Making Silence Understood

“I’m reading silence everywhere! No joke. I’ve started noticing all the manterruptions on the news, and all the groups of people being silenced…I really, truly cannot get away from this class, ever, but in a good way!” This is what a student of mine wrote about my class called The Sounds of Silence: A Biodiversity of Mute and Quiet Women in a World of Brutal Noise*.

Now, with the incident of Elizabeth Warren being silenced in Congress, the concept of silencing women is ever more on my mind. This the first in a series of posts about women and silence.

In my class, we read texts ranging from the myth of Philomela to Nella Larsen’s Passing. I learned so much from my students.

Katilyn Lang Ricci's satiric and dream-like short story of the deceased Helen of Troy. Like Wim Wender's Heaven Over Berlin, Helen wanders in and out the consciousness of various female characters'
Katilyn Lang Ricci’s satiric and dream-like short story of the deceased Helen of Troy. Like Wim Wender’s Heaven Over Berlin, Helen wanders in and out the consciousness of various female characters’

“Women are taught to be silent. We whisper and take up as little space as possible. We silence our voice and body, while men are taught to project….Silence can be physical and tangible. It can be empowering. Silence is not always forced upon a person, it can be chosen. Chosen silence  can undermine a higher authority.”

Emily Ellison's beat poetry, using stylized speed to "reveal aspects" of silence, "calling form the text to be heard and understood"
Emily Ellison’s beat poetry used stylized speed to “reveal aspects” of silence, “calling form the text to be heard and understood.”

“Before, I understood silence as quiet, peaceful solitude–I’m glad I know it that way–but silence can also be about unspeakable pain. I know understanding it in this way will/has deepened my own approach to teaching–Gloria Andalzua, Sandra Cisneros, Sherman Alexie, every text becomes richer when the silences of the characters and the author are explored.”

“The scope of silence as a theory has changed for me. I feel like I am living a more examined life as the last fourteen weeks have progressed. I feel the power in silence and the bravery of speaking up when being quiet might kill a part of my soul…The texts we have read in this class whisper in the back of my brain…I am making sure I carve out my own world and a voice to be heard.”

Perhaps the most poignant insight is one student’s insight: “I think, rather than say that we live in a world of brutal noise, we live in a world of brutal silence.”

I hear you. Thank you for speaking to us all!

 

* This is the course description:

This course looks at silent women, quiet women, and mute women. Sometimes their hush is self-imposed, other times it is violently forced upon them. Passing, they erase their race and gender orientation. Yet, even with their tongues cut out, women speak. Sexually violated, they insist on their story. Enslaved, they shape their ends. Philomela—raped and mutilated—survives as a mythic emblem of female voicelessness. Some texts we look at are modern novels that tell the stories of women denied their chance at speech—in feminist versions of Homer’s Odyssey, Beowulf, and Jane Eyre. In a variety of texts –from Roman myth, Icelandic saga, and medieval religious sign language texts to a cross-dressed female knight, victimized wife, and deaf nun—we will attempt to hear these quiet voices from the past and rowdily proclaim their vibrancy for their future.


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