Michelle Decker joined the College this fall as assistant professor of English with a specialization in global Anglophone literatures. Her current book project, African Genres: Literature, Geography, and Poetics in the Long East Coast, examines the intersections of aesthetics, politics, and culture through the effects of imperialism in eastern Africa during the 19th and 20th centuries. The Office of Marketing and Communications recently interviewed her as part of our ongoing Spotlight on Faculty series.
Scripps College: When did you become interested in African colonial and postcolonial literatures? And how do you think their study enhances some of the perspectives raised in critical race studies?
Michelle Decker: I became interested in East Africa when I was an undergraduate at Penn State University and decided I wanted to study a less commonly taught language. I settled on Swahili, mostly because it fit into my schedule. Sometimes I think of how different my life would have been had I chosen Slovak, the other candidate! My Swahili instructor introduced cultural elements from her home country, Kenya, in addition to teaching us the mechanics of the language. Because I’ve loved literature and art since I was very young, I naturally pursued my new interest in eastern Africa by exploring its literatures. My purview expanded later, during graduate school, to include texts written in Swahili, Arabic, and English from portions of the continent that border the Indian Ocean, from Egypt to South Africa.
Literary works, whether written or oral, can present a range of issues, including those that drive the field of critical race studies, in ways that we as readers might not anticipate. We can empathize with characters. We are surprised by the beauty or strangeness of a sentence. Literature—because it is the vessel of the unexpected, because it isn’t factual—helps us evaluate our world and ourselves anew.
SC: How will your coursework challenge Scripps students?
MD: All of my courses in some way ask students to think seriously about the power of language and the imagination, separately and together. We often think of the imagination as a realm of harmless fancy, but the way that we imagine others has real consequences. For instance, in the United States, sub-Saharan Africa continues to be imagined as a place where disease, civil wars, poverty, and the occasional lion or elephant have domain, despite the fact that its inhabitants speak thousands of languages and have complex cultural histories. In my classes, students read texts written by authors from the Global South that help them reimagine and bring specificity to a place they usually don’t know much about. Through our discussions, we challenge how knowledge and bias about these areas have been produced through centuries of oversimplifications, violence, and colonialism, and we generate new understandings of previously unfamiliar contexts through recognizing their intricacy and humanity.
SC: What advice would you give students who may have the inclination, as you’ve said you’ve had, to “read books and change the world?”
MD: As my responses suggest, I believe that words and ideas are inherently powerful, and there are fewer things that can make me happier than a beautiful sentence. When I was an undergraduate, though, I struggled with whether I should pick a more practical major than literary study, since reading books I liked seemed strangely selfish and self-indulgent. I’ve realized that it’s not selfish, though. Reading literature can help us to gain perspective on, and be humble about, our place in the world. At the same time, it can open us up to the possibilities of connection with others, and thinking about how we can use our positions of privilege to change our society. Even if you don’t change the world in a way that’s public and visible, you’ll be changed. That’s a start.
SC: Is there a fact about yourself that is surprising, or that people don’t know about, that you’d like to share?
MD: I have a deep love for rain, snow, and gray skies.
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