Thursday, April 6, 2017
April 6, 2017: NeMLA Recaps: Creative Reading and Keynote Address
[A couple weeks back, we held the 48th annual Northeast MLA Convention in Baltimore. Thanks to the work of President Hilda Chacón, Executive Director Carine Mardorossian, and many many more, the convention went off beautifully. This week I’ll follow up on five particular events and conversations—add your thoughts, whether you were there or not, in comments, please!]
On the complementary, crucial messages of the conference’s two featured speakers.
A conference with as many attendees (more than 1800 at Baltimore) and panels (nearly 500 at Baltimore), featuring as many distinct disciplines and fields and even languages, as NeMLA is never going to have a single unifying thread (nor should it). Yet one of my goals for my 2016 presidential conference in Hartford was nevertheless to find ways to feature our central themes more overtly. While I sought to do so through a few different initiatives, a principal method was through the two featured speakers: Monique Truong’s opening night creative reading and Jelani Cobb’s keynote address both represented, to my mind, ways to foreground American cultural, historical, and contemporary diversity and pluralism, while also offering critical, public scholarly perspectives on some of our more enduring and pernicious national myths and attitudes. And this year, President Hilda Chacón did an even better job finding a creative reader (Chilean American poet and scholar Marjorie Agosin) and keynote speaker (Mexican American writer, graphic novelist, translator, and scholar Ilan Stavans) who could perfectly encapsulate and express two distinct but interconnected sides to her conference theme of “Translingual and Transcultural Competence: Toward a Multilingual Future in the Global Era.”
As a poet, Agosin’s presentation on language and culture focused on profoundly intimate sides to those themes, linking them to her personal, professional, and familial stories of home and exile, displacement and translation, silence and voice. Yet while the details of those stories are specific to Agosin and her individual experiences—such as her family’s flight from Chile after Augusto Pinochet took dictatorial power in a US-backed, 1973 coup—their broader contours are, as Agosin argued throughout her talk, resonant with most (if not indeed all) American families, communities, and identities. Even leaving aside the immigrant and cross-cultural histories that define all Americans, the experiences of searching for our own voices and ways to express them, of translating our voices into the languages of the world around us, of remembering our homes and heritages through languages and stories, are at the heart of all of our identities. Those are of course human experiences that transcend any particular place and time—but as Agosin (and Stevens on the next night) reminded us, they are also especially salient here in the United States, a community that has been from its origin points as multi-lingual and –cultural as any in the world. As with all great poets, Agosin’s works speak to any and all audiences; but as with the greatest American poets, those works also exemplify the unique languages and stories that constitute this place.
In his keynote address the following night, Stevens certainly highlighted similar personal stories and connections, using his own experiences of migration, immigration, and cross-cultural identity as one through-line of his wonderful talk (presented with no notes of any kind!). But Stevens also tapped into his experiences as a literary translator and an academic to highlight two other resonant sides to language and translation. Using Don Quixote and One Hundred Years of Solitude, two towering works of Hispanic literature that (Stevens argued) have been read in translation far more often than in Spanish, Stevens acknowledged but also challenged the notion of what is “lost in translation,” suggesting that at least as much is offered or possible through that process. And using his experiences as a graduate student and faculty member, Stevens presented an impassioned case that academic specializations, silos, and separations from our outside communities serve to impoverish both our own careers and institutions and the world; instead, he argued, we must work to translate our voices and efforts into the languages of our colleagues and peers, of other disciplines and conversations, and of the world all around us. Interdisciplinary and public scholarship, like translingual and transcultural transformations, can render our familiar identities uncomfortable—but Stevens, like Agosin and this wonderful conference overall, offered a powerful case for the vital benefits of those modes.
Last recap tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other NeMLA memories to share?