I hope your semesters are wrapping up nicely. I’m currently studying abroad in Chile so mine started at the beginning of March and will go on until mid-July. That said, what an amazing journey this semester with its combination of study abroad and research has been. And the best part for me is that neither of them is over yet! My research on what the novels One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez 1967) and The Old Drift (Namwali Serpell 2019) say about the national community in the Global South and how they subvert various kinds of determinist discourses about Latin America and Africa respectively is one step on my journey towards the BPhil in International and Area Studies – Global Studies Track. In the next school year, I will write my BPhil about this subject and defend it near the end of the spring semester. Now that the CURF is over I will continue my research, but my focus will shift in ways I explain below.
The research I did this semester can be divided into two parts. The first part was before I left for Chile. During this time, I immersed myself more in the history of African nationalist philosophies from around the time of decolonization via Adom Getachew’s brilliant book Worldmaking after Empire and in the history of Zambia where The Old Drift takes place. I also internalized various theories of nationalism (Benedict Anderson – Imagined Communities, Partha Chatterjee – Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World, and theories discussed as well as put forward by Adom Getachew), one or more of which I plan to use to structure the argument of my BPhil. In addition to this, I consulted Theories of Nationalism by Umut Özkirimli which briefly recaps many major theories of nationalism each in about 3 or 4 pages. Personally, I find understanding literary and even more so political theories to be one of the more difficult parts of research. My advice to others who have similar difficulties is to get a reference work like Theories of Nationalism (make sure it is a scholarly work though!). I find it very helpful to see the main points an author has spent up to hundreds of pages developing in a condensed form. This is worth doing both before and after reading that author’s work. Similarly, if you are new to a subject, looking at a reference work like this is useful because it can give you an idea of what others have written about it in the past and which of their works you might want to use as part of your argument. (I owe the idea of getting a reference book to my father who is a university professor.)
The second part of my research began before I went to Chile but intensified while I was here. I wanted to take this time to really focus on the Latin American side of my research. I am fully aware that Chile and Colombia where One Hundred Years of Solitude takes place are very different from each other. If I can explain how my being here relates to my research, it is that Gabriel García Márquez and a significant number of other writers and literary theorists of the 1960s “Boom” in Latin American literature thought of their work in pan-Latin American terms. This pan-Latin American sentiment is one of the lenses through which I read One Hundred Years of Solitude. To begin with this part of my research, I read Gerald Martin’s biography of Gabriel García Márquez which gave me insight into the author, his personal history, Colombian history, and how the latter two shaped his novel; and various scholarly articles about One Hundred Years of Solitude. Here in Chile, I am taking a class on Chilean and Latin American Narrative in which I am learning more about various other literary movements preceding the “Boom” such as national romances and regionalist novels, both of which One Hundred Years of Solitude and other Boom novels dialogue with and subvert. I am accompanied by Journeys through the Labyrinth: Latin American Literature in the 20th Century also by Gerald Martin, scholarly articles on both novels and the historical figures and events who appear in them, and the academic work of Namwali Serpell, the author of The Old Drift.
I hope that what I’ve talked about until now gives a sense of how my research process works and that readers will be able to pick out parts of my approach that suit them. It also helps set the stage for what comes next for me. As I focused on the Latin American side of my research this semester, I will focus on the African side in the fall. This means that I will take the classes AFRCNA 0127 Introduction to Africa and AFRCNA 1240 African Literature and Society at Pitt (I am currently taking an African history class here in Chile) as well as deepening my knowledge of African and specifically Zambian history and politics through my own research.
Finally, I would like to share some advice based on my research experience, in addition to what I mentioned above. A lot of what I talk about is probably more applicable to the humanities than the sciences, but some might apply to both. As some of my decisions indicate, I recommend choosing classes which in some way relate to your area of research. This can point your research in new directions since you might come across texts and ideas you were previously unaware of, and you can take the opportunity to talk to that class’s professor about your research. This is intimidating but it is worth it, and, in my experience, professors love to hear from students who are interested in what they are teaching.
There are two other things I do which really help me move my research forward. One is that I will sometimes interrupt my reading and just write down any mental connections I’ve made and ideas that I’ve had. Writing my ideas down not only ensures I can remember them later, it also helps me think since new ideas often come to me as I write. I recommend that whenever you have an idea related to your research, before you even start judging whether it’s good or not, write it down. I usually do this in a Google Doc, but paper works just as well. Here are some of the things I wrote down. They may not make it into my BPhil, I may not even agree with them by the time I’m done with my research, but they help me think.
Vague spoilers for both novels.
An additional fate suffered by the nations and before that colonies in the Global South is to have been written about as objects of imperial study. They were (and still are) subject to forms of analysis which emphasize what I would call cultural pathologies. These include the “mad and marvelous theories” which García Márquez sends up according to Martin (Labyrinth 223) as well as the discourses which constructed the Indigenous inhabitants of Africa and the Americas as savage and/or infantile. I argue that in relation to their distinct nationalist projects, García Márquez and Serpell write in opposition to and directly make fun of these various pathologizing discourses.
While the political philosophies of Colombian conservatives and liberals are present in One Hundred Years, political discourse plays a much greater role in The Old Drift. Examples include everything from the argument between the sergeant and the colonel about African independence to the discussions between the young activists near the end of the novel. These do not just serve the purpose of filling in historical context; they are part of the book’s subject matter. Just as the characters try to figure themselves out, so they try to figure Zambia, the postcolonial world, and what the best kind of human society would be.
Thoughts in complete sentences:
Yet while Úrsula notices the similarities between José Arcadio Segundo and the Colonel, and it is true that they formed a sort of bond, the novel also makes clear that they are quite different from each other.
Questions I have for myself:
Does Serpell shrink the borders of the unit of self-determination (the Lusaka city-state) or does she grow them to the entire Global South (influences of Chile, Nehru, etc. on third generation)?
How exactly does the relationship between error and prophecy work in One Hundred Years of Solitude?
The other thing I’ve found to be incredibly helpful is talking to other people. This doesn’t just include scholars specializing in the field you’re working with – though I strongly recommend taking advantage of every possible opportunity to do this – but also your own friends and family whether they have an academic background or not. Having to explain your ideas or the ideas of one of your sources to someone unfamiliar with the subject matter can really help you understand them and zero in on what’s most important. Questions from people who are new to the topic can also prompt you to notice blind spots in your thinking. I have a certain advantage here in that a lot of my friends and family are interested in literature and history and several have academic backgrounds or are currently majoring in similar things, but most people in this group know very little about Latin American or African literature or history. However, I’m pretty sure that even if this isn’t the case, talking to your friends and family is still worthwhile. As an example, for a geology course, I once had to give a presentation on the Cambrian Explosion and even though my mother knows fairly little about geology or paleontology, having to explain the main points of my presentation to her still helped me understand what I was talking about better.
A big thank you to everyone who has followed me on my research journey this semester and goodbye!
Photo: Biblioteca San Joaquín – one of the libraries I have access to at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile where I am studying abroad