In Honor of Susan Stanford Friedman

Susan Stanford Friedman passed away this past spring at the age of 79. She was an inspiring figure and I considered her a friend and mentor, particularly in my work on modernism in South Asia. If you're unfamiliar with her career, a look at this brief obituary at the University of Wisconsin might be a place to start. I'll be speaking at a roundtable at this year's Modernist Studies Association conference in her honor. Below is a draft of the text of my brief talk.

A Transformational Figure -- Brief Remarks for Susan Stanford Friedman Roundtable, MSA 2023

Amardeep Singh, Lehigh University

The work of Susan Stanford Friedman’s that has been most widely cited according to Google Scholar is not one of her many books focused specifically on Modernism, but her 1998 book on transnational feminism, Mappings: Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter. Mappings has an astounding 1200 citations on Google Scholar, as compared to 460 hits for Planetary Modernisms, and about 300 citations each for her two books on H.D. Admittedly, the number of citations is one among many indications of influence; given that, what might it tell us? While we are here to honor and recognize Susan Friedman’s extraordinary contributions to modernist studies, to my eye, the success of Mappings might be evidence that the MSA as a conference and professional organization only represents a small slice of the conversations with which Susan Friedman was engaged. She was also committed to the community of broadly interdisciplinary, transnational feminist scholarship, where she will also, I suspect, be thought of as a generational figure.  

I spent some time revisiting both Mappings and Planetary Modernisms while thinking about my comments for this roundtable. One immediate observation is that both are first and foremost definitional explorations. Mappings aims to test whether and how feminist scholarship can assimilate what were then about two decades of postcolonial and intersectional thought, and still be understood as feminism. Here's a brief passage:

“In its advocacy of dialogic negotiation, Mappings polemically suggests that the time has come to reverse the past pluralization of feminisms based on difference, not to return to a false notion of a universal feminism that obliterates difference but rather to reinvent a singular feminism that incorporates myriad and often conflicting cultural and political formations in a global context.” – Susan Stanford Friedman, Mappings: Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter (1998)

Friedman’s answer, as the passage above indicates, was emphatically yes – and what’s more, she believed feminists should continue to use “feminism” in the singular, even as they radically expanded their field of engagement and challenged their unthinking Eurocentric biases. Among other things, insofar as patriarchy and the domination of cis-men remain a fact of life worldwide, we will continue to need transnational feminism, even if articulated along the lines of strategic essentialism. 

Will we also continue to need “modernism”? In the Introduction to Planetary Modernisms, Friedman references how the method and aims of Mappings informed her subsequent attempt to perform the same transformational redefinition of “Modernism” – and also notes that it turned out to be a much more difficult project. Her first engagement along those lines was the 2002 essay “Definitional Excursions,” but there were many more: over the course of the subsequent fifteen years, Friedman published dozens of essays and chapters, and gave many, many talks that attempted to articulate a truly inclusive, non-Eurocentric planetary modernism. To follow the entirety of her train of thought is beyond our scope for this brief presentation, but suffice it to say that Friedman did not replicate the rhetorical gesture of assimilation and accommodation she confidently asserted in Mappings.

Planetary Modernisms rejects an additive approach to global modernisms and promotes instead a transformational one, a fundamental rethinking on a planetary scale in the longue durĂ©e as a necessary framework to fulfill the transnational turn in modernist studies and to prepare ourselves to survive and thrive in the still-unfolding modernities of the twenty-first century.” –Susan Stanford Friedman, Planetary Modernisms (2015)

Friedman ended with “Modernismsin the plural. And, judging by the complex and frequently open-ended discussions of the problems of expanding modernism across both space and time in the book (especially visible in “A Debate With Myself” at the end of the book), she was nowhere near as confident about the universal applicability of “modernism” as a marker of periodization across an expanded chronology or as an aesthetic linked to a limited set of literary forms and styles in an expanded map. That said, as my second quote above indicates, she never gave up on the term (or the MSA as an institution), even as she seemed to recognize that the radical transformation of the field she advocated was in the category of “Not there … not yet.” (A little Passage to India reference she would most certainly get!)

The expanded map has mattered to me personally, as the kind of modernism I have often wanted to discuss is part of that expanded map, specifically modernism in South Asia. It's a complex problem, as avant-garde and formally experimental writing movements generally emerged a bit later in South Asia (the 1950s and 60s), and sometimes appeared to be operating on a 'diffusionist' emulation of Euro-American modernism. South Asian writers of the 1930s tended to be much more committed to social realism -- under the umbrella of the Progressive Writers Movement. Then you have towering late-Victorian Bengali figures like Rabindranath Tagore (and his sister, Swarnakumari Devi) -- were they modernists? And of course the small number of Indian writers like Mulk Raj Anand and Ahmed Ali who spent time in the UK and published books with the support of London editors and publishers. When was modernism in South Asia? How would we define it? Are we sure we need to use the word modernism at all, since South Asian writers themselves rarely did? Susan Friedman’s work didn’t necessarily answer all of these questions, though it did make them legible to the broader modernist studies community, and I'm grateful for that. 

I first met Susan Friedman in the fall of 2002. I was a first-year faculty member at Lehigh University, and I had the temerity to organize a conference on H.D. in the author’s hometown of Bethlehem, PA, on a shoestring budget and with little in the way of administrative support. Working with my colleagues in my home department and with support from folks like Madelyn Detloff and the H.D. Society email list, I invited Susan Friedman to be the keynote – and she actually came! I quickly brushed up as much as I could on her work to write the introduction for the keynote, and to have semi-intelligent things to say over meals in Bethlehem. I'm sure in retrospect that that introduction was not terribly impressive, but I was so relieved when she acknowledged it later with characteristic terseness: "You're a quick study."

Susan Friedman came to Lehigh to speak twice more over the years, first as part of our Literature and Social Justice speaker series in 2012, and then for our considerably fancier second H.D. conference in 2015. In subsequent meetings at those events, and in our many meetings and meals over the years at the MSA and the MLA, I started to feel less like an upstart "quick study" and more like a middle-aged peer. I started to think of Susan Friedman as a forever colleague -- someone I could expect to stop and talk to at MSA and other conferences every year, no appointment necessary. I'm sad those conversations are now over, but I'm very glad to have gained so much from her over the years.