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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Oswego chapter.

Dr. M. Neelika Jayawardane, who simply goes by Neelika (and if you’d like to learn how to pronounce that, which I highly recommend, you can listen here), is the only one who gives me typed answers due to time constraints. However, they are just as valuable as the actual conversations I have with other Professors, in that many of them bring me great insight. She has an English accent that has been slightly Americanized, as she has mentioned in our class, that is soothing in a way, her laughter seemingly floating on air. Her answer to me asking “where are you originally from?” is, “So many places. I would describe my experiences as diasporic, immigrant, deeply influenced by Black Consciousness politics of my years growing up in Southern Africa. As an immigrant who’s seen nations do tremendously violence to those living within their borders, I’m deeply resistant to the idea that the nation state should be my primary identifying marker.” She has also told me previously she was born in Sri Lanka, and in her TEDxJohannesburgSalon talk, states she grew up and was educated in Zambia. She also spent some formative years in South Africa. Neelika is also my former advisor, and the Professor for a class I am currently taking called English 365, or Junior Seminar Author. Neelika teaches two other classes besides mine, English 360 – Literature in a Global Context, and English 102 – Composition II, which she describes as “populated by some really hilarious 1st years.” Though our classes currently occur over Zoom, Neelika frequently shows us her cat, Mona, walking by, or her sunflowers and garden, interrupting her own thoughts to comment on the goldfinches or hummingbirds that stop to pay her tribute, or to talk about recent dishes she’s cooked. As she tells me, “Above all, I learn from pleasure and joy and laughter (I am decidedly not a Calvinist).” 

Neelika has been teaching for 16-17 years at SUNY Oswego, as she once told us in class, originally being attracted by very practical reasons — the prospect of a paying job and more stabilised work visa for her “unstable immigrant self.” Unlike some older professors (and I will point out Neelika states she is “age-d, that is all”) who settle into the coziness of tenure, Neelika is still actively working outside the classroom by travelling to conferences and publishing, both academically and as a writer who contributes to journalism and art publications. Her CV on the Oswego Faculty profile lists countless papers, conference presentations, talks, and books, such as Ties that Bind: Race and the Politics of Friendship in South Africa, published in 2016. Googling her, you can find her Al Jazeera profile with articles as recent as October of 2019, along with her Arts Writers grant for a book project on the Afrapix photographers’ collective in South  Africa, and their involvement in the anti-apartheid movement. Neelika, however, states that the numbers don’t matter to her, but rather, the content and the learning that comes from writing about something: “Because…how many  publications…who cares, really, right? Every academic wonders, ‘Who will even read this anyway? And will it matter at all?’ It keeps you humble to remember that.” Neelika’s expertise is in Postcolonial narratives and the history of anti-colonial resistance, specifically focused on Southern Africa, are the basis of the majority of her work.

When I talk to her about my position in Her Campus as Senior Editor, she emphasizes the importance of the editing process, and her need to pass this skill onto students. When we were still in person last Fall, I frequently saw the drafts of students in her courses that were so heavily marked I wondered how they even kept track of where the original essay was. I bring this up to her and she laughs, as usual, but states her editing marks are meant to improve writing — to show students that excellent writing strengthens not only the expression of ideas, but their own subjectivity. By the time they turn in the final paper, the editing has paid off, and they can sit back and marvel at the final product, proudly. 

Neelika’s relationship with her students is guided by her commitment to ethical conduct and responsibility, as she explains to me. While she obviously cares a great deal for us, she also makes sure to stress our particular position in her life, “I set clear boundaries with students — I am their educator, not a friend, not a parent, not a (COMPLETELY) unqualified therapist. I have to evaluate their work, and that educator-student relationship is one that is always marked by a power difference. So: my relationships and interactions with colleagues and students are similar: respectful, with careful boundaries, mindful of the power-dynamics at play.” However, Neelika also points out something so incredibly impactful about her experience with her students that I feel she nearly glosses over it. In talking about her first years teaching, she writes about her very first Teaching Assistant, Taylor, “I learned everything I know from her. She came from a dairy farm-owning family. Every teaching day, she was there in class, 30 mins before me, with TYPED questions about the day’s reading up on the projected screen. I learned to do that — keeping meticulous notes, posing questions for the class ahead of time so students have time to think about the ideas — from her.” 

Though she has had rich relationships with students, her experiences with colleagues across academia have not always been helpful. When I asked about a paper she wrote called “Taking Things Personally, and Publicising the Private: Encountering Erasure on the Frontlines of Academia”, in which she writes about her early experiences teaching and the covert racism she encountered from well-educated academics in the US and other countries in which she works, she said this, “Everyday racism/sexism/violent forms of othering — which is part of the structural violence that racial and gendered others have to deal with in liberal circles — is so common in academia I’ve made a career of writing about it and giving some hilarious public talks about it. It’s served me well and it has been an enormous source of laughter and relief and healing for many others in academia, who have similarly endured the everyday violence of liberal spaces. But let me be clear: behaviour like this, masquerading often as ‘innocent ignorance’, is violent, it is excluding, and it damages — emotionally, psychologically, and even physically (there’s now research that shows how minoritised people’s bodies and health are affected by racism/sexim/gendered violence, etc). It asks the ‘othered’ person to do the labour of enduring, explaining, and having to accept nonsensical non-apologies by… bullies who know perfectly well how to mask their violent and othering behaviour using underhanded techniques. Many of them probably do the same underhanded violence to family members, in their private lives, so…they are well-practiced. This is what I’ve learned from a wonderful therapist in Cape Town who helped me get through my first years as an academic, and from psychologist friends.” 

Like Dr. Bishop, Neelika’s experiences in graduate school were not exactly positive, but for reasons wholly different from Dr. Bishop’s. She recounts that her educators at Iowa State university were wonderful, but her time at the University of Denver, where she earned her PhD in English, as a place in which she encountered racism, gendered othering, and other forms of violence on a regular basis: “I did my doctoral work at an utterly useless programme — it was a cesspool of dysfunction and racist/not-really-present professors that basically used us post-grad students to do the labour of teaching lower level courses for peanuts as payment.” Though I ask her about her dissertation, “The escape artist”, which I find interesting on the grounds of it being a fictional narrative rather than an academic paper, Neelika is dismissive of its importance in modern day (it was originally published in 1999), but does shine a light into how she has conceptualized the experience into her current work: “What I learned from that cesspool was how to manage my own education for a lifetime — basically, I had to give myself a PhD, long after I officially graduated. Every summer, and whenever I had some precious fellowship, I went back to work at institutes in South Africa. I attended post-grad seminars, worked with other scholars I respected, and always kept reading, to fill the holes in my learning. I keep reading. My dissertation was creative — with a critical introduction that situated in a new generation of postcolonial writing (I don’t believe that introduction is available online). But it’s not really something I think is worthwhile going back to. What’s worthwhile is knowing that for me, as an immigrant who was on her own in the academy — for whom there weren’t many options available, but to endure that dysfunction, and learn how to critique and counter unconsious biases and ‘benign’ racism (nonetheless deeply rooted in white supremacist ideology) — was to get the hell out through continued learning.” For the amount of grad school hate I have seen in my first two interviews, both have shown resilience in contextualizing the types of identities they were able to forge through the fires of the experience. Neelika’s traveling and work outside of US educational institutions after graduate school makes her perspective on our course invaluable, especially in interpreting the more subtle themes and allegories associated with African literature that western audiences can miss.

Neelika’s love for her particular specialty is reflective of the novels we read in her course. As the the English program’s Junior Seminar is structured to be a study of one specific author and their body of work, we are specifically focusing on a Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and her three novels, Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, and Americanah, among other supplementary works of hers. I was a fan of Adichie before this, having read Adichie in other courses, seen two of her TEDTalks, and even had the booklet version of one (“Why We Should All Be Feminists”), which is what drew me to the course. Not only is Adichie an excellent choice for a Junior Seminar as she is a fantastic writer with so much to chew on in her authorial work, she is also an extremely approachable way to introduce students (particularly white ones) to African literature who may have never come into contact with it before. Her writing is smooth and modern, describing everyday Nigerian life in a way that allows western audiences to relate to the work. Neelika describes this as “translatability”. This is, of course, the problematic nature of it that she points out to me, “Why should an author make their writing — the narratives, plots, characters — ‘easy’ for Western readers? Or water down the “otherness”, the strangeness, the difference of an Other? Is it not the work of all of us, as readers, and human beings, to do the work of understanding others — our neighbours? The other — gendered, racial others — certainly should not be tasked with the labour of making themselves palatable and accessible for those from the dominant group. So it’s wonderful when a writer is embraced by readers in the geopolitical West — it earns that writer more money (I’d love for all artists and writers to be comfortable, if not well off), and possibly, create more understanding. BUT: whenever a body of literature is that approachable, we should do some critical self-scrutiny. I like teaching Adichie. But I know that in some ways, I am letting my US students off easy. Engaging with difference shouldn’t be easy — it should, ideally, also allow us to accept, and even celebrate the fact that the other — and literature by / about people from other cultures — should not be approached as wholly ‘penertable’ or available to our gaze. There is an unknowability and opacity of all others, something of which we should be respectful.”

Much of the sentiment Neelika describes to me in our interview boils down to navigating the minefield that is interpersonal relationships, both in and out of the classroom. The opacity and unknowability she speaks about is an echo of how she perceives the power dynamics at play, something she directly references in each of the works of hers I view. This is her version of respect, both to herself and others, “I’m all about making sure that I maintain healthy structures for my life — so that I maintain my mental and psychological well-being. Separating work from my personal life means that actually I enjoy family, friends, food, gardening, outdoors, exercise, Monsieur Mona the Male Cat, mindless, binge-worthy shows — and above all, have time to waste staring at the sky and and the flowers, herbs, and vegetables I grow. It means I have time and energy to write. My friendships are lovely and carefully cultivated — they are a site of enormous joy, play, creativity, debate, learning. I treasure and honour them. But they are not part of work.” 

For myself, and some of the other professors I interview, literature can be helpful in navigating these sites of extremely complex nuance, especially when considering the power inherent in the written word. As Adichie herself states in a TEDTalk she did in 2009, “The Danger of a Single Story”, describing the single story as the sites of stereotypes that inform the power-dynamics at play inherent in keeping racist structures in place, “I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” I find Neelika’s body of work to be so substantial it is hard not to acknowledge the power of it, and certainly, the power it must have had on Neelika’s career. Neelika takes this further, though, “I’m not sure books, writers, art can bear that burden of being some sort of magic solution to the desire for the violence that is imbalanced power, whether it is structural or interpersonal racism. It takes structural change — and I am less hopeful right now about books or writers being able to do that. The only thing that’s helped me deal with racism, sexism, or whatever form of violence in academia has been…as power shifted. More accurately, I shifted the power. Having a great support system can be really helpful in showing you how one might best respond — one learns how to deal with structures better, and one learns about resources available. Teaching myself how to theorise, express and write — and writing, publishing, and speaking in very public platforms — means that I’ve shifted some of the dynamics of power in my personal and public life.” 

Neelika ends one of her answers with the following sentence: “There’s no gift in enduring any of the violence that life throws at you.” Throughout reading her answers, it is easy to imagine Neelika saying them, giggling through some even. This is the one sentence that seems hard to imagine being spoken in Neelika’s voice, and its authority yet solemness touches me. I linger on the sentence, wishing to feel its full gravity. It encapsulates quite a bit about the philosophy that I believe Neelika gives me about herself, but also the way in which she wishes for us to understand the literature she is teaching us. Purple Hibiscus, in particular, emotionally affected me on such a deep level it was hard to get through. Purple Hibiscus centers around a family going through domestic abuse at the hands of their extremely religious father. Many of the people in our course said they disliked the ending, wishing for a happier one for the protagonists of the novel. However, I now apply Neelika’s statement to this book, and find the ending transformed in a way. It does not become happier, obviously, like we all wish for in the real world. Instead, I find myself attempting to understand what sorts of gifts that stories, like Adichie’s, like the ones Neelika and the other professors I interviewed for this article tell me, and my own, give or do not give. I am left contemplating the materiality of the stories we tell and their impact on how we view what it means to endure. If anyone understands what it is like to endure, it would be Neelika. 

While Neelika won’t give me literature recommendations, she does give me this instead: “Read as much as possible, then watch some Netflix. Stare out into the distance. This is my feminist reading list. Some women are shitty people and their writing is shitty and violent too — including some people who claim to be feminists. So, guide your reading accordingly.” Though I agree with her, one woman who is not is Adichie, of which I recommend my own favorite story of hers, “Birdsong”. Thank you to Dr. Jayawardane for allowing me to interview her.

Shannon Sutorius was an award winning 23-year-old English major, over 40-time-published author, editor, and former Teaching Assistant who graduated from SUNY Oswego in December of 2021. Shannon was one of the Campus Correspondents for Her Campus Oswego, previously Senior Editor, and wrote the Advice Column, "Dear Athena." Shannon worked with and had been published in Great Lake Review, Medium, and Subnivean. Shannon's awards included the Edward Austin Sheldon Award, Pride Alliance's Defender of LGBT+ Rights in Journalism Award, and the Dr. Richard Wheeler Memorial Scholarship. As well, Shannon was an active member of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society.