Skip to Content

Search: {{$root.lsaSearchQuery.q}}, Page {{$}}

Why Compare?


Assistant Professors William Stroebel and Niloofar Sarlati talk about what Comparative Literature means to them.    



Will Stroebel: The first question they asked us to discuss was, What is comparative literature for you? But I thought it might be fun to start with the question, how did you get into the field?   

Niloofar Sarlati: Into comparative literature? I agree. Do you want to start with that? 

Will Stroebel: And I've never heard this story from you, so it would be interesting. So, how did you get into comparative literature?  

Niloofar Sarlati: I got into comparative literature before and without knowing the field existed. In retrospect, I can see how. I was moving toward the field, but at the time I had no idea. I did my undergrad in statistics back home in Tehran at a public university, but during the time the student movement was very strong and the political atmosphere was really charged. I studied  statistics because I love mathematics and I wasn't bad at it but then I got attracted and attached to things outside the classroom, but in the university, the margins of the classroom and the actual topics that I was studying. When I entered the university, it was during the reformist period in Iran and I think only a year into my undergrad, a university professor, a historian, spoke publicly against some interpretations of Islam, and he was sentenced to death. That sparked such a huge movement and a huge strike for several months at different universities. I think at my university, around 90% of students refused to take their final exams, which were eventually postponed from May to September. That year was such a turning point for me. The sentence for the historian was overturned, he was acquitted at the end. But through all that, I got really involved in journalism and activism and in reading and thinking more about political science, sociology, and literature. All these fields in my head at that time were connected because they spoke to what I was going through with that movement.

 Will Stroebel: If you had to distill the burning questions that drove you to these disciplines, what would they be?  

Niloofar Sarlati: The most tangible one at the time was the question of freedom of thought and freedom of speech, mainly because of the death sentence that was looming in the academic sphere. Then there were speeches by politicians, activists, university professors, and students about civil society and the ideals of civil society and freedom of speech. It was a bit later that I also came to think and learn about the criticisms of those concepts. By the end of my undergrad, I was pretty sure that I wanted to do something in the humanities. Still, I didn't know of the field of comparative literature. It didn't exist as a discipline in Iran at the time. I started attending some underground classes led by activists and translators mostly on critical theory. I used such classes to build my training in the humanities and eventually applied for Cultural Studies at Leeds, UK, a discipline I realized brought together many of the topics that I was interested in. I then applied for my PhD in Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at Minnesota. 

Will Stroebel: And  it seems like the University of Minnesota's program was a perfect bridge because it's so heavily stocked by faculty who are thinking about cultural studies and political science.

Niloofar Sarlati: Yes, yes, precisely. I mean, one reason was that the name of the department brought Cultural Studies together with Comparative Literature.  

Will Stroebel: Oh, that's fantastic. The stars aligned. And so comparative literature became something for you at Leeds. Did your understanding of it change as you transitioned to the dissertation?  

Niloofar Sarlati: I think I learned about the field a little bit, I heard about it through my advisor, who did comparative literature at Minnesota. But when I finished my masters at Leeds, it was 2009. And there was yet another uprising, a huge uprising in Iran. 

Will Stroebel: Yeah, I remember that one.

Niloofar Sarlati: So I went back to Iran for that and I spent two years there. I started teaching at yet another underground institute, dedicated to underprivileged women from Iran and Afghanistan. That experience opened up another space where, again many questions came together in a very charged space, this time focusing mostly on social, economic, cultural justice because of the kind of institution that it was. And I think that became an important background for me in the long term.

Will Stroebel: It also sounds like you have so many experiences leading up to the PhD of teaching and pedagogy that are really high stakes and where everyone in the classroom is invested in community learning.

Niloofar Sarlati: That was not an awareness that I had at the time when I started the PhD. When I started at Minnesota, I had to jump into teaching from the very first semester. it's in retrospect that I can learn the value of those experiences. That's the thing about transition and translation I think. You learn to value the experience when translating it into other unfamiliar spaces. I didn't have the confidence, the knowledge, the courage to even start thinking about all that at the time. And there was so much that I was unfamiliar with when I started teaching at Minnesota. I didn't even have the mental space to consciously think about all those things but I think, I believe, that they were always there in the background. 

Will Stroebel: And also the audiences, I mean that's something else that translation studies talks about is, you know, the audience and the different discourses, languages and expectations of different audiences, so I assume–to continue the translation studies metaphor–that the audience in your Minnesota classroom is expecting something different or coming with a very different set of goals than some of the audiences in your Tehran classrooms.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Yeah, exactly. It was definitely that but also me preparing myself differently for the two audiences. I was very conscious of the fact that English was not my native language, my first language, so going into the class that was my main focus, just to speak correctly, and in Iran, there was a completely different hierarchy because I was teaching English. People at least assumed that I knew the language that I was talking in. 

Will Stroebel: Do you feel like today, as we're talking, comparative literature means something different than it did to you when you started the PhD at Minnesota, and if so, how did that meaning change for you over time?

Niloofar Sarlati: It definitely is changing. The phrase comparative literature is definitely changing its meaning for me. And that's why I keep thinking about how comparison is always comparative; it's always comparative comparative literature because comparative literature is really different things at different points. But from when I started at Minnesota to when I graduated, something important that changed in my project. When I went to Minnesota I had a very contemporary focus and then I changed my research to the 19th century. So I definitely think there was a historical aspect that was added to how I dealt with comparative literature. But more things on how the field is changing will come as we talk.

Will Stroebel: Yeah. At some point we're going to start talking about the field as an object of concern. And I’m sure we’ll have lots to say.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Right, right.  

Will Stroebel: My path was kind of similar. I didn't really know that comparative literature existed. I think I started doing comparative literature before I knew how to call it and after I was ready to start a PhD program I finally felt like, Oh, this is what I'm doing. Finally I have a name for this thing. I did my first degree in classics, so Ancient Greek and Latin. And then I got fed up writing and reading dead languages and wanted to speak, you know, a living one. So I moved to Greece. I got a job teaching at Anatolia College, which is in Thessaloniki, which is the second largest city in Greece, it's up north in Macedonia. I spent a year teaching at this high school at Anatolia and living in a dorm with the students. And it was just a really immersive experience, living with the students, and they were from all over the place. Thessaloniki itself was a major Ottoman city, a port city with rail infrastructure that reaches up into the Balkans and over into Turkey. And so it's always been a very important communication and transportation hub, with a long history of language and cultural contact. It's a short drive from the border with Albania, with the Republic of Northern Macedonia, with Bulgaria, and also with Turkey. And so it's so close to all of these places, and it's got traces of all of the peoples and languages and cultures that a century ago, with the ethnic cleansing of the Ottoman Empire, were kind of shunted away into these other countries.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Right.  

Will Stroebel: And in that dormitory, I was experiencing a small revitalization of all of those mixings and minglings, because we had Bulgarian students, we had Albanian students, we had Turkish-speaking Greek citizens from Greek Thrace who identified as Turkish. We had Greeks from the diaspora, and we had Greeks from across the Greek countryside, you know, first generation students. And they all had to somehow find a way to communicate with each other and to live with each other side by side in this dormitory.  

Niloofar Sarlati: What were you teaching?  

Will Stroebel: I was actually just substituting whenever they needed me in the school, usually in English literature. My main goal, my main job, was to just be the dormitory advisor. To help students with homework and to help them get along with each other.  

Niloofar Sarlati: OK. And were you talking mostly in English?   

Will Stroebel: I was talking mostly in English because I myself was struggling to learn Greek. So I was wrestling with the challenge of making myself understood, but also understanding other people. And over the course of that year, I was taking intensive night classes for Greek so that by the end of that year, I was able to take exams for the university. And I got into the university for a Masters program at Aristotle university.  

Niloofar Sarlati: OK.  

Will Stroebel: And I stayed there for another three years doing a masters, which was kind of an immersive study of the history of European literature and culture. The strange thing was that it was centered on Europe, focusing on the rise of Western thought from antiquity to the present over a two-year series of courses. But it was happening in a city that had all these traces of non-western peoples and cultures and contacts, and so I was constantly waking up in the shadow of all of these different languages and cultures and, to be honest, peoples who have been pushed out of the city I was living in and pushed out of the the books we were reading and the histories we were studying. And so I started thinking more and more about the kind of incongruity of the way that the discipline was teaching us about the cultural history and literary history and the spaces in which I was learning these things. It made me think more and more alongside the kind of history of the city, of the kind of cohabitation of all these peoples in the city. It made me think more about the regimes of displacement and mobility and migration. And so when I finished my masters, I really wanted to start learning other languages. I moved to Athens – this was in 2007, I think – and then I started teaching English as a tutor to people. Some of them were Greek citizens, some of them were documented or undocumented immigrants. And then I also started learning Turkish at another adult learning school.  

Niloofar Sarlati: In Athens?   

Will Stroebel: In Athens, yeah. Which is, you know, an interesting place to learn Turkish.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Right. (Laughs)  

Will Stroebel :That lasted a couple of years, and then I finally felt ready to apply for a PhD program. I applied and came here to Michigan with my wife. And I think at that point I really started to understand the discipline, because at the start I was so focused on the regional politics of the Eastern Mediterranean, of the interstices between Europe and West Asia and the post-Ottoman landscape. And I wasn't really thinking about larger questions of what is comparative literature because I was so focused on what it means to exist in this particular geopolitical space. I was invested in regionalism and area studies and thinking about particularities, that kind of granular politics of language and translation and migration in this borderland between Europe and Asia. And then when I got to Michigan, that's when they kind of threw me in the pool and said start swimming and so I started to immerse myself more deeply and think about “What is comparative literature? What was comparative literature? Where has it come from? Where is it going?” And those kinds of things.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Right. Right. I think that's a topic that we should return to, maybe the relationship between area studies and comparative literature. It’s something that I feel both of us have been dealing with in one way or another in thinking about one specific region, language, context, and coming into a broader comparative or, [the] globally defined comparative field. But I was wondering if I may ask you two other questions. Why did you do classics for your undergrad? I'm just curious to hear more about what drove you to that field as a 17, 18 year old high school student? And also what was the process of deciding to come back to the US for your PhD as a family?

Will Stroebel: Yeah, those are good questions. The first question I think I can answer pretty easily. I went to a public high school where those kinds of languages were not offered, so I had no experience coming into college. But I do remember my mom grew up Catholic and she had studied Latin in high school and always talked about what a lovely experience it was for her. And so I thought, OK, I'll give it a try. I just sat in on Latin my first year. And I really liked it. Like you, I think I sometimes have a kind of mathematical mind that likes to puzzle things out and Latin at that point in my life was a language that was full of puzzles and little schemata and a lot of labyrinths to explore, and so I did that. I also majored in English because I really enjoyed literature. But more and more, the classics became my play space. And you know, play is so important at that age, at that stage of your life.  

Niloofar Sarlati: I would say it's important at every stage. (Laughs)  

Will Stroebel: Yeah, that's true. And, you know, if we're being honest, part of the reason why we're here doing the work we're doing is because it brings joy to us.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Precisely, yes.  

Will Stroebel: And I think at that point, just fiddling around with and exploring the cultural and literary archives of the ancient Mediterranean were just a lot of fun for me. So that's why I did that. But at some point it was so fun that I wanted to actually have people to talk with in those languages about those things.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Right, right.  

Will Stroebel: And there was just no opportunity for that. So I went to the source and then of course, because of the city that I wound up in, I took a detour towards post-antiquity, and the Ottoman era, and post-Ottoman borderscapes with their intermingling of languages.  

Niloofar Sarlati: That's very interesting. So you think you would have probably had a different experience if you went to Athens.  

Will Stroebel: I think I would have. I think Thessaloniki is a city that has done a better job of maintaining traces of, if not contact with, the cultures and the languages of its neighbors. Obviously Athens is a huge multicultural city. It has a huge, diverse population of migrant cultures and first-generation Greeks, but I think, in terms of infrastructure and physical history, Athens has done a pretty good job of decimating and whitewashing the traces of its Ottoman past. Whereas Thessaloniki has a lot more architectural and physical traces of the Ottoman past and of the Balkans.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Right.  

Will Stroebel: About your second question, why did I choose to come to the United States for the PhD? I think again it goes back to infrastructure. There was just no institutional space for me to do the work that I wanted to do in Greece or in Turkey at the time. I think there are people now who are doing that kind of important work in the region now, but at the time I was not really aware of any structures or institutions that would allow me to comparative literary work the way I wanted. Greece has really good Ottoman history programs in the university. But in terms of comparative literary histories of, you know, 20th century Greece and Turkey, there's not a lot. There was not a lot there. And then I looked to the United States and, here as well, there are not a lot of institutions with people who specialize in Greek and with people who specialize in Turkish. So I had to be very careful about where I wanted to wind up. For me it was not so much a question of methods or cultural studies. It was a question of language and area studies.  

Niloofar Sarlati: I see. 

Will Stroebel: And here at Michigan, Kadar Konuk was here at the time, her book East West Mimesis had just come out on Erich Auerbach and Turkey, and of course, the modern Greek program is excellent. So this was a really good place for me to land.  

Niloofar Sarlati: OK. What a journey for you too.  

Will Stroebel: I started the very first day of the PhD thinking about borders and the kind of partition that created the edges of Europe and the edges of the so-called Middle East. And the ways that this border-think has seeped into educational structures including area studies. For example, here in North America, Greek is always going to be in European studies, it's always going to be housed in classical studies, Turkish is always going to be in Middle East studies, and there's this kind of fissure, this partition that has cleaved these languages and cultures and histories in much the same way that the people themselves were politically cleaved and displaced a century ago. From day one of my PhD I just wanted to think about that alongside the tools of comparative literature. And 13 years later, now that I'm finally pushing my book over the finish line, I’m still exploring those same questions of borders, border-making, border-think and partition and how we might heal some of those wounds and get communities talking to each other again across partition. So, you know, for me an important aspect of Comparative Literature is the public-facing, public humanities idea of outreach and dialogue. Because partition and borders depend on getting people to stop talking to each other, getting people to unsee the physical and linguistic and literary traces of their cohabitation. And so, to get people to start seeing those things that they've been trained to unsee, I've tried to use the tools of comparative literature alongside public humanities to say to readers in the region, “Look, you've you've spent all of your public education years reading this national literary canon. And those are great stories, but wouldn’t they be even greater if we added these other stories of these people who used to live next door to you? And comparative literature seemed like a good way to do that.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Right, right. That's very interesting. I was thinking as you were talking that for me, comparative literature started in those underground classes and community learning and reading. Again, in retrospect. At that point I had no idea, but now that I think about it, I was already doing comparative literature, right? Thinking about translation, thinking about all these fields coming together, and thinking about all these problems that are really driving different texts together, all these people and languages at an intersection to think about a certain moment, a certain context. But unlike you, (I think that's probably one another question that we can return to, the challenges facing the field) I feel unfortunately I have given up on that dream of making comparative literature speak to public humanities. Not because these problems are not public or that these problems are not tangible, actually, to the people that concern them. But because of the academic structure, the academic ladder of tenure track and tenure. Also the kinds of books that we publish are not public or can't be public, I think. They kind of prohibit one another, and by one another, I mean the academic book publishing– the kind of structure that it has doesn't allow it to speak to the public.

Will Stroebel: Do you mean because of the kind of conversations and dialogues that you're forced to engage in with other colleagues that are kind of closed to non-specialist publics? Or do you mean the way that research is often paywalled to public audiences?  

Niloofar Sarlati: I mean, yeah, that too. I don't feel forced to speak to others in the field. I enjoy that. But at the same time I feel [that] I don’t think that kind of conversation can actually move to the other part of the border, to use the border regimes metaphorically. That's one of the things that I keep thinking about as soon as I think about comparative literature as an academic field versus comparative literature in the way that you and I both have experienced it without or before having a name for it. So I still think that teaching at a high school, teaching at an underground class, teaching in communities, yes, can work, but at the same time I feel that the work that we do in academia, focusing more than anything on our research for the book, that, I think, will have a very hard time translating to the other aspects that was the motivation behind the journeys that we took. 

Will Stroebel: I do think though, that there's hope.  

Niloofar Sarlati: I'm so glad to hear that (laughs).  

Will Stroebel: I think there are a few ways we can think hopefully. One way is to think, “Well, OK, this is kind of like the tenure book. This is the stepping stone, and once I get tenure I can conceive of the second book in a different way and address different audiences and radically more accessible language.”   

Niloofar Sarlati: Right.  

Will Stroebel: But you can also kind of sneak some of that into the first book, can’t you? And even more importantly, we can think of the book as just a part of a larger–what's the word?–media campaign. It's one part of a larger story you want to tell and this part may be telling it to a narrow audience of colleagues, but you can also go on a book tour, you can publish excerpts in the popular press, you can do a podcast, and you can organize translation workshops with public audiences. The book is just a part of a media campaign or outreach program, and each component is addressing different audiences. You know, you could teach part of the book in a different way at a community outreach program, at the MICHHERS Summer instructional program, in a prison teaching program, and I think the book is just kind of like a multimedia stepping stone towards different ways of telling the story to different people. Does that make sense?  

Niloofar Sarlati: I agree. Yes, yes it does. And I agree with you that there is some hope in that. I don't feel that I'm stuck with this project that is turning into a book, not at all. I'm enjoying that part too. I just feel that there was a point that I unconsciously had to make a decision between the kind of public learning and teaching and engagement that I experienced, that drove me to comparative literature, and a more structured academic path that will lead to the book. And I agree with you, there are moments of joy in both of those paths.  

Will Stroebel: Oh yeah, for sure. The academic puzzling, right, the joy of playing this academic game is part of why we have these esoteric conversations with our colleagues.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Right. Yeah, yeah.  

Will Stroebel: Because we’re playing this game whose rules we know inside and out and we're having fun with it.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Exactly, the game. Precisely. Then there are moments, perhaps still part of the game, to which you want to introduce different audiences. But those are momentarily engagements, I think. Like even if you incorporate them into your academic year, they still make a small portion of that, which is different from what I thought of comparative literature, at least when I thought of doing this discipline when I started it. I remember when I applied for my US visa– in Dubai, since there’s no US embassy in Iran–the officer asked me, “So you want to go do the PhD? What do you want to do after?” And I knew that all I had to do was to convince him that I will return to Iran, that I won't stay in the US. That was part of the visa process and I said I want to return, and at that time I really did want to return. I wanted to return because that was how I got to that stage, so I [wanted] to return and I [wanted] to start teaching, working, translating. And he said. “No, you won't return.” And at that point, there was this very strange feeling of well, of anxiety, because I thought if he's convinced that I'm not returning, he won't give me a visa to go. But also, it was offensive that he thought that there is no way for me to return after I do the PhD. And that conversation, you know, comes into my head every once in a while, that he was right. And that is part of that deciding moment, I think for me, of going in this more structured academic direction versus giving this up and returning–whatever that return means, returning geographically or mentally–to that other space which engages the public as its core. But I agree with you absolutely that there are ways to at least bring some of it and to bring the two parting ways momentarily closer.

Will Stroebel: I think what you're pointing to is also [how] publics are different, right?  

Niloofar Sarlati: Right, that's true.  

Will Stroebel: For someone whose public–or publics–straddle an international, interstate relationship with geopolitical tensions, how you address these audiences has diplomatic and international, political implications.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Yeah. So true, returning again to how comparative comparative literature can be, in a way, how comparative the public or community-based work will be.  

Will Stroebel: This might be a good point to talk about some of the trends in the discipline.   

Niloofar Sarlati: Right.  

Will Stroebel: In the 1990s, Comparatists were talking about how we need to move away from Eurocentrism, to open up languages, but another important trend I think, is provincializing the national language—so, not just moving towards other national traditions beyond the West, but also looking at the concept of a national tradition itself and unpacking it and showing how it's built on a multiplicity of languages and oftentimes on the forced forgetting of those languages.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Absolutely. I think that's a newer trend, right? That's the next step after [the fact that] some of the European languages have been losing the hegemonic force in comparative literature now. “Minor languages” within “minor nation states” are also taken into account, which I think is such an important move that the discipline is making. I'm also thinking more and more about the question that has been raised by people in the discipline that, OK, it's great that the languages in comparative literature are getting less Eurocentric and we are exposed to more literature through world literature as a field. But what about the thought and theories that are not necessarily European? And I think that's such a challenge because, for so many years, the discipline of comparative literature has been thinking through European theories. Which I think is the next step and challenge ahead of us, but a positive one again. Hopefully a playful one.

Will Stroebel: Yeah. What are some of the potential pathways forward that you see? Because on the one hand, I think that it's critical to decenter Continental philosophy and critical theory, but on the other hand I think we also need to question the idea that there is any single theoretical model that can address the regional and the kind of granular, ground-level phenomena that a lot of us deal with.  

Niloofar Sarlati: I agree. I feel like one thing that is happening hopefully is to feel that whenever you're thinking or writing about anything theoretical, you need recourse to continental philosophy. I always enjoy working with continental philosophy. I enjoy reading critical theory. I use it, but I just don't want it to be the exclusive tool. 

Will Stroebel: So historicize theory in its time and place?  

Niloofar Sarlati: Historicizing it, yes, but I don't think if you historicize it that means that you won't be able to use any of those concepts in a different context. But [you] historicize it and then you historicize other modes of thinking and theorizing, then, hopefully you can make a more balanced conversation. To use these theoretical concepts and tools not only from one direction to the other, that's what I'm thinking. 

Will Stroebel: OK.  

Niloofar Sarlati: I don't think one can necessarily undo, or you should necessarily undo the theoretical thinking that feels empowering for one’s thinking. But I do think that it will be always limited if our theoretical tool box is only European. I don't know how in your work you think about conceptualizing and theorizing?

Will Stroebel: I think my dissertation was very, very heavy. I had a lot of Actor Network Theory, Assemblage Theory. But then I stepped away from that when I wanted to write the book. And I think one important component of that was trying to address a general audience. I wanted the book to be accessible to people in Greece and in Turkey who cared more about the object of study than the particular theoretical apparatus.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Right.  

Will Stroebel: So I stepped back a bit, quite a bit from that. That was one reason, but I think another reason was exactly the question of the appropriateness of using North American and Western theories that have been tested, tried and trained on North American and Western objects of study. How appropriate was [it] to package my work, which is on a different cultural geography, which is on a different historical object of study and which is intensely interested in rethinking Greece not as kind of the cradle of Western civilization, but as an important piece of this eastward-facing cultural geography? How appropriate was it to use this kind of North American, Western theoretical apparatus to talk about that project? And so I stepped back from that significantly. And in that, the history of the book, I think, was more useful because the history of the book is a method, it's not a theory. It's a toolbox on how to actually physically engage with objects of study. As a method, it had its own kind of Eurocentric beginnings, but over the early 2000s people were pushing beyond that and kind of developing a set of tools and analytical approaches to books as objects that were more attuned to the ways that a broader plurality of textual communities outside of the European continent–and also marginalized communities within Europe and North America–that are more tuned to the ways that these kinds of communities are building physical books, taking them apart, transmitting them through oral histories and various circuits of multimediation and transmediation. And so book history for me was, I think, a much more robust way to address this problem of theory precisely because it allowed me to ask questions and to see things on the ground level, at a kind of granular scale. Because when you think about it etymologically, what does theory mean? It means “seeing,” and if theory is not there to help us see the thing that's right in front of us, why are we using it?  

Niloofar Sarlati: Exactly. That's actually a very helpful way to think about it because, in fact, if critical theory, let's say, continental philosophy, gives you the theory, it’s also giving you a very particular way of seeing that becomes very hard to undo, to be able to unsee, to be able to see in a different way, to theorize in a different way, right. That I think is at stake, not necessarily banning or abolishing critical theory, not that we can. [What needs to be done] is just giving different ways of seeing and theorizing.

Will Stroebel: Yeah, for different spaces, right?  

Niloofar Sarlati: For different spaces and through different languages.  

Will Stroebel: You go outside and you put on sunglasses. You read a book, you put on your reading glasses. You need to be able to see differently for different objects and spaces.  

Niloofar Sarlati:So we’re also thinking about where postcolonial studies is going?  

Will Stroebel: Yeah. Where is postcolonial studies going today?  

Niloofar Sarlati: Well… I don't know if I can speak for the field. I know that I have been in conversation with several other scholars thinking about, again, particularities in postcolonial studies that have been the margins of the margin in a way. In my own work I've been thinking a lot about, for example, semi coloniality in the case of Afghanistan, Iran, China and the comparisons that can be made and studied between those places with the Indian case, for example, and I know there are other people who are also thinking about the India, China, comparative zone of colonial history, but also colonial and postcolonial theory. 

Will Stroebel: Does the word neo-colony or neo-colonialism have any currency in postcolonial studies?  

Niloofar Sarlati: What do you think? I mean, I think It always does, right? To me, the term may be used or not, but I think it's very present as a contemporary kind of point of departure about thinking about the colonial and postcolonial time. But I'm not sure if the term itself is used as frequently as the problem is always present.  

Will Stroebel: I don't know because on the one hand, there's the question of broadening a term to such an extent that it loses its use value–  

Niloofar Sarlati: By the "term", you mean neo-colonial?  

Will Stroebel: No, colonialism, like if everything is colonial, then what's the use of the term? Historians ask, you know, is British-mandate Egypt a colonial relationship? Are postcolonial relationships between former colonies and European corporate conglomerates colonial? And so I think the term neocolonial is useful in as much as it helps us think about the ways that capital and material extraction, which is at the heart of the colonial endeavor, the ways that those practices still continue today under corporate transnational relationships.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Right.  

Will Stroebel: That is, I think, one way that neo-colony can help us keep our eye on the ball in the 21st century.  

Niloofar Sarlati: And then with those postcolonial and neocolonial there is that temporal aspect that I think it's important to be theorized, maybe. Are we thinking of a starting point? Has there been a break or has it been a continuous or progressive colonial machine that evolves? So what do we refer to when we are thinking about neo- and post-? Like on the timeline, do we witness a break? 

Will Stroebel: I think, you know, one important distinction is state sovereignty, right? So there's state sovereignty to consider.  

Niloofar Sarlati: But also then, another term that is also important is empire, right? So both empire as Negri talks about it, but also the way in which Latin America has been read as a site of informal empire since the 19th-century. How is that different from neocolonialism? 

Will Stroebel: Yeah, and then you have debt colonies, right? You have states that are essentially controlled through economic tutelage.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Right. So I think all these particularities then become and hopefully are becoming important trends in postcolonial thinking. 

Will Stroebel: Mhm. It's just an important field to me but one that I've been following from the outside. It's at an important juncture in its lifetime, it seems.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Yeah. How do you see the colonial relationship in your work in thinking about the Ottoman Empire? 

Will Stroebel: So that's an interesting question, I think my work is not as political as my private life. My work is primarily philological, and so my book project is thinking about “colonial” through a discursive lens more than real or material. But if you think beyond my work and look at the political sphere, both Greece and the Ottoman Empire were debt colonies of Europe. Greece went bankrupt at the end of the 19th century and throughout its history, Greece has essentially been subject to external controls because of its financial debt. The Ottoman Empire likewise was more and more growing into a debt colony at the end of its life.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Yes. 

Will Stroebel: And the Sublime Porte had to hand over control of the economic regulations of the country, the foreign capital firms had diplomatic immunity, so you know, if someone working for a British company ran over an Ottoman subject on the street, he didn't have to go to court. So there are all these ways that debt and finance actually impinges on the sovereignty of the Ottoman empire, just as the debt and financial pressures infiltrate Greek state planning and state policy. And so I would call both of them debt colonies. But in my book project I'm thinking more about the philological colonization of what Stathis Gourgouris calls the “colonization of the idea” [of Greek]. The way that Greek was kind of taken out of its indigenous context, it was expropriated from the indigenous people and taken to Europe and kind of re-dressed up as this kind of civilizational cradle.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Right.  

Will Stroebel: And meanwhile, these people who identified as Greeks and spoke Greek were labeled as dirty barbarians. It started off linguistically. You had, you know, these philologists in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries who were writing about Greeks saying, “Look at these people, they don't speak Greek, they don't even understand Greek.” So it was primarily linguistically-based colonization of Greekness saying, “We Europeans should be the protectors of Greekness because we know ancient Greek. These people have no idea about their own heritage or their language.” But in the 19th century, as was the case with so much, this idea took on a kind of racialized core, especially with the German philologist named Jacob Fallmerayer whose evidence was again primarily linguistic. He wrote that Greeks no longer exist. There is not a drop of Greek blood in the veins of anyone living in Greece because of the migrations of non-Greek peoples in the Middle Ages and he based all of his argumentation about the racialization of Greekness on linguistic and philological evidence. And so philology was becoming this racialized way to colonize Greekness, which then became a justification for the imposition of a German king onto Greece. Greece gained its independence in 1830, and I think in 1835 it was forced to accept a German king, a Bavarian king. And the same philologist, Fallmerayer, wrote that the only way to make these people Greek again is if they accept the rule of law that we, the Europeans, are bringing to them. So there's this idea that they have been bastardized through migration and through so-called miscegenation. And that they could become Greek again if they submitted themselves to the tutelage of European thought. And so in that sense, I think there's definitely a kind of cultural colonization of the region more broadly that’s very problematic and my book takes it as a starting point. Because then Greeks also internalized this, people who identify as Greeks in the 19th and 20th century intellectuals especially, they internalized this idea and they say that to be Greek, we need to be Western. We need to push our language as close as we can towards 5th century BC Attic Greek. We need to listen to these philologists who are telling us how to be Greeks and behave as best we can. And so that kind of intellectual project becomes a core component of the Greek state. Which is then exported to the provinces and becomes an important component of building this border against the so-called barbarism of the East.  

Niloofar Sarlati: I mean, that's so fascinating in terms of the work of Orientalism at play everywhere. It's not only the Orient that is shaping the West as the West, right? And in this case Greece as that border.   

Will Stroebel: The so-called internal colony.   

Niloofar Sarlati: Exactly. So to your point, everything then in that sense could be called a process of colonization, but probably that’s where we should be careful  how we use the term. 

Will Stroebel: Yeah, I think for my particular projects, what's important is the construction of border regimes and border thinking that views migration as a problem to be micromanaged and solved. And that problem is an invention of late medieval and early modern philology.   

Niloofar Sarlati: And it's so important today… Maybe to end on a lighter note, should we pick one of the final questions?   

Will Stroebel: Yeah, what are your plans for next year?  

Niloofar Sarlati: My plans for next year– I'm excited about teaching two new courses in the fall.   

Will Stroebel: Oh, tell me about it.  

Niloofar Sarlati: One is on debt that we talked about so much. It's a mini course and I'm very excited about it. I've been thinking about debt, its relationship to gift and gift giving and commodity exchange. So it's a good opportunity for me to focus on it and teach it. And hopefully it's such a relatable topic because of the financial system that we're living in right now and the burden of the student debt. So that's one course. The other course is on representations and use of the figure of the child in literature and cinema during turbulent times like revolutions, migration and war. 

Will Stroebel: Or maybe, what are the uses?  

Niloofar Sarlati: That's what the course is going to explore. I think it's not one thing, it can be really multiple uses of putting the child on the screen– So it can be, I think, looked at from several different perspectives. What does it do to the agency of the Child first and how, or if, the figure of the child submits to the narrative, to the picture, that we want to give of those turbulent situations. Or does/can the child bring a sort of rebellion to the narrative itself, to the frame of the screen or the page in literature? Those are the questions that we are going to think about. 

Will Stroebel: I look forward to hearing some answers.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Yeah, me too. (Laughs)   

Will Stroebel: Maybe over coffee next time?   

Niloofar Sarlati: Yeah, yeah. What about you?  

Will Stroebel: I'll be teaching two new courses as well in the Fall. One of them is on travels to Greece. So thinking about the genre of travel literature, travel writing but also films, and you know, Hollywood films about people going to Greece, things like that.   

Niloofar Sarlati: That sounds really fun.  

Will Stroebel: It's a course that's been on the books and has traditionally focused on Western travel narratives, but my syllabus will be interested in thinking in a kind of broader sense, so I'll be introducing Ottoman and Arabic travel narratives.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Is it mostly focused on early [narratives]?  

Will Stroebel: In the past it's been taught primarily focusing on the grand tour of Western elites, but also kind of the diaspora of Greek Americans going back to Greece or going to Greece for the first time. And also, you know, Hollywood films. And I'll have some of each of those things as well.  

Niloofar Sarlati: OK.  

Will Stroebel: But I'm also interested in the ways that West Asians and North Africans travel to Greece, either historically during the Ottoman Empire or you know in the 20th century with the refugee crisis of the Greco-Turkish population exchange or contemporary migration and asylum-seeking in Greece, so all of those different travel lenses. And the other course is called East-West Istanbul. And it's thinking about the modernization project of Istanbul and more generally, Turkey through the past dozen decades or so, the end of the Ottoman Empire until now and thinking about not just Sunni Turkish Muslims’ perspectives, but also Armenians, Greeks, Kurds, LGBTQ community representatives and artists and film makers and writers.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Right. I bet the recent election is going to play some role in the course. I mean, with, with all the things that–  

Will Stroebel: I think with the way the election turned out, I don't have to change my syllabus at all. Because nothing changed. I think the last 20 years of the AKP regime has been ultra Western in the ways that they've opened up the country to capital investments, like the entire AKP success was based on a construction boom that was funded by dollar loans, which is coming back to bite them now because the Turkish lira is getting out of control and they still have to pay all those loans in U.S. dollars.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Right. As is becoming a trend, right?   

Will Stroebel: Yeah.  

Niloofar Sarlati: The debts that come to bite you.  

Will Stroebel: Yeah.  

Niloofar Sarlati: I mean, you have chosen perfectly unfortunate cases, Greek and Turkey.  

Will Stroebel: In the Greek case, it was the Volcker era in the early 1980s when the Reagan regime was trying to fight off inflation. And Volcker increased interest rates to such a huge, unimaginable degree, and because the world economy is based on the dollar, that was also the moment when Greece was taking out loans to kind of modernize its own economy, and it took them out at these huge interest rates. And then that's essentially what the Greek crisis was. It happened 30 years later, but it's really a crisis of the 1980s.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Right, right.   

Will Stroebel: So again, yes, the dollar and the world economy and the common people having to pay the bill rather than the banks.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Yeah, I feel our courses can overlap at some point.  

Will Stroebel: Yeah. I know your book project is also about economy and debt. I'd love to hear more about it.  

Niloofar Sarlati: It mainly has to do with the margins of economy, like gift giving and its blurred border with bribery; how economic modernization is dividing the two, bribing from gift giving, in the colonial contexts. 

Will Stroebel: The management of the household.   

Niloofar Sarlati: Exactly, which becomes the management of the countries and the empires, right, and colonial projects, because managing what is what counts as bribery and what doesn't, at the end it becomes to be such a central issue in East India Company, for example. So it's very central but it seems that it's on the outskirts of what is economic. 

Will Stroebel: And also, you know, what is bribery and why? Why the obsession with what we, I guess we could dispute this term, but what is called petty bribery, versus the kind of industrial bribery that's going on in the West constantly.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Exactly. And that all has to do with legal discourse, right? That be it colonial legal discourse, or otherwise you need a legal discourse to name something as bribery or not.

Will Stroebel: The rules of the game, that everyone just kind of without refusing, just submits to playing by these rules.  

Niloofar Sarlati: Yeah, exactly.  

[conversation wraps up]