For the love of literature, culture and expat life

UND alumna and literature professor in Oman credits UND for nourishing a literary passion

After obtaining a Ph.D. in literature from the University of North Dakota, and following several jobs in the U.S. and the UAE, Marielle Risse fell in love with Oman, where she now teaches literature and cultural studies. Image courtesy of Marielle Risse.

Marielle Risse seems to write the kind of books she wants to read but cannot, otherwise, find.

Her dissertation at the University of North Dakota, where she obtained a Ph.D. in literature in 1996, is a case in point.

Drawn to the narratives of India-born British travel writer Lawrence Durrell, Risse opted to probe a topic somewhat atypical for a fledgling literature scholar. Titling her work Abroad Again: Explorations within the Genre of Travel Writing, she wrote about how men and women approach the craft and what it is to be a traveler versus a tourist, among other queries.

“I wrote the book I wanted to read,” said Risse, who today teaches literature and cultural studies at Dhofar University in Salalah, Oman.

Risse said her mentors at UND encouraged her to heed her passion; and as shown by her unconventional choice for an academic project that doubles as a career stepping-stone, she took their advice.

Two of those teachers, now retired Michael Beard and Joe DeFilippo, who currently serves as director of academic affairs at Virginia’s State Council of Higher Education, became friends.

“Those two professors were very smart and kind,” Risse said.

In what became a ritual over coffee every Friday, Risse bonded with them and fellow doctoral students while sharing stories about life and literature. The memories they created have stuck with her, along with some humorous – albeit, not entirely proper – tales of UND.

Through laughter, Risse recounted a time when she snuck a book out of the library. It was a Lawrence Durrell tome – and bore his signature. Risse was “awe-struck” with the book.

“Maybe I tossed it in a bush under a window,” to get it out of the building, she said, adding she doesn’t really recall the details of her student transgression.

Since then, she has made up for it with numerous donations to the library, she said.

Literary vocation

Risse’s love for literature charts a course of leaving the known for the unknown that, in some ways, reflects the pursuit of travel writing.

Raised near Washington, D.C., Risse worked in the mortgage industry in Minneapolis after earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin and a master’s degree from the University of Maryland.

But then, Lawrence Durrell’s non-fiction travel writing – narratives such as Bitter Lemons, Prospero’s Cell, and Provence – struck a chord. Risse succumbed to the call.

“I left a good job in residential mortgages, which would have set me up for life,” she said. “And, I left it to study literature.”

Latest pursuit

The leap appears to be paying off.

In August, Risse published a book that weaves her fondness for UND, her professional interests and her life as an expat on the Arabian Peninsula.

Community and Autonomy in Southern Oman examines how Gibali speakers, who belong to a distinct local tribe, create lives in which they honor their family and religion by showing self-restraint, resilience and generosity.

Like many publications in Risse’s oeuvre, this latest narrative stems from the same impetus that spurred her dissertation at UND. It is an immersive story that Risse wanted to tell because she couldn’t read about it in the existing literature.

The desert often served as a setting for the interviews Risse conducted for her latest book, Community and Autonomy in Southern Oman. The work explores the culture and lifestyle of Gibali speakers in Oman. Image courtesy of Marielle Risse.

“There are a lot of books about political elites in the Middle East,” Risse said, but few that center on the livelihoods of the many peoples who inhabit the region.

Hence, through research and friends, she found sources who let her into the Gibali community. Some of them were friends of friends; others she met through fellow expats years ago.

Interviews comprised a series of steps – from the initial introduction to Risse’s sharing her ideas and past writings to finally establishing rapport.

“Some of the people I talked to have never talked to a Western woman before,” she said.

But because Risse is a professor in her 40s and an expat steeped in the local traditions, she carries a gravity that fits the culture and let her gain her interviewees’ trust. And, that goodwill helped her mark the release of the book, now available at Palgrave Macmillan, in an appropriate manner.

“If you have good news here, you should have a party for the people who have helped,” Risse said. So, rice and meat for the men and coffee and treats for the women.

Those who helped Risse also include her UND professors, Beard and DeFilippo, who supported her first steps toward what she does now. Hence, she dedicated the book to them.

“They taught me that you don’t have to be serious to be a serious academic, and not put up with any nonsense,” she wrote in the acknowledgements section.

A happy life

Leaving UND for a job at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, Risse soon became serious about one thing. She needed to live in Oman. It was a realization that dawned on her during a trip to the capital city of Muscat.

Her career first took her, however, to MIT, where she spent six years as staff, a period in which she regularly scoured job sites for opportunities in Oman. In 2005, she got a lucky break – a position at Dhofar University in the southern city of Salalah had opened. Risse got the job.

“When I moved here, I thought it was very similar to North Dakota,” she said. There are skilled workers in town along with ranchers, raising cattle and camels. Most drive pick-up trucks. So does Risse.

A Western single woman and a Methodist, Risse has carved out a good life in a Muslim society in the Middle East. And it seems she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I will always be an American, but I love living and teaching in Oman,” Risse said.

You can read more about Risse’s life and research in Oman on her website.