Constructing a Child’s Reality

Joseph Earl Thomas, a Ph.D. student in English, explores childhood and family in an award-winning memoir inspired by fantasy fiction.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Jane Carroll

Joseph Earl Thomas, Ph.D. student in English

Courtesy of Notre Dame University

Joseph Earl Thomas was not much of a reader as a child growing up in Northeast Philadelphia.

“Most of my life was filtered through ideals of masculinity in which physical prowess was the only kind of knowledge that was acceptable or would be tolerated,” says Thomas, a Ph.D. student in English.

He came to reading and writing thanks in part to video games. “These were sprawling fantasy/adventure games that required you to read a lot of materials and make decisions based on characters’ personalities,” Thomas says.

Thomas explores his childhood in a memoir-in-progress called Reality Marble. An excerpt from the book won the 2020 Chautauqua Janus Prize, which recognizes an emerging writer’s single work of short fiction or nonfiction. 

The memoir’s title comes from “Fate/Stay Night,” a 24-episode Japanese anime series. “There is a character in the series who, as a child using emotional reasoning, is able to overcome an adult version of himself that is cast as hard-reasoning and nefarious,” says Thomas. “It seemed like a good representation of what I’m trying to do in the memoir.”

Penn appealed to Thomas for two reasons when he decided to pursue a Ph.D. “The faculty at Penn offered a mix of a traditional theoretical approach as well as an interest in creative writing,” he says. “It was also a chance to come back to the city where I grew up and be close to my family.”