We all love a good story. It’s no different for Christi Merrill, professor of South Asian literature and postcolonial theory and professor of comparative literature at the University of Michigan, who has taken that love and turned it into a flourishing career. She uses it in everything she does, from teaching to translation.
“Growing up, I spent my summers with my grandmother in Kalamazoo,” says Merrill. “Her stories about farm life mesmerized me. I could listen to them all day.
“And I think the vibrant storytelling of India drew me to it. I just fell in love with the country and its stories.”
Merrill’s teaching and research combine the theory and practice of translation, and her focus has been primarily on contemporary Indian literature. She started her education at the University of Michigan, earning a bachelor’s in Arts & Ideas at the Residential College and studying Hindi and Urdu intensively through the University of Wisconsin. Merrill spent her junior year in Varanasi, where she later returned to further study Hindi and Sanskrit and to collect local stories and folktales.
“Studying in India was transformative for me,” adds Merrill. “I wanted to do more with the storytelling traditions I discovered, and it all led me to academia and translation.”
While in India, Merrill spent a life-changing year with the Digantar School in Jaipur.
“They had a unique and eye-opening way of teaching,” says Merrill. “They feel the goal of primary education is to make the child a self-motivated and independent learner. They taught critical thinking and tapped into their curiosity while making it fun.
“I see now that how they taught, mostly first-generation learners and occasionally their parents, has shaped how I teach today. It impacted me deeply, and through them, I was introduced to the award-winning Rajasthani writer Vijaydan Detha.”
Merrill went on to earn a PhD in comparative literature, as well as MFAs in translation and nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. Her translations of Detha’s Chouboli and Other Stories were supported by a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship and won her the 2012 A.K. Ramanujan Award for translation from the Association of Asian Studies. Her first scholarly monograph, Riddles of Belonging: India in Translation and Other Tales of Possession, explored the theoretical issues in translating Detha, and it was written in part while on a fellowship at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University. In addition, she has been invited to give lectures around the world on South Asian literature in translation, postcolonial theory, and the study of human rights, including at Cornell University, the State University of New York – Buffalo, and Jadavpur University in Kolkata, India.
Detha’s ability to use humor to confront difficult issues around communal violence and spouse abuse led Merrill to research gaming and meaningful play, and she has begun to collaborate with teams of interdisciplinary faculty and students to develop digital tools for the classroom that combines several of her longstanding research and teaching interests: translation, literary and otherwise; games and meaningful play; and cultural collections featuring Asian work in particular.
In the spring of 2023, Merrill and her collaborators U-M Director of the South Asian Language Program Syed Ali and recent U-M PhD recipient in comparative literature Ali Bolcakan, were awarded the New Initiative/New Instruction (NINI) grant to enhance the undergraduate learning experience, increase engagement, and foster student success through innovative teaching methods and inclusive teaching practices. The grant was awarded to continue their “Decolonizing the Curriculum in South Asian Languages and Cultures Courses.” In the next phase of this project, they aim to lead efforts to make the resources relied on in multiple languages and cultures classrooms more accessible to students unable to read non-roman writing systems – whether due to a physical disability or lack of training – by developing digital tools (including games) that make the learning and discovery process more fun and engaging at all levels.
Merrill offers as an example the relationship between the arsenic-infused wallpaper sample book in the library’s collection and the U-M Museum of Art’s Apsara Warrior, a sculpture by Cambodian artist Ouk Chim Vichet fabricated from decommissioned AK-47s.
“Their common element, or one of them, would be ‘lethal history,’ but these two objects would not appear together in a standard search even if the two catalogs spoke to each other,” states Merrill.
One of these games' features is connecting different sources that are not usually connected. The game is possible through a collaboration with HathiTrust, a digital library with a collection of millions of books and journals digitized from libraries worldwide.
“The fact that we can show them how to connect, for example, works in Bengali to things in Chinese is amazing to me - and, more importantly, eye-opening to my students.”
Please visit her U-M LSA faculty page for more information on Christi Merrill and her current projects and classes.