Dr. Bhagat-Kennedy – September’s Professor of the Month

The English Department’s September Professor of the Month is Dr. Monika Bhagat-Kennedy! Dr. Bhagat-Kennedy received her Bachelor’s Degree in English and Political Science from Emory University, her Master’s in South Asian Studies and English Language from the University of Michigan, and her doctorate in English from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Bhagat-Kennedy is teaching courses this semester such as “Writing Empire” on British imperial literature and Survey of World Literature.

Malerie: What got you interested in your current field of research? Was there any defining moment or text that made you decide to pursue your current field?

Dr. Bhagat-Kennedy: I specialize in postcolonial literature and theory, in particular, representations of nationalism in the colonial-era Indian novel. My path to this field can be explained in part by my background. My parents are Indian immigrants who settled in Germantown, Tennessee, a suburb of Memphis that is about sixty miles north of Oxford. While there are certainly many immigrant families in Germantown now, this was not the case in the 1990s. From an early age, I had been attuned to my family’s racial and religious differences from the predominantly white Christian community. When I was twelve years old, my family took a lengthy trip to India, during which we visited relatives and spent significant time in my mother and father’s childhood homes in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh and Midnapur, West Bengal, respectively. This trip furthered my curiosity in Indian history and religious traditions and caused me to reflect on my national identity a great deal—I was born in America and am an American citizen, but was I perceived as a “real” American? Did I have more rights to America or India? How might either country recognize or claim me?

My college experience at Emory University in Atlanta was a defining moment, because I appreciated the diversity of students from across the country and the world. I began to feel more comfortable with who I was because I met more young people like me. I also eagerly took courses in Indian history, religious traditions, and literature. The more learned about India, the more I wanted to know. And as I took courses in postcolonial studies, I found that many of its animating concerns—i.e., identity and belonging, oppression and exclusion, notions of difference—were quite familiar to me because I had already been thinking about these issues for some time.

Malerie: How do you incorporate your own research interests into the classes that you teach?

Dr. Bhagat-Kennedy: I’m fortunate in that I’m able to devise and teach courses that emerge directly from my research interests!  This semester I’m teaching a course entitled “Writing Empire” on nineteenth-century British imperial literature and philosophies of empire with a particular focus on India. This course has allowed me to continue to think through parts of my book project in which I examine how late nineteenth-century Indian writers reacted to disparaging views of their country’s history that had been advanced by the British. Next semester, I am very excited to offer a course entitled “Living Hyphenated: South Asian American Literature,” which will allow me to develop my long-standing personal and academic interests in South Asian diasporic literature and film and representations of the immigrant experience in America.

Malerie: Do you have a favorite course or text to teach?

Dr. Bhagat-Kennedy: Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), a postcolonial novel that challenges the one-dimensional portrayal of Bertha Mason in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, is among my favorite texts to teach. You cannot approach Jane Eyre in the same way after having read it. Set in the West Indies shortly after the Emancipation Act of 1833, Wide Sargasso Sea may be considered a prequel to Jane Eyre, telling the back story of Bertha Mason, the mad woman in the attic and silent villain of the earlier narrative. Contrary to Rochester’s claims of being duped by Bertha’s relatives into marrying her, in Wide Sargasso Sea, we observe how Rochester himself was in large part responsible for his wife’s descent into madness. The tight and well-constructed narrative so deftly takes up issues of race, gender, and madness that one marvels at Rhys’s genius and dedication to the fully fleshing out the mysterious figure that we see in Jane Eyre (she perfected Wide Sargasso Sea over two decades).

I’ve taught Wide Sargasso Sea several times now and never tire of teaching it—each time I read it, I appreciate its rich story in new ways. But without fail I always make sure to alert my students to one particular line uttered by Antoinette/Bertha to Rochester: “There is always the other side, always.” I ask my students to consider this statement’s multiple levels of resonance in the text and beyond. Not only should Rochester question the rumors he hears about his new wife and her family, we as readers should similarly question the story about Bertha that Rochester provides in Jane Eyre or, for that matter, any account in which we are not able to access “the other side.” Attending to the marginalized, oppressed, or silenced dimensions of any narrative is precisely the animating premise of postcolonial studies as a whole. This is a long way of saying that I find Wide Sargasso Sea to be a magnificent work of literature and I really enjoy teaching it!

Malerie: Can you talk about an influential moment in your undergrad/graduate experience that made you want to become a professor?

Dr. Bhagat-Kennedy: I have loved reading ever since I was a young child. In high school, I devoured novels like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. In college, my passion shifted to historical novels, and those that centered on political events in India helped me understand the country from which my parents immigrated in ways that history textbooks did not. In my junior year, I took a course in modern Indian history that played a large role in setting me on the academic path. Taking this course was a real privilege, because it was taught by a former U.S. diplomat to Sri Lanka, Marion Creekmore, who enriched his lectures with anecdotes about his first-hand involvement in South Asian politics, like policy discussions with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi! As a part of the course, Prof. Creekmore assigned a number of novels such as Bapsi Sidwa’s Cracking India and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance that helped us understand the human costs of the turbulent political events we were studying. I found Mistry’s A Fine Balance in particular very moving—this beautiful novel gave me insight into how the 1975 declaration of a state of “emergency” in India—the suspension of democratic processes and civil liberties for about a two-year period—wreaked havoc on the lives of marginalized low-class and low-caste citizens. As a result of taking this course, I wrote a senior honors thesis on literature about the 1947 Partition that taught me more about how fiction can help us understand traumatic events in history. I was extremely fortunate to have been awarded two grants to undertake research for my thesis at the British Library.  Conducting archival research and engaging with a subject for several months as an undergraduate was an incredibly fulfilling experience and got me hooked. Though I didn’t go to graduate school right away, I knew then that I wanted to become a professor.

Malerie: Can you talk a little bit about your article for the Oxford Eagle? What motivated you to advocate for the relocation of the Confederate monuments on campus and in the Square?

Dr. Bhagat-Kennedy: As I mentioned in the article, I am from nearby Germantown, Tennessee, a suburb of Memphis that was and remains predominantly white. My interest in cultural representations of belonging and exclusion arose in large part because of my upbringing in this area. Growing up I remember often being the only person of color in certain situations (a class, a school club, a birthday party, etc.) and feeling uncomfortable due to my apparent difference on the basis of race or religion.  I also remember being taught that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but rather about “states’ rights,” and being troubled by Confederate flags, bumper stickers, and other memorabilia. The message I took from my upbringing in this area was that people of color would continue to struggle to belong here in any meaningful or genuine way.  

But I’ve realized, of course, that this is a particular narrative, one that was made possible by Lost Cause ideology. To go back to my answer about Wide Sargasso Sea above, there is another side to this story that continues to be ignored—the fact that the South and Mississippi in particular is a diverse place, but we don’t always realize that because it remains very segregated. The Radical South lecture series this past spring, for example, challenged notions of the South that I had growing up in this area. I strongly believe that we must continue to offer students programming along these lines that seeks to highlight the other side about what this region is and who can lay claim to it.

In my view, advocating for the relocation of the Confederate markers that stand in the Lyceum Circle and in the Square is a crucial part of this endeavor. In light of the renewed attention to the place of Confederate symbols in American society after Charlottesville, many of us in the English Department are urging UM administrators to engage with this issue. Much as other university and community leaders across the country have done, my colleagues and I believe that the Confederate monument on the Circle should be relocated.

We must remember that the University of Mississippi is the flagship university of a state that was majority African-American until the 1930s and that remains almost 40% African-American today. If we are to truly live up to the espoused values of our UM Creed and believe that we must do all that we can to make the University open and welcoming to all who wish to come here to learn, these Confederate markers must be moved to more appropriate sites (e.g., museums and cemeteries) for preservation and reflection.

Malerie: Can you talk about being a professor? Do you have any advice for students who want to become professors?

Dr. Bhagat-Kennedy: Being a professor offers the amazing opportunity to be a student for life. Not only do you have the privilege of teaching about topics that excite you, you have the responsibility to keep learning about and contributing to your field. Such learning occurs mostly through reading, writing, and engaging with one’s colleagues, but I also learn from my own students. Perhaps what I love most about studying and teaching literature is how it reveals the complexities and nuances of the world and promotes empathy by enabling us to inhabit the perspective of others. These are lessons that I strive to teach my students, and my students, in turn, help me discern new perspectives in class discussion and in their written work. I would advise students who want to become professors to read widely and take a variety of courses in their undergraduate years so they will be able to discover those subjects and topics to which they can see devoting themselves for much time to come!

Congratulations to September’s Professor of the Month, Dr. Monika Bhagat-Kennedy!