Q&A with UTP Author Cameron Cross

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Examining the emergence of the versified love story as a genre of New Persian literature in the early eleventh century, Love at a Crux situates this literary movement within the broader global history of romance. Read the full Q&A by author Cameron Cross, here.

As Love at a Crux is your first book, tell us about when the idea for writing this book first came to fruition. Is there a story behind it? How did this topic get fleshed out?

There is indeed a story behind this work! My initial interest in Iran and the Persian language formed when I was about twelve, but there was no direct way to study these topics when I began my undergraduate program at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I therefore cobbled together the closest equivalent to a Middle Eastern studies track that I could devise, which was, believe it or not, a dual degree in medieval European history and Italian. (I was going for a Mediterranean Studies kind of approach.) Anyway, as an Italian major, I wound up taking courses on the famous “Three Crowns” of that literary tradition – Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio – and was thus introduced to the conventions of the sonnet, the dolce stil novo, frame-tale narratives, and so on. I had no idea how impactful the study of these texts would be on me and my future work; all I knew was that I really enjoyed reading them, and on the advice of my mentor, Suzanne Magnanini, I wrote my senior thesis on the commentary tradition around the famous fifth canto of Dante’s Inferno, where the lovers Paolo and Francesca are seen batted about by the winds of desire, a fate so rich in pathos that the poet-pilgrim faints after hearing their tale.

Although it was great fun, I thought of this experience as adjacent at best to my long-term goals, which were to learn Persian and Arabic and pursue a comparative study of contemporary literature in these two languages. Such was my plan when I found myself, some four years later, in the second year of my PhD program at the University of Chicago, reading a prominent Iranian writer of the twentieth century, Bozorg Alavi. One of the short stories by Alavi that I happened to pick up made repeated reference to a classic work of Persian literature, the Haft Paykar of Nezami Ganjavi, who flourished in the second half of the twelfth century. My advisor, Franklin Lewis, suggested in his usual encouraging way that if I wanted to better understand Alavi’s story, it would be a good idea to go back and read the work it was based on. As I settled into Nezami’s text, I started to experience intense flashbacks of my memories reading Dante and Boccaccio; in terms of sensibilities, preoccupations, and literary strategies, they almost seemed to be talking to each other. This moment of recognition (or re-cognition, as I put it later in the book) lit a spark within me: I wanted to understand exactly how it was that these authors had come to adopt such analogous practices, and what we might learn from exploring those connections. This question had me so absorbed that I decided to make it the subject of my MA thesis (which I have since revised and published as “The Many Colors of Love”), thinking this would be a fun detour before getting back to the modern period.

As it turned out, I never “got back.” After finishing the thesis, I began studying for my comprehensive exams, and Dick Davis’s translation of Vis and Ramin – a work that had greatly influenced Nezami – had just come out. Without knowing anything about this story, I picked up the book and started to read, and I doubt I was less than fifty pages in when I already knew that it was going to be the topic of my dissertation. Not only did Vis and Ramin bring me right back to themes I had been thinking about since meeting Paola and Francesca so many years ago, but it left me utterly transfixed with its stylistic beauty, emotional power, and psychological depth. My appreciation only grew as I transitioned into reading the Persian original. It goes to show how impactful a good translation can be!

Love at a Crux by Cameron Cross

Long story short, Love at a Crux boils down to my attempt to synthesize and understand the many connections I had gleaned yet could not yet fully account for during my meanderings across the literary traditions of western Afro-Eurasia. I began the project wanting to convey to readers some of the insights and questions I had gained from this journey, and to show how there is so much more to explore across this intellectual and literary network than the modern disciplinary boundaries suggest.

Tell us about the research process for this book. Was there something in your research that surprised you? 

Yes – I had no idea how crucial Greek would become in my research! I began my work on Vis and Ramin thinking about its many obvious connections with western European love-stories – the cycle of Tristan and Iseult in particular – without much awareness of what was out there in Greek literature. Here again, I owe much to Dick Davis, who not only authored the translation of Vis and Ramin that hooked me in the first place, but who gave a series of lectures in 2002 entitled Panthea’s Children, in which he noted many thematic overlaps between the ancient Greek novel and the medieval Persian romance. If not for that book, I’m not sure I would have thought to look into Greek at all, but boy am I grateful I did! Not only was I fascinated by the similarities (and differences) presented by the texts themselves, but I was also exposed to a world of critical theory and scholarship that helped me move my own analysis forward. The more I have studied Hellenistic thought and literature, the more I appreciate its value as an interlocutor to its Islamicate counterpart, not to mention its close ties with Latinate cultures further west. This is why I make recourse to many words of Greek origin in the book, such as mythos, ethos, and theory (theōria, a “looking at,” cf. Ar. نظر), in constructing frameworks that place these three cultural blocs into conversation.

Incidentally, it is a funny irony that my gateway into Iranian studies itself happened to lie in Greece. I had grown up reading and enjoying ancient Greek myths and stories, and I found myself drifting back to that topic through my high school Latin club. I think it may have been Isaac Asimov’s The Greeks: A Great Adventure (1965) that introduced me to the Persians in the first place, and perhaps I owe more to his magnetic storytelling than I realize for developing the love for Iran that has guided me to where I am now. For all that, I never took up any of the multiple opportunities I had in high school, college, or grad school to study Greek, until I got to my dissertation; it simply was not on my radar as something that I should be doing. I’m trying to make up for it now, but I’ve realized that intensive language study becomes something of a luxury after graduate school. Had I known, I would have reconsidered my Latin teacher’s invitation to teach me Greek during activity hour!

Are there any particular chapters that stand out to you?

Each chapter of Love at a Crux tells a distinctive story – ethics, politics, lyrics, and so on – and as such they all stand out to me in different ways. But perhaps what lingers most in my mind now is not the chapters themselves, but the thematic overlaps and connections between them that slowly came into view during the writing process. For instance, I was not expecting the figure of the “double” to play such a key role in my argument that I ended up inscribing it in the book’s title, via the word crux: in addition to its immediate themes of convergence and divergence, the crux acts as a kind of prism that splits the story’s characters into multiple images of themselves, allowing us to perceive the many elements that combine (not always harmoniously) into the full spectrum of their composition. Nor did I expect competing concepts of time – the diachrony of testament, the anachrony of affect, the uchrony of “there was, and there wasn’t” (kan wa-ma kan, yek-i bud, yek-i nabud) – to become a significant through-line in my analysis of the romance’s straddled, or perhaps “doubled,” temporal positionality. Perhaps the most exciting insight that emerged for me was the role of human imagination: one reason for why the romance emerged at the time and place it did in Persian literature, I surmised, is that the authors involved in this movement had apprehended the possibility of phantasy (“image-making”) as a technology of meaning-making: that imagined experiences of life could be as “true” in terms of their import as the lives of a society’s heroes. In this way, I came to think of romance as a kind of speculative or even utopian exercise, a genre that imagines a place where things happen differently and cast a mirror upon what we perceive as “normal” in day-to-day life. In that regard, it is not so far away from modern science fiction or fantasy.

What was the most challenging aspect of this project?

The first and foremost challenge I recall was simply finding time to write, amid all the other commitments I had going on. But that’s pretty much par for the course in academic life, I feel. But on an intellectual level, perhaps the biggest challenge was to rethink, reframe, and retheorize the project as it evolved; the concrete had already set on my earlier drafts, and I remember how my heart sank when it was suggested to me that I scrap the introduction and first chapter and rewrite them from scratch during my manuscript workshop. But although this was a challenging task, I have no doubt that it substantially improved the final product. It forced me to think carefully about my goals and figure out creative ways to realize them.

What do you hope the impact of Love at a Crux will have on readers and/or the current scholarship in this area?

There are two levels on which I hope this book will have an impact. On the level of my own field in Persian literary studies, I hope it instigates a fresh appreciation of Vis and Ramin and the other early Persian romances, which to my mind have been recognized for their historical importance but have only rarely received attention as literary works in their own right; I also hope that we might walk away from this book with a fuller understanding of the whys and hows of the early history of romance in Persian literature – a history that can only be told by placing this literature in its broader cultural context. This takes me to the second level, the comparative one; I hope this book will help to build bridges between the fields of Classics, Byzantine studies, Medieval studies, and Islamic studies, demonstrating how new insights may emerge when we study adjacent traditions and read each other’s work. Having made the case that the romance, as both mythos and ethos, is a far more widespread phenomenon than can be accounted for within any one of these disciplines, I like to think of this book as a call for thinking of interdisciplinarity as interconnectivity. The fields we study are distinct, but they are also connected, and we have much to learn from each other as a result.

Learn more about Love at a Crux by Cameron Cross, here.


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