Interview with Dr. Sandra Gunning on new book “Moving Home: Gender, Travel, and Self-Invention in Nineteenth-Century African Diasporic Literature”
Dr. Gunning has been teaching at the University of Michigan since 1991, in The Department of English, the Program in American Culture, and the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies. Her upcoming courses this year include AAS 202 - Introduction to African Diasporic Studies and AMCULT 300 - Practices of American Culture.
1. What inspired the idea for this book?
The germ of “Moving Home” emerged from my experiences as a Jamaican immigrant to the United States and from stories of my family’s multi-generational migrations, forced or otherwise. On my father's side, there was the Middle Passage, Caribbean slavery, and all the losses that cannot be recovered. And then into the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, journeys (both achieved and aborted) by Dad’s family members, whether it was to Harlem in the 1920s; to the colonial “mother country” in World War II with dreams of joining the RAF; to Australia in search of love; or, to French-speaking Canada to create an Anglophone Jamaican home away from home. In the first decade of the twentieth century, my Arabic-speaking maternal grandparents moved from the part of the Ottoman Empire that’s now Lebanon, to Haiti and then to Port Antonio on the northeast coast of Jamaica. When they learned to speak “English,” it was the slave-descended Jamaican patois that they had picked up as immigrants. And the travel stories of maternal aunts, uncles, and cousins were just as varied as those on my father’s side. Regardless of their color or ancestry, wherever my wandering kinfolk landed, racial and ethnic identities were constantly in flux.
2. What is the book about?
“Moving Home” explores travel writing produced by a loose network of free-born and formerly enslaved Black and African travelers in the mid-nineteenth-century Atlantic world, at a moment when, despite abolitionist sentiment, slavery was still an entrenched institution. Taken together, their published works narrate varied strategies of self-invention that allowed them to survive in politically and culturally diverse landscapes. Some strategies included alliances and beliefs that we might not approve of today, but the goal of my study is not to discover and lionize lost Black heroes, as much as it’s about exploring the choices people made as the ground shifted beneath their feet. Ultimately, I argue for:
- A recognition of early Atlantic Africans as coeval with people of African descent in this period.
- More attention to the conditions faced by African and Black women versus men, made evident through their narratives and letters, and in different conditions of travel shaped by race and gender.
- A recognition that African diasporic identity is a complicated and historically contingent set of practices that can’t be reduced to assumptions of automatic racial alliance between peoples of African descent. Yes, there are commonalities in terms of history and condition, but we must also acknowledge and account for profound differences and even conflicts, based on regional, political, and cultural differences.
3. What is your writing process like?
If you’re a woman in 2022, family still requires enormous investments of time that men just don’t have to deal with. As a single mom I’ve gotten better over the years at working productively in thirty- or forty-minute chunks. Effective time management is essential, as is a real sense of excitement about your topic. When things go well, writing feels like a gift. When things don’t go well, I’ve learned to take a break and trust my unconscious mind. If I feel blocked, I read something completely unrelated to what I’m working on. Eventually, I gain enough perspective to go back to the project. It’s all a juggling act, and it can get very messy, but it works for me.
4. What does the title mean?
“Moving Home” is absolutely a reference to the story of my Caribbean family, but also of so many people across the globe today. Every move demands a fresh negotiation of unfamiliar people, landscapes, laws, and cultures. Sure, there’s success, but also new indignities. The book’s subtitle satisfies the academic need for classification, but the main title describes levels of displacement that “settled” people in the West often ignore.
5. Why are you interested in the nineteenth century?
As a younger scholar, I used to worry that people working on the cultural here-and-now assumed that all I did was dig up the past to proclaim: “Look, this Black person was the first one to do X in 1802!” But working on the eighteenth or nineteenth century isn’t at all about recovering the past, because there is no single past, no single history. People in earlier periods faced challenges that would be very familiar to us today, but they also dealt with things that we simply cannot comprehend in the twenty-first century. It’s impossible to recover states of feeling generated by enslavement or the moment of emancipation, but there is so much to be gained through the work of imagining human struggle in those moments. Some folks mistakenly believe that a single book or theory can settle the past once and for all. However, if you just shift your focus by a few degrees, suddenly unanticipated issues and questions emerge. Whether we like it or not, our current lives are shadowed by all that has gone before, so disengagement is not an option.
6. What advice do you have for writers?
First, realize that you’re never competing with the star researcher in the next office or the student at the next desk. Rather, you’re competing with all the fears you’ve conjured up that tell you writing is a lost cause. You must confront your fears, or you’ll never get past them. Remember why your topic excites you, and no matter how bad the early drafts sound, keep churning them out. Finally, seek out early feedback. Responses from trusted mentors give you a good sense of how your work will be received in the wider world.