Interview with Rachel Warner
Interview with Rachel Warner
Conducted by Bailey Fernandez, Graduate Writer
Could you describe your interests as a graduate student? What would you consider your areas of study, and what led you there?
My central areas of inquiry include modernist to postwar American literature, gender studies, the history of sexuality, and queer of color critique. I became interested in such bodies of scholarship through the process of reading for my qualifying exams and narrowing my dissertation focus. Currently, I am working on my dissertation, a literary and cultural history of female masculinities in turn of the century to postwar American literature. This project will primarily bring a critical perspective based in transgender studies, masculinity studies, and feminist theory to canonical twentieth-century American novels to elucidate how such works portrayed female gender and sexual deviance. Moreover, this project avers that such masculine female characters must be examined through an analytical approach that assesses how discourses of gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, class, and nation formation are highly imbricated with one another and knit to overarching regimes of normalization. In this way, it hopes to highlight how the more liminal or hybrid gender presentations captured in these novels intersect at oblique and sometimes surprising angles with “racialization,” understood according to Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s foundational research as the attribution of racial meaning to previously un-racially classified groups, practices, and people. Ultimately, this investigation uses the literary and cultural trope of female masculinity (broadly defined to include a diversity of gender formations including the suffragette, invert, flapper, tomboy, and practitioner of sadomasochism) to ask broader questions about the history of gender relations in American culture and the overlap of this dynamic with intersecting modes of otherness and marginalization.
What drew you to Zora Neale Hurston? How are you interested in working with her academically?
I first became aware of Hurston’s connection to UNC’s campus with the 2015 student activist campaign to rename Saunders Hall as Hurston Hall; this action was pursued in order to both commemorate Hurston’s 1939 connection to the university and redress the veneration of the North Carolina leader of the Ku Klux Klan, William Laurence Saunders.
I began to research and write about Hurston’s significance to North Carolina after my committee member, Dr. Danielle Christmas, put me in touch with the staff at the North Carolina Literary Review; she had learned that the journal and particularly its editor, Margaret Bauer, Professor of English at East Carolina University, were eager to pursue an article specifically documenting Hurston’s importance to North Carolina’s history. Over the course of my research, I learned that in addition to establishing a drama department at NCCU, Hurston had participated as a student member of a longstanding playwriting group facilitated by Paul Green and his wife, Elizabeth. The folklorist Paddy Bowman’s audio recordings of an octogenarian Green recounting his memories of Hurston just a year before he died were instrumental in recovering some of the shape of her time spent at UNC.
How did archival research play into your project? Do you have any memories from this process you want to share?
The Special Collections staff at Wilson Library were key to this research process, as many staff members were also interested in fleshing out Hurston’s UNC connection. The best possible memory would have to be discovering the Bowman recordings and hearing Green’s voice, recorded just a few months before he died. Accordingly, he relates Hurston’s signature flamboyance and refusal to be intimidated by the white student body and details his interest in learning more about Hurston’s particular point of view as a Black playwright. His perspective helps illuminate the historical backdrop to Hurston’s time at UNC, a period when Hurston’s presence around UNC’s all-white campus and surrounding town stood out starkly and was often met with racist epithets from the students. Beyond that, the recording is also a testament to how Green actively used his own racial privilege and powerful standing within UNC’s drama department to encourage the kind of Black folk drama that Hurston had devoted her life to. In this way, the archival material documents not only Hurston and Green’s shared passion for folk theatre but how they worked together to promote a sense of the richness of Black history, culture, and traditions at a time and place featuring profound efforts at dehumanizing Southern African-Americans and denying their place in the Southern artistic tradition.
What are you working on right now? How does it relate to your work on Hurston?
My dissertation, and sadly it does not.
Is there anything else you want to share?
Long before I arrived at UNC or even knew of Hurston’s brief time spent here, I had read Their Eyes Were Watching God and been touched by Hurston’s ability to include sensuality, the natural world, and love in her portrait of Black feminism. I also knew that after the Harlem Renaissance and well into the twentieth century, she receded from the literary canon (and was actively critiqued by her peers, such as Richard Wright, during her lifetime) and remained largely forgotten until Alice Walker set out to physically mark her grave and metaphorically mark her importance to American literature. Perhaps, like scores of other Hurston readers, I have remained enthralled by her wit and her ability to be unabashedly herself and to find humor and joy amidst and in spite of economic insecurity, systemic racism, and widespread misogyny.
This project was the best possible excuse to gather ever more threads of Hurston’s tapestry: her work as a playwright throughout the Harlem Renaissance and into the 1930s; her ethnographic endeavors all over the Global South after being trained in anthropology by Frank Boas; and her fervent emphasis on bringing to the stage the daily artistry, drama, and humor that she saw as constitutive of Black life, particularly in the South.