5 Questions with Zainab Saleh
“5 questions with…” is an occasional feature where we highlight a current graduate student’s research, offering a glimpse into their work and interests. Zainab Saleh is an MA student in Literary and Cultural Studies. She was recently awarded the 2021 Karen Dunning Graduate Scholarly/Creative Project Award.
1. What's the six-word-story version of your research focus (think written by Hemingway on a napkin at a bar)?
Wherever the "stiff upper lip" is.
2. What's a question that's preoccupying you in your research right now?
How far does Englishness go? I first started formulating my research and digging into some material on the presence and implications of the way “Englishness” exuded superiority of culture, aesthetics and standards that I argue were/are deeply rooted in patriarchal and colonial aspects of deeming oneself “superior.” I formulated this when I was taking Professor Kwame Dawes’ postcolonial Caribbean literature class and decided that I would write my entire thesis on the presence of Englishness in postcolonial retellings of colonial texts, like The Tempest and Jane Eyre.
What or who is considered of the English identity is a question that has been posed for centuries preceding the start of the British Empire to twentieth and twenty-first-century discourse surrounding English standards and expectations of identity, both in regards to the colonizer (The English, in this case) and the colonized in conversation with postcolonial thought and theory. Now, as I take a renaissance literature class, Englishness is mapped out in 16th century texts and it is a completely different as we look at texts dealing with Indigenous peoples, the Spanish, and how that shapes a completely different understanding for me now. Of course, with contemporary retellings, there will be a myriad of different interpretations, but it is the question of “how far does this go? how far will this go?” that is looming in my head all the time.
I search for understanding of how Englishness makes itself present in language, dress, food, environment, amongst many other qualities as a collective experience fraught with the presence of patriarchal standards in the midst of colonial exploitation. So, of course there is change, but has that change really embodied an understanding of how far back this presence goes?
3. Who is a scholar that's been challenging or inspiring your thinking? Can you recommend a book or article?
Jamaica Kincaid, for sure. I am quite literally obsessed with her work, and her article “The Disturbances of the Garden,” recommended to me for my research by Professor Ng’ang’a Muchiri, affirms just how eloquent and inspiring she is. She writes about how the garden embodies this act of possessing, tied to the relationship with her mother and how she gains an understanding of how the garden illustrates a history, in the violence against marginalized peoples, that helps her better understand her place in the garden (where she is in it, what memories she can recall, and what it says about our being).
In tying this to my research, she has this compelling line where she writes, “the conquerors could do more than feed themselves; they could also see and desire things that were of no use apart from the pleasure that they produced.” The way she touches on betrayal, desired and desiring, all in the way the garden operates in its complexity, is just so compelling and inspiring to me. For example, when I was reading Prospero’s Daughter by Elizabeth Nunez, a major part of what I analyze in my thesis, I couldn’t get over how Dr. Gardner (the Englishman/colonizer of the story) both conquers and desires when he is in the garden. He betrays his daughter’s wishes of autonomy and makes his feelings of betrayal evident in this space, while also making his assertion that the land and garden is his that he occupies, regardless of the fact that it is most definitely not. While he teaches the “Other” (Carlos) the method of “cross-breeding” in the garden, it is only between two men, between self and Other, colonizing and imposing in the space that he conquers and desires. This space that he makes violent and more like “home,” which is to say “more English,” speaks to the way, as Kincaid writes, the garden has its disturbing attributes where we take ownership and perform the act of possessing. We name, we learn the unknowns of the garden, and then we possess. It is how far we are willing to interpret this, the garden as a space of knowledge, violence, disturbance and complexity, that Kincaid inspires me to dig deeper into.
4. What's a research strategy or writing habit that's been working for you lately?
Honestly? I sleep on it. If I told you that my entire thesis idea came to me somewhere between falling asleep and stressing over a paper deadline, would you believe me? Which brings me to this: wake up and write it down. It’s easier said than done, and I even betray this writing habit on most days, but I cannot begin to convey how many times compelling thoughts have made it into major papers, publications, etc., that I wrote down when I woke up. Of course, I am that person that stresses over every line and every title until I get it written down, so in a state of falling asleep and reflecting on what’s worrying me/what I need to write about, something arises. Maybe it’s just my mind telling me that it has my back if I just rest up and wait until the morning, if I just sleep on it.
5. If you had to choose a watershed moment in the development of your research and writing, an important turning point, what would it be?
Like Charlotte and Paul write about in their interviews, it’s just learning that these areas of study exist. I am a first-generation student, and someone who struggled immensely in college with navigating the myriad of avenues literature can take us on, so when I started grad school, I learned that these areas of study are not “fixed.” They’re evolving, changing, being redefined, so when I learned that “Englishness” was a topic, I was SHOCKED. Here I was thinking that I found a couple articles that affirmed my argument that patriarchal and colonial motives are deeply embedded in this area of study, but then found how interconnected everything was (with gender studies, sexuality, place, etc.) As I finish up my Masters degree, I feel this sense of “it’s okay to dip your toes in multiple areas of study/research/writing” because it’s all there for you to explore.
photo courtesy of Zainab Saleh