Tag Archives: Comp Lit Events

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:

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/602664/the-penguin-book-of-italian-short-stories-by-edited-by-jhumpa-lahiri/

https://www.guanda.it/libri/jhumpa-lahiri-racconti-italiani-scelti-e-introdotti-da-jhumpa-lahiri-9788823523173/

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.

 

“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!

“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.

Myth of White Genocide in South Africa

by Rafael Vizcaino

On March 25, 2019, the Decoloniality Workshop held its 7thmeeting, hosting Professor Nicky Falkof from Wits University in South Africa. Falkof presented a section of her current book project, an analysis of risk, anxiety, and moral panic in post-apartheid South Africa. Falkof’s presentation focused on how right-wing Afrikaner community organizations in South Africa have adopted the liberal language of civil and minority rights to position themselves as victims in the social and political atmosphere of post-Apartheid South Africa. Central to these movements’ rhetorical strategies of victimization is the development and propagation of the idea of “white genocide” to negotiate their decentered status in a post-apartheid South Africa where land restitution, affirmative action, and other policies of decolonization have been implemented at the national level.

Thato Magano, Rutgers PhD student in Comparative Literature from South Africa, opened the discussion session as Falkof’s discussant. Thato highlighted the importance of studying “white pathology” within the South African academy and questioned the overlaps and divergences between Afrikaner identity, on the one hand, and white identity, on the other. The subsequent dialogue with the audience members connected the South African context to the present U.S. context, where over the last decade there has been a quantifiable rise in the number of organized white supremacist organizations, many of which also mobilize the rhetoric of “white genocide” as a reaction to the ongoing demographic and cultural changes in the U.S. population. A crucial set of conversations also centered on the dynamics among white victimhood, white fear and white guilt. Another significant discussion questioned whether Falkof’s intervention could be conceived as being critical not just of racist “illiberal” discourse, but also of the very liberal framework that easily lends itself to a facile appropriation by reactionary fascistic agendas. Falkof closed the discussion with a reflection on the complexities of using her own institutional positionality as a white female academic to not reproduce whiteness.

The Decoloniality Workshop is currently preparing its fall of 2019 line up, which will include a pedagogy workshop for graduate students of color, as well as collaborations with other graduate-student-led spaces across the university. For more information and the most recent updates, please visit the workshop’s website at https://decolonialityworkshop.wordpress.com/