"Essential Workers": Precarious Labor in the Literary Imagination

deadline for submissions: 
September 30, 2020
full name / name of organization: 
Northeast Modern Language Association 2021
contact email: 

52nd Northeast Modern Language Association Convention

March 11-14, 2021 / Philadelphia, PA

In light of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and public debate about who or what kind of work is deemed “essential,” this panel seeks to examine the intersection of literature and labor, prioritizing depictions of precarious workers who are sacrificing their personal well-being for the public good, but also to maintain their own economic security.

While medical professionals are putting their lives on the lines to protect the public, so too are delivery drivers, grocery store employees, warehouse workers, janitors and custodians, public sanitation workers, and childcare providers, among others. This panel considers how 20th- and 21st-century literature imagines these occupations—how these workers and their labor are aestheticized, the role they have within a narrative, the level of interiority they are afforded (or not), and how these narratological features relate to the class dynamics present within the larger work. This panel particularly seeks papers that consider how literary labor intersects with questions of race, ethnicity, gender, and/or sexuality in order to contribute to the ongoing project of (re)defining the contours of the working-class literary canon and the field of working-class literary studies.

By paying attention to narrative practices used to spotlight and/or conceal what is largely viewed as “invisible labor,” this panel aims to use literature to historicize our present moment. This panel also anticipates what will, hopefully, be a defining moment in American (and global) culture, where precarious workers who are deemed “essential” gain rights and benefits that this designation should afford, including, but not limited to: paid time off, affordable health care, a living wage, protection from sexual and racial discrimination, and, above all, respect and dignity.

For more info on NeMLA 2021, visit http://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention.html

Abstracts of 250-300 words should be submitted directly through the NeMLA portal: https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/S/18714

Please direct any questions to Courtney Pina Miller (cpmiller@brandeis.edu).