Sonya filling us in on her world travels, all in the name of research.
This ThesisCrazy installment features three leading ladies with their theses in various awesome majors. Travel to Medieval Spain with Sonya Bessalel ‘18, Italy with Hannah Skopicki ’18, and read some Yiddish folktales with Sophia Shoulson ’18.
I’m in LOVE with the diversity of thoughts, ideas, and peoples in this post. Get your thesis traveling on after the jump!
Sonya Bessalel ‘18 she/her, COL and Spanish major, thesis in both.
Major? Working Title?: I’m a double major in the College of Letters and Spanish — the thesis is in both departments and I also have a Writing Certificate. My title is The Pyxis of Zamora: Three Lives of Medieval Iberian Women.
What’s your topic?: I’m writing original historical short stories about women of Medieval Spain. I have been working in the period between 711 AD and 1492 AD when the Jews, Christians, and Muslims all lived in Spain together. I got two grants from Wesleyan to solo travel Spain and do the research last August – I was in Madrid, Toledo, Zaragoza, Teruel, Albarracín, Córdoba and Lucena. I originally started by trying to write seven stories with people from all three religions; I filled three notebooks with creative writing, and finally decided there were a few female characters I was drawn to more than the others. The stories of Subh of Córdoba, Wallada bint al-Mustakfi and Zaida Maryam of Seville are the stories of refugees, concubines, queens, princesses, and poets. Each of them holds multiple of those identities, and I have been exploring their lives and trying to write history from their perspectives.
How they thought of topic?: I have been fascinated with medieval Spain since sophomore year of high school. I was in an out-of school performing arts troupe called the Washington Revels, and my sophomore year they put on a show called “Andalusian Treasures” which was set in medieval Spain. I played a Muslim character and learned how to dance the sevillanas, which is a pre-flamenco dance, and I sang songs in Ladino, the language of my Sephardic ancestors. I was also exposed to the convivencia in high school when my Spanish teacher had us read Spanish translations of the Arabic poetry on the walls of the Alhambra. But I would say the reason I was drawn to the convivencia specifically was because of my family. We are a half-Jewish Argentine and half-Muslim Indian family of immigrants and I identify as Quaker, so I live within all three religions and I was of course drawn to a period that had that same combination. When I was abroad on the Vassar-Wesleyan Madrid program, I remember seeing how beautiful the Muslim art in the south of Spain was, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I have also always loved the short stories of Jhumpa Lahiri, and how she interweaves so many complex themes together into her achingly beautiful writing. We read a text in the COL medieval colloquium called The Crusades through Arab Eyes by French author Amin Maalouf that was a huge influence; it is a 1980s text which reimagines of the crusades in Jerusalem from an Arab perspective. That text opened my eyes to the way prose can function as a tool to explore marginalized perspectives, and I aspire to do the same in my work.
What’s your progress like?: I had an amazing advisor, Gabrielle Ponce, who pushed me really hard. I wrote 10-page detailed proposals for my thesis last March because I desperately wanted to figure out how to get Wesleyan to send me back to Spain. I spent the summer interning and reading books on the side, and then in August I did three straight weeks of research and solo travel, so I came back to school with a lot of material. But when I sat down to go over my writing with my advisor she said, “this is a good start, but you can’t use any of it,” and I was kind of shocked. So I’d say the biggest push for my thesis was in the fall. My advisor wanted a full draft by Halloween — which I told her was not possible. I tried to write one by Thanksgiving — but that *laughs* failed — largely because I come from a nonfiction and journalism background, and had never written historical fiction before this project. But I spent a lot of winter break writing and had my full draft written before I got back to school in January. So I’ve really been editing and researching since then.
Current mental state?: Honestly, relieved. I feel like I’ve been working on this project for so long that I can’t even picture what it’ll be like when I’m done. At this point everything piece of my thesis has been rewritten multiple times, so I just have final proofreading left.
Most upsetting thesis experience?: Probably two. I’d say one was at the beginning when I would write 15 pages a week and my advisor would tell me they weren’t good — which I had to do a couple of times with each story before my writing would be anywhere close to good. Emotionally it can be difficult to put all of yourself in a story and then realize it’s not where you want it to be. And another one would be that one of my historical advisors and I had a long conversation late in the process where he basically said that what I’m doing is not biography, and he disagrees with some of the choices I’ve made in my stories. He says I’m writing things that I can’t prove happened, but I think this is because he is primarily a historian and I am primarily a prose writer. I’ve had to find my own voice throughout this whole process and trust my instincts, and I’m really proud of where the project is now.
Fave form of procrastination?: Honestly, watching Riverdale-related YouTube videos.
Plans for April 17/after you hand thesis in?: I’m going to pop champagne on the steps with all of my friends and then bring my bottle to a friend’s house so we can celebrate together! I can’t really picture my life after my thesis is done, but my mom is visiting, my West African dance class has a show at Tufts, my boyfriend is visiting Wesleyan, and the next night I have a Notably Sharp concert with a high school friend and her a cappella group from Yale.
Advice for future thesis writers?: A couple things: first, start the process as early as possible so that you have time to edit. The reason that I picked this thesis topic is because I had always wanted to take courses and learn about the convivencia and medieval Spain, but either the classes weren’t offered or I had unavoidable conflicts. Throughout my time at Wesleyan this subject bothered me like a pebble in my shoe, so I was like, “this is something I love and I’m passionate about, so why don’t I focus my thesis on it?” If you don’t have that itch or that hunger, I’d say don’t do it as your thesis. Because there will be times when you’ll get really tired of it and just want to be out with your friends, but you have to love the topic enough that you’ll be willing to do the work.
Favorite part of thesis?: I’d say there is one abroad and one here. When I planned my travel with Professor Katz, my unofficial advisor in the Art History department, she sent me to isolated places in Spain where I could experience towns that look as close as possible to the medieval era. Albarracín is an 11th century Muslim town that has remained largely untouched since then. People have called it the most beautiful town in Spain — it sits on a hilltop and has amazing views of mountains in every direction. It has a population of just over 1,000 and was really remote, so I had to take two trains and a taxi to get there. But getting to explore places that looked like the worlds my characters would have inhabited was absolutely amazing. I’d also say that turning my whole draft in after winter break and realizing I had learned how to write historical fiction in one semester was an awesome achievement.
If your thesis was a song/movie/tv show?:I would say Game of Thrones. I’ve actually never seen it, but the court politics and romance that come up alongside violence and loss are definitely similar to the themes in my thesis. Also, one of the castles where my character Zaida Maryam of Seville lived, Almodóvar del Río, is actually where they shot scenes at Highgarden.
Questions they wished we asked?: I guess “how did you get through the parts when you thought you couldn’t do it?” Like “what was your motivation?” I had a really solid support system of friends, family and advisors, and they’re honestly the reason I am where I am today.
Most used word/phrase?: I would say things that have come up in my writing. Images of stars, water and heaviness come up more than anything else.
Hannah Skopicki ’18, GOV and ITAL major, thesis in both
Working Title: “The Populist Paradox: Defining Contemporary Populism in Italy”
On her topic: “My topic discusses the paradoxical nature of three different populist parties in contemporary Italy, and the three major parties that were just vying for seats in the March 2018 election. I label them as paradoxical, which as a label in Italian politics has really been defined around the fascist party, and I discuss why it’s so important to use that label with the modern-day populists.”
On how she thought of her topic: “A lot of trial and error… I played around with a couple different topics, and this actually came to me while I was researching another topic that was pretty similar. But these parties, I just found that something that they all had in common was this paradoxical structure between leader actions and party ideology. For me, it just was a natural link and connection to make, and I realized that there wasn’t much literature on it, so I decided that I would create some.”
On her progress: “I’ve been very on top of my deadlines. I’m a very organized, type-A kind of person, so I set my deadlines over the summer, and I’ve been pretty good about adhering to them. I finished my first draft over winter break, so now I’ve been editing all semester.”
On her current mental state: “I’m actually feeling pretty confident, feeling pretty good. Again, I’m super-organized, so I’ve been really on top of my work. I made sure that my advisors had me adhere to the deadlines that I set, so right now I’m really in the final editing process, and while I’m definitely a little bit on edge and stressed, it’s a good type of stressed, it’s nothing crazy.”
On her most upsetting thesis experience: “So there were a couple times where I had to go back and completely rewrite and redo a couple chapters, which is pretty disappointing, when you put hours into it, but I think it will be worth it in the final product to have a more coherent final thesis. Definitely have had a lot of stress watching the Italian elections. They were on March 4, so definitely had a lot of stress around that time figuring out how I would incorporate the results and electoral process of the contemporary elections into my thesis a month before the deadline.”
On her favorite form of procrastination: “Ooh, theater. I am a huge theater person, and so I’m doing three shows this semester. Two-hour rehearsals on a daily basis, give or take, is definitely a really fun form of procrastination for me. I was in Frau Dada, and now I am the assistant stage manager for The Last Five Years, and I’m in a friend Elli Scharlin’s capstone called Lost and Found.”
On her plans for April 17: “Definitely sleep. That’s gonna be the #1 priority, making sure I get a full 10 hours of sleep! And then moving on to the next thing, I’m not someone who likes to sit still for a long amount of time.”
Her advice for future thesis writers: “Set deadlines early and give them to your advisors. Make sure your advisors make sure you adhere to your own preset deadlines.”
On her favorite part of her thesis: “I’m really enjoying interacting with a lot of texts that aren’t in English, that are in Italian, that are really primary sources for Italian culture or journalism, and how people think about the election in a non-US setting. So it’s been a lot of fun to really understand a different culture’s electoral process that is in many ways similar to the United States, but in many ways very different. Getting different first-hand accounts of that has been a really enjoyable experience.”
On if her thesis was a song/movie/TV show: “Probably The West Wing, but with Italian subtitles.”
Her most used word or phrase: “‘Paradoxical,’ definitely. ‘Contradiction.'”
Sophia Shoulson ’18, COL Major, German Studies Major
Working Title: All Tales are True: Two Versions of Yiddish Folkloreistics
On her topic: I’m analyzing four Yiddish folk tales collected by two different Yiddish folkloreists and I’m investigating the relationship between these folktales and conceptions of Jewish nationalism in the early 20th century, so pre-World War Two, in the era of the First World War when there were all these ideas about nationalism all around Europe. Yiddish folklore supported this very interesting non-territorial diasporic nationalism but ended up dying out after WWII. However, in the 30 years beforehand it started to gain a lot of traction, and I wanted to see if there was evidence of that in folktales that were collected at that time.
On how she thought of her topic: It was in a really roundabout way. I wanted to do something related to Jewish studies, but I wanted to do pre-WWII Jewish history. And then I took Martin Baeumel’s German fairytales class last fall and he’s now my thesis advisor. I really enjoyed the class and I really wanted to apply all the techniques and methodologies that he taught us to stories that I was familiar with. Then I just needed to figure out a way to combine those two: the pre-WWII Jewish history and the fairy tales, so this is what I came up with.
On her progress: It’s been pretty smooth. I was okay with my topic changing and narrowing a little bit as I went. It narrowed a lot from the beginning. Originally, I was going to do a comparative analysis of Yiddish folktales and German folktales and then I was going to do a comparative analysis of Yiddish folktales from the middle ages and the early 20th century and then I realized I didn’t even need the ones from the middle ages, I could just analyze the folktales from the early 20th century. That made it easier because it gave me a better idea of the direction I was going in. My advisor was also then very helpful; I think what was most helpful was taking things one step at a time: doing the research for chapter one, writing chapter one, doing the research chapter two, writing chapter two.
On her current mental state: I’m a little tired. It’s funny because I think one of the reasons that it’s so difficult to talk to people who aren’t writing theses about it is that if I told someone right now what I have left to do it would sound like nothing, they’re just little things. But because of the time crunch and because of how hard I’ve worked on everything else those small things just seem enormous to me. So I think that’s the most stressful part.
On her most upsetting thesis experience: So I had to translate the folktales from Yiddish into English and I saved the translation of two of them until pretty much right before I was about to start working with them, and then I opened up the document and realized that I could not read about half of the words on the page. My Yiddish is not great and there isn’t really anyone on campus who can help me with that, I’ve mostly been corresponding remotely with people who know more than I do, so that was horrifying. Eventually I realized it was because of this one specific quirk of the typeset that was reappearing over and over again and once I figured that out I could understand about 90% of the words that I hadn’t been able to figure out before. That was a huge relief, the hours and days before that were terrifying.
On her plans for April 17th: I will be popping some sparkling cider on the Olin steps because I am in season for crew and also just don’t drink, so I’ll be doing that and then heading straight to practice because we’re in the middle of our season. But then there’ll also probably be a lot of sleeping.
Her advice for future thesis writers: If possible find an advisor with whom you work very well, someone who is going to give you the type of advice and the type of motivation that you need because people’s working and writing processes are so different that an advisor who works well with one person may not work all that well with someone else. I think it’s more important that your working styles are compatible than that they’re an expert on the topic you’re writing about. No one on this campus is an expert in Yiddish folklore, but because I took several classes with Martin and he knows me and I know him and so he knows how we work he’s just been enormously helpful.
On her favorite part of thesis: I really loved working on my third and fourth chapters which were just the analysis of the stories I was translating. The first half was just a ton of research and reading and stuff that I had to do for the rest of it to make sense, but when I got to actually sit down and read these really delightful folktales I remembered why I was writing it in the first place. I think it’s important to have moments like that mixed in.
On if her thesis were a song/movie/TV show: I can’t just say Once Upon a Time because that’s a cop out. Okay, it’d be Once Upon a Time except instead of there being the magic forest and Storybrooke it would be Storybrooke and a Shtetl like in Eastern Europe and that’s like that magical place.
Most used word/phrase: Two, and they’re both infuriating because Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize either of them: Folkloreistics, it’s the “s” that pisses off Word, and Diasporic, which it doesn’t like that much either.
interviews by un-meli-melo, michelle, and fern