Eden Wales Freedman | Associate Professor of English

Eden Wales Freedman, professor of English

Q&A with Eden Wales Freedman, associate professor of English.

MMU: I understand you presented for the National Women’s Studies Association, the Society for the Study of American Women Writers, and traveled to Paris to present at the XVIII International Hemingway Conference: Hemingway in Paris. How did you become involved with these conferences?

EWF: I am a member of various academic organizations—such as the National Women’s Studies Association, the Society for the Study of American Women Writers, and the Hemingway Society—that organize annual, biennial, or triennial conferences, where scholars can contribute to ongoing conversations in their respective fields (e.g., gender studies, American women’s literature, or Hemingway studies). Scholars can apply to present papers on specific topics at these conferences (as I did), or they can simply attend the conference to engage what their colleagues have to say. Academic conferences provide an excellent opportunity for scholars to contribute to contemporary conversations about their areas of interest and expertise. They also offer a venue for scholars to collaborate with colleagues at different universities across the world. Mount Mercy is a small university, but the “academy” is large. I have been privileged to present at many conferences where I’ve connected with excellent colleagues at institutions of higher learning throughout the world.

MMU: Can you give a quick synopsis of your presentations? What were you hoping conference attendees would walk away with?

EWF: At the National Women’s Studies Association, I presented a paper on what Octavia Butler’s science-fiction story, “Blood Child,” teaches readers about the realities of sexual assault, racism, sexism, and slavery in the real world. At the Society for the Study of American Women Writers, I discussed how women who have survived sexual abuse often have difficulty writing about that particular trauma through the genre of memoir. I also explored how readers can respond to literary depictions of sexual abuse both intellectually and empathically. At the International Hemingway Conference, I discussed how Hemingway’s novels treat female characters as tools to explore male characters’ concerns. (In the novel, Farewell to Arms, for instance, a female character dies in childbirth to help readers understand not her own pain but how her suffering negatively affects her male counterpart.) As a result, I argue, Hemingway’s depiction of women is less sophisticated than his treatment of men, and women are often used or appropriated in his fiction to underscore male character development.

All of my writing treats the intersecting subjects of literature, trauma, race, and gender. Ultimately, I hope that those who engage my work come away with a sense of the importance of literature to reflect and shape the world we live in and our corresponding responsibility to engage literature both intellectually and empathically.

MMU: How did you become interested in these topics? Where does your passion for these subjects come from?

EWF: I have always been passionate about reading, writing, and social justice. I learned to read when I was two, and I have spent the rest of my life delving into written explorations of others’ lived experiences. Some people view fiction as a way to escape the troubles of the world, and it certainly can be, but literature can also shed light on some of society’s darker realities. For me, reading has been a way to encounter a diverse world and to build empathy for—and develop solidarity with—those whose experiences differ from our own. (That’s where the passion for social justice comes in: I truly believe that literature, by introducing us to diverse subjects, encourages us to fight for the rights of others—even and especially when they are not like us.)

As I grew as a reader, I developed as a writer. I am incredibly privileged to be able to spend my life reading, writing, and teaching about all fiction has to offer, especially at Mount Mercy, where social justice is emphasized through the Sisters of Mercy Critical Concerns. My areas of academic expertise are American literature, race and gender studies, and trauma and reception theories, so my papers and articles tend to focus on those topics, but I treat almost everything as “text” to be read and analyzed from canonical writers like Ernest Hemingway through pop-culture phenomena, such as The Avengers and Game of Thrones series.

MMU: How does your research or work outside of MMU inform what you teach in the classroom? In what ways do students benefit?

EWF: Everything intersects. I write extensively about representations of race, gender, and trauma in nineteenth- through twenty-first century American literature and about how readers can respond to literary depictions of race- and gender-based violence. I also teach about these topics. Every time I explain a complex idea to my students, I am better able to distill that idea in my own writing. When students ask me questions about a text or theory, I have another opportunity to hone my own analysis. So, my teaching benefits my research, and my research informs my teaching.

Students benefit any time they engage with a professor with a particular area of expertise (so any time they engage with a professor). In my classes, students discover the power of narrative to depict and change the world. They also practice critical thinking. They engage literature actively in order to read, write, and think for themselves in conversation with a community of scholars—myself and themselves included. We do not always agree with one another about what a text suggests. Nor should we. We engage literature not to agree but to form critical analyses in conversation (and sometimes conflict) with one another. We must not all have the same idea. That would be rather dull. We must only treat the text and one another intellectually, empathically, and with the respect it deserves (and we deserve). I can think of no better gift to offer my students than to introduce them to some of the most powerful literature ever written and then to help them develop the tools to analyze and appreciate it for themselves.

MMU:  Was there an idea or bit of research you learned during the conference and found especially interesting? What did you walk away with?

EWF: At the Society for the Study of American Women Writers, one scholar discussed the treatment of women’s blindness in nineteenth-century slave or emancipatory narratives. While I write about women’s memoir, trauma, slavery, and disability, I hadn’t previously considered blindness, so I was particularly interested in how the scholar’s ideas converse with and advance my own. We’ve remained in contact since and may write an article or edit a collection on representations of disability, trauma, and gender in nineteenth-century American emancipatory narratives. At the Hemingway conference, another scholar presented a paper on how female readers have responded to Hemingway’s writing since its early publication. Since I presented on how Hemingway’s texts present female characters, I was particularly interested in how female readers have responded to Hemingway’s representation of women. This scholar and I are now collaborating on an article or collection on how women respond to Hemingway’s women.

I typically do meet scholars at conferences with whom I can collaborate. That’s one element of attending conferences that excites me the most: the opportunity to discuss literature with other experts in the field—kind of like an exciting class discussion, long after all our school work has ended. Mainly, I walk away with the sense that there are so many smart people in the world and that I am incredibly privileged to get to talk to them about our shared passion for literature.

MMU: You’ve had the opportunity to present at conferences at both the national and international level--what’s distinctive of each? What’s similar?

EWF: Each conference has its own benefits. International conferences are exhilarating because they bring together literary experts and enthusiasts from all over the world, so we can have larger, more diverse conversations. These conferences are also often held in exciting places, like Paris for the International Hemingway Conference. This past May, I presented at a Sisters of Mercy conference in Dublin, Ireland, and, in July, I presented at an international literary conference in Lisbon, Portugal. I was invited to present at a gender studies conference in China last May but decided not to attend because it took place during the last week of classes at Mount Mercy, and I wanted to help my students prepare for final papers and exams. I am privileged to be able to travel the world to discuss my love of literature with diverse experts I otherwise may not meet.

National conferences offer similar opportunities, though sometimes in less exciting locations. A favorite conference of mine is the biennial Faulkner conference, held in Cape Girardeau, Missouri—a conference that gathers maybe 100 participants (versus thousands at larger, international conferences). Cape Girardeau may not be as thrilling a place to visit as Paris or Dublin or Lisbon, but the conversations there are just as scintillating! Smaller conferences also foster greater intimacy and more easily facilitate scholarly connections. I’ve met exceptional scholars at smaller venues who have become my colleagues and even very good friends.

MMU: You recently published book chapters from a work titled "He could do so much more': Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner's Androcentric Treatment of Gynocentric Trauma." Will you give us a brief synopsis? Could you also give us a synopsis of your other work, “Let seizing Truth Lie: Witnessing 'Factions' in Lauren Slater's Lying"?

EWF: “He could do so much more” analyzes representations of women and trauma in the novels of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner to explore how two modern American male authors treat the gynocentric (women-centered) traumas that can accompany pregnancy, particularly for impoverished women lacking community support. The paper concludes that Hemingway, in A Farewell to Arms, uses his female protagonist, Catherine Barkley, who dies in childbirth, to speak to the ideological brokenness of male soldiers during World War I. As a result, the novel reveals more about the position of modern men and male trauma than about Catherine’s individual struggles or the marginalization women faced in the modern era and beyond. Faulkner, conversely, depicts poor, pregnant Charlotte Rittenmeyer in The Wild Palms and Dewey Dell Bundren in As I Lay Dying as victims of a sexist and classist society, acknowledging the difficulties impoverished, pregnant women can face.

In her memoir, Lying (2000), Lauren Slater fabricates most of her life narrative. Her text frustrates those who resent the combined fact and fiction—or “faction”—that she spins. This readerly response is understandable. Nevertheless, my article, “Let Seizing Truths Lie,” maintains that Slater lies in her memoir not to mislead readers but to bear witness to traumas she struggles to access and articulate. Trauma theorists document the necessity of writing through or “witnessing” trauma to overcome it. When, however, a narrator is inhibited by what psychiatrists call “psychic constriction” (memory loss due to an inability to reconcile oneself with a painful past), she can become powerless to take the steps necessary to recover, as she cannot convey fully what she has suffered. Such is the case for Slater, who lies to witness ineffable traumas alongside her very inability to witness them. Lying offers the writer-narrator and reader-respondent a way to witness trauma together.

MMU: How did you become interested in these topics, and why did you decide to focus your work on these topics?

EWF: All of my writing focuses on American literature, race, gender, and trauma. I love American literature for how diverse and multi-valent it is, bringing together (even if in discord) diverse subjects, experiences, and languages. I became attentive to trauma theory because of an interest in modern writers, such as Hemingway and Faulkner, who struggle to locate meaning in a broken world. As I read more multicultural American literature (beyond Hemingway and Faulkner), I wanted to explore literary representations of race and gender and how those identity constructs intersect with the American cultural trauma of institutionalized slavery. So, while not every article or book chapter I write is explicitly about race or gender or slavery or trauma, almost every piece I publish is about at least one (and likely more) of those subjects. I believe literature has much to teach readers about the realities of the world—especially about difficult realities many of us prefer to ignore or elide. Ideally, my writing helps distill some of those literary lessons—both for me personally and for the larger audience who reads my work.

MMU: Will you give us a glimpse into your research, writing, and publishing processes? Did you face obstacles? If so, how did you overcome the obstacles?

EWF: In its early stages, the attempt to publish can feel like a lesson in rejection. I started writing academic articles in my first year of graduate school. (You need to do so if you hope to be published by the time you go on the job market.) Every time a piece of mine was rejected, I revised it and sent it out to another journal or collection. Eventually (after continued editing), I would find the right home for my work. The more I published, the more easily publication became: I gained a clearer sense of what constitutes scholarship, what has already been said, how my work builds upon and diverges from that of other experts, and where to submit different articles and essays. I am a slow but persistent writer. I write during the school year as much as possible (usually two hours a day) and then intensely over the summer months, when I can write up to sixteen hours a day. It can take me two to three months to write and polish a new piece, but then it is likely ready for publication. I also present drafts of articles at conferences and use the feedback I receive from scholars there to strengthen my work. I keep a list of articles and essays I want to write on my computer, so I’m never short of ideas. I approached my first book project this same way. I received a writing grant my final year of graduate school, which allowed me to write my dissertation all day, every day for a year. That dissertation became a draft of my first book, which I returned to after I earned my PhD. For several years, I edited and cut and expanded chapters until the dissertation was ready to be published as a book. That book, Reading Testimony, Witnessing Trauma: Confronting Race, Gender, and Violence in American Literature, is forthcoming in December 2019 from the University Press of Mississippi.

MMU: What impact do you hope this publication has? If people take one thing from your work, what should it be?

EWF: I hope readers appreciate the power of literature to reflect and shape the world. I hope reading my writing about literature helps readers become more critical and compassionate thinkers and citizens. I hope that readers of my work begin to consider (or to consider more deeply) how reading and writing are not passive but active pursuits that, if only in subtle ways, can change the world.

MMU: What’s next in your work?

EWF: My first book, Reading Testimony, Witnessing Trauma: Confronting Race, Gender, and Violence in American Literature (forthcoming from the University Press of Mississippi in 2019) considers how readers can respond both intellectually and empathically to representations of race- and gender-based violence in American literature. My next project, Women Who Lead: Conversations with Women Presidents, explores women’s leadership in higher education and considers what it takes for women presidents to lead colleges and universities in the twenty-first century.