One Year Later: Estonia

One year ago I had about a month and a half left in the country I studied abroad in: Estonia. This was a bitter-sweet time for me. I had just finished my final exams at the university there and was getting ready to travel the countryside of Estonia in rented cars with my friends. I was aware of my dwindling time in the country yet also deeply nostalgic for the United States and missing my friends and family terribly. Having taken a year since that back in the United States I think it is important that I take stock of what that experience meant to and for me and how it has impacted me.

One of the biggest impacts it has had on my life is that I am much more aware of and empathetic to those who are in some way outsiders. Having spent time in a place in which my understanding of the language and culture was so low that I was embarrassed every time I opened my mouth, as well as somewhere where I had a limited amount of money, no way to earn more, and no life lines should I be in danger, I learned a lot about how vulnerable geographic location can make you. Of course, I am not comparing this to the experiences of refugees or those who were forced to immigrate. I am simply saying that I understand those who are trying to make their way in strange circumstances much better and I try to be empathetic to them.

Liberalism is Such a Drag

I have been deeply disappointed in this season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. For those who are straight or a far edgier kind of gay than I, RuPaul’s Drag Race is the iconic drag competition show (formatted much like America’s Next Top Model) that, over the past decade, has become a cornerstone of the LGBTQ+ community, giving us a weekly point of discussion and source of memes in common. This may not immediately seem like it has anything to do with International Affairs or Global Engagement, stay with me.

Now Drag Race has never been unproblematic by any means. There have been plenty of challenges and themed episodes that were truly questionable. The same can be said of RuPaul herself. Though certainly a queer icon, like many of those of the older generation, the “old guard gays” so to speak, RuPaul has often failed in understanding the evolving nature of the community and appreciating the gravitas of the interlocking oppressions that have been revealed and moved toward an understanding of in the last few years. RuPaul has spoken out against trans people, saying trans women will not be allowed to compete on the show, knowing well that this has already happened several times. There have also been several challenges, in recent seasons where they should know better, that have required cultural appropriation from the contestants and made light of it at the same time. This season, however, has been the Be A Good Citizen and Do Your Civic Duty season. Which is all very well and good, except that this is showcasing to the world a projection of homonormativity from the US that I do not care for in the least. Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.

International Event: Panel on Refugee Crisis

One of the other events I attended over the course of the 2018 Puterbaugh Festival was a panel that discussed Jenny Erpenbeck’s latest book, Go, Went, Gone. The book is based on interviews that she conducted with dozens of refugees living without official sanction in Germany. The topic of the influx of refugees from various countries (though particularly Syria) in the last few years has been a much-discussed one in Europe, yet United States-based news outlets seem mostly silent on the issue except to say, occasionally, “Yes, it’s still bad.” For those that are unable to separate themselves from the issue, who face it every day, however, this is a fresh source of material, and the fact that Erpenbeck was able to produce such a well-thought-out and artistically complex novel on such short notice is truly impressive.

The panel itself was comprised of Erpenbeck and several OU professors and experts in the field. Together they discussed the ongoing crisis, the ways in which Erpenbeck’s book addresses it, and the effect that it can have. The protagonist of the book is a man named Richard who is a somewhat skeptical ex-professor of Classics, and the book, it has been postulated, could serve as a touchstone for those individuals who are not immediately ready to sympathize with the refugees and immigrants they see around them. Personally, I found the question and answer portion of the panel the most interesting since it contained questions about the affect of topical literature, German tropes and their use in the text (which I certainly would not have understood on my own), and the work of local groups making a difference in similar situations in Oklahoma and the USA.

International Event: Puterbaugh Keynote

Probably the most impactful event of the 2018 Puterbaugh Festival for me was the keynote given by the 2018 Puterbaugh Fellow Jenny Erpenbeck. I was very impressed with Frau Erpenbeck throughout her visit, and I enjoyed getting to speak with her. She was reserved, but extremely opinionated and interested in speaking about her impressions of Oklahoma and the University as well as her experiences as a theatrical director and writing her most recent as well as older novels.

The keynote itself was a speech that was clearly written to address the ongoing issues of the refugee crisis and immigration that are so pertinent to both the United States and Germany. These issues were well addressed by Erpenbeck, as she framed them in terms of the influx of individuals to both countries as well in terms of her childhood in the German Democratic Republic (what we most often, today, call East Germany). While she is not nostalgic for the time in so many words, she used the image of the wall to contrast white, western joy when the wall between East and West Berlin came down with white westerners’ same joy in erecting walls to keep out those that they view as other. Although English is audibly not Erpenbeck’s first language, it was a well-crafted ad well-timed speech that felt poignant both in terms of the location in which she was speaking and in terms of her books. It was truly an honor to hear, and I hope it left a lasting impression on the high school students in attendance just as it did on me.

International Activity: World Literature Today

This semester for my international group I once again took part in working at the magazine World Literature Today, which is based on the University of Oklahoma’s campus, but serves an audience of book lovers the world over. I was lucky enough to be involved in some very important and interesting projects, including interviews with several prominent authors, once again taking the Puterbaugh course that’s offered at OU (this time through the Modern Languages and Literatures Department), and helping to organize the Puterbaugh Festival. I also worked, through World Literature Today, on the student publication The Aster Review. Although technically this was not an international endeavor, we did consider publishing a translation and hope in the future to include this as a category for submission, since The Aster’s editorial board also functions as the Student Advisory Board for WLT.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at WLT again this semester. I enjoy the environment, as the people who work there are extremely dedicated to their work as well as to helping those who are young and inexperienced learn. I think that the magazine also brings an essential and essentially fresh perspective to the Midwest and to Oklahoma in particular. It makes me excited that I will be able to have a hand in this in coming years, bringing the international literary scene to a place that often feels as though it is starved for diversity and global connection.

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.