SEA Scholar of the Month for May 2018: Lisa Brooks
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
It was a long road. As an undergraduate at Goddard College, I worked in the tribal office at the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi (in Swanton, Vermont) on aboriginal rights and land cases. As a young Abenaki woman, learning on the land and waterways and at kitchen tables, with community leaders and other Abenaki families, was the most important part of my education. Here, I learned early American history through Indigenous lenses, from the ground up. In my twenties, I was fortunate to be part of a network of Native American writers, through Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers, receiving mentorship from Abenaki writers Cheryl Savageau and Joe Bruchac, who first introduced me to Wordcraft. When I decided to go to graduate school (initially for an MA), I was surprised, and disappointed to find both Native authors and Native New England histories absent from my courses in early and contemporary American literature. I was even more shocked to learn that my professors and fellow students knew little of the history and literature in which I was deeply engaged. I had been interested in thinking about the influence of Native American political systems and philosophies on European and Euro-American literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but encountering this absence convinced me of the importance of joining the effort to ensure that the presence, complexity and diversity of Native writers and histories would become central to Early American literature and history. I’m still working toward that goal, alongside a growing number of academic and community-based scholars, now!
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
William Apess. All of his writings are compelling, but I return over and again to his “Eulogy on King Philip.” William Apess was one of the most important intellectuals of his time, and ours. I am always moved by his ability to speak to multiple audiences simultaneously, to perform strategic reversals of colonial frameworks, and to argue persuasively and eloquently about the ways in which the past, present and future are inextricably intertwined. Apess maintained that violence is a force that spread with “fearful rapidity” throughout the land, and his words continue to resonate today. I am grateful to Barry O’Connell, for bringing together his works, to Drew Lopenzina, for drawing out his rich and complex life, and to elders like Ramona Peters and Tall Oak Weeden, who have kept his memory and legacy alive.
What are you currently working on?
I just finished two major projects – the book, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War,and a companion website, “Our Beloved Kin: Mapping a New History of King Philip’s War.” I was fortunate to have an amazing team of students, most of them now graduated, who worked with me on the website, as well as an ArcGIS specialist, Andy Anderson, and my colleague in English and Digital Humanities, Marisa Parham, as collaborators. Several of these students are beginning their own careers in American studies and Digital Humanities, so I’m proud of where they are headed. We are also finishing up a teachers’ guide for the website, to make it accessible to educators and students at the elementary, middle and high school levels.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I just finished reading, and teaching, an amazing novel, The Marrow Thieves, by Métis author Cherie Dimaline. This is a work of speculative fiction, which is deeply rooted in centuries of Native experience with the structures of settler colonialism. It is placed in the not-so-distant future and grapples with the devastating impacts of climate change on multiple communities. It also deals directly with the violence of extraction and raises important questions about climate change, decolonization, and the power of language. The novel, to my mind, challenges the increasingly popular narrative of the Anthropocene and makes us think deeply about the profound relationships between colonialism, climate change, and adaptation, toward imagining an alternative Indigenous future.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
I am inspired by so many people, those who have come before me, and those who are emerging scholars. I’d like to give a special shout-out to the Tuscarora historian Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, who has been an inspiring leader in building crucial, rigorous conversations at the intersection of Early American history/literature and Native American and Indigenous Studies. She, along with Kelly Wisecup and Caroline Wigginton (two amazing scholars in their own right), have recently assembled and edited a joint Special Issue of Early American Literatureand William and Mary Quarterly, which seeks to shift the paradigms in our field(s), by placing this crossroads at the center. It is heartening, after all these years, to see so many people doing the intellectual work and difficult research to create the kind of scholarly space I had hoped to find when I entered graduate school.
Lisa Brooks is Associate Professor of English and American Studies at Amherst College.