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reed magazine logoWinter 2008

William Childers
Bill Childers ’87

Tilting at Comp Lit Windmills

Bill Childers ’87 is discussing his love for classical Spanish literature, but modern passions keep getting in the way.

Over a lunch beneath a television set showing Spanish soccer’s equivalent of the Super Bowl, the prizewinning author of Transnational Cervantes keeps getting interrupted by raucous cheers by expatriate fans of the clubs Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. They’ve flocked to an old-fashioned Spanish social club at the edge of Greenwich Village in Manhattan for the annual pre-Christmas match, known as El Clásico, cheering wildly as Real Madrid scores the only goal.

“[As if] there was any doubt who they’re cheering for,” Childers says with a chuckle, ‘fessing up to being more of a Barcelona fan, in part because the club’s slogan, “more than a team,” addresses, in a way, some of the same questions of identity that he pursues in his own scholarship.

It’s a fitting setting for the head of the Spanish department at Brooklyn College to explain how his love of modern Spain inspired him to plumb the works of classical literary icon Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of Don Quijote de la Mancha, a work so well known that many contemporary scholars believe there’s little new to say about it or its author.

The Modern Language Association disagreed, and in December awarded Transnational Cervantes (University of Toronto Press, 2006) the Katherine Singer Kovacs Prize for an outstanding book published in English on Latin American and Spanish literature and culture.

“Undaunted by the vastness of Cervantine scholarship,” the association’s award citation said, Childers’ book “devises a new context for reading Cervantes.”

The book, Childers’ first, weaves a complex set of ideas together in a reconsideration of Cervantes, asserting that the author’s satirical account of a comic knight errant tilting at windmills reflects the complex, fluid state of early 17th-century Spain, where a national identity was far from firmly established. Additionally, it connects Cervantes’ works to the modern day, as literature of resistance and critique.

“The point is to avoid assuming that ‘Spain’ became a modern state overnight in 1492 and then proceeded to conquer the New World and punish deviancy within its own borders, from an unswerving position as the nation that it would eventually become,” he argues in the preface. “Instead, the colonization of the New World and the imposition of a unified national identity turn out to be parallel processes. Cervantes wrote during this threshold period of national formation, and his writings now seem to many to point in a different direction than the one Spanish society actually took.”

Heady notions for an English major who left Reed not knowing Spanish.

Following the lead of his friend Christopher Emsden ’87, Childers traveled to Europe after graduation, setting his sights on France. A shortage of cash led to a stint picking olives in south-central Spain, and a stay in the town of Baeza, population 15,000, where he began to study the language, and met his now-wife Francisca during the paseo, the sociable evening stroll that forms the backbone of Spanish civic life. Childers, who was raised in a string of Florida towns, was hooked.

“I was asking myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ It felt like such a community of people who were so connected to each other, and I was the only one who didn’t belong.”

Two decades later, he’s more than an honorary part-time resident: both of the Childers’ children, Elisabeth, 6, and Manuel, 4, were baptized in a neighborhood church in Baeza. “Life there has changed an awful lot, but a lot of it hasn’t—it stretches back,” he says. It’s a thought echoed in the preface of Transnational Cervantes: “if literary works did not have meaning for us in the present, there would be no reason to read them.”

That continuity influenced Childers’ scholarship at Columbia University, where he earned a Ph.D. in Spanish in 1994. A brief stint teaching at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, helped tie in notions of internal borders and exposed him to Mexican culture and literature. “Mexico was Texas’ gift to me,” he says.

His latest scholarly efforts are focused on the Moriscos, Spanish and Portuguese Muslims who were persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition and forced to convert to Catholicism after the Spanish Reconquista (completed in 1492 with the fall of Granada, the last Moorish stronghold on the Iberian peninsula). They were ultimately expelled to North Africa in 1610.

Childers is also focused on teaching literature to Brooklyn College students, many of whom work full time and reflect a wide range of backgrounds (the campus is part of the City University of New York). “Our role is to help ensure that Spanish in the United States survives as a written language,” he says. “Its future as a spoken language here is guaranteed. But we need to provide an opportunity for people to read and write it.”

—Will Swarts ’92

reed magazine logoWinter 2008