UChicago scholars to present their research, experiences on Humanities Day

Among the more than 30 lectures, tours and performances scheduled for the University's 38th annual Humanities Day, to be held Oct. 15, are two presentations by UChicago faculty members whose work is informed by their personal connections to war and conflict.

Asst. Prof. Vu Tran, from Vietnam, and Asst. Prof. Ghenwa Hayek, from Lebanon, will explore how those from their homelands who have lived through the trauma of war make sense of that experience.

Tran writes about the legacy of the Vietnam War for the Vietnamese who remained in their country or were displaced and came to the United States.

He will read from his debut novel Dragonfish—hailed as a 2015 New York Times Notable Book—in a session called “Noir and the Refugee Experience.” At four years old, Tran became a refugee himself, escaping Vietnam by boat.

“I wanted to focus on how being a refugee informs how my characters live their lives and what ends up weighing on them and affecting the people they have relationships with,” said Tran, an assistant professor of practice in the arts. “Any time you’re displaced because of a political situation or conflict—whether you’re from Syria, South America or Asia—you inevitably face the struggle to adapt to the new world but also feelings of outsidership that last a lifetime.”

A crime novel set primarily in Las Vegas, Dragonfish is about an American police officer’s search for his ex-wife, a Vietnamese refugee and femme fatale who has mysteriously disappeared. His quest turns up letters she wrote to a daughter she abandoned decades earlier and stories from her past that he never knew.

Tran’s presentation will include a discussion of how the detective figure in crime novels is based on the archetype of the 19th-century Byronic hero, “with its sensibilities of alienation, melancholy and mystery,” and how in Dragonfish he has extended that role to his unlikely female protagonist, creating a hero who is “female and a refugee.”

In a similar vein, Hayek, assistant professor in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, will discuss how comics emerged in contemporary Lebanese society as a vehicle for making sense of a fractured past.

Hayek explores the relationships between literary and cultural production, space and place, and identity formation in the modern Arab Middle East. She is interested in the generation of writers who were children during Lebanon’s civil war, which ranged from 1975-90, only to face another disastrous conflict in 2006. “Those children are now adults who are thinking through what these wars mean and linking their own past with the national past,” she said.

In her session titled “‘I Think We Will be Calm During the Next War’: Past, Present, and Future Violence in Lebanese Comics,” Hayek will discuss why they have chosen comics over other literary forms. “Comics allows them to manipulate text and image in ways that engage readers in a manner perhaps more direct than a novel might be,” she said.

The genre also helps them cope with an instability they know all too well. “They’re thinking, ‘I was a child in a war and now, 20 years later, I’m an adult in a war,’” she said. “How long will it be until it happens again?”

Other Humanities Day highlights include a keynote address by James Chandler, the Barbara E. and Richard J. Franke Distinguished Service Professor in Cinema and Media Studies and English Language and Literature and the director of both the Franke Institute for the Humanities and the Center for Disciplinary Innovation. Chandler’s presentation, “Doing Criticism/Doing Without Criticism,” will draw on examples from poetry, fiction, drama and cinema to explore the role of criticism in contemporary society.

Additionally, with the return of artist Wolf Vostell’s public sculpture Concrete Traffic to campus last month, Christine Mehring, professor in Art History, along with Lisa Zaher, UChicago Arts conservation research fellow, will discuss the challenges involved in its conservation and installation in the Ellis Parking Garage. 

Humanities Day is free and open to the public. Seating is limited, and pre-registration for all Humanities Day presentations is highly recommended.