Professor and Chair of the Department
Ph.D., University of California at Berkeley
McElhinney Hall, Room 233
My area of study is Comparative Literature, and more particularly contemporary fiction in the Americas written in English, Spanish, and French. I was an English literature major in college, and spent my sophomore year in France, becoming a lifelong Francophile. But after graduating, I wanted to see a bit more of the world so I joined the Peace Corps in a program of rural community development in a Colombian village called Quimbaya. What I knew about rural community development, having grown up in Los Angeles and majoring in English and French literature, remained to be seen. During the two and a half years I spent in Colombia, from 1967 to 1969, I did learn a lot about rural community development, but more important, as it turned out, was the fact that I learned Spanish and began to read writers and poets from the region. They presented their world in ways that enhanced my experience of living in Quimbaya. There weren’t many books in my village, and even fewer readers, but one of those readers was a smart teen-ager named Temístocles, who loaned me his copy of a novel that had just been published, One Hundred Years of Solitude, by an unknown Colombian writer named Gabriel García Márquez. García Márquez’s fictional world of Macondo seemed to be the very image of my own village, and to this day I see the streets and people of Quimbaya when I teach this masterpiece. (I haven’t yet seen anyone levitating, but I won’t be surprised if I do.)
Returning to graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley in 1969, I knew that I wanted to study Latin American literature. I applied to the English Department, but I wasn’t happy with being so narrowly focused. Then came the Ahah moment! An acquaintance casually mentioned a new department called Comparative Literature. It took me only a couple of days to transfer to “Comp Lit” (as we still call the department and the discipline, nationwide.) Comparing the histories and cultures of Anglo, Franco, and Hispanic America allowed me to understand the diverse cultures that had produced the works I was reading, as well as my own position as a U.S.-American reader. My experience as a comparatist has convinced me of the importance of weighing differences against similarities in the cultures that one chooses to study.
There’s a saying that discourages comparing apples and oranges, but in fact, comparing them tells you a lot about both kinds of fruit: their difference and similarities, their different tones and textures and tastes. You can see them more clearly as a result of placing them side by side. This is a metaphor, of course, for the point I am making: setting cultures in comparative relation reveals things that would not be revealed otherwise. For this reason, I am delighted to be the founding chairperson of the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Houston.
- Ph.D., University of California at Berkeley, Comparative Literature
- M.A., University of California at Berkeley, Comparative Literature
- B.A., Stanford University, English Literature
- Certificate, Institute de Touraine, French Language
I am currently Vice President of the American Comparative Literature Association, and will become President in April of 2012 for a one year term. I also serve on the Editorial Board of the PMLA (the Publication of the Modern Language Association), the leading journal in the profession of modern languages and literature. The appointment to the PMLA editorial board is for two years. I am active in the International American Studies Association, the Latin American Studies Association, and other groups focusing on the literatures and arts of the Americas.
- Baroque New Worlds: Representation, Transculturation, Counterconquest. Editor, with Monika Kaup. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010
- The Americas, Otherwise. Editor with Silvia Spitta. Special issue of Comparative Literature. Vol. 61, No. 3 (2009)
- The Inordinate Eye: New World Baroque and Latin American Fiction. University of Chicago Press, 2006
- Image and Memory: Photography from Latin America l866-l994. Editor, with Wendy Watriss. Austin: University of Texas Press, l998.
- The Usable Past: The Imagination of History in Recent Fiction of the Americas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, l997.
- Contemporary American Women Writers: Gender, Class, Ethnicity. Editor. London: Longman Publishers, 1998.
- Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Editor, with Wendy B. Faris. Duke University Press, l995.
- Writing the Apocalypse: Historical Vision in Contemporary U.S. and Latin American Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
John and Rebecca Moores Distinguished Professorship