SEA Junior Scholar of the Month for March 2019: Kimberly Takahata
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I grew up in Massachusetts, so I was surrounded by certain colonial and early national histories from a young age. During my time as an undergraduate, I was drawn to early American literature because of the way that it destabilized the seemingly clear-cut nature of these narratives. Jim Egan’s thoughtful and thrilling undergraduate seminar allowed me to clearly recognize the role early American texts play in defining peoples and spaces, and I enjoyed inhabiting moments when writers grappled with the unfamiliar, the strange, or even the unknowable (Anne Bradstreet’s poems were particularly exciting). I entered graduate school as a self-proclaimed early Americanist, and through working on my dissertation, I’ve once again begun thinking about the capaciousness of “early American literature,” especially what these texts do and do not include. The slipperiness of the answers is what keeps me invested in my work.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
This is a difficult question for me, but I will say two of my favorite texts to teach are the narratives of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and Olaudah Equiano. These two works usually surprise students, and I love asking them why as a way to think about the kinds of assumptions we carry as modern readers about history, writing, and identity. Both texts help students think about the relationship between writing and colonialism and confront the limitations of description, especially in moments of confusion, loss, and horror.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently at work on my dissertation, which analyzes eighteenth-century colonial representations of indigenous bones to contend for an intimate relationship between colonial literary production and embodied indigenous practices. I argue that although colonial writers characterize indigenous bones as scientific artifacts analogous to plants or pots in order to contain the possibility of indigenous agency, these remains attest to practices of kinship and care that demonstrate ongoing and enduring indigenous life. Ultimately, I aim to show how Native American and Indigenous Studies and early American literature are inseparable, particularly how we can use literary analysis to acknowledge settler colonial violence while registering indigenous practices and relations that exist outside of colonial accounts.
I have also been working with Julie Kim, Cristobal Silva, Alex Gil, Ami Yoon, Lina Jiang, Stephen Fragano, and Elizabeth Cornell on Digital Grainger, a digital teaching edition of James Grainger’s The Sugar-Cane (1764). This project provides students with different strategies to read this (difficult) poem, with a focus on the themes and persons of the counterplantation. This work has helped me to think explicitly about how the way we read can decenter colonial authority, and we hope this edition will encourage students to craft their own “counter-readings.”
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
A book that has recently captivated me is The Marrow Thievesby Cherie Dimaline. This book, set in a near-future world ravaged by global warming, tells the story of indigenous persons hunted for their marrow, which the Canadian government believes carries the capacity to dream. Reading this novel, I am reminded by how clearly writing can communicate feeling and resilience as well as the speculative and reparative possibilities fiction holds to fill in the gaps of our historical archives. This novel centers relations between characters, language, and their world, insisting upon the persons that inhabit studied bodies, and I strike to maintain this mentality in my own work as I shift across archives and periods, grounding myself in the stakes of these narratives.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
There are so many scholars who inspire me, and one of the reasons I remained an early Americanist has been the kindness and support of those in this field, especially fellow junior scholars. I would be remiss if I did not mention Cristobal Silva, who models rigorous and compelling scholarship and is also a thoughtful and generous mentor. Additionally, I join the chorus of others in saying that the work of Lisa Brooks has inspired me to meditate more deeply on how we can decolonize our analysis, even in moments of supposed absence.
Kimberly Takahata is a PhD Candidate at Columbia University.