Sheffield Gothic Profile Blog: Maisha Wester

Sheffield Gothic are thrilled to announce our series of profile blogs, where you can get to know the members and friends of Sheffield Gothic and find out the answers to questions you have always wanted to asked us like what drew us to the Gothic and what’s our favourite Gothic text! Today we have honorary Sheffield Goth and visiting Fullbright scholar at the University of Sheffield, Maisha Wester. 

I’m Dr. Maisha Wester, a visiting Fulbright Scholar for the 2017-2018 academic year. I’m an Associate Professor at Indiana University specializing in race in Gothic literature and Horror film. I am joint-appointed in American Studies, and in African American and African Diaspora Studies.

What do you research:
I received my Ph.D in English from University of Florida during a period when the department was wonderfully interdisciplinary. I studied and continue to use a variety of literary and cultural studies methods, such as psychoanalysis, Lacanian semiotics, postcolonial theory, feminist analysis, and critical race theory. My research specifically investigates the depictions of racial, sexual and gender difference in Gothic literature and Horror films. Furthermore, I also interrogate mobilizations of Gothic tropes and discourses in socio-political discussions of race and immigration. Equally important, I write on Black Diasporic Gothic literature as it responds to oppressive racial ideologies and expresses the peculiar horrors of navigating societies which construct racial minorities as abject and/ or phobogenic objects.

How did you become interested in the Gothic?
I grew up a fan of horror films and Gothic literature, preferring Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock to tween romances. I remember reading Edgar Allan Poe when I was 8 years old, particularly the poem ‘The Raven’ and the story ‘The Tell Tale Heart.’ Given I grew up in Miami where violent crime was nothing unusual and where we were taught the horrors of Chernobyl knowing nuclear plants were all around the U.S., I think as a child it was easier to process the terror of reality through monsters and fiendish villains—at least there was a clear way to defeat Freddy Kruger (wake up or seize control of your dream), avoid Jason (don’t go camping), and escape Michael Myers (run out of the house, not upstairs). Further, the villains in Gothic texts always made more sense than the villains in real life, and had a habit of explaining themselves/ their motives. Gothic villains were also far more interesting than your average Disney hero(ine).
What Gothic texts (including shows, films, plays, music etc.) would you recommend and why?
This could get long but I’ll try to keep it brief-ish:
In no particular order….
  1. The Monk: just too fabulous for words; the text is a grand, bloody soap opera
  2. Historical Survey of the French Colony in the Island of St Domingo: By Bryan Edwards, this first-hand account reads like Gothic fiction and is far better horror than most of the stuff Stephen King has written.
  3. Wuthering Heights: this novel is not only beautifully written but, in Heathcliff, creates an anti-hero that becomes the reference point for so many of today’s dark, brooding, invariably screwed-up lovers. More importantly, reading it at different points in my life reveals different things about myself: as a teen, I thought Heathcliff’s passion was amazing and dreamed of such a romance; as an adult, I realized that Catherine is a manipulative wench and Heathcliff is the model of an abuser. But the novel never pretends that they are anything different—indeed, no one is really likable in that novel if you look closely enough. But Bronte left it to the reader to look or not look.
  4. Hawthorne’s short fiction, especially ‘Young Goodman Brown,’ and ‘The Birthmark’: his short stories really exemplify the racial angst and quandary early Americans attempted to repress.
  5. ‘Benito Cereno’: This novella (which Melville considered a short story!!) wonderfully depicts the social and racial dynamics produced by the Haitian Revolution and critiques America’s position in the event. Equally important, it reveals the complexity of abolitionists (they weren’t utterly virtuous/ progressive in their racial ideals)
  6. The short stories of Flannery O’Connor: She is amazing at representing the grotesque beauty of the South but her plots and endings leave your perplexed, and ill at ease…which is what a great Gothic work does.
  7. Invisible Man: funny, horrifying and splendidly musical (not lyrical, Ellison wrote jazz and blues structures into this novel), I could easily spend a month teaching this novel and look to teach it again the next year. There is so much depth and richness to this text; more disturbingly, it remains relevant to the current moment.
  8. Cane: Jean Toomer’s ‘novel’ is a collection of short fiction and poetry punctuated by a concluding section which is as much novella as it is play. But all of these pieces fit seamlessly together to depict the haunting beauty of the South, the alienating hope of the North and the terror of dislocation. This book is a complex puzzle.
  9. Mama Day: This novel straddles the line between Gothic and Magical realism. It is lovely and heart-breaking every time you read it. The first time I taught this novel, it was in a class where a zoology student, who declared her hatred or reading, finished the book in one night (I had to beg her not to skip ahead in discussion for those who hadn’t finished, she was so excited to discuss what came next).
  10. ‘The Child Who Favored Daughter’: my Ph.D adviser recommended this Alice Walker story as one which would haunt me…she was right. It is poetic and understanding in its depiction of the father’s monstrosity.
  11. Octavia Butler’s Kindred: though Butler is largely identified as a writer of Afro-futurist speculative fiction, this novel captures the horror of history for African Americans and, more importantly, of trying to come to grips with that history and your consequent origins. The novel posits the assaults on bodily and psychic integration from grappling with the knowledge that you may be the descendant of enslaved people, rape victims and rapists; and worse, without the horrible institution of slavery, the modern black subject wouldn’t exist in America–that is truly grotesque and horrifying to acknowledge…       11a. Damian Duffey’s and John Jenning’s graphic adaptation of Kindred: absolutely beautiful artwork which really captures the text’s horror and beauty.
  12. House of Leaves: A postmodern novel which experiments with structure and yet still terrified me; the monster never appears but Danielewski creates such an atmosphere of lurking terror that the novel’s play with structure is hardly noticeable at points. Don’t read this one alone in the dark
  13. I Walked with a Zombie: This beautiful film has been termed Jane Eyre in the Caribbean. It’s cinematography is stunning, its use of sound profound, and its narrative of white colonialism and black rebellion subtle but striking; it is, indeed, radical in its messaging.
  14. Cat People: Simply beautiful
  15. Night of the Living Dead: we wouldn’t have the modern zombie without this film (which actually terms its monsters ghouls, not zombies)
  16. IT pt 1 (the tv version, not the recent film): Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise was so terrifying I had nightmares for weeks and started sleeping with a nightlight, though I was a teen when the tv movie came out.
  17. Michael Jackson’s Thriller: this video was the first of its kind and left a definite mark on the cultural landscape (everyone can at least recognize the zombie dance from this video) 
  18.  Little Shop of Horrors: A giant, singing venus fly trap with the baritone voice of Levi Stubbs (one of the Four Tops) and Steve Martin as the sadistic, rocker dentist are just a couple of the marvelous treats in this classic musical horror (which has some amazingly infectious songs).
  19. Sweeney Todd: absolutely beautiful cinematography. And while Burton provides the backstory which makes Todd a sympathetic antihero, he doesn’t try to humanize him, as most productions do. Todd is a monster and remains so throughout the film; but so too is the rest of London society. Lastly, I love the way the stage makeup depicts Todd and Lovett as vampires, in juxtaposition to the rest of cannibal society. 
  20. Rocky Horror Picture Show: Need I say anything, really….
I could definitely go on but I should probably stop at some point…..
Who would you invite to dinner:
  1. Montressor from Poe’s story “The Cask of Amontillado” because I want a definitive explanation of what Fortunado did that warranted living burial.
  2. The unnamed protagonist of Invisible Man because I want to know a) how he managed to steal electricity from NY for so long so well, b) if he really understands his grandfather’s dying words, and c) if he actually left his hole (and, if so, did he go find Bledsloe and make him eat chitlins). 
  3. Hannah Crafts, author of The Bondswoman’s Narrative, just to settle the argument of her identity and the nature of the text (Gates says she was an escaped enslaved woman but the text is so intertextual–rewriting The Castle of Otranto in its first chapters–that it seems a bit difficult to accept the text as a slave narrative).
  4. Neil Gaiman because he is cool, well-researched, and brilliant–I just want to be his buddy (even if I found Anansi Boys problematic, but no friend is perfect).