Mona Oraby, an assistant professor of political science at Howard University, has teamed up with illustrator Emilie Flamme on a project that’s unusual in scholarly publishing: a graphic work of nonfiction. The genre-bending A Universe of Terms: Religion in Visual Metaphor, out now from Indiana University Press, combines research on specific terms significant to the study of religion, social sciences, and the humanities—such as modernity, economy, and human—with illustrations inspired by a range of media, including graphic novels and podcasts. The book offers a visual lexicon with terms, their limitations, and new ways to think about them, according to the publisher.
Gary Dunham, director of Indiana University Press, who acquired A Universe of Terms, calls it “a boldly original, daring approach to rendering scholarship visually in book form.” Learning about the project was “one of those breathtaking moments in publishing that I will always remember,” he adds.
Since scholarly publishing rarely includes graphic works, the peer review process was among the biggest challenges Dunham faced. “It was critical to select reviewers who would be receptive to its nontraditional approach, yet rigorous in their scholarly evaluation.”
The experience has reinforced for Dunham the fact that “research discoveries and interpretations do not have to be bound by the tyranny of the text. There can be compelling magic woven through such sharing from scholars, if their telling is skillfully and creatively deployed.”
Below, we speak with author Oraby about how, as she says, A Universe of Terms is “shaking up scholarly communication.”
How did the author-illustrator partnership for this book initially form?
Our partnership first formed at Amherst College a few years ago. I was curating and editing an online multimedia project entitled “A Universe of Terms” and invited Emilie to work as the content designer for that project, which aimed to make research on secularism and religion more accessible to undergraduate students. That was the beginning of the collaboration that eventually led to this book.
What inspired the idea for an illustrated academic book?
Since we’ve known each other, we’ve had an ongoing conversation about the visual representation of concepts and the merging of word and image. The events of spring and summer 2020 prompted us to give our conversation a form. The novel coronavirus devastated communities worldwide. The movement for Black lives, here and abroad, brought attention to the fact that Black life is vulnerable not only to excessive force but also to systemic failures in public health. As Americans reckoned with historic and ongoing legacies of racial oppression, over four million acres of California forest burned.
We asked ourselves, how do we resist a racist, imperial, and extractive modernity when our lexicon is both indebted to and constrained by that same modernity? We created A Universe of Terms to answer this question. We show in the book how the academic study of religion offers us a way to imagine collective life differently. Working within scholarly conventions to show the unexplored possibilities for their flexibility was a joyful experience amid the sorrow of 2020. We found within scholarship a way to revise and replenish our language and our thought, which gave us hope.
Can you say more about how a work of illustrated scholarship might impact, and even improve, social issues such as inclusivity?
A Universe of Terms understands scholarly communication as an iterative practice that can and should take many forms beyond the monograph, the edited volume, and the journal article—a practice that is also enriched by collaboration with thinkers not formally situated in the academy. Consider the kinds of collaboration on display in this project: authorship of a university press book is shared by a professor and an illustrator who is not credentialed as a scholar; citation in the book merges text and image rather than appearing as footnotes; and the reader is seen as a critical partner in the circulation and interpretation of knowledge. We see innovation of this kind as crucial to advancing inclusivity. We hope that A Universe of Terms will shape what and how scholars write, and the forms that knowledge production takes in the future.