Jay Arora: From Slop to Soul

Tuesday, November 5, 2019
By: Lydia Goff, Digital Media Intern
A picture of Jay Arora

Jay Arora is a senior pursuing an interdisciplinary major in English and Public Policy. While he has enjoyed English since a young age, he came into Duke planning to major in Public Policy because he questioned the viability of majoring in English. But after taking Public Policy 155, Jay realized that his interest lay more in the stories than the data. He wanted to focus on “the narratives in policy and the political realities that shape English texts.” In his English thesis, he does just that by using English texts to contextualize Southern culture surrounding the pork industry.

“I am interested in the journey, both materially and symbolically, that happens with factory farming and, ultimately, what leads to the meat we consume.”

As a Raleigh native, Jay grew up in a city that felt disconnected from stereotypical Southern culture despite its geographical location. This dissonance allowed him to develop a somewhat negative perspective of the South until he took Professor Taylor Black’s class on the Southern Gothic.

“You write [the South] off as being a bit of a racist place full of hicks,” Jay says. “I think the South is such a microcosm of America because you have all of these ugly realities that are so much more apparent because of the history of slavery and the Civil War and Jim Crow. These are all ideologies that have shaped the country, not just this region, but they are so much more apparent in this region that it allows you to examine them and sort of see the humanity that exists despite this ideological history, to pull apart the cobwebs.”

With his newfound fascination with the South, Jay decided to write a senior thesis with Dr. Black as his advisor.

Despite his disconnect from Southern culture, Jay still experienced the typical pig pits—events where an entire pig is roasted over a fire. He is focusing on barbecue for his thesis because it “is seen as something that connects you to a Southern past, the good ‘ole days, something old fashioned.” However, if you actually examine the pork industry in North Carolina, Jay explains that you find a rural landscape consumed by large-scale production companies such as Smithfield. Barbecue’s connections to “the South as this space with hard working farmers, a kind of natural space, unravel in the face of contemporary reality.” Jay wishes to contextualize barbecue in the South through what he calls “this paradox that comes up where barbecue is simultaneously used to symbolize this agrarian past, but the meat production has become more and more industrialized.” Instead of only looking at the policy regulating the pork industry, Jay wants to unveil the narrative of barbecue.

To understand barbecue’s role in the South, Jay is using English texts because he believes that they’re “the best way to understand the culture surrounding meat.” Jay says, “I think the statistical and historical data is important for contextualizing the information, but I think the importance of the humanities is that, it’s in the name, it gives you the human element that provides a soul, for lack of a better word.”

Jay’s currently working with Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), which has been criticized for its extreme violence. Examining Flannery O’Connor in Dr. Black’s class informed how Jay interprets violence in Southern portrayals. Rather than viewing violence as repulsive, he considers it a method to “connect the material and immaterial” and simply “the most extreme way of making art.” With barbecue, Jay says, “You have the reality of how it’s produced, and you have the sentimental narratives around what it means. And the only way to bridge that is through the grotesque.” He hopes that these stark images of meat production can inform the farmer and cowboy stories. Rather than contributing to the growing villainization of meat consumption as inherently unethical (which he believes prevents productive conversations), Jay wants to explain meat’s symbolic nature.

“I’ve always enjoyed the criticism aspect of the English major and I wanted to apply it to something that I considered important. I thought a thesis was the best way to do that.”

When he reflects on his experience, Jay admits that he has enjoyed the process of writing an English thesis. He says, “It allowed me to work on something that I’m passionate about in a way that I could still use the resources of educators and Duke faculty. I wasn’t just on my own, like typing in the attic. I think the collaborative process was helpful.”

While adding a thesis on top of regular classwork and activities can seem overwhelming, Jay has found that working on his thesis always brightens his mood. Emailing Duke professors who conduct similar research has also brought about “really nice conversations with professors.” Jay views a thesis as a collaborative piece of work and highly recommends it to anyone with a specific area of interest. Currently, Jay is applying to graduate programs in American studies so that he can continue applying literary criticism skills to wider cultural contexts.