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In Memoriam: Professor Qadri Ismail

Brilliant thinker, inspiring teacher, loyal friend
June 4, 2021

Photo of Prof Qadri Ismail teaching undergraduates

Photo of Prof Qadri Ismail teaching undergraduates
Professor Qadri Ismail with undergraduates

With deep sorrow, we note the death of our esteemed colleague Professor Qadri Ismail, who died in May at home of natural causes. He was 59. A noted scholar of cultural studies, postcolonial literature, literary theory, and gender and sexuality, Ismail joined English at Minnesota as Assistant Professor in 1997 and served the department in numerous capacities, including Chair of the department’s first Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Committee and Director of Graduate Studies. A journalist and political commentator as well as academic, Ismail was a longtime columnist for the Sri Lanka Sunday Leader and citizen journalism website Groundviews.

"For years, there was a comic posted on Qadri’s office door," recalled Associate Professor Jani Scandura. "Beneath it he had taped the words: 'The Commitment to Theory.' It was a cheeky reference to Homi K. Bhabha’s  famous essay by that name, which had debunked the alleged incompatibility between theory and political activism. Qadri was sympathetic to Bhabha’s view, extending his response with characteristic nuance in his first book, Abiding by Sri Lanka [2005], where he put forth what he called a 'postempiricist' and decolonial approach to peace in a country scared by decades of war. His question there and elsewhere was broader: How can an intellectual act—and write—without capitulating to the very epistemological conditions that produced the crisis itself? For Qadri, reading literature closely and slowly—reading as only a theoretically-engaged literary scholar can—offered a just solution."

"As a young, diasporic Lankan Tamil writer of fiction and nonfiction about Sri Lanka's minority communities," said Assistant Professor V. V. Ganeshananthan, "I followed Qadri's work long before I met him. What fortune for me to have landed in the same department as Qadri, to be able to wander into his office for political shoptalk and conversation and have him wander into mine, to hear his remarkable stories and insights, and to appreciate his marvelous cooking. In life, as on the page, Qadri was inimitable—brilliant, direct, adventurous, funny, questioning. I am so grateful for the way in which his friendship here felt like home. He will be deeply missed."

Professor Ismail loved a thorny scholarly debate; and he regularly mentored assistant professors, lecturers, and graduate students interested in critical and literary theory, racial and Indigenous studies, and post/colonialism. “Professor Qadri Ismail was generous with his time both inside and outside the class,” wrote English doctoral student Moinak Choudhury on Twitter. “He was unafraid to use his voice to support graduate students, realize EDI causes, and speak to us as peers. More personally, he helped me find my feet as a new, uncertain international student. He'll be missed by so many students who found their voices under his mentorship.”

"I was on the committee that
hired Qadri. I remember well
how he stood out for his
incisiveness and engagement.
Year after year, students
benefited from his courses;
many of them found time
with him the most valuable
moments of their years of
study. He will be much
missed.”
- English Chair Andrew
Elfenbein

Ismail also skillfully opened up dense theoretical texts for undergraduates, for years inspiring English majors to strongly recommend his “Introduction to Literary Theory” and “Textual Analysis” courses. “To date, I don't think any professor I've had has challenged me or my ways of thinking quite as much,” noted 2021 English graduate Dylan Miettinen, a recipient of this year’s President’s Student Leadership and Service Award (PSLSA) and Editor in Chief of The Minnesota Daily. “His teachings, though sometimes unorthodox, are revolutionary and transformative.”

Another of this year’s PSLSA winners, 2021 graduate Halima Samatar, also recently recommended that English majors seek out Professor Ismail for “Textual Analysis”: “He did a great job of raising questions about what we often accept at face value: aspects of identity, culture, and storytelling. The texts for the class were eye-opening.”

In turn, Ismail credited his students with helping him to further his own scholarship and writing. In a 2015 interview about his second book Culture and Eurocentricism (Rowman & Littlefield), he said: “If you teach [a text], you have a much more intimate knowledge of it than you otherwise would. And it always happens that a student will see things that you might have missed.” Recently Professor Ismail created a new class, "The Immigrant and the Refugee,” again a topic related to a research project related to the Declaration of Independence (“perhaps our most influential immigrant text”). "As an immigrant myself," he said last summer, "I’ve long been interested in the United States’ self-representation as a nation of immigrants."

Ismail was born and raised in Sri Lanka, receiving his BA, with First Class Honors in English, from the University of Peradeniya. He took his MA and PhD at Columbia University, where he was a research assistant for Edward Said and studied under Rob Nixon (now at Princeton University) and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

His first book Abiding by Sri Lanka (2005) criticized anthropological misunderstandings of the history and politics of Sri Lanka. Deepening his engagement across disciplines, Culture and Eurocentricism interrogated the Eurocentric concept of literature, revealing how this 19th-century creation is intertwined with anthropology's invention of "culture,” as well as the philosophy and political science of Europe's colonial period. Perhaps unexpected in such an academic work, Ismail’s writing was funny, and punny. “I suppose you could say that my personality plays into the book,” Ismail said then. “After a point, you're not going to bash it out."

“Qadri was a brilliant and uncompromising thinker, an amazing and dedicated teacher, and a generous and loyal friend,” said Vinay Gidwani, Professor of Geography, Environment & Society. “I hardly need to say what a huge loss this is, in so many ways.”

Ismail’s latest project was to be a book on Sri Lankan cricket, a lifelong passion, according to Gidwani. He had been awarded a CLA sabbatical in spring 2022, which he had planned to spend in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

"Qadri was committed to theory," said Professor Scandura. "Commitment underlay everything he did. A commitment to politics. To reading, really reading. To his students and peers. To speaking out without fear despite fear. To writing that way. But he also was committed to art. To cooking. To cricket. To pressed shirts and polished shoes. To his family and close friends. To those children, including my own son, who were lucky enough to claim him as an uncle (biology be damned). And to me. I first met Qadri on my campus visit when I was interviewing for an assistant professorship. I stayed at his place when I came back to town to find an apartment. I have never been in Minneapolis, at the University of Minnesota, in the Department of English without him alongside--as a colleague and interlocutor, comrade, and close friend for over two decades. Often, we were at odds. Often, we fought. Almost always we laughed. Loudly. It was a whole body experience. For Qadri, the bedrock of authentic respect was honesty—even if he ruffled a few feathers (and bruised not a few egos) while speaking his mind. But he listened, could rethink his position, admit when he was wrong. The gap he leaves for English, the University and academy, for Sri Lanka itself, and, even more so, for those who loved him, is so great, so incomprehensible, that in abiding by him, I cannot quite make peace."

Condolences to Professor Ismail's family, friends, former students, and colleagues in the Department of English, the University of Minnesota, and across the world.

A formal tribute to Professor Ismail's life will take place at the University in the fall of 2021.

More remembrances

"He was an exacting friend and scholar, a riveting lecturer whose every twist and turn of phrase and thought one was compelled to follow, a generous and warm host. Abrasive and lovable, brilliant and honest, with a kind of integrity rarely encountered in an institution defined by compromise. I always thought I'd see him again." — Professor Emerita Maria Damon

"Qadri's love for teaching, his willingness to truly devote time towards helping students understand difficult ideas, and, above all, his fierce conviction that our discipline can play a central role in dismantling structures of oppression and tyranny, have all had a profound impact on my graduate education. Like so many others, my time at UMN was greatly enriched by my interactions with Qadri, both within and beyond the classroom. I am deeply saddened to hear this news." — Abhay Doshi (PhD 2021)

"It only took one meeting with Qadri for me to feel the sense of belonging that I had been searching for in the department. Qadri’s insistence on patience with theory reassured me when I doubted myself, while his lines of questioning unsettled and challenged the way I think. I will miss his constant guidance in my intellectual journey, his quick sense of humor, how his stories unexpectedly formed profound lessons, his irreverence for decorum, and his clarity and courage." — Nyla Numan, PhD student, Professor Ismail advisee

"On the first day of class, Qadri told us that he was going to teach us how to read. However, he taught us much more than that. He taught us that texts need to be approached with care in a world that emphasizes reading countless books at a quick pace; it is not how much we read, but how deeply we read. The foundation of Qadri’s teaching style was his genuine belief in the ability of students to push themselves further than we thought we could go so that we can contribute to the world in ways meaningful to us and each other. He fostered discussions that had a goal of exploration rather than a goal of being correct. Personally, he encouraged me to have more confidence not solely in my abilities as a student, but in myself as a person who has something to say. Beyond that, he loved having fun. Learning, growing, and living are meant to be exciting and entertaining even when difficult. Qadri was an exceptional professor and an incredible friend." — Indigo Harris, Sociology BA and English and GWSS minors, 2020