Artist as ethnographer: Jason Whitesel on Books Combined

—Jason Whitesel

[This article was originally posted on Books Combined, a collaborative blog launched by our friends at Combined Academic Publishers.]

Growing up, I found the human body an abundant source of artistic inspiration. Painting and drawing was a significant part of my life from grade school on into my early years of graduate school. I did mostly figure drawing and self-portraits  – my favorite artist at the time was Egon Schiele. Certainly my emotional state pulsated through my artwork: yet it was not the inner world of my imagination that I sought to express, but always direct observation of the world around me.

Later, ethnographic research appealed to me for the same reason: it engaged me in direct observation. When I think about the books that first lit my intellectual fire and subsequently shaped my career, they were all ethnographies. I was introduced to ethnography and the sociology of everyday life when I was an undergraduate. For me, they’re a natural fit with the perspective I take in my artwork. Conducting ethnographic research allows me to pay attention to the rich details of things we usually take for granted and help the reader visualize the community/culture I am studying by painting a vivid, “thick description” of it.

Of course, I am not the only one to think of ethnography in terms of artwork. In an undergraduate class on sociological fieldwork, I learned from Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (1995) by Robert Emerson et al. that fieldworkers, struck by a vivid sensory impression, sketch the social scene, depicting it like a still life, providing detailed imagery from the field. Likewise, when writing my recent book, I consulted John Van Maanen’s Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography (1988) in which he speaks of confessional tales of ethnographers being similar to self-portraits, where one tries to show the biases and character flaws the fieldworker brings to the ethnographic table.

Among the ethnographies that I cherish is Marcia Millman’s Such a Pretty Face: Being Fat in America (1980), a social psychologically oriented comparative ethnography of three groups: the National Association to Aid Fat Americans (NAAFA) – now it reads “to Advance Fat Acceptance”; Overeaters Anonymous; and a summer diet camp. The book takes off with the idea that fat is a feminist issue.  It contains autobiographic stories collected through in-depth interviews and thoughtful observations in each of the three organizations, their meetings, pamphlets, and booklets. When I first encountered this book, little did I know that approximately ten years later I would embark on a research project to expand upon this classic, by engaging gay men’s perspectives as they worry about their weight in meaning-laden ways.

Carol Brooks Gardner’s Passing By: Gender and Public Harassment (1995) is another ethnography that had a significant impact on my life. Anytime I have to sit down and start writing up my own work, I pull out the book and thumb through it, feeling certain that inspiration will seep in by osmosis. Gardner, who has been my mentor, studied under Erving Goffman, a professor of Anthropology and Sociology at U Penn. In 1979, in his book Gender Advertisements, Goffman used a micro-sociological approach to decode gender displays in advertising. Gardner applies and extends his concepts to explore unwanted public attention women receive from men on the street and in semi-public places like a department store. Through 506 interviews and five years of public observation in a Midwestern city in the U.S., she documents the various indignities women and other situationally disadvantaged groups are made to suffer and how such experiences erode these groups’ trust in public civility, and wear away at their psyche, constraining the way women engage with and enjoy public places or contributing to their fear thereof.

I can trace my intellectual pedigree to Goffman not only through Carol Gardner, but also through folklorist Amy Shuman, another significant mentor of mine who was also one of Goffman’s students. In graduate school, I took “Folklore Field Methods” and a seminar on “The Rhetoric of Ethnography” with Shuman, who introduced me to Goffman’s ideas about narrative. At the time she was preparing her own book Other People’s Stories: Entitlement Claims and the Critique of Empathy (2010). Through Shuman’s eyes, I began to see Goffman’s work in a different way; it was about how people create themselves through narrative. I came to understand that Goffman was not just interested in the public performance of identity where the self emerges as a series of façades, but also in the ways narrative opens up an avenue for one to make sense of one’s self, no matter how untenable one’s position may be.

As an artist and an ethnographer, I found these books, above all others, to have helped me build bridges between my creative and scholarly ways of seeing the world.

Jason A. Whitesel is a Women’s and Gender Studies Department faculty member at Pace University. His research focuses on gay men’s rigid body image ideal and the resulting intragroup strife among them. His recent book, Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma (NYU Press, 2014) describes events at Girth & Mirth club gatherings and examines how big gay men use campy-queer behavior to reconfigure and reclaim their sullied images and identities.

Buzzed on research

—Andrew M. Schocket

Research can be boring, draining, sometimes physically or emotionally exhausting. For previous projects, I’ve logged weeks worth of time doing data entry, and have had students who have dealt with such topics as rape and infanticide, and the appearance of cannibalism (soon to be published with NYU Press!). Every once in a while, though, research can become a delightful adventure in ways one would not expect no more so than on a steamy afternoon in Philadelphia in 2011, much like the ones during the summer of ’76.

Americans want not only to see the founders’ houses and know what made them tick, but also to drink their beer. The desire for authenticity and appreciation for a connection with the past goes far beyond reenactors, public history professionals, historians, and movie makers, to walks of life one might not expect: since 2001, a Philadelphia microbrewery has been brewing beers based upon 18-century recipes. I was in Philly on a research trip anyway, and figured I should investigate. I visited Yards Brewing Company on a brutally hot afternoon, after walking all afternoon, and having had little to eat or drink since that morning. I was only too happy to sample Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale, General Washington’s Tavern Porter, and Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce in my research.

Yards Brewery has been trying to reproduce as best they can the taste of several Revolutionary-era brews. It began when Walter Staib, the chef and owner of Philadelphia’s City Tavern, asked Yards for an authentic eighteenth-century ale for his restaurant. These beers became an artisanal labor of love, as one brewer there, Franklin Winslow, told me. Reproducing 18th-century tastes with contemporary equipment further raises the degree of difficulty. He and others have researched the original recipes, but even the most detailed of them are vague, and of course Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson experimented by varying the proportion of ingredients and the brewing process. Some ingredients available to eighteenth-century American brewers aren’t easily obtainable today, and those that can be gotten are often different varieties, grown under different conditions. Yards produces greater quantities than did Franklin or Jefferson and bottle or keg it in modern fashion, under modern safety regulations. But Winslow gets a thrill from bringing beers back to life drunk by regular folk and the famous founders. Through his work, he also makes a connection with Franklin or Jefferson as people, as craftsmen, as brewers, as beer-drinkers, as humans. And he finds that human connection inspiring: he was tickled to have sent a letter to his parents about his work, post-marked from the Benjamin Franklin post office in Philadelphia, and how he had later talked to them on the phone about it. This is a deeply emotional connection that transcends the political cant that often surrounds invocations of the American Revolution.

Winslow was happy to talk, and I was happy to listen. Every few minutes, it seemed, he’d say, “Here’s something to try!,” or, “Have a sip of this brew we’ve just made,” reach around the bar, and pour a few ounces of a different variety in my glass. After a while, as I paid attention to him as best I could, it suddenly hit me, a research revelation: I was definitely a little buzzed. Now this was the way to do research!

As I wrote my book, my account of my happy afternoon at Yards Brewery first appeared in the chapter on public history, then got moved in with the reenactors, and finally—just like my paragraphs on City Tavern and on Staib’s cooking show—just didn’t fit in the flow of either, so it got cut. Still, it might have been the best hour of research I ever spent.

Andrew M. Schocket is Director of American Culture Studies and Associate Professor of History and American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University (OH). He is the author of Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution (NYU Press, 2015). 

[Note: This post originally appeared on the author’s website.]

UP Week: Announcing the new Keywords

Happy University Press Week! We are thrilled to once again be featured the final run of the university press blog tour—this year, with a post from Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler, co-editors of the second edition of Keywords for American Cultural Studies. Designed as a print-digital hybrid publication, Keywords collects more than 90 essays—30 of which are new to this edition—from interdisciplinary scholars, each on a single term such as “America,” “culture,” “law,” and “religion.”

After reading the piece, head on over “from the square” to the other press blogs featured today! [Friday’s tour includes blog posts from Columbia University PressUniversity of Illinois Press, Island PressUniversity of Minnesota Press, and University of Nebraska Press. For a complete schedule, click here.]

We’re thrilled that the second edition of Keywords for American Cultural Studies is finally here. In our roles as co-editors, we have had a great time working with such an exciting group of scholars across a wide array of interdisciplinary fields, including American studies and cultural studies. We hope that you will find their essays as stimulating and thought-provoking as we do.

As we note in our introduction to the second edition, we’ve been working with NYU Press on this “hybrid print-digital publication” even before any of us knew exactly what that phrase could or would mean. It’s been a learning experience for us as co-editors and for the Press. Now that it has arrived, we hope that it will be a rich and engaging learning opportunity for our readers.

The site is pretty straightforward. It includes the digital essays in full, the opening passages of the print essays, and resources for anyone interested in using the publication in courses. We’re particularly excited about the search and category functions, both of which allow users to map uses of a concept across the print, digital, and post-publication keyword essays. We invite you to play with these tools to see what they can offer!

As we mark and celebrate this launch, we also want to highlight one claim that we’ve made across both editions: a keywords project like this one is never done. It is a necessarily incomplete, participatory, and collaborative mapping of knowledge formations across multiple fields and from diverse positionalities. For this reason, we have built into the publication several ways that you can contribute to Keywords.

·      You can propose to author a “post-publication essay,” a contribution that responds to or deviates from the essays included in or absent from the project. Contact us at

·      You can contribute to our archive of assignments that have engaged the publication and/or used the Keywords Collaboratory.

·      We can post to the Keywords blog by describing pedagogical or other deployments of Keywords.

If you are interested in doing any of these things, please contact us. That’s all for now. Enjoy Keywords, in print and online, and please do let us know what use you make of it.

Bruce Burgett is Dean and Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, Bothell, graduate faculty in the Department of English at the University of Washington, Seattle, and co-director of the UW graduate Certificate in Public Scholarship. Glenn Hendler is Associate Professor and Chair in the English Department at Fordham University, where he also teaches in the American Studies Program. Together, they are the co-editors of Keywords for American Cultural Studies, Second Edition (NYU Press, 2014).

Two NYU Press books honored in 2014 AAUP Book, Jacket & Journal Show

We are very happy to announce that two NYU Press titles have been selected for inclusion in the 2014 AAUP Book, Jacket & Journal Show!  The show recognizes meritorious achievements in the design and production of books, jacket, and covers by members of the university press community.  Here are the honored titles.

Congratulations to designers Charles B. Hames and Adam Bohannon—and to our entire editorial, design and production team!

An interview with editor-translator Th. Emil Homerin

Emil-Homerin-PhotoSTh. Emil Homerin, editor-translator of the recently-published The Principles of Sufism (NYU Press, 2014) has long been interested in the work of ‘A’ishah al-Ba’uniyyah, who is perhaps the most prolific and prominent woman who wrote in Arabic prior to the modern period. Homerin, a professor of religion and former chair of the Department of Religion & Classics at the University of Rochester, previously translated a collection of al-Ba’uniyyah’s poems as Emanations of Grace, and likens her work to that of the famous Persian poet, Jalal al-Din Rumi.

In his interview with M. Lynx Qualey, Homerin talked about how he found al-Ba’uniyyah’s manuscripts—which was like finding “a needle in a haystack”—and what changes when you can read Sufi poetry alongside the author’s own spiritual guidebook.

M, Lynx Qualey: Before translating The Principles of Sufism, you worked on translating a collection of ‘A’ishah’s poetry, Emanations of Grace. How did you come to these works?

Th. Emil Homerin: One of the times I’d gone over to Egypt, I was working on the poetry from the Mamluk period, basically 1250-1517.

I was looking for all sorts of poets, but part of my concern was to see if I could find women poets. I had read about women poets, I had their names—hers I did not have—but of others. People would say, ‘Oh, such-and-such a woman wrote poetry,’ but you could never find it. Or you might find one or two poems, or a few verses in a death notice.

So basically I was spending time at Dar al-Kutub and its manuscript collection in Cairo, and I would just go through the titles list, looking though books of poetry and hoping that I could find one by a woman. It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

Then I saw an elderly gentleman walk over to a wall I hadn’t really noticed before. And there was an old card catalog over there. I went over and asked him, ‘Sir, what is this?” And he was kind of surprised, here’s this blond kid talking to him in Arabic. He said, “This is the card catalog from the 1920s.” And I said, “You don’t use the catalog by title?” And he said, “Yes, I use that too, but this one sometimes is better, but I hate to tell you this, it’s by author.” And I just smiled and said, “Thank you so much.”

And then I start writing down women’s names in Arabic.

And then I went into the card catalog, and after a while, lo and behold, I find ‘A’ishah. And that led me to the manuscripts.

You were working with a number of other poets at the time. But you focused on ‘A’ishah. Why?

First of all, I had a collection of poetry by a woman. It still may be one of the only ones by a woman in Arabic. There’s also one by Wallada [bint al-Mustakfi], who was a Muslim in Andalusia who wrote in the eleventh century.

Then I started reading, and I found out it’s Sufi verse, and that’s my specialty, and I thought, “This is great.” And then I found her guide book, and I thought, “Good Lord, I’ve got the ability to read what her mystical doctrines are and compare them to her poetry.” Because so many mystical poets never wrote a guidebook, or anything in prose; you’re always trying to tease out what they may or may not believe, or what school of Islamic mysticism they belong to, and so forth, according to their poetry. But here I had sources that told me exactly what she believed.

What’s sustained your interest in ‘A’ishah’s work?

‘A’ishah is one of the very few women mystics in Islam who wrote and spoke for herself prior to the modern period. That gives us some important perspectives from the viewpoint of a woman on her society, on Islamic mysticism, and on Islam in general.

Do you read ‘A’ishah’s writing as somehow gendered? Are there particular markers that tell you “this is a woman”—stylistically, tonally, word choice?

The short answer is: No.

The one exception would be that, in many of her mystical love poems, she assumes the role of a woman with God or the prophet Muhammad as her lover. This is “lover” in the sense of her beloved, but not necessarily in any kind of passionate sense. And so she will keep, in her better poems, an ambiguity, so you don’t know if she’s talking about her husband or her Sufi master or Muhammad or God. There’s a nice ambiguity there.

In one of the articles that I have written, I took a look at how Aisha was viewed by her contemporaries. And they basically viewed her as they viewed a male Sufi master—using the same epitaphs and so forth, only in the feminine form. And looking at her work, for instance The Principles of Sufismit is very much in the classical mode of a Sufi guide. And I really can’t say that I see any particular emphasis that I ascribe to gender.

What about the encouraging positivity in which the book is suffused? Would you find a similar positivity in a work by a male mystic?

Sometimes. It depends on the mystic. The person who I would compare her to is Jalal al-Din Rumi, the great Persian poet. He was always an optimist, and he was living in trying times up there in Anatolia in the thirteenth century. He was always confident of God’s mercy, of God’s love, and we see that in ‘A’ishah’s work as well.

You can have other male mystics who are not nearly as optimistic, who are maybe a little more droll or concerned with divine chastisement. Although ‘A’ishah quotes a range of authors, overall though, in the end, she’s got that positive aspect. And I think that’s another thing that made her endearing to me to spend time translating. I’m not one who’d want to translate the blues all the time.

Is that positivity part of what made her popular in her time?

That was probably something that attracted attention to her. Another thing that really attracted attention to her is that she is a very fine poet, and she really understands the Arabic poetic tradition. So in some of her other works, for instance one of her poems called “The Clear Inspiration,” she quotes or refers to fifty other classical poets. That’s a showing-off, too. But it really shows her skills.

Her uncle, Ibrahim, was considered one of the best Arab poets of his generation. According to some sources, she studied with him. So I think that her poetic ability, and it comes over into her prose, was very attractive to her contemporaries.

But, in The Principles of Sufism, there’s really no way to see that she’s a woman. If you didn’t know her name, would there be something about her work that you’d find particularly female?

I don’t think I’d know that, no.

What’s noteworthy about The Principles of Sufism is she’s very careful to quote her sources. Now, this is also rare. Part of it may be that she’s writing a little later than many others who wrote Sufi guidebooks.

She’s very careful to quote her sources, and almost all of the sources are books by men. There are stories of pious women, but there are no quotations from other women, because this may be the first Sufi guidebook written by a woman.

Growing up in Damascus in the fifteenth century, would her education have been different from her brothers’?

No, her education was not different. We know for a fact it was exactly the same as her five brothers. Her father was the chief judge of Damascus, so this was a very prominent family. That’s oftentimes the trend, when you find learned women—and there are a quite a few of them throughout Islamic history—most of them come from elite families that could afford to give their daughters the same education, or an education, as they did their sons.

So that wouldn’t have been unusual, to educate a daughter of the family exactly as the sons?


You wrote elsewhere that it wasn’t usual for women to teach and be scholars in the Mamluk regions, but that they rarely—as ‘A’ishah did—composed their own original work. Why do you suppose? What is the line? 

Well, I can only speculate. Did they have the time? Did they have the ambition? ‘A’ishah comes off as a very strong, very confident person who was not afraid to write and put things down. Again, she came from a family that did that. And we do have some bits and pieces of poetry from other women, but just not complete collections. So we do have poems for sure. And, to be blunt, there could be things out there by other women and we just don’t know it. The manuscript collections are immense.

Who read ‘A’ishah’s work during her lifetime? Both men and women? More often men?

We don’t know that much about what women were doing at this time–this is why she’s very important. But she probably recited these poems to other women, and that could’ve included the sultan’s wife, because they had mutual friends when she was in Egypt.

Certainly her poems would’ve been recited among men. She exchanged poems with male scholars when she was in Cairo; we have the exchanges. So they’re writing poems back to each other. Oftentimes poems of praise, and they’re being clever with their plays on words and names and so forth. It’s a kind of educated pastime among the elite, sharing poems.

And there’s no reference to men writing or saying, A woman shouldn’t be doing this sort of thing.’

Oh no. When she’s in Cairo and she’s having these exchanges, she’s a widow. She’s probably in her fifties. Her son is with her, and he’s working as a secretary for the Sultan, and she’s living in the quarters of a family friend with his wife. Certainly somebody’s going to take exception, you’re always going to have conservative elements, but we don’t know of it.

So The Principles of Sufism, her guidebook: Do we have a sense of how many people read it and used it and how readers used it?

HomerinNo. So far, the manuscript I use is the only complete manuscript I know about. There are parts of it in another manuscript in Cairo, but it’s not complete. Because of the civil war in Syria, I haven’t been able to get there to find out what they might have, because she spent most of her life in Damascus. I did look when I was in Istanbul, and they have some books by her father and her uncles, but they don’t have this one either. That’s not totally surprising, because they have more Turkish than Arabic, but for a while they controlled Cairo.

That might tell you that it wasn’t used that much, because we don’t have that many copies. Whereas her poetry, we have quite a few copies of those. But that could just also be chance.

But in general, ‘A’ishah wrote for a broad audience?

I believe so, yes. Literacy was probably fairly high in Cairo and Damascus because of Qu’ran schools and so forth, so that people could read. We know for instance that merchants and artisans could read, not just the scholarly cadre. But also, people would read these things out loud. So that’s another teaching mechanism. So I think she saw herself as having a broad audience.

In translating the work, were there parts you found particularly challenging?

Sometimes the meaning of the words, or she’s using obscure forms. Other times she’s using colloquial elements, which can be fun. That’s where we usually can bring in contractions and more American English to translate. That can be enjoyable.

It took you around ten years of working on and off on the translation of ‘A’ishah’s poems, Emanations of Grace. Does translating her poetry take more time that translating ‘A’ishah’s prose?

When I was working on Aisha’s poems, I had to edit them first, because they were still in manuscript. After I translate a poem, I don’t really want to publish it for two years. I want to be able to come back and work it over and think it through.

So right up until the time of publishing, as it went to the press, I was still tinkering with translations. The prose is more straightforward. It doesn’t mean that there weren’t issues there that I didn’t have to go through and work over. That’s usually less of a problem.

Beyond specialists, who do you imagine as the audience for this book?

I would hope that those interested in feminist literature would read it. We’ve got a number of people who’ve been interested in women in Islam, and ‘A’ishah’s work is an amazing resource for looking at a woman scholar, and issues regarding women and religion, certainly in classical Islam, but I would also say Islam and religion in general.

The Principles of Sufism is important for two additional reasons. One, here we have a woman writer, so you can at least get some idea of what she believed, and what her background and sources were. Secondly, in terms of Islamic mysticism in general, Principles of Sufism is a valuable book for showing us what sources and resources were available. What part of the tradition is she tapping into? Because she quotes her sources, we know that she’s reading the classics of Islamic mysticism, like the epistle by al-Qushayri and reading contemporary poets, or poets who were nearly contemporary with her, and quoting them. So you can see what she’s reading. And I think that’s important for seeing, at least in her case, how that tradition is manifesting and developing itself in Cairo and Syria in a very important time in Islamic history.

And historians?

In terms of history, you have an educated woman, and here’s what she studied, and here’s who she interacted with. Also—she’s interacting with men. We don’t see any sign of anyone being upset about this in the circles in which she operated in Cairo and Damascus. This is telling you something about social relations. She is a singular source, for if you want to understand an educated woman, who are you going to read? You can read men talking about women, and historians have used these. But here you have a woman talking about herself.

Are there other audiences who would be interested?

I would think, too, that you do have a lot of men and women who are looking to their own self-help or spiritual development. And if they’re concerned with Islam, this is an invaluable resource.

Or even for those who aren’t specifically interested in spiritual guidance, it is certainly uplifting.

What I like about the Library of Arabic Literature is that we’re editing and translating the text and it’s in its complete form. We’re not dumbing it down, we’re not editing it out, we’re not eliding certain elements a general readership wouldn’t like or appreciate. And I think that’s very important. Because ‘A’ishah was a scholar, she is writing for other scholars, but she’s also writing for the spiritual novice who wants to understand what to do in order to let go of selfishness and find grace.

[This interview originally appeared on the Library of Arabic Literature blog.]

#UPWeek: Chip Rossetti on the Library of Arabic Literature

Happy University Press Week!  We are thrilled to once again be kicking off the final run of the university press blog tour—this year, with a post by Chip Rossetti, Managing Editor of the Library of Arabic Literature

After reading the piece, head on over “from the square” to the Princeton University Press blog, where today’s tour continues!  [The tour also stops at Columbia University PressJohn Hopkins University PressGeorgetown University Press, Indiana University Press, University of Wisconsin Pressand Yale University Press. For a complete schedule, click here.]

Global reach of university presses: The Library of Arabic Literature at New York University Press
—Chip Rossetti

New York University Press has a long history of championing cutting-edge scholarship, and for many readers and scholars, it is associated with books on contemporary life. Certainly, the Press publishes outstanding books on the modern world, but as part of its contribution to University Press Week, I would like to highlight a global initiative the Press has launched over the last few years that I hope showcases the broad scope of its commitment to disseminating scholarly work. Specifically, I am the managing editor for an NYU Press series, the Library of Arabic Literature, that publishes pre-modern Arabic texts in facing-page bilingual editions. The series is supported by a five-year grant from the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute, and its general editor is Professor Philip Kennedy, who since 2009 has been based in Abu Dhabi as a faculty member at the new university of NYU Abu Dhabi.

I began work on the series in January, 2011. Along with Kennedy and an eight-member editorial board consisting of scholars of Arabic and Islamic studies, I spent much of my first year laying the groundwork for the series, such as coming up with a wish list of key Arabic texts the editors wanted to see in translation; hiring a digital production manager to set up our XML-first workflow; designing an interior template and series book jacket design; and working out the technical difficulties of publishing books with both right-to-left and left-to-right texts.

Since December, 2012, we have published seven books, with several more in production, twenty more under contract, and a number of others under review. The series aims for a broad range of genres, including poetry, belles lettres, biography, travel and geographical literature, theology, and law. It has been enormously gratifying over the past year to see these books take shape, and to realize that we are taking this enormously rich and varied written heritage and making it accessible to a broad swath of readers who would otherwise be unfamiliar with these works. Most of them have never been translated into English before (or if they were, they are available only in partial 19th-century versions.)

Take, for example, The Epistle of Forgiveness by the blind, ascetic, possibly heretical Syrian poet Abu l-‘Ala’ al-Ma‘arri (d. 449 H/1057 AD): a sardonic, literate tour of heaven and hell (and the famous poets, scholars, kings, and others who inhabit them), it has sometimes been claimed as the inspiration for Dante’s Divine Comedy, possibly via a no-longer-extant Latin translation. Or take our recent publication of Leg Over Leg, by the 19th-century Lebanese reformer and pioneering journalist Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq. Often compared to Tristram Shandy, it is a tour de force of language, an “untranslatable” text that touches on everything from modernity to women’s rights, gender relations, freedom of religion, and relations between Europe and the Arabs. Needless to say, neither of these LAL books was available to English readers before the Library of Arabic Literature.

It has been a steep learning curve for all of us, and many of our editorial discussions have revolved around laying down series-wide rules: can we insist that technical or cultural terms in Arabic be translated in a certain way? Or do we allow individual translators the leeway to make their translation their own, even at the expense of consistency across the series? What is the best way to translate archaic poetry coming out of a very different cultural and literary milieu into comprehensible, lucid English? (And as with any poetry, is it still poetry after it’s been translated?)

All of those questions are well worth tackling in and of themselves, but they are in the service of a greater goal that New York University Press is aspiring to for a translation series like this: ultimately, we want non-Arabic-speaking readers to view these authors and their texts as part of their global cultural heritage, so that an educated reader is as familiar with the names of Ibn al-Muqaffa’ and al-Ma’arri as she is with Homer, Tolstoy and Confucius.

American Literatures Initiative approaches 100th book

“The American Literatures Initiative, the first of the university press collaborative publishing grants awarded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, approaches 100 book mark.”

To learn more about this exciting news, read an excerpt from the press release below! [The full version appears on the ALI website here.]

In 2007, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, looking for ways to encourage presses to collaborate more on basic publishing operations, and looking to support the more economical publication of first scholarly books in what they called “underserved” fields, issued a call for grant proposals to the University Press community. The call for grant proposals was open-ended: there was no definition of an underserved field, nor were any guidelines provided about the potential size of a grant, the timeframe, or the number of presses needed in the collaboration. However, each proposal had to address several key issues, including providing evidence of an underserved field, identifying  more economical and transformative processes for the publication of first books, and providing a plan for long-term sustainability of publishing monographs  in the discipline.

The American Literatures Initiative (ALI) was the first such grant awarded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2008, to be followed by a half dozen additional grants during 2008 and 2009. The ALI allowed five similarly-sized university presses—NYU Press, along with Fordham University Press, Rutgers University Press, Temple University Press, and the University of Virginia Press—to collaborate on the publication of 125 first books in the field of literary studies over five years, with a grant of $1.3 million.

As the ALI approaches the publication of its 100th book, the many skepticisms voiced at the beginning—that presses could not effectively collaborate in these ways—were unfounded. To find out more about the participating publishers and the project’s goals, the Directors of the ALI presses were asked to provide a candid assessment of their progress to date, with the hope that some of the successes of the ALI might be adapted by individual university presses, or scaled onto other university press collaborations.

What’s the future of the ALI after the next grant period ends? “We’re exploring several options,” said Steve Maikowski, Director at NYU Press. “We see the ability to make a strong case to continue funding the most successful, transformative parts of the program, scaling back the big marketing spend, continue our experimentation in collaborative production methods, and focusing on the core plant costs, which will make these niche monographs a bit more viable on our lists. Without such outside support, some of the ALI presses may have to again significantly reduce the titles published in this field.”

In spite of the new financial challenges faced by the ALI, for new scholars in literary studies, the ALI is a beacon of hope in an otherwise dreary publishing landscape for first books for scholars in the humanities. And the ALI has indeed achieved many of the original goals in the grant proposal to The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Perhaps most gratifying is the number of prizes won by the ALI to date, most recently the top book prize of the American Studies Association. These distinguished prizes fulfill one of the most important goals: that ALI would become the destination point for the best, award-winning original scholarship in literary studies.

Meet the staff: Gemma Juan-Simó

It’s belated news, but another intern at the Press has joined the team as a full-time staff member! Here’s a quick Q&A to introduce you to Gemma, editorial assistant for the Library of Arabic Literature

Tell us about yourself. Where are you from? What are your interests?
This always feels like a trick question! I’m from Barcelona, although I spent a fair share of my childhood moving around. One of my interests, as a consequence, is language: I grew up speaking Catalan and Spanish at home, English at school, and then a farrago of tongues that I picked up on the way, from Dutch to Arabic (unfortunately, retaining linguistic abilities is a whole different story). I also collect keys from around the world, possibly a sentimental testament to my peripatetic origins. So if you have any old or spare keys, donate them to my cause!

And your role at NYU Press? What’s the most exciting part of your job?
I work with Chip Rossetti on the Library of Arabic Literature series, which is a trailblazing, ambitious venture in the field of translation that I feel immensely lucky to be a part of. Now that the first published books are amassing on the shelf, in their glorious cobalt blue covers, you really get a sense of what a commanding collection this will be.

Why did you go into (academic) publishing?
Despite having largely abandoned any PhD aspirations, I was wary of straying too far from academia, and my love of literature made publishing a self-evident choice. I also like being around and/or part of conversations about current and trending topics, which the academic publishing industry is always anticipating. The answer, in short, is: to further my education.

Most preferred way of reading? Good ol’ book or fancy schmancy e-reader?
At the risk of sounding absolutely ridiculous, I thoroughly enjoy the smell of books. The dustier and older, the better. Basically, it’s not reading if you’re not literally burying your face in the pages. Smelling an e-reader, on the other hand, is creepy and unhygienic. (That’s my answer and I’m sticking to it.)

What are you reading these days? Got a favorite NYU Press book?
I’ve been perusing a collection of Henrik Ibsen’s plays and revisiting Denis Johnson’s irreverent short stories in Jesus’ Son to get through particularly misanthropic mornings. As far as new fiction, I can’t wait to get my hands on She Left Me The Gun. I’ve also been known to lurk — actual words of an employee — in the philosophy section of The Strand.

In our NYUP catalog, I’m looking forward to Unclean Lips and, of course, the next volumes of Leg Over Leg, which cover a variety of titillating topics from marital relations and poetry to the sexual aberrations of Europeans. I’ve also been eyeing Arranging Grief in the backlist, which whets my scholarly interest in trauma theory. The list is infinite and overwhelming!

Any insider tips to tackling the great city of New York?
The G line is an unsettling lime green color on the map for a reason. Stay away from the G. Everything else is fair game.

What are some of your hobbies?
Beyond the expected (reading, writing), these days I’m toying around with a Diana+ camera, an analog from the 1970s that produces very neat, raw lomographic photos. I also spend a little too much time in thrift stores; my favorite is Pippin’s in Chelsea. I recently rescued an orphaned 19th-century full-length mirror that took eons to drag home on the subway. I’m verging on Hoarders territory, but it’s all vintage, so that doesn’t count, right?

Have you ever received any great advice about your jobs from a colleague or a mentor?
My first ever employer had a fertile archive of idioms he liked to share gratuitously (I say this with maximum affection). One saying that always resonated with me went: “A mucha hambre, no hay pan duro,” which more or less translates to… for a good appetite, there is no hard bread. In other words, all work is good work. I don’t generally subscribe to mottos, but this would be the closest thing to a guiding principle in my professional life.