Spotlight on Faculty: Leila Mansouri, Assistant Professor of English

CLAREMONT, California - December 15, 2017


Leila Mansouri

This fall, four new tenure-track faculty members joined Scripps College, including two at the W.M. Keck Science Department. The Claremont Colleges also welcome one visiting assistant professor. As part of our ongoing series on Scripps’ faculty, the Office of Marketing and Communications recently sat down with Leila Mansouri, who joins the College as assistant professor of English.

Leila Mansouri is an assistant professor in the Department of English at Scripps College. She holds an MFA in fiction from UC Irvine and a PhD in American literature from UC Berkeley. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Inquiry, and Santa Monica Review, among others, and her fiction has been recognized by Best American Short Stories and anthologized in Tremors: New Fiction by Iranian American Writers. Her scholarship focuses on the intersection between literature and electoral politics in the early United States. She is currently completing a novel, Half-Terrorist.

Scripps College: Let’s start with the literary “you.” As you develop your manuscript, what, in a nutshell, will Half-Terrorist reveal about your interests? What is the book about?

Leila Mansouri: It’s narrated by a rogue national security agent, Shireen Mansouri, who is trying to justify her decision to kidnap a blonde, 14-year-old American girl, Tamara. Shireen claims she had no choice but to kidnap Tamara, whose online exchanges with known terrorists had drawn the government’s attention—according to Shireen, Tamara either would have been arrested or would have run off to join the terrorists. But the more she explains, the less clear-cut anyone’s motivations seem hers, Tamara’s, her national security colleagues’, even the terrorist recruiters.

So, what I hope readers ask, and the question that’s always live for me as I write, is, what are we really seeing, or failing to see, when we label people terrorists? Built into that label is a sense that there’s this clear line between the “good guys” on one side and the “bad guys” on the other. But is that line useful when it comes to understanding a character like Tamara? Or like Shireen?

And for me personally, there’s another layer of this. My father, like Shireen’s, immigrated to the U.S. from Iran. The novel’s title, Half-Terrorist, is the handle Shireen uses when she posts online about kidnapping Tamara. It’s also the answer I gave as a kid when people who knew I was born and raised in Cincinnati would ask, “But where are you really from?” or “What are you?” I think a lot of people want the world to be organized in a way that fits their need to simplify—that lets them feel safe in the fiction that there’s a neat line between what’s comfortably familiar and what’s scary or bad because it’s different than what they’re used to. And the basic facts of my life scramble that line in a way that was unsettling for a lot of people.

Back then, telling those people I was half terrorist was my reflexive way of pushing back against the ugly premise of their questions: that it was my responsibility to manage other people’s discomfort about the ways I didn’t fit their preconceived notions of familiar and unfamiliar. Now, there’s something cathartic in getting to sit with all the messy complexities of Shireen’s character. Making fictional space in which she can be fully herself—in which her character doesn’t conform to oversimplifications about what it means to be from here —is a way of making that space for myself, too.

SC: You also have a PhD, which is somewhat unusual for creative writers, and your dissertation focused on the intersections between literature and electoral politics in the early United States. How does your scholarly research relate to your creative work?

LM: I do many different kinds of writing—short stories, my novel, essays, and other kinds of creative non-fiction—and scholarly academic work. For me, they’re all different ways of working through the same basic problem: Our individual experiences of the world are infinitely complex and particular but, in order to make the world feel comprehensible, we’re constantly relying on habits of representation that oversimplify and distort those experiences, and this reliance often comes at profound cost to ourselves and others.

At first glance, my scholarly work on American literature and early U.S. electoral politics might seem far removed from, say, my fiction. But what my academic research looks at specifically is how a genre called the character sketch, which is focused on distilling social types and was immensely popular in the early U.S., greatly influenced the ways Americans understood and talked about electoral representation. The character sketch genre generated all sorts of literary debates about how writing could most clearly and reliably distill a character’s essence. For instance, how many traits or “strokes” could a writer add to a character sketch before that character got too complicated, too confusing to be legible? When I research how concepts from these literary debates made their way into, for example, Constitutional debates about how big the United States’ national legislature should be, I’m doing a different kind of work than I do when I write fiction. But both kinds of writing are engaging with the same sorts of questions about how the categories we collectively invent in our literature and culture in turn shape how we understand and represent ourselves, whether that’s as individuals or as part of larger groups. 

SC: What classes are you interested in teaching at Scripps? What new classes might be in mind for future development, or that you would hope to teach?

LM: I’m especially excited to teach courses that bridge the divide between writing workshops and literary studies. One of the things I always think about when I’m designing a course is, what will help my students find the creative freedom to write what they most need to write? And I know that for myself a big part of that was reading really widely, and not just 20-century and contemporary writing, but also all sorts of writing from the 18th and 19th centuries, especially works by women and writers of color.

If you’re only looking at contemporary writing, it’s easy to convince yourself that the kinds of writing that are happening now—the conventions and genres we use, the subjects we focus on—encompass the full range of what’s possible, or worse yet, the way things should be. And that’s especially toxic to women writers, writers of color, and LGBTQ writers who are trying to tell stories that our culture hasn’t figured out how to imagine yet and that many people would rather not come to light. But there’s an incredibly rich literary history of writers trying to figure out how to tell stories the world wasn’t ready for! And that literary history is a lot more fun and experimental than most people imagine. We often have this expectation that the past is stuffy and staid, when really, it’s every bit as weird, if not weirder, than our present moment.

As far as specific classes go, next semester I’ll be teaching the class Women Explain Themselves: Gendered Prose, which looks at how women writers have written against and carved out room for themselves within gendered narrative and stylistic conventions. And sometime soon I hope to do something similar in a class that focuses on multi-ethnic American literature, especially narratives of passing, hybridity, and assimilation. In both cases, the classes will include a mix of traditional papers and fiction or creative nonfiction writing assignments which give students a chance to bring what they’re learning into their creative work.

SC: Is there a fact about yourself that is surprising, or that people don’t know about, that you’d like to share?

LM: Growing up, I was very good at science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, and there was a lot of pressure for me to follow that career path. But I hated it! OK, that’s too harsh. I’ve always enjoyed learning about scientific discoveries, and I profoundly enjoy great science writing. I’m incredibly grateful, though, that I didn’t succumb to pressure to go into a field that didn’t offer the intellectual or creative possibilities I needed. STEM gives us important ways of knowing things, but there are other ways of knowing and contributing to the world that are equally important.