Professor Ananya Jahanara Kabir
Professor of English Literature
Director of Modern Moves
Date started at King’s
Challenges and achievements
When and what was responsible for you becoming interested in your academic discipline?
My interest in my discipline, English Literature, grew naturally from my love of books. My family environment was one in which people took pleasure in reading. I remember especially fondly my father’s younger sister, a budding lawyer at the time, who spent her savings and free time taking me to second hand bookshops in Calcutta and buying me boxes of books. During the last year of high school (Loreto House, Calcutta), our brilliant English teacher, Mrs Jila, opened my eyes to the mysteries and delights of literary analysis through Wordsworth’s deceptively simple ‘Lucy’ poems. She made me long for more.
What are your research interests, and what drew you to this area?
I work at the intersection of written text with other forms of cultural expression – visual art, music, dance. At this intersection, I find evidence of how human beings respond to bigger events around them – diasporas, displacements, colonialism – in ways that combine memory (and experience) of suffering and pain with creativity, the need for beauty, and resilience. As a literary critic, I study the interaction of form, content, and context in these cultural expressions. I currently research African-heritage dance forms. I was drawn to this theme by my love for dance, my theoretical interest in the moving body, and my curiosity about Asian and African diasporic cultures.
Tell us about a couple of your achievements that have been particularly rewarding.
I have always been interested in subjects seemingly remote to an Indian woman studying English Literature. I began my research career at the University of Oxford in 1992, studying early medieval European literature and languages (to the surprise of many); I now research social dance and music of African heritage across language worlds (again, to the surprise of many).
I thus find my two most rewarding achievements, my winning the Turville-Petre Prize for Old Norse at Oxford in 1994, and my successful application to the European Research Council Advanced Grant competition for my current research project, ‘Modern Moves: Kinetic Transnationalism and Afro-Diasporic Rhythm Cultures’, in 2013. One was worth £125; the other, €2.2 million.
Do you have professional role models? Who are they and what do you find inspiring about them and their accomplishments?
My mother is my constant inspiration. A medical doctor and an indefatigable worker, she is dedicated to alleviating the suffering of ordinary people. My earliest memories of her are of a young woman bent over enormous books with scary drawings in them, illuminated by a pool of lamplight. She broke many taboos in her life to achieve her goals and I still seek her advice and blessings.
As a sixteen year old, I was irreversibly inspired by Madonna, especially her statement, ‘I wanted to be rich, I wanted to be famous, I worked very hard, and my dream came true’.
What if any support has most benefited you in your career?
I have benefited from a very loving family, especially my husband, a small circle of women friends, and an even smaller circle of mentors who have believed in me and supported my often radical career changes with constant availability on phone, email, in person wherever possible, and strong academic references. We don’t need too many people to believe in us. Indeed, the more against the grain you go, the less you will be loved. If we go through life with even two or three constant supporters we are lucky. I have certainly been so in that respect.
How do you balance an academic career with life outside the workplace?
I didn’t have much of a work-life balance before I got my professorship the year I turned 40. But I always took exercise and cooked well and creatively. I also tried to connect work with activities I enjoyed such as language learning and dancing. These activities became the touchstone to my biggest research successes and at this moment my work and life are pretty well integrated. However, I did spend my thirties working obsessively and that didn’t leave any time for motherhood – something you can’t turn the clock back on. Nevertheless, I have few regrets, for no one forced me to live the life I shaped.
What do you feel is the most enjoyable/rewarding aspect of your job at King's?
I love being at the centre of things in London. It’s thrilling to step out at Holborn station and walk down Kingsway to my office. Holborn was the first central London Tube station I ever stepped out of at the age of 19 (during a visit to London). As I start my day in Holborn, I still remember that me, with stars in my eyes and dreams of English literature in my heart.
As director of Modern Moves, I also thoroughly enjoy working with colleagues across AV, Events Management, Payroll, Finance, Catering, and Security. It makes me appreciate how diverse we really are.
How do you balance the various demands of a career in academia: research, teaching/learning, administration?
Starting out in academia, I did everything. But I gradually realized that my forte lay in grant capture. Increasingly large research projects have meant decreasing teaching loads – a pity, as a full lecture theatre or a responsive seminar room is very special. I don’t possess the patience and orderliness of a good administrator so I don’t go for positions involving those qualities – although I didn’t refuse when ‘volunteered’. I use my time outside project management connecting with and mentoring early career scholars. Ultimately, I interpret ‘balance’ as ‘prioritising.’ I’m not afraid of playing to my strengths. That’s the way I can be most useful to my institution.
What have you learnt from your experiences that you would like to share with others?
I’ll use this opportunity to articulate (and reiterate) a few aphorisms! Take care of and pride in your body. As you grow older, your mental fitness and physical fitness become increasingly linked.
Don’t put off parenting because there’s ‘too much work’, and don’t feel guilty if you become a mother while trying to write your books. It’s your choice.
Don’t check email on weekends and after 9 pm.
Don’t be defensive; walk with the air of ‘I am the best version of myself’.
Always have at least one friend you can call on without any notice.
There’s no substitute for hard work, ever.