Josna Rege

458. Graduate School

In 1980s, blogs and blogging, culture, Education, Immigration, parenting, postcolonial, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 9, 2020 at 2:01 am

This is the seventh entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Graduate School. 

In 1987, twelve years after having completed my B.A. in English, I found myself in graduate school in an English MA-PhD program. I say “found myself” because never in a million years had I considered going for a doctorate until I was actually doing it. After moving to the farm in the early 1980s and casting about for some worthwhile employment in the surrounding towns, it struck me that since the local schools were failing to teach the children to read, I might usefully get my M.A. in Teaching and become a reading specialist. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but reading had always been my passion. However, the local state college didn’t offer enough courses to enable me to complete the MAT, so they recommended that I apply to the nearest state university, some 30 miles away. With a two-year-old baby a 60-mile roundtrip commute already pushed my limit, so UMass Amherst was the only graduate school to which I applied, and the English department only had an MA-PhD program. Though initially I told myself that I could simply stop at the M.A., it was soon clear that I was going to go all the way. But if my graduate studies came about by accident, then—despite the inevitable, and not inconsiderable, costs to other areas of my life—it was a fortunate accident, because in some very important ways they brought me back to myself.

I have always been told that I talk too much. My primary school report cards said so, and so did my high-school friends’ entries in my autograph book. The move to high school in the U.S. at fifteen didn’t shut me up either, as I felt fully accepted by my small group of friends, all of whom for one reason or another were not part of the myriad cliques that divided the school. But college did silence me. My typical mode as an undergraduate was to slouch in the back with dark glasses on, metaphorically speaking, feeling completely out of place, and routinely tormenting myself at the thought of all my parents’ hard-earned money that I was wasting. I made few friends in my first two years there and spent more time wondering what I was doing there than actually doing something. It was only after taking a year off to study in London that I returned to the States with a sense of purpose, and finally learned a great deal in my final year. But most of the time I felt like an outsider in an alien environment with people who didn’t understand or include me and didn’t have the least interest in doing so. No doubt many fellow-students felt that way too, but my old gregarious self went into eclipse during those years, especially in classroom settings, where I hardly said a word unless called upon.

Merle Hodge

Returning to university for graduate school, I was a few years older than most of my cohort, and had the confidence of the intervening years of life experience. It was also very lucky for me that at the outset I met a group of young international faculty from India and South Africa, barely older than I was, who mentored and introduced me to an emergent field that I seemed to have been waiting for all my life. Looking at the course catalog for my first semester I noticed that a Dr. Ketu Katrak, a professor with an Indian-sounding name, was offering a course called “Commonwealth Literature.” Interesting, I thought, literature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts? But it turned out to be literature of the British Commonwealth, the name the Britisher gave to an emergent body of writing that, in the late 1980s, was about to rename itself postcolonial literature.

Chinua Achebe

In that first course we read works by Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ousmane Sembène and Ama Ata Aidoo from Africa, by Merle Hodge and George Lamming from the Caribbean, Anita Desai and Mulk Raj Anand from India, and I was hooked. Where had these works been hiding all my life? As an undergraduate I hadn’t been able to read anything other than British and American literature written well before the Second World War. A Passage to India (1924), the most recent British novel on the curriculum there and the only one set in India, had been written by an Englishman, albeit a wonderful writer deeply critical of British colonial rule. With Ketu Katrak graciously consenting to become my dissertation director, I immersed myself in the study of twentieth-century literatures from India, Africa, the Caribbean, and the postcolonial diaspora and the years just flew by, until one day Andrew gently reminded me that perhaps it was time for me to finish up, and at last I did, eight years after I had begun.

I was only taking two courses a semester because I was teaching at the same time and Nikhil was only two years old when I began my studies. Both my guys were nothing if not supportive. Andrew and I barely saw each other during those first years of grad school, because he was with Nikhil in Winchendon while I was away at UMass and I was with Nikhil while he was away at the press in Boston. Dear Andrew would occasionally nod off while reading bedtime stories to Nikhil and I would return to find the baby wide awake, beaming from ear to ear, with his dad fast asleep and snoring. Returning to Winchendon the day of my PhD qualifying exam, little Nikhil told me that he had kept all his fingers crossed for me all day. As a three-year-old he rode to the administration offices on my hip when the unionizing graduate employees were calling for family health insurance and childcare support (both of which we won). And he met many of the postcolonial writers and scholars who passed through the five-college area, including Anita Desai and her teenage daughter Kiran, who babysat for him for a semester while I was taking an African literature class with Chinua Achebe.

Shakespeare-Wallah (1965)

I’ll close with an anecdote from graduate school that exemplifies what I’ve been trying to feel my way toward. One semester I was auditing a Shakespeare class with the brilliant Normand Berlin (who at twice our age put us students to shame with his energy). My classmates knew their Shakespeare much better than I did; but of a class full of Shakespeare lovers, the two students who were head-and-shoulders above the rest came from Asia: one woman from Manila, the Philippines, and the other from India, a Bengali woman from Calcutta. My point is that in this particular context in the late 1980s, foreigners and immigrants like us were not outsiders, but at the center of an exciting new literary-cultural movement. We didn’t have to slouch in the back with dark glasses on as I had as an undergraduate. (America’s honeymoon with the Other didn’t last long; but that’s another story.)

The point is that this new field of literary studies gave me permission to delve deeply into literature and history that told my story and the stories of my parents. While the British Empire had invaded countries around the world and grown wealthy at their expense, my father had traveled to study in England, where and my mother had met and fallen in love, returning to India with her after my birth. I had grown up in newly Independent India in English-medium schools reading English children’s books (very good ones, I hasten to add). But it was only after coming to the United States that I started studying the literatures, cultures, and histories of the countries I had left behind. Now it became my mission to help students who might not have been exposed to this wealth of literature from around the world to fall in love with it as I had, and to see that the world was there to learn from rather than to dominate.

I was still talking too much, but now I had a captive audience.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. Sounds like an excellent course of literature. I need to read more of those authors.

  2. Talking a little or too much matters little. What matters is the Wisdom and Enlightenment imparted by your words.
    Thank you for “G”.
    I am grateful that you named the influential writers and mentors that informed and inspired you. Your reading recommendations have profoundly impacted me.
    Anna

    • Thank you, dear. For once I’m at a loss for words. Enlightenment is a little much, though I’ll gladly accept wisdom, only to add that it’s mutual in our exchanges, for which I’m so grateful. x J

  3. I read Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka as part of my school curriculum and loved them, Soyinka’s poetry particularly. Remains a favourite. West African literature is beyond fascinating. Chimamanda Adichie I read a couple years ago, loved her as well. Here from the A-Z, all the best.

    • Those Nigerian writers, Nilanjana! The younger generation is not disappointing, even as the elders are passing away. In Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimananda Ngozi Adichie positively channels Achebe in the language of her characters from his generation. Glad they were part of your curriculum. Was that in India, the U.S., or elsewhere?

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