In 1984, in an effort to encourage exceptional women and minority Ph.D recipients to continue their academic careers at the University of California, The UC System created the President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program. The current program offers postdoctoral research fellowships, professional development and faculty mentoring to outstanding scholars in all fields whose research, teaching, and service will contribute to diversity and equal opportunity at UC.
This year one of the recipients of this award, Ianna Hawkins Owen, Ph.D., African Diaspora Studies, University of California, Berkeley, is being mentored by English Department Faculty member Nadia Ellis. We sat down with Ianna a little earlier this year to talk about her academic focus, Professor Ellis’ mentorship, and her some of her favorite spots in the Bay Area.
Q) Can you tell us a little bit about your academic background and how you came to study at Berkeley?
I received my Bachelor’s degree from African, Puerto Rican and Latino Studies Department of the City University of New York, Hunter College. My education there was made possible by funding and mentorship from the Macaulay Honors College and the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship. While at Hunter I was shaped both by study and conversations with faculty and by organizing work with the Audre Lorde Project’s working group aimed at ending police and hate violence against queer and trans people of color, All City’s Freirean-inspired popular education projects, and many more visions of justice. To the second part of your question–having served on several different types of committees at this point, I can say that the mysteries of departmental and institutional fit remain just as elusive to me but, I am grateful that the admissions committee, all those years ago, sensed that I might thrive here.
Q) Can you talk about the focus of your academic work? As you are currently a fellow in the President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program – a program that emphasizes the importance of academic work that “contributes to diversity and equal opportunity at UC,” how would you say both your activism and academic work intersect to work towards this aim? What does it mean to you to be a Fellow under this program?
The liminal postdoctoral stage feels really expansive in terms of how to respond to the question of what my work is or will become. Having the opportunity to meditate (with an amazing mentor!) on the ways that the book project will expand on or depart from the dissertation or, what new ideas will take shape as articles is a blessing. At present, my book project Ordinary Failures examines the limits of diaspora discourse in the contexts of misrecognition, betrayal, suicide, and idleness. I am working on some articles that build on my work on the racialization of asexuality. I’m thinking about blackness, absence, and failure—and also about cake! My teaching is informed by both the fruits of my research and also by my commitments to the revelation of a better world than this one. After attending the fall PPFP retreat, I can say with conviction that being a fellow here means being part of a national network of folks invested in research questions, pedagogical practices, and social struggles that point toward visions of justice.
Q) Under the PPFP program, you are currently being mentored by English Department Faculty Nadia Ellis – Why did you and Nadia decide to work together, and how do you see the relationship impacting your work?
Nadia’s recent book, Territories of the Soul: Queered Belonging in the Black Diaspora (2015), speaks so beautifully to my concerns about the communion and trouble that constitute diasporic longing and diaspora theory. Her work brings into focus what she calls the ‘unconsummated’ in diasporic consciousness; via queer utopian thought she examines the prospect of diasporan failure or sublimation of that failure that allows us to imagine an elsewhere beyond the present moment and alternative roads to get there. My own work is interested in the moment of recitation or action and the consumption of those disappointments and negative affects that are disruptive of solidarity and exploring the ethical utility of reciting these moments as failures and even believing in their inevitability. The potential of the attempt versus the debris of the attempt? Despite our shared campus, I met Nadia less than two years ago as one consequence of the establishment of a new inter-departmental working group The Black Room: Revisiting “Blackness” in the Global 21st Century. (I had taken the majority of my graduate electives in the Welsh language off in the maze of Dwinelle). By that time we met I was nearing the end of the degree. The PPFP has allowed me to rectify what would have otherwise been a terrible loss to me; I am blessed to have this opportunity to commune over our intersecting concerns of black queer failed diasporic connectivity.
Q) What do you like to do for fun/what are your hobbies? Any favorite spots in the East Bay?
I’m really into board games (most recently Sonne und Mond, Fungi, Code Names, Mysterium, and many games by Red Raven) so I’m a regular at Endgame Cafe in Oakland. I once found a handmade game at the Center for Creative Reuse created by some kids from Chabot elementary school about rescuing your friends from monsters—it’s amazing. I’m also a fixture at the concerts of Jewlia Eisenberg; I’ve loved her work for most of my life! Hm, and I’m also thinking about making a zine about all the vegan pizzas I’ve tried.