A conversation between five NYC educators
October 25, 2021
Today, an entire generation of young people are coming of age with no living memory of September 11. Yet their childhoods have no doubt been shaped by the post-9/11 era—shaped by the U.S. Global War on Terror, by the increased and continued surveillance and state violence targeted at Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities.
How have middle- and high school teachers brought conversations around the post-9/11 era into their classrooms? What has the role of literature by Asian American writers been in guiding these conversations? And has literature helped to build the ground for students to understand recent history and its continued ripple effects on their lives? These questions are especially significant for schools in New York City. Stuyvesant High School, for example, is home to one of only a handful of Asian American literature classes taught in New York City high schools and is located just a half mile away from where the Twin Towers stood.
We asked a group of five NYC educators who in some way have used Asian American literature in their classrooms to engage with these questions together. Kyung Cho (Bard High School Early College), Victoria Meng (Hunter College High School), and Sophie Oberfield (Stuyvesant High School) teach Asian American literature courses, while Annie Thoms (Stuyvesant) and Shreya Vora (the Nightingale-Bamford School) find ways to weave texts by Asian American writers into their curricula. Their conversation, which took place over Zoom in early September just before the start to the school year, touches upon how they use 9/11-related texts in the classroom, how to build solidarity and trust in the classroom, and how to discuss the “big, difficult things.”
I wanted to start by asking each of you to go around and share a little bit about yourself—where you teach, how Asian American literature has found its way into your classroom, and anything else that you’d like to share. And if we could popcorn it through the room, that would be great. Sophie, can I volunteer you?
Certainly. I’m a native New Yorker and a graduate of Hunter High School. And my birthday is September 11, which is a funny connection. I’ve been teaching at Stuyvesant for 14 years and teaching a one-semester Asian American literature class for nine years after taking a course in Asian American literary theory at Hunter College with Sonjia Hyon. The class preexisted me; it’s been taught at Stuyvesant for at least 25 years. In the 90s, when I was in high school, it was taught by a white man, and was taught by Asian American women before I picked it up. I also teach it in my ninth-grade English class.
I’m excited about this conversation and to listen. And I’m going to pick Shreya, who is at the other end of the chain of connection—I know Victoria, and Victoria knows Shreya. Hi, Shreya.
Bringing the chain full circle! I’m in my tenth year of teaching: I’m currently at the Nightingale-Bamford School in New York, taught at Hunter College High School (which is where I met Victoria!) before that, and taught for seven years in New Jersey, in both Newark and my hometown of Bayonne. Bayonne is right next to NYC—you can walk to Staten Island via the Bayonne Bridge!—and I was in my senior year of high school there on 9/11.
Since we’re talking about Asian American literature and given how central identity can be to this work, I’ll mention that my parents emigrated from India, we speak Gujarati at home, and I’m Jain.
I don’t teach an Asian American literature course. And I’ve only ever taught English literature. But my undergrad degree was in Sanskrit literature and philosophy, and I completed a masters in Middle East and Asian languages and cultures as part of my comp lit program. I think that background inevitably informs so much of how I see the world and how I teach English literature.
I had the chance to teach a New Narratives elective last spring. Everything we read was written after 9/11 and so certainly operates in the world 9/11 created. We read Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar and Good Talk by Mira Jacob. We also read shorter pieces by Matthew Salesses, Jia Tolentino, Ocean Vuong, Alexander Chee, and Viet Thanh Nguyen. Aside from the elective, I teach junior and senior English. My seniors read an excerpt from Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings as a companion to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. My juniors read Carvell Wallace’s profile of Riz Ahmed as an example of a “portrait” essay.
Kyung, is now a good time to toss it to you?
Whenever I have the chance, I try to put Asian American literature in whatever I teach, whether it’s a general American literature class or a speculative fiction class. I don’t come to it as a scholar but mostly as a writer. I got my MFA in creative writing and fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, so that’s sort of my approach to it. Most of my interest comes from trying to expand our imaginative capacity. With Asian American literature, along with other kinds of literature, that’s ultimately what it’s really about for me: to imagine and tell stories beyond those that are prescribed or allowed to be told.
The other angle that I approach American literature from—I was a literary agent for many years in New York City. So I’m also very much interested in the marketplace and what gets published and what is given voice. And how the politics of representation intersects with capitalism within the publishing industry. Let me toss it to Annie.
Sure. I apologize in advance for any background noise—my kids are doing guinea pig laundry in the background. That’s what happens when you do your meetings from your basement in Brooklyn!
I attended Stuyvesant High School, and was actually a senior in the building on Chambers Street during the first year that building opened, when the first World Trade Center bombing happened [in 1993]. And then I was in my second full year teaching there when September 11 occurred. Since then, Sophie and I both were there during the 2017 terrorist attack outside the school. I feel there’s a lot to think about in terms of Stuyvesant being at the center of a disaster community in many, many ways.
So I’ve been teaching at Stuyvesant with breaks to have three kids and to work with the New York City Writing Project as a teacher consultant for a few years on leave. Other than that I’ve been teaching at Stuyvesant since 2000. When I was a student at Stuyvesant, the student population was about 50 percent Asian. At this point we’re 73 percent Asian. So I’ve seen and lived that transition in the student body. And of course Asian is a catchall term that does not accurately represent the real diversity within the student body. We’re not going to get into here how the Stuyvesant student body does not represent the New York City student body, but those are definitely issues.
For the entire time that I’ve been teaching at Stuyvesant, I’ve tried—in the ninth-grade classes I’ve always taught, in eighth-grade composition, in Women’s Voices, in Writers Workshop, and in the course I teach now to my upperclassman called Writing to Make Change—I’ve tried in every single one of those courses to have texts in the classroom that speak to and represent different populations, especially the populations of the kids who are sitting there in the room. I think a lot about Dr. Rudeine Sims Bishop and Mitali Perkins writing about the importance of having story as window and story as mirror, that we give our kids both of those experiences when they’re in the classroom. So in ninth grade, I started out teaching Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. And my colleague Emily Moore, who’s a poet, invited a number of different Asian American poets in—so we’ve had Jason Koo speak at Stuyvesant several times and Ishle Yi Park and Kimiko Hahn. And seeing our kids respond so strongly is part of what has encouraged me to keep inviting people in. So in terms of 9/11-related things, for a number of years I’ve taught Patricia Park’s novel Re Jane as a companion to Jane Eyre, and Patricia Park has come in and spoken to my students. Re Jane is set in the years just before and after 9/11. The attacks come in the center of the book, and function as a kind of metaphor for the disruption in the protagonist’s life, as well as in the life of the city. And I’ve been teaching Good Talk by Mira Jacob in Writing to Make Change, and I badgered Mira Jacob a lot until she came to talk to my kids too!
Right after September 11, I was the theater faculty advisor as well as an English teacher. I worked with some students as part of the theatre community to create this play of interview-based monologues called with their eyes, where the students interviewed students, faculty, and staff in the Stuyvesant community about their experiences of September 11 and the years afterwards. The play was published as a book and is also essentially a student-written text I’ve taught as model for student work when I’ve done the interview-based monologue project in different classes. It becomes a way for kids to create their own literature. And that’s the lens through which teaching that play has helped me think about teaching 9/11 directly afterwards and then in the 20 years since. Victoria?
Hi! I attended Hunter College High School in the 90s with Sophie. We didn’t know each other well, Sophie, but when we bumped into each other many years later when I was a student teacher at Stuyvesant, you were so generous with your mentorship. And now I teach at Hunter College High School, and it feels wonderful to be back where I was a student—Annie, you and I have that in common.
So, like Annie mentioned with Stuyvestant, Hunter’s demographics have also shifted, not quite as dramatically but definitely somewhat. We used to have more Black and Latinx students and now we have fewer. We used to have more socioeconomically disadvantaged students and now we have fewer. Our Asian students used to make up about 30 percent of our student body and now it’s about 40. But it’s interesting—here I’m defining Asian as having Asian heritage, and that’s why I can’t put a precise number on it. We have many more multiracial, multicultural students now than when I was a student in the 90s, which is something that I find really vibrant in the classrooms.
Like Shreya, I feel some imposter syndrome because I also don’t have an English background. I was an immigrant, and the movies and television shows that taught me about what to expect in America were so strange. I mean, wow, people are just not that blonde here compared to what you see on screens! My undergraduate degree was actually in filmmaking, because I wanted to be a part of telling those stories. But then I thought, “I actually don’t know enough about the history of how these stories have been told.” So then I went and studied the history and theory of film and media. I was well on my way to a PhD when I realized: I don’t like research at all, I really love teaching. And it’s back to that mirrors-and-windows concept that Annie referenced. The most exciting part of my day was when my students were recognizing patterns and contradictions between representations and their experiences of the world, and then trying, and sometimes really struggling, to articulate those thoughts and feelings. I was seeing how, depending on what kind of high school education or writing instruction they had received, some students had a much easier time than others. So I dropped that film and media studies degree and went to school again and became a high school and middle school English teacher.
So, in terms of timeline: during my own years in grad school, 9/11 was a part of the discussion because it had just happened. And when I was teaching in Tempe, Arizona, during the McCain-Obama election season, that and the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were very much a part of the classrooms. By the time I actually got certified and started teaching high school, we were getting more into Trump world. It’s like Shreya said: 9/11 is always in the background. But there was—and still is—always a proximal dumpster fire that the students are eager to talk about, like the Muslim ban, or nowadays, the January 6 insurrection.
Part of my fear when I was preparing for this conversation was that I don’t really explicitly talk about 9/11 in my classrooms very much. But it’s known, it’s referenced. If I were to compare it to my own experience, it’s a little bit like the way that the assassination of JFK was always in the background of my childhood. I didn’t experience it, but everybody knew it was a big deal for our parents. It was this marker of before and after that leaves a deep impression.
Hunter is a relatively small school. The graduating class is approximately 200. We offer about a dozen English senior electives every year, and for about 10 years, we’ve had Asian American Literature as one of those electives. John Loonam, who is a short story writer and a wonderful teacher, proposed the class, and our chair, Lois Refkin, has also taught it. I started at Hunter eight years ago, and I felt so green. I mean, I just felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. Starting my third year, several colleagues, never in a particularly formal setting, started saying, “Hey, would you consider teaching Asian American lit?” And there was a part of me that was angry at that actually, despite also feeling intrigued. Because I had been, at that point, the adviser to the student science fiction magazine for two years, and nobody had ever suggested that I teach the literary science fiction elective. Not that I wanted it, but I didn’t want Asian American lit either, because these are bodies of work that I enjoyed experiencing as a reader, but I didn’t really know as a teacher. Teaching’s like hosting a party instead of just going to a party—it’s fun, but it’s a lot more work. I felt like I needed more preparation.
But one thing led to another, and this is my second year teaching Asian American lit. And I still feel completely out of my depth, but I’m also incredibly grateful because I think there is an impact to seeing a teacher at the front of the room who looks like they’ve had certain experiences. Or at least that’s what my students say. I think that part of my initial reaction to being asked to teach Asian American lit was due to my own learning experiences—that during my six years at Hunter, I never had one Asian American teacher. I had five Black teachers, which was wonderful, but no Asian American teachers. I had a few as an undergrad, but they always taught Asia- or Asian American–related topics. And when I was working on my degree in film and media studies, I was encouraged very, very strongly to specialize in Chinese cinema even though I wanted to work in animation. Many of my students say they felt the same kind of ambivalence about signing up for this elective where most of the students have some form of Asian heritage. There’s the feeling that their Asian heritage is either invisible in their lives, or it becomes the defining factor in their lives. What has been really lovely about the course for me and my students is learning how to speak about this aspect of our experience so that it becomes more integrated into our lives as a whole. So that we have more words and ways to weave this in.
Thank you all so much for sharing so generously. Victoria, you kind of led us into the next question when you mentioned the indirect ways that 9/11 has come into your teaching practice in the classroom. Did that resonate with other folks? What are the ways in which you’ve each brought 9/11 into your own curriculum—direct or indirect or in the background? And it would be fun to hear about specific examples, whether it’s narrating moments from the classroom or particular lesson plans or books.
One of the challenges with teaching 9/11 is the fact that all of my students at this point have been born after 9/11. But they live in a world shaped by 9/11. It’s “the water we swim in,” to borrow a phrase from Ezra Klein’s interview of Spencer Ackerman, who just published Reign of Terror. Klein framed it up beautifully: We have to be able to see the world that the War on Terror built more transparently if we’re going to question its premises, if we’re going to move on from it. We have to be able to see it.
And so how do we set ourselves and our students up to see what’s become invisible, especially when it’s so freighted and charged? I loved reading Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar with my students last spring. We see “A NOVEL” plastered in huge letters on the cover, but the protagonist’s name happens to be Ayad Akhtar and happens to share the author’s autobiography. 9/11 comes up in several places, and Akhtar writes about the day and its aftermath with so much complexity and nuance. We’re 200 pages in before Akhtar describes the actual day, and the narration is so painstakingly self-conscious and precise. He recounts experiencing the day as both victim and perceived suspect. He comments on his own retelling of 9/11 in the conditional: if I were trying to do this, then I would write the reaction this way. He addresses the reader directly. He also does this really neat thing where he references a line in a play he actually wrote—this line that the U.S. deserved 9/11 and much worse—which elicited a ton of controversy, and sort of proposes to give a backstory to that line. So, the line actually exists in Akhtar’s 2012 play, Disgraced. But Homeland Elegies presents itself as fiction. And even within the fictional world of Homeland Elegies the line was uttered in a totally different context, years and years before 9/11, by a character who denies ever having said anything of the sort after 9/11 happens. Akhtar’s sleights of hand here speak so well to this modern moment, as the lines between truth and fiction and news and entertainment continue to blur, and as social media generates viral posts stripped of context.
Mira Jacob’s Good Talk is another one that’s really fascinating as well, but I’ll leave that to Annie to talk about!
But this also ties into a much broader trend in American history, all the moments America has created this hazy other and then cast the other as a threat. We see it with witchcraft and Communism when my eighth-graders read The Crucible; years ago, I paired that with Citizenfour, the HBO documentary on Edward Snowden, and we talked about mass surveillance after 9/11 and the role of the individual when systems go wrong.
I’ll jump in to talk about Good Talk, which is such a gift in the classroom—what an amazing book. Mira Jacob wrote and drew a graphic memoir—it’s autobiographical, although told in a thematic, non-chronological form—that begins with a conversation she had with her son, who at that point was six years old, on the subway about race. She is Indian American and her husband is white and Jewish, and their son, who she refers to as Z, is mixed-race and trying to make sense of who he is and how race works—but again, with this background of 9/11. She has a section that’s directly about September 11 in the book, which, when I first read it, took me totally by surprise. I didn’t know it was coming. And I cried. It’s very specific in the details about what it felt like to be in New York City at that moment. It’s also part of this background that she weaves showing all these different conversations in which there are these microaggressions and then actual aggressions that she’s experienced and seen in her lifetime as an American.
The conversations with my kids in class about the 9/11 aspect of things have been really interesting. Some of those details Jacob includes—like the streets with walls and lampposts covered with missing-persons posters in the first few days after the attacks, when there was still some hope for survivors—are things that they didn’t know or weren’t really aware of. But I do think about what you’re saying, Shreya, about this being the air that we’re all breathing—that especially for my students who are Muslim or who are brown or who consider themselves that way, they have felt typecast and scapegoated and have had experiences of harassment that were caused by people blaming them for 9/11, which happened before they were born. They recognize that was a moment that changed the world before they came into it. And Mira Jacob writing about her own son in that way resonates for them. And I would also just pull out that while I haven’t taught A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza, it’s also a book that does a beautiful, beautiful job of describing what it’s like for kids to grow up with 9/11 being the reason they’re looked at suspiciously.
I use Good Talk in my class Writing to Make Change as an invitation. I ask my kids to brainstorm conversations they’ve had with people in their own lives about major issues or controversial topics—conversations they’ve had with their parents, conversations they’ve had with friends or significant others, conversations they’ve had with people on the street or acquaintances. And then they draw and write their own little graphic representations of those conversations. It has brought up some really small issues that are then allowed to take up space and to feel real, but it’s also brought up some very large issues for them. That’s one of the amazing things about that book: it gives you the sense that so many very tiny issues or moments that can feel very, very small, are actually connected to something much greater.
Just a little background: Bard High School Early College opened its doors on September 11, 2001. The first day of our existence was on 9/11 and began in the morning, that beautiful Tuesday morning. And the first building was in Greenpoint, from where they had a view of the planes crashing into the towers. I wasn’t there that first year, but it’s become a part of our genesis, our community narrative that we began on that day. So it does come up in the classroom because our year usually begins right around September 11 and we’ll talk about it.
One of the first books I start with is Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, and that first chapter, “No-Name Woman.” The main thing that I focus on and discuss with the students is: How do we tell the stories of people who are silenced? Who are seen as that bad relative we don’t talk about, the rebel, the smoking, whiskey-drinking uncle—the black sheep or taboo subject. What Kingston does is give voice to that aunt [in “No-Name Woman”].
In terms of 9/11, I do a lot of writing exercises with my students, and one of the things I ask them to do, because so many of them are born post 9/11, is interview their parents and ask: Where were you and what were you doing? Many of them are from New York, so we get a lot of stories. The frame here is—and I think it touches on 9/11—how do we talk about these big, difficult things in a way that goes beyond the documentaries on mainstream media channels. How do we tell the stories from the voices that are not heard or given space? It’s getting the students to be aware of just that—the voices and stories that are missing. And to not let things be produced for them, but to take the time to produce and to create, to take the time to ask and learn.
I have so many things I want to say about so many of the things I’ve heard. And I want to share a little more about my own journey to teaching this course. Victoria, what you said about your feelings about teaching the class as a person of Asian descent—as a white Jewish person teaching Asian American literature in a classroom that is almost always entirely kids of Asian descent, sometimes with one or two white kids, I have certainly had a lot of trepidation. I’ve tried in some ways to note, “I’m a white person doing this. I’m not expecting expertise on anyone’s part, I hope people will share if they want to, but this is for everyone.” I taught The Woman Warrior and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake in regular American literature during the one semester that my colleague who taught Asian American lit was out on leave, and the class wasn’t running. I got such great responses, and then during a sabbatical, I signed up for the course [on Asian American theory] at Hunter that helped me feel more comfortable. And then decided to take up the class when I returned, since I wanted it to run and was interested in the books.
Part of my philosophy is connecting to different writerly communities: the festivals at the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, also the Asian American theater community in New York. I’ve encountered Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, Shreya, the play that you’re talking about, and I remember going to see it with excitement and thinking, “Can I teach this play?” And deciding, “I’m not sure.” It felt like a nerve without skin. I was nervous and excited about it, but I didn’t end up teaching it. But that line—I know exactly what you’re talking about. In some ways, poetry and theater are kinds of literature that can more directly and quickly manage the process and focus on some of the things happening in the world, in Asian American communities that my students are part of.
In my class, my goal is really not for it to just be processing your identity. Some students have told me that their friends or parents are like, “You should take this class, it will help you with your cultural identity,” which I see is an immense privilege and also terrifying. It’s a privilege to provide a space for exploration of identity and possibilities, but scary as a person who is not of the culture that I’m teaching works from—not feeling like an expert or a member of the community. Teaching a literature class feels more doable. And I’ve never really thought, “I’m going to teach a 9/11 thing,” but some books have helped us get at some of the issues around it.
The first book that I taught that really helped get at some of the post-9/11 racial profiling of South Asians and Muslims by American civilians and the government and the impact on the communities most impacted, was When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka about Japanese American families being interned during World War II. In some ways, it felt like a very 9/11 book to me. It culminates in this interrogation scene, in this bravura last chapter where the speaker confesses to every possible stereotype, every racist imagining of what a Japanese American person might have been doing. I felt like it was a way to open up conversations and have students write responsively, creatively, experimentally—kind of however they want to talk about it. We’re focusing on a historical event—and also a catastrophic part of a world event—where the impacts were so much on these particular communities and were ignored by the national narrative about that event. I found that particularly Chinese and Korean American students told me that reading that novel helped them feel compassion for Japanese Americans in a way that they had not because of what they had heard about Japan’s actions in conflicts and wars from their families in Korea and China. So that book was doing a lot of work in helping us have a lot of different conversations. I felt like that happened again at the beginning of the pandemic, when we were all literally stuck in our homes and when my students had been experiencing harassment and anti-Asian hate. The events of the novel felt closer to what they were going through in the spring of 2020.
And I taught Good Talk for the first time this past spring, remotely using the audio book, which is fascinating: Mira Jacob plays herself but there’s a cast of actors who read other parts. My students ended up writing a lot about Trump and COVID and their experiences. How does this get back around to 9/11? In some ways 9/11 feels so big, but it also didn’t happen to them. But it shaped so much of the world that we’re in. I feel it’s like how dreams help us process traumas—it’s like the symbolic language of literature. The thing that’s next to the thing is what I felt comfortable introducing to the class and encouraging them to write about. I also feel like reading some of those books, which are published, which are legit, can help some of my students write about their personal experiences that they might not feel are legitimate subjects for creative or personal writing. Showing them some of these books with analogous experiences can help in that way.
It’s so amazing to be hearing from other educators, and surprisingly, we don’t always get a chance to do that. And now I have a much longer book list that I don’t think I’ll ever get to finish, unfortunately!
One piece that did lead to a direct conversation about 9/11 in my classroom is from The Margins. It’s an essay from a few years ago by Nina Sharma called “Shithole Country Clubs,” and I love that essay. I love how that essay ends. I love how it’s an essay that has so many complexities. Nina Sharma writes about herself but also her father, who is this big, absolutely huge Trump supporter who loves going to the golf clubs at Bedminster. In the only moment in the essay where her father has any reservations about Trump, she writes:
Only in the midst of Trump’s campaign, sometime in November 2015, did my father hesitate in his ardor. Trump asserted that the “the heavy Arab population” of Jersey City “were cheering” during 9/11 as “the buildings came down.” “He went too far then,” my father said.
I wonder if my father remembered the bumper stickers that my mother bought just days after the attacks, American Flags and soaring eagles slap-dash on their German cars. Maybe he recalled the Dotbusters terrorizing Jersey City in the 80s and early 90s and was angry at Trump’s erasure of this history. Or maybe his mind went further back, toward hardships from his first year in the U.S., when during his medical residency he broke down in front of his supervisor over a fellow resident’s continual taunts and aggressions. Or maybe he simply knew, no matter what caste he was himself, he could always be mistaken for a “cheering Arab.”
Those two paragraphs brought up for me and many of my students how every trauma is both something fresh and completely unexpected, but also something that has happened again and again and again. Sophie brought up the anti-Asian violence during coronavirus, but that’s just the newest iteration. What’s lovely about this essay is that it gives us a way to talk about how there are different ways to respond to compounded trauma.
A piece that somehow all the Hunter students have gotten at least once during their education by the time they’re seniors is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story.” But I think you sometimes also get the danger of the double story where you’re either the good or the bad, the compliant or the rebellious. What I found super helpful that year, after that conversation, was to have my students read the introduction to Edward Said’s Orientalism. To talk about this bifurcation of Oriental splendor and Oriental cruelty. This is the operation of othering that is so specific to the so-called East in the so-called West’s imagination. We never get to be just ourselves. We’re always both aspirational and a cautionary tale, both the source of fear and the source of desire, right? Broken blossoms or dragon ladies. It just keeps happening again and again and again.
That kind of patterning is very useful for students to recognize because the word racism as it tends to be used, for good reasons, tends to be about the patterns of white-Black relations here in America. And that’s not really been the experience of Asian Americans necessarily. It’s useful to have this term Orientalism and the precise operations of it—how we are seen as both model minority and perpetual foreigner, how we are used as a wedge, and then how we ourselves become divided against ourselves. How you can have a Trump-loving father and a Trump-hating daughter who love each other. I think that’s a part of the 9/11 story.
Continuing on, how do we process all this? It’s pretty heavy reading, Edward Said. I ask them to skim because part of what he does is prove his credentials. This is 1978, and it’s nonstop dropping of names. And then many years later, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak?, [which considers questions like the ones] Kyung mentioned: Who is in the room, who gets to have power, who gets to have a voice? Again, it’s another piece that is just nonstop name-dropping. To participate in and accuse academia, Said and Spivak had to use the language of academia, to show their absolute command of the so-called Western canon. So how do you gain authority beyond academia? What is the practice of authority, and what is the pageantry of authority? These performances of bumper stickers and flags from Sharma’s essay—this is a part of the system, part of the rules of the game that happen when something feels threatening, when there’s something very bad happening. So displays of patriotism after 9/11 was not just a moment of unity—the unity can be very superficial.
I just want to mention the poem “Terrorism” by Hayan Charara from the 2017 issue of Poetry magazine that was published at the same time the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center did their first Asian American Literature Festival. It’s a poem about a poet interacting with another member of his community who wants to censor him [from using particular words]. It is a poem that I recommend. Based on what I’ve heard here, I have exciting new ways to frame what it does and how the terrorism in the poem, in my opinion, is another member of the same Arab American community trying to censor this poet, who considers but then ultimately [rejects this person’s criticisms] since we have this poem, which has the words the critic doesn’t want used.
It’s such an excellent poem.
I wanted to jump on to what Victoria was saying about a kind of superficial unity. I think we’re opening up questions about how we get to a real empathetic sense of solidarity. I’ve been thinking a lot about disaster communities. I taught with their eyes, the play that my students and I created, at the very beginning of the pandemic in my Writing in the World senior course, and my students had such a strong empathetic reaction to the stories in the voices of people in the Stuyvestant community directly after 9/11, because of their own experiences right now. In the same way, they were removed from their school, except that we were all a giant disaster community with COVID. But they were removed from their school; they were losing this place and sense of safety in the city. There’s a monologue in the play with the student Mohammad Haque who talks about being Muslim and how his mother and his sister cover their hair and how he’s very afraid they’re going to be harassed and that he was racially profiled on the subway. And so many of my East Asian American students were experiencing such intense fear for their own bodies, for their family members, for their grandparents on the street, that they keyed into that monologue in a way that I don’t think had been true in as great a way in previous years.
This is not Asian American lit, but I taught The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas this past year and was teaching my ninth graders and teaching into what the Black Lives Matter movement is about. And so many of my East Asian American kids again were like, “Oh, being racially profiled on the street—that’s happening to me all the time now. I’m getting this. I’m getting this sense of empathy in this very deep way.” I feel that directly after a disaster, or at the very beginning of a disaster, we have this solidarity response. We have the “okay, we’re all New Yorkers” after 9/11, and “we’re all in this together” at the beginning of the pandemic and “we’re all going to get through this together.” And then that very quickly can turn into these moments of intense scapegoating and racist scapegoating and “well, who can we blame for this thing?” And then, as we’ve been talking about, you have to prove that you’re American, or more white-like or flag-loving or whatever it is, in order to protect yourself.
I wonder whether there are ways that we can, through teaching a variety of texts, go from that solidarity response to that scapegoating response to that solidarity again. Like that empathy, like, “Okay, I see that so many of our systems are set up to pit us against each other. Let’s instead see each other as humans.” That’s the hope anyway. But I feel like those specific stories can get us there in a lot of interesting ways.
When earlier Kyung articulated the question of “how do we talk about these big, difficult things,” I wrote it down in all caps because that is really hard, and I want to move at the speed of trust. For me I’m thinking about classroom culture. I was talking to a colleague this summer about ways that she navigates this. And I’ve learned so much from her: setting up a Google form so feedback can land anonymously and immediately in my inbox; being able to take the pulse of “Do you want to keep talking about this? ‘Yes, but not now.’ ‘No, I don’t.’ ‘Yes, I do.’”; asking students to reflect, “How have your life experiences led you to XYZ belief?” in ways that are both empowering and humbling, as needed.
Another thing that was super helpful for me: talking through the texts with teachers who bring perspectives different from mine. Another teacher at my school was teaching another section of the same elective course. She’s white, I’m South Asian American, and we realized how we reacted to specific scenes so differently. I think I was much quicker to call out Akhtar’s or Jacob’s South Asian protagonists as being flawed or off base on something. And I do think allowing South Asian protagonists their flaws really just affirms their full humanity. But I was so grateful to have another teacher teaching the exact same text—a teacher who is a dear friend and absolutely committed to our students—who could challenge my thinking.
And it also makes me acutely aware that I’m asking teens to talk about things that adults find hard to talk about, in the classroom, in department meetings, at home. It’s been helpful to get really, really granular on how we talk about these big, difficult things and in a way that’s reflective, in a way that metacognitively lets students articulate that this is really hard. Having texts that model how difficult this all is is really helpful: There’s a panel in Mira Jacob’s Good Talk when she describes her experience of 9/11 to her young son, Z, who will soon see Trump elected president. Z asks, “Did anyone ever try to hurt you [after 9/11]?” Most of the visual space of the panel is taken up by background text, a sort of internal monologue describing three times Jacob was harassed and assaulted. But what she actually says in response to Z’s question is captured in a tiny speech bubble at the bottom: “Not really.” Why does she hold back? When are the moments we hold back?
And the last thing Sophie said about the value of fiction and poetry. Fiction gives us imaginative space to talk about, gives us this bounded common ground. So I don’t have a great answer for the deeper question of solidarity, but for me right now I’m very much thinking about how we set up conversations about big, difficult things, and what’s the unique value of fiction and poetry in driving social progress and change.
We’re all going back soon in person, and I’m just thinking, Shreya, about how I love that “move at the speed of trust.” But 9/11 is the very beginning of the year. We have just met our students. It’s such a traumatized moment in general, I’m literally thinking about what I’m teaching in September and how do we do this again? It’s overwhelming. It’s so nice to talk to you guys about this.
I have so many things I wanted to respond to while listening to y’all. I don’t know what to choose.
I’m thinking about who our students in the classroom are and who we are in front of them. And how do we teach? What is our role when we talk about 9/11 and bring it up in the classroom, or when we talk about or introduce Asian American literature, whether we are Asian or not? One of the things that I’m really uncomfortable about is when I get the sense that I’m there to serve, help students appreciate Asian American literature or Asian American culture. That I’m like their chef. I get that sense, like I’m at a hibachi place or something and have to perform. And that these are my ingredients, my homeland ingredients. So that’s a self exotification that can happen and also sometimes with the literature itself. I’m very wary of this in the similar way I’m wary of any big, dominant feelings about 9/11. I’m very skeptical of the national narratives around them and all the documentaries on the 20th anniversary that are coming up now.
I try to get students to be aware of the language that’s coming out of this event. What’s the language that we’re using, what are the stories that we’re telling around 9/11, and can we do something else? And can we go beyond our own experiences? If you’re not Asian, are you allowed to write about Asian characters? It’s going back to Pearl S. Buck—as a white woman, should you be writing about China? In terms of Asian American literature, I think it’s an opportunity to actually take the risk of imagining someone else’s life. And someone else’s experiences. And don’t stay in your little identity marker. It’s important to know, but it’s also really important to take the time to hear these other stories and let them become a part of your imagination.
Yeah. Oh my gosh, Sophie, I have been having stress dreams for almost a month now about school starting again. It’s not usually that bad in August, but August is the season of stress dreams. And I’m sure that once classes actually start, it’ll just be fine. That’s the way it is. But then I think about what it’s like to be 13 and anticipating the start of school? I’m just like, “Wow, okay, first day, we’re just going to start with some stretches.”
And Shreya, I love how you always center the classroom and the students’ experiences. That’s one of the things I love so much about being your friend and talking with you.
I love teaching English because ultimately, we only experience life from one tiny sample. There’s that silly joke of: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” I don’t want to eat an elephant ever, but no matter how big the thing is, we only have that one connection to it. And I think stories give us several glimpses into this, or, back to the windows and mirrors, several other sources of triangulation. And then what you mentioned about how you and your colleagues responded differently to a text, Shreya—that’s where class discussion becomes so helpful, when you know some students will love this moment and some students will hate this moment. And then they can talk about it in a way that helps them see that they’re reacting to the same things and why they’re reacting in these ways.
I don’t see myself as a chef; I see myself as a person who gives due dates, because I am so fortunate to be teaching such self motivated students who love to learn that all I need to do is to give them a structure. So, what I think the students at my school need more is a way to not be so lonely. Because they’re so gifted in so many ways and they’ve been told that they’re gifted, they often use the intellect as a coping mechanism for everything else in their lives.
So I try to give them assignments that help them to engage in lots of experiences, and hopefully through that process, learn to neither overvalue or undervalue their own experiences. For example, one of the assignments I give and is one of their favorites is to attend an AAWW event and then write about it. I give them two months to do it, and they’re 18 years old mostly, so I don’t care if they end up talking about “adult matters.” They’re old enough to deal. But what’s so lovely is that they sometimes choose events I didn’t expect them to have chosen. And then they’ll come up and say, for example, “Wow, I did not know there are so many Asian and queer authors.” That sense of loneliness, of being somehow the only one? I think that’s just adolescence. But when you look a certain way, there’s a lot of very easy to hand ways to let you feel like you’re not the only one, and I think this is one of the ways for me to use this class to help students feel like no matter what your experiences, you’re not the only one. But your story is also not the most important one; there’s no story that is the most important one.
I also use student choice to create a capstone assignment for the class. It’s a fall senior class, and they’re exhausted from college applications, so we read a lot of texts and then for the last two, three weeks I just say, “Okay, get into your own groups, choose your own text, and teach us about it.” And they’ve again just taken the assignment in so many different directions. I learn so much, and it’s a way for me to deal with my own imposter syndrome. I think that the danger of that teacher-as-chef feeling, which I have had, is feeling, “But I’m not the best chef! I don’t know all my ingredients, I don’t know all the methods.” But there’s a kind of colonizing approach to it where it’s like, “Oh, let me present to you this organized taxonomy of whatever it is.” It’s not even just Asian American lit. When the students do some of this work, I can show them how knowledge is constantly being constructed. And it doesn’t mean that there is nothing there. It’s just the opposite. But at the same time, it’s finding a balance between being the most important and being nothing. There’s somewhere in between there.
I love what you’re saying there, Victoria, about recognizing that what they need is a way not to feel so lonely. And I think that that speaks very directly to our particular time right now.
Kyung, when you were talking about having your students interview their parents about their stories—I was thinking about the interview-based monologue. The interview-based monologue that I use was stolen from Anna Deavere Smith, the actor and playwright of Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. That whole idea of having to embody somebody else’s story— by asking them to tell their story, you’re practicing this extreme empathetic listening and then getting up and embodying them and their gestures and voice. It gets you that diversity of voices in the classroom, but it also gets you this very intimate feeling of empathy and really truly listening and trying to portray somebody else’s story, which I think is so valuable in terms of human connection. And also valuable in terms of a kind of a creation of our own literature, a creation of student-written literature. That sense that, “Oh, you who are sitting here in the classroom, you can also become writers.”
I wanted to pick up, Sophie, on your mention of how you bring theater into the classroom. I know that you teach, and I’ve stolen from it a little bit, Peerless by Jiehae Park and M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang. And Sophie does this extraordinary project with the nonprofit theater company Second Generation Production where all of the students in the Asian American lit class write one-minute plays, and then some of those plays are performed as staged readings by an incredibly diverse cast, many of them Asian American actors. [The performances are coordinated by Gladys Chen and frequently directed by Vichet Chum.] So again, this question of how do we come to solidarity? And how do we give kids the power to show the diversity of their own experiences? And not feel like you’re the model minority or the perpetual foreigner, as you were saying, Victoria. But to express all of the many, different possibilities of identity that exist in all of us, and to have each other in this classroom recognize that in each other feels so powerful to me.
Because our population is so hugely Asian American, I feel like part of the Asian American literature that I want to be teaching in my classroom is the writing of my students. It’s like they’re writing for themselves, for each other. In my class Writing to Make Change, for their final project students have to put a piece of writing out into the world. It can be any way they want—it can be theatrical or it can be an op-ed or it can be a graphic novel or it can be a letter to a representative or whatever—but they have to get it somewhere where somebody else can see it so they’re trying to change something with their words. That’s one of things I’m trying to do as a teacher. Set them up and then push them out there.
Some of these projects seem to get at the essence of what I think is a satisfying definition of solidarity, which is not necessarily just having things in common, but actually taking the time to amplify someone else’s voice. Taking the time to say, “Oh, you know what, we haven’t heard from so-and-so.” Or, “I’m noticing that so-and-so wanted to speak, but did not get a chance or seemed hesitant to.” It seems like that’s how solidarity is built. And projects mentioned during this discussion seem to be doing a lot of that.
I would love to just do one more round to share anything you want to close with and leave us thinking about, whether it’s what you’re taking away from this conversation or sharing some of the challenges in your work as teachers.
Okay, two challenges that I have when it comes to teaching history: First, I just don’t know enough. I never know enough. I rarely know enough. And then the main challenge is related, which is that I then risk doing a Quantum Leap version of tapping into a historical issue that isn’t experienced, that is an old TV show where time and space gets reduced to costume and music. Especially in today’s digital-media saturated culture where things are fast and Twittered and multiple choice and so forth, I think it’s very easy to reduce history to some keywords and images and what it’s supposed to be somehow. So how do I make it so that it’s not this display, so that we have a better sense that there’s a lot that we don’t know? That’s kind of humbling.
Thanks for sharing, Victoria. One thing I’m taking away is just how inspiring it is to hear from all of you and to learn from your examples: Victoria having students go to an event and write about it, Sophie having students author plays, or Annie having students get their writing out in the world!
The second thing on my mind: I’m interested in the parts of “the water we swim in” that I can’t see, as we think about how 20 years after 9/11 might be different from 10 years after, as we see the progression from Bush to Obama to Trump to Biden. So many of the narratives for me are New Jersey– and New York–centric. I’m curious how 9/11 is taught in other parts of the country and other countries. Dana Goldstein wrote a fabulous piece in the New York Times comparing how social studies textbooks in California and Texas teach American history differently. What would it be like to do that for how 9/11 is taught in other countries, to see narratives beyond New York City?
That makes me think, Shreya, about what it feels like to go through an anniversary of something you didn’t experience or as someone who may not have been in New York. So much of high school and adolescence is trying on different things and stepping into the adult world in small ways. I’m remembering how the social studies department chair always narrates the moment the towers fell over the PA system. I’m curious too about teachers around the country, how we as New York–rooted people have experienced this. I just come back to this sense of theater or trying things on.
I want to take all of your classes! I want to steal from all of you, like whole cloth. You’re so inspiring and amazing.
One of the things that I’m thinking about toward the end of this discussion is: How do we get into all of this complexity, all this solidarity, and all of this helping our kids figure out how to talk and write about all these complex things—and still retain joy? How do we make space for them to have fun with some of it and be wacky and silly and creative? My eldest daughter is entering ninth grade this year, and I’ve taught ninth grade for 21 years and now I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I have a ninth-grader also!” And I want her to have that space of joy, as well as doing the hard stuff. And she needs it. They all need it so much. That’s something that I’m thinking about around this anniversary and going into the school year—figuring out how we make that space behind our masks with our little microphones on.
Thank you to you all. I think I was in a different place before the conversation in terms of my feelings and attitudes about the class. Now I’m reminded of the importance of joy and creating and using Asian American literature as a way to help students create and feel freer in the kinds of stories that they can tell and how they can tell their stories.
I’m really excited to be connected to the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. I think it’s a new generation. In the 90s, I was a Van Lier fellow; I was writing and did some readings there. And it seems like there’s a whole new kind of literature coming out of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. I saw a little bit of that in the masterclass that we shared, Sophie and Victoria. Back in May, we picked this class and Denise Cruz at Columbia introduced us to some young writers, and they were so great. So I’m really excited to work with young writers and work with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.
I’m coming at this with a little bit of ambivalence. I’m thinking about Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings and Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism—and that’s always in the background for me now. Stories that feel too good, stories that are too redemptive. And I kind of want to resist that and focus on literature that can resist that.
To bounce off what you just said, Kyung, and the inspiring thing you said before about what it means to be in solidarity, to amplify the voices of people who aren’t here—I feel so much fellowship and enjoyment of this experience, but it’s also a kind of privilege. In some ways, we are connected in a very small world, the people who are on the screen together right now. We just do our best, right? What else can we do except our best? But maybe there’s more. Because who is entering the teaching profession? Who is made to feel welcomed and valued here in the teaching profession? Three years ago or so, Eid became a public holiday. But Hunter—this was shameful—made it a professional development day, because there was no teacher who celebrated it. And then of course there was a huge backlash, and we did not make that happen again. But that is horrible that that could have even happened.
So here we are having an educator discussion about 9/11, and all of us are speaking from different and interesting and diverse and direct and indirect experiences of that event—I mean, Sophie, your birthday being on 9/11! That’s one kind of directness. But I don’t think we have a Muslim educator here for example. And I personally don’t know of one. If I did, I would have invited them. And that’s a gap. That’s a disservice to the students as well. I have no idea what to do about it except at this moment to just say it.
I’m also conscious of the ways in which our schools are not representative of New York City’s demographics as well.
Yeah, I very much wanted this conversation to have as many groups represented in the questions as possible, and I thought, with disappointment and some embarrassment, about how I don’t I don’t know Arab American English teachers. I didn’t know other South Asian American English teachers to speak with, or Muslim ones. I’m so glad you said that, Shreya, and I feel that way too. And our schools being extremely in the public eye and full of very motivated students.
I appreciate all that honesty and vulnerability. Those are all really important things to name in this space.