My research interests

I’m going to write a little bit about what I’m doing at uni, purely to document what’s happening. I am obsessed with documenting personal history, so this is part of that. So if you find academic stuff a bit boring, click away now!

One of the pages of the first edition Alice I had the chance to study
 
As I have mentioned, I’m doing an MA Italian Studies and a collaborative program in Book History and Print Culture. This means I’m doing six courses this term! I remember finding three or four a heavy workload, and that was during my undergraduate studies when I had no children or responsibilities. I didn’t even have a job!

Anyway, just as a bit of background, I mentioned previously what my journey to this masters program has been thus far. I went on to do a Graduate Diploma in creative/professional writing and got part way through another one in editing and publishing but it wasn’t really stimulating me so I didn’t re-enrol. I kind of wish I’d stuck that one out as maybe I’d have gotten some more editorial work. Anyway.

An illustration by Maggie Taylor from a 2008 edition of Alice
 
So upon planning to give Canada a go, and realising the easiest way to do that was for me to study, and given I’d wanted to do a masters for years, ten years actually, I set about deciding exactly what to study. Initially I planned for creative writing but I very quickly realised I didn’t have what it takes. Not only were my English marks shockingly poor during my BA, I didn’t do particularly well in my postgraduate writing studies either. I think the best word to describe my achievement level is “mediocre”. Marks in the 50s and 60s amounting to a Credit average. In addition to this, there was no way I could get the required two academic references from professors who probably didn’t know me during my study, let alone over a decade later… I found one program I could apply to using a portfolio, so I did that. I also applied to a comparative literature program, an English program, and an Italian program. I’d done well in Italian and my professors were only too happy to give me references, despite not having heard from me in about 13 years. I was a bit sneaky and asked them for references for the non-Italian programs too. I actually thought I might have a shot at the literary/writing programs and somehow they’d overlook my dodgy grades. Yeah right!

Alice talking to the Cheshire Cat, original printing of first 1865 edition
 
I ended up getting into only one of the four programs I applied for, the first one I’d applied for, the one I least expected because it was the most prestigious university of the lot. UofT apparently has the largest Italian department outside of Italy! Not to mention world-class teaching staff and amazing facilities. I must admit, though, as soon as I realised I was in, I developed a lump in my throat which I swallow at various intervals but which has remained since. I didn’t feel true drive and passion for Italian. But I was excited, and knowing how well I do with languages I knew this was the right choice as it would be easier for me than something literary. Little did I know that in fact it was a literary program I’d gotten into! Just Italian literature! Uh oh… my undergrad was pretty much straight language… and no, reading “Spotty va al circo” and a bit of Italo Calvino doesn’t count!

Anyway, I was excited. I had some time to think about my research interests and I had a vague idea that they resided in two areas: a kind of editorial/textual area, which involved loving words and books and language structure; and the other is about migration and cultural identity, how we come to know where we belong and find peace with our culture. So two totally different areas. My main goal through this program is to nail down exactly what my research interests are and specialise in one area. Not as easy as it sounds for an all-rounder lazy person like me.

When I finally worked out how to enrol in courses and that I’d be doing six of them (what?!?!), I found there wasn’t a big pool to choose from. I had to choose one particular introductory course for book history, then what was described as a “pedagogical” compulsory course for Italian. The other four courses were up to me, although there was only five to choose from. I opted out of studying Pirandello, given I’d never heard of him before and the prospect of having to read an entire book in Italian freaked me out. So I ended up enrolling in one about film and perceptions of China and Italy from both camps, one about something I’d never heard of before but that I got extremely excited about (philology), one with an extraordinarily long title that had something to do with new ways that Italian language and culture is being mixed into Canada and vice versa, and the last one was about a migratory diaspora from a particular part of Italy that I’d never heard of. Very exciting but very scary given how little I knew about what I’d be doing. I felt both thrilled and terrified.

Another stunning Maggie Taylor illustration from Alice
 
So this is supposed to explain my research interests. Well, I’m halfway through the first part of the program now, and I can safely say that my interests still lie in those two areas but I think I’m leaning more towards the migrant diaspora stuff. And not necessarily Italian. I’m finding the textual stuff interesting but there is also a lot of boring stuff that seems like much ado about nothing sometimes, whereas the cultural identity stuff feels like me, I want to know more, and my personal connection to and experience with these issues means it is somewhat cathartic for me to study this stuff. There is purpose there. I absolutely adore the philology, it’s amazing, but it feels, I don’t know, kind of abstract. Like it’s great but it doesn’t relate to me enough. Gee, that sounds so self-indulgent! Oh well.

I think I want to tell stories, those of people I know, myself, but also others. I want to create connections with culture and investigate the concept of home and belonging. It’s something I’ve been looking for in my life and I daresay there are many others in the same situation with less capacity for or interest in finding the answers. So that’s where I’m at. The density of information that I’m absorbing, the sheer volume of it, is surely going to mean I’ll be clear on exactly what I want to do after this, whether it’s a PhD or something else.

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The oldest student

I’m not really that old. I just turned 37 the other week. But in my MA program, I’m the oldest. There are three others doing the same program as me and they’re all much younger. Like 10 to 15 years younger! At first I found it a little confronting. I’ve done a lot since I finished my undergraduate degree 14 years ago. I’ve worked and lived in other countries, I’ve even done another degree. But still, I’m the oldest, I have kids, I live 40km out of the city… It’s not easy.

But it wasn’t long, however, before I realised I was so much better equipped than these kids are to be doing a masters. That’s not to say I think anyone’s going to drop out, that they’re too young or whatever. I just want to acknowledge my gratitude to be the age I am. I have so much more knowledge, I’ve been places and done things and although I have a lot more going on with two little kids, I manage to do the required reading when others just haven’t the stamina. Not just that, I can apply myself and come up with intelligent remarks.

When I began my undergraduate degree in 1997, it was in a BA (Visual) specialising in textiles. I got in on a whim, having spoilt any chance of getting into any uni program based on grades, as I barely achieved a pass in my year 12 results. This was because I lacked focus, discipline and confidence, and I cut my nose off to spite my face in a way when I deliberately didn’t apply myself to my studies because I didn’t believe studying maths or science should be part of getting a suitable grade to get into arts at uni. I think I ended up with a 52. But I put together some half-assed portfolio of artwork I had done through high school and, by some miracle, was offered a place at art school. I had no idea at the time but this wasn’t just any art school; it was one of the foremost art schools in the country with an extremely high reputation at the time (I don’t think this is still the case). I still don’t really know how I got in, given I got one of seven places in a field of 135 applicants. Ultimately I never questioned it but who knows, perhaps I wasn’t a total fraud; perhaps I actually showed some talent!

After six months of, admittedly, mostly enjoyable foundation studies courses, I began to realise I didn’t want to be a “starving artist”. I didn’t have quite the passion of some (and genuine eccentricity of others!) I needed to do something a little more academic. Having said that, the most academic subject I studied at art school was Art Theory and it was the one I found most difficult. I didn’t do particularly well in that, having to write some essay on post-colonialism, if memory serves, in which I demonstrated practices I would employ throughout my undergraduate studies that guaranteed shit marks. Things like waffling on about something in a giant paragraph when I could have said it in one sentence and then not referencing because it was “just what I think”. Read: I did zero reading whatsoever and I’m winging it using flowery language and correct spelling.

Anyway, I received a distinction at the end of that first year of visual arts, which my mum still goes on about. But it wasn’t for me. Luckily, due to the prestige of the school, I suppose, it was actually part of the university, arguably the most well-respected university in Australia (it ranks about number 19 in the world now I think), and because I’d completed my first year I just transferred to do a straight BA, with some status credits tacked on from that Visual Arts year. I enrolled in the expected three courses: English, Italian and History. Introduction to the Study of Literature, Introductory Italian (I was placed in the intermediate class but quickly dropped back when I couldn’t understand anything in my first class), and Culture and Society in Britain and France: 1750-1850. Oh history! I think I’d heard of the French Revolution at the tender age of 19 after visiting Madame Tussauds in London and seeing the Madame Guillotine waxwork in the Chamber of Horrors. I’d never heard of the Industrial Revolution. Ha. I was so naive!

I barely passed that year-long unit of history (I think the tutor was very generous), and I quickly transferred out and into linguistics which suited me better. I still wrote essays containing no referencing that were basically just stories about what I thought on a certain topic but I somehow got through and got top marks in Italian so that ended up being what I went on to do in this program. To be honest, I’m not hugely passionate about Italian per se, I don’t really know much of the literature or history, although I’m learning a huge amount through this course, but one thing I’ve discovered is that I know what interests me and what I’d like to continue doing, so I have my Italian studies to thank for that. As an all-rounder, it’s not easy to find your passion.

And why did I enrol to do Italian back in 1998? Because I’d studied it in high school and I knew languages came easily to me. When I was choosing electives in my first year of high school it was a toss up between Spanish or Italian and I chose the latter simply because that’s what my best friend had chosen. “It’s a bludge,” she said. That’s all I needed to hear. Laziness was what I was all about, getting the best results for the least about of work. I look back and I can’t believe this was my attitude! That stubborn, lazy aspect of me did me no favours. I only hope I can instil something different in my own kids. Not that you must slog your guts out, but that it’s good to strive for something and feel passionate. It’s self-discipline that I learnt the hard way, and am still learning in fact. The difference is, learning is pure pleasure and it’s ironic that now, when I have the least amount of time available to devote to it, I’m finding so much enjoyment in it! And speaking of which, it’s time to stop this procrastinating and get back to it.

I can’t believe this is for real

Okay, so I’m all for ‘out there’ writing, experimentation, real dense crazy stuff.  I can’t say I’m the biggest erotica fan, although I did once enjoy some Anais Nin and I thought Armistead Maupin‘s Tales of the City was great stuff.  But I just read an article in the Guardian about Nicholson Baker‘s new book House of Holes.  Oh. My. God.  Or to be more specific: What. The. Fuck.  Seriously.  Is this for real?  The article is lengthy and well-written, and Baker can obviously write (and obviously earns money from it if he can afford to work from home and live wherever he likes on the east coast of America, alright for some).  But my God, this book sounds utterly ridiculous!  I guess maybe I just don’t get books about sex and fantasies.  I always thought Jilly Cooper was total crap, and I can’t believe so many people love the Clan of the Cave Bear series – what good were they but to skip to the sex scenes and read as a fascinated teen?

It reminded me of when my flatmate in London and I began exchanging books to read and she lent me Chuck Palahniuk‘s Invisible Monsters.  I couldn’t finish it.  What a load of shit!  I hated the writing, most of all.  The style seemed lazy, almost sticking it to the grammar man, like, screw you English, I’m going to write however I like, damn it!  Which is cool, but the arrogance of it just pissed me right off.  It wasn’t pleasurable writing to read.  Unlike The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas, which was full of loathsome characters that just make me screw my nose up, and those I didn’t hate just seemed unconvincing (what kind of a teenage girl refers to her vagina as a cunt, for Christ’s sake, yeesh).  But despite all that, the writing in that book is bloody fantastic, real quality.  The storyline is painful, and really doesn’t resonate with me personally, but it still cuts me to the bone, it impacts with a force, and anything it lacks is made up for in the quality of the writing.  So yeah, I wouldn’t read anything else Tsiolkas writes because I find his style, or rather his subject matter, a bit crude, but I bow down to him for his writing.  Palahniuk, on the other hand… I’d rather read bloody TV Week for the rest of my life than read another book by him.

I wonder, what is it that attracts people to this kind of writing?  Why do they love it?  My flatmate who leant me Invisible Monsters absolutely loved it, and she read a number of his other books too.  I couldn’t for the life of me work out what she found so appealing.  And believe me, we did discuss it at length, why she loved it and why I hated it.  I can’t remember the details (it was three years ago) but I think we just agreed to disagree.  If someone gave me a copy of Baker’s new sex book, I’d definitely give it a go (pardon the pun) and I’d do so with an open mind, really.  I just can’t promise I won’t rant on forever about how shite I thought it was… sexual utopia?  Give me a break!

The reading journey of a desperate writer

This post has been sitting in drafts for ages, four months actually, so now I have a few moments I decided to finish it; but when I went to do so, I realised I’d only written a title and nothing else!  That’s so typical of my writing.  As a kid I used to beg my parents for a nice new exercise book (the thickest one in the newsagent, a while 320 blank pages to fill, oh how fantastic that fresh thickness is!)  I’d go home, having been thinking long and hard about the title of my new book, and finally I’d open that book to the first page, find a good pen, and write my title.  Usually something along the lines of, ‘The Adventures of Isabelle Bentley’ or some such childish thing, fantasy character included.  I’d calculate that, as there were 320 pages, and I wanted to make 16 chapters in my book, each chapter would be 20 pages long.  So I’d draw up a nice contents page, showing those chapters, and then I’d go through the entire exercise book, writing ‘Chapter 1’ and ongoing, every 20 pages.  Finally my book was ready.  Problem is, I didn’t really have a story to write!

Anyway, I digress.  This post is meant to be about what I read.  At the moment I don’t get to read a lot, because a three-month-old baby doesn’t give you much opportunity to read, or at least this one doesn’t.  At the moment I’m reading Hilary Mantel‘s Wolf Hall, which is brilliant, but I knew it would be.  Prior to that I was reading a self-published work by Elizabeth Egan called The Sun on Distant Hills, only because I’d agreed to review it for the NSW Writers’ Centre and they’d kindly sent me the copy to review.  Aside from the other books for review, before I had my son I read a lot of interesting things.  The most recent of these was Portia de Rossi‘s Unbearable Lightness.

When I had my baby shower thing, the friend who organised it asked that everyone bring a children’s book for the baby, which I thought was a brilliant idea, so I’ve got lots of different ones to choose from.  It was interesting to note who gave which book too.  The one that stands out most (aside from the Women’s Weekly Birthday Cake Book – can’t wait to make those cakes!) is Roald Dahl‘s The BFG.  What a classic!  My mum hated Dahl, I think because she thought his stuff was a bit inappropriate for children, with its witches and man-eating giants.  There’s always something a little grizzly about his books, it’s true, but I absolutely adored them as a kid, and I borrowed them from the library and read them whether she liked it or not!  I distinctly remember the first line of The BFG: ‘Sophie couldn’t sleep.’  As I was rocking my son to sleep in the Ergobaby the other day, I thought of that book, so I grabbed the fresh copy off the shelf and began reading.  What sheer brilliance!  There are no wasted words in Dahl’s writing, it’s so fantastic.  Even as an adult, and having read it a hundred times as a child, I found it very hard to put down.

It reminds me, I was thinking the other day, should I be writing for children or young adults?  That’s the kind of stuff I enjoy.  Even in highschool I found a lot of adult literature difficult to get into and I would happily re-read Alice in Wonderland over and over than try anything for my age group.  Despite the amount of cliché and the ordinary quality of the writing, I really enjoyed the Twilight series, although I know that the author is just lucky to have decided to write on the topic at the right time.  It’s all about timing and marketing, after all.  One book that really got to me was Ruth Park’s Playing Beattie Bow, I think because it involved one of my favourite things: time travel.

I think I’ll talk more about things I read when I’m in the right head space.  For now, I’m going to ponder on writing for children and young adults…