Dr. Sirpa Salenius
Dr. Sirpa Salenius, Associate Researcher, Laboratoire de Recherche sur les Cultures Anglophones (LARCA), Paris, France; External Affiliate, University College London Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism and Racialisation, London, U.K.; and Affiliate, University of Eastern Finland, Joensuu, Finland
1) What is your discipline of study and what are the specific fields and sub-fields to which you contribute?
I obtained my MA degree (Laurea) from the University of Florence (Università degli Studi di Firenze, Italy) in foreign languages and cultures, more specifically in American Studies. The topics of my research are connected to the field of American literature and culture as I examine nineteenth-century American artists and authors in Italy. In my research, American Studies intertwines with Transatlantic Studies. Subsequently, I have become increasingly interested in Black American Studies as well as Gender, Queer, and Spatial Studies. More recently, I have become fascinated with Migration and Body Studies.
2) How did you come to study these specific domains?
I first became interested in American literature in the transatlantic context when I started working on my MA thesis, which examined nineteenth-century American writers who have a commemorative plaque in Florence. They all happened to be men, which, I guess, is no great surprise. I then translated my thesis from Italian into English and published it under the title Set in Stone: 19th-century American Authors in Florence (Il Prato, 2003). I continued doing research on the topic, as a PhD project, expanding it to include other writers who visited and wrote about Florence, now also women. These included such writers as Margaret Fuller, Constance Fenimore Woolson, and Edith Wharton, but also Black Americans, namely Frederick Douglass. I have continued working on American writers, artists, and expatriates in Italy, discussing the results of my research in lectures, conference presentations, and publications. I am still working around the same topic, now focusing on nineteenth-century Black Americans in Europe.
3) Tell us something about your process of study, formal and informal education, and the nature of your degrees and training. When, where, and how did you become qualified to do what you do?
I started my studies at the Università degli Studi di Firenze quite late in life, a year after I moved to Italy, in 1995. After I received my MA degree (Laurea), I continued working toward a Ph.D. degree at the University of Joensuu (now University of Eastern Finland) where I defended my dissertation in 2007. Then in 2014, I obtained, from the same university, the title of “Docent,” which is similar to habilitation. At the time I was teaching at American universities at their study abroad programs in Italy. In 2015 I applied for a full-time position at the University of Tokyo (Japan) where I was hired to teach English-language communication and academic writing. It was a highly stimulating, international work environment but quite a challenge for my personal life with my husband working in Italy. When a position at the University of Eastern Finland came available, I applied so I could be closer to home. In August 2016 I moved to Finland but soon realized that there were no possibilities for any career advancement in that position. My French colleagues encouraged me to pursue the habilitation (l’habilitation à diriger des recherches, HDR) in France. I defended my synthèse (dissertation) at the University Bordeaux Montaigne (Bordeaux, France) in November 2019.
4) What were the greatest obstacles that you had to overcome to achieve the success that you now experience? What challenges have your experienced and how have you overcome them? What goals do you have left to accomplish?
During my academic career, similarly to so many others, I have had to witness nepotism, favoritism, sexism, old-boys’-networks, and other discriminatory practices. The extent of discrimination in academia and elsewhere is embarrassing, for lack of a better word. But among the greatest obstacles I have had to face has been balancing my personal and social life with work. I have worked abroad, away from home, altogether seven years. Living alone, far away from my “base,” so to speak, has been truly taxing. In addition, heavy teaching loads have meant doing research in the evenings and weekends, which makes it obvious that at a certain point it becomes impossible to continue working in this way. In August 2022, I made the difficult decision to resign. I returned home and now dedicate my time to research.
5) Did you have any role models or mentors either in your domains of work, research, and creation or outside of them? Who were they and how were they instrumental in shaping you as a person and as a professional?
For the most part, I have worked by myself, but have always wished I could have had a mentor. Luckily, during my career I have met several impressive scholars who have inspired and assisted me. They have all been inspirational, extremely competent, and incredibly generous with sharing their time and knowledge with me. The two who first come to mind are Deborah Willis (New York University, New York) and Farah Jasmine Griffin (Columbia University, New York). Their publications and way of working have been stimulating and have had a great impact on my own work. I admire both as scholars and am truly grateful for their continuous encouragement. They have been supportive in so many ways: indicating academic publications central to the field of Black American studies, inviting me to conferences, offering opportunities for networking, engaging in enlightening discussions with me, and simply sharing their enthusiasm and experience. My French colleagues have also been a source of inspiration and support throughout the years. Among those to whom I most owe a debt of gratitude are Stéphanie Durrans (University Bordeaux Montaigne, Bordeaux, France), Cécile Roudeau (Université Paris Cité, Paris, France), and Marie-Claude Perrin-Chenour. They have collaborated with me on various projects – publications, conferences, workshops – and they kept encouraging me to complete my habilitation in France.
Many other colleagues and personal friends have also written letters of recommendation, collaborated with me on publication projects, and inspired me. The list is long but includes Charmaine A. Nelson (University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA), Stefano Luconi (University of Florence, Italy), Whitney Womack-Smith (Miami University Ohio, USA), Beth L. Lueck (University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, USA), Rita Bode (Trent University, Canada), and Lori Merish (Georgetown University, USA).
6) What does your process of research look like? Where and what are your archives and what artworks, artifacts, documents, or specimens do you study or examine?
For many, it is hard to understand how difficult and time-consuming archival research can be, especially when you are searching for archival documents on nineteenth-century Black Americans. It becomes even more challenging if they happen to be expatriates. Their letters, diaries, photographs, passport applications, and other documents such as college and medical school records tend to be scattered in different locations or may even be destroyed. It is rare to find a collection of papers that deal with one particular Black person. This means that just finding any documents at all can be a great victory. For example, the documents pertaining to the life and achievements of the Black American abolitionist and doctor, Sarah Parker Remond (1826-1894), are scattered around the world: in various locations in the United States, in the U.K., and in Italy. Just to find out in what year she was born required enormous amounts of work. For the research on the First Lady Rose Cleveland (1846-1918), who lived in an intimate relationship with another women, Evangeline Whipple (1857-1930), I had to contact some small historical societies in the United States and try to locate documents in Italy where she lived during the last years of her life. Archival research entails collecting one document after another and from small fragments trying to reconstruct the life of the person centered in your project.
7) What are your fundamental research questions and what defines your methodology or approach? How do you determine how you engage with your objects, individuals or communities of study?
As I do archival research, I never know what I may find, so I try to let the documents guide my approach to analyzing them. In the project on nineteenth-century Black Americans in Europe (with a focus on women), I first need to understand who they were, what backgrounds they came from, what they did, and then try to understand how they may have experienced Europe, as women and as Black Americans. Depending on my findings, I may use such theoretical frames as Migration or Mobility Studies, Gender or Sexuality Studies, and of course, studies related to the analysis of “race.” As the project deals with transatlantic travel, it is hard to steer away from comparative analysis (Europe vs. the United States). I try to make my publications accessible to larger audiences, which means trying to avoid writing heavily theorized texts. My main ambition in this particular project is to try to shed light on what it might have been like for nineteenth-century Black women to experience Europe’s cultural capitals.
8) What are you working on now and when and how will it be shared?
At the moment I am finishing an old book manuscript on nineteenth-century American impressions of Finland, images that were created in travel writing and fiction. After that, which hopefully is really soon, I will return to my project on nineteenth-century Black American women in Europe. Both are book projects, both aimed at larger audiences, not just academics.
9) What are you proudest of in your career?
I would say I feel proud that through my archival work I have recovered some magnificent, influential women from oblivion. These include Rose Cleveland and Sarah Parker Remond. Both are now starting to receive the attention they truly deserve. And I was thrilled when Paul Gilroy decided to dedicate University College London’s new research center to Sarah Remond. I was also tickled, really touched and honored, to receive a letter from Barack Obama. Those are some of the moments I cherish, moments when I have felt proud and honored to be doing the work I do.
10) What are you proudest of in your life?
These questions are really hard! Hmmm, maybe not having given up when facing difficulties. In this, Sarah Remond has been an inspiration, an example I have followed. She never let anyone push her around but kept going, overcoming one adversity after another.
11) What academic book should be essential reading?
There are so many books that can be considered essential reading. It is impossible to pick just one. The books written by Deborah Willis and Farah Jasmine Griffin are all important and have had an impact on my own work, not just the contents but also the way they address their readers. And what about fiction – there are numerous novels that can be considered essential reading. But if I have to name a book that has been essential to my own work, well, that helps me narrow down the long long list to two: Charmaine A. Nelson, The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America (2007) and Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness (1995).
12) What TV show or film should be essential viewing?
Again, there are numerous films, TV shows, and documentaries that can be considered eye-opening and thus essential. But if I need to name one, I guess it would be the documentary featuring the American author James Baldwin (1924-1987): I Am Not Your Negro (2016). It is based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, directed by Raoul Peck.
13) How do you relax and take care of yourself?
During my free time, I love to read, go for a walk or go hiking. I also enjoy cooking. And I love to travel. What I find perhaps most relaxing are thermal baths, particularly the Japanese onsen. And I regularly go for a shiatsu treatment, but also like massages.
14) What’s next?
To do what I love most: continue looking for material relevant to my projects, digging in various archives in the United States, U.K., Italy, and who knows where else! I consider myself so fortunate to be passionate about what I do. It is a great gift of life.
Thank you for the interview.
Dr. Sirpa Salenius is a native of Helsinki, Finland, but she resides in Florence, Italy. She obtained her French habilitation (habilitation à diriger des recherches, HDR) in 2019. She is Associate Researcher at LARCA (Laboratoire de Recherche sur les Cultures Anglophones, Paris, France), External Affiliate at the University College London Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism and Racialisation (London, UK), and affiliated with the University of Eastern Finland (Joensuu, Finland). She is Editorial Board Member of international academic journals such as the Journal of Transatlantic Studies (JTS), and Advisory Board Member at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Slavery North initiative. She has taught at the University of Tokyo (Japan), University of Eastern Finland, and at various American universities at their study abroad programs in Florence and Rome (Italy). She is the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships, among them the 2020-21 Terra Foundation for American Art Senior Fellow (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C). Her conference presentations, lectures, and publications focus on “race,” gender, and sexuality, exploring the concepts within the frame of Transatlantic and Spatial Studies. Dr. Salenius’s publications include such monographs as An Abolitionist Abroad: Sarah Parker Remond in Cosmopolitan Europe (2016) and Rose Elizabeth Cleveland: First Lady and Literary Scholar (2014). She has edited several essay collections, and her work on Black Americans includes encyclopedia entries, articles, and essays, such as “Baldwin, James: Multisensorial Spaces of Harlem, New York” (in The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies, 2022), “Transatlantic Interracial Sisterhoods: Sarah Remond, Ellen Craft, and Harriet Jacobs in England” (Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies, 2017), “Marginalized Identities and Spaces: James Baldwin’s Harlem, New York” (Journal of Black Studies, 2016).
Salenius, Sirpa. “Building a (White) Nation: Finns in James Kirke Paulding’s Koningsmarke, the Long Finne (1823).” In Finnish Settler Colonialism in North America: Rethinking Finnish Experiences in Transnational Spaces, AHEAD 2. Eds. Rani-Henrik Andersson and Janne Lahti. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 2022. 131-52.
—. “Reflections on Migrations and Border Crossings, Destinations and Destinies.” In Women and Migration(s) II. Eds. Kalia Brooks, Cheryl Finley, Ellyn Toscano, and Deborah Willis. Open Book Publishers, 2022. 239-47.
- Associate Researcher, Sirpa Salenius, LARCA.
- podcast, UCL, Sarah Parker Remond Centre. SPRC Short Takes: In the words of Sarah Parker Remond.
- Sarah Parker Remond talk by Professor Sirpa Salenius, Black History Walks.
- Sarah Parker Remond talk, extract, Black History Walks.
- A due secoli dall’istituzione del consolato degli Stati Uniti a Firenze (1819-2019), fondazione Circolo Rosselli
- An Abolitionist Abroad: Sarah Parker Remond in Cosmopolitan Europe (2016)
- Rose Elizabeth Cleveland: First Lady and Literary Scholar (2014)