Illustration by Jeffrey Chase June 27, 2019
Literature students create website to share migration stories
From Nigeria to Vietnam, Iran to the Dominican Republic, students in Emily Davis’ world literature classes at the University of Delaware have traveled the globe through the pages of books written by and about migrants.
Now, the students are sharing their own and the authors’ experiences with other interested readers on an original website called “Moving Fictions.”
The site, created by a class last fall semester and refined and expanded this spring by a capstone class for English majors, focuses on more than two dozen books—with plans to continue adding more.
For each work that’s highlighted, the students have included such features as plot summaries, discussion questions, author biographies and research that provides historical, political, cultural or geographic context as well as an examination of the book’s relevance to current events.
“One thing that’s really powerful about literature is that you have to sit with it,” said Davis, associate professor in the Department of English. “Unlike reading a headline or a social media post about an issue like immigration, you have to spend time with literature.”
And, she said, especially because migration is such a critical and controversial topic throughout the world today, she hopes that her students and others will make use of literature to think about the subject on a deeper level.
“We all hear a lot of political arguments about migration, but I wanted to look at writers who deal with these issues in a much more thoughtful and complex way,” she said.
For senior Kyna Smith, that process meant conducting research on the Nigerian-Biafran War of the late 1960s in order to understand the background of the book Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In the students’ final presentations at the end of spring semester, Smith discussed her contributions to the “Further Research” section of the website.
“When studying any work, breaking it down into important components [such as the historical setting] allows you to better connect to the material and understand how the book relates to the real world,” she said. “This has made my world view far more extensive.”
Will Eichler went through a similar process to understand the long history of conflict in Vietnam, as he read and wrote about The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen.
As opposed to writing a standard research paper, Eichler said, working on the website “allowed for a broader research style, which included things such as historical context as well as literary research and the inclusion of films about the same topic as the novel.”
He and others in the class also said that knowing their work would be available to the public was especially gratifying.
“I hope visitors to ‘Moving Fictions’ can learn more about not only the books and their cultural context, but also the vastly important historical connections and contemporary relevance those stories contain,” said student Jasmine Edwards, whose final presentation examined the book Nervous Conditions by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga.
In addition to their literary research, students learned the technical and design work that a website requires, said Davis, who credited UD Library professionals for the help they provided. The site has maintained a consistent and uniform look thanks to student Hunter Southall, who created a style guide for her classmates to follow.
Work on the website is expected to continue with future classes.For fall 2019, Davis said, students will expand the content and also begin an emphasis on outreach, as she hopes to engage with interested community groups, libraries and schools.
The next group of students will include English education majors, whose class projects might involve developing lesson plans using migration literature for specific age groups, Davis said. It’s all part of one of the project’s fundamental goals.
“Often, the humanities have to argue for their relevance,” Davis said. “I thought it would be good for my students to see the public impact that literature has and to see the contributions literature can make to the current discourse on an issue like immigration.”