SEA Junior Scholar of the Month for February 2018: Matthew Suazo
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I was converted! When I began the Literature PhD program at UC Santa Cruz, my background was in the British tradition and the Anglophone postcolonial, but Kirsten Silva Gruesz and Susan Gillman (among others) quickly shifted my focus to the Americas, especially the nineteenth century. I take most of the responsibility for the “early,” however. As I began work on my dissertation and the literatures of Louisiana, I found myself drawn further and further back. It was an organic process, but I found that I had to revisit the colonial period in order to tell the story I wanted to tell. Ultimately, many of my research interests—autobiography, race, environment—became rooted in the early Americas.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
If I have to pick a favorite early American writer, it might be Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, the Dominican priest and Mexican revolutionary. He was a character, to say the least, and as a defender of the creole and indigenous populations, there is an immediacy to his voice (especially in his collected memoirs) that is not lost on the present-day reader. As for a text, it might be Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland, which I’ve only gotten to know relatively recently. It’s the second book on my Nineteenth-Century U.S. Fiction syllabus—after The Coquette—and I love teaching it. I could just say that it’s both strange and familiar (don’t look in the closet!), and that’s why students like it, but it’s also a novel that estranges readers in a productive way. It sets up a central concern in the course, the tension between radical self-determination and radical democracy, while highlighting the device of the novel as a form.
What are you currently working on?
I’m primarily working on my book manuscript, Wetland Americas, which takes Hurricane Katrina as a provocation for reconsidering the pre-1900 literatures and history of New Orleans and the Mississippi River Valley. For me, the social and environmental crisis revealed in the flood following the storm is more than a U.S. story and requires both an environmental and a hemispheric perspective. As contact zones that entangle nature and culture, wetlands in their many aspects bring these views together. In texts where representations of these landscapes have intersected with discourses of race—in the theory of American degeneracy, in the figure of the slave in the swamp, in the concept of the tropics—my book traces a pre-history of Katrina. To name a few, I consider the writings of Garcilaso, William Bartram and Chateaubriand, Stowe and Solomon Northup, as well as Lafcadio Hearn and George Washington Cable.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
Last spring at Kenyon, Lauret Savoy visited campus to read and discuss her new book, Trace: Memory, History, and the American Landscape. As an informed and personal meditation on her place in respect to the topics identified by the subtitle, it is entirely relevant to my own thinking and research, especially in its consideration of “American landscape” as a construct fractured along gendered and racial lines. She considers, for instance, the significance of the sublime for those who were, and have been, excluded from its formation and practice. I have assigned portions of the book in the classroom, as well, and my Literature and Environment course will be reading it in full at the end of this semester.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
There are many, beginning with my advisors at UCSC, and I have been drawn to field by the people as much as their scholarship. One of these people is Cristobal Silva, who I first met at the JCB while doing dissertation research, and I continue to admire both his generosity and the way his work has inspired new approaches to early American literature. Of the scholars whose research has directly inspired my own, I would choose Gordon Sayre and Monique Allewaert. As a graduate student, I had distinct moments of recognition while reading their respective “Plotting the Natchez Massacre” and “Swamp Sublime” essays. In terms of topic and approach, each offered a model for me. I knew there was a place for the kind of work I wanted to do.
Matt Suazo is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Kenyon College.