Dialogue on Writing: Rethinking ESL, Basic Writing, and First-Year Composition

By Geraldine Deluca; Len Fox et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 9
Translating Self and Difference
Through Literacy Narratives
Mary Soliday

Mary Soliday is an Assistant Professor of English at the City College of New York. She is the Coordinator of Writing Across the Curriculum at the Center for Teaching and Learning at City College. Her articles have appeared in College English, College Composition and Communication, the Journal of Basic Writing, Writing Center Journal, and in edited collections. She has recently completed a book manuscript titled Writing Between Worlds: The Politics of Postsecondary Remediation. The following article is from College English, 56, September 1994.

The best-known literacy narratives are either autobiographies, like Frederick Douglass's Narrative and Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary, or novels, plays, and films “that foreground issues of language acquisition and literacy” (Eldred and Mortensen 513) and that are as diverse as a Hawthorne short story, The Color Purple, and Educating Rita. But literacy narratives are also told in ordinary people's conversations about their daily lives, as recorded, for instance, in Lorri Neilsen's ethnographic study Literacy and Living, and in the classroom talk and writing of students. I want to focus upon how various literacy narratives portray passages between language worlds in order to consider the relevance of such passages to a writing pedagogy, particularly to a pedagogy for basic writing classes.

At the most basic level, the plot of a literacy story tells what happens when we acquire language, either spoken or written. But literacy stories are also places where writers explore what Victor Turner calls “liminal” crossings between worlds. In focusing upon those moments when the self is on the threshold of possible intellectual, social, and emotional development, literacy narratives become sites of self-translation where writers can articulate the meanings and the consequences of their passages between language worlds.

As I will suggest through a reading of two essays written by one of my students, literacy stories can give writers from diverse cultures a way to view their experience with language as unusual or strange. By foregrounding their acquisition and use of language as a strange and not a natural process, authors of literacy narratives have the opportunity to explore the

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