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Shelf-Indulgence: What professors are reading (Part 3)

Dr. Usha Iyer is not only a professor of film and media studies, but also an avid reader (courtesy of Usha Iyer).

The Stanford Daily sat down with two members of Stanford staff — Taneum Bambrick and Dr. Usha Iyer — to debate the value of literature in the modern world and the human experience at large. Taneum Bambrick is a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry and is the author of both the poetry collection “VANTAGE” and the chapbook “Reservoir.” Dr. Iyer is an assistant professor of film and media studies, an associate editor of the journal “South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies” and the writer of the upcoming book, “The Dancing Heroine: Choreographing Gender in Popular Hindi Cinema.” This article is the third in a series of interviews with Stanford faculty about novels, journals and research materials.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): I always start this series by asking about your five favorite books on your bookshelf right now. What are they? What appeals to you about them?

Taneum Bambrick (TB): Thank you so much for this question. The five most important poetry collections for me right now are “Blackacre,” by Monica Youn, “feeld,” by Jos Charles, “Ghost Of,” by Diana Khoi Nguyen, “Flood Song,” by Sherwin Bitsui and “Look,” by Solmaz Sharif. I love these collections because of the different ways in which they challenge form, categorization and language; I am most interested in work that invents its own shape in order to call structural violence — especially as it presents itself in poetry — into question.

Usha Iyer (UI): I don’t find as much time to read fiction nowadays, but I recently read Zadie Smith’s “Swing Time” after staying in the Willesden Green area of London for a few days. The novel is set there, which made the locations come alive for me in a way that tourist websites never could. I’ve always been struck by Smith’s nuanced reading of class and race, and I’m loving the recent literary attention to female friendships in all their complex richness (including in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series). On my nightstand is “A Necklace of Skulls,” collected poems by Eunice de Souza, acclaimed poet and my undergraduate English professor at St. Xaviers College, Bombay, who passed away two years ago. Long-time favorites are Jeanette Winterson’s “Written on the Body,” Jerry Pinto’s “Em and the Big Hoom” and OV Vijayan’s “The Legends of Khasak.”

TSD: What’s a book you think more people should read? Why?

TB: Sherwin Bitsui’s his first book, “Shapeshift,” is one of the best poetry collections I’ve ever read. In a long hybrid piece, “The Northern Sun,” Bitsui writes:

“Five years ago, my language hit me like saw-toothed birds reaching to pull my tongue from my mouth. I didn’t know what to expect when my grandmother poured gasoline on the leaves and then fired it, saying, ‘This is the last time I’ll ever harvest.’”

The way he navigates loss in this work through linked images is eloquent and severe in a way that, I think, is only his. I can’t recommend this collection enough.

UI: I can’t think of one single book that people ought to read but can recommend the writing of Amitav Ghosh, OV Vijayan, Teju Cole, Wislawa Szymborska [or] Amit Chaudhuri.

TSD: What value do you find in literature? What is compelling about it that you can’t find in other art forms?

TB: This is such an interesting question. […] I know that poetry, for me, is difficult to write about without sentimentality because of the crucial role it serves in my life; I came to it as a 13-year-old when I was taking a drug for acne that made me, and thousands of others, extremely depressed. During that time, I found the work of writers like Maya Angelou, Sylvia Plath, Sandra Cisneros and Anne Sexton, and their work seemed to crack open in a way that literature hadn’t done for me before. I fastened to the practice of reading and writing every day as a method of seeing and controlling those feelings I had that weren’t my own. I don’t know if literature is different than other art forms in how necessary it is to human life; I do know that poetry’s ability to give shape to nameless experiences — emotional truths, etc. — seems essential to me in its role as a vehicle for personal and societal change.

UI: Clichéd as it sounds, the quiet contemplation that literature affords feels ever more precious in our media-saturated lives. To just sit with a book for a few hours and not look at a screen seems like a radical act! Beyond our bodily comportment, inhabiting spaces and thoughts of others (writers and their characters) has the potential to produce empathy, respect for difference and a deeply felt awareness of the diversity of our experiences in the world.

TSD: How does — or should — literature apply to our everyday lives? As an English major in Silicon Valley, I’m often asked what I planned to do with my degree. What practical use do you think we can find in texts, in films, in journalism … ?

TB: I can’t imagine the unique pressures you must face as an English major in this part of the world! Coming from parents who had to work very hard to attend a university, I felt a pressure as well to select a major that would propel me into a lucrative career path (whatever I thought that meant at the time). I shifted from a degree in political science towards creative writing in the end because I found that the most influential rallies and protests that I was taking part in involved elements of storytelling and spoken word. In a time where creative nonfiction, Ted Talks and podcasts are becoming teachable materials used widely even in medical and tech fields, I think the ability to create inspiring work has an increasing and changing value. The platforms for what we can do and what we can be paid for as writers are also modifying and growing as a result of other social changes. […] Like most fields, ours suffers from being built by and for cis, straight, white men, [but] people are turning to literature and challenging its history more and more during this political time. Some of the most eloquent acts of protest and revision I’m seeing are appearing on the page, or on stages around the country. I feel like more people are listening.

UI: Studying literature, or the arts and humanities more generally, actually alerts us to the detrimental effects of instrumentalizing our education, of proving that everything we study must have a “practical,” i.e. monetizable end. Not only does studying literature and the arts provide skills in critical thinking, writing [and] creative production, but it produces a critical understanding of the world around us and how it has come to manifest certain tendencies in the social, political, economic realms. Without this, we’ll just keep hurtling towards immediate, short-term “practical” — and often disastrous — goals.

TSD: No pressure, but what do you think is the future of literature? Where do you see our society heading in art? Where would you like it to go?

TB: Maybe I answered this [already], but the poetry collections I mentioned in my first answer are all books that I feel are engaging in acts of reinvention. I hope this trend of literature expanding and challenging itself — in terms of genre and form especially — continues to be encouraged by small, independent publishers until it is seen widely in larger publishing houses.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.


Contact Claire Francis at claire97 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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