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Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Nella Larsen


Modern Language Association


Jacquelyn McLendon


New York, NY

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At the end of a semester teaching an upper-level course called Lesbian Literatures, I always ask students to talk about which texts they recommend keeping the next time I teach the course. They mostly love Virginia Woolf's Orlando; they usually dislike Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, but they see why it should be in the course; and, almost to a person, they tell me I should drop Passing. It's not about lesbians, they complain; the lesbian interpretations we developed were far-fetched; the novel deals with racial passing, and not with passing as a heterosexual. In this essay, I explore several ways of teaching Passing in a course on lesbian literature and suggest some reasons for student dissatisfaction with it in such a context. Much of their resistance, I believe, grows out of their inexperience with and potential reluctance to accept the socially and culturally constructed nature of racial and sexual identities, or the ways in which such identities are mutually constitutive-what Kimberle Crenshaw has called "intersectionality: In my Lesbian Literatures classroom, I encourage students to reflect on the historical and cultural contingency of identity categories and on the multivalence of literary writing. The ambiguous nature of much of the language of Passing encourages students to think about how their assumptions about the social and cultural configuration of race, sexuality, and gender shape not only the ways they read written and visual texts but also their own identities and their experience of the world around them. Perhaps it should go without saying that their resistance to reading Passing as a lesbian text has not deterred me from including it in the course. Rather, knowing how intensely students deny the novel's engagement with lesbian erotic experience has allowed me to experiment with different ways of using the book to help them question their habits of reading and of analysis.



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Posted by permission of the Modern Language Association © 2016 by The Modem Language Association of America All rights reserved

Teaching Passing as a Lesbian Text