Friday, September 18, 2020

A Graduate Student's First Attempt at Summer Research

 



I had always known it was coming.

I had been forewarned. I even anticipated it with that prematurely weary excitement one feels just before looking at a list of syllabi at the beginning of a semester. In the back of my mind, summer 2020 was the mental image of a laptop surrounded by piles of books on a library desk surrounded by bookshelves. It was tabs and tabs and tabs of databases, articles, and one notetaking Word document. It was split-screen reading and strained eyes, both “why am I doing this to myself?” and “wow I can feel my brain getting bigger.” With the foundation of a year of postbaccalaureate study, in summer 2020, I would finally begin independent research.


At San Diego State University’s M.A. in English program, graduate students have the option of a thesis or a portfolio for the culminating experience. I chose the portfolio option, which entails the revision of one graduate seminar paper with the intent to submit it for publication in a journal, and one secondary paper with a plan for revision. Knowing that I would have to face a portfolio defense before I completed the requirements for the degree, I was determined to use the independent study course in my penultimate semester to lay the foundation for my star paper. All of the course texts were up to me, so I planned to use summer to select contemporary readings and support them with thoroughly researched secondary sources. If my goal for the fall was to develop expertise in Asian American children’s literature, I would have to use the preceding summer well.

So, of course, I didn’t. In reality, summer 2020 went more like my previous summers as a student: fun – until I realized that August was soon approaching. Mid-July, I sheepishly recalled the words my professor spoke as we met on Zoom for the first time since the move to remote learning: “I am going to give you two contradictory pieces of advice: take as much time as you need to recover and heal, but also keep in mind that summer is a great opportunity to research widely.” Having excelled at the first point, I resigned myself to giving up my last month of summer to personal literary, cultural, and critical research.



Thank goodness for the internet! As I began to browse the SDSU library website – stress mode activated and in high gear – I read that I could request physical books for “domeside pickup.” I missed the feel of turning pages and gladly placed holds on around twenty-five fiction and literary criticism books. With no guarantee that the physical books would have the content I was looking for, I dug into online databases to see what articles I could find. I found myself getting back into the groove of skimming – sometimes discarding, sometimes keeping essays I found relevant to my area of study. I did the same with the chapters of the literary criticism books, while I read the fiction novels in full. It wasn’t clear what I was searching for, but I knew that I had to find topics and stories that I could enjoy spending hours on. Slowly, I built up a list of articles, chapters, and texts that seemed promising to include on the independent study list. My next task was to compile the best texts into a themed syllabus.

This Asian American children’s literature syllabus would follow the organization of the Chicanx children’s literature course I had taken in my first semester of graduate study, so I included texts from the beginnings of Asian American children’s books publication as well as texts published in the early 2000s. Most of my list was comprised of books published within the last five years, as I wanted my research to focus on contemporary depictions of Asian Americans from a range of diasporic experiences. Once the novels, picture books, and graphic novels were in place, I found scholarly articles that either directly analyzed those main texts or could be paired for productive conversation. In total, I had fifteen main texts and seventeen articles – roughly two to four readings a week. In crafting this syllabus, I noticed a trend in the content of the books I had selected, which called to mind a term for a category that I had learned in an undergraduate Tolkien class. There it was – the theme for my independent study: the künstlerroman in contemporary Asian American stories.


With this exciting payoff after condensing a summer’s worth of research into a few weeks, I tidied up the document, submitted the independent study request form, and sent the syllabus to my professor. We have met once since the semester started late-August, and thankfully he approved the course theme as a final paper topic. My path to a star paper for my portfolio is becoming clearer, and I plan to use the course’s midterm assignment to revise my secondary paper. By the end of the semester, I hope to have two polished papers in hand for the spring’s portfolio workshop course.

As I reflect on my summer experience – COVID-19 aside, if such a thing is possible – I can see that most difficult part of research was just starting. The lull in my studies had made me lazy, but delving back into the world of literature and criticism reminded me that I do enjoy what I study. If I had any advice to share with other students undertaking a research project, it would have to be to choose a topic that goes beyond you. In other words, make the topic of your research something that is of interest to you as a researcher specifically because other writers are not talking about it. There is something so encouraging about doing research and not finding information on what you are searching for – it leaves room for your contribution to the conversation. Don’t be discouraged by the high quality of the writing you encounter: every article you come across will have come out of a research foray just like yours. By offering an original argument through your paper, you are joining the scholarly community that produced the articles you are reading. Enjoy the process!

- (AN)

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Review of “We Are Water Protectors” by Carole Lindstrom

“We Are Water Protectors” written by Carole Lindstrom and illustrated by Michaela Goade is a new picture book you need to look out for.

“We Are Water Protectors” is a book full of vibrant, eye catching images and powerful prose to match.

The author, Carole Lindstrom writes the books from passion and experience. She identifies as Anishinaabe (also known as Nishnaabe or Anishinabe)/Metis and is tribally enrolled with the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe (Carolelindstrom.com). Lindstrom also published the children’s book “Girls Dance, Boys Fiddle” in 2013.

This book has not gone unnoticed by book bloggers. A popular blog, Book Riot, lists the book under “Ten Picture Books for the Budding Environmentalists”, and Lindstrom’s book is also featured on CBC, The New York Times, and Publisher’s Weekly.

The phrase “We are water protectors” may sound familiar. “We are water protectors” says Don Sampson to tribes opposed to the movement protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Sampson is both the head of the climate change program from the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI), and a traditional chief of the Walla Walla Tribe of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (Seattle Times). Sampson and his family fought with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe during the Standing Rock protest against the pipeline.

Photo from Dakota Access Pipeline protests in October of 2016

However, Lynda V. Mapes’ article continues “The fight isn’t only about one pipeline, but the larger battle for clean energy in a world in grave jeopardy because of emissions from fossil fuels that are heating the planet.” Sampson concludes “How can anyone look into the eyes of grandchildren and say, we did nothing.” Although popularized protests at the Dakota Access Pipeline have passed, the fight to protect water and the legacy of the protests continue.

Lindstrom takes this popular quote, “we are water protectors”, to invite readers into an important project and movement taking place in the United States. 

It is important to also remember these pipes is a twofold threat of the environment and the culture of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s homeland. “An oil spill would permanently contaminate the reservation’s water supply and that construction of the pipeline would destroy sacred sites where many of their ancestors are buried” (Medina, 2016).

Given the background of the book, Lindstrom has a big shoe to fill, and she truly succeeds with her touching and beautiful work.


“We Are Water Protectors” is narrated by a young, unnamed girl. At the beginning of the book, she is told “Water is the first medicine” by Nokemis, who appears to be a grandmother or an older maternal figure.

Right off the bat Lindstrom emphasizes the importance of water, while Goade highlights its beauty and power through the illustration. Lindstrom continues, “We come from water. It nourished us inside our mother’s body. As it nourishes us here on Mother Earth. Water is sacred.” These short sentences remind me of water washing on and off of the beach, ebbing and flowing through the book.

She continues, “The river’s rhythm runs through my veins. Runs through my people’s veins.” Again, the importance of water is established. The protagonist states the river runs through her people’s veins, connecting them altogether in a water system as unique and complex as the individuals within her community. In the illustration her dark hair flows across the page into a blue-green body of water, complete with fish, bright coral lily flowers, and lily pads.


This photo not only emphasizes how the river “runs through [her] veins”, but the river is part of her identity and her people’s identity. She finds love and joy in the water, but also a need to protect what is being taken from them.

The narrator continues, “my people talk of a black snake that will destroy the land. Spoil the water. Poison plants and animals. Wreck everything in its path…Its venom burns the land, courses through the water, making it unfit to drink.”


Here the water and land are threatened, as is perhaps the characters’ identity as water protectors. As opposed to the previously calming blues and greens, the snake is on this bright orange background, almost reminiscent of the sky during fires that California has come to know. This orange cloud seems to suffocate or suppress the flowers on the bottom left which bend over the pipe, as if weeping its petals away. The portrayal of the pipe as a snake emphasizes the real danger that these pipes being built have on the plants and animals, as well as the people. The snakes [or pipes] not only poison the living, but the water itself is unfit to drink. Water, a necessity for organisms to live, is being taken by this snake pipe.

However, the protagonist does not lose hope. She says “TAKE COURAGE! I must keep the black snake away from my village’s water. I must rally my people together.”

The protagonist calls the reader to action in her our actions. She is saying take courage to herself, her village, and everyone reading this. In the face of black snakes and threatened land, she tells herself to have courage in order to save her village.

“We Are Water Protectors” is a powerful, resonating, and timely book that I think readers of all ages should pick up.

-SS

References:

Carole Lindstrom - author of children's literature. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.carolelindstrom.com/

Mapes, L. V. (2020, August 6). What’s next for the Dakota Access Pipeline? Recent court rulings cast doubt on future. The Seattle Times. Retrieved from https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/environment/whats-next-for-the-dakota-access-pipeline-recent-court-rulings-cast-doubt-on-future/

Medina, D. A. (2016, November 4). Dakota Access Pipeline: What's Behind the Protests? NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/dakota-pipeline-protests/dakota-access-pipeline-what-s-behind-protests-n676801


Sunday, March 29, 2020

Aesthetics of "The Westing Game" by Ellen Raskin


After hearing Dr. Chris McGee’s talk, I was immediately compelled to dive into the genre of mystery to see for myself what makes it aesthetically pleasing. The most distinct characteristic of the detective novel is its integration of clues that lead to a final conclusion – a solution to the mystery that the character(s) want to solve. But when the answer is already known, is there any pleasure to be had on a second read? To see if I could find an answer to this question, I read The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. 

 The Westing Game describes sixteen chosen heirs of the recently deceased Samuel Westing. The person to solve the mystery of who murdered the millionaire will inherit his two-hundred-million-dollar fortune. The chosen heirs are divided into eight pairs and given clues: slips of paper with a single word or letter written on themBut these clues are deceptive. During his presentation Dr. McGee informed us that – spoiler – the only relevant clue is the four cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west. I kept an eye out for those directions but pieced them together only just before Turtle, the sole child detective, did.  
One of the text’s distinguishing features is its heteroglossia: the array of voices that are present in the novel aside from that of the narrator. Raskin cleverly designates not just one or a small group of detectives, but sixteen, ranging in age, gender, race, and physical ability. What is fascinating about this diversity is that each heir utilizes his or her own personality and outlook as tools to solve the mystery. To examine how this occurs, we will borrow the names and positions that each character provided for his or herself at the beginning of the game (45-6).  

1. MADAME SUN LIN HOOcook 
Madame Hoo is the young wife of Mr. Hoo, who was brought from China for this marriage and does not speak English. She is not informed of the game and does not participate in riddle-solving. Her husband decided her title for her. However, in a surprising act of admission, Madame Hoo reveals herself as the thief of various missing items stolen “‘for to go to China [sic]’” (165). Her timid disposition attests to the condition of silence imposed by linguistic disadvantage: although she is a rightful heir, Madame Hoo is excluded from entry into the game by anyone who could translate for her and must resort to underhanded methods to make her desires known. 
2. JAKE WEXLERstanding or sitting when not lying down 
Jake is a Jewish podiatrist whose work meant he was not present to receive the clues and join in the game. His laidback demeanor conceals a gambling secret and largely serves to offset his stubborn wife and youngest daughter.  
3. TURTLE WEXLER, witch 
Turtle is a daring young girl who kicks first and asks later. This risky attitude makes her take the most adultlike direction with the $10,000 each pair is given – she invests it into the stock market using letters from her clues as a guide. This approach totally fails, however, because she tried to think as any adult would have, and not how a man with a childish sense of play did. 
4. FLORA BAUMBACH, dressmaker 
Flora is a grandmotherly figure who allows the Turtle to do as she pleases. Without exercising the control that any other heir would have over the willful child, her respect for the child’s imagination allowed Turtle to fail and supported her from then on. 
5. CHRISTOS THEODORAKISbirdwatcher 

Chris is intelligent and observant, yet he cannot speak nor use his legs, which makes him overly reliant on his eyesightThus, he is absolutely convinced that the person he saw limping the night the murder occurred is the culprit. He is cunning and does not reveal his information right away. Chris’s inability to communicate normally means aside from his brother, no one, not even his assigned partner Dr. Deere, takes him seriously. Only Sam Westing sees his potential. 
6. D. DENTON DEERE, intern, St. Joseph’s Hospital, Department of Plastic Surgery 
Dr. Deere is a pompous surgeon whose concern for himself and his fiancée, Angela, exclude everyone else. This attitude makes it difficult for him to even conceive of his partner Chris’s abilities, and Deere stifles his own voice as a result. 
7. ALEXANDER MCSOUTHERS, doorman 
Sandy is a cheerful doorman whose job allows him to converse with all of the heirs frequently. His dimwitted yet friendly demeanor allows him to befriend Turtle and flatter his partner, Judge Ford. He sees and involves himself in more than the reader is let on to believe. 
8. J. J. FORD, judge 
Judge Ford is an African American judge, whose subjectivity as a woman of minority race leads her to be ambitious and confident to the point of being aloof. She knows Sam Westing personally because he funded her education and participates in the game out of a vengeful sense of obligation to his memory. Her sharp observation skills and ability to withhold information make her a leader among the heirs. 
9. GRACE WINDSOR WEXLER, heiress 
Grace is a housewife with little sense of purpose except to smother her eldest daughter Angela and scold her younger daughter Turtle. She is bossy and manipulative, which puts her at odds with her partner and makes them largely unproductive. 
10. JAMES SHIN HOO, restauranteur  
Mr. Hoo is a man dissatisfied with his position in life, struggling to keep a restaurant afloat and quick to form negative opinions. He is just as stubborn as his partner, which prevents him from reaching any good conclusions either. 
11. BERTHE ERICA CROW, Good Salvation Soup Kitchen 
Crow is the Sunset Towers cleaning maid, and although she hardly speaks, she loves Angela very much. She cares nothing for solving the riddle and gives her clues to Angela. Crow is somehow religious without invoking God, and her main priority is her work at the soup kitchen.  
12. OTIS AMBER, deliverer 
Otis is a man fond of jokes. He is well travelled because of his job and does not live in Sunset Towers like the other heirs do. He does not seem to take the mystery-solving very seriously. 
13. THEO THEODORAKIS, brother 
Theo is an aspiring writer who also does not have much of a sense of purpose. He cares deeply for his brother and is the only one who understands Chris. In the Westing House, he plays chess with one of the heirs, whom he doesn’t see but believes is the culprit. Therefore, his constant requests to play chess are mischaracterized as loneliness. 
14. DOUG HOO, first in all-state high-school mile run 
Doug’s major concern is running track, so he leaves all of the mystery-solving to Theo. His track abilities come in use when he is sent to observe Otis Amber, whom Theo later suspects 
15. SYDELLE PULASKI, secretary to the president 
Sydelle clearly lacks attention and seeks it through false means such as a faked injury. Her quick thinking in taking notes of the will makes her a valuable asset to the heirs, and despite her shallow disposition, she is the first to piece together the clues that she has into the song “America the Beautiful.” 
16. ANGELA WEXLER, none 
 Angela has the compassion that her mother and sister lack, but she is stifled by their headstrong personalities. Although she as viewed as innocent immediately, her decision to take back her agency leads to her creation of bombs, the last of which detonates in her face. She allows Sydelle to take over the clue-hunting and people-pleasing while she figures herself out.  

Each heir has his or her own theories about who murdered Samuel Westing, creating a maze of crisscrossing and false trails that the reader is trapped into following. Everyone discovers more information along the way and creates judgements of others that fool the reader into laying blame on the wrong suspectYet none of this is necessary information to reach the intended conclusion, which is that Sam Westing is actually not dead but is alive and disguised as Barney Northrup the real estate agent, Sandy McSouthers the doorman, and Julian R. Eastman, the new chairman of Westing Paper Products Corporation.  
Another of this novel’s riveting attributes is that smaller mysteries are scattered throughout the narrative’s development – missing valuables and an unidentified bomber. These mysteries distract from the main one but reveal information about characters through the thoughts of other people towards them. Therefore, the reader is led to the riddle’s answer by deductions from Judge Ford and Sydelle Pulaski, but the only one who solves it completely is Turtle.  

Raskin weaves a complex tale full of intriguing characters. In their midst, the child who takes the most adultlike stance towards the mystery by investing the money into the stock market is the one to figure out the simple wordplay. While the reader receives even more information than the heirs doit takes a child’s sense of determination and craftiness – as well as a personal investment – to unravel the intentions of the eccentric Samuel Westing 
The Westing Game is, as Dr. Chris McGee put it, “infinitely rereadable.” While it certainly is complex, it remains approachable because of its simple solution. Readers are tempted to read again from each character’s point of view, keeping in mind what that heir knows as the reader is given more information through other perspectives. Although there are many voices to keep track of, they are all unique enough to not get muddled. Each personality is distinct and each person’s aspirations are clear or made clear in a way that just makes sense once the reader has gotten to know the charactersRaskin provides supremely satisfying conclusions to each of the heirs’ stories as told by Turtle to a dying Julian R. Eastman, keeping each voice true to its younger self. This also prompts readers to go back and read the younger characters in light of what they will accomplish in the future.  
As my list of aesthetic qualities in literature lengthens, I will tack on heteroglossia and “delight in suspense” as a result of analyzing The Westing Game 
- (AN) 
Works Cited 
Raskin, Ellen. The Westing GameEbookSpeak2008