This time last week, I was giving a lecture for a Chinese audience at one of the U.S. consulates in China. I’ve done several of these now and they’re always fun. My game-show-style lecture on “Women in the Workplace” made rapidly apparent the difference between American and Chinese perspectives on women’s professional contributions to society. My lecture on America’s Prohibition showed that, shockingly, Al Capone takes a backseat to F. Scott Fitzgerald when it comes to Chinese familiarity with infamous 1920s Americans.
This go-round, the trusting folks at the Consulate made the strategic error of letting me lecture on literature–a dangerous move, as it’s a topic on which I tend to wax more than poetic (pun intended!). To anybody who may ever be tempted to chat books with me, I’m warning you now: beware! It’s not until a film of boredom glazes over my conversational partner’s eyes that I pick up on the cue to STOP TALKING.
If you’re lucky.
But despite the very real threat of my enthusiasm sabotaging the lecture, I think I can safely say it was a success! I had a fantastic audience and got a really interesting spectrum of questions afterward, with topics ranging from literary movements like Transcendentalism to the poetry-publishing culture of the U.S.
But the most noteworthy twist was this: one of my audience members actually wrote a poem for me… during the lecture! All else aside, I have to high-five him for that achievement. My writing endeavors are 98.7% prose; I can barely string poetry together at the best of times, let along under a time constraint. In a public forum.
Another twist to the story, though: The poem wasn’t just for me. It was about me. Part of me was impressed, part of me flattered… and a significant chunk of me was straight flustered. Had I accidentally earned myself an admirer?
Regardless, since this is only the second time anyone’s written a poem about me (the first was from my husband, and I shall be greedy and keep that to myself), I can’t help sharing:
To Dear Lecturer
Having her head turned around
Before such an audience she is found.
Her face broadening in a soft smile
So charming, so enchanting,
So dazzlingly shinning
That other belles out
There are shy, off to hide.
He asked me to read it aloud and I obliged–never a smart thing to do before you know what you’re about to give voice to. But much worse poems could have been written about me, so I’ll count it a victory! And after fielding that comment, nothing any other audience member might say or ask was going to make me blush any brighter than I already was!
Speaking of which, as I continue to field post-lecture literature questions, I’d love some help….
As everybody in the lit. biz knows, what is canonical literature is up for great debate. So what bits of American literature, whether identified as a “classic” or not, would you recommend to Chinese readers? And what characteristics make American literature unique–what is it that makes it American?