Catching up with Dr. Ali

Sonia Chajet Wides, ‘21

October 2019

The 2019-20 school year has brought a slew of new faculty members to BHSEC in a variety of departments. One of these new faculty is Dr. Ashna Ali, who is a member of the literature department. Dr. Ali is currently teaching Year-1 Seminar and 10th grade Global Literature. They studied at NYU and have a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the CUNY Graduate Center. I sat down to talk to Dr. Ali about their experience so far at BHSEC, and a few of their favorite things.

What has your experience been like teaching at BHSEC so far?

It’s been really great. My students are bright and kind and excited, which makes me really excited…  I’m never bored.

What have you noticed about BHSEC students? Is there something that differentiates BHSEC students from your past college students?

I think one really big difference that I like a lot is that the lack of phones makes it so that students talk to each other and they look each other in the eye and they’re friends. They’re much nicer to each other. And that is not very common. I don’t think BHSEC students know how much warmer it is around here given that everyone isn’t glued to their phone. It’s very nice-- y’all are a much tighter-knit community than a lot of students elsewhere… And then there’s the obvious. These are just very, very high-caliber students. I feel very fortunate to be teaching students who are so motivated.

Photo Credit: Ashna Ali

Photo Credit: Ashna Ali

Why do you like to teach?

The most important people in my life were my teachers. They were role models, they were de-facto parents. I always admired them. And so that’s what made me interested in teaching to begin with. I am also just very excited about the things that I love and I want to share and that’s what teaching is for me. 

What are your areas of interest, subject-wise?

My research is in postcolonial literature, usually feminist postcolonial literature. So it’s pretty contemporary. It’s often written by people of African and South Asian descent, sometimes Middle Eastern descent. Usually this also intersects with my interest in poetry and gender and sexuality studies, queer studies, trans studies, which also tends to intersect in postcolonial climate research. So those are my big interrelated fields.

How do you think you’re incorporating those into your classes at BHSEC, or would like to incorporate into future classes?

This year I’m not teaching an elective. But the things that I am teaching in First-Year Seminar and World Literature are being taught through the lens of a postcolonial feminist scholar and so we’re applying feminist analysis or postcolonial analysis to texts that aren’t themselves necessarily doing that work.

You’re a queer faculty member and that’s meant a lot to many queer students this year. How has it felt to have that reaction upon your arrival?

Lots of happy crying. I tweeted about it and my tweet went viral. I have never had a tweet go viral before. It’s meant a lot to me. I didn’t know whether or not it would be received well or poorly or whether it would matter at all to anyone…  I know how much it would’ve meant for me to have had adults in my life when I was younger who were queer or non-binary or identified in any way that wasn’t normative, especially adults of color, who were very much missing in my education. So my hope is to be the kind of person in your lives that I wish I had had in mine.

Where did you grow up? 

I grew up in Rome, Italy. My father worked for the United Nations out there, so I spent the first 18 years of my life in Italy… Rome is exceptionally beautiful. I had great exposure to the history of Europe and art. I have a sustained interest in food that was definitely born of growing up in a very food-obsessed culture. It’s also a very difficult place to grow up if you are queer and if you are a person of color, especially from a Muslim family. Particularly at the time that I was growing up, but even now, perhaps worse now, actually. So both very very lovely and very very hard.

What do you like to do on the weekends?

I practice a lot of yoga. I am a poet, so I spend a lot of time going to poetry readings and reading poetry and engaging in collaborative work with other poets. I’m also still researching, so I do a lot of researching. I like to cook, so that’s something that happens. And if I’m feeling extra energetic, I might be dancing. 

What’s your favorite TV show?

These days, I’ve been thinking a lot about The Good Place. I’m rewatching The Wire, which I think is one of the best shows in American television history. I know that this is controversial, but I love Sense8, and I’ve been thinking a lot about Sense8. 

What’s your favorite breakfast food?

I love bagels. That’s one of the things I think I like most about America… New York, specifically.

What’s your favorite kitchen utensil?

I have a red rubber spatula that I really love. It does many many things and I love how red it is.

If you could be stranded in a midwestern city, which would it be?

Oh, God. I have no idea. I don’t know anything about the midwest. So that makes this a particularly difficult question… I hear St. Louis has a jazz scene?... I’m not good at being land-bound, like, I need water nearby. I’m from Bangladesh, which is a peninsula. I’m from Italy, which is a peninsula, and I now live in New York, which is surrounded by water. I would do Chicago, but Chicago’s very cold and I’m a tropical bird, so that doesn’t work. I guess if I had to choose, I’d choose Chicago. It’s a big city at the very least.

Who would be the worst and who would be the best person to be stuck in an elevator with?

The worst… the list is so long. I would say probably a young person who is very aggressive about having the opposite politics from me. Any version of that. The best person to be stuck in an elevator with: Zadie Smith… then she would have to talk to me… I love her. She has a book coming out that I’m very excited about.

Is there anything you want BHSEC students to know about you that they might not know otherwise?

You don’t have to be my student to come talk to me! I’ve had quite a few students walk up and be like “Oh, but I’m leaving, I’m graduating, I won’t ever be your student, so I guess I can’t talk to you.” And I feel like that’s probably particularly true of all the queer students who feel like they can’t talk to me, even though they’re excited that I’m here… It’s like, of course you can talk to me! You can always talk to me!