Women and war


Local book group to explore literature on war written by women

Toni McNaron and Susan Cygnet love a good book. What they love even more is getting women to talk about it.

“Some women had terrible experiences in school, with literature,” McNaron explained. “Especially with books, some of them can feel like, ‘How can I have anything to say, how can I understand Toni Morrison?'”

If You Go
What: Women and War, Women In War
Where: Hennepin Ave. United Methodist Church, 511 Groveland Ave., Minneapolis
When: Classes held Oct. 20 & 27, Nov 3, 10, 17 and Dec. 1 , 1-2:30 p.m.
Cost: $90, $100, $110 (as your finances allow); Books can be purchased at Amazon Bookstore Cooperative, 4432 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612-821-9630
FFI or to register: call Toni McNaron at 612-824-8481, or mail $35 deposit to Toni McNaron, 3512 Holmes Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55408.

McNaron, a retired English professor and Cygnet, a former educator, social worker and addiction counselor, believe women have plenty to say about Morrison or any other author or issue they choose to tackle. That’s why for 28 years they’ve been teaching classes, usually in local churches, on topics ranging from incest to international writers.

Their latest endeavor, a class called “Women and War, Women in War,” promises to continue their efforts to use literature to engage the community in lively conversations about difficult issues. One of the main goals of each class is helping women find, trust and use their own voices. Or, as Cygnet puts it, “How can we encourage them to speak from their heart?”

In “Women and War,” participants will have the chance to “speak from the heart” about three different texts, all written by women, all about war. “The Ghost Road” by Pat Barker examines class, sexuality and the brutal violence of WWI. “Testament of Youth” by Vera Brittain is an autobiographical account of her experiences working as a nurse in WWI. “Suite Française” by Irene Nemirovsky contains two narratives about the German occupation of France during WWII. The texts raise important historical and contemporary questions.

McNaron and Cygnet hope to take the discussion even further, to a more personal level. They believe that a visceral reaction to literature is a way to get people engaged in their communities, in politics or with their own emotions. Change can be as small as learning to speak up about a book, or as large as political action, they said.

Cygnet explained this process as “kind of sneaking up on one’s feelings in a safe sort of way, to say OK we’re all going to read this story and we want to hear your stories, because I think those are all very powerful.” McNaron agreed, pointing out that powerful texts can be life-changing. “If I read “Beloved” or “Kindred,” it gets in my skin,” she said. “I don’t have any defenses against those books. And so, it’s not that I’m thinking about it or reacting to it, I’m sort of thrown into it. I don’t get to have the buffers.”

For emotional topics like war, “not having the buffers” can be intimidating. In response, McNaron and Cygnet have structured their classes to provide a safe space for women to learn to trust their own reading and voice. They incorporate methods like rotating chairs and limited cross-talk. They carefully plan speaking and listening times. These methods make it safe for participants to answer the questions posed in class that move from the text to personal experience and back to the text again.

“I might say, in your own life, how many times have you been at war with yourself?” Cygnet said, demonstrating how a class like “Women and War” might unfold. “Then we would go from some kind of opening exercise to maybe Toni talking about the author of the novel.”

That fluidity, between personal experience and close textual reading, between understanding the past and taking action in the future, is what keeps students coming year after year to McNaron and Cygnet’s classes. And the results have been remarkable.

“We have seen women literally go from not being able to do anything but say their names and nod … to speaking out and being very passionate about things,” Cygnet said. “And that’s the most exciting thing to me.”