Since arriving at FIU in 2003, Dr. Heather Russell’s research and teaching interests have focused on the intersections of race, gender, class, postcoloniality, and genre. Her research has primarily examined narrative form and its relationship to configurations of national/racial identities.
Her first book, Legba’s Crossing: Narratology in the African Atlantic was published by the University of Georgia Press, 2009. She has published in American Literature, Contours: A Journal of the African Diaspora, African American Review, and The Massachusetts Review in addition to several edited book collections.
She is currently at work on her second book, titled: Popular Culture, Gender, and Economy in the Caribbean, and has related articles forthcoming on Reggae musician Tanya Stephens and internationally acclaimed Barbadian singer Rihanna.
1. What were you doing before you came to FIU?
Before I arrived at FIU in 2003, I had been teaching at Barry University, a small Catholic university in North Miami for five years prior and had been successful there in founding the Africana Studies program, spearheading and being involved in many other initiatives in and outside of the institution, including FLASC: The Florida African Studies Consortium, the brainchild of Dr. Carole Boyce-Davies, who was then the Director of African New World Studies (now African & African Diaspora Studies) here at Florida International University.
2. What brought you to FIU? What was your initial impression when you arrived?
I participated in conferences at FIU, and bore witness to the university’s burgeoning reputation since moving to South Florida in 1994. I was already an active part of South Florida’s academic and local community, fully aware of the kinds of strides FIU was making to push its research agenda and engage in meaningful community engagement. It seemed to me that there was a strong sense of community at FIU, of which I might become a part. I had attended a Research I public university in New Jersey, Rutgers, so the structure of FIU --interdisciplinary programs, large international student body, and two campuses even—was much more familiar to me than even where I was currently teaching.
3. Does being in Miami influence your research?
I’m not sure that being in Miami itself has impacted my research, insofar as I am a Caribbean person who migrated when I was a teenager from Jamaica to New Jersey. South Florida, a.k.a. Kingston 21, like FIU, feels very comfortable and familiar much of the time. I will, however, say that I absolutely love the cultural and linguistic diversity Miami. I love being able to go down the street from where I live and eat a steamed fish and drink a white rum!
That being said, I still wish that our diversity translated into tangible and material commitments to inclusivity and access – it often does not. I do believe there remains much work to be done in Miami, Broward (and the state), not just in truly embracing, what Edouard Glissant calls a “cross-cultural poetics” but in dealing in more complicated ways than we currently do with how race/color and class, in this our varied cultural terrain of postcolonials (Latin America; the Caribbean; South America; Native America; Southern America) continue to operate and oppress.
When I moved to South Florida, however, I was still in graduate school and refining my research agenda, which was African American (primarily) and African diasporic (less so) in focus. Living, teaching, and researching in Miami have probably shifted the aforementioned balance somewhat, towards my foregrounding the points of arrival and departure, the rich synergies between and among black diaspora peoples, particularly in the global South.
4. What inspires your work? What is the impact of your work in the community?
I work really hard in and out of the classroom to make connections between African American and Afro-Caribbean communities and their experiences. For me, this is probably nowhere as apparent as in my work with the Florida Humanities Council teaching summer seminars in Winter Park, on writer, anthropologist, ethnographer, folklorist, playwright, feminist visionary extraordinaire – Floridian daughter Zora Neale Hurston.
Hurston, who grew up in the first black town to be incorporated in the US, studied and collected African cultural survivals, including religious ones, and of course travelled to Haiti, Jamaica and Honduras, and throughout the southern US. Her recognition in the 1930’s that Afro-Caribbean religious, philosophical, and cultural structures were quintessentially “modern,” which is what she was implicitly arguing in her anthropological work, has been tremendously influential, particularly in my recent monograph, Legba’s Crossing: Narratology in the African Atlantic (2009).
I consider Zora my intellectual grandmother. Living and teaching in Florida does make me feel closer to her. It is probably Zora Neale Hurston’s non-conformism that in a weird and not fully understood (as yet) way to me is fueling my current project: a co-edited cultural studies edition on Barbadian superstar Rihanna.
5. What's got you most excited right now? How has the FIU English Department changed since your arrival, and where do you see it going?
I am most excited by our department’s growth. We are growing not just in numbers, but in range, in research, in our course offerings, our public profile. When I came to FIU, I was one of maybe three or four junior faculty, we are about to put five new faculty up for tenure and promotion this year, and we have continued to hire really wonderful colleagues, not just in Literature, but in Creative Writing, in Linguistics and in Rhetoric and Composition. Things are so dynamic right now, sometimes it’s hard to keep up, but it’s infinitely exciting.
We are just concluding a search in Global Contemporary Literature, with a focus in Gender and Sexuality. In addition, new initiatives in Queer Studies; the Digital Humanities; the work of the Digital Library of the Caribbean; being hands on and involved with African & African Diaspora Studies, especially our Humanities afternoon and directing the graduate program; bearing witness to the cutting edge innovative interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work that is happening across the university – it is an exciting time to be in our department and on faculty at FIU.
Such dynamism could quickly devolve into chaos. It has not. Why? I think we have really smart faculty across the board in our department, from those in clearly defined leadership positions, whose steady hands have been vital, to those whose tireless work and commitment to our students and to our program, has them put the big issues and needs above their own.
Dr. Russell is an active affiliated professor with African and African Diaspora Studies, the Latin American and Caribbean Center and Women’s Studies, and, belongs to several professional organizations including the Modern Language Association and the Caribbean Studies Association. At the graduate level, Russell teaches 19th century Narratives of Enslavement and Resistance and African Diaspora Women Writers and at the undergraduate, 19th and 20th century African American Literatures, Major Caribbean Writers, Black History and the Fictive Imagination, and Black Citizenships.