Visiting Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and French Anna Levett Receives Prestigious ACLS Fellowship

The fellowship awards scholarship in the humanities and interpretive social sciences.

June 3, 2022

Amanda Nagy

Anna Levett
Anna Levett's current book project explores surrealism in Arab literature.
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

Anna Levett, visiting assistant professor of comparative literature and French, has been named the 2022 American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Pauline Yu Fellow. This year, the ACLS Fellowship was awarded to 60 scholars out of nearly 1,000 applicants, following a rigorous, multi-stage peer review process. The Pauline Yu fellowship provides a $65,000 stipend and will support Levett's work on her first monograph, "Become Other: Sufism, Surrealism, and the Arab Mediterranean." 

The ACLS Fellowship program supports exceptional scholarship in the humanities and interpretive social sciences that has the potential to make significant contributions within and beyond their fields. As with the 2021 competition, this year the ACLS Fellowship program focuses its support on early-career, untenured scholars, many of whom are facing significant disruption to their research and career ambitions due to the widespread social and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Half of this year’s fellows are working outside the tenure track.

Levett says the idea for her book project began many years ago when she read the essay “Maghrebi Surrealism” by the Algerian poet Habib Tengour. 

“The piece is a kind of playful manifesto where Tengour describes the essential surreality of life in the Maghreb, otherwise known as North Africa. He quotes the 12th-century Sufi mystic Ibn ‘Arabi, who wrote, ‘If my works show any kind of formal composition, this form is not intentional. I have written some of my works on the behest of Allah, sent to me during my sleep or through a revelation,’” Levett explains. 

“Tengour says, Ibn ‘Arabi was a surrealist—because he was writing poetry in a kind of semi-conscious, dream state, just as the original French surrealists prescribed. Tengour is not being completely serious, but I found the connection that he draws fascinating. Once I started looking into it, I realized that other Arab writers had also identified parallels between Sufism and surrealism. What are the implications of calling a 1,000-year-old religious practice “surreal,” a term that refers to an early 20th-century aesthetic movement? This is the question that I explored in my PhD dissertation, and that I am pursuing further in the book.”

Levett says her research builds on the work of other scholars in thinking about surrealism and its manifestations in Arab literature. Her project also highlights the ethical and political dimensions of surrealism. 

“The thing that fascinates me about both Sufism and surrealism is that they both entail this mode of what I call ‘becoming other,’ where the idea is that your own ego or sense of self is destabilized and you become imprinted or even possessed by another force or subjectivity—whether that force is Allah, or the ‘surrealist voice.’

“My argument is that Tengour and a handful of other Arab authors writing in the late 20th century see something liberating in this mode of ‘becoming other’––in particular, they see it as a means of liberation from the concept of ‘identity’ itself. In the late-20th-century Arab world, everyone was talking about identity, but these authors were more interested in poetry that destabilizes the self, rather than work that affirms or announces who that self is. Our current moment is also consumed with questions of identity, and so I like to think that my project draws on the work of these writers to help us conceive of other ways to think about art, politics, and community today.”

In recent years, the ACLS has oriented more of its resources toward non-tenure-track faculty, who have less access to funds and less time to devote to research. At Oberlin, Levett teaches Introduction to Comparative Literature, Introduction to Literary Translation, and Art of Revolution, which examines the relationship between art and politics in the context of the Arab Uprisings that began in 2011. When the ACLS grant begins in January 2023, Levett plans to travel to Paris for a month to do archival research.

“So much of my research is concerned with dreams—surrealist dreams, Sufi dreams, dreams of revolution. At the risk of sounding cliché, when I saw the news that I had won this fellowship, I felt like I was dreaming.”

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