Research

Interests in brief
  • African American literature and culture
  • Bi- and multilingual American ethnic and immigrant fiction, life-writing, and poetry from colonial times to the present
  • (Im)migrant America in its social, historical, political and cultural manifestations

  • Americanization as a movement and program for the assimilation of immigrants in the early 20th  and 21st centuries

  • New York city and its literature from New Amsterdam to the present

 

 

Research Profile

Since the beginning of my academic career I have been interested in the writing of social movements. Beginning with feminism and the literature of the Women's Liberation Movement, which was my Doctoral research, I expanded my research interest to the literature of the Civil Rights Movement and that of Black Power, which in turn was fueled by my teaching of  post-colonial literature and theory.

These two strands of interest in race and gender activism culminated in the monographs Liberating Literature: Feminist Fiction in America (1994) and Alice Walker (2000; second edition 2011). As far as I am aware I was the first to theorise writing as a form of activism in its own right, with Walker in mind.

In the 1990s and 2000s I researched and wrote about Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman; about the memoirs of bell hooks and Henry Louis Gates Jr.; about Black masculinity in the poetry of Essex Hemphill and about a host of other African American writers and topics; much of this work is still unpublished. In 2001 Beginning Ethnic American Literatures came out with  Manchester University Press, for which I wrote the Introduction and the chapter on African American fiction, which includes essays on Toni Morrison, on Ishmael Reed and on Gloria Naylor.

My best work in African American studies to date is 'How to Read Michelle Obama,' a path-breaking  essay that seeks to understand the first African American First Lady in the context of African American literature and historiography (Patterns of Prejudice 2011).

Since 1998 I have chiefly been working on ethnic and immigrant literature of the United States. I have published several articles and book chapters on writers such as Bharati Mukherjee and Eva Hoffman. This research, however, has taken me further and further across disciplinary borders as well as back in time, so that I now consider myself a scholar who works in all periods of American literature and culture, from colonial times to the present.

Within the study of (immigrant America, I am particularly interested in language and cultural difference, and in the ways immigrants have inserted themselves into existing class- and race-hierarchies—and thereby also changed them.

My archival research on the Americanization campaign of the early 20th C, for example, is reflected in 'When Is an Immigrant's Autobiography Not an Immigrant Autobiography? The Americanization of Edward Bok' (MELUS 2013) and led me to the discovery of the phenomenon of ‘ethnic shame', which preceded that of the more familiar ethnic pride. These findings are articulated in ‘Americanization Now and Then: the “nation of immigrants” in the early 20th and 21st centuries' (Journal of American Studies, 2016) which won the Arthur Miller Centre Prize for the best article-length essay in American Studies of that year.

Almost 15 years in the making, my monograph on multilingualism in immigrant writing, Wanderwords: language migration in American literature was published in 2014 (Bloomsbury, Pb. 2016) and reached the top 5 shortlist for the Modern Languages Association of America (MLA) Lowell Prize.

I consider it the culmination of my work (and my personal history as an immigrant to the UK) to date. Wanderwords reads migrant autobiography, essays, poetry and fiction for their use of languages other than English and asks: how do (im-)migrants represent themselves in an American cultural context which is new to them, and in a language that is not their first? Rather than plead for or rely on translation, as other scholars in the field have done, I show in this study the radical potential of bi- and multilingualism for a new creative writing and reading practice that entails a new conception of a multilingual 'American' literature. Principally Wanderwords presents a poetics of writing in English-combined-with-other languages and theorizes the practice of so (badly) called 'code-switching' in literary signification as a mode of cultural critique.

Whilst the intersection of race, ethnicity, gender, class and sexuality continues to inform my teaching and writing, in my most recent publications I have been interested in analysing immigrant texts as linguistic artefacts first and foremost. This material, textual dimension of ethnic literature has been rarely examined in quite such forensic detail as I have done in  recent essays: ‘”Your Own Goddamn Idiom”:  Junot Díaz’s Translingualism in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ (Studies in the Novel 2016); ‘Life in a Box: Gender, Migration and Language in the Bilingual Archive of Truus van Bruinessen, a Dutch –Canadian Housewife of the 1950s’(Tijdschrift voor Gender Studies 2016); 'DeLillo's Italian American' (Bloomsbury 2018) and 'Multilingual American Poetry'(Bloomsbury 2019). 

 

Current projects

  • ‘Dogwhistle Writing: on J.D.Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me’, which seeks to theorise the notion of ‘dogwhistle politics’ in the realm of literature, as illustrated in the way Vance’s memoir signifies in a racially coded way on Coates’.

  • ‘Why the US is not a “nation of immigrants” and never was one’, which will be a sequel to the Americanization article above and address Trump’s immigration policy.

  • ‘Old New Amsterdam in New New York: Netherland, Open City and The Goldfinch’. This essay will be written on commission, for an edited collection on the literature of NEW York.

     

Research plans

  • Following on from the research on Coates’ life-writing, I’m starting a larger project for a monograph with a working title of ‘African American literature in the age of #BlackLivesMatter’, which will focus on mourning in the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Claudia Rankine,  Jesmyn Ward,  Colson Whitehead and others.

  • A psychoanalytically and sociologically-informed project on the concept and representation of 'ethnic shame' in American literature and culture. 

  • Further development of a project on ‘languages of security’. and I want to develop the preliminary work I’ve already done on both the language of security-discourse but also on the languages involved in security work (in the military, CIA and so on).

 Research affiliations and networks

  • Sussex Centre for American Studies (SCAS)

  • Sussex Centre for Migration Research (SCMR)

  • Modern Language Association (MLA) of America

  • British Association for American Studies

  • I have for some years been a member of the Cultures of Threat (security, risk, crisis) network which includes researchers at the University of Sussex, Uppsala, Sweden, Witwatersrand, South Africa, and Miami, Ohio, USA. The network seeks to now extend its brief to Cultures of Democracy and Populism.

 

Doctoral supervision

To date, I have supervised mostly African American Ph.D.s on authors like Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, John Edgar Wideman and Toni Morrison and I hope to continue to do so.

In addition, any projects on American (im)migration, race, gender, ethnicity and sexuality in American culture, from literary, theoretical and/or interdisciplinary perspectives would attract my interest for supervision. I particularly welcome adventurous research proposals with an Atlanticist dimension (Europe and America; the relation between the Americas, the African diaspora) or with a multilingual bent (e.g. American literature in languages other than English, Latinx writing).

Focus on any of the individual writers mentioned above, or on twentieth century and contemporary authors such as Richard Rodriguez, Sandra Cisneros, Gloria Anzaldúa, Susana Chávez-Silverman, Donna Tartt, Jennifer Egan, Tillie Olsen, Philip Roth or Grace Paley would also be of interest.