Editor’s note: Catherine Gander is the Chair of the all-island Irish Association for American Studies and Associate Professor of American Literature at Maynooth University. She is the author of the award-winning monograph, Muriel Rukeyser and Documentary: The Poetics of Connection (Edinburgh University Press, 2013), the co-editor of Mixed Messages: American Correspondences in Visual and Verbal Practices (Manchester University Press, 2016), and is currently working on two scholarly books: the Companion to Don DeLillo and the Arts (under contract with Edinburgh UP) and a monograph Aesthetics of Displacement: Poetry, Art, Hybridity, which explores the social intermedial poetics of women including Doris Salcedo, Cecilia Vicuña, Layli Long Soldier, Muriel Rukeyser, Claudia Rankine, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha.
Her scholarship, literary criticism, and creative work can be found in a number of books and journals, including Journal of American Studies, Journal of Narrative Theory, Textual Practice, European Journal of American Culture, Ink, Sweat & Tears, One Hand Clapping, Juniper, Poetry Ireland Review, Wolf Poetry Magazine, and the Irish Times, among others.
This interview was conducted in late 2020 for an episode of The Americanista podcast, which showcases the outstanding work of women in American Studies; we present it here as the conclusion to our special issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the IAAS. The podcast is currently in production and the hosts aim to roll it out later in 2021. For more information, or to donate to The Americanista, click here.
Welcome to The Americanista, Catherine. Thank you so much for being here. We’re really excited to talk to you today as the chair of the IAAS and to get some of your thoughts. To start off, we want to ask you to go back on a journey to the past here: how did you initially get involved with the IAAS, and how did that relationship grow?
Thank you for having me!
I moved to Northern Ireland in January 2013 to take on a permanent Lectureship in American Literature at Queen’s University Belfast. I knew about the Irish Association from various colleagues, although hadn’t participated in an IAAS event until that time. I suppose the main reason for that is that I had been working a number of fixed contract jobs in various UK higher education institutions, and I was broke and pretty exhausted.
Coming to Belfast marked a new chapter in my life. I had two new brilliant Americanist colleagues, Dr Andrew Pepper and Dr Philip McGowan—both now professors—who made me very welcome, and Philip was then Chair of the IAAS. He brought me into the fold! But the warmth, collegiality, and intellectual spark of the association’s members struck me right away as something special.
Later that year, Prof Margaret (Peggy) O’Brien awarded me the inaugural book prize, and although she’s based in the US, we have remained in contact ever since. Peggy was one of the founding members of the IAAS, a terrific poet and scholar, and a very dear person.
I served on the prizes committee for a few years after that, and in 2016, Queen’s hosted the joint IAAS and BAAS conference, which involved organising hundreds of American Studies scholars—who are harder to herd than cats, as you know—and then in 2017 I moved institutions, to Maynooth University, at the same time as having a baby. Great timing, I know.
By the time I was off maternity leave, I was very ready to come back into the IAAS in a more active role, and so I threw my hat in the ring for Chair in 2019, following David Coughlan’s exemplary Chairship.
I am very lucky to work with such a wonderful team—but one of the things that excites me the most about the committee at the moment is the level of creative and proactive energy it generates. The IAAS is really buzzing right now. We have so many great events, activities and prizes happening this year (2020, which is our 50th anniversary year), and none of them would be possible without the commitment, generosity, and collegiality of the committee members. And their flexibility too! COVID-19 has turned everyone’s lives upside down, but it’s been a pleasure to work with the committee and other members to find new ways to serve our members—especially the students, early career, and precarious academics among us—and move events online.
I think there is so much vibrancy, creativity, and fresh air—it’s a pleasure to work with you guys. You were talking a bit about some of the challenges as a female chair: you’ve just mentioned maternity leave, for example. Can you tell us about your perspective as a female chair of an association like the IAAS, especially given an overall lack of female representation historically?
This is a good question! We know that in almost all academic institutions, in Ireland and the rest of Europe, the UK, and the US, there is a significant gender imbalance. If you look at the statistics for Ireland alone, that were published by the HEA in 2018, women hold less than 25% of professorships across Irish universities, despite the fact that they comprise 45% of all academic staff (and in non-STEMM subjects, so, American Studies disciplines, the staff gender split is 50-50). The percentage of women at Associate Professor level is 34%, at Senior Lecturer 41%, and only at Lecturer level does it even out at 50-50.
Ireland finally has its first female university President, at Limerick, although Professor Kerstin Mey is an interim President.
So, what we’re seeing is a steep decline in female representation the higher up the career ladder we go—women aren’t being allowed to advance, and demonstrate leadership, in anywhere near the numbers that men are.
And please note, we are talking about all women here—the majority of which in Ireland are white. There is a lot of great work being done across the board, and especially by the Gender Equality Taskforce, to tackle these problems, but the same needs to be done with regard to fair and equal representation from people from ethnic minority backgrounds.
I’m saying all this because coming to the IAAS as only the second female Chair in the association’s 50 years of existence, I was acutely aware of these imbalances, and the disproportionate effort it takes for women to reach positions of leadership in academia. I know equality and diversity have always been at the heart of what the IAAS does, and I was keen to direct my energies to enhance these ideals actively.
I said before that I’m immensely lucky to work with such a fantastic committee, which includes Dr Kate Fama as Vice Chair—super-smart, super-efficient, incredibly generous with her time and her brain: she may not thank me for saying this, but she’s definitely my academic wife—Dr Nerys Young as Treasurer—very clever, very funny, keeps us all in check (and in the black)—two brilliant postgraduate representatives, Sarah McCreedy and Maria Manning, by whose energy and ingenuity I am constantly impressed, and an extraordinary early career committee member, Dr Caroline Schroeter, who is doing amazing work currently on Frederick Douglass in Ireland, and who I am convinced will be the president of an Irish university someday.
My predecessors did fantastic—and difficult, and sometimes thankless—work getting the IAAS to where it was when I became Chair, and I owe them a huge debt of gratitude. I also believe that having a female leader has energised the association and allowed certain voices stronger resonance in decision making and planning. You only need to look at our activities from the last year to see this—there’s a lot happening, from new bursaries, to special online events, lectures, and discussions, to a new newsletter, to our new social media officer Suchismita Dattagupta, to some really exciting postgraduate and early career initiatives. Over the last year, we’ve also surpassed our target membership numbers—which means we can finally get that long-needed website overhaul too!
Editor’s note: the website has indeed been overhauled, and the revamped site can now be viewed at https://iaas.ie/
Thank you for such an informed answer and for the generous words. I’m sure the committee will really appreciate that. The next question is something you’ve already touched upon in what you’ve just spoken about, in terms of the need for better representation for people of ethnic minority backgrounds. You’ve mentioned how a lot of these figures apply to white women. How do you approach questions of diversity in the IAAS, especially given the state of Ireland today?
This is trickier to answer, not least because it is difficult to monitor diversity data in membership without a secure and GDPR-compliant mechanism of self-reporting. What I can say is that in my first committee meeting as Chair, I announced my intention to not only grow the association’s numbers within Ireland and beyond but to focus that growth on membership from currently under-represented backgrounds.
One of the ways I began this work was to introduce myself personally to people, organisations, and departments. Another was to introduce the newsletter to make our commitments to diversity and equality more visible to members and subscribers.
I also made the annual conference theme on the subject of ‘Counter-Narratives and Hidden Histories’—so, actively seeking to disseminate and celebrate research that challenges mainstream narratives and more traditionally established canons. As part of the call for papers, I included a roundtable discussion on ‘Anti-racist scholarship and teaching’, and the conference committee made the decision to ensure there were no ‘manels’ at the conference, and that gender and racial equality, and accessibility, were all addressed. And this included small things that make big differences, such as name badges having space for pronouns but not needing to state institutional affiliation.
We also invited two fantastic female keynote speakers: Amy Mooney, Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago and Terra Foundation Visiting Professor of American Art at Oxford University, who would talk about African American photographers in Chicago in the 1930s, and Stephanie Elizondo Griest, the Mexican-American author and Associate Professor of Creative Nonfiction at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, who would talk about her travels to and research on the border wall between Texas and Mexico.
Editor’s Note: Prof. Griest is unable to deliver her lecture for the postponed conference taking place April 2021. The conference committee is delighted to welcome as a 2021 keynote speaker the internationally acclaimed Chicana scholar and writer Prof. Alicia Gaspar de Alba, whose work explores gender, art, culture, and border studies.
The conference has been postponed due to COVID-19, but we plan to run it online next year.
So, essentially, I’m approaching these questions proactively and consultatively—making sure that people who have experienced marginalisation due to factors such as ethnicity, ability, and gender, are involved in all aspects of what we do at the IAAS.
The U.S. Election roundtable panel we hosted in early November is a good example of this: it was great to be able to gather such a fantastic and diverse group of scholars and thinkers for what turned out to be, of course, a cohesive and fascinating discussion.
I think you touched on a lot of topics that are very dear to our hearts, including what we’re trying to do with The Americanista as well. I would like to ask a bit more about that. What does the ‘American’ in the IAAS mean to you? How are other perspectives, such as African American, Native American, and Latin American, integrated to limit the dominance of a more North American focus?
To me, and therefore to the association by extension, the word ‘American’ is inclusive and not determined by State definitions of citizenship, let alone by walls and borders—it follows Walt Whitman’s lead in that it contains multitudes! Latin American, Native American, African American, Asian American, United States studies are all encompassed by our acronym—and of course these are hardly homogenous terms in themselves. That said, we are aware and respectful of the excellent work done by other associations such as SILAS (The Society for Irish Latin American Studies) and do not seek to monopolise on these subjects.
But the study of American culture, history, and politics, is necessarily various, multi-perspectival, and contains contradictions (there’s Whitman again). And while people tend to refer to that diversity in terms of America being ‘a nation of immigrants’, we should remember that the phrase is fairly disingenuous when such a large portion of the nation was originally imported as enslaved property.
Likewise, I keep joking about Whitman as my cultural touchstone here, and many Americanists and American Studies organisations do this—but again, we should keep in mind that Whitman’s tradition is one of a free, white male, and to position American Studies automatically from that perspective is to blind yourself to other perspectives on America—perspectives that existed (and continue to exist) long before Europeans settled there.
What the IAAS seeks to do, among other things, is to make room for all perspectives on what ‘America’ and thus ‘American’ means, and this involves understanding the ongoing histories of divisions and oppressions, as well as collaborations and unions.
One thing that we like to do on the show—and I think it’s very valuable for our audience to learn about a variety of voices and new avenues of reading—is to ask our guests:
Who are three scholars, authors, or creative voices in the field of American Studies that you would recommend to students who are maybe not part of the traditional canon?
Unsurprisingly, the first person I am going to recommend everyone read is Muriel Rukeyser! I’ve been a Rukeyser scholar for over 15 years now, and I’m still discovering things about her. Rukeyser was an American poet, playwright, biographer, novelist, and human rights activist working through most of the twentieth century—she was born in 1913 and died in 1980. She’s most famous for writing an incredible 1938 documentary poem sequence called “The Book of the Dead,” which addresses the industrial mining disaster of Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, in which hundreds of workers, many of them African American migrant workers, lost their lives to silicosis due to the corrupt and unsafe practices of the energy companies they were working for. But I’d like to recommend people read her prose book The Life of Poetry, which was published in 1949 and acts as a sort of treatise—a poetic credo in praxis, delving into many of the ways poetry is an embodied, experiential, vital force for good. Rukeyser discusses the uses of poetry as well as the fears of poetry and makes a fantastic case for how poetry can make change. She speaks about the ‘witness’ of the poem, rather than the listener or the audience. And in that word, witness, is a mixture of response and responsibility, of attentiveness, of testimony, and of consequence. The book begins “in times of crisis, we summon up our strength,” and opens with Rukeyser’s memory of being in a boat full of refugees, sailing away from Spain as the civil war broke out. One man turned to her to ask her where poetry’s place “in all this” was—and the book is an unfolding of her response. I don’t think I need to point out how pertinent this book is to our current moment.
As for suggesting scholars, I agree with Sara Ahmed that citation can and should be a feminist practice, so I will list a few contemporary female and non-binary scholars, writers, and artists whose work should be read, some more mainstream than others. Christina Sharpe, Sara Ahmed, Saidiya Hartman, Amy Mooney, Stephanie Griest, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Lyndsey Stonebridge, Colleen Lye, Ariella Azoulay, Layli Long Soldier, Dionne Brand, M. Nourbese Philip, Carolyn Forché, Natalie Diaz, Solmaz Sharif, Claudia Rankine, Cecilia Vicuña, Carrie Mae Weems, Cathy Park Hong, Renee Gladman, Kimberly Reyes, Camille Dungy, Bhanu Kapil, Stefania Heim, Erika Meitner, Cecily Parks, Elisabeth Däumer, Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, Sandeep Parmar, Jay Bernard, Natalia Cecire, Caroline Blinder, Lee Jenkins, Katherine Fama, Jenny Daly, Zalfa Feghali, Wendy McMahon, Sarah Garland, Jorie Lagerwey, Dolores Resano, Catherine Leen, Nerys Williams, JoAnne Mancini, Maria Stuart, Martha Shearer, Kelsie Donnelly, Dara Downey, Clare Hayes-Brady, Caroline Schroeter, Sarah Cullen, Fionnghuala Sweeney, Melissa Baird, Julie Sheridan.
I love that Catherine, and thank you for the shout out there! I could listen to you talk about all of this for hours, what has inspired you—it makes me wish I could be at your lectures. Can you give us a little bit of insight into your teaching practice? Is there any overlap between your work for the IAAS and your teaching, for example? How do you approach decolonisation in your field?
I think the IAAS, like any association, works best when the voices of its members are equally represented, and this means making sure our younger, or more early career scholars are given a large platform, and several resources. One of the things I love about the IAAS is how so many of its bursaries and prizes are aimed at this cohort, for whom academic life is becoming increasingly precarious. This was something that the late and much-loved Tony Emmerson ensured.
With that in mind, I try to integrate the association’s events, resources, and scholarship into my own teaching where appropriate. If I’m teaching the next generation of American Studies scholars, I hope to leave a legacy akin to the IAAS’s ethos—open, inclusive, anti-racist (not just non-racist—there’s a difference), and analytically critical of white patriarchal structures of power, which includes that now pretty outdated term, ‘the literary canon’.
I teach literature, and I firmly believe in the irreducible connection between literature and human rights, and I agree with Lyndsey Stonebridge that both need to be decolonised.
Decolonisation on the curriculum does not mean inserting a week on texts that are ‘other’ than the white heteronormative tradition. This kind of tokenism can do more damage than good, cementing the idea that the colonial perspective is somehow superior and encouraging the view that anything else is an aberration, or something to be either tolerated or absorbed into a white world view.
The flip side of this, however, is that to remove texts that promote the colonial stance completely from a syllabus is to remove our opportunity to critique them, to understand them—and the cultural, historical, and political conditions that led to their production. It’s vital that decolonisation practices therefore include this type of analysis also.
I convene an introductory module on American literature that runs from what F.O. Matthiessen called the American Renaissance to the Harlem Renaissance (so, from the 1830s to the 1930s), looking at the defining factors of American letters and some of the key writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, including Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Zora Neale Hurston. I also convene a module called Poetry, Witness, and Resistance, which examines texts by poets who identify as straight, gay, and non-binary, Black British, Black American, Native American, Arab American, and white. What connects these authors and their poetry is a commitment to uncovering counter stories, revealing ongoing histories of oppression, and finding formal ways to combine the creative and the social in acts of witness and resistance. I’ve taught this particular module for two years now and have been lucky enough to have outstanding poets such as Carolyn Forché and Philip Metres visit the class via video link-up. But what I love most of all about teaching this module is the reactions of the students—they go through a process of astonishment, anger at social injustice, personal reflection, critical meditation, and analytical response that is always enormously gratifying to be a part of. The discussions we have are first-rate, and I have to say that during this year of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdowns it has brought about, that class has been a lifeline for me—hopefully for them too!