SEA Scholar of the Month, September 2022: Allison Bigelow
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I was an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland, and in the fall of 2001 I happened to take a class on colonial literatures of the Americas (in English) and colonial Latin American literature (in Spanish) during the same semester. One week, we read Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in both classes. When I realized that I could discuss the gendered possibilities of “alma” in an English class, I was hooked. (It’s grammatically feminine but you say “el alma” in the singular, and Sor Juana is a master at exploiting those kinds of subtleties.)
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
The Popol Wuj is the longest and most complete of pre-1492 Mesoamerican literatures to survive the Spanish invasion. The story moves back and forth in time and crosses human and otherworldly spaces. It begins with the creation of the world and ends with a very specific – and specifically political – version of the founding of the K’iche’ world in which three lineages collaborate, but one takes pride of place. Students realize that much of what they’ve learned about Maya artists, scholars, and communities is wrong. It’s also a great way to introduce students to research. I’m the PI for an NSF-funded project with UVA’s School of Data Science and a team of K’iche’, Q’eqchi’, Tz’utujil, and Yukatek Maya researchers who are using the Popol Wuj for language preservation. We’re always looking for new collaborators! https://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward?AWD_ID=2109679
What are you currently working on?
After my first book, which focused on metals, I thought I’d write on maize agriculture and gendered systems in Mesoamerica (where men farm) and the Chesapeake (where women grow crops). In February 2021 I was asked to co-chair a committee on the George Rogers Clark statue, one of this region’s many monuments to white supremacy. In July, our committee made that statue the first to ever be removed from campus. I then did the primary and secondary source research to identify Native Nations whose contact with Clark required that they be consulted on the disposition of the statue, redesign of the space where it once stood, and ways to repair relationships with Tribes. It was rewarding to use of colonial archives to address current issues of racism and inequity. I’m now working with UVA to implement the ideas of Tribal stakeholders.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
After maternity leave in the Fall, I’ll be teaching a new class on theories of sovereignty. I’m excited to teach outside of my department, work closely with first-year students, and have them pair sources on pre-1492 Mesoamerican tribute networks, colonial-era theories articulated by investors in the Royal African Company (Locke), and contemporary debates about Indigenous data sovereignty. It’s going to be messy, in a really good way.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
If I had not met Ralph Bauer as a 20-year-old know-it-all, I wouldn’t be a professor today. I owe my career to him, his generosity, and his path-breaking, border-busting scholarship.
Allison Bigelow is Tom Scully Discovery Chair Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese at the University of Virginia. She is also Affiliate Faculty in Latin American Studies, Women, Gender, and Sexuality, and The Equity Center at UVA, as well as Co-Coordinator of the Interdisciplinary PhD Fellowship in Indigenous Studies.