I Survived Graduate School!

Hi readers! It’s been too long since I’ve posted something on this website! I feel a little guilty for not uploading content regularly this past year, but life sometimes gets in the way of keeping up with side projects. However, even though this past year has been excruciatingly busy, it has also been one of the most rewarding years of my academic career.

One of the most exciting things to happen this year only occurred about three weeks ago: I successfully defended my dissertation and officially became Dr. Matos! This is the primary reason I haven’t been updating this website. Writing the dissertation was an interesting journey, and while it feels immensely satisfying to have completed the project, I wasn’t quite ready for the emotional and intellectual weight of writing a 300-page book. When I first began my project, I had envisioned a more comparative study in which I established the parallels between an archive of queer literature written for adult audiences, and an archive of queer literature written for adolescent readers. However, the project transformed into an in-depth analysis of young adult queer literature, focusing on the narrative and affective dimensions of this genre in works published in the twenty-first century. This was the first thing that I was not prepared for: the dissertation is not a stable project. The more you write, the more the project changes. Part of this has to do with the fact that you’re constantly learning new things as you read and write. You could have two chapters written, and suddenly you come up with an idea that alters the scope of your entire project (this is both thrilling and terrifying).

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This was basically my reaction to successfully defending my dissertation. This plus tears. Many, many tears.

via GIPHY

After years of research and writing, I completed the final draft of my project, which I decided to title Feeling Infinite: Affect, Genre, and Narrative in Young Adult Queer Literature (a nod to one of my favorite young adult novels of all time, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower). This project explores how young adult queer novels written in the twenty-first century conciliate the tension that exists between the negative affect commonly associated with the queer literary archive, and the positive affect that readers often associate with young adult literature. In dealing with this tension, I also explore the ways in which the positive affect of young adult literature could lead to innovative and fresh ways of thinking about queer literature and culture. Rather than approaching young adult fiction as a straightforward and simplistic genre, one of my aims was to show the extent to which young adult queer texts can be multi-layered, rich, and complex—and how through this complexity, these novels are able to represent the association between positive affect and queerness in unprecedented ways.

Drawing from research in young adult literature and queer literature, and from queer theory, affect theory, and narratology, I analyzed, deconstructed, and conducted reparative readings of novels ranging from more realistic, historically based genres to more fantastical, speculative genres, including the young adult historical novel, contemporary realism, magical realism, and dystopian literature. Each chapter in my investigation can be approached as a case study, in which I explore the particular ways in which a subgenre of young adult queer literature navigates the tension between queer negativity and the positive affect of young adult literature, and the ways in which positive affect provides readers with the tools to conduct a reparative reading that ameliorates the tension between a damaged queer past, a still damaged present, and a distant yet imaginable utopic future.

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As the cliché goes: “The best dissertation is a done dissertation.”

Besides becoming a doctor, something else incredibly exciting happened: I GOT A POSTDOCTORAL FELLOWSHIP! As of July 2016, I will officially be a Consortium for Faculty Diversity Postdoctoral Fellow at Bowdoin College (Maine, U.S.A.). I can’t even begin to express how excited I am about this opportunity. While at Bowdoin, I will work on turning my dissertation into a book manuscript, and I’ll also teach some really fun and exciting courses. This fall, for instance, I’m teaching a first-year seminar on young adult speculative fiction entitled (Im)Possible Lives, where students and I will determine how authors construct hypothetical settings, and even more important, how authors use speculative fiction as a way of exploring notions of life, identity, and livability (I will upload a version of my syllabus in July or August). I absolutely fell in love with Bowdoin during my campus interview. The college is beautiful, my future colleagues in the English department were incredibly warm and intelligent, and (cue the sappy music) I think I will grow a lot as a person and as a scholar during my time there.

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I’m pretty stoked about joining the Bowdoin polar bears next semester!

via GIPHY

It was not easy applying to countless jobs on top of trying to finish my dissertation. Things ended up working out in the end, but the levels of stress and panic that I have experienced over the past year were unprecedented. Part of this has to do with the uncertainty of it all, and the fact that obtaining a job in academia mostly comes down to luck. As a graduate student, you try your best to professionalize and turn into a full-fledged scholar who develops important and original research, and who possesses the ability to disseminate this knowledge via teaching and academic writing. However, the effort that you put into research, teaching, and professionalization doesn’t always lead to a job in academia. I’ve heard horror stories of brilliant scholars who were in the job market for eight years before landing a tenure-track job. You could be an amazing and groundbreaking scholar, but landing a job depends on so many factors that are out of your control: department need, university politics, chemistry with other faculty members, and the viability of the market, among others. Applying to jobs was just like applying to graduate school all over again: a shot in the dark.

In the midst of job applications and chapter revisions, it became incredibly difficult to sleep, I would sometimes go through bouts of depression, and at times, I went through terrible periods of writer’s block. Even after having defended the dissertation, I still have many vivid dreams about failure. Part of the reason I experienced these things has to do with the nature of what I study. By immersing myself into queer literature and queer studies, I had to read a lot about the devastating effects of AIDS in the mid-1980s, anti-gay violence, suicide, and other events that are anything but cheery. This, in combination with the pressures of graduate school, was not a very productive combination (to say the least). It’s so difficult to realize that something that you love usually possesses the potential to hurt you, or to make life tougher than it already is.

I survived graduate school.  I won’t lie: it was rough, and I wish I were somehow more prepared for the psychological effects of graduate study. I’m glad, however, that people are starting to have conversations about these psychological effects. I remember people telling me: “why are you letting books affect you this way?” Every time, I couldn’t help but think: books are my world. Books were and continue to be pivotal in shaping who I am, and part of the reason I did my Ph.D. in English was because I believe, and know, that books possess the potential to change people, and to cultivate new and exciting ideas. This helped to push me through graduate school. There were also other things that helped me push through: a generous and caring dissertation committee, a supportive network of friends, family, and colleagues, hobbies and activities that are not related in any way to my work, and learning how to talk about my fears and anxieties (and when to ignore them).

Things will still be busy next year, but unlike before, I feel more prepared for what’s to come. That being said, I plan on being more active on this website in the future. I hope to share more books reviews and analyses (there have been SO MANY amazing books published this last year) and I also hope to share more syllabi and class activities.

I wasn’t able to walk for graduation this May because I defended my dissertation during the last week of April (May graduates were supposed to defend during the first couple weeks of April in order to walk). However, I’m looking forward to returning to Notre Dame in May 2017 in order to wear a fancy robe and finalize my strange, stressful, but utterly delightful time in graduate school. It has been one hell of a ride, and I’m excited about the bigger, faster, scarier, more thrilling rides that are yet to come.

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via GIPHY

Developing a Course on Metafictional Young Adult Literature

During the past couple of weeks, I’ve been working on developing various literature courses, including a course on the metafictional turn in contemporary young adult literature. As of now, I have entitled the course Book-Ception: The Metafictional Turn in Young Adult Literature. For those of you who are confused about the title, -Ception is a suffix (slang) popularized by the 2010 film Inception, and it is usually attached to a noun in order to indicate that this noun is multifaceted, multi-layered, or contains parallel objects embedded within it (i.e. a dream within a dream, a text within a text, a play within a play, and so on, and so on).

I’ve noticed how many young adult novels published during the last fifteen years have demonstrated an increased interest in exploring matters of form, readership, authorship, and literariness. Some YA novels published during the last five years in particular have rivaled some novels published during the peak of postmodernity in terms of their exploration of the nature and purpose of narrative, the relationship between fiction and reality, and the intimate connection between text and audience.

I thought it would be interesting to develop a course in which students explore how metafictional elements and metanarratives affect how we interpret, analyze, and understand the imagined lives of teenagers in contemporary fiction. This course, ideally, will attract students interested in young adult literature, students interested in the literary remnants of the postmodern movement in contemporary fiction, and students interested in exploring the role of narratology in the creation, distribution, and consumption of literature.

The description for this course is as follows:

What do young adult novels have to say about the status of literature and narrative in contemporary society? Can a book be self-aware of its existence as a literary object? Can young adult novels challenge or thwart the relationship between a reader and a text? Recently, novels written for adolescents have been interested in addressing these questions—thus leading to a boom in young adult metafiction: books that explore the nature and function of literature, that question the parallels between reality and fiction, and that overtly scrutinize the relationship between audience and text. In this course, we will investigate how contemporary young adult novels use metafictional techniques in order to deliberate the importance and value of literature, narrative, and language in the imagined lives of teenagers. Furthermore, we will assess the role of metanarrative and form in disrupting the divide between “low” and “high” literature. We will read novels written by authors such as Lemony Snicket, John Green, and Andrew Smith.

I wanted to select texts from different genres, including realism, fantasy, and speculative/science fiction. The novels that I selected for this course also make use of different metafictional and metanarrative techniques. Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, for instance, explores the possibility of bringing words to life through literary consumption, and the overall role of books in the development of one’s imagination. Others such as Andrew Smith’s Winger and Patrick Ness’ More Than This explore the role of narrative and storytelling in helping one cope with traumatic and unprecedented events. Novels such as John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars explore notions such as the ‘death of the author,’ narrative endings, and the imagined lives of literary characters.

Here is the current version of the syllabus that I’ve developed:

What do you think of this course? Do you have any comments or suggestions regarding the course’s content or design? Are there any other texts that you would recommend for this course? Any and all feedback will be great appreciated!

Course Syllabus for “The Young Adult Novel” – University of Notre Dame

Here is the syllabus for a course that I designed on the Young Adult Novel. I will teach this course during the fall 2014 semester at the University of Notre Dame. I’m very excited about this course for various reasons–mostly because I finally get to teach the texts that I work with and that I love. This course is offered as an English 20XXX requirement, which is an English course for non-majors. I also managed to get the course cross-listed with the gender studies department–especially since class discussions will focus heavily on notions of sexuality and the body that are looming in YA fiction. As of now, 18 of my 19 students are seniors, and they all come from different concentrations such as marketing, biology, English, gender studies, American studies, and education

The most difficult thing about designing this course was the choice of novels to be discussed in class. I wanted to strive for a balance between male and female authors, and I also wanted students to familiarize themselves with books that either they haven’t encountered before, or books that blur the line between young adult literature and literature marketed to adults. Because of this, I feel that there is a lack of novels focused on issues of race and class, but I will certainly make sure to cover these issues during the semester.

As always, all comments and suggestions are more than welcome. You are welcome to draw inspiration from this syllabus, but please make sure to give me credit if you do so–and be sure to share your syllabus with me so I can see what you did similarly or differently! I hope you enjoy the course I’ve designed, and I will keep you posted with how everything is going as the semester unfolds.

Ellen Wittlinger’s [Parrotfish]: A Transgender Coming-Out Novel

Front cover of Ellen Wittlinger's Parrotfish

Front cover of the paperback version of Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish

What made a person male or female, anyway? The way they looked? The way they acted? The way they thought? Their hormones? Their genitals? What if some of those attributes pointed in one direction and some in the other?

– Ellen Wittlinger, Parrotfish (p. 131)

Although Julie Anne Peters’ Luna was the first young adult text to tackle the issue of transgenderism, Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish offers us a very direct and personal perspective of what it means to born in the wrong body. Unlike Luna (read my analysis of this novel by clicking here), Wittlinger’s novel is  told from the first-person perspective of the character undergoing a transition from one gender to another, and it is also centered on a female-to-male (FTM) rather than a male-to-female transition. Although the novel lacks a certain degree of credibility due to its almost cartoonish and one-dimensional portrayal of certain secondary characters, it is ultimately a text full of heart, and it complies with its goal of giving the reader insight into what it means for trans youth to come-out within contemporary society. Although the coming-out genre may be deemed tiring and overwrought by some readers, Wittlinger’s novel demonstrates how the genre needs to explore alternate coming-out narratives that are not focused solely on white gay/lesbian upper/middle class characters. I loved Luna‘s initial attempt to do this, but ability to establish a strong rapport with the trans character was limited, due to the fact that the trans character’s story was distilled through her sister’s perspective.

Parrotfish begins at the moment when Angela Katz-McNair–the novel’s protagonist–decides to become Grady. Grady chooses this name not only because of its gender neutrality, but also because it contains the word gray within it: “you know, not black, not white. Somewhere in the middle” (6). He initially comes out as a lesbian because he deemed it to be a closer and easier step toward revealing his queer self within his community. He decides to unleash Grady soon after by declaring himself a boy to his family and friends, and by performing masculinity rather than suppressing it: he cuts his own hair very short, he begins to bind his breasts with a bandage, and he begins to wear traditional male attire. The main tension with the novel is Grady’s fear of losing touch with his past self. By assuming his true gender identity, he fears that he would have to sever his relationship with his past entirely. This is an interesting contrast to Peters’ Luna, for running away from the past is not presented as an option for Grady. He wants to embody his true gender, but in doing so, he does not want to lose a connection to everything that has shaped him.

In my opinion, the most interesting parts of this novel were those that explored not only the emotional difficulties of transitioning from a female to a male gender, but also the physical difficulties of said transition. Peter’s Luna, for instance, focuses more on the emotional torment that its transgender character faces. Luna does express physical torment, especially during the scene in which the trans character, as a child, tries to cut off his penis (as shown through the protagonist’s flashback); these physical accounts, however, are rare. Given that Wittlinger’s novel is told through the perspective of the FTM transgender protagonist, I was expecting a more nuanced understanding of the physical pains of transitioning–and the novel delivers in this aspect. For instance, Grady constantly remarks on how painful it is to breathe and to engage in physical activity when his breasts are bound with tight bandages (even though he is fortunate enough to have small breasts). Grady also expresses the difficulty of determining what bathroom to use in his high school, ultimately avoiding the decision because his understanding gym teacher allows him to use her private bathroom and shower. A particularly insightful scene in the novel in terms of the physical pains of transitioning takes place when Grady explains how he feels towards menstruation while experiencing it:

now I was a boy who had just started his period and was probably bleeding all over his jockey shorts. Yeah, that was normal. Even my own body betrayed me on a regular basis. What was I supposed to do now? Crap. I could feel the cramps advancing. The gym and Ms. Unger’s bathroom were half a mile away from my locker. By the time I ran down there I’d be a mess. (59-60)

Menstruation highlights the tension that exists between Grady’s mind and his body. It also becomes an experience of active struggle for Grady, for although he is trying to be a boy, menstruation coerces his masculinity to clash vis-a-vis the femininity he is trying to suppress. For instance, when Grady is suffering from menstrual cramps, he refuses to acknowledge to them to his mother because it “seemed like an argument against what I’d been trying to prove to her” (61). Thus, even when embodying his true gender, Grady realizes that performativity is still necessary when it comes to expressing truth.

Going back to the fact that this novel is a bit unrealistic, I want to focus on Grady’s fear of not losing his entire past by embodying a different gender (prepare for major spoilers). Towards the end of the novel, most of the tensions that Grady had with other characters vanish entirely. He mends his relationship with his best friend, Eve, after she helps him avoid a cruel prank that other students were planning against him. His family, most of which showed apprehension towards his transition, rapidly become entirely accepting of him. Even the novel’s bully, the nefarious queen bee Danya, faces suspension from Grady’s high school and is ultimately humiliated by other students at the winter dance. The message is clear: to thine own self be true, and not only will everyone accept you, but your bullies will face karmic consequences for their insidious actions.

Not only does Grady’s past relationships stay intact, but his life improves in almost every aspect imaginable. This outcome may be approached my some as misguided, because it undermines the difficulties and the non-teleological struggles of being transgender. Unlike the LGB side of the spectrum, trans youths not only have to come out, but their coming-out entails performative and physical changes that inevitably invoke a contrast between the before and the after. Although I absolutely adore the positive and optimistic message that the novel presents, I can’t help but wonder if the novel is too optimistic and naive when it comes to the issues that transgender teens face. Not all transgender teens are going to be lucky enough to be accepted by every single member of their immediate family. Not all transgender teens will find love and support as easily as Grady does. Peters’ Luna, on the other hand, shows both sides of the spectrum in terms of the consequences of coming out as transgender to one’s family: some quietly accept, some have no issue with it whatsoever, and others react with outrage and at times violence.

I reiterate that I completely understand Wittlinger’s utopian depiction of a transgender future–but I question whether the novel should’ve been more realistic when considering the outcomes of this distinctive coming-out process. I’m especially anxious to know how transgender readers feel about the general approach and conclusions that this novel presents. Regardless of its shortcomings, Parrotfish is well worth a read, and it provides some excellent food for thought. I particularly recommend the novel to readers who are not really aware of the nuances of gender, especially when it comes to matters such as performativity and gender construction. Those who are aware of these nuances might find the novel a bit too obvious and didactic, despite its warm, humorous, and fast-paced nature.

You can purchase a copy of Wittlinger’s novel here.

Work Cited

Wittlinger, Ellen. Parrotfish. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. Print (Hardcover edition).

J.D. Salinger’s [The Catcher in the Rye]: A Brief Analysis

Front cover of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye

Front cover of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye

Experience is the greatest enemy of meaning and significance. When I first read J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye during my late teens, I was absolutely captivated by the novel’s passive anti-hero, Holden Caulfield. I felt his loneliness, his distaste towards all of the “phoniness” present in the world, and his constant state of utter helplessness in an uncaring world. It had been a couple of years since I’ve last read the text, and I must say that revisiting the text was a difficult and heart-breaking experience… not only because the content of the text is charged, but also because I realized that I was no longer able to connect with Holden in the exact way that I used to. As I re-read the first half of the novel, I was disturbed to see that I was perceiving Holden as an annoying, whiny, and repetitive character. I found myself rolling my eyes and at times even groaning as I encountered some of his thoughts and actions.

I thought the text had lost its magic. Many people are unable to see what’s magical about this text. The New York Times posted an interesting article titled Get a Life, Holden Caulfield, which discusses how contemporary teens are unable to connect to Holden’s character in the way that older generations of readers were able to. And while my dislike for Holden was intense during the initial half of my re-reading, this dislike began to mellow down as the novel reached its conclusion. I began to realize how much hurt Holden was facing. I began to look back and think about how I also was a whiny teenager, and how I believed that there wasn’t a single soul in the world that could understand me. I remember how I had attitude problems, how I went through phases of intense depression. I was Holden Caulfield, and now I’m a different person. This thought hit me hard, to the point that I was unable to write an analysis of the novel after reading it. I was stunned. I had to sit down, think carefully, and digest the novel before writing about it. And even though my gut reaction was to bash on the novel, after careful thought and consideration, I truly believe this novel is great for three reasons: 1) It manages to encapsulate teenage angst and anger in a way that stirs strong and polarizing emotions within its readers; 2) COUNTLESS (and great) contemporary novels have been inspired by Salinger’s novel (including but not limited to Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You); 3) It is one of the few novels that’s successfully able to tell the coming-of-age tale of a sensitive male protagonist.

Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is an interesting case within the literary world, for although it was written with an adult audience in mind, it became very popular among teenage and young adult readers. Since its publication, there have been numerous attempts to censor or ban the book from schools and libraries, and it is currently on the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged classics, due mostly to its use of “profanity” and sexuality. Some even go as far as to classify Catcher as a precursor to the young adult book market. I believe this has to do a lot with why it was so easy for me to connect with the novel as a teen, and why it was very challenging to achieve this connection as an adult. However, during my re-reading of the book, not only did I notice/understand many aspects of the novel that I was oblivious to as a teen, but I also noticed that the book has many interesting points of discussion that are worth exploring, especially when considering how influential this novel was to the genre of young adult fiction.

What interested me the most of my re-reading was Holden Caulfield’s sexuality. Now, let me make it clear: there is no clear indication on whether this character is gay. On the contrary, the character makes it very explicit that he is interested in women, as can be seen in the following passage:

She was around forty-five, I guess, but she was very good-looking. Women kill me. They really do. I don’t mean I’m oversexed or anything like that–although I am quite sexy. I just like them, I mean. (70) [The term sexy means “sexual” in this passage].

Holden does not engage in sexual behavior with any male character (or any character for that matter) during the development of the novel. The character does express some hesitation when “fooling around” with female characters, but I don’t believe that this is a clear indicator of gayness, but rather, of overall sexual frustration and anxiety fueled by depression and loneliness. Nevertheless, I do think that it is possible to conduct a queer reading of Holden not based on his actions, but on his thoughts and opinions regarding other men and “flits” (a slang word for gay men back in the 1950s). There are many instances in the novel in which Holden thinks about people or events in a way that facilitates a queer or gay reading:

  • Holden notices (and seems to appreciate) Stradlater’s physical appearance: “He went out of the room with his toilet kit and towel under his arm. No shirt on or anything. He always walked around in his bare torso because he thought he had a damn good build. He did, too. I have to admit it” (34). Holden also points out that Stradlater has “gorgeous locks” (42).
  • There is a prolonged mental dialogue in which Holden discusses “flits,” focusing on his friend Luce, who knew “who every flit and lesbian in the United States was” (186). Luce used to tell Holden how some men are married and don’t even know that they are flits, instilling a fear in Holden that he might one day “turn into a flit or something” (186).
  • There is the infamous scene in which Mr. Antolini caresses Holden’s hair while he is sleeping, causing Holden to have an anxiety attack induced by gay panic. Holden later debates whether or not Mr. Antolini “was making a flitty pass” (253) at him, but it doesn’t change the fact that he was unable to withstand the teacher’s demonstration of affection.

The Antolini episode in particular left me with a lot of questions, especially when focusing on Holden’s reaction towards the teacher’s caress. The following passage expresses the thoughts that were going through Holden’s mind as he was escaping Mr. Antolini’s apartment:

Boy, was I shaking like a madman. I was sweating, too. When something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard. That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it. (251)

This passage is really ambiguous to me. Is Holden referring to the fact that he’s received sexual advances from men in the past, or is he referring to the fact that he’s sexual advances from adults since he was a kid? It is possible that Holden is referring to past traumas that are affecting his current behavior as a teenager? I think an interpretation of this passage is difficult not only because of its ambiguity, but also because of its unstable use of language. What exactly does Holden mean by “perverty” or “that kind of stuff”? It is referring to gay behavior or sexually “deviant” behavior? Keep in mind that earlier in the novel, as he is looking out from his hotel window and watching a man dress in woman’s clothes, and a man and woman squirting water from their mouths at each other, he states that “the hotel was lousy with perverts” (81), which complicates a direct correlation of perversion with gayness.

What do you think about any of the ideas expressed above? What do you think about Holden being a queer-coded character, or at least as a character that can facilitate a queer interpretation? How do Holden’s views contest the notion of binary oppositions? Notice that we have an ostensibly straight character who is able to express some degree of attraction towards the same sex, while also demonstrating a fear of the possibility of being gay. This simultaneously complicates and perpetuates what it means to be a heterosexual teenage male, especially one who is sensitive, confused, and who is trying to comply with the demands and expectations of society.

In due course, re-reading this novel left me with many questions and doubts. And, although I was disliking the novel at first, towards the end, I rediscovered what made the novel great in the first place. It is an honest and unabashed depiction of a teenager’s pain. It is a depiction of a time in our lives when we all feel like the world is against us, and when we think we have all the answers. It is a time where everything and everyone seems “phony,” but we are unable to recognize our own inherent phoniness. It is a novel that posits questions that we are still unable to answer. It is a novel that continues to push us to ask questions… even if it is a question as simple as “why do I love or hate this novel?”. Thus, the text does not lack “magic” in any way… I’m just encountering a different type of magic when compared to the one I first encountered as a child. If we can move beyond the text’s apparent simplicity, repetition, and phoniness, we may find that it is truly a complex and thought-provoking read.

Work Cited

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1951. Print. (Hardcover edition)