Wendy Laura Belcher

Professor, Department of Comparative Literature and Department for African American Studies.
Office Phone
105 East Pyne

Periods: medieval and early modern British and African literature

Languages of research interest: Gəˁəz, Amharic, French, Hausa, Anglophone

Research interests: early African literature, African language literature, African literature in English; African discourse and Western literature; postcolonial criticism 

Office Hours Spring 2024 Tuesday, 4:30 to 6:00pm and by appointment

Professor Wendy Laura Belcher is Professor of African literature with a joint appointment in the Princeton University Department of Comparative Literature and the Department for African American Studies. Working at the intersection of diaspora, postcolonial, medieval, and early modern studies, she has a special interest in the literatures of Ethiopia and Ghana and is working to bring attention to early African literature (written between 1300 and 1900), particularly that in African languages, through her research and translation.

One multi-book comparative project aims to demonstrate how African thought has animated British and European canonical literature. This includes the widely reviewed finalist for the Bethwell A. Ogot Award for best book on East Africa: Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought in the Making of an English Author (Oxford, May 2012), which theorizes the discursive possession of English authors and texts. The next part of the project is a future book titled The Black Queen of Sheba: A Global History of an African Idea  about the medieval African retelling of the story of Solomon and Sheba. She traces the circulation of this idea in medieval European art and literature through to Rider Haggard’s novels, the Indiana Jones films, and the Rastafari. 

Another multi-book project aims to bring attention to the existence and value of early written African language. She is the co-translator with Michael Kleiner of perhaps the first book-length biography of an African woman, originally written in Gəˁəz (classical Ethiopic), the The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman (Princeton University Press, 2015; concise edition, 2018), for which she received the Fulbright US Scholars Award. She and Kleiner also received the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women (SSEMW) award for the best Scholarly Edition in Translation of 2015 and the African Studies Association Paul Hair Award for the Best Critical Edition or Translation of Primary Source Materials on Africa in 2015-2017. She and Kleiner have also translated excerpts from the life of Krestos Samra, a fifteenth-century Ethiopian woman saint, and an Ethiopian Marian miracle tale. She is now working with Kleiner to translate the medieval source text for The Black Queen of Sheba, titled the Kebra Nagast (Kəbrä Nägäśt, The Glory of the Kings), to be one of the first African texts in the Penguin Classics series.  In addition, she is working with Ralph Lee and Mehari Worku to translate two seventeenth-century Ethiopic texts of early African philosophy, titled the Hatata

For this second multi-book project, she has also written books of original research, including her book in progress, an interdisciplinary analysis of a particular body of Gəˁəz literature and art, titled Ladder of Heaven: The Miracles of the Virgin Mary in Ethiopian Literature and Art (under contract with Princeton University Press). It consists of interpreting the original Ethiopian miracle stories about the Virgin Mary, written from the 1300s into the 1900s. This book is based on her PEMM digital humanities project establishing the number, themes, dating, and origin of over 700 stories, supported by funding from Princeton’s Center for Digital Humanities, the Council of the Humanities, and the departments of African American Studies and Comparative Literature.

These scholarly interests emerge from her life experiences growing up in East and West Africa, where she became fascinated with the richness of Ghanaian and Ethiopian intellectual traditions. Her teaching focuses on how non-Western literature has participated in a global traffic in invention, pairing texts across national and continental boundaries in order to debunk stereotypes of Africans as peoples without history, texts, or influence until the 1950s. 

Previous books included the best-seller Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success, which has helped thousands to publish their important work and been cited in over 100 publications, and the award-winning Honey from the Lion: An African Journey (Dutton, 1988). Before becoming a professor, she worked for eleven years as the director of a small academic press with several book series. 

Prof. Belcher is interested in working with graduate students whose research interests overlap with her own, including African language literature (especially that in Gəˁəz).  Those interested in working on Gəˁəz literature, such as the Täˀammərä Maryam or Kəbrä Nägäśt, are especially welcome, but also welcome are those interested in studying comparative African and European studies, Anglophone African literature, early African literature, African film, African women authors, history of the African book, African manuscript cultures, African female saints, and queer African studies.

Prof. Belcher has been approved to be the principal investigator on undergraduate comparative literature projects requiring Human Subjects Research approval. 

More information about her work can be found at her website.