On Closure

When I was in ninth grade a teacher posed this question to our first year rhetoric class: “If you could live forever, being eternally reincarnated and always remembering your previous incarnations, would you?” I was extremely surprised to discover how many of my classmates would turn down this opportunity, saying that all of eternity would make it boring and eventually you would end up running out of options for lives to live and long to be able to truly die. Perhaps my excitement at this concept was due to a failure to fully understand the implications of infinity and eternity, but I like to think it was due more to an abundant curiosity and desire to understand those around me, the same urge that pushed me to learn more about the world through taking on a major in International Studies.

No one person will ever be able to see the whole world. We cannot experience first hand, no matter how hard we try, the lives of every person, and none of us will have the opportunity to practically consider the option my teacher offered (or at least we don’t have the memory that goes with it). We are forced to use what is called in comics terminology “closure,” the assumption of what we cannot see based on what we can or have seen. This can sometimes be dangerous and lead to assumptive understandings of places and people foreign to us as well as, in the most extreme cases, destructive stereotyping. For this reason, I feel we have a duty as citizens of a world with so much information freely available and the stories of so many people accessible to us through media on the internet to understand as much as we can, read as many stories as we can, and do our best to close the gaps with the voices of those who truly live the lives we (probably) won’t have the opportunity to experience.

Reverse Culture Shock (Not)

They always say when you return from studying abroad you will have intense homesickness for your acquired country; warnings about reverse culture shock are rife and uttered in intensely somber tones whenever you are preparing to go away. When I returned from studying abroad, however, I had no such experience and I want to share what I actually felt so that in case someone else reads this and has an abnormal experience of homesickness while studying abroad they know they are not alone.

I am extremely grateful for the chance I had to study abroad and very glad to have gone. That being said, almost the entire time I was there I felt emotionally distant and homesick. Before leaving I didn’t feel any particular connection to Norman or even the U.S. I thought of it as my unfortunate home. As soon as I was gone, however, I missed everything, from food spots to the friends who made them worth visiting. Even my minimum wage job became a pleasant memory. I saw incredible things, but ultimately I was deeply unhappy during my time abroad.

Having sufficiently “made the most” of my time and opportunities in Europe I returned in early July. I have never been so happy to have reliable phone service and to see signs in English. I relish my memories of my time abroad and the perspective it gave me. But I had none of the reverse culture shock promised me and I think I’m well beyond the possibility of it now, having been back for almost four months. Not every study abroad experience, no matter how valuable or objectively amazing it is, will feel like a constant high, and coming home very well may be the best part. It’s ok, it doesn’t make you abnormal, and it very well may make you realize your love for your various other homes to boot.

Poetry and Prose Around the World

On the first day of the Neustadt Festival there were readings given by each of the jurors, those visiting authors who decide the recipient of the prize for the following year. Having read the works of all the authors during the Neustadt Class, it was in some ways very surreal to see the authors in person. There is a certain intimacy one feels with a poet or author when one reads their work. Rightly or wrongly, we as readers tend to not only project connections between our lives and those of the writers, but to project an image of the author themselves—how they comport themselves, what they value, even their interiority at times seems to manifest before us. What I experienced was extremely different from what I expected.

The jurors, who originated in locations all over the world, from Cuba to Ethiopia to Dagestan, presented their works in a variety of tones and doses. Some read long passages, some short. Some seemed to find the spoken word a perfect avenue for their work, others struggled to convert text to monologue. All showed in their reading, however, how they view their own work. One author in particular, Sasha Pimentel, struck a stark contrast between her personality and her reading persona. Her poetry: dark and heavy; her performance: forceful and dynamic; her personality: light and cunning. Each author defied my assumptions about them and their work, striking new chords altogether. Hearing the works read in their native accents, with their native intention, was fascinating and a journey in itself.

Neustadt Festival: An Overview

As an intern with WLT, a member of the student publication The Aster, and a participant in the Neustadt class, I was honored to attend a variety of events for the Neustadt Festival November 8-10. These events ranged from banquets to panels with the authors and even an interview with one of the jurors. For those who are unaware, the Neustadt Festival is an annual literary festival that takes place on OU’s campus and is backed by World Literature Today. It was originally established to honor the bi-annual winner of the Neustadt Prize in Literature, a prize that is often called a stepping stone to the Nobel. It is named for the Neustadt Family who lend their time, talents, and finances to the prize every year. More recently, the prize was expanded to include an award for children’s literature, called the NSK prize after the three daughters of the Neustadt Prize’s founder: Nancy, Susan, and Kathy.

This year’s prize celebrated someone who is a big name in the worlds of both adult and children’s literature—Marilyn Nelson. Marilyn Nelson is a poet who has been well established for many years and has recently turned her talents to autobiographical and fictional work for younger readers. Her book How I Discovered Poetry was assigned to the Neustadt class as well as to many middle school children from the Norman area and on the final day of the festival all of us were invited to a dance performance based on the work, accompanied by a keynote by the author. Seeing the children so engaged with the work and so curious about the processes of poetry and dance truly showed why such literature is so impactful and well deserving of its own prize.

World Literature Today

For my international activity this semester I was lucky enough to be accepted to an internship at World Literature Today. WLT is the University of Oklahoma’s very own internationally recognized literary magazine. Issues are published bimonthly and they cover the literary world through reviews, interviews, and excerpts of recent and upcoming works of authors from around the world. World Literature Today is committed to ending what is commonly known in the world of international publishing as the 3% rule, a piece of common knowledge about the paucity of literature in translation that is experienced by people in the US: specifically 3%. This is compared to countries like Germany where around 20% is literature in translation.

Working at World Literature Today is exciting for me from many perspectives: firstly, publishing is the pursuit to which I hope to dedicate my life. While I don’t want to work in magazine publishing, having the insight of what makes publishers and reviewers tick will no doubt be invaluable to my future career as an editor of pulp fiction. Besides this, I think the work WLT is doing to improve the global literacy of people in the US, both literally and figuratively, is extremely important. Having lived abroad last semester, I truly learned how big the U.S. is and how much that allows us to be insulated. The vast majority of people from the U.S. will never need to be fluid in another language, but the sphere of literature in translation gives them access to the concepts and trains of thought that make other cultures unique, leading to greater understanding and potential for sympathy and even empathy. The work of WLT is important to me, but more importantly, to the world at large and the place of the U.S. within it.

June Travels: Country Mouse

[This is one of a pair of posts about my travels in June 2017. The first can be found here.]

When the time came for the second trip, then, I was starting to slightly dread what was in store for me. I have never been much of an outdoors person or an extrovert, and the prospect of camping out for six nights with a group of eight people was fairly daunting to me. We were going to visit two national parks of Estonia, Lahemaa and Sooma, and then take a day to visit Narva, one of the modern day border cities between Estonia and Russia. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the parks and was very intimidated by the concept of “hiking.” Nevertheless I climbed on the bus to Tallinn with my friends Thursday morning and we headed north.

Of course, in the end I only fell more in love with Estonia, a place with countryside far more diverse than its small area would suggest. I swam in multiple seas and lakes, wandered in the forest, biked past swamps and bogs as well as beautiful stone beaches and Soviet ruins, and walked with my friends through enormous fields of flowers that made me feel like we were trespassing in a fairytale. I would never have assumed from the pictures I saw before coming that the countryside would be so varied or so beautiful. The forests truly show you why such places inspired stories of magic and enchantment as well as fear in the hearts of Europeans through the years. The seaside was incomparably beautiful, natural and quiet, (yet) unspoiled by tourism. What surprised me most, however, was what I was capable of. I biked 45 kilometers in one day with two of my friends, camped out every night, enjoyed Estonia’s tradition of sauna, and even got lost in the forest and lived to tell the tale. Hiking, it turns out, is just walking that some people take very seriously. And I, it turns out, am more of a country mouse than I ever assumed.

June Travels: City Mouse

[This is one half of a pair of posts about my travels in June 2017. The second one cane be found here.]

When I was a toddler one of my favorite picture books my parents would read to me was one about the town mouse and the country mouse—two sister mice, one of whom preferred to live in the country and one of whom preferred to live in the city. I’ve always thought of myself as more of a city mouse, preferring the fast pace, the crowds, and the hustle and bustle of urbanity. This past month I put that to the test, however, with two biggest trips I took once my finals were over. The first I made with my roommate from home, Sarah, who had been studying theatre in Italy for a couple of weeks in May. She met me in the Czech Republic and we made a ten-day tour of Prague, Vienna, and Tallinn before she headed back to the US. About a week later I embarked on a very different adventure with my friends from Tartu—a road trip through Estonia’s national parks.

Both were certainly unique and interesting experiences. Beginning in the city I felt I was proving myself right every step of the way. I absolutely adored Prague—it is now firmly cemented as my favorite European city I’ve visited. Every single building was beautiful and historic, as if the whole city had been frozen in time. It simultaneously, however, somehow managed to remain authentic. Many European cities (Vienna being a perfect example) feel like you’re walking through Cinderella’s castle at Disney land: incredibly beautiful, but ultimately made to be visited, not to live in. In Prague the history of the city was very clear—from the 1300’s to the 1990’s, each decade had left a unique mark. The art deco styling that decorated the buildings contrasted to the medieval artifacts and modern theaters. Besides Estonia, Prague was most certainly the place I will most want to come back to.  This trip made me sure I was correct about my proclivity for city living, and consequently made me quite nervous for my trip to the national parks.

Comparative Academic Culture

One aspect of culture that is under constant discussion amongst students on study abroad is comparative academics. With people coming from all over the world to study together, one thing you can guarantee they have in common is schoolwork—but it’s amazing how differently different countries (even countries next door to one another) handle the same basic education. In France, classes are graded on a scale from 1-20. In the Czech Republic, grade school is assessed on a scale of 1-4. In Italy, almost all exams are oral exams so written finals seemed very strange to my roommate from Milazzo. In Germany, your entire grade depends on your final so doing smaller assignments throughout the semester really threw my friends from Berlin. Even the variation in how education was viewed was stark—my Czech roommate told me that going to a private university there is considered embarrassing because if you have to pay to go to school you clearly aren’t all that bright.

My personal observation was that the main difference between university culture in the United States and Estonia was the level of trust between teachers and students. While in the US it often feels like there is a constant subliminal tension between students (doing as little as they can to do as well as they can) and teachers (trying to get as much out of them as possible), with presumed ill will on both sides of the equation, this feeling has been nonexistent in Tartu. Professors assume that their students want to get the best education possible and will make good choices to ensure that that happens. They don’t police students from using phones or laptops in class or pose pop quizzes. They are very flexible with deadlines and helpful in giving students resources. Over all, the tone of classes was much more cooperative and relaxed. I don’t know what steps would be necessary to bring more of this culture to the US, but in whatever ways we can I think we ought to try; I feel I have learned more this semester than in the rest of my undergraduate experience combined.

The Estonian Landscape

When my advisor recommended I consider studying in Estonia, she showed me some pictures of the university and said, “Other than that it’s pretty grim. Lots of old Soviet block buildings and I mean it’s desolate but you can travel!”

My first impression of the country seemed to confirm what she had warned me about. On the way from the bus station to my dorm I saw a shopping mall, some construction sights, and not much else buried under the snow. The place seemed to have been hit by a winter apocalypse 20 years ago that left little to nothing of aesthetic appeal. While this first impression was partially influenced by my bad experiences with travel that day (which you can read about here if you’re curious), there was certainly an element of this presupposition that survived throughout my first few months in Tartu. It is true that Estonia was a country ravaged by its USSR days and it most certainly shows the signs of this in the landscape and architecture—cinder block apartment complexes, churches full of bullet holes, and historic buildings meticulously reconstructed to try to recreate what was lost.

But this past month what has struck me more than the shrapnel, ideological and physical, that persists in Estonia is the sense of healing in the country. Walking through the more residential parts of Tartu there is a constant juxtaposition of pre-Soviet wooden buildings, Stalin-era apartment blocks, and sleek, modern architecture. They coexist almost beautifully. And between all of them, in the abandoned lots and among the wash lines and between parked cars, wildflowers grow in incredible profusion. These stitches of nature, bringing together two sides of a wound the people seek to mend, are truly a welcome sight. And though spring means rebirth the world over, Estonia seems most truly to be embracing it. Estonians no longer feel bound to their history and we ought not presume to hold them to it either.

Russia: The Personal Parallels

Beneath the surprisingly palatable and “normal” façade, however, it was easy to see that there was something rotten in the state of Russia. Talking to local people and looking at the advertisements and snippets of daily life that could be seen through the fog of tourism there was a clear disparity between the polish and the surface underneath. On the macro level I was amazed to see that Soviet symbolism was still rampant not only in architecture and historical monuments but in modern advertising and propaganda. On a micro level, it is clear that the citizens, though living on the surface of the country, could sense the rot underneath—a feeling with which I am horrifically familiar. In a shop in Saint Petersburg my friends and I asked a girl for directions and ended up having a conversation with her. When she heard what state I was from in the US she was ecstatic, telling me that one of her good friends lived there and she hoped she could visit him someday. After a few more minutes we invited her to have a drink with us after work and hearing more about her life over those drinks was the most eye-opening part of my trip. She works at three jobs to help support her family as well as going to school for graphic design. She desperately wants to get out to somewhere in the EU so she can escape the cycle of poverty her family is trapped in, but her English is broken and visas out of Russia are insanely, prohibitively expensive. She is clearly doing her best and was so optimistic and sweet it broke my heart every moment she talked about the US with longing. She was so clearly in love with the Minnesotan guy she had met and could so vividly imagine her better life that having it out of her grasp hurt even more.

On our last day in Russia we made a visit to a university that is affiliated with the one I attend here. Beneath the 10-foot statue of Lenin we met the students from the University who were asked to show us around their town after a few lectures from both sets of professors. The girl guiding my friends and I was an engineering and management student. She also spoke less than perfect English, but told us that she hated where she lived and wanted to move to Saint Petersburg so that she could actually have a good job and a different life from her parents. Even though her school works very hard to place graduates in the region they come from, she couldn’t see the use of living somewhere where the community is dying. Her town was full of history and beautiful churches but she seemed so disheartened by all of it at only 18. Seeing these girls so close to my age struggling with burdens so different but so similar to those with which my peers and I back home struggle was incredible and humbling. Wherever we live, we live with the same fears, the same aspirations, the same push to something greater against the same power structures and the same crumbling societies. I wish them the best. And I wish that someday, somewhere, we may see girls doing better.