By almost all standards, Jean-Luc Bouchard ’14 is a modern-day Renaissance man. An English major with Asian studies and music correlates, he plays the piano and melodica, composes his own music, has been an English Department research assistant for the past two years, performs in live comedy shows and has had three of his short stories published in literary magazines. “When the Holy Ruled the Middle Kingdom” was published in Eastlit, “Assisted Living” in Umbrella Factory, and “Daddy’s Little Angel” in Danse Macabre.
Bouchard is currently working on a creative thesis for his Senior Composition course, an epistolary novel entitled The Difference Between Me and Me. The novel–which, ideally, will contain 250 pages upon completion–features a 21-year-old man who wakes up every day in either the body of a man living in 1934 Japan or a Japanese-American living in the East Village, New York in 2010. The novel is told through a series of documents, such as emails and minutes from meetings. When living in the present day, the protagonist exchanges letters with a prisoner via a pen pal service, and while living in 1934 he writes to his fiancé.
“I’m really interested in what it means to live on the border,” said Bouchard. “And so the character lives between these two worlds of old and new and also explores what it means to be Asian-American. And because he’s bisexual, he explores what it means to be on the border between those two things as well.”
Bouchard is interested in perspective and garners inspiration from the consumption of anime, graphic novels, roleplaying games, television and music. “I think a good piece of writing is like a concentrated dose of a new world,” he said. “It’s sort of injecting myself into…an entirely new situation that I can voluntarily take myself in and out. I’m very into this idea of inhabiting other people and looking at them from their perspective, whether the person is a troll or a Japanese-American living in New York City.”
To accentuate showcasing a different viewpoint, Bouchard uses the first-person point of view. “It’s extremely powerful,” he said. “Most of the short stories I’ve written…have been in this first-person vein, because I think it’s marvelously fun when you are the narrator and when the reader is the narrator and they automatically have to insert themselves into the situation. I think it makes for [active] reading. It forces them to get involved with it.”
A writer and a comedian, Bouchard studies the interplay between tragedy and comedy in his works. “I really love the dark comedy that comes out of a situation that’s horrible,” he said. “I always go for unsettling in my writing, because I love to be unsettled when I read.”
“I think [readers] should be able to find the tragedy in other people’s lives,” he continued. “We talk a lot about empathy, but it’s actually really difficult for us to put ourselves in other people’s lives and find what’s tragic about it. I think comedy is just tragedy. In writing, music and comedy, what stands out…is just sadness in different veins.”
Bouchard believes that comedy is a medium in which major issues cannot be escaped. “Humor and satire are making controversial issues in tragedies and politics consumable,” he said. “You can’t ignore it. I think when you laugh you drop your guard to an extraordinary [degree]. There’s a reason jokes carrying messages about abortion and women’s rights and race relations make a huge impact on popular culture and on people’s lives—because we accept it as a joke, but that sort of lingering content stays with us for a very long time.”
Bouchard, who is the former editor of the Humor and Satire section of The Miscellany News, has performed as a stand-up comedian at Vassar and in New York City. He is also the president of Comedy Normative, a non-audition preliminary organization that encourages Vassar students to critique each other’s jokes and perform in a cabaret-esque series of performances.
A composer, Bouchard sometimes includes songs in his comedic routines. He has written other pieces for up to thirty instruments, but half of his works are for the solo piano.
While Bouchard enjoys his work in writing and comedy, he believes that there are certain emotions only music can communicate. “In that way,” he said, “music has a leg up on every other art. To me, the closest thing you can get to music is a graphic novel, because there are so many different streams of narrative going on at once. You can communicate through the melody, the harmony, the countermelody, but also timbre, pitch, rhythm, tempo—there are so many things you can manipulate to create such a specific emotion. It’s a perfectly controlled message.”
According to Bouchard, despite its singular ability to convey certain emotions, music still mixes with comedy and writing for Bouchard. “I’ve written Asian Studies papers on Madame Butterfly and English papers on humor,” he said. “I really do think they feed each other, which is primarily why I came to Vassar. I feel like I have the freedom to explore these things.”
To those who are looking into pursuing the arts, Bouchard said, “People really want to be artists–they really want to create. But I think you have to make sure you’re having fun with it. I love the things I do, but if I stopped having fun writing music I would not do it. If you’re forcing yourself to do it, find something else you’re passionate about. And I would in a second—but I love these things.”