New Head, New Club, New Department

Dr. Andrew McCarthy is English professor and department head at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Dr. Andrew McCarthy, English professor and department head at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Two New English Department Groups

English Department Head Dr. Andrew McCarthy announced the coming formation of a new English Club and Student Steering Committee. English majors, minors, and even students with only a general interest in language and literature, rhetoric and professional writing, and creative writing will be invited to join the English Club. Students who join will have the opportunity to attend theatrical productions around the area, monthly teas, and short readings and discussions on contemporary works receiving acclaim and attention.

Of his hopes for English Club, Dr. McCarthy said, “We want to start emphasizing literary and rhetorical analysis and being active, engaged readers and writers once you leave UTC. We thought about trying to have brief readings, to talk about a poem that has recently appeared in a publication that has generated some interest. Having people sit together, talk about a poem, and discuss the controversy or the acclaim a poem has received will help students see what we do as professional academics and English professors. We engage in contemporary works as much as we engage in the analysis of Shakespeare or Milton. We have faculty who teach contemporary literature, rhetoric, and creative writing who are aware of the ongoing discussions happening in our fields but we don’t have a space to share that with students. We might start doing a better job of showing students what being an academic looks like through lived experience.”

Additionally, Dr. McCarthy plans the formation of a Student Steering Committee. The Committee would consist of approximately 6 students who, as McCarthy put it, “…are interested in thinking about their place and the UTC community, who would meet bi-weekly or monthly to address student concerns and to bring to my attention things that I might not know. I want to hear about what they think is important as English majors at UTC. They might develop suggestions on courses that we don’t typically teach that they would like to see or courses that don’t currently exist at UTC. They might offer suggestions on the English Club regarding things that might be happening on campus that would be good partnership opportunities. They could connect us in interesting ways to the other things happening in the Chattanooga area or the state of Tennessee that we might not know about. It is to be an opportunity for them to think about how they want to shape their experience as students at UTC.”

Sigma Tau Delta meeting

Sigma Tau Delta meeting

Dr. McCarthy hopes that the formation of these two new groups will create a greater sense of democracy and community within the department. As it stands, the only student group particular to the English Department is Sigma Tau Delta, an Honors Society with qualifications for joining such as a minimum GPA and at least a sophomore standing.

A welcome party is scheduled for 9/18 to gather students to discuss the formation of the Steering Committee and English Club. Further details are to be released then.

Dr. McCarthy has been teaching literature with UTC for 8 years and became department head over the summer. His research focuses primarily on Shakespeare and early modern English literature. When Dr. McCarthy is not teaching he spends time with his wife and children, enjoying music, travel, and cuisine.

Outstanding Graduating Senior Hannah Rials

This year the three Outstanding Graduating Seniors were Hannah Rials for Creative Writing, Katherine Sweat for Literature, and Qingyuan Guo for Rhetoric and Professional Writing. We were able to catch up with Hannah Rials regarding her experience in the English major.

What made you want to become an English Major?

I became an english major because I’ve always loved to read and write. I’ve never thought of myself of doing anything else other than writing, and it was just the natural fit for me. I never wavered in my decision, never changed my major. It was just always the right decision and place for me.


How do you feel about opting to do the internship program as opposed to a senior capstone or thesis?

I can’t really speak to the capstone or the thesis, but I loved my internship. I was the managing intern at Star Line Books, so not only did I do some writing for them and all the social media, but I learned some of the ins and outs of owning a business, and specifically a bookstore. I’ve made some great connections and had great literary opportunities thanks to my job here. I also did an internship class in high school, and that is what led to my book being published. I recommend interning for everyone if possibly. It gives you the chance to apply your knowledge and skills while also seeing if what you want to do is actually what you want to do before you’re in the “real” world.

What are the biggest things you’ve learned from your internship?

I’ve definitely improved my people skills and learning to cope with people who are demanding or rude in a civil way. I’ve learned several social media tactics, how to write better press releases, and how to keep a store running efficiently. I certainly know that I never want to own a bookstore myself, but this has been the best experience!

What are some of your proudest accomplishments while at UTC?

I started the Chattanooga Writer’s Society my sophomore year, a creative writing club for all majors, not just english majors. This past year, four of them won the Artists & Authors Scholarship, so that made me really happy.

My book Ascension was published in 2016, which was the biggest moment of my life thus far. It won the Royal Dragonfly Award for New Voice in YA, and then it won the Benjamin Franklin Gold Award in YA from the Independent Book Publisher’s Association.

Interning with Star Line Books is another of my greatest accomplishments. I’ve made a lot of connections there that will hopefully last a long time.

I worked on the Sequoya Review on the fiction editorial team and the Head of the PR Committee; I organized a bunch of events throughout the semester that promoted submissions.

My creative nonfiction piece “How to Be a Wall” was published in The Write Launch in April 2018.

They can purchase the book at Star Line Books downtown, on amazon, and on the website. The second book, Clandestine, releases July 20th in Knoxville and July 21st in Chattanooga at Star Line Books.



Jobs For English Majors: Commerce, Tech, and Marketing

As English majors, you’ve likely had people say things to you like “Oh, you must want to teach.” Or some other antiquated sentiment like there being no money in the humanities. However, these comments should soon become fewer and further between because the stigma surrounding English degrees is disappearing rapidly. Even billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban has called the Liberal Arts “the future of jobs.” Luckily for you, English major, this article will give you some alternatives to the stereotypes of teaching and serving coffee. Yay!

 Commerce Journalism

While Anderson Cooper may have corned the market on smoldering stares and hard hitting news, that doesn’t mean you can’t make a career for yourself in journalism. In the wake of traditional (i.e., real) journalism’s slow but sure death march, a new career has arrived to take its place and focus on revenues: Commerce Journalism. Commerce journalism involves writing things like native advertisements that flow with the material represented in the rest of the publication—as well as carefully curating material designed to sell products to a specific audience. The idea is that your writing helps people understand what they need to buy, and this can absolutely be done creatively. You may have heard this kind of job be referred to as Aditorial writing, or less flattering monikers, but the fact is that there is money to be made in this field, and someone (maybe you) has to do it. Enter you, two parts youth, six parts debt, and a dash of qualification.

The wonderful thing about this job is that it didn’t exist ten years ago, so it would be impossible for an employer to require years of experience. That, combined with the lowest average advertising starting salary at $32,000, and the highest at roughly $76,000, is starting to make this sound like a pretty wonderful job. Growing rapidly among media companies, commerce journalists are in high demand. While some of those companies are places like Buzzfeed, and other clickbait sites, the revenue commerce writers are bringing in for their publication is no secret. This career’s popularity has even spilled over into pop culture, an episode of HBO’s Girls is centered around Lena Dunham doing Aditorial work for GQ. While impossible to say with absolute certainty, it is likely bigger publications such as the Washington Post or the New Yorker are likely to start milking the cash cow that is commerce journalism. For examples of good (and bad) native advertising, click here.

Tech Companies 

Let’s face it. The reason a lot of us became English majors in the first place is because the thought of doing math or science for the rest of our days sounded about as appetizing as going for a jog in wet denim—a prospect which chafed us just as much. We grabbed our pens and copies of Dickens or Milton, and tried to make lives for ourselves in our lovely nests of literature and libations. While we were doing so, our math and science centered compatriots were busy building the next must have gadget or creating an app capable of changing the digital landscape.

On the surface it would seem that the lines were drawn in the sand, that we might be content to stay in our separate worlds, but an unlikely, symbiotic relationship was on the horizon. Forbes reported in 2016 that Humanities majors are 4.3 times more likely to land jobs with rising tech companies than other majors—English majors being the most likely to be employed for these jobs. English majors are in such high demand because of the perspective they give to technology and media organizations.

For instance, looking at an optical illusion one inch from your face would likely end with a headache and not much else. However, by taking a few steps back several new perspectives present themselves. This is what makes Humanities majors, English majors in particular, so valuable. In many cases the training English majors receive enables them to describe things in a highly relatable and understandable way, which is valuable to tech companies. Job titles to look out for when applying for these jobs are “content strategist,” “marketing manager,” “content manager,” and “web producer.” Forbes quotes these jobs as ranging from $69,900-$90,500 annually.


Social Media Coordinator/Staff Writer

A great job to get after college, or in even in college, is Social Media Coordination and Staff Writing for a blog! Social media coordination involves posting announcements, relevant information, relatable content, and other such information to social media accounts. Curating a brand is an important part of this career, so having an eye for design and aesthetics helps when creating content.

Aside from the obvious writing that comes in the form of tweets, Instagram captions, and Facebook announcements, many of these careers will be linked with a blog, email campaigns, or newsletters which will compromise the bulk of your writing. By writing for email campaigns and blogs you are able to make money as a writer, and learn how to use valuable online publishing tools such as WordPress, and design tools like Adobe PhotoShop and InDesign. The best part is that you don’t even have to leave this website to find an employment opportunity for this growing career field. Each semester, Dr. Rik Hunter selects an intern to work as the English department’s Social Media Coordinator and Staff Writer for Connections. More information on this internship is available here.


International Women’s Day: The Leading Ladies of Sigma Tau Delta

Women are strong.

In Honor of International Women’s Day, this Connections Post will focus on women in leadership roles in the English honors society, Sigma Tau Delta (unfortunately acronymed STD). Melissa Lopez, Grace Stafford, and Nolan Vail have transformed and revitalized what was once a club that held pizza parties twice a semester into a forum for experiencing cultural events in Atlanta, Chattanooga Nashville, and beyond. With the help of Dr. Joseph Jordan, these three have strengthened a community and built a family within the English department. Nolan opted to bow out of this interview in order to fully give the floor to his female compatriots.


Starting with the basics, why did you become English majors?

Melissa Lopez: Actually, funnily enough, you were one of the reasons why. I was taking two English classes at the same time, and I realized that I was really into the stress of papers and, like, looking at everything—

Oh we all love that.

Melissa: Right? If you’re an English major you’re either kind of sadistic or…you know we’re just weird.

One of the classes was with Dr. [Joseph] Jordan, right?

Melissa: Yeah! It was intro to Lit with Dr. Jordan and Values of 20th Century American Fiction—I went in hating Faulkner and then Dr. [Verbie] Prevost was like “Here’s a short story” and I walked out not hating him as much. Although, I will not read The Sound and the Fury ever again. But I was introduced to Chekov and that’s kind of my main influence of why I love English—Comparative Literature mostly.

Grace Stafford: I always read a lot as a kid, annoyingly so. I went through most of my time thinking I was going to Archeology with Egypt, I don’t know why, and I didn’t end up do that at all. That was when I was starting to realize that publishing is something I’d like to do. I like to write. I was good at it, so I wanted to keep doing it. And then junior and senior year is when I really started reading really good books for class and everything, and then I had a really great senior year teacher who recommended that I read The Bell Jar and that was what solidified it. It’s one of the most amazing books. It’s incredibly impactful just in general and it’s also just a good book, and I just wanted to study more of that while I was in school.

How did your passion for English influence your decision to join Sigma Tau Delta? Did you always want to be officers?

Melissa: In my first years of college I was in Greek life, and I really wanted a position in leadership because a lot of people say, “Being in a sorority is going to get you contacts and like networking and stuff.” Not really, unless you have a leadership position. I really like being in leadership positions. I did it in high school, and so then when I heard Dr. Jordan was like “the current president and vice president are stepping down and we need someone” and I was like “I’ll do it!” Because I really like to plan things. The idea of planning things and it all coming together and seeing the final result is very satisfying for me. I really like doing that and actually working. I like keeping busy, and if it means somehow mixing my passion of seeing an adaptation of a book into a play or something like that then it’s all worth it. Going to see Hamlet is great, I will always see Hamlet whenever I can.

And those are the kinds of things you guys do [in Sigma Tau Delta]?

Melissa: Yeah! We go to art exhibits with other professors is great and I’m a really big fan of art too and seeing “Gassed” by John Senior Sergeant and Dr. Shaheen tying his American Lit focus into that was really amazing. It’s actually kind of what I’m going to be doing with my thesis soon so that’s pretty chill.

Grace: So ditto to everything [she] just said. I’ve found amazing friends from the English department—probably the best friends. Obviously, there’s some [friends] outside of it because classes are fun, but we’re always together. We constantly see each other, and Sigma Tau Delta was just a way to take that classroom life out, and take trips, and have fun and so having the opportunity to be in a leadership position where we can help make those more frequent and cooler to us, rather than just what someone else thought, obviously. It’s a really good time to enjoy your friends and encourage new people to enjoy the English department as much as much we did because we do have a great faculty. I really enjoy it.

Melissa: Another little tidbit because I was just thinking of that when she mentioned faculty is that you develop relationships with your professors that you didn’t think you would. And you don’t know, their recommendation could get you into your dream grad school or the internship you want, and honestly it’s just really great when you have that relationship and you leave and come back and they’re like “I remember that great paper you wrote” and you’re like “really? Thanks!” You get to go to their houses and eat their food, too, so it’s great! I’m here for it.

Can you guys each just tell me a little about your position? What do you do in Sigma Tau  Delta day to day?

Melissa: As president I really just try to research opportunities to go to events, whether it would be in Atlanta, Nashville, sometimes Knoxville—sometimes they have a Shakespeare company there—and just organize them and get the information to Dr. Jordan. Of course he is a professor, and he has a huge workload, so on top of my workload, I just research a lot of these things, and we all kind of mix in the responsibilities.

You herd the cats, basically.

Melissa: Yeah, what we have to do is figure out induction [into Sigma Tau Delta], who do we want at this, these are possible dates, and try and work around everyone’s schedule. We remind people of when we need to do things, and that’s mostly what I do.

Grace: So I have the…rest of it. I basically do our the social media and communications.

What is your official title?

Grace: That’s a great question. I kind of say PR Officer..sure that’s what I do.

Great, I just really need to put you in a box.

Grace: Sure, that’s fair. I need that as well. It’s a great comfort. I do all the emails, social media attempts—mostly just Facebook because that’s really where we had a better success at getting people to events we set up and that kinda jazz on the Facebook page.

Ah, yes I’ve been on Facebook.

Grace: Yes, as one does. It’s easier to use for our needs. I make sure everyone knows about the upcoming events, and being the liaison between the people and us because there’s been times when people have been like “I need a ride to this event,” and I can help facilitate that kind of thing. It’s a huge group effort to plan and work together because we are friends, and we talk, and we’re like “that would be fun,” and we just work it out.

Would you say that the English Department and Sigma Tau Delta specifically helped facilitate this friendship?

Grace: It helps having so many classes together, and you can pretty much rely on the meeting people in the same classes.

Lots of repeat customers?

Grace: Exactly, which can be a bad thing if you don’t like someone, but if you like people then it’s fun because then you get to see them all the time.

How do you think people can reach out and be more involved in Sigma Tau Delta?

Grace: Come out with us to places. Come here [TC Ware room in McCallie 540 building]! Because we love to talk to people. If we know your name, and you can tell us things you want to do, we would love to listen. But we can’t talk to anybody we don’t know. We want to know what everyone else is wanting. I general I feel like while Sigma Tau Delta does have fun events, it’s really just facilitating communication between everybody in the department and people who, I don’t want to say “care a lot more,” but people who want to be more involved in their education and their experience while they’re at school. Making the most of it kind of idea—if you come to the events you’re more involved with your own schooling.

What are some upcoming Sigma Tau Delta events that we should put on our calendars?

Melissa: We’re going to start doing our movie nights again, and another reason you should come to the teas is that you can give me your email, and Grace will put you on the list, and you’ll get all the dates. But March 8th we’re going to do a showing of Pride and Prejudice, so you should come out to that. We’re probably going to see The Glass Menagerie at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre as well, so that one’s easier to go to if you can’t go to Nashville or Atlanta. We’re planning an induction, so if you do want to join you should get into that so you can be a part of the induction ceremony. There’s always the end of the year and semester party which is always great fun, great food—we love snacks.

Great apartment [Dr. Jordan’s apartment, where the end of the year party is held].

Melissa: Yeah, Great apartment. A lot of sparkling water, I don’t know why we all have an obsession with sparkling water in this department.

La Croix is the lifeblood of the English department.

Melissa: There’s a lot. We do less in the spring because finals come up so quickly, and there’s spring break, so everyone’s super busy. The fall is where we’re really poppin’. Wow! Did I just say that?

Grace: Oh, yeah! You sure did say “poppin.”

What’s it like working with Dr. Jordan?

There is a long silence followed by a lot of laughter

Melissa: Honestly, it can be frustrating. Our friendship is weird because I’ve gotten really sarcastic with him, and it’s kind of funny because if a professor I don’t know really well was ever sarcastic with me, I’d think they hated me, and that I couldn’t talk to them—it’s terrifying, but now it’s actually really cool. The only difficult thing is getting everyone’s schedules together because we all have lives outside of school, and he has his job, too.

Illustration by Kimothy Joy Poem by Amanda C. Gorman

Do you have any hot takes on what it’s like to work with Dr. Jordan?

Grace: I don’t have too much to add, but I will say that I’m proud that I got Dr. Jordan to start saying “friends” as a gender neutral greeting. Now when he emails us it’s always “Hey friends, How’re you doing” and we’re like “We’re doing so good!”

Melissa: The greatest thing is that we exchange musical artists, and I will say this, and I know this is going on the internet, I will admit that I do like Chris Stapelton and Sturgill Simpson but that’s it. You’re not going to get me to listen to Carrie Underwood—

But “Before He Cheats,” though.

Melissa: True. But I made him listen to Childish Gambino in his car one day on the way to see The Crucible—

But did he like it, that’s the most important question.

Melissa: His only reaction was “I thought you guys were really innocent” but jokingly, and then I made him listen to Kendrick Lamar, and I didn’t get a reaction. But if he says he doesn’t like Kendrick Lamar, I think my heart will break, because I love Kendrick.

Grace: But all in all, it’s fun to work with him.

I know this is a broad question, but how much do you guys think you’ve grown from being in Sigma Tau Delta? If you met yourself before getting involved with the department and Sigma Tau Delta, what would that be like?

Grace: For sure. I’ve definitely become more of a social person in environments I feel more comfortable in— obviously because social anxiety is still a thing—but in general, I feel more comfortable talking to new people. I want to to get people involved and make people feel welcome. It’s definitely made me realize how important it is to experience that when you’re in a new environment, and to really be more sure of myself in my work. We were just sitting with three or four professors just now chatting, and that’s something in my freshman year … I would have shut down. And we just had a chill conversation where we talked about the movie It and avocados—even though they didn’t approve of that topic. In general, I feel that I’ve become much more of a social person, and more in charge of my own narrative.

After a brief Costco related tangent we return to Melissa for final comments

Melissa: I definitely think I’ve grown. Like I said I never would have spoken to any of my professors, I didn’t really do that in high school. There were only like two teachers I really spoke to, and honestly you would not have seen me at a table talking to Dr. McCarthy or Professor Baker, or talking to Dr. Einstein because all the professors in this department have this aura of coolness about them. I think they were the hipster Millennials of their generation. You know like that kind of vibe. Really I think by them being so welcoming really made me come out of my shell and become even more of an outgoing person than I already was.

Grace: I just have one more thing to add, and it’s very self serving, but I would also like to say that because of my increased interactions with my professors, that’s how I was able to find out about my internship with that I’m currently doing with Dr. Einstein. I wouldn’t have been in the know about this position. It’s pretty amazing.

Sigma Tau Delta is an International English honor’s society and these views are specific to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s officers and interviewer. The tentative date for the 2018 induction into the club is April 12th at Patten Chapel. For more info feel free to contact Melissa Lopez, (rwk261 [at] mocs.utc [dot] edu) Grace Stafford (hcc468 [at] mocs.utc[dot] edu), or Nolan Vail (ccs156 [at] mocs.utc [dot] edu) for more information.

The Walls of Great Zimbabwe, The Hoverboards of Wakanda, and the Fear of Black Excellence: Some Thoughts on Black History Month

Republished with the permission of Dr. James Arnett from his blog.

The Western history of Africa is full of aporiae.

“Africa has literature?”

I was working out at the gym a few weeks ago, during the local high school kids’ summer/Christmas break. That meant that a few conscientious, vain, and bored young men put in their appearance at the gym. One was a particularly serious specimen, and one day he tapped me on the shoulder.

“How old are you?” he asked with the blithe confidence of privileged youth.

“Older than you think I should be,” I responded.

“So, like, what, 28? 30?”

God bless you, child.

“And what are you doing here?” he continued, confident of his right to ask, and to know.

I’m teaching at NUST, down the road. The National University of Science and Technology, I clarified, since I’d ceased being surprised that white Zimbabweans were surprised that there was a legitimate university in town.

“What do you teach there?”

Well, I’m researching African literature, and teach that back in the States.

He looked genuinely puzzled. “But there can’t be much of that, is there? I mean, they’ve only known how to read for a few decades.”

I’ve gotten used to all manners of ignorances in all manners of places – at home in Tennessee, here in Zimbabwe. But that one still threw me for a loop. It occurred to me that a goodly number of white Zimbabweans receive little to no information at all about their fellow citizens, or their home’s long history. For many, history began with the arrival of the white settler column from South Africa. Because, fuck, Hegel said that Africa had no history, was outside of history. And because racism. And because privilege and private education. And because white people here, like white people everywhere, can live in absolutely conscious ignorance of their neighbours by pretending that they don’t actually meaningfully exist.

One of the wonders of the world is located here in Zimbabwe. A few, if you’re counting UNESCO World Heritage sites. There’s Mana Pools National Park – unspoiled wilderness tucked in the northeast of the country. Victoria Falls, one of the seven wonders of the natural world, thunders in the northwestern corner of the country. Khami Ruins, home to the diaspora cast out after the dissolution of Great Zimbabwe, near Bulawayo. And, of course, Great Zimbabwe.

Great Zimbabwe was “discovered” by Europeans at the end of the 19th century, by a man named Carl Mauch, which sounds like an awful lot like “Karl Marx” when a Zimbabwean says it. Zimbabwe, the country, takes its name from this site, whose name in Shona was “dzimbabhwe,” or house made of stone. (See Mawuna Koutonin’s remarkably thorough post detailing the history of the History of Great Zimbabwe:

Great Zimbabwe was settled between 1250AD and 1850AD, roughly, give or take a century or two. What remains lifts out of the plains of Masvingo Province, south of Lake Mutirikwe, among the great grey granite whalebacks that hump out of the surrounding plain and determine the flow of seasonal rivers. Great Zimbabwe was home to a settled culture of pre-Shona people, and inhabited three major complexes spread out at the site – a Hill Complex, where the King resided and the royal court was held; a Valley Complex, where more common people lived; and the Great Enclosure, the most complete set of ruins, home to the famous conical tower of Great Zimbabwe, and home to the junior wives of the King.

The architecture at the site is dry construction stonework. Granite was broken up when they set hot fires around an outcrop, superheating the rock before dousing it with cold water, creating almost instant exfoliation in the granite, which could then be hewn into roughly rectangular bricks. These bricks were carefully piled and arranged in thick walls without mortar, relying on design and gravity to keep the walls standing in place. In the Great Enclosure, the complete wall is 11 meters high – and more than a meter thick – and the small gaps in the carefully arranged walls reveal layers of other, carefully arranged stones behind those. There are drainage runnels carved into the stone flooring, and small pockets at the bottom of the wall to allow water to run out – showing tremendous foresight. The Conical Tower of the Great Enclosure is staunchly impressive, with a regular, bricked facade and great height.

For decades after the site was “discovered,” white European archaeologists discovered a host of well-made iron tools, delicate goldwork, blue and white porcelain, glass beads, Portuguese coins, Chinese jewelry, Arabic filigree. Great Zimbabwe was obviously a deeply cosmopolitan site – in spite of being located hundreds of miles in from the East Coast of Africa, it did heavy trade with a range of powerful mid-CE trading partners.

But for decades after the site was “discovered,” it became a pet theory of archaeologists that, given that these were the most accomplished and ambitious city ruins “discovered” in Africa, they were somehow exceptionally unAfrican, which is to say, not Black. It was initially thought that the ruins were of the Bible’s Queen of Sheba, or that it was built by far-ranging Phoenicians. These ideas retained currency in colonial Rhodesia well after archaeologists had proven the ruins the work of the forebears of the Shona people in Zimbabwe.

Susan Buck-Morss, the American historian, explains that “When national histories are conceived of as self-contained, or when the separate aspects of history are treated in disciplinary isolation, counterevidence is pushed to the margins as irrelevant. The greater the specialization of knowledge, the more advanced the level of research, the longer and more venerable the scholarly tradition, the easier it is to ignore the discordant facts” (Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History 22). Rhodesia was a defensive state to begin with, grounded in apparent dispossession and a quieter apartheid than its neighbour to the south. Rhodesia saw itself, like Kenya, and other Anglo-African settler colonies, as a besieged minority struggling valiantly to bring civilization to a place where there was none. So its national identity cohered around a rejection of the values of Black culture, history, aesthetics, architecture. Great Zimbabwe could not, therefore, be Black.

In the schema of white racism, the pyramids in Egypt must have been built by ancient aliens instead of by the real and darker, you know, historical Egyptians. The schema of white racism has turned the History Channel into a production that it is 40% ancient aliens, and 60% Hitler porn.
It’s hackneyed to say we need Black History Month because all of the other months are basically White History Month, even if it’s true. But we need Black History Month because for too long, whitefolk have imagined that History is their domain, a narrative of triumphalist, messianic progress that has erupted in Their Benign Supremacy. Lots of this is Hegel’s fault, and his Philosophy of History is a foundational white supremacist document that has paraded as a benign philosophical text for too long. It asserted that Africa was “outside of” History, untouched by it, and this casually racist shove-aside did a lot of labour in the defense of European colonialism and violence for the past couple of centuries.

Buck-Morss seeks to fundamentally challenge this Eurocentricity by arguing that the Haitian Revolution was not just a paradigmatically “modern” event (it is normally excluded from being so in narratives that prize the French Revolution and the American Revolution for their contributions to political science and philosophy), but that it was the very first such modern event. Because of the Haitian Revolution, she explains, “radical antislavery” became a universal inheritance, and as such, a foundational historical force. Thus, the Haitian Revolution was indeed the very thesis of universal history; “Universal history engages in a double liberation, of the historical phenomena and of our own imagination: by liberating the past we liberate ourselves. The limits to our imagination need to be taken down brick by brick, chipping away at the cultural embedededness that predetermines the meaning of the past in ways that hold us captive in the present” (149). Her organic use of the “brick by brick” metaphor accords powerfully with the materiality of Great Zimbabwe. Narratives of white supremacy – in all forms, especially in the teleological narratives of white triumphalism – need to be chipped away at through active labour. “Nothing keeps history univocal but power,” Buck-Morss reminds us (150).

“How dare Others have the audacity to excel in spite of the very supremacist construction of the discourse of History itself?”

A successfully polemical blog post [] went viral a few years ago, promising to detail the 100 African Cities that Europeans plundered, destroyed, displaced, refused to acknowledge, etc – and was handsomely compiled. It was an effective document, and remarkable in its fluency with panAfrican histories and historiographies. It sought to explain why there was so little evidence standing in the present of Africa’s great and tumultuous human history. After all, much of the justification for the colonizing of Africa was in line with Conrad’s Marlowe’s “blank spot on the map,” the presupposition of the absence of meaningful History in Africa. So much of this was cynically grounded in the apparent absence of proof of civilization in Africa – too few ruins of great cities, nothing like the monumental sprees of the Greeks and Romans, hewing everything out of stark stone, etc. But this impulse, to evaluate the value of a civilization by the permanence of their artifacts, or the endurance of their mythos, is ludicrous, Buck-Morss explains, ​​

For the other great Hegelian inheritance with regards to history is his belief in its teleological self-perfection – that the progress of civilization as History is a narrative of rarification and advancement. This is a much-beloved and rarely-acknowledged bias of the present, to imagine with the aid of Faux Darwin that existence, presence, is proof of power and perfection/perfecting.

In other words, History needs to be fundamentally rethought. And we need to liberate ourselves from the blinders of History to the broader spaces of histories; recognizing multiplicity, diversity, variability and ingenuity, are all crucial to a reimagination of collective self-narrations. For this, Buck-Morss issues a call to action:

“The fight to free the facts from the collective histories in which they were embedded is
one with exposing and expanding the porosity of the global social field, where individual
experience is not so much hybrid as human.” (149)

[read more – Black Panther​ spoiler alerts]

“Wakanda has hoverboards?”

Just before the white CIA officer, Everett Ross, is entrusted with shooting down a cargo ship filled with advanced technology destined for poor African countries, he looks at Shuri, Wakandan Tech Goddess, when she asks him to fly their advanced stealth plane. “It’s just like riding a hoverboard,” she says. “Wakanda has hoverboards?” he asks, incredulous.

One of the gambits of Wakanda in the Black Panther movie mythology is that it cloaks itself as a backwards, humble, and uninteresting African country in order to protect its wild riches. Their proactive defense against centuries of colonialism is to pretend that they have nothing worth stealing, even as they sit on the most potent resource in the world. The illusion is distressingly easy to maintain, although we don’t ever see the workings of the mechanism itself – which projects a hologram of labouring peasants on top of their stunningly developed capital city. Ulysses Klaue, the stand-in for white African colonial expropriators, has a hard time trying to convince anyone that Wakanda is worth stealing from, and so does it himself – a kind of modern-day Rhodes. While we stare at Wakanda in its generic pan-Afro-futurist glory, the movie riffs on our refusal to believe in the marvels we see. In fact, the whole movie is premised in this: that there is Black excellence and greatness amongst us that is perpetually refused or unacknowledged, and which is ultimately only useful inasmuch as it can be put to the service of the perpetuation of exploitative, extractive neo-colonial capitalism.

Wakanda is real/not real. It is the concentrated manifestation of the possibility of the realization of Black excellence without the active interference of pernicious racist ideologies. It allegorizes the tremendous wealth contained in Africa – and in its creditor relation to the rest of the world via the mechanisms of global capitalist extraction, which offshores and appropriates African wealth.

The movie Black Panther is important. One of its most powerful statements is in the presentation of its world: it is a world inhabited by black African peoples, aloof from neo-colonialist or white supremacist machinations on its “development” or “progress.” Much of the celebratory rhetoric around Black Panther revolves around “seeing”: seeing a world of Black people, seeing a world of African technological advancement, seeing strong Black women in positions of self-determination and power.

“Wakanda has hoverboards?” Everett Ross asks, surrounded by a host of other supremely advanced technologies, beneficiary himself of vibranium’s life-saving properties. Is he blind? Like, no, really, is he? I’d have to rewatch to gauge the degree of irony there, and the line is delivered as a punchline, but it’s a bitter pill to swallow. The persistence of white disbelief in Black excellence in spite of all evidence to the contrary: what a familiar trope! “Africans can’t have built that,” it was so fashionable for so long to say of Great Zimbabwe. How dare they, in other words? How dare Others have the audacity to excel in spite of the very supremacist construction of the discourse of History itself?

Preface to the English Major

Before becoming an English major, I had in my head the stories I had heard about what English majors and faculty were like. The impression given to me by my freshman-level peers about their Composition instructors—combined with someone I dated who was an English major (if someone tells you their favorite author is Franz Kafka, run for the hills!)—left a taste in my mouth so bad that I thought I might never get over it. At that time, my only impression had been that to be an English major, I had to participate in what Alvy Singer in Annie Hall derisively calls “mental masturbation.” Thankfully, as one of my favorite non-Canonical authors, Lemony Snicket, once said, “I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this, but first impressions are often entirely wrong.”

A perfect segue into the teachable moment before us: you shouldn’t necessarily listen to young college students full of angst and resistance to authority, and avoiding pretentious boyfriends quoting Nietzsche are the foundations of a for a happier life. Basically, be open-minded enough to listen and experience things before making final judgements. It’s equally true about English and boyfriends. In my case, I chose to be an English major and quit the boyfriend.

The English department, as I know it, is an overwhelmingly warm and welcoming place where the classes feed your soul, and the faculty literally feeds you (Dr. Joseph Jordan has been known to bring donuts to class on more than one occasion). And even I was resistant to poetry. When I think back to the times when I first started English and said “Poetry is so stupid, why don’t they just say what they mean?” much cringing ensues. Thankfully not many people still know me from those days, but that’s been ameliorated by going out of my way to make self-deprecating comments which identify me as a former poetry hater.

I know my time writing for Connections and having opportunities to interact with more students, alumni, and faculty will deepen my connection with the English major and department, and maybe what I write can help someone else create a connection and see the personal value of an English degree.

Catalpa: A Magazine For The People, By The People

UTC’s students and faculty create a number of publications for the benefit of other students and faculty. The University Echo student newspaper and the Sequoya Review Literary and Arts Magazine are two examples of excellent student-driven publications that teach students the ins and outs of publishing and writing and allow students to submit their own work for their peers to read. In the spring of this year, the English Department published the first edition of Catalpa, an annual magazine focused on highlighting the South as “the sum of its voices—the weird and wonderful, polite and profane.”

The magazine is created entirely by UTC English graduate students advised by Dr. Rebecca Jones—last year, all writing, design, and publishing was done by these students to create both an online publication and a physical magazine.

In this post, I interview Catalpa‘s Editor, 2nd year Masters student, Drake Farmer.


Photo by Alex Plaumann


Can you tell me about your educational background and how you came to join the English Department? And have you always been interested in writing?

English is something I’m naturally drawn to. I’ve never had much of a brain for math or the sciences, but I love reading and thinking about other people’s words. I received my undergraduate degree in Modern and Contemporary Humanities, just up the road in Cleveland, Tennessee. Pursuing a Masters in English is technically my first true foray into the field, though there is overlap in content and method between the Humanities and English. As for writing, that’s sort of a new interest for me, at least in terms of producing pieces of writing for an audience outside of academia. It was born out of necessity for the first issue of the magazine and it stuck.

Why did you decide to pursue graduate study? What is your ultimate goal as a student of English and a professional?

I think, for me, graduate school was always in the forecast. The major push to apply came as I continually meeting resistance trying to get work as a freelance copyeditor. Granted, it’s a tough field, but I saw that I would have more mobility and be more desirable if I possessed a master’s degree. Now, I’m not as dead-set on pursuing a career as an editor—though I do love it. I would really enjoy teaching, and the small freedoms an academic calendar allows for are certainly a bonus.

Picture of Catalpa, Spring 2017 physical issue

Catalpa, Spring 2017 physical issue

Tell me a little about Catalpa. Who is your intended audience? What is your ultimate vision for Catalpa? What specific role do you play in the magazine’s design and publication?

Catalpa is a magazine put out by graduate students in the University of Tennessee’s English Department. The idea is to craft a magazine whose roots are not only in the South (which we recognize can be a fraught term in today’s social and political climate), but more specifically in Chattanooga. Since this is our mission, so to speak, we are particularly interested in writing about out, and telling the stories of, our community. I think that translates to us pursuing a fairly wide audience—we feel that Chattanooga is the sum of its voices.

I am the current editor for the magazine, so it is my responsibility to provide direction for the project and divvy up tasks. I also work on getting the word out, corresponding with those who submit, and making sure contributors are kept in the loop. Ultimately, all we want is to have a fully staffed magazine with an inbox full of really great submissions and pitches. As long as we reach that goal, we can continue to publish great work. It takes time to get the word out, but I think we can pull it off.

Did you and the staff of Catalpa have any particular influences? That is to say, did you model it after another publication that has similar goals?

There are so many great magazines out there from which to draw inspiration. While brainstorming Catalpa, we looked at the types of stories magazines like Bitter Southerner, Oxford American, and Orion were publishing. We took special care not to copy those publications outright, but we felt that Chattanooga was a city in which something similar could work.

As I understand it, Catalpa was the product of the Fall 2016-Spring 2017 semesters. Did you have experience prior to your work on Catalpa doing research, writing, and designing everything yourselves?

Not particularly. For many of us, the inaugural issue was a first pass at creating something like this. The class had been workshopped the previous year, so we weren’t completely in the dark, but the final product as it exists is something born from those two semesters. A number of us had little experience with programs like the Adobe creative suite prior to Catalpa, which was a bit daunting. Despite our general lack of experience, Adrienne, the previous editor, and Danny, the design editor, put in a considerable amount of work to help guide our team through.

Among the content submitted to Catalpa are profiles, which focus on a particular group of individual.

What challenges did you face creating a magazine from scratch? What would you say was the most challenging for you personally? For the staff as a whole?

Deadlines are tricky. For us, and for contributing writers/artists. I think that, coupled with our newness in a process like this, was one of the most challenging parts. Basically, our design team was learning this massively complex program under the pressure of getting the magazine out by May. Talk about trial by fire. For the editorial staff, we had to wrestle with some big issues—race being the one at the forefront—and figure out the best way to include pieces that dealt with them. I think that personally, the most challenging thing was believing we would pull it off and it would be good. And that’s not due to the quality of work we received, or the work we put in. Essentially, it was just this thought of, “We think this thing is really great, and hope others do, too.

What makes Catalpa different from other university publications?

Sequoya Review and the University Echo are great. Effectively, Catalpa is trying to work around other university publications to find where we can bridge gaps. With so much good work coming from campus, we chose to reach out into the community for stories that readers can invest in and ruminate on. We’re also interested in slightly different genres than some of the other campus publications; we like narrative and expository essays, creative nonfiction, photo essays, and ephemera.

Finally, what advice would you give to others who are just graduating and looking to start work on their own publications? What have you learned during your experience working on Catalpa that you think everyone should know?

I think it’s important to take any project you might be working on seriously, but try not to get too overwhelmed. The cliché to take things in stride and figure out solutions holds true. If it seems daunting, it’s because it is, but it is also really rewarding. So try not to panic (too much). Also, reach out to your friends for contributions and help—it’s possible to go it alone, but it’s way more fun with a team.


Catalpa is accepting submissions until December 15. Email submissions, along with your name and the genre of your submission or pitch, to We encourage you to look at their content from the previous semester and submit anything you’ve written for consideration!

What I Learned in My Internship Today Is…

Jarod Hobbs, Staff Writer/Social Media Intern Fall 2017

Jarod Hobbs, Staff Writer/Social Media Coordinator intern, Fall 2017

…titles aren’t my forte.

When I began my internship as the Staff Writer and Social Media Coordinator for UTC’s English Department, I was admittedly anxious. I had never been in an environment where my writing would be publicly visible, at least not in the way that it is writing for Connections, and I was terrified about what people would think about it. Would it be good enough? Was I in my head too much? I’m glad to say that, yes, I was in my head far too much.

This experience has been enriching in many ways, but the most helpful thing about it has been the reassurance that there is something for me to do once I graduate. I know we’ve all heard countless jokes and teases about what English majors do after graduation, but social media management and blog posting aren’t just entertainment and hobbies anymore. Over the course of this internship, I feel that I’ve gained insight into what it means to manage an online community and write for a public audience—insight that I couldn’t have gained through classes alone.

When it came to running the social media accounts for a university department, what immediately came to mind was balancing being professional with being approachable. I knew that being a stuffy account that only announced campus events wasn’t the way that I wanted to do things. There’s no reason that a university department’s social media can’t be fun and enjoyable.

A meme posted on Twitter in celebration of Labor Day.

A meme posted on Twitter in celebration of Labor Day.

If you’ve followed our Twitter or Facebook accounts over the course of this semester, you might have seen some of the sillier posts that I made, including a few memes. My philosophy on running a successful organizational social media account is to treat it as if it were a person; being human is the most important key that I discovered to getting people to interact with the Department. If you just make an effort to be human, people will be far more likely to reciprocate and interact.

Of course, social media are only half the story. I have also been responsible for writing feature articles for this, the English Department’s Connections blog, and those stories were some of the most fun things to do. Again, until this internship, I had no experience writing in a forum that was as public as this. I had done countless assignments for English classes, but actually writing something that was going to be published and read by students, faculty, and community members was completely new territory for me.

Savannah May, a senior English student who will graduate in at the end of this semester, was kind enough to answer some questions that I had about Dr. Jenn Stewart’s Senior Seminar class, and so she became the subject of my first interview. I also had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Sarah Einstein, a Creative Writing professor in the English Department, about a new book on which she is working, which is concerned with the fall of Nazism in Austria post-WWII, the discovery during the Cold War of how out-of-the-loop the Austrian public was, and the current sociopolitical climate.

The interview I conducted with Savannah May.

The interview I conducted with Savannah May.

Both of these interview experiences gave me opportunities to discover new skills outside of writing. Dr. Stewart very graciously let me photograph a session of her class so that I would have photos to use in the article. And because I interviewed Dr. Einstein in-person, I recorded our interview and uploaded the audio onto a SoundCloud page that I created for the Department’s use.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to be the Staff Writing and Social Media Coordinator for this semester. It allowed me to hone writing skills that I already had, and I was also able to develop new skills that I can use in the future. I really think that, of the three Capstone options for English majors, the Internship class is the most useful for students to learn real-world skills and gain work experience. I’d like to wish the next intern the best of luck!

The Past, and How It Is Repeating

Dr. Sarah Einstein

Dr. Sarah Einstein

It’s no secret that the current sociopolitical climate is . . . fragile, at best. Since 2013, movements such as “Black Lives Matter” and have gained significant traction in the face of social injustice. They fight to dismantle centuries-old systems in which a select few enjoy real freedom while most of the population suffers. Meanwhile, white nationalist and neo-Nazi movements have become more vociferous than ever—the so-called “Unite the Right rally” in Charlottesville, Virginia that took place in August marked a dramatic shift, making it clear that these movements are not just whispers in dark corners of the Internet.

Dr. Sarah Einstein is a Creative Writing professor in UTC’s English department. I had the pleasure of interviewing her a few weeks ago for her new book, which examines Austria’s response to revelations about Nazism after the end of World War II. We met in person and chatted about her work and the world, and she also emailed me with additional information. We also discussed the current state of affairs in the world, including the way in which people are becoming increasingly divided. The audio file of our interview is available for listening at the bottom of the page.

You earned your Ph.D at Ohio University, but you are from West Virginia and now teach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Why did you decide to come here to teach?

In truth, nobody gets to decide where they teach. There are very few jobs in any one academic field at any one time, and places choose people rather than the other way around. That said, I am thrilled to have landed where I did. I wanted, very much, to teach at an Appalachian university with a diverse student population. The student writers at UTC are far and away the best undergraduate writers I have ever had the opportunity to work with, largely because of the diversity of our student body. I’m very glad to have been chosen for this position and hope to spend the rest of my academic career right here.

You teach Creative Nonfiction here at UTC. What about this is appealing to you as a genre versus fiction or poetry?

In fiction, the author needs to understand the motives of the characters–and I’m terrible at that. I’m a weirdo, I make weird decisions, and often the only reason I have is that I followed my interests. My first book is about my friendship with a homeless man. Can you imagine how I’d have to twist myself into knots to explain why a middle aged housewife would take off to Texas to visit a homeless friend? In nonfiction, I don’t need a why—only that it happened. And I think that’s more like life. Often, the why of something seems inexplicable to me. And poetry . . . well, poets are magic. They do things with language that leave me gaping in admiration, but it’s a magic I don’t have, though I envy it.

In fact, your bio on UTC’S website mentions specifically that your research interest is in disability studies, and you wrote Mot with a precision that suggests you have deep interest and experience with writing about mental illness and disability. What is it that interests you so much about this particular area?

I am a disabled person, and so of course the every day experiences of disabled people interest me, as do the ways in which disabled people are—and are not—welcomed into the academy. One of the things I love most about UTC is the MOSAIC program; I’m thrilled to be at a university that not only welcomes, but encourages, neurodiverse students to become part of the academic community.

Image of white supremacists clashing with riot police during the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“White supremacists clash with police” – By Evan Nesterak (White supremacists clash with police) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

As I understand it, you are currently working on a book about the aftermath of WWII and how Austrian civilians were kept in the dark about how egregious the Nazis and the Holocaust were until as late as the 1970s. What challenges have you face researching for this book compared to pulling your personal experiences for your memoir? With that in mind, the recent Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally demonstrated that Neo-Nazism and white supremacy are at an all time high in recent memory. Between that and the increasingly boldness with which Neo-Nazi and white supremacy groups are acting online and in person, how has this changed your perspective on the book? Has your research shifted from the historical to the more recent?

The damn Nazis are back. Originally, this was to be a book about how Austria recovered from its Nazi past, and it relied on the idea that Nazis were a historical artifact. Charlottesville changed that, of course. I’ve been spending a lot of time researching the resurgence of the American Nazi movement, and it’s hard work. It means getting up every morning and reading about the reasons that people want to kill me. There is nothing distant or removed about that. It’s not the work I set out to do, and it’s not work I’m particularly well-suited to do. I tend to write about things long after they’ve stopped being current, when they are safely enough in the past that I can reflect on, rather than react to, them. Still, this feels like necessary work right now, so I’m trying to proceed. Feel free to stop by my office, though, and offer a word of encouragement. There are mornings when the awful is a little bit more than I can comfortably bear.

Finally, we as a nation are facing a critical shift in sociopolitical climate following the last election. As we see these groups becoming more and more vocal, what are you hoping to accomplish with your new book? And what advice would you give to current students looking to pursue Creative Nonfiction?

I think that all Creative Nonfiction has the opportunity to open up the world to readers–to show us the way another person thinks. I’d advise anyone who wants to write CNF to think about what they, and only they, can bring to our awareness. The CNF writer serves as a witness; sometimes to the joys of life, sometimes to it’s pain, but always to the real. Think back on what you have seen that others have not, and show it to us. Offer us, the reading world, the gift of yourself. We will honor it and be grateful.

Interview Audio.


In Memory and Rememory: An American Appreciation of Yvonne Vera

Republished with permission from Dr. James Arnett from his blog.

[speech given at Pamberi Trust’s ‘Celebration of Yvonne Vera,’ Harare, National Gallery, October 3, 2017]

In Memory

Petal Thoughts: Yvonne Vera biography cover.There is no question that Yvonne Vera’s work holds a special place in both Zimbabwean and African literature. But by virtue of her lyricism, her ambition to depict a broad sweeps of histories otherwise swept under the rug, her literature is a truly world literature – uncovering common humanity, carving out a space for the experience of women under colonial violences, revealing and reevaluating, too, the societies meant to give black African women rights and shelter. She spares no one, but her voice is not overwhelming or condemning. Like Nonceba’s survival in The Stone Virgins, there is a way through history, a way to live with and past the terrible violences that continue to haunt contemporary Zimbabwe.

In this way, I see a tremendous affinity between Vera’s work and those of the American Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. Her mother, Ericah Gwetai, makes mention of the fact that Vera re-read The Bluest Eye every year on her birthday; that novel, about the essential confusion about growing up black and abused, in a world that fetishized whiteness and power, has clear echoes all across Vera’s work, which poignantly looks at the racial dynamics intertwined with colonial dynamics in Rhodesia’s, and then Zimbabwe’s, 20th century. Both women write of the heinous violences inflicted on the most vulnerabled – and I use this in the past tense to foreground that vulnerability to violence is anything but essential, but rather something ideologically imposed. And both women skirt the usually bland celebratory bromides about women’s strength.

In October 2017, I attended the Women, Wine, and Words event as part of Bulawayo’s Intwasa Arts Festival. Five talented female poets from Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, and the UK came together to perform their work. One of the common threads that ran through almost all of the poets’ work was this: “I’m tired” – tired of many things – of being underappreciated and rhetorically overvalued, denigrated and vaunted simultaneously. Indigo Williams’s take on this theme was particularly poignant; she began by talking about how, paradoxically, it is frustrating and wonderful to be taken as a “strong black woman.” But what of the days, she wondered, when it was hard to get out of bed? What of the times when her vulnerability was at the fore, and strength something hard to muster? How does one live in between strength and vulnerability without being consumed?

Vera’s work, like Morrison’s, isn’t afraid of boasting of the resilience of women and also depicting their vulnerability. Vera gives us women that fight as much as they can – as much as can be expected – and break, too. No one can stand the onslaught of dehumanizing violence without cracking, and Vera’s lyrical novels assemble those broken pieces into something like stained glass – illuminating and awe-inspiring.


We Need New Names

“Muzhanje is the name of a fruit from Chimanimani, in the eastern highlands, whose seed this man has brought stuck to the bottom of his pocket, then planted it in her mouth like a gift, days and days after they have met. She has stopped considering time and only considers him.” (Stone Virgins 43)

The passion with which Vera writes characters whose lives have already been – or about to be – ruthlessly scarred by violence and by history – serves as a tonic to run-of-the-mill arguments that representations of violence are abstractly dehumanizing. The way Vera writes violence does precisely the opposite – it renders their humanity palpable and real, not dominated by their place in history, but continuous with history, running alongside it, occasionally, cruelly, pierced by it.

The opening section of The Stone Virgins – the lull before the violence consumes us – depicts Kezi, and the Thandabantu Store, and Thenjiwe, and her lover. Thenjiwe hones in on her lover, full of him: “She brings home the man who gives her all her hips, who embraces her foot, who collects her shadow and places it right back in her body as though it were a missing part of herself, and she lets him gaze into her eyes till they both see stars through their tears. In the deep dark pool of her eyes the man sees places he has never been, she has never been” (SV 43). He has brought this strange fruit to her – the muzhanje, the name Thenjiwe chooses for her dream child, impossibly conceived in mind only.

She understands this native fruit – native, unlike the “Host of eucaplytus trees redolent; their scent euphoric,” or the jacarandas casting their blooms over Bulawayo’s streets, or the “fusion of dahlias, petunias, asters, red salvia and mauve petrea bushes” in Centenary Park, each of these plants an importation, a colonial transplant from the Antipodes and Caribbean and the reaches of the British Empire (SV 10). There can be a beauty in these transplants, Vera observes, but the muzhanje is the fruit that ignites Thenjiwe’s fascination. It is local and not – brought from a distant within, exotically local.

The colonial place names that open The Stone Virgins, its catalogue of Selborne, Fort, Main, Grey, Abercorn, Fife, Rhodes, Borrow streets, depict Bulawayo as it could officially be known and indexed, not unlike the catalogue of imported flowers that brighten Centenary Park. But that Bulawayo is one that is ultimately condemned to living as the past, a town prey to the homogenizing urban forces that render cities similar. Instead, Thenjiwe’s lover wants to taste the real place, not ‘Rhodesia,’ but Zimbabwe: to see “more than Bulawayo, after coming all the way from Chimanimani he wanted to see the Mopani shrubs, the Mtshwankela, the Dololenkonyane, the balancing Matopo Hills, the gigantic anthills of Kezi.” (45)

Colonialism didn’t make Africa go away, not under its gridded streets and imported street names, nor under its imported jacaranda trees. Africa lived alongside imperial Africa, contained in the places whose names are not forgotten, nor replaced, the flora native and indigenous and resilient. The work of reclaiming spaces, Vera writes, is only partially about effacing the names of the colonizers who controlled and wrangled and dictated. It is also about recognizing that the old names were always the names, no matter what dressing was applied.


Strange Fruit

There is much strange fruit in Vera’s work – fruit that is literally strange, that compels consumption, like the native-but-distant muzhanje fruit. Thenjiwe wants to know all about it, suspects that there is something important, resilient, productive in it. “She rises…to ask him on what soil the muzhanje grows, how long before each new plant bears fruit, how fertile its branches, how broad its leaf. She rises to ask what kind of tree the seed comes from, the shape of its leaves, the size of its trunk, the shape of its branches, the colour of its bloom, the measure of its veins” (46). The muzhanje, Thenjiwe believes, may give her access to tradition and place in a way that street signs misdirected and obfuscate. She, like Alex Haley’s displaced Africans in America, wants to understand roots – literal and figurative. “Thenjiwe knows that the roots of trees have shapes more definite than leaves,” Vera writes in The Stone Virgins. The surface is merely coincidental to the way that the tree grows in ground, rooted in place. Thenjiwe, before the violence that forecloses her life, seeks the strength of rootedness, of rediscovering place, and of forging a real relationship to it, grounded in loving and knowing.

This phrase “strange fruit” has a particularly American history; it is the name of the famous Billie Holliday song, penned by Abel Meeropol, it decries the American practice of extradjudicial killings of black men – a practice we historically call lynching, but these days I fear we just call “policing.” It metaphorized the lynched bodies of black men, darkly describing the methods of white supremacy to control and subjugate populations of color. Chester Himes, the African-American writer, remarked that “no one, no one, writes about violence the way Americans do. As a matter of fact for the simple reason that no one understand or expresses violence like the American civilians do. American violence is public life, it is a public way of life, it became a form…” But that isn’t exclusively true – black Zimbabwean writers have managed to develop a sophisticated language to describe the unspeakable, and Vera’s associative novels leave the reader breathless in the wake of horror, not unlike this moment in The Stone Virgins, the prevision of finality that afflicts Thenjiwe suddenly: “Muzhanje. Thenjiwe flicks the seed to the roof of her mouth and pushes the man aside, way off the bed. She has been hit by an illumination so profound, so total, she has to breathe deep and think about it some more. She wants to lie down, in silence.” (SV 44)

But there is other strange fruit, too, in Vera, as in the grisly tableau that opens Butterfly Burning, of the mass hanging of men…”The dead men remain in the tree for days. Their legs tied together, their hands hanging close to their stomachs. Toes are turned down to the ground as though the body would leap to safety. The foot curls like a fist, facing down. The feet of dancers who have left the ground. Caught. Surprised by something in the air which they thought free. The limbs smooth and taut, of dancers in a song with no words spoken. A dance denied. A blossom in a wind. A dark elegy” (BB 11). It takes great creativity and fortitude to render such a horrific scene so approachable and, dare I say, beautiful. It is not a beauty that celebrates violence or death in any way, but one that, as I argued before, humanizes its victims. In this passage, seventeen men are lynched in 1896, strange fruit overripe, cut short by the overzealous, overreaching, paranoiac violence at the heart of the founding of Rhodesia. “It is not a place with large trees,” Vera writes with dismay and wonder, “This tree, like these deaths, is a surprise. Away from the Umguza River which sings a lullaby each morning whatever the season, there are no trees” (BB 12).

Terence Ranger recalls of Vera their trip to the Cyrene Mission outside of Bulawayo, where she went to see the art and murals, and where Vera “saw for the first time the enlarged version of the photo of African men, captured in 1896 [during the Second Matabeleland War, as the English call it; the first Chimurenga as it should be known], hanging from a tree. She was astonished that the photograph fitted so exactly with her description of hanging men at the beginning of Butterfly Burning, the sense of the men swimming in the air, being as vivid in the photograph as in the book” (Petal Thoughts 90). Vera’s historical imagination was strong enough to conjure the horror of the scene, so in touch was she with history and culture, and with what Toni Morrison in Beloved, calls “re-memory.”



In Morrison’s Beloved, when Sethe is escaping the unthinkable violence of her slave plantation, seeking to give birth to her last child in freedom, she encounters the kindly Amy Denver, who massages her feet, and remarks, “Anything dead coming back to life hurts,” a painful description and a prophecy. Vera writes, continuing the gruesome scene, “[The women] are not allowed to touch the bodies. They do not grieve. It is better that the murdered are not returned to the living: the living are not dead. The women keep the most vital details of their men buried in their mouths” (BB 12). The women of Vera’s novel know that there is no live return from the space of the dead, no amelioration or respite, just names and impressions held silently until mourning breaks. Vera is also haunted by the permanence of violence, as if linked to troubled spots, crossroads of tribal, colonial, and nationalist violence.

One of the things most relished and valued about Morrison’s work – and the work of most canonical African-American writers – is its unflagging attention to historical truths, revealing the dark side of the American colonial enterprise, with its attendant slavery; Vera’s refusal to shy away from these historical violences makes her kin to Morrison. Sethe, in Beloved, ruminates, “I was talking about time. It’s so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.” Vera’s affirming discovery of the photo of the hanged men demonstrates the vital power of rememory – the resurgence and reality of violence in places where trauma has occurred, where the attempt to efface or move beyond that violence is fraught with its perpetual recurrence. Vera is the guardian of Zimbabwean rememory, holder of truths that are, in some cases inconvenient, or disappointing, or regrettable.


Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals?

Her short story “Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals” gives insight, I think, into the difficulty of the work of writing Zimbabwe. The conversation between street artists – a carver and a painter – illuminates the differences between two-dimensional art, where you can add, revise, cover over, and three-dimensional art, like sculpture, that achieves a finished form that is true, even if it isn’t accurate. The painter, on the one hand, “puts the final touches on the image of the Victoria Falls which he paints from a memory gathered from newspapers and magazines. He has never seen the Falls. The water must be blue,” he thinks. He relies on this hodgepodge of hearsay and observation, but gives beauty and control the uppermost, inductively reasoning that the Falls must be blue – if water on maps is blue, if the sky is blue. He “realizes that a lot of spray from the falls must be reaching the lovers, so he paints off their heads with a red umbrella. He notices suddenly that something is missing in the picture, so he extends the lovers’ free hands, and gives them some yellow ice cream. The picture is now full of life,” he thinks (73). The painter and writer can revise, can insert, can alter and shift and move around, staying true to inductive principles but honoring beauty.

But beauty is not the only end, and while Keats encourages us to believe that beauty is truth, and truth beauty, and that’s all we need to know, Vera knows better. Art is also the purview of dream and imagination. “The carver has never seen the elephant or the giraffe that he carves so ardently,” her story observes, placing him in the same category of unknowing as the painter. But unlike the painter, who aims to achieve beauty through reason and truth, the sculptor knows there are other avenues for art. “He picks up a piece of unformed wood. Will it be a giraffe or an elephant? His carving is also his dreaming” (73). Like his dreaming, each carving is different, unique; spoiled, even, like his giraffe whose paint has run, and whose neck is comically short. He may seem the lesser artist by strictly aesthetic standards, but there is no question that he is an honest man, making honest art. The “unformed wood” is the wholecloth of history, the unknowable archive of all that has been, and the writer’s access to truth is contingent on honouring the materials she works with. The two artists – the painter and the sculptor – represent the collaborative pull between beauty and honesty, between pleasure and pain, thinking and dreaming.

I was doing research last year at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. I wasn’t looking for Vera’s work, but I found among Charles Larson’s papers a copy of Vera’s final, unpublished work, Obedience. I was at the end of my stay at the library – quite literally; it was to close for the weekend in an hour and I was scheduled to leave town just after. But I couldn’t help but open up and thumb through the manuscript – which begins, indelibly, with a description of the stone birds of Great Zimbabwe. These birds don’t look exactly like an extant bird – but this is not the point at all, even if it might have been a good-faith effort at mimesis. Instead, they simply are: they endure, they are beautiful. In spite of colonial thefts, an independent Zimbabwe achieved their return; they roost once more at the site of rememory, presiding near the complex stone ruins that have fascinated throughout history.

The painter asks the carver in the story, “Why don’t you carve other animals?…Why do you never carve a dog or a cat? Something that city people have seen. Even a rat would be good there are lots of rats in the township!” (73). Why didn’t Vera write her stories and novels exclusively about the fascinating life she saw unfolding before her in the present? – a present that Zimbabwean readers could recognize immediately as their own? Why instead did she lyrically inhabit the past, the full sweep of local history?

Probably because she understood that the greatest foundations of art lie not in the mimetic transcription of things exactly as they are now, but rather in the imaginative flight through the past into the present and back again. Rememory exists anywhere where trauma, pain, violence, extremity has occurred, and there is no place where that is not true. Petina Gappah, a vital contemporary Zimbabwean writer, recently swore in a talk at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town that she was done with writing contemporary Zimbabwe after her impressive Rotten Row appeared in print – she wanted to explore the possibilities of writing elsewheres and elsewhens, to delve into history and unearth new old stories. These modes are not mutually exclusive, but this move reverberates with Vera’s temporal rangings, and describes the difficulty and ambivalence about approaching contemporary Zimbabwe without also attending to its past.


In Rememory

The Harry Ransom Center holds another crucial Zimbabwean manuscript – the unfinished manuscript of Doris Lessing’s novel “The Memorykeepers.” Tendai Huchu, in a story just published in the 2017 anthology Moving On and Other Zimbabwean Stories by ‘amaBooks in Bulawayo, recounts this piece of local folklore: “The Great Zimbabwe Empire was built by kings under the instructions of the Memorykeepers. You have heard of them, no? Of course not. It is an old – for lack of a better word – guild that has been there for as long as our people have been around. The Memorykeepers’ task is to remember everything.” The Memorykeepers are entrusted with the whole sweep of time, of remembering all that has been in order to inform what is to come.

Memorykeepers are rare indeed; not even every African literature has such an honest, exposed, and vulnerable writer. Indeed, not every African literature is capable of absorbing the persisting, the inconvenient truths. There will always be those who seek to wrest the past in service of a future that they desire, instead of honouring the past for the truths it has produced, in spite of its violences. Such manipulators of truth and history – regardless of their position or power – should never supplant those brave enough to tell us unpalatable truths about ourselves. There is no honor in easy deceit, in palatable fictions. If, as Huchu worries, “now there are fewer Memorykeepers than at any stage in the past and they cannot hold all the new knowledge that flows from the four corners of the world,” we must learn to celebrate those who have walked amongst us – giants like Vera – and those few who remain, who have access still to rememory in an era where information deceives, and truth slides, and lives nevertheless hang in the balance, feebly swimming against the wind.

Gwetai, Ericah. Petal Thoughts. Gweru, Mambo Press, 2008.
Morris, Jane, Ed. Moving On and Other Zimbabwean Stories. Bulawayo, ‘Amabooks, 2017.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eyes. New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.
–. Beloved. New York, Knopf, 1987.
Vera, Yvonne. Butterfly Burning. Harare, Baobab, 1998.
–. The Stone Virgins. Harare, Weaver Press, 2002.
–. Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals? Toronto, TSAR, 1992.