Fellowship Invites Community Conversation on Political Stakes of Storytelling

Research Focused on Movement of Ideas Across Cultures

Eva Kuras (Comparative and World Literature), the 2022–23 Mellon Pre-Doctoral Public Humanities Fellow,  writes about her fellowship project, what drew her to this work, and what “public humanities” means to her.

What motivated you to apply for the Mellon Pre-Doctoral Public Humanities Fellowship?

I have always been interested in bridging the divide between academia and the community-at-large. Today, it can be difficult for graduate students to find the time to collaborate with the community in an intensive form. The demands on graduate students have never been higher, while our incomes remain very low. This fellowship offered me the opportunity to do the kind of public humanities work that I’ve always wanted to do.

In certain respects, I think that divide has been over-emphasized and misunderstood. It has been the politicization of higher education and the increasingly high barriers of access that has tended to overplay this division, as part of the general anti-intellectual trend of the country. On the other hand, I agree that there are tendencies in academia, including the humanities, which have widened this divide. For example, scholars can speak in ways that appear to obfuscate rather than clarify the art and artifacts under discussion. This creates a distance between humanities scholars and the public. It has the secondary effect of disincentivizing the public from cultural engagement beyond the most popular, readily accessible, and easily digestible art forms.

“I have always been attracted to public humanities for the reason of countering both tendencies, which have not always existed. In the late nineteenth century, for example, textile workers in Massachusetts factories would hire someone to read books like Don Quixote to them while working. I’d like to help uplift culture in that direction, in which we see learning as a collaborative, life-long and joyful process that incorporates all social classes.” — Eva Kuras

Please describe your research. What is unique about your topic? What drives your interest in it?

My research explores cross-cultural literary transmission across the Eurasian landmass and the Mediterranean Sea. I am particularly interested in how the highly interconnected Mediterranean world of the High Middle Ages encouraged the movement of stories over the geographic, religious, and linguistic borders that have been over-emphasized in nation-based cultural paradigms. My research examines the medieval Mediterranean routes and networks that encouraged such transmission to occur and the kinds of stories more likely to have taken these paths. I focus especially on European vernacular and Persian literatures and cultural artifacts. I use the methodologies of Postcolonial Medieval Studies, Mediterranean Studies, and Global Studies.

My dissertation takes up this question in terms of the romance genre. In the medieval period, the romance genre began its spectacular rise in two culturally flourishing, hybrid regions of the High Middle Ages: the emergent vernacular regions of Latin Christian Europe and the New Persian regions of the far eastern stretches of the Islamic empire(s). I argue that certain stories and topoi connected to the romance likely traversed this vast distance, just as other cultural artifacts did, across the land routes of the Iranian plateau and sea routes of the Mediterranean. As a case study, I consider the material and narrative evidence for cross-cultural connection between Varqeh o Golshah and Floire et Blancheflor, two of the earliest recorded medieval romances in their respective vernacular traditions. Rather than taking an “origin-based” approach, I focus instead on questions of movement, (multi-)directionality, adaptation, and reception.

As a comparatist, I love working with multiple languages and cultures. I am also particularly curious about connections between apparently distant cultures. While there may be resistance to such research in some academic literary circles (less so today, however), I find that the general public is fascinated too.

Tell us about your community-facing project for this fellowship. 

My initial idea for a public humanities project was to host a book club at the county jail, but it was closed to programming until March 2023 due to COVID outbreaks and staffing issues. In the meantime, I started another book club at the Urbana Public Library called “Tales of the Mediterranean.” It included people from the community who had seen my advertisement at local institutions like the food co-op Common Ground and the culture magazine Smile Politely, as well as several humanities graduate students. We focused on four narratives: Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, 1001 Nights, Boccaccio’s The Decameron, and Gorgani’s Vis and Ramin. The stories take place in locales around the Mediterranean and further beyond into the Middle East and South Asia. I started with Pamuk’s postmodern novel as an entryway into the cross-cultural themes, since it thematizes the setting of Istanbul as a historical crossroads between Eastern and Western cultures.

Once the book club at the jail got going, we focused on stories from 1001 Nights and The Decameron. Among the challenges of holding a book club in a jail setting include the fluctuating membership (as people move in and out of jail) and the many restrictions on the kinds of materials that are brought into the jail. For these reasons, I focused on short stories instead of longer works. There are also benefits to holding a book club in such a setting: mainly, the participants have plenty of time to read. The program coordinator at the jail passed around a flyer before each session, and people would sign up. I held one session for the men and another one for the women. A longtime local volunteer with Books to Prisoners joined me in hosting these sessions. As the participants were enjoying the stories so much, she ended up ordering several copies for the jail library.

“It’s the book club members at the jail who have most assured me that these narratives are worth studying— they know a good story when they hear one. The more ‘alive’ literature and the humanities are in American culture, the deeper the discussions and interpretations may be, and also the more invested our politicians will (hopefully) be in funding the humanities as a vital cultural good.” — Eva Kuras

For both book clubs, we talked about the intersection of cultures from around the globe, including encounters and exchange with immigrants, travelers, and multiethnic communities. Since people moving in and out of jails are also in transition and encountering people from diverse backgrounds, I thought this was an opportunity to discuss these topics through literature. Some of our discussions, both at the library and jail, ended up mirroring the themes of the stories themselves: similarities and divisions across religious lines (particularly Islam and Christianity), the structure and cultural/political stakes of storytelling, and the movement of stories and ideas across cultures.

What have you learned from your experience with the Odyssey Project?

The Odyssey Project involves a very diverse group of community members who each come with distinct life experiences and social/ethnic backgrounds. It is a serious effort to engage the broader community within academic walls. Two deterrents to academic learning, at any age, are the price tag and time commitment. The Odyssey Project covers all the costs of participation and organizes classes in the evenings, which works well for participants who work during the day. My hope is that the Odyssey Project continues to expand both within Champaign-Urbana and all over Illinois. The current instructors seem to have effortlessly constructed a “safe space” in which all participants, from the very shy to the more naturally outgoing, feel comfortable contributing. At the classes I attended, there was a nice mix of short preparatory reading, visual examples shown in class, discussion prompts, and the members’ own personal contributions.

The name of the project makes me think about how learning of any kind is a “voyage” in a sense, whether through actual voyages to distant lands as occurs in the stories of my book clubs, or voyages as explorations of fields like art, philosophy, and science. The metaphor of the voyage is also nicely expansive, in that it incorporates learning through experience (and not just through books). This is a kind of valuable knowledge that many community members bring to the table.

How has this fellowship impacted the way you approach your research?

In my own case, as a scholar of medieval literature, I’m not sure if public humanities has a direct impact on my research. It may be too early to say. The main value, as I see it, is to encourage close engagement with literature by the whole community, while also expanding notions of literature beyond the modern and Euro/American-centric. Perhaps in the long term, with greater public awareness and understanding, new avenues of research will open up for scholars. Few people in the country have read the kinds of stories that I study (even though I consider many of them to be masterpieces, and also highly enjoyable), and that limits the range of discussions and the kinds of questions that are asked even within academia.