Category Archives: Graduate Students

Mariana Mora and Antonio Carmona Báez on ‘Decolonizing Knowledge and Research in ‘Latin’ America and the Caribbean’

By Amanda González Izquierdo

For the fourth event of the “What is Decoloniality?” speaker series, the Rutgers Advanced Institute for Critical Caribbean Studies, the Center for Cultural Analysis, and the Program in Comparative Literature were proud to host Dr. Mariana Mora (Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology, México) and Dr. Antonio Carmona Báez (President, University of St. Martin, St. Maarten). On the morning of October 25, Dr. Mora and Dr. Carmona Baéz gave a talk titled “Decolonizing Knowledge and Research in ‘Latin’ America and the Caribbean.” This was the first talk in the speaker series that featured two scholars in conversation and listening to them side-by-side allowed us to understand that even though there are commonalities in the experience of colonization, we should be careful not to make generalizations and should instead be mindful of the nuances and particularities of the distinct modalities of colonialism and their effects on different communities. 

Dr. Carmona Baez, co-editor of Smash the Pillars: Decoloniality and the Imaginary of Color in the Dutch Kingdom (2018), focused on St. Maarten, a constituent state of the Dutch Kingdom. He opened the discussion by highlighting the dichotomy of servitude vs. ownership that he has witnessed at the University of St. Maarten. The university specializes in hospitality, which is directly related to the fact that revenues from tourism are the backbone of the island. However, the business program is growing steadily because students are interested in owning corporations. This is due in large part to colonial powers and investment banks creating a market for international entrepreneurs.  This is often followed by the emigration of qualified students, which Dr. Carmona Báez describes as a brain drain to the island, or, unsustainable recovery and development. To offset that, Dr. Carmona Báez proposes a decolonial sustainable recovery and development, which is based on brain gain. This means creating the conditions for the “return of the diaspora”:  the return of the knowledgeable people that have left the island. He also proposes the use of local research and community-based development. He closed his portion of the talk by talking about jollification: a celebration of collective efforts. This celebration occurs as members of a community build houses and the elderly sit with children to tell them their histories. For him, a big part of decolonial recovery and development is precisely this kind of activity, where action and celebration happen not separately but simultaneously and, most importantly, in community.

Dr. Mora, author of Kuxlejal Politics: Indigenous Autonomy, Race, and Decolonizing Research in Zapatista Communities (2017) discussed the form her research took in writing her recently-published book. Dr. Mora opened by saying that academia is not absolved from neo-colonialism and explained how academic research has colonial overtones: it is seen as an extractivist knowledge wherein base/raw material that takes the form of oral histories provided by subjugated peoples is provided to a researcher, who then makes meaning out of that information by classifying and systematizing it in writing. Though the Zapatistas accepted that Dr. Mora do research in their communities, they redefined the terms of that research. First, they rejected Dr. Mora’s plan to conduct individual case stories in favor of a collective story in the form of group interviews. They also rejected Dr. Mora’s proposal to do a deep study of two communities, since they believed that this would silence the rest. Instead, they required that she go to at least twelve of the thirty-five municipalities. In their most decolonial action, they subverted the notion of extractivist knowledge. During Dr. Mora’s interviews, the Zapatistas themselves prepared their own synthetizations of their own histories, which they then read out loud, thus destabilizing the oral/written dichotomies and the suggestive power of the binary. This allowed them to have an active role in the production of knowledge and in the process situated themselves as subjects of their own histories. 

The exchange challenged us to think about coloniality and decoloniality across geopolitical frameworks and reminded us that the effects of colonization are still being felt and require radical praxes. It also provided us with original, context-sensitive responses from agents actively fighting colonial epistemes and redefining knowledge in their day-to-day lives.  

 

My experience taking the Ph.D. Qualifying Exams (Part Two)

By María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán

Now onto the topic of scheduling my writing, you might already be wondering how I went about writing the exams. I followed what I found to be a very systematic but easy approach given to me by Carolyn. This is the way she did her exams and so did a few people after her. So I thought, if it worked for them it should work for me as well—and it did! Let me remind you that this approach is meant to fit the two questions, 10–20 page each answer, four-day weekend structure of the Rutgers Comp Lit exam, but I think that the system could work in other cases with a bit of readjustment. Now, in our program, the exam questions are given to us on Friday at 9 am. That Friday, I had plugged in my backup hard drive into my computer. Then, within ten minutes of receiving the questions, I drew a three-column table thinking through the ways to approach each question. This helped me narrow down and select two of the questions. The important thing here is to select the two questions you want to answer right after you receive them and stick with them. Hesitating between the three or dwelling on how to answer each and every one of them can create doubts in your preparation and waste valuable time that could be used for writing.

After I chose my questions, I continued to follow Carolyn’s advice, and I dedicated the whole Friday to outlining each essay. Shawn had emphasized that each outline should be detailed enough for me to (mostly!) not need to go back to anything else to write the essays. Thus, using the Pomodoro technique, I spent half of the day outlining one of the essays, and the other half of the day with the other essay, with a two-hour lunch and a one-hour dinner break in between. I also made use of the Pomodoro breaks for snacking and showers. I used the app called Focus Keeper on my phone, which already has the 25-minute work and 5-minute intervals preprogrammed, but there are many great free apps that you can use to follow the Pomodoro technique.

Along with the thesis for each essay and my focus when answering each question, each of my outlines included the few quotes from the texts that I was planning to use. They also included the division of the essay into sections and the connections I was to make between the sections, as well as things to remember while writing each piece. Some of those things were: to remember to include the page number of the quotes so that I would not have to search for it later; a specific spelling of an author’s name that I kept getting wrong, and to remember to include page numbers in the document itself. These were simple things, but also things that I knew I would probably forget at the editing stage when I would already be running low on time and energy.

After sleeping enough hours, I woke up early for the second day of the exams, which was dedicated entirely to writing both essays. Carolyn and Shawn had told me that I should be writing both essays at the same time because finishing one first and then the other would make one of the essays stronger than the other, and I wanted to give the same amount of time and effort to each question. Therefore, sticking to my Pomodoro method, I dedicated half of the day to one essay, and the afternoon into the evening to the other—the same number of hours for each essay.

When the timer was approaching the end of a writing block, I made sure to include a sentence or two stating what I was to write next time I came back to that essay. These sentences allowed me to keep writing as soon as I got back from breaks and stopped me from spending time re-reading or editing what I wrote. Saturday and Sunday were meant for writing, so editing without having finished the essays would only make me waste writing time.

On Sunday, I did the same as the previous day, but given that most of the writing was done on Saturday, I dedicated the first half of the day to finishing writing both essays, and the last part of the day to editing the essays and making sure that the structure and ideas made sense. On Monday morning, the exams were to be submitted by noon, so I woke up around 6 am to make sure I was able to work on grammar, spelling, and punctuation for both essays, and to double check that each works cited page included all the quoted texts and were formatted correctly. I also had enough time to read each essay out loud twice, which is a method that helps me to edit and which I recommend.

I double-checked the instructions for submission, created a new document where I joined the two essays, and made it into a single PDF file. I sent it to the assigned administrator and cc-ed my advisor and program chair so that they all had a record of the submission. I also added another one of my e-mail addresses to make sure that the submission went through on time. After I sent them, it was around 11 am, so I packed my things and had my celebratory/farewell lunch at Easton’s Nook at noon. I went home later and informed my friends and family I was finished with my written exams.

After my committee read my essays and my oral exam date was reconfirmed, I continued to prepare for the third question and reread my responses. Every oral exam is different because it depends on your committee, your questions, and your written essays. My oral exams were two delightful hours. I was able to have an enriching conversation with my advisor and my two committee members, discuss my ideas with them, respond to their questions, and hear their thoughts while we were all in the same room, an opportunity I will not have again until my dissertation defense. My few recommendations for the oral exams are:

  • Be prepared by going back to your notes on the different texts and your essays.
  • Take extensive notes on your committee’s comments during exams
  • Be confident in your knowledge. At the end of it all, you are the expert on your project, and as my advisor, Dr. Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel, told me at the end of my orals, “you are the driver of this plane,” so you decide where the plane will land.

Lastly, after orals are done, make sure you celebrate. For many, the celebration has to be planned weeks in advance, but if you don’t have time to plan it, just do something for yourself right after, even if that just means getting to sleep a few more hours than usual.

The process of qualifying exams tends to be mystified, not only by many faculty members but by students ourselves, who tend to forget how we went through the process and succeeded. This is often due to the anxiety that exams provoke and how much we want to distance ourselves from the process after it is over. However, if we talk about it more, and share different strategies amongst ourselves and with other students in other programs, the qualifying exam process could not only be useful for the dissertation project, but even be enjoyable or at least less frustrating. Reader, I encourage you to continue making these conversations a regular practice within your graduate programs, as another way to keep helping each other as a community.

 

 

My experience taking the Ph.D. Qualifying Exams (Part One)

By María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán

Last May, I took my Ph.D. exams, and I’ve got to say, they were a lot of fun. I know that “fun” would not be the preferred word for most to describe the experience of Ph.D. students taking their qualifying exams, and of course, I faced moments of exhaustion, anxiety, and stress along the way. But what follows is a brief account of some of the steps I took to make the best out of my exams. Most of the things I share and recommend here apply specifically to students in the Rutgers Program in Comparative Literature due to the nature of our exams. However, I think that any Ph.D. student who reads this post can benefit from some aspect of the process and preparation.

I was able to develop some practices that helped me create a healthy rhythm before, during, and after my exams because I had three amazing graduate students—now doctors—giving me advice: Dr. Carolyn Ureña, Dr. Shawn Gonzalez and Dr. Enmanuel Martínez, who also went through the same program as I did. They were incredibly generous and kind to share their experience preparing and taking the exams. In different ways, they helped me to organize myself and reduced some of the anxiety that the exams provoke. Thus, all the steps I took for my exam preparation are no more than a combination of their suggestions and my ideas. I am very grateful for their counsel.

I should begin by saying that I am not a very good exam-taker. Ever since I can remember, I tend to freeze when taking anything that resembles an exam or that relates to the word ‘test.’ My mind goes blank for at least the first ten minutes, and sometimes I need to do some breathing exercises to avoid hyperventilating during any standardized test, or even during a class quiz that I know I’m prepared for. I know that many will relate to this feeling. Exams are anxiety provoking for me, which makes it more important to carefully prepare for them and develop strategies that allow me to succeed, without having a minor mental or emotional breakdown.

First, start reading before your lists are finalized. If you know that there are books or articles that must make it into your exam questions and/or project (or that are required, or that you have discussed with your committee at some point), get a head start on them, because the process of finalizing the list and getting it approved might take longer than you think.  After you have your approved list of texts, which you have agreed upon with your advisor and/or committee, make sure you add up the number of pages each book has (or the length of each film). This will help when you create a timeline of what-to-read-when that fits your weekly schedule. For example, if you teach and go to meetings on Tuesdays, you might not be able to read as much as another day when you don’t have to commute to campus. Therefore, on Tuesdays you may choose to read the three 40-page articles instead of the 500-page novel. You will be able to gauge that schedule division if you know the length of your texts in advance.

On note taking: While reading for exams (or for anything really!), I realized that making marginal notes on pages of the text proved to be unhelpful, especially considering that you have a limited time to write down your exam answers. Shawn’s advice was that I type down a few key quotes from each text on a searchable document (Microsoft Word document was her and my way to go!), as well as my thoughts about them. Creating this document was useful when searching for particular terms and connecting them with the respective authors and their texts.

Another piece of advice that came from both Carolyn and En.Mar. was to write down my thoughts on my readings at the end of each reading day. This helped me make connections not only between the texts but also between my own ideas, and it also generated a record of what I had read. This also proved to be useful given that the more time passed, the more difficult it was to remember what I had read. My notes helped later to recall the main arguments of each text, along with my impressions of them.

As you begin to conclude your readings and the exam date approaches, you will start to see which texts are the most pivotal in developing your ideas, and which others will serve the more extended project of the dissertation but not necessarily be cited directly on the exams (because you cannot cite the dozens of texts you read!). This shorter list will help you to make sure you have those texts at hand during the time of the exams, and that you extend that book reservation at the library!

As I explained before, exams are anxiety provoking for me, so knowing this, I decided early on that I needed to take my exams in a space conducive for writing with the least possible amount of distractions. This “space,” of course, might mean different things for different people. For me, as moving preparations had filled my apartment with boxes for a few weeks, at that point it meant a place outside my home but not too far from it. I also did not want to deal with cooking during my exams, but at the same time, I knew I needed healthy meals to fuel me throughout that weekend. Thus, I knew I needed to find a place where I would be provided with homemade meals and snacks throughout the day, and where I could easily schedule moments of rest.

This place also needed to be spacious enough to allow me to change rooms when I needed to walk away from my desk. I found Easton’s Nook, which met each one of my requirements (and more!). I made a reservation for the weekend of my exams a few months in advance and saved enough to cover the costs. Nadine and Jacquie, the co-owners of Easton’s Nook, are simply wonderful. Nadine’s cooking and company made my stay unforgettable and created a peaceful and motivating environment that helped me push through the mental exhaustion that writing for long periods of time can bring.

If for you that writing space means home, a/the local library or somewhere else, make sure that for that weekend (or week) you do meal prep a few days before, so that cooking takes you the least amount of energy and time. Also, make sure that you have some tea and/or coffee around and some of your favorite snacks for in-between meals. A colleague of mine had different family members bring her homemade meals to her writing space at scheduled times during the day, and they did this for the whole weekend. They would leave the food at her door and walk away!—and return to pick up the containers later, so she didn’t have to deal with cleaning either. If you have family or friends nearby, talk to them and see if you can figure out something similar for your exam period. If these are not possible options for you, many food delivery websites now allow you to schedule your deliveries days in advance from your favorite take-out places, and this could also be a possibility. Otherwise, if you plan your time well, you might be able to take care of all aspects of your food yourself, but just make sure you think through your schedule ahead of time.

[Series to be continued]

Graduate Student Summer: Institute for World Literature 2018 Session at Tokyo

By Penny Yeung

From July 2 to 26, I attended the Institute for World Literature (IWL), hosted at the Hongo campus of the University of Tokyo. This year, IWL gathered over 120 scholars from different stages of their research careers, from advanced undergraduates, to graduate students, post-docs, and faculty. As the program coincided with UTokyo’s regular academic session, everywhere we went, we met with students going about their routines. The buzz on campus made me feel as though for the four weeks, we were integrated into the pulse of university life.

Group photo in front of the General Library

Over the four weeks, IWL participants attended two out of a choice of ten seminars. For the first two weeks I took “The Avant-gardes in the World” with Professor Christopher Bush (Northwestern University), during which we discussed conceptual definitions of the avant-garde and examined the political and aesthetic dimensions of varying movements in their cultural localities. The second seminar I attended was “From Comparison to World Literature: Readings and Conceptual Issues,” taught by Professor Zhang Longxi (City University of Hong Kong). In this seminar we looked at East-West studies through the lens of utopian and anti-utopian literature, raising questions about the place of comparison in redressing Eurocentric frames of analysis. The diverse research backgrounds participants had brought different insights to bear on the conversations. I came away with more contextual understanding of the different literary movements and theoretical tools with which to think about my project.

“The Avant-gardes in the World” seminar

Participants were also assigned to different colloquia, a weekly occurrence that offered the opportunity to present our work and receive feedback in a more intimate setting. In my colloquium, “World Literature and Translation,” I presented on An Atlas: An Archaeology of an Imaginary City, a work by Dung Kai-Cheung, a Hong Kong–based author. I spoke about the aesthetics of translation at work in the paratextual elements of and within the novel. I explored several ways in which such an aesthetic troubles definitions of placedness, and further, intervenes in spatialized constructions of world literature by making it difficult to pinpoint the “point of origin” or “cultural origins” of a work. The colloquium provided not only an occasion to learn about the research projects fellow program participants were undertaking but also a venue to dialogue broadly on theories of translation.

“World Literature and Translation” colloquium

IWL also ran a series of faculty lectures and panels, with topics ranging from world literature, to contemporary Chinese science fiction and posthumanism, ecocriticism, and translation in modern Japanese literature. In addition there were a number of events that broke down the boundaries between the theoretical and the creative. One presentation featured Seoul-based Young Hae-Chang Heavy Industries, whose body of work has been acquired by Hong Kong’s M+ museum this year. Combining poetry, music, and visuals, the work the duo presented gave a dynamic and wry questioning of “What is World Literature?” Later in the program, we were also treated to multilingual poetry readings by Yoko Tawada and other locally-based poets, and the “New Japanese Voices” panel featuring contemporary Japanese writers introduced me to literary vistas I had not been familiar with.

“New Japanese Voices” event

This July was one of the hottest in Tokyo’s records. Some days we sought respite in the air-conditioned quiet of UTokyo’s library, but the sweltering heat did not deter us from venturing out. I had been to Tokyo before but never for such a long stay. This time, I enjoyed experiencing the city at a slower pace, biking around the neighborhoods, seeing the programs on offer at its many cultural institutions. Organized excursions by the IWL took us to Asakusa, the Hama Rikyu Gardens, Ueno Park, and the Tokyo National Museum. 

Of course, no trip to Tokyo would be complete without tasting its impeccable culinary fare. And I’d like to think that food and academics do harmonize: some of the most memorable moments from the summer are the conversations had outside the classroom over kara-age or a sizzling plate of monjayaki. IWL provided a rare opportunity to interact at length with student-scholars undertaking research at institutions in other parts of the world, and it was interesting to learn about how their programs are structured and exchange thoughts on how we see cultural and institutional dimensions playing a role in shaping our projects.

I am not sure what metaphors we gravitate towards to describe cultural encounters these days—the old tropes of surface and deep encounter or immersion seem to fall short. Perhaps I will borrow from Spivak, who, in her essay The Politics of Translation, talks about the “language-textile,” its selvedges “[giving way and fraying] into frayages and facilitations.” For now, perhaps this is the closest metaphor I can think of to speak of the experience, one of weaving myself into the texture of daily life in Tokyo. I am thankful to IWL for the wonderful programming and to Comp Lit for making this summer possible through funding. A special shout-out also to Tokyo-based students, who, despite their busy schedules, took it upon themselves to be our translator and facilitator to all things local.

Rapport d’Été 2018

Par: Thato Magano
Où: Dakar, Senegal
Quand: Juin 28 – Août 12, 2018

Pour l’été, J’ai visité le Sénégal pour apprendre le Français à l’Institut de Français pour les Étudiants Étrangers (I.F.E) de l’Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar (UCAD). Le cours était un cours intensif pour débutants, offert du lundi au vendredi, de huit heures du matin à midi et demi, pendant six semaines. Parallèlement aux études de langues, j’ai effectué des recherches sur les Cultures Matérielles de l’Afrique de l’Ouest ainsi que l’activisme des droits des LGBTQ/Queer. Mon voyage au Sénégal est venu d’une étude indépendante sur la Migration Bantu avec le Professor Ousseina Alidou au Printemps l’année dernière. 

[For the summer, I visited Senegal to learn French at the French Institute for Foreign Students (I.F.E) of the Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar (UCAD). The class was an intensive beginners’ course, offered Monday to Friday from 8 am to 12:30 for six weeks. Along with language study, I did research on the Material Cultures of West Africa and LGBTQ/Queer rights activism. My trip to Senegal came from an independent study on Bantu Migration with Professor Ousseina Alidou in the Spring last year.]

The study explored how cultures, customs, traditions, and languages of the Bantu gave rise to similar or distinct markers of community and citizenship, and to determine if and how these markers have endured the legacies of colonialism in order to provide space for comparative study of sub-Saharan African life in contemporary time. As a result, I began to reconceptualize my conception of comparative studies as it related to Africa, increasingly thinking about what is lost culturally and what remains across time, space and history as a result of this balkanization. 

J’ai choisi d’étudier le Français against this backdrop of history, understanding how French and Portuguese colonization continue to impact the borders of the continent, and the reach of French as a language on the continent in order to access the breath of literature produced in parts of Francophone Africa for the purposes of comparative study. The Postcolonial Laboratory project at UCAD hosted me while I was at the university, and former Rutgers Fulbright Fellow, Professor Saliou Dione’s hospitality was indulgent in its allowance. Each day, after class, the schedule was different as I mainly invested my time in investigating the cultural similarities to be found between parts of West Africa (Senegal, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Mali) and Southern Africa (the ethnic groups of the Zulu, Xhosa, Tsonga, Vhavenda, Ndebele in South Africa, Zimbabwe). 

“….

What is the price of water when your family’s history is still unaccounted for, lying at its source from the beginning of colonial time only to find you walking around with bottles of Kiréne to your hearts content?

In Flint, Michigan, the water from their taps is golden. 

It’s a metallic luminance that marks their graves with names borrowed from the South. 

Children die in multiples in Bolivia while Nestle is maximizing profits and expanding its footprint

….”1

At the Postcolonial Laboratory, I was involved with organizing the third annual African and Postcolonial Studies Laboratory International Conference, themed “Migration, Literature, Society”, and I also presented my paper, “Fucking [With] The Family: The Queer Promise in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions.” I also attended the West African Research Center’ (WARC) 4th International Conference themed, “Bridging the Gap: Black Studies Across Social, Geographical, Epistemic, and Linguistic Lines” where an array of presenters across the diaspora spoke to the kaleidoscope of the experiences of racialization and race across temporal and geographic planes. I also delivered a lecture to the Year III Baccalauréat Postcolonial Studies, titled ‘‘Overview of South Africa’s Literary Landscape: An Alternative Archive.’’ 

Visiting Musée Theodore Monod d’Art Africain de l’Ifan Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar (Musée IFAN), which houses the largest permanent collection of customary ceremonial artefacts of the Bantu, ranging from the observation of fertility rites, circumcision and marital initiation, and harvest time celebrations, en conversation avec le conservateur Malick Ndiaye, I explored the parallel and complex philosophies of being human as it relates to the uses of the artefacts. I also learnt about Senegal’s involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. It seemed not coincidental then that musée IFAN is located in the arrondissement Dakar-Plateau, next to Assemblée Générale, dans un quartier appelé, PLACE SOWETO. South Western Townships (SOWETO), is arguably South Africa’s most famous anti-apartheid resistance symbol, being the site of the 1976, June 16th Student uprising, and home to the Mandela and Tutu families, and many anti-apartheid activists. 

“…

What does unhappiness look like in an unspoken country?

…”2

J’ai aussi visité les archives nationales to investigate the masquerade cultures of the Diola, and how the cultural significance of the Kumpo Masquerade forms a long-standing tradition of collapsing the gendered taxonomies that have been imposed on the body, as well and its role in mediating the metaphysical, as the Kumpo represents an encounter with the divine. I was also fortunate to witness a Kumpo ceremony in the South of Dakar and fully participate in the cultural symbolism of the encounter. I was also able to visit Monument de la Renaissance Africaine, standing at 49 meters, atop Collines des Mamelles outside of Dakar, it is the tallest monument in Africa currently. Overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, depicting a family negotiating the future and the past, the monument is a remembrance of the lives lost to the Atlantic Slave trade. Perhaps the grandest highlight of my time in Dakar were my successive visits to Île de Gorée, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that houses Maison des Esclaves, built by the Afro-French Métis family, estimated between 1780–1784. Maison des Esclaves is deemed one of the oldest houses on the island and is now a tourist destination that shows the horrors of the slave trade throughout the Atlantic world.

“…

In my father’s house there’s a chain in a cabinet whose strings tighten my feet from moving. 

The neck braces mutilate my throat when I look into the Atlantic. 

I want to scream, like the little boy, I want to purge my heart, but my eyes refuse to let my mouth open. They muffle my screams into dried sockets that hold their tears from the wooden floors refusing to make them shine. 

My grandmother says if I even let one escape, master will come pleasure himself so now I keep smiling and taking photographs with my sunglasses on and I write on the walls stitching broken pieces to hold myself together

3

J’ai aussi visité au Musée Léopold Sédar Senghor, Ancien Président de la République du Sénégal et au Président Poète. A personal highlight was watching two world renowned Senegalese musicians in concert, Youssou N’Dour and Ismaël Lô, and meeting the renowned Burundian singer, Khadja Nin, whose music formed a substantive soundtrack to my formative years in Bophuthatswana, before South Africa’s homelands were integrated into the landscape of its provinces upon its first democratic vote in 1994. My encounter with Khadja Nin was in attendance at the Universite Populaire de l”Engagement Citoyen (UPEC, The Peoples University of Citizen Engagement), themesd “Citoyenneté et Droit Décider”, a five day conference that focused on citizen movements and popular forms of activism across the continent, to create a space for activists to share best practices and community for issues ranging dictatorship, neoliberalism, corruption and media freedom. The South African started, anti-neo liberal and colonial university movement, #FeesMustFall, was represented. I had the opportunity of sharing the activist collection I co-curated with two other activists in South Africa, Publica[c]tion, which is now freely available for download on Amazon. 

“someone is calling my name at the edge of the earth

my mother said I must never respond to these voices 

because, I will never come back to her if I do

I’ve resisted for so long, I lost my body in her eyes 

now in the water I can see what my face was meant to look like 

when I put my foot in the water, the sky commands the earth and a storm is brewing

the strikes of lightning charge into my veins and overwhelm my body, and my heart stops for minutes I do not know how to count

 

my friend once told me that often while driving, they imagine what the impact of crashing against a wall would feel like on their body 

I wake up in the deep of the water and I scare myself at how I delight at my death every time this happens.”4 

Avec l’apprentissage du Français, j’ai écrit de la poésie de la lourdeur de visiter l’Île de Gorée,

which I share with you, embedded in this reflection. All of my extra-curricular learnings and meetings with Professors was facilitated by the hospitality of former Rutgers Fulbright Fellow, Professor Saliou Dione, and the Postcolonial Laboratory project at Cheikh Anta Diop University. Je veux remercier ma famille d’accueil, Madame Cisse et ses enfants, qui m’a permis de saisir le langage aussi vite que je l’ai fait. I also thank the Rutgers Center for African Studies and Program in Comparative Literature for their generous support with funding to undertake this project. 

 

Notes
1   Magano, Thato. 2018. Water as/is Commodity. Unpublished.
2   Magano, Thato. 2018. Spoken Silences. Unpublished.
3   Magano, Thato. 2018. The House of Métis. Unpublished.
4   Magano, Thato. 2018.The End of the World is Pleasure. Unpublished. 

 

A Particular Place and a Particular Time: Communism, Science Fiction, and their Co-Constitution

In his contentious 1972 description of science fiction as “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment,”¹ Darko Suvin ushered in an era of renewed debate about the classificatory role of an historically malleable genre. Yet, the central tenant of this categorization—estrangement of cognition from the known—is drawn from the Russian остранение (ostrenanie, or defamiliarization), itself already a central tenant of Russian Formalism as a genre. Ostrenanie, a central concept in Russian Formalism’s attempt to describe and define what constitutes literaturnost’ (литературность, or literariness), already functioned as a linguistic neologism with the double meaning of “making strange” and “putting aside.” To embody literariness at the level of the text is to inherently make strange and to decenter, to make the art itself recognizable as such. Thus the terminology of definitions utilized by Suvin already glosses its origins and, in doing so, elides any new formal definition of SF as a genre in and of itself, existing outside of—if contingent on—the realm of literature formally defined. To locate SF’s defining characteristic in the exact same categorization schema as those outlining literature as a whole, without allowing for additional classificatory markers, allows SF as a genre to remain in the liminal genre periphery that no amount of theorizing has yet been able to satisfactorily crystallize into a rigorously-definable framework. If, then, the defining features of SF as such are estrangement from the known taking place within a framework outside the author’s extant circumstances, then such estrangement may occur at the level of text, through technological extrapolations, or by transgressing or presenting unfamiliar national boundaries.

  Each of these potential avenues for estrangement—textual, technological, national—were explored, analyzed, and problematized at the first annual International Conference on Science Fiction and Communism, held May 26-27, 2018 at the American University in Bulgaria (AUB) in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria. The conference’s focus on communism as a modifier of and literary foundation for the development of science fiction offered an ideological avenue into the question of estrangement—if we in the West are used to thinking of SF as an inherently Western genre, what happens when we decenter it from those national, linguistic, and ideological boundaries? How does it change the nature of the questions being asked or the methods used to analyze its output, reception, and conditions?

As a unifying framework, the conference postulated SF not as an outcome of state policy or propaganda, but rather as an active agent in a complex and (in many cases) ongoing relationship between various communist regimes and public reception. As a genre often credited with voicing political and social critiques not possible in more “realist” genres, the conference took as its a priori theoretical positioning that SF is uniquely positioned to directly engage with the polemics of ongoing clashes between capitalism and communist ideology.

Yet it is not only the case that SF was and is uniquely positioned to comment upon ideological regimes, but also, numerous conference presentations recognized that as a mediated ideology, communism itself borrowed heavily from futuristic and technologicized visions of alterity, utilizing SF images, metaphors, and tropes to position itself as “the bearer of a bright future that had already arrived.” In adopting SF as a source of political discourse and as a framework for the communication of political ideals, various communist regimes were complicit in popularizing the genre itself. 

In addressing such a broad spectrum of interests, the conference—which was a multi-city affair—opened in Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria, a country with a surprisingly science fictional history of robotics and cybernetics. To celebrate the opening of the conference, a cocktail party was held at a downtown gallery, including a meet-and-greet with local academics, science fiction experts, writers, artists, and fans. The exhibition on display was appropriate for setting the mood; “Fantastika in a Time of Communism” displayed archival and artistic SF works from the socialist period in Bulgaria. There was also space wine!

Following the close of the first night’s party, participants were transported two hours outside of Sofia to Blagoevgrad, a city in southwestern Bulgaria that is home to the American University in Bulgaria’s campus. Over the following weekend, participants presented on a variety of fascinating panels, beginning with “Science Fiction East and West: Communication or Divide?,” “Soviet Science Fiction,” “Space Conquest in Communist Children’s Literature,” “The Film Perspective,” and “No God in Cosmos.” Perhaps of most interesting note during the first day was a notable divide between those participants who took it as a given that communism as a system was irredeemably corrupt (if not outright evil) and their occasionally vocal clashes with the conference hosts, who attempted to steer the discussions towards a recognition of the ways in which communism was (or could be) beneficial despite the harm that its implementation had caused in the past. Disagreements along these lines led to volatile and exciting exchanges between participants.

Following a productive first day of presentations, the second day opened with a panel on “Narrowing the Dialogue: Case Studies” and concluded with “Science Fiction and Ideology.” I’m biased, of course, since this panel included my own presentation, but obviously they saved the best for last.

My presentation—“The Quotidian Utopia of China’s Lian Huan Hua”—was unique in that it was the only conference presentation dealing with a communist regime outside of the Soviet and Eastern European context, focusing instead on literary ephemera popular in mid-20th century communist China. As an explicit tenant of Mao’s modernization strategy during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, literary strictures produced a mode of narrative utopianism that Nathanial Isaacson has identified elsewhere² as a “quotidian utopia.” The quotidian utopia was a mass-produced vision of a utopian future brought about through decidedly non-fantastical means and promulgated to the public as a mode of implied development, rather than a narrative centered around an advanced technological system—that is, a utopian future for the nation was not described nor presented to the public as science fiction as such, yet retained its eye for future progress through quotidian means. 

What’s important to note here is the fact that such literatures have not, historically, been recognized as belonging to the strictly-defined genre of science fiction because their setting is firmly in the present. One valuable example of this mass production of quotidian utopian literature were the serialized booklets known as lian huan hua (连环画) or “linked serial pictures.” The lian huan hua were used as a tool of education and propaganda in the state’s move towards modernization, and as a result there were innumerable examples of the impact of trains, mining, agricultural improvements, electricity, telephone lines, and shipping techniques on the development of the country and on individual lives. By combining public health and public works propaganda with narrative and images, the lian huan hua were used as pedagogical tools for children, peasants, and the illiterate, and as such the narratives being presented are idealized in the extreme. This does not detract from their value as historical artifacts, however, and indicates the method by which the publishers sought to establish and shape mass opinion of the nation-building process.

In my presentation, I argued that the lian huan hua are no less science fictional simply because their future utopian dreams now seem to us to be rather commonplace for having (largely) been achieved; on the contrary, their use of innovative technologies to bring about a scientifically-advanced modern Communist society and their wide dissemination to the people renders this brand of quotidian utopian fiction an unparalleled attempt to bring the masses to the future through literary means. The fact that much of this body of text is dismissed as propaganda or not treated as worthy of academic investigation is an oversight on par with the dismissal in the Western canon of science fiction as an inconsequential genre literature. The shift in emphasis to the utilization of mass technologies exemplified by the lian huan hua is symptomatic of a still-extant utopian drive in Chinese Communist literature that, despite increased state crackdowns on the freedoms afforded authors and the broad social denigration of non-realist imaginaries condemned as bourgeois, the science fictional imaginary continues to produce.

Finally, the conference concluded with a keynote speech by Darko Suvin himself. Professor Emeritus at McGill University, Canada, Darko Suvin is widely recognized as one of the most prominent figures in the development of science fiction studies, and as previously noted, is responsible for the development of cognitive estrangement as a method of categorizing and analyzing science fiction as a genre. Over a conference call, he engaged with many of the papers that had been presented and additionally shared some of his own thoughts. As had by now become characteristic of this conference, the exchanges were often contentious—both intellectually-grounded and deeply emotional, many participants had significant personal stakes in their ideological positions. For many, the realities of extant communist regimes could not be discussed with any sort of cognitive dissonance—far from being fictional, they were real, lived experiences that, no matter how strange or estranging they might be, did not offer insight into a world that wasn’t, but a world that had been and continued to be a possibility. Their arguments served as a reminder that what makes something strange or fantastic is often as much a matter of historical positioning as technological development. 

A complete video of each panel can be found at the American University in Bulgaria’s website here: https://www.aubg.edu/news/aubg-hosts-inaugural-science-fiction-and-communism-conference-1465 or on youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLJhqXzj2SATibzhnJ8KOE1RL6GgpR_s2i

Notes
¹ Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1979)

² Isaacson, Nathaniel. “Science Crosstalk in China’s Shifting Cultural Field.” Talk given as part of the Science Fiction and Asian Histories panel at the 2016 ACLA Conference. Harvard University, 2016.