November 2017

Oklahoma: Hot and Cold

Our weekly updates from the Humanities Research Fellows concludes for 2017 with a post from Jeff Van Hanken, an Associate Professor in the Film Studies program at the University of Tulsa and founder of C.H.A.M.P., the Center for Health, Arts and Measurable Practices at TU, which seeks to support and promote art projects that target specific community health indicators.

The line snaked out the front door of the Crystal Theater and down the street. It was 1990, maybe 1991. It was summer but I don’t remember it being especially hot. I had never been to Okemah and I’m not sure how I learned that a concert had been planned in celebration of Woody Guthrie. I’m not even sure what I knew about Woody himself. That he wrote “This Land is Your Land”? That he was from Oklahoma? This was before rock band Wilco and singer-songwriter Billy Bragg collaborated on an album based upon unrecorded Woody lyrics. This was still a few years before the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival itself was formally launched and I would not have been surprised if there hadn’t been more than a dozen people in attendance that night.

As it turns out, it was packed. A man and woman stood near us. They were friendly, a few years older than myself at the time. They recalled how they would play Woody’s children songs for their son. I added this to the list of things I didn’t know about Woody.

Someone pointed at the water towers standing at the edge of town, looming there like giant children’s toys. In simple, block letters, one tower was painted with the word, “Hot,” the other painted “Cold.” This was meant to symbolize the town’s feeling toward Woody. Some embraced the native son, celebrated his legacy, his music, his plainspokenness; other were turned off by what were presumed to be his leftist politics.

Looking at the turnout that night, then reflecting on the enthusiasm of the audience during the concert, I remember thinking that it surely couldn’t be long before both of those towers were painted, “Hot.” The trajectory from that point forward seemed so clear, unavoidable. The state, still among the nation’s youngest, was just beginning to come into its own. It wasn’t trending Democratic or progressive or populist. It was simply trending Oklahoman. What did that mean to me at that time? Modest, unboastful, curious, protective of its forests, its prairies, its water, its wildlife, unburdened by Texas bravado but livelier than bashful Kansans.

None of this seemed a paradox for me. My grandfather had come to Oklahoma in 1939 for work. In time, he built a fine little oil services company. And he loved the outdoors, buying a series of small ranches dotted across the Northeastern part of the state. That’s how we grew up: revering nature, camping, fishing, thinking everyone deserved a fair shake. We were largely a public school family, though a couple of us were lucky enough to go off to some of the better private schools in the world. It was a privilege. There’s the path, it seemed at the time: excellent education, unsullied nature, new industries, send emissaries out, import good ideas, leave off with the bad ones.

When the members of the seminar met to discuss my topic, Oklahoma and its legacy and what it means to be a native Oklahoman today, it became clear that thinking about Oklahoma as a site of tolerance and forward-thinking is difficult. As we all digest the news from the state Legislature, this seems reasonable. I prefer, however, to view this moment as an anomaly.

At the time of the Woody concert, there were six Oklahoma Congressmen. Four were Democrats, one of whom was the deeply missed Mike Synar, who seemed to me to have figured out a path forward. Not for Democrats or Progressives but for Oklahomans. David Boren was, at that moment, the lone Democratic Senator but reaching back, one could chart a course populated by Fred Harris, Robert S. Kerr, and Thomas Gore. Kerr himself was a very successful oilman who believed in big public projects such as the McClellan-Kerr Navigation system that connects Oklahoma with the Gulf of Mexico.

And it wasn’t just Democrats. Former mayor and current U.S. Senator James Inhofe himself came out in support of a full array of visionary projects from the still-developing river parks system, to solar energy, to perhaps my favorite, a monorail system that would connect the disparate parts of Tulsa.

Perhaps a train in the sky was overreaching, but so what? Shouldn’t we overreach a bit? If we fall a bit short, fine. That’s better than so much of what I read today, which seems petty and mean, unimaginative. Positioning ourselves in a mortal battle with government seems to miss the point.

Shouldn’t we want to be better than Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado? Shouldn’t want we to brag that our schools are the best, our teachers are better supported, our roads are the finest and our streams the cleanest? Why wouldn’t we want that? Who could possibly be against that? This isn’t about government; this is about improving, getting better, not going backward.

My son and I recently attended the OU-TCU football game. That first half was the finest 30 minutes of football I’ve ever seen in person. We’re a small state but we can make that happen. We can compete with the largest, best funded-institutions in the country. If we can do that on the football field, then why can’t we do anything else we want?

Sometimes when reading about the state Legislature, I feel like Paul Newman in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” riding horses over deserts, traversing rivers, all in an attempt to evade an advancing posse. Finally, exasperated, Newman snarls, “Who are these guys?”

In thinking back on that pivotal night at the Crystal Ballroom, I had a hazy recollection of a time when the Ku Klux Klan attempted to organize a rally down in Moore, which at that time was really just a small town that lay between Oklahoma City and Norman. Considering where we are today, I began to wonder if I had made it up. It took some searching, and a trial subscription to the Paris, Texas News but I finally found what I was looking for.

From the Jan. 25, 1980 edition of the Paris News, a small item near the bottom of page 4 ran with the headline, “KKK Leader recruits in schools.”

“During a short 45-minute visit near the perimeters of the Moore [Oklahoma] school, students booed and hissed at [Klan leaders] Wilkinson and Clary as they doggedly tried to enlist some teen-agers in their Invisible Empire. However, the group of about 12 white students didn’t buy the white supremacy pitch.”

Not only did the students not buy it, they expressed themselves rather forcefully.

“Two girls approached the men and laughed at their regalia. ‘Oh, they’re putting on their coneheads,’ cried Allison Badger and Joanna Freeman. ‘I see those robes on, and it makes me sick,’ Miss Freeman told the pair, adding, ‘This is what I think of you,’ while ripping apart a leaflet.”

That was the kind of Oklahoma I foresaw when standing on the sidewalk outside the Crystal Theater. Allison and Joanna, wherever you are, rock on. Woody would have been proud.

When Your Home is Called Hell

This week’s OCH update comes from Seungho Lee, a Ph.D. student of English at the University of Tulsa. His research focuses range from 20th Century British Literature to Contemporary Anglophone Literature. He analyzes the literature of his field through the lens of Postcolonialism with an emphasis on such issues as home, belonging, nation, and identity.

Seoul is a dazzling city when seen from afar. Even more so, after the darkness falls and countless lights begin shining forth, taking the place of stars in the night sky. South Koreans sometimes call it the city that never sleeps. This doesn’t refer to its vibrant nightlife and dynamic energy, but to the overtime work, widely considered as a part of life, which makes the city and the city-dwellers unable to sleep.

While exploring the topic of home(land), I have become more aware of the ambiguity packed in the baggage of home; the ambiguity that home is both dream and nightmare, that home is both heaven and hell. In the case of Korea, the hell-like aspect of home seems to outweigh the heaven-like one. For many young Koreans, their home country has increasingly become synonymous with hell or what they call “‘ Hell-Chosun,’” a compound of ‘Hell’ and ‘Chosun’ (a name of the Korean dynasty that lasted from 1392 to 1910, used here to represent Korea’s pre-modern backwardness). Coupled with it, ‘Tal-Chosun’ becomes another widely-used rhetoric with the prefix ‘Tal’(脫) meaning ‘divest oneself of or escape from’. Both Hell-Chosun and Tal-Chosun have become powerful expressions for young people seeking to vent their frustrations about home.

South Korea, a home for over fifty million people, is a place where the Janus-faced aspects of home are more strikingly present than any other places in the world. It is one of the fastest developing countries, and probably one of the wealthiest nations among those that emerged from colonization after 1945. Founded on this economic development, Korea has increasingly been becoming an influential nation in a number of fields such as politics and popular culture. K-Pop, for example, becomes more and more widely enjoyed by the audiences around the world.

At the same time, however, some of the statistics about the nation tells a different story. Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, second only to Lithuania. This index, more than anything else, tells us how hard it is to live there, how estranged and unhomely people feel toward their home country, and how much pressure they endure as they put the idea of Tal-Chosun into horrifying practice.

Arguably, the working environment is one of the top reasons why living in Korea is so stressful and depressing. In 2014, Korea was one of the three top countries in terms of the average annual working hours following Mexico and Costa Rica (Novak). The working culture is such that going home at six or having official holidays is extremely difficult. Consider the example of my parents. They have been running a small business over thirty years: they have two days off a month without weekends, another two days off a year thanks to the two biggest national holidays, and a four-day-long summer holiday, all of which sum up to around thirty days off a year. They have taken for granted what it takes to survive and remain stable economically in such a competitive society as Korea. For the young, it gets even harder or riskier to get a job or open their own small businesses because of the slowing economic growth and the growing inequality.

Koreans often joke that “‘Korea is the best place to live if you have money’.” It is a kind of joke that has a poignant truth in it. Though every society is that way to some extent, Korea is particularly intolerant to groups of people with disadvantages like the elderly, students, the disabled, and women. Gender inequality in the workplace is rampant and the wage gap in Korea is one of the widest among OECD, in addition to which there is less possibility of promotion and more probability of retirement once women have children. Even if they manage to continue their careers, women often suffer from the double workloads from both workplace and home. Childcare is still considered as women’s job no matter whether they work or not. Feminism has become a rising issue in the last few years in Korea, attempting to raise women’s social status; and yet, misogyny, as a reaction to it, is also growing, especially among young men, to the point where it looks very dangerous, at times resulting in serious social problems ranging from sexual harassment to physical violence and even murder.

I’ve come to the United States to study and many of my friends have told me that they wish they were me so they could be out of the country. I usually respond that I also have my own difficulties, feeling out of place and missing a lot of things at home like family and food. But they too feel alienated and homeless in their home country. They say it is not about food, family, and a sense of place. Instead, it is about something social, something political, and something economic. The fact that South Koreans kill themselves more than almost any other nations in the world already says that there is a very strong sense of homelessness for them. This feeling of homelessness is so gigantic that we don’t know what to do. Is there a way out? Is there utopia outside Hell-Chosun for Koreans attempting Tal-Chosun? If home is Janus-faced in itself, should we just accept the hell-like dimension of it and endure it to some extent? If we shouldn’t, then how can we change things and make it a better place to live? How can we make ourselves feel at home when our home is called hell?

Works Cited

Novak, Kathy. “Never say no! South Korea’s pressure-cooker work culture,” CNN, 23 July 2015,

Singh, Ann. “The ‘Scourage of South Korea’: Stress and Suicide in Korean Society,” Berkeley Political Review, 31 Oct 2017,

McCurry, Justin. “South Korea’s Inequality Paradox: long life, good health and poverty,” Guardian, 2 Aug 2017,

Why We Trash Hotel Rooms (A Situationist Meditation on Homes Away from Home)

1. You (presumably well-socialized reader of a humanities institute blog, you) have left a towel lying on the floor.
2. And you could pick it up, you know?

a. A hum beckons you toward the illuminated bathroom.
b. Ultraviolet would reveal other leavings. Not necessarily yours.

i. Especially on the quilt. (Kick it off!)

ii. Why was it necessary for your remote to be sanitized for your protection?

iii. Did you not hoist the mattress and probe for tiny streaks of blood?

c. This is no place for bedbugs.

i. You checked: you balanced cost, location, and convenience with a website’s rating;

1. Which was ideal: 4.7 out of 5.0, gleaned from a dozen traveler’s tales, high but not suspiciously so, a few nasties fixed forever in the amber of bland consumer satisfaction;
2. Realistic imperfections add value.

ii. A review would mention lenticular bedtime horrors.

1. Who live in colonies and display great cunning and acrobatic ability;
2. Who shimmy hot-water pipes to move between rooms;
3. And leave triple welts behind (breakfast, lunch and dinner).

d. You bolt the door and ponder the posted instructions for escape.

i. And think of beeswax sealed larvae in honeycomb sarcophagi;
ii. And long for signs of life, for scuffs and stains and burned out lightbulbs to replace!
iii. But the merciless blue bathroom light beats down uninterrupted from a fixture far tougher than what you could buy at home. (Industrial!)

1. And you grok roots hidden behind a hotel-shaped crust, the tentacles tickling honeydew cash from aphid you;
2. And your befouled towel lies there still, a white wad blazing on the tiled floor.
3. And so you leave it there and resist the minibar’s temptations and resolve to take a handful of the cellophane wrapped soaps with you too.

Better than kicking in the TV

i. Tempting though that may be.

Why? Because we are creatures of habit and our habits deposit tiny layers. Compelled to grind ourselves into the numb infrastructure sustaining us: why else would teen raiding parties so often scrawl their names on walls?

Or coworkers dress an empty cubicle?
Or Scots, build cairns?
Or the mad finger-paint excrement on the walls of their cells?

A trashed hotel room is a tiny furious epitaph.

James McGirk

James Brandon McGirk is the author of A GRAND THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2015) and AMERICAN OUTLAWS (2014); his work focuses  documentation and place, particularly exploring ideas like homeland, third-culture expatriate communities, travel and tourism using a variety of media, primarily creative nonfiction, video and photography.


Hyphenated Lives

This week’s update comes from OCH fellow Danielle Carlotti-Smith, who specializes in French and Francophone literature with a focus on Francophone Caribbean and New World studies, postcolonial studies, and migration studies. Her current book project examines literary expressions of the homeland in twentieth- and twenty-first-century French- and Spanish-Caribbean and Brazilian novels which are set on sugarcane plantations.

Photo of me in 7th grade with my half Japanese half Canadian friend and classmate, Chrissie Kobayashi, at Nishimachi International School in Tokyo, Japan.

Frequently, when I’m out and about in Tulsa with my three- and seven-year-old daughters and we’re speaking French together, strangers will stop to ask me where I’m from. Invariably, I wonder to myself, “Does this person want to hang around long enough to hear the answer?” If they seem rushed, I provide this evasive response: “I used to be a French professor before we moved to Tulsa, so I’m teaching my kids French.” If they seem genuinely interested, I preface my longer answer with, “That’s a difficult question for me,” and then explain that my mother is Brazilian and my father is American, that I have dual citizenship, and that I was raised in five different countries before moving to the United States at the age of eighteen. What I don’t tell them is that my identity is hyphenated; it fluctuates depending on the context. There are times when I feel like a blend of both cultures, Brazilian and American; and there are also times when I feel like neither. And while I’m not French, I have dedicated twenty-six years of my life to studying the language, literature, and culture of France and its former colonies, so at times I feel more at home with French people than I do with anyone else.

Photo of my paternal grandparents, George and Bernice Smith (née Erikson), during their courtship in Seattle, Washington. My grandmother, the child of Norwegian immigrants, was a first generation American; my grandfather, the son of English immigrants, was also a first generation American.

I have been asked this question countless times throughout my entire life, but it still provokes a sense of discomfort each time. What may seem like a simple or even superficial question to most people, is really a very personal one for me; one that can’t just be answered in ten seconds in a grocery store line by providing a nationality, or even two; it can really only be answered through a larger narrative. Perhaps this is why I have always been drawn to literature: because a character’s identity is not offered for rapid consumption; rather, as readers we must slowly digest the events in a character’s life in order to try to get a sense of how his or her identity evolves in the course of the narrative. Many times, at the end of a novel we are left with loose ends and unanswered questions, and it is precisely for this reason that the characters seem more compelling and real.

This fall, I have been sharing my time between raising my daughters and teaching part time at the University of Tulsa. In my comparative literature course called “Beyond the Nation-State: Literature and Culture of Migration,” literature, historical narrative, essays, journalism, and film serve as vehicles for exploring questions of identity, integration, and acculturation. Focusing in particular on the theme of migration and the role it has played – and continues to play – in shaping societies and economies across the globe, my students and I are examining the ways in which national, cultural, social, literary, and cinematic boundaries are blurred, crossed, and contested in these works. In its own distinct manner, each of the novels and films we are studying illustrates the fluidity of national (or regional) borders and cultural identities through characters who negotiate among multiple cultural traditions, languages, and values.

Photo of my maternal grandmother (sitting in the chair), Antonia Carlotti (née Bernardoni), and her siblings, the descendants of French, Italian, and Austrian immigrants in Brazil.

Initially, some of my students expressed a sense of frustration with the open-endedness and lack of certainty they encountered in the material we read and viewed; even our short textbook on international migration seemed to cast doubt on the validity of the terminology and categories associated with migration. However, as we have worked together to delve deeper into the actual experiences of the real people and fictional characters we have encountered, they seem to have embraced nuance and complexity. Even as many of my students have been closely following media coverage of contemporary debates surrounding immigration in the United States (the U.S.-Mexico border wall, DACA, the travel bans, etc.), they have found that the novels in particular have added new layers of meaning to their interpretation of current events. This reading list includes fiction about the rural-urban migration of Indo-Caribbeans in Trinidad; Polish refugees in the rural U.S. South; Bengali (Indian) immigrants in New England; Ethiopian, Congolese, and Kenyan refugees in Washington, DC; and refugees escaping an unnamed conflict zone in the Middle East to another unspecified destination in the West.)

By questioning their own assumptions about migration along with representations in the media, the students have become cultural critics. In rejecting static or essentialist representations of culture and identity in favor of a more dynamic, complex, and humane vision, they have adopted a hyphenated worldview themselves. They also understand that in life and literature context matters a great deal.