CURF #1: The Nation in African and Latin American Literature

Hi everyone, my name is Tobin. I’m beginning the second semester of my junior year. I am majoring in English Literature, doing the BPhil in International and Area Studies – Global Studies Track (which allows me to have a BPhil advisor from outside my major), and minoring in Spanish. An interesting fact about me is that I am trilingual (English, German, and Spanish) and love to travel and learn about different cultures. My research mentor is Professor Daniel Balderston in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literatures. I was his student in SPAN 1426 Literature of the Southern Cone Countries, and he was my mentor for a research project I did last summer on three Latin American dictator novels.

I am doing this research in preparation for the BPhil that I will write during my senior year. Because of this the end product will be an annotated bibliography of sources I plan to use when I write the BPhil. In accordance with the rules for the BPhil in International and Area Studies, that bibliography will be due by the end of the summer.

The focus of my research is on two novels, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift (2019), both of which address what it means to be a nation in the Global South. My approach to the research will be multidisciplinary. On the one hand, I am reading academic writing on both novels. For One Hundred Years of Solitude, about which there are more than 600 articles in the MLA International Bibliography, I’m in the process of choosing and reading the ones which are most relevant to the ideas I’m exploring. The Old Drift, in contrast, is very recent and the subject of only a few academic articles, all of which I plan to read. In addition, I am spending a greater amount of time on learning about the debates about postcolonial nationalism both when the novels were written and during the time periods they represent (the main events of The Old Drift begin in 1939 and continue into the near future and One Hundred Years of Solitude covers roughly the 100 years prior to its publication). Immersing myself in the intellectual climates which produced the novels as well as the ones which they reference will help me understand the intellectual and political forces which inform them as well as how they comment on and propose new ideas about nationalism in the Global South. It is this relationship between literature, culture, and politics which I am most interested in. Along these lines, I have so far read Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking After Empire which provides a fascinating overview of the debates about the future of the postcolonial world among anti-colonial nationalists in the Black Atlantic, and which shows that the sovereign nation-states of today were just one of many possible models suggested. I am currently reading Partha Chatterjee’s Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World, which details how postcolonial nationalism was distinct from its European predecessor, and Gerald Martin’s biography of Gabriel García Márquez, which highlights the formative experiences and views of one of my authors. 

While my professional goals are still hazy at this point, my love for the arts from the Global South remains a driving factor in my life, and I believe will inform whatever I ultimately do professionally. I am almost certain I will go on to graduate school majoring in a subject which allows me to continue to pursue these interests such as Comparative Literature or Latin American Studies. Because I am doing the BPhil in International and Area Studies, my research will be integrated with a study abroad in Santiago, Chile for which I leave in mid-February. Living in a Latin American country will not only enhance my understanding of the material I am working on (García Márquez had a pan-Latin American understanding of literature), it will prepare me for future professional travel to countries in the Global South. 

Professor Felix Germain from the Africana Studies department once told a class I was in that part of the reason he taught African film was that it was a way of giving us “African literacy,” an understanding of African societies, their cultures, and the problems they face. The arts can be extremely useful forms of knowledge when learning about countries which may seem remote and of which understanding in the US is often clouded by clichés and stereotypes. Used correctly, academic writing about literature from the Global South can itself enhance understanding of the countries where the works being discussed originate. That is what I aim to do here. 

(On the left you can see the majority of the books I currently plan to work with.) 

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