Honglan Huang ’16 has always been fascinated by books.
An infatuation with the printed page drew her to study comparative literature at Haverford, and she capped her time at the College with a senior thesis focused on the architecture of space in children’s books. For Huang, books have always been much more than the words printed inside, and she has remained keenly interested in exploring their performative aspects.
Huang, who recently completed her PhD at Yale University, today explores the interaction of literature and art through an unlikely medium: puppetry.
She returned to campus on Jan. 31 to discuss the evolution of her scholarly and creative work through Haverford College Libraries’ Young Alumni Lecture Series and the John B. Hurford ’60 Center for Arts and Humanities. The series highlights the research and professional careers of recent Haverford alums, giving faculty and current students a glimpse at post-graduation life.
Huang began her visit with a lunchtime puppetry workshop in VCAM. Through it, she demonstrated how she explores literature and art as performance in much of her work and how puppetry connects to both.
“Creating puppets is deeply involved in writing,” Huang explains. “I think of it as an embodied way of reading and experiencing an art form.”
Experimentation with puppetry, Huang says, and asking questions like “Am I in the same world as the puppet?” and “Does the puppet perceive me?” allows her to embody literary characters and writing styles while providing a platform to engage with the work more deeply.
To that end, Huang led groups of attending students and faculty by creating humanoid puppets with brown butcher paper as the primary medium. Together, they incorporated art and movement techniques to bring the puppets to life.
Later that day, Huang hosted a lecture in Lutnick Library titled “Reading as Experimental Performance,” highlighting two texts that meld physical experience and performance. She began with Keith Godard and Emmett Williams’ Holdup, which challenges readers to change the spots they hold the book from as they read, creating a unique physical interaction as they read.
“Holdup creates a new experience regarding holding the silent blank space,” Huang says. “It’s an interface for which the rippling motions of the text can be felt.”
Huang explained that all elements of reading, even turning the page and bending the spine while doing so, are experiments and attempts to change how we interact with the book. Even the weight shifts as the distribution of pages changes and the ways our thumbs contort to account for it are experiential elements of reading, she says.
Huang also focused on Suzy Lee’s Mirror, which, as its title implies, depicts a girl who sees her reflection on the opposing page and interacts with it as the pages turn. Huang explained that the mirror is a charged object with weight in the story and challenged listeners to view Mirror as an interactive story rather than one that’s merely being observed.
Huang concluded by expressing gratitude for her Haverford professors and education, citing it as crucial for developing writing processes and different ways of thinking. In particular, she thanked Professor Emerita of Classics and Comparative Literature Deborah Roberts for providing her with opportunities to kickstart her study of different literatures.