Teaching Transnationally: Queer Studies and Imperialist Legacies in Monique Truong's the Book of Salt
Cohler, Deborah, Radical Teacher
For the past few years, I have taught Monique Truong's 2003 novel, The Book of Salt as the final unit in an upper-division general education Women Studies course on queer literature. The course, Lesbian and Queer Perspectives on Literature and Media, draws students from a range of academic backgrounds and majors at my urban state university: the classroom is both educationally and culturally diverse. I have found that a transnational feminist pedagogy enables a wide range of students to engage critically with the often-abstract ideas of power relations, history, social construction, and identity in their work on queer texts. I believe that teaching Truong's novel in an LGBTQI studies course provides a good model of the difficulties and rewards of teaching queer studies transnationally. (1)
First, a bit of demographic and institutional context: I teach in the Women Studies Department at San Francisco State University, a large, urban state university. Many of our students are the first in their families to attend a university, and our location in San Francisco often carries a perception of liberalism among the student body. Students in this queer literature course come from a variety of backgrounds and majors and have a wide range of skill levels and experience with the humanities, with LGBTQI subject matter, and with critical reading and writing. This course has no prerequisite and fulfills a variety of university general education requirements. And while the course title will deter the most homophobic students, the majority of students in the class are not LGBTQI-identified, though many certainly are. So we start with a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds and an even wider range of personal investments (or dis-investments) in the course subject matter and the politics of identity. How can one construct a pedagogical practice that allows for student learning on a variety of levels, coming from various cultural standpoints and educational backgrounds? In my classrooms, I have found that explicit discussions of power, history and identity are enabled across many levels of preparation when grounded in the theory of transnational feminism.
Teaching queer studies courses, I have observed that some students (LGBTOI and straight) immediately equate queer identities with progressive politics. Yet by assuming that queer communities will always be "liberal," the race, class, and gender biases that mark many LGBTOI cultural productions often go unnoticed or excused by students seeking queer utopia. Additionally, American students in "international" courses often respond to "foreign" materials with a troubling, prurient fascination. A similar challenge of internationalizing queer literature courses is the tendency of students (from a range of racial and cultural backgrounds) to ascribe greater homophobia to immigrant and non-U.S., cultures (sometimes their own) in contrast to "freedom" in the United States. When confronted with an international syllabus my students often want to inscribe a liberal progress narrative onto it, in which characters move from oppression to freedom, temporally, geographically, or psychologically. For some of my students, "home"--either their parents' home or a home country--can
signal homophobia, and an imagined "away" (at college, and/or "San Francisco" specifically or "America" more generally) stands for an imagined space of liberation. (2) Many students, queer or not, invoke "San Francisco" as a site of liberation in my queer studies classrooms. However, this narrative is also frequently challenged, particularly by queer students of color. In one instance, in another queer studies course I teach, on the first day of class I asked the students to say a bit about themselves by way of introduction. This rather banal exercise quickly produced an informal affinity group of queer students of color from Southern California who, through their individual introductions, explicitly debunked the myth of San Francisco as a gay center for all LGBTQI people and advocated for Los Angeles as a far more comfortable "home" for them. …