Six Questions for Melanie Masterton Sherazi

Melanie Masterton Sherazi has a fascination with Rome. Not the iconic Rome of the Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum. Rather, Sherazi’s focus—and the theme of the book she is currently writing—is the literature, visual culture, and performance art produced by African Americans in Rome during the Cold War. Sherazi, the Howard E. and Susanne C. Jessen Postdoctoral Instructor in the Humanities at Caltech, became interested in this field of study through the work of the late African American expatriate author William Demby. Intrigued by Demby’s work after reading his semiautobiographical experimental novel The Catacombs (1965), Sherazi went on to edit his final completed manuscript, King Comus, after his death in 2013. The novel was published by Ishmael Reed Publishing Company in 2017.

Why focus on Rome? 
Though Paris and London are better known as magnets for American expatriates, my work argues for Rome’s importance as an artistic hub where expat writers and artists collaborated with Italian artists and filmmakers, and were in direct conversation with the period’s social movements. 

What makes William Demby’s work so important? 
Demby innovated novelistic forms and styles, traveled internationally as a journalist in the postwar years to countries including Ethiopia and Japan, and collaborated in Rome with leading Italian filmmakers, including Rossellini and Fellini. Nevertheless, his groundbreaking work remains largely understudied in the United States, likely owing to his living abroad in Italy for more than 20 years. 

How did you become interested in this field of study? 
I had the pleasure of inventorying Demby’s papers from Rome in his son’s residence in Italy; this rich material opened onto a broader postwar cultural milieu that inspired my current book project.

You taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District for several years. What did you take away from that experience?
 I had a wonderful experience teaching public high school English in LAUSD for eight years. My students brought a lot of humor and energy into the classroom, and I taught alongside many devoted colleagues who were passionate about public education. This experience gave me a long view of students’ diverse learning styles and range of interests, which continues to inform my current approaches to teaching.

Why Caltech?
This postdoctoral instructorship gave me the opportunity to continue working on my current book and to design my own courses in a rigorous academic environment. I earned my degrees at the University of California, and Caltech is situated ideally in Southern California’s vibrant research network.

What is it like to be at an institute primarily focused on science and technology?
I have found that the humanities are integrated seamlessly into Caltech’s curriculum. My students have expanded my own ideas about literature with their original interpretations, driven by their interests and areas of expertise. For instance, a female student homed in on the fact that the young female protagonist of Carson McCullers’ novel The Member of the Wedding (1946) planned to study radar in the future—a detail to which I had not paid particular attention. This student’s insight guided our discussion in a new direction that complicated traditional readings of the novel’s ending.