On Writing What I Feared


*Dusts off blog*

It’s been way too long since I last updated. So much has happened since, and I still can’t believe that my senior year is almost over. I’m definitely getting antsy for graduation, but at the same time, I do want these next few weeks to slow down a bit. Everyone has been asking me how I feel about graduating, and I didn’t know how to answer, but it’s finally starting to hit me that I won’t be walking this campus anymore, and I won’t be seeing all the familiar faces of classmates, professors and friends.

My thesis project has changed and grown beyond ways I could have ever foresaw. A part of me is excited to share it with others, whereas another part of me is completely terrified. It’s become something so close to me, and the thought of letting it out into the world makes me so nervous, I could throw up. I’m not scared about the judgment of others and whether they’ll think it’s good or not, but rather, I’m scared of putting these stories out there because they’re so personal to me. They’re not fiction anymore. They’re about my family.

This lack of updates from me has been because I went through period of time where I was struggling with my project. I lost faith in it. Over the summer, in the Dietrich Honors Fellowship program, I was working on a collection of fictional short stories surrounding the coming of age of a young Vietnamese-American boy. I had hoped to draw on my own experiences to craft these stories. It was exciting to see some of them come together, and I grew invested into the lives of these characters, but somehow, along the way, I lost the passion for it. Not because I didn’t believe in them anymore or that I thought what I was trying to portray wasn’t important, but because something about the project felt dishonest. And after talking about my lack of inspiration with my advisor, Jane McCafferty, we both came to realize that maybe it was because I wasn’t able to truly achieve the goal I had set out when I first wanted to pursue my honors thesis project. My goal was to portray an honest coming of age story, influenced by Vietnamese culture and values. But doing so through channeling all my emotions, experiences, and the experiences of those around me into these fictional characters felt inauthentic.

As I sat in Jane’s office, we talked about why I was inspired to pursue the theme of this project in the first place. And it was because I felt that the stories I had heard from my family and friends growing up wasn’t truly represented in literature. We talked about the experiences of my mother and my grandmother, about religion in Vietnam, about war, about violence, about daily life there, and how it was almost tragic that the amazing lives they’ve lived won’t necessarily get to be heard by others. They’re just normal people, and we tend not to focus on the stories of normal people’s lives, even though these normal people may have had extremely important experiences.

So, Jane encouraged me to tell that story. Write about my family. At first, I wasn’t excited. I was nervous. For one reason, it sounded incredibly self-indulgent, and for another reason, it felt too personal. If I wrote about my family, I would have to write about myself too, and I hated the thought of that. I definitely would consider myself more of a fiction writer, so writing about things that really happened and about real people I knew was so nerve-wracking. I felt such a weight on my shoulders to portray them in a way that was honest, and fair, but I didn’t know if I could handle that responsibility.

I started with small steps. Interview those around you, Jane had told me. Gather your inspiration, take notes and record your conversations, but don’t write anything just yet. Jane has always been great at keeping me calm throughout all my moments of anxiousness and insecurities, so I’m beyond grateful for that. I did as she had suggested and talked to those close to me. I found that it was my grandmother’s stories that truly reeled me in. I learned so many things about her life that she never told me before, that she never told anyone before. I felt inspired again. And I hadn’t felt so inspired to write in such a long time.

I had to race against the clock (and I still am! That deadline…) But I’m so happy to say that I’m actually proud of what I have accomplished. I’m proud that I wrote what I was scared to write. This collection of short stories I have put together documents my grandmother’s coming of age as a Vietnamese woman. The pieces within this collection touch upon the violence of the Vietnam War, domestic abuse, religion and discrimination against Amerasians, all through her perspective and personal experiences. The final project will hopefully take the form of a nicely bound book, so I can share it with others, but I truly hope that I can give her the first copy. The title of this collection is 9 AM, in honor of the conversations my grandmother and I had every week, at 9 AM. And when I told her that I was writing about her life, about so many intensely personal aspects of her life, I was afraid she would feel uncomfortable about it (understandably so). I was expecting a lot of questions, but the only question my grandmother asked was “Is it any good?” Haha, I sure hope so.

And even though the I’m not using any of the pieces I wrote in the summer, I don’t think of any of it as waste. I did at first. It freaked me out when I completely changed the direction of my project in the middle of my fall semester, especially when I already had completed a good chunk through the Summer Fellowship Program. But I knew that this project could have only become so important to me if I made that change. I don’t think of the time I spent over the summer was a waste. In fact, that time helped further develop my craft, read stories by other Vietnamese-American authors, and give me a space to be excited about other people’s projects and ideas. And I still am excited to see the final projects of all the other fellows. I am so incredibly grateful to the Dietrich Honors Fellowship Program because it allowed me to explore my own passions in such a safe environment. I don’t think my project could have grown into something that means so much to me if I didn’t start it as early as I did, if I didn’t have that time to be confused, to fail and to wander a bit.

As cheesy as this all sounds, it’s been a hell of a journey. So, for anyone that’s reluctant about whether they want to pursue their own honors thesis project or not, I’m a complete supporter for it. I want others to be able to have the fulfilling experience that I am lucky to have had. There’s almost no other better feeling in this world than that feeling in your gut that says “This is all actually starting to come together, and this might actually be good.” Despite all the stress, those fears and worries that come along with doing something like this, it’s worth it.





A Study of American Popular Music Festivals as Youthful Rites of Passage

Have you ever gone to a music festival? Dietrich College Honors Fellow Geneva Jackson spent the summer attending festivals in Tennessee, West Virginia, Delaware and other locations. Why? She’s researching their role as youthful rites of passage as her Senior Honors Program thesis.

Jackson, a global studies and history major, recently presented on her work. In addition to her field work, she worked with her advisor, History Professor Judith Schachter worked to define what a festival consists of for her project.

geneva presents“We have a working definition,” Jackson said. “There has to be music, even if other arts are present, and the duration has to be longer than one night.”

She also spoke about how she had to narrow her original focus from comparing festivals from the 1960s to today. Instead she will just study modern music festivals.

Jackson talked about the unique position she’s in because she’s part of the demographic she’s observing. She also described the types of data she collected – how she wrote everything she saw, trying to be objective, and what she experienced. She also wrote reflections later about what she learned and what it meant.

Moving forward, Jackson will go through all of her notes to see what fits where and find and read anthropological works on rites of passage.

Learn more about her project.

Mixed Messages: On Appropriation

Hello there!

I spent last weekend at another festival, which means two things; first, I am again facing a number of odd tan lines, the worst of these being a sunglasses mark, particularly visible on my nose. The second is that the time has finally come for me to think about some negative things that go on at festivals. As I’ve been looking into the messages festivals market to audiences through their websites and advertising, I spent a lot of time thinking about the ideas being pushed on audiences. While doing so I saw mostly great things, like love and the spirit of cohabitation, but I also started thinking about some no-so-great parts of festivals. From drug use and public intoxication, to theft and violence, music festivals do not always provide a positive experience for festival-goers. Something I, and many others before me have grappled with is the presence of cultural appropriation in the clothing, marketing, and performances at festivals.

Before you click off the page or get the wrong impression I’d like to preface with the probably clear fact that I love music festivals. I am spending a full year researching all about them simply because I think they are the site of a remarkable cultural phenomenon, and I would like to examine why. Additionally, they make for some great views, like the image below, and a lot of exciting memories!

Here's a picture of this week's "study spot" not a bad view, I must say!

Here’s a picture of this week’s “study spot” not a bad view, I must say!

So when I decided to call out the cultural appropriation I have noticed, it is not out of some attempt to discredit festivals as a generally positive experience. More specifically, though I will be using examples from the most recent festival I attended (All Good in West Virginia), I am not by any means discouraging people from attending this festival in the future (I truly enjoyed myself!). I also do not mean to claim that this is the only location in which I’ve witnessed negative appropriative behavior.

So on to these instances of appropriation I keep talking about. As a global studies and history student, I completely understand the need for cultural exchange; in fact I think it is a vital method through which we can advance society and has resulted in a number of amazing shared experiences since more or less the beginning of humankind. That being said, I also recognize the value of knowing the difference between sharing cultural elements and cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is defined on its wikipedia page (check it out for more basic information!) as “the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another cultural group, especially if the adoption is of an oppressed people’s cultural elements by members of the dominant culture”.

For many, the term contains a very negative connotation, synonymous with stealing, disrespecting, and distorting cultural elements. The format of this negative appropriation ranges from offensive use of sacred symbols, to reinforcement of prejudiced stereotypes through media, to appropriating clothing and hairstyles in an effort to be funny or edgy. From my perspective, cultural appropriation results from actions or representations that, when enacted by a member of the dominant culture, are celebrated at the expense of the oppressed culture. This “celebration” can come in terms of the action being seen as funny, edgy or cool, or attractive–but only when the action is done by a member of the dominant culture.

As an example of this, let’s talk about “All Good’s Gangster Time.” Once a day, a group of people on stilts would come out together in matching costumes and walk through the festival. It was unclear if these people worked for the festival, or simply were a group of patrons who had come to entertain. On the first day I thought this was a cool, idiosyncratic part of the All Good festival. However, on the second day, a set was interrupted by sharp whistles. And there, clad in all gold, fake afros, metallic dollar sign chains, and even some aluminum foil grills stood the stilted people. They wove through the crowd holding large posters, one of which declared that is was “All Good’s Gangster Time” and pausing to take pictures with people doing “gang signs” and leaning their shoulders in a “thuggish” manner.

These words conjure a certain image to mind. It’s no secret that thuggish is coded language for black, or that black people wear their hair in the afro hairstyle. The problem with this costume is just that: white people dressed up in this manner as a costume. Beyond reinforcing negative images of black people in society, as well as linking hairstyles, which are integral to black culture, to a certain socioeconomic status, Gangster Time was just another way for white people to participate in a joke about a group which excludes those that it is about and gets its humor at their expense.

In addition to this event, the All Good Festival also featured a large white statue of a laughing Buddha. The platform around it acted as a meeting point and seating area, especially at night when fluorescent lights illuminated it. While I don’t know much about the teachings of Buddhism, I feel that using a religious figure as a large advertisement probably crosses some boundaries. This goes along with, at least two Native American headdresses I saw, another symbol often appropriated by people of dominant cultural groups.

The problem here is not the intent, for I don’t believe any of the events occurred purposefully to offend anyone. The problem is that when you use a symbol from a culture that is not your own with the intention to get a laugh, create a mascot, or as a purely aesthetic fashion choice, you disregard the significance of that item for those to whom it belongs. It is not cultural exchange in a meaningful way, stemming from understanding of the symbol’s past or uses, it is appropriation. And it’s a part of music festival culture that needs to stop.

I know this post is kind of heavy, but again I think it’s important to consider the behaviors we take part in that are damaging. Unfortunately I have never attended a festival without seeing these and other items used in a disrespectful manner. Despite this, the messages of festivals are overall really positive, and All Good was a very fun experience. From the Hollywood-esque illuminated letters reading “Welcome to All Good” (pictured below) and later “Come to Love All”, to performers telling the crowd “Thank you for letting me be myself” and to “Stay Good” everyone at the festival encouraged optimistic views on living and a healthy respect for fun. I would certainly return to wild and wonderful West Virginia, I just hope that someday soon I could do so and see a little less of these off-putting images.

The good vibes abounded at this incredibly laid-back festival and I can't help but think "Come to Love All" could be the catchphrase of festival culture itself. 

The good vibes abounded at this incredibly laid-back festival and I can’t help but think “Come to Love All” could be the catchphrase of festival culture itself.

Until my next post, thanks for reading!

Learn more about my project.