The literary canon has long been dominated by normative narratives that conform to societal and cultural stereotypes, preserving a legacy that overlooks marginalized voices, including those of the LGBTQIA+ community. In Nancy Boutilier’s upper level English elective, Better To Speak: Queering the Canon, students actively engage in examining the role of language, following clues of the (un)spoken and marginality to decode metaphors and reconstruct social perceptions.

At the beginning of the course, Boutilier poses a question as a guiding point when encountering a text: What classifies a piece of writing as queer literature? Taking into account the author’s identity, the theme of the story, as well as the circumstances under which the text was written, queer literature is embedded within marked behavior. Offering the course for a second year, Boutilier highlighted, “I’ve been a bit more explicit about the use of “queer” as a verb, naming the act of “queering” a text by reading with our eyes attuned to the seeing beyond traditional norms of gender and sexuality. We look for coding, metaphor, and linguistic connotations that, for instance, undercut the binary, or critique, center the marginalized.”

The course highlights how to approach a piece of text and find the subtext with its nuanced connotations through regional, cultural, racial, and linguistic choices. The evolving nature of language and terminology in its respective contexts bears witness to societal transformations in perceptions and acceptance. For instance, the image of a “family” in the early 20th century promoted nuclear families as the traditional way of life, consisting of a mother, a father, and the children, while dismissing other forms of love as societal deviations. Through the close-reading and critical analysis of literary works, students explore how queer literature speaks to the larger world of politics, culture, and power.

In designing the course, Boutilier drew inspiration from the students and sought to highlight marginalized voices. Boutilier reflected, “I was imagining a new elective and started asking students what they felt was missing from the curriculum or what they’d like to see offered before they graduated.” Queer literature emerged as a popular and compelling topic, prompting the creation of this course to better represent LGBTQIA+ voices and visions. “I love looking at how, when, and by whom, [outlawed, censored, taboo, off-limits, “unmarketable,” as well as self-censored] silences have been broken,” Boutilier commented.

One of the first poems the class reads is Audre Lorde’s “A Litany for Survival.” The course draws its name from the last line, “So it is better to speak/remembering/we were never meant to survive.” By revealing the differences in personal and collective experiences, the poem creates an active dialogue across shifting boundaries which resonates with the course’s focus on the evolving nature of literature and the challenging of social conventions. 45 years after the poem was published, Lorde’s message still echoes the values reflected in contemporary society.

People of all generations and cultures, with the hope of gaining a sense of self, are constantly deconstructing and reframing societal norms and narratives. The course will introduce a variety of historical and contemporary readings, including The Stonewall Reader and Everything Is Beautiful, and I'm Not Afraid: A Baopu Collection. Boutilier shared, “I hope this course helps students see how language not only reflects the attitudes of a given time, but it can also shape—or reshape—attitudes. That’s the power of words. The English language is itself a kind of cultural institution and it’s loaded—and I mean that in two ways—with attitudes about gender and sexuality, as well as race, class, and other cultural definers of identity written right into the very options and usage of word. As a whole, the language carries all sorts of biases and judgments in the very pool of words currently available to us. I want students to be able to see the biases—because only then can they begin to dismantle the harm words can do—and the possibility other words can offer. I want them to be able to imagine language—maybe even create it where they need it—to name themselves and their own experience.”

The course explores the fluidity of boundaries through different mediums, embracing the natural expression of oneself in a world faced with the harsh realities of conformity and acceptance. The intersectionality of societal values are often reflected in the literary canon, yet the singular perspective often prioritizes a facade over another. In the present cultural moment that is constantly redefining identity and social change, this course offers the opportunity for one to create new meanings through the translation of identity and self-expression into queer literature.