By Abby Weingarten
Whether she is crocheting for social justice, empowering students to write authentically and boldly, or performing standup comedy routines, New College Instructor of Writing Avni Vyas, Ph.D. operates from a place of passion. And she has devoted the past few months to expressing herself in new, creative ways.
“I spent most of the late spring and summer in a pandemic-inspired wormhole, thinking about, ‘What can art do to heal this massive moment?,’” Vyas said about the COVID-19 outbreak and the corresponding civil rights movement. “And I was thinking, ‘Is it art’s job to help heal this moment?’ I don’t think it is art’s job, but I definitely think art can help.”
Art helped Vyas when she embarked on a project called “Doilies for the Resistance,” in which she decided to crochet tiny ornamental mats in exchange for donations to nonprofits. She raised more than $5,000 via social media marketing on Twitter and Instagram (charging $20-plus per doily), and used the money to contribute to various causes—namely bail funds for Black Lives Matter protestors.
“I found myself feeling very angry and helpless, and I didn’t have the wherewithal to join the protests in person, so I wanted to use crochet art to fundraise,” said Vyas, who taught herself stitching during graduate school at Florida State University (FSU). “Throughout mid-May and most of June, I was just crocheting from my third-floor apartment in Bradenton, and sending off ‘Thank You’ notes with doilies. I don’t think it was the doilies themselves that sold but really the opportunity for people to participate civically.”
It was also a community-building opportunity for Vyas, who has always been drawn to projects that bring people together. She has found New College to be an ideal place for fostering this type of togetherness and connection.
Vyas came to the College in the fall of 2017 from her position as a high school English teacher in Tallahassee, just before Hurricane Irma was about to hit. Even under the anxious circumstances, Vyas felt a kinship with the students and the campus.
“It was like love at first class,” she said.
Vyas is currently teaching “Writing About Writing” and “Writing About Writing for Students in the Natural Sciences,” and co-sponsoring a half-module tutorial with Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing Emily Carr, Ph.D. Some of Vyas’ past classes and tutorials have included “Exploring the Essay,” “Science and Poetry” and “March Madness: A Poetry Performance Tutorial.” At the Writing Resource Center on campus, Vyas keeps an open-door policy to help New College students work through their literary processes.
“I want to normalize trying and failing. I want my students to know that they’re going to try super hard and fail super hard, and that they’re safe to do both with me, and that it’s all part of the process,” Vyas said. “So we write together a lot. If they’re writing, I’m writing with them.”
When she is not instructing, Vyas is editing essay submissions for two online journals: Honey Literary (a publication run by women of color that aims to support emerging, marginalized academic voices); and The Offending Adam (a journal with a similar slant, for which Vyas is a founding editor). Vyas is also a novice student of Sanskrit and Hindi, and she enjoys creating erasure poems.
Her partner is a standup comedian, and the two met at an open mic night when he dared her to perform a set onstage. Vyas has since done multiple live routines, and the experience has contributed to her overall audacity.
“I’ve seen the process of bombing onstage and the internalization of some amazing bravery, and that translates to my process and my students,” Vyas said. “I talk to them about doing standup and I try to get them to trust their creative instincts. I want them to understand that language is not your enemy or your friend; it’s a tool for developing self-dialogue and self-knowledge, and a fantastic guide to help you understand what you’re going through.”
Vyas holds a Ph.D. in Literature from FSU and her dissertation was entitled Ten-Headed Ecstasies (a poetry collection that explores gender in the Ramayana and the contemporary Indian-immigrant experience). Vyas emigrated to the United States with her family from Jamshedpur, India, when she was five years old, and grew up in North Florida. Her connection to her heritage has informed her own academic research, but it has also made an influential impact on her students at New College.
“I’ll never forget, one student sought me out on campus and made it a point to say, ‘I never thought I could see someone like me doing what you do. I didn’t think people like us got to do that,’” Vyas said. “That student intuited a lot of parallels in our processes and our history. And it was really nice to bring those conversations of diaspora, gender, race and identity together in a way that connected us. That was a sea-change moment for me.”
To learn more about Vyas, visit her on Instagram @singstooloud and Twitter @AvniDangerfield
Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.