Adriana is not your typical New York City student. She commutes from Brooklyn to Princeton, New Jersey regularly enough to shame you from complaining about commuting from uptown to downtown. She is tender in her explanations, debating, and joking. We bonded over the less serious but no less important things in life – food and games. Adriana found an afternoon to kindly school me on literature from way back when and now.
How many careers have you had? What is your current title?
I am a Ph.D Candidate in Comparative Literature (“perpetual student,” to quote my mother).
When I was four, the bus that used to take me to daycare made a slight detour and dropped me off at an elementary school. Since that day, I have not spent a single year outside of the classroom. When on-line registration forms and the like require that I specify my profession, I mark "student." If this option is unavailable, "other" will do. Or I claim that I am a CEO in charge of 10,000+ employees.
What project will you be working on next?
Aside from my dissertation, my next major project is running the 2005 marathon.
Your house is burning down. What one possession (aside from human/animal life) would you grab on the way out?
I would take the first book my grandmother published: an anthology of Ecuadorian and World Literature in Spanish translation titled Lecturas selectas. It was the standard textbook for literary studies in Ecuador for decades. To me, it's a map of my grandmother's intellectual life. She taught high school and college literature in Quito and was responsible for starting many high school literary journals. Her students won poetry awards every year. She died two years ago. Many of her former students attended the memorial service. Soon after, my mother and her sister went through her room and found her personal copy of the anthology. They generously decided that I should have it.
When and how did we meet?
We met in early 2004 at the home of our mutual friends, Anil Dash and Alaina Browne. We played Mario Party with Silvio and Alaina on a big plushy bed. You kept trying to psych us out, and, for the most part, it worked. You shamelessly won every round of Night Light Fright but I swore revenge.
To start, can you explain to me, what is comparative literature?
A comparatist approaches literature with the understanding that it cannot be studied in isolation. The nature of this isolation can be, for example, linguistic, geographic and/or cultural. But when you get down to it, many literature departments today (e.g., English and French) have begun to integrate multi-lingual and cultural approaches, in large part because of the growing interest in post-colonial Anglophone and Francophone writing. What differentiates Comp. Lit. from other literature departments is its interdisciplinary approach to literary studies. Strong ties with non-literary departments, like anthropology, film studies, art history and philosophy, are an important component of any good Comparative Literature department.
What made you want to study words? Were you interested in words even before college?
Up until high school, I didn't think that the study of literature was a viable option for me. Part of that was due to the expectation (from my teachers, parents and myself) that I would do something more “practical” with my intelligence, like be a doctor or lawyer. I internalized this expectation and after a while I had convinced myself that I wanted to be a chemist. I was at a science and math magnet school but felt utterly misplaced. Crisis resulted.
My junior year English teacher was unlike any other English teacher at my school. She was devoted to developing good writers and thinkers, but she also judged us on how well we wrote and thought about literature. This was my first, real exposure to literature as its own discipline with its own rules and standards. It made sense to me in a way that nothing else had. The week that our Emily Dickinson portfolios had to be turned in, I completely ignored my Physics problem sets. I knew that I had found my place.
Tell me more about your grandmother. She sounds fascinating.
My grandmother grew up in southern Ecuador, in a town called Loja. Her uncle was the town priest and took charge of her education. She grew up in his parish and spent most of her time browsing his extensive library collection. When she graduated, she was one of two women from her region to win a scholarship to study in Quito, which at that time was a two-week trek from her hometown.
She was a beautiful, intelligent and difficult woman. What always impressed me about her was her charisma, her ability to turn all eyes in her direction. But I didn't know her for very long. She went senile in her seventies and slowly began to retreat into a past before her marriage and children. It was devastating but maybe she was happier then. Once, on a long plane ride, she asked to borrow a book. I handed her a bootleg edition of [Pablo] Neruda's sonnets. After a couple of hours, I asked her what she thought of his work and she replied, "He really likes vegetables." And it's true. He really does.
You are lucky to have had someone like your grandmother in your life.
Yes, although she's more of a myth to me. The lessons I draw from her life have more to do with how I interpret her biography than any actual knowledge.
Do you ever feel the pressure to be a writer after having studied literature in so many different cultures?
No, rather my exposure to different cultures and languages has increased the pressure I feel to become a teacher. I was just telling David this morning that sitting here reading poetry (for my general exams, no less) and listening to Keren Ann in the background brought back memories of lounging around in college and imagining myself as a writer. Only in that scenario, I was probably reading a book that had nothing to do with the classes I was taking. That's one of the differences between then and now. In college, I was a noncommittal and often dilettantish student. I majored in literature because it was fun, and avoided texts that I simply didn’t enjoy. I can’t afford to feel that way now. You don’t pursue a Ph.D just because you like to read and write about literature. Although, I sometimes have to admit that the line between work and play is not so pronounced, especially on days when I am reading poetry.
But back to the question on writing: Some academics I know claim that studying literature squelches your desire to write creatively because the exposure to "great writing" is so intimidating. I think this is ridiculous; it’s a fear that the history of literature doesn’t substantiate. Imagine if Ezra Pound had decided that the Provençal poets had made their point best.
How do you view literature's relationship to society?
Several years ago, in Israel, I got into an argument with a classmate who questioned the validity of literary study. She was a Professor of Accounting and basically asserted that because reading is something you can do on your own, why bother spending money on a literature major? The fact that a novel, for instance, has a historical and cultural context that is relevant to the work but not explicitly stated within its pages didn't matter to her. Did she really need to take a class to know when Don Quixote was written? No. Would knowing anything about Don Quixote really matter to her life at present? Would it change her reading of the novel? If you are reading for pleasure, I guess not. So when I asked her why I should take an accounting class--after all, do I really need to study accounting to do my taxes? Isn’t that what HR Block is for?--she replied, “You don't need to know that stuff, but I do. Someone needs to know how it works.“ Ah-ha! I said. You may not need to know anything about the history of Spanish Golden Age literature and the literary and cultural impact of Quixote but I do, because someone needs to know how it works. Someone needs to know—to remember--how things connect. Don Quixote was written 400 years ago. A lot happened half a millennium ago that is now lost to us, why is this book still on our bookshelves?
Literature matters to society not only because it is an expression of the world we live in but also because it forms part of an archive of that world and the perceptions of those who live—and have lived--in it. The literature of my time also fascinates me. I embrace it all: comic books, graphic novels, performance poetry, blogs, etc.
So literature is like a compendium of culture and it affects the future now. Even with the new mediums you gave as examples.
Absolutely. Even the whimsical dialogues of The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy have, or will prove to have, a literary relevance.
What are some of your favorite non word-related things to do?
I channel all my dilettantish tendencies to my extracurricular activities. Whatever I do has to have a short-term goal like running the marathon in 2005 or learning how to bind a book). When I moved to New York City, I tried yoga but it just seemed so…endless. Video gaming is a steady distraction during semester breaks (Final Fantasy, Double Dash, and Wind Waker). I also like cooking, and my latest challenge has been coming up with vegan alternatives for classic meat dishes, like soup dumplings. In fact, I developed a recipe recently but it is a tightly guarded secret for the moment. This year I'd like to go to more art museums and music concerts (Keren Ann will be at Joe’s Pub in March.). I’ll also made a bet to attend 10 slam poetry events.
What other languages do you speak?
Hebrew and Spanish. I also studied French and Russian but I can't speak them, although I did manage to understand a lot of Keren Ann’s French songs this morning.
Tell me about Keren Ann, she showed up in your blog and she's obviously on your mind.
I’m attracted to her background. She's developed an entire career as a French singer and has worked with many prominent singers/songwriters, including Benjamin Biolay. But she claims that these days she writes English "instinctively." I can relate to that. There are days when I feel more at home in Spanish and sometimes I dream in Hebrew.
Perhaps because English is my second-language, I embraced the idea of many languages, many homelands at an early age. I tend to gravitate towards artists who are in their work, and in their lives, restless.
What is stingykids.net?
The name Stingy Kids comes from a cycle of poems by Dennis Silk, an English-born, Israeli poet. The poems appear in his 1990 collection Catwalk and Overpass. He calls them "Prose poems about the situation," meaning the Israel-Palestine situation, what Israelis refer to as "ha-matsav."
I started Stingy Kids to pull myself out of writer's block. I found that I couldn’t write freely. I was constantly worried about my style, grammar, precision of thought and argument. It was crippling. It's one thing to feel anxious when you are writing a seminar paper but when you can't even write a short email you know that you have a problem.
At first the content was very random. These days I'm trying to focus my content on art, literature and, occasionally, politics and music. The idea is to write, when possible, about things that lie outside of my field of study. But, in the end, most of my posts have a literary bent. The SK tagline could be “Literature: Wherever, Whenever” (to borrow from Shakira).
I have an idea for a concept blog that will only be about art but that won't come about for a while.
To quote Shakira after you've quoted so many luminaries is really funny! Can we get a sneak peek on the concept of your concept blog?
A long conversation ensued, but everything’s a secret for now. Sorry folks…I promise, it’s super cool!
I love Shakira—in English and Spanish! I got David hooked.
What is your guilty pleasure?
You know what is really and truly my guilty pleasure? www.imdb.com. I love the forums. The less I say about this the better. Ask me about it in person!