SEA Junior Scholar of the Month for June 2019: Shelby Johnson
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I grew up in Tennessee, so from a young age I was surrounded by colonial and early national narratives of westward expansion and Indigenous displacement, and I was drawn to early American literature for the ways it expanded (and critically destabilized) the narratives I grew up with. While in graduate school, I became interested more specifically in questions of how we “belong” to particular places and spaces – of how belonging becomes a capacious and slippery register of race, spirituality, affect. At the time, I was working with Katy Chiles on The History of Mary Prince on what sorts of knowledge “belong” to Prince, especially in moments where she affirms, “I have been a slave – I have felt what a slave feels, and I know what a slave knows.” Because of Dr. Chiles’s influence, I approach early American literature transatlantically, and with an emphasis on the intersections of race and spirituality. The inchoate boundaries of these categories is what keeps me excited about my work.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
This is such a difficult question for me, but I think my favorite early American writers to teach are Phillis Wheatley, Olaudah Equiano, and William Apess because of how they negotiate survival, kinship, and belonging under extraordinarily disruptive conditions – negotiations that often prompt so many questions and reactions from students. The days we spend with these texts are often some of the most difficult and rewarding for the ways they prompt us to grapple with what is spoken or not, with forms of experience that might be beyond speech or writing. All of these writers invite us to question what we thought we “knew” about the colonial or early national period.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on my book, Small Plots: Race and Improvised Belonging in the Atlantic World, 1770-1840. In it, I contend that transatlantic writers of color, including Samson Occom, Phillis Wheatley, Robert Wedderburn, Mary Prince, and William Apess, summon what I am calling “small plots,” or a spiritually inflected imaginary of a finite earth that improvises forms of belonging, including kinship relations and landed attachments, out of profound experiences of displacement. They frequently plot these affiliations in moments of prosopopoeia, where writers of color create personas or speak as – and thus locate in a place and time – dead or distant kin. I contend that these writers habituate polyvocality in local spaces in order to counter an array of Enlightenment legal fictions, including European prerogatives to property, colonial claims to territorial expansion, and their commitments to patrilineal affiliation.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
One text I’ve been fascinated with recently is Split Tooth, a genre-bending memoir by Inuit throat singer, Tanya Tagaq. Split Tooth follows an unnamed girl as she discovers shamanistic powers, narrating her experiences by weaving together poetry and prose vignettes. As she experiences astral flights, she reimagines the problems that plague Indigenous communities – poverty, displacement, alcoholism – through a form of spiritual resilience that centers Indigenous ways of knowing. Reading this memoir, I appreciate how it offers a necessary perspective on the forms of colonial life writing I engage with in my research and teaching. In many ways, Split Tooth urges us to reconsider legacies of colonial autobiography that remain imbricated in epistemological debates about non-white claims to testimonial authority.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
I’ve been so fortunate to work with many generous early Americanists, including Katy Chiles and then Dana Nelson at Vanderbilt, who have both been such wonderful mentors to me. I have also gained much by learning with Scott Juengel and Misty Anderson, who encouraged me expand my methods to encompass transatlantic geographies.
Shelby Johnson is Assistant Professor of English at Florida Atlantic University.