Fulbright-Nehru fellow Alan Johnson talks about his connection to India, his fascination with the country’s literature and the importance of exchanges like the Fulbright program.
Alan Johnson, professor of English at Idaho State University, came to India on two Fulbright scholarships and is the university’s Fulbright Program Advisor. His 2011 book, “Out of Bounds,” is about British descriptions of India’s physical and built environments. He has also co-edited a book on postcolonial literatures with a colleague in India and written articles on a variety of topics, ranging from Hindi films to Mahasweta Devi’s and Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s fiction.
Johnson has recently published a mystery novel, “Family Plot,” set in the Palani Hills of Tamil Nadu. “Although I finished the manuscript before starting my 2016 Fulbright, the Palani Hills and its shola forests do make several appearances, as does the idiosyncratic subculture of hill stations,” he says. “Later, on my Fulbright, I discovered that the writing of the novel enriched my scholarly writing in subtle ways, such as how I looked at the local fig trees with new appreciation.”
Excerpts from an interview.
Your expertise is in postcolonial literature and theory, with an emphasis on India. Could you please tell us why you chose to focus on India?
I was born and raised in India, so I naturally gravitated to Indian literatures and cultures! I remember looking at SPAN as a kid in Pune, Ahmedabad and Kodaikanal, where I did my schooling. I began, however, by studying British Victorian literature for my master’s degree, before switching to postcolonial, working with Professor Parama Roy. In many ways, my study of Indian literatures—and I use the plural given the great diversity of languages and works India produces—is a bit selfish, since it’s a way to understand myself. But I also take great pleasure in sharing these works with my students in America.
You teach a variety of courses at Idaho State University, including one on Bollywood. What kind of interest do you see among students at your university for studies related to India?
Over the past decades, all of us who teach non-American and non-European subjects in the West have been delighted to see steadily increasing interest among students for works from around the world, especially India, which is great. There are lots of reasons, though mainly, of course, globalization and the Internet. Other factors include a fondness for Bollywood music, increased travel and India’s growing role in the world. And Indian cuisine has become a great favorite across North America, even in small towns like the one I live in. This probably also has something to do with the rapidly growing presence of Indian Americans in all walks of life.
Please tell us about your experiences as a Fulbright-Nehru lecturer in India in 2010.
I split my first Fulbright, in 2010, between research and lecturing, based at University of Mumbai, focusing on the interconnections between globalization and Indian literature. It turned out, however, that because the academic year in Mumbai was on a different cycle from mine, I was there for our “Spring” term. So, from January to May, I taught just a couple of class sessions. Fortunately, the American Center in Mumbai and my own contacts enabled me to travel frequently to lecture across India, from Vadodara to Kanpur and points in between. It was a wonderful experience as I learned a lot about how different cities and regions in India were experiencing changes due to globalization, including the rise of Business English classes and call centers, and also how English literature departments were adding more, and newer, Indian literary works to their curricula.
Your 2016-17 Fulbright-Nehru research award involved an interdisciplinary study of depictions of forests in Indian literature. Could you please tell us about your work as part of this research award?
For this second Fulbright, I focused primarily on research and was affiliated with Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras. I had embarked on my new topic of forest imagery in modern Indian literature. I chose to base myself in Tamil Nadu because I had grown to love forests, in this case the shola of the Palani Hills, while in school there, and because I wanted to return to the South to gain a deeper understanding of the topic. The IIT campus was itself a revelation, with its numerous, beautiful trees and wildlife. I was fortunate to be able to work for the last couple of months in Kodaikanal, re-experiencing the sholas and meeting with environmentalists. I’m pleased to say that I have a book contract now for this, and will complete it by the end of 2020.
How have your experiences during the two Fulbright-Nehru programs influenced your work at Idaho State University?
Both experiences directly informed my teaching and research. I was able to write several articles and present conference papers, give community talks using my Fulbright photos and, most importantly, share my experiences and insights with my students. Fulbrights are vital engines of cultural and educational exchange in our increasingly globalized, but also increasingly uncertain world. I’ve invited Indian Fulbrighters in the United States to visit and speak on my campus, which enriched our community’s understanding of both India and the value of international exchanges. I believe that grants like these are more important than ever before.
What would you say are the main benefits of exchanges like the Fulbright program?
The Fulbright experience opens up new worlds for the grant recipient—culturally, intellectually and personally. It also gives recipients the opportunity to share their own experiences and cultural views with their hosts, who relish the chance. I’ve personally seen the powerful effect the experience has had on people I know: invariably, they plan to return to the host country as soon as possible, and also travel the globe!
Who is your favorite Indian author and why?
That’s impossible to say, I have so many favorites! But for brevity’s sake, I’ll say: Amitav Ghosh, R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao, Mahasweta Devi, U. R. Ananthamurthy, Salman Rushdie, Premchand, Rabindranath Tagore, Attia Hosain, Arundhati Roy, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Arun Kolatkar, Easterine Kire, Agha Shahid Ali and Ruskin Bond.
This short list reflects the variety and depth of modern Indian writing and some of the works that I’ve found especially valuable in my teaching and research. A few are, of course, in translation. While it would be ideal to read those in the original, given India’s linguistic multiplicity, we must rely on translations to enjoy these literary treasures, and to teach them. And some of these writers have been blessed with good translators. All of them are, of course, bilingual, and some trilingual, exemplifying a feature I love about Indian writing, which is its rootedness in a particular region while also echoing other regions and tongues. Many works are animated by the playfulness of code-switching and bilingual puns. Kolatkar produced two versions of his famous poetry book “Jejuri,” one in English and one in Marathi, finding that he could express certain subtleties particular to each language without having to choose one over the other. This linguistic feature illustrates a broader truth, that writers must translate their locales into believable characters and stories—much as we all translate our experiences and thoughts in our interactions with others, just as the Fulbright experience encourages us to do.