Learning Life Lessons Through a Love of Literature: A Personal Essay

By Kayla Overbey

Thursday, December 13, 2012

In sixth grade, I was not social. Instead of making friends and participating in class, I lost myself in stories. Most of my mornings in homeroom were spent ignoring the other students and downing a few chapters of my latest read. My homeroom teacher, eager to solve this problem, interrupted the classroom conversation one morning and announced that I was in need of an “intervention” (her words, not mine). Horrorstruck, I watched as every young face in the room turned to

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find me slowly shrinking behind whatever was my current book.

“Kayla, we just think you shouldn’t read so much,” she explained before herding me to the middle of the room. She encouraged the other students to surround me, and they all began to chant. Really. The words “put down the book” are permanently stamped into my brain, as well as a burning feeling of rejection, surrounded by people who disapproved of me and my habits. I clutched my book

like a paper shield to my chest, wishing that the classroom would disappear, that my teacher had never spoken, that everyone would just leave me alone.

It was only when one of the students in the circle reached forward and ripped the book out of my hands, tearing a page, that the teacher finally ended the game. Her nervous expression told me she felt her playful “intervention” had stepped a bit too far. We all returned to our seats and I sat, tearful and red-faced, feeling the angry ball in the pit of my stomach slowly ebb away.

I don’t blame my homeroom teacher. She was a very kind, silly woman and only meant well. After all, I had the social skills of a toaster and was terrified to make eye contact, let alone strike up a conversation with my neighbor in history class.  However, I’m almost 21 years old and still in love with stories. At the time, I thought something was wrong with me. Why did I read so much? Now, I think my teacher should have turned her worry toward the other students.

Since when was reading so uncool? I hear more kids exclaim that they hate reading and would rather die than work their way through “Huckleberry Finn” or “Where the Red Fern Grows.” For me, reading provided hours of vivid entertainment that extended beyond the length of a movie or the battery life of a handheld video game. It showed me more than my small, Midwestern hometown of Hays, Kan., would ever have to offer.

Reading isn’t just the interpretation of letters on a page — it stimulates creativity. It’s a lifestyle, a learned skill. According to Scholastic’s Reading Facts, two thirds of eighth-graders don’t read at their grade level. In 2005, 12thgraders scored lower in reading than they did in 1992 in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Reading was once a privilege, only accessible to the literate and wealthy. I work at the KU Writing Center, and I frequently help native, English-speaking students who don’t understand where a comma goes, or how to break up a run-on sentence. What happened to literacy?

My schoolgirl days were filled with other kids telling me that reading was weird. They called me a nerd simply because I would rather check out books from the library than sit and watch “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (although that show ishilarious). That label followed me through high school, despite the fact that I graduated with average grades. I was no valedictorian, though some expected me to be. And for what? Because I remembered the big words I read and used them? I don’t really know. But I do know that reading helped me in more ways than I can ever understand.

I’m glad I doggedly stuck with my reading habits, encouraged by a few beloved teachers and many family members. Even at such a young age, I explored the world and saw so much more than what lay in my closed-in hometown.  I wouldn’t take back a second of it, not even the weird, cult-esque intervention in homeroom. The lessons I learned from my favorite story characters stuck with me; they carved a path for me, showed me I could face my demons and told me to keep going. They showed me where to go. All I had to do was follow.

(This was originally posted on the Political Fiber website on December 13, 2012. I’m posting it here to archive my work. You can read the original here.)

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’50 Shades of Grey’ Influences Third-Wave Feminism

By Kayla Overbey

November 14, 2012

It’s been called “mommy porn” and ridiculed for its lame writing, but for some reason I still felt drawn to pick up “50 Shades of Grey” this summer. Maybe it was the fact that itoutsold every Harry Potter book. Maybe it was because, despite its origins as Twilight fan fiction — yes, really — it’s mega-popular. Out of curiosity, I explored Amazon and found reviews that scorn the novel for its endless repetition and unrealistic sex.

I downloaded the book, which was written by British author E.L. James, onto my Kindle and secretly read everywhere: my house, the gym and my desk at work. I read it to my boyfriend over the phone and couldn’t get through one line without giggling over the absurdity. Seriously, I dare you not to laugh while reading, “I eye Christian’s toothbrush. It would be like having him in my mouth.”

The plot of this erotic novel revolves around a pretty taboo subject: BDSM, also known as bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism, for all you innocents. Ana Steele, the main character, is a 22-year-old college virgin swept off her feet by the predictably young, successful multi-billionaire Christian Grey. As their relationship progresses, so do the sticky details. Ana is introduced to a dominant/submissive relationship and Christian’s personal “red room of pain.”

The book, which was a runaway best seller after its release in 2011, has made James the best-selling author of Amazon.co.uk. But it has an impact that extends beyond record sales.

Despite the ridiculous storyline, I understand how “50 Shades of Grey” manages to walk such a thin line between sadistic porn and feminist booster. There’s a weird balance that’s solely up to interpretation. Modern “third-wave” feminists like the series because it encourages bedroom confidence. Middle-aged women and college girls everywhere are taking control of their sexuality. Local coffee houses, subways and college dorms have never seen so much BDSM.

More traditional feminists, however, say it glorifies a patriarchal society, where men make decisions and women are dominated. A man controls the main character; this situation is not pro-feminism. So, how does a book popularizing a dominant/submissive relationship and all its juicy facts fit into the feminist movement and sexual politics?

Women are at the forefront of current national issues, and the trilogy has given many female readers more confidence sexually. However, some feminists, like Marina DelVecchio, a professor of English at Durham Technical Community College, worry that these books will redefine the current interpretation of feminism in an unhelpful way.

DelVecchio, who specializes in women studies, feminism and literature, described “50 Shades of Grey” as a “literary monster” and said that women pushing the book as pro-feminism are misinterpreting the relationship between Grey and Steele.

“I can see how third wave feminists with an eye on sexual liberation would find this book empowering even though I disagree with it,” DelVecchio said.

She also said some women find it empowering because of a recent feminist push that “attributes power and equality to women’s sexual liberation.” However, she points out that Steele is not experiencing this; she’s merely learning what Grey wants her to learn, and her experiences are limited to his desires. The female lead of this supposedly woman-empowering book is not in control of her own sexuality.

“She’s constantly denied her independence and personal choices outside of the bedroom,” DelVecchio explained. “She is confined and prodded by foreign objects, not for her affinity for BDSM, but for her co-dependent need to please the man she loves.”

Katie Willits, a sophomore at Longview Community College in Lee’s Summit, Mo., disagrees. She said the content initially surprised her, but captured her attention immediately. Willits said that she never viewed the main character as completely submissive to male control. Instead, she thought the series was empowering. “I think it teaches women to want more control of their own sexuality and to be comfortable with themselves doing so,” Willits said.

This idea of sexual exploration is a strong focus in third-wave feminism. But what is third-wave feminism? The movements of the women suffragists in the 19th century and the bra-burners in the 1960s solidified feminism today. Women in those movements fought for important milestones, like women’s right to vote, equal access to education and a place in the workforce. Third-wave feminists are strongly defined by their ability to choose. They can choose to be stay-at-home moms or build high-position careers. They can choose to get married or remain single. Most relatable to “50 Shades of Grey” is the importance third-wave feminists place on women experiencing sexual liberation without being called nasty names.

For some readers, the abuses of “50 Shades of Grey” are obvious. Amanda Schulze, a junior at the University of Kansas and the reproductive justice coordinator of the Commission on the Status of Women, said she recognized the unhealthy aspects of the fictional relationship when she started reading.

“As a survivor of being in a mentally abusive relationship for two years, it was obvious to me,” she said. “[The main character] let a man control every part of her.”

Despite her personal disagreement with the novel’s message, Schulze agrees that women may possibly feel more open to exploring sexuality thanks to the book. Additionally, she doesn’t find BDSM degrading and doesn’t think Ana Steele should be a blanket representation of all women. In fact, she doesn’t think “50 Shades of Grey” is really capable of influencing the third-wave movement in a lasting way.

“I don’t think it will hinder the women’s movement because it’s a fiction novel, and it’s not doing half the work we’re doing out here. It’s not what we’re about,” Schulze said.

“50 Shades of Grey” might not be what all feminists are about, but it’s getting a lot of attention from women. Much to the dismay of some readers, like Schulze, the audience continues to grow.

“I really, really hate that my grandmother is reading this series right now,” Schulze said.

But hey, who can deny a woman her sexual liberation, even if she does have grandkids?

(This story was published on Political Fiber’s website on November 14, 2012. I’m posting it here to archive my work. The research and story are by me, the graphic was designed by Kelly Stroda. See the original here.)

Uncomfortable questions in ‘No Man’s Land’ make for rewarding experience

A book review by Kayla Overbey

November 14, 2012

Earlier this year, I cracked open the inaugural University of Kansas Common Book, Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays (Graywolf Press) by award-winning author Eula Biss. With books like 50 Shades of Grey floating around on national bestseller lists, I was craving something that would restore my faith in humanity. This book, unlike any other I’ve read before, was intellectually stimulating and caused me to question my background and history as well as examine what being “white” means to me.

The book was chosen as the University of Kansas’ very first Common Book, meant to be read by all freshmen and taught in core courses like journalism, psychology, sociology, and business.  The book is composed of a collection of personal essays by Biss. They detail her experiences with race in different places, from a little town in Mexico to New York City to the desegregated utopia of Buxton, Iowa.  Each essay balances research and anecdotal experience, which I personally loved. Her writing style is so personable and unique.

Now, I’m not incredibly familiar with essay-style non-fiction books and especially not with books that question what I understand about being a white girl from western Kansas. I usually stick to ever-popular dystopian novels and good old fantasy fiction. But when I finished this book, it immediately passed some of my preferred stories to float around at the top of my favorites list.  It’s just so different. It made me think, it invited me to evaluate myself, and I was able to ask myself some questions that I’d never considered before. Am I aware of the still significant divide when it comes to race? Is there a part of me that wishes I wasn’t white?

The only way I can describe my personal response to this book is as a positive struggle. Rather than just invite you to read, it asks you to interact. I scribbled notes in the margins, underlined sentences that struck me as beautiful and marked passages that deserve to be revisited. I’m sure I’ll wear down the spine over time as I return to those fundamental questions.

I realize now that while I took the book pretty well, there are a lot of students who didn’t. One professor told me a student voiced that she felt attacked by the book. Why? Because she’s white. A student told me she thought Biss wasn’t necessarily experienced enough to write a critically acclaimed book (I’ll let you decide that one for yourself). I ended up writing a story over the controversy for a journalism class and had the fortune of calling Biss to discuss the book. I about peed my pants when I finally got her number. I told her about some of the reactions, and she, quite gracefully, told me she appreciated the not-so-golden feedback. In fact, she encouraged it.

“Actually, I would be very, very disappointed if the book did not make some people uncomfortable, defensive, angry,” she quietly explained. “I think all of those negative emotions are necessary and inevitable when encountering some of these ideas for the first time.”

She was soft-spoken and contemplative but voiced large ideas and opinions—a style of speaking that exactly mirrors the writing in Notes from No Man’s Land.

Would I read this book again? Yes, and I’m sure I will read it many times over. Is it an easy read? No. Is it rewarding? Well, that’s up to the reader. For me, it was. I experienced a range of reactions and heard even more from the people I spoke to. How will you react?

(This was posted on The Siren Journal’s website on November 14, 2012. I’m posting it here to archive my work. Read the original post here.)