Gary Totten is professor and chair of the department of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He also serves as Editor-in-Chief of the journal MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States. In this interview session, we ask Gary Totten a few questions to learn more about his work, and the coming work for the field and the journal.
Oxford University Press: Can you tell us a bit about the history of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States journal?
Gary Totten: The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States was organized as a scholarly society in 1973, in response to the lack of representation of papers or panels on US multi-ethnic literature at the Modern Language Association annual convention. A year later, the journal was created under the editorship of Katharine Newman, who was also responsible for organizing the annual conferences of the society, which we continue to enjoy. Joseph Skerrett, Jr. at the University of Massachusetts Amherst took over the editorship after Katharine had served for twelve years. Under his leadership, the journal’s scope expanded and its reputation increased. He often emphasized in the journal scholarship taking a cross-cultural or interethnic approach, and he was a terrific mentor, encouraging graduate students, junior scholars, and others to submit their work when he heard them present at conferences. The society, journal, and the profession at large suffered a great loss with Joe’s death in July 2015. The forthcoming 2018 winter issue of the journal will be published in his honor.
Veronica Makowsky assumed the editorship after Joe, and the journal moved from UMass Amherst to the University of Connecticut. During Veronica’s tenure, among other innovations, the journal’s content became accessible electronically. Martha Cutter at UConn became editor next and reinstated editor’s introductions to the issues, which Joe had also provided. Martha expanded the journal’s scope further by exploring new critical and theoretical frameworks for the study of US multi-ethnic literature, including ecocritical (the study of the relationship between literature and the environment) and transnational contexts, among others, and exploring a range of genres and media. I was fortunate to be selected as editor in 2014 after Martha had served for eight years.
OUP: How would you describe the journal in three words?
GT: Groundbreaking. Field-defining. Essential.
OUP: How has the field changed since the creation of the journal in 1974?
GT: The journal reflects the changes in literary criticism since the mid-1970s. One of the changes that seems most pronounced to me is the introduction of new approaches to the study of multi-ethnic US literature, including hemispheric and transnational contexts and the insights offered by queer, ecocritical, and cultural studies, among other critical developments. Challenges to definitions of what constitutes a “text” or the “literary” have allowed the study of multi-ethnic US literature to expand to include film, graphic narratives, and other visual texts; digital media; and rap, hip-hop, and spoken word poetry, among other genres. Increased digital access to archival materials has led to important new work in print culture studies and exciting theoretical developments regarding the nature and function of the multi-ethnic archive.
OUP: Tell us more about your experience of being editor for the journal.
GT: My work as editor is one of the most satisfying scholarly activities of my career so far. I want to emphasize the word scholarly because, while a journal editorship is often categorized as “service” on university faculty annual evaluations and similar reporting mechanisms, I view it as sustained and serious intellectual work that determines the scholarly direction of a field. It’s very satisfying to be involved in such field-defining work on a daily basis. It’s also satisfying to work with authors, ranging from graduate students and junior faculty members to senior scholars, to develop their ideas and arguments. I value the vision and expertise of our guest editors who make our yearly special issues possible. I greatly appreciate the skill and collegiality of my editorial team of graduate students who manage submissions, workflow, and correspondence; copy edit; fact check; and proofread. We have a great graphic designer responsible for the terrific cover design, and I’m grateful to the artists who allow us to feature their beautiful and important work on the covers of the journal. The stellar editorial team at OUP ensures that marketing, production, permissions, and all aspects of the publishing endeavor run smoothly. I find the collaborative nature of this work nourishing in many ways.
OUP: Given everything going on in the world, how would you describe the importance of the journal?
GT: The scholarship published in our journal challenges racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and hateful rhetoric and actions of any kind. Through its thoughtful critical examination of multi-ethnic literature, culture, and experience, scholarship in MELUS centers the lives and work of the marginalized and asserts the humanity of the refugee, the migrant, and the disenfranchised. In the process, this work expands and enriches readers’ capacity to understand and empathize with others, work that seems especially urgent during our current moment.
OUP: Instead of writer’s block, have you ever gotten reader’s block?
GT: Yes, I have, usually when I have read or edited submissions for an extended length of time. When that starts happening, I know it’s time to stop and come back to it when I’m able to better focus.
OUP: Where is your favorite place to read and edit work?
GT: I do a lot of my reading and editing work at home. I live in the desert, and my backyard borders on a desert conservation area. I love the view of the landscape, and of the occasional rabbit, lizard, or coyote. It’s a peaceful and inspiring setting in which to work on the journal.
OUP: What are some of the benefits your members get from reading the journal?
GT: Readers gain access to exciting and award-winning scholarly work in the field and to the widest range of such scholarly work assembled in one journal. In addition to cutting-edge scholarship, the journal also sometimes includes interviews with current writers, which provide unique insights into the work and craft of these writers.
OUP: What is the most difficult part of being an editor?
GT: One of the most difficult tasks as an editor is to reject interesting work. The volume of submissions means that a high percentage of submissions that might require revision will not make it into the journal.
OUP: What do you hope to see in the coming years from both the field and the journal?
GT: The journal will continue to reflect changes in literary and cultural studies generally and approaches to multi-ethnic US literature and culture specifically. I think that the geographical and critical contexts for the study of such texts will continue to expand. Although we receive a number of submissions from international scholars, I would very much like to see an increase in submissions from scholars around the world. At the journal’s conference held at MIT in 2017, the current president of the society, Joe Kraus, organized a panel examining the question, “What is Multi-Ethnic US Literature?” This is a question that we should continue to pursue, and one that I would love to see taken up in the journal. How have our understanding and definitions of “multi-ethnic” and “literature” changed? Are there other terms that reflect the kind of work that the journal and society undertake? How might we address the ways in which the important contexts of sovereignty and tribal identity necessary for understanding Native American literary traditions, for example, interrogate ideas about “multi-ethnic” and nationality? How do hemispheric and comparative approaches challenge definitions of literary traditions that depend on national identities or borders? I hope discussion of these questions will be part of the journal’s future.
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