Graduate Student Spotlight: Isabel Bradley

Headshot of Isabel Bradley

As part of a series of graduate student spotlights, we posed some questions to Isabel Bradley, a Ph.D. candidate on the French and Francophone track in the Department of Romance Studies, to learn about her pursuits and her time at Duke.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I am a PhD candidate on the French and Francophone track in the Department of Romance Studies. My work is broadly framed by currents of decolonial thought and their intersections with environmental studies in the Francophone Caribbean. I study the ways in which modes of being, sensory perception, and historicity emerge from embodied engagements with ecologies such as subsistence plots, plantation monocultures, mornes, and oceans. Grounded in French-language natural historical texts, visual and cartographic materials, and Caribbean literatures, my dissertation project traces the role of the manioc root in sustaining relational, counter-plantation modes of being human from the 16th-century to the present.

My research has been supported by a FLAS Fellowship for Haitian Kreyòl; by a short-term fellowship at the John Carter Brown Library; and by a dissertation fellowship at the Library Company of Philadelphia. I also spent a visiting semester at the École normale supérieure in Paris.

At Duke, I have been involved with several digital humanities initiatives, notably the projects Monograph of Haiti Map and Remembering the Middle Passage.

I designed and taught the course FRENCH 327S, "Between Nature and Culture in Francophone Caribbean Literature"; I have also taught first through third semester French language classes.


What’s your favorite memory of visiting France or another Francophone region?

Surprisingly, my favorite memories are mostly simple moments involving a meal and a body of water. The images that come to mind are merguez barbecues at the calanques of Marseille, a beach lunch of bébélé the day after dancing all night on Marie-Galante (Guadeloupe), and picnic-apéros on the sunset-flooded banks of the Seine. The sensory aspects of eating and being outside stick with me, and so much nuance of regional cultures is captured by foodways and by peoples’ relationships to water.


What book would you recommend that students read in French?

Whenever people ask me this question, I usually answer with the Haitian novel Gouverneurs de la rosée by Jacques Roumain. Without giving anything away, the book gets at the heart of what it means to be a fallible human in a fragile environment. Roumain raises questions about how to live well in community and how to cultivate relationships of respect with the earth and with each other, and although the novel is imbued with the Haiti of his time, these questions are worth asking everywhere and everywhen.


Where’s your favorite place on campus to relax/read a book/spend your lunch hour?

I love reading in the sun on a blanket in the gardens, and I hope to do more hammocking on East before I leave Duke. Over the years, I have also taken refuge often in the climbing gym at Wilson—it’s one of the places that lets me get out of my head and connect with people from all over the university community.


What’s an idiom in French that you wish people used in English?

Many of them are surprisingly similar, but one we don’t have in English is “faire la grasse matinée,” which is a practice that is very dear to me; “sleeping in” doesn’t do it justice. There are also so many Haitian Kreyòl proverbs and idioms that fit certain situations perfectly—shout out to Prof. Jacques Pierre for teaching long lists of them. My favorite is “Byen pre pa lakay”: even though you’re very near, you’re not home yet. I’ve been feeling this as I write my dissertation.


How do you approach teaching a language?

I teach language so I can teach in that language. It’s rewarding to guide students through the foundations of communication, but my favorite part is when we can begin to take deep dives into the literary, musical, visual, archival, etc. forms of French-language cultural production. This happens fairly early on, too. I love seeing how students inhabit the French language to share their readings of these objects and their own reactions.


What are some projects you are currently working on?

My current project is the biggest one I’ve ever worked on: my dissertation! It is a literary and historical investigation of the manioc root (cassava or yuca), which remains a staple of circum-Caribbean cuisines. This plant bears witness to the contrasting life projects of many human stakeholders in the colonial Caribbean, including the first peoples of the Antilles; French and creole planters, missionaries, and enslavers; and enslaved and (self-)emancipated Africans and their descendants. I’ve collected an overwhelming set of sources from archives in Paris, Providence, and Philadelphia, including natural histories, botanical texts, and travel narratives; watercolors, engravings, and carved stone artifacts; and cartography and plantation blueprints. I’m also hoping to get back to the earth eventually, to (re)visit some family-owned manioc processing sites and agroecological cooperatives in Martinique and Guyane.