Last summer, I read two books with a student. We read The Awakening by Kate Chopin and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Our conversations about The Awakening proved fascinating, but we didn’t have as much success reading and discussing Mrs. Dalloway. Nevertheless, I found the experience meaningful, and I think the student did too. She sent me the following Remind message before the school year ended:
Hey Carlson, are we reading this summer?
How could I say no? We haven’t yet started, but we plan to read The Piano Lesson by August Wilson. Additionally, I asked one of my students from this past year if she would like to read a book with me, and she agreed. We’ve been reading Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories by Sandra Cisneros. The story “One Holy Night” led to an interesting discussion. Here are the highlights and my rambling commentary. To maintain her privacy, I will refer to my student simply as C.
In “One Holy Night,” an eighth-grade girl tells of how she loses her virginity to a man who calls himself Chaq Uxmal Paloquín. He claims to be descended from Mayan kings. The people in the neighborhood call him Boy Baby, and no one seems to know much about him. We find out later – after he has left town and our narrator has become pregnant – that he is actually thirty-seven years old and that he is a serial killer. The story is only nine pages long, and it focuses more on mood and feeling than on specific details.
For whatever reason, our conversation fixated on rape. C rightly pointed out that Boy Baby committed statutory rape. She expressed some discomfort with the story and mentioned that some readers might be deeply disturbed (“triggered”) by the story. We talked about the choice Cisneros made to avoid detail and use poetic language to describe the rape:
Then something inside bit me, and I gave out a cry as if the other, the one I wouldn’t be anymore, leapt out.
C was glad that there wasn’t more detail. Because rape is so disturbing, she asserted, only a bad writer would need to include more detail to bring about the desired response from the reader. This assertion seemed to extend past “One Holy Night” to all literature (and other works of art, for the matter), so I asked if there could ever be a situation in which more detail might be necessary. She said no, again emphasizing that a good writer wouldn’t need to include the details of the rape. I told C that I didn’t disagree but that I wanted to press the point further. Could there be any value in graphic description of such a violent act? And what about other violent acts like murder? C felt that rape belonged to a category of its own, that it was even worse than murder. I wondered whether a rape victim might consider it necessary to express the horror and the violence she went through. C agreed this might be possible, but she expressed her concerns about works of art that use such violence for shock or entertainment value. She talked about the show 13 Reasons Why (which I have not seen) and how she felt like it glamorized suicide. We talked about how the narrator seemed to romanticize her own rape, describing Boy Baby’s face as “the face I am in love with” even after discovering he’s a serial killer. It was a meandering conversation, but it was a meaningful one.
When I chose Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, I didn’t know much about its content. I didn’t intend to pick a book with a story about a young girl’s rape, so I’m glad that C and I managed to have such an interesting discussion. I’m forced to wonder where this sort of conversation takes place. Or if it even does. It’s not easy to talk about rape, but it seems important that we do. Sometimes we don’t give our students enough credit for the depth of their insights. I look forward to learning more with C as the summer continues.