In this episode of “The Welcome Table,” literary journalism majors Sydney Charles and Tatum Larsen interview Maria-Gratias Sinon, ACLS Emerging Voices Fellow 2020–2021, UCI Department of European Languages & Studies.
Tatum Larsen (0:10–0:16): Hi everyone, welcome to this week’s episode of “The Welcome Table” with Tatum
Sydney Charles (0:16–0:17): And Sydney.
Larsen (0:17–0:53): Today, we are talking to Dr. Maria-Gratias Sinon. Dr. Maria-Gratias Sinon has her Ph.D. in French language and also in literature from the University at Buffalo. She’s also the recipient of this same award of one of our other interviewees, Dr. Felix. So it is the 2020–2021 American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship and it’s a fellowship at UCI. We’re very excited that she’s here. How are you doing today?
Maria-Gratias Sinon (0:52–0:58): I’m doing fine, thank you. How are you?
Larsen (0:58–1:04): Well, doing well, you know, week 10, so we’re getting there.
Charles (1:04–1:38): And before we usually get started and we have our show and tell, so I’m going to go this week.
So, I brought one of my first playbills from the first — I think this is one of the first musicals — that I went to go see. So it’s “Wicked.” I’m sure lots of people know “Wicked,” but it’s one of my favorite musicals. I love it so much. I kept the playbill and since then, I went to go see it like two more times and a couple more musicals in between here and there.
Sinon (1:38–1:45): So that was in Irvine or did you travel to New York City?
Charles (1:45–1:55): Yeah, I went to go see it at the Pantages Theater, which is in L.A., Hollywood. What did you bring to share with us today?
Sinon (155:-2:01): Well, I brought this painting. I don’t know if you can see it.
Charles (2:02–2:03): Oh, wow.
Larsen (2:03-2:04): That’s beautiful.
Sinon (2:04–3:23): My mom, she went to Senegal a few years ago and she went to, she visited Gorée Island. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but basically that’s where the slave ships departed to get to the Atlantic. So, there’s a lot of tourism there. So, they went on the island and then they went where they have no return. And that’s where once the slave passed that threshold, they could never kind of come back. That was then they lost the last time they were in African land.
So before, you know, they were kidnapped and enslaved. So, when she visited, she brought back this painting. We love collecting African art. We don’t live in Africa anymore. But whenever we have an opportunity to collect, we love any time, really. So what I really like about this one is that it’s made up sand.
Larsen (3:23–3:26): Yeah, I was noticing some texture there.
Sinon (3:26–4:05): Yeah, definitely some red soil sand and then there’s some grey, shades of grey and then those black, of course. But I mean, I don’t know if you can see, but it’s basically a drawing of a mother and child. And you see how the connecting of mother and child showcased here. And so I thought I’d share a little African art because we don’t get to see enough of it.
Charles (4:05–4:06): That’s true.
Sinon (4:07-4:10): So I thought I’d share a little something.
Larsen (4:10–4:31): That’s beautiful. That’s amazing. So we loved hearing about your mom and a little bit about your background. Can you tell us little bit more about how you grew up? Like, what got you interested in studying the French language and literature? Did you grow up in a French speaking household?
Sinon (4:32–6:39): Wonderful question. I am a Togolese-born American. I moved to the United States when I was a teenager and so most of my high school years were in the United States. So as a point of reference, I just want to mention that Togo is right next to Ghana. I don’t know if that helps a little bit because people don’t know too much about Togo. It’s really tiny country, so that’s where I was born.
When I moved to the United States, I focused on learning English. So from living in Togo to high school and everything, I just pretty much focused on that. So once I got to to college, to undergrad, I kind of, I started having this feeling to kind of learn more about my Blackness, about my roots and so on. That was the time where I became even more aware, more aware of my race and how my race in the United States affected my quality of life.
In Togo, everybody’s Black. Your heroes and villains are Black. In the United States, it’s a little different. So, that’s what kind of piqued my interest. I really wanted to learn more about Francophone literature. And so then, I met a professor who was offering a Francophone literature course in French. And so I took this course initially. And then over time, I kept taking more courses, so that’s how it started.
Larsen (6:43–6:44): Yeah, that’s awesome That’s really interesting.
Charles (6:44–6:45): Start of your journey, right?
Larsen (6:48–6:58): And also learning about your Blackness in a new place in the context of what America is and what it represents. That’s super, super interesting.
Charles (5:59–7:17): So when you were making that journey and “hey, I’m going to learn a little bit more about your Blackness” and you were reading a whole bunch of books, what authors stood out to you most? I know that’s a hard question because there’s so many great ones, but yeah, we’d just like to know.
Sinon (7:17–9:17): One of the early ones that I read that piqued my interest was Manson Ben. He’s one of the first Francophone filmmakers. So, I was exposed to his film in undergrad and I got a chance to watch him. I had heard of him growing up because I had read his novels in the past, but he is also a filmmaker. And so, watching his film about Senegal colonial history, for example, the women in Senegal, the subjectivity that different issues are so relevant to the human condition was very prevalent in his work.
And so on in grad school, I became more familiar with my foundation, this Francophone Caribbean author. Marie Vieux-Chauvet, she’s Haitian and I read many books and they’re just amazing. She worked on the Haitian Revolution, she has a book that talks about the Duvalier regime dictatorship in Haiti, and she even talked about colorism in one of attacks. And so all of that formed, of course, as you know, he’s still on race the Black person and white spaces, all those theories on Blackness, all of that shapes my interest in Francophone literature.
Charles (9:17–9:23): You’re just soaking it all up, soaking it all in.
Larsen (9:24–9:51): Exactly and that kinda draws us to our next question. We did some reading and we know that a lot of your research has to do with body aesthetics and oppression of transnational Black women. And we’re really interested. What got you interested in that? We know that you mentioned a lot of your most respected authors that you’ve been reading since your undergrad experience. But what led you to focusing on that specifically?
Sinon (9:52–11:51): Wow, that was a great question. So many things led me to picking transnational Black womanhood, Black woman invisibility in academic spaces. But I had to pick an example, I would say after watching “Black Venus” by Abdellatif Kechiche, a French-Tunisian filmmaker. He made a historical drama on Sarah Baartman, the Hottentot Venus.
That is such an experience watching that. I had such a visceral reaction. And so I was inspired to further look into that topic. He made me think about the Black woman experience when they migrate, when they migrate for work, for opportunities for a better life, or to find agency through economic freedom. So all of that helped me hone in, zone in on that specific topic. Just Black women and these experiences reflect real life. Most of the work I’ve done in fiction, but it kind of trickles down and back to real life Black women. And Sarah Baartman was a real life person. That’s how it really started.
Larsen (11:51–12:25): The idea of the Black Venus. I actually just learned about Sarah Baartman in my Black studies class. And that story is, like you said, heart wrenching and very powerful. Just the idea that they gave this girl the name Venus as almost a joke, you know? You know, it’s just very much related to Black woman autonomy. And then just like disrespect towards the Black woman community, just like disrespect to the Black woman community. like you were saying, it’s just it’s very interesting that you would bring up that story. A very real story.
Sinon (12:27–13:05): Right. And to add to your point how hyper sexualized her body is, you know, that was also something that was just. That, I think is something Black women can really relate to today in some way, yes. You see this glorious queen in such a way was just so, it was shocking. I don’t even know what adjective I can use really, but it was, wow, this is really, really, really surprising, the extent that which that happened.
Charles (13:05–13:18): Right, really honing in on that, like, I mean, it’s obvious to us, but why is it so, so, so important to research and talk openly about transnational Black womanhood?
Sinon (13:20–15:47): First, I believe that there’s not enough research done. I believe that most of the people who talk about Black women are Black women, and so it is as if Black women who have contributed so much to history around the world, sometimes they’re overlooked, their stories are overlooked.
So I thought I’ll contribute in a way to Black women’s studies. Black women subjectivity that needs to be more visible because it seems as though the world is sensitive to categorize them in a way, hypersexual or keep them in a position that she is unable to graduate out of while there’s actually Black women themselves that are doing the work that are creating a community, building community to lift each other up, so to heal from trauma.
But we don’t, there’s not enough. We need to see that more to inspire each other, but also the younger generation representation, the proper visibility that really, that really make a great difference in other Black women’s lives. We’re seen in the same negative portrait that we see all the time and so I think it’s important to continue to talk about it, continue to talk about it in any shape or form, really. And so that’s why I believe it’s really important to talk about Black women, the one in the United States, the immigrant Black women and all types of Black women. They all deserve to have that visibility.
Charles (15:48–16:14): When we’re talking about it now, I just get kind of chills sometimes because for so long it seems like event today, we’re always fighting this negative overhanging umbrella around us.
It’s so difficult sometimes but in conversations with people like Tatum and people like you, it makes me feel a little bit better that like someone else understands and we can talk about this openly, like how we’re doing right now. So thank you for that.
Larsen (16:15–16:30): Yeah and that boils down to doing that corrective work that you were talking about. You know, that’s such an interesting term because, you know, a lot of people think, oh, you know, racism is over or whatever. It’s very much not. There’s still a lot of work to do.
Sinon (16:31–17:18): Visibility and promotion and media, you know, from within the media, too. And you know what I really like when I watch the news and I see a Black women in media and politics kind of standing up for change and saying we’re not going to accept this anymore. And we see real life images, our mothers, our sisters working on these stereotypes, you know, and so and I just like seeing Black women demanding better and also making space for themselves. We’re seeing a lot of that as well.
Larsen (17:19–17:26): Can you give us an example of a time that you had to create space and demand space within your own career?
Sinon (17:27–20:00): In undergrad, I was a part of BSU. It was a predominantly white school, so we were always kind of struggling, being away from home. And that was a big fight where we created a room for us to talk about important issues. And, you know, I think that was the first time I ever heard of Sarah Baartman, even though, I mean, my experience was not nearly as tragic as Sarah Baartman, but that was the time where we, even though the conversation was uncomfortable, we tried to kind of make that room, to have that difficult conversation.
Yeah. And I’ve kind of. I’ve also done that in other situations, in courses where I felt like I wasn’t being heard, which is difficult to kind of manage, but sometimes you have to speak up for yourself. Like, so as someone who is an immigrant and who has an accent, I had to prove myself a lot because, you know, I was always taken seriously. So, yeah. So, you know, people assume you’re not smart because you sound different and so there’s been experiences where I’ll tell them, “Look I’m from the same school. We’re in the same class. I’m progressing. We’re progressing. What’s the problem?”
Also, I went study abroad and there was a bit of that happening with my colleagues. I was from a different background. And I said, “You know, we’re all here, why pick on the person might be different from you, you know?”
It all depends. I approached them about it and I think over time they saw that maybe they needed to re-evaluate how they talk to people who are not from the same background.
Charles (20:01–20:18): Thank you for sharing that with us. Of course. You’re so wonderful. We’re so happy to have you here at UCI. Can you tell us a little bit about your academic journey and how you went from Buffalo with your Ph.D. and then how you came over here to UCI?
Sinon (20:21–22:09): I was finishing up my dissertation when the pandemic started, and so I was nervous about my defense being canceled and all that, so there was so much going on at the time. But fortunately, I was able to get everything remotely. We were working online. So I was able to keep my defense date. I was ready to move on to the next step. Luckily, everything went well with my defense but I was also kind of nervous, having finished after many years of school. And I’m excited and I wasn’t sure what the future had in store for me, what was going to happen with jobs that I kept hearing about funding being cut in a lot of schools.
I was nervous, definitely. But then my advisor had nominated me for this position for the fellowship. And then then at the university level, I was selected and then I applied. And then and luckily, I was able to land the position. And so I’m just so grateful for the opportunity and happy for the opportunity.
Larsen (22:10–22:18): Congratulations! It’s a huge accomplishment and I’m sure a relief during a period like this, you know.
Sinon (22:19–22:35): Yes. Yes. I think it was it was just I did not expect that at all. It’s just so many people losing their jobs and I’m just so grateful, so grateful to be here.
Charles (22:36–22:42): Of course. What are some things that you hope to gain from the ACLS Fellowship?
Sinon (22:44–23:59): Well, I would like to continue teaching my research, share with students and ask to hear what they think about it, because you never know. You all have, you think about things, maybe in a different way than I would and so we can, students and teachers, can both learn from each other. So I’m excited to share my research with my students and get their feedback. And also, I hope they learn a little something from me, from the course, from the books we’re gonna read, from the films we’re gonna watch. I’m hoping for that and I hope to also get feedback from my research from students, my professors here, and of course, my mentor, Carrie Noland. We will be working and giving me feedback along with other faculty members in the European Languages and Studies Department.
Larsen (24:00–24:07): Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on or what you’re going to be working on?
Sinon (24:07–24:56): So, I mean, at this point, we’re just brainstorming, and we haven’t said anything. We did have a Work in Progress seminar last month on my research. So, I was able to get feedback from various departments about a chapter of mine in my dissertation. And it was an amazing experience. I got great feedback, constructive feedback. And so that that’s all I can ask for, just revising my work, revising chapters.
Larsen (24:57–25:04): And we wanted to ask, what are some of your some of your long term or shorter-term goals for the future?
Sinon (25:07–26:19): Long term, continue to teach and work on my research, because you can never be done, you never get done with revising and revising, as my former advisor would say. So, I am just going to continue working. And I think of new ways to expand on my research. So those are my main goals. And also, what short term goals? Staying healthy. Health wise, stay active, the movement outside the home is limited, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and taking care of your mental health. Those are very important because without great health you can’t function well. You can’t give 100%, school or teaching so yeah those are my small goals.
Larsen (26:07–26:34): Well, sometimes those seem pretty big, like you’re trying to juggle so much stuff that I think achieving balance like you’re talking about is a super great way to keep on track and stay sane, especially right now.
Charles (26:35–26:41): We’re going through a global pandemic, so staying healthy is the primary focus for most individuals right now.
Larsen (26:42–26:43): Number one.
Charles (26:44–26:47): Thank you so much for talking with us.
Sinon (26:47–26:49): Thank you for having me.
Larsen (26:50–26:55): It was so great. We appreciate you so much for coming on the show. We had such a great time talking to you.
Sinon (26:55–26:57): Have a good evening.
Charles (27:01–27:07): Thank you guys for again joining us for another episode of “The Welcome Table.” This has been Sydney.
Larsen (27:07–27:08): And Tatum.
Charles (27:08–27:09): We’ll see you guys next time.
Watch all episodes of “The Welcome Table with Sydney and Tatum” here.