American Literature (according to an English major)

In light of today's patriotic holiday, we're featuring our very own, American literature. Guest blogging is a recent BYU graduate, Mandy Voisin. With a degree in English, Voisin's love of books stems from a lifetime of reading, a love of which began with Where the Red Fern Grows, read aloud by her third grade teacher.  Being the only third grader in the class to cry along with the teacher at the end, it only makes sense she majored in English and has pursued literature ever since. 
I entered a writing contest when I was 7 years old. The prompt was, “Wouldn’t it be great if?” and I wrote a short story about a woman who escaped from slavery with her twin daughters. I thought it was terribly adult and tragic although if I remember correctly, there was a talking mouse involved as well as an elaborate description of the slaves’ ball gowns. I was so emotional over this silly story, reassuring myself that I would be the youngest author ever to be published. I think I even forced tears as I wrote the ending. Imagine my disappointment when I received an “Honorable Mention.” The ribbon was green. I hated that infernal green ribbon.
Almost 11 years later, I sat on my dorm bed reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved. As I turned each page I thought, “This is what I meant to say in my story!” My seven year old self had understood the pain, the wretched frustration of a slave woman like Sethe. With my limited view of humanity, I understood in a small way the hurt of losing a child and the scars that would never heal as a result of the slavery - but Morrison translated my pain and the pain of millions who felt like I did, into the most beautiful and believable work of fiction I had ever experienced. Without recognizing it, I connected my childish frustration with the horrors of slavery to Morrison’s real, dark place in American history that said what I was trying to say.  It was then that I understood the necessity of American literature. It is not about royalties or book reviews, potential movie deals or awards. It is about learning, and creating individual voices which remind us that we Americans are not so different from each other.   
Since that time I have made dozens of connections to my own American life and the lives of those in American literature. Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior taught me that learning to find one’s voice amidst cultural differences is American.  Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony taught me that ritual, religion and tradition are deeply rooted in America despite what others might say about our lack of values and culture. Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons and Willa Cather’s My Antonia reassured me that true love is not reserved solely for Austen’s British women or Tolstoy’s Russian women, but that true love is also to be found on the prairies of American soil.
We read American literature because it reminds us that we are not alone as romantics and dreamers in this large geography. We read American literature because when we are eight we are all Ramona Quimby, Age 8, and we all get frustrated by our mother. We read American literature because we all feel helpless and misunderstood at times like Adah in Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible. We cry over Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women because we love our sisters as much as Jo March too. And through our own, American literature we connect with Ramona, and Adah and Jo because we are all of them at some point in our lives regardless of religion or gender or race.
The beauty of American literature is that it touches us on an individual basis and reminds us that we as Americans need each other. We absolutely need each other.
Mandy Voisin, of Love You Long Time


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