MLA Special Sessions Proposal: “Generic Interventions: Print and Media Narratives of Global South Cities”

Promo image for Generic Interventions Panel


Exciting news! A bit delayed, but I just got word that our panel was accepted. Yay! See you all in Vancouver!


I’m very excited to share a panel proposal for the upcoming MLA 2015 in Vancouver, BC, entitled “Generic Interventions: Print and Media Narratives of Global South Cities.” The session is organized by Leigh Anne Duck and Sabine Haenni, who put together a beautifully compelling and cohesive proposal that spans the cities of North Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Fingers crossed! Many thanks to the organizers and panelists for giving me permission to post and share this here. <3

Panel Narrative|

In focusing on urban sites of the Global South that have been and remain the location of rapid industrialization, technological development and concomitant social (often transnational) fractures, this panel asks how generic narrative structures both portray and intervene in dominant ideas of development. Comparative and collaborative analysis across spaces that have experienced colonization and acute economic exploitation has been a priority for postcolonial discourse since before the Bandung Conference, and Global South studies offers the additional opportunity to examine contemporary forms of deterritorialized capital, which is particularly visible in urban areas. Because such scholarship requires engaging realms of knowledge that extend beyond not only research conducted in a particular language but also interdisciplinary area studies (such as African, Latin American, or Southeast Asian), our goal is, in part, to expand dialogue on the Global South at MLA. Momentum for this shift increased at the 2014 convention, as panels explored the methodologies associated with specific global regions (“Futures of South-South Comparison”), questioned the term “Global South” from the perspective of diverse nations and global regions (“What Is the Global South?”), and considered the institutional contexts and material media through which such conversations have occurred in the past (“World Literature and the Global South”). We pursue this goal through addressing spatial and formal concerns shared across geographies: the genres used to interrogate urban experience.

Ten years after a special issue of Social Text on “Global Cities of the South”—a decade that has been shaped, in narrative studies, by the emergence of world literature as a powerful paradigm in dialogue with comparative and postcolonial literatures—our study of urban genres in the Global South combines close and distant reading practices to consider how local circumstances and broad narrative patterns mutually intervene. Without presuming that genre works in a singular way, and without presuming that genres work in the Global South in the same way they do in the Global North, it examines the multiple ways in which generic structures are appropriated and mobilized for a critique of often ruthless urban development. To that purpose, we explore genres across print and film media. Papers will be held to 16 minutes in order to allow time for a brief (5-minute) response, which will emphasize how these analyses of distinct narrative forms and spaces contribute to scholarship concerning narratives of the Global South.

The first paper, “Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, or the Aspirational Socialist Oriented Southeast Asian City,” looks at how horror film intervenes in the narratives of urban growth so typical of emerging tech-hubs in the Southern hemisphere. Since Vietnam’s Reunification in 1975, and a transition to a “socialist oriented market economy,” the megalopolis Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City has seen dramatic development marked by escalating disparities. Focusing specifically on Phú Mỹ Hưng, a region of Saigon South that has grown along science-fiction proportions (even by the standards of a city that has generally seen enormous development), this paper argues that the horror film–a genre discouraged by cultural authorities as recently as 2007–challenges the official media representations offered by the Phú Mỹ Hưng Corporation, which is responsible for much of this development. Where corporate media represent Phú Mỹ Hưng’s pristine, contained residential and consumer environments as idyllically ready for occupation by global elites, the film Giữa Hai Thế Giới (2011), in particular, uses these luxury homes as a setting that disrupts notions of security and tranquility associated with the modern homes of such exclusive areas. In doing so, it responds to Western notions of modernity and critiques the representation of Saigon as an aspirational city that aims to “catch up” to their American and European counterparts.

While the first presentation focuses on the horror genre’s intervention into the Southern aspirational megalopolis, the second, “The Port City in the Arabic and French Imaginary,” considers how noir narratives represent diasporic hubs—Marseille, Casablanca and Tangier—around the Mediterranean. Here, genre works in different ways. Although Jean-Claude Izzo’s innovative trilogy — Total Khéops, Chourmo, and Soléa -famously charts the darker side of Marseille’s Mediterranean cityscape, where organized crime, political corruption, poverty, and violence speak of the city’s position as a site of both diaspora and departure, the vision of Marseille in Izzo’s work is interlaced with a nostalgia and hidden optimism. Here, homecoming and the possibility of assimilation are figured into the texts through their very structure. By contrast, the fragmented narratives by authors Mohamed Choukri, Muhammad Zafzaf, and Youssef Fadel narrate the lives of the smugglers, prostitutes, drug traffickers, and profiteers of clandestine immigration in Casablanca and Tangier with a stark desperation. These port cities invariably represent a demarcated and claustrophobic space of restriction and impasse. Together, these noir narratives map a world literary system maintaining center/periphery, North/South distinctions within a genre.

Finally, “Rogues in the Postcolony” turns to the coming of age tale or the bildungsroman in Chris Abani’s and Patrick Chamoiseau’s fiction set in Lagos and Martinique respectively. While the traditional buildungsroman has been read as a proxy for the continued efforts of empire building and development writ large, the “sturdy rogue” living in any of a number of cities in the Global South functions as both a remonstrance and a sort of parody. Abani’s and Chamoiseau’s postcolonial picaros cut a strange geography—literally carving a life out of the detritus of empire—and depart from the “teleological sense of direction” of the bildungsroman. This rogue in the postcolony lives not in a surreal “apokalis” as in, e.g., Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People, but in the “shadows between institutions”—sites of colonial exception writ large. These new picaresque structures are “uncannily effective” in capturing the sorts of structural (or “slow”) violence enacted by neoliberal regimes in both sites. Main subject: Comparative Literature Main subsubject: Twentieth Century Keywords: Global South, genres, cities, postcolonial


This panel gathers experts from different Global South disciplines and regions, in part to generate dialogue among these constituencies. The presenters are trained in literature departments and media studies, and in each case their presentation is part of a larger work—a book or a dissertation—on urban representation in the Global South. The chair and the respondent have put together this panel because they are collaborating on a special issue of the journal The Global South, edited by the respondent, on narrating, mediating and visualizing cities of the Global South.


Sabine Haenni is associate professor in the Department of Performing and Media Arts and the director of the American Studies Program at Cornell University, has published on migration and urbanism in literature and film. Her book, The Immigrant Scene: Ethnic Amusements in New York, 1880-1920 (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), looked at how popular theatre and early cinema helped mediate new urban realities in New York City by enabling different public cultures in immigrant neighborhoods and on Broadway. She is currently working on a second monograph, Port and Periphery: Cinematic Urbanism in Mediterranean Marseille, which considers how the cinematic geographies generated in this Southern European port city reframe questions of labor, traffic, migration and exile. Her work has appeared in journals such as American Literature, Cinema Journal, Theatre Research International, and Journal of Film and Video; she is co-editing a special issue of The Global South, on Global South port cities.


Anne Cong-Huyen is a Mellon Visiting Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies at UC Los Angeles. Her research examines Los Angeles, Dubai, and Ho Chi Minh City through the paradigm of “global cities” in order to problematize the seductive archetype that has enormous cache and that has paved the way for neoliberal economic policy to catalyze growth, development, and competition. She resituates the supremacy of the Global North by reading Los Angeles as a city of the Asia-Pacific in relation to burgeoning economic capitals in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Her particular work on Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City resists facile readings of global cities indexes that flatten urban locales through metrics that measure the health and potential of urban centers. Through a multi-sited, comparative media analysis, she contests the notion of emerging cities of the Third World or Global South as being aspirational, and provides a broader media ecology for studying global cities. Her work appears in The Journal of e-Media Studies, and is forthcoming in Humanities and the Digital (MIT Press). She has previously published on comics in the Asian American literature class, and is also active as a founding member of the #transformDH collective.

Gretchen Head holds a PhD in Arabic literature from the University of Pennsylvania and is currently a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities and Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. At Berkeley, she teaches upper level undergraduate and graduate courses on how the Arabic tradition can be incorporated into new paradigms of world literature with a particular focus on the intersection of geography and narrative. While she is completing a monograph on Moroccan autobiographical writing in Arabic, her interest in the relationship between space and literary representation has led to an additional coedited volume in progress on the city in premodern and modern Arabic literature. She has published articles and reviews in Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, Akhbār al-adab, Arab Studies Journal, The Journal of Arabic Literature, Jadaliyya Ezine, Portal 9, Warscapes, Women’s Studies Quarterly, and The Lebanon Daily Star and has a book chapter on Tunisian women’s narratives of resistance under Ben Ali forthcoming in Gender Politics and the Arab Spring (UNEP/Brandeis University Press). She has been a contributor to Words without Borders and is the translator of Mohamed Choukri’s Paul Bowles, the Recluse of Tangier, published by Telegram Books in 2008.

Stacey Balkan is a PhD candidate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center where her work focuses on postcolonial ecologies and the politics of representation in the Global South. She is writing her dissertation on picaresque novels that illuminate the margins of empire; in these novels, narrative arcs are circumscribed by the “slow violence” caused by neoliberal investment schemes, environmental devastation and other means of structural displacement. She looks at the postcolonial picaro/a—persons in cities like Lagos and Lima, who live in the “shadows between institutions.” Balkan’s recent publications include “Latin American Semiotics: Metropolitan (Im)migrants in the ‘Lettered City’” on Purdue UP’s CLC Web and a chapter on abjection in the work of Roberto Bolaño in the Companion to Comparative Literature, World Literatures and Comparative Cultural Studies (Cambridge UP India, 2013). Both works consider narrative formulations appropriate to the new lettered cities of the Global South—those “imaginary spectacles” that all too often recall their colonial forebears. Balkan also teaches Latin American Literature and composition at Bergen Community College where she is an Assistant Professor and co-chairs the college’s Literary Arts Series.


Leigh Anne Duck is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Mississippi, where she edits the journal The Global South. Her research concerns literary and visual representations of the U.S. South, often using comparative and transnational methodologies to analyze representations of economic and racial exploitation. Her work has appeared in such venues as American Literary HistoryCR: New Centennial Review, and the volumes The American South and the Atlantic World (UP of Florida, 2013) and Look Away: The U.S. South in New World Studies (Duke UP, 2004). Her book The Nation’s Region: Southern Modernism, Segregation, and U.S. Nationalism (2006) examined how national responses (as exemplified in journalistic commentary and policy discourse) to both experimental southern literature and racial segregation were shaped by conceptions of national economic modernization. Her current book project, Hollywood South: State, Cinema, and Neoliberal Nationhood, situates the Louisiana film industry in relation to global pursuits of economic growth through “creative industries”; it explores how films produced with state incentives register changing understandings of collective and political life.


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