I studied American, English and German Studies at the University of Padua, Italy, where I graduated in 2002. From 2005 to 2014, I worked as a research assistant at the American Studies Program at the Humboldt University, Berlin, teaching a variety of courses on American literature and culture. In this period, I began my dissertation on human rights and the contemporary American autobiography, which I will be submitting in 2016. I joined the team of the English and American Studies at the University of Potsdam in 2015.
Focusing specifically on issues of mobility and diversity, my research portfolio consists of three areas, namely, “Human Rights Cultures,” “Minor Migrations,” and “Rac[e]ing Rails: Railroads and Transportation Justice in African American Literature and Culture.” The first of these developed from my PhD thesis on “Writing Wrongs: Human Rights and the Contemporary American Autobiography,” for which I was awarded a summa cum laude and a Humboldt Prize by the Humboldt University, Berlin. Together with Prof. Kerry Bystrom (Bard College) and Dr. Carly McLaughlin (Potsdam), I have also developed my second research area “Minor Migrations,” which maps the legal and sociopolitical vulnerabilities of displaced children in the Anglosphere. In this context, I co-organized an international symposium on Shifting Frames: Migrant Children, Politics and History (May, 2019) as well as a lecture series on Children Crossing Borders (2018-2020). Also, our project has teamed up with the Department for Teaching English as a Foreign Language at the Potsdam University, producing a list of reading recommendations for introducing German high school students to the topic of forced migration. At present, I am working on my postdoctoral project “Rac[e]ing Rails: Railroads and Transportation Justice in African American Literature and Culture,” which reads the junctions of race and transportation technologies in a highly diverse archive of African American texts. Exploring railroad imaginaries in law and literature, popular and political culture, this third research area locates intersectionality at the heart of technology studies, while also exposing technological discourses, practices, and artifacts to a cultural and literary analysis.
“The future is rail!” With these words, the European Commission embarked on its journey in 2021 to establish the railroad as the infrastructural backbone not only of the European Green Deal but also of the continent’s connectivity, prosperity, and “harmonization.” On the other side of the Atlantic, American railroads have been undergoing vigorous rebranding efforts, with policy makers such as Barack Obama and Joe Biden, riding trains both physically and discursively on their progressive treks. In this sense, the railroad has been seen as providing the material, symbolic, and emotional infrastructures to visions of more progressive, equitable, and environmentally-sustainable futurities. Yet, while echoing the familiar “railroad lore” of modernization, democratization, and unification, these progressive imaginaries seldom consider the different positionalities, priorities, meanings, and visions of justice that emerge in the context of transportation – an omission that prevents a more political understanding of the “passenger” and of the different ideas of what “good” and “just” transportation means or should mean (Richter 2005). For a literary and cultural scholar, such issues often translate to the question of representation, the question, namely, whose ideas, meanings, and narratives are reflected in the material and symbolic technologies and infrastructures. Indeed, sociologists and human geographers have repeatedly been calling for studies of how meanings and discourses circulate in the context of mobility, and how they contribute to the sedimentation and contestation of inequality (Sturken and Thomas; Sheller).
Answering to this call, the project “Rac[e]ing Rails” explores how Black Americans have imagined and created the railroad in the context of literature and culture, political and technological discourses of the nineteenth and the twentieth century. Sitting at the crossroads of African American, technology, and mobility studies, the project’s main question is how Black Americans engaged with the symbolic and the material technologies of the railroad in order to envision alternative political futurities and notions of justice. What motivates this project aside from the contemporary railroad renaissance is the astounding lack of African American experiences on and contributions to the American railroad in public memories. Indeed, as the historian Eric Arnesen has it: “Americans had forgotten or consciously ignored the role played by African Americans in the construction and operation of the railroads” (2002). With the exception of the Underground Railroad, historical studies have similarly glanced over the Black America’s input to different forms of railroading, silencing it in favor of a metanarrative of “progress, religion, whiteness, modernity, masculinity, [and] the future” (Dinerstein 2006). Given the scarcity of Black railroad experiences and contributions in mainstream histories and public memories, the project “Rac[e]ing Rails” argues that a prioritization of Black mobility imaginaries underlines the railroad’s ongoing flexibility in the production and contestation of different scales of injustice, while also opening up alternative networks of meaning and politics in relation to both race and transportation. The railroad, as it is understood here, figures itself as a metaphor for ideology, or better said, as a technology for the production of invisibilities that secure its ongoing influence as a vehicle of national development, unity, and growth.
Developed in collaboration with Prof. Kerry Bystrom (Bard College Berlin) and Dr. Carly McLaughlin (Potsdam University), the project Minor Migrations maps the increased visibility of displaced children in the Anglosphere and explores how the figure of the migrant child embodies political meanings and agendas. In our critique of such universalizing tendencies, we insist on the knowability of the “specific histories and specific cultural or political contexts” (Malkki 1996) of child migration. Also, we call for a turn to the voices, knowledge, agency and aspirations of children who cross borders for survival. Such angle, we believe, enables explorations of broader and sometimes unexpected intersectional modes of youth activism; as well as centering the majority of children who tend to fall out of the frame altogether. Seeking to develop a truly “child-centered approach” to migration called for by Jacqueline Bhabha (2014) and others, this project takes a multidisciplinary and transnational standpoint to the politics of childhood, history/memory, and migrancy. We hope to “shift the frame” of contemporary discussions about displaced children by analyzing and critiquing the way they are configured as subjects of humanitarian, legal and politico-cultural discourses.
For further information on Minor Migrations see https://criticalhabitations.wordpress.com.
Klaas, Sunčica. Writing Wrongs: Human Rights and the Contemporary American Autobiography, Universitätsverlag Winter, 2018.
Klaas, Sunčica. and Crystal Parikh, special edition of Literature, Technologies of the Human, in preparation.
Articles and Reviews
Klaas, Sunčica. “‘Little Knowledges’: Shifting Visions of Childhood, Care, and Technology in the Contemporary Novel of Forced Migration.” The Routledge Handbook of Refugee Studies, edited by Evyn Lê Espiritu Gandhi and Vinh Nguyen. Routledge, in preparation.
Klaas, Sunčica. “Changing Scales, Changing Hands: Fugitive Literacies and Reading Beyond Citizenship in Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive.” Citizenship, Law and Literature, edited by Daniela Carpi and Klaus Stierstorfer. De Gruyter, 2021, pp. 85-104.
Klaas, Sunčica. “A Crime Against Humanity: Prefiguring Human Rights in Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave.” The State of Human Rights: Historical Genealogies, Political Controversies, and Cultural Imaginaries. Publications of the Bavarian American Academy, edited by Kerstin Schmidt. Universitätsverlag Winter, 2020, pp. 193-208.
Klaas, Sunčica. “Review of Crystal Parikh’s Writing Human Rights:The Political Imaginaries of Writers of Color.” Kritikon Litterarum: Internationale Rezensionszeitschrift für Romanistik, Slavistik, Anglistik und Amerikanistik, vol. 47, no. 3/4, 2020, pp. 370-374.
Klaas, Sunčica, and Carly McLaughlin. “Teaching Minor Migrations: Narratives of Refugee and Asylum-Seeking Children for the Classroom.” Der Fremdsprachliche Unterricht Englisch. Sonderheft “Seeking Refuge – Globales Lernen zum Thema Flucht, Vertreibung, Migration,” no. 159, 2019, pp. 48-49.
Klaas, Sunčica. “‘We Will Give Him a Family’: Economies of Race and Rescue in the Autobiographies of Young African Refugees.” Literatur in Wissenschaft und Unterricht. Sondenderheft “Refugees and/in Litearture,” vol. xvix, no. 2/3, 2016, pp. 193-206.
Klaas, Sunčica. “Those Tigers of Memory: Life-Writing in Exile.” Cultural Memory and Multiple Identities: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Identity Politics in the 20th Century. Transatlantic American Studies, edited by Rüdiger Kunow and Wilfried Raussert, LIT Verlag, 2007, pp. 31-42.
Klaas, Sunčica. “On Pens and Swords: Life-Writing as Socio-Political Engagement.” ZENAF Conference Proceedings, edited by Christa Buschendorf, Zentrum für Nordamerika-Forschung, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main, 2005, pp. 69-83.
Klaas, Sunčica. "Traveling Theorists: Edward Said and the Challenge of Intellectual Engagement within Humanism.” Approaching SeaChanges: Metamorphoses and Migrations across the Atlantic, edited by Annalisa Oboe, Unipress, 2005, pp. 89-110.