”Defying Global Language,” edited by Cheryl Toman, offers new perspectives on ethnic studies

CherylToman1For the first time, Cameroon’s traditional oral Fun’da poetry performed by women has been translated into English and appears in print in a new volume of essays on the changing field of ethnic studies, Defying the Global Language (Teneo Press).

Cheryl Toman, director of the Ethnic Studies Program and associate professor of French in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, edited the book.

It includes the critical essay on poetry by Gilbert Doho, who hails from Cameroon and is founding director of the university’s Ethnic Studies Program. Doho, an associate professor in the modern languages department, translated the works by the women, giving voice to people infrequently heard from in political and economic conversations of village life.

“Many times, publishers like books on how major world languages have impacted lesser-spoken languages,” Toman said. “But this book shows the opposite, of how little-known languages, even those spoken by a few thousand speakers, have an impact on major languages of the world.”

Doho’s contribution is one of the seven essays that explore how the field of ethnic studies has changed since it began in the United States as an academic discipline in the 1960s.

“This book looks at notions of race, gender, class and ethnicity and how they are expressed—or not expressed—by language,” Toman said.

Like other disciplines that change with time, Toman discusses how ethnic studies has evolved in the United States from focusing on Americans with roots in Asia, Africa or Latin American countries to much broader perspectives and voices. “Language” here is defined in the broadest sense as shown by Bates College assistant professor Theri Alyce Pickens’ essay, “The Question of Having a Body in Ethnic Studies.”

Toman said the essays also demonstrate how ethnicity to Americans takes on different meanings for people in other countries like Africa where ethnic or religious differences can influence languages.

Her book is among the few that stray from concentrating on influences of an individual language to provide this broader scope of the field’s current research. An essay about an African comic book by Julia diLiberti, from the College of DuPage in Illinois, is an example, Toman said.

Five of the seven essays were inspired by conversations among intellectuals and writers analyzed in papers presented in an American Comparative Literature Association seminar in 2009 at Harvard University that Toman and Gilbert led. The book, Toman said, continues those conversations and makes them available to other scholars.

Louis Yapo, of the University of Abidjan and  the State University of New York at Albany, provided an example of how native languages influence prominent ones in his essay, “French as an Assaulted Language.” He discusses how African literature, such as Ahmadou Kourouma’s novel, Les soleils des indépendances (The Suns of Independence), has incorporated words now accepted into the French language.

Other essays examine “Chinese Americanness” by Anastasia Wright Turner; Indian womanhood in novels by Anita Baksh (University of Maryland, College Park); and defiant language in Martinican novels by Elisabeth M. Lore (University of California at Davis).

After several years of compiling the work and editing the submission, Toman said the completed volume “demonstrates the latest trends in ethnic studies without dismissing the original theories that shaped the field.”

She believes it’s an important book for the fields of comparative literatures and linguistics, and especially in fields such as Women and Gender Studies, African and African-American Studies, Asian Studies, French and Francophone Studies, Caribbean Studies in English, Middle Eastern Studies, and Postcolonial Studies.