Monday, 16 January 2012

My, my. A body does get around.

Hello neglected blog! I was planning to write an entry following the completion of my dissertation, but that rolled into my trip to San Francisco, and that rolled into my interview for a BAAS Graduate Assistantship position... And now, you see, I have several exciting things to talk about. Firstly, I wanted to talk about my dissertation. A lot of people have asked me what it's about, and when I say, "William Faulkner and empathy" the follow up is a blank look. Despite the length of time that I've spent on it, it's actually difficult for me to condense it into a soundbite. I therefore thought it would be more interesting if, rather than attempting to demonstrate my whole argument, I mixed it in with why Faulkner appeals to me and how my ideas developed over the last year. This fits in nicely to everything else I have to say, too.

My dissertation is closely linked to my time at UNC. When I first began researching back in January, I was a mess. I hadn't made many friends, didn't feel like I was fitting in, and was struggling to be positive about my experiences. Despite this, I was excited to get started with my dissertation. Faulkner was already one of my favourite authors, and since I was in the South I thought it was best to stick with a Southern author. Now, a lot of people don't like Faulkner at all. I have to admit that I can't understand this. His work is challenging for sure, but I've never found it to be boring or incomprehensible. Usually I discount the first reading as a time to enjoy his use of language and "hear" the dialogue of his characters, and worry about making sense of it later. I really cannot be effusive enough about how much I love his work, it's a reading experience unlike any other. My first time reading Faulkner was my first year at UEA. I remember reading As I Lay Dying in the launderette, sitting there far beyond the time that it took my laundry to finish because I was so engrossed. I fell in love quickly, and pursued my interest in the South all through my second year. I wrote about Rockabilly, Sarah Dessen, and back to Faulkner again with The Sound and the Fury. I prepared to move to North Carolina.

I probably shouldn't admit this, but my lightning bolt moment came when I was supposed to be listening to my professor. It was the last 5 minutes of class, she was assigning us homework, and I was mulling over my increasing frustration with feeling misunderstood by those around me. I asked myself what was missing, and the word "empathy" jumped out at me. It was a relief to put a word to my struggles, and a moment later I found myself realising that that was a big part of why Faulkner was so special to me. Class ended, I sped out of Greenlaw and over to Davis Library. Tommy Nixon, a research librarian at Davis, was kind enough to talk to me for a whole hour about what he thought of Faulkner. We didn't go into great detail about empathy exactly, as I had a lot of specific research ahead of me, but my conversation with him made me sure that I was on to something great. After finishing my studies at UNC I travelled to Oxford, Mississippi, where Faulkner lived and wrote. I walked around the University of Mississippi, the town square, and Rowan Oak, Faulkner's house. It was an incredible experience for me to see firsthand where he sat and wrote on his typewriter, where he scribbled story notes all along the wall of his study (I'm not alone!), the trees he walked beneath to get to his front door. It was more than pure fascination: I felt like I had seen a piece of Faulkner the man, and it gave me confidence that I understood him, and his writing, well enough to attempt my dissertation.

Frolicking in front of Rowan Oak, June 2011

As I have already written, coming home was a difficult step for me too. I was getting my life back together after so many problems, but I had to make peace with the mistakes and hardships of my year abroad. My dissertation was the perfect project to get me through. I read John T. Matthews's Seeing Through The South (I recommend!), and came to understand the extent to which Faulkner was haunted by the past and nervous about the future. He had a vivid imagination, valued his privacy, and wanted to understand others without giving too much away about himself. He could be hilariously obstinate towards reporters, and I was constantly finding the most biting, witty interview remarks. My dissertation traced the evolution of "empathy" from a concept related to aesthetics ("feeling into" works of art), to psychology (understanding others' mental states) and to morality (to what extent we are obliged to help if we understand). I applied this to three themes of Faulkner's works in three separate novels. "Empathy and Trauma in As I Lay Dying" considered the use of form and symbolism for encouraging readership empathy for the Bundren family's trauma. "Empathy and Gender in The Sound and the Fury" examined how failing to understand each other and meet gender expectations within the family caused the downfall of the Compsons. "Empathy and the Community in Light in August" looked at outsiders vs. insiders, individual vs. community, and how Faulkner saw a society as so connected yet so fragile without empathetic action. It was a pleasure to work with my supervisor, Dr Tom Smith, who gave me such helpful guidance and politely ignored my moments of hysteria.

During the last month of my dissertation, I discovered the British Association of American Studies. I was checking out my options for going back to work in America, and one of my friends mentioned Kirsty Callaghan, a UEA graduate who was studying in the US. As many of you know I am the ultimate social network stalker, so of course I found Kirsty's Twitter and got in touch to ask about the award. I searched on Google myself, which is when I found one of the options for this year, the MA Graduate Teaching Assistantship in Southern Studies, University of Mississippi. Need you hear more? I am a Southern culture obsessive, especially when it comes to food and music, and this would be in the very town that Faulkner lived. Not only would it mean a Masters, but the opportunity to teach and even apply for an internship. So it may surprise you to hear that my first reaction was to say No. I read it through, just barely gave myself time to imagine it, then shut the window and just thought No. I said to myself that the deadline was too soon, I needed to take time out after my degree, I couldn't possibly study abroad again. However, I found myself still thinking about it afterwards, and I couldn't help but mention it to people over the next day. I even said, "I wish I could apply for this." When no one looked at me with comprehension, but with utter bewilderment, I realised I was standing in my own way and had no good reason not to at least apply. So I hurriedly asked for references, requested transcripts and wrote a personal statement. I looked at my stack of Faulkner novels, and asked him to love me back.

Before Christmas, I was invited to interview for the position on January 14th at Keele University. Slight hiccup - I was due to be getting back from America that morning, and could never make it in time. A couple of phonecalls and a depressing amount of money later I was booked onto an earlier flight. I tortured myself with practice interview questions in my head, but otherwise enjoyed Christmas with my family. It was lovely to be at home with them this year after missing last year's, despite how wonderful that was too. Naturally I got disgustingly ill in time for the new year, and opted instead to drink tea and go to bed early. I didn't sleep well for three nights in a row, and by the day of my flight I was definitely someone you'd avoid on the bus. Unfortunately those next to me for 10 hours on the plane didn't have that luxury. So there I was, with a cold, cough and sore throat, my head pounding and the repeated thought of You are going to die! You are most definitely GOING TO DIE! as is standard for every flight I have to go on. It sucks that I love to travel but am still terrified of flying. 5 hours into the flight I was feeling very hot and sick so I got up to go to the bathroom. I then fainted in the aisle, and woke up with about four stewardesses grouped around me. They gave me water and an oxygen mask and I tried my best to be amused/keep my eyes away from the emergency door. Despite the journey, my trip to San Francisco was absolutely perfect. I ate Kahlua cheesecake, spent a day in Golden Gate Park, watched an adorable pug in Dolores Park, bought a sequin trapper hat from Forever21, watched the Tar Heels win twice, drank a couple of IPAs and most importantly spent time with my favourite Southern gentleman. (Yes, someone does come before Faulkner.)

Why do I always encounter the police on my travels? Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

I was well-prepared for my interview and was therefore uncharacteristically calm. Kirsty suggested bringing along a copy of my dissertation, so I did this along with a selection of Creative Writing Society workshop plans from my time as Secretary, essays relating to the South from UEA, and a couple of projects I did at UNC. I debated bringing along my short story, "Storms and Flurries", set in Charlotte, NC, which was published by What the Dickens? magazine, but I thought it might be inappropriate for the interview. Sadly they actually did express disappointment that I hadn't brought it along with everything else, but at least it is easy to find online! Anyway, I took the advice of my friends to remember that I was already qualified enough to get the interview, and to focus on demonstrating my personality. I felt a little flustered trying to explain my dissertation, but more confident once we talked more casually about the South and why it is so interesting. In some ways I was just so pleased to have got to that point. Just a year before, I had gone through some of the most horrendous moments of my life, and there I was sitting there discussing them honestly. More than anything, I am proud to say that I have made sense of the difficulties I experienced at UNC. I feel that not having had the perfect study abroad experience has actually strengthened me for later life. It gives me confidence that I will be an observant and understanding teacher, that I will persevere through academic challenges, that I will stand up for my own needs and aspirations. I said something to this effect in my interview, though of course with about 23% of the eloquence.

Honestly, it was just nice to get to discuss all of my work and have three accomplished people be interested in what I had to say. Whether I had got it or not, I felt pleased with everything I had achieved, and very much geared up for my final semester at UEA. My parents and I celebrated our Keele roadtrip with coffee and cupcakes then drove back to St Albans. I spent a lonely hour in my room unable to talk to anyone or read anything because I was waiting for the phonecall. When it got to 5pm, I told myself sternly that I hadn't got it and that was that. Who needs academia when you can bake cupcakes and write about people sleeping with their housemate's girlfriend! (Watch out for my next short story, "Gooseberry Pie".) At 5.30pm I got a phonecall to tell me that they would like to offer me the position. I know that I said the word "wonderful" (I'm still British) and that it was difficult to listen to the rest because I was busy thinking Is this real? IS THIS ACTUALLY REAL? rather like whilst flying but altogether more pleasant. I nearly fell down the stairs, celebrated with champagne with my family (though we all paused to grimace after taking a sip; it was "matured" apparently), then called as many of my friends as I could to shriek and request that they come and visit me.

Finally I have had the perfect excuse to use my favourite Faulkner quote! I love it so much, because it perfectly sums up part of my personality and where it's lead me. In Light in August, Lena Groves pauses to consider how she has got all the way from Alabama to Mississippi and then on to Tennessee. Like Faulkner characters, I've always been obsessed with my own journey and past, mapping out where I started and how I got to this point in my life, imagining where I could go next. I mean it both literally and figuratively. I've always loved being abroad, though as a child it was usually Ireland or France. The best trips, obviously, were to America. We went to the East Coast when I was 8, and the West Coast when I was 12. I jumped at the chance to go to New York City at 16, and to travel several cities at 18. I lived there temporarily at 21, and will return again at 23. As I walked around San Francisco, a city I am completely in love with, I wondered if one day I would live there. Maybe. I still have 5 months of Norwich ahead of me, then 2 years of Oxford, Mississippi. Who knows where my reading and writing will take me next. My, my. A body does get around.

Jamestown, Virginia, August 1997