Q&A with Ania Loomba

Ania Loomba

“For me, treating Shakespeare like a god is to kill it.”

Ania Loomba has always felt there were crucial connections between Shakespearian times and 1970s India.

For Loomba, a native of India, exploring issues of race and gender in the Renaissance period made studying the literature “more exciting” and personally resonant, but it wasn’t until Loomba went to England to pursue her Ph.D. and found herself in a country dealing with uncomfortable issues of race that she discovered how relevant her research was.

“In India, I didn’t grow up thinking that I was a particular race,” she explains. “When you go to England, because of the politics around the South Asian community, it was impossible to stay indifferent to those questions.

[I thought about] Shakespeare’s own world and how that was shaped by issues of race and colonialism, and also how those issues shaped questions of gender and women.” Today, the Catherine Bryson Professor of English in the School of Arts and Sciences, teaches classes on early modern literature, including Shakespeare, as well as post-colonial literature and history. She believes an examination of race and gender in early modern work enriches the experience of reading that period’s literature.

“So far, I’ve taught several classes at Penn on these subjects and some students, maybe, are disappointed,” she says. “But for a lot of them, it’s not a reductive reading, but a more expansive, a more wholistic, more exciting reading of this literature.”

Ania Loomba

“For me, treating Shakespeare like a god is to kill it.”

Q. What is the connection between your life in India and Shakespeare’s writing?
For one, our families and the people around me went to arranged marriages in a way I don’t think a young person growing up in the West quite appreciates as a lived condition of life. Also, there is enormous violence against women in my society, but also outspoken independent women. I felt that exactly the tensions that are embodied in some of the Renaissance dramas between feminists and action and power, India really has. We didn’t grow up with submissive and docile women. We grew up in a very political, feminist atmosphere after independence, where women were active in public life, women were speaking up, women really seemed to be the social conscience. … But at the same time Indian society remains and certainly was then, very patriarchal. … I tried to juggle these two things: On the one hand, the study of race and colonialism; and on the other, the story of colonialism and cololonist education in the 19th and 20th centuries, of which I was a product.

Q. Is this a popular means of approaching the Renaissance or early modern period?
It’s a huge field now. … It’s the time when we see modern notions of family, state, religion, sexuality, all of those, being formed, so Renaissance study is an enormous field. Of course, we don’t call it Renaissance anymore. We call it early modern. You can’t study Europe without looking at the whole European context, without looking at the larger context of travel and discovery. But we also now know that the early modern period should be thought of as the early colonial period. I like to call it the first globalization. Many things that are taken to be so new and dazzling about globalization today, you can trace directly back to that period.

Q. This is very different than the traditional picture of that period. Do people resist this part of history?
Of course, it’s going against a set of very narrow canonical things, but times have changed. I’m no longer doing it alone. When I studied Shakespeare, I was told Shakespeare had never seen a black man in his life. That’s simply untrue. We have to make the case that to study issues of race and colonial contact in the period makes the literature more exciting rather than closes it off.

As an Indian, I felt that the moment I can start talking about race and gender, I have something to say about these plays. They speak to me more, not less, as a result. … In some ways, because we are dealing with Shakespeare and Renaissance drama there may be a very traditional, conservative resistance. But times are changing and this adds to our scholarship.

Q. Is it hard for some young people to get past the language of Shakespeare?
I always think it should be harder than it is. I have students who will take this class because they feel as though they ought to take Shakespeare. I always tell them, you’re allowed to say, ‘This isn’t a good play.’ You’re allowed to critique Shakespeare, treat Shakespeare just as you would any other author. Because reading literature is about a love of literature, but it isn’t about an uncritical love. It isn’t just about celebration. They’re allowed to say, ‘this play was badly crafted,’ for example. For me, treating Shakespeare like a god is to kill it.

I always think that there should be more people who feel the language is dated. Maybe they feel pressure to say it isn’t because there’s so much cultural emphasis on Shakespeare as the heart of western civilization.

Q. How do you approach issues of colonialism?
One way is to say the study of colonialism really involves getting into different spaces, histories, geographies and literary texts which make accessible the dynamics of the colonial encounter. The other way is also to think about colonizing as something that isn’t quite over. It is because of colonialism that you have issues of race and minorities, for instance, in metropolitan countries. The third way is to think about the contemporary world, to think about neo-colonialism and imperialism, especially today when, in the wake of Iraq and 9/11 and the so-called war on terror, you have people openly both advocating and denouncing empires.

With post-colonialism, you can never understand everything. What you can do is build an awareness of the vast differences or different histories so that you don’t rush to easy generalizations.

Q. Tell me a bit about your life in India.
I was brought up in a very unusual family, I think. My father and mother were political activists. My mother had studied at Harvard in the ’40s so already the type of upbringing I had was kind of different—a lot of people studied abroad, but they usually went to England. I was very much a tomboy and brought up with complete freedom to roam the city, and I love Delhi. For me it’s as exciting as some people find New York. I find it a vibrant city full of life and people. I grew up surrounded by a lot of political people and a lot of artists and writers. I had that kind of a life—but not so much money [laughing] because they were political activists. We were very privileged in some ways ... but I didn’t lead a very sheltered life of a rich girl in Delhi.

Q. Did you get involved with political activism?
Oh very much so. My father died in an air crash when I was 18. Up until then, I was not that interested in politics, but after he died, it kind of got me into the students’ movement, which was quite alive at that time. After a while ... I got very involved in the women’s movement.

There were demonstrations every day. One of the big campaigns was against the giving and taking of dowries and the killing of young brides. We used to picket homes where we heard that young women had been tortured or murdered. The police never used to take action, so we would go and picket police stations and try and put pressure on the police. … I still have a home there and I go back regularly. I feel that it in some ways keeps me in touch and keeps me honest.

Q. What are you working on right now?
I’m working with a colleague of mine at West Virginia University called Jonathan Burton.

He and I are putting together a collection of documents [“Race: A Documentary Companion”] from the 16th and 17th centuries—legal documents, medical documents, cultural writing, travel writings, which open up the question of race.

I have a book co-edited with four other people [“Post-colonial Studies and Beyond”], asking people to think about how the study of post-colonialism changed their fields.

Then I am writing a book about the contact between Renaissance England and the East—Persia, Turkey, India, the Malaka Islands—and how that contact shaped the making of English theater in the Renaissance. I’m going to call it, “Of Queens and Spices,” but somebody said I should call it, “The Spice Girls.”

Q. Do you have any recommendations for people who haven’t ever read Shakespeare, or haven’t touched his plays in a very long time?
One of my very favorites remains, “Antony and Cleopatra.” It’s always great fun to teach and most students really love it because it has a very powerful woman at the heart of it and it has a very passionate love affair between two people from different countries, so it’s a cross-cultural encounter which is both political and romantic.

“The Merchant of Venice” is something I always teach and again it gets a lot of people’s interest because of the question of Jewish difference—it is a question of race and culture and all those other things. “Othello” is hard to avoid. The fourth one, which is always considered a romance, but is actually one of the most deeply political of Shakespeare’s plays, is “The Tempest.”

Of course, the point is not just to find representations of others, but to think about how this might have shaped the history plays. So I always teach “Henry V,” which is about England and the making of an English king.

Race is not only about other people. Race is also about the mainstream.

Originally published on February 10, 2005