American Studies in Nepal:

An Interview with Professor Abhi Subedi

Professor Abhi Subedi; image courtesty of Khabarhub.com

Writing in both Nepali and English, Professor Abhi Subedi has remained a towering presence for many decades in Nepali academia and the Nepali literary community. Having served at Tribhuvan University (TU), Nepal, for more than 40 years, Professor Subedi is singularly responsible for creating the American Studies program Studies at Tribhuvan University. In addition to his university service, Professor Subedi is also an esteemed poet, playwright, linguist, columnist, translator, and critic with over two dozen books to his name.  In what follows, Prof. Subedi discusses how American Studies entered the TU curriculum, what role it played in diversifying English literary programs in Nepal, what challenges this newly program experienced, and what influence American Studies had on the Nepali academic community.

Q:

What is American studies’? And what was the rationale for deciding to house the American Studies program in an English Department?

A:

American Studies was introduced to the Central Department of English because it is a department of literature—a crucial distinction. While American literature always formed a part of the curricula of the graduate department, the majority of the literary texts taught in the department were British literature. We soon realized that we should call the program not English literature, Literatures Written in English. In that sense, the program’s aim is to include English literary works written by writers of the Indic region and Africa as well. 

American Studies is a multidisciplinary study of arts and literature, ideas and theories. Examples are heavily drawn from American experience, and the curriculum draws freely on related subjects. It’s important to note, however, that American studies is not a program per se, or even an introductory set of courses focused on American history, government, geography politics etc. Those topics are handled by the American Information Centre in Nepal or elsewhere.

Q:

Does your vision of American Studies have any conceptual, methodological, or curricular overlap with Nepali literary studies?

A:

It certainly does. American Studies (AS henceforward) opens avenues of comparative study that include the literary traditions of the specific country where this subject is introduced in the graduate curricula. Our idea was to study American texts and bring the experiences of Nepal into the discussions. 

So, to add further to the definition of AS: it is a catalyst to interdisciplinary methods of study. You may be surprised to know AS is a very popular subject in China and elsewhere. When I was the Chair we organised regional seminar of AS at Nagarkot in 2001. You would also be surprised to know that it was entirely funded by the American Information Center. Scholars from as far as the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal actively participated in that program. The tragic 9/11 terrorist attacks had happened little earlier. Eminent American professor Richard Rorty had delivered the opening address among others. You can understand the spirit of American funding for arts and literature there.

Q:

In 1994 you visited America under the International Visitor Leadership Program, with special focus on American Studies. What differences did you observe between American and British literary cultures?

A:

That was a very productive visit. We were exposed to many different literature programs. Naturally, the basic questions that were addressed were related to American literature. It was a productive educational visit because the backgrounds and contexts of many American texts became more visible. For example, we visited many sites, scenes, and settings that figure in American literature. The visit to William Faulkner Museum at Rowan Oak, or to William “Faulkner’s private world,” is one example. The British literature really came only as reference, as the major part of the programme was dominated by American literature, culture, and arts.

Q:

In your roles as faculty member and curricular planner at Tribhuvan University, how important was that visit for you?

A:

It was a very important visit because one Professor from Wyoming University, whose name I forgot and who was a central figure, especially recognised my interest. The result was that I had to read loads of materials at night at the hotel to prepare for open discussions on the subject of AS at the next day’s sessions. As much as I loved doing that, it did cost me the occasional visit with friends at the bar. The exposure and the wealth of materials that I brought back with me helped “us” greatly. 

The American Information Center had recognised my need and played a role in sending me to the leadership program. The Deputy of the American Cultural Center, Mr. Adler and his wife, a writer and fried, whose name I cannot recall, also helped me a lot. She was a very creative person. She and I made plans to re-translate Parijat’s novel Sirishko Phool, but the Parijat Foundation did not give permission because the book was not in their priory list. One previous translation was there, which Mrs. Adler taught at her university. But she did not like the translation, which I understand.

Q:

You have studied in Britain, and you became the chair at the central department of English in 1998 for four years. What motivated you to introduce American Studies at the Department of English? Why did you think it was relevant to incorporate American Studies in the English Department at that time?

A:

The motivation to introduce AS was triggered by two concerns. First, the subject is interdisciplinary in nature. We are in that phase now. Second, AS opened many avenues of study that would not only open new perspectives in literature departments but would also make it more relevant as a subject of study at the university. Finding new ways to argue for the department’s relevance would, we hoped, help protect it from becoming a victim of institution-wide cutbacks. The help of the American Information Center was also important. They sent an eminent professor of American Studies, Paul Lauter, to give a general overview of American studies. Professor Lauter’s advice helped us conceptualize our own American Studies program. Another professor and pioneering scholar in the field of Interdisciplinary Studies, Julie Thompson Klein of Wayne State University, came to work with us around the same period. As a pioneer of Interdisciplinary Studies, she helped us shape the ideas needed for the AS and our M.A. English literature program.

Marilyn Calendar, another senior professor who came to work with us, helped us set up a system of teaching at the Department and create a library. She was the external examiner of my PhD thesis. With her help we introduced a folklore unit into our curriculum. All these professors’ works were directly or indirectly related to AS. Deborah Merola was the last American professor who came to the Department when I completing my tenure of the chairmanship. Deborah returns to Nepal every year with a play and performs in Kathmandu with Nepali theatre artists since then.

Q:

What kind of challenges did you have to face while introducing American Studies into the department?

A:

There were mainly two challenges. First was convincing the Faculty that AS was a great program. We did convince them. There were some good people at the University. The second challenge was more hidden than obvious. That involved bureaucracy to some extent and the need of making space for this important subject in the system of the chartered subjects that have remained there since the establishment of the university. This challenge had another nature. 

Q:

What is the state of American Studies in Nepal today?

A:

The Department itself gradually lost the necessary initiative and interest of the faculty members. The main challenge was one of finding people to give it continuity because many of the original faculty had to leave for tenure and other practicalities of university structure.

Q:

Which is your recent reading of American Literature? How do you see contemporary American literature reflecting present circumstances?

A:

Oh, that has become part of my personal journey, you see. Now you may be surprised to know this, but I am currently reading Beat generation literature, with an eye toward its components like creative experiment, travels, and great representation of life. Allen Ginsberg is still a formidable literary power. These writers have become history, but with a difference. They are still incredibly vibrant. I am reading American poetry of that and the following period and have found great joy in it so far.

Q:

Your collection of poetry, Chasing Dreams, and the collection of essays, Flaneur ko Diary (Diary of a Flaneur), just to mention two, reflect the free spirit of your search for individuality and selfhood. Which American writers and literary movements have influenced your work?

A:

I am deeply influenced by the poetry of Walt Whitman and his, as you say, freewheeling writing, the flow and invention at every turn of that. The Beat generation and their writings have helped me develop new insights about literary writing. Other poets who have made a great impact on include: E. E. Cummings, Langston Hughes, and Maya Angelou. There are many other writers and texts that  inspired me, such as Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, and Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, among others. Not only have I read them, but I have taught them for many years.

Q:

Your plays have been successfully staged in national as well as international theaters, and the American critic and academic Carol Davies has written profusely about your work. How did Professor Davies learn about your work?

A:

Carol Davies came to Nepal to study Nepali theatre and plays. Her involvement was deep and intimate. She returned many times. She has written a very nice book about Nepali theatre. Her understanding and analysis is important because she worked closely with us. She even played a role in my play Dreams of Peach Blossom that was staged in Kathmandu. We have worked with other theatre people who have come from America. But Carol Davies is the closest American to Nepali theatre.

Q:

You have been writing about art, cultural heritage, theatre, and contemporary issues, all viewed through a variety of portals and mediums. Your work, we would argue, promotes the spread of democratic norms and values among citizens, and at the same time it draws the attention of those in power and responsible positions to respect those values. Does that sense come from a literary academic program that values interdisciplinary study that, as you said earlier, closely resembles the spirit of American Studies?

A:

It would be a little far-fetched claim if I say so. American Studies is a great academic program that has created a modality of studies in literature departments where diverse fields and perceptions can be brought together to expand the sphere of literature studies. It has helped literature departments to sharpen the perceptions of the world of literary learning. But mind you, it does not give propaganda of any chance to enter the literary curricula. It may not be appropriate to say that my work of social criticism and my vision of making literature a subject of honing that sense comes from AS. I have been doing that even before I became exposed to the AS. But I must confess: AS did help me expand my sense of literature being used for social criticism. And I keep enriching that sense through more readings that include American literature and ideas.

Q:

You have been writing for years about the works and views of the late writer and democratic activist named BP Koirala, who was also the first elected prime minister of Nepal. Inspired by his struggle for democracy, you have also written a play about him entitled Sandajuko Mahabharat (2015). 

Does this play reflect your views about democracy? Can literature transform readers to feel the power of freedom and find the strength to assert their rights?

A:

It certainly can. I have been an avid reader and interpreter of B.P. Koirala’s literary works because they make the reader feel the strength of freedom. I have interpreted B.P.s literary works by reading them alongside his political views about freedom and the rights of the common people. My conviction is that the teaching and reading literature should not be taken as an exclusive subject. It should be linked to the spirit of freedom and liberation. In today’s world, when the basic democratic principles and the questions of the right to freedom are going through a period of redefinition, it is important for people like us, the teachers, learners, and creative writers of literature and drama, to understand that it is necessary to make the literary curriculum include components that give shape to that spirit. And interpreting literary works like those of B.P. Koirala, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Miller, and Maya Angelou and others are directly related to that spirit. 

As a teacher and academic––and as one who has quite a lot of experience––my suggestion is that you understand the spirit of the American Studies as a program that helps create the conditions for the comprehensive study of literature. Studying literature comprehensively develops and nourishes the spirit of freedom and creativity, and bridges the gap between the classroom and society.