Widening Access to Global Literary and Cultural Canons

Presenting Public Programming on Literature and Religion in the Humanities

Divya Nair, current Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow in Humanities as a Social Practice, is a scholar, artist, and public humanist. She works on race, empire, religion, and classical reception in Anglophone literature between 1500 and 1800 within a global historiographic framework. She completed her Ph.D. and M.A. in English at the University of Pennsylvania.

What motivated you to apply for the Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow in Humanities as a Social Practice?

Between 2021–23 I developed and executed a public literary program on the five published novels of W.E.B. Du Bois in partnership with the Free Library of Philadelphia. His novels include The Quest of the Silver Fleece, Dark Princess, The Ordeal of Mansart, Mansart Builds a School, and Worlds of Color. I loved the experience of building literary community in a public setting. I was pleased when I saw that the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Public Humanities as Social Practice at the HRI would be focusing on some of the key theoretical and practical questions I had been exploring in Philadelphia as a public humanist and was intrigued by the possibility of undertaking community-based literary projects in Urbana-Champaign.

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

I wrote my dissertation on the significance of Du Bois’ historiography for classical reception in early modern and eighteenth-century Anglophone literature at Penn English. My dissertation, and now multimodal book project, Classical Reception and the Problem of the Color Line in Early Modern English Literature, examines how the reception of antiquity in early modern Anglophone literature undergoes key shifts between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, with a special focus on the reception of Greco-Roman classical literary forms such as the utopia, georgic, and romance.

In my public-facing research, I wanted to explore how Du Bois’ global and transchronological historiography is embedded in his novels, which though appreciated by a relatively small group of scholars, has slipped off the public radar. Du Bois became important to my development in graduate school and while doing community-based work because his seamless integration of social science, literature, and social practice inspired and reinforced my own commitment to justice-based scholarship and practice.

What have you learned from your experience in the fellowship thus far?

I have learned that when it comes to the public humanities, once the pieces are in place the program almost runs itself, like a well-oiled machine. Establishing durable and flexible relationships with community partners and reaching out to scholars, students, and community members who share mutual interests is very important to building a good public program, particularly if your project is place-based. You not only want to bring many voices to the conversation but harmonize them to the greatest extent possible. When engaged in place-based projects, it’s important to keep in mind that what works in one context may or may not work in another.

For example, conducting the Du Bois program at the Champaign Public Library was different from steering it in Philadelphia; and yet, though there are many differences between Philadelphia and Urbana- Champaign, there were many continuities as well, so it’s good to keep in mind what worked previously. Lastly, as I noted in a talk I gave at a professional workshop for the 2023 MLA Public Humanities Incubator, it’s important to let the public humanities program guide your scholarly trajectory and career pathway. I don’t see the public humanities as something separate from my scholarship at all; in fact, conversing about literature with the communities we practice within brings literature to life, allowing us to lift it out of the curio cabinet and shake off the dust, as it were.

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

In the Fall of 2023, I organized a public literary program on Dark Princess: A Romance, a 1928 novel by W.E.B. Du Bois, which focuses on the quest of Matthew Townes, an African American medical student, and Princess Kautilya, an Indian maharani. The novel makes connections between the African American civil rights movement and the Indian independence movement through the allegorical relationship between these two characters. The group was made up of students, working people, librarians, faculty, and other professionals. One wonderful and unexpected development was that the group was comprised entirely of women, from various backgrounds and walks of life, which was an illuminating experience. It felt something like a democratic “bluestocking” salon every Monday night, to invoke a cultural metaphor from the European Enlightenment. This was incredibly exciting for me, as Du Bois meant for his novels to be read by the people he so dearly loved and fought for.

For Spring 2024, I’ve organized a “katha” or storytelling circle on the Vālmīkī Rāmāyana, which meets every Saturday at the Spurlock Museum of World Cultures. This is a new turn in my work in which I’m increasingly finding great joy and inspiration. Thus far, I have been focused on the reception of Greco-Roman antiquity in Anglophone literature; now I am exploring early modern and modern receptions of classical Hindu antiquity, and the rise of Indology as a discipline, more generally, however with a commitment to anchoring my inquiry in Indian scholarship about reception.

The Rāmāyana along with the Mahābhārata are two major epics (itihāsas) in the Hindu tradition. It focuses on the quest of Lord Rāmā, who signifies the ideal human being, to rescue his wife, Sītā, who is abducted by the rākshasā-king Rāvanā. The Rāmāyana’s reception has been global; it has been rendered in many languages from the Indian subcontinent as well throughout Asia, in addition to being translated into many European languages, including English, over the course of the past three centuries.

Like the Mahābhārata, the events that unfold in Rāmāyana can be read as history, literature, or scripture. Each way of understanding Rāmā yields unique insights as Swami Tyaganandaji, Head of the Vedanta Society of Boston and Hindu Chaplain at Harvard and MIT, observes, depending on our relationship to the story, though the essence of its message transcends time and space.

The revered Swamiji will be giving a public lecture, “Learning from Rāmāyana,” in the Knight Auditorium at the Spurlock Museum of World Cultures on March 24, 2024 at 3 p.m. This event is free and open to the public.