Last summer, I was one of 25 scholars chosen to participate in a summer institute on the great author and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston. The National Endowment for the Humanities summer institute entitled Hurston on the Horizon: Past, Present, and Future was directed by Ayesha Hardison and Maryemma Graham and is affiliated with the University of Kansas Project on the History of Black Writing. KU, by the way, is where Hurston biographer Robert Emery Hemenway’s archives are housed as he was a chancellor there, and we got to access those archives along with other exciting material. We were also fortunate to have at our Zoom-ing fingertips access to some of the greatest Hurston scholars as institute faculty and guest speakers, including the aforementioned directors, Kevin Quashie, Deborah McDowell, Glenda Carpio, Carla Kaplan, Giselle Anatol, and more.
My interest in participating in the Institute comes from being a big fan of Hurston’s novels, but also having the chance to devote time to reading everything else she has written. I remain especially interested in the way she writes about navigating institutional spaces as a woman of color, and what’s behind that characteristic grit that we often read about in her essays such as “How It Feels to be Colored Me.” I was able to share some of her writings as well as video and audio from our institute and some great Library of Congress materials from Hurston’s ethnographic work with my students this past semester for my Women Writers course, and hope to be able to do so again this upcoming semester in my American Literature course. (You can find more about my teaching here.)
Last month, as part of the institute, I also moderated the third of three follow-up webinars. The first was with the great Hurston biographer Valerie Boyd, and the second was with novelist Tayari Jones. You can find my live-tweet coverage of the Boyd discussion here. I moderated the third talk, with philosopher Lindsay Stewart. Our talk on her book, The Politics of Black Joy: Zora Neale Hurston and Neo-Abolitionism, is below. Information on all three webinars can be found here: https://hurston.ku.edu/news/webinars
There’s more to come with Hurston! Among other things, I will be participating in a mini-conference with other fellow NEH institute scholars later this month. My presentation, “Hurston on the Limits of Knowledge and Representation,” will discuss some of her essays, including a few recently published for the first time this month. We hope to be able to do an in-person reunion and meetup sometime next year at ZoraFest.
You can find out more about the institute here: https://hurston.ku.edu/
My presentation was part of a larger book conversation panel with Dr. Swati Rana, whose book is entitled Race Characters Ethnic Literature and the Figure of the American Dream (2020, UNC Press). Even though she covers the 20th century from 1960 and before while my book talks about a bunch of books published more than a couple of decades later, it turned out that there were numerous overlaps in our concerns and questions. Our conversation was moderated by the great Dr. Betsy Huang.
For my part, I outlined two of the basic questions underpinning Novel Subjects, namely:
How does contemporary literature contend with the power and responsibility of authorship, particularly in narratives of marginalized groups?
How has multiethnic literature challenged the notion that writing and authorship are neutral or universal?
I provided an example from Ruth Ozeki’s 2013 novel, A Tale for the Time Being. Ozeki’s novel depicts two author-protagonists—one named and modeled after Ozeki herself, who happens upon a journal written by a second author, the fictive teenaged writer named Nao. Especially because they are separated by time and space, we might assume that this reader-writer relationship goes in only one direction.
However, in Ozeki’s novel, it’s circular—both writers have the power to influence the other in very personal and intimate ways that also shape their self-assessments and perspectives. In fact, at one point, (spoiler alert!) the character Ruth actually crosses into the fictional storyworld of Nao and Nao’s grandmother, deliberately altering the trajectory of the plot itself.
In this way, my book focuses on author-characters who Sara Ahmed might call willful and intrusive—they both intrude upon and interrupt the metafictional tales that they tell, while at the same time willfully insisting upon telling these tales in the first place, often through a reliance on unconventional, unaccepted, or even seemingly inauthentic methods and approaches.
If you want to know what texts I discuss in Novel Subjects, you can find a Bookshop list here.
My publisher has kindly offered a 40% discount code on Novel Subjects for those who are interested. You can order from their website using the code NOVEL40.
Below is a portion of a talk I’ll be giving next month at MELUS on using archival material on the history of Native American schools, include Carlisle. In the rest of the talk, I discuss other secondary texts by Indigenous authors that use archival material as a primary source.
I gave an earlier version of this talk at the Digital Native American and Indigenous Studies workshop and received really helpful feedback which also contributed to the below post.
My initial attempts to incorporate archival work in the classroom involved reading various selections from the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center (hereby referred to as CISDRC). Carlisle’s founder, General Richard Henry Pratt, became famous for the school’s mission, “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” The saying signifies a change in Pratt’s approach from militaristic decimation to scholastic incorporation through erasures of Indigenous languages, cultures, and traditions. In a speech given in 1892, Pratt surmises, “Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit.” In other words, Pratt suggests, isolate the Native American child from his family and tribe, impose upon him the language, religion, and customs of dominant white culture, and he will then become capable of contributing to society, thus solving the looming question of what to do with “our” dwindling indigenous population.
Begun by Dickinson College in 2013. the CISDRC had only been around for two years in digitized form when I offered to pilot a lesson incorporating the student records into my curriculum. I introduced students to the archive and to Carlisle itself through supplementary firsthand accounts of Carlisle from authors such as Zitkala-Ša (Yankton Dakota) and Berenice Levchuk (Navaho) and a documentary film entitled Warrior Women about Lakota community organizer Madonna Thunder Hawk. Students also had assigned class readings of certain student files and publications of the time period put together by Carlisle teachers and students, such as The Indian Helper and The Red Man. Eventually, I instruct students to research the archive on their own by first finding one student and at least one element of personal connection—a shared instrument that both my student and the Carlisle student played, or someone who is from the same state or part of the country, for example.
Discussing her own experience with a digitized archive, Megan A. Norcia highlights how “technology enables students to find new meanings in old texts; offers a model of scholarly intervention in ongoing critical discussions; engages students of different learning styles by reinvigorating the writing and research process; and causes them ultimately to question how history is represented, framed, and processed in the present moment.” To say that all of this advancement occurs as a result of the medium is not a stretch. As much as the students and I discussed the contents of the archives, we also discussed the unstable nature of the archive and of archival research in general. They learn to see that the “official” record of history found in textbooks, government documents, and documentaries has been carefully edited, and is incapable of highlighting all perspectives, nuances, and experiences.
Buried within the archive’s minutiae, such as demographic information on a student information card that would make the CISDRC student records similar to other schools at the time, are often revealing alumni follow-up surveys indicating where the student has gone since leaving Carlisle. For example, over ten years after the school began enforcing Pratt’s mission in 1879, Shoshone tribe member Phillip E. Lavatta became a student there at age 17. Whether he chose to attend voluntarily or not is unknown; however, it is likely that, once he got there, he received the same treatment as other Carlisle students. As seen in John N. Choate’s photographs of fellow student Tom Torlino taken at his admittance in 1882 and then again three years later, Lavatta’s hair would have been similarly cut short, his more “culturally marked” clothing replaced with the standard Carlisle-recommended garb, which usually was Western civilian clothing or an Army green uniform. As another unwilling participant of a compulsory program to eradicate native cultures, he would have been forced to abandon his native language for English, answer only to his English name, and be placed with a white family rather than being allowed to go home.
Answering the questions on his former student survey, Lavatta took the opportunity to hold forth on his lack of rights as a Native American. Responding to the open-ended prompt of “Tell me anything else of interest connected with your life,” Lavatta mimics dominant rhetoric about Native American inferiority at that time, writing:
We have been having, and will continue to have trouble with gov’t officials regarding our “rights.” We are children and should not be taught to strike back in self-defense. We should be made to understand that whenever a mistake is made in Washington that it was the work of some “clerk.” …and still the cry in the Indian office is that the returned Carlisle student is a “kicker” – that is the name I have for now.
Lavatta’s reference to a “kicker” connotes in this instance neither a position on the famous Carlisle Indian School football team nor a member of the Kickapoo Nation, but rather appears to refer to the assumption of Carlisle students as rebels or protesters. Despite this reputation, Lavatta’s impassioned statement is quite unusual to see in the student records retained in the CISDRC given the straightforward nature of much of the information contained there. Lavatta ends the above diatribe in a jarring contrast typical of many of the student files when he concludes, “Could write more but will close, with best wishes for the school, yourself, and others under your charge. Respectfully yours, Phillip E. Lavatta, Pocatello, Idaho.”
The switch in tone could mean many things, whether it’s a mere recognition of the formality of letter-writing, or protection from the dangers that come with being a kicker or even with criticizing the school that may have treated one so harshly, and so on. It may also reflect the nature of the potentially conflicting experiences that Lavatta experienced there, a tension that was often difficult to pinpoint in the archive records themselves. Students found such expressions of personality and even protest to be the most exciting discoveries in the archive, however potentially suppressed, bowdlerized, and edited.
Overall, my students and I benefited greatly from what Susan Wells famously identifies as the “three gifts of archival work”: namely, a resistance to closure, a loosening of resentment (by productively facing the anxieties of our discipline), and finally, a reconstruction of the disciplines of rhetoric, composition, and—to Wells’ characterization I add—ethnic American literature, in order to “rethink our political and institutional situation, [and] to find ways of teaching that are neither narrowly belletristic [or solely aesthetic] nor baldly vocational.” Discussing her own experience with a digitized archive, Megan A. Norcia highlights how “technology enables students to find new meanings in old texts; offers a model of scholarly intervention in ongoing critical discussions; engages students of different learning styles by reinvigorating the writing and research process; and causes them ultimately to question how history is represented, framed, and processed in the present moment.”
To say that all of this advancement occurs as a result of the medium is not a stretch. As much as the students and I discussed the contents of the archives, we also discussed the unstable nature of the archive and of archival research in general. They learn to see that the “official” record of history found in textbooks, government documents, and documentaries has been carefully edited, and is incapable of highlighting all perspectives, nuances, and experiences.
In this essay for The New Territorymagazine, I write about a moment I tried to gain my bearings in a new place by connecting to the author and activist, Zitkála-Šá:
“I was a Midwest transplant, born and raised on the East Coast. Before I left home, friends joked about flatland and cornfields and voiced concerns about my entering what they perceived to be a region of overwhelming whiteness. Culture shock, however, was nothing new to me. As the first in my immigrant family to attend college, I knew what it meant to feel unmoored, to walk into a room where no one resembled you.
My conference visit to Earlham College was an attempt to soften that dislocation. Books have always been my second home, so sitting in the Runyan Center listening to literary presentations, I was already more comfortable. A bonus? Zitkála-Šá went here in the 1890s. Having read her stories about being the only American Indian among over 400 college students, I felt a kinship….”
I provide more details on Zitkála-Šá’s speech, “Side by Side,” in this thread: https://twitter.com/DrMLovesLit/status/1280553203432599552 One of the highlights: In a part of the speech detailing all lost to the advent of “civilization” (ie, broken treaties, “the White Man’s bullet” etc), Zitkala-Sa writes, “He loved his native land. Do you wonder still that in his breast he should brood revenge, when ruthlessly driven from the temples where he worshipped?”
Contact me if you wish to see the entire transcript of the speech itself.
Special thanks to the hardworking librarian-archivists at Earlham College for indulging my obsessiveness and answering my questions. Thanks too to Rebekah Trollinger for taking the photo in the New Territory magazine article, and to Andy Oler, editor extraordinaire.
I’ve been fortunate enough that many of my personal and scholarly interests coincide. Examples of where this has served me well are my multiple publicpresentations and conference presentations on Afrofuturism. Not to mention a monthly nerd-out session on Afrofuturism with the lovely folks at the Kheprw Institute.
As Ytasha Womack describes it, Afrofuturism proposes ways of looking at the future “through a black cultural lens”—of imagining black people as part of that future, whether they are flying rocket ships, wearing space suits, engaging with technology, communicating with alien beings, or simply living and thriving in a time beyond today. I thought I’d share some of my favorites that fall under the increasingly widening rubric of Afrofuturism.
First: some explainers!
A couple of my own introduction to Afrofuturism are below, but neither are as exciting as these primers from Dust and This American Life:
Dust. There are many great videos explaining the roots of Afrofuturism, but here’s one of my favorites. The Dust series stands out because of its combination of cool animation and its focus on music.
This American Life. One of my favorite podcast episodes ever. This episode of This American Life starts with (white) host Ira Glass graciously handing off his show to producer, journalist, and resident Afrofuturism aficionado Neil Drumming. The entire episode (transcript here) is worth a listen, but here are the acts broken down:
Act 1, Metropolis Now (12 min): Neil talks to a Detroit mayoral candidate who is running on an Afrofuturist platform. Part of what intrigues me about this is it illustrates how the use of the term Afrofuturism has become quite diffuse and nebulous in certain contexts, but can nevertheless have community applications.
Act 2, Past Imperfect (12 min): This next one is extra brilliant in my opinion: Azie Dungey (also a writer for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) recounts her time playing a slave for tourists on George Washington’s estate
Act 3, The Black Sea (6 min): An original song about <it’s a surprise> by the hip hop group clppng., and featuring Hamilton performer Daveed Diggs
And here are couple of contributions from me:
Indiana Humanities TILT mixer. I was fortunate enough to present an introduction to Afrofuturism at a cocktail party-style event organized by Indiana Humanities. Here’s that presentation, dusted off several years later for my literature students:
Joshua Mays: This self-trained artist and muralist based in Oakland, CA, creates beautiful and fantastical work that many think as fundamentally representative of Afrofuturism (despite his own misgivings about the title). He talks about his artistic journey in this interview and video.
Paul Lewin: Born in Jamaica, Lewin’s work often features his country’s national bird, as seen here and in one of my favorite monograph covers ever, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas‘s The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games. Lewin’s work often fuses Caribbean and African myths and storytelling traditions. He speaks here in an interview with Afropunk.
Lina Iris Viktor is a conceptual artist, painter, and performance artist who often uses an ancient technique of gilding her works with 24-carat gold. Born to Liberian parents in London, Viktor has exhibited her work all over the world and divides her time between London and New York.
More about her gilding work at a 2019 exhibit in London is here.
Afrofuturism and Literature
N.K. Jemisin – The Fifth Season: No Afrofuturism booklist (especially one of mine!) would be complete without N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. Its breath-taking debut, The Fifth Season, is a masterpiece of worldbuilding. Jemisin made history by winning the Hugo Award for Best Novel three years in a row for each of the books of this trilogy. (Jemisin’s acceptance speech for the third Hugo is one of my favorites. Click for the video and transcript.)
Nnedi Okorafor – Binti: I’ve already raved about Dr. Okorafor‘s Binti in a previous post, but after having reread it again for a recent course, I can confirm that all of the books in the series are eminently readable and enjoyable.
Maurice Broaddus – Pimp my Airship: This captivating adventure, which Broaddus started pretty much on a dare, may be the first to combine Afrofuturism with steampunk. A bonus: Reading it inspired me to learn more about the history of Indianapolis and to listen to some great music. (Each chapter title is also a song title.)
Trivia time! It’s worth pointing out that Edward A. Johnson (born in slavery in NC and the first African-American member of the New York state legislature) wrote a utopian novel featuring African Americans and dirigible airships in 1904.
Octavia Butler – Parable of the Sower:
“All that you touch You Change.
All that you Change Changes you.
The only lasting truth Is Change.”
The first of what would have been Butler’s Earthseed trilogy, Parable of the Sower spawned a religion and a philosophy. It is also an absorbing, unique, and deftly written dystopian novel.
Horror writer Tananarive Due and minister Monica Coleman host a series of virtual conversations discussing Butler as both a seer and a balm. (Due also also teaches Afrofuturism and horror at UCLA.) I share some highlights of the opening discussion here.
Bonus, since I mention the This American Life Afrofuturism podcast above. For more on my favorite podcasts and how I use them in the classroom, see the below thread:
Lately I’ve been having many conversations—both inside my online classrooms and on social media—about graphic novels. They’re often my go-to reading for fun and/or distraction, and my list of favorite books at any given moment usually has a number of graphic novels featured on it. Here are a few graphic novels that speak to me:
Rereading this refugee story while sheltering in place was oddly comforting to me. This is a beautiful graphic memoir about the author and her family’s escape in the 1970s after the fall of South Vietnam and their attempts to remake their lives in another country. It’s also about to connect with family when you are separated by distances that seem hard to bridge. The phrase “personal and public history” comes from the poet Natasha Trethewey and is a good way to think about how memoir can indeed represent an individual story while reflecting a broader history.
More in this category:
The March trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell: This trilogy has won all the awards, and all were well-deserved.
The classic to end all classics. I often say that Spiegelman’s struggles to get people to take the medium seriously are why we have so many graphic novels today. Once you read and reread this one, the book about the book, MetaMaus, is also worth a look.
More in this category:
Palestine by Joe Sacco (introduction by Edward Said): I would call this one graphic journalism, even more so than Spiegelman’s Maus. However, if one is expecting objectivity, then you may be disappointed as Sacco prominently foregrounds his fallibility, moments where his imagination fails, and also highlights how his very presence affects those he interviews and the kinds of stories they tell.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel: This beautifully written memoir was eventually made into an award-winning Broadway show.
One! Hundred! Demons! by Lynda Barry: The author’s quirky style in both her art and her writing of her autobiofictionalography are unmistakably unique.
Watchmen by Alan Moore. Along with Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, Moore revolutionized our ideas of what comics could do.
Something about this one always reminds me of going to the beach as a child. This was the first graphic novel to make the short list for the Caldecott Medal in 2014, which unfortunately opened it up to wider criticism when it became the most challenged book of 2016, for reasons that aren’t really quite clear to me.
More in this category:
El Deafo by Cece Bell: Find an excerpt of this semi-autobiographical story of the author (as bunny) at this link.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang: This one, and March above, could have easily been placed in the Classics category. Its three storylines and artistic styles make it a fun read. Here are some sample pages.
Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson: I enjoy watching the 16-year-old Kamala Khan attempt to balance being a Muslim teenager while also being a superhero.
I’m a big fan of art nouveau-inspired work, so Sana Takeda’s art in the award-winning series Monstress is worth the ticket on its own, but the intricate worldbuilding and storytelling of this high-fantasy saga is epic. I have yet to read the latest issue but at this point I may just (happily) start again from the beginning. Also, did I mention there are cats?!
The Arrival by Shaun Tan: This is my only graphic novel entry on the list without (actual) words, and even though some of the artwork is available to view online, nothing compares to just getting lost in this story in print form.
Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Faith Hicks, et. al.: This is Girl Scouts meets Adventure Time meets X-Files. (Stevenson, by the way, has also done work on Adventure Time, in addition to her wonderful graphic novel Nimona). I haven’t read the entire series, but what I’ve read so far is great.
On my to-read list of graphic novels:
My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris (I’m currently reading this one – borrowed from my public library’s Hoopla account) and the art, story, and presentation so far are really striking. I wish I had it in print instead.)
Indiana Humanities began an initiative, called INseparable, which asks us how we contend with boundaries like class, race, and urban and rural spaces. After teaching Celeste Ng’s amazing novel, Little Fires Everywhere, and Season 3 of the podcast, Serial, I am inspired to think of the in-between space of the suburb.
In my research, I’m often preoccupied with liminal spaces and who occupies them. Together, Serial and Ng’s novel provides the perfect examples of the divergent issues that can occur in those spaces. Not to mention that the consequences of the history of Shaker Heights in Ng’s novel are fascinating, as are the dramatic differences between Shaker Heights and the very nearby suburb of East Cleveland that takes up a lot of the interest of the creators of Serial. In some ways, the suburbs are the ultimate liminal spaces. At the same time, however, many center suburbs in our thinking of “real” America.
Here’s a quote from Robert Beauregard that solidifies this idea of the suburb as the embodiment of the US:
"Suburban life anchored a standard of living commensurate with the nation's status as the leader of the ‘free world’ and established the country’s economy and form as the best hope for affluence, democracy, and world peace. Life in the suburbs was a mark of American exceptionalism and a model to which all nations could aspire."
When we think of popular depictions of suburbs in literature, the ones that often come to mind are predominantly white and middle class:
John Cheever – Bullet Park
Richard Yates – Revolutionary Road
Alice Sebold – The Lovely Bones
Jeffrey Eugenides – The Virgin Suicides
Rick Moody – The Ice Storm
Judith Guest – Ordinary People
In fact, other than the above examples of Serial and Little Fires Everywhere, the one example that came to mind of a non-white family at the suburban novel’s center is Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (2003), and it’s fair to say that even with this immigrant family, we are looking at people with fairly privileged backgrounds. With Ng and Serial, we have some versions of the above, but also other stories and experienced highlighted from the margins.