One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned is that knowledge has infinite points of intersection. This lesson was solidified for me in one particular activity in a class called 19th Century American Literature. My professor, Dr. Linares, had our small class of 18 list American authors that we could come up with off the top of our heads. There was no shortage of names. We listed J.D. Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Ray Bradbury. As we shouted the names, she wrote them on the whiteboard. We stopped after we had 50 authors written down, she took a step back, and she stared at the list for a moment. She underlined two names and circled one. She underlined Louisa May Alcott and Emily Dickinson. She circled Langston Hughes. Out of the first 50 authors that we could name, two of them were women and one of them was a person of color, of any kind of color. This profound lack of diversity in our canon made me, for the rest of my life, question and critique what kind of literature I would keep on my bookshelf.
Another one of the greatest lessons that I’ve learned is literary citizenship. This is about building and supporting a community based around literature. In the words of Cathy Day, it’s about building an oasis and creating and maintaining relationships in the community. As readers, we have a duty to buy books, read them, ask the author questions, write reviews, and most importantly to be passionate about the community that we work in and the people that we work with.
Authors in the canon and literary citizenship are points of intersection for me. Now, I’ve made a concentrated effort to read literature from every lens and perspective, but also to interact with it beyond simply reading. Authors like Kwame Appiah and Alice Walker have worked to bring authors like Frederick Douglass, Kate Chopin, and Zola Neale Hurston into the canon. Now, it’s our job as literary citizens to actively keep those authors there.
Reading books from different types of authors opens up so many different perspectives, perspectives that often intersect. Reading diverse literature allows for so many types of language use and dialectic differences. It allows for differing perspectives on philosophy, feminism, and activism. All authors, especially with differing opinions, work together to create a literary conversation about larger and lasting topics. It was only last year that I realized I was reading an incomplete conversation.
To me, being a true literary citizen means not excluding diverse authors from your bookshelf, from the canon, and from literary conversations. Being a literary citizen means interacting with many types of literature and working to create a literary community that everyone can participate in and where all perspectives and experiences are welcome.
In my journey to become a better literary citizen, some books that are on my to read list are: Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldua, Delicious Foods by James Hannaham, Fun Home by Judith Butler, Among The Wild Mulattos and Other Tales by Tom Williams, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, and The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.