The Gatepost Interview: Michael Wong-Russell, Professor and Department Internship Director, Spanish
By Kayllan Olicio
What is your educational background and work history?
My bachelor’s and master’s degree I did at Illinois State University. For my bachelors, I kept adding on majors. So, it took me five years. I ended up with three majors. I started out in Russian because that was the hot topic of the time. Studying Russian was where it was at and there were a lot of government subsidies – that was still during the Cold War period. They wanted Americans to learn Russian. ... Then, I added French to it because I had done French in high school. I never did learn how to speak French. Those days, you just did reading and writing in classes, not like today where you do a lot of speaking. Then, I thought, “There is something wrong with this picture,” studying French all those years and not being able to speak it. So, I thought, “Cool, I’ll go to France.” That was in the days where there were no
providers or companies with the organized study abroad programs. ... So, I studied at the University of Grenoble in France. Then, I went back to Illinois State. ... I found myself speaking Spanish all the time outside of classes. ... So, I added Spanish to it and so I ended up with the three. Then, I went on to do my master of arts in Spanish. I taught for a couple of years in the south side of Chicago and my not-yet wife was finishing her undergrad and had to go back to Hong Kong because her visa was running out. So, I thought, “All right, let me see if anybody in Hong Kong needs a Spanish teacher.” Well, there was a really good school that did. I thought, “Okay I’m doing it, I’m up for it.” I went to Hong Kong with the idea of spending a year or two. I ended up staying 16 years. We got married while we were there and then I was teaching at a really powerful high school. It was the Hong Kong international school. The students
were all sons and daughters of businessmen and diplomats and they were really high power students. I started getting into literature. Latin American in particular and the themes are not often really appropriate for high school ages. So, I thought if I really want to do this I better look for teaching at university. So, my wife and I both applied to schools around here. We came back and went to Boston University. She did her M.B.A. and I did my Ph.D. in Hispanic literature. ... Then, I was a teaching assistant at BU for six years and then in 1995 I came here.
Did you pick up the language while you were in Hong Kong?
I did. It’s kind of fading away. I never did get that into the writing because holding on to Spanish in Hong Kong was a full-time job, too, because you just don’t hear it spoken anywhere. The Chinese language came kind of in the natural approach. It wasn’t a good place to learn Chinese because it was still a British colony in those days, so it was English everywhere. But I lived in a couple of smaller villages where no one knew English, so that’s where it happened. Now, if I go back to visit I need probably a couple of days and a pretty big glass of wine to get the Chinese \owing again. It’s still there, just tucked away. That’s how languages are.
Your research interest is in the representation of science and medicine in the 20th century Latin American Literature. What inspired you to take that route?
Just before we left Hong Kong to move here ... our dog got really sick and passed away. So, I thought, “You know, there is this dog I had for all this time, suddenly there is nothing there.” Coincidently, I was reading literature from South America that dealt with traveling spirits and a spirit leaving a body and planting itself into another body. ... I realized through more reading of Latin American literature that that was a primary focus in the 20th century. The issue of the soul and the essence of material goods – it was a belief at the time not only in South America, but in the U.S. and Europe, that the soul had a material base to it. ... It just seemed fascinating and all the science was implicit in the writing of Latin American authors of that period. It seemed that they were hearing all these discoveries going on in the laboratories during this period of scientism, as they called it, and they would pick up on these theories and create their own uses of that scientific principle in a very fictional way, but just as a “what if.” ...
That’s where you get all this crazy literature from Latin America that’s just fascinating to read.
Fortunately, I got in touch and became a member with a group at Rutgers – it’s called Ometeca – that has dedicated itself to the combining of sciences and literature. I thought, “Perfect. This is where I am and we have conventions in strange places around the world. It’s other people like me who see science as it is represented in literature and can see it as science as much as fictional deployment of a story.”
What advice would you give to FSU students?
To get out of their towns and into the world. Hopefully including some language studies because they are just not aware now, the focus, and understandably, is on graduating and getting a job. But then why go back to school? To get these things you could have gotten as an undergrad. ... It knocks down barriers.