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Putting the Dad in the Dissertation

TW: grief

Thursday 29th April 2021 - Dissertation day.

This was the point I had been working towards for three years, maybe more if we count school. This was the defining moment I'd been thinking about for so much of my life where everything I'd done leading up to that point was to enable me to nail this. And honestly, I think I have. Today, all my undergrad work is done and that's it! Three years has flown by and it is absolutely unbelievable to me. It also looks a lot different to what 17 year old Ria pictured when she knew she was going to the University of Exeter. A lot different.

I pictured celebrating with friends I hadn't even met yet. Drinks I was yet to try. Nights out and conversations I was never able to entertain at the mere age of 17. When actually, I'm at my home, the same place I pictured all this, completely sober (though Sita is encouraging me otherwise) and actually I'm really sad.

I don't think 17 year old Ria pictured she would be handing her dissertation during a pandemic and after the death of her Dad. Actually, I can say for certain she would never have guess that would be the case, especially the latter. And instead, on what should be a day to celebrate is just another raucous reminder that the one person I want to celebrate with, isn't here. I cannot live out this day as I had imagined and after a pandemic which has induced that every day, this one does hurt. Quite a lot. I think realising this would be the case when my Dad died made me want to incorporate him wherever I could in both my work and just every facet of my life. This is nothing new. My whole GCSE and Sixth Form art projects were about him and his experiences and I decided this defining body of work for my first degree would be no different.

Shouldn't it be a slight confessional of my soul?

I did reject this idea at first. I felt it might be too much, too overwhelming to write 8000 words about my Dad or have it to do with him. So naturally, I inclined myself to my critical theory safety blanket, Michel Foucault, discourse and the History of Sexuality. And whilst I loved this topic and I'm still confident I could have written a perfectly decent dissertation on this, something just wasn't clicking and I, unnaturally, put it off. I felt this work should be poignant and a small part of me. After all I was going to be working on this and pouring so much of my time and coffee into it. Shouldn't it be a slight confessional of my soul? It might sound melodramatic, but death makes you think this way. Admittedly, as an English student, I'm not one to feign away from some existentialism either...

However, I put it off. Instead, I moved onto writing a postcolonialism essay, this was around October/November time. I wrote about Seamus Heaney's North which to this day, I believe to be one of the most formative texts I've come into contact with. I wrote about his Nordic metaphors and Vikings. I loved it, I still think it's a great essay and I think Dad would have loved it as well. As with most fathers (and if I'm making generalisations -- men), he always had this intrinsic desire to be a Viking, probably to serve the primitive need that supposedly lies in all of us. There's even a caricature he had done of himself on a family trip to York of him as a Viking. Writing this I glance at his Viking ships game that remains, stagnant under our coffee table. You get the point, the man was obsessed. So the more I wrote, read and researched for this essay, the more I was yearning to speak to him about it and it was the most passionate I had felt about an essay in a long time. And it was this combination of finding a text and a narrative I loved in poetry, something I hadn't explored much in my degree, and it being linked to my Dad. Ultimately, that would be the magic formula to coming up with a dissertation idea.

So one dreary October/November day, and Katrina and I were having a library day and I made it clear that we were NOT leaving until I had finally come up with a dissertation idea. I had to submit my idea to be checked along with criticism and other works to support it and I was no where near this. You know in Friends season 1 when Monica asks Phoebe if she has a plan and Phoebe replies

'I don't even have a pla-'

Yep. That was where we were. And naturally, this is the point where I would be straight onto the phone to Dad so he could give me a sprinkling of his wisdom and I would be on my way to the dissertation. But of course, that was no longer a possibility. I no longer had my safety blanket of my Dad's intelligence and advice. Self-sufficiency is a skill I've really grown this year, to say the least. Perhaps this is why I put it off for so long in the first place, because I didn't want to be that self-sufficient. After all, I never chose that for myself. But this was where we were so, I started thinking.

I sat in various chairs in the library and over the course of 10 hours I thought my arse off. (I now realise this sentence is actually a very succinct description of my whole degree). And I thought: 'okay so I love Heaney, and I want my Dad to be more of a part of this. Heaney's themes are the postcolonial experience via metaphor. Other than Heaney, what other poetry did Dad love, what do I love, what postcolonial themes link all of th- BANG - IDEA.

Freddie Mercury.

4th January 2019, I went to our local Showcase with Dad to see Bohemian Rhapsody, the hit film starring Rami Malek. It was incredible - hyperbole doesn't do it justice, I don't think. And from very early on in the film, Dad was crying and continued until the end.

For him this was 'the soundtrack to his life'. That was the phrase he always used and did on that day. My sisters pointed out to me that when Dad lost his Dad at 15, Queen's music was what got him through that immediate period. Queen for him was everything, his tumultuous teens onwards were filled with their music and the glory of having also gone to Imperial College was an honour never lost on him. For Dad, Queen was everything and that trickled down to his daughters too. Drives in the car with Dad were neve unaccompanied without either Billy Joel's Greatest Hit's or Queen's. This love for Dad was partly because of the headbanging, revolutionary rock Queen invented. But there was also the search for identity, the influence and capability of seeing an immigrant like Freddie Mercury do and be what he was. These were the elements that helped to form Dad and teach them to his daughters.

'This,' I thought, 'is an idea.'

And clearly I was right because when I proposed the idea, I had academic tutors who backed it and were excited about it - because of one of my ideas! Wow. Okay. It was one of the first times I really just had integrity in an idea and importantly the confidence to run with it. So I ran with it and handed it in as my dissertation. I would end up writing about Rupi Kaur and Daljit Nagra, two Sikh Punjabi immigrants who had expressed themselves and their stories through some of the most powerful poetry. I would also then write about 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and how I interpreted it as Mercury's expression of his queer diaspora. And what did all of these artists share? They all found power through their immigrant identities, hence my title, The Power of the Immigrant.

I couldn't be more proud of this piece of work, I poured everything into it and whether it gets a high mark or not, the achievement of it, personally for me, is everything. It was catharsis covered up in criticism and I couldn't be happier with that. And I hope Dad would feel the same.


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