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Translating the Midwest

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Organizer: Yopie Prins

Co-Organizer: Silke-Maria Weineck

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This seminar seeks to foreground a concept of the Midwest as a complex multilingual space, decisively shaped both by the great migration from the American South and by successive waves of immigration from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. It seeks to counteract the pervasive nativist trope of the Midwest as white, rural, and homogenous, marshalled in conservative discourses about a presumed “real America” that is in sharp contrast to the cultural history and present of the region.
What is at stake in reprentations of the Midwest in terms of politics and American identity construction? How do different language communities in the Midwest, associated with older and younger generations of immigrants and refugees, represent themselves in various forms of literary production and translation?           
--- Day One will be devoted to the historical rural Midwest, seen predominantly through the lens of Willa Cather (1873-1947). “Rural Resistance: Narratives of Countryside and Migration in Midwestern Modernisms” stresses the transnational, multilingual character of Cather’s representations that stand in stark contrast to modernist focus on white village life; “The Great Epic that Wasn’t: Land and Language in Willa Cather’s My Ántonia” seeks to foreignize Ántonia herself, analyzing her multilingualism as a critique of the nativist tropes that began to dominate dominated American political discourse during the migration waves of the 1910s. The two papers work together to create a counter-image of the rural Midwest as a site of resistance.
-- Day Two moves further into what we might call the de-colonization of the rural Midwest. “Toponymic Code-switching: From Minnesota to Mnisota” stresses the repressed presence of Native American culture that underlies the very construction of the Midwest, here Minnesota in particular, as quintessential white heartland; “Perfect Hoosiers: Midwestern Muslims in Mohja Kahf’s The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf” presents Indiana through the eyes of a Syrian-American woman, reminding us that the Midwest has long been a site of Muslim immigration, with complex cultural, linguistic, and political effects.
-- Day Three focuses on the Detroit and its multiform identities (“Motor City”/ “Comeback City”/”Ruin City”). “Translating Detroit” analyzes the stakes in two Chrysler superbowl commercials set in Detroit and their negotiation of the city as both quintessentially American and deeply foreign. “Visualizing Detroit and/in its Urban Everydayness” pushes back against the exact packaged representations that undergird the corporate representations in the first paper. “Sites of Translation in the Multilingual Midwest” draws on a forthcoming series of seminars by that same title funded by the Mellon Foundation, allowing us to open future venues of investigation and collaboration.

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