English Major Jumana Esau Wins University Medal
Breaking News: Graduating English Major Jumana Esau is being awarded the University Medal!
This award recognizes the top graduating senior across the university for academic excellence in undergraduate studies, outstanding community service, and the promise of future scholarship and contributions to society.
Earlier in the spring, we reported that Esau had won the prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship. This scholarship will fund her study towards a masters in English Studies at the University of Cambridge during the 2020-21 academic year.
We asked Esau then about the Gates award and what she would do in Cambridge. (For more about Esau’s reflections on what it means to be an English major, check out her appearance on the Davisville podcast.)
Jumana developed the research project she’ll be working on at Cambridge while auditing Professor Tobias Menely’s seminar on climate fiction last spring and she is now writing her honors thesis in the department under his supervision. “Through my thesis research,” Jumana relates, “I am learning about the different avenues authors have taken to represent climate change, such as using the structuring genre of myth in conjunction with social realism.”
“As a Gates-Cambridge Scholar,” she explains,”I hope to engage in an interdisciplinary conversation about climate change and colonialism. My research at UC Davis has been focused on climate fiction written by Black women. N.K. Jemisin, Octavia Butler, and Nnedi Okorafor juxtapose the social problems Black women face with the geologic problems of climate change.”
We asked Jumana about the process of applying for this fellowship and learned about how she consulted Professor Frances Dolan: “Professor Dolan assured me that I should take the risk of writing about my Palestinian heritage and how it has impacted my life, academic journey, and proposed research,” Jumana writes. “She told me to present myself in a way that I would be proud of, no matter what I think degree committees and interviewers want to see.”
You’ll find more from Jumana talking about her research and her application process below.
And here is a link to the story about her scholarship on the University Honors Program website.
Photo: Jumana Esau with Frances Dolan
What has surprised you in the research on your topic that you've done so far in your honors thesis? What do you hope to learn by furthering this research while a Gates Cambridge Scholar?
A central aspect of my thesis research has been examining narrative theory, since natural phenomena elude the “conventional” narrative methods of the modern novel. My questions about climate fiction apply to the problem of the novel and its structuring genre of social realism. My research has produced questions about the virtues of realism and the layered dialectic between probability and improbability in climate fiction. Modern novels rely on the idea of probability, which involves representing something imaginable to the reader, and yet climate change is marked by improbability and “unimaginable” climate spectacles.
Through my thesis research, I am learning about the different avenues authors have taken to represent climate change, such as using the structuring genre of myth in conjunction with social realism. The research I have done so far has shown that there is a representational inadequacy in works of climate fiction. The narratives I am studying are attentive to this limit, dialogically inserting mythical stories in their largely realistic plots.
As a Gates-Cambridge Scholar, I hope to engage in an interdisciplinary conversation about climate change and colonialism. My research at UC Davis has been focused on climate fiction written by Black women. N.K. Jemisin, Octavia Butler, and Nnedi Okorafor juxtapose the social problems Black women face with the geologic problems of climate change. The Criticism and Culture MPhil at Cambridge offers seminars ranging from “Cultures of the Anthropocene” to “Feminist Science Fiction.” These seminars engage with the issues I would like to address in my dissertation and I anticipate finding connections between them that would be helpful for my research.
Would you mind sharing a bit of your journey to this point? How was the experience of applying for the fellowship?
When applying to the University of Cambridge, I talked to Professor Frances Dolan about the program and why I want to pursue my master’s degree in the UK. I did not expect to be shortlisted to interview for Gates-Cambridge, let alone receive the scholarship. However, Professor Dolan urged me to put myself out there and supported me every step of the way. I constantly went to her office hours, asking about my personal statements and whether I should reveal information in my application that I was wary about sharing.
Professor Dolan assured me that I should take the risk of writing about my Palestinian heritage and how it has impacted my life, academic journey, and proposed research. She told me to present myself in a way that I would be proud of, no matter what I think degree committees and interviewers want to see. Confiding in her allowed me to learn a lot about myself, specifically how I had been programmed to conceal information about my identity that could be seen as “controversial.” Professor Dolan’s support during the application and interview process has allowed me to grow academically and personally – she is a major part of why I was successful in this endeavor.
One of the most important things I have learned from this experience is that I was “prepared” for the interview to the extent that I knew a great deal about my proposed research from the work I did in Professor Stratton’s “Honors Seminar” and Professor Menely’s thesis supervision. I could articulate why I chose my topic because I had been consumed with research for the past two quarters. When it comes to scholarships like this, people assume that being prepared involves learning all there is to know about the Gates Foundation or Cambridge, but I was prepared because I am passionate about literature and can communicate the importance of climate fiction.