2024 CSA Best Dissertation Award Winner

The Best Dissertation Award is granted every other year by the Caribbean Studies Association, a valuable institution lending moral support and recognition of the work of the newest researchers as they embark on their scholarly careers.  The BDA Committee is very grateful for the assistance of those faculty who nominate their students or encourage them to nominate themselves, and to the many readers who evaluate the dissertations.  It is usually a very difficult decision and this year, 2024, is no exception.

The Best Dissertation Award will have one winner this year, and two other dissertations will receive honorable mention.

The winner of the 2024 Best Dissertation Award is Matthew Robert Plishka for his thesis entitled, “Cycles of Crisis and Adaptation: A Multispecies Political Ecology of Late-Colonial Jamaica, 1870-1960.”  Dr. Plishka defended the thesis in the Department of History at the University of Pittsburgh in 2022.

Dr Plishka argues “that the constant interactions between multispecies assemblages of people, plants, and microbes resulted in a near-continuous reshaping of late-colonial Jamaica’s political ecology”. He adds “At its heart, it is a story of a constantly changing political ecology in late-nineteenth and twentieth century colonial Jamaica and how inhabitants of the colony, along with other-than-human species such as plants and microbes, affected and were affected by these transformations”.  Reader’s assessments of Dr Plishka’s work highlight that “He radically advances our understanding of tropical agro-ecosystems and shows us concretely how political inequality systematically undermines environmental resilience”; furthermore, “This dissertation also provides insights into the operations and impacts of extractive industries, which are an ongoing reality in the Caribbean”. This innovative and effective research demonstrates the importance of intersectional approaches to political ecology as Dr. Plishka tells a “story of rural agriculture, of commodity extraction, the impacts of disease, and Imperialism all within the specific historical context of local, circum-Caribbean, and global events and processes”. These interwoven voices reshape our understanding of the dynamics of crisis in the Caribbean region, against a recent backdrop of Covid-19, and provide an excellent framework for future studies across the region.

The Best Dissertation Award Committee wants to award honorable mention to two dissertations.

The first is Ingrid Brioso Rieumont’s “Posthumous Representations in Cuba and Brazil, 1870-1910.”  Dr. Brioso Rieumont defended the thesis in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures at Princeton University in 2022.

Through a literary analysis of two novels, Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas (1881) by Afro-Brazilian writer Machado de Assis and Cecilia Valdés o la loma del Ángel (1882) by White Cuban writer Cirilo Villaverde, as well as 19th century photographs of enslaved people taken in Cuba and Brazil, Dr. Brioso studies “how the corpses of the enslaved and the portraits of enslaved persons have political force specifically through their literality and their poses.”  As one reviewer said, “Brioso Rieumont engages with great mastery across two of the key texts of Cuban and Brazilian C19th fiction in this thesis, not only with an impressive command of the texts themselves and the substantial and influential criticism on them, but by bringing a startlingly fresh perspective that contributes to the growing, very recent, and key scholarship in African American and Atlantic studies of enslavement ranging from cultural histories and anthropologies to economic and psychoanalytical approaches.”

The second honorable mention goes to Julian Isenia’s “Queer Sovereignties: Cultural Practices of Sexual Citizenship in the Dutch Caribbean.”  Dr. Isenia defended the thesis at the University of Amsterdam in 2022.

Through interdisciplinary, qualitative methods plus cultural analysis, Dr. Isenia studies “the concept of ‘queer sovereignties,’ which encapsulates the strategies and positions adopted by same-sex desiring and trans* individuals as they navigate and negotiate their collective autonomy within the non-independent islands of the Dutch Caribbean.”   According to one evaluator, Dr. Isenia achieves his goal: “The author weaves an intricate history of class, gender, space and power, through various figures (like the kambrada and the mariku) through a concept of ‘queer sovereignty’ across the twentieth century tracing global, colonial and trans-regional relationalities that produce and reinforce these social identities.”

The Best Dissertation Award Committee wishes to express its deepest appreciation for a host of reviewers who took the time in these past months to read and evaluate young scholars’ work.  They are contributing to the quality and sustainability of Caribbean studies across the generations.  Thank you.