Essays

Crossing the Void: Grieving and Transformation

Lara Bardsley reflects on the value of collecting “familial stories of loss, trauma, separation, suicide, and genocide” for her research. Beautifully capturing her feelings of loss upon her PhD submission, she notes the “transformative power of witnessing our stories” she has gained during the PhD, which she carries with her in her professional career.

When I finished my PhD, I fell into a hole, a descent that was unplanned, too long unwitnessed and incomprehensible for many (including myself), who expected the completion to come as a celebration. I have been present to stories of suffering and transcendence in my twenty-two years as a psychologist and supervisor, but my PhD had offered me a unique experience: to turn my attention to my own stories and reflect upon them as an artist and researcher, using the language of film, life writing, photography and fine art. Immersed as I was in the stories that emerged when I asked, “What does it mean to know who we are?” I did not expect that I would feel such a loss when it was over. Continue reading “Crossing the Void: Grieving and Transformation”

Essays

Gutters of Relationality and the Visibility of Vietnamese American Experiences in Bao Phi’s A Different Pond

Thai Luong discusses how Bao Phi’s autobiographical picture book, A Different Pond, resonates with his own experiences and memories. Examining illustrations, gutters, and silences in the book, Luong shows that the text invites members of the Vietnamese American community to identify with its representation of the challenges of life in a new country.

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In the autobiographical picture book, A Different Pond, written by Bao Phi and illustrated by Thi Bui, Phi recalls a fishing journey with his father after they moved to Minneapolis at the end of the Vietnam War. On this fishing trip, the young Phi learns about his father’s traumatic involvement with the Vietnam War and the family’s struggle with poverty and adjustment to America—themes central and visceral to most Vietnamese American refugees and immigrants who are adjusting to a new life in America.

Reading A Different Pond as a Vietnamese American, I felt a close bond with Phi’s story and his struggles with his experience in America. Although Phi’s book is autobiographical, I felt as if he was writing a chapter of my life, too. This relationship between the reader (myself) and Phi amplifies the book’s themes of family and immigration. G. Thomas Couser and many life-writing theorists have argued that self-representational genres are relational, that they represent lives of others beyond the author’s own intention. I expand Couser’s definition further by exploring Leigh Gilmore’s definition of “representativeness”—that is, how one’s trauma can represent another group’s experience, which Gilmore describes as the “intertwining of individual and collective representation that demonstrates the close relation between representing yourself and participating in a representative structure in which one may stand for many” (19). A Different Pond operates as a dual representation of both the author’s experience and the reader’s by depicting the Vietnamese Americans’ experiences of immigration, war, and adjustment to life in America. Continue reading “Gutters of Relationality and the Visibility of Vietnamese American Experiences in Bao Phi’s A Different Pond”

Essays

Crossing the Void: Uncertainty and Self-Doubt vs Finding Joy in Research

Ana Belén Martínez García talks about the difficulties of a self-funded PhD, marriage, and the road to tenure. She refers to the importance of mentorship and her turn from medieval literature to the study of human rights life narratives of young refugee women. In a beautifully reflective tone, Ana shows why this kind of life writing matters to her, both in relation to her role as an academic and beyond it.

Life as a young scholar is full of questions: “Is this the right choice for me? Am I prepared to handle the pressure of a scholar’s life?” I believe many of us start our career course with these unanswered questions in mind, and given the nature of the PhD they intrude in our thoughts every now and then. I asked myself similar questions while writing my PhD but I could not find anybody who was able to provide any answers. I therefore pushed forward on my own, but had doubts that I would have liked to express at the time. Now, I feel I ought to share them with colleagues in a similar situation. This blog series presents me with both an opportunity to voice a little bit of that story, but also a challenge – it is quite a personal story. As such, readers beware – digressions and flashbacks are inevitable. Continue reading “Crossing the Void: Uncertainty and Self-Doubt vs Finding Joy in Research”

Essays

Crossing the Void: The Constructive Wilderness that Is Post-Submission

Sarah Lightman presents the experience of the void from the perspective of a woman who also happens to be a successful cartoonist and a mother. Having just submitted her PhD thesis, Sarah explains how she balances the needs of her son, her artistic creativity, and her scholarly output. 

It has been three months since I submitted my thesis, Dressing Eve and other Reparative Acts in Women’s Autobiographical Comics, to the University of Glasgow. Since then, my busyness has been tempered by the sense of a vacuum, or, rather, a space of gestation. And in this no-woman’s-land before graduation, I have a thesis written, but not published; submitted, but not viva-ed; and I am still a student, yet am not studying. But I also planned in advance for this time, with a lSarah Lightman Drawingong list of academic and non-academic projects: books to co-edit, journal articles to finish, a beginner’s yoga class to attend, contemporary galleries to visit, and a CD of children’s songs to record for our synagogue. I have done some teaching and I continue to work with Nicola Streeten, and others, on Laydeez Do Comics, the foremost comic forum in the UK now, with branches worldwide, and I host in my home an artist salon, Salon 16, for women artists. In addition, my home life makes continuous demands on me. I still have to make breakfast and a packed lunch for my three-year-old son, and keep ahead of all his plans for the upcoming term – football, ballet, and a flu injection. So, whilst the PhD was a project, a big, important, time-greedy self-development project, it was never my whole life, and its completion would not leave me bereft. Continue reading “Crossing the Void: The Constructive Wilderness that Is Post-Submission”

Essays

Crossing the Void: Importance of Community and Perseverance While Riding on the PhD Boat

Ozlem Ezer writes of her experiences of both the PhD process and the post-submission period in Canada, the US, Cyprus, and Sweden, stressing the usefulness of supportive communities in these two periods. Describing her journey through the PhD and “across the void,” she explains that it is okay to stop, to take breaks, to experiment, and to realize in the process what works best for you. 

Let me be clear: I have been skeptical about “support groups” since watching Fight Club (1999) and laughing out loud. I started my PhD at York University (Toronto) in Fall 2002 and became increasingly involved in North American society since then, only to find out that support groups were really part of this culture and their extent still surpassed my imagination. In 2004, my partner and I moved to Naperville, a suburb of Chicago, where he began his full-time academic post at a community college. We didn’t know anybody in the area. I lost my York-based feminist academic circle and felt like a fish out of water. In fact, I remember coming up with a penguin metaphor in my diary. York was the sea, where I could swim fast (I finished my course work and comprehensive exams all in one year), but I was wobbling like a penguin on land in Naperville. One day, I received an email about an ABD [all-but-dissertation] support group, whose members are writing their dissertations in gender and women’s studies programs. I remembered Fight Club. I can’t recall the reasons but the support group wasn’t formed or gathered regularly. However, Michelle Morkert, a young, bright feminist ABD reached out to me, and drove to Naperville to meet me in a coffeeshop called Arbor Vitae (Tree of Life), where our friendship began. Her presence and our conversations meant a lot, and made me realize how crucial it was to have people who share the similar experiences with you. We built a strong bond despite the years and we both believe in the significance of women’s support of each other in academia as well as in other fields of life. Continue reading “Crossing the Void: Importance of Community and Perseverance While Riding on the PhD Boat”

Essays

Crossing the Void: Work Worth Doing, or How I Learned to Love the Void

Kate Browne tells how her PhD work on autobiographical dieting practices, weight loss success stories, and food journaling have influenced her online teaching and her own Facebook “autobiography-in-action.” Introducing her project, Taking Up Space, she explains how she sees her activism as a form of teaching outside academia. 

I defended my dissertation in March. In August of the same year, I decided that I would not put myself “on the market” this year, or perhaps in any other year. I blame my dissertation.

In my dissertation, I argue that autobiographical practices of dieting, which include weight loss success stories and food journaling, teach people how to live. I based my argument on Foucauldian notions of self-writing, self-care and surveillance, and put these ideas in conversation with theories from life writing, fat studies, and crip theory. My final chapter argued that teaching body-based autobiography in the undergraduate classroom can help students act as agents in their own learning processes and strengthen their self-advocacy skills. As you might imagine, critical pedagogy features prominently in this work. Throughout my dissertation, I emphasize that learning happens outside the classroom all the time and that autobiography as a site of everyday teaching and learning how to live has a substantial impact on interpersonal relationships, cultural expectations, and socialization. Continue reading “Crossing the Void: Work Worth Doing, or How I Learned to Love the Void”

Essays

Crossing the Void: Life After the PhD

This new blog series, edited by Olga Michael, addresses the challenges facing scholars upon completion of their graduate degrees. The series invites emerging and established scholars to share their experiences and advice, joining us in a conversation that devises strategies to cross the void.

It is a truism to say that a PhD is a difficult process. Indeed, we become so immersed in writing it and thinking about its completion that we might forget what comes next. The post-submission and post-viva periods are very peculiar because one enters a realization phase in which they need to come to terms with the fact that they are entering the “real world” and the struggle for job security, which is becoming more and more far-fetched in academia. Leaping from the PhD to the next stage can entail disappointment, frustration and anxiety.

This blog series is about sharing our experiences of this leap. Since we are all scholars in the field of life writing, we believe that to write about this period of our lives, daunting as it might have been or continues to be, can have positive outcomes. Writing about this struggle can help current PhD students understand what the next stage entails and thus better prepare for it. It can provide both students and early-career researchers with examples of professional pathways that do not necessarily include an academic job, familiarize them with the pitfalls of non-tenure academic positions, and provide access to our thoughts and feelings as we experience this unstable stage. Continue reading “Crossing the Void: Life After the PhD”

Essays

Playing with Self-Narrative: The Interactive (Non)Fiction of Depression Quest

Adan Jerreat-Poole reflects on how select game designers are coding their life experiences into games, while players are actively playing their personal stories into existence. She focuses on Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest as both an expression of the creator’s subjective experience of mental illness and an interactive medium that allows mad players to choose-their-own-life-narrative about depression.

“This is an amalgamation of the experiences of the developers and several people close to them,” announces the introductory page to Depression Quest (2013) a text-based empathy role-playing game (RPG) that uses interactive (non)fiction to introduce players to the lived realities of mental illness. This game is widely accessible to a public with internet access; it is free to play online and available on Steam. Depression Quest is part of an emerging genre of self-narrative which I refer to as “life-gaming”: a set of practices that includes both the process of creating games with autobiographical elements, and gamers performing self-narrative through play. Playing with self-narrative is reminiscent of what Julie Rak calls “automedia” or “automediality” and identifies as an autobiographical practice in her discussion of The Sims 3 (2015).

Scholars have coined the term “memoir boom” to describe the rise in popularity of self-narrative in the 21st century (Yagoda 2009; Couser 2012; Rak 2013). The popularity of print memoir has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in online life-writing, which Laurie McNeill (2014) and others refer to as the “memoir boom 2.0.” In Identity Technologies (Ed. Poletti and Rak 2014), McNeill and other scholars discuss a range of memoir 2.0 forms, including social media platforms such as Facebook, The Six Word Memoir, PostSecret and PatientsLikeMe. As another emerging digital genre of auto/biography, life-gaming could be understood as an integral part of this trend. Sarah Gibbons (2015) writes that disability empathy RPGs function as “educational and experiential tools designed to help non-disabled individuals understand disability” (26), and, according to Ian Bogost (2011), these games “foster empathy for…real-world situations” (19). Because of the interactive nature of the medium, the game places an onus of responsibility on the player, who becomes partially accountable for the narrative outcomes through the choices s/he makes. In Depression Quest, which explores the subjective experience of depression, the ethics of decision-making and the affective grammar of the game create an experience of what Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman refer to as “meaningful play” (2003) and Mary Flanagan terms “critical play” (2009). Continue reading “Playing with Self-Narrative: The Interactive (Non)Fiction of Depression Quest”

Essays

Lena Dunham and Sexual Violence: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” About Rape

Amanda Spallacci explores the power of life writing in relation to gender and sexuality through a discussion of Dunham’s narrative of a sexual encounter that she classifies as rape and her subsequent refusal to identify as a rape victim. Spallacci considers Dunham’s narrative vis-a-vis theories of rape culture that explain what is at stake when a person identifies as a rape victim.

Once violence and gender are put into discourse as female identity in the context of self representation, threat is no longer static and no longer a shroud of silence.

—Leigh Gilmore

Lena Dunham—writer, executive producer, and Dunham Coverstar of hit television series Girls — has recently come under public scrutiny for a troubling representation of rape in her best-selling memoir Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned.” Conservative commentators pushed against Dunham’s representation of sexual assault, characterizing the narrative as a questionable and “dishonest” testimony of a woman who “cried rape,” and called Dunham “gutless” and a “liar” (see Williamson and Nolte).

In the memoir Dunham presents a nuanced account of rape that anticipates and attempts to negotiate the suspicion and disbelief that rape testimony is often met with. Her story is narrated through a series of flashbacks spanning her childhood and college years, and which culminates in a “present day” phone conversation with her partner. These epochs come together to form a narrative that makes visible cultural influences which have, in the past, prevented Dunham from defining for herself and fully understanding what constitutes rape.

In her personal narrative, Dunham identifies the skepticism that surrounds rape testimony; the complications caused by substance abuse; the question of active and continual consent; the way in which cultural education shapes meanings and definitions of rape; and she represents the complexities of shame around sexual assault. Through testimony, Dunham reports on these repressive conditions that she has internalized, which effect the way she understands and identifies with her sexual assault; then she divorces them, by replacing these dominant discourses of rape with a nuanced and survivor based perspective, placing her on a path towards healing. Continue reading “Lena Dunham and Sexual Violence: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” About Rape”

Essays

Gender Enhancement: Performativity and Capitalism in Chuck Palahniuk’s “Frontiers”

Anna Kozak writes about how capitalism shapes gender performance and sexuality in Chuck Palahniuk’s “Frontiers” (from Stranger than Fiction: True Stories).

Chuck Palahniuk is a transgressive fiction writer notorious for his 1996 novel, Fight Club. Palahniuk Stranger than FictionWhile this novel may be viewed as a macho manual for the disillusioned male youth subculture, its author has long been experimenting with heteronormativity and performativity in his literature. Journalists have been prying into Palahniuk’s personal life since his rise to literary fame, while he constantly fights for privacy; however, in 2003, Palahniuk “outed” himself after an incident with Entertainment Weekly writer Karen Valby (Chalmers). During their interview, Palahniuk revealed his partner’s gender and then became convinced that Valby would divulge it to the public. Since Palahniuk had established his fan-base through his arguably hypermasculine novel, Fight Club, he believed that revealing his sexuality would damage his rapport with his fans. To control his sexuality’s exposure, “Palahniuk posted an angry voice diary entry on The Cult [his own] website,” disclosing that his partner is a man. The following day, Valby had not mentioned his partner when she released her article, but by that point, Palahniuk’s fans had already discovered his sexuality. Despite Palahniuk’s concerns, the majority of his fans have remained loyal over the years (Titled Forum Project).

The following year, Palahniuk published Stranger than Fiction: True Stories, his first work of non-fiction. The book may not have been a direct response to the Valby incident, but it revealed more about Palahniuk’s life than any of his previous works of literature. Stranger than Fiction contains three sections: “People Together,” which examines collectivity and conformity, “Portraits,” which are biographical snippets of other celebrities’ lives, and “Personal,” which is an autobiographical segment on the author’s experiences that influenced his creation of Fight Club. Throughout the novel, Palahniuk outlines his experiments with products that enhance the body, such as steroids and lip enhancers. My discussion focuses on the story “Frontiers,” from “People Together,” which highlights a moment in Palahniuk’s life when he uses steroids to embody hypermasculine norms. The title evokes, among other things, the notion of national boundaries, which are imagined divisions that perpetuate hegemonic power dynamics, similar to gender binaries. Examining the relationship between capitalism, gender, and sexuality, “Frontiers” critiques how consumer culture reinforces gender binaries by invoking the fear of ostracism and shame and promising to refine one’s gender performance. Continue reading “Gender Enhancement: Performativity and Capitalism in Chuck Palahniuk’s “Frontiers””