Associate Professor, Asian Languages and Cultures
I learned that the power of narrative is not only to describe experience and inspire feeling, but also to challenge and upend social stagnation and injustice”
I did not start my study of Hindi and South Asian literatures and cultures in earnest until graduate school, but my path there was shaped by courses I took as an undergraduate in both religion and comparative literature. In those courses – some explicitly about South Asia and others not – I learned that the power of narrative is not only to describe experience and inspire feeling, but also to challenge and upend social stagnation and injustice. I experienced this power reading literary narratives of the life of Muhammad, Latin American testimonios, 19th century French farcical theatre, and 20th century African American novels. Without question, however, I came to understand this power most intensely in an introductory South Asian Civ course while reading translated Marathi language Dalit (formerly “untouchable”) poetry that rages against a casteist hierarchy in wincingly stark and violent language that compels its audience to contend with the difficult realities of social inequality. We covered this literature in just two classes, over one week of one semester in one of my courses. Yet it has shaped my course of academic inquiry ever since.I began to pursue Dalit literature in earnest while studying intensive Hindi language in India one summer in graduate school, and making the happy discovery that one of the Dalit authors I was reading lived in the same small town in Rajasthan where I was staying. I immediately took an autorickshaw to her house and introduced myself. I asked about her novels, her activism, and her family. Over the course of many conversations and cups of chai with her, I discovered that I was most deeply engaged with questions about literature whose contemporary social context I took could investigate. A few years later I expanded my research to the literary hub of Delhi, immersing myself in the vibrant world of Dalit literature and social activism. It is here I have continued to work and make deep personal connections and lasting friendships with many of Dalit literature’s authors and purveyors. I am particularly proud of the recent publication of my English translations of the Hindi short stories by Ajay Navaria (Unclaimed Terrain, Navayana, 2013), a particularly innovative and challenging contemporary author and good friend. In producing these translations, I feel I have begun to contribute in some small way to a community of intellectuals and activists whose work and words have inspired me since those first, brief engagements with them as an undergraduate.