As I think about my purpose for pursuing a PhD in English, I’m reminded of my first copy of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Purchased from a used bookstore in Pawtucket, it was little more than an old paperback with yellowed paper and a spine in need of repair. But despite the book’s tattered appearance, the words—the language—within it contained, what seemed, a mystical capacity to transport me from terra firma to the watery universe alongside the fearless Captain Nemo.
Although a lot has changed since those early years, what remains unaltered is that explorative association I had with language and literature growing up. In fact, as I began to pursue these interests academically the explorative aspects only heightened. Like the cosmos, though laws and formulas account for many of its physical properties, there remains an exciting aura of mystique about the universe—its proportions alone, great and expanding, elude comprehension. Similarly, the “mystical” in literature, as I pursued it academically, would never dissolve into a static framework of understanding. Rather, it took on greater dynamic dimensions.
Academically, my relationship with language and literature began in an unlikely place—English was not my initial pursuit during my undergraduate years. It was a different type of language that intrigued me: programming. Situated on opposites sides of campus, in labs instead of libraries, computer science is a creative expression of language. With a full grammar, semantics, and vocabulary, programmers with greater command over a language are able to express themselves with more clarity and precision. I began a successful career in computer science developing dozens of software applications for commercial and public use.
However, as a senior developer I began to feel that a career in programming had certain limits. While there were infinite possibilities in the writing of software, all code was limited to the universe of its primary existence: the machine. I then decided to readjust my career and follow the path of my original interest. English became my new universe; and like the subterranean journey of the Nautilus, as I explored it, I began to realize the expansiveness of its academic landscape. During my graduate studies, I was introduced to new and various methods of critically examining texts. There was a bibliographical and textual focus, including a wide-range of courses encouraging me to consider texts from different critical angles: such as the Marxist, feminist, historicist, poststructuralist and deconstructive perspectives. It was eventually a course on postcolonialism that resonated particularly with my own interests.
Having been born in Sri Lanka and displaced due to national civil war, I found the ideas furthered by writers such as Homi Bhabha, Salman Rushdie and Gayatri Spivak—notions such as the subaltern, the expatriate and nationhood—excited my interest and gave me a sense of direction towards my scholarly pursuit in English. It is in this focus area that I wrote my Master’s thesis: “Imagining Sri Lanka: Expatriated ‘Revisions’ of the Nation.” Building off the important work developed by Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities, my thesis explores the ways the “nation” of Sri Lanka—as an imaginary structure—is constructed and re-presented by its expatriates.
Like Captain Nemo’s “mystical” underworld in the Jules Verne’s classic, there are still more leagues of intellectual territory to discover in my exploration of English. If accepted into the PhD program at URI, I hope to continue my study of topics within postcolonialism. In postcolonial discourse, the possibility to consider texts outside traditional perspectives helps to bring bodies of work out of the margins and into critical focus. In the domain of literary criticism, I believe my background in computer science, my years of professional experience outside academia, and my Sri Lankan nationality afford me a different and unique angle to bring into existing postcolonial scholarship.
I ask in earnest for your consideration of acceptance into your esteemed English PhD program.