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Margaret Litvin is the associate chair convener of the Arabic and Comparative Literature programs and an associate professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at the College of Arts & Sciences. She approaches her research and teaching in an interdisciplinary manner, utilizing comparative analyses on Arabic literary works. In fact, she describes herself as a historian of modern Arabic literature and theatre, and teaches Global Shakespeares (XL 344) and 1001 Nights in the World Literary Imagination (XL 441). Litvin recently co-edited a book on the intersection of Arabic and Russian histories entitled, Russian-Arab Worlds: A Documentary History, published in Oxford University Press.

What brought you to CAS World Languages & Literatures? What about the community here do you appreciate?

My department is awesome! We teach ten languages and their literatures: three East Asian languages (Chinese, Japanese, Korean), four Middle Eastern languages (Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish), as well as Hindi-Urdu, Russian, and German. I work on Arabic, also drawing on Russian, French, English, and some Spanish. Some of my closest colleagues do things like Japanese! What we share is a love of languages, literary flows, and translation. Our conversations in the sixth-floor School of Theology hallway are amazing, it’s like a Silk Road of ideas. Although I have also worked hard to build a Middle East Studies program at BU, I’m glad that my departmental home is organized around a topic rather than a region. Not only have we “provincialized Europe” by putting our department’s center of gravity so far east, but we have also avoided some of the other provincialisms and tensions that can grow in departments organized around a single nation or region.

What is your favorite course to teach at CAS and why?

Right now I’m teaching Global Shakespeares, and it’s a blast. I have students who are majoring in stage management or film/TV writing, and others who had never seen a play in a theatre before our class field trip. We read plays by Shakespeare and offshoots and parodies by later authors from John Fletcher to Djanet Sears. In any given semester we might watch Shakespeare movies set in the Caribbean, the Soviet Union, Japan, Kashmir, the Persian Gulf, and/or Korea (not to mention 10 Things I Hate About You.) I don’t think Shakespeare is “universal,” but he does get around. That means that whatever place or artform fascinates you, you can find Shakespeare adaptations there. You can bring your entire self and all your interests to the class.

How does your research in Arabic and Comparative Literature treat geographical and disciplinary boundaries?

I kind of ignore them. When writing about Arabic literature, I assume that Arab writers are just like writers everywhere: they read omnivorously, both original texts and translations, keeping whatever ideas and images they find useful or compelling, spitting out the rest. When writing about Arab-Russian and Arab-Soviet ties, as in a new sourcebook I just co-edited with two historian friends, I always focus not on the policymakers but on cultural diplomacy’s recipients, who are far from passive: What was in it for them? And whether I’m doing more historical or more literary research, I always try to keep the other one’s methods in view: What is the style or subtext of this political declaration? Or, what was the historical question to which this literary work was the answer?

What is the most recent paper you’ve published, and why was it meaningful to you and your work?

The article is “Intimate Foreign Relations: Racist Inclusion in the Soviet Dormitory Novel” in Comparative Literature 75:2 (2023). Invited to contribute to a special journal issue on “Socialist Antiracisms,” I did two things. First, I identified the “Soviet dormitory novel” as a hitherto unknown but coherent subgenre of study abroad fiction. (More people should write about study abroad fiction.) Second and more important, I got to write about the dangers of antiracist orthodoxy. The Soviet student dorm was a microcosm of the Soviet Union itself: a honeycomb of racist inclusion that loudly professed antiracism and friendship but, by verifying identities and letting those ideas stew in the cauldron of unfairly distributed resources, tended to make human beings treat each other more hatefully and violently rather than less. I think my analysis – drawing on novelists from Turkey, Albania, Egypt, and Ukraine who studied in the USSR, an empire that no longer exists – is relevant to our predicament in America today.

Interview by Katrina Scalise (COM’25)