Research and Creativity Expo: Ivan Taurisano ’19 Uses Writing to Change Lives

Research and Creativity Expo: Ivan Taurisano ’19 Uses Writing to Change Lives

Research and Creativity Expo: Ivan Taurisano ’19 Uses Writing to Change Lives

The 2019 Research and Creativity Expo is coming up on May 1-10. To get our community excited about the student presentations that will be featured at the Expo, we’re speaking to several student presenters, finding out more about their research, and learning about their hopes for the future. At John Jay, research is a key element of our mission to educate for justice, because evidence-based data and thoughtful analysis opens minds and helps communities build a more just society. Our next student presenter is Ivan Taurisano ’19, an English major from Italy who will be presenting his research on the portrayal of orphans in children’s literature and how these stories shape children’s lives.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
I'm from Rome, Italy, and I am 25 years old. I come from a family of judges and lawyers and my parents wanted me to come to the United States to become a lawyer. However, after I earned my associate’s degree in Criminal Justice from LaGuardia Community College, I decided that I wanted a bachelor's degree in English Literature because I want to write children's books. And, I think John Jay has given me everything I need to do just that. Even though when I first came here, I was told by many people that John Jay was not the best place for writers, my three years here have taught me differently. 

“I think that the English Department at John Jay is one of the strongest assets of the College.” — Ivan Taurisano

Why is John Jay an excellent place for writers?
I think that the English Department at John Jay is one of the strongest assets of the College. There are amazing writers, especially professors, who are willing to take an extra step to know their students as individuals and not just as a number or a figure in the classroom. I had the opportunity to work with Professor Jeffery Heiman, Professor Adam Berlin, Professor Stuart Watson, and Professor Claudia Zuluaga who are all published authors. All of them gave me something that I didn’t find at my previous institution or in Italy. I always knew that I wanted to be a writer. Unfortunately in Italy, children's literature is not a big field, and there are no schools for writers. As an international student, it isn’t easy to make connections. And, because of the nature of my job as a writer, I tend to be alone most of the time. However, I realized that as a writer, you need to meet people and learn their stories in order to write your own and present it to the public, John Jay has been instrumental in teaching me this.

How did you find your way to children’s literature?
I decided to write children’s literature because I believe that a child has a greater ability to connect with a story. I clearly remember when I was a kid, reading J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter, or Matilda from Roald Dahl, those stories stayed with me. These were stories that talked about children who lived life very differently from my own. They were orphans, I was not, and when I closed the book, I always felt like I was leaving a part of myself in those pages. At the same time, growing up and reading those books again, I realized that they were helping me process some dilemmas in my own childhood that I didn’t have the opportunity to process. Storytelling became a tool of self-discovery and helped build my self-esteem.

“What I am trying to demonstrate is that in children’s literature, when there is a parental absence, something else is given to the child to overcome this feeling of loneliness.”—Ivan Taurisano

You’re going to be part of the Research and Creativity Expo. What can people expect to see and learn from your presentation when they go?
What I was hoping to do was present my honors project, which is an analysis of Death, Neglect, and Parental Absence in Children's Literature. Psychological theories today show that loneliness and neglect are two things that shape a child in a way that is going to cause a lot of problems when they become adults. My goal is to present the issue in a way that is not overwhelming and show that yes, loneliness is real and it’s bad, but you can overcome it. People aren’t expecting to go to this expo and see a topic like this. But, maybe in that audience there’s a psychology major who will listen to me and see that there is an interdisciplinary connection here between Psychology and English.

Would you say that there are an overwhelming number of books that have this common theme?
I’m working on a series of books from the beginning of the 20th Century to today. The books are The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett which was published in 1911; The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman which was published in the beginning of the 21st Century; and James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. What I am trying to demonstrate is that in children’s literature, when there is a parental absence, something else is given to the child to overcome this feeling of loneliness. In these three books, within the very first page, the child becomes an orphan and then they are given some sort of substitution. What is really interesting is that the children are given a friend who is generally of the same age, but more importantly the child enters an enchanted world where they are empowered. For example, in James and the Giant Peach, as the title suggests, there’s a peach. What happens inside this peach is interesting, because as James crawls inside, it’s as if he is crawling into his mother’s womb. In the peach there’s a grasshopper, a spider, and a dragonfly, and they assume roles that we would normally identify as a mother, father, and brother, but of course they are not. By writing the book this way, the author teaches children that while James doesn’t have human parents, he has figures who assume those roles in order to help him develop in the same way as if he did have those parents. At the end, the child goes back to the real world because he has been given the things he needs to develop himself, and is now ready to rejoin society. These magical realms are a way to process trauma.

“When you share your art and someone connects with it, in that moment the author has accomplished something that other fields don’t allow you to.”—Ivan Taurisano

How does your research help move the needle forward on justice issues?
For me, it’s a social justice issue. When I was a child, I had experiences of being bullied in my school. I was alone and didn’t know how to connect with other people. My parents are judges—my mom is the President of the Juvenile Court in Rome—so she always talked during dinner about all of the children that she met and how their lives were so difficult because of their circumstances. They were not as lucky as I was. And, so I thought, I have two choices here. I can live my own life, climb the social ladder and get to the top. Or, I can try to bring some people with me and we can climb this ladder together. The only way that I can do that, is through my art. My writing, is something that I create alone, it’s personal. But, when you share your art and someone connects with it, in that moment the author has accomplished something that other fields don’t allow you to. I just want to help people and find ways to connect with people through words. 

“As an author, if I can really touch someone and change just one person's life, I'll be happy.”—Ivan Taurisano

In five years, what do you hope you’ll be doing?
I’m attending Simmons University in the fall where I’ll get an M.A. in Children’s Literature and a M.F.A. in Writing for Children’s Literature. I hope to be able to be a full-time writer, but at the same time, I would like to earn a Ph.D. in Literature for Young Adults from Cambridge University in the U.K. I would like to get a Ph.D. because I love to write and I love the way writing changes lives. I look at someone like J.K. Rowling, and see how before she began writing she was depressed. And now, an entire generation has been named after her books—The Potter Generation. I read the first book when I was five, and I am still reading those books today because they left an impression on me. As an author, if I can really touch someone and change just one person’s life, I'll be happy. 

To hear to the entire interview, listen below.

To learn more about this presentation and others, make sure to come to the Research and Creativity Expo from May 1-10.