Illiana Smith

Iliana Smith Brings Caribbean Literature and Visual Arts to the Public

Iliana Smith remembers growing up in the Prospect Heights section of Brooklyn, NY, with her two sisters and Jamaican dad and Dominican mom, who were voracious readers and immersed her in the arts and writing early on, taking her to museums and exposing her to artists throughout the city. Smith’s father was a dub poet who familiarized her with different sub-genres of spoken-word poetry and music, and Smith also took Chinese language classes starting in elementary school.

So when it came time to choose a major in college, Smith went with her passions, doing a double major in English and Chinese Language and Culture at Wellesley College before moving on to Rutgers University-Newark in fall 2021, where she hit the ground running as an English M.A. student, focusing on Caribbean literature and visual culture, feminist theory, Black Atlantic Studies, and de-colonial theory—and where she graduated from earlier this month.

While at RU-N, Smith not only leveraged the scholarly and pedagogical prowess of her professors but also reached outside the classroom, helping administer the Sawyer Lecture Series and the Lourdes Casal Project, two recent influential programming efforts that have brought scholars, artists and community leaders to campus for panel discussions on literature, art and pressing social issues, along with performances and exhibitions.

Smith sees her place in this firmament as multifaceted, linking her love of research and writing with her arts curatorial and preservation passions.

I am grateful to everyone at RU-N who has helped me academically and emotionally, and whose own work opened my mind to their interests.

“My interest is in uplifting authors from Andrew Salkey to artists such as Althea McNish, and emphasizing their role in molding Caribbean perspectives within Western cities and ensuring that their connections are preserved,” said Smith. “My participation in the lecture series was instrumental for expanding my research and really contextualizing Caribbean and visual cultural work. They helped me learn about other scholarship in the field and helped me get a better idea of interacting with others' current interests.”

While at RU-N, Smith also sought arts administration and curatorial opportunities off-campus in New York City, serving as a Programming Coordinator at the Association of Museum Curators, a Programs and Communications Coordinator at the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, and a Dual Programs Fellow at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts.

These roles, which required a varied skillset, involved coordinating and planning arts programming and installations, developing and spearheading communications plans, doing archival research and managing archives, and conducting interviews for podcasts and show catalogs, among other duties.

Smith sees this work as an extension of her scholarship and coursework, where exposure to new authors and creative assignments pushed her writing and research. She cites many courses as instrumental to her growth, including English and MFA Associate Professor Alice Elliot Dark's “Literary Fan Fiction,” which focused on 20th-century British and American literature, and English Associate Professor Manu Chander's “The Senses of Brown,” which focused on personal and theoretical conceptions of “browness” through the work of American, South Asian, Latinx and Brazilian writers.

In the fall, Smith will begin a Ph.D. in English at NYU. Long-term, she'd like to continue to work within Caribbean as well as British literature and art, in academia, at a museum, or in other contexts. Meanwhile, she feels ample appreciation for the opportunities and support that RU-N has afforded her.

“I am grateful to everyone at RU-N who has helped me academically and emotionally, and whose own work opened my mind to their interests,” said Smith. “I’m also grateful for my peers and cohort along the way, who helped ground me and co-create a space to figure out what I wanted from my academic experience here.”