American Literacy Narratives (Panel)


American / Women's and Gender Studies

Filiz Turhan (SUNY Suffolk County Community College)

“American Literacy Narratives”

Literacy Narratives have been a cornerstone of American life writing since the earliest times of American literary production. From Frederick Douglass’s “learning to read” segment in his Narrative of the Life (1845) to Tara Westover’s Educated (2018), literacy narratives have been linked to self-determination and the pursuit of liberty as the subject of the memoir becomes a Reader. What is salient in many of these memoirs is the awakening of a particular kind of consciousness in the Reader, one which is painful, shocking and even at times life threatening. When the Reader reads, he or she is not only culturally influenced but also transformed. The Reader enters a new and uncharted territory and this change is at first so powerful and threatening that the subject experiences depression, loss, anger, fear and most especially self-doubt. Both Douglass and Westover describe how becoming a Reader may induce a wish to recuperate the previous state of ignorance. Furthermore, in both case, the Reader risks serious bodily harm from others. When the Reader accesses books, the surrounding power structures (whether those of legal slavery in the 19th century for Douglass or Westover’s experience of domestic violence), literally threaten to murder the Reader as a way to keep him or her from fully transforming into a “free” Reader thus breaking the oppressive structures that had previously controlled them.

This panel invites papers which explore these and related issues in regard to American literacy narratives. Papers may focus on the experiences of immigrant groups, non-native English readers, differently abled learners, and those from a variety of class and socioeconomic perspectives as well as gender and sexual identities. Papers that also explicitly connect to the experience of the presenter as a professional reader and teacher of the humanities are also welcome.

This panel invites papers that explore American literacy narratives as a form of empowerment and self-discovery that is nevertheless fraught with challenges and even dangers. Papers may focus on the experiences of immigrant groups, non-native English readers, differently abled learners, and those from a variety of class and socioeconomic perspectives as well as gender and sexual identities. Papers that also explicitly connect to the experience of the presenter as a professional reader and teacher of the humanities are also welcome.