5 Questions with Jane Mikkelson, Lecturer and Associate Research Scholar

March 7, 2023

Jane Mikkelson is a Lecturer and Associate Research Scholar in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and Department of Comparative Literature. She earned her joint PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and South Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago in 2019 and began teaching at Yale during the Fall 2022 semester.

You’re a scholar of both South Asia and the Near East. How did you arrive at that intersection of interests?

I first got interested in Persian literature in college, reading luminaries like Hafez and Rumi. I was especially fascinated by how these poets can find freedom within the boundaries of fixed form. So, for instance, even though the ghazal (lyric) remains formally consistent over many centuries, it evolves in all kinds of interesting ways—and the creativity that is possible within those strictures is truly remarkable.

You’ll often find Persian Studies based in Near Eastern departments, but the Persianate world is incredibly expansive: South Asia, for example, was a major center of Persian literature for centuries. This is an especially exciting time to be in Persian Studies. The field is actively expanding to take the whole Persianate world into account, and Yale is very much part of that effort.

Could you talk a little about the book projects you’re working on now, one of which deals with the topic of the lyric form of Persian poetry?

My first book, which I’m working on now, examines how Persian poetry in the early modern period fostered a new style of interdisciplinary thinking. This was a time when people were adopting creative approaches to problems associated with philosophy, psychology, medicine, religion—and they were doing this in poetry itself. The second book project I’m working on brings together Urdu, Persian, Russian, and English traditions to see how poetry composed across Eurasia in roughly 1500-1800 became a space for experimentation. One consequence of poets taking up ideas and questions associated with non-literary disciplines is that those ideas were suddenly accessible to a much broader audience—to readers from a variety of confessional backgrounds, readers who were not necessarily elites or specialists with advanced degrees.

How has your experience at Yale been so far—as an instructor and as a member of the intellectual community?

It’s been terrific so far! The students are incredibly fun and brilliant and hardworking. In NELC, I teach a classical Persian literature sequence that focuses on lyric poetry, epic, and prose. These are advanced reading courses, so we’re really rolling up our sleeves as we get into the minutiae of grammar and picking things apart slowly and clinically. At the same time, we’re asking questions about the work of specific genres and figurations, their definitions and boundaries, their comparative possibilities. It’s been really fun to see how small-scale concerns and big-picture ideas can speak to each other.

In Comparative Literature, I teach a first-year seminar on bilingualism and literary imagination and a new course on neurodiversity and world literature. Next year I’ll be offering a course on South Asian literatures in translation. Teaching a one-semester survey of South Asian literatures is a daunting task: there are so many incredible literary cultures! Rather than aiming for impossible completeness, the course is structured around a series of reimaginings: encounters between modern writers and texts from various classical pasts.

What is the pitch right now for studying Persian and the Persianate world, whether you’re an undergraduate or a graduate student?

The Persianate world was astonishingly vast: from Sarajevo to Samarkand to the southern tip of India, a huge stretch of Eurasia was bound together culturally and intellectually by a shared classical language for a very long time. I believe that for students working across disciplines, thinking with the Persianate world and its rich archives can help move us away from lingering Eurocentric assumptions about the world. For instance, we can see multiple renaissance moments unfolding across Eurasia—some a little earlier and others a bit later than the European Renaissance, some connected to each other and others not. There are endless possibilities for reconfiguring our sense of the past (and present), and studying the Persianate world offers many ways to do just that.

How has it been to be in New Haven?

I’m still not sure what the best pizza place is—I’ve heard that’s a really contentious issue—but overall it’s been really great to be here and on the East Coast.

Byline: Daevan Mangalmurti