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UC Berkeley English professor Nadia Ellis illuminates importance of immigrant narratives

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APRIL 16, 2017

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


UC Berkeley English professor Nadia Ellis and I are discussing “slant.”

It’s part of a conversation about her English class titled “Literature of American Cultures: Immigrant Inscriptions,” for which she was recently awarded the UC Berkeley American Cultures Innovation in Teaching Award. The class, which asks students to critically examine race and culture through immigrant stories, has been taught by Ellis for several years. Yet I’m particularly interested in it considering the current political climate. With immigrant stories seemingly more important than ever, in what ways can we continue to learn from each other in academic spaces?

To answer this type of question, Ellis directs me to Emily Dickinson: “‘Tell the truth, but tell it slant.’”

Ellis associates the term “slant” with Dickinson’s penchant for providing perspectives that make the familiar seem more novel.

“You can apply that to a word like ‘truth,’ which Emily Dickinson did, or you can apply it to a word like ‘border,’ or you can apply it to a word like ‘Salvadoran,’ ” Ellis said.

In the rest of the interview, which was conducted through email, she discusses the value of questioning language, exploring personal narratives and learning from the stories of others.

Vaughn Ellis/Courtesy


The Daily Californian: You recently received the American Cultures Innovation in Teaching Award for your class “Literature of American Cultures: Immigrant Inscriptions.” What compelled you to create this course?

Ellis: I initially decided to teach this course because I was invited to. And I thought very seriously about the idea of American cultures, about my own relationship to American literary traditions … and it occurred to me that the particular perspective I had was as someone who learned American culture largely from outside.

This gave me a bit of trepidation — but it also felt like an opportunity. What if all the things that at one point seemed eccentric or baffling to me about American identity and culture could become a lens for us as a class to re-think all that has come to seem “natural” and settled? I began thinking in those terms … and then I also realized that, interestingly, the only way to understand how race has developed over in America (especially whiteness!) is to understand the history of immigration.


DC: You’ve taught this course for several years. But given everything that is currently happening politically and socially, do you think that this course is especially important right now?

Ellis: It’s interesting — I think it’s always important to think at slant angles about apparently settled matters. But it’s true: this is a moment of particularly heightened rhetoric about migration … in which we all have to reckon in really fundamental ways with what we truly believe about borders, those apparently naturalized geographical markers which themselves tell long and complex narratives.


DC: So building on that a bit, as you know, there is currently a lot of legislation/rhetoric that reflects a significant fear of immigration. Do you think that in this atmosphere, creating personal stories about one’s own heritage, analyzing other people’s stories of immigration and sharing these narratives can be ways of enriching activism? Or potentially, forms of activism themselves?

Ellis: I think it’s undeniable that something happens when we engage art that’s different from what happens when we read the news or analyze legislation — though attention to language, regardless of genre, always pays off.

I think especially about what happens when we read Óscar Martínez’s “The Beast” — an intensely gripping, highly literary non-fiction account of migrant travel from Central America through Mexico and into the US along a freight train network known as “The Beast”… (F)ew of us have occasion to be up close to the stories of the individuals who become conglomerated into such discursive expressions as, say, “illegal immigrants,” or “undocumented workers.”

What I’ve seen in my class, very early on when we begin to study Martínez, is that the craft of a very good writer … urges response. There’s something about … that book, so different from reportage, that allows us to think not just about questions of race and power … but about what it means to face another person. What does and doesn’t make up a person? How can we gain access, how are we denied access, to another person’s interiority? And what is it that goes into making … a life?

Somehow those questions entwine with the larger political ones and, in my view, light them up and make them richer, headier and also, somehow, more embodied.


DC: It is my understanding that in your class, you have students create their own immigrant stories. What role do you think personal narrative plays in academic explorations — especially ones that consider race and gender?

Ellis: When we do the first assignment, that piece where students write their own migrant narrative … one of the very first things students have to do is to sit and engage someone. From there, generally, some transformation happens. A shape comes into view; details one didn’t notice before suddenly seem curious, important. One begins to see how difficult it is to make a book, to make a life. All of this … shifts the register of thought from problematic abstraction … to a whole other set of propositions that are more intimate, troubling and ultimately, I’d say, enlightening.


DC: I think some people tend to see academic work as this kind of separate sphere that is very theoretical and doesn’t really intersect with everyday experiences. But it seems to me that your work, and the work of many professors here at (UC) Berkeley, really challenges that presumption. In what ways do you think your work/research intersects with everyday experience?

Ellis: This is so true for me that it is almost impossible to articulate. And yes, as an academic I’ve learned a particular language, one that emerges in my writing especially in ways that can feel quite distant from the everyday language I use when I speak with my friends and family. But in another way, almost all the thinking I’ve done in my scholarship and teaching emerges out of the intersection between aesthetics and living. Which is to say that there’s very little I read or touch that doesn’t speak to the world I move through every day. Almost every time I teach now I have a physical moment of chills where something a student says, some particular way a theorist I’m explaining is coming through this time, connects with an anecdote or a news story or a mere truth that is now becoming truer, more illuminated.


DC: Lastly, are there any particular works you would recommend to our readers at the Daily Cal to learn more about immigrant stories? Or do you have any advice about creating your own immigrant story?

Ellis: I certain recommend Martínez, as I do Edwidge Danticat, whose particular power is that she’s fiercely quiet. She’ll do for migrant stories what the best artists do for all genres: which is to destabilize the very category to which they supposedly belong, forcing you as a reader to rethink what you thought you knew about anything, everything.

Contact Caitlyn Jordan at [email protected].

APRIL 16, 2017