About this collection
Eighteen Wright State Honors students, most in their first or second year of college, worked collaboratively to create these reading guides for four books, all winners of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for fiction or nonfiction. I selected the books from among the sixteen fiction and nonfiction books that had won the award since the first award year in 2006. The students came from majors as various as Biological Sciences, Nursing, Motion Pictures, Political Science, Accountancy, Psychology, and English and registered for UH 2010 Peace Literature to satisfy an honors program requirement in the humanities. None of them had heard of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize prior to enrolling in the course. Several of them did not self-identify as readers of literary works, and with one exception only one had read nonfiction outside of textbook assignments. And while many had worked on group projects during their educational experience, none had worked on sustained pieces of collaborative writing such as you see here, revised multiple times and written with an audience other than the teacher in mind.
I usually teach advanced English majors and graduate students in our literature concentration—readers and writers who are invested in the study of literature—so the challenge for me was to select books which could be read and discussed meaningfully and with enjoyment by a mixed group of college students for whom reading of literature might not be a priority and who might lack competencies I could take for granted among students majoring in English. Another challenge familiar to faculty who incorporate writing instruction at any level was to help students see that their academic writing could have value beyond the getting of a grade and an audience beyond the single, sometimes grumpy, teacher who assigned that grade—that writing is a process of discovery, that good writing never happens in a vacuum nor all at once, and that the best writing is the product of collaboration: between writers and their subjects, writers and their editors, writers and other writers living and dead, and writers and their readers. Just as learning to read well makes one a better writer, my assumption in creating the project was that learning to write well might make one a better reader too.
The topic, Peace Literature, was a given. The Dayton Literary Peace Prize is a point of pride for Dayton, a logical extension of its contribution to world peace as the site of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords and of its longstanding reputation among booksellers and publishers as a city of readers. During its first nine years, the DLPP has recognized and celebrated writers at all stages of their careers whose work promotes peace, broadly understood, as an enduring human value and, through $10,000 cash awards raised almost entirely through sales of tickets to its annual awards gala, offered the sort of recognition that can be folded up and put into the pockets of writers. Put simply, the DLPP asserts that literature is a powerful tool for creating peace, and backs that assertion with an infusion of funds. Writing is almost as risky a business as there is, particularly serious literary writing, where remuneration and recognition come late if they come at all; more than one recipient of the award has said that the honor, coming when it did, has helped him or her persevere. The brain child of Sharon Rab and Mark Meister, fostered by a dedicated group of community leaders, volunteer first-readers, eminent judges, academics, a growing number of area universities, colleges, libraries, high schools and middle schools, and alumni—the over forty writers who have been recognized in the past nine years—the DLPP is a model of grass-roots literary activism. I joined the steering committee and the Holbrooke/Lifetime selection committee in the prize’s second year and compile and maintain the DLPP Cumulative Bibliography as a labor of love. Introducing new readers to some of the winning books and, I hope, cultivating an appetite for both literature and peace as an enduring human value gave me an opportunity to bring together my professional and public service lives.
One creates a course months in advance, with very little idea of what sort of students might enroll. Given the presumed diversity of student interests and abilities coming into the course, I wanted a diverse array of writers, genres, tones, and modes, reasoning that I would have a better chance of each student being captured by at least one book. The books needed also to be few, so that we would have ample class days to discuss them as well as plenty of class periods to devote to collaborative writing on the guides, and the books selected needed to be on the short side, so that full-time students with part-time jobs who might not be readers would not feel defeated by the number of pages to get through in a the short amount of time a semester course permits. Ultimately I settled on two fiction works and two nonfiction. In addition to reading these, students listened to the authors' acceptance speeches for the prize and chose a fifth winning book to read for pleasure during the final weeks of the term.*
The novels, A Changed Man, by Francine Prose, and The Sojourn, by Andrew Krivak, are at first glance as different as chalk and cheese. Prose’s novel was written at the peak of a long career. Her trademark sly wit and willingness to push the boundaries of her readers’ sensibilities are evident here. It’s a funny, pop-hip novel told from multiple points of view that asks readers to ponder some serious questions and, incidentally, skewers the pretensions of organizations such as the very one that would ultimately award the novel the first ever Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Fiction. Krivak’s novel is a first novel: slim, elegiac, earnest, made doubly remote by an historical setting largely in a country that no longer exists and on the other side of a war most first- and second-year college students know nothing of. Primarily a first-person narrative it nonetheless employs a tricky third-person temporal frame, dialogue in unfamiliar languages, and a variety of historical literary and cultural allusions most definitely the opposite of pop. Yet over the course of the semester as the students discussed and re-discussed these two works, clear correspondences arose, not least of which that both narratives focused on the powerful transformation that can occur when an individual crosses over social or cultural boundaries, when outsiders and insiders rub up against one another and open their ears to each other’s stories.
Transformation, intersections of outsiders and insiders, and the potential of stories to pave understanding between opposed individuals and groups are coincidentally either central themes or organizing motifs in the two nonfiction works, memoirs both, my students read. One, Brother I’m Dying, was the eighth book from a relatively prolific literary writer, Haitian-American Edwidge Danticat, when it won the award for nonfiction in 2008. In the Place of Justice, the 2011 nonfiction winner by Wilbert Rideau, was the first and remains in 2015 the only book by its author, who developed his skill as a writer and found his cause as a prison reformer during his four-decade imprisonment for murder, during which he became an award winning journalist and editor of The Angolite, the newspaper of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Race, racism, the power of authorities and institutions to shape lives, whether by twisting or nurturing them, and the unthinking and indifferent, often callous, way that power is applied absorb both writers. Both writers record moments of accidental grace and acts of deliberate compassion as well. Structurally however, the memoirs are quite different as Danticat’s memoir alternates between past and present episodes from her family members' lives in Haiti and the United States and uses birth and death as thematic touchstones, while Rideau, who at first glance seems the less “literary” writer, casts his chronological narrative of growth and rehabilitation as combination of pilgrim’s progress and captivity narrative commingling tales of his personal fall and redemption with pointed critiques of the Jim Crow south of his boyhood and the failings of the US criminal justice system. The students picked up on the congruencies and divergences, as the reading guides should show.
The reading guides contain three sections: an introduction to the text as “peace literature,” an extensive collection of discussion questions for readers and reading groups, and a supplemental section, usually, but not always, a compilation of web resources for readers. Students produced a fourth section for the guides which was intended to offer a history of each book’s popular and critical reception, compiling and summarizing professional and amateur book reviews and then commenting on what these might reveal about the books as artifacts of a particular time and place, but I have opted not to include the reception piece, which in each case did not rise to the level of quality of the other three parts. I cannot say whether the problem with these was with the way I explained “reception” as a critical concept or whether researching and writing about a work’s reception history was simply too advanced a scholarly activity for first- and second- year non-English majors (probably a bit of both), but the results did not ultimately merit inclusion. Each student in the course had a hand in producing material for each of the four books and for each part of a reading guide. We broke the class into four groups which stayed together for the entire semester. For each book read, a group would take on a different portion of the reading guide. Thus, the group that wrote the introduction for A Changed Man might have written the discussion questions for Brother, I’m Dying, and the resources section for one of the other books. I marked each draft—and there were as many as four—of each part for each book extensively and made the marked copies available to every group so students could see and benefit from the early successes and challenges of their peers. For the last five class meetings of the term and the final exam period, the class met in a computer lab. Each group took on assembling, proofreading, revising, and formatting all the elements of a single book. Thus, every student had a hand in the production of every part of every reading guide. I was present to answer questions, settle disputes and give advice, and I have very lightly edited the final product. I see many themes addressed in class discussion and in course lectures reflected in the guides, particularly for The Sojourn, as I have been desultorily working on an essay of my own for the past year, but I see much also that originated with students during their work together and much that they should be proud of. The final written product is the result of true collaboration by a committed and creative group of Wright State students involved in an active learning student project.
*The students chose Brad Kessler's Birds in Fall for their pleasure reading.
The students in UH 2010 were John Aghishian, April Caulfield, Taylor Clark, Rachel Ewing, Jamie Gaffin, Sarah Gale, Ellie Ganz, Kareem Garrett, Mollie Jones, Erin Laing, Caitlin Lynch, Sean Mangan, Anna Mills, Rebecca Ramey, Chelsea Ray, Esther Sorg, Alyssa Weisman, and Bethany York.