The students in my class, The Sounds of Silence: A Biodiversity of Mute and Quiet Women in a World of Brutal Noise,* made silence poetic, showing that #ShePersisted has long been true for women’s lives. From a reimagining of Jane Eyre meeting Antoinette, Rochester’s first wife, to a slave narrative, as well as a version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s set in the Caribbean of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, my students’ imaginations stunned me. I received a brilliant fanfic of the show Stranger Things using our themes and characters–particularly focused on the mythic Philomela. Another student created hilarious newpaper and Buzzfeed parodies of incidents in our books, including that of the house burning in Jane Eyre and the bloody end of the Philomela myth. I received a YA novella, scrapbook, and oral history. One even did slam poetry, another designed a study abroad program in France linked to the course (sign me up!).
Events in the Senate, where Elizabeth Warren was silenced, resonates so strongly with me, especially after hearing my students’ — men and women — stories and being honored with their projects and papers. As The New York Times points out, “Silencing Warren, G.O.P. Amplifies Her Message.” Mitch McConnell’s pronouncement–“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted”– sums up what my students and I discovered in literature from Greek myths to modern novels. As Warren later said, “But I guarantee, the one thing we will not lost, we will not lose our voices.”
In one example of giving voice to those who have been silenced, Rodolfo Preciado amazed the class with his black box. At first, it looked just like a black box, but as he explained, he unpacked both the box and its meaning. He compared the silencing of people in the books we read to the silencing of Jews and other victims in the Nazi period. Then he make a link to what is happening now with hate crimes and speech. The box contained little books with poems, the first indicting the Church Father Tertullian and his dismissal of women and their ornamentation.
Then characters from our books were linked to historical figures from the Nazi period. Stella Kubler is linked to Tamora in Titus Andronicus, Anne Frank is connected to Silence, and Irena Sendler is juxtaposed with Clare Kendry’s point of view from Nella Larsen’s Passing. A final poem tells the story of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, who, like Philomela, refused to be silent even in death.
As Rodolfo explains, “the design and poems of this project aim to demonstrate the effects of silence….[E]ven though the sound of silence is powerful, the sound of a voice will always outshine it.” Wow, thank you Rodolfo!
You can read about other students’ poetry and short stories in my blog series Making Silence.
* 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.