Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Eleni Coundouriotis


-What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?

I am a Professor of English with an appointment also in our Program in Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies, housed in the Department of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages. I have also been involved for many years with the Human Rights Institute and much of my teaching and research is around human rights. My education was in Comparative Literature and I specialize in the novel, in particular on how novelists engage problems of historical narration. Most of the primary texts I engage with are from postcolonial literatures, especially Anglophone and Francophone African literatures.


-What is the project you’re currently working on?

My current project has a tentative title of “The Hospital and the State.” It brings together a number of interpretative essays on contemporary works that focus on the hospital as a setting and use this setting as way to explore state failure. The project asks questions about the nature of political action and responsibility and where these rest in countries that have suffered significant brain drain, including the departure of many writers and intellectuals. The topic of the hospital seems to engage expatriate writers and this is intriguing to me. In this project, I also return to questions that have engaged me in earlier work concerning the writing of history. How do diasporic writers engage political and historical questions about their countries of origin? What does this distance mean to them and why do they repeatedly create characters who take on leadership roles in those countries?


-How did you arrive at this topic?

This is a hard question to answer because I feel that I am still arriving at my topic… Book projects take some time to become fully coherent. Indeed, by the time that happens, the book is finished! However, the easy answer to this question is in part through teaching courses in contemporary Anglophone fiction where this convergence of texts that focused on hospitals became apparent to me. I was also invited to participate on a panel on “Literature and the State in Africa” and first developed my ideas around this convergence for that occasion. However, the project now includes works by writers outside Africa, most notably Amitav Ghosh and Michael Ondaatje. My interests in human rights, and humanitarianism more particularly, have kept me engaged with scholarship on global health and the history of hospitals in Africa. The project is also an extension of my thinking on the narration of war, which was the topic of my previous book. Many of these novels take place during or after war.


-What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

In so far as the topic will focus on ideas around leadership and political agency, I hope that it can help spur a conversation about how we conceive these. My work always seeks to complicate our understanding of how historical narratives come to gain currency and takes up the challenge of decentering our perspective. Disseminating the work of writers from the Global South is additionally part of my effort to change a larger public understanding.