Author Q&A Session with Suresh Canagarajah

Routledge is pleased to share with you our author Q&A session with Suresh Canagarajah, editor of the recently published handbook The Routledge Handbook of Migration and Language. Suresh is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor and Director of the Migration Studies Project in the Departments of Applied Linguistics and English at Pennsylvania State University, USA.

Congratulations on the publication of your book The Routledge Handbook of Migration and Language. What do you want your audience to take away from the book?

I want the audience to think of mobility as not just another topic for discussion as an addendum to the theories and methods we already have, but as a new way of looking at all of communication. In linguistics, that means thinking of languages and texts as mobile resources. Language is always mobile, whether or not they are accompanied by human mobility. Mobility should shape our ways of looking at everything. In my introduction to the handbook, I call this “mobility as method.” That is, we have to treat mobility as the glasses we wear to analyze or interpret all human interactions.

What inspired you to edit this book?

Initially, I was not interested in editing any handbooks or writing chapters for any handbooks. There are too many handbooks these days, sometimes multiple handbooks on the same subject. Once I was asked to write a chapter on the same topic (i.e., linguistic imperialism) by three editors of different handbooks in applied linguistics. So, I became sick and tired of the handbook industry. What attracted me to the handbook on migration and language was that this was an emergent subject that lacked a disciplinary focus. Scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds, such as sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, and literature, in addition to applied linguistics, are studying this subject. Even within applied linguistics, scholars from different institutions and countries are studying this topic without necessarily being aware of each other's work. So it seemed to me important to bring all this emergent work together within the covers of the same book. My hope is that the handbook would serve to give shape and body to this new disciplinary persuasion. In editing this handbook, I have become acquainted with scholars I didn’t know before and their research which I hadn't looked at closely.

Why is your book relevant to present day academic studies both within linguistics and beyond?

In the past, we adopted static structures for our analysis in many fields. Everything was turned into a structure for convenient analysis. For example, language is a self-defining structure. Society, political institutions, or culture are treated as neatly patterned structures. In doing so, we also made these human experiences and activities static. In linguistics, mobility would motivate us to treat languages as not separate and autonomous grammatical structures, but mobile resources. That is, words are always traveling and coming into contact with other words in different places and times. Therefore, all languages accommodate words and influences from diverse communities and cultures. This realization would make us rethink our notions of standard language, purity of language, or separateness of languages. Though such processes of contact and synergy have been taking place all the time in history, they have reached a new stage in the context of migration, globalization, and technology in recent times. Moving beyond static and rigid models of language, we are now challenged to theorize how people shuttle in and out of languages, developing new hybrid grammars and practices, in their social interactions. We have to study how new meanings and grammars evolve out of the synergy of diverse traveling semiotic resources. The handbook has chapters on notions such as translanguaging and transliteracies, which theorize these possibilities.

Such orientations to language as mobile resources also make us rethink identities, communities, nation-states, and institutions as built on homogeneous and unitary notions. If multiple languages deriving from the mobility of people, words, and texts shape identities and communities, we have to redefine them in more fluid and flexible terms. This would also make us reimagine how notions such as citizenship need to accommodate the possibility of people moving in and out of nation-state borders to enjoy flexible citizenship. We have to also ask how schools can prepare students for communication in the multilingual repertoires they need for mobility. Workplace relations are also becoming diversified as people increasingly work with co-workers from different language and national backgrounds, and clients in different lands. As all social relations become transnational, we have to consider how people might negotiate this diversity and unpredictability in social life. Such questions challenge us to move beyond the traditional monolithic orientations and structures and consider diversified laws, practices, and norms for social life. These challenges go beyond linguistics to involve other fields such as law, political science, education, and labor. The authors in the handbook draw from these fields to consider these questions of policy and practice.

What is your academic background?

I am a migrant scholar. I came to the United States for my graduate studies from my native Sri Lanka in 1985. I returned to my country after my PhD in 1990 as I was always interested in teaching there and contributing to my community. However, the ethnic conflict in the country drove me back again to the United States in 1994 for teaching and scholarship. Though I am now based in the United States, I am in touch with the diaspora of Sri Lankan Tamils who have fled the country. I am studying how they are defining their identity and community affiliation during their displacement. I am also connected with my former students and colleagues in Sri Lanka to collaborate with them on their academic pursuits. This life of shuttling between communities and places has shaped my academic outlook. I am able to draw from the intellectual traditions of my home and my host communities to carve out new scholarly spaces. I am able to adopt a critical orientation towards both traditions, while also combining their useful resources. Though life as a migrant, or exile, is not always pleasant, there are certain advantages and blessings that come with this position.

What first attracted you to this topic as an area of study?

As I come from the East, many of the constructs in my field didn’t make good sense to me. The orientation to languages as separate and distinct from each other was strange to me, as we consider languages as always coming into contact, getting mixed, drawing from each other, and developing new meanings and grammars. Treating languages and texts as normative and pure was also new to me. I come from a community where diversity is treated as the norm, not the exception. Therefore, the academic constructs that valued purity, ownership, and homogeneity were problematic. For example, though I always considered my Sri Lankan English as an appropriate language for communication, some in US academia and society treated it as wrong, deficient, or ignorant. I got attracted to the topic of mobility in order to answer these questions and conflicts. The orientation of mobility enabled me to inquire into the practices of contact and diversity more insightfully. It helped me resolve my conflicts better and develop orientations that address language practices that are true to my experience.

Tell us an unusual fact about yourself and your teaching or writing style?

In my personal writing, I am trying to now merge the rhetorical strengths of my Tamil community with the established academic conventions of the West. As a mobile scholar, shuttling between different communities, with competing rhetorical traditions, I consider the best way to represent my interests and voice is by merging these traditions selectively and critically for my purposes. My Tamil academic community has always valued the personal and the narrative. Though I respect the data driven, detached, and disciplined writing of the West, I have lately been trying to bring the personal and the narrative in a qualified way. We find a readiness for such rhetorical experimentation in academia now, as research methods such as autoethnography and narrative study are becoming more acceptable. I find spaces opening up in academia to represent my research and theorization with the richness of the rhetorical and intellectual traditions I bring from my mobility.

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Other titles by Suresh Canagarajah