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Discovering Connections in Irish and Mexican Literature

November 13, 2017

A photo of Brianna MartinezSearch Google Scholar for research about Carlos Fuentes and more than 27,000 results pop up. Search James Joyce, more than 100,000.

For decades, great minds have pored over every page of these literary giants’ work. In the face of this mountain of scholarly analysis, one might think that there couldn’t possibly be new ground left to cover.

Brianna Martinez ’18 says otherwise.

Martinez, an English major at Whittier College, has discovered a strong link between Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz. Though the Irish and Mexican novels are separated by almost half a century and 5,200 miles, Martinez has uncovered strikingly similar themes in their stories.

The protagonist of A Portrait, Stephen, finds himself constantly at odds with his peers in terms of how they’re trying to understand being Irish in the shadow of the British Empire. Artemio Cruz paints a similar picture, as Artemio also tries to separate himself from the history of the Spanish Conquest and American imperialism.

“In both novels, both characters, they have this drive to leave behind this more nationalistic understanding of themselves and adopt this more international, cosmopolitan version of identity,” Martinez said. “But in both novels, those journeys along those routes of identity ultimately fail, which is more of a commentary on the authors’ part, in terms of trying to show how colonialism really upsets their ability to understand themselves.”

Martinez’s connection impressed English professor Charles Adams, her advisor for the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship. The program funds student’s academic research to set them up for a career as a professor, and has already opened doors for Martinez, who spent her summer honing her writing at Columbia University and will leave in January for a conference in South Africa.

Martinez caught Adam’s attention from day one; as a freshman, she handled the intricacies of Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway with aplomb.  

He and his colleagues in the English department knew that she was a fit for the fellowship. As Martinez began poring over sections of A Portrait and Artemio Cruz hundreds of times, Adams—who has been teaching at Whittier for 33 years—watched as her understanding of Joyce’s novel matched his own.

“It’s scary when a student gets in that position,” he said. “Good scary.”

Martinez has always loved modernist literature and lights up when talking about Joyce or Fuentes. Finding a new connection between their novels has been a joy for her.

“Even at the end of A Portrait, it’s just so good, the way that I guess it would be Joyce himself who’s sort of hinting that, even in A Portrait, we know that it’s not going to work out for Stephen in the long run,” she said.

But for Martinez, the future is looking much brighter.

Adams emphasized that Martinez is smart, hard-working, a terrific student—yet, so are others. Last year, he watched a student discover a new way of looking at Hemingway (34,000 results on Google Scholar). What separates them was their willingness to try.

“It just goes to show, if you’ve got a good idea, probably you can do something with it,” he said. “And an undergraduate at Whittier College can do that.”