Roanne Kantor joined Stanford in the 2018-19 academic year as an assistant professor of English and an affiliate of the Center for South Asia. Below, she participated in an interview as part of the center’s annual newsletter.
When I was applying to college, I worried that I would have to choose between studying English literature and Latin American literature. I discovered comparative literature in the course catalogue and immediately knew it was for me. As an undergraduate, I learned a few other languages, eventually landing on Hindi and Urdu as the ones I wanted to stick with. I loved learning languages, traveling to new places, and literature in translation. I became increasingly interested in how those same passions were shared by many of the authors I studied.
I am currently in the process of finishing a book about the way that authors from India and Pakistan became interested in literature from Latin America, and how it impacted their own writing and the field of South Asian letters. It was through this interaction that South Asian authors became world-famous in their own right. A lot of the well-known authors and styles we associate with contemporary South Asian writing, as well as the way that this writing circulated in global markets, are related to Latin America. At the same time, it's not as if South Asian authors used Latin American writing instrumentally, as a clear pathway to global stardom. Quite the opposite: these authors were deeply committed to the idea of Latin America as a space of utopian futurity, of South-South solidarity, and especially of non-Anglophone literary flourishing. That makes the market success of their Anglophone writing, and the centrality of Latin-American influenced South Asian writing to that field, all the more ironic in the present.
Next year in the fall I will teach the intro to disability studies class on disability and technology, as well as the third part of the English historical series, Modernism Goes Global. In the spring I will teach a course on Stories at the Border: Geography and Genreabout literature that has to do with border conflicts. You might assume these classes will not have South Asian material in them, but that's not so! In fact, my whole job as an English professor is to reveal the centrality of cultural production in the Global South to what we think of as traditionally northern, western, or (heaven forfend) universal concepts.
There has been this general push to take South Asian studies out of its traditional framework as an "area studies" field and think about its connection to other regional configurations: connections to Africa via the Indian ocean, to other parts of Asia, to the Middle East, and … the enduring relationship to the location of formal colonial power in Europe. My work furthers that trend, but it also pushes back against it.
In my first project, I am interrogating what we think of as the salient geographies, the expected geographies through which South Asia reaches the wider world. I am arguing for the centrality of a connection that was not explained by those earlier geographic connections. In my newer work, I am interested in the difference between national/area contexts (India and South Asia) and regional ones (Bihar), the way that transnational circulation of cultural products from India sometimes obscures their investment in regionality, and what we might see when we dig back into that. At the same time, I am furthering a very old strength of South Asian studies, which is interdisciplinary.
There is not an intuitive link between the different projects I work on; I want to keep surprising myself. I taught a really fun survey course this spring about The Indian Novel, where you have to kind of give people what they expect—the greatest hits. That made me nuts, initially, but then I discovered that you can find some of the biggest surprises when you and your students think you know exactly where you're going. And my students constantly surprise me with their talents and interests. That is what's so fun about teaching: I can prepare as much as I want, but the classroom always brings its own dynamic. So, I guess I want my students and my readers to open themselves to the unknown, as opposed to this version of scholarship as mastery.
This article is part of a series of interviews with recently hired Stanford faculty with expertise in South Asia and Islamic studies.