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Interview with Katarzyna Nowak, UC3M CONEX research fellow

“The American dream can always turn into a nightmare”


Katarzyna Nowak McNeice (Swidnica, Poland; 1977) is doing research into the North American identity at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) department of Philosophy, Language and Literature within the framework of CONEX. This talent recruitment project is supported by the European Union, the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness. and the Banco Santander. Katarzyna earned her doctoral degree at the University of Wroclaw and has published numerous articles on US culture, postcolonial literature, gender studies, and opera studies, as well as translations of essays and poems.  Her current CONEX research project is entitled:  “The Melancholy State of California: representation and re-evaluation of American identity”.

Katarzyna Nowak

What does melancholy and identity mean to you?

Identity and melancholy are indeed key concepts in my research under the Conex program. To put it in simple terms, melancholy means a fixation on loss, on what we had, or imagined we had, and an inability to get over the loss. I reach back to Sigmund Freud for a definition of melancholy: what particularly interests me is the initial distinction that he makes between mourning and melancholy, and the fact that he abandons this distinction in his later writings. I find this inability to distinguish between melancholy and mourning interesting, because it reveals a very human trait that I think is important in philosophy and in literature: namely, the courage to retrace one’s steps, look back, and admit being wrong. For Freud, melancholy (and later, mourning as well) is an ego-generating process, which means that we can claim to have a self only after experiencing a certain loss. Thus, the concepts of melancholy and identity are closely connected: one does not exist without the other. I define identity as an ability to claim a self, to say, for example, I am Californian, and I recognize that this self is always founded on a loss.

Your research tackles the American (and, more specifically, the Californian) identity in its literary manifestations. What are the most defining features of that identity?

Wallace Stegner once stated that California is like the rest of the United States, only more so. I think it’s a humorous, but telling response. If American identity is structured around the ideas of individual freedom, it becomes even more pronounced in the case of California. California sees itself as being at the forefront of progress, and justly so: it has proved time and again that it is more willing to introduce progressive if controversial legislature, being a forerunner in climate change research and laws, in renewable energy legislation; but also in social issues, such as LGBT rights and immigrant rights.

To what extent does the State of California embody the so-called "American dream"?

The flipside of this characteristically American optimistic approach, whose part is looking into the future rather than back to examine the past, is that the American dream can always turn into the American nightmare, and California is also a case in point. With its perfect climate, its amazing natural beauty, its openness to technological progress and its attractiveness for arts and especially the movie business, it can be seen as an apogee of the American dream, and in fact, in the 19th century it was advertised as such, when immigrants from other parts of the United States and from all over the world were sought, and persuaded to populate California. At the same time, this “earthly paradise” was a hellish nightmare to many who either resided there before the American expansion and annexation of the region, or who came after, such as Native Americans, Californios, or the Chinese immigrants.

You affirm that the Californian identity is constructed, to a great extent, from the Hispanic influence. What are the most pronounced traces of this influence?

An article in the Guardian asserted once that it is not the Chican@s who crossed the border; it’s the border that jumped them. I find this statement perceptive and correct. It is in Chican@ literature that we find the most pronounced traces of the Hispanic influence, but I think that it can be seen not only in literature, but also in architecture, in art, in cuisine, which is to say, everywhere. That does not mean equating Hispanic with Chican@; it means taking a longer historical perspective to include cultural influences on the region that took place four hundred years ago and morphed into various forms. What I find truly fascinating is how varied California is, and how undefinable its identity is – and that is a good thing. A stable, unified, homogeneous identity is an exclusive concept, that is, it keeps “others” from being accepted as part of “us.”

Do you consider that the convulsive US political context, marked by growing protectionism, will contribute to radicalize/reinforce the patriotic American identity?

I hope not. There are always centrifugal forces to counter the centralized, unified, homogenic identity. In fact, I think that California is the place to watch out for new forms of identity, new definitions of Americanness. Incidentally, right after the most recent elections there were renewed talks of California secession and it becoming an independent country – which I don’t think will happen, but I think the timing is important here. Discussing the idea of leaving the union at a time when this union reinforces a claustrophobic, xenophobic policy is itself a statement and it forms a part of this centrifugal force that I mentioned.

What motivations have led you to develop research on this topic?

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on postcolonial literatures and theories, and I did part of my research towards the doctoral degree at the University of California in Los Angeles. I think what led me to develop this project was partly my interest in the idea of a destabilized, postcolonial identity, and partly my fascination with the place where I spent such a productive time.

What methodology do you apply in your research?

I am inspired by postcolonial studies, border studies, New Historians, gender and feminist studies. My methodology is as eclectic as my approach to the issues of identity. I think multidisciplinary research is the key.

What results do you expect to get?

My monograph on Joan Didion and the melancholic Californian identity is under contract with a New York-based academic publisher and should be out this year. I also have a co-edited volume of essays about Californian pop culture coming out this year, under contract with a North Carolina publisher. These volumes are the two most important and most direct results of my research.

What are the advantages of investigating this issue within the context of CONEX?

The support that I have under the Conex program is unprecedented, and cannot be overstated. It allows me to put all my time and energy into research. Carlos III is a wonderful place to conduct research, a welcoming, internationally-minded community, and that is also very important. I am very grateful to be part of the Conex program at Carlos III.

One of the central phases of the project is the initiation of a group of students through seminars. What attraction do you think Spanish university students find in a project of these characteristics?

I hope that a discussion of a heterogeneous, open, fluid identity is not only attractive, but also important to young people at the university. I believe in the university as a space of dialogue, and my research pivots on the idea that we should keep the channels of dialogue open, listen to the other, and acknowledge the other within ourselves. I think we should keep it in mind at all times, but especially today, when closing the borders, shutting down communication, expelling those unlike “us” is the root of the problems we are facing, not only in the United States, but also in Europe.


The CONEX (CONnecting EXcellence) Program is supported by the European Union (Marie Curie FP7 Actions, grant agreement no. 600371), from the  Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad (Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness)  (COFUND2013-51509) and  Banco Santander, through Santander Universidades.