Dominique Kirchner Reill Studies the City of Fiume in the Aftermath of World War I

Dominique Kirchner Reill is the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Post-Doctoral Rome Prize Fellow in Modern Italian Studies and an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Miami.

What part of the United States did you come from?
I was born in Los Angeles, California and grew up half in LA’s mountainside separating the ocean from the valley and half in West Germany (a small university town and West Berlin). Though I thought I “knew” Europe before I turned 21, the Mediterranean and the Balkans were completely unknown entities to me. American and German narratives of development, politics, and identity seemed like the world status quo. Then, when I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley, I went on a junior year abroad to Bologna, Italy, mainly because I wanted an adventure and I liked Italian food. I arrived on the Italian boot during the Yugoslav Civil War and everything seemed turned upside down. I was living in a world filled with proud (yet strangely Catholic) Communists and I was reading about atrocities happening in Europe reminiscent of the Holocaust and World War II. Being brought up a Cold-War baby where Communists were either portrayed as victims of McCarthyism or the bad guys from spy films, hearing rallies populated by well-heeled Communists in central Italian piazzas was rousing. Hearing stories from Bosnian, Croatian, and Serb refugees confirming the horrors reported made my German history lessons that xenophobia would never be allowed free reign on European soil again seem upsetting. In thinking back, perhaps this is where my interests first took root: to upend national narratives of political certainties and cultural norms.

Why did you apply for the Rome Prize?
I applied for the Rome Prize because I knew from colleagues that it was the ideal setting for starting to write. I have done about 8 months archival research on my current book-length project and I felt that what I needed was time to stop rushing and really push deeper into what all the materials I found mean. Within the hectic life of teaching and administration that all humanities professors live in at their home universities, that kind of time is unavailable. Weekdays are eaten up by prepping lectures, grading, meeting with undergrad and grad students, attending lectures, and fulfilling the administrative needs of any well-functioning department (which, luckily, mine at the University of Miami is). Weekends are spent writing conference papers, giving conference papers, reading grad student work, grading undergrad work, writing book reviews, writing letters of recommendation, and reading up on the fields you’re teaching before you give the next week’s lectures. The Rome Prize permits scholars to slow down, to limit time away from the writing demons and face them head on. For me, especially, this was an attractive fellowship because Rome contains two of the three archives rich for studying the history of post-WWI Fiume/Rijeka in Italy (the Museo Storico di Fiume and, of course, the Archivo di Stato), so though I intend to spend most of this year putting a first draft of my book manuscript together, I can also slip away in the afternoons and drown myself in the mysterious letters and administrative documents of the world I am studying.

Describe a particularly inspiring moment or location you've experienced in Rome thus far.
Thus far, and this is very early in the year so come back to me in a couple months, the most inspiring moments are easy to name: The tours led by our Mellon Professor, Kim Bowes, have changed my vision of Rome and my understanding of how to use physical space for historical imagination. I must admit, I am not new to Rome. I lived here for a year before entering graduate school and, at the time, I thought I knew the city and its sights. Kim Bowes has made me feel like I never truly understood Rome. So far we have visited many of the usual haunts (the Forum, the Imperial Forum, the Colloseum, the Capitoline Hill), but what these “tours” actually turn out to be is a free-for-all brainstorming session between this year’s Rome Prize winners of how to think about infrastructures and what limits we need to set ourselves when trying to imagine the needs and proclivities of the worlds of the dead. Our architects point out strange construction choices. Our fiction writers are busy noting rhetoric, images, and contradictions between intent and content. Our art historians are pointing out the wealth of paint and the overabundance of “material recycling.” Our archeologists are pushing us to think beyond “static” time frames such as days, months, years, and decades: they insist time is to be seen across centuries. The experience is heavenly and the effect such stimulation will have on my current and future work cannot be overemphasized.

To what extent, if any, has your proposed project changed since your arrival?
I think the biggest change to my proposed project is that I feel more willing to take on some topics that have been usually outside my toolbox of tricks. Upon arriving here and discussing my topic with fellows at lunch, dinner, over coffee, or in the hallways I have noticed that people continue making connections with the story of post-WWI chaos and the chaos of the current financial crisis. Now, if my colleagues in history had proposed such connections I would have sighed and indicated I’m no economic historian. But when artists and designers see those links and feel like I can reveal something in lay terms, I feel more inspired. The biggest change in how I’m conceiving my project is that now I think I’m going to be writing a chapter on currency conversions. That is a huge change for someone who has written primarily on political and cultural ideas of community belonging.

What aspect of your project are you most looking forward to?
I know that probably every writer says this, but what I’m most looking forward to is getting a first draft of a chapter written, reading it over, and thinking “Not bad.” These are the wonderful moments. They are hard to get to. I believe (I hope and pray) that the Rome Prize will give me more than my usual share of these moments.

How do you anticipate your Rome Prize Fellowship will influence future work?
I believe the Rome Prize Fellowship will transform my work. I was discussing this with three or four fellows over lunch just ten days ago. My theory is that the Rome Prize promises to help us all avoid a midlife crisis: Here we don’t have to react, here we can choose to act. How many people get that kind of opportunity in their late 30s and early 40s? How many people can sit in a quiet study all to themselves, with no phone ringing and a wonderfully small list of daily chores to fulfill and figure out: “What do I want to do? What do I want this [book, sculpture, composition, what have you] to be?” I know far too many incredibly gifted people that start repeating themselves because they don’t get the chance to recharge and experiment a little. I think my next book will be significantly different from my first. And I think personally this year will help (and has already helped) me see a world of possibilities and not hemmed-in decisions.

What is your favorite spot at the Academy? or in Rome?
My favorite spot at the academy right now is in my apartment, where I have a view from my desk across the courtyard into the office of Brenda Longfellow. Brenda is a brilliant art historian and a charmer by all rights. But more than that, she is a tireless worker. Every morning I sit drinking my coffee and I notice that Brenda’s light goes on earlier and earlier. And I think, “Yep. She’s right. Let’s get to it!” I know that a favorite spot in one of the most beautiful cities in the world shouldn’t be a somewhat freaky Rear Window situation. But to be honest, living with such dedicated and brilliant fellow scholars and artists is a “view” I have rarely had before. And that is what I’m enjoying most right now.

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