Professor Sonita Sarker is the first Luisa Selis Fellow to be appointed by the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR) in collaboration with the Italian Institute of Culture. Here, the US academic addresses three different aspects of her research around two important Sardinians, Grazia Deledda, the 1926 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Antonio Gramsci, political activist and theorist.

This is a composite of three blog posts originally published by the IMLR, each of which addresses a different aspect of my research – positionality, proximity/distance, and the act of launching a conversation.

To the first issue, positionality. The traditional stance for academics is to remove themselves from their field of study and present their findings, which are generally supported by a web of sources and presented through an analytical framework. The author/academic must disappear yet the choice of sources, the analysis, and the intellectual position must be infused with their experience and filtered through their lens. Feminist methodology, mostly but not exclusively in the social sciences, is rich in discussion about the relationships between subjectivity and objectivity, as well as how and whether they affect the presentation of our work.

Underlying the relationships between subjectivity and objectivity is positionality – the critical awareness of our own position, experience, ideas and realities as they affect the production of our work. It is an honour to be awarded the first Luisa Selis Fellowship, which is funded by the Fondazione di Sardegna in memory of Luisa Selis, a specialist in the cultural memory of Sardinia, and it brings with it an ever-present awareness of my relationship to the realm of studies on Sardegna (Sardinia).

Who am I and why does it matter how I am related to my work on Antonio Gramsci and Grazia Deledda, two illustrious Sardinians?

I have lived in South Asia, Western Europe and North America, studied in higher education institutions, and have held a teaching position in a liberal arts college for more than 20 years. My gender, race and class (at least) play a role in my experience of academia and life across these continents. My movements within and across Anglophone modernism and now Italian modernism (thus Gramsci and Deledda) are coloured by familiarity and unfamiliarity.

A constant destabilisation is not at all a bad thing, in my experience: I am compelled to scrutinise once again ideas and paradigms I had taken as given, and see them suddenly in new ways. New ideas and paradigms present their own fruitful challenges. I have been multilingual all my life but academic research with roots in the real lives of Deledda and Gramsci offer exciting possibilities. Can I offer Deledda and Gramsci to you in new ways, based in my positionality?

About proximity and distance: I actually undertook a voyage in the literal sense – a physical one that was inevitably also a culturally epistemological one. I went to Rome, and then Ghilarza, Ales, and Nuoro in Sardegna. Already, my own hybrid cultural and professional identities inform my research and naturally, this voyage. The juxtaposition of Rome with the Sardinian cities is part of my argument – that the relationship between the Italian nation-state (and its capital) and an island that has been characterised as a minoritised ethnicity (backward, traditional) is constitutive of Gramsci’s and Deledda’s depictions in their works. Gramsci was born in Ales and then moved at an early age to Ghilarza, and then to Turin. Deledda was born and lived in Nuoro, before moving to Rome. Neither returned to Sardegna permanently.

So the nearness and distance of Sardinia to the Italian mainland nation-state was a continuous and vibrant element of the ways that Italians who are Sardinians and those who are not, talk about that relationship. Then, of course, there is my own nearness to, and distance from, Sardinia, Italy, Deledda and Gramsci. A valuable inflection added to this voyage was that an Italian-Sardinian colleague volunteered to accompany me. Some elements such as specific access to some aspects and nuances of cultural life, were brought nearer through my companion. Simultaneously, my sense of distance was underscored by this mediation – that I am not Italian, am not Sardinian, and yet continue to approach, get nearer and nearer, through my work.

What sense of ownership or assumption of nearness does someone who is ‘part’ of the culture have when working on representatives of that culture? My senses of both nearness and distance are present as conscious or intentional aspects, reminders that I believe are unique, important, and fruitful in informing the ways I engage with Deledda and Gramsci. What I own is my alertness to my position and, from it, a reminder not to assume ownership that may come from ‘belonging’ to the culture. A voyage to Rome, Ghilarza, Ales and Nuoro is also a voyage near and through Deledda, Gramsci and myself. The images depict both the existence of distance as well as the effort of nearness that my work negotiates.

The thought that arises now is the connotations of the culminating event of the fellowship, that is, the presentation itself (click on image for details), which takes place on 12 July at the Italian Cultural Institute. Traditionally, one assumes or expects that a ‘presentation’ offers ‘findings’ and some conclusions. I feel quite the opposite. Despite researching and publishing on Antonio Gramsci, presenting on Grazia Deledda and integrating their ideas in a monograph-in-progress, this fellowship and the presentation is a new journey.

In many senses, it is a new journey for me. New in the juxtaposition of Deledda and Gramsci; new in the venue that will bring a general public and an academic audience; new in my own arrival upon this field of contemplation, and new in the negotiations between cultural studies, feminist studies, and anticolonial studies. This presentation aims to launch a conversation, in the mode of starting a voyage, rather than wrap one up and deliver a neatly wrapped package, even as I delineate some distinct strands of thought to see Sardinia and Italy in new ways.

The fact that Sardinia is under-represented in all the fields that I have mentioned above, raises the following question that I will address in the next IMLR blog post: Is presentation of minoritised subjects inevitably or invariably advocacy?

Two Sardinians in the World: Grazia Deledda and Antonio Gramsci, is at the Italian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square, on 12 July (7–9pm). Come and let me know freely and directly what you think.

Sonita Sarker is professor of English and of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Macalester College, Minnesota, where she was chair of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies from 2001–2006. Her research and teaching interests are feminist and literary theories, cultural globalisation as it intersects with nationalism, democracy, and imperialism, and in ‘minoritised’ literatures, with a transnational comparative basis in Western Europe and South Asia.