Creative writing doctoral student receives dissertation fellowship

A Florida State University graduate student has been honored by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation with a Dissertation Fellowship in Women’s Studies, the only national program to support doctoral work on women’s and gender issues.

Misha Rai, one of 10 fellows for 2016, is a doctoral candidate in creative writing in the Department of English. Her dissertation, “Blood We Did Not Spill: A Novel,” is the first work of fiction to be supported by the fellowship program because of the interesting story it tells and the high degree of scholarly research required to produce it.

“Winning the fellowship is a real validation for the work I am doing and a great honor,” said Rai, who applied for the fellowship partly because of her admiration for American author and journalist Renata Adler, a 1959 recipient of the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship.

“Since I am such an admirer of her work, I thought, ‘I’ll just apply, and it will make me feel close to her in some way,’” Rai said. “Then to win it, and to find out that I am the first-ever fiction Ph.D. to be awarded the fellowship was such a tremendous shock, but also a boost to the confidence.

“The fellowship has made me work harder than I have before. I am so grateful for the opportunity the fellowship has given me and will continue to give me,” she said.

FSU creative writing doctoral student Misha Rai, recipient of a Woodrow Wilson Dissertation Fellowship in Women's Studies.
FSU creative writing doctoral student Misha Rai, recipient of a Woodrow Wilson Dissertation Fellowship in Women’s Studies.

In terms of pure storytelling, “Blood We Did Not Spill” is a good old-fashioned detective story where nothing and no one is what or who they seem, the past is not something that can be buried and forgotten, and the divide between good and evil is razor thin.

Set in India, the action is split between two different decades: In 1997, when a young female police officer temporarily takes charge of a prison for five days, and in 1977, during the last months of a 21-month-long state of national emergency declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

“This female police officer discovers discrepancies among the prisoners in 1997 that are linked to arrests made in 1977 after a violent showdown between police officers and ‘dacoits,’ or bandits,” Rai said.

On a global level, the novel deals with the reality of living in a country where civil liberties are curbed and elections are suspended.

“Through the central characters, the novel examines what this period of trauma to democracy does to the fabric of a country and its people in the decades to come,” Rai said.

The novel is thought to be the first English language novel with an Indian female police officer as the protagonist.

“In that respect, the novel also examines what it means to be a pioneer,” Rai said. “Her investigations subsequently lead her to look for answers to the discrepancy in the historically rooted mistakes made by the first, and thus far only, female prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi.”

The fellowship will allow Rai to finish her research for the novel by visiting India to interview female police officers.

In her research prior to receiving the fellowship, Rai read widely about India’s “emergency” and Indira Gandhi. She traveled to India in the winter of 2013 to interview police officers that served during the emergency, and she visited the British Library in London in 2014 to conduct archival research on the dacoits.

“There was a lot of time spent reading biographies and reports and studies,” Rai said. “I found people who shared with me their experiences of what it was like to live in India during that time.”

Originally, Rai’s female protagonist was a man loosely based on her own father, who spent 35 years with the Indian Police Service.

“While I was in India, I met a female police officer at a dinner party who told me how hard it was for her when she was first starting out,” Rai said. “That, along with an important memory from my childhood involving a female Indian Police Service officer, made me re-think the novel completely.

“Every year, more novels are published that examine the struggles, psyche and complexities of policemen all over the world — an Indian policeman in this case,” Rai said. “But the Indian policewoman’s narrative is nowhere to be found. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the perspective of the latter was more interesting than that of the former.”

This year’s other dissertations honored by the foundation address topics such as maternal and infant health in nationalist China; marriage, citizenship and political sovereignty in Jordan; the modern history of Cuban domestic service; and the role of visual work, such as scrapbooks and photo albums, in the oeuvre of 20th-century poets.

Each of the 2016 fellows will receive $5,000 to help cover expenses incurred while completing their dissertations. In addition, their dissertation titles will be publicized with leading scholarly publishers at the conclusion of the dissertation year.

Now in its 42nd year, the Woodrow Wilson Dissertation Fellowship in Women’s Studies program has supported more than 525 doctoral students in various fields and includes a Pulitzer Prize winner, two MacArthur Fellows, eight Guggenheim Fellows, a number of Fulbright Fellows, and many others who have achieved significant distinctions in their fields.

For more information on the Woodrow Wilson Dissertation Fellowship in Women’s Studies, click here.