Harboring: People, Places, and Practices

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA

April 27-30, 2017


The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor by Nathaniel Currier, Hand-colored lithograph, 1846


Known, among its many tourist attractions, for its Boston Harbor—historical site of the Boston Tea Party where a group of men called the Sons of Liberty disguised themselves as Mohawk people in order to dump 90,000 pounds of tea into the harbor in political protest—Massachusetts conjures up not only famed events, landmarks, and narratives within the global and American national imaginary, but also the very origin of its name in the Massachusett Native American people. Viewing Boston’s harbor as more than a geographical location and thinking beyond it to include the city’s inextricable link to other regions, the 31st Annual MELUS Conference adopts as its theme the activity of harboring. In light of the political upheaval that the Boston Tea Party inspired as well as the laws of protection agreed upon in the eventual creation and signing of the Constitution, the transition from thinking about what and where a harbor is to thinking about what the work of harboring entails and who exactly engages in that work seems particularly apt. Indeed, the very language of safe harboring inheres in the Constitution itself: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare […] do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” But if as the great American novelist Toni Morrison once wrote, “Paradise necessitates exclusion,” then perhaps what we might infer from the kind of super-paradise the framers of the Constitution aspired to in the term “more Perfect” are commensurately rigorous strategies of exclusion.


We envision the conference to be an occasion for scholars to generate dynamic literary interpretations and critiques of the notion of a safe harbor and the harboring practices it demands, especially considering how global formations of oppression are often coextensive with these formations of refuge. Whether these safe harbors are touted as legitimate (e.g., sanctioned by the state) or understood to be unofficial or mere temporary solutions, spaces and laws that claim to provide refuge from danger harbor their own problems and contradictions.


In addition, we also invite contributors to consider the relationship between harboring and collusion. Who or what can you become as a person who chooses to harbor criminals, refugees, fugitives, or rebellious thoughts? What does the experience of being harbored actually feel like? Whose definition of safety have we collectively been abiding by this whole time (for how long?), and what exactly are the limitations of the ideological principles that reinforce it?


We welcome proposals for individual papers, and strongly encourage proposals for panels on, but not limited to, the following topics:

  • The borderland as a harbor
  • Actual harbors as sites of cultural encounter and exchange from the Atlantic slave trade to the arrival of Latino and Asian immigrants
  • The lessons we learn from representations of activities focused on harboring
  • The implications of harboring “our own” or of those designated “other”
  • Harboring secrets and coming out, such as passing, being in the closet or being undocumented
  • Involuntary harboring and settler colonial studies in literature
  • The body as a harbor for disease, for the unborn, for bloodlines, for scars, etc.
  • The campus novel in the age of trigger warnings, school shootings, and “safe space” rhetoric
  • Sanctuary cities and immigration stories
  • Segregation as safety
  • Narrating safety through strategic omissions in the slave narrative
  • How safety differs through the lens of race, gender, class, culture, politics, and sexuality
  • How identity formation proceeds while in hiding
  • The kinds of writing that harboring or being harbored enables
  • Utopian fictions
  • Protection from discovery and “masquerading as Indian” in U.S. literature
  • Actual “harbor novels” like Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor, for example
  • Experimental multi-ethnic literatures of the U.S. that don’t “play it safe,” as it were


Submission Guidelines

Proposals can take one of two forms: (1) an individual paper or (2) a complete panel.

A proposal for an individual paper should consist of a title and abstract; if accepted, this paper and others related to it will be combined into a complete session of 3 or 4 panelists. An individual-paper proposal should be single-spaced and no more than one page long. Please include institutional affiliation and email address for an individual paper.

A proposal for a complete panel provides a prospectus for a coherent collection of 3-4 papers, including a title for the session, a title and abstract for each paper, and a chair, if possible. A complete panel proposal should be single-spaced and no more than two pages long. Please include institutional affiliations and email addresses for all participants.



Submission Procedures

Acceptance and rejection notifications have been sent. If you did not receive a notice via email, please email us at Thank you for your patience. (Updated 1/5/17)

Proposals are no longer being accepted. Visit our homepage for more information about the conference and details for registration, speakers, and more.