UW-Madison Professor of English Aida Hussen studies African American historical fiction, a subset of African American literature that has gained popularity and critical acclaim since the 1970s.
“One of the things I’m interested in is why African American writers since the 1970s have turned to the past as a site of their inspiration instead of writing presentist realism as was once the literary norm,” says Aida.
Her current book project examines this compulsive turning back and also looks at how black historical novels connect the present and the past. She examines the idea of ‘bitemporal consciousness,’ where characters from the present are transported to the past to develop nuanced understandings of their ancestors and origins. She finds that one of the ways black historical novels explore the relationship between present and past is through the concept of collective memory.”
“In these books, there’s the idea that we can and should remember an intergenerational past—and more specifically, that we don’t remember things that happen to us personally, but we can and should remember the history of American slavery. I’m interested in exploring whether this is a viable claim or whether memory by definition is a bounded, individual experience, and indeed part of what individuates us, or that makes us unique from others. In a related vein, I’m interested in exploring what it means for contemporary readers to have a deeply felt personal relationship to history?”
In order to seek answers to those thematic questions, Aida reads widely within disciplines in the humanities and humanistic social sciences to look at different ways of thinking about history, memory, and identity. She reads philosophy, history, and psychoanalysis, which contextualizes internal operations of memory in multiple ways.
She says, “I’ve always been drawn to literature as a disciplinary way of approaching questions and as an experience. I find language enchanting and extraordinarily powerful; language and stories, after all, are the very rubrics through which people come to think about their being.”
Although she has always been drawn to literature, Aida didn’t encounter feminist theory and critical race studies until college.
“I took an Intro to Women’s Studies class and it blew my mind. I had questions about my existence and relationship to the world that I didn’t have language for, and it was inspiring and encouraging to find this set of classes that positioned me in relationship to my social setting…The light bulb went off and I wanted to weave these theoretical conversations into a dialogue with literary study.”
Aida’s teaching focus is on African American literature and on feminist literature and theory. This semester, she will be teaching a course called “Literature, Politics, and the Women Writer.” She also teaches “Black Literary Post Modernism”. She sees teaching as a kind of social activism.
“It’s about creating a productive environment where we can critique and question, among other things, what we’ve come to think of as progressive or right. That’s one of the things I love about academia…that its rigor is anti-dogmatic. I really believe that taking learning seriously can equip us with useful tools for re-imagining ourselves, our relationships, and our social systems in honest, ethical ways,” she says.
On January 31, from 7-9pm in the Masley Media Room (Red Gym, First Floor), Aida will kick off IJET’s Spring Social Justice Speakers and Trainers Series focused around the theme of “Race & Place: Movement, Space, Land, and Power” with a public talk on “Returning to Our Original Places: History, Fantasy, and the Contemporary African American Novel”.
She poses the question, “How do we imagine and fantasize place in relationship to African American history? For example, how do we think about places like the plantation, Africa, or middle passage…These are places that no longer exist or that are a wide geographical or cultural distance from contemporary African American culture and society…so how do authors imagine these places, and why do they imagine them as they do?”
Beginning with Toni Morrison’s “The Site of Memory,” Aida will take on the idea of tensions and collusions between history and fantasy.
Check out Dr. Aida Hussen’s must-read booklist from our November issue of Tapestry.