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Spotlight on Bonnie Etherington: PhD Candidate in the Department of English

Created: November 12, 2018

Bonnie Etherington is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. She studies Indigenous-authored poetry and novels from Oceania that challenge U.S. and Eurocentric narratives of the trans-Pacific. Bonnie was recently named a Presidential Fellow, the most prestigious fellowship awarded to graduate students by Northwestern University.

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
I study contemporary activist narratives and poetry by Indigenous authors from Oceania (the Pacific Islands). I am interested in how these texts represent the ocean and how they then use these representations to theorize ways to achieve not just local but global forms of Indigenous determination over their histories, presents, and futures. These authors show how political, cultural, and environmental struggles intersect, and they advocate for Indigenous-based ways of belonging in, reclaiming, and protecting the ocean. 

Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
I am originally from Aotearoa/New Zealand (non-Indigenous, Pākehā) but I grew up in a village in the lower highlands of West Papua, which was first colonized by the Dutch and is now occupied by Indonesia. My dissertation grows from my experiences of sitting in my father’s mother tongue literacy classes and hearing elders tell stories in their own language. Those stories taught me how colonialism limits and erases stories about (and from) Indigenous peoples, but they also taught me about the power of stories to pass on knowledge in the face of great obstacles, including threats of genocide. 

Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.
I am a graduate laboratory participant for a 2018-2020 grant project with Humanities Without Walls, entitled “Indigenous Art and Activism in Changing Climates: The Mississippi River Valley, Colonialism, and Environmental Change.” The project leader is my adviser, Dr. Kelly Wisecup, and it brings together faculty and students from five different institutions. We just returned from a trip to Minnesota, where we visited the headwaters of the Mississippi River and learned more about Dakota and Ojibwe relations with the river and ongoing activism efforts occurring around and with its upper reaches. One thing I love about this project is that it emphasizes collaboration between students and faculty and between communities, and it disrupts the idea of literature or other humanities scholars working in isolation.

How do you unwind after a long day?
I’m currently into embroidery. I get ideas for designs from Instagram and find stitching very soothing. I also watch a lot of Netflix, but I get restless so embroidery helps me relax with the TV in the background. The Great British Bakeoff and The X-Files are both perfect stitching shows.

What are you most proud of in your career to date?
I am proud of my novel, The Earth Cries Out (Penguin Random House NZ, 2017), which is set in West Papua, where I was raised. It was shortlisted for the 2018 Saroyan International Prize for Writing and long-listed for the 2018 New Zealand Book Awards.