Meet the Fellows: 2020 Women’s Studies Fellow Siobhan Meï
Refashioning History: Women as Sartorial Storytellers
Each year, Citizens & Scholars invites new Fellows to submit a brief story introducing themselves and/or their work. Here, 2020 Women’s Studies Siobhan Meï describes the origins of her dissertation. A doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Siobhan is writing on the radical possibilities of fashion as a storytelling strategy in women’s historical fiction.
Though they may not immediately seem connected, women’s self-fashioning became an important area of research for me due to my interest in translation studies. As a literary translator, the public perception of translation as an inherently derivative activity has always bothered me. Maybe it bothered me even more because I’m a woman—that my creative and intellectual labor was viewed as subordinate to the “original” content of a given text. The gendered dynamics that characterize these widespread perceptions of translation made me want to spend more time thinking about the relationship between translation and authorship and the ways in which these roles continue to be characterized in the West by a hierarchical production/reproduction binary. There’s a lot of anxiety around translations (similarly to the dressed bodies of women!) because I think their very existence calls this binary into question and challenges received ideas about who can claim creative and intellectual authority over their work.
These questions and ideas have shaped my study of women’s historical fiction about slavery in the Americas. In the novels I read and in the archival sources I’ve explored, it’s very clear that the dressed bodies of women of African descent were a major source of white colonial anxiety in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. In plantation societies racialized femininity was manufactured in part through legal restrictions on what people of African descent could wear in public space. These restrictions consistently failed, however, as women of color in places now known as Haiti, the United States, and Peru continued to create their own definitions of what it meant to be a woman, to be beautiful, and to be free. In my dissertation I want to underscore the importance of self-fashioning and translation to histories of women’s labor and creative production. Both fashion and translation as cultural processes are often relegated to the realm of the feminine, as these activities are perceived of as superficial, derivative, and intellectually uninspired. My dissertation pushes back on this perspective by asserting the historical importance of women’s self-representation through the modes of dress, fiction, and translation.