Meet Your Humanities Faculty: Annette Joseph-Gabriel

Our Spring 2023 tgiFHI series concludes with Annette Joseph-Gabriel, Associate Professor of Romance Studies. Here's an interview with Prof. Joseph-Gabriel on her research interests, method, and practice.

What are your research interests and how did they develop for you?

I've always been interested in how we tell stories about people who fall out of dominant narratives. I was trained in Francophone literature at a time when the canonical works in the field were primarily authored by men. Although we're very cognizant of stories from the French speaking world, including former French colonies, there are all these voices that fall out of that narrative including those of women who participated in public discourse in literature and in politics. Their stories get narratively situated in the space of the house, the home, the garden, and the nation as micro-spaces that reflect larger concerns.

My first book really wanted to think about women writing and speaking publicly, and that thread runs through all my research. I work mostly on slavery in the eighteenth-century and colonialism in the twentieth century in the French speaking world. At each point I'm asking the same question, “how do we tell the stories of those people who were not part of the dominant narrative?”

On a personal level, my introduction to the United States was Williamstown, MA, which was where I went to college. Having grown up in Ghana, it was extremely different from where I came from! I felt really lost and perplexed by that space, and I took a course called Defining the African Diaspora with Prof. Stéphane Robolin. In that course, we read Notebook of a Return to the Native Land by Aimé Césaire. At the time, I was thinking a lot about being in this space that was so completely different from anything that I knew. Diving into this text and the questions that Césaire was opening up for me about Francophone literature, French language, expression, the Black diaspora are really what sparked my interest in my current research about those voices that fall out of dominant narratives. At that moment in my personal life, I was trying to figure out my own voice and felt like I was falling through the cracks of this weird space that I was in that connected to my intellectual life and trying to understand these other stories that were emerging for me.

Can you tell us about how your work is interdisciplinary?

I'm a literary scholar and that's primarily what I do. However, I was trained by several Black women who were literary scholars, historians, and sociologists. My training was very interdisciplinary, which I think is very much the case for those who pass through any kind of Black studies program–I got a certificate in African American and diaspora studies in graduate school. The questions I was asking were being answered in very different ways by scholars who were situated in different disciplines. For me, interdisciplinarity in my work appears as different modes of inquiry that are in relation. There are different tools that allow us to answer these complex questions in different but related ways. There's never going to be one single tool or discipline that’s going to allow us to arrive at one single answer. Working at the nexus of these disciplines allows me to approach my work in creative ways. I also try to undo the things that are stifling, limiting, and constraining about the more traditional tools from these disciplines at the same time.

Can you talk about your research methods and also describe what your day-to-day research practice looks like?

One of the things that I've been thinking about recently in terms of method is an expression that I'm hearing scholars use more often, which is “thinking with” or “thinking alongside.” There's a traditional mode of intellectual inquiry where you have to acknowledge what has come before you and show what is new and different about what you’re doing, which kind of goes against everything that's come before. However, scholars who are thinking with and thinking alongside are doing some of that, but it isn't the primary motivation of their work.

Sometimes you can just kind of walk alongside the people who have been thinking these questions and think with them. Being in conversation, as opposed to being in conflict or competition, can really yield something important. My methodology really involves reading, writing, and thinking about that writing as participating in a larger conversation. It helps now to be a little bit more established in the field where my interlocutors are people who I know and consider my friends, colleagues, and intellectual community.

Can you tell us about your upcoming talk? What is a takeaway you hope people will leave with?

This talk comes out of the research for my second book project about enslaved children. I'll be talking about one of the children that I studied who was an enslaved boy in Paris who ran away from his enslaver, was caught, and imprisoned. While sitting there in a horrible, dark prison dungeon in Paris, he decided to write a letter to Benjamin Franklin to negotiate his release. In that letter he basically tells Franklin about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It becomes this remarkable transatlantic conversation initiated by an enslaved child sitting in a prison cell about ideas often associated with the Founding Fathers of the United States. It’s discussed not just as a philosophical ideal, but literally a fight for his life.

What I want people to take away from this is that Black children matter. Children like the enslaved boy that I just referenced, do interesting things when they write. Being attentive to those things that they do, can give us new creative methods for accounting for Black lives that were never fully accounted for in the archives and that are sometimes still not fully accounted for in some of our research methodologies. We talk a lot about the limits and the limitations of colonial archives, and how we must write creatively against those archives. Studying Black children as thinkers as opposed to just little people that you observe can do a lot for sparking something in our own creative writing.

What classes are you teaching?

This semester I am teaching a class called Black (in) translation. I'm thinking both about what it means to translate the word “Black,” so literally the word or the idea of Blackness in translation, but also thinking about the work of Black translators. It is a class that I am coteaching with my undergraduate advisor, Professor Stephané Robolin, who introduced me to all of this–it’s really a full circle moment. I’ll teach the class from Duke and he’ll be teaching from Rutgers. We'll meet simultaneously on Zoom and think about these texts and the questions of translation.

The class is taught in three languages across two institutions. Here at Duke the class will be taught in three different languages. We all meet on Tuesdays and hold the class in English, and on Thursdays we break out into discussion seminars. One seminar will be taught in English, another seminar in French, and the third seminar in Spanish. At each point, students are reading the same text, but in different languages so that we practice the theoretical questions that we are engaging with about translation.

Associated Program(s)