GW English Alums on the Move: Nirmala Menon (PhD ’08)

Nirmala Menon
GW PhD, 2008
“YOU NEVER QUITE GROW UP FROM WANTING TO CHANGE THE WORLD” – Nirmala Menon talks about her career, and about GW
After she earned her PhD from GW’s English department, Nirmala Menon took an Assistant Professor position at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire.  Four years later, she decided to return to India, where she now teaches in the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) department of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Indore. To mark the publication of her co-edited collection of essays titled Migrant Identities of “Creole Cosmopolitans”: Transcultural Narratives of Contemporary Postcoloniality, we spoke to her about her work and her life after GW.


Tell us something about your graduate school experience at GW.

The English department was a very exciting place to be and I was fortunate to be part of the cutting edge British-Postcolonial area of expertise.  I was lucky of course in securing a tenure-track position, but I also credit the training I received from Profs. Judith Plotz, Kavita Daiya, and Jonathan Gil Harris. Judith’s erudite influence on my scholarship, research and pedagogy is so deep that I cannot even begin to enumerate it here.  Kavita’s focused and inspiring feedback on my work ensured its readiness for publication after my defense. Gil pushed my boundaries of thinking theory-wise which shows in my simultaneous respect and irreverence for theoretical narratives. 

Kavita’s postcolonial literature seminar was a blast – I confess that I completely plagiarize from my memory of her lectures to teach Gayatri Spivak’s subaltern essay even today. I have digitized, and saved on Google drive, Marshall Alcorn’s generous comments on my seminar paper. I still look at some of my notes from the advanced literary theory class I took with Robert McRuer that covered such extensive intellectual ground and I use them for my own literary theory class today. 


Tell us about your book.

Migrant Identities of
“Creole Cosmopolitans”
A defining question that ties together the essays in the collection is: How do aesthetic and stylistic choices actually accentuate the condition of dislocation of the migrant, and by doing so also “trouble” the seemingly global promise of cosmopolitanism?
    The essays suggest that there are ways in which the migrant aesthetics, language, and imaginations in art forms may offer insights into the state of postcolonial studies, specifically about the interactions between hybridity  and cosmopolitanism.
What about your current research?
My doctoral students and I are developing a digital database of scholarship in Indian language literatures, beginning with a pilot of four languages. The project is exciting and I am learning a lot as we progress. I also serve on the Editorial Board of the Open Library for the Humanities (OLH) which is an innovative digital humanities publishing project reimagining publishing and dissemination of humanities scholarship. 
My monograph titled The Indian Postcolonial: Re-Map, Re-Imagine and Re-Translate is under contract for publication in Fall 2015.  
After a decade of living in the US, you decided to move to India. Was that a difficult decision?
I often get asked this question: Why did I move? I am not sure I have a good answer yet. It was part personal, part academic, part wanting to contribute to and grow with a new institute. And of course – you never quite grow up from wanting to change the world – do you?
I think any big move is a very difficult decision – so, yes, it was difficult. I miss DC, I miss my department at Saint Anselm where I was fortunate to know and develop friendships with wonderful colleagues and students. Of course, the world is a much smaller place now and I travel back and forth as much as possible, and academic engagements/ collaborations can cross borders, so I feel that I still have deep connections stateside. 
How do you compare academic work experience in New Hampshire and India?
From a liberal arts college where the humanities are the center of the college, I now find myself in an elite institution that is a technology powerhouse and hence, inevitably, carries some techno-determinism as a cultural legacy. But the Humanities And Social Sciences (HSS) department is a vibrant place with exciting research and pedagogy; I have colleagues doing exciting research work in areas as diverse as water resources management, literature of the North East, the newly emerging Indian English popular fiction, Cognitive Human factors and much more. The department is by definition interdisciplinary as it encompasses at least five different disciplines.
I also deeply value the stellar and brilliant student body of the institute both at the undergraduate and graduate level. My classes are therefore always challenging and often straddle vastly diverse student experiences. It is, in a nutshell, a microcosm of India and hence like everything else in India both cause for hope and despair. Hope – that these students compare with the best anywhere and can be creative, engaging, frustrating, foolish and enterprising.  Despair that I wonder if we stymie all of those qualities within rigorous but rigid academic boundaries ensuring success but depriving them of the discoveries of failure, even colossal failure!
Do you have any advice for our current English graduates or for those who are reading this and are thinking of graduate school in Literature?
I think that GW’s English graduate school is just a wonderful place to be. I especially think that the British-postcolonial area of expertise really gives the department its international and global identity with its student and faculty body as also its research agendas. I cherish that from my GW experience and I hope they continue to expand and build on it.

    I think graduate school is a wonderful experience, and trust me; you will never meet so many extraordinary people (faculty and students) in one place anywhere else! So, make the most of it. I truly believe that your research should engage your passion because it is a long commitmenthowever, it is also pragmatic to consider career paths and options and be judicious in your selections. I would emphasize that academics and teaching should not be the sole career option and students should start early looking for areas where they can put their research to good use. Digital Humanities kind of opens up possibilities for literary research combined with translatable skills that can carry over to different industries, and I think graduate students should arm themselves with some of those too.

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