My academic journey started in Germany, where I received B.A. and M.A. degrees in Anglophone studies, French literature, and media studies, before starting my doctoral research on translocal city novels at the University of Duisburg-Essen. This literary urban research then took me to the University of Namibia, where I briefly taught and conducted research, and sparked my enduring interest in maps and alternative mappings. After completing my PhD in 2019, I started several research projects in queer studies, among them a research and teaching podcast called Queer Lit. I am very pleased to now be a lecturer at the University of Surrey.
Areas of specialism
Queer Lit is a podcast about LGBTQIA+* literature and culture. In each episode, literary studies researcher Lena Mattheis talks to an expert in the field of queer studies. Topics include lesbian literature, inclusive pronouns and language, gay history, trans and non-binary novels, intersectionality and favourite queer films, series or poems.
27 unnumbered and separately bound chapters delivered in a cardboard box in apparently random order2 and ranging between a mere 10 lines to 12 pages in length – this is B. S. Johnson’s 1969 novel The Unfortunates. The Unfortunates is the interior monologue of an ambitious if unsuccessful writer who has to make a living as a football reporter, sent to report a match in an unnamed city3 – recognizable as Nottingham – and who, only as he leaves the train, realizes that this is a city he knows well as the city in which, as a young writer, he had spent a lot of time with his then best friend, Tony, an aspiring literary scholar, who had died of cancer at the age of 29 a few years before the time of the novel.4 The entire narrative then oscillates between the narrator’s rendering of the hours spent in the city before, during and after the match and analepses to time spent with Tony, memories frequently triggered by visual cues during the city walk. Thus, a pub on a corner may remind the narrator of time spent there with Tony or, in a more erratic movement of the mind, the built environment of the train station reminds him he is in Nottingham, which, in turn, conjures up Tony’s emaciated face, as happens in the opening passage quoted above.
Cities are translocal. This might sound simple – because it is. By merely existing, cities create connections across, through and beyond local spaces and places. A layering of distant local environments, or of experiences of places, is therefore at the heart of every definition of citiness. Whether that be in literature or in the lived environment, close connections between locations that are seemingly unlike, as well as dense layers of multilocal, international and global histories, shape the urban experience. From the urban palimpsest (see Kronshage et al.; Gurr, Charting Literary Urban Studies) to the global city (see Sassen, Deciphering the Global and The Global City), immediate links between and through various locales suffuse urban theory and city literature as much as the actual cityscapes.
Translocal novels—novels that are set in two or more distant places, which are layered or blended—are more often than not urban texts, since the city is, by nature, a site where a multitude of chronotopes interact. This article therefore examines structural analogies between translocal time(s) and urban spaces, and explores how the versatile nature of the city allows writers to project a variety of other spacetimes onto its surface. Both the spatialisation of time and the temporalisation of space in translocal narratives will be of interest. While a number of texts will be taken into account, Xiaolu Guo’s I Am China and Tendai Huchu’s The Maestro, the Magistrate & the Mathematician will serve as main examples for the narration of translocal urban time.
Mattheis explores the possibilities contained in urban spaces by creating and analysing a variety of maps based on Tendai Huchu’s translocal Edinburgh novel The Maestro, the Magistrate & the Mathematician (2015). In addition to an examination of the translocality (the layering of two or more distinct spaces) that shapes and forms a rapidly increasing number of contemporary city novels, Mattheis questions the rather metaphorical mapping lexicon that is used extensively in urban, literary and cultural studies. She focuses instead on the actual physical locations and trajectories referenced by a text. Using maps of these spaces, Mattheis then provides an insight into how translocally perceived urban places are layered over memories and immediate walking experiences. Mattheis’ approach is informed by Ayona Datta and Katherine Brickell’s use of the term translocal, but also by Tania Rossetto’s thoughts on maps and literature, and Franco Moretti’s approaches to abstraction.
Translocality in Contemporary City Novels responds to the fact that twenty-first-century Anglophone novels are increasingly characterised by translocality—the layering and blending of two or more distant settings. Considering translocal and transcultural writing as a global phenomenon, this book draws on multidisciplinary research, from globalisation theory to the study of narratives to urban studies, to explore a corpus of thirty-two novels—by authors such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dionne Brand, Kiran Desai, and Xiaolu Guo—set in a total of ninety-seven cities. Lena Mattheis examines six of the most common strategies used in contemporary urban fiction to make translocal experiences of the world narratable and turn them into relatable stories: simultaneity, palimpsests, mapping, scaling, non-places, and haunting. Combining and developing further theories, approaches and techniques from a variety of research fields—including narratology, human geography, transculturality, diaspora spaces, and postcolonial perspectives—Mattheis develops a set of cross-disciplinary techniques in literary urban studies.
The essay sketches a typology of layered representations of urban history based on the question of how texts activate different strata beneath the cityscape. In describing these layers, we are guided by Walter Benjamin's concept of superposition or 'Überdeckungstransparenz' (as formulated in the Arcades Project), a specific mode of perception which allows for the simultaneous awareness of different temporal layers. What is central to our endeavour is the structural analogy of 'city' and 'text' – both in the sense of reading 'the urban landscape as a form analogous to that of a literary composition' (Sharpe and Wallock 1987: 11) and, conversely, of studying 'how a text can function like the city in its layering of meanings' (Gurr 2015: 24). We further take our cue from Martindale's distinction between 'diachronic and historical' approaches, allowing for a clear distinction between 'past' and 'present' on the one hand, and 'archaeological and synchronic' approaches layering different periods of time so as to suggest a timeless, simultaneous 'presence of the past' (sensu Eliot) on the other hand (Martindale 1996). We propose a matrix, as it were, of temporal and spatial 'directions' of layering, distinguishing between retrospective, simultaneous and prospective temporal superpositions and 'co-spatial' (layerings of different temporal strata of the same city) as opposed to translocal (overlay of different cities and spaces) spatial superpositions of different cities. We thus seek to provide a more nuanced outline of the textual strategies used to access, make visible (or at times construct) buried layers of spatialised, palimpsestuous urban memory.
Mattheis, Lena. Translocality in Contemporary City Novels. Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.
Mattheis, Lena, and Lioba Schreyer, eds. Voices from the Margins: Societal Change and the Environment in Poetry. Special Feature in Transnational Literature 10.2 (2018). Available OA.
Mattheis, Lena, and Jens Martin Gurr. “Superpositions: A Typology of Spatiotemporal Layerings in Buried Cities.” Buried Cities. Special Feature of Literary Geographies. 7.1 (2021). 5-22. Available OA.
Mattheis, Lena. “Possibilities of Translocal Mapping in Tendai Huchu’s The Maestro, the Magistrate & the Mathematician.” Literatures of Urban Possibility. Eds. Lieven Ameel, Markku Salmela. Palgrave Macmillan, 2021. 137-163.
Mattheis, Lena. “Time in the Translocal City.” Time, the City, and the Literary Imagination. Eds. Anne-Marie Evans and Kaley Kramer. Palgrave Macmillan, 2021. 121-134.
Mattheis, Lena. “A Brief Inventory of Translocal Narratability: Palimpsestuous Street Art in Chris Abani’s The Virgin of Flames.” Narrative 26.3 (2018). 302-319.
Mattheis, Lena, and Lioba Schreyer. “Listening to the Margins: An Introduction.” Voices from the Margins: Societal Change and the Environment in Poetry. Special Feature in Transnational Literature 10.2 (2018). Available OA.
Mattheis, Lena. “Tendai Huchu.” The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 13 September 2016 [http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=13763, accessed 14 September 2016.]
Accepted for publication
Mattheis, Lena. “Translocality in City Literature.” Companion of Literary Urban Studies. Ed. Lieven Ameel. Routledge. Forthcoming.
Mattheis, Lena and Jens Gurr. “Routine vs Event: Media, Memory and the City in B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates.” Media, Memory and the City. Special issue of andererseits: Transatlantic Yearbook of German Studies. 2021.
Mattheis, Lena. “Poetic Space: Mapping Out How Poetry Takes Place.” Mapping Space; Mapping Time; Mapping Texts. Eds. Sally Bushell and Rebecca Hutcheon. Special Issue in Literary Geographies. Forthcoming.
Mattheis, Lena. “'What if this time we were the ones that didn’t get it?' Poems about COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS" Journal of Medical Humanities. Submitted.