SEA Junior Scholar of the Month, December 2021: Hannah Manshel
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I started graduate school thinking I was going to work on affect, queer theory, and contemporary American literature, but in my second year I took an EAL class with Emma Stapely and was converted, so to speak. That class, and Emma’s pedagogy, made me realize that in order to understand anything about the politics of the present—be that about affect and queerness, or about race and power—it’s essential to look at the past. Looking to the past to understand the present is still at the core of my methodology: I study past forms of legal violence to understand contemporary ones, and past forms of abolition to understand what abolition (broadly defined) can look like in the present and future.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
I’m going to have to second Liz Polcha’s potentially unpopular answer to this question and say I don’t really *enjoy* reading early American texts. It’s almost always more of a hate-read where I rage at John Winthrop and John Underhill’s absolutely heinous anti-Indigenous sentiments. I do have a soft spot for Mary Rowlandson, though. She’s so ridiculous—she cracks me up. Last semester students and I talked about her as a proto-“Karen” which felt apt.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on my book manuscript, tentatively titled Without the Law, which looks at the way Black and Indigenous people in America—from the 17th century to the present—have turned to spirituality and religion, broadly defined, as a way around constitutively oppressive forms of law and the law’s limited conception of freedom, which is so often rooted in property ownership. I look at practices that throw the law—and its justifications for colonialism and slavery—into crisis, and examine how those practices are racialized.
I’m also developing another book project called Bad Faith. This will be a public-facing book about the US legal system, in particular the Supreme Court, exploits the split between the “letter” and the “spirit” of the law to justify the oppression of minoritized groups under false pretenses. It also considers the ways members of those groups can exploit the system’s own violent logic to seek some forms of repair.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I’ve just started exploring the magnificent Mauna Kea Syllabus project, which is an incredible collection of writing, art, and resources that grew out of the movement to protect Mauna Kea. I’m particularly excited to dive into the section on gender, queerness, and Indigeneity written and curated by my colleague Noʻu Revilla.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
I’m always excited by the work of people who think and write about the period without necessarily being “in the field.” K-Sue Park, for example, does incredible work on histories of property law and finance. I’m inspired by scholars who use early American material to do really inventive theoretical, conceptual work—particularly when that work is around colonialism, slavery, and race. And I’m very eager to get my hands on Xine Yao’s new book, as soon as Duke UP will let me add it to my cart.
Hannah Manshel is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa.