February 4, 2019KR BlogNewsletter

Associate Spotlight: Taylor Hazan ’19

Taylor HazanTaylor Hazan ’19 is an English and anthropology double major from Charlotte, North Carolina. An athlete and a long-time student employee of the Kenyon College Library, Taylor has a lot of experience juggling roles on campus. Taylor joins me to discuss the way life meets narrative, the power of collaboration, and the evolving importance of libraries.

You’re an English and anthropology double major. How do you feel like these disciplines intersect?

The argument I always make to people when I talk about the double major is that, I think, most people in my life knew that English was going to be there—and then anthropology found its way in. I was always really into history in high school, and I think the most important part of history to me, I quickly discovered, was the people themselves, the stories they told, and the daily lives they lived. That kind of explains anthropology, which I didn’t really know existed until I got here. The argument I make to people, my pithy one-liner, is that “people and their stories” is what I study. Through the stories that people tell about themselves, and the stories other people tell about them. The way you construct your world is really based in stories in a lot of ways. Because of the cultural lens you can take in English criticism—I took a class with [Associate Professor of English] Ivonne Garcia, we really talked about that—I can take ideas that I’ve really studied in my anthropology courses and put them into English in a way that I knew existed but had never seen before. The two really, really speak to each other in very interesting ways. I took [the anthropology class] “Narrative Lives,” as well, and it’s all about telling a story. It’s about what is authenticity, what is truth. It’s about the actual literal truth, the artistic truth, and the emotional truth. I think both literature and anthropology, especially cultural anthropology, speak to all that in very profound ways.

You’re doing honors in anthropology. Where are you at in that process, and where are you heading?

In my junior year, the semester before I went abroad, I took “Narrative Lives” with [Associate Professor of Anthropology] Sam Pack. We did something called a “life history,” which is somewhat like an oral history. It’s a form of ethnography where you are using one person’s story—their in-depth, very intimate story—to analyze the cultures they grew up in. You know, people were turning in anything from 20, 25, 60 pages of stuff with all their transcriptions—but I ended up turning in a 199-page thing. I transcribed everything, and did this decent analysis, did interview after interview with this woman, and I found it to be just a profound experience. Sam Pack talked to me about it and he said, “Have you thought about honors, have you thought about grad school in anthropology?” And I said, “I haven’t really thought about either of those things until you brought them up now.” He said, “Think about it while you’re abroad, and get back to me.” I started the process a little bit late, but I knew I wanted to do something like what I had done in “Narrative Lives.” I knew I wanted to focus on one person and their story—because ethnography tends to be this very multifaceted things where you’re talking to all kinds of people in all areas of that culture, within and outside that culture.

For me, though, I knew that zooming in on that one person would be the easiest practically and, also, i think something I would be more comfortable with. To get one person’s story, in depth, can say so much about the cultures they’ve been a part of. I thought about going back to my initial interviewee, my collaborator, but Sam Pack noticed I was developing an interest in refugees and human rights. He said, “Why don’t you look into this refugee service center in Columbus? You might be able to connect with somebody there willing to tell their story.” There, I ended up finding a collaborator who is a young mother who has been here about ten years—she came here when she was about nineteen. She lived in Syria two years before then. She’s from Somalia. She’s also on the cusp of a major life change; she just went back to school. She’s starting her life again, here—after coming here, getting a job, getting married, having kids. She’s ready to take her own future in her hands. She’s been telling me her story. We’ve been sharing with each other for the past couple of months. I’ve been recording her story. The question is, at this point, what am I going to do with the recordings, the data that I’ve grabbed? I’m not entirely sure yet. But what is for sure is that I want to work together with my collaborator—because she’s not just my subject. I want this to be a shared project. One that she finds empowering, something that she can use, that isn’t just going to sit on a shelf in Palme House [home of the Anthropology Department]. Part of me is thinking that I’ll do something podcast-adjacent—taking audio clips. Or I’m thinking of something in collage form, using her own writings. Really featuring her story and addressing the ethnographic process in a narrative way—a connection between two people that says something about the wider world.

Would you say ethnography is or isn’t a form of biography?

I guess you could consider it a form of biography. At the end of the day, that’s only one element of an ethnographic work. In addition to having a person telling their story, you also come at it with this analytical lens. I have this pretty postmodern feminist lens that I’m taking to this—and I am going to execute a form of analysis, talking about her role as a mother—and also her mother, whose application froze after Trump was elected president. Being able to really advocate for her mother as well is something I’m looking for. The ideas of motherhood and being a woman—those transitions between Somalia and Syria and the United States, and then her moving within the United States. There is that sense that it’s focused on her story and how she’s telling it, but with that additional element of seeking to analyze and understand it from an outside perspective. That changes it. It’s not just a story for the sake of being a story—you’re really trying to see why it speak to a larger context, a larger cultural situation.

When you’re working in ethnography, do you ever feel like you’re afraid of getting too literary with your voice or mindset?

I’m so pulled toward the story. I’ve been saying this since I was in high school: “You can’t write that.” Looking at life as a story—I don’t want to say it’s something I’ve struggled with—is something I’ve embraced. You know, I call myself the “plucky side character.” When life is a narrative, the serendipity of my life and other people’s lives coming together—it feels like a book. I definitely have a tendency to narrativize my life. It’s interesting in ethnography because we go in say, “I want you to tell me your life story.” We expect a beginning, middle, end, one line, a linear trajectory, but not everybody tells stories that way. The struggle with anthropology is to be able to remove your biases. Those inert and innate things that you seek. That’s not how [my collaborator] has told her story. The process is turning into something she has just as much control over what she wants and how it’s organized—which might not be the way I organize it, but this is her story. I do find myself seeking the story in every aspect of my life. Ethnography is very straightforward. It’s meant to hit you in the face. I need to wrestle with my own beliefs in relation to hers.

What does your senior process for the English major look like?

I’m doing the creative writing emphasis, and some of my favorite pieces I’ve written have more resemble prose poetry or lyrical nonfiction than just straight up prose, or fiction. Because of the experiences that I’ve had in the last four years—my entire life really—and the anthropology major, I’m wrestling with the idea of the anthropologist’s origin story, an ethnography of my own life through my own eyes. I’ve approached life as an outsider trying to understand the world around her—be it through narrative, or just interacting with the people around me. I think I want to use what I’ve learned in my English classes with Ivonne Garcia, like “Narratives of the Hemisphere,” and all my other English classes, alongside the lingo, the language, the way of seeing that anthropology gives you—and combining them into something of an “auto-ethnography,” the ethnography of myself and my experience. Not just myself, but a commentary on the worlds I grew up in. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out—I have no idea—but a title popped into my head when I was walking by Finn House and that’s never happened to me before. I think I’m going to run with that idea. I haven’t really sketched anything out yet, though.

As a person who has worked in libraries, how would you explain the function and importance of a library to, say, someone who has never seen one before?

A library in the simplest form has always been a place to seek information. For the majority of time this has meant collections of books. It means there’s vast collections of books in this one place, not really owned by anybody, but shared by everybody. It is a place for shared and sharing knowledge, where you can find everything you need in a book or everything you need amongst the people who are there and the people who work there. That would probably be my “definition.” The importance of a library comes in the fact that it’s a shared space—its a public place. When I job-shadowed at a library in New York City, [I can remember a time when] it was 10:00 a.m., a really cold day, and there were some homeless people outside waiting to come inside. At the end of the school day, kids will come and do homework with the children’s librarians. There’s job search classes, there’s classes for English language learners, there’s maker’s spaces where you can explore how to carve wood or how to three-E print. The library has been evolving beyond a place full of books or a place with the answers to questions which are encyclopedic in nature. It’s a place where people who share a community can learn from each other and learn about each other.

How has working in libraries deepened your appreciation for or value of libraries?

First of all, I knew I loved books. But I love books. I got back to school early to shelve all the books that people returned after the semester ended—handling all these textbooks for classes and returning children’s books that librarians checked out for their kids. I just spent so much time paging through books. The things people check out is just fascinating. I’ve fallen in love with the book itself. There’s so many shapes and sizes—the way their spines line up against the wall, when you see the older ones mixed in with the new ones. Just as a thing I think they’re beautiful. Books themselves have becomes something I’ve utterly fallen in love with because I work at the library. It was my first real job. And there’s a customer service aspect to it, which I didn’t think I would be good at because I’m introverted and usually shy—but being in a place of knowledge, a place of sharing knowledge, a place where I can help people, I like interacting with the people at the desk. I’m still very much myself—I’m not in “customer service mode,” but I still feel like I’m interacting with people in a different way with a sense of self-confidence. But it’s great to be with these books, and to help these books get to people.

Why did you become a Kenyon Review Associate?

I was a Kenyon Review Young Writer [a participant in the summer workshop for high school students], so I learned about the Kenyon Review early on. I thought initially that I was going to go into a publishing career—I thought that was the only way I was going to go, working with books in some facet—and I could still be in publishing. But I love editing—I love reading, I love editing, I like seeing what people like to read, and how they write, because I write. That pulled me toward the Kenyon Review. Also, the first picture  I saw of Kenyon was of Finn House and I just utterly fell in love with that place. I knew that it would be a cool thing to be a part of. It’s a really cool community that I’m proud to be a part of. I’m glad that I reapplied after I didn’t get it the first time. It’s great to read what people are writing and to be part of that process in an intimate, insider way.

What makes you say yes to a Kenyon Review submission?

Poetry is harder for me because I don’t feel like a poet by trade. I like a good sound—I like when something flows. I love juxtaposition—when someone can navigate the metaphorical and the real, something that might not completely make sense until you finish that poem. I love a good voice. Personally, I like something very honest and genuine—when it feels like it’s just a person talking to you, when the poetic guard is down and they’re just communicating what they’re feeling. In prose, that simpler style that’s still very lyrical—I’m a sucker for a lyrical style, don’t get me wrong. Something that doesn’t feel bogged down with the technique of it all. I don’t want to say natural—because I don’t know if any of it is natural—but something makes does a great job of imitating that. Something that makes you feel like you’re in good hands.

What’s something you’ve read that you can’t stop thinking about?

Three books. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude [by Gabriel García Márquez] for the first time in my english class last semester, and I was utterly swept away. I read books, I read stories, I read everything the way someone watches sports, I’ll be reading something and be saying, “Oh my gosh! No way! That stunning!”And I was reading that book and my breath was just taken away for the entirety of it. Dreaming in Cuban, by Cristina García, did something similar. Just recently I had a friend recommend a book for me—I love when that happens—she texted me out of the blue over break saying, “I have this small book that really changed my life, and I think you would really benefit from it.” It’s by Paul Kalanithi, a memoir called When Breath Becomes Air. It’s an unfinished memoir. He’s a neurosurgeon who died of cancer. It’s his memoir about how he became a doctor. And he gets to that pinnacle where he says, “This is where my life actually begins, this is what I’ve been working toward,” and he gets diagnosed with an intense form of cancer and dies within two years of being diagnosed. He also has a masters in English literature, so he’s very much a writer, very much a reader. It’s him wrestling with becoming a doctor, yes, but also illness and death, and what is a life, what makes it worthwhile, and when is it better to let go. It sounds really dark, but one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. It swept me away. It felt very earnest. It felt like he was just wrestling with these things and then sharing them. The book’s unfinished, unedited. He died before he could finish it, but it’s just a really, really lovely piece of work. It puts a lot of your life in perspective. You know, I’ve been really angsty and existentially anxious because it’s senior year, because everything’s coming to a close and starting at the same time. Remembering something as simple as “I am lucky to be alive and breathing right now.” But, too, death is not this thing that you need to be paralyzed by. It’s the life that leads up to it which is worthwhile.