Last semester, I taught a course called “Home, Exile, and Diaspora in the Hebrew Bible,” an exploration of immigration and the refugee crises in the biblical texts. I teach in San Antonio, Texas on the borderlands of the United States and Mexico; my students are often intimately aware of the complex shape of immigration and refugee resettlement in their own communities. They are also often aware, at least in the abstract, of the Bible as a foundational text in their own communities and in Texas civil religion. As I tell my students, there are significant parallels between the Land of Israel in ancient times and the State of Texas: both hold strategic positions between larger cultures and geographies; both were conquered by a progression of imperial powers bringing new traditions and values to the region; for the different peoples who lived in these regions, their location and history led to the construction of new national stories and new models of identity. But my students have never had the opportunity to think in a sustained and critical way about the ways that biblical texts mirror, differ from, and shape their own experiences in this borderland. To foster these reflections, I decided to integrate creative writing into my course.
In Borderlands/La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldúa writes,
Living in a state of psychic unrest, in a Borderland, is what makes poets write and artists create. It is like a cactus needle embedded in the flesh. It worries itself deeper and deeper, and I keep aggravating it by poking at it. When it begins to fester I have to do something to put an end to the aggravation and to figure out why I have it. I get deep down into the place where it's rooted in my skin and pluck away at it, playing it like a musical instrument-the fingers pressing, making the pain worse before it can get better. Then out it comes. No more discomfort, no more ambivalence. Until another needle pierces the skin. That's what writing is for me, an endless cycle of making it worse, making it better, but always making meaning out of the experience, whatever it may be.
Anzaldua points to the ways that living in a borderland can be painful but also lead to the creation of art and ideas, an authentic self. I wanted students to leave my course familiar with major stories and texts about home, exile, and diaspora in the Hebrew Bible, understanding how experiences of immigration and exile shaped the texts and formation of the Hebrew Bible as well as connecting the biblical stories to the experiences of modern communities. It was important to me in this course that we understand the Israelites’ experiences of destruction, exile, and return not only as traumatic, though they absolutely were, but as productive of particular forms of literary and religious expression. I worked to ensure my students felt ownership over the biblical texts and authorized to engage with them in a range of ways while making meaning out of their own experiences.
In order to achieve these aims, I created a “Creative Lamentation” assignment. This assignment allowed students to cultivate a different kind of literary voice using the biblical text. The Creative Lamentation assignment asked students to write their own “biblical” lamentation (in English) about an event that occurred in the last hundred or so years. To prepare for the assignment, we read excerpts from Sumerian city and cultic laments, the biblical book of Lamentations, and a modern Lamentation about the Holocaust. Together we generated a list of features common to the genre: repetition, personification, specific forms of imagery, self-reflection, rhetorical questions, and the use of multiple voices. With our list in mind, students chose a modern event and went off to do research so that their Lamentation could include rich contextual detail. Then students wrote their own Lamentation about the event, in an alphabetical acrostic, and composed a separate reflection on why they made the artistic choices that they did. They could write their reflection either as a standalone paragraph or as a series of comments in the margins of the Word Document (a la Rap Genius).
I had never assigned any creative writing in class before. And indeed, many of my students reported never having been asked to do creative writing for a grade in college. In this project, we were novices together. I chose not to grade students on poetic abilities, but rather on their ability to creatively follow generic conventions and critically reflect on their process; students reported that my grading rubric – and its lack of points for poesy – mitigated student anxiety about their poetry skills and how the lack thereof would affect their grades.
I also asked students to share their Lamentations in class through a guided small group reading/workshop activity. Students became the content experts on the subject of their Lamentation, teaching their classmates and professor about events and ideas through their written words and a guided discussion. I had warned students when we first discussed the assignment that they would be publically sharing their Lamentations so that students could decide if they wanted to choose to work on and thus disclose events of a more personal nature to their classmates.
The assignment was a remarkable success. Students chose a range of topics to Lament, from particular events in their personal lives, to national and international events that occurred in their own lifetimes, to events in the recent past. Many of the topics chosen were deeply local, and rooted in their own experiences in Texas (such as Hurricane Harvey, the Sutherland Springs Shooting, the Dallas Police Shooting, the end of DACA and the recent rollbacks to the ADA). Others connected students to broader community histories across borders (Hurricanes Katrina and Mitch, El Salvador’s Civil War in the 1980s, the Cambodian Genocide). Still others spoke to events going on in the news (the massacre of the Rohingya, the Pulse Nightclub Shooting, Sandy Hook, the Las Vegas Shooting). Other students chose less contemporary events worthy of lamentation: Pearl Harbor, the sinking of the Titanic, Vietnam, the Great Depression, the Armenian Genocide, and segregation in the Jim Crow South. The most popular topic by far (chosen by 15 of my 58 students) was September 11th.
Veronica Austen has argued that creative writing assignments are useful in English literature courses in “(1) dispelling the awe of literature and creating active learners; (2) developing critical readers; (3) furthering student understanding of literary criticism; (4) inspiring deeper commitment to excellence; and (5) motivating class bonding and dismantling the classroom hierarchy.” The same is clearly true in the study of ancient literatures.
The students’ written reflections on their writing shared a number of insights into what they learned through this assignment. The assignment de-mystified the biblical text and empowered students to engage with it both seriously and playfully. Students were able to critically reflect on the kinds of choices that the authors of the biblical Lamentations were making as part of a range of possible choices. Students became intimately familiar with biblical phrasing and reflected thoughtfully on when they chose to adopt it, and when and why they chose to update it, replace it, or ignore it entirely. They understood the ways that biblical authors were trying to speak to ancient audiences, and were able to update some of those rhetorical strategies for a new audience. Many of the students who had chosen to write on events from before their lifetimes were able to use their experience writing to challenge the assumption that some students had had in class that the vividness of description in Lamentations means that the authors of Lamentations must have lived through the events they were describing.
At the end of the semester, I gave students an in-class evaluation that asked students to reflect on the effectiveness of various pedagogies they encountered in this course. Students consistently ranked the “Creative Lamentation” as the least effective pedagogical activity they engaged in this semester. And yet, on the quizzes and final exam, students had clearly learned a great deal about the genre of Lamentation, its historical context(s), the scholarly debates about its authorship and authenticity, and the ways that later communities can and have used the genre to process trauma. To be honest, their answers were stronger on questions relating to Lamentations than they were on almost any other topic. I suspect that the creative assignment was a form of learning that didn’t “feel like” learning and so wasn’t recognized as such. I will absolutely use this assignment again, and I will also do more work next time to facilitate student recognition of learning happening in unexpected places and pedagogies.
In this creative assignment, students were empowered to engage with the biblical text in new ways: they understood some of the ways that biblical texts can relate to the modern world and vice versa, they used their own creative voices, and they reflected critically on why we must develop awareness of moments of pain and trauma in the world around us. Because as Anzaldúa suggests, that’s what writing is - “an endless cycle of making it worse, making it better, but always making meaning out of the experience, whatever it may be.
 Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987), 73.
 Veronica J. Austen, "The Value of Creative Writing Assignments in English Literature Courses," The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing 2, no. 2 (2005):138-50, 139.
 Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, 73.
Dr. Sara Ronis is Assistant Professor of Theology at St. Mary's University.