This fall, the Rutgers-Camden MFA in Creative Writing launched a new fellowship for admitted students, the Interdisciplinary Fellowship. For two semesters, Interdisciplinary Fellows meet with a faculty mentor from a discipline that interests them and pursues an independent course of study that supports their creative work. While most writers take for granted that they will explore subjects new to them while engaged in a creative project, this is the only MFA fellowship we know of that formalizes the relationship between creative writer and research. Our Writers House coordinator Leah Falk asked our first two fellows, Dani Oliver and Alexandra Luke, to talk a bit more about their experience with the fellowship in its (and their) first year.
After the jump, an interview with Alex.
What did you expect the interdisciplinary fellowship to be like, and how have your expectations changed?
I guess I was expecting more structure and limitations. I kept asking what this project was supposed to look like in the end — would I have to produce something academic or creative? Would I be attending classes/lectures in my chosen field or just working one-on-one with my faculty mentor? The answer was almost always ‘it’s up to you’, and that freedom felt overwhelming in the best way. I realized, I could learn about cybersecurity, or artificial intelligence, or anything at all, without the pressure of having to pass an exam on it.
Tell me more about what discipline you’ll focus on and how you think that will relate to your creative work.
I’m going to do an anthropological study on witchcraft in Ghana. I’d like to know more about how accusations of witchcraft are used to marginalize vulnerable members of society. I’m interested, generally, in how people exert power, both on an individual and societal level, and how/when vulnerable people are able to subvert traditional power structures.
I don’t have a specific creative project in mind yet. That was another thing that was exciting to learn when I spoke to MFA Director Patrick Rosal about this. I was kind of worried that I’d need to have a creative response — a story or a novel outline — complete by the time I finished the research, and he was like, if you use this in twenty years or next week, it’ll be considered a success.
I think focusing on witchcraft will allow me to explore themes that generally interest me, and my family’s from Ghana so I know that’s a place that’s going to come up in my work a lot. I figured it would be a really rich topic to dive into, and then just trust it will have a creative outcome at some point.
Have you met with your faculty mentor yet?
Yes, she’s great, I can’t wait to work with her. She’s spent a lot of time in Ghana, and her research is fascinating and has a lot of crossover with what I’m interested in.
How are you structuring meeting with her, how is she helping guide your research?
I’m going to submit a proposal by next week, and over the winter break she’s going to come up with an initial reading list for me. I’ll meet with her a few times over the course of the semester, but mostly I’ll just be reading. The end product will be an annotated bibliography, a wealth of information I can dip into whenever.
That’s already a pretty specific topic, but do you expect it to narrow, or would you like to continue looking broadly and seeing what you can use?
Witchcraft accusations in Ghana are often made against elderly women, children, and physically disabled people. I’ve thought about maybe bringing this into conversation with the ways the UK treats those vulnerable groups (I’m half-Ghanaian, half-British). I’m also intrigued by the history of witchcraft in Ghana, its ties to religion and colonialism. So, there are a lot of different directions I can see the research going in, but I imagine I’ll get a clearer sense of where I want it to go once I start reading.
Do you have a background in anthropology or anything related to it?
I think that’s the greatest thing about this fellowship, you can dive right in. Have you talked with your mentor about whether whether she thinks there are ways you should prepare yourself for the discipline, or is she open?
She’s very open. She said from the beginning that I should shape this research however will be most useful to me creatively, and I can come to her with any questions about how to work within this discipline.
She has also actually has put me in contact with the African Studies department in New Brunswick. And also introduced me to a minister from a Ghanaian Church in Philly. So already she’s setting me up with connections beyond the project itself.
So you don’t have a creative project in mind that relates to this at the moment, but do you have a wish for what it could turn into?
Maybe a novel, but I really don’t know. I plan to do a short story collection for my thesis, so even for the research to influence any of those pieces would be nice.
What’s your favorite thing so far about the fellowship?
Just the openness of it – that it’d be equally valuable for someone who wants to flirt with different disciplines and see how it’ll affect their writing, and someone who knows exactly how their research will feed into a specific creative project.
I’m also really glad that the research is split over two semesters, and there’s going to be that break during summer when I can say, ok, am I going to go even deeper and hone in on something specific within this topic, or try something completely different, like Dani’s doing.