Comparative Literature and Social Change
The Hamilton College community bid farewell to the independence of the comparative literature department as it transforms into the literature and creative writing department: a fusion of comparative literature, English and creative writing. To commemorate comparative literature’s 40-year legacy of literature and social advocacy, five accomplished alumni related to the department spoke about what this academic discipline has meant for their lives and their activism, revealing that its rippling effects have in fact changed countless lives.
At Reunions ’17, the Comparative Literature and Social Change panel began the same way it concluded: with a standing ovation from a filled auditorium. Before Mary L. Bonauto ’83 could say a word, members of the audience lauded her career of nearly 30 years as an attorney at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) and, most remarkably, her work as the lead attorney in the 2015 Supreme Court case which ultimately ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry.
“Comp. Lit. has become a part of my life and soul here at Hamilton,” Bonauto stated, noting the many crossovers between her work in comparative literature and the law. “With comp. lit., there is struggle. There is no progress possible without struggle; this message is in a lot of what we read.” Beyond embracing challenges, Bonauto cited comparative literature’s emphasis on nuance and ambiguity: “No character is awesome 100 percent of the time. So these ideas that you’re really good or you’re really bad need to be contested.”
Keya Advani ’08, a solicitor in the U.K. who has also worked in the U.S., India and Jamaica on women’s rights and homelessness, provided a different perspective of the lifelong benefits of this academic discipline: “Its starting point is to put writings and ideas from different parts of the world on equal footing,” she reflected. “It is predicated on the belief that to truly engage with a piece of writing, you should engage with it from multiple contexts—you should cross borders, both geographic and conceptual.”
Indeed, her background in comparative literature proved essential for her work with human rights groups. Although she often found that activist lawyers were at the forefront of social change and thus decided to become a lawyer herself, engaging in activism with only one tool—the law—is “inherently limited.” Comparative literature, by valuing analysis through distinct and conceptually equal lenses, offers a solution: “Using the law as your only frame of reference often limits the scope of conversations you can have around these issues. We need to look at social change through different frameworks to engage with them in a meaningful way.”
Emily Delbridge ’13, a director and graduate of Brooklyn College’s master’s program in theatre history and criticism and an active political organizer in New York City, added yet another layer to the discussion, praising “the centrality of community” that is fundamental to comparative literature. “ Kevin Whalen ’83, the co-founder and co-director of the Center to Support Immigrant Organizing, echoed this sentiment: “It’s always about what’s your experience, how do you related to what we’re reading, and then putting that in comparison with others in the room. That’s really the work of community organizing.”
Despite being a math and physics double major while at Hamilton, José Agustín Iraheta Zaldaña ’13 exemplifies the interdisciplinary and transformative impact of comparative literature. He praised Professor Nancy Rabinowitz and fellow panelist Whalen, in particular. “I cannot stress how much Nancy has done in my life,” he said. “The higher education system was so foreign for me. Then I met Kevin. In those moments, you really have to pay attention. Now empathy guides my work.” Zaldaña is currently a community organizer for The Neighborhood Developers, part of a collective impact initiative which aims to increase safety in Chelsea.
“Comparative Literature and Social Change” implicitly demonstrated that comparative literature is social change. Through utilizing their education in comparative literature and following its principles of investigating myriad views equally, embracing ambiguity and valuing community, these alumni have effected change in their communities. Their work extends far beyond disciplinary boundaries and impacts more than just students of comparative literature—individuals, communities and even entire nations have benefited.