dissertation corner with alice whiles

In this weeks visit to dissertation corner, Jenna Houston talks to Alice Whiles about her dissertation on racial passing and the reader.

Tell me about your dissertation.

The title of my dissertation is ‘Unspoken words and hidden truths: Racial passing and the reader’ and the texts I’m using are The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson, Passing By Nella Larsen and Recitatif by Toni Morrison. I started off wanting to discuss passing in general, close-reading texts and looking at the use of language and the narrative techniques that all the authors use but since talking with my supervisor I’ve become more focused on looking at what isn’t included in the texts and addressing passing in relation to what is left unsaid. I’m looking at how all of my authors subvert racial tropes and all the aspects of the narrative that are left open to interpretation and what isn’t disclosed to the reader.

What made you choose these texts for your dissertation?

I started off with three very different and quite random/disconnected texts which all addressed passing but the three of them together didn’t seem to work when it came to comparing them with each other. So after speaking with my supervisor she suggested that I narrow down my choice of text by either how they progress in time or choose a certain era and look at what texts from that era have in common, so I decided on twentieth century African American writers and the texts I’ve chosen all came into the same category and they all allowed me to address the significance of gaps in the narratives. I also just love them all so the fact they all work so well together is definitely a good thing.

Has your dissertation changed from your proposal? If so, how?

It has changed, very much! I started off with very different texts and I was more focussed on race as a construct and the construction of identity as my main idea – which I’ve still addressed in my project, it’s just not the most prominent aspect of my dissertation anymore. But in order to complicate my ideas and challenge myself more, I decided to look at critical race theory and look at what is missed out in these narratives and why it is missing. For example, in Recaitatif the actual race of the characters is left out, and I’m interested in why this is the case.

How did you choose this research area?

The reason I’ve always been interested in and loved passing narratives is that in my first year Janine Bradbury gave a lecture on the text Trumpet on the Gender and Writing module which addressed the concept of passing, although in relation to gender, and I had never come across this area in literature before and it really encouraged me to think some more about the area. I also loved the American Literature module in second year, and the texts we studied that addressed race were the ones I looked forward to most – so I just decided to combine the two together and write about something I am passionate about.

What are you enjoying the most about your dissertation?

I think just being able to explore race as a construct in a lot more detail is really interesting – we had touched on it in other modules before I started my dissertation but I never got to understand it in the complexity that I am doing now in my dissertation. Also, the research aspect feeds into this because being able to research this area myself has brought up so many new ideas and I’m enjoying that my project is just about ‘race’ but also about the intersectionality of race, class, and gender and how all of these come together in my chosen texts is really interesting.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your dissertation so far?

What I really struggle with links closely with my title about the ‘unspoken’ but because I am looking at what essentially isn’t there within a narrative, it’s sometimes difficult to find the words to explain this in a clear way. So it’s really a project that demands a lot of reading between the lines and interpreting it in a way that relates to my argument and the theories that I’ve used. Using and understanding critical race theory was something that was quite difficult to start with and also trying to ensure I’m not being too repetitive is also sometimes a struggle but my writing has developed so much since starting my project which really helps with preventing this.

Is there anything that interesting about your project that you’d like to add?

My next chapter is on The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and one of my key ideas is the distance between the reader and the narrator –  using the concept the novel being a ‘human document’ which explores how the text is offered up as a form of accessing the body because the body is withheld within the narrative. Which I am currently really excited about writing.