| Don’t Write Alone
Columns Which Books Would You Choose for an English Course?
For our April Writing Question of the Month, we asked our instructors: If you could design your own syllabus for an English course without restrictions, what are five books you’d choose to include?
Most of us can probably remember our first encounter with favorite books that gave us a new perspective on history, offered important writing advice, or introduced us to authors and poets we’d love for a lifetime. However, educators don’t always have the freedom or flexibility within their course curricula to teach the texts that matter most to them.
Since Catapult’s classes are part of an independent writing program, all of our instructors have the opportunity to independently design their courses and reading lists, focusing on the methods, lessons, and texts that are most useful and important to them. For our first writing question of the month, we reached out to some of our instructors and asked them: If you could design your own syllabus for an English course (think college-level English 101 or a high school English class) without restrictions, what are five books you’d choose to include?
K-Ming Chang/張欣明 is a Kundiman fellow and a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Her debut novel Bestiary was published by One World/Random House. Her poems have been anthologized in Ink Knows No Borders, Best New Poets 2018, Bettering American Poetry Vol. 3, and the 2019 Pushcart Prize Anthology. She writes about myth, memory, and generations of Tayal-Taiwanese women. She began teaching for Catapult in 2021. More of her work can be found at kmingchang.com.
China Men by Maxine Hong Kingston
Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen by Marilyn Chin
Black Jesus and Other Superheroes by Venita Blackburn
Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros
When My Brother was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz
Rosebud Ben-Oni is the winner of the 2019 Alice James Award for If This Is the Age We End Discovery , forthcoming in 2021, and the author of turn around, BRXGHT XYXS (Get Fresh Books, 2019). She is a recipient of fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and CantoMundo. Her work appears in POETRY, The American Poetry Review , POETS.org, The Poetry Review (UK), Tin House, Guernica, Black Warrior Review, Prairie Schooner, and Electric Literature, among others. She writes for The Kenyon Review blog and recently edited a chemistry poetry portfolio for Pleiades. Rosebud began teaching for Catapult in 2020. Find her at 7TrainLove.org.
The Breakbeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext (Haymarket, 2020), Edited by Felicia Chavez, José Olivarez, and Willie Perdomo
I recommend any of the Breakbeat Poets anthologies, which are “a cipher for the fresh, with an eye always to the next,” and this latest volume in the anthology series features a wide array of poets and styles, such as Benjamin Garcia’s “Ode to the Peacock,” Jaquira Diaz’s “December,” Monica Rico’s “Poem in Consideration of my Death,” Nicole Sealey’s “An Apology for Trashing Magazines in Which You Appear,” and Lorna Dee Cervantes “Blood,” among so many other great works.
Latinidad is not a monolith, but many voices, experiences, and narratives, and this anthology is a lyrical gift to that complexity. It’s a book that students won’t just save for the classroom, either; they’ll be reading it on the train ride home, or late at night instead of reaching for their phone — if only to text a line or two to a friend, a cousin, or you know, “a someone someone.”
The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks (University of Arkansas Press 2nd Printing, 2019), Edited by Terrance Hayes, Peter Kahn, Ravi Shankar, and Patricia Smith
While this might seem to be an anthology that specializes in only one poetic form, I chose this book because of the history behind the form. Terrance Hayes created the Golden Shovel in homage to another poet, Gwendolyn Brooks. In essence, the form goes like this: the last words of each line in a Golden Shovel poem are words from a line/lines taken from a Brooks poem. While poets now write Golden Shovels in homage to other poets’ work, I believe it’s important to start from the beginning, and yes, to zero in this particular form in an English 101 class. It speaks volumes about community, honoring our poetry elders, and being in dialogue with those that guided us, whether we ever met them in real life or on the page.
Here you have a variety of voices and styles ranging from Rita Dove to Willie Perdomo to Tracy K. Smith to Gregory Pardlo to Barbara Jane Reyes to Danez Smith; there’s also a section that includes “Non-Brooks Golden Shovels,” just to show that a new legacy is already being created around this form — that is, poets in dialogue paying tribute to other poets. This text also stresses the importance of how we share space together, both in poetry and otherwise — and I don’t just mean in the academic classroom.
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (One World Reprint, 2021) by Cathy Park Hong
This is an absolutely brilliant collection that interweaves criticism and memory and challenges many institutional frameworks including family, politic spaces, dominant discourse, the English language, personal and cultural identities, and mental health. She ties her essays together under the idea of “minor feelings,” which Hong describes as “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic.” She contends with her own doubt and dolor, colliding against ideas of racial identity that white America seeks to impress upon her as the daughter of Korean immigrants.
Candid and often humorous, these essays will have your students talking about the multitudes of identity and liberating the self from oppressive expectations in order to find truth and a new kind of consciousness.
Maus I & II (Pantheon Later Printing edition, 1993) by Art Spiegelman
I’m a big believer in teaching graphic novels in class, especially in traditional academic spaces, and you can get Maus I & II as a box set these days at around twenty dollars.
This postmodern book unfolds like a documentary before your eyes, with surprising yet haunting images accompanying the text. Spiegelman inserts himself directly in the work as interviewer, narrator, and son to his tormented father, who shares his experiences as a Polish survivor of the Shoah and is also haunted by the death of his wife, who took her own life. Weaving two timelines between Europe in World War II and the present day, set in Rego Park, Queens, this book will have students discussing personal versus collective memory, why past atrocities should not be forgotten, and how great tragedies in human history often, unfortunately, repeat themselves in one form or another.
Beyond Memory: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Creative Nonfiction (University of Arkansas Press, 2020), Edited by Pauline Kaldas and Khaled Mattawa
“Indeed many Arab American writers have found their voices,” the editors begin in their introduction to the anthology, “by attending to the wounds of their elders, victims of colonialism, occupation and imperialist adventurism. They are aware that memories never disappear but circle back as dream and hauntings.”
In a collection that includes incredible work by Rabih Alameddine, Randa Jarrar, Hayan Charara, George Abraham, Tariq Al Haydar, Safia Elhillo, and Fady Joudah, this incredible collection will offer so much perspective on domestic socio-political affairs and international relations, family dynamics, belief structures, sexuality, and much more. This book is yet another work on this list that students will be discussing outside the classroom, as they revisit what they’ve been previously taught about nationality, belonging, and cultural identity.
Jennifer Close is the best-selling author of Girls in White Dresses , The Smart One, and The Hopefuls . Born and raised on the North Shore of Chicago, she is a graduate of Boston College and received her MFA in Fiction Writing from the New School in 2005. She worked in New York in magazines for many years and has taught creative writing at George Washington University for the past 8 years. She first taught for Catapult in 2019.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
This is a book about writing, but in my experience there’s a lot of English majors who secretly (or not so secretly) want to be writers. I read this book for the first time in college and it changed the way I thought about the writing process. It was such a relief to hear that even published authors wrote messy, horrible first drafts, and it allowed me to give myself some grace in my own process. I’ve probably suggested this book thousands of times to anyone who even hints at the idea that they might want to start writing.
Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans
I read this collection last November and my first reaction was deep regret that I wasn’t still teaching college writing classes because this would have been a great addition to the syllabus. The stories in it are sharp, timely, and just plain amazing. I think it’s the perfect book to show how fiction can be entertaining and readable while also dissecting and examining complex issues like race.
Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules edited by David Sedaris
This is a book that I used for years when I taught college writing classes. I always felt a huge amount of responsibility to expose my students to as many different authors as possible so they could begin to figure out what they liked and what kind of writing spoke to them, which meant that I was always scanning stories for them. It’s impossible to find one collection that has everything you want, but this came the closest. There are so many amazing writers in here—Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro, and Lorrie Moore, to name a few. It also has “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel, which has one of the most beautiful endings of any short story ever.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
I’m quick to say that I don’t really like science fiction, but this beautiful book broke my heart and made me rethink my own personal reading taste. I think it’s always important to be reminded how surprising fiction can be, how characters and stories can haunt us and stay with us long after we’re done reading them. This book does all of those things and more.
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
This is a great book to teach lessons about voice and structure, point of view and prickly narrators, but really I’m including it because it’s one of my favorites and it’s fun to read. Most high school students still read Catcher in the Rye, and based on the conversations I had in the college classes I taught, they either love it or hate it with great passion. Prep is often compared to Catcher in the Rye and I think this would be a great jumping off point for conversations about coming of age stories and how and why we connect to certain narrators.
Regina Porter is a graduate of the MFA fiction program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow and a Rae Armour West Postgraduate Scholar. Her writing has been published in the Harvard Review , Tin House , and the Oxford Review . She is also an award-winning playwright. Regina’s debut novel The Travelers was nominated for the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s First Book Award, France’s Prix Medicis for Foreign Literature and Grand Prize for American Literature, a Barnes & Noble Discover Notable fiction title, longlisted for the 2020 Orwell Political Fiction Prize, and a runner-up for the 2020 PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel. Regina first taught for Catapult in 2019.
Ms. Muriel and Other Stories by Ann Petry
This astonishingly quiet, humorous, and astutely written collection of short stories by Ann Petry, author of The Street , touches on so many aspects of humanity with verve. The collection blew me away when I first read it and I was thrilled when the Library of America published a new edition of Petry’s novels, The Street and The Narrows, in 2019. I would pair Ann Petry’s short stories with Alice Munro’s stories, for I see the two of them in conversation.
Another Country by James Baldwin
We love James Baldwin now, but many of us forget there was a period when brother James was not considered hip enough or cool enough or Black enough or, Lord help me, straight enough. I love Another Country because the novel is flawed, yet speaks to the past and the present moment.
I don’t think Hemingway and Baldwin’s worlds ever overlapped but, because of both writers’ artistry and what their works tell us about privilege, socially ingrained bias, and machismo, I would pair Another Country with Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
This is a novel worth revisiting for writers and students trying to figure out how to write during and post pandemic. For anyone who balks at reading Hemingway, I always point out that Morrison knew his work extremely well, warts and all. We can link some of the white American male privilege of the present to Jake Barnes in the past. We can review some of the fear of, and I despise this term, the “others”—whether those “others” are gay, Black, Asian, Jewish, Native American, women, the cultural elite . . . the list goes on—and bridge the gap from here to there.
This is early Hemingway. The Sun Also Rises is also a masterpiece. The language sometimes infuriates me, but as a writer, I am obliged to teach other writers how to write through tough times. Ken Burns has a documentary coming out about Hemingway this April, and as a writing teacher, I would have students watch it. We can’t separate the stories writers tell from the context in which their stories are written.
I can also see The Sun Also Rises and Another Country in conversation with Colson Whitehead’s first novel, The Intuitionalist .
The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi
They are brilliant. They are carrying the torch for so many great writers. I read this book in one sitting. I loved Freshwater and I love this book. Emezi cheats time with flashes forward and a lean lyrical prose that is humbling. I would pair them with Yiyun Li and George Saunders for sophisticated language and beguilingly simple architecture of their stories.
Writers learn from seeing how other writers are in conversation. For a final selection, I’d pair W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants , Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon , Tommy Orange’s There, There, Robert Jones, Jr. ’ s The Prophets , and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizers . These writers tackle history in original ways. Craft lessons abound. Literature at its best.
De’Shawn Charles Winslow was born and raised in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and has lived in Brooklyn for most of his adult life. He enjoys reading and writing fiction about the complex relationships within families and small, close-knit communities. De ’ Shawn has taught writing courses at multiple CUNY campuses and at the University of Iowa. He is a 2017 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he wrote his first novel, In West Mills . He first taught at Catapult in 2019.
The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
Just As I Am by E. Lynn Harris
Sula by Toni Morrison
Jack by Marilynne Robinson
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Are there any titles you would be sure to include if you were designing a course? We’d love to hear your thoughts! Share them with us here or on Twitter (you can tag us at @CatapultStory).