Scott Wyatt presents Nikita Dutta with $150,
award certificate, and Wylde Q. Chicken t-shirt
Nikita has started composing, entirely on her own initiative and with very impressive results, a kind of combination pastiche of and homage to Ishmael Reed's demanding work of postmodernist fiction, Mumbo Jumbo (1972). Reed’s novel imaginatively retells the history of the 1920s explosion of jazz into American popular culture as an "epidemic" called "Jes Grew" that derives from Haiti and Voodoo culture and is part of a centuries-long cultural conflict between Western Civilization (figured in the novel as the "Wallflower Order" and "Atonism") and non-Western cultures. Reed links white American anxiety about jazz becoming popular with white youth to the election and "assassination") of Warren G. Harding, the U.S. occupation of Haiti, and even ancient Egyptian and biblical mythology. The style of the novel is extremely loose and playful, and many students found it intimidating and confusing. Nikita -- completely on her own initiative -- started to work up an "update" of Reed’s re-imagining of American pop-music history in a different historical setting: the commercial crossover of hip-hop music and culture in the early 1990’s. The parallels to Reed’s narrative are suggestive: Nikita is bringing in the "assassination" of Tupac Shakur in 1996 (coincidentally linked to the reelection campaign of the nation’s "first black president, Bill Clinton"); she’s cast Robbie Van Winkle (aka Vanilla Ice -- Reed’s "talking android" who is sent by the Wallflower Order to "infiltrate" the Harlem Renaissance. She’s engaging the same basic themes of Reed’s novel -- the marginalization of African-derived cultures in the Western Hemisphere -- but applying them to hip-hop in a convincing and illuminating way. And you might have to take a look at a few pages of Reed to really pick up on it, but her narrative style (and even the fonts, the arrangement on the page -- with the first "chapter" appearing before the title page and frontmatter, and the use of arbitrary but suggestive illustrations that don't have any clear relation to the text) is a spot-on imitation of Reed’s. Anyone who has read Mumbo Jumbo would be able to tell immediately that she’s using the novel as her model, and yet her creative work is also a critical commentary on and extrapolation of Reed’s work. She ended up, with my permission, turning in the first three chapters in place of the formal response paper (including extensive notes/commentary and an outline of where the narrative will go next) -- she is basically "commenting" on the novel in a creative format. She turned in chapters 4-8 to me a few weeks ago, "for comments and feedback" but not for any formal assignment.
Copies of Nikita’s work in progress -- which she currently projects to be novel-length -- were turned in to Marianne Downey. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions about this summary -- I’m not sure I really captured what’s so cool and original about this work, and it’s really hard to explain in a short space!