How to Read Borges

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I remember the first time I came across a Jorge Luis Borges short story. I was fifteen years old and, for many years, I had refused to read literature in Spanish. Growing up bilingual (and having more access to the Spanish language), I thought that my American Lit courses in high school were far more interesting than my Spanish Lit classes, but there was something about Borges that just made me fall in love with the Spanish language. He assembled stories in such a specific way that I couldn’t help myself from becoming mesmerized by his writing.

The short story was far shorter than any other short story I had ever read. “Borges y yo” featured a conversation between the narrative Borges and the real Borges. This encounter between the two selves of Borges opened my eyes to the richness and beauty of modern literature.

Fast-forward a decade and so much has changed! I have a PhD minor in Latin American literature, have taught Borges to undergrads a number of times, presented academic papers on his short stories, and have reread his works hundreds of times, including the story, “Borges y yo”, that introduced me to his literary repertoire.

However, I don’t think I’ve ever figured out a way to read Borgesian literature. His literature is so strange, confusing, and jarring at times, yet its allure will always capture my attention. I want to explore the ways in which we can approach his short stories, for better or for worse:

  1. Obsessions: Borges is obsessed with the same number of artifacts that make an appearance in his literary works over and over again: Mirrors, Reflections, Tigers, Secret Societies, Libraries, Mazes, Labyrinths, Encyclopedias, and so on. As a scholar, I have fallen in love with these same artifacts and will forever be indebted to Borges. When you start to read Borges, you need to understand that the philosophical reflections on these objects have to do with Borges’s own perception of the world.
  2. Detective Stories: I was inspired to write this post due to the fact that I’m teaching a Global Detectives course this semester. Borges was obsessed with detective stories. From Edgar Allan Poe’s Inspector Dupin to GK Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries, he identified the fact that the world is a philosophical mystery. However, his criticism is that, unlike Dupin and Poirot, there is no real solution to the mystery. In fact, perhaps the mystery is better left unsolved.
  3. Combination of Literary Forms: Borges writes in such a specific way. His writing style obviously ranges from his beginnings as an avant garde poet to a successful fiction writer. His short stories may read like academic essays, his academic essays can be read as fiction and his prose style is definitely poetic. As soon as you identify these common threads, you have a distinct connection to his writing style.
  4. Philosophy: Borges was an avid reader and he seemed to favor German and American philosophy. With allusions to Martin Heidegger and John Dunne, Borges delved into ideas of time, dreams, and being throughout his literary works.

This isn’t meant to be an in-depth guide for Borges, but rather a way to identify what makes his fiction so peculiar. How does he manage to evoke such complex feelings? What is the recipe for his literature? What changes do we perceive in his speculative fiction that don’t show up in our world?

These all may be rhetorical questions, but after many years of studying Borges, I still don’t have a one-sentence answer to any of them. Borges, as an author, exploits the Spanish language in such a concise complex way…and, perhaps, that’s the shortest answer I could ever give you.

 

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The Perils of Teaching

As a graduate student, I  have to get to teach every semester in order to afford tuition costs and, well, living costs. However, teaching is not all it has been made out to be. I have been teaching a combination of college level courses for years. From Literature to Religious Studies to Jewish Studies, I have been working hard at getting students to engage with texts and better their writing skills.

Unfortunately, composition does not come easily to most students. For some reason, High School English teachers have been completely focused on getting the students to engage with awkward opening lines or weird paragraph structures. This means I receive a ridiculous amount of emails with questions such as How many sentences should each paragraph have? Do I need to cite? Is this really vague thesis statement okay?

Don’t get me wrong…as far as jobs go, I love mine ! I love being able to engage with students and teach them about all series of topics. I work hard and I get results, but teaching can be a dangerous, treacherous journey. The perils of teaching are the following:

  1. Spending too much time lesson planning: If I didn’t stop myself, I would spend three hours researching and working on the THE best lesson plan. However, I know that I need to have my priorities set straight. I have to work on my dissertation, other jobs, and my mental health !
  2. Lack of Organization: I have so many friends (and even some professors) who find it hard to structure fifty minutes worth of discussion. I recommend structuring things in ten to twenty minute blocks and leaving some extra time for discussion. Organizing your syllabus and scheduling your reading/grading time are also the key to success.
  3. Boundaries: When I first started teaching, I was very flexible when it came down to extending deadlines, absences, and answering emails at all times. It wasn’t until my second year of teaching when I FINALLY put down an email policy on my syllabus and it has helped a lot. I highly recommend including any kind of policy you deem important on your syllabus. I have grading, email, electronic, and participation policies. This helps establish boundaries from day ONE and it helps you manage your time wisely.
  4. Dress Codes: As a woman of color, I have not one, but two things against me. Some students tend to undermine my authority and I have a hard time dealing with that. However, I establish a professional relationship on the first day of class with my demeanor, but also with the way I dress. Dressing up to teach can be fun and it definitely does not have to be boring. I love choosing fun colorful heels, long necklaces, and fun dresses. If Jess from New Girl can do it, anyone can !

PS. I do NOT recommend standing on top of your desk !

Alas ! There are many more perils to teaching, but I hope that my struggles can help a fellow teacher of any sort.