What They Learned: Lena Yeakey ’19

The comparative literature major used her thesis to study the relationship between memory and language in the wake of civil wars, calling upon her study abroad experience in Lima, Peru, to augment her analysis of post-conflict culture in Peru and Sri Lanka.

Lena Yeakey ’19 wrote a thesis that cut across continents and languages to argue something fundamental about memory. As a comparative literature major and Spanish minor, her thesis project found her analyzing two works of literature written in different languages—Sri Lanka-born writer Michael Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost, which was written in English, and Peruvian author Jose Carlos Agüero’s poetic memoir Persona, which was written in Spanish.

“My thesis was on public or collected memory in post-conflict situations, and the possibilities that these two books present for memory creation for people at the periphery of conflict,” she said. “Both of these books offer a prolonged look at the process of remembering, and the complicated social and emotional registers that can bring, in contrast to the product of a truth commission.”

Yeakey, who concentrated in peace, justice, and human rights, put these texts in conversation with one another because of the way they each detail the relationship between individual memory and state-governed memorialization and transparency in the wake of civil war or internal conflict.

“Peru and Sri Lanka both had prolonged and complicated internal armed conflicts, which each resulted in official ‘truth-telling’ efforts,” said Yeakey. These conflicts and their subsequent reconciliation  efforts have had a lasting impact on the contemporary cultures of Peru and Sri Lanka—the former of which Yeakey discovered during her semester abroad.

“I spent a semester studying in Lima, and I was really struck by the little ways that people expressed their connection to the conflict and the way it had shaped the city and their lives,” she said. “My thesis grew out of that question, of how people who weren’t technically ‘victims’ remember.”

Ultimately, Yeakey discovered a relationship between processes of remembering and the language people use to access and characterize them. By investigating the texts’ narrative structures and poetic rhythms, she uncovered the notion that the language used in the aftermath of civil conflict fundamentally determines what is remembered about the conflict and how it is remembered.

“The major argument of my thesis was that poetic language allows us to access a different register of remembering,” said Yeakey. “Because this was a literature thesis, I explored that argument through the narrative style of each work, looking at how the structure of the text interacted with the ethical, political, or emotional substance of the plot.”

What are the implications for your thesis research? 

Persona is a relatively new book—published in 2018—and there’s very little scholarship on it so far. It’s a poetic memoir, not a novel, which made side-to-side structural comparisons with Anil’s Ghost, which is a novel, a little more complicated. They’re also obviously from very different countries and political contexts. Memory studies, particularly in Latin America, tend to be specific to the country/region, so drawing literary and political parallels between two distinct regions was a relatively novel frame. 

What are your plans for the future and does your thesis have anything to do with helping to guide your future career path?

Right now, I’m working as a paralegal at the Public Justice Center in Baltimore, on their Workplace Justice project. I’m planning on going to law school within the next couple of years. Academically and professionally, I’m making a bit of a turn away from literature, but I think there are themes from my thesis that I’ll continue to focus on. In a broad, abstract sense, my thesis is about whose stories get told, and what justice in rhetoric, policy, and memory looks like. I see public interest advocacy is a concrete expression of those questions—who gets access to representation, which laws are enforced and against who. Law is shaped by how people’s stories get told. 

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.

Photo by Alexandra Iglesia ’21.