SEA Junior Scholar of the Month, September 2021: Elizabeth Polcha
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I first became interested in literature of the colonial Americas when I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved and A Mercy as an undergrad at the University of Tulsa. I was enrolled in an African American history class, and my professor, Amy Carreiro, recommended that I read Morrison’s Paradise, which led me to more of Morrison’s writing. This was after a unit on the 1921 Tulsa race massacre in which Scott Ellsworth (author of Death in a Promised Land) spoke to our class. For me, this exposure to writing on archives, race, gender, kinship, slavery, rememory, and trauma was an introduction to thinking critically about colonialism and imperialism.
Growing up in Oklahoma, where ongoing settler colonialism is more publicly visible than in other parts of North America, I found it difficult not to be curious about “early America.” In other words, in Oklahoma it takes a lot of denial to not think about the violent histories of how we all ended up in this place. I’m settler descended, and learned early on (from all the “sooner” and “pioneer” public narratives broadcasted in Oklahoma) that settler history is about accumulating wealth and occupying stolen land.
Finally, I’ll add that Dennis Moore recruited me to the field of early American studies at Florida State University, where I was studying postcolonial feminist theory in a MA graduate program. He encouraged me to apply for Northeastern’s doctoral program in literature to work with Elizabeth Maddock Dillon and Nicole Aljoe, where I ended up researching early Caribbean literature while working for the Early Caribbean Digital Archive.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
This may be an unpopular opinion, but I don’t really find much joy or pleasure in reading early American writing. To speak on favorites, I love unraveling eighteenth-century novels, poetry, and travel narratives with students in the classroom, and witnessing the lightbulb moments when students realize they’ve internalized a whitewashed, imperialist history of early America. When I was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania as a postdoctoral fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, I enjoyed discussing Frederick Douglass’ “Pictures and Progress” with my students. We also had a lot of fun reading the transcripts from the Salem Witch Trials alongside the 2015 film The Witch.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on my book project, Venus in Transit: Gendered Violence and the Production of Natural History, where I discuss how natural history became a discipline in the eighteenth century through an influx of print culture, slavery, and imperialism. Specifically, I argue that sexual violence and sexual exploitation under colonialism in the Atlantic world fundamentally shaped naturalism and imperialist conceptualizations of nature. I have a forthcoming article on the reproductive politics of Maria Sibylla Merian’s Suriname botanical illustrations, and a recent review essay in Early American Literature.
As of this very moment, I’m brainstorming with my fellow editors at Insurrect! Radical Thinking in Early American Studies on how we can implement mutual aid strategies to support contingent faculty and graduate students who are required to teach in person this coming semester. If anyone has ideas or wants to join in, feel free to email us at email@example.com. Insurrect! is also open for submissions from junior scholars, and we pay our writers.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I’ve been slowly reading Akwaeke Emezi’s Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir and it is so powerfully written that I can only read it in small increments. I’ve also been reading Torrey Peter’s Detransition Baby (and appreciating Sophie Lewis’ review of the novel).
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
I’m always in awe of my fellow junior scholars, but this has especially been true in the past few years, when we’ve all been sort of living on the edge with one foot out the door of academia. Because of the pandemic and the job crisis, it is almost impossible to keep writing and doing research. Yet my junior colleagues are still producing amazing work. I’m inspired by my Insurrect! colleagues: Lila Chambers, Tim Fosbury, Kellen Heniford, Elise Mitchell, Ittai Orr; as well as the authors and editors we’ve had the chance to work with: Hannah Manshel, Kimberly Takahata, Laura McCoy, Efren Lopez, Sean Gordon, and Adam McNeil (to name a few). I’ve learned so much about early American literature from Michael Monescalchi. I love learning about visual and material culture from Janine Yorimoto Boldt. Bradley Craig’s writing makes me want to stay in academia so that we can continue to think together. Ajay Batra’s panel at SEA 2021 on keywords for African American studies, with Lila Chambers, Luke Church, Katrina Dzyak, Camille Owens, and Kirsten Lee was incredible. Kate Simpkins’ research on Makandal and text networks continues to inspire my writing.
I also must add that Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, Nicole Aljoe, Sari Altschuler, Dan Richter, Marisa Fuentes, Dennis Moore, and Candace Ward have all been incredibly supportive, and I certainly wouldn’t be working in academia without their encouragement and inspiration.
Elizabeth Polcha is Assistant Professor of English and Digital Humanities at the University of Southern Mississippi.