Sexual Agent or Victim: URI PhD candidate Michele Meek Discusses Conflicting Narratives Centered around Amy Fisher

 

As the latest installment of the URI Department of English’s Graduate Student Colloquium Series, on Thursday, October 1st, 2015, URI PhD candidate Michele Meek presented a riveting talk to an attentive audience titled “A Dangerous Girl or a Girl in Danger?: Shifting Sexual Agency in Narratives about the ‘Long Island Lolita.'”

Additional chairs were ushered in minutes before the talk to accommodate the eager crowd, and Professor Naomi Mandel’s introduction served to prepare the audience with descriptors of Meek’s work as “edgy” as it focuses on topics such as rape, pornography, and sexuality. Drawing on her keen interest in film and images, Meek opened her presentation with a series of images from the television movie, The Amy Fisher Story (1993), starring Drew Barrymore. After walking the disquieted audience through the narrative of events between Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco, Meek proceeded to present a counter narrative as seen in an alternate television movie, Amy Fisher: My Story (1992). Rounding out the possibilities of their affair, Meek then presented a third possible narrative as she showed her audience images from Casualties of Love: The “Long Island Lolita” Story (1993).

Meek then revealed her main point of interest surrounding the Amy Fisher narrative, as it relates to her dissertation, in which she examines specific narrative moments that depict “consent puzzles,” or ethically and aesthetically ambiguous depictions of sexual situations, where as readers or watchers, we may feel a sense of discomfort, and as scholars, we find no simple answers.

Further investigating the media frenzy surrounding the trial of Amy Fisher, Meek examined how the tabloid media shaped not only the general public’s opinion of the affair, but the extent to which the prosecuting and defense attorneys involved in the case were influenced by and responding to sharply drawn victim/perpetrator portrayals with Buttafuoco and Fisher exchanging roles at various points in order to further either the prosecution’s or defense’s agenda.

Drawing on her research conducted at the Library of Congress media archives, Meek analyzed the role of multiple Hard Copy and A Current Affair exposés, as well as the three made-for-television movies mentioned above and the true crime novels written from various perspectives.

Meek focused on specifics such as how the emergence of Fisher’s work as an escort, her sexual abuse as a child, her rape as a twelve-year-old by a workman at the house were used as effective rhetorical strategies for either Fisher’s defense or prosecution.

Drawing on the work of gender theorist, Judith Butler, Meek problematized the victim/perpetrator dichotomy rife throughout the media spectacle surrounding Fisher’s trial, in order to suggest that to access a girl’s sexual agency, we might need to allow for some more ambiguity by allowing the ‘consent puzzle’ to exist.

Meek then fielded a wide range of questions from the diverse audience. Within this dialogue, Meek and the audience addressed the Anita Hill case, revictimization within the field of psychology, and concerns about Long Island ethnic identity further expanding and demonstrating the importance of Meek’s work.

Constructing Femininity: Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Material Culture, and the OED

clip_art_library_books89143630_stdHave you ever looked up a word in the OED, and come across a first-use quotation from your favorite author? Well, if your favorite author happens to be Victorian writer Mary Elizabeth Braddon, you would experience this feeling of surprise quite frequently.

In her March 25, 2015 talk entitled “Constructing Femininity: Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Material Culture, and the OED,” PhD candidate Anna Brecke spoke about Braddon’s lasting mark on the English language. Although most widely known as the author of Lady Audley’s Secret, Braddon was a prolific writer of sensation in the 1860s, penning more than 150 novels and short stories, nine plays, and countless poems and other scholarly writings over the span of her forty-year career, becoming the sixth most cited female author in the OED at present. Brecke’s talk drew examples from three of Braddon’s lesser-known novels, Asphodel, Mount Royal, and Vixen, where words abound that Braddon herself either coined or utilized in a new way. These words run the gamut from abstruse anachronisms to commonplace contemporary terms. Words currently in disuse like “horsiness” and “dogginess” were used by Braddon in describing the habits of female characters as liking the outdoors or enjoying hunting. Braddon in fact refers to the “horsiness” of her own activities in her diaries, which, Brecke interestingly points out, focus more on horses and riding than they do on people. Braddon’s novels utilize these and similar terms as a way to distinguish her “natural heroines” from the commodified girl culture that was often pressed in social circles and popular culture. It is here in her connection to material culture that Braddon’s mark on the English language can best be seen.

Drawing on her work in the Mary Elizabeth Braddon Archive held at the International Center for Victorian Women Writers (ICVWW) in Canterbury Christ Church University, England, Brecke spoke to the apparent preoccupation with issues of appearance and social expectations of dress voiced in Braddon’s works. Brecke recognized a theme of materiality in Braddon’s terms, pointing to the abundance of words that relate to material culture, specifically fashion, fabric, or clothing, that make up the over 1,400 OED entries in which Braddon is cited. The novel Vixen is cited for the first use of the word “fashion magazine” in print, while the term “chic” cites Mount Royal as an instance of first use for its meaning. The third text Brecke discussed, Asphodel, boasts “aglitter,” “fad,” and among its contributions to the English language. The female characters of Braddon’s texts use this specialized fashion vocabulary as a way to consume girl culture being broadcasted in the very magazines Braddon names. Brecke’s talk included pictures of Victorian fashion plates, or drawings of the most popular clothing styles of the time, similar to those that characters in a Braddon may have themselves looked upon.

Although Braddon’s project may not have been to propagate and encourage girl culture, her contributions to the world of material culture—particularly fashion—are astonishing. As Brecke pointed out in her question and answer session, there is certainly a doubleness to Braddon’s use of the terms, where successful heroines find moderation between consumer culture and anti-consumerism tendencies. Brecke’s talk served to highlight this lesser-known author whose contributions to the English language are impressive and astonishing, and whose influence stretches beyond the literary page.

Swamp Things: Professor Branka Arsić Lectures on Disease and Decay in the Writings of Henry David Thoreau

On March 30th, 2015 Branka Arsić presented a captivating section from Bird Relics: Grief and treeVitalism in Thoreau (forthcoming from Harvard University Press in 2015). The audience was noticeably engrossed in her meticulously researched findings in her talk titled, “Swamps, Leaves, Galls: Thoreau on Disease and Decay”: the latest installment of the URI Department of English Read/Write Series.

Branka Arsić is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Currently a Visiting Professor at Brown University, Arsić is an authority of American Literature with previous published books including On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson and Passive Constitutions or 7½ Times Bartleby. Arsić opened her discussion with an overview of her subject: Henry David Thoreau. Her specific interest is Thoreau’s view on life that first developed while he attended at Harvard — a philosopher in his own right with a keen interest in science.

Arsić advocates for a literal reading of Thoreau’s writings involving nature. She focuses on his elevation of swamps as generators of life; epicenters of where “cunning mixtures” of life are enacted that spark transformations of lifeforms. For Thoreau, swamps embody incessant continuity of mutation and, therefore, exist as sites of immortality. This view of swamps subverts popular conceptions of these environments as centers of repugnance.

Arsić elaborated on how Thoreau’s interest in swamps intensified after the death of his brother. Decaying fungi preoccupied Thoreau as much as budding flowers. These served as natural glimpses into the operation of life, revealing life’s temporality: one that is not linear as the Aristotelian model would suggest, but exists in overlap between growth and decay.

The discussion developed further with Thoreau’s fixation on leaves and galls, which are the equivalent of tumor-like growths that develop on the foliage. Arsić attests to Thoreau’s understanding that leaves remain alive despite falling, “like the breath of the tree.” In lieu of this notion, traditional views of the seasons as representative of living (spring) and dying (fall) are subverted. Vegetation exists in constant states of life and death. Observations that would typically be viewed as signifying death such as a leaf’s change in color actually serve as reminders to this fact that, according to Thoreau, “All the seasons are spring.”

Arsić’s argument culminates in the assertion that the Aristotelian, linear view of life established values of privileging “healthy” life. Ideals of perfection were normalized and irregularity was devalued and christened the “abnormal.” Arsić posits that Thoreau’s view of disease is not as a series of constant attacks on life, but as a natural aspect of it. There is nothing that does not rot as it buds, and all of nature can be likened to the imperfections of galls that form upon leaves.

Branka Arsić admitted that “Swamps, Leaves, Galls: Thoreau on Disease and Decay” was only a small aspect of a much more complex framework that develops in the chapters of her book. However, the presentation prompted a series of stimulating questions regarding the nature of Thoreau’s authorial perspective and academic tendencies to aestheticize literature to conform to the demands of the reader and drift away from its unadulterated value that can be gained from reading a text on its own terms.

Big Names Visit A Small State

June 19-21 marked the 8th annual Ocean State Summer Writing Conference. Annually, the University of Rhode Island’s Department of English brings together writers from across the spectrum of place and profession for three electric days of learning, networking and practice. From Harvard to UPenn, from RIC to Brown, from California to Florida, from Providence to Bristol, writers of all walks of life enjoy workshops, craft sessions and readings.

Besides the tremendously popular keynotes at this year’s gathering, from Alison Bechdel, Charles Bernstein and Percival Everett, certain events stood out as participant favorites.

Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar returned to the conference (after being a keynote speaker at the 2013 conference) and was met with great enthusiasm. One of his events was a conversation with Guggenheim Fellow and Professor Mary Cappello, where they addressed the “turning points” of their careers, their drive and their practice–to a standing room-only group of attendees. Of his former professor from his time as an undergraduate at SUNY/Buffalo, Akhtar has said that Cappello played a key role in shaping him as a writer.

Elaine Sexton and Kristin Prevallet also made a tremendous impact on their attendees. A conversation between the two during the penultimate time slot of the conference addressed a subject on the mind of anyone who has attended a conference before: “What now?” Sexton and Prevallet conversed on subjects like community building, networking, getting published, being employed–important questions, especially to poets. Their insight impacted the group as they both have worked extensively in a variety of fields.

National Book Award nominee and Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies, Jody Lisberger had one of the most well-attended events. Her craft session, “Writing or Wanting to Write a Novel or Book-Length Memoir–Strategies for Success” was held in the Agnes G. Doody Auditorium to a group of more than 70.

There were many talented and accomplished writers at the conference in June, and whether they were familiar with the conference from previous years or new to the University of Rhode Island, they contributed to a terrific experience for many of Rhode Island’s writers.

 

OSSWC in Three Words: Eclectic, Professional, and Friendly

A capstone event for the Department of English this summer was the 2014 Ocean State Summer Writing Conference, hosted from June 19-21. Regional and national writers, both novice and seasoned, gathered at URI to study writing and to share their own works with fellow scholars.

On the morning of the first day, attendees found themselves in two-hour-long, rigorous workshop sessions. From beginning fiction to advanced poetry, memoir writing to screen writing, OSSWC offered workshops in various genres, giving participants the chance to work closely with experienced workshop leaders and fellow writers. In the afternoon, conference-goers attended a welcome reception in Green Hall. After remarks by URI creative writing faculty Professor Peter Covino and URI English alumnus, Thomas Barkman, participants enjoyed readings by brilliant writers. Continue reading “OSSWC in Three Words: Eclectic, Professional, and Friendly”

Rachel May’s Students Learn from Writers They Admire

In Rachel May’s courses, students don’t just learn about writers’ work, they meet writers.

Over the past few years as a graduate student instructor in URI’s Department of English, May has arranged to have her literature and creative writing students speak with Jody Lisberger about her short stories; with Kristin Prevallet, David McGlynn, and Nancy Caronia about their nonfiction; and with M. NourbeSe Philip about her poetry.

This pedagogical practice brings her students in touch with writers, a choice that is important to her because, she says, students “don’t always see writers as real people and then when they speak with the writer they have a new perception of the work and what it means to be a writer. This is a regular person who wrote that book and that could be them.”

Students Skyping
Students Skyping

Continue reading “Rachel May’s Students Learn from Writers They Admire”

Alt-Ac Workshop: Why Passion Shouldn’t Mean Narrowing Your Options

If the job market for tenure-track positions seems daunting, that’s because it is. I am not saying landing a job is impossible– I am saying we all know what the reality is, and it is a bit scary. But that does not mean the nay-sayers, the “what are you going to do with that?” crowd, can go on feeling smug about post-graduate degrees in the humanities. Of course, being in a graduate program in English means there is a good chance you have heard this all before, that you have done the research, that you have plugged your ears against the doubters and made the choice to follow your passion anyway. A degree in English is worth a lot more than just a job at the end of the line. But it is nice to eat, too. So, maybe there is a way to reconcile your passion with reality. I am definitely not saying there isn’t the chance for a tenure-track teaching position at the institution of your dreams; I am saying, do not be afraid to keep all options open.

Continue reading “Alt-Ac Workshop: Why Passion Shouldn’t Mean Narrowing Your Options”

A Job Talk by Gavin Hurley: “Inclusive Transcendence: Rhetorical Dissociation Within Contemporary Discourse of Spirituality”

On Wednesday, February 19th Rhetoric & Composition Ph.D. Candidate Gavin Hurley delivered his “job talk” to Writing & Rhetoric department faculty and fellow students. The “job talk” is practice for graduating Ph.D. students who are getting ready for the job market. This was Gavin’s opportunity to deliver research from his dissertation, as well as field questions about his work in preparation for upcoming job interviews.  During the presentation, titled “Inclusive Transcendence: Rhetorical Dissociation Within Contemporary Discourse of Spirituality,” Gavin shared the research and results from one chapter of his near-complete dissertation. [br] Continue reading “A Job Talk by Gavin Hurley: “Inclusive Transcendence: Rhetorical Dissociation Within Contemporary Discourse of Spirituality””

URI International Women’s Day Conference: Clarissa J. Walker Explores Activism Rhetoric of Afro-Cuban Women

In a presentation titled “The Rhetoric of Activism: Afro-Cuban Women Tweeting, Blogging, Tracking the Finish of the 59-year-old Castro Regime,” Writing & Rhetoric Ph.D. candidate Clarissa Walker joined American and international scholars to share work that explores the harrowing experiences and celebrated contributions of women from across the globe. On February 28th, the University of Rhode Island held its second annual International Women’s Day Conference, featuring Italian writer Dacia Maraini and a distinguished list of scholars from URI and other universities, including Fordham, Harvard, Texas at Austin, Vermont, and Mount Holyoke College.  Clarissa presented her work as part of a panel focused on women’s issues in the U.S., Cuba, North Africa, and Italy.

Continue reading “URI International Women’s Day Conference: Clarissa J. Walker Explores Activism Rhetoric of Afro-Cuban Women”

A Talk by Kim Evelyn: “Speaking Home and History: Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Narratives of National Belonging”

On February 12th, faculty and students were treated to an eloquent and thought-provoking talk from Ph.D. candidate, Kim Evelyn, at an event hosted by the English Graduate Colloquium. Kim’s presentation, titled “Speaking Home and History: Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Narratives of National Belonging,” highlighted a paradox central to British colonial identity– the incongruity between a British Caribbean individual’s sense of national belonging and the feeling of exclusion. The multigenerational Caribbean characters of Smith’s White Teeth struggle with the difficult idea of “home,” recounting family histories in order to create a narrative of identity foundational to their experiences of diaspora.

Following her talk, I asked Kim to elaborate on what it was like to participate in the Graduate Colloquium.

Q: Can you briefly tell us how your talk fits into your larger project?

KE: The talk came out of my second dissertation chapter on George Lamming’s novel The Emigrants and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. My project looks at conceptualizations of home (the idea of it, domestic homes, national homes, and the necessary questions of belonging and identity that stem from that) in the literature of the Caribbean diaspora in the UK. Continue reading “A Talk by Kim Evelyn: “Speaking Home and History: Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Narratives of National Belonging””