Spotlight on CLA

Professor Nir Eisikovits and the Applied Ethics Center

Part of UMass Boston's Philosophy Department, the new Applied Ethics Center promotes research, teaching, and awareness of ethics in public life.

In the past few months the center has initiated the Ethics Forum, a series of conversations meant to promote civic discourse around difficult topics. Questions we have explored (or are about to explore) include violence by the Antifa movement, conspiracy theories, privacy and face recognition technology, mass incarceration, and CTE in tackle football. We are also running a podcast series that allows us to delve into questions more rigorously. Recent podcasts featured conversations with Brown University’s Glenn Loury (on the debate around Civil War monuments) and with Copenhagen’s Thomas Brudholm (on hate and resentment in public life).

We recently hosted the National Book Award winning author, James Carroll, who gave a public lecture titled “Who Loaded Trump’s Gun: A History of America’s Nucler Sin”). In addition to these activities the center is pursuing longer term teaching and research collaborations around two themes: how cities, including Boston, come to terms with a troubled past (apropos the national monuments debate) and the ethical implications of Artificial Intelligence.

Please check out our website: umb.edu/ethics. Podcasts and some of the public lectures are available there.

Interview with Shilpi Suneja, MFA Alumna and Recent NEA Grant Winner

1. Tell us a little about yourself.

I was born in north India, in Kanpur, a small industrial town that was founded almost entirely by the British and is now known for its leather factories and defunct wool mills. The city was the site of the great mutiny of 1857, one of the first instances of anticolonial struggle where the native sepoys revolted against their British officers and allegedly drowned them in the Ganges river. This historical notoriety of my town always fascinated me. Growing up in the "third world" we inherit this sense that things around us--the parks, the politics, the poverty, the failing infrastructure, the out-of-order plumbing are at  best pale comparisons of and at worst deviations from the way things are actually supposed to be. Even as a child--I grew up on Nancy Drews and Dickens, wondering what donuts and picnic hampers were--I could feel this lack.Then at the age of 15 I came to the U.S. My parents and I came right around the turn of the century, at a time when Indian and American cultures weren't the same as they are now, and the enigma of that arrival stayed with me, and has since inspired my writing. 

2. Tell us about what inspires you to write, or what inspired you to become a writer.

I was always at home with books; the idea of home was basically a good book. Reading to me feels like an incredible out-of-body act of living someone else's life, looking through someone else's eyes, and I always wanted to create that magic for others. My foray into writing began surreptitiously at NC State where as an undergrad I took courses that introduced me to the American south, to writers like Welty and Faulkner. Then I pursued a Masters in English at NYU. Studying postcolonial theory with Rajeshwari Sunder Rajan imparted me a vocabulary with which to think concretely about the phenomena that have shaped our modern world--colonialism, slavery, migration, globalization. My writing, I feel in many ways, is a response to the readings I did at NYU, to scholars such as Fanon, Cesaire, Said, and Ngugi wa Thiong'o.

But my writing really began with reading Balzac. His oeuvre is so important even Marx read him. Balzac's preoccupation with people's economic lives--their inheritances, their bankruptcies, their greed, their penury--gives us the most through literary representation of eighteenth-century Parisian society. I've always  aspired to this kind of top-down, thorough examination of people's lives. My first novel is about the 1947 Partition of India when the British split their favorite colony into a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan, and caused the greatest mass migration of modern times, when thirteen million people were forced to give up their ancestral homes, livelihoods and cultures. My grandfather was affected by Partition, but it was more my own childhood that caused me to return to that moment of division. I was fascinated by how Partition was remembered and disseminated, how it lived on in public memory. I wrote my novel as a bildungsroman, which captures the coming to age of not simply a child but of the shadow of an event. Partition left a sizeable shadow on South Asia, birthing a culture of division. It lead to the 1992 demolition of a beloved fifteenth century mosque, widespread rioting, and a permanent condition of suspicion and hatefulness between Hindus and Muslims. The tragedy of this legacy is not simply limited to India, but has repercussions everywhere. The south Asian Partition has been replicated elsewhere and has led to death and destruction in many parts of the world. In my novel I look at these big things by focusing on what the eyes of a thirteen-year-old boy can see, because, it is only through collecting the small emotional moments that we can understand the true effects of these machinations.

3. Tell us about what you loved about the MFA Program at UMass.

I am the unusual person who holds 2 MFAs, the first from Boston University, the second from UMass Boston. The BU MFA was the first and most important landmark in my writing career. Studying with Leslie Epstein and Ha Jin was my proverbial first step as a writer. After BU I was at a loss as to how to begin writing again on my own, so I applied to UMB because I wanted to study with Askold Melnyczuk. And I am so glad I did! He is an amazing teacher! I can't understand how he is able to give so much of himself to so many of his students! Then I had the incredible luck to study with the incomparable Fanny Howe. She may be a poet, a novelist and an essayist with the Ruth Lily prize and 40+ books under her belt, but she and I gossip like school girls every time we get together! Her wonderfully innocent spirit has been an inspiration to me. While at UMB I also began work on my novel in earnest, of which I'd written the first 60 pages for Ha Jin's class at BU. I took an independent study course with the fabulous Sana Haroon, a professor of South Asian history and she helped me to research and reconnect with my family's roots in Lahore, Pakistan. Most importantly at UMB I made some life-long friends, some of whom I would not be able to imagine my  life without. What the UMB MFA program does really well is to provide a solid community to burgeoning writers for three whole years, which isn't a small amount of time at all. You develop habits that teach you not only how to talk the talk but to walk the walk. 

4. Tell us about winning the NEA and what your next steps will be.

Late last year I saw a reminder somewhere for the NEA deadline, and I remember thinking, it's such a long shot, why bother? But with all the talk of the NEA shutting down, I thought, what if I don't get another chance! So I threw my hat in. Fast-forward a year later. The day I got "the call" I was struggling to get out of bed, mourning an acute personal loss that had left me drained and distraught. I was so mired in my distress that when I saw the email from NEA asking me to call them back, my first thought was, not only did I not get the grant, I have to bear the embarrassment of hearing about it as well! I think my first words to the director of the literature program were, "Thank you so much, but, are you sure you have the right person?" As soon as I hung up the phone I cried my eyes out, this time because I couldn't believe the universe finally had a "yes" for me. The only thing I could believe was my mother's clairvoyance. Earlier that morning, she'd said: "Something good will happen for you today, but if you don't get out of bed you won't find out!"

Now that my writing has received this wonderful recognition, I will try doubly hard to write more, think deeper, and send things out with more confidence. The grant money will help me to hold off on full-time employment for a few months so that I can send out my first novel for submission, finish a collection of short stories, and begin first drafts of two new novels. Most of all, I hope the distinction helps me to write with greater conviction about these brutally big things that are shaping our world at  such a rapid pace. But I also hope that my work carries a bit of lightness, a bit of joy so that readers feel like making time for truth, reflection, beauty--for art.