A photo of Dana Linda

Comparative Literature Ph.D. candidate Dana Linda knew she had entered into a new realm of her studies of the Caribbean when she found herself in a Cuban library reading books by candlelight during hurricane season.

And this was at the very beginning of her research.

Now in the final year of her doctoral studies at UCLA, Linda has mastered new languages, versatile teaching methodologies, and even dances (yes, dancing) while completing her research in three specific areas:

  • Post Independence and Contemporary Postcolonial Caribbean
  • Cultural Geographies of Gender and Urban Space
  • Anglophone and Hispanic Island Literatures

In short, Dana Linda is both curious and smart about what she’s chosen for the focus of her dissertation.

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Dana Linda at ACLA Conference, Toronto, Canada, 2013

Yet it didn’t start out easy for her on the Spanish language front after completing her undergraduate degree at UC Santa Cruz.

“UCSC gave me an expansive foundation in world and postcolonial literatures, ranging from the global aftermath of World War II and the 1960s to topic-specific contexts in Africa and the black diaspora,” she said. “When I came to UCLA (as a graduate student) I had studied German for seven years and Spanish for only a minimal time. My partner’s father is Cuban, so the nuances of Cuban Spanish I’ve picked up from him. The more I heard his life story, the more I became interested in Cuba, and the Caribbean more broadly.”

Work at both home and abroad

After completing a summer intensive Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship, Linda began to immerse herself in the postcolonial history of not just Cuba but also Jamaica, Trinidad, and Puerto Rico—and all through the lens of Caribbean feminism.

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Performance of the Orisha Dance of Ochún at Fiesta del Fuego, Santiago de Cuba / courtesy of Dana Linda

Her interest in the gender politics of decolonization, nationalism, and urbanization spurred her to learn more about the historical relationship between prostitution and port cities in the region. This, combined with established training in literary comparison, steered her to study what she calls the “urban intimacies” between post-independent and contemporary texts that strategically write prostitution into the postcolonial national narrative from the 1960s onward. The project has been awarded funding from institutions such as the UC-Cuba Academic Initiative, the UCLA International Institute, and the University of Miami’s Cuban Heritage Collection.

“As a Humanist, my literary specializations give me the license to think creatively though the complexities of real world problems,” she said. “Sex work is a contentious topic in feminist circles in and outside of the Caribbean, and my project seeks to unpack various fictional uses of prostitution as a rhetorical tool without making judgment claims on actual lives or forms of livelihood. I see studying representation and discourse as more ethical ways to engage cross-culturally as opposed to the epistemology or practice of studying people.”

Repeated trips to lower-income areas in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and other major cities like San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Havana and Santiago de Cuba, have not only informed Linda’s dissertation work but have also allowed her to speak face-to-face with individuals from the communities that she studies and teaches through literature.

“During my trips to the Caribbean I get read in a lot of interesting ways,” she said. “I often get asked if I’m from Brazil, or Spain, but no one ever assumes I’m a scholar from the United States, which says a lot about where and why US visitors typically travel within the region. I always make a point of talking to people from a wide variety of backgrounds—local and migrant service workers, for instance, inasmuch as university affiliates.”

Linda’s mindful knowledge building approach goes back to her undergraduate days working with the UCSC Inside Out Writing Project, a creative writing and art workshop series that offers participants from the Santa Cruz County jails a safe space for expression. And from 2007-2009, she went on to evaluate rehabilitative programs and research alternatives to incarceration on behalf of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in Oakland. She cites these experiences of working with people impacted by the prison system as foundational to her broader interests in human and cultural geography.

A People Connector at Heart

Interdisciplinary and publicly-engaged forms of research are what initially drew Dana to pursue a graduate degree in Comparative Literature, and that original draw and passion spills over to the courses she teaches at UCLA.

In 2015, she was the departmental nominee for the Distinguished Teaching Award based on her roles as a CUTF fellow and Teaching Assistant Consultant, in which she spearheaded honors research, teaching pedagogy, and service-learning curriculum for the Department. She has designed and taught lower-division courses such as Black Diaspora Cities in World Literature and Postcolonial Literature and the Environment, the latter providing an opportunity for her students to meet on campus with world-renowned Caribbean writers Oonya Kempadoo and Nalo Hopkinson in Winter 2014.

“I’m drawn to supporting students in their personal and intellectual growth,” she said. “When the grand jury decision on the shooting of Michael Brown aired last November, I couldn’t have ended my class (on black diaspora cities) without talking about Ferguson. I approached it in the way that I was trained, by analyzing representation. From media images to Facebook posts to Zakes Mda’s novel Ways of Dying, which we were reading at the time, we focused our efforts on the kinds of stories being told, and not told, rather than on facts, per se. Everyone elected to participate that day, and I was impressed with the careful attention to detail and diplomacy throughout the conversation.

According to Linda, it was a moment emblematic of why the Humanities remain integral to an active learning process beyond academia.

Running (and dancing, and swimming) to the Finish Line

Outside of her teaching and dissertation work, Linda takes full advantage of the therapeutic nature of running on a daily basis, and always outdoors. She’s also added Afro-Cuban folkloric dances and Brazilian samba to her repertoire.

“Black history is inscribed into the movements of these dances,” she said. “Throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, dancing not only facilitated a national cultural space for black identity after slavery but also retained the African roots of Atlantic cultures.”

When asked the most interesting place her studies at UCLA have taken her, Linda is quick to recall a trip to Baracoa with a dance group organized by the San Francisco-based choreographer, Ramón Ramos Alayo. “He took us to natural pools that are only accessible by way of climbing waterfalls and swimming across rivers in a remote part of eastern Cuba. I got to see a part of the world – and a side of Cuba, in particular – that not that many people get to see. There’s a misperception that literary specialists only live in the enclosed domains of their books, but connecting with the physical and social world is what continues to drive my academic work.”

Dana in San Juan, Puerto Rico, 2014
Dana in San Juan, Puerto Rico, 2014