New Books by Oxy Faculty Explore New Ground

Oxy faculty members

Occidental faculty combine teaching and research in equal measure, with each informing the other.

Main image: From left, Professors Erica Ball, Nancy Dess, Viviana Beatriz MacManus and Arthur Saint-Aubin.

The results of that research are embodied in four new books by Oxy professors, exploring women’s experience of slavery and freedom in the Americas, an interdisciplinary approach to what it means to be human, the experience of women in Argentina and Mexico’s “Dirty Wars,” and the literary and cultural significance of Kurt Cobain’s lyrics and journals.

Erica Ball, As If She Were Free: A Collective Biography of Women and Emancipation in the Americas

Covering a span of 300 years in five languages on two continents, As If She Were Free: A Collective Biography of Women and Emancipation in the Americas (Cambridge University Press, 2020) presents a groundbreaking compilation of biographies of two dozen Black women moving across the boundaries of slavery and freedom from Bermuda to Brazil, New York to Argentina, and California to Cuba. “We were lucky enough to pull together a fantastic team of scholars who are doing dogged, smart, persistent work in the archives and finding these untold stories, or asking new questions about old stories,” says Professor of History and Black Studies Erica Ball, who co-edited the volume with Tatiana Seijas, associate professor of history at Rutgers University, and Terri L. Snyder, professor of American Studies at Cal State Fullerton. “To have this temporal and geographic sweep is something we’re proud of.”

Rather than simply defining emancipation as a legal status conferred by those in authority and portraying women as passive recipients of freedom, the stories told in As If She Were Free show that women were agents of their own emancipation, claiming free status in the courts, fighting for liberty, and defining and experiencing freedom in surprising ways. “We wanted to tell the collective story of how women imagined, fought for and achieved freedom, sometimes by degrees,” says Ball. “We saw this as a fight that continued across space and across time, one that demonstrates that women of African descent define freedom as something much larger than what we in the U.S. sometimes think. It’s not just the absence of slavery—it’s the freedom to move freely, to travel, to have equality before the law, to have access to the vote, and freedom over your bodily integrity.”

Some of the life stories are one that have not been told before, including the story of Margarita de Sossa. Born into slavery in 16th-century Portugal, she was sold and transported to Mexico after refusing her owner’s sexual demands, and eventually purchased her freedom with money earned as a healer. A successful entrepreneur and innkeeper, her story is known today because she was accused of witchcraft by her abusive husband and her testimony was found in the records of the Mexican Inquisition. “The book is full of extraordinary stories like Margarita’s,” Ball says. 

Nancy K. Dess, editor, A Multidisciplinary Approach to Embodiment: Understanding Human Being

,More than 350 years ago, French philosopher Rene Descartes posited the concept of mind-body dualism—that is, that the mind and the body are distinct and separable, one immaterial and the other physical. In her latest book, A Multidisciplinary Approach to Embodiment (Routledge, 2020) Psychology Professor Nancy Dess pulls together an innovative collection of pithy and accessible essays by international experts in fields ranging from biology and political science to philosophy and geology to question this centuries-old idea of what it means to be human.

Rejecting the view that humans are debased by the materiality of their bodies or by their similarities to other animals, Dess and her contributors create a vision of humans as fully embodied creatures situated in a richly populated living planet. In addressing embodiment as it relates to topics from viruses to reading and the Black diaspora, the book models a kind of interdisciplinary scholarship not often seen. “My colleagues and I have sought to create a model of how seemingly unrelated disciplines—which often create siloes and segregation within academe—can focus on a single topic of shared interest,” says Dess, whose own research explores the ancient underpinnings of mammalian behavior. “My goal in curating the book was to transform conventional ways of thinking about academic disciplines and, in so doing, to challenge the stratification and disciplinary isolation that too often characterize college communities and curricula.”

By probing the flawed assumptions lingering behind such concepts as the “nature/nature” dichotomy and its kin (including biological vs. social explanations for behavior and distinguishing between the natural and social sciences), the book asks undergraduates—its intended audience—to question that conventional wisdom. “The idea is to unsettle notions they have about academic disciplines and majors (especially gendered and racial notions about who does what, what they are ‘good’ at, and so on) as a kind of strategic intervention.”

Viviana Beatriz MacManus, Disruptive Archives: Feminist Memories of Resistance in Latin America's Dirty Wars

Based on her doctoral dissertation, Viviana Beatriz MacManus ’03’s Disruptive Archives: Feminist Memories of Resistance in Latin America's Dirty Wars (University of Illinois Press, 2020) tells the stories of women who lived through the Dirty Wars (Guerras Sucias) in Mexico and Argentina, in which national governments “disappeared” thousands of left-wing activists during the height of the Cold War. Through the use of an innovative mix of oral histories—many appearing in English for the first time—interviews, human rights reports, literature, and film, MacManus offers a compelling alternative to the official state and male-centered leftist histories of this tragic period of the 1960s through the 1980s. “The narrative arc of the book really is the stories of women I interviewed, many of whom were victims of state terror and political prisoners,” says MacManus, assistant professor of Spanish and French studies. “They had these incredible stories that were like scenarios out of the movies, intimate and harrowing memories of survival and resistance.”

Disruptive Archives is one of the few accounts to compare the impacts of the violence inflicted by the Argentinian military junta with the violence that occurred in Mexico, nominally a democratic republic. By exploring what she calls the independent archive of women’s oral narratives that exist outside of the print- and male-dominated official archives in both countries, MacManus was able to document a gendered aspect of Dirty War violence that has largely gone unacknowledged. “Women prisoners incited more ire among officers, and triggered more violence—they were not seen as proper wives and mothers because they were politically active,” she notes. “They defied all kinds of conventional notions.” Her interviews with women also enabled her to capture expressions of loss and trauma embodied in their laughs, sighs and silences—eloquent testimony that otherwise would be lost.

Arthur Saint-Aubin, The Pleasures of Death: Kurt Cobain’s Masochistic and Melancholic Persona

More than a decade ago, one of the students in Arthur Saint-Aubin’s French 202 class, “Introduction to Literary Analysis,” submitted an essay outlining the parallels between the poetry of 19th-century poet Arthur Rimbaud and the lyrics of Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain. That essay sparked an interest in Saint Aubin, a professor of Spanish, French and Black studies, that eventually led to his latest book, the first book-length, literary and cultural study of Cobain’s lyrics and journal writings.

The Pleasures of Death (Louisiana State University Press, 2020) is a real departure for a scholar whose previous work has focused on Haitian culture and 19th-century French writers—not to mention someone whose musical tastes trend more toward classical and jazz. “It surprised me as well—I never thought I would be writing anything on grunge or indie rock,” says Saint-Aubin. Yet there are many similarities between European Romantic traditions and Cobain’s aesthetics and his politics. “The idea of a connection between authentic art and the premature death of the young artist—a notion that has come to encapsulate the popular image of Cobain and his music—traces back to the 19th century,” he says. “That’s when the romantic hero emerged as a rebel who valued authenticity and who resisted the manner in which society was structured and functioned—precisely how many of Cobain’s fans view him.”

In engaging with existing scholarship on Cobain, with popular culture scholarship more broadly, and with contemporary studies on gender, sexuality, and race, the book examines how a fascination with death and suicide interrelate with experiences of whiteness, masculinity, and heterosexuality. The Pleasures of Death also reveals the sometimes surprising ways in which Cobain’s work seem to confirm the notion that there is a relationship between madness and literary genius. “You can tell from his journal entries that he decided he wanted to be depressed to provoke his imagination. He felt more creative when he was sad,” Saint-Aubin notes. “There is something so unique about his writing, the images he creates, that is just extraordinary and profoundly touching.”