BY CHLOE GAMES – STAFF WRITER
A late spring snowfall hovered at the window of Dr. Osanloo’s office when she and I sat down to discuss literature. Aware that a month punctuated with campus forums and weighted conversations preceded our conversation, Dr. Osanloo, an Assistant Professor of English, offered a selection of books and films that might encompass both the things that students deal with on our campus and offer a perspective on student life that many Centre students may not understand.
“What excites me about Centre students,” Dr. Osanloo explained, “is that they are curious globally…they care and talk about real issues. What worries me is that to a certain extent so many small liberal arts colleges are cut off, and some of the most powerful things that we can read and watch are things that force us to engage with issues that allow us to get out of that isolation.” This week’s selection of faculty-recommended literature therefore offers students a chance to stray beyond Maine and College Streets, and to adopt a fresh perspective on the student experience, one that may offer unexpected challenges and insights.
Although she is currently teaching courses in screenwriting and Iranian Cinema, Dr. Osanloo drew material from her Others and Outsiders class when searching for a novel that touches on globally relevant issues that one may encounter inside of a campus. Her first selections are books by the author Mohsin Hamid. in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Dr. Osanloo explains, Hamid tells a story that is very accessible to students, because “A lot of his work navigates some of those ethnic and racial and religious issues…from the standpoint of people the age of our students.” The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the story of a college student at Princeton who deals with the everyday sort of emotional and identity issues that a student is bound to encounter, things like having feelings for a classmate and having to communicate with parents that don’t understand his experience. Yet the novel benefits from an additional narrative layer as well; it is narrated: “from the purview of someone whose experience is also defined by being an immigrant, an international student, who practices a faith that most students on campus both misunderstand and fail to understand.”
Hamid’s Exit West deals with the same issues of immigration that continue to be relevant globally; his main characters are a young refugee couple that flees a city undergoing civil war through a series of fictitious doors. Exit West, Dr. Osanloo explains, is fascinating in “How it talks about issues of the world,” weaving together a wealth of fairytales and stories of magical realism in order to relate a truthful, very real experience.
Dr. Osanloo turned to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah for her final recommendation. The main character of Adichie’s novel is a student at Princeton who is simultaneously a Nigerian immigrant who is dealing with the very typical issues of an American student, but “These issues are heightened because they are dealt with from the point of view of an international student who is constantly being forced to explain and justify her experience because of race and because she is from Nigeria, a country that is not understood and misunderstood.” The book is narrated within a duality of prose; the protagonist relates some of her experiences in her blog, while the rest of the time the reader is privileged to experience the world exactly as the main character encounters it. Dr. Osanloo found the variety of prose an interesting component of the novel.
This week’s interview offers a spotlight on film as well: for the student who’s willing to stray from the Netflix queue, Dr. Osanloo recommends The Salesman (Osghar Farhadi) and Get Out (Jordan Peele). “I’m always looking for connections and things that so many people experience that are heightened by particular issues,” Dr. Osanloo said. To that end, Farhadi’s film follows an Iranian couple in France who are acting in a revival of an iconic American play, Death of a Salesman. Amidst this tangle of monikers, the couple must deal with the post-traumatic stress that follows an assault on the wife, and the husband’s struggle to identify the attacker.
In our conversation, Dr. Osanloo picked out the unifying component of these books and films: “None of these characters,” she explained, “share the privilege of isolation. They are forced to contend with an immediate problem and the reality of how they’re treated at the same time as they try to relate to the world.” The challenge of relating to the world is further explored in Get Out, which Dr. Osanloo finds insightful for its exploration of the theme of assimilation. The message that is enacted by the coded racism of the parents in the film, she explains, is that “We will welcome you, but you must assimilate to our values and leave your own behind.” This idea asks the individual to “revise” their differences in order to be more like “us.”
Dr. Osanloo praises the film for “masterful use of the classic tools of the horror genre” and the way it urges us to “think about the extent to which we ask everyone to assimilate to a prevailing and privileged culture.” On a campus that transitions every semester with the influx and absence of students, issues of identity and community are ever-present. With such a stable element of change warping our campus from one year to the next, there is an endless capacity for impactful change in the way that we construct community within Centre’s campus. For those of us who are seeking solidarity, and for those of us wish to be allies, adopting the perspective of Adichie’s college student or Farhadi’s actor may provide a much-needed stretch in perspective.