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.

 

NEW GRAD STUDENT PROFILES, FALL 2019

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

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

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

Welcome, Sneha and Xingming!

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

by Rafael Vizcaíno and Jeong Eun Annabel We

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

by Mònica Tomàs White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.