Imagine Otherwise: Leah Milne on the Good Trouble of Racial Justice

Imagine Otherwise: Leah Milne on the Good Trouble of Racial Justice

May 10, 2017

Leah Milne wearing a pink blazer and white button-down shirt, in front of a bookcase


What is metafiction, and how can it serve as a tool for confronting power dynamics? Can incorporating unconventional genres in curriculum teach students critical thinking skills?

In episode 36 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach and guest Leah Milne discuss how metafictional narratives by authors of color can provide a pedagogy of discomfort, how comics and graphic novels can spur the “good trouble” of social justice activism, and how she uses the classroom to teach radical empathy.

This episode of Imagine Otherwise is part of Signal Boosting, a podcast miniseries collaboration between the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, Ideas on Fire, and the Association for Asian American Studies. Each week during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we’re highlighting an emerging scholar who is building new audiences for the field of Asian American studies. The Signal Boosting miniseries aims to show how interdisciplinary scholars, activists, and artists are producing socially engaged work in multimedia forms, as well as inspire you to create your own.

Guest Leah Milne

Leah is an assistant professor of English at the University of Indianapolis, where she teaches literature and composition courses. Her research primarily focuses on issues related to ethnic identity, multiculturalism, and authorship in contemporary ethnic American literature.

Her writing has appeared in publications such as College Literature, South Atlantic Review, CLA Journal, and books including the forthcoming Growing Up Asian American in Young Adult Fiction.

She’s currently writing Necessary Fictions: Authorship and Transethnic Identities in Contemporary American Narratives, a book examining belonging, identity, and acts of authorship in post 1989 ethnic American novels that utilize metafiction, or fiction that calls attention to itself as well as its own formal conventions.

She earned a PhD in American literature from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, and an MA in English from Old Dominion University.

We chatted about

  • How authors are using metafiction to explore ethnic identity and citizenship (02:25)
  • Authors and activists who have inspired Leah’s work (05:10)
  • The power of comics to represent complex power dynamics and incite social justice activism (07:45)
  • Teaching as a form of activism (10:50)
  • Imagining otherwise (14:05)


What draws creatives to the metafiction genre

Metafiction, in pulling readers out of the text, forces us to face ourselves….We’re attached to an ironic sensibility nowadays, and so metafiction becomes a way that we get the audience, and we’re all in on the joke.

Authors using metafiction to discuss themes of politics and power

The specific type of metafiction that I’ve been researching is novels that feature writers as characters in the book. I think that this trope is especially powerful when we talk about issues like colonization. You see the authors in these books being challenged with how to write their own stories in the face of constant erasure by history, by governments, by political systems and structures.

The unique medium of comics

Comics are something that on the surface seem really welcoming and easily digestible, so they have this special magic in making concepts like nonviolent protest, for example, really clear to their readers.

Teaching students to think critically

I always ask [my students] to critique words that we take for granted, like ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ and to understand that those things don’t mean the same thing for everyone. If we become more adept at this analysis, we can yield a better way of seeing the world.

Combing academia with art and activism in the classroom

Good literature—like all good art—forces you to open your mind and to grow. I often use texts in my classes that do not automatically scream ‘academia’ or ‘high culture,’ because it can be really surprising to see how that overlaps with art and activism.

Imagining otherwise

I want to live in a world that believes in the power of practicing real and radical empathy. I want to live in a world where it matters what we do once we have a story and a perspective, once we see what it looks like with experiences that are not necessarily our own.

More from Leah

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

About Signal Boosting

This episode and the Signal Boosting miniseries is a collaboration between Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency that works with progressive, interdisciplinary academics, the Association for Asian American Studies, the primary research and teaching hub for Asian American Studies as a dynamic, interdisciplinary field, and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, a migratory museum that brings Asian Pacific American history, art and culture to you through innovative museum experiences online and throughout the United States.

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