This conversation, transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman, focuses on Angela Naimou’s Salvage Work: U.S. and Caribbean Literatures amid the Debris of Legal Personhood, winner of the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present (ASAP) Book Prize, and finalist for the William Sanders Scarborough Award from the Modern Language Association. Naimou, an associate professor of English at Clemson University, recently guest-edited the Dossier on Contemporary Refugee Timespaces for Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development. She is currently at work on a study of contemporary war-refugee imaginaries and humanitarian practice.
ANDY FITCH: In the late ’90s, I remember enthusiastically attending law-and-literature lectures, hoping to find a wide array of my most impassioned interests channeled into acutely timed, philosophically far-reaching, linguistically supple, disarmingly subtle, yet deep and efficacious social interventions. Instead, I’d often face the disappointing fact of yet another bean-counting (or, more precisely, flesh-weighing) infinitesimal recalibration of Shylock’s contractual calculations in Merchant of Venice. So if you had to give a quick update to that disappointed, perhaps superficially attuned undergrad from 20 years prior, how might you track Salvage Work’s intellectual formation — in part by tracing the literary and the legal subsequently converging, say, at M. NourbeSe Philip forgoing her professional law practice to pursue erasure-based poetic means of conjuring/creating/assigning/dissolving categories of legal personhood? How did scholarly engagement with contemporary novels help to prompt your own meticulous readings of obscured 19th-century maritime law, or your book’s basic premise that “literature highlights the legal person as a paradoxical and unstable construction, one that promises individuals equality before the law even as it has historically generated complex and differential legal taxonomies”? How did we arrive at a moment when such interdisciplinary inquiry could focus less on stabilizing readings of canonical literary texts through rote (if rigorous) legalese-inflected historicization, and more at opening up previously undertheorized yet foundational structures of political, psychological, and certainly textual subjecthood? We also could take this question in more personal directions, perhaps under the sign of your Gayl Jones chapter, with its evocation of the Palmarian protocol whereby “stolen” ex-slaves need to steal another slave before themselves becoming free (thereby participating in a self-perpetuating, transgenerational chain of self-authorizing liberation). I’ll definitely want to get to generative concepts, methods, formal tropes, and rhetorical gestures from your own book, but first, which other specific writers or mentors helped to authorize your scholarship, and initiated you into this ongoing collective enterprise of literary demystification (if that phrase here fits)?
ANGELA NAIMOU: I came to law as a student of literature first by reading critiques of how law (with all its own bean-counting and flesh-weighing) organizes our lived reality and collective imagination of humanity and justice. For comparative literature and postcolonial theory, American studies, cultural studies, cultural theory, critical race and ethnic studies, much of the intellectual energy in these fields came from asking how law shapes and authorizes our political life, economy, culture, and even aesthetic judgment. So I took in Lisa Lowe writing about how the Chinese Exclusion Acts activated subsequent racialized immigration and labor histories, Ian Haney-López and Lisa Suhair Majaj writing about how those same Exclusion Acts led Syrian immigrants to enter courtrooms to determine their whiteness and eligibility for full citizenship (with inconsistent results), or Toni Morrison and Haney-López on race as a “fabrication,” a process of simultaneous making and lying — in law (Haney-López) and in American literary canon-formation (Morrison). Reading this work means thinking seriously about what has been fabricated in legal thought, with enormous effects on how we understand our political and literary conditions of possibility.
Legal fictions can draw blood and mark flesh and destabilize feelings of personal security. I learned how to conceptualize that power by reading critical race theorists, including Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia J. Williams, Richard Delgado, and Cheryl I. Harris, all of whose work diverged from critical legal studies or the law-and-literature movement. I also should mention readings that called for rethinking the relationship between power, beauty, and epistemology, how we come to know what we know: CLR James’s The Black Jacobins; Colin Dayan’s Haiti, History, and the Gods; Aurora Levins Morales’ Remedios; Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead; the writings of Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin, Aimé Césaire, Suzanne Césaire, and Édouard Glissant; the theorizing of Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, and Robin D.G. Kelley; Dionne Brand’s poetry and novels, and M. NourbeSe Philip’s first poetry collection She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks. Reading and listening to this work all at about the same time was like a fever dream of the intellect, this feeling of heightened awareness while being mesmerized.
Maybe it felt like that because I’d come from an immigrant community careful not to push any inquiries too far into the major conditions of their own possibility, whereas all these writers did that so brilliantly and beautifully, across literary and critical genres. Maybe what helped me, too, was that I had free time as a graduate student with funding support — this occasionally seemed disorienting, but I realized later on that it gave me enough time to breathe, to think, enough space to wander, even when that felt like space for getting lost in not a good way.
Your law-and-literature story reminds me of another: as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, as a student who didn’t quite know what faculty did besides teach class, I happened to take an Introduction to Poetry course with a professor who had this wonderful, quiet presence. We recited poems, wrote them from memory, and I wrote detailed close readings every week. I loved it. He was a really lovely person and among the professors who were kindest to me, for which I’ll always be grateful. And only about 15 years later did I realize he was one of the founders of the law-and-lit movement! It was James Boyd White, professor of law and English, who wrote The Legal Imagination, a foundational book for law students on how to practice humanistic inquiry as a necessary, enriching, and ethical act in their profession.
So I first came to my questions about law inefficiently and circuitously, before knowing there was a developed critical method for doing so. I would guess that readers might see my book as working somewhat idiosyncratically in law and literature. Later, I’d find Joseph Slaughter’s Human Rights, Inc., which opened up important ways for me to read the relationship between international human-rights law and contemporary postcolonial novels.
More broadly, thinking about Palmares’s condition of freedom is an interesting way to think about intellectual genealogies: that someone expands the conditions of critical possibility, compelling another to do the same, for yet another future someone. Beyond the writers who informed my thinking early on, I’d say that a thousand moments of intellectual generosity and kindness by friends and teachers have helped me, and that I remember and remain grateful for them. I also keep a running list in my mind of All the Books I Wish I’d Read and Cited in My Book. For Salvage Work specifically, I stayed with the literary and sometimes visual-art texts on their own terms, for a long time, wanting to think from within them, looking for their aesthetic practice and how they theorize effects of legal histories. This was often a disorganized process of following the particulars and complexity of one text as it led me to another. I don’t mean that as a focused theory of how intertextuality should work. It felt more like an emergent understanding. I see literature and critique as holding this conceptual power to undo, at least intellectually and artistically, the damaging legal fictions we live by — to “imagine otherwise,” as Kandice Chuh writes of what critique can lead us to do.
Gradually I saw a rhetorical pattern in immigration and globalization scholarship where writers would present, in contrast to the ideal-citizen figure, a litany of exceptional or minority legal identities: the refugee, the alien, the person of color, women, the colonized…there would be some version of this list. The paratactic sentence structure told you that these terms were part of a common set, but the list itself wouldn’t sufficiently articulate the relationship between those terms. To name these identities in this way allowed them to be read as nominally differentiated terms that lie opposite to the promise of full citizenship. But what if these pervasive lists used commas as placeholders for conceptualizing the relationship between terms, or even as little excision marks — leaving out potentially shared histories among the categories in law used to oppress, harm, or establish unjust ways of living? Was there a conversation about what happens between those categories, and how the fictiveness of those categories actually matters?
Academic work is sometimes premised on a fiction so that it can proceed as if it weren’t — like when economists know the idea of a free market is a fiction, but then continue their work as if the market were absent of differential power relationships. Something like that can happen with literary criticism on race and migration. So I started from the question of “What happens when you really pay attention to this legal fictiveness, with all its difficult material effects?” always alongside the question of: “How are writers and artists already doing this work, in form, style, genre?” Contemporary literature was where the fictiveness and historicity of legal personhood came into play for me. Legal personhood allowed me to return to those commas in the lists of marginalized and exceptional legal identities, and to open up ideas for how these terms got made and linked to other terms. At the same time, exploring legal history helped me rethink the way literature conceptualizes fictionality, history, and historiography, as well as the different temporalities that get used to organize narrative storyworlds and poetic making.
It was important for this same reason that I sometimes struggled when asked to categorize my project. People would ask: “What is this?” I felt caught between so many academic conversations that weren’t always speaking to each other. And in each of those conversations, I imagined myself at its edges, listening deeply with all my soul but not daring to speak up or yet claim myself as a participant. I didn’t know at the start where to locate myself or the conversation I wanted to orchestrate. I knew of no comprehensive or explanatory model that could direct me to this idea of salvage work, except through listening to what I heard so many writers already saying across different vocabularies. I took these detours into particular histories, which don’t line up in a systematic way. But maybe that type of coherence is not the aim of the criticism and the intellectual canvas that I made. Or maybe even if this book’s conclusions can’t always travel, its ways of reading can be taken up in almost anything.
Also in terms of ways of reading, in terms of forming questions about fictive categories of subjecthood, in terms of texts teaching us how to read them — of not only novelistic projects, but also scholarly projects foregrounding compositional processes potentially confounding our anticipation of their instrumentalized argumentative purpose: I want to make it clear that Salvage Work does not always provide a neat, tidy, transparent, linear prose, but (especially in your introduction) a reverberative, overtly echoing, mnemonically haunted text. Just for one localized example, the term “flickering” appears at least three times on your first three pages. Anaphoric syntactical constructs (“Legal personhood is always there”) flicker soon after that, even as your opening query probes a palimpsestic panoply of entangled, contradictory, mutually exclusionary and/or reinforcing connotations, conflations, and genealogical complications attached to the single term “loss.” I sense from that (not just historically, but also linguistically, sonically, affectively) rich introduction onwards, a rigorous if mostly implicit logic for why rhetorical elements will sometimes need to extend, shape, even make one’s argument within this particular scholarly engagement (with these predominantly absent, stolen, unwritten, ghosted archives). I wonder if you could further articulate that implicit logic here, perhaps in relation to how Salvage Work’s selected novels themselves register “how biopolitical systems devalue human life,” while also “experimenting with narrative tactics to actively speak against that devaluation.”
First of all, you’re totally right. That is a kind of rhetorical tactic on my part. It’s partly a signal to all the hauntological work regarding blackness and the aftermath of legal slavery, in American studies, critical Black studies, and cultural theory. It’s also a signal to the temporality evoked in projects on histories of the present. So I riff on hauntological metaphors to help structure this book’s approach to history in the contemporary. Think of sociologist Avery Gordon’s discussion of the ghost as a social figure that meddles with the present for as long as we fail to fully reckon with its presence. Or her image of the well-worn couch, where only when nobody sits there, only with such absence, can you see the shape somebody’s weight has made.
And Gordon takes so much of her theorizing from Toni Morrison. I saw haunting tropes in a lot of the writing and thinking on these subjects. I could not let go of literary making as a kind of response to such haunting, a response that shows this haunting is there with a lot of other stuff, and that we need to make something out of this reckoning. Here my use of rhetorical elements to structure sometimes implicit arguments means, as you note, that figurative language does heavy conceptual work. Maybe I see in this approach a way to keep myself (as a reader) and my arguments (as a writer) from falling into a readymade explanatory structure. Because the moment I lose my attunement to the language I read or write is the moment when some part of thinking has stopped. When I render language inert, I withdraw from this conversation with the novels and histories I read. Of course it’s impossible and probably unwise to always be so attuned, but I tried to maintain that level of attentiveness throughout my book.
Again in terms of authorizing, Colin Dayan stands out as somebody whose work was important to the book, somebody who could move through and think hard about the languages of law and of literature, while refusing any kind of tidy systematizing analysis. So the hauntological prose lets me signal without being endlessly citational, hopefully giving the writing this sense of being animated (to use another hauntological word) by other moments and by shared questions. As you say, this rhetorical tactic reinforces in prose the implicit logic and the echoing that become significant subjects of this book. But I had to work to find my way towards these arguments, sometimes by listening to and hearing what gets shared across conversations, and then evoking rhetorical patterns as a way to reflect that exchange.
We keep approaching the working distinction between scavenging and salvaging that your book proposes. So here I’ll try to give one detailed example of how Salvage Work’s reverberative prose aspect plays out, and how such prose might help this book to realize, both conceptually and formally, its ethics of representation. Perhaps because Salvage Work already feels haunted for me by page 7, when you then state that “this book considers the risks and possibilities in conceptualizing the archive of circum-Atlantic slavery as a productive site of ruin for the contemporary U.S. and Caribbean aesthetic imagination,” your reference to “risk” takes me back to an incisive formulation from the preceding page: “it is not the absence of law but rather its presence as a productive force that invents forms of legal injury and categories of degraded legal personhood such as the legal slave.” Here the stakes of scholarly categorizations stand out as equally fraught, and as worth approaching with delicate caution, so that they don’t risk inventing their own forms of injury and degradation. And in ongoing patchy fashion, I’ll recall you already having written, in relation to the historical Zong killings, that “Whereas the captives’ legal status as property shadows the insurers’ attempts to transform them into the murder victims, their legal status as persons haunts the case built by the owners’ legal team,” and I’ll wonder how such a self-reflective scholar might projectively triangulate her own archival practice amid such acquisitive, appropriative scenes. I’ll sense your acute sensitivity to how scholarly configurations (however recuperative, restorative, redemptive in intent) of enslaved individuals still need to grapple, as much as any Kara Walker installation does, with “an attunement to the unresolvable tensions and ethical complexity at the core of any practice that identifies what has been junked — or, in the case of past lives, what has been left unburied — and seeks to repurpose, redirect, and revalue it anew.” And so within that broader, reflexive context, could you provide a working definition/description for how conceptualizations of salvage, methodologies of salvage, and a poetics of salvage play out across this book? How might Salvage Work’s formalized prose hauntings help to reflect, to conjure, and ultimately to redirect this figure of the legal black slave casting its shadows both “behind and ahead of itself,” onto “the forced labor of indigenous and white slaves, peons, indentured servants, Southeast Asian ‘coolie’ laborers, impressed seafarers and those working in conditions of effective ‘soverignlessness’ under flags of convenience, victims of human trafficking and illicit enslavement, targets of antiprostitution campaigns, unauthorized economic refugees, the felon and ex-felon, and the underemployed free wage laborer consigned to ‘wageless life’”? How do prose echoes prevent these iterative commas (as you said before) from constructing fixed, divisive historical/categorical slots?
That’s great for getting us to some particulars in the book, to some of its main tensions, and to an ethical practice. And anytime I fell into a comfortable position, I started to get more alert about how and what I was missing — not just to valorize unease or tension, but because that reflective practice embodies what it means to follow this trope of salvage. For example, we could look at the Francisco Goldman chapter, where haunting explicitly shapes the characters’ fate in the storyworld off Brooklyn Harbor. There is a small, potential throwaway detail where the sailor Bernardo Puyano dies anonymously while waiting in a hospital ER, and gets buried anonymously in a “potter’s field.” Here taking a cue from Edward Said’s reading of novels and empire (through his study of a seemingly minor reference to the Navy and British India in a Jane Austen novel), I tried to trace precisely where that detail from Goldman’s Ordinary Seaman novel would take me within New York’s geography, and then to look at the history of that place (Hart Island, whose fascinating history I recount in the book), and then to ask how that history might operate or not operate within this novel’s storyworld — tracking different ways that values and power relations change, and enact this change, even as the storyworld never references this history explicitly.
In this case, I’m discussing a novel where characters from Central American states are left to feel both abandoned and enslaved on board a broken ship. Bernardo moves from a space of legal detention and forced labor on this ship to an anonymous burial. And that connection leads me to write about New York’s other major mass-burial site, its 18th-century African Burial Ground — which was accidentally discovered by construction workers in 1991 at the site for a new federal building. So I begin then to track the work of salvage outside Goldman’s novel as well.
Of course salvaging this African Burial Ground was not only an intellectual project. You had scholars, forensic scientists, companies hired to do archeological salvage, and politicians — and everybody’s competing ideas about what the ethics of this work might mean, what kinds of risks were worth taking, and why. These were really competing visions. What counted as a risk for academics and politicians was not the same as the risk foreseen by the archeological-salvage company. There were all these different approaches for ethical ways of proceeding with the problem of having discovered this burial ground and its difficult history of mortuary apartheid, all in a city that was not looking to have such discussions. And eventually, as competing interests got addressed and the speeches and commemorations began, those tensions were resolved, to my mind, by recognizing the burial ground as a national monument, as the Ellis Island for African Americans. The physical bones got salvaged and archeologically preserved, and the burial ground as a public site got salvaged for a nationalist mythology, but lost was the opportunity to think about both the burial ground and Ellis Island as sites for contesting this national myth that the United States welcomes all who deserve it, and holds them all equally before the law. Ellis Island was, among other things, a detention center. So this whole salvaging project provides many moments when it’s important to stay with intricate ethical problems, to think about competing motivations, and to refuse falling into some of the easier resolutions — to hold off from thinking, for instance, of the African Burial Ground and Ellis Island as perfectly equivalent or as largely unrelated histories. You can see those histories constantly interacting with each other. So that’s one place in the Goldman chapter where the ethics of representation get raised, even as Goldman’s novel more specifically explores the Central American wars and the fictive legal status of maritime corporations.
Then to start to differentiate between legal scavenging and critical salvaging, we could look at that obscure 1897 case you mentioned, Robertson vs. Baldwin.
I only called it “obscured” because your book says something similar. I don’t mean it in a negative way!
I think the book got it right. [Laughter] I first found this case as a new graduate student looking through legal databases of Supreme Court cases, but luckily these 19th-century decisions don’t get very technical. They’re actually wonderfully — and horribly — narrational. But when I first started discussing this case, people would ask: “What are you doing? Why would you talk about this weird case from 1897? You’re not a 19th-century American lit person.” At the time, I didn’t know how to respond.
Sure it sounds like when people asked “Why would you?” they might have meant “How could you?”
Maybe so. [Laughter] And I took that not just as “How dare you do it?” but more like “How the hell can I pull this off?” Revisiting that case, I gradually realized what exactly kept bothering me, and what I couldn’t let go — which was that one could appeal to these ancient maritime traditions in order to make a judgement against free wage laborers, who now could be assigned an exceptional category of personhood and compelled to work, because they were so necessary to the state and to the market. They could have this particular category forced on them by a legal opinion influenced by the ancient maritime tradition of branding wayward sailors’ skin. So that’s when I started to think about what a very strange thing legal precedent is: how you can pull something from the past into a future, authorizing that precedence to persist even when history should have made it defunct. Of course ancient maritime tradition itself cannot be formally erased. And that tradition, along with the court’s opinion about sailors being akin to black workers, wards, and children, gets used to justify this decision about maritime legal frameworks in 1897 and beyond. That’s the scavenging, the kind of plundering of history and projecting into the future without really contending with what it means to do that, or with how it might cause harm.
Again in terms of your own reading practice, I find it fascinating that you arrived at this critical orientation towards precedence by plodding through the legal record, rather than by imposing some theoretical frame presuming such a perspective from the start.
Well another way to say that is: I laboriously arrived at the obvious. [Laughter] But yeah, I’d probably also cite Edward Said discussing the effects of traveling theory, and recommending that we remain mindful of how theorizing emerges out of particular circumstances to address one’s particular moment. I hesitate to harness any theoretical apparatus and apply it. I’ll know it can be done. I’ll have read brilliant work I admire that does it. But still I’ll feel some sense of self-distrust and maybe intellectual disappointment about doing that too easily.
For one additional example of how this orientational skepticism plays out across Salvage Work, could we consider the divergence you trace between liberal reform projects prioritizing the establishment of legal citizenship for all (a potentially asymptotic task, in your account, given “how legal identities proliferate and fracture precisely at those moments when legal personhood is proclaimed to be colorless, when the law claims to hear the voices of all persons equally and the market is held up as a free system open to anyone with entrepreneurial grit”), and biopolitical critiques emphasizing limit zones of subjecthood apparently illustrating “the sovereign violence that necessarily constitutes the person” (here eclipsing historical, localized, unevenly sifted and sorted aspects of any one human being’s social identity)? Also maybe you’ve already offered enough of this, but I wonder if we should probe how the materialist scrutinies you deploy deftly throughout this book (with, say, one chapter’s wide-ranging intertextual reflections all crystallized by sugar’s legacies) provide your abstracted investigations with their more tactile, tangible, graspable, and closer to irreducible grounds — again amid the particularities of localized, individualized, lived experience.
Right, this is another moment when you can see that tension between critical salvagings and generalizing theoretical applications — a tension which did shape the sometimes difficult and strange organizational logic of Salvage Work. So many of the critical discussions I read while writing this book seemed to fall onto one side or the other. Liberal projects often would accept abstract personhood as an aspirational fiction to guide reform and expansion of legal-persons’ rights (and then would act as if legal personality weren’t a fiction, and so would be unable to address fully how the ideal abstract legal person is itself part of the problem, enabling sovereign violence and limiting our conception of rights).
But the biopolitical theories that end in bare life or death-bound subjectivities can do their own conceptual damage by eclipsing the changeability of legal identities, the range and effects of lawful violence that fall short of extreme limit-cases, and the complexity of subjecthood. And then there’s also the question: what would it mean if we just take Goldman’s novel and say its characters inevitably get reduced to bare life? We might then ask: “Well, what is a character? How would you write a novel with every character reduced to bare life?” That’s clearly not the project of many Latinx, Caribbean, U.S., and black writers — so that you might just ask: “What would get gained, and what would get lost, by such a critical move?” So this process leads me to question not only liberal legal projects, but also what I call “death-bound paradigms.” Right now I’m reading Christina Sharpe’s 2016 book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, which is attuned to those complexities, and where “wake” does this powerful conceptual work for her argument regarding the black diaspora and the aftermath of slavery: as disturbance of ocean wave patterns, as watch over the dead, as coming to consciousness.
Then to your question on materialities, when you look closely at the history of sugar, you can see how categorizations of legal personhood organized economies. They organized slave economies and free wage economies. They organized national economies and colonial economies. When you track that single crop and its commodification through these different systems over time and across geographies, you see that these economies helped power legal personhood and legal conceptions of rights and injuries — all directed at planting, harvesting, processing, and importing/exporting sugar. You can reflect on Puerto Rico’s haciendas but also on Kara Walker’s site-specific installation of A Subtlety in the Domino Sugar factory. Tracing such material links means looking back to the abstractions that shaped the plantation, ship, mill, and warehouse into sites of labor, violence, and creativity.
Still on processes of something like psychological disavowal, of acknowledging, say, the fictional status of legal personhood, yet proceeding as if this fictional category does in fact exist, could we look at the etymological context you provide for the term “person” coming out of “persona” — itself suggesting masks, paradoxical figures of simultaneous disclosure and concealment (or I also note the overlap between “salvage” and “selvage”)? And here, with your own law-and-literature focus emerging from an Intro to Poetry class, I can’t help thinking of how, for the last several decades, scholars have positioned the lyric as emblematizing self-scrutinizing enactments and textual embodiments of literary personhood. So could we discuss the rationale behind your focus on novels, and why that particular focus seemed most useful? For example, since your study places exception-cases to personhood both upon a spatial axis (situating the legal category of the person as, in fact, premised upon the exploitive exclusion of certain human beings from such status) and upon a temporal axis (tracing how the figure of the legal slave finds its afterlife in a diverse range of categories/identities/narratives no longer overtly defined by race), did novels just provide you more intricate and elaborate conflations of spatial/temporal dimensions?
That’s a lovely question, because at some moments I really felt like I was limiting myself. Right now I’m reading more poetry again. But for Salvage Work, narrative (in novels, novellas, short stories, a narrative poem) was how I moved between storyworlds and real worlds. Gayl Jones’s long novel Mosquito, with its first-person narrative breaking so many conventions of first-person narrative, is maximally heterogeneous and polyvocal, and ultimately makes its storyworld infinite through its imagined archive of the black diaspora (described as a newsletter from the Daughters of Nzingha). And for Fanon, even though John Edgar Wideman’s novel is slender, it still manages to evoke some of the maximalist messiness that I see on full display in Mosquito. That maximalist thing is this pulling of many many threads. I would never say that this couldn’t happen in poetry, but it really seems exceptional in Fanon, with that short narrative looking in so many different directions, with you always wondering what has been left out and where might that have taken you. There’s so much stalling then starting then re-stalling and then redoing that leaves you stuck and moving at the same time, as you try to reckon with whatever might be at the core of this particular work — with the book leaving you thinking about persona, about Wideman’s voicing, about him voicing over Fanon and letting Fanon voice over himself. So getting at these narrative levels of Fanon also can speak to questions of the poetics of making a voice, the poetics of putting on a mask, the persona concealing both the face and private voice while amplifying the public voice for performance.
Well amid these overlappings of amplification and diminishment, of maximalizing and messiness, “sanctuary” emerges as another crucial term. In Salvage Work “sanctuary” often suggests some limit space inscribed within a dominant (and often antithetical) social order, an order further legitimated through this gesture of demonstrable restraint. Current defenses of the humanities, say, as introspective refuge amid a crass, materialist, at best STEM-inflected society, seem to reflect this liberal model of the sanctuary as limit space. I really enjoyed, however, how your “Fugitive Personhood” chapter picks up on Gayl Jones’s conception of sanctuary less as a reservation site than a fugitive practice — less as a quiet preservatory enclosure than an “open path that must be sung” (again with a precedent sanctuary, such as Palmares, foregrounding less some fixed territory than a mobile social system and a galvanizing personal practice). If we pick up Jones’s kaleidoscopic, digressive, accumulative, associative, relentlessly intertextually inclusive (in a word, heteroglossic) practice, personified in Mosquito, as one catalyzing transformation of “‘the concept of sanctuary into an aesthetic, decolonial practice of minding the word,’” what might an equivalently decolonizing scholarly sanctuary (again as furtive practice, more than as disciplinary fiefdom) look like?
Wow. Well first I think of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s Undercommons, because one can see, even in your question, how thinking about the humanities as a sanctuary or a refuge can also mean framing the humanities as this prison space, or also this exclusionary space that safely quarters some of us off from the rest of life. I don’t know whether, through fugitive forms and practices, we can escape that fraught language of protection and of value. At the more practical level of this book, I try to interrupt my own bounded academic practice by doing literary criticism informed by methods and concepts from the broader humanities and social sciences and law — maybe with some of the generalist’s promise, and probably with all the limitations of it.
Here we could also move to an obvious problem that I take note of in the book. Something I’ve learned from Nicole Waligora-Davis’ Sanctuary book is that, particularly in African American history and literary culture, this supposedly protected sanctuary space also always can be a space of economic deprivation or imprisonment or death. When sanctuary gets called for as a supposed form of hospitality, you get all these distorted discussions about refugees and asylum claims and minority populations. The maddening way that those discussions get set up shows how we conceptualize this limited sense of sanctuary. There’s a long history of sanctuary used to protect and (inextricable from that protection) to reject, to exclude, to enact different kinds of violence. People seeking refuge or sanctuary might already have initiated the process of moving, but then the momentum gets shifted to the deciders who can grant or refuse this movement. That’s part of why I love the badassness of Mosquito in thinking about sanctuary as a mobile and kinetic practice. In a way, we can refuse abjection by calling sanctuary a practice. And of course that fugitive practice still takes place amid injury and survival. It can feel insufficient to take refuge and really settle there. But to rethink refuge as a practice feels much more meaningful, active, and maybe resistant-to-capture. Sanctuary then becomes this space where you don’t just get allowed in or not. It’s a space and time you make and move through.
To close then on your own forward motion, Salvage Work’s introduction only has time to point to present-day hauntings of the legal-slave category, in “contemporary studies of human rights, citizenship, labor, migration, and refugee policy, postcoloniality and decolonial thought.” Where do you see the writing of Salvage Work directing your own research now, and where might this book direct the research of a reader wanting to pick up its lines of thought?
Writing this book has opened ways for me to prioritize something I’ve cared about for a long time but wouldn’t have known how to take up. While Salvage Work focused on the historical present, I am writing now about war refugees and humanitarian practice, asking how refugee writers imagine time, space, and possible futures.
As part of this new project, I’m studying contemporary Arabic poetry and fiction. That statement sounds daunting to me, as someone who grew up speaking English and Aramaic but who was strongly discouraged from speaking or studying Arabic — the language that many in my minority Iraqi immigrant family spoke most often, and that so many brilliant artists write in! It’s a language I feel a deep attachment to, even as I falter in it. I’ve been very much shaped by the history of my family coming here (so much the kid of immigrants that I’m still discovering now how those conditions have shaped me), and that position informs my commitments in Salvage Work, if obliquely and diffusely so. I’m learning Arabic now, and it’s difficult but also such a delight! I can now memorize and recite simple poems. Conversation is harder, with all the personal childhood baggage it carries. Or maybe the real problem is that my current vocabulary is almost entirely limited to the poems of Nizar Qabbani. [Laughter]
As for how a reader might find something in Salvage Work to take up for future research, I’ll be interested to find what readers take up. It is clear to me that this book does not provide a tidy or single argument to a particular field. That kind of book wasn’t my contribution to make. What I think this book does is open up questions and offer something like a method that I hope readers find generative for their own thinking.