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2017 Thesis Abstracts
Storytelling and the Question of Loss in Empty Air
Directed by Joyelle McSweeney
How do people cope with loss? “Empty Air,” a novelette consisting of short stories connected by an overarching narrative, seeks to answer that question. The piece draws inspiration from short stories and fairytales written by Kate Bernheimer and Kelly Link, the darkly self-‐conscious mood of the narrator in Sela Saterstrom’s The Meat and Spirit Plan, and the fabulism of Kathryn Davis’ Duplex, among other works. Themes of pain, death, and loneliness collide with dark humor and the supernatural to create a bittersweet and ultimately incomplete view of a world in which people are taken from us for seemingly no reason. The piece also employs a variety of stylistic and formatting choices in order to comment on the nature of storytelling.
At the start of the novelette, the main character, a college-‐age girl undergoing chemotherapy treatment, is visited by an apparition. He begins telling her the stories that make up the bulk of the piece. His motives are hazy at first—does he want to corrupt her? Steal her soul? Hasten her death?—but eventually become clear. The main character finds herself caught up in the action of storytelling as well. While he originally came to affect her, the apparition is also changed by this telling.
APPALACHIA PUMA BOOM
Directed by Nan Da
Virginia is my home and it is dying. Growing up in a mall-infested suburb, my family and I rebelled against local culture by driving out to any state park we could find. After my parents moved to the Northwest to follow my father’s job opportunities, Virginia’s beaches and countryside remained spiritual havens for me. Yet what I miss most about Virginia are the Blue Ridge Mountains. I have lost track of the days I’ve spent immersed in the Appalachian forest that grazes Virginia’s edge. Now, they seem to be numbered.
Environmental protections and coal industry regulations are suffering hit after hit under the new presidential administration. The National Parks Service is currently facing massive budget cuts. (Calfas) Mining corporations, which have already done unspeakable damage to Appalachia’s physical and political structures, are recovering once-curtailed freedoms to exploit the region’s resources. (Henry) The wastelands created through mountaintop removal are likely to spread across Appalachia until very little of the wilds are left. In the wake of such destruction, locals suffer the most. They weather clean water shortages, abusive business practices, and forced relocation.
(Freeman) In such a way, I am lucky to be only an indirect victim of this phenomenon. While the personal pain and long-term environmental repercussions may hurt me, I have the luxury of dealing with them on my own terms and ignoring them when they become inconvenient.
Gabriel (a novella)
Directed by John Duffy
Gabriel attempts to articulate the sensations of cultural displacement and unveil the link between language and perceptions. The inspiration for the novella comes from the estrangement the author feels from her mother tongue – Chinese. As she gradually came to use English on a daily basis and even think and dream in English, she discovered many Chinese words that she could not translate into English. Further, she realized the great impact of “thinking in Chinese” had on her outlook on life. Other inspirations include reading Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, Chinua Achebe’s No Longer At Ease, and E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View. Each book narrates the feeling of displacement and decomposes the idea of foreignness and coming of age.
Gabriel begins by introducing a recent executive order in America in an effort to limit the growing influence of Chinese immigrants in the country. The order dictates that no Chinese language can be heard in public places. The order, however, was not successful in stopping Chinese students coming to America. Instead, it created an explicit power imbalance between China and America. As a result, more Chinese students came to America to study in hope of a potentially brighter future. As a side effect, many Chinese parents also banned Chinese from their homes in order to let their children live in an immersive English environment and get a head start for their future lives in America.
The novella features three main characters. River, or He (her Chinese name), is an undergraduate English major. She has an exceptionally good English accent. Her parents belong to the normal middle class and are not planning on sending her abroad to study. Her boyfriend, Gabriel, is a goal-oriented and smart Chinese guy. Gabriel’s parents have always wanted Gabriel to go abroad and only allow him to speak English at home. David is a black American college student and a devout Catholic River later meets in America. River followed Gabriel to America and went through a series of self-searching events on a yearlong college exchange program. While the novella is about River’s choice between two guys, it is also about her choice between two cultures and two ways of living.
River’s nostalgia stemmed partly from her inability to map meanings and emotions inherent in the Chinese language onto English. For example, River understood the concept of “home” differently – In Chinese, home is “故乡,” literally translated as, a place one will die. The differences in the two languages reshaped River’s perception of the world, exposed her to all kinds of cultural confusions, and consequently changed her outlook on life. To demonstrate these untranslatable sensations and words, the beginning chapters in the novella are named after Chinese words that cannot be translated into English. As the story progresses, River starts to think in English and the chapters are thus named after English words that cannot be translated into Chinese.
The other key theme in the novella concerns the often-overlooked factor in learning a language – accent. River, having an “almost perfect” American accent, took it as a natural advantage to blend in the American society whereas Gabriel, with a thick Chinese accent, had a hard time motivate himself to truly blend in. Although the difference in their accents did not matter to the listeners, it had created for the speakers themselves a sense of inequality in their ability to be “real Americans.” River said in the novella that her sense of superiority over Gabriel was “ugly” and “superficial” yet extremely “real.” Because of her pride, River obtained confidence and a sense of duty to become more American than her fellow Chinese students. Later he broke up with Gabriel and got together with David, thinking that Gabriel was “limiting” her. The novella demonstrated for the readers how something so superficial could change one’s life trajectory profoundly. The other key themes include race, disability, and Christianity.
Towards the end of the novella, River broke up with David as she found out his parents were the ones who issued the executive order of banning the Chinese language. River’s shock and disappointment prompted her to return to China immediately. Her mother’s rejection of she dating a black guy, although unjust and wrong, was strong and unchangeable.
In the end, River’s idealistic dream of truly belonging to America was shattered and she returned to China. Gabriel followed his realistic dream of becoming a lawyer and got into the best law school in America. The novella ends on an ambiguous tone, leaving the readers to ponder on whose life they will choose, Gabriel’s or River’s. However, the title of the novella, Gabriel, indicates that it is a story about Gabriel’s life and Gabriel’s influence on River, or, it can also be understood as how River is always on the road of becoming Gabriel.
Home of the Brave
Directed by Roy Scranton
What does it mean to be brave? This thesis, a written collage comprised of short stories, essays, and poems, grapples with this question. The act of being brave can be as seemingly simple as the decision to “friend” someone on Facebook, to the more demanding challenge of standing up for something you believe in. Bravery comes into contention with the self, with the other, and with place in this thesis. For some of the voices in these sections, bravery appears less as a confrontation of something outward, than facing fears within oneself: loneliness, self-consciousness, speaking up, to name a few. Most of the numbered pieces center on a single persona, rather than a cast of voices, to illustrate an amplification of this self-awareness. Yet, simply existing among other humans presents a challenge to bravery, as in relationships, beauty standards, and even through social media interactions. Finally, it takes courage to enter into places that seem unfamiliar, even if that place was once a home. By weaving in and out of the self, the other, and place, Home of the Brave keeps asking: Who am I? Who are you? Where do we belong? This thesis seeks to ask more questions rather than to answer, to probe rather than assert.
The numbered sequencing of each story, essay, or poem became essential for the content of this thesis. Although the theme of bravery acts as a unifier across each numbered section, the collage style allows for an expansion of ideas across many subjects. This multiplicity of thoughts under the umbrella of one idea became the framework for this thesis; the seemingly disparate ideas within each fragment become one, continuous flow. Though the numbers might appear as a breakage that agitate this unity, the list-like appearance requires that the reader keeps moving forward, and trusts that the moving pieces are connected. Thus, a collective experience is revealed: even though many of the stories focus on a singular, individual voice, both the title and format suggest an experience of “we.”
The Goddess and the Girl
Directed by Orlando Menes
The Goddess and the Girl emerged in the empty spaces of representation in the fantasy genre. Repetitiveness within the genre is perpetuated in part due to its obsession with tropes of light and darkness. The good guys use light to fight the evil darkness. And the good guys, more often than not, are white, male, and heterosexual. From this contrarian spirit of challenge emerged Sina, goddess of darkness, who is none of the above. She refuses to accept tradition for tradition’s sake. Why, she asks, have we ever needed more than one hero? Why does evil resurface—and why do we let it?
In seeking to answer these questions herself, Sina investigates the unexplored and subsequently falls to the Human Realm, losing her divine powers of darkness. Under the unrelenting sun, solar panels overheat. Crops shrivel. Daytime dominates. Sina seeks a means of return to the Divine Realm in order to return to her powers and restore balance. She fights her superiors in the Divine Realm, refuses her benefactors in the Human Realm, and ignores orders in the Sand Temple. Her path soon crosses with Darcy, a sandship mechanic who trusts with a gravity Sina cannot fathom.
Convention, it appears, must first be adhered to before it can be subverted. The Goddess and the Girlconsequently weaves between established fantasy convention and conscientious subversion. Swords and gore are replaced by the violence of mistakes and the unknown (save for two well-placed punches). The Goddess and the Girl is part 1 of a longer novel, one that plugs its ears at the mention of fate, barrels into queer romance, and pokes holes in leaking traditions. This work is for those who only saw themselves reflected in minor characters, whom the narration never cared to follow.
Directed by Valerie Sayers
Inhabiting a world where people with wings exist but are scorned, young orphan Elias is ostracized by his peers for his golden, red-tipped plumage. As he bounces from home to traveling circus, he discovers both the immense hope which kindness can provide and the shattering agony which stems from misplaced trust. Prominent figures in Elias's life may fade away, but their effects on him linger.
The novella will focus on Elias's talents and struggles, on the formation of his values and traits in a culture that has already decided his identity and worth. It will encounter instances of abuse, contemplations of self-worth, and questions of inevitability. Being spurned and ignored for an integral part of himself will force Elias to face the fear of whether the rest of him even matters in the wake of how society treats him. In the end, he will face an impossible choice, a choice that might allow him to see whether he is more than just his wings, but at the cost of everything he believes about himself.
These topics, in particular the struggle between who you are to yourself, who you are to the world, and who you might become, are increasingly relevant in a society that forces us to consider everything we do in the context of how it may be construed. We also see Elias's loneliness, the way he is treated, and a bitter taste is left in our mouths, while it may be more difficult to recognize that same mistreatment in a world we have grown up in.
Magical realism will inject a sense of fantasy into this nearly-real universe with an alternative history. It is primarily targeted toward young adults, with the intention that it also challenge the genre. While almost whimsical in some moments, the novella also tackles tough issues that require a serious tone sprinkled with dark irony. Scenes of abuse and abandonment are made all the more distressing by the contrast with moments of levity.
Elias embodies anyone who has struggled with identity, worth, or self-acceptance.
Bosom, Water, Tomorrow
Directed by Joyelle McSweeney
Bosom, Water, Tomorrow is a collection of concentrated poems that bite and choke, forcing the reader to be caught and drowned in a surreal underwater world brimming with grotesque and unnatural imagery. These images, along with the subjects of “I”, “Mother”, and “Daughter” are cycled and recycled, hovering around death and rebirth. Each subject encompasses a cacophony of identities committing grotesque and muted violence that is circulated through the collection. The poems include many different styles and forms, including a screenplay and a fairy tale, that sometimes narrated with a childlike voice that ebbs like the tide. It is my sincere hope that these poems evoke strong emotions from my readers, whether they are of disgust, sorrow, etc. My poetry is an additional fragment of the history of the silence and gagging of the female experience. I’ve been influenced by the poets Kim Hye-soon, Sylvia Plath, Kim Yi-deum, Chelsea Minnis, and Cynthia Cruz to name a few. All I can say as words of advice are: get ready for the stench of death.
A Ghost Whispers in the Night, and Other Collected Stories from HO LYWO D
Directed by Johannes Göransson
After years of national political turmoil and environmental disaster, Southern California has become a deserted wasteland, constantly threatened by wildfires and choking on its own smoky sky. Elle and Risalah are two friends struggling to survive in this environment, their one source of fresh water coming from a man who exchanges water for stories in a nearby grocery store. Risalah is determined to figure out the story collector’s operation, and in stumbling upon the truth, the girls are forced to flee from their makeshift home. As they are about to begin their journey, a terrible earthquake rocks Southern California, and afterwards the girls struggle with increasing hallucinations as they try to escape from the story collector and the country.
All the while, a girl is creating a story, begun in her youth and now coming back to be worked on again; the girl struggles as she begins to operate on it, one surgical incision at a time. And this is of deepest concern for the characters of the story: at the core, they must grapple with the way stories affect and shape humanity, even after the world has ended. For it is through stories that the story collector creates his enticing business, and it is also through stories that he poisons the minds of his customers. The present, the past, and the spaces in between are stitched together in a collage of legend, memory, narrative, fairy tale with no morals, and metafictional text. The current political climate acts as the springboard for this projected future America. Fascist political ideology and climate change loom quietly over the story, and it is into this time of polarization, violence, and transformation that the reader is thrown, recognizing yet not recognizing the landscape, sensing the uncanny. And it is in this space of the uncanny that ghosts appear and thrive, where what was thought to be impossible in the free, civilized world is, in fact, already underway.
Directed by Valerie Sayers
Two years after family trauma fractured Ursula Clark’s life permanently, she remains caught in a healing process that has proven more cyclical than progressive. Arrived back on her living room sofa after measures to evade grief using the distance and busyness of archeological studies became exhausted, Ursula finds herself caught in a moment in which she must understand stasis as both trauma and solace, both frustration and hope. Ursula copes with her regained inertia by directing her empathy and her escapism toward the local. An invitation from a childhood friend gives her an opportunity to fulfill an old dream: a voyage by hot air balloon offers to literally unmoor Ursula while she simultaneously confronts the intersection of history and future through reconnection.
Of interest in the thesis, which serves as the opening of a longer work, is the project of the individual imagining, articulating, and achieving goals and changes within the mind at the level of diction to construct a private reality. Ursula is a lifelong logophile and the child of a culturally hybrid bilingual family. In the piece, her enthusiasm for wordplay evolves into a coping mechanism for her grief that begs the linguistic level of the narrative for flexibility and reprieve from laws grammatical and rational. Denial and escapism permeate the linguistic register. Perhaps paradoxically, Ursula uses her singularly individual vocabulary, which incorporates features of at least three non-English languages regularly, to distance herself from the quality of being an individual with individual pain. Ursula’s narrative investigates, extends, and manipulates a curiosity reported often by bilinguals that bears on the speaker’s sense of identity: a tendency to view the world differently in different languages. Haphazardly, Ursula seeks out the destabilization that accompanies the space of translation to cope with the isolation of grief.
She seeks refuge in being subsumed by the world at large – catharsis in collective experience – by collecting the stories and the languages of unfamiliar cultures. By broadening her linguistic possibilities to be fluid and all-inclusive, she hopes not only to convince herself that her personal grief has an insignificant weight, but she also hopes to retrieve – or recreate – a less troubled world. The plural register that she seeks to join is, however, not without its own problematics. The self may not be so simply shed; the text investigates whether semiotics – words themselves – have actual potential to disturb what Ursula understands as reality and whether individual healing from grief and fracture can healthily proceed through self-negation.
SEVEN STORIES: SEVEN SHORT STORIES AND A CRITICAL INTRODUCTION
Directed by Orlando Menes
Trying to understand how people communicate is one of the central projects of fiction, in part because stories themselves are communicative vehicles. Presently, communication—broadly speaking—is at a crossroads. People have more means of communication, yet it seems as if these means of communication have only made it easier to obscure “truth” rather than discover it. But this idea leads to important questions whose answering seems necessary to understand how people communicate. What is “truth?” Is there such a thing as “truth?” Is it possible to communicate authentically? There are many more, and discerning which questions to ask is a task unto itself.
Not necessarily answering, but exploring these questions is something fiction has unique ability to do. Partly because stories are communicative vehicles, but also because of the relationship between writer and reader. In Seven Stories, I approach these questions while paying attention to how writer and reader interact through text. Each story deals with successes and failures of communication, oftentimes leading to more questions than answers.
The Post-Digital Poet: Subjectivity Construction and Democracy in the Work of Tao Lin, Steve Roggenbuck, and J. Jennifer Espinoza.
Directed by Johannes Göransson
This paper engages with poetic subjectivity construction done through online personas, where online life becomes a poetic performance. Poets like Lin, Roggenbuck and Espinoza interact directly and humbly with their audiences online and through social media, attempting a democratic project that is always grasping horizontally. They seek to break through the solitude that seems to characterize digital life even as the internet provides new possibilities for community formation. In doing so, these artists reject institutional hierarchies and embrace poetry as self-determinative, opening it up to the development of new genres.
Roggenbuck links poetry up to capitalism by attempting to make it spreadable, creating innovative poetic content like improv poetry videos and image macros. Lin responds to the depression and banality of real life with relativism and turns to life online, where a world can be constructed around one’s own perspective. Espinoza explores the possibilities of such identity construction, which often involves violence toward the online persona, around gender. While all three revel in portraying the “lowness” of daily life, she, a trans woman poet, goes so far as to embrace trash.
Through my analysis of these poets’ work, I argue that the recent critical attention given to the presence of sincerity and irony in contemporary poetry emerges from poets’ attempts to navigate the invisible nature of digital mediation. I make the claim that the persona has become the organizing point for poetry online, emblematic of a cultural shift away from institutional verticalities and towards affect and horizontality. Nonetheless, the democratic project that the internet and these poets purport to perform, embracing a DIY aesthetic and a willingness to fail, is ultimately incomplete. The transformative potential of the internet is tempered by its propensity to reproduce existing power structures and privilege, reflected even in the widely varying critical and popular reception granted to these respective poets.