Two UChicago Scholars to Receive Scaglione Prizes from the Modern Language Association

Two UChicago Scholars to Receive Scaglione Prizes from the Modern Language Association

Noemie Ndiaye (left) photo by John Zich and Maria Anna Mariani

By Sara Patterson

For their books, Assoc. Prof. Noémie Ndiaye and Asst. Prof. Maria Anna Mariani respectively will receive the Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for Comparative Literary Studies and for Italian Studies from the Modern Language Association on Jan. 5, 2024.

Ndiaye’s book Scripts of Blackness: Early Modern Performance Culture and the Making of Race (2022) examines how early modern theater and performance culture helped turn Blackness into a racial category and how that cultural decision still resonates today.

“Deeply researched and beautifully written, Scripts of Blackness is already the cornerstone of a field Noémie helped to found—the comparative study of the pre-modern performance of Blackness, said John Muse, associate professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and the College at UChicago.

Mariani’s book Italian Literature in the Nuclear Age: A Poetics of the Bystander (2023) explores the position of the bystander in the atomic age by focusing on Italy as an example of paradoxical power and powerlessness. Her comprehensive study of Italian literary intellectuals’ engagement with the existential and political questions raised during the nuclear era shows its broader relevance.

“Maria Anna's book is a tour de force in close reading and elegant argumentation,” said Paola Iovene, associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at UChicago. “The book reminds us that paying attention to literary form is crucial to expand our ability to cope with the terrifying yet very real prospect of mass extinction.”

Performing Blackness

Ndiaye begins Scripts of Blackness with vignettes from her own experience. While attending an acting school in France, Ndiaye realized her racial identity rubbed against the theatrical cannon and limited her ability to act in plays. It motivated her to understand how those assumptions started and why they continue today.

“I am interested in a large-scale exploration of the racial matrix in performance culture,” said Ndiaye, associate professor in the Departments of English Language and Literature and Romance Languages and Literatures and the College at UChicago. “Even in Shakespearean plays such as ’Richard III,’ the king compares himself to a Turk. I ask my students: ‘What does racial difference do for Richard III?’ Performative Blackness created the figure of the other for early modern Europeans.”

Ndiaye realized through her research that racial stereotyping was not the same in mid-1600s Spain, France and England. At the time, Spain had full-fledged slavery, which was not true in England or France. Other European countries, however, looked to Spain to tell the stories of Black people that supported and reinforced their political and social beliefs.

Scripts of Blackness is a pathbreaking study that maps the techniques of English, French and Spanish early modern performances of Afro-diasporic people,” said C. Riley Snorton, the Mary R. Morton Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature, Race, Diaspora and Indigeneity, the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality and the College at UChicago. “Its recognition by the Modern Language Association is richly deserved, as the implications of Ndiaye’s work are manifold for early modern literary criticism and performance as well as for our contemporary understandings of diasporic Blackness.”

In addition to the Scaglione Prize, Ndiaye’s first book has received a medley of awards: the 2022 George Freedley Memorial Award from the Theatre Library Association; the 2023 Bevington Award from the Medieval and Renaissance Drama Society; 2023 Rose Mary Crawshay Prize from the British Academy; and the Shakespeare’s Globe Book Award 2023.

“Since racial impersonation is sadly still prevalent, Noémie’s book offers today’s readers an erudite and nuanced history of the fascinating ways Blackness has been and is still shaped by performance,” said Muse.

Ndiaye’s other recent projects include spearheading the Newberry Library exhibition of Race Before Race, which helped expand her thinking about race to other groups such as Jews and the Romani people. Since 2021, she has also worked on the Black Baroque Project, in which she interviews artists who identify as Black about what the Baroque aesthetics means to and does for them.

Bystander Dilemma

Mariani’s interest in the nuclear age began when she was five. Her mother read her The Day of Bomb (1962) by Karl Buckner as a bedtime story. In the story, a young girl named Sadako Sasaki lives in Hiroshima and survives to nuclear bomb but develops leukemia several years later. Her parents tell her if she folds 1,000 origami that she will be saved. When Sadako finishes the last origami, however, she dies.

“Since I was a child, the history of Nagasaki and Hiroshima has been on my mind, and the story of Sadako shaped my early years,” said Mariani, assistant professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures and the College at UChicago.

In Italian Literature in the Nuclear Age, Mariani focuses on the paradox of Italy, which housed American nuclear weapons, but did not possess its own nuclear arsenal. Ironically, Enrico Fermi performed the first experiment of splitting the atom in Italy, making the country its birthplace. However, Fermi fled the country before World War II because his wife was Jewish, relocating the center of nuclear discovery to the U.S.

“Maria Anna Mariani’s scholarship combines erudition, breadth of knowledge, ethical sensitivity, and a beautifully crafted prose style,” said Alison James, professor and chair of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures and the College at UChicago. “She offers an analysis of little-studied archival materials as well as meticulous close readings of major literary works by Italo Calvino, Elsa Morante, and others, which delves into the existential predicament of the bystander in the face of global crisis.”

Mariani contends the bystander is not a passive position. Through Italian literary intellectuals, she found profound collusion and radical powerlessness expressed about the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

Mariani’s new project delves into comparative autobiography, exploring books devoted to the end of life. Innovation in medicine makes the moment of death more certain that it was before and has created a new literary genre. “Reading for the plot literally becomes a reading for the end of life,” Mariani said.



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December 7, 2023