Category Archives: Graduate Students

Graduate Student Summer: Academic Exploration in Senegal and Kenya

By Paulina Barrios

Being a rising third year graduate student is a stressful moment for many of us; we are transitioning from coursework to thinking about our research project more seriously. The process of defining something has always been a daunting task to me, it is riddled with choice, with the pressure of truly understanding whatever it is you must define. When defining our research we must read or engage with all previous definitions, balance our interests with what is in our capacity to actually do, and so on and so on. This involves also preliminary research, which may vary from reading a gazillion texts to field work or archival research. All this can become extremely overwhelming, particularly when one is strained for resources.

Two moments were particularly challenging in my case: obtaining sufficient funds to do all the field work I ambitiously wanted to cover this past summer; and performing the interviews and participant observation once I was there (particularly because I am mostly trained in the humanities). I was able to respond to the first challenge through mobilizing resources within Rutgers University with the support of my program and my professors’ letters of recommendation when necessary. The second is a challenge that continues as I plan for longer field work in my fourth or fifth year, but the methods and tips obtained through qualitative methods classes and informal conversations with my friends trained in social sciences were there to guide me and will continue to frame my work.

In Nairobi National Park June 2019

Thus, my work this past summer was framed under the goal of granting more clarity to my project and stemming this tide of anxiety. Thanks to the Comparative Literature Program, the Center for African Studies, and the Off-Campus Dissertation Development Award through the School of Graduate Studies at Rutgers, I was able to fund an ambitious 5-week stay in Dakar, Senegal and Nairobi, Kenya. These funds were crucial for me to perform this much needed field work. Summer research funds for graduate students are central to developing research questions, collecting material for analysis, and broadening our networks.

As such, my time was divided between Nairobi and Dakar with a focus on reaching out to activists, scholars, and writers. For the first two weeks and a half I stayed in Nairobi where I took intensive private Swahili lessons to improve my knowledge of the language, volunteered at a non-profit advocacy organization, interviewed scholars in African arts and literatures, spoke with feminist and queer activists, as well as attended a spoken word performance. My stay in Dakar began with the 5th International Conference of the Dakar Institute of African Studies where I met a diverse group of graduate students and professors based in Senegal for their own research. Additionally, I was able to meet with professors working in Postcolonial African literature at Cheikh Anta Diop University and interview activists. During my last days in Dakar I was able to attend a slam poetry performance and meet with local artists. In both cases part of my goal in visiting these cities was to buy local publications, in Kenya I bought texts in Swahili to continue studying the language and in Dakar I bought local children’s literature and a novel by Calixthe Beyala, a Cameroonian writer, in French. These materials are often difficult and expensive to obtain in the United States, if not outright impossible to find.

Gorée Island June 2019

Therefore, my short time in both cities, although insufficient, was highly productive. It helped me obtain materials, both written and oral, that may become part of what I engage with directly in my dissertation. It also pushed me to improve my interview praxis and integrate the sociological methods I learned from courses in Sociology, both during my Masters in Mexico and my PhD here at Rutgers, as well as feminist knowledge production practices I learned in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department at Rutgers. It forced me to reflect on what it implies to combine social science and humanities methodologies in a research project centered under Comparative Literature. Speaking with such a varying group of people helped me broaden my network of contacts, whom I aim to remain in contact with. This summer was a first exploration of how I might engage Latin American and African feminist literatures and I am now excited to further frame and develop my research.

This brief and quick summary would be incomplete without recognizing the invaluable support from Prof. Ousseina Alidou in helping me plan my stays and sharing her networks with me; Prof. Fred Mbogo based in Nairobi and Prof. Saliou Dione based in Dakar who were both extremely kind and helpful by presenting me to colleagues and activists, as well as offering bibliographic references; Ms Gacirah Diagne, President of Association Kaay Fecc, who made invaluable suggestions on who to contact in the world of dance, hip hop, and theater in Dakar; and Ms. Catherine Nyambura, Gender Advocacy Lead at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Kenya Forum, with whom I collaborated during my stay in Nairobi and was extremely helpful in opening up Nairobi’s activist networks to me.

NEW GRAD STUDENT PROFILES, FALL 2019

Rutgers Comp Lit is thrilled to introduce the two students of this year’s incoming cohort: Sneha and Xingming.

Sneha Khaund attended St. Stephen’s College in Delhi for her undergraduate degree in English Literature. Following her studies in Delhi, she moved to London to study for an MA in Comparative Literature at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). As a Commonwealth Scholar at SOAS, she explored how multilingualism is a productive lens from which to think about world literature. She looks forward to developing these interests at Rutgers by focusing on eastern India. Prior to joining Rutgers, Sneha worked in the publishing industry and hopes to combine her interest in writing for popular media with her academic training.

Xingming Wang’s research interests lie in modern and contemporary Chinese literature, with theoretical concerns centering on animal studies, environmental humanities, and trauma and memory studies. He was born in Xuzhou, a city renowned for the culture of Han Dynasty, ancient battlefields, and heavy industry, where his critical awareness of historical memory and environmental protection has taken root and grown into an academic passion. At Soochow University, Xingming majored in English and focused on trauma in modernist literature, especially the works of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. He was also fascinated by the novels of Charles Dickens and thus ventured into a close reading of Nineteenth-century British literature. Meanwhile, he got affiliated to Jingwen College, an institute accommodating students from fifty different majors and endorsing interdisciplinary academic projects, where he honed his research skills. After that, Xingming went to Nanjing University for graduate study in English language and literature. While working on his M.A. thesis on critical animal studies, he took courses outside the English Department and found his interests gravitating towards animals in modern Chinese literature. At Rutgers, Xingming hopes to probe how representations of animals engage with the discourse of “human” and how literary animals embody a site of testimony to the painful moments in modern Chinese history.

Welcome, Sneha and Xingming!

Two Sessions on Black Feminist Critique: Decoloniality Workshop Fall 2019 Programming

by Rafael Vizcaíno and Jeong Eun Annabel We

In fall of 2019, the Decoloniality Workshop entered its third academic year as an interdisciplinary space for junior scholars to share work in progress in a relaxed environment committed to the transformation of the academy. For the first time in its short history, this semester’s Workshop saw two thematically related sessions that speak to one of the research strengths of humanities research at Rutgers: the literary and critical production of Black women writers, in Africa and in the Caribbean.

 

On September 16th, Comparative Literature PhD Candidate Grabriel Bámgbóṣé presented a paper titled “In My Mother’s House: African Women, Poetic Literacy, and Radical Translations of Négritude Humanism,” which was loosely based on his dissertation project of the same title. Bámgbóṣé’s project makes an intervention into recent studies on the discourse of négritude by “investigating the active roles of African women in the radical translations of [negritude’s] humanist poetics.” According to Bámgbóṣé, African women have been traditionally excluded from historical and critical accounts negritude poetics. Their poetry, however, is “a powerful vehicle for critiquing the coloniality of life through radical translations of négritude that problematize its historical equivalence to a fixed geotemporality of thought.” In this sense, for Bámgbóṣé, African women’s contributions to negritude poetics enact several political, epistemological, and aesthetic shifts from what is conventionally taken to be the domain of négritude poetics. Engaging their literary and poetics works, Bámgbóṣé questions “the pervasive silencing of African women’s voices in the négritude debate.”

 

Alexandria Smith, Women’s and Gender Studies PhD Candidate, initiated the session’s conversation by acting as the official discussant. Smith encouraged Bámgbóṣé to make his own scholarly positionality explicit as he investigates the roles of African women in the advancement of negritude’s poetics. Smith also pressed Bámgbóṣé to further articulate how the suppression of these women’s voices happened: who did this and why? The remaining of the conversation with audience participants centered on the relationship between poetics and politics, the colonial production of racial and ethnic differences, as well as the very concrete ways in which women poets engage the silencing of their voice.

 

On October 7th, Bámgbóṣé and Smith switched their roles of presenter and discussant. This time, Smith presented her work, entitled “The Woman From Carriacou: Audre Lorde and Dionne Brand Respond to the 1983 US Invasion of Grenada,” and Bámgbóṣé served as the official discussant. Part of Smith’s dissertation, the paper engaged the writings of Audre Lorde and Dionne Brand on Grenada to articulate the relationship between body politic (diasporic, Black, lesbian, Caribbean women’s embodied experience) and geopolitics (the U.S. invasion of Grenada and  its imperialist and anti-Black violence). The paper considers how the strategies of writing from and on the human body effects diasporic reflections on the violence that Lorde and Brand witnessed, setting this writing apart from the dominant reportage on the invasion in news media. Smith suggests that their responses link “the Caribbean, Africa, Canada, and the United States as sites interlocked in a global, exploitative colonial and imperial network.”

 

Bámgbóṣé began the Q&A section by asking Smith on the literary dimensions of her paper’s analysis: for example, how does the authorial choice of the essay form shape Smith’s analysis of Lorde and Brand, considering the two authors’ prominent role as poets? And how might an allegorical approach to Brand’s text—“Nothing of Egypt”—lend itself to Smith’s analysis of the relations among individual and collective bodies? The ensuing discussion cohered around the question of allegory as a strategy of writing about collective trauma, clarifications on the relationship between body politics and geopolitics, and further avenues for engaging the Black feminist theories of the flesh through these texts.

 

Visit the Decoloniality Workshop’s website for news on its future programming, as well to catch up on any of its past events.

 

 

“Listening to Foreignness”: Coco Xu on the infrastructure and circulation of Chinese radio plays in the 1980s

 

by Mònica Tomàs White

How is the perception of foreignness constructed through the broadcast of radio plays? Relatedly, how does radio—as a medium of mass cultural communication and an artifact with a particular material and institutional history—affect the production and reception of these radio plays in 1980s China? These were the two main concerns animating Coco Xu’s April 15th colloquium on the history and politics of what she calls “radio plays”: literary radio broadcasts that include translated world radio dramas, adaptations of 19th-century European novels, and edited, dubbed film recordings.

Following Naoki Sakai’s theory of “heterolingual address”, Xu argues that translation as intersubjective communication is key to both comprehending foreign literature and developing a cultural imagination of unknown “others”. According to Xu, sound “allow[s] listeners to be at once removed from the world of imagination and transported into [a] fictional land”, where they can “live out an indirect experience in another time and another life”. Radio plays are thus an excellent subject for an investigation of translation and cultural imagination. 1980s China, where radio plays juxtapose “19th century Europe […] with 1940s’ America, and a story from contemporary West Germany is followed by another that’s set in a futuristic China”—but all characters somehow speak perfect Mandarin Chinese—is a particularly messy, candid, and thus generative moment to explore.

Xu began her talk with a concise history of the development of the genre and medium in China, where radio was introduced alongside cinema in the early 20th century. Early recordings—postdating decades of unrecorded live transmissions—were largely obliterated in the Cultural Revolution, which did away with 90% of foreign music recordings. Post-revolutionary reform policies called for a new supply of programming to fill in the void; accordingly, by the 1980s over 70 regional and local radio stations were producing 600-700 radio dramas each year. The very first stereo radio drama was an adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s 1833 fairy tale “The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish”, broadcast by Guangdong Radio in 1981. How did such adaptations of European literature form a cultural imagination of the west, and how might this have served as a strategic tool in the ideological debates of the early 1980s?

To answer this question, Xu offered an illustrative close reading of Vanina Vanini, a popular early-80s radio drama adapted from Stendhal’s 1829 novella of the same title. Both the novella and the adaptation tell the story of the fraught relationship between the titular protagonist and her lover Missirilli, a carbonaro in a nationalist plot to liberate Italy from Austrian overlords. However, where Stendhal paints a nuanced picture of Vanina’s inner struggles, the radio drama portrays her obsession with Missirilli as springing from “pure love”, rendering her and her allies vulgar and cartoonish.  Indeed, Stendhal’s scheming, self-serving Vanina becomes simple-minded and naïve in the adaptation: where

as the former finally accepts her rejection, returns to Rome and moves on, the latter ends pathetically attending to a furious Missirilli, who excoriates her—in the drama’s very last line—as “cursable Vanina Vanini!” Xu notes that while Stendhal’s sympathies quite obviously lie with Missirilli, whose role in turning Vanina into a desperate “monster” he conveniently overlooks, the 1980s adaptation takes this patriarchal perspective even further: the ending in particular “highlights how woman—especially woman corrupted by the most dangerous sentiment of people of the social, cultural and especially class that Vanina stands for—is the hindrance of the righteous cause and the root cause for Missirilli’s failed revolutionary ambitions”.

This first taste of Xu’s project, which “explores the translation of foreignness through a close reading of radio plays that portray exotic places and foreign cultures”, builds upon the theoretical basis she developed in her work on translation as loving imagination, presented at “Love in Translation”, the Rutgers Comparative Literature graduate conference of Spring 2018. Her completed study aims to fill a gap in both radio studies and contemporary Chinese literary studies, but (as demonstrated by an enthusiastic Q&A session) her work will undoubtedly also be of interest to comparatists and cultural studies scholars working in many traditions. Thank you and congratulations, Coco!

Decoloniality Workshop: “Fucking with [The] Family: The Queer Promise in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions”

by María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán with notes by Haruki Eda and Rafael Vizcaíno, and pictures by Rafael Vizcaíno

At the beginning of the Spring semester, on February 19th, 2019, Comparative Literature PhD student Thato Magano shared with the Decoloniality Workshop audience their soon-to-be published paper[i],“Fucking with [The] Family: The Queer Promise in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions.”  In it, Thato highlighted the importance of Nervous Conditions as a critical feminist text that “negotiates the seemingly inescapable bind of inter- and intra- cultural patriarchal prescriptions,” and emphasized its significance within Black studies, African Literature and postcolonial studies.

Thato builds up on the work of Susan Andrade and Tendai Marima, and challenges previous readings that describe the main character and narrator of the novel, Tambu, as heterosexual and as representative of the nation. Thato instead argues that Tambu and her cousin Nyasha, with whom she holds an intimate relationship, exist as “queer subjects not synchronous with national reproductive time.” The article places them as figures that “rearticulate sexual politics” and radicalizes queer politics. Thato centers the queer subject within the often-restrictive political discourse of black experience, and analyses how lesbian desire within Nervous Conditions opposes the family as social norm. Through its exploration of Tambu and Nyasha’s relationship, “Fucking with [The] Family” proposes a reading of “incest as a queer emotion, affect and aesthetic that can be instrumental in destabilizing heteronormative nationalist desires in postcolonial literatures.”

In the Q&A section, audience members were interested in exploring with Thato the cultural limitations of incest, the distinction between queer identity and queer politics, and the relationship between queerness and spirituality. Students who work on Caribbean Literature asked about the relationship that Thato sees between African epistemologies and those of the Caribbean where literary queerness is usually analyzed through a spiritual lens. To this inquiry Thato answered that spirituality is often used as mediation (or mediating tool) for talking about queer intimacies, “my investment is to try to produce two subjects who can stand in their own terms… my resistance is against the premise that queer sexuality can only emerge in a cultural context (e.g. mythology, culture, spirituality), but that cultural context privileges heterosexual production and national time…so these sorts of mediations that queer subjectivity can only hinge upon is what I am resisting.”

The conversation continued outside of the meeting room, as Thato’s fascinating paper brought up more questions and conversation topics. Thato’s paper and the presentation successfully met its goal, to examine Nervous Conditionsas a text that “negotiates escaping heteronormative conventions of Black female subjectivity”, and “make[s] legible alternative modes of caring and belonging within the nation” outside the heteronormative construction of the family. This paper allowed a richer understanding of queerness and brought to light many of the assumptions that exist when reading about relationships among black women. Congratulations to Thato Magano on a wonderful presentation!

[i]It has been accepted for publication by the Research in African Literatures Journal (RiAL).

Puerto Rican Blackness through a Cuban Lens: A Colloquium Presentation by María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán

by Phil Yakushev

Comparative Literature hosted its first colloquium on April 1, when María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán presented “Puerto Rican Blackness through a Cuban Lens” and contextualized this talk within her dissertation-in-progress. María Elizabeth’s project seeks to challenge what she identifies as a common tendency in studies of African diasporas—a centering of Anglophone spaces which, in turn, leaves the Spanish Caribbean at the periphery of this field. Her presentation, structured around two 19thcentury Spanish Caribbean texts, not only directly resisted this dynamic of African diaspora studies but also showed how love practiced by black and mix-raced women, as agents, can challenge the constraints of the nation and establish community.

María Elizabeth used two works to build her case: Puerto Rican playwright Alejandro Tapia y Rivera’s La Cuarterona, and Cuban novelist Ciriollo Villaverde’s Cecilia Valdés. These texts share several similarities, making them useful for a comparatist who traces how literary characters and black subjectivities in the Caribbean were shaped by their recognized relationship to slavery and how these recognitions effected social relations. Both works were written in the late 19thcentury by authors who were renowned in their spaces; their plots proceed around racially ambiguous female characters of African descent who fall in love with white men in times of slavery; both feature incest; and, perhaps curiously, both works are set in Habana. María Elizabeth used the latter similarity to illustrate the complex relationship between black subjectivities in the Spanish Caribbean, the family and the nation, and love and incest. Tapia most probably did not set his play in Cuba out of ignorance of how race operated on his own island, and María Elizabeth summarized the scholarly debates around question of setting. As she argued, Rivera places La Cuarterona in Cuba to present the “audience with a transnational perspective that allows for connections between isolated spaces and bring to light a pressing issue,” that of blackness and slavery.

For María Elizabeth, this transnational perspective is vital. Overall, she “seeks to study blackness as a way of being that centers relationships and community, instead of addressing the nation which has established modes of love that constrain black subjects.” Both nation and language act as constraints even in the study of African diasporas, with conventional approaches being less willing to engage with black experiences in the Spanish Caribbean and Brazil, where myths of “racial democracy and mesizaje are foundational and place an impediment” to a conventional discourse on blackness in which slavery is critical. María Elizabeth’s work, then, seeks to push African diaspora studies in at least three ways: broadening scholarship beyond Anglophone spaces, exploring the role of the nation in constructing racial ideology within the Spanish Caribbean itself, and showing how black and mixed-race women characters can challenge the dominance of the nation and its foundational unit, the family, by building their own communities. While love, in the texts María Elizabeth is working with for her dissertation, often takes on forms often identified as perverse—such as incest—she was careful to stress that, for characters in these literatures, love often does not ultimately fail. Rather, love becomes a way to form relationships among colonized communities, with instances of unconventional love creating “cracks on the concrete of coloniality, as fissures that challenge to break the colonial version of the family unit.”

After discussing these texts and introducing her analytical frames, María Elizabeth previewed the rest of her dissertation, and its themes and structure. The project, as a whole, will juxtapose and compare the black subjectivities produced, and reproduced, in literatures of the Hispanic and Anglophone Caribbeans. Other chapters in her work will explore Michelle Cliff’s Abeng and the limits of creole solidarity in Jamaica, as well as Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowningand how love and relationships in the Virgin Islands can function outside of the colonial-sexual matrix. María Elizabeth hopes that her comparatist approach will not only expand African diaspora studies beyond the Anglophone but, relatedly, disrupt a potentially paralyzing centrality of slavery within the field. As she said, “Despite the long-lasting damage that slavery has left on peoples of the Afro-Diaspora, our ability to love affirms our ways of thriving, our ways of moving forward, and beyond, trauma as framework.” As a whole, then, María Elizabeth’s work seeks to highlight how literature can unleash the ability of love to serve as praxis and “heal the wounds of enslavement.”  Her colloquium presentation provided a powerful and fascinating preview of this critical endeavor.