You have a PhD in English and you're an Assistant Professor of English at Guttman Community College and you've written all of these papers about complex literary topics. Could you briefly break down the main points of your Kimmy Schmidt talk though?
My academic papers aren't that complex theoretically--mostly, they point out some aspect of the fictional work I think other critics have glossed over or missed. In a similar way, I have a few thoughts about Kimmy Schmidt (full confession, I have a huge decades-long crush on Tina Fey). I think the way Kimmy looks and feels--the pop colours, the lighthearted approach to tragedy, the cheerful focus on NYC living--say something about how it resists becoming yet another horror story about a violated young woman. It reminds me of something the cultural commentator Walter Benjamin wrote in his essay, "The Storyteller" about the form of fictional narratives. Benjamin says that back in the day, cultures used epics to convey real information about how to live a life. In contrast, the novel is a modern form whose primary intention is to relate one person's life; it doesn't necessarily try to provide a blueprint for how everyone should live. We're all too alienated from each other for that. Benjamin explains that in modernity, basic commonality between people has been lost for a variety of reasons, primarily war. Thinking about Kimmy in this way, I love the show's anti-novelistic features. It's not interested in giving us Kimmy's backstory except in random moments. Instead, in this new medium of the Netflix-TV show, it tries to reestablish common ground between us, putatively normal viewers, and the so-called abnormal Kimmy. Without pretending to explain her past, it establishes a kind of similarity of reaction and of current experience with this individual. I think this is radical, a fresh approach to storytelling that Benjamin (another of my heroes) would have loved!
You've put together this really great Muslim Journey's reading & discussion series. How did you come up with that idea?
Muslim Journeys began because I read Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men over winter break and it blew my mind! I want more people to read this book, and the good people at Humanities New York offer many R&D Series for any registered charity to organise events at which their public scholars (me, for example) will come and talk books with a group.
What can people expect from your talk about Virginia Woolf?
Three pieces of advice she gives for the writing life.