Interview with Barnita Bagchi

Literary critic and cultural historian on utopian fiction, the patriarchy and the perils of budget cuts

July 4, 2024
Professor Barnita Bagchi
Source: Jan Kuipers

Barnita Bagchi is professor of world literatures in English at the University of Amsterdam. A widely published expert on women’s writing, utopian studies and the cultural history of women’s education, she took up her current position in 2023, after 14 years at Utrecht University.

Where were you born?
The megapolis of Kolkata, in eastern India.

How has this shaped who you are?
Kolkata is an open, cosmopolitan city, in which culture, internationalism, conscience, and concern for social justice matter. It gave me inspiring teachers, and still sustains me, since I travel there often, and also work on Bengali cultural texts in some of my research.

What attracted you to literature?
Studying English literature at university was probably a wise choice, since I’d loved literature since I was a tiny tot. I loved not only anglophone literatures but literature in my mother tongue, Bengali/Bangla, and literatures translated into Bengali or English from other regions of India and from other parts of the world.

Tell us about your areas of expertise, and what you’re currently focusing on.
I am considered an international authority on women’s writing and the cultural history of women’s education, as well as on utopian and dystopian studies, with South Asia and western Europe as nodes. My doctoral work at Cambridge examined narratives of education by selected white British women, from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, who had what might be seen as proto-feminist views while being moderate or conservative in many political matters. Of those I examined, Jane Austen remains an object of study, and I speak and write on the resonances and afterlives of Austen’s fiction, notably in South Asia and her diaspora. I’ve done and continue to do much work on utopian and dystopian fictional and non-fictional writing; I’ve written on texts by authors such as Rabindranath Tagore, C. F. Andrews, Olive Schreiner and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. I am currently working on contemporary diasporic writing entangled with South Asia, on decentred modernisms in the long 20th century, and on ageing in the history of education.

What do you consider to be your responsibility or purpose as an academic?
I see responsibilities and purposes in academia not as static, and would say that as one grows in one’s career, the responsibility to mentor colleagues, or to carry the heft of sometimes wearying leadership responsibilities, works in tandem with the drive to communicate lucidly and engagingly to an academic and wider public – a drive I’ve had since I started out; to teach students; and to get excited by new research findings and then structure them in coherent form. A commitment to a transcultural and gendered analysis characterises my sense of purpose as an academic, too.

You’ve published widely on utopian and dystopian writing. What interests you about these genres, and what do people get wrong about them?
Utopian and dystopian writing, both part of speculative writing, engage in social dreaming or delineate social nightmares, emanating from a critique of the here and now. Perhaps not everyone realises that not all such writing is science fictional or crafted in non-realist styles; many women’s utopian fictions, for example, from 18th-century Britain to now, use an everyday, often realist register to delineate communities of social dreaming that critique patriarchy and show attempted amelioration of gendered oppression. Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall or Hossain’s Padmarag are examples. I was drawn to utopian and dystopian fiction because of an underlying comparison between a text’s now and here, and the worlds it imagines; also, because I enjoy the playing with pasts and futures in many such works.

You were appointed professor of world literatures at the University of Amsterdam last August. How has your first year been?
I really enjoy encountering the minds and projects of new colleagues. I learn much in this new post, which is vital to my sense of growing. Equally, by my career stage, I have many existing colleagues – some of them, delightfully, former students – with whom I think together, so those continuities remain.

You teach at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. How does teaching influence your own research?
Teaching involves activating the minds and skills of students, and lucidity increases by teaching on what one researches. I also really enjoy having my own repertoire of cultural texts enhanced by students’ repertoires, especially in contemporary literature and media.

What do you love about working in academia? What would you like to change?
I love the ability to be based in a discipline, yet work across disciplines, so I love that I am based in English literature and comparative literature and can work with disciplines such as history and sociology. On the whole, the kind of work I do enables suppleness while valuing responsible teamwork, and I enjoy that. I’d love to have less bureaucracy, and less of the cycles of very damaging funding cuts to higher education that we live through.

What do you do in your free time?
Reading poetry for pure pleasure, spending time near many trees and water, cooking, binge-watching TV, and much more. Oh, I enjoy sleeping, too, including short siestas.

Who inspires you?
My late mother, Jasodhara Bagchi, was a professor of English literature and pioneering scholar and institution-builder in women’s studies; she taught me both formally at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, where I had other marvellous professors who inspire me to this day. My mother and my now late-octogenarian father (Amiya Bagchi, a distinguished political economist and economic historian, to whom I remain very close) were/are embedded in India yet very internationally minded, while being fiercely committed to decolonising thought and work.

What is your proudest achievement?
I’m very proud of having migrated for professional reasons to the Netherlands in my late thirties, learning Dutch, which I use fluently, and building a culture-crossing, highly mobile, academically high-achieving, yet locally embedded life here, with a Dutch partner who is a bedrock of my life.


1995 Bachelor’s degree in English literature, Jadavpur University
1997 Bachelor’s degree in English language and literature, University of Oxford
2001 PhD in English literature, Trinity College, Cambridge
2002-04 Research associate, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research
2004-09 Faculty member, Institute of Development Studies Kolkata
2009-21 Assistant professor in comparative literature, Utrecht University
2021-23 Associate professor in comparative literature, Utrecht
2023-present Chair and professor in world literatures in English, University of Amsterdam


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