Wednesday, September 30, 2015

An English Major's Thoughts on Travel and Language

Madrid's Plaza Mayor at night
This semester, I'm taking a course on the British Romantic Period. In class a few weeks ago, my professor was talking about how although the seventeenth century was a period of greater international connectivity, there was also a simultaneous turn inwards, a growth in and shift towards nationalistic ideology. He asked the class why this might happen; one might expect an increase in interconnectedness to result in a greater sense of acceptance and a greater concern for universal well-being. What was to account for the shift towards nationalism? I raised my hand to discuss the idea that travel makes or allows you to compare that which you learn to what you have already known. In my experience, the more you turn outward, as one does through travel or as the British did through globalization, the more you are able to look inward.

For me, travel has never made me more nationalistic. Although I always learn to value both India and the United States more each time I visit a new place, the experience of travel never pushes me to strengthen my ties to either of the two. Rather, I am always reminded of the fact that I'm part of the world, that who I am is a result of where I've been and the experiences I've had due to setting. And after spending three months living in Madrid this summer, I don't consider myself more Indian or American. Instead, while I still identify as Indian-American, I now think of my heart as belonging to three placesIndia, America, and Spain.

And like I said in class, travel makes or allows you to compare that which you learn to what you have already known. For me, a big focus of my time in Spain was language. For one, I've been studying Spanish since high school and have wanted to be fluent for just as long. But I've been thinking about linguistics specifically since last spring semester, when I took Introduction to Critical Theory. I would do my readings for class in my tiny room in FSK Hall and talk about them in relation to my own experiences with English, Hindi, Gujarati, and Spanish with my roommate, who is currently working on her Japanese as she studies abroad in Tokyo for a year. That course, and the conversations it sparked both inside and outside of the classroom, made me more aware of my experiences with language and provided me with the vocabulary and academic basis for being able to think about and understand linguistics on my own, beyond just the one semester. So when I went to Spain, I was able to compare what I had known through the lens provided me by the vocabulary, structure, and function of the English language, to what I was able to learn: a more fluent, thorough understanding of Spanish.

Improving my Spanish through travel and formal education has taught me to better appreciate the languages I already know. When a new concept doesn't make sense to me from what I know about English and its structure, I have Hindi and Gujarati as a basis for greater insight. For example, the differentiation between the formal and informal forms of "you" aren't part of the English vocabulary. Whether we talk to an elder or a peer, we always use "you." In the same sense, whether we address one person or a group of people, we use the term you. We might supplement you with you guys or even yall, but our language does not include a plural form of the word.

On the other hand, Spanish allows for such a distinction. Formally, we might use "usted," and informally, "tu" is acceptable. If we address multiple people, we can use ustedes, and in Spain, the "vosotros" form also allows us to differentiate between formal and informal in the plural sense.

Gujarati and Hindi employ the same distinctions. Depending on the familiarity, age, and relationship between you and the person you are addressing, you may use tum or aap, tu or tame, tu or usted. (In fact, these languages also employ clusivity!) And while I noticed many of my monolingual peers had difficulty understanding the distinction when it was introduced to us in our first year of Spanish class, I just relied upon my experiences with Hindi and Gujarati to decide whether I would address a person formally or informally. 

But the benefits of being multilingual go beyond the academic. I was walking to class the other day with my Spotify on shuffle. I was listening to my June playlist, and since that month was my first in Madrid, I have plenty of Spanish music that I discovered while abroad. One particular lyric stood out to me and I noticed the way a singer phrased a certain idea was incredibly beautiful. But after translating it back to English, I realized that many of our idioms and metaphors are phrased the same way. In that sense, learning Spanish has taught and even allowed me to appreciate English in a way I hadn't been able to before.
Nobel Laureat Pablo Neruda

In a similar sense, there is a vast difference between reading Neruda in Spanish and reading the English translations. It's not that an entire phrase gets lost in translation, but rather an idea, a feeling, a particular connotation that adds value to the poem in a way the author intended it to. Understanding Neruda as Neruda meant himself to be understood allows me to comprehend that specific connotation and to compare how his musings on love and romance and loss can differ from what is commonly seen in American literature. And as a professor pointed out, it might be worth noting that Neruda himself took his nom de plume from the Czech poet Jan Neruda in yet another reference to intercultural translation.

Vocabulary and structure can differ from one language to another, providing a variety of lenses and concepts and modes of thinking and viewing the world. I'm so grateful to speak and understand the four that I do, and I definitely plan on learning more. I'd love to knowwhat have your experiences with language taught you? Let us know in the comments below.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Thomas Mallon Tours New Novel, Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years

(Thomas Mallon on tour last week in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Photo credit:  Robert Birnbaum)

Thomas Mallon, acclaimed novelist and former Director of Creative Writing at GWU, has just published his ninth novel, Finale, to wide critical acclaim. His account of the Reagan administration “blends his singular knowledge of political history with his limitless imagination to capture an era” (Philadelphia Inquirer).  Mallon, who received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in English and American Literature, has had a stunningly multifaceted career, the variety of which exemplifies the range of his strengths and interests. As a famed critic, novelist, essayist, and professor, Thomas Mallon has been an invaluable asset to the English department at The George Washington University.

He is currently touring with Finale, and has three events in Washington, D.C., that should not be missed:

Sunday, September 27, 5:00 pm
Politics & Prose
5015 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC

Tuesday, October 13, 6:30 pm
1517 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 
Tuesday, November 17, 5:30 pm
National Press Club’s 38th Annual Book Fair
 529 14th Street Northwest, Washington, DC

I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Mallon, who was not only incredibly knowledgeable and insightful, but also witty and personable. Like his novels, he relates fascinating, extensive political and historical knowledge in an unpretentious way that is both entertaining and accessible.

Mallon has been specifically praised for his development of the female characters in his political novels, including Nancy Reagan in Finale. He described to me how “the women tend to run away with my novels,” and argued that despite its surface harshness, his new book’s portrayal of Mrs. Reagan is intended as sympathetic.  She was a kind of raw nerve, constantly strategizing to protect her husband, eating herself alive, really.  I don’t think she had ten relaxed minutes in the White House.  Despite the famed closeness of their marriage, I don’t believe even she understood Ronald Reagan. He was a mystery that eluded even her.”

            When writing about the 40th president, Mallon had to deal with that same mystery . He found it much harder to access Reagan’s interiority than it had been to get inside Richard Nixon in his previous novel, Watergate.  “I don’t know what it says about my moral character [laughs], but I never had any trouble writing from Nixon’s point of view.  Reagan was too ungraspable. I never wrote him as a POV character.  Instead, I made use of what I learned from Gore Vidal, whom I used to edit when I was at GQ.  In his novel Lincoln, we get an entirely external view of the President; he’s seen only from other persons’ perspectives. You never go inside.”

            In terms of research, Mallon finds living in D.C. hugely advantageous. He created his comprehensive account using a wide and innovative array of source material.  Over my years here I’ve met people who served in Reagan’s administration and talked to them one on one. I did a tremendous amount of reading—memoirs, documents, newspapers.  Insofar as it’s possible, writers of historical fiction should try to eliminate the ‘middleman,’ which is to say the historian. Read less about the period and more from it.”

            Mallon took pains to fully recreate the exact historical context and setting for his novel, even traveling to Iceland in order to reconstruct the location and atmosphere of Reagan’s October 1986 summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.  “I made arrangements to explore that little white-framed house by the ocean, where the talks took place. I went to the American embassy; stayed in the same hotel that some of the arms-controllers did; talked to some of the people who’d been around almost thirty years before.  I made the trip at the same time of year Reagan did, in order to experience the same kind of light and temperatures, to get an accurate feel for what it would have been like.”

            The Library of Congress was another invaluable resource, containing as it does the public and personal papers of two important characters in the book, Pamela Harriman—leader of the Democrats’ efforts to retake the Senate in 1986—and Donald Regan, the President’s Chief of Staff and the man Mallon calls Nancy Reagan’s “mortal enemy.”

            Mr. Mallon traveled to the Reagan Library in Simi Valley California, but also made use of our very own Gelman Library, whose National Security Archive contains detailed notes from the Reykjavik summit.  “I absolutely could not have written the Iceland scenes without those records.”

            Since next spring will be the final chapter of Mallon’s time at GW, I asked about his fondest memory here.  He responded:  “Over the decade I taught here, my favorite experience was probably my Dean’s seminar on the assassination of Lincoln, a course I taught about half a dozen times.  We visited local sites connected to the event, and in addition to reading the history of the assassination, students read historical fiction about it; read poetry by Whitman and Melville and others; looked at historical paintings and Mathew Brady’s photographs; studied the symbolic architecture of the Lincoln Memorial.”

            This expertise on Lincoln will certainly continue to be put to good use, as one of the two novels he plans to work on during his retirement will take him back to the Civil War, a period he previously explored in Henry and Clara, his novel about the couple with the Lincolns in the balcony at Ford’s Theatre.  The other novel will examine more recent history, namely, the George W. Bush administration.  “That’s so recent I’m not sure it can even be called historical fiction,” says Mallon.  He will also continue writing for The New Yorker and doing his occasional “Bookends” column for The New York Times Book Review.

            Luckily for us, Thomas Mallon will continue living in Foggy Bottom, and looks forward to remaining a part of the university community.

            For more on Finale, click here to listen to last Sunday's interview on NPR's "Weekend Edition."

            Also, Thomas Mallon’s most recent piece for The New Yorker, on the legendary Washington political columnist Drew Pearson can be found be found here.

            And below is a sampling of what reviewers have been saying about Finale:

“Mallon is a poised storyteller who traffics in history’s ironic creases. His novels don’t upend conventional wisdom so much as remind us that history is a rickety architecture of human endeavor—that today’s statues commemorate yesterday’s frail and fumbling mortals . . . ‘Finale’ represents Mallon’s most audacious and important work yet . . . Mallon’s portrayal of the first lady is humane, thoroughly convincing and counts as one of the book’s triumphs.  So is his presentation of Richard Nixon, with whom ‘Finale’ opens, rather unexpectedly . . . As in his previous novels, Mallon works deftly with an ensemble cast, employing both real-life and fictitious characters … [a] galloping narrative. ”
                                                                        The New York Times Book Review

“Thomas Mallon has carved an impressive place for himself in the art of ‘historical fiction,’ a genre whose august forerunners include Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ and Lampedusa’s ‘The Leopard’ . . . Mr. Mallon has cautioned, in the author’s note to his earlier novel ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’ (1997): ‘Nouns trump adjectives, and in the phrase “historical fiction” it is important to remember which of the two words is which.’ He handles the distinction expertly, but part of the pleasure of reading him is deciding when the author is fudging historical fact. ‘Finale’ offers a certifiable slice of the recent past but teases its readers with subtle fictionalization . . . It is high-calorie stuff, and Mr. Mallon handles it with an easy mastery.”
                                                                                    Wall Street Journal

“The kind of novel Washington loves . . . anchored in historical events and oozing withering assessments of real-life people, many of them still alive . . . This is a political novel, but it’s a story about the limits of human ambition . . . Wicked good, that Thomas Mallon.”
                                                                                    Washington Post Book World

“What consumes the astute and well-informed Mr. Mallon is political give-and-take, both domestic and international.  His theatrical novel brings to life historical figures who long ago became historical footnotes . . . a book that reads like a divertissement, but resonates far deeper . . . Mr. Mallon’s vivid take on this period in American politics rings true.  He effectively gets inside his characters’ heads, too.  The one head Mr. Mallon doesn’t get inside, except in a brilliant epilogue at the very end, is Mr. Reagan’s own—which is eerily appropriate, even faithful.”
                                                                                    Pittsburgh Post-Gazette     

“Mallon has become a master of political theatre . . . What makes [his] novels so much fun is the author’s blend of historical exactitude with imagined reactions and machinations.”
                                                                        --Christian Science Monitor

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Professor Daiya at The Writer’s Center (Bethesda) Event “The Cities We Live In: New Writings from South Asia”

Join us for New Writing from South Asia! The Fall for the Book Festival and the The Writer's Center in Bethesda hosts its first South Asian literary afternoon on Saturday October 3rd 2015. The event will kick off at 2 pm with a panel discussion on gender, visual culture, and public space, with our very own Professor Kavita Daiya (who this year is the visiting NEH Chair in Humanities at Albright College) along with Tula Goenka and Rashmi Sadana, moderated by Leeya Mehta.  This will be followed by a conversation between mystery writers A. X. Ahmad (author of The Caretaker and The Last Taxi Ride) and Sujata Massey (author of The Kizuna Coast, among other novels)

Professor Kavita Daiya
Professor Daiya has written numerous articles on modern British and postcolonial literature, gender studies, Asian American literature, and transnational cinema.  We have spotlighted her book Violent Belongings: Partition, Gender, and National Culture in Postcolonial India (Temple UP, (2008), 2011; Yoda Press, 2013) in an interview on this blog; you can read that interview here.  Professor Daiya's scholarship dwells on violence and migration in literature and film; her work reflects a sustained commitment to thinking about how gender and sexuality shape the narratives of ethnicity, migration and rights she work on.

The program on October 3 will be followed by a reception and book signing. Free admission.  Full details below.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

GW Impact: The Charles and Deborah Frank Fund for Veterans Studying Sustainability

Chuck Frank, GW English BA '74
GW English Alum Charles "Chuck" Frank (BA, 1974) was recently featured on the GW Impact blog for his important philanthrophic work, particularly his establishment of The Charles and Deborah Frank Fund for Veterans Studying Sustainability.  You can read the entire piece here.  This excerpt
provides a summary of Frank's important work:

"Like many GW alumni, Chuck was drawn to Foggy Bottom by a desire to study politics in the heart of the nation’s capital. However, after one political science course, he determined that a political career was not for him and changed his focus to English and European history in GW’s Columbian College of Arts & Sciences.
"Though his major may have changed, Chuck did take advantage of being so close to the heartbeat of political discourse. It was through his experience as an intern for U.S. Senator Adlai Stevenson III of Illinois in the summer of 1972 that Chuck found that his passion for the outdoors could be translated into a lifetime of advocacy. Shortly after graduating from GW, his love of the outdoors moved him to support the budding environmental movement—he joined the Sierra Club and now sits on its Board of Directors.
"Impressed by the sustainability program and initiatives at GW, Chuck established The Charles and Deborah Frank Fund for Veterans Studying Sustainability, which provides an annual internship with the Sierra Club for a GW student veteran studying sustainability. According to Chuck, 'This fund will not only honor our veterans, but also provide them an opportunity to leverage their experiences in ways that will have multiple benefits for the environment, themselves, and the community.'"

Monday, September 14, 2015

GW English Alums on the Move: Playwright Nishi Chawla

GW English Alum
Nishi Chawla (PhD, 1996)

Professor Margaret Soltan: Let's start with the big news first.  Your play, Indira, will be presented here in DC, at Spectrum Theater, on Oct 18 at 4 PM.  

Is this your first play?  Give us a quick description of it.

Nishi Chawla: I have spent the last five years researching and writing three history plays.Technically, this is the second play I have written, although this will be the first one to be staged. My play, INDIRA,focuses on some personal aspects of the life of the former Prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi.

The play is hinged on a simple theme - the concept of idealism. I have tried to explore the concept of idealism through the character of Indira
 Gandhi who is not seen in the play at all until only toward the end. 

I have examined 
Indira’s life in phases, from her childhood (which reveals some of the most core elements of her personality), to womanhood, to older age and her death. I hope to offer a glimpse into a more personal Indira, including her vulnerabilities and her raw spots. I have tried to attribute Mme Gandhi's decisions—many unpopular—to the double-edged sword that is idealism. Finally, I have tried to dissect a female leader for who she is and how she is perceived. I believe that female leadership is a unique animal, viciously scrutinized for its inability to fit the historic mold of male-dominated institutions. I have tried to make Indira a human being, and, in so doing, expose the double standards we apply to women in leadership. However, as a playwright, my primary emphasis remains on making my reader/audience re-examine the dynamics of Idealism as a philosophical concept.

I have also rejuvenated the concept of the Chorus that I have used for my own creative purposes in my play. The Chorus comments on the action as well as offers a unique lens on the life and personality of Indira. The play has the overtones of a Greek tragedy with a protagonist who is placed in a high position, and who has her own 'fatal' flaws.

Indira as the person and phenomenon has intrigued many people.My play reveals her as someone we loved and admired and who many eventually despised because she created a personality cult that destroyed a lot of good that she stood for. I hope my play will help us understand her as a person.

MS: Is the subject of Indira Gandhi related to your scholarly research?

NC: I am a writer and an academic. While I have been teaching for the past 35 years, the themes of my plays do not concern my scholarly research. I have, of course, had to engage in extensive scholarly research in order to write my three history plays that include INDIRA. 
MS: Where are you teaching now?  What do you teach?

NC: I am teaching online Literature and Composition courses for University of Maryland University College, Md, and for Thomas Edison State College, New Jersey. 

MS: You received your Ph.D. in English at GW in 1996.  What did you write your thesis about?  Were there faculty members who had a particular influence on you?

NC: My Ph.D. thesis was on the "Body in Samuel Beckett's Writings." Professor James Maddox directed my Ph.D. dissertation, and so naturally, he had the most direct impact on my life as a Ph.D. student at GWU. Prof Maddox has a razor sharp intellect, and he helped me tremendously in staying focused on my dissertation.
MS: Do you have any advice for those of our majors who might be thinking about graduate school in English, or in another subject in the humanities?  

NC: I do not like to offer any advice ever. I do know that it is hard to stay motivated when you are earning much less but are smarter than many with a business degree. However, life has its own trade- offs. If money is the most important goal of your life, then it is worth considering other options.I
MS: You have been active both as a scholar and a creative writer.  How have you managed both?  Have you taken any creative writing courses?
NC: I would have burned off as a scholar sooner had my creative pursuits not kept me alive. No, I have never taken any creative writing courses. I have taught Creative Writing a couple of times at UMUC, and gained a lot more than I could impart.

MS: Does your play take on the question of the present and future of India?  Comment on the current state of the country.

NC: Sure, my play may have its own subtle resonances against the future and the present state of Indian leadership. While democracy in India is thriving, and even as India finds itself at crossroads, its people need to remember the lessons of the past. A strong leader like Indira was instrumental in protecting the tide of separatism from overwhelming a huge nation fraught with so many contradictions. While Mme Gandhi paid for it with her own life, my play does not in any way aim to glorify her or make a martyr out of her actions.
Mme Gandhi did act in an extremely autocratic manner in imposing the emergency. She earned the wrath of her own people for this. While my play in no way tries to criticize her for it, it does raise questions about how Indians cannot take their own freedom for granted. 

Contemporary India has seen the vision of a rising India. One of the major challenges in this glimpse of social and economic empowerment is the issue of how the country treats its own women. I have always believed that a nation should be judged by how well it respects its women. And the subject of women in leadership positions is crucial to this - if women leaders are misjudged or judged by a different set of moral standards, then how can that nation be fair to the rest of its womankind? At this critical juncture in its long history, India needs leaders who can rally the nation and inspire and infuse it with promise, confidence, and idealism.