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Northwestern University

English Across Borders

Transnational literary research is flourishing within the College's Department of English

While university English departments have historically been structured around the so-called “national literatures” (British and American), emerging research continues to reveal a broader picture, Department of English chair Laurie Shannon says.

“Recent scholarship shows how connected the traditional canon always was to everything it excluded,” Shannon says. “At the same time, it reflects the overwhelming reality, intensified in the 20th and 21st centuries, of just how much literary production goes on that is better understood without the limiting horizon of national borders.”

At Northwestern, such transnational literary research is flourishing, particularly among English department junior faculty members who are crossing borders and broadening literary discourse for Northwestern students and the greater world.

Rebecca Johnson

Since arriving at Northwestern in 2010, Johnson’s research has examined the history of the novel and the role of translation, specifically in Arabic literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

“People often think of novels as a European form that was exported elsewhere, but my research opens up the question of the definition of a novel through translation, particularly in the Arabic-speaking world,” Johnson says.

In venturing back more than a century, Johnson finds Arabic translations of western novels taking significant liberties in the composition of the text.

“It leads one to thinking about translation as a creative process and considering the translator as the author proper,” Johnson says.

Johnson’s quest to understand varied perspectives appears in a Kaplan Scholars first-year course she co-teaches titled “Global Orients.” That course, which investigates western representations of the east, has included a Skype encounter with Egyptian revolutionaries, a two-way dialogue in which both the activists and students challenge their preconceived ideas.

“I believe it’s valuable to be exposed to new knowledge, but also to think critically about what you think you already know,” Johnson says.

Andrew Leong

Leong directs much of his research effort to 19th and 20th century Japanese literature in the Americas.

“While there’s much English-language literature about travelers to Japan, there’s very little in the other direction, particularly regarding how Japanese experienced life in places such as the United States, Brazil and Peru,” says Leong, currently in his third year as an assistant professor of English and Asian languages and cultures at Northwestern.

Leong’s award-winning translations of Japanese-language literature written and published in the Americas, however, spotlight Japanese life in the far western hemisphere.

Lament in the Night, for instance, details the immigrant experience and nightlife of Prohibition-era speakeasies in Los Angeles’ Japantown, while his ongoing book project titled The Democratic Fetish explores literature created by Japanese men in the U.S. during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“It’s important to think about literature as something not confined to restricted categories,” Leong says. “For any community, even a marginalized immigrant one, literature has proven to be a central part of daily life, and I hope we can all expand the idea of what literature is and can do.”

John Alba Cutler

An emerging expert in U.S. Latino literature, Cutler researches an artistic genre hosting dynamic conversations around literature theory and literature studies as well contemporary politics.

His latest book, Ends of Assimilation: The Formation of Chicano Literature, contends that Mexican-American literature sparks new thinking about how racial minorities and immigrants experience assimilation and offers deep insights into the nature of literary discourse.

“Immigrants always contribute to the evolution of literature,” Cutler says.

A 2013 recipient of the Weinberg College Distinguished Teaching Award, Cutler’s research naturally weaves into the classroom. One course titled “Manifest Destinies” explores the United States’ westward push in the 19th century and its impact on the nation’s relationship with Latin America, while another — “21st Century Latino Literature” — investigates how new Latino immigrants from the Caribbean and South America continue to reshape the Latino literary experience in the United States.

“I really want students to see how art and literature engage a far greater spectrum of experiences,” Cutler says. “Literature isn’t one thing, but many things and something still in formation. We are always contesting and pushing the boundaries.”

Harris Feinsod

Embracing transnational literature of the Americas, Feinsod sparks new ways of thinking about our cosmopolitan cultural citizenship.

In his current book project, Fluent Mundo: Inter-American Poetry from Good Neighbors to Countercultures, Feinsod dives into the relations between U.S. and Latin American poets during the Cold War.

“For the longest time, we’ve considered poetry the literary art form most obstinately related to nationalism, but all the poets I studied were quite invested in a singular poetry of the Americas,” says Feinsod, who has launched a second book project examining modernist literature and culture’s “global imaginary” in the age of the steamship.

Feinsod’s research extends into the classroom with courses such as the recently concluded “Oceanic Studies: Literature, History, Environment.” An interdisciplinary class, Feinsod gathered students from English, environmental policy and engineering to investigate maritime literature, labor and environmental history “from Columbus to the contemporary shipping industry.”

“As our university is one invested in global studies and addressing our current age of globalization, there are longer histories here that are fascinating to explore,” Feinsod says.

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