids have had no such luck. A young woman, for instance, may not have been taught sex ed in high school; now, she’s a single mother with no way to earn a college degree. Or a young man must work full-time at McDonald’s to support his dad’s cancer treatment payments. I could go on for quite some time, but basically it comes down to this: without hard work, I could not have gotten where I am today. Without being lucky enough to have stumbled across the right opportunities, I would not be here either. I’m both proud of myself, and grateful for my circumstance. But my life is not representative of the population’s majority, and this has to change.
let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs: why shakespeare matters
here’s something i’ve heard rather a lot in the wake of the news of the bbc’s the hollow crown: ‘shakespeare is boring’, ‘shakespeare is hard’, and ‘shakespeare is not for the likes of us.’ and i want to talk about these attitudes, because they are, on the one had, understandable for various education and class-based reasons! (my father, for example, believes all of these things, much to my eternal pain.) but they are, also, entirely wrong.
1. SHAKESPEARE IS BORING
hey, you can like what you like and i’m never going to tell you otherwise! but there is, i’ve noticed, a sort of generalised ‘idea’ of what shakespeare plays are about, and what they’re actually about, and they’re quite different. here’s what shakespeare isn’t about:
- boring things
here’s what shakespeare plays are about:
- the most exciting fucking stories you’ll ever read in your life, and, if staged right, see, too
shakespeare wrote about power, and madness, and death. shakespeare wrote about love, and terror, and murder. shakespeare wrote about the wars that decimated england, dynasty struggles that left nothing but corpses in their wake, about treason and magic and honour. shakespeare wrote plays about almost every imaginable facet of the human experience; about the decisions that men and women make, and the downfalls that await them. shakespeare wrote about heroes and villains and people caught in the middle, in such grey areas that hundreds of years later there are still vicious arguments about whether they are heroes or villains, about whether either of those words even have any meaning at all. shakespeare wrote about what it is to kill, what it is to die, what it is to be a king. shakespeare wrote about what it is to be alive. i’ll leave it to will himself, here, actually, because he says it better than i ever could:
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court
if you think shakespeare is boring, jesus christ. what is it that you want?
2. SHAKESPEARE IS HARD & 3. SHAKESPEARE ISN’T FOR ‘PEOPLE LIKE ME’
well, maybe he’s hard, (we’ll get there in a second), but he’s definitely for people like you. here’s a secret: shakespeare wasn’t supposed to hard, and he wasn’t supposed to be for people who could afford ‘shakespeare tickets’. shakespeare himself was not upper-class, but a member of the early modern newly-emerging middle-class. he wrote plays for everyone, from the queen to the people who could only just manage to scrounge up the money to stand in the pit. shakespeare is for everyone because shakespeare has always been for everyone.
the globe wouldn’t have made enough money to stay open without the peasantry, and actors themselves weren’t nobility. the elizabethan theatre was a leveller, an astonishingly influential arena that everybody had the ability to access. shakespeare is the world’s most performed— well, not playwright, but, in fact, writer, of all time, for a reason. the concept of ‘universal’ plays is a complex one, but when it comes to shakespeare it appears to be an entirely accurate description. shakespeare had to write plays that could interest everyone, from the king to the orange sellers.
and the idea that he’s ‘hard’? well, to some extent, it is just that, an idea. here’s how it works: a text is dead, but it’s only as dead as you let it be. the text is rich and clever and funny, if taught right it’s exciting and hilarious and life-changing, if performed right it’s exciting and hilarious and revolutionary. you can read all of shakespeare on the internet for free, and access many filmed productions through youtube. if you struggle with the language and context, there are numerous online resources to help you. welcome to the future, where you are no longer constrained by the price of a theatre ticket. (but if you’re a student, or ‘young’, you can often buy theatre tickets for equal to or less than a cinema ticket. obviously many people can’t afford that - i often can’t - but theatre is often a lot cheaper than it is commonly believed to be.)
shakespeare isn’t boring, guys. shakespeare is anything but. don’t believe the people who want to keep it ‘theirs’, who think that it’s only for ‘a certain class of people’, because will shakespeare? would have laughed in those people’s faces. and now all you have to do is click that link up there, and change your life. and i say that not out of hyerbole, or a finely-tuned sense of drama, but because he changed mine. i’ve never read anything like him, and now? now you can, too.
Except for the part about Shakespeare being universal*, agreed. The first Shakespeare play I read was Julius Caesar in my high school sophomore English class, and in an arrogant and totally rash decision, I concluded that I wanted nothing to do with any more of Shakespeare’s work. Perhaps this is because high school English classes are total shit, teaching to the exam with all of that this-metaphor-means-this-and-nothing-else and the-play’s-ultimate-message-is-just-so nonsense. In reality, Shakespeare is not a moralist, and he rarely, if ever, comes to a simple conclusion on a complex topic. That openness in interpretation and invitation for debate is why I legitimately delight in reading and watching his works now.
Plus, dude has got some great insults. Take Troilus and Cressida alone: among others, “idol of idiot worshipers,” “he has not so much brain than earwax,” “crusty batch of nature,” “whoreson indistinguishable cur,” and my personal favorite— “you ruinous butt.”
*To see how ridiculous and contradictory of a notion this is, refer to Ben Johnson’s preface to Shakespeare’s First Folio. From “Soule of the Age!” to “He was not of an age, but for all time!” and finally “Sweet Swan of Avon.” I actually laughed out loud when I read that last one.
“Finally slid that pop culture reference in my Keats essay. ‘Winter is coming.’ Too easy.”
I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of anything I’ve ever tweeted. Note to self: get more sleep.
Just a quick message to high school kids who feel like complete and utter nobodies:
So you may not be Prom Queen. In fact, you’re pretty sure the one guy who asked you to prom hasn’t showered in weeks. You’re quiet, and you’re certain that the only time you’re the center of attention is when you’re embarrassing yourself by tripping in the hallway or suggesting a feminist interpretation of “The Lottery,” which your teacher promptly shuts down (okay, what this really means is that you’re ahead of the curve, and you should consider studying literature in college. English is so much more delightfully bizarre during your university years, I assure you). You live in Suburbia-Or-Nowhere, Generic-Midwestern-State, and hell, it looks like you ain’t goin’ anywhere. Your daddy certainly isn’t rich enough to get you the heck outta Dodge, nor are you pretty enough to cinch that modelling contract and move to the Big Apple (eh, one can dream). Sometimes you wish that you could just run away from everything with The Doctor himself.
Well, that’s not going to happen. So here’s what you do instead.
Be patient, and work hard. Excel at what you know, whether it be studying, creating art, or kicking butt at your favorite sport. This will help you earn a respectable scholarship for university, which is the starting point to change your life.
Sure, rewards aren’t reaped in a day, and in this culture of Wikipedia, it’s difficult to live without instant gratification. Remember, though: good things come to those who wait. Who knows? One day, you might find yourself studying at the University of Cambridge. On a brisk January day, a stranger might stop you on the street and tell you that you’re beautiful (even though you’ve felt nothing more than Plain Jane for your entire life). Later that night, you might learn that you’ll be spending your 21st birthday in Paris (Paris!). Trust me: you don’t need a funny man in a time-travelling blue box to find yourself in fantastic places. And your life still won’t be perfect, but by God, it’ll be good, and you’ve worked hard to deserve it.
Just so you know: this is all coming from a rather cynical young woman who rolls her eyes at just about any cliché inspirational message she’s read. But this is also my story, and I suppose it’s nice to prove myself wrong sometimes.