Sunday, September 2, 2012

Mashing Up Literature: rap, fairy tales, graphic novels, quirks

A literate mashup of a literary classic is not the same as a condensed, "retold" or rewritten version.  To be read in my classroom, a mashup must maintain the core integrity of the original in terms of plot, character, narration (although this may change from the original) and complexity.  It must also add something new to the original that, because of the creative and interpretive nature of the mashup genre, makes the original text more approachable.  A remix is meant to be read with the original.  Students unable to read the original in total should read selections supplemented by the remix.  A brief introduction to some takes on the literature remix can be found at do.the.mash(MASHUP).

Every once in a while there is a new mashup, remix, or cover of classic literature that deserves a place in the classroom. Right now the rap remix has resurfaced in a terrific online collection by Canadian Baba Brinkman.  Brinkman performs remixes of The Canterbury Tales and other classic titles. The Pardoners Tale and the General Prologue can be downloaded. His Beowulf remix is also available online (free to listen online - or download for "name your own price!").  Here is a selection from the latter.  I have chosen the final lines because I like his ending - it will resonate with literature purists, like myself, but also with students. 

If you want to know her actual facial features
Just go ask your twelfth-grade teachers,
Or your college professors – they’re like the last gate-keepers
On tradition – or read Seamus Heaney’s version
His verse is amazing!
But any pop-culture interpretation
Is subject to virtually unlimited changes
‘Cause if you try to please the Tourists
Well, the Purists get Tourette’s and curse you
But then if you try to do the reverse
Well, the Tourists are known for their lack of endurance
So who do I try to please first?
Myself, and it usually works!
So instead of judging like jurists
Just sit back and enjoy the experience
And I’ll go back to the story... actually
You know what? Forget it – I’d rather just leave it
If you really wanna know how it ends
Well then I guess you’d better just read it!

That’s right
Go read it
Seamus Heaney
Norton Publishing
Get the dual language edition
Read the introduction too
Super informative
C’mon ladies and gentleman
You can’t listen to rap music to get an education
That’s insane!
This is entertainment only
You have to go read!
Go read! Go read!
Go reeaaad!!!
(Beowulf remix from Canterbury Tales Remixed)

Another great text is Brinkman's Gilgamesh remix, which ends:
If immortality exists, ladies and gentlemen
Well then I guess, you’re listening to it

(Baba Brinkman's The Canterbury Tales Remixed )


Here are three more text-based subsets of the literary mashup genre:

1. Literately remixed fairy tales exist in many forms, from opera to picture book to Broadway to adult novel.  The best resource remains SurLaLune.  If you have not already done so, give one of these YA titles a look:
  • Datlow's story collection A Wolf at the Door (an Amazon bargain at $.01)
  • Yolen's Briar Rose
  • Napoli's The Magic Circle
  • Gidwitz's A Tale Dark and Grimm 
2. Classics remixed - often more accurately covered - as graphic novels can be iffy, but for most mixed-ability pubic school classes they will support and spur on the reading of difficult texts.  Here is a grab-bag of titles for which literate graphic novels exist:
  • Beowulf
  • The Odyssey
  • Fahrenheit 451 (also Bradbury short stories)
  • Frankenstein
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • The Call of the Wild
  • Romeo and Juliette
  • Macbeth
  • Great Expectations
  • Jane Eyre
  • Sherlock Holmes (multiple titles)
3. "Quirk Classics" are surfacing as a new genre, new at least to the world of text (a variation has existed in the film and TV worlds for some time).  These novels "poke fun" at classics by adding new, faddish elements, notably vampires and zombies.  Find a list on Wikipedia.  Warning: probably most titles are not for middle school or conservative readers!  One of my favs not on this list is Pat the Zombie.  Another amusing title is the Lampoon's Hunger Pains.

Students have been challenged to create mashups for years as summative assignments.  I have never been overly pleased with the results, based as they often are on shallow readings.  This is no replacement for an essay or iEssay.  On the other hand, remixing Shakespeare into contemporary language, even into text or chat conversations, can be a valuable assessment of student understanding (or at least translation) of character, motive, meaning, and plotline.  What is often lost is the literary-ness - richness of language in particular.  If richness of language is not to be part of the mashup, another richness (visual, nuanced, symbolic, humorous, ironic) must take its place.  See Shaking Up Shakespeare for one teacher's response to this challenge.

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