Marijana Mikić receives dissertation fellowship from the University of Klagenfurt

Within the framework of the one-year fellowship, which is sponsored by the University of Klagenfurt’s Faculty of Humanities, PhD researcher Marijana Mikić will work towards the completion of her dissertation project with the working title “Black Storyworlds:  Race, Space, and Emotion in Contemporary African American Literature.”

In her dissertation, Marijana explores how twenty-first century African American storyworlds interrogate the emotional violence of racial and spatial oppression, while also envisioning affectively liberating ways of self- and space-making.

Congratulations Marijana!

How Reading Shapes Us: Lesley Larkin

By Lesley Larkin

My parents were both great readers: My mother loved family dramas and stories about misfits and outsiders. Her favorite authors were Anne Tyler, Carson McCullers, and Tennessee Williams. Although she was born and raised in Los Angeles, her mother was from West Virginia, and she felt a pull, as the latter two names suggest, to stories about the South. My father  reads widely but is a lay expert in science fiction. I vividly remember going to the mall bookstore with my dad, as a middle-schooler, to get my copy of Dragonflight signed by Anne McCaffrey. Years later, when I was pursuing my Ph.D. in English, we went together to see Octavia Butler, not very long before her untimely death.

I was lucky to grow up in a house full of books, where reading was something my parents and older sister openly took pleasure in, rather than something that was “good for you.” My mother and father always had a book in hand, and I lost whole weekends to Madeleine L’Engle or Isaac Asimov. As a young person, I was drawn to science fiction and fantasy. I took pleasure in the experience of entering an unfamiliar world and gradually becoming familiar with it, however imperfectly. It was the same pleasure I took in learning Spanish and, eventually, in studying and working abroad: The feeling of the world opening up before my eyes, being so much bigger than I knew. (Before travel became a reality for me, The Price is Right was a significant source of fantasy for me. I could never believe it when someone passed on a travel package in the Showcase Showdown in favor of a car!)

Recently, as I’ve turned more and more to speculative fiction in my work, I’ve come to some realizations about these early reading experiences. Samuel Delany’s essays on science fiction, especially, have helped me to articulate something I knew without really knowing it. Delany argues that science fiction requires a certain discipline of its readers; because the world of the text is decidedly not the world of the reader, the reader must work to piece together clues provided by the author in order to understand the “rules” of the fictional world. How do things work here? How do you pronounce this name? What is gender in this society? Who has power and who does not? Asking—and trying to answer—these questions as a young reader of science fiction and fantasy trained me to ask them of texts across the literary spectrum, and to never assume that I knew what was really going on in any story.

Indeed, Delany recommends science fictional reading for all reading encounters. I love the story he tells, in “Science Fiction and ‘Literature’—or, The Conscience of the King,” about a nineteenth-century historian and “great reader of literature” who spends two years limiting his literary reading to science fiction (80). After this immersion, he returns to Pride and Prejudice and finds it transformed. Suddenly, he has questions: “What kind of world would have had to exist for Austen’s story to have taken place”? (81). And is this fictional world equivalent to the real world of that period? (His answer, incidentally, is no.) It turns out that the defamiliarizing effect of science fiction extends well beyond any specific reading encounter, taking even the most well-known works, genres, and periods and turning them into something new, prompting us to ask questions we might previously have taken for granted about the society described, its unwritten rules, its relations of power. These questions naturally extend to the reader’s world as well; in such moments, the “direction” of the reading encounter can reverse, as the reader herself finds herself being read.

I didn’t actually read a lot of science fiction in college. Instead, I started to immerse myself in the American literary canon and the (then) newly canonized giants of African American literature. My encounter with Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison, in my first African American literature class, was life-changing. I had grown up a middle-class white girl in the suburban Pacific Northwest. The number of Black students at each school I attended was in the single digits, and I had no Black teachers. I did not study any books by Black authors throughout my K-12 schooling, and the few books assigned that had to do with Black people, non-Western and Indigenous societies, or race and racism were written by white authors (Pearl S. Buck, Margaret Craven, Alan Paton, Harper Lee). To finally encounter Black writers was like seeing the ocean for the first time, and the immensity of what I hadn’t known before struck me like a tidal wave. As important as the beauty and virtuosity of these works, and the knowledge and perspective they provided, was the lesson they taught me (with guidance from excellent teachers) about my own limitations and the limitations of “the canon.” No book is universal. Every book is shaped by context. The human experience is far vaster than my own.

I went on to study American literature in graduate school and, eventually, to write a dissertation that grew into a book on African American literature and the politics and practices of reading. I see now that my interest in how Black authors manage a plural audience (what James Weldon Johnson called, in 1928, a “double audience”), and in the responsibilities that attend reading across lines of difference, grew out of those early experiences with science fiction and fantasy. As a white reader of Black texts, I regularly find myself entering unfamiliar worlds and working to become more—but imperfectly—familiar. I also experience the defamiliarization of my own reality; seen through the lens of the African American literary and critical tradition, the unwritten rules of the society I live in become legible and available for critique. And I discover what it’s like to be “read” by African American texts, to make myself vulnerable to interrogation, interpellation, disidentification, and all manner of reassessments of the self.

I just finished teaching Toni Morrison’s Beloved for perhaps the tenth time. This is one of the books that set me on the path I’m still on—it’s a book that changed the course of my life. I can still remember the used copy I purchased for that first African American literature class. It was a hardcover, and the dust jacket was missing. I can call up the smell and the sensation of the soft and, in a few places, stained pages. I remember the warm spring air wafting through my dorm room window, as I read and re-read that startling, disorienting opening line: “124 was spiteful.” What kind of book begins with a number? I must have read it six or seven times before deciding to just go on and figure things out as I went, Delany-style. I remember the pit in my stomach as I read about the blend of beauty and terror at Sweet Home, and as I gradually realized what Sethe had done—and why. What kind of world would have had to exist for this story to take place? Where is there continuity between that world and my own?

This book enveloped me, and it’s fitting that my memory of it is so physical, given the novel’s revolutionary articulation of “rememory”—memory that is, among other things, embodied and material. I have grown up on this book, from that first reading more than twenty-five years ago, when I was a young, naïve, sensitive, curious undergraduate student, to now, when I am surprised to find myself a middle-aged mother and senior professor, somewhat cynical, teetering on the edge of burnout (after this year of pandemic and protest), and yet still curious and perhaps more sensitive ever—certainly still brought to tears by Paul D’s “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” Offering this book to my students, watching them grapple with its aesthetic and ethical complications, listening to their epiphanies about American history, reading their tentative analyses of the novel’s relevance to our present moment, and suddenly my own first, faltering encounter is right back before my eyes.

Near the end of his epistolary essay Between the World and Me (a work that, not incidentally, uses a great detail of science fictional language and imagery), Ta-Nehisi Coates writes this to his son:

Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe oneself white divides them from it. . . . And I would not have you live like them. You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact. (107)

“I would not have you live like them.” That line sticks with me. To read—to really read—African American literature, as a white person, is to let go of what Coates calls “the Dream,” the fantasy of safety and superiority that wraps itself around us, either softly, like a cocoon, or tightly, like a noose. I grew up in the cocoon, though with some of the tools I needed to pry my way out. It has been reading Black literature that has helped me peel away the membranes between the world—in all its complexity—and me. This, of course, is an ongoing, nonlinear, and collaborative process, and I do not think Coates, or Morrison, or Baldwin, or Butler will ever be done with me. But I’m grateful for the chance to be asked anew, with every book I take up, the questions Florens asks at the beginning of Morrison’s A Mercy: “One question is who is responsible? Another is can you read?”


Works Cited

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. One World, 2015.

Delany, Samuel. “Science Fiction and ‘Literature’—or, The Conscience of the King.” Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press, 2012. 61-81.

Johnson, James Weldon. “Double Audience Makes Road Hard for Nero Authors.” 1928. The Selected Writings of James Weldon Johnson. Ed. Sondra Kathryn Wilson. Vol. 2. Oxford University Press, 1995. 408-412.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. 1977. Vintage, 2004.

—. A Mercy. Vintage, 2008.


Lesley Larkin is a Professor of English at Northern Michigan University and the author of Race and the Literary Encounter: Black Literature from James Weldon Johnson to Percival Everett (Indiana UP, 2015). She is a coeditor of Wiley-Blackwell’s forthcoming Encyclopedia of Contemporary American Fiction, 1980-2020 and is currently working on a monograph about contemporary American literature, genomics, race, and the humanities tentatively titled Reading in the Postgenomic Age.

How Reading Shapes Us: Stefanie Dunning

Stephanie Dunning

By Stefanie K. Dunning

I was a senior in high school when my teacher assigned a short story by Alice Walker called “Everyday Use.” It is the first time I remember reading a piece by a non-white writer in an educational setting and the discussion of that text would forever change me as a reader. That short story prompted me to visit the school library and find some other work by Alice Walker, who I discovered was also a novelist. The only book the school library had was The Color Purple, which I read even though I’d already seen the film. I was amazed to discover how different the book was from the movie and determined that I would read all of Walker’s work. That year for Christmas, I asked for every book by Walker my mother could find. To say that I became obsessed with her is an understatement. I researched everything I could about her life and discovered she was from Georgia, like me. Though I was raised as a Christian, as I grew into my own thoughts I found myself with questions. I was drawn to meditation, to yoga, to West African and other Eastern forms of spirituality and without Walker’s work, I may have been more afraid to explore these practices and ideologies. I  became a vegetarian and started to think about the kind of person I wanted to be; Walker’s work also allowed me to reflect upon my own childhood traumas. I discovered that she had, at least for a time, attended Spelman College in Atlanta, GA. I had planned to attend Smith or Grinnell, but after learning that Walker went to Spelman, it shot to the top of my list. Attending Spelman College, an institution that is a historically black college, was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made and I owe the circumstances that led to that decision in no small part to reading the work of Alice Walker.

Upon acceptance to Spelman, all freshman receive a reading list of works we are to have read before we arrive for freshman orientation week. On that list was Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Having been a voracious reader since at least the 3rd grade, I was excited to receive this list from the college. I devoured all the texts there but Hurston’s novel moved me most of all. It was the first book I ever remember reading that made me cry. When Janie shoots Teacake because he has rabies, I was moved in a way I did not expect. When I declared a major of English my freshman year of college, it was because I wanted to spend the rest of my life reading the work of people like Hurston and Walker. Spelman opened the door to many other writers—from Ntozake Shange to Toni Morrison–whose work I read with keen interest and a sense that the words on the pages of these novels and poems and plays had something very specific to say to me. And though I did not anticipate becoming an English professor during all of high school and most of college, it seems in hindsight that it was my destiny. I can remember praying, when I was in the 5th grade, that one day I get a job that paid me to read. Miraculously, my dream came true.

These early reading experiences shaped, and continue to shape, my career as an academic. I knew that I wanted to undertake a deeper study of African American writing in graduate school and I knew that I wanted to amplify my own experience of transformation which was first triggered by reading Alice Walker. James Baldwin famously said that, “You think your pain and heartache are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”  Reading, especially in the context of Ethnic American Literature, can show us that our own suffering, which we assume is so private and particular to us, is part of the human experience. Reading these black writers that I was so drawn to allowed me to make sense of my difference—however that iterated itself—and showed me that I do not walk any path alone.

The first year I was at Spelman Alice Walker came to Atlanta and did some readings from her new book, Possessing the Secret of Joy. I attended one of these readings at a local church, The Shrine of the Black Madonna. Everything about that moment was a harbinger of the life that was coming into being for me. Can a black girl, cramped into boxes of American racism and sexism, made to feel as if she is nothing and has no value, come to recognize that as the lie it is? Sitting within the glow of Walker who read beneath the mural of a Black Madonna, the answer is yes. After the reading, people lined up to get Walker to sign their books. Many people brought all of their books authored by her to sign. (This, even then, was a lot of books.) I stood in line with my one book, the new book. I noticed that she looked exhausted. I stepped out of line and decided not to add to the burden. I told myself that one day, I would get to meet her. I had simply wanted to shake her hand and look into her eyes, more than I wanted her to sign my book. So I left, feeling certain that one day our paths would cross again.

In a way, every time I teach Walker’s writing—or the writing of any author I love—our paths cross. Teaching now at a predominantly white institution, I bring the work that shaped me so formatively into the classroom as much as I can. I have come to love black writing and the canon of African American literature the way one loves one’s ancestors, because within that work lies salvific potential for anyone who reads it. The insights contained in the diverse and voluminous field of ethnic American literature are ones that are almost always revolutionary, both personally and politically, in their import. Consider, for example, the way Baldwin lays bare the internalized torment at the heart of anti-blackness and racist violence in the short story “Going to Meet the Man.” His focus here isn’t just to show how painful racism is for black people, but to show too that the white man in the story, Jesse, is a broken human being. Thus his beating of the black man in the story is a projection of his inner brokenness. This taught me a lesson about hatred I have never forgotten and which has supported me through some of the most painful incidents of racist violence. It comes back to me when I think of George Floyd or Trayvon Martin or Breonna Taylor; it reminds me repeatedly that black people suffer not because they are black, but because of an unacknowledged brokenness within their torturers. Baldwin shows, throughout his work, that only broken people can perpetuate racist and homophobic violence. Thus, I impress upon my students that ethnic American literature is not “just” for people of color; black writing is not “just” for black people. Black writing, as much as the writing of Emily Bronte or William Faulkner has something for me as a black woman, has something for the non-black reader too.

A few years later, when I was graduating from Spelman, I learned that Alice Walker would be the keynote speaker. That year, I’d won an award she sponsors for Spelman students—the Zora Neale Hurston/Langston Hughes writing award. So, I got to ride in the car that picked her up from the airport. She was kind and quiet and she held my hand. My dream of meeting her, of looking into her eyes and of spending some brief time with her, had indeed come true. I owe the life I now have, a life I could not have imagined for myself as a child, to the works I was fortunate enough to have read in my formative years. The gift that these writers gave the world in their work continues to shape who I am as a person and informs what I bring to the classroom. I believe that the power of black writing, and of ethnic American literatures largely writ, shapes us all regardless of our racial identification. I see within black writing, and ethnic American literature, an invitation to insight and transformation of ourselves and our world. Like Ralph Ellison, I believe that the extraordinary value of this literature is its ability to show us all something about the history and persistence of racialized structures in and on our lives. Thus, like Ellison, I extend an invitation to all people to read black writing because, as he writes at the end of Invisible Man, “Who knows but that, at the lower frequencies, I also speak for you?” 

Stefanie K. Dunning is an Associate Professor of English at Miami University. She is a graduate of Spelman College and the University of California, Riverside, and a Ford Fellow. Her first book, Queer in Black and White: Interraciality, Same-Sex Desire, and Contemporary African American Culture, from Indiana University Press, was published in 2009. Her latest project, Black to Nature: Pastoral Return and African American Culture, from the University Press of Mississippi, is forthcoming in May 2021 and available for pre-order. She also has a podcast, called Black to Nature: the podcast, available for listening on all major platforms..

Marijana Mikić receives grant from AAU’s Young-Scientists-Mentoring Program

Within the framework of the one-year grant, PhD researcher Marijana Mikić will work closely with her mentors Derek Maus and James Donahue at the State University of New York at Potsdam.

Professor Maus is an expert in contemporary African American literature, in particular in the field of black satire. His recent publications on the topic inlcude Conversations with Colson Whitehead (2019) and Jesting in Earnest: Percival Everett and Menippean Satire (2019). Professor Donahue is one of the pioneers in the field of critical race narratology, as is evidenced by his recent Contemporary Native Fiction: Toward a Narrative Poetics of Survivance (2019) and the volume Narrative, Race, and Ethnicity in the United States (2017), which he co-edited with Jennifer Ho and Shaun Morgan. Maus and Donahue’s interdisciplinary research at the intersection of narrative theory and ethnic American literature is of central interest to Marijana’s work on the Narrative Encounters Project and her dissertation, entitled “Black Storyworlds: Race, Space, and Emotion in Contemporary African American Literature.”

Marijana’s plans during the one-year mentoring program include a research visit at SUNY Potsdam next spring and a visit from her mentors here in Klagenfurt in September 2021. We are excited about these wonderful opportunities and congratulations Marijana!

New Publication on Strategic Empathy and Intersectionalism in Alice Walker’s “Am I Blue?”

Together with colleagues W P Małecki and Małgorzata Dobrowolska, Alexa Weik von Mossner has published an article entitled “Narrating Human and Animal Oppression: Strategic Empathy and Intersectionalism in Alice Walker’s ‘Am I Blue?'” in the journal Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment.

Combining orginal empirical research and cognitive narratology, the study explores the narrative strategies and attitudinal impact of Walker’s influential essay, in which she remembers her encounter with a white horse called Blue and draws connections between human and animal oppression.

Workshop with Fulbright Scholar Matthew Teutsch: Encountering African American Literature in the Classroom

foto by Keith Ruffles

Encountering African American Literature in the Classroom: Workshop with Matthew Teutsch

Wednesday, May 29, 2019, 15:00-16:30

English Department, University of Klagenfurt

Based on several of his publications, Matthew Teutsch will discuss with the Narrative Encounters team how teaching African American literature might help students gain a better understanding of the ways in which the past has led to the construction of the current cultural moment in the US, when racial incidents appear on news feeds daily. What insights can students draw from early African American texts such as David Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles and Frederick Douglass’s What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July? How did later African American writers—from Charles Chesnutt and Jean Toomer to Ernest Gaines—expand and complicate these critiques of white supremacy by renegotiating what it means to be black in America? How might students’ narrative encounters with such texts shed light on the current cultural moment? And how might it affect our approach as well as the resulting conversations when we teach them not within the United States but in a European country such as Austria? These are some of the questions we will address in the workshop.

Post featured image. Cropped photo by: Keith Ruffles