A Professor Takes a New Direction

Associate Professor of Spanish Adam Lifshey recently won a New Directions fellowship to help his study of Filipino and Taiwanese literature. Photo by Jasveen Bindra.

April 29, 2014—Adam Lifshey’s academic interests have always leaned toward subjects he wasn’t taught in school. In his early days of academia, Lifshey, an associate professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, produced work on Equatorial Guinea—the only Spanish-speaking African nation. It was a path left largely uncharted by other Latin Americanists, who primarily study Spain or Latin America. But it’s why Lifshey was drawn to it.

Over the years Lifshey has focused his work on Asian and African literature in Spanish, specifically in the Philippines and Equatorial Guinea. But literature isn’t just an academic interest—Lifshey is also a novelist in his own right. One critic compared his 2011 novel, As Green as Paradise, to the magical realism classic One Hundred Years of Solitude by the recently deceased literary giant Gabriel Garcia Márquez.

Lifshey’s curiosity has been a boon throughout his academic career. Recently, it helped land him a prestigious fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The New Directions fellowship rewards academics who are 6 to 12 years into their careers with funds to pursue new areas of inquiry apart from their primary expertise. Lifshey’s fellowship will allow him to study Mandarin Chinese and pursue a master’s degree in Taiwan studies. His long-term goal is compare the culture and literary works of Taiwan and the Philippines, two societies that seem to share little despite their proximity.

Lifshey sat down to chat recently about the fellowship, the Philippines, and how to learn Mandarin while parenting a toddler.

Georgetown College: How do you envision using the New Directions fellowship?
Adam Lifshey: Technically, I teach modern Latin American literature. However, my research is primarily on Filipino literature in Spanish. I’m one of the very few people in the world who looks at 20th-century Filipino literature in Spanish. The Philippines is right next door to Taiwan. But the two societies are never really talked about in the same breath because culturally they’re perceived to be very different. So I proposed that I study Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese culture.

GC: What are the specifics of the fellowship?
AL: So specifically what I proposed was to go to Taiwan and study Mandarin intensively during the summer of 2015 and then [during] the school year of 2016–17, enroll in the M.A. program in Taiwan studies at the University of London where I would continue working on my Mandarin while taking courses on Taiwanese culture. Then after the fellowship is finished, hopefully I would have the skills to be able to start doing comparative Filipino-Taiwanese work.

GC: How did you get interested in these topics?
AL: I have a pretty unusual background for a Latin Americanist. I was not a Spanish major in college, and I didn’t have much formal preparation in Latin American literature until I got to my Ph.D. program. But in lieu of that, I had an interest in lots of things all the way around the world. When I first started publishing articles, I found myself extremely interested in the one African country where Spanish is spoken. Normally, if you get your degree in Spanish, you’re pretty much forced to pick Spain or Latin America. And because of my relatively non-Spanish background, I was interested in everything else.

GC: Why the Philippines?
AL: After a few years of studying Equatorial Guinea, I realized that there was an Asian country that was also colonized by Spain. So I started reading up. Georgetown gave me grants to go to the Philippines and do archival research. I discovered that there was less written about Filipino literature in Spanish than there had been about African literature in Spanish, despite the fact that there was much more literature produced in the Philippines. There was this vast tradition that pretty much no one was looking at.

GC: Do you want to help spread the word about Filipino literature?
AL: No, it’s actually much more than that. To me, it seems like the Philippines is fundamental to understanding the globalized world we live in today. It’s not some sort of backwater that’s irrelevant, though that’s how it’s perceived. The Philippines is a place where the United States first became a global power. It has been invaded by countries all over the world, and, as such, it’s really a bellwether of this sort of very internationalized global world we live in today.

GC: How so?
AL: The techniques that the United States would use in places like Vietnam and Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan all have their origins in what the United States was doing in the Philippines. So I think if we understand the Philippines better, it’s a way of understanding the United States better as well. So that’s why it’s not just about spreading the word. I think this is getting to the most fundamental matters.

GC: So you already know Spanish and Portuguese and you’re working on Tagalog. Now you’re going to add Mandarin to the mix? That’s a lot of languages.
AL: I like keeping it interesting. But I also have a three-year-old and that happily takes up most of my available time. There are only so many languages one can learn while one is changing a diaper.

—Lauren Ober