From soldier to scribe: PhD student Zak Jones explores veterans' narratives in literature
When Zak Jones was young, his mother encouraged him to carry around a notebook and write down any interesting observations.
“I've kept that practice going throughout my adult life,” Jones says.
Capturing those thoughts has paid off for the University of Toronto PhD candidate. It’s led to two previous degrees at U of T, a poetry collection, a book of short stories and several writing awards – including the 2023 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for short fiction for his short story “So Much More to Say.” The award celebrates emerging Canadian writers in the fields of poetry and short fiction.
“Winning this award was a vote of confidence,” says Jones, whose story is set in a flooding South Carolina cemetery and delves into the thoughts of a young gravedigger who has the gruesome task of reburying the bloated bodies that have risen to the surface after heavy rains.
“I'm feeling much more secure in my self-conception as an artist. Now, when I tell people I'm a writer, I'm not half-joking.”
Jones also recently received the Norma Epstein Foundation Award in Creative Writing – part of University College’s writing awards – for another short story titled “Love Handles.”
For Jones, these are satisfying accomplishments – especially considering there was a time when he wasn’t sure if he would even finish high school.
Jones’ path to U of T was unconventional – before coming to university, he served in the U.S military.
“My grandfather, my dad and all of his brothers were in the army,” Jones says. “It was one of those things that was on the table for my brother and I since we were little boys.”
The brothers enlisted soon after they both completed high school. They trained together to become army medics at bases around the U.S. – but in a strange twist, were never sent overseas because they happened to be in the same unit as Chelsea Manning, who made international headlines in 2013 for violations of the U.S Espionage Act after sharing military and diplomatic documents on WikiLeaks.
“Thanks to Chelsea, my brother and I were spared a deployment,” Jones says.
While they trained, the brothers also took college classes online and Jones earned the equivalent of an associate’s degree from Columbia College in Missouri.
“From there, I learned how to write a paper and read for academic purposes,” he says.
Jones left the army and moved to Toronto in 2013 with hopes of attending U of T – but he didn’t get accepted on his first try. Determined to get in, he enrolled in Woodsworth College’s Academic Bridging Program, where he took a lone English course.
“I fell in love with English,” he says. “I fell in love with Robarts Library and the archives and just reading, so I ended up doing pretty well.”
Well enough, in fact, that he was accepted to U of T as a full-time student.
After completing his undergraduate degree, Jones then set his sights on a masters in creative writing, writing Fancy Gap – a novel about a family separated by illness and addiction in southern Appalachia – as his thesis project.
Outside of his studies, Jones also worked on a collection of poems, I Come Up From The Earth. Written from 2009 to 2021, the poems cover subjects such as his ethical concerns about serving in the army, the mental anguish surrounding his mother’s second bout with breast cancer and the intense nostalgia experienced upon returning to his home in the South to visit her. Tinderbox, a cycle of poetry from that book, was selected as a finalist for the 2023 Vallum Chapbook Poetry Award from the Montreal-based Vallum Society for Education in Arts & Letters.
When he decided to pursue a PhD and it came time to pick a program a year ago, the choice was easy, Jones says.
“Nothing was as attractive to me as U of T,” he says. “I even got into Oxford, but decided I wanted to be here.”
Jones’ doctoral research examines veteran narratives in American literature post-World War II, digging into the lives and surrounding literature of what he calls “bad veterans” who return home deeply affected from conflict.
“Veterans in American literature – especially in good novels, plays, movies, television shows – are not portrayed in the way that I want them to be, which is as complex and full characters,” he says.
The real-life stories of veterans are so powerful that they can have a profound effect in shifting perceptions of American identity and culture, Jones says.
He notes he’s keen to examine the life of notable veterans such as Lee Harvey Oswald – the former veteran who later assassinated U.S. president John F. Kennedy – in his writing, as well as whistleblowers such as Manning, Edward Snowden and Daniel Hale.
After completing his PhD, Jones hopes to divide his time equally between creative writing and academic teaching.
“Hopefully I can find a job like that – ideally in Toronto. I love the University of Toronto. If I could stay here forever, I would.”