Grad Chat with Savannah and Elise

After finishing their formal thoughts for their “Why Study Religion?” videos, Savannah and Elise kept chatting while the camera kept rolling. They talked more about why studying religion is important to them personally and what has motivated them to pursue doctoral work in their respective areas of interest. See what they had to say in the informal, podcast-style recording below!


Savannah: Which is so weird because, I mean, every book, every book covers religion in some aspect.

Elise: Exactly, like you can’t get away from it, especially if you’re studying English literature.

Savannah: The Anglican Church is steeped in everything.

Elise: Exactly, and it is in the idiom of our language, inextricably linked. Whether a person is writing a text that they are conscious of being religious or not, it is in the way we speak

Elise: I don’t know…cause I think there’s a lot of beauty in a lot of religions, but there’s also a lot of harm

Savannah: I think it’s any social group, any society, there’s parts that are really beautiful or were intended to be very beautiful and unfortunately, end up causing more harm than good. And you know, figuring out how to navigate that by finding these questions that are so high stakes to people and really trying to tackle them head on, that’s something that we’ve been talking about in one of my grad seminars. It’s that knowing what’s important to us and what questions we want answers to and why and how our disciplines shape our thinking about those questions and how we answer them are so critical. In as much as I love being a theory head and being up in the clouds, what is that doing for the world, is my question.  And if you can’t take that and apply it in your life and in your work then-

Elise: Like, what are you doing?

Savannah: Right, it’s just an exercise in how many mental back flips can I do? You know? And while that is fun in a certain context, I don’t know that I’m leaving the world a better place for my kin, you know?

Elise: Yeah and I just don’t know if that’s enough to fuel a difficult career, you know?

Savannah: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely, absolutely, I agree with you. You have to believe in what you do because passion will only get you so far. I remember actually going to a conference once. It was at Syracuse University, and the woman who was the head of the Religious Studies Department there, Gail Hamner, gave this talk, and she was like, “You know, you think your passion is going to be enough to drive you through the PhD, but you’re wrong. It’s not going to be enough. You’re going to be so sick of what you study by the end that you really need to have some other reason. It can’t just be that you love it. It needs to be important to you for something else.” And I think that because these questions about religion have so fundamentally shaped the decisions the state can make about my body as a woman and things like that, these questions have high stakes for me.

Elise: Yeah, absolutely

Savannah: And so while it’s nice to read philosophy and just kind of speculate about the nature of reality, if I can’t take those speculations and use them to create a world that is safer for bodies like mine, what’s the point?

Elise: Absolutely, I love that. And I feel like that sometimes when I’m thinking, like, “Oh Renaissancce literature, why?” But then I think about the ways that words have been used, leveraged from that time, specific choices that translators made or commentators made and how I’ve seen them impact my life. Talking about how when I was working in church, like how women can’t preach or whatever and how that is a toxic choice that has been made, that is removed from its context. So, I think that establishing the context can at least help us have conversations about how things don’t have to be the way that we’ve taken them to be.

Savannah: Right, it’s never inevitable.

Elise: Exactly.

Savannah: That’s what I love about theories that are grounded in language as the generator of a reality. Because when you realize that’s the case and it’s not embedded fundamentally into, like matter that can’t be changed.

Elise: Exactly

Savannah: You know, when we remove the idea of fundamental realities and universal truths, we realize that nothing is inevitable and that actually we do have the power to make change.

Elise: Absolutely.

Savannah: Figuring out how to do that—the academy just offers one pathway for us to be able to explore those ideas, I think.

Elise: Yes, that was beautifully put.

Savannah: Thank you.


Dr. Solimar Otero on her Recent Book, Archives of Conjure

A few weeks ago, we had the pleasure to host Dr. Solimar Otero, professor of folklore at Indiana University, at OSU as she presented on some of her most recent work, including her 2020 book Archives of Conjure: Stories of the Dead in Afrolatinx Cultures. We also got the chance to sit down with her and talk in more detail about her work in the book—her approach, motivations, biggest take-aways, and future plans. Take a look at the video and interview below to get a taste of how Dr. Otero’s research opens up new possibilities to think about how the material artifacts of the archive actively forge meaningful and transformational bonds with our ancestors. FOLLOW THIS LINK to learn more and purchase her book!

Q & A with Dr. Otero: 

How did this project start? 

I began the fieldwork and archival research for Archives of Conjure at the Harvard Divinity School’s Women’s Studies in Religion Program (WSRP) as a Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of African Diaspora Religions in 2009–2010. The support from the WSRP allowed me to travel to Cuba to set up the initial framework for the book, which at that point was primarily ethnographic interviews and participant observation in rituals conducted with women and LGBTQ practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions. My move to incorporate the archives of Ruth Landes and Lydia Cabrera came later with additional support from The Reed Foundation. With these elements in place, I felt I could creatively incorporate literary criticism of Mayra Santos-Febres’ and Lorna Goodison’s works as a way to bring together interdisciplinary explorations of gender, sexuality, and spirituality in Afro-Caribbean and Afrolatina religiosity.

How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

The relationships I established in Cuba with the religious community started with my dissertation research that eventually led to my first monograph, Afro-Cuban Diasporas in the Atlantic World (University of Rochester Press, 2010). The fieldwork and oral histories for this book took place primarily in Lagos, Nigeria. However, the connections and circulation of religious practices, particularly creolized religious practices, between Cuba and Nigeria made a deep impression on me. Doing the work of reconstructing the lives of Afro-Cuban repatriate Yoruba with their descendants planted the seeds of doing the of work vivifying ancestors through research. I wanted to focus more deliberately on gender, sexuality, and race in Archives of Conjure. Thus, I incorporated queer theory, transnational feminist thought, as well as the important theoretical interventions and practices of the communities I worked with in Cuba into the project. The result is a book that reflects a range of interests, approaches, and geographies that is tied together by the idea of tracing ancestors’ intentions, movements, and interventions in the words and material culture they leave behind.

Why was it important for you to write this book?

I wanted to highlight the Afrolatinx communities, past and present, that were doing creative work in archiving their rituals through what I call residual transcriptions. These transcriptions can take on many forms, paper, beading, dolls, altars, etc. It seemed significant that these practices and objects could be shared transnationally and across linguistic differences.  I believe these forms of interacting with memory, the world, and each other is an important way to grapple with the trauma of the violence of colonialism and slavery.

Can you describe your methodology/methodologies? 

I am an interdisciplinary folklorist who engages with fieldwork, archival practices, and critical methodologies. My work involves thinking through cultural and artistic practices through multiple lenses guided by Afrolatinx religious communities’ ways of being in the world. I am particularly excited by practitioners’ own methods for documenting, reinventing, and activating their history. The theoretical perspectives of Édouard Glissant and José Esteban Muñoz also provided much inspiration for navigating issues of creolization and queer identity in the text.

What key questions do you hope this book will raise for readers?

I hope readers will take seriously the ways that everyday people practicing Afrolatinx religions work through the historical legacies of colonialism and slavery through spiritual inventions that are complex, open, and oriented towards healing. This means looking at rituals and archives in ways that make us question the authority and grand narratives that usually guide ethnography and historiography.

Where did this project lead you? What are you working on next? 

Archives of Conjure made me pay attention to the relationship between material culture and storytelling in a new way. I am working on a co-edited volume, with folklorist Anthony Bak Buccitelli, on performance and folklore, Emerging Perspectives in the Study of Folklore and Performance. The book has essays written by folklorists, theatre scholars, and communication studies. My chapter in the volume focuses on how performances that call on the ancestors, like songs and the spoken word poetry, think through the materiality of the spirit through bodily imagery. These metaphors mark the mutable and pervasive nature of Black performance and ritual in a way that fights institutional objectification, violence, and eradication.

* * *

Video Transcript: My book Archives of Conjure: Stories of the Dead in Afrolatinx Cultures, deals with spirit mediums in Afro-Cuban religion, archival research from Brazilian Candomblé culture from the late 1930s, as well as Afro-Puerto Rican literature that deals with Orisha traditions and trans and LGBTQ communities. So, the book is actually really trying to get at the ways that ritual practice, archival artifacts and materials, as well as literature all come together, in Afro-Caribbean and Afrolatinx understandings of what ancestors do and their presence in our world. So, it’s an interdisciplinary book. But it’s a book that’s really based on how artists, scholars, and practitioners have ritual practices that intersect and create this—and it’s called ‘Archives of Conjure’—that create these ways of knowing that can be vivified or conjured in ways that allow us to think through histories that may not be found in the archive, that may not be found in traditional ethnography, but can be elaborated upon if we look at these folkloristic or vernacular ways of how people understand themselves, their history, and their communities.

It’s very rhizomatic. So, the cover of the book has these beads, right? Like these, this is an idé, but the beads that are on the cover are mazos. It’s actually very similar. So, when you see somebody wearing one of these, that usually means they are a priest or priestess. And it actually relates to a story, to a narrative and a particular road of the gods. Every Orisha has an avatar, and those avatars have colors and numbers and symbols associated with them. I’m a daughter of Oshun, so when people see this, they know that my road is Ibu Kole. Because the beads and the colors, have a specific rendering and numbering. And these relate to specific verses and stories that are all bunched up in these many different strands. So, the book, I tried to write it as if it was one of these strands, and they come together in these, we call this a moño, like a knot. And everything comes together, and they’ve come apart and together. So that’s the kind of rhizomatic, diasporic structure of how people can pass on these histories through difference in language, right, because you have similar beading, same beading happening in Brazil, Cuba, Nigeria, and other spaces, and coded because of the ways that black religion was demonized during the colonial period in particular, is still demonized because of class and racism, in many different iterations in different places. So, this coding is something that can be read, but it also is a way of keeping history that’s not found in an archive or an ethnography or necessarily in historiography. So, this is a vernacular way of reading who somebody is, and it brings up all those other elements.

Catching Up with Ilana Maymind

by Sarah Dove, originally posted to the Center for the Study of Religion website on 10/26/2020

Dr. Ilana Maymind is currently Lecturer in Religious Studies at Chapman University in the Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Sciences. Her work focuses on East/West comparative religious thought. She made her way to Chapman after completing a PhD in Comparative Studies right here at OSU in 2011. I recently caught up with Dr. Maymind to ask her about her academic journey and talk about her most recent publication.

We started by discussing what initially led Dr. Maymind to the Comparative Studies Department at OSU. She foregrounded the value she places in the kind of critical thinking that doesn’t allow one to simply accept things the way that they appear on the surface, but demands probing deeply below the surface. She found herself right at home in Comparative Studies among scholars demonstrating the kind of approach she wanted to emulate such as Professor Emeritus Dr. Tom Kasulis, and especially the late Professor Emeritus Dr. Lindsey Jones and current CSR director Dr. Hugh Urban. Dr. Maymind credits Jones influence in particular with illuminating methodological approaches to deep study that were pivotal in sparking her ongoing research and pedagogy. She made clear to me during this portion of our interview 

Dr. Ilana Maymind

that she wanted to extend special gratitude to Dr. Jones for his effort, trust, and belief.

Since coming on at Chapman, she has been able to develop many original courses for their curriculum that she first came into contact with at Ohio State, such as Religion and Medicine, Religion and Love, Women and Religion, and New Religions Movements. She also teaches Introduction to Judaism.  She felt supported by Chapman to build on pedagogical frameworks she had been using in Comparative Studies at OSU where she felt encouraged to infuse her courses with material suited to her expertise and research interests.

Our primary topic of conversation, though, was her recent publication: Exile and Otherness: The Ethics of Shinran and Maimonides which was published as a part of Roman & Littlefield’s Studies in Comparative Philosophy and Religion series. Dr. Maymind shared that this book was born, at least in part, from the research she undertook in completion of her PhD, but also took on a life of its own. Primary questions that animated her investigations for this publication included, “What does it mean to be a ‘transplant?’” and, “How do we come to identify ‘home?’” Though she thought wading into a political landscape as a part of this work initially fraught with tensions, she kept returning to it, poking at the threads between the exile, universalism, particularism, and nationalism. Her final conclusions involved asking how accepting “the other” as an equal and willing partner re-inscribes the terms of nationalism to the ultimate exclusion of the exile.

Dr. Maymind also has a few projects on the horizon firmly rooted in her background as a comparativist, while also challenging her to push the boundaries of her methodology. Keep your eyes peeled for more exciting work from Dr. Maymind in the future! If you are interested in obtaining Dr. Maymind’s most recent publication, you can find it from the publisher HERE!