New in Town: Romanticist Bakary Diaby

New in Town: Romanticist Bakary Diaby

(Photo provided by Bakary Diaby)

It’s easy to wonder how professors found their place in such expansive fields, from geo-sciences to psychology. For Bakary Diaby — recognizable by his charcoal high-top converse and fitted vests — a series of not-quite-right paths had to be taken before he even stumbled upon Romanticism. But now Diaby is settling into his new role, with passion in tow, as assistant professor in the English department.

As a literary canon, Romanticism focuses on the 18th and 19th centuries where poets explored their worlds through a more emotional, imaginative lens. However, this was not always Diaby’s passion. While growing up in the Bronx, Diaby was much more interested in nonfiction writing.

“I look back and what I really appreciated about creative writing growing up was one, a chance to analyze events in my own life, to look at what I was doing and what was happening to me and in the world, and to analyze it. To subject it to a type of analysis and see how actions had meanings,” explains Diaby.

Born in Mali and then raised in what he describes as an “insular” but very diverse area, Diaby was bombarded with a plethora of different experiences, cultures, and languages. Nonfiction was a way to “make sense and make meaning of all of that,” he explains.

But then Diaby began his undergraduate career at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio — or “the opposite of the Bronx,” as Diaby calls it. He chose the school because it was small, and because he did not want to be in large classroom settings. He recalls how everyone knew each other at Kenyon, deeming it “Camp Kenyon.”

Kenyon is quite celebrated for its creative writing department, which is why Diaby enrolled in the first place (even having a quick stint as editor of his own literary magazine). However, he took his time experimenting — taking history, economics, and sociology classes — to expand his academic reach. When the time came for him to read “The Lady of Shalott” by poet Alfred Tennyson, his path changed rather sharply.

“I realized I was never going to write everything as good; it did everything I wanted to do, said everything I wanted to say, and did it in rhyme. So, I very quickly focused more on criticism and in my senior year, then introduced to theory.”

A seemingly earth-shattering transition simply wasn’t — for many reasons, but Diaby mainly credits  professors who encouraged a theoretical reach in creative writing. 

“The thing about Kenyon traditionally, is it’s a very new critical school, it’s very committed to formalist analysis — the poem or the literary object is a beautiful, well-wrought urn that you need to analyze and I was so liberated by being more creative in my analyses,” he explains.

This brings up another reason Diaby welcomed  the concentration change with open arms: he does not see literary theory and creative writing as being drastically different fields — analysis is not strictly for theory, and storytelling not just for creative writing.

“When I teach theory, I try to emphasize that it’s a story — you’re trying to tell a story. The character could be language or history, but you’re ultimately trying to tell a story. I think there’s still an element of autobiography in the work that I do. And that might be true for all of us.”

The Romanticism focus did not come into play until graduate school at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. After getting into the school claiming to be a Victorian (late 19th century) scholar, he realized very quickly his interests lay primarily in the 18th century. Both the fact that everyone kept calling him a Romanticist, and his attraction to the field’s appreciated confrontations with contemporary events, led him to Romanticism.

“In Romanticism you get to do both, you don’t have to choose,” explains Diaby.I’m now in a field uniquely in the two, and I get to be responsible for both. It’s also an ‘ism,’ so it doesn’t have a set of historical dates to confine me in, and it’s an aesthetic that I really enjoy. 

However, that’s not to say the field has no problems, to which Diaby says, “It’s a weird position I find myself in as a Romanticist who is critical of Romanticism.” The criticism surrounds the canon itself, and how it revolves quite exclusively around white male poets, including William Blake and John Keats.

Yet there is work being done on opening the canon to women writers, which Diaby says have “influenced and informed” him. I think the movement on-top of that is to think about non-white writers and think about writers of color and what it means to extend Romanticism to those groups.”

His two classes this semester help embody just that. Though at different levels within the department, the two classes communicate with each other, even if indirectly. At the 100-level, Diaby is teaching a class called Black Childhood. The class, focused on 21st century works, explores how the beacon of childhood innocence is not extended to some. An earlier syllabus for the 100 class even included dives into Romanticism.

His 300-level course, “Romanticism and Human/Nature,” will also turn to the present as a means of critical thought. Though not always the most common among literary professors — for many reasons — Diaby is “more interested in staying in the present and looking out to find things that were always there in Romantic scholarship but were sort of buried.”

Which is where this class will ultimately head, having an “arc towards the present.” Diaby plans to discuss the migration crisis, the Anthropocene — or the current age in which humans dominate the natural climate — and, once they begin to discuss slavery, use contemporary issues of critical race theory. 

While not in the classroom, Diaby will continue working on his book project, which is an expanded version of his dissertation on how vulnerability is aestheticized. As if that is not enough, he will also be working on an article connecting the Black Lives Matter movement to Romantic scholarship. 

At the core of his interests  lies an astute awareness and desire to use the present as a vehicle to view the past, and to learn how to better understand the current by doing so. It is not meant lightly when Diaby articulates, “We have to see where we stand before we can look out.”

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