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.

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!

Varieties of Decolonial Thinking and Organizing

by Rafael Vizcaino and Paulina Barrios

Over February and March of 2019, the Rutgers Advanced Institute for Critical Caribbean Studies “What is Decoloniality?” speaker series held two events sponsored by the Department of Latino and Caribbean Studies and the Program in Comparative Literature. Audiences from both Rutgers and New Brunswick were exposed to a wide range of ideas concerning the decolonization of theory, activism, and institutions from the Dominican activist-scholar Yuderkys Espinosa, the French-Algerian political activist and writer Houria Bouteldja, and the decolonial organizers from the movement Decolonize This Place.

On Friday February 1st, RAICCS welcomed Yuderkys Espinosa for a talk in Spanish titled “Decolonial Feminism in Abya Yala” and a workshop on “Black Decolonial Feminist Epistemology”. During her talk, Espinosa first recognized the disconnection between communities, grassroots activism, and academia. She argued it is precisely decolonial feminism that builds these connections and systematizes knowledge produced by communities and spaces that are generally left out of academic discussions. She invited us to reflect on what a young indigenous activist said when asked if she thought of herself as a feminist: “I am not a feminist because I do not save myself on my own”. This young activist went on to explain that she had no investment in an individualist project, which was how she saw feminism. She further explained that although she felt compelled by some of the feminist scholars and activists, she could not fully align with a movement that she felt separated her from her community. Espinosa emphasized that decolonial feminism must listen to these voices and that it could avoid individualistic leaderships by amplifying its focus and emphasizing collective action and scholarship. As a specific example she spoke of co-authorship and mentioned the book by Catherine Walsh, a scholar-activist based in Universidad Andina Simón Bolivar, and Juan García Salazar, an Afro-Ecuadorian elder keeper of oral tradition, “Pensar sembrando/sembrar pensando con el Abuelo Zenón” (Thinking as we sow/Sowing as we think with Grandfather Zenon). Espinosa ended her talk by arguing that decolonial feminism must analyze when and where it is replicating power dynamics and modern projects based on authenticity and truth.

 

After her presentation, Espinosa held a workshop focused on black decolonial feminist epistemology within the production of knowledges and practices in activism and the academy. She established two main aspects as the most important:

  • A focus against the androcentrism of scientific knowledge. This androcentrism is based on male heterosexuals who come from a space of privilege and argue for objectivity and universality that aren’t ‘polluted’ by experience. She argued that this pretension of objectivity and universality doesn’t really exist. Further, a decolonial black feminist methodology implies being self-critical and coming to terms with one’s privilege and positionality. This leads to the possibility of establishing and producing one’s own knowledge and categories, moving beyond the idea of universal concepts.
  • Following feminist knowledge production methodologies. This is based on self-experience and the understanding that all knowledge comes from subjectivity, which leads us to abandon the preference of objectivity. This includes also adding value to what happens outside the academy, including different strategies, dialogues between different knowledges, intergenerational dialogues, as well as with indigenous and afrodescendent universities. She also emphasized that this process involves negotiations and clear communication among people who are generating collectives and decolonial ways of producing knowledge.

Following these two events, on March 14th and 15th, RAICCS welcomed Houria Bouteldja, a well-known French-Algerian political activist and writer focusing on anti-racism, anti-imperialism, and Islamophobia. Bouteldja began with a lecture (in French, with live English translation) titled “About White Innocence in General and French Innocence in Particular.” In this lecture, Bouteldja offered a devastating analysis of the ways in which current French left politics advance a white supremacist project. Bouteldja discussed how the progressive vision of leftist politics in France only encompasses white people, continuing the racist imaginary and state apparatus from centuries of colonial practices that were never properly decolonized. For instance, the French political status quo often deploys Islamophobia in the name of secularism. This practice targets largely Muslim migrants from France’s former colonies, who are not treated as political subjects but people to be saved at best (for the liberal) or as poison for the French nation at worst (for the fascist). Against this racist status quo, Bouteldja put forth a decolonial anti-imperialist politics of “revolutionary love” by spearheading the political organization of the Parti des indigènes de la République.

 

The next day, Nelson Maldonado-Torres moderated a discussion titled “The Spirit of Bandung Continues: Roundtable on Decolonial Organizing with Houria Bouteldja, and with Nitasha Dhillon, Amin Husain, and Marz Saffore from MTL+ and Decolonize this Place, as well as Teresa Vivar from Lazos America Unida.” The gathering brought together organizers from different conjunctures to share reflections on failures, successes, tactics, and goals. Vivar, a community organizer from New Brunswick, expressed her concerns on developing natural leadership skills of Indigenous migrant women in New Brunswick, a task that is made difficult by the everyday oppressions coming either from police repression in the community (ICE) or from the community’s own internalized racism and misogyny. Dhillon, Husain, and Saffore spoke about the many efforts that have led to the work they are now doing in New York City under the auspices of Decolonize This Place, “an action-oriented movement centering around Indigenous struggle, Black liberation, free Palestine, global wage workers and de-gentrification.” In their model of organizing, direct actions generate what they call “movement-generated theory” that targets institutional power. Bouteldja likewise shared the pre-history that led to the founding of the Parti des indigènes de la République. For Bouteldja, liberalism’s complicities to white supremacy are seen in the greater volume of criticism that decolonial thinking is currently receiving in the French academy than that of the criticism of the resurgent far-right racist/fascist politics.

 

These events, as part of the ongoing “What is Decoloniality?” speaker series, addressed the varieties of decolonial positions, tactics, and approaches that exemplify the breadth and possibility that decolonial thought and praxis offer across social positions and in different institutional settings. The speakers exemplified how decoloniality can be a strong analytic lens to be implemented in our research and teaching. Perhaps most importantly, however, their activist orientations let us know that decoloniality is also a practice that targets patterns of oppression in ourselves and the institutions that we inhabit.

“Dante, Franciscan Poverty, and the Donation of Constantine” Professor Alessandro Vettori – Brown Bag Lunch, April 18, 19

by Milan Reynolds

Ahi, Costantin, di quanto mal fu matre, non la tua conversion, ma quella dote che da te prese il primo ricco patre! (Inf. 19.115-17)

 Ah, Constantine, what wickedness was born— and not from your conversion—from the dower that you bestowed upon the first rich father!

Several students and faculty had the pleasure of hearing Professor Alessandro Vettori’s presentation on Dante’s Divina Commediaand its relation to Franciscan poverty and the Donation of Constantine. Beginning with a brief encounter in Canto 19 of Inferno, Vettori recounted how Dante locates Constantine with the simonists, members of the clergy who are corrupted by money. In order to understand Dante’s critique, we had to travel to the 3rdcentury. Constantine was the first “Christian” ruler of the Roman Empire though he was only baptized on the eve of his death. Along with unifying the Eastern and Western halves of the empire and moving the capital to Byzantium (renamed Constantinople), he played an influential role in the Edict of Milan and the Council of Nicaea, which made Christianity legal and established a set of principles for the faith.

After sketching this history of Christianity’s first steps, Alessandro turned to a document known as the Donation of Constantine. This text recounts how the Emperor, after being infected with leprosy, was miraculously cured by Pope Sylvester I and, in thanks, donated the city of Rome and the western half of the Roman empire to the Church. For those of us unfamiliar with medieval studies, it came as a surprise when Alessandro promptly informed us that the document was a fake written more than 400 years after Constantine’s death. It was not until the 15thcentury that it was argued to be false however, and in the meantime had been used by the Papacy to consolidate and acquire power and wealth.

Dante, who was influenced by the newly formed mendicant orders such as the Dominicans and Franciscans, was critical of the Church’s wealth. He articulated this in many ways but also by calling into question the Donation of Constantine itself, arguing it was illegitimate because the Church was not entitled to receive property. Alessandro then drew some intriguing connections between Dante’s experience of exile from Florence and his affinity for Franciscan values of poverty. In particular, a coterminous text narrating the marriage of St. Francis with Lady Poverty as a spiritual allegory, shares similarities with Dante’s Divina Commedia. This literary journey was supplemented by several works of art Alessandro had chosen, representing the Donation of Constantine at different moments in time. The project, as Alessandro put it, is still in the early stages, but everyone attendant looked forward to hearing more about the topic.

 

 

 

Brown Bag Lunch on “Comparative Worldings: The Case of Indian Literatures”

by Thato Magano

On April 8th, the Program in Comparative Literature’s Brown Bag series hosted Professor Preetha Mani (Comp Lit, AMESALL), who presented a paper from her upcoming book, where she takes up questions concerning Indian literatures as forms of comparative literatures. In her talk, excerpted from the first chapter of the book, Prof. Mani reflected on the conceptions of Indian literature that came to the fore in the 1930s and how these conceptions sought to unite Indian people in a common vision, as a corollary to ideas of a national language. Central to her meditation were questions of what constitutes world literature and how Indian writers of the time challenged the aggregative models of world literature by creating alternative conceptions of the world as constitutive to their practice.

Taking us on a temporal journey and describing the ways writers formed cohorts and circles to explore and debate questions of translation, uncovered was an appreciation of the ways these writers took up translation questions in world literary production, thus placing translation at the forefront of anti-imperialist efforts. There was also a consideration of how these writers defined literariness as a way of interrogating the status of world literature, and as such, performing acts of worldings that created alternative standards of literary value.

Following her query “Is a text translatable because it is literary or is it literary because it is translatable?” the answer is found in the ways worldliness is defined. Showing some of the challenges with theories of world literature and their aggregative borders that apply European standards to mark what belong and what doesn’t, Prof. Mani’s impulse is to define a new methodology of what constitutes worldliness. “What if literature is something more than a single literary discourse? What if literary processes of worlding have different origins? Can we see these as distinct processes informed by specific socio-political processes?” Prof Mani uses the case of Tamil writers and how they addressed these questions, showing how these writers welcomed foreignness and untranslatability in the face of changing world literary standards and norms. These writers embraced contaminated language, using multiple languages to defamiliarize Tamil literature and mark it as part of the worlding project and still part of the Indian literary and language project.

Thus, worlding is a multi-scalar approach that considers the meta literary approaches that shape which texts are considered world literature. As such, worlding is a useful ontological category for Prof. Mani as it enables a way of engaging or producing a kind of human community that ties us all through language, yet is still broader than just language as it also produces conceptions of what can be defined as literary.