Friday, March 7, 2008

A student reflects upon the British Council Writer in Residence

Rajiv Menon, a junior here at GW, was one of ten students enrolled in a one-credit reading course with our GW-British Council Writer in Residence, Nadeem Aslam. Students in the class were required to keep a reading journal and compose an essay about the experience. We thank Rajiv for sharing his reflections with the English Department blog.


When I found out that Nadeem Aslam would be the first British Council Writer in Residence at George Washington University, I was ecstatic. I was familiar with Mr. Aslam’s writing, as I had just recently finished Maps for Lost Lovers. The novel amazed me, as I could relate to many of the themes in the novel as a second generation South Asian American. Aslam’s characters fascinated me, as he was able to invoke feelings of empathy and disgust with the decisions that his characters made. Aslam was able to recreate many of the negative experiences of members of the South Asian Diaspora, without completely vilifying the community. I was so impressed with the novel that I decided to pursue the amazing opportunity to take a course with Mr. Aslam.

The first day of class was a great indicator of what I could expect from the class. Mr. Aslam came into the class and introduced himself. He decided that we would spend the first class having a general discussion about ourselves and our interests in literature. Mr. Aslam seemed very interested in the way that University Students in the United States live and study. He had just been to the bookstore, and he decided to read aloud from The English Patient in order to show us the kind of writing styles he appreciates. He then asked us to talk about what we had read recently and what our favorite novel is, and he provided he opinion about these different works of literature. When it was my turn, I mentioned that my favorite novel is The God of Small Things, and Mr. Aslam discussed a particular scene in the novel that he particularly enjoyed. The informal nature of this first day was extremely helpful, as it helped establish the tone for the rest of the class.

Mr. Aslam had advised that we read each novel with a pencil in our hands, underlining passages that were particularly meaningful to us. At first this was difficult for me, as I am not used to reading in this manner. Our first novel was Morvern Callar, which I found extremely disturbing, yet still enjoyable. I was particularly struck by the jaded and apathetic attitude that Morvern takes towards her own life and the death of her boyfriend. At first, I found the novel difficult because of its use of vernacular, which Mr. Aslam warned us about before the novel was assigned. As my reading progressed, however, I grew used to this writing style and I was more comfortable understanding Warner’s style of narration and the way that Morvern speaks in the novel. In addition, Mr. Aslam also asked us if we felt Morvern’s actions were believable, and said that he did not. I, however, found her actions to be very believable, since I found her to be so jaded and morally ambiguous that it did not surprise me that she stole her boyfriend’s manuscript and destroyed his body. I was particularly interested by the way Morvern treats violence and brutality as commonplace. She often presented actions of violence as normal, and mentions them with no more fanfare than she does anything else in the novel. Overall, this was a very enjoyable novel and I am very glad that I was able to read it in this course.

The third session covered Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, which I also enjoyed quite a bit. At first, I was reluctant about the novel because I was not familiar with Lawrence and I was worried that I would not be able to follow the book. I made a point of underlining ever passage I was confused about or that I found particularly interesting. Dyer’s book was driven by his impressive observations and eloquent use of language. I was very interested in the insight Dyer provided about his writing process, and I found it extremely impressive that he constantly made reference to the book as he was writing it. I felt that this book was able break the fourth wall many times, without it being excessive or distracting. Though I did enjoy the novel, I enjoyed it the least out of the three, largely because I enjoyed the other too so much. This book did, however, make me want to read Lawrence in the future.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World was easily my favorite novel that we covered in the class. I greatly enjoyed the simple and matter-of-fact style of the novel, which I found extremely powerful and effective. Ishiguro’s descriptive language made it easy to visualize the scenery of the area. I was fascinated by the “auction of prestige” which was an incredibly insightful way to open the book. In class, we discussed the nature of the familial relations in the book and whether we sympathized with the daughters. Personally, I found that often, the daughters were disrespectful, while others in the class found that their attitudes were justified. After this, we discussed the process of storytelling and discussed the ways that our families share stories. I found this to be particularly enriching because we were able to link the novel to our personal experience. I found this to be an excellent note to end the course on, because it allowed us link our personal experiences to literature like we did on the first day. The course ended on an excellent note, and this was overall an excellent experience.

The GW British Council Writer in Residence was an extremely positive experience for me, and I look forward to future writers being part of the GW community. Since my personal interests are in Postcolonial and Diasporic writing, this residency is especially important to me since it focuses on Diasporic British writers. The reading events and the fiction panel were very enlightening and informative. I hope to have more opportunity to work with authors and take courses like this one.

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