PhD. candidate, Cultural Studies
Daniel performing a self-written monologue at the annual "Down There" performance.
Photo courtesy of Queen's Tricolour Yearbook.
High Flying Ambition
by Sharday Mosurinjohn
When Dan Vena pitched his application to the prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, his Department Head warned him that it was a bit of a long shot. “She didn’t sugarcoat it for me, and I appreciated that!” recalls Vena, laughing. But he decided to try the odds and, as he began fleshing out the application in earnest, everyone at his MA program in Queen’s Department of Gender Studies—especially his supervisor Dr. Jane Tolmie—lent him their full support. When results came back from the several award competitions graduate students typically enter every year, it was with a mix of wry amusement and sincere delight that Vena held a waitlist letter from SSHRC in one hand and a notice of award from Vanier in the other.
Vena’s PhD research into trans masculinities and comic books will build on his MA work under Dr. Tolmie’s supervision.
When asked why he chose Queen’s to study, Vena replies that it was entirely for the chance to work with Dr. Tolmie. “I knew nothing of Kingston except one friend who grew up in the city,” he offers. “But I came across Professor Tolmie’s work and was excited by her background in theatre studies, sequential art studies [ie. comic books, graphic novels], and feminist, queer, and trans theory.” Having completed a BA (Hon) at York University as a theatre major and a film minor, the match seemed perfect to Vena.
The thesis he developed with her guidance focused on exposing the trans subtext in Superman comics. “In some ways, the Superman narrative mirrors those of transsexual Female–to–Males (or FTMs)” Vena suggests. “It is a story of transformation, one in which Superman/Clark Kent develops into a figure who embodies a monstrous identity, an identity we aren’t quite familiar with or willing to accept to some degree—Is it a bird? Or a plane? What is it?” he quips. “This is still the dominant attitude towards trans people.”
Vena hopes that, in using the Superman narrative to voice issues encountered by trans folks, people might be more willing to explore and expand their understanding of these particular identities. Along with his interest in studying masculinities, Vena also draws on chivalric narratives.
“I always toy with chivalry in some way in my research, in my activist work with Men Who Like Feminism, and as a playwright” with the Chipped off Theatre Collective. “I personally enjoy the performative act of chivalry,” he explains, “but this forces me to ask: how can this desire be reconciled with the historical circumstances that produce the need for this token appreciation?” Chivalry, elaborates Vena, used to be about royalty only. The notion, as it has come into popular culture over the years, has largely erased the actual history of the knight’s chivalric code, which is predicated on misogynistic, racist, and classist power relations. Vena hopes to better understand these competing impulses by analyzing chivalric tropes in comics, fairytales, and historical narratives.
For Vena, the Vanier win represents a tremendous accomplishment on a number of levels. Vanier Scholarships were designed to attract and retain world–class doctoral students and to establish Canada as a global centre of excellence in research and higher learning. Areas of studies include natural sciences and engineering, social sciences and humanities, or health sciences. “Research about trans masculinities and comic books was not a likely pick,” observes Vena, “and the choice to fund it like this is a positive statement about the kind of critical inquiry we are starting to value in the Canadian public sphere.”
Vena remembers being under the impression that humanities research was not what the Vanier program was looking for. “I don’t recall hearing any publicity about it, either through the department or my peers,” he says. In fact, he first heard about the scholarship through his partner, a Queen’s clinical psychology student who won the award herself in 2012. Vena emphasizes that he hopes his “story will encourage other humanities researchers to pursue opportunities like this.”
Winners of the Vanier—of which Queen’s has four this year—receive a scholarship worth $50,000 each year for the next three years.
For Vena, this honour is an important assurance of financial stability over the course of his doctoral degree. It will enable him to travel to workshop his research at conferences, translating knowledge to institutions and communities where it can join with people’s lived experiences and impact trans people’s lives.
In fact, one of the highlights of studying at Queen’s has been getting involved in a regular meet–up for trans community members. This “phenomenal resource” includes people from many different positions in the city—youth, university students, and parents with trans kids or who are trans themselves. Vena loves the sense of community it provides, perhaps especially because “it wasn’t organized by me!” jokes the always–active researcher, teaching assistant, activist, and playwright.
Happy to be staying at Queen’s and in Kingston, Vena has shifted from Gender Studies to pursue his research in Cultural Studies. Launched in 2009, Cultural Studies is an innovative interdisciplinary program with an emphasis on power, social justice and social change. In its recognition that no single disciplinary approach can get at the complexity of cultural forms, Cultural Studies draws affiliated faculty from all across campus. Vena’s supervisor is Political Studies’ Dr. Eleanor MacDonald, who shares an interest in transgender politics.
Vena is only at the beginning of his doctoral research, but when asked what he envisions for the future, he notes that he would love to teach at a postsecondary institution.
“I love teaching,” exclaims Vena, who has been a TA once for an introduction to gender studies and twice for a course on gender, race and popular culture.
In his role as co–founder of Men Who Like Feminism, he has been building a record of working with diverse audiences, from giving a radio interview with Dragonroot Radio (McGill) to being invited to a high table discussion about the continued need for feminism with an all–male floor of one Queen’s residence.
He has also worked at an inner city Toronto elementary school creating and teaching a drama program with a group called Youth Unlimited. In this program, theatre was used as way to talk about hard–hitting issues facing grade sevens and eights, including police run–ins and anger management issues. More over, he also learned a lot from his students and their parents. “It was amazing,” to Vena, “how these 12 and 13 year–olds made me check my white privilege. They completely inverted the power relationship when needed.”
While Vena enjoys working with youth and comes from a family where his mother was a high school math teacher, he hopes to work in the future with the undergraduate age bracket. “I love seeing them come into their political autonomy,” he reflects. “And I know I need the intellectual work of university.” With the recognition of the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship program, Vena can rest assured that the feeling is mutual.