In Conversation: Professor Ladan Niayesh

Publié le 28 mars 2020

In Michaelmas 2020 Professor Ladan Niayesh (Université de Paris) joined TIDE as an Honorary Research Associate and Visiting Fellow at Exeter College. At the end of term, before her return to Paris, we* spoke about her research, its political ramifications, and Tai chi.


What research have you been working on during your visit?

I’ve been focusing on two projects, both deriving from the collective editorial work on Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations for OUP. My section is the Muscovy Company documents on Persia and Russia, which I coedit with Ralph Cleminson, a specialist of Slavonic studies. Analysing and cross-referencing that material helped me see just how much interactions with Russia’s new empire affected England’s own articulation of its imperial project, in Hakluyt and beyond. This is what got me started on a short monograph about English experimentations – both ideological and practical – with race and empire in Russia. That work is contracted to CUP, and will appear in the new ‘Cambridge Elements of Travel Writing’ series, under the general editorship of Nandini Das and Tim Youngs. My other work is a continuation of editorial interest related to Persia. This one is an edition of documents on the diplomatic missions of the Sherley brothers to and from Shah Abbas of Persia. I am coediting that with Kurosh Meshkat and Alasdair MacDonald for the Hakluyt Society.

I’d love to hear a little more about that edition. How did you find the editing process of such a series of archival documents?

It’s ongoing work and obviously complicated by the current lockdown, which makes geographical distance and access to resources difficult matters. But what the three of us found thrilling was how much diplomatic material related to the Sherleys reaches far and wide into 17th-centruy European politics, with ramifications from Poland to Spain and even Morocco, and documents coming in various languages. So for example, while Alasdair translates the Latin Encomia of Andrew Leech (a Scotsman in Poland!), I work on the French Entrée solenelle describing Anthony Sherley’s reception in Venice, or take pictures of the Bodleian MS of his Relation of his Travels for Kurosh to complete his comparison with the printed edition. Much like the Sherleys and their circle, we have been reaching out across Europe, with the current crisis definitely making us feel empathy for those persistent, resilient diplomats!

At a recent seminar on Spenser and Race you spoke about the importance of taking the methodologies to read race which had been discussed, and use them to explore less canonical texts. What overlooked texts and/or genres do you think are due their moment?

Focus on canonical texts in our university programmes omits many of the texts which were early modern readers’ common references for thinking and articulating difference and diversity, leaving them as the preserve of only the super-specialised researchers. I am thinking for example of humbler romances – prose or drama – like The Seven Champions of ChristendomTom o’ Lincoln, or The Nine Worthies of London which catered to apprentice readers or audiences. All of these were immensely popular in their time, and all tackled the challenge of making room for ethnic and religious difference. We need them to balance the canonical perspective of our Shakespeare and Spenser. I tried to gesture in that direction at my little level for The Four Prentices of London by including it in my edition of Three Romances of Eastern Conquest for the ‘Revels Plays Companion Library’ series of MUP. And I very much like the work carried out in the same collection by old friend David McInnis on Old Fortunatus. That one is such a wonderful play for experimenting with scenarios in coping with ethnic, religious, and even species difference!

Both your research on migration and race, and the TIDE project, have become more and more pertinent to the public debates of the current moment. How does our contemporary climate affect your work, and vice versa?

I think any time is a good time to make room for diversity in academia and connect our work to societal issues. TIDE is a great showcase for that constant need. Contemporary debates did not appear out of a historical vacuum! We need both the background to understand how we got here, and the critical vocabulary to address issues. Otherwise, reacting on pure emotions does not get us very far or deep to make any significant impact. Generous, open initiatives like the TIDE ‘keywords’ are brilliant in this respect: not just producing informed resources on the critical vocabulary of othering and belonging, but showing how to use them in our pedagogy. This is a model I try to follow, to connect my research to my teaching, and my teaching to the world of my students. As specialists of ‘humanities’, we have a duty to be present on the ‘human’ front, and make sure we transmit that on top of course contents.

Muscovites always make me think of that curious masque of the Muscovites in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Do you have any thoughts on that scene, or how it fits into wider early modern encounters with Muscovy?

Funny you should ask, because working on that scene first made me put together my ideas on the racialized Tatar subtext of Muscovy. The play was on the syllabus of the French national examination of ‘agrégation’ in 2015, so the Shakespeare Society of France organised an event and publication on it. My contribution was a reflection on ‘Muscovites and “Black-amours”: Alien Love Traders in Love’s Labour’s Lost’. For the Cambridge Elements volume, I am obviously focusing on travel writing, but so much of it spills into the drama of the period that I will certainly return to such pieces as the Gesta Greyorum and Titus Andronicus after I am done with this. Meanwhile, if you are interested in what I had done on Love’s Labour’s Lost, the article is here.

If you had one day in the early modern world, where would you go and why?

Ahhh, am I the only one who has actually dreamt of being there on the morning of 30th of May 1593 to change Kit Marlowe’s plans for the day?! What a wonderfully different early modern dramatic canon we would have today… and a Marlovian late style too, hahaha!

I have learnt that as well as having an early modernist hat, you also have a Tai chi instructor hat! How does this form of instruction shape your academic teaching, or vice versa?

Fundamentally, pedagogy remains pedagogy in every discipline, and in current times, alas, the challenge of teaching over Zoom is there for martial arts too. But both teaching and taichi are arts of adaptation, so this is yet another area where we have to be inventive to carry on. Keeping the social link, focusing attention and memory on something more rewarding than gloomy news, and staying active and alert are some of the boxes that need to be ticked both by the martial arts instructor and the academic instructor. Allez, courage!

*Interviewed by Leah Veronese, Early Modern Literature DPhil Candidate, Balliol College.