Professor Paula Rabinowitz stars in our third installment of 5 X Friday, in which we pose five questions to Department of English alumnae/i, faculty, and students. Professor Rabinowitz has been instrumental in bringing Australian National University scholar Ruth Barraclough to speak Monday, October 22, about the image of the factory girl in Korean literature. And Rabinowitz last summer published, with co-editor Cristina Giorcelli, Exchanging Clothes: Habits of Being II (University of Minnesota Press), part of a four-volume series deciphering how clothing and accessories offer cultural, political, and social meanings. More . . .
1. This summer you published the second volume in your University of Minnesota series on clothing, Habits of Being, which you edit with Italian literary scholar Cristina Giorcelli. Can you talk about the article of yours included in it?
This one is on the covers of lesbian pulp novels and why everyone always has to wear a slip in them ["Slips of the Tongue: Lesbian Pulp Fiction as How-to-Dress Manuals"]. I did research into the role of these books in the forging of an early lesbian subjectivity and culture. But also I found material on lesbian breast-binding in the 1950s and the underwear people were wearing, butch and femme underwear, so . . . you always learn something.
2. This volume also includes an essay by a former advisee, Katalin Medvedev, called "It Is a Garage Sale at Savers Every Day: An Ethnography of the Savers Thrift Department Store in Minneapolis." Medvedev, now an associate professor at the University of Georgia, earned an Apparel PhD at the U. How did you end up directing a dissertation for the College of Design?
Katalin was a professor in Hungary of Russian Literature and a quite famous radio journalist. She decided to get a PhD in women's studies and came to work with me. Then she figured out that it was easier to get a job with a PhD in design than in women's studies. So she redid her prelims and insisted that I remain her dissertation chair, along with Apparel Professor Emerita Joanne Eicher.
She is a dress historian. Her dissertation is on the use of clothing by women during the Soviet period, communist rule in Hungary, and how women subverted the constraints on them. For instance, dye lots were not the same, so in a matching outfit the skirt would be made in Poland and the jacket in East Germany, and they didn't have the same dye lot so the greens would never match. She interviewed all these women about how they redecorated their clothing. It's clothing as a site of semiotic and political dissent and discourse.
Most of the clothes that were owned by these people were burned when Hungary opened up. Apparently there's like five [communist-era] bras left in Hungary, and they're in museums--it's material culture, and it's been wiped out. A lot of her work is looking at news film to see what they were wearing. She's top-notch.
3. Didn't you have other students from Eastern Europe at that time?
Masha [Zavialova, PhD 2008] and Anca [Parvulescu, PhD 2006]; they were this cohort of brilliant women who were my students, so-called . . . all of whom knew way more than I did about everything. Anca was the Romanian translator of Gloria Steinem; Masha translated Alice Walker into Russian. They all ended up in a seminar I was teaching about materialist feminist theory. Basically what they started working on in that class became their dissertations.
4. You got an Imagine grant to bring Ruth Barraclough from Australia to speak next Tuesday Oct 22: what's your connection with her?
She had a post-doc in History and Asian Language and Literature here a few years ago and is a scholar of Korean working-class women's history. She has a terrific new book out, Factory Girl Literature: Sexuality, Violence and Representation in Industrializing Korea (University of California).
She's one of my co-editors on this project, called Sex Text Comrades, on what's called "red love": the part of the Communist Party that people forget about, which was that it was very sexually risqué in the early times. In fact the communists were supportive of gay rights and abortion in the years before Stalin clamped down. And that was central to the story of modernism and modern female experience.
And then there's the global spread of proletarian writing amongst women, which is based not on 1920s communism but rather on the very different temporalities as different nations industrialized. In Korea, women didn't start working in factories until the 1970s, but it's the same story as my story about the women in America in the 1930s [Labor and Desire: Women's Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America]. So we have scholars from all these different countries thinking about the connection between desire and proletarianism.
Fifty Shades of Red Love? You just need a good book cover.
That's easy; I have 400 of them.
I'm working on a monograph called American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street for Princeton. In a way, that pulp fiction lesbian article was the beginning of this project. It's kind of a sequel to my noir book [Black & White & Noir: America's Pulp Modernism]. It's about the paperback revolution and the circulation of high culture as trash--in the way that Faulkner became marketed as a sex novelist after Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road was such a big hit, and they turned all these Southern authors into steamy sex writers. You have to come to my office and see these paperbacks . . . .
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