Alumni Spotlight on Maxine Dannatt: Reading Between the Lines

Maxine Dannatt on literature, criticism, and the privilege of being apolitical.

Has society ever had such complex interactions with information? Recent trends in sharing and consuming information are worth exploring, particularly when headlines polarize people more often than entice them to read. How do these trends in information sharing take shape? What factors are most influential? Among whom? And what does that have to say about the societies in which they are practiced in?

A recent conversation I had with Maxine Dannatt, BA’17, got me thinking about questions like these. Dannatt graduated in English Literature and Middle Eastern Studies last May. I noticed, as I sipped espresso on her balcony, that Dannatt is a pleasant and naturally engaging person. She speaks rapidly, and is clear and sharp with words. But as I pressed with questions about literature (being a book fiend myself, I’ve always wondered what it’s like to study them) I felt something like regret reverberating off of her. I was curious, but decided to wait for better confirmation in her answers as we continued the interview.  

Dannatt, a native of New York City, became something of an activist while at McGill, partly due to influence from friends, partly from exposure to radically different experiences from joining social movements and organizations, like McGill Students in Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights. She’s also recently joined the founding board of a student advocacy project called Right to Campus.

“I think there should be some sort of required critical theory class,” she tells me, referring to both the English Literature and Middle Eastern Studies departments, “I didn’t take a critical theory class until my last semester, and I was mind-blown.”

Dannatt says she’s come a long way from her previous “incredibly privileged naivety”, and lets out a heavy sigh each time her upbringing is mentioned. Eventually I realize what’s happening in those moments: though grateful for the well-off circumstances she was born into, Dannatt finds the sense of detachment from social realities a huge and common cost of growing up protected by social and economic privilege. Not to say that with great privilege comes great ignorance, but Dannatt believes that choosing to ignore or neglect political issues that harm others is a disdainful claim that only those with certain social advantages have access to.

“It’s really nonsensical to separate politics from your world. Like those people who say they choose not to be interested in politics… I don’t think that divide exists. Everyone’s lives are affected by the political. It’s really privileged to be able to say ‘I’m not political’”.

Initiating that awakening for Dannatt was choosing to be critical of the works she read in many of her classes – and discovering the colonial baggage of so many widely acclaimed names and titles in the literary world.

“The required introductory survey class is mostly a huge list of works that have been labelled as ‘canonical’, that are important, but happen to be mainly white male writers who were supportive of the colonial establishment. You do so much British literature in those survey classes without discussing the colonial implications of the work.”

The need for incorporating a critical study into the curricula goes beyond knowing history – It paints a better picture of the society which produced the material being read. That’s where Dannatt sees literature, and literary criticism, as highly important.

“I think literature can uncover patterns of our society. Right now, there’s a trend of bestselling books about race. I recently finished one called ‘The Hate You Give’, a number one on the New York Times about growing up black in a suburb of Baltimore. It tackled a lot of issues. Those conversations are now bestselling books, which I think is reflective of the age we live in.”

When asked how we should be reading books critically, Dannatt offers things she learned from Professor Andrew Piper’s Digital Humanities Lab, where she worked as part of his Data Mining course.

 

“Literature is important to study, throughout all ages, but it’s important to look at it from afar rather than close readings. For example, collecting a corpus of texts and analyzing the way word usage has changed over time. It’s more useful because it allows us to relate the literature and see it in terms of the society that is or was producing it.”

Platforms like the New York Times Review of Books and Kirkus Review also have roles to play in revealing particular aspects of a society’s subconscious through literary means. Dannatt admits to spending a lot of time pouring through Goodreads, lauding it as the next best thing for crowdsourcing books. She’s insightful about the politics embedded in literary review culture, especially for upholding or disseminating certain perceptions or stories, at the cost of others.

“Literature is still relevant. And this is why – it is used for specific political agendas. If you look at these reviews, the only Arab women that get reviewed in mainstream American publications are women that touch on topics that confirm the specific agenda, or way of looking at the Arab world*. If a woman is talking about being oppressed in a tiny segment of her book, a book that is really about her coming of age, the ‘oppression of the Arab woman’ is what’s going to be upheld in the reviews. That’s why it’s important to take a step back and think about why are those books on the bestsellers list? It doesn’t deter from the book itself, but it’s important to think about what’s being put forth, and why is that happening.”

*In the Digital Humanities Lab, Dannatt conducted a research project analyzing a corpus of female Arab-American authors in large, mainstream newspapers that she had designed herself. This comment is based on her findings.