"I am grateful to be able to move and think freely": Historian from Venezuela conducts research at the KU

Venezuela was once considered a prosperous country, not only in South America. But for years, the state is stuck in a deep economic crisis, and 80 percent of the population is considered poor. Moreover, repressive methods of rule operate behind a democratic façade. Against this background, a quarter of the population has left the country in the past ten years, according to the German Foreign Office. Among them is literary scholar and historian Dr. Laura Febres de Ayala, who is now in her third year at the KU to continue her research. From the very beginning, she has been supported by the Philipp Schwartz Initiative for Endangered Scientists of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and by the Free State of Bavaria.

As a renowned expert on Latin American literature and history, she also dealt with feminist publications and literature surrounding the topic of migration while still in Venezuela. "It is impossible to be apolitical in literature. And I've always said what I think", says Febres. However, such topics are frowned upon by the government – not least because it wants to distance itself decisively from the so-called Western world order. Research and teaching are subjected to a "governmental adjustment imperative", as is described in an analysis of the state of science in Venezuela. "Diversity is just lip service; there is a mood of exclusion", describes Febres.

However, it was not only the massive restrictions on the freedom of research and teaching that prompted her to leave her home country, but also the everyday conditions of a country in which almost half the population is unemployed and an estimated one-third of young children suffer from malnutrition. Black market, smuggling and crime are the order of the day. The 70-year-old researcher reports: "On my four-hour daily commute to the Universidad Metropolitana in Caracas, I didn't know if I would be robbed by a thief, as happened to several of my students and colleagues. Often, you could hear gunshots." The precarious economic situation not only means that libraries remain closed, but also threatens private livelihoods. Laura Febres knows of a professor, for example, who died of hunger.

After initially working as a visiting scholar at the Institute for Latin American Studies at the Spanish University of Alcalá, she contacted the Center for Latin American Studies (ZILAS) at the KU. Its director, Prof. Dr. Miriam Lay Brander, Chairholder of Romance Literary Studies, immediately agreed to serve as a mentor for Febres in the context of a Philipp Schwartz Fellowship. "I can benefit from her many years of experience from a different academic environment, also methodologically", says Professor Lay Brander. She praises the great support the application has received from the International Office, the Research Service Center, and the KU's Human Resources department, as well as from the local authorities. "The Philipp Schwartz Initiative is a great opportunity for researchers to find a way out of difficult circumstances in their countries of origin", says Lay Brander.

Dr. Laura Febres is grateful for the opportunity to move and think freely. "I’m experiencing this as a special privilege!" She is engaged in literary studies with a complex that picks up on her personal background: Febres analyzes novels written by women from the 20th and 21st centuries who themselves migrated from Latin America or Spain to other European countries. Her historical interest also resonates here, because history also emerges from the overall view of individual experiences. The unifying element of the novels she selected according to certain criteria is writing as a way of self-help in coming to terms with one's own migration history. Some of this can be deduced indirectly from the texts; some works, in turn, play with a meta-fiction and allow the reader to participate in the process of writing. Many of the authors mix their personal experiences with fictional elements and reflect on their own migration experience.

"Some of them have already been journalists in their home countries - such as Uruguay, Cuba or Mexico - and some of them started writing after coming to Europe”, says Febres. Through her analysis, she aims to develop a panoramic view on the Spanish-language, female migration novel and to circumscribe the cultural heritage depicted in the works. In addition, she wants to explore how the writing process gives meaning to and empowers the lives of immigrant women. Febres enters new territory with this systematic study, because until now literary and social studies have only fragmentarily analyzed the voices of women in emigration novels of the 20th and 21st centuries. Her initial findings show that most of the genre was published in the 21st century. Moreover, almost all of the works studied denounce machismo in their respective home countries. The struggle for one's own traditions after arriving in Europe and the importance of family also play key roles in the works.

With regard to her home country, Dr. Laura Febres says: "My country will find a way forward, even if the solution is currently well hidden underneath hunger, corruption and violence that Venezuelans have to suffer every day."

About the Philipp Schwartz Initiative:
The Philipp Schwartz Initiative is named after Philipp Schwartz, a pathologist of Jewish faith who himself had to flee Germany in 1933 to escape the Nazis and founded the "Notgemeinschaft deutscher Wissenschaftler im Ausland” (emergency association of German scientists abroad). After the National Socialists seized power, the scientist, who came from a Jewish family, was summarily dismissed from university service in 1933. He fled to Switzerland, where he founded the Notgemeinschaft deutscher Wissenschaftler im Ausland in the same year. Their goal was to find jobs abroad for persecuted researchers. Since 2016, the Philipp Schwartz Initiative has enabled German universities and research institutions to host foreign researchers who are threatened by war or persecution in their home countries. For further information, please visit the website of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.