Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #8)

Greetings from Chicago!  After a cold, wet day filled with rain and snow, the skies have cleared today and the sun is out.  Birds are singing and, dare I say it, Spring feels like it is soon on the way.  Hopefully there are signs of Spring wherever you are.

This month’s blog post is dedicated to a recap of the NEMLA 2016 conference, which this year was held in Hartford, CT.  My first conference as American/Anglophone Director was an exciting experience as I had the opportunity to participate in and hear panels on a wide variety of topics.  Now past-President of NEMLA, Ben Railton, also added to this year’s convention an exciting new element as scholars reached out to the community (especially high school teachers and students) to discuss issues of importance to us as thinkers and educators.  These community centered events were mostly held at the beautiful Mark Twain House, just in view of Hartford High School, although a number of scholars went to schools around the city to visit students.

Race, immigration, and the ongoing specter of “terrorism” were common themes across convention panels and special events.  Jelani Cobb, Professor of History at the University of Connecticut, gave a powerful keynote address on how the events of the past few years have all but shattered the notion that the United States is a “post-racial” nation.  His contextualization of race relations in American culture challenged all of us in the room to find a way to create engaged scholarship that encourages our colleagues and students to move beyond the standard narratives used to describe race in American culture while continuing to work for racial justice.

Academic conferences are so large that each person’s experience of them is unique.  Beyond the larger themes I noticed in this year’s convention, there was an undercurrent to the sessions I attended that brought me back to a question central to the study of literature.  That question was Why Write?

At the Special Event for the American and British areas of NEMLA, Porochista Khakpour, currently a writer in residence at Bard College, answered that question in a wide variety of ways but kept coming back to the reality that often we write to survive.  Creative people, and I would like to think that all of you are creative people, feel a deep need to explain their experiences to others.  This desire often presses up against our resistance to explain. In Khakpour’s case that resistance stemmed from her frustration at being constantly asked to explain what it means to be “Iranian” and what it’s really like in Iran.  Fearful both of cliche as well as over-exposure of personal treasures too precious to share with just anyone, Khakpour described her writing process as a constant push pull between the stories inside her that demand to be told and the pain of telling those stories.  Yet the telling of those stories, as the conversation after the talk made clear, brings us closer together as humans who ultimately have more in common than talk of our ethnic, racial, and sexual divisions might suggest.

Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel discussed this issue of writing to survive in a different context.  A member of the Mohegan Tribe, Zobel’s life and writing belies the myth, propagated by James Fenimore Cooper among others, that Native Americans are either vanished or in the process of vanishing.  Her fiction, most of it aimed at Young Adult readers, works towards the goal of helping young Native Americans of whatever tribe to make sense of their ancestry.  Ironically, this is a goal that touches me personally.  I shared with Zobel towards the end of her talk that in middle school I went an assembly in the school gym where we heard the stories told by Abenaki historian and writer Joseph Bruhac.  If you’ve ever met Bruhac, he is a very engaging storyteller and I couldn’t help but share with my mother how excited I was to hear him tell his tribal tales.  She then told me that her mother, my maternal grandmother, was Abenaki from the St. Francis band of the tribe in Quebec.  This surprised me greatly at the time and still does.  It was another example from my personal history of the problematic concept of “authenticity.”  My identity is composed of at least six different ethnic identities, not all of them unambiguously white.  Which one is the authentic me?  This question is especially difficult as to the eyes of the world I’m just “white.”  Zobel’s characters struggle with issues of mixed-identity in their own ways.  I look forward to reading more of her work as I’ve just started reading Wabanaki Blues.

I could give many more examples of the ways in which presenters addressed the question of Why Write, but the two above made the most lasting impression on my mind while the others remain shadows at the margins of my memory.  If you had a sense of a theme linking the sessions you attended at NEMLA 2016, feel free to comment on this post.  As I said before, the experience of a conference as large as NEMLA is highly subjective.

With Hilda Chacon, Professor of Spanish at Nazareth College, now serving as NEMLA President, I look forward to an equally engaging conference in Baltimore, MD in March of 2017.  The Call for Sessions is now live for the 2017 conference.  If you have a seminar, roundtable, or panel to propose, you can do so here

Sessions are welcome in any area.  As American/Anglophone Director, I’m always looking for a wide variety of sessions that reflect as much as possible the full range of scholarship in American Literature today.  Of particular interest to me at this year’s convention are sessions on these topics:

  • Fictional Depictions of the United States Civil War (especially those involving Baltimore or the “Border States”)
  • Scholarship on the life and works of Frederick Douglass
  • Maritime History as it relates to American Literature
  • Relationships between music and poetry
  • Scholarship on the life and works of Edgar Allen Poe
  • Depictions of urban race relations in American fiction.

Sessions on other topics, of course, are welcome.  NEMLA is also committed to creating an inclusive environment that welcomes scholars regardless of their affiliation or employment status.  If you are a High School teacher, Independent Scholar, or Contingent Faculty member, please consider proposing a session on a topic of interest to you that you believe might have a broader interest among scholars.

The deadline for session proposals is APRIL 29.  Calls for papers to include in these sessions will begin at the end of May or beginning of June.

I hope to see some familiar faces from Hartford in Baltimore and look forward to meeting new scholars at NEMLA 2017.

My next blog post will return to a teaching related theme, Why Read?, and share some of the insights from the roundtable session I chaired at NEMLA 2016 on teaching American Literature with Digital Texts.

Until next time….


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