The 2018-2019 Fred W. Shilstone Memorial Award Winner
Gabrielle Nugent recently received her MA in English Literature from Clemson University. Prior to attending graduate school, she worked in the publishing industry in New York City at places such as The New Yorker magazine, the independent book publisher, Grove/Atlantic, and the Aragi literary agency. Her research interests include twentieth- and twenty-first century fiction and poetry, ecocriticism, political philosophy, postcolonial studies, and comparative literature. Gabrielle grew up along the New Jersey coast but has enjoyed living in both South Carolina and New York in recent years.
What is the Fred Shilstone Award?
The Fred W. Shilstone Memorial Award is given to the student with the best MA in English thesis written in the past year.
What was your thesis focused on and what elements did you include in your thesis?
The short answer is that my thesis explores the presence of water in the work of the contemporary Haitian-American writer, Edwidge Danticat. The longer answer (if I may!) is that my thesis highlights how attending to the presence of natural resources within literary forms enables us to more clearly grasp the scale and scope of slowly unfolding environmental catastrophes. In Danticat’s writing, for instance, the trope of water is instrumental in emphasizing how natural spaces absorb and reflect human history. I argue that it is only by focusing on the Atlantic Ocean’s history and the Caribbean Sea’s polluted present that the relationships between Haiti’s colonial legacies, political corruption, environment, and the adverse effects of globalization on the island become clearly defined. Privileging the role of the ocean in Danticat’s fiction enabled me to more fully realize how these texts address not only water’s historical significance, but also to explore the sea’s role, as a natural resource, in understanding Haiti’s current economic and environmental plight. In other words, I focus on how the ocean’s ability to reflect its contents parallels the way Danticat’s novels seek to convert environmental crises in Haiti into more compressed narratives that more fully represent the relationship of global forces to it.
What was your motivation to choose this as your focus?
In the spring of my first year, I took a critical theory course with Walt Hunter. At some point, we started talking about this idea of “resource fiction,” and began discussing ways to think more critically about certain resources—such as oil, trees, or water—within the contemporary global novel. This idea struck me as worth investigating as part of a larger project, and I was immediately drawn to water because of both its metaphorical and material associations (i.e., source of life and natural resource). What I didn’t realize initially was that taking this approach to this specific resource would allow me to weave postcolonial perspectives with ecocritical concerns: that is, I could consider Haiti’s long drowned history, and its roots in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, alongside modernization processes and their consequences on Haiti’s environment. And, moreover, reading toward the sea in Edwidge Danticat’s work made it plain to me just how deeply connected we all are, how time and space can be understood more fluidly, and how these connections can be more fully realized through a closer consideration of our lived environments.
What do you believe made your thesis stand out?
I hope that what stood out about my thesis was the process as much as the product. I attended to the clarity of my sentences and the strength of my verbs as much as I tried to be meticulous and thorough in my reading and research. It was also, admittedly, a little thrilling to realize that no one else (to my knowledge) had made the argument that Danticat’s work was principally about water, nor analyzed her work in quite the same way. I would hope that the amount of creative thought that went into this project and the ingenuity of my argument may have also contributed to receiving this award. I’m delighted, though, regardless!
Would you encourage students to attend graduate school and why or why not?
I would encourage students to pursue graduate school for a number of reasons, but especially if they intend to teach, if they think they may want to pursue graduate studies at the doctoral level down the line, or for those who wish to enrich their understanding of their chosen field. I also think determining whether or not you should attend graduate school depends on what kinds of questions you want to spend a lot of time, effort, and energy trying to answer in a thesis or research project. For me, at least, making the decision to return to graduate school was not a matter of “if,” but “when.” If you think you may want to attend graduate school, I’d recommend giving yourself a year or two out in the world after you finish undergrad to gain some experience doing something else, and then reconsider whether or not you want to return to school. You’ll likely have a better sense of yourself and what you may want to study at that point. After two years of living and working in New York, I was eager to be a student again—and, furthermore, those two years away from the academic environment gave me the time and space I needed to let the questions I wanted to explore grow and evolve in depth and complexity.
How do you think graduate school has impacted your education and career goals?
Immensely! Graduate school was as demanding as it was rewarding; as challenging as it was fulfilling. Spending two years steeped in the process of reading, questioning, researching, and writing has profoundly altered my sense of myself and how I move through the world. I am a more educated, aware, and engaged citizen than I was before attending graduate school. I feel so grateful for all of the learning, thinking, and traveling I was able to do as a graduate student (including living in Tokyo last summer). Additionally, the MAE program requires second year students to teach two sections of First Year Writing to freshmen. I had neither the desire to teach nor was I especially keen on public speaking; but, once my initial nerves wore off, I was surprised to find how much I looked forward to teaching my classes every week. I loved having the chance to work with students, to discuss contemporary topics and issues, and I enjoyed finding creative ways to encourage them to engage in critical thinking and writing exercises. In that sense, too, having my Master’s degree has opened up different avenues for potential careers that I wouldn’t have qualified for nor considered prior to attending graduate school.
Written By: Ashley Jones