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Alyssa: Welcome to the highlights podcast, my name is Alyssa Salsberg Canelli. I am the Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs here in the graduate school, and today I have the pleasure of having a conversation with Megan Finch, a PhD candidate in the English Program. Welcome, Meghan.

Megan: Thank you for having me.

Alyssa: So first I wanted to talk a little bit about your writing process. You're in the middle of writing your dissertation. So first thing, can you give us your elevator pitch for your dissertation.

Megan: My dissertation focuses on representations of Mad black women in the kind of post 1970s moment. So after the ebb of both the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement, and it focuses on representations of madness in these texts. Particularly my focus is on authors like Tony Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison and others.

Alyssa: Great. So, before we get into the really interesting content of your dissertation, I wanted to talk to you about your writing process, and how you actually came to this topic. Was this a topic or question or an area came into graduate school very determined to research and to write on or did it develop over time?

Megan: So, you know, as an African American woman, I grew up loving literature, but I really, I always—and this is a very problematic thing for me to say about my love of literature—but I always thought that the literature by white men in particular was the kind of the most important, that it was a literature that highlighted the universal subject. My favorite book growing up or favorite books growing up where things like “1984” and “Heart of Darkness.” And even through my college years, I kind of continued having this sense of things, and as I read more literature by women and by African Americans, I began to gain an appreciation of them but I always kind of thought that they missed the kind of universal questions that the questions always kind of came down to the sociological problems of being either female or being African American.

And when I came to graduate school I had, I remember writing in my personal statement that, you know, I finally come to the appreciation that black people and women have interesting things to say, but that is not my interest. And I think throughout my first few years in graduate school, there was a lot of me fighting against what was a growing interest in African American literature and literature by African American women in particular. And I remember this question comes up a lot in graduate school, what are you studying? What's your focus on? And I remember kind of constantly being at odds with my own body being that of a black woman and kind of saying that this is what I'm studying. And so it took me longer than it should have to really come to my focus, come to kind of focusing on African American women and writing about madness because there's always that question are you just writing narcissistically about yourself. I've come to realize, or I have come to understand that, I think that this is one of the most vibrant fields and one of the most important fields, I think, in terms of Black Studies generally, and particularly thinking about issues of gender and issues of the construction of irrationality and rationality within that.

Alyssa: Well, thank you for that really reflective response. And it occurs to me that there are some really interesting things to follow up on that because one, I don't know if you've heard the phrase that “dissertation research is always me-search.” So it's definitely something that I think, you know, it's understood, broadly speaking, that, you know, we end up gravitating towards topics and research and things that we are personally invested in. But I think also you're describing this double bind, I think, when you have an identity that is linked to your content or your topic and that is also contrasted with this sort of fallacy of the disinterested scholar, the observer, the person who chronicles or analyzes, that somehow a little bit removed from that which we are studying. So I think that's a very common dilemma that I think many people face, and thank you for highlighting that because I think it's something that we tend to not talk about in terms of when we develop our scholarly questions and research interests.

And the other thing I would like to follow up on that, that whole process for you is that, you know, more broadly speaking, you know, I think that is also a fallacy of grad school, right? That you enter in with your research question or your areas, but that's part of the discovery process. And you're supposed to be changed by what you're reading and what you're studying. And you're supposed to, that's the nature of the inquiry. So along that topic, so what has been the most surprising tangent or insight or, or thing that you've discovered and your content thus far?

Megan: I tend to be, and have always been, a really kind of broad theoretical reader, and I've always been particularly interested in the Enlightenment. And so one of the things that this interest in the Enlightenment which comes up whenever I'm teaching or thinking about, for some reason, always like let's talk about John Locke. And so one of the things that I found most interesting in kind of going back to some of that, and seeing what, as we're thinking about the development of madness—we could start, perhaps, with Foucault’s work, something like that, and then the way he talks about the Enlightenment—so going back to some of the Enlightenment thinkers and thinking about the kind of interesting and fairly consistent coincidence between descriptions of madness, unreason, idiocy and blackness. So when we look at for instance, John Locke's work, he is one of the thinkers who kind of understood slavery as an impossibility because basically only in adjust war situation where one has forfeited their life could one be enslaved and once use this to no longer be enslaved then one kind of forfeits their life at that point. And so within his thinking every, you know, people are their freedom is kind of a central idea there, and only under two circumstances can want to be unfree: as a child when one doesn't have reason enough, and if one is mad.

So we have this kind of framework with Locke’s thinking, but we also know that he, in his involvement with the Constitution of the Carolinas, that he writes that, you know, all Negro slaves must obey their masters and or all kind of white men I think; I don't have the exact wording here. But so how are these two thoughts consistent in his work? And so one thing that I noticed initially was just how only the category of madness or the category of idiocy really allows for us to see his work is being consistent between these two. What was most surprising to me is thinking about how thinkers who, all of whom have been instrumental in the construction of anti-blackness in terms of their discussion of kind of the irrationality of slaves and of black people generally, and the coincident and the kind of way that that works for the next thought, or has this connection to madness within their kind of general understanding. So I'm trying to, what is the most surprising to me and most interesting to me is to kind of continue to trace this connection, even when obviously they're never explicitly doing both, that we’re thinking of both in the same way or not usually anyways.

Alyssa: Yeah. And it occurs to me also that I think one of the exciting things about your project—and I have a lot of sympathy for this—this huge task is how do you anchor your project in literary texts with literary significations and really do the work of what we do as literary scholars, but also connect it to a larger political, philosophical, historical set of texts and discourses and so you're really moving you across disciplines and through time and your dissertation which I think is incredibly impressive but also incredibly difficult to manage.

But to go back to the theory kind of bridging the theoretical and the literary you know, one of the authors you are working with is Toni Morrison and she's one of the writers that is deceptively theoretical. Her novels are brilliant and so many literary ways, but she actually has a very specific theoretical perspective she takes on things. So I'm curious if that's indicative of most of the writers you're working with, how fruitful has that been for you to bridge the theoretical on the literary texts and what you think about that.

Megan: Yeah, so that's a really good question, and a really good point to make about Morrison, and in general, kind of the way that black feminism has understood its theoretical practice as not always being in the kind of literary or theoretical treaties is that storytelling has been always an important part of that. And as a result, my dissertation itself is really kind of trying to think about how black feminist writers have kind of theorized madness as a kind of way of being that is separate from the kind of rational Enlightenment subject. So, if explicitly theoretical black feminists like Sylvia winter have thought about man with a capital “M” and kind of theorize this position as not one necessarily that we should be looking to emulate, ultimately, that black feminist writers in their literary texts have done that and have really kind of thought through what other possibilities there are. But of course, I've had to do that within the context of imagining that subjectivity, always imagining it within a kind of world that's bent on your kind of destruction.

And as I think about I'm writing about “Beloved” right now, I'm really interested in kind of the way that that text is both, I think, interested in how a community can redistribute harm in a way that doesn't mean utopia, right? The idea, particularly for those who might know the text, you know, as the moment where Stamp Paid fishes out Sethe from the river and asked a little boy who's with him to give the baby Denver his coat, and he says, “Well, what am I going to wear?” And he says, “If you want to take that code off that baby, then you do that, but then you go somewhere else and don't come back.” And so there's a sense that this little boy is giving up his coat and he's going to be cold, right? There's not enough to go around in this community, such that, you know, that I can give up my coat and still have enough, right? And we think about charity, we oftentimes think about it that way where you give what you can, whereas what this community is, you know, thinking or what the community in “Beloved” is kind of predicated on is this idea that giving can be a painful and a depriving experience, and yet like the community has to form in such a way that it distributes harm enough so that this baby can live and you can be cold. So there's no utopia there. But certainly, it's a possibility of kind of distributing harm enough that the community can survive.

Alyssa: You know, as you're talking, it occurs to me there's a lot of resonance in terms of trauma studies and sort of the scholarship that has been done sort of in a psychoanalytic tradition around collective trauma and experiences of trauma. And a lot of those scholars have come out of Holocaust studies. There are certain sort of works I'm thinking that the talk about the way in which a community designates a person to carry that trauma, and that person becomes mad, although their reaction exactly what you're saying is not matter a rational. In fact, it's actually quite a rational response rate to the harm and trauma of a larger historical traumatic event. And so it's interesting because that's the other part, I think, that you're working through. Some of the subtext I hear you talking about is sort of, you know, to be to be black, to be African American, to be embodied in a particular way in itself has a traumatic history, and how that has carried through, and how that's transmitted through generations and through reproductive structures, but how do we survive with it and continue through it?

Megan: I'm really interested in, so I think, probably, unless things change, my fourth chapter is going to be about trauma. And what I'm trying to work through in terms of trauma is, going back again to my just interest in the Enlightenment, is the way that trauma to me seems predicated on the notion that harm should only be in relationship to one's transgression. We all know that that's actually not the case in reality, but we but that's what causes a traumatic response. It's not that the thing in and of itself is traumatic, but it's because we have an expectation that we will be saved from violence. And so one of the things that black studies has been interested in lately, and I think particularly my interest in kind of Afro pessimism has been in this idea of violence against black bodies as being not based on transgression. So basically that violence against black bodies is imminent and has a kind of like a different structure that we're thinking about there in terms of the subjectivity or, maybe subjectivity is not the right word there, but that we have a kind of different being, ontological being, because of the imminent violence, which is separate from this idea of the formation of states as something that we give up certain rights, and then we get an exchange the safety and that black people have never been never that's never been afforded to them.

And so what does trauma mean? And so if black people have never had that that sense of security within society, I'm trying to think through what that means in terms of thinking about trauma and the fact that doesn't necessarily mean that that's what the thinkers that I am engaging with are thinking. So I'm trying but I'm trying to think through where this happens and how this comes up. And so I'm just I'm really trying to work for the idea of trauma and I don't know where it's going to go quite yet, but I think it's an interesting question.

Alyssa: Well, this has been a fascinating conversation, and thank you for taking part in this dialogue with me. And one of the things I want to highlight about this conversation is the way in which you started by talking about how you really pushed away particular aspects of your identity or didn't want to have it associated with your scholarly trajectory, but the way in which is all come together in a really authentic and a very theoretically and textually interesting way in a way that that feels incredibly exciting as new scholarship and contributing two sets of conversations that are really cutting edge and contemporary and part of it has incredible significant contemporary relevance. And I think that's one of the things that I think a lot of us, even if we're working on very historical are very kind of removed in time, that we're looking for, you know, a sense that our work does matter in the world. And I think you have so much to add this conversation and your thinking process and how you're engaging is… I'm really excited to see where this goes. Thank you so much for taking the time and to have this conversation. We really appreciate it.

Thank you so much for having me and thank you for giving me the opportunity to really think through things that I might not have in such an explicit manner.