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Sibelan Forrester

Susan W. Lippincott Professor of Modern and Classical Languages

Program Coordinator, Interpretation Theory

Section Head, Russian

Modern Languages & Literatures-Russian


  2. Phone: (610) 328-8162
  3. Kohlberg Hall 340
photo of Sibelan Forrester

Question and Answer

When did you come to work at Swarthmore?


What were you doing before you came here?

I taught (also Russian language and literature) for five years at Oberlin College.

What made you come here?

The beautiful surroundings, the delightful colleagues, the inspiring students. (Not to say anything bad at all about Oberlin -- it's just awfully FLAT, and for some reason that made it hard for me to figure out which direction was which.)

What made you decide to study and then teach Russian?

I began Russian just for fun (I was going to be a French or English major), in my first year of college.

What other languages do you know?

Croatian and Serbian, pretty well. French, excellent for reading, limping for speech. German, so-so for reading plus a couple of silly songs. Spanish, ditto except the songs are better. Czech, one year in graduate school that was "eaten" by spending 10 months in Zagreb in 1986-87.

Where has your language taken you (to live, to work, to study)?

To Moscow in 1982, Petrozavodsk (seat of gov't and culture of Karelia, on Lake Onega in Northwest Russia). I've made friends with scholars and translators from all over Eastern Europe thanks to mutual interest in Russian poetry.

Which places (abroad or in the US) are "your places," besides Swarthmore?

Petrozavodsk and its environs (must have been a former life); Boulder, CO, where I grew up; bits of Zagreb; the village in Devonshire where my grandparents used to live.

Name one course you love to teach, and why.

I really love all of them! But this semester I'm having a great time teaching the Translation Workshop (LITR 070) -- wonderful issues to discuss, and delightful students who are never boring and always have really intriguing things to say.

I feel that translation is the best and most devoted kind of reading, besides being a way to put a deep knowledge of language and a passionate love for literature or for a particular writer to meaningful use. And several people I know -- including one Swat alum who took this course from me! -- actually make a living as translators, which sounds to me a bit like getting paid to taste chocolates.

Describe a book or article you have written and what you learned from writing it.

My favorite piece from my own stuff is "The Poet as Pretender," an examination of how Marina Tsvetaeva uses historical figures of pretenders (notably, Pugachev, the historical Russian rebel about whom Pushkin wrote) to examine the issues of legitimacy and "pretension" raised by her own identity as a woman and poet. It's a brilliant and witty piece, and has not been published.

Do you write creatively in Russian?

Only in English -- when I'm strikingly clever or lyrical in Russian (or any other language) it's usually by mistake.

If you had to choose one image to decorate your office door, what would it be?

A panoramic shot of low evening sun over Lake Onega. It's a little bit south of the Arctic Circle, so that the sun does set at night in summer, but it sets extremely slowly and with lots of subtle color play that is all echoed in the sheets of calm water. Better would be a thin-screen video of this same scene, so you could see how the light vibrates in the water -- it looks like bright blue angel hair.

Who is your favorite writer in Russian?

Marina Tsvetaeva, of course -- but there are plenty of other Russian writers I may like as well, but simply don't know as well.

What public figure in Russia do you admire?

I think very highly of Galina Starovoitova, an opposition political figure who spoke at Swarthmore a few years ago and was assassinated later on.

Describe the best meal you have eaten in a Russian home or restaurant.

It all tastes great when you're hungry enough! Probably the fresh thick cream we bought from a woman in Kuzeranda who kept cows.

What troubles you about Russian culture?

Sometimes, a kind of complacency about what certain words mean and how they are related to social reality (I think here of gender, race and sexuality -- Russian has tended to do better with class -- after all, where else can you feel sorry for a Count?).

What is much better in Russia culture than anything you see in the US?

Mid-morning tea rituals, willingness to spend time in conversation as part of knowing someone, and a national ethic of generosity and hospitality.

What is the role of Russian in the North America?

Russian has had at least two waves of importance in the US: first, mostly in the western part of the country, and especially Alaska, in the 19th century. Second, in the present: there's a huge population of very well-educated and gifted people who came here from Russia in the past 30 years or so (as well as a smaller population of earlier emigres).

Do you feel like a different person when you are speaking Russian, and if so how?

Yes -- I'm a lot less shy, and perhaps because I'm obviously an American who will never be Russian I seem less provoked to be Different, when something makes me feel that way.

What other disciplines have you studied, and how do they contribute to your work with Russian?

South Slavic lits and cultures sort of fold into Russian, since the writers always read one another, and there have been significant paths of influence between Russia and the Slavic countries (hither and thither), starting already in the Middle Ages. Folklore -- my other PhD minor -- which helped me to see how all aspects of culture are in a matrix of discourses and traditions. The way fabric is used in a quilt is not the worst metaphor for literary citation...

What is your favorite activity in a language classroom?

Teasing people, except that I try not to do it. It's nice when they tease me too, but a lot of people are too polite. The foreign language classroom must work to break down false politeness.

What special things can you offer to students of Russian?

As a non-native speaker of Russian, I guess I prove that you can start to study a language at 18 years old and still "do something with it". One thing I particularly like to do in language class is sing folk and other songs (with guitar accompaniment).

What do you like doing when you aren't reading or writing brilliant works of scholarship?


What are your personal connections with Russian: heritage, family, friends?

No Russian heritage; no Russian family; but I have lots of friends (some of whom are not Russian either, but speak it, teach it, translate from it).

What is your favorite place on campus?

The Rose Garden, and the dogwoods next to Papazian.

What can you see outside your office window?

All kinds of squirrel hijinks on the third floor of the big tulip tree.

What do you do to stay fluent in Russian or up-to-date in Russianculture and events?

Reading poetry aloud is great for the physical part of fluency (the oral gymnastics that palatalization demands). Teaching seminars is great for the ability to drone on in a foreign language. Reading is always a must -- and the Internet provides all kinds of wonderful content -- a lot of which, unlike when I began as a student, is really crowd-pleasing fluff and quite unpainful to consume.

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