A Conversation with Jose Vergara

Jose Vergara
Jose Vergara

Jose Vergara is a PhD candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature at UW-Madison. CREECA sat down with Jose in January 2016 and learned something about his experience studying Russian and Czech, his dissertation research, and his public service work with the Oakhill Prison Humanities Project. Jose helped organize the exhibition Artists in Absentia, which opens March 3 at the Madison Public Library’s Central Branch.

How did you start studying Russian and Czech?

I remember always being interested in Russia. For some reason, it felt kind of exotic and interesting. More concretely, what stands out in my memory is reading Crime and Punishment in twelfth grade. I loved it. The characters and ideas were fascinating. It was so emotional and philosophical. So, I read that in class and read Nabokov’s Lolita on my own. I’d never read anything like that before, and his language blew me away. It was so amazing that a Russian writer could write in English like that. When I went to college a year later at the University of Missouri I initially wanted to study journalism. But it wasn’t for me, and I met with professors in the Russian department and it just seemed like a good fit. It was nice and small, as most Russian departments are, and that was appealing. But then I would get to study the literature I had this initial contact with and really appreciated. So I signed up for a class on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and it was amazing. Still one of my favorite classes. After that, I just kept taking more and more Russian literature classes and got to sign up for the language the following semester, my sophomore year. I studied abroad in Moscow for a semester in fall 2009 and went back again once as a graduate student with a little program that ran one winter here where we taught English to Russian high school kids.

I took up Czech my second year in the program here. David Danaher being the professor was a big draw. He’s really amazing. At first, I didn’t know a lot about Czech but I’ve grown to really enjoy the language, literature, and culture. I took Czech for a year and then in the summer of 2012 I spent the summer in Prague thanks to a FLAS (Foreign Language and Area Studies) fellowship.

Tell us about your dissertation project.

The general topic is literary responses to James Joyce in 20th century Russian literature. Each chapter is devoted to one of four Russian authors and their main Russian novel: Nabokov’s Gift, Olesha’s Envy¸ Sokolov’s School for Fools¸ and Bitov’s Pushkin House. I look at intertextual connections between those novels — and those authors’ work in general — and James Joyce, primarily Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, Dubliners, and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I was surprised to learn that there is very little on this topic, so it was an exciting one to delve into. And of course James Joyce is a huge figure in world literature, so you’d expect more studies of that to have been done. I would, anyway! So, I’m getting to explore something new to me and new to the field, which is exciting.

Describe your work with the Oakhill Prison Humanities Project.

I started volunteering there as an instructor in May 2011, at the end of my first year in graduate school. Then in 2014-2015, I was the project coordinator. I coordinated all the classes, recruited new volunteers to teach classes on drama, art, and history.

The latest project is this exhibition Artists in Absentia. I came up with the idea for it last spring. I’d seen the work that the inmates at the Oakhill Correctional Institution in Oregon, Wisconsin had created, and heard these amazing stories and poems and wanted to bring it out [of the prison to a broader audience]. So in the spring, after wanting to do this for a while, I started contacting people, and a few of us applied for this new Arts Venture Challenge through the Arts Institute to get some funding. I talked to the Madison Public Library, and eventually built some partnerships and finally started making it happen. It will open this March, after almost a year.

To learn more about Artists in Absentia, visit www.artistsinabsentia.com.