Similar to the Olympics, academic gold medals are awarded to scholars who are the best in their field. The Governor General’s Gold Medal is awarded to the graduate student who achieves the highest academic standing at the University of Alberta, and at the 2013 Fall Convocation, that award went to recent English PhD graduate Libe Garcia Zarranz.
Garcia Zarranz won the award for her dissertation titled “Queer TransCanadian Women’s Writing in the 21st Century: Assembling a New Cross-Border Ethic.” Garcia Zarranz, who came to the University of Alberta as an international student and is now a postdoctoral Lecturer in English at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, is no stranger to crossing borders.
“No matter what I read, write, or experience, I always find myself wondering about the implications of crossing boundaries of many kinds: geographical, political, affective…and the ethical repercussions of these border-crossings,” explains Garcia Zarranz.
“My PhD dissertation proposes an alternative theorization of borders and border-crossings through the lenses of three contemporary queer and transnational women writers: Dionne Brand, Hiromi Goto, and Emma Donoghue,” says Garcia Zarranz. She looked at how these authors dismantle and transgress literal and symbolic boundaries in their works, and how they propose new forms of relationality.
“My work looks at literary and visual works as contested sites from which to examine what borders do and undo; and the ways in which ways borders shape social and bodily space,” explains Garcia Zarranz.
Since coming to the University of Alberta in 2008, Garcia Zarranz has already received a number of recognitions including the BMO Scholarship, the Killam, and the Trudeau Scholarship. The Trudeau Scholarship is considered the most prestigious prize in Canada for doctoral candidates, and the Trudeau Foundation recently awarded her with a Dissemination Scholarship to turn her doctoral project into a book-length monograph. “It is quite unbelievable the kind of recognition that my work has had in Canada. The support I have had is certainly unprecedented for me,” says Garcia Zarranz.
She hopes her recognitions “encourage other doctoral students in the Arts to continue believing in what they do, because what we do matters!” she adds.
The Trudeau scholarship also allowed Garcia Zarranz to undertake research at different institutions in Europe and pursue other projects. In collaboration with Marie Carrière, Director of the Canadian Literature Centre at the U of A, Garcia Zarranz helped organize two international conferences on contemporary Canadian and Québécois women’s writing.
“I feel deeply honoured to have been part of the English and Film Studies Department for the last five years. It is such a vibrant community of scholars,” says Garcia Zarranz. She credits her committee members, Patricia Demers and Paul Hjartarson, and other English professors such as Rob Brazeau, Daphne Read and Garry Watson for shaping her dissertation. She also acknowledges the mentorship of Heather Zwicker, her dissertation supervisor and Vice Dean of Arts, as being invaluable for her project. “She has guided me but also challenged me to search for alternative ways of combining theory and literary in my analysis. Without her insights, my project simply wouldn’t be the same.”
There is a certain irony in receiving such prestigious recognition for her work, says Garcia Zarranz; particularly since the work of the queer women writers she studies often goes unrecognized and goes out of print quickly. “My project has been really well funded and recognized, while still the works of some of these writers remains off the radar of many academics within Canada and beyond its frontiers.”
Follow your passion
Garcia Zarranz is hopeful that Alice Munro’s recent Nobel Prize and Lynn Coady’s Giller Prize will shine a spotlight on other female writers. At the very least, Garcia Zarranz will continue to champion women writers and the study of this field in any way she can. She recalls meeting feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti as a student, an experience that turned out to be a transformative moment in her education.
“She reminded me of the fact that being vocal about your opinions is not something to be ashamed of. Quite the contrary…. I was reminded then of how easily one can get slowly tamed, even without noticing, as a result of society’s standards, norms of behavior and so on. Rosi Braidotti re-taught me a fundamental lesson: she reminded me that passion can certainly change the world around us. And this is the path I want to follow,” says Garcia Zarranz.
Garcia Zarranz wants to find ways that her work can have a direct and meaningful impact on society and teaching is an essential component of achieving that goal. “I firmly believe that the university classroom stands as a primary site for the development of cultural, ethical, and social intervention, so I hope I can keep finding ways to make an impact through teaching.
“Passion can certainly change the world around us. And this is the path I want to follow.”
“In this regard, I always go back to the following broader questions in my teaching and my research: What is the role of the public intellectual today, particularly in the Canadian context? How to make an impact in social policy with a background in the arts and the humanities? What are the possibilities and limitations of interdisciplinary research/action?” she says.
With her training at the U of A, Garcia Zarranz is well on her way to finding the answers to those questions. “The most amazing thing about the teaching opportunities offered to doctoral students at the University of Alberta is that you have absolute freedom to design your syllabus and basically teach the material you are interested in…. Being the principal instructor in courses attended by students with interdisciplinary backgrounds certainly prepares you for an academic career, so I am grateful to the Faculty of Arts for the way this is structured.”