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2017 Writers’ Conference

14th Annual Undergraduate Writers’ Conference

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Conference Director: Norah Ashe-McNalley

Keynote Speaker: Fran Wilde

2017 Program

Analytical Essay

Researched Essay

Professional Writing/Moral Reasoning

Creative Work

USC Schwarzenegger Institute

USC Levan Institute


Analytical Essay
(172 submissions)

Honorable Mention
Max Kapur
Four Glimpses of Han in Lisa Lee’s Fiction

This paper takes on the daunting task of offering the very first academic study of an emerging writer; in this case, the short stories of Korean American author Lisa Lee. Kapur explores the place of han – a “potential energy” with its “roots in social injustice and political oppression” – within three of the author’s short stories. While han studies are a burgeoning field, Kapur subordinates his interest in this body of work to an attentive, formalist exploration of Lee’s writing, and ends up offering what every novelist would want from their first critic: a nuanced, sympathetic, and illuminating engagement that is sensitive to the textures of both the prose and the ideas they convey. Even more impressive, this essay is a poetic, artful, and sophisticated creation in itself.

2nd Prize
Anastasia Barbato
Technically Feminine: A Study of the Role of the Female Android in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

Anastasia Barbato offers an illuminating analysis of the social implications of the womanly android in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. For Barbato, this 1920s Maschinmensch “stands outside normative expectations of both woman and machine, exemplifying a commentary on the patriarchal ideas of the feminine in association with the threat of advancing technology.” Gently nudging her reader into the present day, she encourages them to address “the implications of using the feminine gender as the default for the technologies we expect to obey us.” Barbato achieves analytical force through her skillful structure and expert handling of evidence, while her graceful prose lights her analysis from within, imparting a lasting impression on the reader.

1st Prize
Jade Matias-Bell
Compression, Expansion, Magic, and Loss: Digitization in Museums

Matias-Bell writes about the implications of digitalization of museum collections and what effects this new form of access has on our experience of museums. The essay divides digitalization practices into compression, which captures artwork and exhibits for access off-site, and expansion, which uses digitalization on-site to allow visitors to see inside artifacts, or follow restoration projects.

Researched Essay (95 submissions)

Honorable Mention
Morgan Mamon
Ibn Khaldūn [EEbin Khal-doon] in Translation: An Examination of Jīl in Franz Rosenthal’s Muqaddimah

Mamon’s meticulous, rigorous analysis of Franz Rosenthal’s translation of North African historian Ibn Khaldūn’s Muqaddimah offers the reader not only a judicious critique of Rosenthal’s projection of racialized assumptions onto Khaldūn’s text, but a thought-provoking examination of the mechanisms through which these distortions take place. Mamon observes, for example, that in Rosenthal’s introduction, “one can discern ‘traps’ in the pages that precede Rosenthal’s translation that at once imbue the text with modern assumptions and lead the reader to believe that the subsequent translation will be accurate and literal rendering of the original.” Mamon’s essay is exceptionally well structured; the well-conceived and clearly delineated sections facilitate the reader’s deep engagement with her sophisticated analysis of Rosenthal’s translation.

2nd Prize
Jacob Silverman
“I Looked and Looked but Failed to See What So Terrified You”: Agency and the Double Self in Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her

Silverman’s incisive and piquantly written analysis of This Is How You Lose Her draws out the psychological complexity of Junot Díaz’s short story collection by putting the text in conversation with Judith Butler and W.E.B. Du Bois. In so doing, Silverman offers the reader a chance to see the protagonist Yunior’s post-breakup journey, which culminates in the character’s rediscovery of himself as an artist, in richer, more inflected tones than we might have otherwise, particularly through finely such rendered observations as: “What we see is a quiet emergence from under the shroud of melancholia; a possibility to relocate the ego dislocated in the breakup. Yunior’s reconstituted agency is therefore a fragile one: it is entirely dependent on Yunior’s ability to hold onto the language of its reconstitution.”

1st Prize
Bethany Balchunas
Codifying Exoticism: Race and French Colonial Policy in West Africa, 1910 to 1918

In her meticulous, highly sophisticated study of the French recruitment of African soldiers for their European wars, Bethany Balchunas explores the ways in which French officers and colonial authorities promoted an understanding of West Africans as “warlike” and “loyal” to justify their conscription in the French military. The persistence of these dueling tropes, which often fluctuated to serve the needs of those in power, highlights the lasting impact of colonial rule. Balchunas writes: “In the absence of real contact with the colonies, the French made sense of the colonial order in a way that simultaneously justified their rule and positioned West Africans as inferior and dependent upon them.” Balchunas draws from an impressive range of materials for her study, including early-twentieth-century illustrated postcards and first-hand accounts from members of West African communities. The level of scholarly research and analysis that displayed in this essay is truly exceptional for an undergraduate student.

Professional Writing/Moral Reasoning (103 submissions)

Honorable Mention
Jennifer Smart
How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Forget the Bomb

In this eloquently written essay, Smart asserts that Americans have gradually become less fearful of nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War and notes the particular dangers of this attitude given the precariousness of our contemporary global relations.  In her discussion of the ways the Bomb shaped the American psyche, Smart argues that our current fearlessness is the result of denial, habituation, and nostalgia in public consciousness. Smart lays bare the perils of our unpredictable future and reminds readers that nuclear weapons continue to pose an escalating threat to humanity and the biosphere – a fact that needs to be addressed now more than ever.

2nd Prize
Blair Thoman
Acquisition of Consent in Harmony Korine’s Kids

This paper examines the acquisition of sexual consent between characters in Harmony Korine’s screenplay Kids. Through close reading and an interrogation of the ethical dimensions of these relationships, Thoman intelligently discerns that consent cannot be reasonably acquired through conversation, which is often hinged on misinforming and persuading participants. Thoman critiques Kids’ portrayal of consent for ignoring power dynamics, gender factors, and cognitive ability in its unethical and irresponsible depiction of verbal coercion as acceptable. This thoughtful essay effectively demonstrates that pre-sex conversations are not an adequate method for obtaining consent given that these conversations rely on the emotional and cognitive manipulation of one party, typically young girls.

1st Prize
Soobin Kim
Bus Shelters in Los Angeles

Kim’s essay does an excellent job exploring a key urban planning problem that affects Los Angeles. Incorporating a breathtaking amount of original research, this paper offers a nuanced and granular analysis of the difficulties of building sufficient bus shelters to serve the needs of riders. The writing is fluid, and the graphics underscore some of the key points. The paper not only emphasizes the complexity of balancing the competing needs and desires of various stakeholders when making urban planning decisions, but it also offers a clear analysis of how to move forward. Local lawmakers should read this outstanding report.

Creative Work (163 submissions)

Honorable Mention
Karen Garcia

In a self-proclaimed poetic act of resistance, Garcia’s collection of poetry mirrors the “upside down reality” of our current political climate. The collection starts out with a personal introspection, a study of identity based on the writer’s name, and ends with a broader reflection of cultural struggle. Today, this voice is an essential reminder that art has the power to celebrate diversity and individuality through the beautiful collaboration of English and Spanish, and that the art of resistance starts with the empowerment of the self. To quote Garcia, “Mi cultura es mía y nunca la dejaría/My culture is mine and I would never leave it.”

Will Drickley

In “Parabellum,” Drickey details the dissolution of a failing marriage. By juxtaposing the everyday lives of David and Margaret, their history and present, with the history and evolution of the gun, Drickey creates a sustained tension that certainly pays off – is it possible to write a story about guns without a gun going off? I was impressed by how confident Drickey’s prose is, his care for the reader, and the formal inventiveness of the story.

2nd Prize
Nate Gualtieri
Imperfect Machines

The search for identity set against the familiar backdrop of the American road trip receives a timely update in Nate Gualtieri’s short story “Imperfect Machines.”  The story’s protagonist, a young transman coming to terms with his transition and his past, travels with his companion and sometime lover Susannah in a van across America, using constant motion as a way to stymie feelings of loneliness and loss. The unnamed protagonist “Go[es] West,” not to find his fortune, but to be reborn.  He reluctantly returns home resolute and empowered.  Gualtieri’s mature style offers his reader sharply drawn and delightful details, poetic imagery and a lyrical and sensitive portrayal of a compelling character’s challenges, reflections and observations.

1st Prize
Anna Wang
Stories about my father

The balance that Wang achieves in her dual tale that chronicles a mother’s past and a daughter’s present-day thirst for her father results in a rich and satisfying story. Wang braids the two perspectives with integrated imagery that meld one era into the next, establishing place details that distinguish the McAllen, Texas of 1954 from the present day. Wang’s use of sensory details within tightly structured scenes evokes an emotion that does not dwell within the contrived space of sentimentality. Her use of language is both lush and spare. Wang shines most within her use of rigorous dialogue that manages to develop her characters as well as advance the story’s plot. As with any fully realized piece, Wang’s ending is a surprise yet somehow expected.

USC Schwarzenegger Institute

2nd Prize
Holly Bard
Kamala Harris Presidential Playbook

1st Prize
Max Hill, Alya Omar, and Austin Reagan
Climate Resilience in the Arctic Fishing Industry

USC Levan Institute Ethics Essay Contest

Ethics Essay Contest winners were also announced at the Writers’ Conference. Click here to view the winners.