Wednesday, March 31, 2010
I believe I was born to blog (is this a good thing or should I have higher life aspirations?), but as much as I love this job I must acknowledge that there were many amazing English bloggers before me. Rajiv Menon was one of them, and if his post-blog future is any indicator, I should look forward to the end of my college career, too. So from your current English blogger, here is the news on one of your former English bloggers.
As many seniors scramble to find jobs or figure out which graduate school they will attend, Menon already knows he will be entering the NYU English Ph.D. program next year.
Menon has always had a passion for research. He said, "Attending my English classes, researching, and writing was never a burden for me, and I actually found myself searching for research opportunities outside of the classroom. After attending a few conferences and developing my first publications, I was completely sure that this was the ideal career option for me."
Once Menon realized his passion for research, he was supported by the GW English Department to pursue it. He believes he would not have found this career path and interest without GW's help. "Unlike so many other undergrad programs, I always had a small classes so I got to know my professors fairly well. As I progressed in my undergraduate career, I had numerous professors I could turn to based on whatever research I was doing at the time, and often I met with professors that I took classes with in previous semesters," he said. "My professors have been so encouraging and forthcoming with advice and constructive suggestions that I doubt that I could have achieved my goal of getting into a Ph.D. program without this support system." Menon found he could rely on Professors Plotz, Daiya, Chu, Cook, Alcorn, Harris, and Goswami in the English department and Professor Chacko in the Geography department for support on all of his research pursuits.
Menon's professors helped him realize the focus of his research. In particular, the department's emphasis on global studies led him to postcolonial literature. "Had I not had the opportunity to study postcolonial and emerging literatures, I doubt I would have discovered how passionate I am about these fields. The fact that I could take so many courses within my fields of interest granted me an opportunity to develop my research interests as an undergrad, which a lot of other programs don't allow," he said. However, studying other periods in literature has been beneficial to Menon's overall understanding of literature. He said, "Taking classes on Shakespeare and Milton with Professor Cook and the History of the English Language with Professor Hsy ensured that I had a strong foundation in the field and gave me new perspectives on my other research interests."
What was really fundamental for Menon was actually having the opportunity to conduct research as an undergraduate. Menon recommends the Luther Rice and Gamow fellowship. He said, "My Gamow fellowship with Professor Plotz allowed me to travel to India for research and led to my first publications." Furthermore he encourages applying to the Honors Program. "The honors program was so helpful as I was applying to graduate school, as Professor Alcorn structured the class to make sure that the readings and discussions were pertinent to our theses," he said. Besides the research, Menon will remember the community of the English honors program. He said, "All of us developed a really strong sense of community and as we all write our theses now, we still turn to each other for support."
Menon demonstrates that if one takes advantage of everything GW and its English department has to offer, there is a bright future in store for them. Menon's future will include studying regionality and the concept of race in South Asian literature and film. Menon became interested in this topic after taking his first course here with Kavita Daiya and he has run with the topic ever since. He said, "As I began to research Indian literature more, I grew interested in issues of national identity and "racial" difference. As the child of immigrants from South India, I became interested in the way that regional difference defines the constructions of 'race' in South Asian contexts." It is safe to say that we should expect to see many future publications from Menon.
As excited as Menon is to explore his research further, he admits he will miss GW. "I'm going to miss all the friendships that I have made through the English major and the professors who have gone out of their way to help me through my undergraduate studies," he said. "I'm so glad that I'll only be a bus ride away, and I imagine that I'll be make many visits back to DC to see everyone!" We look forward to seeing you, Rajiv, and hearing about your research!
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Which leads me to this year's reception for graduating seniors. Every year the English Department hosts a party for our graduating seniors and their families and guests. This year's reception--mark your calendars now--will be Saturday, May 15, 1-3 p.m. in Rome 771 (and the surrounding hallways).
In years past, the primary "entertainment" for this reception has been a brief congratulatory speech by the Department Chair. I know many of you are eager to hear my reflections on your GW experience and the meaning of commencement ("It's not the end, it's a beginning"). But I am hoping to supplement my talk with some alternative entertainment: in particular, a modest graduating senior Poetry Out Loud.
So: I am looking for two or three students (preferably seniors; or at least people who enjoy being around seniors and who will be here on May 15) to volunteer to recite a favorite poem of their choosing at our reception. You don't have to be a slam specialist, just someone who is up to memorizing a piece (cheat sheets permitted--for once!) and reciting it for us.
Send your names and, if you have them, your ideas for specific poems, to me by April 15. But why mark your calendar? You know you want to do this, so email me now: firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday, March 29, 2010
This is an image that has been circulating online since last week, when The New Yorker magazine posted it on its blog. [Click here for a link to the White House Flickr site, where you can see a huge image of the same.]
As an English professor and as someone who loves to be edited (nothing beats someone making your own prose even better), I thought this was pretty fascinating. Clearly, our President is also Editor-in-Chief. More important, it illustrates what goes into any polished piece of writing: rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. It's reassuring to know that even boy wonders such as presidential speechwriter Jon Favreau (born in 1981) have to submit to the process of having their work parsed so closely. But as all good writers know, good writing rarely happens on the first draft. Sometimes the key to being a good writer is being a good self-editor.
One blogger suggests that college papers ought to come back to students looking like this. I disagree. Much as I love it when someone edits my work, I also know that English professors aren't copyeditors--far from it--and that this sort of marked-up page makes many students queasy with anxiety and dread. Good writing, especially of the analytical variety that English courses demand, demands good thinking. Good writers, in my experience, are always asking themselves: Is this the best way to say this? Does this transition make sense? Does this strategy of organization make the most impact? Are there sentences that I love that just have to go?
In any case, next time you feel disappointed with someone's reading of your work, consider: You could have handed in your paper/essay/poem/short story/memo to our meticulous President.
Friday, March 26, 2010
This just in from Joseph Fisher, who earned his Ph.D. in English in May 2007:
Since earning his degree, Joe writes, he has been "purchasing music in massive quantities—something I had to curtail during my years in graduate school. I have also used the very modest amount of spare time I have been granted since emerging from the Gelman cubicles to begin honing my skills as a music studies scholar, which is an interest I’ve had since (at least) my undergraduate years, when I worked briefly as a music reviewer for my college newspaper."
Joe's article on the rise of MP3 culture, “Loneliness Is a Cool iPod. . . Happiness Is a Warm Album Cover," recently was published on PopMatters.com. "Though I do proudly own an iPod," Joe writes, "I am suspicious of the way that the contemporary music media have almost universally idealized the distribution of MP3 files at the expense of cassettes, CDs, and other “outdated” physical mediums (not vinyl, of course!). Though I acknowledge that the article has some fairly pronounced Luddite overtones, I certainly won’t complain if any of this blog’s faithful readers decide to Tweet, or Facebook, or Share the article!
Joe has also been collaborating with Brian Flota, another GW English Ph.D., and currently an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University, on an anthology about the politics of post-9/11 music. In a former blog post on their collaboration, Joe and Brian described themselves as "two of the department's most handsome students." (This blogger will not offer additional commentary, except to note that the English Department has a high percentage of handsome people among its faculty, staff, graduate students, and majors.)
Joe, whose dissertation on addiction narratives engaged with core issues in disability studies, is currently a Learning Specialist at GW's Office of Disability Support Services.
Many authors' works are autobiographical, but Dara Horn is glad her own life does not inspire her novels. "I'm happy my life would make a crappy book. You don't want to live the kind of life that would make a great novel," she said during her visit to JLL yesterday. However, just because Horn's novels are not taken from her quotidian life does not mean that they are irrelevant to contemporary society. You may be confused here for Horn mostly writes historical fiction, yet her reason for writing historical fiction may not be what you expect. She said, "Books are about the time in which they are written, not the time in which they take place." Her latest book All Other Nights, a Civil War espionage drama, was inspired by the polarization in the US today. "It's impossible to talk about current events without knowing other people's opinions already or being willing to get into a fight," she said. Horn noted how many of the political divides today, such as red and blue states, are remnants of the Civil War.
More importantly, the Civil War offers a degree of moral ambiguity that Horn found fascinating to write about. "I find it boring to write about the Holocaust. In fiction it's like shooting fish in a barrel. You have your good and evil," she said. "I was interested in the ambiguities of the Civil War." There is no question that the Confederacy did deserve to lose the Civil War in Horn's novel, but she was interested in exploring the individuals found on both sides of the war. Horn's book is unique in the popular genre of Civil War novels. "Civil War literature falls into one of two categories. The largest and most popular category is the novel about nostalgia for the old South. Other Civil War literature shows the horrors of slavery," she said. "I was interested in showing something that had to do with humanity on both sides."
Horn had to be very specific in choosing the right type of character to explore both sides and this character had to be Jewish. Horn stated how most Americans during the Civil War led agrarian lives that did not include much travel, but the American Jewish community was different. She said, "They were running businesses, and you cannot run a business in one place. You need to network. Their lives were similar to Americans' today so they were much easier to relate to. They knew people across the country." Horn's protagonist Jacob Rappaport is the son of a Jewish businessman, and it is only because of his father's business connections in the South that he is able to spy for the Union during the war.
Jacob is not just a Jewish spy though; he is a direct incarnation of Jacob from Genesis,according to Horn. Horn uses Jacob to express the emancipation story in the Bible, within America. She found some parallels between the two identities. "Jewish and American culture are based on the rule of law. America has the Constitution and Jews have the Torah. But there is a very important difference in the way they view time and identity," she said. "The myth of identity in America is that your parents don't matter, you can create your own identity. But Judaism says all Jews were at the bottom of Mount Sinai, so all Jewish identity is drawn from the past and American identity is drawn from the future." Horn believes the two cultures can blend though. She said, "I wanted to express the purpose of freedom in this country. The freedom to create your own destiny. Freedom is about having the ability to freely choose your obligations." This is hard lesson for Jacob to learn, but one that he finally comprehends by the end of the gripping novel.
Horn is not trying to combine Jewish and American culture in just this novel, but all of her writing. A self-proclaimed dork, Horn is an academic before a writer; she has a Ph.D. in comparative literature, with concentrations in Yiddish and Hebrew. Naturally this interest in Jewish languages led to an interest in literature when she was a teenager. "I was curious as to what happens to the interaction [between Judaism and literature] in modern literature," she said. At the time the only author that focused on this intersection between the two worlds was Cynthia Ozick, but Horn was determined to delve into this type of literature herself. She said, "I started writing novels in English as if English were a Jewish language." Horn takes the language in her books from ancient Biblical stories as you can note from her current novel. Horn's main goal is to, "take Jewish texts and write them for an American audience." From her novel, I can say she has succeeded in this.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
On Friday April 2, 11:30 a.m. - 1:30 p.m., in Rome Hall 771, American University Professor Richard Sha will present his paper on "Italian Science, Electricity, and Frankenstein." Sha is the author of Perverse Romanticism: Aesthetics and Sexuality in Britain, 1750-1832. Lunch will be provided. Rsvp to Amber Cobb-Vasquez (email@example.com) by Friday, March 26.
On Friday May 7, 3-5 p.m., the Seminar will hold its second annual "grande finale" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art and Design. This year the featured speaker will be Barbara Gates, the Alumni Distinguished Professor of English and Women's Studies at the University of Delaware and author of, among many other works, Natural Eloquence: Women Inscribe Science and Kindred Nature: Victorian and Edwardian Women Embrace the Living World. Professor Gates will present an illustrated lecture titled "Of Fungi and Fables: Beatrix Potter's Science and Storytelling." More details will follow, but please mark your calendars now.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Author Dara Horn will be visiting GWU this Thursday! She will stop by Faye Moskowitz's Jewish Literature Live class in the afternoon. In the evening she will be holding FREE reading at 7pm in the Marvin Center 3rd Floor Amphitheater. Come to hear the talented and charismatic author of The World to Come and All Other Nights.
Monday, March 22, 2010
Get to Know Your TA: Nedda Mehdizadeh
We have all seen the television commercials for the Sylvan Learning Centers, the national tutoring institution, but most of us did not follow up on the ad. However Nedda Mehdizadeh's first job was as an English tutor there after she saw that very same commercial we all did. When Mehdizadeh graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English she was like many students, interested in everything from journalism to film. However it was not until she started teaching at Slyvan that she found her true calling. "I remember sitting with my students and watching them work and I realized this was it," she said. Mehdizadeh appreciates the rich experience she garnered while working with such a great age range of students there, but eventually she grew tired of teaching just metaphors and wanted more.
Environment is really important to Mehdizadeh and aided her decision to attend GW. "There are a number of really brilliant universities in small towns, but I was looking at cities I wanted to live in, " she said. "So I was looking at DC and the work that Jonathan Gil Harris and Holly Dugan did." Mehdizadeh describes the graduate school at GW as one that "builds a community that works together and challenges each other." For an Early Modernist like Mehdizadeh the resources of DC such as the Shakespeare Theater Company were a major draw. It was Shakespeare that actually drew Mehdizadeh to English in the first place. She said, "I remember reading Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade and in drama class we did little Shakespeare plays that really spoke to me. The language made sense to me. I find it to be a fascinating world and the beauty of the language is intoxicating." It was never really a question that Early Modern would Mehdizadeh's area of focus after that.
However it was not just Mehdizadeh's early interaction with Shakespeare that led her to her studies today, but her own heritage. "I am Persian. My culture has always been important to me," she said. "My parents used to speak to us only in Persian. It was really important to them that we learn that other part of our life." This brought Mehdizadeh to the study of Anglo-Persian relations, particularly the trade relations between England and Iran in the late sixteenth century. She elaborates to say that he research focuses on, "the ways in which England perceives Iran, translates the space of Iran, and how this conception forms their relationship with England." Not only does Mehdizadeh enjoy her studies, but it has also connected her to her culture more. She said, "I've gotten even closer to my culture and roots. It's about learning my history and the language."
One of Mehdizadeh's other passions is traveling, so it is fitting that she recently traveled to Iran (before the elections). "I'm fascinated by people and their cultures," she said. This fascination also extends to her love of food (Zaytinya being a favorite restaurant of hers), museums, and theater. Although she generally does not have a lot of time for pleasure reading, Mehdizadeh is currently enjoying Zadie Smith's White Teeth. That novel is quite different from the first book that really impacted Mehdizadeh, which was Wilson Rawls's Where the Red Fern Grows. "I think I cried for two weeks after. Its so beautiful and sad."
Most of the time you will find Mehdizadeh teaching her Myths of Britain sections though. This is her second year of TAing for the course (fun fact: I was in Mehdizadeh's section last spring). "I really do love my sections," she said. "It's nice to see progress over time." The first year of teaching the sections was a great experience, but one that Mehdizadeh notes where she was in "constant panic." However this year is much different. "This time I can enjoy it and think about the literature and sit with the literature," she said.
Mehdizadeh will actually be leading the Myths of Britain lecture on John Mandeville today!
Friday, March 12, 2010
Your chair Gayle Wald wrote:
"My sense of what is "fun" reading changes depending on what's going on in my life. Sometimes I gobble up old copies of the Nation, the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. (I like that I can read an article and be done.) Sometimes I read trashy magazines: People is a favorite; any fashion mag with big photos will do. The books I read for fun are usually contemporary fiction/non-fiction. Recent books I've enjoyed: "Half of a Yellow Sun" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, "My Father's Paradise" by Ariel Sabar, "Sag Harber" by Colson Whitehead. My current "to-read" list include Berryl Satter's "Family Matters." This is work-related--it is about mid-20th-century struggles over housing discrimination in Chicago, as told through the author's family history--but it's on my list because I've heard it's excellent and because I'm just interested."
Kavita Daiya recommends Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love and is planning on reading Gilbert's follow up, Committed. She also enjoyed The Bitch in the House edited by Cathi Hanauer
Jane Shore wrote, "I plan to read Sarah Blake's novel, The Postmistress. Sarah taught Creative Writing for us two years ago. Her book has been on The NY Times Bestseller List for the past two weeks."
Christopher Sten said, "For fun, I just finished reading the novelist Haruki Murakami's What I Think About When I Think About Running. With any luck, during spring break I'll catch up on some recent issues of The New Yorker and The Economist, finish Howard Jacobson's amazing novel, Kalooki Nights, and scan the Post's coverage of "March Madness"--when I'm not grading student papers. "
Jeffrey Cohen recommends Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals, about the ethics behind eating meat. He plans to pursue the topic further by reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma over break.
H.G. Carrillo said that he reads, "Biographies of poets and visual artists--particularly those of
painters and sculptors--read like protracted issues of "People Magazine". And really the only thing wrong with "People Magazine" is that the issues are too short, hardly worth the effort of lugging them down to the beach."
Christopher Griffin will be grading papers for most of the break, but he wishes he had time to read Brooklyn by Colm Toibin and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.
Faye Moskowitz wrote, "When I am on break, I go to our condo in South Beach, so I am truly "beach reading." Within a short walk of our apartment is the South Beach Library which I mine for any latest NY Times best sellers, as long as they are not romance or vampire novels; one Anne Rice was enough for me.. I look for Booker Prize winners from Britain. And I always hope for the latest Patricia Cornwell mystery. In fact, I read a lot of mysteries, one a day sometimes."
Gina Welch recently told me that she loved Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist.
And Gil Harris maintains the stereotype that professors don't actually take time off.
"What will I be reading for pleasure this spring break? I fear there's not going to be much of that for me this time round, as I have several fierce writing deadlines looming (including one for an omnibus review of this year's scholarship in Renaissance drama), which means most of my reading will be work-related.
But if my retinas aren't destroyed by the monographs on the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, I hope to train my eyes on two other sources of reading pleasure:
1. Hilary Mantel's The Black Book, a page-turner by the author of the Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall. The latter was a bit of a disappointment for me -- maybe because I am already too immersed in early modern England with my research, and so attempts to imaginatively inhabit the minds of people from the period always falls a bit flat. (No, I'm not a fan of The Tudors.) But Mantel's Black Book -- about a spirit medium doing the rounds of contemporary suburban London -- is a more riveting read, at least so far.
2. The English subtitles for my favourite Korean soap opera, Dae Jang Geum. Set in sixteenth-century Korea, this series chronicles the trials and tribulations of a woman who rises from the palace kitchen, where she works as a cook, to become the first female physician to the King. She is at the receiving end of all manner of chicanery, skullduggery, and Machiavellian scheming. The best part is that a good half of each episode lovingly depicts the preparation of the King's food, which may or may not be poisoned. It's part Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, part I Claudius, part Iron Chef. And it's all good."
And what am I reading? Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn and José Saramago's Blindness.
Happy reading! Enjoy your break!
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
You may have seen Gina Welch running around the English Department offices in a pair of green heels. Or perhaps you caught her segment on MSNBC's Morning Joe last Thursday discussing her new book In the Land of Believers. Maybe you saw her book featured when flipping through the current issue of Oprah's magazine "O." Or you just happen to be one of the lucky students taking a creative writing course of hers. Gina Welch is everywhere lately.
Interestingly enough, the woman whose book is now on prominent display at any bookstore was too intimidated by the English department as an undergraduate at Yale that she avoided the subject almost entirely. "I felt more comfortable with a history major because it is about receiving information not interpreting it like English," she said. Welch now recognizes that her misconceptions about the English department were purely insecure. She said, "I feel like at that age I personally was so bound up in my own insecurities and my social anxieties. My priorities had not settled yet and I didn't know who I was."
Despite this lack of confidence, Welch took two creative writing courses as an undergraduate and completely fell in love with the subject. Her first foray into creative writing took place in a Yale seminar taught by Mark O'Donnell, a writer for "The Simpsons." " I was delighted with it. It refreshed this feeling I had as an adolescent in writing and telling stories," she said. Although Welch is naturally drawn to entertaining, it was not until her second creative writing course that she really felt like she could turn this passion into a vocation. Welch's advanced fiction course at Yale felt like an "invitation" into the writing world. She said, "I had always had this perception you were chosen for writing, which is foolish. There's a lot of hubris you have to have to be a writer, the 'I have a voice that needs to be heard' idea."
Welch found herself looking for more validation when she entered graduate school at University of Virginia for her creative writing MFA. Although validation may have been Welch's initial goal, she ended up learning much more. "I got an ounce of validation and a heartier helping of criticism, rigor, a feeling that I had to work hard if I wanted to be good," she said. "It wasn't that I was chosen as a writer, I had to work hard my whole life."
Despite her creative writing MFA, Welch's first job after graduate school was not directly writing related. For a year Welch taught a woman's studies class at UVA in conjunction with editing a feminist magazine called "Iris." "I really loved it, but I missed writing. It was a business job," she said. Then Welch had an idea for a book and got representation, starting a two year journey into the world of the Evangelical church.
After three years in Virginia, it was impossible to ignore the fact that Welch, an atheist since the age of six, was unlike most of the Evangelical Christian population. Growing up in the fairly secular environment of Berkeley, California led to almost a culture shock as she resided in Virginia. "To come from that environment to Virginia where Evangelical Christianity was the dominant force of the region confronted me with my own ignorance and my sneering superiority," she said. The idea to write a book that delved into the Evangelical Christian church came to fruition after George W. Bush was reelected. She said, "It was the first time I realized what a political force they were and how mobilized they were. They get together in ways the left does not seem to match." Since one fourth of the U.S. self-identifies as Evangelical Christians, Welch was certainly the minority in Virginia leading to her fascination. "There was something that seemed very imperialistic about it, but the Evangelicals I met in person were like you and me," she said. So Welch set forth to go undercover in Lynchburg, Virginia to discover the truth behind the Evangelical church.
Going undercover was a daunting experience to say the least and very few people were aware of Welch's project. "My family was concerned I was endangering myself. That I didn't know how seductive religion was and there was the moral implication of lying to people," she said. Welch's close friends wanted gossip though. She said, "That sort of curiosity, the impulse to gossip, became a wedge for me. Once I started developing relationships I was less inclined." It took Welch an entire year to build these relationships she describes. Her first year in the church was akin to learning a foreign language. "My religious background is different, my politics are different, my region is different, and I had a different accent. There is a whole vernacular of belief I had to learn, " she said.
However once Welch finally figured out how the church worked, she was in too deep. There were a lot of moral issues with going undercover into a faith that Welch still wrestles with. "I was lying about what I believed and presenting myself as a Christian when I wasn't," she said. Eventually staying undercover was nearly impossible. "I had sort of a blithe willingness to mislead people about who I was...I didn't realize the depth of it and wasn't sensitive enough to regard them with true empathy. I had to grow, I was forced to grow," she said. "Once I developed I started to realize how reckless I was being and had to leave."
The process of leaving the church was traumatic for Welch. "I knew that leaving would be the beginning of the reveal for what I'd done. I knew I was going to be accountable for all the lies I'd told," she said. "It made me feel like I had been a bad person." This inherent "wickedness" Welch felt, made writing the actual book difficult for a long time. Welch was forced to write about those she had befriended. "I had been taking notes without their knowledge and writing about them without their knowledge." It took Welch a full six months to seriously start writing the book. In May of 2008 Welch had a finished draft and with multiple overhauls and edits the book is now published and being sold and discussed everywhere.
Of course Welch is doing a whirlwind of interviews right now. You can read her at the Huffington Post, The Kalamazoo Opinion, and Statesman.com. Welch's website, with links to her blog and more information on her book, can be found here. Also Welch will be having a reading at Politics and Prose this Saturday at 1pm. And please come to her reading with Romola D, which has been moved from this Thursday to April 21th at 7pm in the Marvin Center 310.
Friday, March 5, 2010
There is a running joke in Jewish Literature Live that despite the course title no author will admit they are a Jewish writer. Typically most authors frown when posed the question of authorship and spend the next five minutes refuting the Jewish label. However yesterday's afternoon with Gabriel Brownstein marked a turning point in the course. Brownstein lit up when asked the fundamental question, "Are you a Jewish writer?" "It's a very good question. I like that question. It's a very Jewish question. Judaism was the in for me," he said.
The protagonist of Brownstein's fascinating and fun novel The Man from Beyond, Molly Goodman, is a young Jewish newspaper reporter in New York City in the 1920s working on a story about the feud between Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini over spiritualism. Naturally the story of the friendship between the two men was a goldmine for fiction, but how to approach this story was another question. Brownstein admitted that the first draft of the novel did not even include Molly, but soon she became a crucial element to explain the uncertain time period that was the 1920s. Writing a female protagonist was a stretch for Brownstein, who joked he is still a twelve year old boy at heart, but by making her Jewish, a world he knew, he was able to have a closer understanding of her. Brownstein noted that his protagonist needed to be, "put in the the most unstable time period, to put her in the most unstable time period she had to be a woman, and to be an assimilated Jewish woman- there's no path for that," he said. "There is nowhere for her, she was unmoored in the same way Houdini and Doyle were. The world was changing and there was no place for them."
Brownstein found the process of writing historical fiction "complicated." Yet when he stumbled upon the subject of the novel there was no turning back. "I was at a book sale in a church basement in Vermont and I saw a book with Houdini on it. I was totally transported by it. I was possessed." There was no question that he write the novel. He said, "Writing a book is like falling in love, no one wants it to be but you. I had to write it."
Brownstein found the most important way to get into the mindset of historical fiction is to get a sense of the physical world one is writing in. "You have to get the reader into a physical world and any kind of narrative world," he said. He found himself exploring questions such as whether the streets were paved or cobblestone at the time or if there were street lights. In some cases, he could not even imagine that world. He said, "The idea of Doyle running down 5th Avenue after a taxi cab or that he would ride in an elevator was weird to me." According to Brownstein the world changed more between 1910 and 1920 than it has in the past eighty years, which completely eradicated the world Doyle and Houdini knew. "These guys were before the invention of popular culture. It was vaudeville and short stories and suddenly they were in the world of popular culture," he said.
Assimilation was key for Brownstein's characters in order to remain relevant in society. "The question of spiritualism is related to Jewishness in terms of assimilation," he said. However, in his case, Brownstein is almost too assimilated to understand how or why he is a Jewish author. "I do come from a Jewish world...There is always a fight in my family about Jewishness." Overall Brownstein finds the question of spirituality and Judaism very "vexed." However he does note a natural connection between the two. He said, "When I was a kid, Judaism was totally magical. It was like a wizard room with men with beards. I thought the Hebrew incantations were something beyond." When Brownstein was fourteen he discovered Houdini was Jewish, originally named Eric Weisz. "A changed name is so Jewish. To change the name is hiding, but it's like hiding to reveal," he said.
On the contrary, Brownstein is not hiding anything. As a writer he fully invests himself in the world he is creating, Jewish or not. "I want to be in that world and to bring other people into that world is my fundamental goal as a writer," he said.
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
When you talk to most professors in the English department they profess that reading became an obsessive hobby from an early age. However Ramola D could not stop at reading books, she had to write them too. "I couldn’t read for long without itching to put the book down and write my own stories and poems," she said. However, throughout much of her life in India she could not pursue this interest directly and instead found reading and writing a hobby. "Reading was always an impassioned experience, it kept me going through my degrees in science and business—libraries were my escape route to freedom and the other worlds in books," she said. " I remember all the hidden-away armchairs, open windows, drawn blinds, scratched-up desks, dim lighting, slants of sun and musty stacks in libraries I have loved--reading helped situate me mentally as a writer."
Ramola found herself informed in some way by every author she ever read. She said, "I’ve learned syntactic effect from Hemingway, the power of voice and image from Joyce, fluidity in narrative from Scott Fitzgerald." Today she cites the works of Marguerite Duras, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Faulkner, Janet Frame, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Sandra Cisneros, Toni Morrison, Kate Braverman, and Carole Maso as particularly illuminating.
Ramola's recent interests have coincided directly with the creative writing courses she teaches. As a writer of fiction reflecting on "the bicultural aspects of immigration" and "historical characters within a colonial setting battling a pervasive imperialism," she is currently in dialogue with authors who discuss the same topics. She said, "I’ve been drawn to exploring strongly-voiced narratives of difference, from characters who experience dislocation of sorts, often by way of migration or by way of being in a statistical minority in a given cultural setting, I am drawn to the work of writers tackling these issues." Ramola has been interviewing Lan Samantha Chang, Junot Diaz, and Sandra Cisneros. She has brought these transcripts to class and gained thought provoking discussion from it.
Teaching creative writing has benefited Ramola enormously. She believes that discussing readings keeps the literature "alive." "Reading the poems and stories I love when teaching a class brings the work back to me in a fresh and vital way—it keeps those writers in front of me, not just in a distant memory from grad school days," she said. Ramola even finds a special significance to teaching ENGL 081 or Introduction to Creative Writing, through which a revival in her passion for playwriting led her to adapt a fairytale this year for a children’s theater, Classika/Synetic Theater, and also write a play around what happened in Gaza in Dec/Jan of 2008/9. In some sense, Ramola does not believe there is much difference in the writing process for a beginning writer or an experienced one. "I struggle with some of the same issues that beginning and student writers deal with on the page—issues of craft that come up with every new piece of writing... This commonality of effort means I relate viscerally to what students are striving for in their work; when I offer advice in workshop, it comes from my own experience of striving to be a better writer," she said.
Writing has been a constant throughout Ramola's life. She has been writing poetry, essays, and fiction from a young age. She found her nonfiction essay writing during her undergraduate years as a physics major helped sustain her. These first few articles were printed in local Indian papers. After her postgraduate work in journalism, Ramola found her work printed in magazines and newspapers of India. After finishing an MBA in business back in India, Ramola left for the George Mason University Creative Writing MFA program. She was unhappy to learn she would be forced to choose between fiction or poetry. "I chose poetry because I believed then I needed to learn more about writing poetry. I didn’t believe it meant I was going to write only poetry from then on—I continued to write and read fiction as well during and after my MFA," she said. However this focus on poetry led to her first book Invisible Season, which won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House prize in 1998. Ramola then turned to short fiction writing, but her fiction was almost too influenced by poetry and she found the first drafts of her latest book rejected. After reworking the collection a few years ago, she finally found a publisher—after the manuscript received the AWP Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction--in University of Massachusetts Press. However Ramola has not given up poetry. She said, "I, like most writers, am not a publisher myself (unless blogging counts), I can only write what I am driven to write and strive to publish. What gets picked up seems to define one’s profile—but I continue to write across genres."
Ramola's striving to be a better writer has led to the publication of her latest collection of short stories Temporary Lives. The book may be a collection of separate narratives, but with common themes of "women and men in constrictive situations striving to regain voice and self, and of young adolescents awakening to selfhood." She said, "The stories come from my experience as a freelance journalist in India, from memories of my school days, from old family stories and bits and pieces of newspaper articles—the voices come from women in arranged marriages that are often repressive, also working men and children kept from freedom of expression and action often by virtue of social position, caste, or gender." The book offers a wide variety of voices, featuring those from the middle class Ramola was raised in to others on the margins of society. "I’ve always believed in the intrinsic desire of all beings for selfhood and expression—it’s what I saw around me, growing up, even if this desire was often expressed as a struggle or a suppressed longing—and it is what became my subject on the page in the stories in this collection," she said.
What are you doing this summer? Avoid the boring internship or ice cream parlor job and travel to Italy for a poetry workshop instead! Professor Jane Shore will be teaching a poetry workshop this summer at Amalfi Coast Music and Arts Festival. The workshop runs from July 18-25 in Vietri sul Mare, Italy! You can learn more here and register here.
Monday, March 1, 2010
Would you like to learn more about the early modern period and to do research in one of the world’s best collections of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books? The Folger-GW Undergraduate Seminar on “Books and Early Modern Culture” is a rare opportunity to study at the Folger Shakespeare Library with experts in the field of book history and with texts that are unavailable anywhere else.
Please come to an information session on the Folger-GW Undergraduate Seminar to learn more about the seminar and how you can be part of it. Speakers will include Sarah Werner, Director of the Undergraduate Program, and four students who took the seminar in the fall: Elizabeth Dent (French and Art History), Emma Martin (English and Classics), Sean Mooney (English), and Tim Pickert (History). You’ll learn about the course, the workload, the subject, and the application requirements, as well as be able to ask questions.
Wednesday, March 10th, 4:30 to 5:30, Rome 771
Please join us for all or part of the session.
Applications for the Fall 2010 seminar are due March 31st; more information about the program and the application process can be found by visiting www.folger.edu/undergraduates or by contacting Dr Werner at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also learn more about early modern books and book history at wynkendeworde.blogspot.com. Or by clicking here to see the flyer.