Category Archives: Comparative Literature Events

Rafael Vizcaino’s Dissertation Defense: Decolonial Responses to Secularism from the Underside of Modernity

By Yuanqiu Jiang, with editorial input from Rafael Vizcaino

March 10, 2020 witnessed Rafael Vizcaíno’s doctoral defense, the final step of his academic journey as a graduate student at Rutgers Comparative Literature.


Rafael started off by giving us a quick summary of his dissertation, which offers an interpretation of the notions of “secularity” and “post-secularity” from the perspective of epistemic decolonization. Rafael aims at a re-articulation of the meaning of secularization in modernity, where secularization learns from its own mistakes. Situating his project in Latin America and borrowing tools from decolonial thought, Rafael argues that secularity can be resignified beyond modern anti-religious secularism through epistemic decolonization. The ongoing project of postsecularity, defended by an array of scholars across the humanities and social sciences, can thus also take part in a broader process of decolonization.


In the examination portion of the defense, Professor Linda Martín Alcoff (CUNY Graduate Center) pushed Rafael to articulate how figures like Gloria Anzaldúa prefigure much of contemporary philosophy of science and standpoint theory. Professor Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel (University of Miami), asked Rafael about how he conceives of the relation between aesthetics, the erotic, and the spiritual. Professor Carlos Ulises Decena (Chair of Rutgers’s Department of Latino and Caribbean Studies) inquired about Rafael’s methods and urged Rafael to better articulate the embodied character of writing in the process of knowledge production. Lastly, our very own Professor Nelson Maldonado-Torres, who chaired Rafael’s dissertation, asked about the role of dialectics and opacity in Rafael’s work.


In his thoughtful response to all these comments, the word “trans-disciplinary” emerged as a notion central to Rafael’s own writing and thinking. Rafael invoked the cyberneticist Stafford Beer, whose critique of scholarship Rafael constantly kept in mind while writing his dissertation. The trans-disciplinary moves beyond the disciplinary and the interdisciplinary to think the big picture in an ever-changing world. The project of epistemic decolonization, Rafael argues, presupposes this type of transdisciplinarity, and with this frame, Rafael seeks to make a contribution to theories of modernity, religion, and secularity.


Rafael’s dissertation was acclaimed by Professor Maldonado-Torres as a triad of excellent writing, excellent research, and excellent analysis, which were also powerfully demonstrated in the defense. Felicidades, Rafael! And good luck with the next chapter of your career!

Photo credits: Annabel We

We Are Not Drowning, We are Fighting: Pacific Poets against Environmental Racism

By: Xingming Wang

On February 20, the Department of French hosted Dr. Anaïs Maurer for her lecture and job talk: “We Are Not Drowning, We are Fighting: Pacific Poets against Environmental Racism”. As the title of the lecture indicates, Oceanian literary voices have been contributing to protests against environmental racism­­—an ideology, in Maurer’s words, constituting “structural discrimination that racializes people affected by environmental issues”. Racial discrimination underlies the environmental injustice against pacific islanders. As the U.S. nuclear testing sites, many pacific islands are threatened by climate change, water contamination, and species extinction. To put it in Maurer’s own words, pacific islanders are subject to “dispossession, displacement, displacement, and death”. In the face of the environmental destruction and the loss of homeland, academic discourse like “resilience” and “sustainability” sound too conservative to address the issue. In fact, Oceanian people’s reactions should be described as a heroic struggle of survival. Rather than surrendering to helplessness, they display a rebellious spirit through their voice and literature, which can be captured in the title of this lecture: “We are not drowning, we are fighting”.

Maurer points out three major consequences coming out of the environmental racism against pacific islanders—the threat of mass migration, the destruction of multi-species society, and the annihilation of racism. Yet in response to each threat, pacific islanders are not helpless victims but proactively act against the discriminating ideology. In the face of the rising sea level threatening the Marshall island, the poet and climate change activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner claims, “who do you think will be next? I’m taking you with me”. The poetic articulation reserves the role of pacific islanders as passive victims with a powerful declaration of fighting to the end. The rebellious and emotional response also challenges the western apathy towards the environmental destruction in the pacific islands. Pacific poets refuse the destiny of “invisible disappearance”. Instead, they call into question the very ideological foundation of environmental racism.

Elaborating on pacific poets’ voices against environmental racism, Maurer also brings into light the philosophical significance of their reaction, namely resistance to “Islandism”. As Maurer discerns, islandism is an extension of Orientalism, in which the island represents the opposition of modernity—a place frozen in time and outside of civilization. Therefore, people of the island are seen as barbarians that could be sacrificed or even wiped out for the progress of modernity. The ideology of islandism thus justifies the displacement of violence imposed upon the pacific islanders, and it should be abandoned. Therefore, Maurer puts forward “Oceanitude” as a competing ideology as to challenge islandism in Western thoughts. The shift from islandism to oceanitude intends to bring back emotion, unsettling the dominance of reason in scientific discourse that facilitates environmental racism. Maurer also points out the necessity of realizing this historical instance of environmental destruction so as to avoid such tragedies.

The Q&A section features intriguing dialogues between Maurer and professors and graduate students in the Department of French and Comparative Literature Program. Here is a list of questions worthy of further thinking: how do the environmental studies inform the reading of canonical texts? What is the function of emotion in environmental literature? How does the study of pacific literature expand the definition of French literary studies? How to go beyond print literature and exert a wider influence? Is the philosophy of oceanitude applicable to other disciplines like indigenous studies? I especially enjoy Maurer’s response to the last question. Addressing the philosophical significance of oceanitude, she responses, “the sense of being an islander has always emerged in co-constitution with the sense of living in an endangered environment”. Environment, in her view, becomes a new identity. Let us remember the resonantvoice of the pacific poets while exploring the connection between environment and our own identity.


Dr. Maurer has accepted a tenure-track appointment as  Assistant Professor of French and Comparative Literature. Starting Fall 2020, she will be teaching courses on Francophone/Pacific literatures and in the environmental humanities more generally.

Comparative Literature Alumni Reunion

by  Amanda González Izquierdo

On November 8, 2019, the program in Comparative Literature at Rutgers University hosted its first alumni reunion. The chair of the program, Andrew Parker, organized a lunch that brought together faculty, current undergraduate and graduate students, and undergraduate and graduate alumni.

The lunch began with a few words from Dr. Parker welcoming everyone and speaking to how moving it was to see alumni come back to campus, which he described as a testament to the impact that their time at Rutgers has had on their professional and personal lives. Then, everyone in the room briefly introduced themselves, and we learned that the student body that has made up the program from its beginnings has included people representing all parts of the world, including Pakistan, China, Mexico, and Canada. Dr. Parker then proceeded to introduce two notable guests: Barbara Lee, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, and Barry Qualls, Professor Emeritus of English and former Dean of Humanities in the School of Arts and Sciences. They both spoke about how the campus has changed since some of the alumni graduated, highlighting the caffeine molecule sculpture in front of the chemistry building in Busch campus and the Sojourner Truth apartments in the College Ave campus. They also both spoke about the importance of the humanities, the passion that Comparative Literature students exhibit for literature and language, and how the program is characterized by its continuous crossing of boundaries.

After the talks, everyone started to form or join conversation groups around the room. Some people were getting to know each other for the first time, while others were reconnecting. In these conversations, we learned about what alumni have been up to since their graduations. Some of those who earned their PhD at Rutgers have retired after fulfilling careers in the professoriate, while others hold teaching positions at universities throughout the US, including neighboring colleges like Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. A great number of the undergraduate alumni are in the process of applying to graduate school, considering PhD programs in Comparative Literature and Women and Gender Studies. It was wonderful to witness the meetings between current graduate students and undergraduates who were in their classes semesters ago. One senior undergraduate told fourth-year PhD candidate, Rudrani Gangopadhyay, that he will be writing his thesis on a work he first read in a class she taught.

The lunch was also a wonderful opportunity to catch up with fellow current graduate students. Since all of our research interests are so diverse, and since many people are already past the coursework phase, it becomes difficult to see each other as often as we would like to. It was great to talk to people in their final years of the program about how their dissertations are shaping up and new interests that are emerging during the writing process. PhD candidates also kindly offered advice to those who have just started teaching or will begin soon on how to handle the nerves of being in front of a class, how to create a syllabus, and how to moderate discussions. We also spoke about the biennial graduate student conference which will be taking place on April 3-4, 2020 in conversations that touched upon our collective excitement for the theme, plans on how to move forward, and the stresses and felicities of getting to the point of publishing the call for papers.

The reunion lunch was a wonderful way to catch up with old friends, meet new people, and talk about our interests and plans. It will certainly not be the last time the program organizes such an event bringing together former and current Comparative Literature students.

Reading with Jhumpa Lahiri

by Milan Reynolds

I had the privilege of attending a talk with Jhumpa Lahiri on October 3rd, with Professor Andrea Baldi gracefully moderating the event. A Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Lahiri spoke with those gathered about the recently published Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories. As the editor of the collection and translator of several of the stories, Lahiri described her experience and the methodology behind curating and gathering the texts. For those who might be unfamiliar with Lahiri’s projects, she is known for her creative output as a novelist (The Namesake, The Lowland), short story writer (The Interpreter of Maladies, Unaccustomed Earth), and essayist, as well as her autobiographical work In altre parole (In Other Words), which details her experience learning Italian. Currently, she is working on translating her most recent book, Dove mi trovo, into English while teaching creative writing at Princeton University. For me, Lahiri’s choice to adopt Italian as a literary language is incredibly brave and troubles the implicit assumption of monolingual authorship. It also pushes the question of translation to the foreground of writing, and at the same time affirms it as an indispensable part of life.

Much of the discussion was in fact devoted to the multilingual identities of many of the Italian authors included in the collection. Italy as a country is relatively recent (the Risorgimento, or unification, began in the 19th century) and as such, retains a strong sense of localities, dialects, and cultural specificity. Lahiri talked about her choice of authors in relation to their many registers of language, their attention to place and environment, and their engagement with translation as a reciprocal practice necessary to writing. She imposed two interlocking constraints to focus her task: the authors chosen were primarily from the past century, and none of them were living. She described sifting through libraries, combing tables of contents, and consulting the advice of many friends. Without having a specific theme in mind, Lahiri allowed the collection to develop as an organic substance; her own interests certainly surfaced but she also admitted to being surprised by the encounter as well.

The attention to female authors in the collection is particularly important as a challenge to the canonization of Italian male voices. Lahiri also spoke at length about the role of writing and translating functioning as a political act, particularly during fascist rule. If authoritarianism is based on the idea of a singular truth, translation works to decentralize meaning at the level of the word (and in some cases, alphabet) itself. The stories are arranged by author, but in reverse alphabetical order.

There was also some time devoted to encompassing the audience in the discussion through the form of written questions collected beforehand. One particularly interesting theme was the role of names within Lahiri’s creative work. The discussion was based on the idea that The Namesake, Lahiri’s earlier novel turns on the concept of naming, while her most recent work’s narrator in Dove mi trovo, lacks a proper name altogether. This suggestion was eloquently encircled by Lahiri’s thoughts on identity, metamorphosis, and the potentiality of redefinition.

I also had the opportunity to attend an informal talk in Italian with Lahiri and several graduate students in the Italian and Comparative Literature departments. We got to hear a little about the companion volume to the Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories that was also recently published: Racconti Italiani.


Readers may find excerpts of Lahiri’s work here:

Writing in Difficult Times: Ebola 2014

by Thato Magano

On Tuesday, October 1st, 2019, the Department of French, Program in Comparative Literature and Center for African Studies hosted celebrated novelist, poet, painter, illustrator and visiting professor in the French department, the Paris born, and Côte d’Ivoire raised Véronique Tadjo. The event Writing in Difficult Times: Ebola 2014 was styled as a premiere of the anticipated English translation of her 2017 novel, En compagnie des hommesThe Whispering Tree. Sharing that Rutgers felt much like home as this is her third visit, Professor Tadjo described the visceral sensations that went into her writing about the 2014 iteration of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa broadly and Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, specifically.

Reflecting on the dynamic circumstances that shaped her life and worldview – a child that was born out of and to travel, an adult who has lived in at least Rwanda and several countries on the African continent – her constant curiosity was the ways the local, to mean Abidjan and Côte d’Ivoire, was always altered by the experience of returning after months and years of being away.

This is why it hadn’t seemed strange that it was in late 2013 while living in South Africa when she first heard the news that a mysterious disease had been discovered in Guinea, later identified as Ebola, and in her travels throughout the continent and to Europe and the United States that she started questioning some of the perceptions the global reporting on the epidemic was creating. This is where the idea of the novel was birthed as she wondered about the quality of spectatorship. “What was the implication of this strange way of reporting the disease that is always mediated by commercial activity (advertising),” she asked herself. It was the incommensurate quality of experiences that created the story.

The novel became a meditation on the ways the epidemic changed social life in Abidjan due to the shared borders with Guinea and Liberia, where the disease was most prevalent. The intent was to highlight the human experiences and to demonstrate the ways in which we are all interconnected through various factors precipitated by capitalism and globalization:

“I wanted to show that much more happened with the epidemic than the media had reported on … One of the difficulties with Ebola is that there are five strains hence the difficulty to eradicate it. The current vaccine does not work for all the strains and different strains affect people differently … I wanted to start with people and end with people and show that the social and cultural dimensions of the disease are important.”

Readings from The Whispering Tree revealed that the novel embodied forms of the oral traditions to speak about the epidemic, employing various first-person voices that spanned human and non-human beings. These multiple voices, using a well understood medium in African literature, sought to make the scientific link between deforestation and Ebola to highlight the ways that the disappearance of animal habitation has resulted in a proximity to humans that makes the spread of the disease possible. It is the voice of the baobab tree that affirms the role of the forest to the past and future of mankind:

““We are the link, we bring humans to their past, to their present and their unpredictable future … Our consciousness dwells beyond space and time … You cannot cut down the forest without spilling blood … I am baobab, the everlasting tree, the mythical tree … Our roots search for water, our roots call the rain.”

This delightful experience was followed by a Q&A that delved more into questions of orality and voice; the ways ecological genocide has not been fully explored to give greater context to the epidemic, and how social life has evolved since the epidemic was first contained in 2014.


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.