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Brandi So Q&A: How Art Transforms Texts

Brandi SoBrandi So, a 2015 recipient of Stony Brook University’s distinguished doctoral student award, completed her PhD in English on May 7. Her teaching and research interests include cyber-pedagogy, mining the digital archive, and American literature. Her dissertation, “American Literary Regionalism and the Sister Arts: Local Color Outside the Lines,” argues for the necessary role of visual arts in American literary regionalism, and recovers women writers’ artistic lives as subjects of critical inquiry. Brandi is a 2014-2015 American Association of University Women (AAUW) American Fellowship awardee and a 2014-2015 New York Council for the Humanities Public Humanities Fellow. 

Stony Brook University Graduate School (SBU GS): How did you get interested in literature? And why the particular emphasis on sister arts?

So: My mom was a country music songwriter, and I grew up watching her work in the industry in Nashville, Tenn. So I was introduced, very early, to her love of language and to an understanding of women’s art as vocation. I wasn’t allowed to watch TV when I was a kid; instead, I had a library card. So I read all the time. It started there. Really young.

SBU GS: Early favorite authors?

So: When I was a little girl Where the Red Fern Grows was the first book that made me cry. Then I remember reading Tolkien when I was in 5th grade. But my first memorable literature event was my freshman year of college, and that was with Flannery O'Connor. I remember having a real problem with her version of the South. Anyone who reads O'Connor feels unsettled afterward -- her stories are very gothic and deeply ambivalent; she had such an impact on me. I'll never forget that experience – the professor; how he taught it; the emotional reaction I had to it.

I wasn't equipped to read her critically. I was reading Flannery O'Connor from my viewpoint as a Southerner, and trying to see how my life mapped onto the one she was telling. It didn’t fit. The landscape and the buildings, the ambience – all of that I could have written myself – it immediately made sense. But the horrifying endings, and her awful people. Of course, I didn't understand, at the time, that O'Connor wrote through an anagogical lens, through Catholic doctrine. I didn't know any Catholics, or about Catholicism; I didn't know any of that. So my first reaction to her was complete confusion; the professor who taught me about O’Connor, Robert L. Davis at Wittenberg University, started me on the path toward regionalist literary scholarship.

SBU GS: When did you start looking at visual arts, and their role in literary regionalism?

So: As an undergraduate, I was interested in how literature could inspire emotion, but in retrospect, I see now that my interest in frames (what happens when you're looking at something through a car window and it's kind of framed, like art?) was an artistic question.

In my master’s program, one of my professors introduced me to a term ekphrasis, which is a verbal representation of a visual representation. But it came to mean to me how literature accesses and envisions other forms of art.

SBU GS: What excites you about your work?

So: Everything excites me. I am excited about the crazy discoveries waiting for us in the archives – to see something click that nobody else has looked at or figured out. I'm excited about collaborating with colleagues. I like planning events; I like going to conferences.

I'm always excited about on-line learning. For me, it's a feminist issue, because it is about access: allowing people, who may be stay-at-home moms or who work full-time, the opportunity to pursue their education. That's one of the reasons I'm committed to online education. But I'm also just generally interested in technology; I like to tinker with online courses, websites, all that.

Now, at the level I’m at, everything has the possibility to be exciting, which is good because it tells me I went in the right direction.

SBU GS: What have you found challenging?

So: Humanities is facing a crisis in general, and I feel that crisis -- all of my colleagues do, too -- with funding and opportunities. There are a lot of changes in the humanities in terms of funding, public perception, and even our cultural values. One thing I like about this challenge is that I think it is prompting a lot of new collaborations – because resources are slimming. So maybe it's a good thing, obviously not in every sense, but it could change things for the better, toward a more distributed professional paradigm, and away from the old paradigm of the master and his students.

SBU GS: What’s next for you?

So: I'm definitely on the job market, but I'm really flexible about what I do. I would love to work in a capacity that helps first-generation college students get into Ivy League schools or write grants for humanities projects for the Long Island public. The tenure-track job is just one of the things I would be interested in having.

I come from higher education administration; I left because I wasn't going to go any further without an advanced degree, and there were things I wanted to do and communities I wanted to help, and I couldn't do it without the degree. For me, going back for an English Ph.D. made perfect sense because if I teach English, I'm always going to be happy; it's what I always wanted to do. But if I gain access to another career because of this degree, and I can make a difference in the communities I care about, all the better.

If I had to say I have a goal, my goal is to be happy, and to do good things. Life is short, and money comes and goes. Happiness, that's hard.

SBU GS: What courses or experiences – outside your direct program area – have you found valuable in informing or shaping your research?

So: I did the women's studies certificate through the Cultural Analysis & Theory program; I finished that certificate in 2012, and it has shaped my scholarship. The other influence I think has made a difference in my life is aikido. I went to a Buddhist undergraduate school called Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., which had a contemplative education requirement. I ended up minoring in aikido, and I think that changed me as a human. It helped me adopt lifestyle approaches of accepting challenges and negativity without personalizing it, finding a way to transform these challenges into positive energy for my goals.

SBU GS: Why did you choose Stony Brook?

So: When I decided to go for my Ph.D., the abilities I hoped to gain were as important to me as the degree. I got into other programs that were shorter or gave me credit for my master's degree, so the first thing that attracted me to Stony Brook was that I believed that SBU’s program would be the best preparation to be good at what I do. That was important to me, because I was quitting a career and moving my life across the country from Colorado, and I didn't want to do it halfway. The rigor of the program stood out, and I would say, after finishing it, I was not wrong: I think Stony Brook's English Department has one of the toughest programs in the country.

I was recruited early by Celia Marshik, who was the graduate program director at the time. She called me on the phone, and she was really so generous with her answers and putting student mentors in touch with me -- there was a community of outreach coming from Stony Brook very early on in the process that really made a difference for me.

SBU GS: Can you give us, just briefly, one or two examples of what we might learn by putting the Eudora Welty’s writing, for example, in context of her photography?

All the women I highlight in my dissertation – Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor, Sarah Orne Jewett, Charlotte Perkins Gilman – were artists before they were writers…When we take their visual arts into consideration, it opens a new way of seeing them.

All of the women I highlight in my dissertation – Willa Cather, Flannery O’Conner, Sarah Orne Jewett, Charlotte Perkins Gilman – were artists before they were writers. We don't give them that credit, and because of that, I think we often read their literature wrong. We read their literature only as text because we're simply readers; we think we are only reading their writing. But all of these women were visual artists before they wrote. And when we take their visual arts into consideration, it opens a new way of seeing them.

Eudora Welty was so progressive, and that's not something you see in her writing; she’s not obviously dealing with issues of race rights and women's rights. She's very subtle about it. But when you start to pair her photographs with her literature, you see an activism. You see a progressive agenda about women's rights, and race rights, and queer rights – it’s in there, it’s really there. It doesn't become so clear until you look at the visual art alongside her writing. Scholars are reluctant to say that she was politically motivated, but when you see the political commitments of her photography – pictures of black people paying to go in the black entrance of the movie theater, or little black girls playing with white dolls – we see that she really cared about these issues. In her letters, it’s really clear: during desegregation in the South she as so ashamed of the school systems reluctance that she wanted to emigrate to Canada.

You asked before what I found exciting. Looking at the artwork and seeing what it tell us about their literature – that’s what I find exciting.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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