ASHR Interview: Dissertation Award Winner Dr. Rudo Mudiwa

In this interview, I speak to Dr. Rudo Mudiwa, Post-Doctoral Research Associate in Comparative Literature at Princeton University, and winner of last year’s ASHR Dissertation Award for her project, “The Prostitute as Citizen: Mobile Women, Urban Space, and the Threat of Disorder in Zimbabwe.” Dr. Mudiwa earned her Ph.D. in Communication and Culture, with a minor in African Studies, from Indiana University, Bloomington.

Jordan Loveridge: Thank you very much for agreeing to this interview! I am very excited to hear more about your project. I have served on the dissertation award committee in other years, and I know how excellent the submissions are. I would love to hear more about your project. Can you tell me about how you became interested in the history of rhetoric? What initially drew you to the field, and how would you describe your main research areas? 

Rudo Mudiwa: When I started graduate school, I took an introductory seminar in rhetoric with my advisor, Robert Terrill. In due time, we got to the Leff-McGee debate, and I became very invested in this conversation. I was really taken by Michael McGee’s argument that what we encounter as critics and audiences are fragments of discourse, that whole texts as such no longer exist. I was reading this in 2010, and we were already seriously reckoning with our immersion in social media so I found this argument was very compelling. At the same, Michael Leff’s insistence on close reading, paying attention to the structure of the text and giving it some respect, also made sense to me. And I think that I split my approach between the two, in that I am very interested in fragments that publics encounter on a daily basis, but I want to always want to historicize them, always want to tie them back to the whole text and what it was trying to do. So archival research is my way of fleshing out the bits of discourse that I see circulating in the world. And it’s an immense privilege as a scholar to have the time and resources to dig through old boxes so you can say, “this thing originates from this context and this is how it has moved through the world and made its way to us today.” I often surprise myself by tracing a fragment’s movements and returning to its source. I’m equally excited to see what other bits it has rubbed up against in its journey and the residue they have left on the text. In this way, I understand more about the public culture I am trying to describe, and all the things that have coalesced to bring us to the present moment. I bring this approach to all of my work on space/place, African feminisms, social movements, and postcolonial thought. 

JL: In your view, why is the history of rhetoric an important area of study for rhetorical theory, communication, rhetoric and composition, etc. more broadly? Why does the history of rhetoric matter today? 

RM: Given that we do encounter so many decontextualized fragments, I think it is vital for us to know the history of rhetoric. It can be very dangerous for people not to know the roots of particular ideas because they can circulate with their poisonous assumptions intact even when they seem innocuous. And so in a moment like this, rhetoricians can intervene and tell us about how something like “law and order” became an ideograph in American politics, and why we should greet its invocation with the utmost suspicion. I also think that the history of rhetoric is important because frankly speaking, very few of us are actually creating wholly new things! Every utterance has an antecedent, and most of the rhetorical tactics and strategies we see have already been tried before. And so when we immerse ourselves in this history, when we read something like Kenneth Burke’s “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle,” we can teach ourselves how to anticipate and counter speech that can disarm people and make them clamor for more oppression and violence. 

But the history of rhetoric as a practice also returns us to play, exploration, and attunement to our bodies. I don’t think I will ever get over the feeling that encountering a powerful speech, photograph, or performance produces in me. And both sides are necessary, because it’s important to see what speech and collective action can do to bring forth the kinds of practices that we want to see in the world.

JL: Could you tell us about your award-winning project? What led you to focus on this topic and ask these questions? 

In many African colonial states, black women’s bodies were treated as objects of knowledge production. Myths about their sexuality and recalcitrance animated and legitimated colonial governance. In my dissertation, I follow these ideas into the early 1980s, the immediate post-independence era in Zimbabwe, when anxieties about the displacement of “tradition” all aligned to make urban black women the maligned symbols of the new social order. In particular, the figure of “the prostitute” served as a sign of unwanted social, economic, and spatial transformations. Combining archival and ethnographic research, I argue that at key moments in Zimbabwe’s post-independence history, the state has attempted to resolve anxieties concerning the unsettling of urban space, time, and the social order by summoning and disciplining the figure of the woman as prostitute. I use the term prostitute with intention and sensitivity because I want to follow all that this word becomes a vessel for: the moral panic, the voyeurism, the marginality, and even the pleasurable transgression.

I came to this topic through some defining personal experiences. Growing up in Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe, I knew that being a woman in the city was freighted with something. As I hit puberty, the women in my life warned me about dressing in a particular way and about being careful about how I moved in the city. There was always something I was in danger of slipping into if I allowed my femininity to become too unbridled. And so my project came out of wanting to understand the history behind that, because surely there had to be a compelling story there! And then when I did my coursework, I read pieces like Jane Sutton’s “The taming of Polos/Polis: Rhetoric as an achievement without woman” and I realized that not only did the figure of the prostitute haunt my childhood, she has been haunting our discipline as well! That really let me know that I was onto something interesting. But I wanted to tell a specific story about black women living in the wake of settler-colonial rule, so I turned to scholars and writers like Raka Shome, Luise White, Rudo Gaidzanwa, and Tsitsi Dangarembga. They helped me to think about how the prostitute is produced in response to colonial anxieties. And then in my dissertation, I ask, how do those anxieties live on, perhaps in transmuted forms, decades after the formal end of colonial rule?

JL: Does you essay/dissertation relate to a larger project? Does it relate to or build from your previous work?  

RM: I am currently writing a book manuscript informed by my dissertation. I was very lucky to come out of my defense with so many useful provocations that have motivated me to refine the initial questions I was asking in my project. So right now, I am having a bit of fun broadening my archive and following the figure of the prostitute through literature, film, photography, and news media in post-independence Zimbabwe, trying to understand the crises that she is summoned to mediate. But I realized that I forgot about pleasure in my initial recounting of this history, which leaned heavily on the violent backlash against women in Zimbabwe. But that overlooks the fact that sex workers, young girls, urban professionals—all of the women who would have been thrown in the category of “the prostitute”—would also have had a lot fun making their own money and living in the city. So I want to do interviews to tell some of that story and I am returning to the archive to linger on some of the stories I glossed over. In the interim, I’ve been working out these some of these ideas in some shorter essays for public audiences, and have really enjoyed the challenge of writing these ideas in a “looser” way, but with concision and clarity. I also recently published an article on how Zimbabwean women politicians are depicted either as wives or prostitutes in public discourse.

JL: Who is one of your favorite figures from the history of rhetoric, and why? 

All of my work comes out of reading Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth when I was a junior in college (thanks to my political science professor, Tom Ellington). Few reading experiences have fundamentally transformed me in the way that that book has and continues to today. I didn’t fully understand much of it at the time (and every rereading since has unearthed new things for me) but even then I was seized by the language it gave me to understand the political context in which I was raised. As a child in post-independence Zimbabwe, there was a lot that wasn’t spoken about. I’d only overheard bits and pieces of stories in my house, along with the staid official narrative we received in school. So when I read Fanon, I felt like I finally understood what was being said in between those silences, and suddenly so much about my life and the lives of my elders made sense. His work is absolutely vital for scholars of postcolonial rhetoric as it anticipates so much about how power would adapt to and respond to the challenge of decolonization, often by cynically masking itself in the language of liberation. So it is important to read him so you can recognize those moves. But more importantly, the theorist David Marriot recently argued that Fanon’s work gives us a theory of invention. When I read that essay, something else clicked! Fanon’s work is underwritten by a fundamental, unwavering belief in the idea that through mass struggle, colonized subjects become new people. That is what guides my interest in the history of rhetoric, the desire to learn how throughout time, black people have found ways to transform ourselves and the world around us through language, oratory, performance, along with the unseen daily improvisations through which we not only survive, but find pleasure and joy. Fanon’s written work and his life as an anticolonial activist in Algeria absolutely collapse the false division between theory and practice that rhetoricians are always laboring against. And he is such a beautiful writer! He can be sardonic, polemical, poetic, and analytically precise all at once. In his work, we find the synthesis of form and content, speech and action. 

About the InterviewerJordan Loveridge is Assistant Professor of Communication and English at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He earned his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Arizona State University, focusing specifically on medieval rhetoric. His work appears in venues such as Rhetoric Society QuarterlyRhetoricaPhilosophy and RhetoricCommunity Literacy Journal, and Journal for the History of Rhetoric.