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10 Questions with Assistant Professor of English Sheela Jane Menon

sheela jane Menon 10 questions portrait

Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

David Blosser ’19 sat down with Assistant Professor of English Sheela Jane Menon to discuss everything from her upbringing and current book project to Dickinson and the importance of literature.

1. What brought you to Dickinson?

I applied for the tenure-track position in global anglophone literature because both the job description and what I knew of Dickinson felt like a good fit. That feeling was confirmed during my Skype and on-campus interviews. I was inspired by the vibrant scholarship being produced by the faculty here—it was clear to me that my future colleagues were passionate scholars and teachers. I was also struck by the very warm welcome I received from students and staff—the sense of community here was tangible. And that sense of this place and its people has only been confirmed since I joined the faculty. 

2. You have lived in Malaysia, Singapore and Hawaii. How do these experiences inform your research and teaching?

Both my research and teaching center the literatures and lived experiences of people of color. This focus is informed, in part, by my experiences as a Malaysian citizen of Indian origin raised in Catholic and Hindu families. Growing up in Malaysia for the first nine years of my life, moving to Singapore for eight years and attending an international school there, and then completing my high school and undergraduate education in Honolulu meant that I was immersed in multicultural and settler colonial contexts. These experiences, as well as my mother’s dissertation on Malaysian life writing, directly inspired my own research on the racial and political forces that shape Malaysian and indigenous cultural production. My undergraduate education at the University of Hawaii, and my graduate career at the University of Texas at Austin, helped me think critically about how these formative experiences fit into broader frameworks for how we think about literature, history, power and privilege. And finally, my parents’ careers in Honolulu—working with local and Native Hawaiian students, business leaders, artists and activists—have informed how I engage complex cultural dynamics.

3. Your current book project, Malaysian Multiculturalism: Reading Race in Contemporary Literature and Culture, aims to offer an “alternative cultural archive” of Malaysian literary and cultural production. Can you tell me more about this?

My research focuses on questions of race and belonging in Malaysian literary and cultural production. My book project situates indigenous (Orang Asal) oral histories alongside Malaysian novels, films, public performances and state campaigns. I argue that across distinct texts and contexts, Malaysian cultural producers are repeatedly turning to forms of collective storytelling that imagine communal and mixed-race identities. I trace how recent projects by Orang Asal storytellers bridge past, present and future. I also illustrate how Malay, Chinese and Indian artists embody and transgress Malaysia’s racial boundaries. I read this entire archive alongside state narratives and indigenous histories, making this project the first analysis of Malaysian literary and cultural production that devotes central focus to the Orang Asal.

4. You teach postcolonial, Asian American and world literature courses, focusing on how texts are shaped by colonization, decolonization and migration. How do you encourage students to engage thoughtfully with these contexts and histories?

I ground the texts I teach in the historical and political contexts from which they emerge. This means that I select a range of secondary source material—including literary scholarship, news reports, short documentaries and interviews—to frame each primary text. I also design interactive discussion, writing and research activities that help students both close read the aesthetics of these texts and articulate their relationship to wider questions of power, privilege and representation.

5. What is the relevance of studying multicultural texts?

My approach to teaching literature by writers of color from around the world aims to broaden students’ understanding of what literature is—its forms and genres, as well as its place in cultural and political contexts. I believe that reading, discussing and writing about a diverse and complex body of literature challenges us to reevaluate how we see the world. These texts, when taught through the framework of postcolonial and cultural studies, direct our attention to systems of power, to questions of belonging and alienation and to histories of migration and displacement.

6. As a literary scholar, you study the ways in which we interact with texts. Where does the meaning of a text reside—within the text, the reader or in the transaction between them?

I would say all of the above. The text is a body of evidence; it contains its own logic, literary devices, character and plot arcs, etc. This evidence should form the foundation for the claims we make about a text and its meanings. At the same time, how we read and situate that evidence is informed by a wide range of factors: the experiences a reader brings to the text, the methods by which we interpret that evidence, the contexts surrounding that text and its publication and wider conversations happening about that text.

7. You have an active social media presence. How do you use social media, and what do you see as its value in academics?

I often use social media to celebrate the work of my students. For example, if we have a vibrant class discussion that leads to a capacious set of notes on the classroom’s whiteboard, I might post a photo of those notes. Teaching is a constant roller-coaster ride, so those moments of synergy feel miraculous and worth celebrating. Many of my posts about teaching are also intended as little “thank you” notes to mentors, scholars and the writers/artists we’re studying. I think there’s something wonderful about letting people know that their work is making an impact.

8. To you, food is a reminder of culture, family and identity. Out of all the restaurants in Carlisle, which is your favorite?

My favorite restaurant in Carlisle is Issei, because they capture the flavors of Southeast Asia! So many of my favorite dishes there—the Wonton Special and the Beef Tom Yum, for example—taste like the Malaysian versions of those dishes. Eating at Issei makes me feel like I’m back home.

9. You’ve been teaching here for three years. What do you find most exciting and inspiring about being a Dickinsonian?

I feel incredibly fortunate to have developed close friendships with colleagues both inside and outside my department who have welcomed my husband and me into their homes and into their families. They have provided writing feedback, shared teaching advice, helped me navigate campus culture and shared their own research projects in ways that have been truly inspiring. I’ve also watched these colleagues think about and respond to urgent sociopolitical issues in nuanced ways. For all this, and for each of them, I am deeply grateful.

10. What do you hope to accomplish in the next few years at Dickinson?

I’m looking forward to finishing my book manuscript! I’m also excited to propose a new course focusing on Southeast Asian literature. I designed this course last summer during a National Endowment for the Humanities institute. The program focused on colonial experiences and their legacies in Southeast Asia and was hosted by the University of Hawaii’s East-West Center. Down the road, I hope to coordinate a Singapore Mosaic.

Read more from the fall 2019 issue of Dickinson Magazine.

TAKE THE NEXT STEPS

Published November 18, 2019