Thursday, September 26, 2019

Interview with Tishna Asim, Lecturer

Interview with Tishna Asim, Lecturer

September 24th, 2019

The National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at SDSU had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Tishna Asim, a lecturer in the Department of English and Comparative Literature. We spoke about the ways that her background has influenced her literary and teaching interests, and spent time discussing how Dr. Mary Galbraith’s teaching and mentoring informs Tishna Asim’s work in the classroom.

What Tishna Asim would look like as a Disney character!

Can you share with us your educational background? How did you get to where you are professionally?

I did my undergraduate Bachelor of Arts at Revelle College, University of California San Diego. I went to law school, and I got my law degree from University of San Diego. I practiced law for ten years as a trial attorney, mostly in criminal defense but also in dependency defense. And then in 2013, I hit pause on the law stuff mostly because I was tired of looking at autopsy photo – I wanted a break from some of that gruesome reality – and I enrolled here at SDSU in the Masters program in 2013. I got my Master of Arts with a British Literature specialization in 2016 and started teaching as a lecturer in fall of that same year here at SDSU. My research focus in the graduate program was Victorian crime fiction specifically, and then even more specifically it was on Sherlock Holmes, and that’s probably because of my former career – you know, law and literature. You can take the girl out of the courtroom but you can’t take the courtroom out of the girl.

And you’ve been a lecturer at SDSU since?

Since the fall of 2016 so this is my fourth fall semester.

What are your research interests? 

I’m really interested in the Gothic; I’m really interested in the horror genre to the extent that it overlaps with the Gothic and how it overlaps – all of those overlap – with crime fiction. I’m really interested in mystery and the detective genres as well. But I also really like fantasy. So Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis, and of course Harry Potter. So to the extent that the children’s literature sometimes is represented in those specifically fantasy genres, I’m really interested in that. And other YA literature as well.

You teach English 306A, a children’s literature course for Liberal Studies students. What is it like working with students who will use children's literature in their own classrooms?

The theme of the class has varied a tiny bit over time. Right now, it’s evolved into examining Gothic within children’s literature, so Gothic themes, Gothic subtext, Gothic tropes in a place that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find it: i.e. children’s literature. But I’ve also been interested in framing how child detectives work, in examining their world, so I’ve had a detectives class within children’s literature as well. In fact, if you turn around, you’ll see those are the texts that I’ve taught: Encyclopedia Brown, and Nancy Drew, and The Great Mouse Detective, and The Eleventh Hour, which is this gorgeous book. Every single page is covered with sumptuous illustrations and it’s a curious mystery to figure out who stole the birthday cake at a little eleventh birthday – it's so cute.

The poster mentioned above. 

But mostly I teach those themes as a way of investigating that the child psyche is as complex as the adult psyche, and to dumb it down for children is a disservice to them and doesn’t allow for them to have the same complexity as an adult would, which I think is ridiculous.

Teaching Liberal Studies students in particular has been very rewarding in the sense that a lot of the texts we examine become texts that they use themselves in their classrooms, or with children they encounter, siblings, or their own kids, or classrooms where they are already teaching. And I often ask the question of whether or not the text that we just completed is actually for children, even though it’s marketed to them. So there’s this distinction between capitalist marketing and whether or not this is something the kids should be digesting – and then that invites the question of censorship. What do we expose our kids to? What do we allow them to be exposed to in a classroom, in a bookstore, et cetera? And so that perspective is really valuable because they as future teachers are so rigidly boxed-in to what is allowed in the classroom and texts that are supposedly safe for kids might actually reveal subtexts that are really quite problematic, or emotionally charged, or sexual, or violent, et cetera. Little Red Riding Hood is a great example.

What is it like to create syllabi each semester? Do you often reuse books or create completely new ones?

80% of the books are ones that I’ve already taught, but every semester I include at least one new text mostly to keep me engaged. It’s something new to see ‘hey does this work’? So I do change it up every semester in all of my classes, even in my Intro to Literature 220 class, just because I don’t want to get bored.

Can you share one notable teaching experience here at SDSU?

Every day I don’t have to go to court is a notable teaching experience! They’ve all been really rewarding. And certain semester the students are – this semester in particular – the students are very engaged. They want to talk; they want to hear from each other and get that global perspective within thirty different opinions and voices in the classroom – thirty-one if you include mine. So it’s always really, really rewarding when students are as engaged as I am because I care about this. I think it’s fun, and when it stops being fun is when I’ll stop teaching. And I’ll go back to court.

What is your experience working with Dr. Mary Galbraith?

She taught a class when I was in my last semester in the graduate program on adolescence in children's literature, or adolescence in literature, or something like that, and it was fascinating because there were texts that we wouldn’t have considered to be adolescent texts at all: specifically Hamlet, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. These characters are ostensibly in their twenties and yet they embody the adolescent perspective, whether it’s through naiveté or a lack of life experience or in the case of Hamlet, he’s been so protected by his role as a prince. And we talked about development in ways I hadn't considered before. Her class was just so intriguing because it invited, it required, an alternative perspective on what is adolescence in the first place. So already you were challenging your own preconceived notions even about the theme of the class before the class even started, which I thought was brilliant. We continued to have that subversive, unsettled perspective throughout, which I thought was really refreshing. It wasn’t her lecturing at us about ‘you know this book was written in such-and-such year and this was happening and that was going on.’ It was really just an opportunity for us to totally take a text that we thought we knew about and shift it. What would it be like if Hamlet was actually sixteen? That’s kind of how it is if you read it now. Now I can’t not see him as an adolescent. But her class was so open to listening to all of our perspectives. She brought in guest speakers that spoke very eloquently about books even though they weren't traditional academy members, which I thought was great. We read lots and lots of cultural texts that again gave us that new chance at shifting our perspective. I thought she was fascinating as a professor because her own life has been marked by different landscapes and living in different places. Just being a sort of global citizen. She lived in England at one time and when I took her class, she had just come back from a sabbatical in England where she was walking in the footsteps of Dickens. It was so cool; she’s so cool. She knows what she’s doing; she knows what she’s talking about. Her units on chapter books and picture books are really empowering to the reader because there aren't a lot of wrong answers, which I think is a great thing about the humanities in general. If you have evidence, you get to be right.

Have you been able to interact with her a lot as a colleague?

Not as much as I’d like. We teach at around the same time, so we’re kind of ships passing in the night. If I see her, it’s just catching up on personal stuff, which is nice. She’s still a great mentor and role model for me on how I want to do this work. She publishes a ton. She’s pretty prolific. I think she published three articles last year. She’s busy engaging with these questions that don’t go away. Even after the child who reads this book becomes an adult, it still has impact. And she’s tracing that in really cool ways. She’s really smart.

Thank you so much to Tishna Asim! We’re grateful to showcase one of the many brilliant instructors teaching children’s literature at SDSU.

This is part one of a series of blog posts in preparation for Dr. Mary Galbraith’s talk, "The Deictic Imaginary: Literature as Creation," to be held in LL430 on Wednesday, October 30th from 4:00-5:00PM. Please keep an eye out for part two to come out next week!

 - (AN)

Thursday, September 19, 2019

It's Time to "Take the Mic"

Sometimes I feel helpless. Or rather, I can’t help anyone.

I can’t help the people who were told to go back to their country. I couldn’t help the young black man fatally shot for wearing a hoodie. I don’t know how to help children kept in cages. Sometimes I don’t know if it is possible to make a difference just by myself.   

Really, how can we do anything? How can we help those who are wronged by our country?

Take the Mic: Fictional Stories of Everyday Resistance edited by Bethany C. Morrow shows everyone, from children to adults, how to take a stand in the real world and make a difference.

The Helpers by L.D. Lewis is a particularly striking story, surrounding a young girl, Allie, during a sudden city-wide blackout. Unable to find her older sister, a medic named Sasha, Allie leaves her house and goes around the city to find her sister and giving help along the way. She first does seemingly small acts, like providing clean water to help clean a cut, then finds a collapsed building. She begins to help dig people from the building, putting aside her personal goal of finding her sister.

Allie must step into the role of a medic and helps her neighbors hands-on. She runs into a cast of characters, including a white man and a brown man fighting, and the brown man shouting, “I know you did this!” and later says “Nah, his [the white man’s] people came out here and blew all this shit up trying to Make America Great” (44), a reminder that tragedies aren’t just tragedies, they’re political, and they need to be discussed.

This isn’t the only time the current American president is alluded to. In Yamile Saied Méndez’s Aurora Rising, Aurora, an Argentian-American, encounters many instances of racism while staying at her friend Sadie’s house, these instances sounding all too familiar. Sadie’s father comments on Aurora’s cleaning, saying “I guess it’s in the blood, right?” (86). Later, he misidentifies her as Spanish: “Spanish?...But your English’s perfect!” (87).

When things can’t seem to get worse, after ruining her shirt, Aurora is handed a shirt with the words “Clean Up America”, an echo of current misconceptions of immigration. Aurora struggles, thinking: “wearing [the shirt] would be going against my family values…it would be sending a big F-You to my parents’ sacrifices as immigrants in America” (90). She later realizes “any crumb of friendship I’d had with Sadie had died too” (99). In this eerily familiar story, we are reminded of those ridiculed, hurt, and ostracized in our current political climate.

Although we can never go back in time and help those unjustly treated, these two stories served as important reminders: While The Helpers reminds us that we can help others even in small ways, Aurora Rising reminds us of why we need to help others. We not only can be involved in helping a community tragedy, but perhaps as importantly we can try to use our voices for those who may be silenced.

But how can we help right now?

We can educate ourselves on our current political and social climate and learn how we can get involved. Be involved by voting or participating in community marches. Just as important, we can learn to listen to and support others who are faced with injustice. Take the Mic reminds us we need to open both our ears and our hearts to others.

Maybe we can stop another life from being taken of another voice from being silenced, by either taking the mic, or passing it to others who can’t quite reach it.

We can do something. We can make a difference. We are not helpless, as long as we hold out a hand, a heart, a mic to others. 

Take the Mic will be published October 1, 2019.

Thanks to Arthur A. Levine Books for sending this great book to us.


Tuesday, September 10, 2019

I Love You So Mochi by Sarah Kuhn

On my first day in the NCSCL office, I did what any avid reader would do: pull book after book off of the shelves in search of something that would fill the next seven hours “productively.” Sarah Kuhn’s I Love You So Mochi was an instant eyecatcher, a bright splash of pink amid book spines in varying shades of blue and black.

For this Vietnamese American, the title’s mention of mochi and the cover’s gorgeous background of cherry blossoms evoked a further attraction: a sense of affinity with the novel. As I read the dust jacket flap, I was introduced to one of the novel's most intriguing aspects – its juxtaposition of relatable Asian American teenage experience with unexpected subversions of the expectations that are imposed upon that identity. 

The novel depicts Kimi Nakamura, an American high school senior whose painting talent has guaranteed her early admission to a prestigious art school. The stereotypical Asian American parent’s distaste for any non-STEM/medical field career would seem to be the main conflict in the story, but it is not. Rather than disappoint her parents, this accomplishment is a great source of pride for her Japanese-born, American-educated mother, who is only recently able to pursue her own dreams to be a famous Asian American artist. Her fourth-generation Japanese American father runs a restaurant that “features ‘the best of Japanese, American, and Japanese American comfort food’” (23). But even with supportive parents, whose careers convey a well-balanced blend of Japanese and American identity, Kimi is completely uninspired to paint. When she receives a plane ticket to Japan from her estranged grandparents, she leaves her problems behind to explore her motherland. Kimi teams up with a (cute) aspiring doctor whose knowledge of the sights of Japan help her figure out what she wants to do with her future. As Akira takes her to different locations such as a bamboo forest, a temple, and a pug cafe, Kimi finds the courage to face the problems she had wanted to leave in America. And alongside her, the reader learns much about Japanese culture, customs, and sights.

What I appreciated the most about this novel was that Kimi experiences Japan as a tourist. Kimi knows very little Japanese. Her lack of etiquette knowledge makes for an embarrassing commute and immediately strains her relationship with her grandmother. She recognizes immediately the disjuncture between nature and nurture in identity formation: “It strikes me how discombobulating it is to be in a place where so many of the faces look like mine, but where I clearly don’t belong” (51). Even so, Kimi’s actions expose readers to Japanese interpersonal relations: small bows as greetings, use of last names with strangers, and even slang for cluelessness.

I Love You So Mochi’s treatment of language is one of its most striking aspects. Kimi is fortunate that her grandparents and Akira speak English well despite never leaving Japan, but they mix Japanese terms of assent such as “hai” (80), “sou da ne” (102) and filler words like “eto” (81) and “ano” (106) into their otherwise English conversation. Akira even describes “gairaigo––loan words. There is quite a bit of Japanese-style English” (100). The reader can easily pick up Japanese vocabulary without a dictionary, and nothing comes off as overtly didactic.

Additionally, food – be it shrimp burgers from Japan’s McDonald’s, a secret stash of limited-edition Snickers, or peanut butter and chocolate mochi from her father’s restaurant – helps Kimi find common ground with the people she wants to get to know and experiment with what is unfamiliar.

This novel is a delightful journey through a young girl’s search for her own identity in the land of her heritage. Her sketchbook accompanies her everywhere she goes, and her descriptions of clothing provide insight into her moods, values, and dreams. With each deepening relationship, Kimi investigates how determination, culture, and her own family’s history shape the future she wants for herself. Readers will delight with each step Kimi takes, whether running from deer, strolling with her crush, or towards her real passion.

- AN

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

New Graduate Assistant


My name is Ashley Nguyen, and I am a first-year M.A. student studying English with a specialization in Children’s Literature! I’m pictured below with my new favorite novel, I Love You So Mochi by Sarah Kuhn. Stay tuned for a review soon!

As a brand-new grad student, this first blog post would be the perfect place to test out my elevator pitch... but nailing down what my research interests are has been the biggest challenge of my educational experience thus far. If I am to emerge from these two years of post-baccalaureate education with some degree of expertise in a field, which should it be?

I’ve never had the opportunity to take a course in Asian American literature, but as a Vietnamese American and an avid reader, a literary study of Asian American culture definitely intrigues me. I’m particularly interested in the voices of American-born teenagers with Asian heritage and would like to study further the identity explorations that occur when leaving a native land to "return to” or visit a motherland. I’m grateful to have many knowledgeable professors who can guide my studies and I look forward to the research to come!

As a Roman Catholic, I seek ways to orient my research towards understanding how literature encounters, grapples with, and utilizes depictions of good and evil. As I discovered in my undergraduate honors seminar, there is room in the field of Children’s and Young Adult Literature for exploring – and attempting to challenge – binary notions of morality. Under the guidance of a wonderfully encouraging professor and honest feedback from my four peers, I produced “Devious Dichotomies: Explaining the Fascination with Disney Villains.” This thesis drew from Serena Valentino and Liz Braswell, two Disney-published authors, to contrast their recent interpretations of villains in the Disney movies Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). I found that Valentino’s attempt to spotlight the villain’s backstory only indicted other characters as new villains, while Braswell’s novels rewrite the heroines into young women with traits admirable in modern times such as leadership, bravery, and agency. In both authors’ writings, the protagonist’s sense of justice prevails and the evil character is still vanquished. I conclude that the good versus evil binary is indisputably what makes Disney thrive, and to challenge it would destroy Disney’s magical ability to make viewers believe in their own happily ever after.

I’m truly grateful for the opportunity to explore my interests through my studies here at SDSU and even more so to be a Graduate Assistant at the NCSCL. I would love to engage in conversation about any of the topics I mentioned or anything else to do with this wonderful field. I look forward to sharing with you about the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at San Diego State University!