SEA Scholar of the Month for September 2018: Katy Chiles
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
Perhaps like many of us, I enrolled in an early American literature class as a course requirement, and what I read caught fire with me—so I’ve never left. I fell in love with Phillis Wheatley, and when I began writing about her poetry, I started a way-too-long footnote explaining how eighteenth-century ideas about race informed her poetics. I never really finished that footnote, but it eventually became my first book.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
Teaching early American literature now is such an amazing opportunity, and I particularly love teaching Benjamin Banneker, David Walker, and William Apess. Many students thinkthey know early America and have some vague ideas about Charlie Brown and the Pilgrims, Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, or George Washington and the cherry tree. I try to upset those ideas and to emphasize both the promises and the problems of the early American moment. It is about “the beginnings of America,” but it’s also about slavery, settler colonialism, and so much more. Students realize our present moment is a complicated one, and they learn that the early American moment was just as complex.
What are you currently working on?
My current research is on collaboration and race in early American literature, focusing specifically on early African American and Native American writers. Raced Collaboration will tell the story of how African Americans and Native Americans—often against significant odds—produced English language texts, such as memoirs, novels, and slave narratives, through collaboration with persons of many races. I am researching the remarkable ways these writers collaborated to speak out about slavery and settler colonialism and hope to deepen our appreciation of the role of these writers in early America.
[Katy Chiles and statue of Pat Summitt, University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach]
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
Christina Sharpe’s In The Wake: On Blackness and Being is required reading for everyone working in early American studies. It is a powerful and brilliant meditation on contemporary black life as a continuation of the never-past slave trade. If one wants to know how transatlantic slavery, the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, the displacement of migrant populations, the federal industrial-prison complex, Sharpe’s own experience of black familial death, victims of the Haiti earthquake, the Black Lives Matters movement, and the prose of Toni Morrison connect, riff on, and define each other, one only need turn to In the Wake.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
There are so many amazing early Americanists who inspire me, how could I name only one?!? I will say how much I have appreciated mentors, many of them women, who have provided the guidance crucial to my becoming a scholar and to balancing my work with the rest of my life. In addition, I am inspired by scholars who also have a commitment to social justice; I know an SEA member who works with women who are incarcerated, another who traveled to Standing Rock to join Native Americans protesting incursions on their land, another who runs anti-racist workshops and trainings in her local community, and another who not only performs ethical, community-engaged research with indigenous groups but also works to contribute back to those communities. I’m eager to learn about other SEA members doing similar work!
Katy Chiles is Associate Professor of English at the University of Tennessee.