Dr. Jennifer Gustar and her dog Lula; Provided by Dr. Gustar

It is not a secret that our professors are the pillars of our education. However, it is not often that we as students get to know our instructors personally beyond the classroom. With the hope of getting to know our professors more intimately and to learn what they do outside of grading and teaching, The Phoenix has started a Professor Profile series where we interview UBCO professors about their interests. Dr. Jennifer Gustar has kindly accepted to spearhead the series by discussing her recent important work in a virtual interview.

Please provide a brief bio of yourself and what you do/are most interested in.

I received my Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. I wrote a dissertation about the challenge feminist theory and fiction posed to postmodernism, called Postmodern Pathologies, using the example of the British novelist and social critic Angela Carter. I was a first-generation university graduate (actually a first-generation high school graduate) so I had absolutely no idea that I would end up going to graduate school or working in academia. To tell the truth, as an undergrad, I didn’t really have a handle on what graduate school was about. However, I did well in my courses, and I worked hard because I became inspired. More importantly, I fell in love with my subject, English, so I persisted. I eventually worked as a sessional at the University of Northern British Columbia while I was writing my dissertation, and I was offered my first full-time position, here, within a few months of defending my Ph.D. And here I stayed. I was most fortunate to have secured a position. My area of interest and research is contemporary women’s writing, and I focus primarily on authors from Britain. I’m also deeply interested in the fiction of South Asia and its diaspora in Britain and elsewhere.

What research projects have you done/been working on as of late?

I just published an edited book called Ludics and Laughter as Feminist Aesthetic: Angela Carter at Play, coedited by two scholars in my field from the UK. “Ludic,” by the way, is a term that means “play” and has a long history in cultural discourse—most famously articulated by a fellow named Johan Huizinga in the 1940s. We get the word “ludicrous” from the Latin root of ludic: I play with this a bit in the book, talking about the “lude” feminists. I also like it because of the alliteration with laughter in the title. This book takes issue with the claim that feminist critique always lacks humour—is always a “killjoy” as the theorist Sara Ahmed would say. Rather, the contributors and I detail the ways in which the British writer, Angela Carter, uses humour, laughter, and play to critique what she calls the “social fictions” that regulate our lives. Carter’s fiction, poetry, and journalism engaged in sharp social and cultural critique, but she habitually engaged this critique through playful structures and wickedly funny narratives that challenged conventional norms and ways of thinking. She compelled an uneasy laughter by means of this unconventional style that merges a playful sensibility with a biting wit. This book was a labour of love as Angela Carter has been a lasting influence on my scholarship and my thinking; she is one of my closest textual friends. The essays in this volume seek to reclaim play as a serious undertaking for feminist writing and scholarship and to foreground laughter as a potent effect.  

My ongoing work is informed by the intersection of race and gender in contemporary British women’s fiction and representations of history. I want to better understand the feminist and anti-racist work that literature can do. I began this work a few years back, studying the writers Andrea Levy, Zadie Smith, Kamila Shamsie, Helen Oyeyemi, and Bernardine Evaristo, who just last year won the Booker Prize for her novel Girl, Woman, Other. As I teach contemporary British fiction, I wanted to bring to my students a fuller sense of the scope of British fiction and to challenge deeply embedded presuppositions about British history and identity so I began to include what in Britain are often called BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) writers in my courses. The literature is so powerful that now I teach an entire course devoted to it.

Bernardine Evaristo’s work exposed the clear eclipse—a purposeful forgetting—of the presence of Black Britons and people of colour in Britain long before the post-war period and the arrival of the SS Windrush from Jamaica in 1947.  I began to look closely at this history and the ways in which these writers used their fiction and experimental narratives to excavate and examine Britain’s past and present. I like to look at language in place, then how it moves, migrates, revises, renames; how it encodes power and decodes it; how it empowers and disempowers.  When we close in on a text, we seek its beauty, yes, but its beauty doesn’t reside only in its plot and character, in words and rhythms, in metaphors and maneuvers.  The beauty that we find in texts resides in the ways in which these elements produce, revise, traverse different potentials, different meanings.

The working title of the project is Women Writing Resistance: History's F(r)ictions. I read the feminist, postcolonial and antiracist writing of theorists and novelists together, which I think is an important undertaking given our current moment and the renewed acknowledgment, globally, that Black Lives Matter and have always mattered. The novels, themselves, are recent and deal with issues of effaced histories and their impact on peoples, whether we are speaking of folks who identify or are identified as non-normative, diasporic, racialized, LGBTQ2S++, migrant or refugees. I also began to examine the white-bias in publishing and learned how many Black writers and writers of colour had to do so much self-promotion of their work because they were not fully supported by the publishing houses. It seemed to me that as an academic who is deeply interested in this work, I could help bring attention to it in the classroom. This work is so varied—some of it is comic, some is gothic, some is harrowing—all of it is engaging readers in important thinking. It has so much to tell us and teach us, and my students have been so receptive.

What piqued your interest in this topic? Why does this research matter to you?

I’ve always been interested in the ways in which literature addresses issues of inequality, and I’ve always tried to better understand what literature can do in terms of social justice.  The writers, themselves, provoked my interest. They provided powerful learning—and learning is always a provocation. And in this area, I am a learner and always will be. This research matters because literature matters, because our forms of cultural expression can tell us valuable things about the way we understand, categorize, organize and imagine our world. And I still believe literature can be part of the various forces that work for change.

Has the pandemic affected your work?

Oh my. How hasn’t it? I don’t use a great deal of tech in my face to face classes; rather, I try to engage my students directly in conversations. This is much harder online. With my fourth-year seminar on Contemporary Women’s Writing in the UK, I have put a blog in place, so we can still enjoy ongoing discussions. This is working well, but reading and responding to an extended blog is much more time consuming than having in-class discussions, for the students and the teacher. I know that many professors sacrificed much of our research time during the research semester to make the online environment work.

I’m constantly having to learn new technology. Everything requires much more planning now and time on YouTube learning how to use a teaching tool to allow my students to perform a skill they need to know. All that apparatus on Canvas has to be carefully thought out far in advance in order to have everything proceed in a clear progression. Canvas is so linear. I’m teaching a blended model--half synchronous and half asynchronous—so I’m still trying to engage in discussion.  But it is quite a lot more work than face-to-face, although it might not look like it. It feels like I’m always at my desk in front of a screen. I’m sure it feels that way for the students too.

In the end, I miss my students. I miss getting to know them, recognizing them, talking with them about the things that matter. In my upper-level class, I’m so fortunate, as I know many of the students, so the ice is broken and we are more engaged with each other’s ideas. But all the students in my lower level are new to me: I’m working hard to get to know them.  

Does your research intersect with your professional pedagogy?

So much. I’ve learned from Carter the value of laughter and play in learning. I learn from my current project the importance of recognizing the diversity of voices that make up British culture—and this diversity is more and more represented in my students and my classrooms.  Students value seeing versions of their own stories when they are studying English. English has changed significantly since I was an undergrad, and I try to make those changes explicit for my students. In my second-year class, for instance, I have learned both to teach “canonical” texts and to challenge that canon at the same time. I think this gives students more opportunities to see that knowledge is not value-neutral—that knowledge is framed by specific interests.

What do you think has been the most valuable part of engaging in this research?

Learning. Engaging in the larger conversation about social inequalities and injustice. Confronting history and the present that we have inherited from an incomplete understanding of our past. Supporting women writers. Gaining new textual friends. Giving my students the opportunities to read and appreciate these narratives which question preconceived ideas about culture and identity.