“Most people don’t know a lot about the 19th-century Spanish novel,” says Julia Chang, the newest addition to Brown’s Department of Hispanic Studies and a specialist in the literature and culture of 19th-century Spain. “As a literature student, it would be embarrassing to admit you’ve never heard of Flaubert, but it’s not at all uncommon for students never to have heard of Galdós,” she says.
Benito Pérez Galdós is Spain’s most renowned novelist after Cervantes and a realist author some readers refer to as the Dickens of Spain, “though I don’t care for the comparison,” says Chang, who completed her Ph.D. in Hispanic languages and literature at the University of California–Berkeley in May 2013. Her research and teaching interests focus on the realist novel, medicine and literature, gender studies, race, and late Spanish imperialism.
Scholars have paid less attention to 19th-century Spanish literature than to other European traditions, in part because Spain “was not at the height of empire in this period, and there is, of course, a strong correlation between literature and empire. Spain was considered to be a retrograde, second-rate nation that didn’t participate in this period of intense high-cultural production,” says Chang, “and Spain remains on the periphery of European literary history today.”
Chang’s book project, From Castus to Casticismo: Conceptions of Purity in Modern Spain, argues that the notion of purity in the Spanish novel is associated not only with female honor but also with ethnicity, class, and nation. “The 19th-century concept of purity has roots in the early modern period and is inextricably linked to the obsession with blood purity, or limpieza de sangre, during the Inquisition. You can’t talk about purity in the 19th century without considering the Inquisition,” says Chang.
Chang explores the webs of meaning around the Spanish word casta, which means “chaste” in its adjectival form and “caste” in its noun form. It is also associated with the verb castigar, meaning “castigate” or “chasten.” The heroine of the 19th-century novel is supposed to be chaste, but casta not only implies sexual purity but also brings to mind an array of other associations, she says. “Purity or casta is a blurry category that is hard to parse out — not quite race or caste as we think of it today, related to class, and linked to femininity.”
Besides Galdós, Chang’s project focuses on three other writers from the post-1868 realist period: Juan Valera, Clarín (Leopoldo Alas), and Emilia Pardo Bazán, the most prominent 19th-century woman writer in Spain. “There was not the same tradition of female novelists in Spain, as there was, say, in England. It is a mostly masculine literary world in 19th-century Spain,” Chang says.
Sometimes compared to Charlotte Brontë, Pardo Bazán asserted elite women’s intellectual equality and advocated for their space within the male-dominated Spanish academy.
Chang is deeply interested also in recovering images of colonial Asia and Africa in Spanish literature — a topic she plans to expand upon in a future research project. She will be teaching an undergraduate seminar this fall titled “España Remota: Africa and Asia in 19th-Century Spanish Literature,” as well as an intensive survey of Spanish literature.
“What makes the representation of ‘the Orient’ in Spanish culture so confusing is that it exists within the nation, but also outside it,” Chang says. This relationship complicates the central premise of Edward Said’s classic work Orientalism, which argues that the West defines itself in clear opposition to an uncivilized “Oriental” other.
Chang’s essay exploring these issues, “Aquellos neófitos indios, chinos o anamitas: Asia and the Imperial Imaginary in Doña Luz,” is scheduled to be published in Hispano-Asian Cultural Dialogues, a special issue of the Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies edited by Yeon-Soo Kim and Kathleen Davis.
In the spring, Chang says, she hopes to teach a graduate course on the adultery novel and an undergraduate course on medicine and fiction. “The 19th-century Spanish novel tends to be juicier than those of other European traditions,” she says. “While sexual encounters are never explicit, erotic tensions abound and tend to be drawn out over hundreds of pages,” she says.
“We are very excited to have Julia join us. It has been several years since we have had a specialist in 19th-century Spanish literature and culture,” says Laura Bass, associate professor and chair of Hispanic studies. “Julia brings a dynamic interdisciplinary perspective to literary history through her work on the medicalization of gender, class, and racial differences and her interest in portrayals of Asia and Africa in Spanish culture. These are burgeoning fields within Hispanic studies that complement existing strengths in the department.”
A native of Los Angeles, Chang is the first person in her family to be born outside Korea. She became interested in the Spanish language upon entering elementary school, where she was placed in an ESL section taught in Spanish and English. Chang proceeded to study Spanish in college, but discovered that grammar lessons didn’t prepare her for literature courses in Spanish, so she spent a semester in Madrid, and eventually went on to pursue a master’s in Hispanic language and culture at New York University in Madrid.
Chang fell in love with Brown last year when she attended the American Comparative Literature Association Conference, held in Providence. While she appreciates the “disciplined, Jesuit rigor” of her alma mater, Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, “Brown offers the undergraduate experience I wish I had had. Students are allowed to be creative — their wacky interests are nurtured here. It’s wonderful!” says Chang. “I know I will really grow as both a scholar and a teacher here.”