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New Faculty Profiles: Prof. Nahir Otaño-Gracia

“I found out that my strength is that I don’t give up,” Professor Nahir Otaño-Gracia explained, remembering the difficulty she had when learning Old Norse, Old Irish and Old English. Otaño-Gracia has translated texts from each of these languages, is proficient in French and Creole and fluent in English and Spanish. She is a new Assistant Professor of English at Beloit College, and is a dedicated Medievalist.

“Medievalism didn’t just happen in Europe and the United States,” Otaño-Gracia said. “It’s so much more complicated.”

Indeed, Otaño-Gracia’s own trajectory defies expectation. Otaño-Gracia was born and raised in Puerto Rico. She lived in Pennsylvania from when she was 12 to 16 before returning to her home, where she studied at the University of Puerto Rico and earned a Bachelor’s in French and Comparative Literature.

“The plan was that I was going to be a Carribeanist,” Otaño-Gracia said. By her last year at the University of Puerto Rico, she had intended to work with English, Creole and Spanish.

Otaño-Gracia’s plans changed after she took what proved to be a crucial combination of classes on Vikings, King Arthur and Puerto Rican literature. She discovered that she loved medieval literature, and that its scope was not confined to Europe. “We read a Puerto Rican text that had an Arthurian character in it, and I realized…there were Medievalisms within the literature I was looking [at].”

Otaño-Gracia changed course. She earned a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where she began her studies as a Medievalist. She learned Old Norse and Old Irish at U-Mass before earning a grant to enroll in a post-doctorate program at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied Old English.

Since then Otaño-Gracia has specialized in Medieval literature with a focus on Global Arthurian Studies. Finding Medievalisms within Caribbean literature is still a facet of her work.

A story known in English as The Astrologer is an example a text that challenges the notion that Medieval literature is strictly European. The story is part of the first book ever published in Puerto Rico by Puerto Ricans, regarded as the beginning of the island’s literature. “Even from…the conception of Puerto Rican literature, medievalism is there.”

The Astrologer is about a couple living in Asturias, Spain, who fall in love. They make a pact with the devil, promising they will love each other forever, but they break their promise and both of them die. The man dies in Asturias. The woman dies on her way to Puerto Rico.

Otaño-Gracia explains that the story is talking about the breakage with the Old World and Europe, but not with the Medieval mythos. The text is not considered significant beyond its being part of the first in Puerto Rico, but Otaño-Gracia argues that it helps reframe an understanding of Puerto Rican identity within Medieval literature.

As a woman of color in an overwhelmingly white field, Otaño-Gracia has had to navigate and challenge traditional presumptions firsthand. It has not been easy.

“It was very hard at the beginning,” she remembered. “When I went to my first medieval conference people kept asking me why I was a Medievalist.”

According to Otaño-Gracia, many assumed she was studying Arabic because of her first name, and were confused when she told them she was working on a paper about Vikings. She left the conference feeling discouraged. “I came out of it thinking that maybe I wasn’t supposed to be a Medievalist.”

An advisor told Otaño-Gracia to not let others in her field get to her, and that she didn’t need them. “But what that meant was that I didn’t go to Medieval conferences as much. I would kind of hide in plain sight…I think I distanced myself. I was a Medievalist but I wasn’t part of the Medieval field.”

It took a long time for Otaño-Gracia to become more comfortable. She said that she was lucky to have studied at U-Penn, which connected her to others in the Medieval field and helped her get her name out there.

A little over a year ago Otaño-Gracia discovered the Medievalists of Color, a fellowship of scholars studying the early, high, and late Middle Ages who identify as persons of color. For Otaño-Gracia, joining the group has been extremely helpful.

Medievalists of Color has given Otaño-Gracia a community of people who can truly understand her position and can provide a shared understanding of its difficulties. Otaño-Gracia is thankful to all of her previous mentors and advisors, but acknowledged that this sense of understanding is not something they could have provided her.

“None of them know what it is to be in a conference, and a colleague from the conference who you’ve seen in the conference, who just talked to you…outside, confuses you with the waitress and asks you to get them a new table. That happens to me. More than once. It has happened to a lot of other medievalists of color.”

Otaño-Gracia’s world has changed because of the group. Finding a community that understands her has helped her realized how trapped and isolated she felt before. Since joining, she feels that she is thriving.

Being a Medievalist is hard, slow, and careful work. To translate a text from an ancient language, resurrecting and re-interpreting its sub-textual meanings, is no easy task. Otaño-Gracia knows this, and is unfazed.

“I don’t get tired of doing it. I look up the words I don’t know even if I know I’ve looked it up. I actually mark which words I’ve looked up, and some of them have three or four marks. ‘I’ve looked you up four times already!’” Otaño-Gracia laughed. “So it’s slow, and a little painful, but I get to read the texts, and that’s what I want. So that part is worth it.”

At Beloit, Professor Otaño-Gracia will be teaching Medieval literature, Renaissance studies courses and other classes involving archival materials and the digital humanities. Her courses will give students the tools to partake in digital archiving, and to examine the ways in which digital communities work in relation to social justice issues.

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