Saturday, August 11, 2018

Margery Kempe IN SPACE, Part 2: A Fanfiction Assignment


Welcome to the second part of a two-part guest series from Anna Wilson, on medieval fanfiction. The first part, her fanfiction piece on Margery Kempe, is here. Read that if you haven't yet, and then read on below! - karl

As I was writing this piece, I was thinking of the course I had just finished teaching at Harvard, an undergraduate lecture class in English called “Medieval Fanfiction.” Medieval Fanfiction begins with the idea that students who choose to take a class with fanfiction in the title come to it with a critical vocabulary and hermeneutics that we then build on to think about adaptation, reception, reading, and retellings in medieval literature and modern medievalist pop culture. We read Gawain romances and passion meditations, Canterbury continuations and apocryphal gospels, and ended with Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales, A Knight’s Tale (2001), and some Canterbury Tales fanfiction from the web (taught with their authors’ permission). I don’t maintain that all the texts we read are fanfiction: indeed, we returned several times to the question of what fanfiction is, refining our definition as we encountered each new text. Fanfiction functions in this course as a framing idea, a set of opening questions, an invitation for the students to bring their own expertise as readers of pop culture into the medieval literature classroom. As the final assignment, the students could choose to write a conventional essay, or they could write a piece of fanfiction on one of the assigned texts and a shorter reflective essay.

Although that class was in my mind (indeed I was writing this story in the last week of classes), I actually wrote ‘Margery Kempe in SPACE!’ for David Townsend, my beloved PhD thesis supervisor, for a conference organized by Carin Ruff, Suzanne Akbari, and myself in May of this year on the occasion of his retirement. Creative and scholarly pieces shared the space, in a celebration of David’s personal, reflective, transgressive, queer, capacious work and teaching. Writing fanfiction for him seemed appropriate, as he’d nurtured my thesis on fanfiction and medieval literature, which saw its start in a paper I wrote for his seminar on vernacular English piety, in the last class of which he read aloud a scene from a historical novel he had written in which Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich meet. I was conscious, as I wrote this, of how he’d made my work possible because of his willingness to be delighted, his generosity in sharing that delight, and I wanted now to write something expressly to delight him.

Although it was a project unrelated to teaching “Medieval Fanfiction”, writing my own fanfiction for a medieval text I know well and have thought about as a scholar felt like a natural continuation of my thinking about this class and this assignment, an investigation from the inside-out of what I was asking my students to do, and why. Like my students, and at the same time as them, I was writing a piece of fanfiction on a medieval text to a short word limit, and on a deadline. This blog post represents the second part of my own attempt at this assignment, which ITM has kindly agreed to host: the reflective essay. I know I’m not the only one to run fanfiction assignments in medieval literature classes (in fact, one of my students uncovered a trove of Canterbury Tales fanfiction on that appeared to have all been written for a class); it’s my hope that this double post might be useful for those thinking about running such assignments, or open up conversation among those already running them.

I approached my story with three things in mind. Firstly, the length of the story I had in mind could make use of the fragmentary structure of Margery’s story, its lack of linearity, to give the impression of telling her whole story with far fewer fragments. There’s an extent to which any part of the Book of Margery Kempe can stand in for the whole; it’s eucharistic, in that way. Second, I liked the idea of telling this fragment-story as a trail of documents. It evokes a particular kind of scholarly work on a figure like Kempe: we are always one step behind her, trying to assemble her existence from the traces she leaves when she brushes up against institutional bodies – ecclesiastical, legal, corporate. My third idea was more playful: the challenge of imagining Margery’s voice, Margery’s life, into a science fiction setting. For me, the work of reading The Book of Margery Kempe and of reading my favourite science fiction or fantasy books requires analogous imaginative construction of the world the protagonist moves through. In my favourite kind of science fiction and fantasy storytelling, this world is constructed from throwaway descriptions (‘worldbuilding’, in fiction), because it is normal and familiar to the narrator/protagonist (I’ll take this opportunity for a gratuitous book recommendation: Spin State by Chris Moriarty), not introduced as to a naive outsider (e.g. Harry Potter). This is my favourite kind of science fiction storytelling, and what I find so alluring about The Book of Margery Kempe. So, visual implants. Holoshrines. Astrocorp. No explanation. And yet, these throwaway descriptions build on shorthands established within the science fiction genre. The collaborative work between my reader and me is part of a larger, communal collaborative project of imagining, analogous perhaps to Margery’s audience, steeped in the language and forms of Christian affective piety. The work of following Margery is thus twofold: collecting documentary traces, and steeping ourselves in that language.

I also thought about translation. The author of the opening fragment, an unnamed ship captain, asks, “Did you know humans lived that long?” The intended implication (I’m frustrated at the rough edges of this story, but I’m smoothing them over for the purposes of this essay – it could be better, but that doesn’t matter for now) being that neither he nor his recipient is human. What act of translation, then, has already taken place, in order for you to read this? Margery’s Middle English speech, her language (“vanitee”), is as alienating as the science fiction neologisms (“holoshrine”), if not more. The ‘happy ending’ of Margery’s story, as I imagine its condensed version here, is one of successful comprehension, as much as transcription.

The prompt for the reflective essay portion of the assignment was: “Discuss your fanfiction as a critical response to its source text(s).” I had asked the students to use their fanfiction as a medium to comment on their text (one student drew out the homoerotic undertones of the Gawain/Bertilak/Lady Bertilak triangle, for instance; another imagined a conversation between the narrator of Troilus and Criseyde and ‘Geoffrey’ the pilgrim in the Canterbury Tales). The reflective essay was meant to allow them to gloss their commentary, in the context of discussions we had had in class about the way all the adaptations we read contained commentaries on the text they were adapting. Having written my own fanfiction, I now wonder if this was the wrong way around; when I run this assignment again, I will invite them in the reflective essay to think about what new insights, ideas, or questions emerged from the process of writing the fanfiction.

These were the questions that occurred for me, that will occur to me the next time I read or write about The Book of Margery Kempe: firstly, the two writing challenges that emerged first were that I could not suppress or ignore her voice or perspective; I switched very early from a purely epistolary form to one that switched between her documentary traces and her personal experience. Second, I began with the intent to write a fairly comedic story, but could not sustain it. Kempe’s entire praxis is designed to evoke mixed feelings; she invites us to participate in her humiliation and ridicule while also take seriously her spiritual journey. I’m reminded of Brantley Bryant’s fantastic “Margery Kempe at the feest of MLA” fanfiction on Geoffrey Chaucer Hath A Blog, which maintains a similar balance of comedic brilliance and agonized empathy.

Other questions that emerged for me through the process of writing this were more esoteric: what rhetorical effects, what affects, does the anchorhold produce, and could we call the anchorhold a technology? To what extent are the bodies that Margery gathers around her disposable, to her or to society? We often speak of the Book as a mix of genres, but usually those genres are hagiography and vision text; what of the letter? Finally, I imagined a radically interventional edition of The Book of Margery Kempe that re-arranged her chapters in our best guess at their chronological order and interjected among them the documentary traces from the archives that pertain to her life.

After doing that work of unpacking my fanfiction “as a critical response”, I find myself thinking more about the process of writing it, and the pedagogical implications of such an assingnment. Writing fanfiction rather than writing scholarship requires one to reorient oneself towards a text, just as pivoting from writing scholarship to writing a lecture, or writing for a general audience, requires one to re-acquaint oneself with a text with a new set of questions in mind, and, in this case, a new goal: not to illuminate, inform, or impress, but to delight someone who loves the text, perhaps the way you love it, perhaps in a different way. Asking students to write fanfiction thus invites them to imagine themselves as someone who has feelings about the text, to inhabit that possibility; it also invites them to use a craft in which they may have far more expertise than in essay writing (many of my students were prolific fanfiction writers and readers), and to relate that craft to the work of reading and thinking about medieval texts. However, I also invite them into a specific relationship with me as the reader of their fanfiction.

Writing fanfiction for David, something came into focus for me that I had not realized through the semester, that when I invite students to write in a genre that is intended to delight, I also perhaps exacerbate the fraught transaction between student-as-writer and teacher-as-reader. Fanfiction is, by definition (at least for me), written with an audience of fans in mind. By assigning fanfiction, was I saying, “Delight me, a fan with specific emotional investments in this text!” in a way that might lead to discomfort, confusion, or inappropriate boundary-crossing, on my part or my students’? Presenting the fanfiction assignment to students takes some care, so that the imperative “Delight me!” is subsumed, or balanced, by, perhaps, “Delight yourselves!” or, “Imagine what it might mean, to be a fan of this text, and to be delighted by it.”

I don’t know if this assignment actually feels any different for the students than a conventional essay assignment which asks them to inform, illuminate, impress ‘the reader’ (me). Perhaps it was simply harder for me to ignore that I have no control over what they think about me. I feel that with this assignment I come into focus (for myself if not for my students), as their reader, a specific reader. Writing feedback for these assignments was harder than usual, I realize now, because I had made an implicit promise to my students with this assignment to be an engaged, passionate reader of fanfiction as well as a reassuringly detached teacher. Those two personas take some juggling and can undermine each other or, as Carolyn Dinshaw notes in How Soon is Now, take time from each other. Reflecting on this experience, I’m all the more amazed at how well David managed to be both, for me.

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