Where are you from? Say a little about your hometown.
While I spent the first six years of my life in Germany, where my parents had migrated in search of better opportunities, I come from what we call a paiseddu, a very small Sicilian town, or should I say village, in the province of Catania called San Cono. Summers can be unbearably hot in San Cono, and winters can get quite chilly, but they never last too long. Largely a community of small farmers like my grandparents, San Cono’s biggest claims to fame are its production of prickly pears, and the ravishing celebrations in honor of its homonymous patron saint, which take place every May. Founded in 1785, the town remains a place where time goes by slowly, traditions matter, and you just knock at any neighbor’s door if you unexpectedly run out of ingredients while cooking. Since there is no high school in San Cono, pupils commute every Monday through Saturday. There is only one early bus that takes you to school, so you just have to be punctual and resilient. As there are no clubs or interesting places to go out either, as young people we learned to be creative, drive scooters and Vespas, laugh loudly, and hold on to each other. I miss the friends and family I left behind in San Cono and their unrivaled sense of humor, warmth, and resourcefulness.
Where did you attend undergraduate and graduate school? What was your favorite thing about each school?
I received a Master’s degree in English and Spanish, and a Secondary Education Teaching degree in these fields, from the University of Freiburg, Germany. I completed my studies before German universities introduced the Bachelor’s degree, hence I did not earn a B.A. along the way. The University of Freiburg is a wonderful institution, with one of the most renowned Departments of English in the country, and I will always remember my years there with fondness and gratitude. One thing I particularly liked about the German university system was the opportunity to specialize early in the study of literatures and themes that I was interested in. I also liked that we had to demonstrate proficiency in both literary studies and linguistics. During my M.A. studies, I also attended the University of Texas at Austin for a year. I loved the huge number of courses, areas of study, libraries, student organizations, and events that UT has to offer. It was during my time at UT, exactly ten years ago, that it became clear to me that I wanted to systematically devote my research to questions of racism and social justice. Currently, I am completing a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, with a Doctoral Emphasis in Global & International Studies, at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Here, I have been fortunate to work with mentors and compañeras/os who are committed to social justice, and who have encouraged me to think deeply about what is at stake in learning and teaching about domination and resistance. I now know that asking difficult questions is more important than finding all the correct answers, and that unlearning is more difficult than learning, but absolutely necessary. I am especially grateful for my mentors, the extremely supportive Comparative Literature Program, and the wisdom of faculty and friends in the Black Studies Department. During my doctoral studies at UCSB, I also completed coursework and conducted research at UCLA, UC Berkeley, and the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Each one of these universities and the people I worked with there opened up new avenues of thinking for me. The lessons have been many, and many have been the things to love.
What is your favorite book/genre/literary period?
This is a difficult question to answer. As a child, as Richard Wright writes in Black Boy, “I hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing,” and reading remains one of my greatest passions in life—a passion that I share with fellow scholars and teachers of literature. Black Boy is one of those books that I could not put down the first time I read it, as I greatly enjoy life writing, in particular autobiography. I also love fiction, drama, poetry, essay… in sum, literature irrespective of genre. It would be difficult to pick one single book at the favorite one. Instead, there are plenty of writings that I do not get tired of rereading; for example, Toni Morrison’s Sula, Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body, Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet, Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Langston Hughes’ “Madam” poems, or the immensely important first chapter of Kwame Ture and Charles Hamilton’s Black Power. While my research and teaching focus predominantly on the 20th and 21st centuries, I find earlier periods extremely fascinating as well, especially the 19th century. Most importantly, given that much of my work is concerned with contemporary legacies of colonialism, in particular with racism, it is imperative that I constantly historicize. The present cannot be understood without examining the past, and racism itself has a history.
What do you plan to teach next fall?
I will be teaching a course on Black Radical Thought (English 237 - World Literature, Modern). The course will be concerned with what South African revolutionary leader and writer Steve Biko, who was murdered by the apartheid government at the age of thirty, described as “the quest for a true humanity.” Paying specific attention to four distinct national contexts—Brazil, Cuba, South Africa, and the United States—and focusing largely on the period from World War II to the present, we will examine some of the important contributions that Black radical thinkers, as well as collective movements, have made to global human rights, democracy, and liberatory epistemology.
What are you most looking forward to about Vanderbilt?
I am very excited about joining the academic community at Vanderbilt University. I especially look forward to collaborating with colleagues and to meeting students. Teaching is one of the most rewarding aspects of our profession, if not the most rewarding of all. Students have taught me a great deal over the years, and they continue to challenge me to become a better teacher, bolder scholar, and more compassionate human being. I cannot wait to meet the students enrolled in English 237 in the fall!