UChicago claims one of the oldest comp lit programs in the United States. When the discipline began, it was grounded in European theory and mainly applied to European texts.

As comp lit moves toward a more global perspective, UChicago’s junior faculty members are leading the way in “thinking beyond the obvious connections,” says department chair Mark Payne.

As an undergraduate at Rutgers, Hoda El Shakry became interested in how Qur’anic pedagogy like the lessons she had growing up in Cairo—rooted in rote recitation and memorization—can shape literary sensibilities and reading practices across modern fiction from the region. Her book The Literary Qur’an: Narrative Ethics in the Maghreb (Fordham University Press, 2019) examined the literary influence of the Qur’an and Islamic philosophy on twentieth-century Arabic and Francophone novels from the northwest African countries known as the Maghreb (Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco). In 2020, The Literary Qur’an received the Modern Language Association’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for Comparative Literature Studies, a remarkable honor for an early-career scholar.

She’s now at work on a book, tentatively titled “Printed Matter(s),” that builds on The Literary Qur’an to look at twentieth-century journals from the Maghreb written in Arabic and French, as well as bilingual cultural journals. Other projects on the horizon include a study of speculative fiction and science fiction from the Middle East and North Africa. Now especially, says El Shakry, who came to UChicago in 2019, “speculative fiction can be a generative tool for learning to imagine other futures and ways of being in the world.”

Her early work in Russian literature and Soviet studies, combined with an interest in Central Asia and the Caucasus sparked by an Azeri language class, eventually drew Leah Feldman to consider the impact of the formation and collapse of the Soviet empire on right-wing nationalisms.

Her first book, On the Threshold of Eurasia: Revolutionary Poetics in the Caucasus (Cornell University Press, 2018), examines Russian and Azeri poetics and prose to rethink the intellectual history of anticolonial thought in the revolutionary 1920s as well as the role of Muslim communism in shaping the Soviet empire.

Feldman, who came to UChicago in 2015, is working on a book examining the collapse of the Soviet empire from the vantage point of performance art and video art. That project dovetails with two others: a study of the rise of the global right, and a collaboration through UChicago’s Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry with the Berlin-based artists’ collective Slavs and Tatars. The collaboration will result in a cotaught class and children’s book, both considering radical reading strategies to challenge an imperialist, heteronormative Soviet legacy.

After finishing her book Christ’s Subversive Body: Practices of Religious Rhetoric in Culture and Politics (Northwestern University Press, 2017), which examined politically or culturally subversive uses of the body of Christ from the fourth century to contemporary times, Olga Solovieva dedicated her scholarship to East/West comparison, seeking to overcome “the bad binary of the East and West which has haunted our scholarship until recently.”

Her coedited volume Japan’s Russia: Challenging the East-West Paradigm (Cambria Press, 2021) grew out of a conference by the same name she organized at UChicago in 2018. The book advances the field of Russo-Japanese studies in the English-speaking world.

She has also completed a manuscript, “The Russian Kurosawa: Transnational Cinema or the Art of Speaking Differently,” which shows how the Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa addresses sensitive topics in postwar Japan via nineteenth-century Russian sources.

A counterpart to the Kurosawa book, her current book project, “Thomas Mann’s Russia,” studies Mann’s political writings and development from an antidemocratic to prodemocratic stance through his engagement with nineteenth-century Russian literature.

The work of Anna Elena Torres, who arrived at UChicago in 2018, is almost by definition outside borders, focusing on anarchism, refugee literature, translation studies, and labor movements.

She is currently completing a book: Horizons Blossom, Borders Vanish: Anarchism and Yiddish Literature (Yale University Press). Focusing on Ashkenazi anarchist movements in Europe, North America, and the Middle East from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, the book examines questions of mobility and deportation that include “not just the moment of travel but also stillness and detention.” Its archives range from Soviet modernist poetry to handwritten multilingual newspapers produced in the Ellis Island prison.

Freedom’s Fullness: Histories of Jewish Anarchism (University of Illinois Press, forthcoming), her coedited book with labor historian Kenyon Zimmer, includes an anthology of English translations of historical sources. She is also coediting a special issue of the Yiddish studies journal In geveb on the poet, philosopher, and art critic Debora Vogel.

Torres also writes about the colonial educations of children from Puerto Rico and other US colonies at the residential Carlisle Indian Industrial School in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Drawing on his undergraduate study of Romance literatures and his master’s education in theology at Harvard, Kris Trujillo has always been struck by how modern theorists of gender and sexuality deploy the language and tropes of Christian mystics like Hadewijch and John of the Cross. The “astonishing frequency” of this phenomenon ultimately led him to focus on the Christian mystical tradition, modern citations of the medieval, Latinx literature, and queer theory.

Trujillo, who joined the department in 2019, has three projects in progress. One is a study of theory in the Middle Ages. The second focuses on queer citations of medieval and early modern Christianity during the AIDS pandemic. A third, smaller project offers a genealogy of ecstasy from early Christianity to queer theory.

“What I’m really interested in is thinking about what it means to theorize, especially what it means to theorize within community,” he says.

Solovieva points out that throughout history, many writers, artists, and intellectuals “didn’t know or care about the boundaries of academic departments.” Traversing boundaries—academic, national, linguistic—is the express purpose of the field of comparative literature. Having come to the field from a wide range of entry points, the current group of assistant professors are poised to take it in new directions.

Photo Creds: 
Photo courtesy of Janus Films; Shochiku Ltd.