JHI Circle of Fellows Spotlight—Urvashi Chakravarty

November 25, 2022 by Sonja Johnston

Urvashi Chakravarty (Ph.D. University of Pennsylvania, 2010) works on early modern English literature, critical race studies, queer studies, and slavery and servitude in early modern England and the Atlantic world. She joins the JHI in 2022-23 as one of our Faculty Research Fellows.

JHI: What are your main research interests?

UC: My main interests centre on early modern English literature and particularly its intersections with and interventions into how we understand the genealogies of racial formation, the history of slavery, and the construction of gender and sexuality. For instance, my first book, Fictions of Consent, which was published earlier this year, excavated the ideologies of racialised slavery in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. I have written or am writing on the history of indentured labour and domestic service, the nexus of class and race, the history of race and reproduction, the construction of futurity, especially along racialised and queer lines, and the fields and future of critical whiteness studies as well as early modern critical race studies. I am also currently editing a volume on intersectionality in early modern English literature, and am deeply interested in the racial history of feminism. I am also beginning work on a third book, on the racial construction of the child.

JHI: What project(s) are you working on at the JHI and why did you choose it (them)?

UC: This year I am working on my second monograph, which attends to the nexus of race and reproduction in the contexts of early modern Atlantic slavery, and in particular to the connection between English formations of family, kinship, and genealogy and the operations of race and slavery in the Atlantic world. The word family itself, as I demonstrate in my first book, is deeply rooted etymologically in slavery, and derives from the Latin famulus (household slave). The aim of this project is to unfold the reliance of English constructions of family and (especially racial) futurity to the global structures of imperialism and enslavement as they take root in the early modern world. Currently titled From Fairest Creatures: Race, Reproduction, and Slavery in the Early Modern British Atlantic World, this book focusses in particular on the construction of white womanhood in the British Atlantic, and demonstrates how in marking womanhood as a specifically white construction and in rendering womanhood central to the construction of whiteness, early modern texts reveal white womanhood’s central role in the operations of enslavement and imperialism in ways that continue to resonate to this day.

Although my main aim for this year as a Faculty Research Fellow is to complete my second book, I am also a firm believer that part of our responsibility is also to the intellectual communities that sustain us. This year as a JHI fellow therefore began with a conference which I co-organised with Professor Liza Blake (English, U of T) and which was co-sponsored by a JHI Programme for the Arts Grant, on the genealogies of racial formation (programme | videos).

JHI: What are you hoping to experience this year as a JHI Fellow? What are you most looking forward to?

UC: This year, I am most looking forward to learning from my fellow fellows. We are an exceptionally interdisciplinary group, and one of the highlights of my week is the Fellow’s Presentation where we learn about each other’s projects and have a robust discussion informed by transhistorical and cross-disciplinary perspectives and methodologies. I’ve already learned a tonne, and I’m really excited for the exchanges to come over the course of the year.

I am also really looking forward to having the space to write and think and read this year! Even though my current focus is on my second monograph, that time has been so productive and generative that I have also been able to start thinking through my third book, which I’m excited to map out further over the coming months.

JHI: Share something you read/watched/listened to recently that you enjoyed/were inspired by

UC: As someone who works on the history of race, slavery, gender and queerness, I’m constantly grappling with the role of the archive and its contingencies. So, although these aren’t new readings but rather constant intellectual touchstones, in my reading I find myself returning again and again to texts that grapple with the role of the archive in the histories of race and slavery – for instance, Saidiya Hartman’s Venus in Two Acts, and Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible.

I’m also really interested in the racial history of feminism; in many ways, my second book is an examination of what I’m calling ‘early modern white feminism’. I’ve therefore really appreciated thinking with books by women of colour unfolding these dynamics, among them Ruby Hamad’s White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Colour.

And finally, as a Shakespearean, I’m always interested in the reception and appropriation of Shakespeare in contemporary contexts, especially since I don’t work on that in my scholarship. Recently, I really enjoyed the TV adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, a wonderful book that made for a beautiful series that also resonated deeply in the moment of a pandemic.

JHI: What is a fun fact about you?

UC: I’m a huge fan of murder mysteries and am always thrilled to receive new recommendations for reading or viewing (the cosier the better!).