a blank slate

a blank slate

Author: Priya

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

*trigger warning for sexual abuse

SO I’m still in that phase of “I don’t know what to do with this site.” I’ve done something with it, but I’m not yet happy with what I’ve done. However, I did read this book recently and it has certainly been difficult to get my mind off it. So I thought why not go to the tried and tested basics and write a good ol’ review. I’ve been reading some interesting books this year and this tops the list of thought-provoking writing.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell is the story of a woman in her thirties, named Vanessa, who discovers that one of her old teachers has been accused in a #MeToo scandal. Soon, we learn that Vanessa had an affair with the very same teacher. In fact, she had been in love with him. The story unfolds through her fifteen year old perspective. Meanwhile, in the future, the woman comes to terms with years of relationship mishaps, and the idea that her very first love was, in fact, sexual abuse.

It’s a controversial topic and it can be a trigger for many. So let’s start with what this book is not and who shouldn’t read it. It is not a love story. You are supposed to see the power play and the emotional abuse for what it is. This fifteen year old girl does glorify her romance with a teacher twice her age. She is obsessed with him, and she lets him convince her that what she feels is in fact love, and that love warrants sacrifice. Although it conveys teenage emotions – rather, because it conveys that young adult perspective so well – it’s not a book for teens. Strangely, the author had been writing the book since she was a teen; which is perhaps how she’s nailed that teenage voice. Yet it is that older, retrospective view, the growing realisation that these actions and feelings were misguided, that makes the book work.

It is not an easy read. The book is quite graphic. It is clear why Vanessa develops a crush on this teacher who charms her. Who lends her books on poetry, and brings out the poet in her. It is difficult not to love him, and as someone who’s loved all Literature professors ever, it is easy to share her fascination. It is when they start interacting that the relationship takes on a sickening, cloying quality. The ease with which he manipulates her, the small sacrifices she makes, the little things she finds herself agreeing to, the changes in her own behaviour that she justifies… seen from a third perspective, this is a hard pill to swallow. Much worse, I’m sure, if you’ve ever been in that position yourself. It’s frightening, compelling, disgusting – rolled into one.

My Dark Vanessa raises a very important question – something that we find difficult to address, awkward even, a kind of blurred line. What do we mean by “willingly” walking into an abusive sexual relationship? What do consent and complicity mean; is every relationship something of a power-play? Can a fifteen year old child have the agency that she presumes she does – could it be anything but manipulation when there is such a clearly skewed distribution of authority? What do you do with that murky, misplaced guilt of having “let” someone do that to you? As Vanessa puts it, “I don’t feel forced, and I know I have the power to say no, but that isn’t the same as being in charge.

The author gives us multiple other voices from Vanessa’s story – her parents, other teachers, friends, her therapist. These beg the question – what do you do if this were someone you know? How do you understand, and show empathy, and reassess your ‘judgement,’ even before you help? It raises questions about victimhood, and what keeps Vanessa from putting herself into that box. She says, “This, I think, is the cost of telling, even in the guise of fiction – once you do, it’s the only thing about you anyone will ever care about it. It defines you whether you want it to or not.”

A scary, frustrating book; my review, if you can call it that, has been just a list of questions. But in the month or so since I read this book, I’ve found myself asking these questions to every new story that I read, real or fiction, that is about relationships, or control, or trauma. For that reason alone, this book deserves a reading, as harrowing and infuriating as the experience is. I recommend this video review for further insight into whether you should pick up this book.

“Girls in those stories are always victims, and I am not. And it doesn’t have anything to do with what Strane did or didn’t do to me when I was younger. I’m not a victim because I never wanted to be, and if I didn’t want to be, then I’m not. That’s how it works. The difference between rape and sex is state of mind. You can’t rape the willing, right?”

GSW: Exploring Syntax with Kids

The idea for the Glottal Stop workshop was conceived way back when I was finishing my Master’s in Linguistics. In just two years, I had developed a whole new perspective on language, and found myself wondering why this treasure-house of insight wasn’t carried into the language classrooms. As an amateur linguist-turned-teacher, I saw my classes as a petri dish for all the theories I’d spent two years poring over. The first Glottal Stop workshop, conducted in 2018, was my effort at bridging the wide gap between language acquisition theory and middle school language teaching. And what a successful couple of days!

From learning the 44 sounds of the English language, to using the phonemic script to learn pronunciation, from figuring out the possible grammar and phonology of Parseltongue to creating your own language – the results were fantastics. These group of kids surprised me by truly thinking outside the box. We invented a language of pigs called Oinkio, a lyrical song-language spoken by phoenixes and a Minion language called Pocoloco.

By the end of the workshop, the kids were experts at basic syntax trees and left with a unique understanding of phrase structure and grammar. As I explained it to a parent, these strategies are for English what Vedic Maths is to Math. Through activities, games and projects, we covered the six main branches of linguistics and without even realising it, these young linguists were all set to explore language on their own.

CWW: Exploring ‘moods’ and genres

When discussing moods in narrative writing, I don’t often find kids, especially the younger lot, willing to try out ‘horror.’ Being the horror fanatic that I am, it is always rewarding when a child is willing to dip their toes into this tricky genre. Sharing here a piece from the most recently concluded batch of the Creative Writing Workshop. This story by twelve year old Tanisha is sure to send a chill down your spine, especially that final line.

I love the atmosphere of this story. Mind you, horror is as difficult to write as it can be to read! What do you think of Tanisha’s story?

P.S. Parents often ask me: should I point out errors in my child’s writing? Remember: Writing is about reconnecting with yourself, exploring your mind and exercising your creativity. Spelling and grammar tips are provided in creative writing, but sometimes focus on grammatical and writing conventions retracts from the learning. It’s all about finding a balance!

RSW: Graphic Organisers

English is all around us, and sometimes, the “unseen comprehension texts” that we teachers look for may be right in front of our eyes. Students enjoy looking at everyday objects in a different light in the Reading and Reflection Workshop. In this session, we learn to comprehend and process chunks of factual information using different graphic organisers.

CWW: Silhouette Poetry

This week, students of the ongoing CWW batch tried their hand at creating poems with interesting silhouettes. Shape poems create a shape thematically connected with the subject of the poem. One of the many strategies where structural constraints result in lexical innovation! That is to say, restrictions don’t limit you, but rather, enable you to be even more creative.

Poetry is not everyone’s cup of tea, but a great advantage of this kind of poetry is that is facilitates the development of vocabulary. When you’re forced to write within that shape, you start to think outside the box! Sharing a couple of lovely creations from this class!

Try it yourself! Select an easily recognisable silhouette like a cloud, a droplet or a moon or a house, and pen your poem within its borders. When you’re done, erase the outline. In a matter of minutes, the poem comes to life.

GSW: Language as a Science

The Glottal Stop Workshop helps students re-imagine language as a science and explore English pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar through this unique perspective. In the two-day workshop conducted in Bangalore in February 2020, participants explored how language may be acquired and stored in their minds and how our brains process this information. Through activities and many, many word games, they learnt different ideas in linguistics or language science, from the phonetic script to to the mental dictionary. The aim of this workshop was to build an unconscious awareness to grapple with challenges in communication and improve spoken and written English.

One of the activities included asking students how language may be stored in the minds. Draw the language cupboard, I told them. The responses I got were delightfully creative. My favourite was how intuitive it was for this one kid that the mind is a computer. I was working my language as a cupboard metaphor to get them to think about how much we have in our minds and how it may be organised, and he kept telling me, no problem.. it’s like Google. Note the “formal” and “informal” buttons! Just goes to show the level of exposure these kids have to something as abstract as technology, and how their imagination benefits from it.

Some Student Feedback (I’ve saved the best for last!)

“My overall experience in this workshop was really great. It improved my English. I learnt many things which many won’t learn in their actual English classes. The class was interactive and fun. I would recommend this workshop for my friends as well.” – S., Age 13

“Amazing. I learnt how to improve my grammar , the IPA and many other things.” – K.D., Age 10

“My overall experience in these two days was very nice. I understood a lot about pronunciation, even my mom didn’t know some of the pronunciations. From today onwards, I’ll use these pronunciation skills.” – R.K., Age 11

“My overall experience was very good. I enjoyed it a lot and the food was tasty!” – S., Age 10 (Needless to say, a sure shot way to someone’s heart is through their tummy!)