Thoughts on Thesis: Yasmina Martin
Issue   |   Wed, 04/16/2014 - 01:11

Yasmina Martin is a senior majoring in Black Studies. Her thesis focuses on representations of white masculinity in South African literature. Her thesis advisor is Professor of Black Studies and English Rhonda Cobham-Sander.

Q: What is your thesis about?
A: It is about the constructions of white masculinity as represented in South African literature. I am particularly interested in how certain rituals promoted at the family level (hunting, for example) reflect those performed on a national level (militarism and warfare). In my thesis, I concentrate mainly on male protagonists of chosen novels and their roles in supporting or subverting Afrikaner nationalism. I study how authors use literary techniques to reveal protagonists’ complex relationships to apartheid rule. I focused on five novels: “The Smell of Apples” by Mark Behr, “Boyhood” by J.M. Coetzee, “Moffie” by Andre Carl van de Merwe, “The House Gun” by Nadine Gordimer and “Triomf” by Marlene van Niekerk.

I began my thesis with historical background, starting with how Afrikaner nationalism was based on developing the Afrikaans language and forging a stronger sense of Christianity in the Cape colony. From that, I started to explore how sexuality and violence are represented in South African novels.

Q: What was your pre-writing process like? Was it more focused on historical research or literature analysis?
A: Historical research took place first. During the process, I looked at the development of Cape colony starting in the mid-17th century, the influence and development of religion, apartheid, and Afrikaner nationalism, to name a few topics. After completing the research, I used the newly acquired knowledge on the historical background as a framework for looking at different works of literature.

The first novel I read for my thesis was “The Smell of Apples” by Mark Behr. The novel is set in Cape Town, South Africa, in the early seventies. The author portrays South Africa’s apartheid through the eyes of a young boy, who is a son of an army general, and describes how much the apartheid and his father’s white supremacy views influence the 11-year-old child’s perspective. He essentially repeats everything his father says and believes in about supporting apartheid. However, when the boy becomes older, he fights as a soldier in the army and realizes how his father’s conviction was flawed. It was interesting to analyze how the protagonist transitions from initially accepting the ideas of nationalism to learning how everything he and his father believed in was false.

I paid a lot of attention to symbolism that was presented throughout the novels that I read. For example, in “The Smell of Apples,” the protagonist puts on a uniform as a boy. The boy adopts the image of the soldier and takes on the burden of supporting the apartheid government, even though he does not understand the repercussions of doing so.

Q: Did you have any knowledge about your topic before choosing it?
A: I had taken Professor Sitze’s class about apartheid, so I knew about the legal histories involving this part of the South African history. I also had some secondhand knowledge since my mom wrote her dissertation on South Africa. She used one of the novels I read in her dissertation. Other than that, I didn’t have much background knowledge before starting my research.

Q: What was the general timeline of your thesis writing process?
A: I read the first novel in June before my senior year. I began to develop topic ideas starting then and read more selections from post-colonialism South African literature in order to refine my topic. I did not finalize my idea until August, which is when I submitted my proposal, and by mid-February of this year, I finished my first draft. Also, I originally planned to analyze three works, but by the end, I ended up reading and writing about five novels. I turned in the final draft on Tuesday [April 8].

Q: What was your favorite part about writing a senior thesis?
A: I think the best part was getting to learn about the novels I chose in depth and really understand the plots and characters. I haven’t really taken English classes at Amherst, so I was very new to this process of carrying out an in-depth analysis of works of literature. Learning to analyze literature effectively, while using historical evidence, was a cool experience.

Q: What was the most difficult part?
A: The hardest part for me was starting from a lot of ideas to synthesizing and communicating them in a way it makes sense to the readers. A lot of the time, I was so into writing that it was very difficult for me to tell whether my words made sense or not. It is incredibly easy to get wrapped up in what you are writing and remembering to distance yourself from what you have written in order to look at the product with a different perspective.

Q: Who or what have been the most helpful resources along the way?
A: My advisor was very helpful and provided me constructive feedback. Also, when I had a broader topic of Afrikaner nationalism, she helped me narrow it down and advised me on which texts to read. Another useful resource was the Writing Center, which I visited about three times after having completed several drafts. It was nice to have someone, other than my advisor and me, read my work. The staff at the center pointed out to me places that did not make sense, to which I would later revisit and add more detailed explanations. The Writing Center is especially useful for helping the writer polish up the work with smoother transitions and sentence structure.

Q: Did you experience any unexpected things during the thesis process?
A: The only thing I was surprised by was how I had planned on using the novels in a different way or thought about the amount of focus on each novel, but there were changes along the way. I dealt with different themes in each chapter of the thesis, and a chapter was about anywhere from three to five novels. It was hard to balance how much I would dedicate to each novel.

Q: Do you have any advice for future thesis writers?
A: I would tell them to start early. Also, if they are writing a thesis that deals with both history and literature, I would advise the writers to thoroughly consider how the history fits into literature and focus on the details in the works. I think that writing early is important, too. It is very helpful to have your ideas on the page even if you don’t believe they are your strongest arguments.

Q: What is the most valuable lesson you have learned from writing a thesis?
A: One lesson is that it is possible to draw out a well-developed product out of a broad, general idea. It was very exciting to see how little increments of work every day added up to be my senior thesis by the end.