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Dr Parvathi Kumaraswami – University of Reading

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  • A desire to understand drives Dr Kumaraswami's research

Dr Parvathi Kumaraswami

Dr Kumaraswami is driven by a desire to understand, in an ethical and inclusive way, how cultural participation continues to play a huge role in the survival of the Cuban Revolution and, more broadly in all our lives.

Dr Parvathi Kumaraswami (Par) is a Cubanist, specialising in Cuban cultural policy and practice from 1959 to the present, especially in relation to literature.

Par Kumaraswami in her office

"I was first inspired, even before my PhD, by meeting Cuban academics visiting the UK. Hearing those personal stories made me want to find out more about the almost mythical place that Cuba seemed to me at that time. Their stories made me think about my interest in literature, feminism, and political involvement in a different way, and this all led to a PhD proposal which examined the reception in contemporary Cuba of Cuban women's testimonial writing since 1959."

As Par discusses, "Cuban Studies is often a very politically polarised area of research where there are huge inequalities in terms of the power to disseminate diverse perspectives.

"As such, I am also driven by the need to provide counter-discourses to the opinions that predominate about Cuba, Communism, Socialism, in liberal democracies so that future scholars can come to their own conclusions based on access to a range of views and approaches."

The changing focus of research

"My initial focus was on the reception of a much-neglected genre: testimonial writing by women after the Cuban revolutionary success of 1959. I became fascinated by the fact that there was no autobiographical genre as such in post-59 Cuba, and that many of the texts produced between the 1960s and 1980s were seen as mediocre in terms of literary quality or simply irrelevant to more recent times in Cuba. Outside Cuba, they are absolutely invisible!"

This led Par to a research methodology which aimed to explore how these texts functioned socially in terms of inter-generational connections between readers.

Par's interest in the social functions of literary production and reception in post-59 Cuba led to her gaining a successful Leverhulme Trust grant with Professor Antoni Kapcia, University of Nottingham, for a project on the interaction between literature and politics in revolutionary Cuba. The study explored Cuban cultural policy designed over 50 years to democratise and socialise literature in a context of post-colonial nation-building.

"We conducted over 100 interviews for this project with writers and other cultural actors in Havana, and the result, along with several articles, was the co-authored monograph Literary culture in Cuba: Revolution, nation-building and a book (Manchester University Press 2012)."

As a result of this project, Par and Professor Kapcia began to wonder about literary culture and identity outside the capital, and embarked on a further Leverhulme Trust-funded research project about culture, history and identity in Granma province in the East of Cuba.

Current research project

In February 2018, Par organised an Impact event in Havana where cultural actors from the Granma province in Cuba were invited to Havana to participate in a series of events about identity, culture, history and development in the province. National policymakers were also invited to attend but sadly none did so.  However, this outcome did not deter Par and her team and only served to galvanise their Granma colleagues to unite and work together, along with Par and the project team, to continue to find ways to put their needs and aspirations on the national agenda.

"As foreign researchers, we perhaps have the power to draw attention to some of these issues nationally; but, more importantly, the event underlined for me the importance of my role as a facilitator in a Cuban conversation. We are planning a host of publications and follow-up events to keep the momentum going, all of which is incredibly exciting for me."

Research that feeds into teaching

"Regular and open dialogue with fresh and bright minds from different generations to mine, I find is always enjoyable and productive."

Par teaches a second-year undergraduate module on Culture and Revolution in Modern and Contemporary Latin America, which serves to ask some important questions not only about Latin America and its cultural development, but also about how policy initiatives can affect all of our lives.

"I think it's vital for our students to make connections between their own reality and those of others in countries which are less familiar to them or which are frequently measured by First World western concepts and thus imagined as under-developed. This is, indeed, the process of self-reflection and change that underpins our Year Abroad programme."

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