Thursday, May 7, 2015

Theory and the Thesis

The graduating thesis essay is a bizarre 15 to 20 page netherworld where you must analyze your own writing as a scholar. You’re to treat your thesis like a real, throbbing literary thing: think craft explication, close readings, and, god help you, maybe some genuine Lit Crit.

Just to let you know, this is not a post about writing the thesis essay. Instead, this post is about where theory belongs in fiction.

The best fiction offers something beyond its moving parts, some framework of understanding. The best theory does this too, can possess those crystalline moments, when reading reminds you about the part of yourself you forgot. That second when you have to look away from the page because you can’t stand it anymore, so you stare awkwardly in the air in front of you and freak out your roommate standing in your eyeline.

For me, it was Cuban anthropologist Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s seminal work The Repeating Island. It’s not an easy read, thanks to Benítez-Rojo’s sinuous, ropey prose, weaving through Spenglar, Chaos theory, and memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But there is a moment when he’s trying to articulate the Caribbean’s place in history, where the region becomes in his eyes “a meta-archipelago...[with] neither boundary nor center. The Caribbean flows outwards past the limits of its own sea with a vengeance… [and] may be found on the outskirts of Bombay, near the low and murmuring shores of Gambia, in a Cantonese tavern circa 1850, in an old Bristol Pub.”

At the time of writing, Benítez-Rojo has already defected to the United States, teaching and writing in Amherst. He knew he’ll never be able to return to Cuba. Beyond the brilliant analytics, here in this crystalline moment he’s just an exiled man, desperate for home, and in his desperation sees the Caribbean everywhere.

I read this in Spring 2014. My uncle, who I worshipped, was in and out of the hospital. I’d bring books to his bedside and read. He was Jamaican, part black and white and Chinese, and had one of those faces that people think they recognize. When he went to Peru back in the 80’s during the civil war, locals would come up to him speaking Spanish, thinking he was Peruvian, thinking he was back home.

Decades later, I went to Peru too because of him, and I saw my uncle everywhere. In the bus conductors dangling from moving buses like they do in Jamaica, shouting “sube, sube.” In the vendor trying to sell me traditional caricature masks that she swears they wore to mock the Spanish during colonial times, though I’m confused because they look like Junkanoo costumes.

I read this passage thinking of my uncle, in all the geographic and historical accidents that needed to happen to create him – a phenomenon both global and distinctly Caribbean. And somehow between my uncle and Spenglar and an ugly white hospital room that could be anywhere, I found what I wanted to write about for my thesis. Perhaps for as long as I write.

So I guess this is a guide for writing the thesis essay – in that theory can teach you as much as practice. Theory can articulate for you what you’ve been trying to do all along.

Monique McIntosh is a third year MFA student at FAU, graduating this semester. She is a fiction short story writer from Jamaica.

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