By Khadija Azhar, Lok Hang Vincent Chu, and Rajesh Panhathodi

Anjuli Gunaratne grew up in Colombo, Sri Lanka and received her Ph.D. in English and the Interdisciplinary Humanities at Princeton University. She has held postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Hong Kong’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities (2018-2020) and at Brown University’s Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, where she was the Carol G. Lederer Postdoctoral Fellow (2017-2018). Her work has appeared in PMLA (Publication of the Modern Language Association) and the CLR James Journal, and is forthcoming in Research in African Literatures.

What attracted you to a research career?

I kind of stumbled into it. When I went to university, I decided to do an English and music double major, and my whole idea was that I would come back home to teach high school. I just wanted to have a teaching career, not even in a university. And it was only when I was in university that I became really interested in research. I went to Mount Holyoke College, and there you could choose to do an undergraduate thesis if desired. Though it was not compulsory, I ended up doing the undergraduate thesis. I liked the experience.  And using the work I did for the thesis as my writing sample, I applied to PhD programs. That is how it all began.

What do you think led you to become interested in postcolonial studies?

At the time I was graduating from Mount Holyoke, there was a lot of hype around the discussion of relationships between law and literature. So, many studies were emerging looking at the rise of the novel and its relationship to the nation-state and the nation-state’s relationship to the discourses of human rights. So, I wrote a thesis that looked at the kinds of imaginative and linguistic refuges that literary works created within the text itself. I had an early interest in literary theory, so I took all the literary theory courses and classes that covered the 19th century, empire, and the novel. There were, at Mount Holyoke, some professors who taught thematic courses on violence. These advanced classes were quite interesting in the way they blended theoretical and philosophical works with the reading of literary works. I just had never heard of any of this stuff in high school. I went to a conservative, local girls’ school. I was in the Sinhala medium; I never went to an International School. I did English literature because I really loved it, but it was a specific syllabus focused on a limited literary canon. So, I have to say that going to Mount Holyoke was great because it was a liberal arts school, and you always had to keep stepping out of your comfort zone. I think that gave me the confidence to take these classes I at first found quite intimidating. So, I think that’s what got me into postcolonial studies.

Tell us more about your forthcoming book Miraculous Corpse: Tragedy and Postcoloniality.

Miraculous Corpse was initially my dissertation, which was entitled “Tragic Resistance: Decolonization and Disappearance in Postcolonial Literature.” The book has preserved some of the chapters from the dissertation, but I have written two new chapters for the book over the last three years. I am at the stage where I’m preparing a part of the manuscript as a writing sample/book proposal, which I plan on sending to academic publishers. Miraculous Corpse is a bit of a strange book. Sometimes I struggle to describe it. It is a book on tragedy, but it is not on how postcolonial writers adapt western tragic works. I know there’s a lot of work that has been done on adaptation. For example, when I tell people that one of my chapters is on Aimé Césaire, people assume that I am writing on The Tempest. It is a perfectly fine play, but that is not the one I am most interested in. So, the book is about tragedy but not so much about dramatic works. I am looking at how certain writers borrowed various figures, philosophical ideas, and forms of literary and dramatic representation in order to express what I’m calling ‘postcoloniality.’ For me, I am defining postcoloniality as a manner in which these writers, through their work, inhabit various forms of loss. For example, the book begins with a discussion about the ways in which many postcolonial thinkers displace the difference between mourning and melancholia. Sometimes, melancholy becomes a way to think through things, philosophically speaking. So, often, in each chapter, I am looking at how writers turn melancholy into a kind of philosophical investigation and at how they aesthetically recover life worlds that have been lost.

What is the ‘Miraculous Corpse’? Could you elaborate on how you came up with this title?

The ‘miraculous’ in the title is my homage to Aimé Césaire. I’ve spent many years studying him, and, in some ways, he is the reason I wrote this book in the first place.  Initially, I had no sense of anything; I wrote a paper for a graduate class on Césaire’s A Season in the Congo, which finally became a journal article. In some sense, it was studying his work that first began the project. He has a collection of poetry called Les Armes Miraculeuses. In this work, he talks about words as weapons. But he is also playing on the slippage between  “les larmes” (tears) and “les armes” (weapons). In this collection, Césaire explores the relationship between words as weapons and words also as sites of sadness and tears.

As I said, the book also thinks through certain figures associated with tragedy. One of the central figures that ties everything together in the book is the ‘corpse’. I read in the literary works I study various scenes of burial, particularly these innovative, imaginative, somewhat experimental (not anthropological) scenes of burial. Why are these writers so interested in creating these funeral practices within the literary work itself? The link between each chapter is these scenes of burial innovatively dramatized in the text itself. The text becomes a kind of tomb. And more often than not, these funeral sites of burial are created for bodies that have disappeared. So, the corpse becomes the site of miraculous recovery, not just of forgotten histories but also of forgotten ways of being in the world. For Assia Djebar, the Algerian writer, the disappeared are the intellectuals who are assassinated by the FIS (Front Islamique du Salut) in Algeria. For Césaire, it is King Christophe and most relevant to my work, Patrice Lumumba. Césaire’s play Une saison au Congo becomes a kind of tomb for the disappeared anti-colonial revolutionary.

What kind of works inspired you to focus your book on the anglophone and francophone literatures of former British and French colonies?

My interest in the francophone is clearly inspired by Césaire. In fact, I only dabbled with studying French for many years, never taking it seriously. And it’s only when I encountered Césaire’s poetry that I took the language seriously. So, that is how I got into the francophone stuff and the study of Césaire then opened up other opportunities. And of course, my interest in former British colonies is more personal than anything, right. It is a way for me to understand myself, I guess.

My book opens with a reading of Assia Djebar Reading the photographs of four Algerian photographers who tell the stories of four Algerian cities through their works. I am looking at her reading the photographs because all the images, in some sense, she says, capture the way in which two worlds collide:  the world of the disappeared and the world of the present in which people inhabit the present but are always haunted by that which has disappeared. And, of course, Djebar’s reference point is the Algerian War. What these pictures are capturing is a society that is recovering from quite a violent colonial war but is also at the brink of a new outbreak of violence. In the 1990s, particularly with the assassination of Algerian intellectuals, Djebar asks what these photographs are registering. She develops a kind of tragic philosophy through her reading of the photographs. So, I try to explain in my book what is tragic about her thinking and how this meditation on the tragic emerges through her reading of the aftermath and after images of the colonial war in Algeria.

Do you have a target reader group for your book?

I think if I had a target reader group, it would be people who are trying to find new frameworks for reading postcolonial literature – not just what we would think of as ‘contemporary anglophone literature.’  Today, the word ‘postcolonial’ is not being used a lot, right? It is ‘global anglophone’ or ‘world literature’ That dominates. I think, for me, if people are interested in going back and finding new frameworks for reading older texts, or rethinking the relationship between anti-colonial thoughts and post-colonial thoughts, or revisiting that juncture between the anticolonial and the postcolonial with new frameworks,those would be the people I am writing to. Because there are obviously ways in which we study postcolonial literature and teach postcolonial studies or a survey class, ones that do not always capture the richness of anti-colonial thinkers. I feel sometimes that the thought of these writers are reduced into little boxes. One of the books, of course, on postcolonial tragedy is a famous one written by David Scott Conscripts of Modernity, in which he says that the postcolonial problem space needs to be re-conceived and needs also to separate itself from the questions and answers anti-colonial thinkers ask and pose. And I agree with that. I think that it is important for postcolonial studies to create its own problem space, pose its own questions, create answers, and think about what answers best suit the questions. But at the same time, I also want to think about ways in which those problem spaces might be more connected. I don’t know if I have succeeded in making these connections in my book. The book is only one attempt. When I think of this book actually making some impact, I just think of one person reading maybe the Césaire or the Fanon chapter and being like ‘Oh! I thought I knew Césaire/Fanon but I have learnt half a new thing’.

What is your personal approach to teaching? What do you want your students to take away from your class?

Teaching writing is very important to me because, as a graduate student, I got most of my teaching experience through the work I did for the Princeton Writing Program. So, in graduate school, the teaching requirement was (I think) being a TA for two classes. And then you could add more teaching if you liked. But I knew that I wanted not just to do the minimum requirement. I had an interest in becoming a good teacher. Because, remember, initially, I just wanted to teach. Not to do research. My primary job on campus was to work for the Writing Center. I worked there as a writing mentor. And through the Writing Center, I got the opportunity to teach courses in which I was the primary instructor and not a TA. Huge for me. I really enjoyed doing that and appreciated that. And so, I think when I teach, I want to balance the relationship between the ideas, the thinking, and all that that we are doing in class, and how we write about the things we are thinking about. Because often students will have really good ideas, but then there is a gap in making the transition from having a good idea to actually writing about it.

Two things I want my students to understand: first, writing is not a talent; it is a skill you can learn, and it takes time, so you won’t get anywhere fast. Second is to lay the groundwork so that a student can build on it, even if what they go to do in the world has nothing to do with literature. I think something I really think about is transferable skills. So, I want my students to leave the class knowing that they have started to learn a skill that’s going to take time. If they devote the time to this skill, they can learn it. I want them to leave with the sense that ‘This is something that I can continue to study,’ as opposed to ‘Oh, I don’t have the talent to do it.’ I mean, some writers are prolific, but more often than not, even good writers are writing every day. Even if it is just a couple of sentences, it’s a skill they practice.

Is it a mantra that you want to tell your students?

For grad students, I would say, write everyday.’ Even if all you are writing is summarizing a text you’ve read, that summary might end up in your thesis. And you don’t have to have a very ambitious goal. I found this book very useful: Every Day I Write The Book by Amitava Kumar. Basically, what Kumar does is interview writers on their writing process. To track the writing of his book, Kumar says he took an exercise book, and he would just put a tick if he wrote 250 or 200 or 100 words a day. So, every day you tick off 200 words, and at the end of seven days, you will have 200 words times 7. The method is simple, although the activity is challenging.  That’s the method I’m using right now. I have an exercise book (nothing fancy), I put a tick every day. And sometimes I can’t write 200, sometimes I revise an old paragraph or something, but I still mark the tick.

Are there any courses you’re especially looking forward to teaching?

Oh yes, I’m really looking forward to teaching ‘Forms of Contemporary Literature’ as well as ‘Cringy: The Aesthetics of Discomfort next semester. I think the latter course is the most challenging because I am trying to find language to describe a phenomenon that is in the process unfolding, culturally speaking. Of course, shame is a huge category, but cringe is different – it’s shame but not big, momentous shame. So, the course explores questions like: Why does cringe culture exist? Why are people consuming other people’s cringe? How do you think about cringe in the present, and how do you link it to a history? Is there an ethical gesture being made in producing and consuming cringe? How do you think of it as an aesthetic category? What makes something cringy? Though I don’t have answers to these questions right now, I am very excited to explore them with students. I feel like it is a class that will give me the opportunity to learn a lot from the students.

What texts would you recommend to a beginner who is just starting to learn about ‘postcolonial theory’?

I always tell students to start with Robert Young’s Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction as it is so exhaustive. It isn’t only a historical introduction; it gives you the main theories and critiques of postcolonial studies as well. Then, I also like Neil Lazarus’s The Postcolonial Unconscious, which is an excellent collection of essays. Finally, I recommend students read the introduction written by Jini Kim Watson and Gary Wilder to the 2018 book The Postcolonial Contemporary: Political Imaginaries for the Global Present. The book offers an overview of how and why postcolonial studies was conceived and what the ‘postcolonial contemporary’ is. In fact, when writing my book, I also try to engage with the idea of the ‘postcolonial contemporary.’ Particularly in literary studies, the question of what the ‘postcolonial contemporary’ is, is overshadowed by questions regarding global anglophone or world literatures – key concepts that are more ‘in’ today.

What are your interests outside academics?

My interests have changed during the pandemic, given that one can’t travel or do things that one normally does. Because I am always in texts, I like to do things that take me outside of texts. I am a sucker for old Hollywood films; I will consume any and all. I am a huge HK CineFan supporter.  Apart from film watching, I have taken up sewing and embroidery over the last year. My mother makes clothes, so she is really talented with a needle, but I am not as good. It is fun to learn to sew because I get to have new kinds of conversations with my mom. After all, I did not get to see my parents during the COVID-19 pandemic. Right now, we are more isolated from people we love and used to see much more often. I saw that the University is encouraging students not to travel for the holidays, and that is completely practical, but the emotional toll is something you can’t quite calculate. You can’t go see your family, or do holiday rituals, so finding ways in which to be connected to your creativity is important. Also, I am obsessed with plants, and I would love to have a garden, but because I cannot, I fuss over my house plants. This includes caring for them, arranging them, and learning about them.

Published on: December 22, 2021 < Back >