Category: Literature

Ding Village: UWM Great World Text site

Thanks to this semester’s conveners for Dream of Ding Village, we discovered the site at University of Wisconsin-Madison dedicated to reading the novel as a Great World Text. (The program brought the novel into 26 high schools across the state.) A number of resources are compiled there, including a 30-minute overview of the text and its contexts and a 127-page (!) handbook on teaching the novel. Here’s its table of contents:

Anyone who missed one of our discussions should probably listen to the overview. Anyone intrigued enough by the novel to think about using it in your final paper/project may benefit from looking at the guide.

Let us be whisperers

While researching the author of Dream of Ding Village, Yan Lianke, I came across this speech that he delivered to his graduate students at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. It addresses the prospect of celebrating the “end” of the COVID-19 pandemic, which feels relevant to our current situation following Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed’s announcement that the UAE has overcome the COVID-19 crisis.

Yan’s speech (presented translated into English) focuses on the concept of memory, a theme that we have traced throughout the majority of our readings this semester. He introduces the capacity for memory as a uniquely human trait:

“The ability to remember is the soil in which memories grow, and memories are the fruit of this soil. Possessing memories and the ability to remember are the fundamental differences between humans, and animals or plants. It is the first requirement for our growth and maturity. ”

He goes on to call on his audience (creative writing graduate students) to continue remembering their own personal experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, resisting the urge to buy into the collective narratives demanded by nations and other entities engaged in the act of writing histories. I found this to be a powerful reminder of the “real-world” relevance of many of the skills we’ve been developing in this class (or, more accurately, a reminder that the study and creation of literature is “real-world,” but that’s a whole other convo), and I would encourage you all to take a few minutes to read it (it’s short and engaging!)

He finishes the speech with the following advice to his students:

“If we can’t speak out loudly, then let us be whisperers. If we can’t be whisperers, then let us be silent people who have memories.  Having experienced the start, onslaught, and spread of Covid-19, let us be the people who silently step aside when the crowd unites to sing a victory song after the battle is won—the people who have graves in their hearts, with memories etched in them; the people who remember and can someday pass on these memories to our future generations.”

Camus wrap-up

Camus: the tattoo via

As promised, I am creating a post here for us to discuss the swimming scene. However, as I was preparing to post this I discovered that during the 2012 class, I must have fallen sick for the session in which we would have finished our discussion of this novel, and so I had created a wrap-up post at that point for the class to conclude its discussion. In the spirit of remembering bygone generations, let’s use that original post as the place for your own comments about the swimming scene (or any other aspect you wanted to comment on but didn’t have the chance). Feel free to respond to the original batch of comments left by that original group of Contagion students. I wish you’d had the chance to meet them, and vice versa.

Silence = death

SILENCE = DEATH Project (Avram Finkelstein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Li. SILENCE=DEATH, 1987. Offset lithograph, sheet: 33 9/16 × 21 15/16 in. (85.2 × 55.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Robert Thill in honor of Robin Renée Thill Beck, 1998.109. © artist or artist’s estate (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 1998.109_PS6.jpg)

While we were talking about Ibsen’s Ghosts today, I mentioned that the play resonated with the 1980s AIDS crisis. I poked around the New York Times archives after class and found a 1982 review that mentions how ubiquitous the play had recently become but doesn’t yet mention AIDS (though it describes Mrs. Alving’s truth-telling as a “coming out”), and one reviewing an Irish production in 1990 that explicitly updates the play and changes Oswald’s disease from syphilis to AIDS. The first of those reviews, from 1982, seems to reproduce the problem of remaining silent about the obvious. It refers to the play as “an intimidating classic that, for some most mysterious reason, has been too much with us of late.” Could the reason have been so mysterious? The fact that the paper couldn’t just name the advent of HIV/AIDS as the “mysterious reason” anticipates what would become a major activist critique (see the poster above) of the Reagan administration’s failures in confronting the crisis, which will return as an issue when we read Kushner’s Angels later this semester.

(For an interesting look at the effects of the New York Times’s early AIDS coverage, which began in 1981 with a now infamous article on a new “gay cancer,” see this take from the Covid era.)

While I was looking at these older reviews I also found this clip, which I hadn’t seen before, of Lesley Manville (who played Mrs. Alving in recent productions in London and New York) reading some lines out of costume: she’s staggeringly good, and really makes plain just how modern the play can still feel.

I’d seen another clip before, of her in costume on stage, performing the scene we’ve spent so much time discussing. She’s amazing. Enjoy.

Defoe round-up

Hi, all. As we continue reading and discussing Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, here are a few links to keep us thinking:

An earlier convener’s post, taking up the question of public discourse on the plague. In what ways is communication like the disease? What mileage does Defoe get out of the link between the two?

Another old convener’s post, this one by me, that thinks about Defoe as an early innovator in the novel as a genre. What did he bring to the form?

An image of the Bills of Mortality this novel refers to. How do you understand Defoe/HF to use them?

A link to a piece considering Defoe’s book as a precursor to zombie novels and films.

A pretty terrific augmentor’s post from last year that features our own Prof. Abhishek Majumdar ruminating on Bangalore during Covid.

Finally, here’s an award-winning short film based on Defoe’s book that raises its own questions about how to behave during an epidemic.

Enjoy! And check back for a new batch of augmentor’s posts.

Severance round-up

Below you’ll find a few links that might be useful as you think toward our discussion of Severance. We’ll have a lot to do in a short amount of time. If you’d like to put some general questions in the queue — the kinds of questions you want to ask about this novel and how it works — please leave comments here or in the linked posts.

Here’s a convener’s post, centering on the question of memory and nostalgia. What do these topics, as they play out in the novel, have to do with zombies/contagion? You may find it useful to look at the kinds of questions my last batch of students put into the comments there.

Here’s a post that covers a previous cohort’s take on YouTube reviews of the book. How are these reviews different from the kind of analysis you might expect to do in this class?

In earlier iterations of this course we read Colson Whitehead’s zombie novel Zone One or viewed Yeon Sang-ho’s film Train to Busan. Thinking about the zombie figure in those texts, I wrote this brief post, which may raise useful questions for Severance, too.

In the fall of 2020 the online journal Post45 published a cluster of brief essays on Severance, approaching many of the novel’s key topics — gender, immigration, Asianness, global labor, publishing — in and beyond the context of Covid-19. The editors ask: “How did Ma predict the COVID-19 apocalypse? How did she document it before it happened?” The essays, which in many ways resemble the longer final essay you might write for this course, answer these questions in various ways. “Together,” the editors write, “our essays explore Severance as reflecting aesthetic, historical, and political economic conditions that long preceded and will outlast the height of the pandemic reordering of the world.”

Authors are not always the best readers of interpreters of their own work, but certainly their opinions about it are interesting. Here’s Ling Ma answering readers’ questions about the book, also from the perspective of the Covid-19 pandemic. Are these the same kinds of questions you have as readers? Again, feel free to help steer our discussion by putting your own questions in the comments section here. (Remember that your first question will go into moderation; I’ll approve it, and then you’ll be free to comment at will in the future.)

Oedipus round-up: The crossroads

Pardon me while I recycle a little content.

There are so many roads to Oedipus and so many ways we could take out of it to what comes next. Here are a few older posts, or multiple versions of posts, that can take us in a few of those directions.

On summarizing the play: what matters? Why? (With a hat tip to Freud & Deleuze and Guattari.)

On genre: Is how we tell the story part of the story?

On scapegoating.

On the civic life of Greek theater.

How it started: the OG convener’s post.

Feel free to continue our discussions by commenting on any of the above. Or take us where you will.

A complex complex

I’d like to throw out two general areas for our consideration as we begin our discussion of Oedipus: First, the question of plague as material fact and as metaphor. To what degree can we think about the representation of plague in these separate ways — i.e., literal and figurative? To what degree are they conflated here? (This will be a question for us to continue asking as we go through the course.) The second general area has to do with social organization: What models of government or leadership are on display here? Kingship? Kinship? Social authority? Information networks? What does a plague setting offer to the play’s attempt to address such issues?

In a convener’s post for Oedipus the King I wrote for Contagion 2012, way back during the first iteration of this course, I mentioned a strain of recent scholarship on Sophocles’ play that takes the plague setting seriously:

After all, the assumption on scholars’ parts has long been that Sophocles introduced an epidemic as the setting for his version of the Oedipus myth because Athens had so recently suffered from plague (as recounted in the brief excerpt you’ve read from Thucydides). With mass deaths so fresh on their minds, these critics ask, wouldn’t Sophocles and his audience have understood the plague to be an actual fact of life rather than a literary symbol? If this set of questions interests you, I’d point you in the direction of this recent book by Robin Mitchell-Boyask, a classicist at Temple University in Philadelphia. You might also want to check out an even more recent article, written by a team at the University of Athens Medical School. It appeared this year in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the Center for Disease Control in the United States, and “adopt[s] a critical approach to Oedipus Rex in analyzing the literary description of the disease, unraveling its clinical features” to conclude that “this epidemic was an actual event, possibly caused by Brucella abortus.”

My assumption, in that post, was that we’d approach the plague in Sophocles’s novel as either intended to recall medical situations Sophocles’s original audience would have recognized, or that the plague was being used metaphorically, to represent something morally “sick” about the community — or its leader. As I noted in that original post, we read this play at the start of this course not just to recognize how long the plague-as-metaphor idea has been around, but also to question whether the literal and figurative registers are as separate or opposed as we commonly take them. From your reading of the play, do you see compelling reasons to side one way or another on the issue? What would it mean to decide that “this epidemic was an actual event”? Does the plague become more or less powerful in the play’s world? And how might this set of questions force us to continue thinking even more carefully about the relationship between sickness or medicine and the language we use to describe it (and anything else)?

As may be apparent by the juxtaposition on the syllabus of Sophocles’ play against Thucydides’ description of the Plague of Athens — coming soon! — we’ll be talking over the next little while about the significance of genre here. Sophocles is writing a play; Thucydides is writing a history. How does the plague figure into each? How does each author represent it? What can narrative structure teach us about either work’s ideals related to self, social, or medical knowledge? And how might each work help us consider the question of whether it’s possible to write about disease in language that doesn’t trade in metaphor of some sort?

I will be curious to see how you think this first general area of concern relates to the second I mentioned: the play’s consideration of social organization or government, starting with a king who declares himself (warning! dramatic irony!) to be the sickest one of all, even as he attempts to get at the plague’s source. Are there ways to bring together the play’s take on what makes a good leader with Mark Harrison‘s historical consideration of the connection between epidemics and evolving notions of good government, which you read for last time?

Podcast – Isolation, Connection and everything in between

Hi everyone! We are making our last post of the semester to present our final podcast. We loved the idea of having a final project that involved us having conversations about the texts we read during the semester. We narrowed down on a theme, and tried to explore it (and a little bit extra) as much as we could.

Hope you enjoy listening to it as much as we did making it. Let us know what you think!

Give it a listen!

Linh, Yaman and Ayan


Angels in America is a period piece. Kushner bridges fact and fiction in a story set in 1980s America. One of the key pillars of that bridge is big gun prosecutor Roy Cohn. He is the only major character in the play explicitly based on a real life person.

“Have you no sense of decency?”

Louis berates Joe for lying to him, and repeatedly asks if he knew who said that. Joe’s oblivion is convincingly shocking for Louis. This was one of the turning points of American politics in the 1950’s.

It’s worth exploring some of the background behind Roy Cohn, who he was, and how he is relevant even today, decades after his death

It all began with the rise of Communism across the world. There was a growing body of communists in the US, who also supported the USSR. Anti-Soviet rhetoric was heralding the Cold War. In order to protect the American ideals of liberty and democracy against the oppressive regime of the Soviets, many Americans created an oppressive regime that attacked the American ideals of liberty and democracy.

The man who would come to lend his name to this period in America’s history was Joseph McCarthy. He was a Republican senator from Wisconsin who made a name for himself by attacking anyone and everyone under the guise of purging the US of communists. This “McCarthyism” manifested itself in the widespread fear of even an accusation of being a communist.

A brief overview of McCarthyism and its consequences

Roy Cohn would be chief counsel to McCarthy in the Army vs. McCarthy hearings. These came at the height of McCarthy’s influence, when he even got into a tussle with the US Army about it’s security. During this trial, this famous sentence was used by the army’s lawyer Joseph Welch. This would be the point which determined McCarthy’s downfall, losing him popularity nearly overnight.

Roy Cohn was also famous for his trial of the Rosenberg case, where he prosecuted suspected Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He was publicly proud of his role in getting them the death penalty, as is also referenced in the play.

What isn’t referenced in the play though, is who Roy Cohn mentored. It was none other than Donald Trump, back when he was a real estate mogul in New York City. They met at a club in New York City in 1973, and hit it off. Cohn would become Trump’s lawyer through thick and thin. His aggressive approach was what Trump loved, and that is what Trump learnt.

Roy Cohn and Donald Trump
Roy Cohn and Trump giving a news conference declaring a lawsuit on the NFL

According to a Washington Post article,

“Cohn also showed Trump how to exploit power and instill fear through a simple formula: attack, counterattack and never apologize.”

Anyone living today who reads this will agree that that has been Trump’s mantra all along. He comes on aggressive, attacks everyone, and never backs down from his claims. Cohn was also the one who introduced Trump to Roger Stone, who became one of Trump’s campaign advisors in his successful bid for presidency.

Cohn became so important to Trump, that birthed a catchphrase for sticky situations: “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”

In real life, just like in the play, Roy Cohn maintained until the end that he had “liver cancer”. He was disbarred as a lawyer shortly before he died, and maintained his disgust for homosexuality in his political beliefs. As his friend Roger Stone said:

“Roy was not gay. He was a man who liked having sex with men. Gays were weak, effeminate. He always seemed to have these young blond boys around. It just wasn’t discussed. He was interested in power and access.”

Roy Cohn, in his short life of 59 years, left a lasting impact on the legacy of America through Donald Trump. Even in death, he had the power to turn the country upside down.