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  • The Claremont Independent

An interview with Professor Norman Valencia

The Claremont Independent is pleased to introduce Professor Norman Valencia to Claremont McKenna College.

Professor Valencia joins us next fall as CMC’s first full-time, tenure-track assistant professor of Portuguese. We had the opportunity to interview him about his academic background, research interests, the courses he will teach at CMC, and more.

For more information about Professor Valencia and the role he will play at CMC, read our previous coverage of CMC’s new Portuguese program.

Please join us in welcoming Professor Valencia to our community!

Tell us a little bit about yourself. What is your academic background in Portuguese, and what sparked your interest in the language and in Brazilian literature?

I am Colombian, and I have always been in love with literature and literary studies. Because of this, I did a Literature Major in my native Bogotá. After this, I finished a Master’s in Humanities and Social Thought at NYU, and a Ph.D. in Spanish and Portuguese at Yale. Since my undergrad years, I discovered that Brazil had an amazing cultural production, especially in terms of literature. I started to read some Brazilian poets in translation (Manuel Bandeira, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, João Cabral de Melo Neto) and I soon realized that I needed to learn the language to really get to know them. Throughout my Ph.D., I went to Brazil every time I could, especially in the summers, to learn Portuguese and to do some research. There, the beauty of cities like Rio de Janeiro, Ouro Preto and São Paulo moved me to consider Brazil as a major focus of my research and my academic life.

What drew you to Claremont McKenna College?

I can answer this with a short anecdote: when I was coming to CMC for my campus visit, I had a layover at the Houston airport. A gentleman at a desk asked me why I was headed to Ontario, California. I told him I had to give a talk at CMC, and his answer was: “Well, then you must be a very smart man… That is an excellent college!” This just confirmed that Claremont McKenna is an extremely well-known school throughout the US. The college’s students are also known for being extremely driven, which is a professor’s dream. Finally, it was very exciting to see that the department of Modern Languages and Literatures needed someone to start a Portuguese program. I saw this as a very appealing challenge, something I would really like to undertake.

We understand that your focus at CMC, both in language and in literature, will be on Brazil. What does this mean for your language and literature classes? 

Portuguese is spoken in four continents, and this means it has a number of varieties. In my language classes, I will focus on the Brazilian variety of Portuguese, although I will try to include some of the differences between American and European Portuguese. In terms of literature, my main focus will be not only on Brazil, but on the relationships between Brazil and the rest of Latin America. For a number of reasons (historical, linguistic, political), the academic field has not produced many comparative approaches between these two traditions. I really think this needs to change; today, thinking about Latin America without including Brazil is like thinking about Asia without considering China.

Why would you recommend that CMC students enroll in Portuguese?

Portuguese today is spoken by an estimated 230 million people in very different parts of the world, making it a truly global language.  Brazil is the 5th largest country in the world (both in terms of size and of population), and it has become an emerging economic and political powerhouse. It is one of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) which, according to several economists, could become dominant world economies by the year 2050. As I mentioned, it is also a very culturally rich country, with outstanding contributions in the fields of literature, plastic arts, music, architecture, and film. Oh, and if you are a sports fan, it is very strong in soccer, basketball and volleyball, and it will be the host of the next soccer World Cup (2014) and the next Olympic Games (2016). In the coming years, Brazil will be at the center of the world stage for a number of reasons, so it is really a great moment to get to know its language and culture.

Anything else you’d like to share with us?

An academic’s research is usually driven by hidden, personal reasons. For me, my interest in Brazil was also driven by my love of its music. Not only is it extremely rich, harmonically and rhythmically speaking, but it also has a number of amazing singers and songwriters, like João Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, Maria Rita, Marisa Monte, Adriana Calcanhotto, and the list goes on. I am an amateur guitar player, and for the last couple of years I’ve decided to try to learn a few songs. It has been really hard (so many complex chords!), but I already have a small repertoire… I will try to bring my guitar to class a couple of times in order to share a bit of Brazilian music with my students, and teach them some vocabulary and grammar in the process.


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