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Meet the Fellows: 2018 Newcombe Fellow Nasrin Olla

The Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship fosters the original and significant study of ethical or religious values in all fields of the humanities and social sciences. The 2018 class, announced by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, includes Nasrin Olla, a doctoral candidate in English at Cornell University. Nasrin’s dissertation, titled Clamoring for Opacity: Contemporary African American Literature, focus the role of opaque, the hidden and, the un-visible  in Contemporary African American literature.

The literary critic Barbara Johnson once argued that when she reads a book it is not only to gain knowledge or to learn something new, but to be surprised. For Johnson, what she called the “surprise of otherness” functioned as the aspirational horizon of reading. This kind of relation to books is the one I most identify with. It is this desire to be surprised that animates my experience of reading continental philosophy, literature, and critical theory. What I love about the monotheistic philosophy of Spinoza, or the critical attentiveness of Claudia Rankine, or the marvelous montages of Susan Buck-Morss is essentially the same quality: each of these writers force one to think in a counter-intuitive manner about the most banal, ordinary, and taken for granted aspects of our everyday lives. In this sense, they take what is familiar from the world and make it unfamiliar, strange, and new. This capacity of critical thinking to surprise and reinvigorate the familiar is, to me, its most enduring and enticing quality.

In my dissertation, entitled “Clamoring for Opacity,” I explore the role of the opaque, the hidden, the secret, and the unseen in contemporary African American Literature. Part of what drew me to this topic is my sense that in contemporary public discourse, ‘transparency’ is surreptitiously held up as a social good. Today it seems that if a politician, a citizen, or a person claims to be transparent then it is assumed that he or she is also claiming to be more trustworthy and honest. Across the political spectrum the postulate of transparency has become synonymous with the good, the ethical, and the morally sound. Therefore, I wanted to explore the kinds of critiques of transparency that exist in the literary landscapes of writers like Claudia Rankine and Toni Morrison. In particular, I am interested in the experimental accounts of opacity that this literature so compellingly offers.

For more information about the 2018 Newcombe Fellows and a list of their dissertation titles, click here.


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