Dr. Sumathy Sivamohan Queries Cinema as Counter Word

International scholar, filmmaker, Professor of English, poet, activist, director, actor, playwright. With such inspiring occupations and skills, Dr. Sumathy Sivamohan was met with immediate admiration and wonder from her audience as Dr. Nalin Jayasena, of the Miami University Literature Program, introduced the guest speaker this past Tuesday, October 15th, in Irvin 40. Dr. Sivamohan currently teaches at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka, and she arrived on Miami’s Oxford campus earlier last week to visit various classes, give a perceptive talk entitled,Cinema as Counter Word, and screen her recent award-winning film, Sons and Fathers (2017).  

In her talk, Cinema as Counter Word, Dr. Sivamohan began by examining the dominant norms informing contemporary cinematic practices.  She describes these dominant norms as what one would tend to associate with stereotypically Hollywood, big-budget films–from enormous sets to star-studded casts.  This centralized (even hegemonic as Dr. Sivamohan suggests) space and discourse surrounding big-budget cinematic practices operates under truth as a “given,” as something already “settled” or understood.  It is this commanding truth, then, which tries to dictate film as a practice which must have a big-budget, stars, etc. 

Enter Dr. Sivamohan’s films and cinematic practices.  Lacking the extraordinary budget of typical Hollywood films, a cast of “stars,” and steeped in the portrayal of the still fresh memory of the Sri Lankan Civil War, the films of Dr. Sivamohan encapsulate a cinematic form, content, and production process in stark contrast to the prevailing big-budget, more typically Western, cinematic production ideologies.  Dr. Sivamohan, though, does not see her films as necessarily lacking; instead she situates her lower-budget films as disruptive of the commanding ‘truth’ of big-budget cinematic practices, as a counter word within the conversation of cinema.  Notably, she mentioned how not having a larger budget to afford ‘stars’ in her cast caused a questioning of the nature of stardom itself.  Unable to afford big-name stars, Dr. Sivamohan saw her films diversifying, and she articulated that such situations in cinema, for her at least, made everyone a star by working with “ordinary people.”  In acknowledging the ways in which lower-budget films could challenge the conventions of dominant cinematic practices, Dr. Sivamohan even went on to inquire who would buy “my film which questions their very notion of production?”    

Indeed, Dr. Sivamohan celebrated the “magic” and creativity of her lower-budget films not only for the imaginative power they grant the audience, but also their ability to take risks and investigate the nature of artifice and truth within the practice of cinema. Nearing the end of Dr. Sivamohan’s presentation, a portion of her experimental short film, Sing, Mother, Sing, was screened.  A Q & A session followed the film clip, and several audience members (myself included) were quite drawn to the use of a newspaper-wrapped “gun” as the film depicted the effect of violence on susceptible, depreciated groups.  Due to a particular ban on working with guns in cinema and being unable to afford making a replica, the newspaper-wrapped fake gun was used. It is here where Dr. Sivamohan expressed her belief in the “magic” of small budget films.  Not having a budget to achieve certain “typical” or realistic cinematic moments seems to inspire filmmakers like Dr. Sivamohan to manipulate their “limited” resources and prompt a critique of the dominant film discourse–a discourse which likely seeks to diminish the work of lower-budget films.  Dr. Sivamohan briefly noted how the newspaper-wrapped gun worked to prompt questions about artificiality and the validity of truth. The gun shown in the film asks us to question the legitimacy or the truth of images presented before us. Whether seeing this fake gun in place of a real one is meant to highlight the artificial nature of cinema production (through props, sets, etc.) or examine the artificial narratives often presented during times of war and violence, is unclear. However, this ambiguity about the purposes of the newspaper-wrapped gun and themes of artificiality is important in disrupting the dominant “truth” of big-budget film practices.

Another memorable moment from the Q & A was Professor Cheryl Johnson’s question regarding Dr. Sivamohan’s handling of silence throughout Sing, Mother, Sing.  Dr. Johnson was curious as to how Dr. Sivamohan chose to manipulate various silences throughout the film, because emotional moments were often made silent–seemingly to invite the audience to insert meaning and personal thought into those moments.  Without much hesitation, Dr. Sivamohan cited “instinct” as her method for manipulating sound and silence.  She laughed while describing her thought process on deciding whether or not to use sound, thinking, “Oh, this needs music? Let’s not put music there!” Again, Dr. Sivamohan showed us how her films disrupt the dominant narrative of big-budget film practices by undermining and defying what is expected of a “typical” western, Hollywood, blockbuster hit—such as utilizing music during a moment of intense emotion.

Dr. Sivamohan gave us an insightful glimpse into her work as a filmmaker-activist-scholar which allows her to create disruptive art.  Beyond presenting her films as unsettling the dominant word or “truth” of big-budget cinematic practice, Dr. Sivamohan also portrays the violent conflict of the Sri Lankan Civil War in her work, actively questioning and grappling with our understanding of violence, war, and the lasting effects of colonial brutality. Indeed, though our time with Dr. Sivamohan was limited, it was nothing short of impactful and thought-provoking, and we look forward to seeing more of her rousing work.  

Bridget Farahay is a senior from Dublin, Ohio. She is an English Literature major and Classical Humanities minor. Her interests lie in literature/film analysis, Classical reception, and music making.

Smith Garners Up and Coming Scholar Award

Miami’s English Department is home to several Literature PhD students who are making strides in the world of academia, but often go unrecognized and unnoticed. Today I’d like to introduce you to Cynthia Smith, a Literature PhD student at Miami, who was awarded the Up and Coming Scholar Award by the Harriet Beecher Stowe Society (HBSS). Cynthia shared with me some details of her research, her career plans for the future, and her advice for current English students.

Members of the HBSS focus their work on, and travel to conferences and events that feature – who else – Harriet Beecher Stowe. The organization annually sponsors the Up and Coming Scholar Award, granting one graduate student in the US the opportunity to sit on a panel with HBSS scholars and present a lecture at the American Literature Association’s yearly meeting. Smith submitted an excerpt of her dissertation chapter on Stowe, which she will now have the opportunity to present as a conference paper.

Smith specializes in antebellum sea narratives, though this certainly wasn’t always the plan. As a nineteenth-century Americanist, she began with a subspecialty in Asian American Literature before switching it to Maritime literature. Her original dissertation was going to be about female pirates, but during the research process, she noticed a tradition of sentimental maritime literary in antebellum literature. While taking her oral comprehensive exam, Smith dug into her extensive research knowledge and casually mentioned Uncle Tom as a “sentimental sailor” as an example in response to a more difficult question, not at all expecting one of the committee professors to stop her and say, “Yes! You have to write about that!”

Smith discovered that American literature often used the role of “sailor” to give more privileges to African Americans, providing means of mobility, wages, and enormous opportunity to learn reading and math skills. Stowe’s Uncle Tom can be read as a metaphorical sailor, a mechanism for demonstrating the capabilities of African Americans and creating awareness for the slave trade’s global nature. With her committee’s encouragement, she pursued the “sentimental sailor” all the way into her dissertation.

“I was just trying to pass [her exam]…” Smith recalled. “But apparently it was a good idea.”

Smith’s long-term goals are as ambitious as her present successes. She is working toward a position as a tenure track literature professor, though she noted that there is currently only one open position in her specific field of literature in the entire country. Smith is confident, though, that the Miami English Graduate program has prepared her well, crediting her success to the mentorship of Professors Andrew Hebard, Michelle Navakas, and others, as well as Miami’s well-designed program and the opportunity to start teaching right away (which is not easy to find in programs).

Before even graduating, Cynthia Smith has achieved the kind of success that most English students can only hope for. We extend our proud congratulations to her for receiving the Harriet Beecher Stowe Society’s Up and Coming Scholar Award, and we look forward to seeing (and of course reading) all of her future successes!




Ellen Stenstrom

English Literature and Creative Writing major

Literature program apprentice

What Do Literature Majors Do?

Why do we study literature? This is a complex question, as anyone who identifies in this royal “we” would attest.

I begin with simpler questions: Why did Langston Hughes write poetry? Why did Nathaniel Hawthorne ever decide to pick up a pen? Why did Rita Dove first love the art of language?

To me, the most basic answer to these is pretty simple: they all had something to say. So, of course, they pulled up their sleeves, licked the tip of their well-wielded pens, and they wrote.

Sure that’s what the people who wrote our literary classics have to motivate them, but the question still remains about the people who study their works. What do Lit majors have to say? Then, when they’re out in that massive world after college, how do they say it?

I asked recent alumni about their experience with the literature Program at Miami in order to gain more insight.

“Being an English major opened so many doors to me,” says Hailey Gilman (‘16), who now works as an Assistant Account Executive at MullenLowe advertising agency in Boston, Massachusetts. She relocated to Boston independently after she graduated from the Literature Program and proudly boasts, “My boss noted that
seeing my degree on my resume guaranteed that I would have the written communication skills necessary to succeed in the business world.”

The business world is a popular one for literature majors–particularly those inclined to marketing or those who find interest in using their knowledge of language and argumentation to persuade or inform consumers and audiences. In my researching English department grads, I have found quite a few who have taken their skills into a business setting.

Much like Hailey in her field of advertising, Taylor McBroom (‘16) uses her literature-cultivated skills in the marketing industry at HarperCollins Children’s Books. “My time in the English department taught me the valuable skills needed to succeed in publishing outside of editorial,” she says. Taylor is particularly enthusiastic about her English degree, telling me, “I’m forever grateful for my experiences at Miami because they led me to my dream job at HarperCollins!”

Here I find another theme among the recent alumni of Miami’s English Department: the term “dream job” often describes how they feel about their work. A passion for literature seems to mold into a passion for real-world careers. Whether the literature scholar chooses a concentration inside of the world of academia and publishing, or drifts off, like Hailey, to pursue a passion in marketing or law or banking, they take with them a devoted excitement that echoes the focused artistry of their college careers.

In quintessential literary fashion, Lindsay Crist Lawson (‘16) stayed close to home after graduation, but has accomplished the true (bookish) American dream–to live a life surrounded by literature. She is currently a book buying assistant at Joseph-Beth booksellers. “I love having a job where each day is completely immersed in the book world,” she says. Then, thinking back to her time at Miami, studying in Bachelor Hall, “my English degree provided an essential base knowledge of literature that I continue to invoke in my work now.”

In the end, I have found, through talking with these recent alumni, that their love for literature has expanded past the existential crisis that college provides. They’ve taken their analytical lens and applied it to the world. So, I ask, is this what literature majors really do?

Anna Jankovsky
English Literature and Film Studies, ’19
Literature Program Apprentice