Interview: New collection of Star Wars essays informs and inspires

Star Wars: Essays Exploring a Galaxy Far, Far Away: a collection of interdisciplinary, academic insights, co-edited by Emily Strand and Amy Sturgis. Credit is Emily Strand.
Star Wars: Essays Exploring a Galaxy Far, Far Away: a collection of interdisciplinary, academic insights, co-edited by Emily Strand and Amy Sturgis. Credit is Emily Strand. /

I was in seventh grade when I stumbled upon Star Wars and Philosophy: More Powerful Than You Can Possibly Imagine in my local—and now deceased—Borders bookstore. I was amazed and very much in over my head.

But still, the notion that my favorite franchise had something to say about ethics, power, democracy, and justice beyond the simple flash of dueling lightsabers was groundbreaking to my young mind. I gobbled that book up in the same way I gobbled up the Star Wars: The New Jedi Order novels.

Many years and many canon and legends tales later, I’m still struck by what Star Wars says about our very real, completely canon, and not all legendary lives. I’ve read books, essays, and articles on how Star Wars intersects with Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, and Daoism. I’ve interviewed theologians on the topic of Star Wars and Christian thought. And I’ve participated in the inspiring digital conference, “Realizing Resistance,” where academics from around the world talked about how lessons learned from a galaxy far, far away are quite applicable to our own environment, history, culture, and relationships.

It was at that same conference where I met Emily Strand and Dr. Amy Sturgis, two of my fellow conference presenters. Emily, a member of the 501st and Rebel Legions international Star Wars costuming associations, has a background in and teaches college-level courses on world religions. Amy’s research is on the intellectual history of speculative fiction, and she teaches at Lenoir-Rhyne University and Signum University. Both have published many books and articles, including the new Star Wars: Essays Exploring a Galaxy Far, Far Away.

The collection of essays is remarkable. Amy Richau examines the evolution of Twi’leks while John Jackson Miller tackles the sticky topic of canon. There are essays on video games, worldbuilding, and the depiction of motherhood. As Ian Doescher writes in the Foreword, “With each page, you smile at familiar references, you grapple with new ideas, you reshape your thoughts and beliefs, and you emerge with a new understanding and appreciation.”

Emily and Amy kindly shared their experience working on this project in an interview we conducted via email. As Emily says, “Academic writing on popular culture works because it represents not just one person’s ‘take’ but a community’s conversation. … [These] conversations are not rushing to be the first to notice something about the text, but consider what many people have noticed and draw specific conclusions about what it all means to enhance our enjoyment.”

“Star Wars is both timeless and timely, inspired by history and informed by the present,” Amy says. “Working on this project has left me with fresh energy as I contemplate new works of Star Wars storytelling.”

I believe the reflections Emily and Amy share in our conversation will inspire you, too, as we fans continue to integrate all Star Wars stories—old, new, forthcoming, and forgotten—into our work, relationships, and lives.


Eric: Why should fans care about approaching Star Wars through an academic lens? How does this deepen fandom and our understanding of Star Wars? 

Amy: I wouldn’t presume to tell fans what they should or shouldn’t do but as a fan myself (since 1977!) as well as an academic, I can say that scholars who come from different disciplines with diverse tools and training find a variety of questions to ask of Star Wars that I myself wouldn’t think to pose — and the answers they find enhance my understanding and appreciation of the franchise. What these essays provide together is a snapshot of 46 years of transmedia Star Wars storytelling and the discussions it has launched, and that kind of big-picture perspective is valuable to have, no matter your entry point into the universe. I hope the questions raised here also serve as an invitation to readers to join in and continue the dialogue. This isn’t the first anthology of essays on Star Wars, and it won’t be the last, but my wish is that fans will find it deep in its investigations and broad in its implications, accessible and insightful, and — most of all — welcoming, a springboard for more thought and conversation about the stories they love.

Emily: There are countless YouTube (etc.) accounts solely for the purpose of providing analysis of popular stories. So why do we need academic writing like this? I appreciate academic writing on popular culture works because it represents not just one person’s “take” but a community’s conversation. One person writes a piece, another person (often several!) makes suggestions or challenges a particular insight, and the work changes in response. Even after a work is published, another scholar may disagree with it or want to add to it, and eventually they respond formally in their own published piece, or on an academic blog, etc. Thus the conversation continues. And the pace is different too—academic conversations are not rushing to be the first to notice something about the text, but they consider what many people have noticed (including non-academic sources) and draw specific conclusions about what it all means to enhance our enjoyment of franchises like Star Wars. Ultimately, Star Wars is a creative endeavor, a communicative endeavor. Academic writing on it asks and answers the question: what is it communicating? Is it communicating it well? What could it communicate? These big questions excite and engage me as a fan more than “hot takes” and “breakdowns.” But, as Amy said, to each his own!

Eric: Which essay most changed how you view Star Wars? What of your experience of Star Wars did it change and why?

Amy: I find the subject of gaming to be overlooked and underserved in scholarship generally. Because of this, I was especially delighted to learn from Aaron Masters about how the choices and consequences embedded in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II—The Sith Lords invite deep questioning and contemplation of the foundational ideas of Star Wars. In addition, by looking at the game of Sabacc both inside Star Wars stories and outside of them, in the real world as played by fans, Jennifer Russell-Long gave me a new appreciation of how games relate to community experience and cultural memory. That said, every one of the essays in this anthology changed how I view Star Wars. It was a privilege to help put all of these works by our expert essayists out into the galaxy.

Emily: This is a tough question because in some way, all the essays changed my thinking on Star Wars. That is—to me—the mark of a good academic piece: It’s perspective-shaping in its argument and it’s persuasive in its support for that argument. A few great examples of that in the book have to do with the roles of female characters: Amy Richau’s chapter on Twi’leks, Vikki Terrile’s chapter on makers in the Disney era, and Éloïse Thompson-Tremblay’s article on mothers. Each shows diverse aspects of women’s representation in Star Wars, and in the complexity and thoroughness with which they treat their subjects, they don’t allow for facile conclusions about women in a galaxy far, far away. They demonstrate that “it’s complicated,” and they also show that the depiction of women in Star Wars is evolving—and that’s exciting to think about.

Eric: In his foreword, Ian Doescher writes: “You make connections because Star Wars is part of your identity, and you want it to speak to your other interests.” What “other” interests has Star Wars spoken to in your own lives? How has it deepened those interests? 

Amy: Star Wars has been in conversation with Star Trek in my head since I was very young, and the two continue to complement and contrast with each other in ways that challenge and inspire me. They’ve made me a lifelong student and devotee of speculative fiction. While each franchise suggests a very different view of history, both agree that we must be deeply aware of and thoughtful about what has happened before if we hope to make a positive impact on what comes next. The way these franchises comment on history and ask us to consider its patterns helped lead me to become a professional historian. I now take great joy in teaching and writing about history through speculative fiction, especially through Star Wars and Star Trek.

Emily: I came to Star Wars relatively late—as an adult. And I came to it as a gigantic Harry Potter fan. So I saw Star Wars through a Harry Potter lens. For instance, I love Star Wars Rebels because it really spoke to me as a Harry Potter fan: a magical, orphaned kid finds a new family and fights a super creepy bad guy who represents and enacts systematic oppression—those parallels seem intentional. We think of Star Wars as the “ur text” for pop culture phenomena, but it’s interesting to view it as influenced by other, later stories, like Potter. Kathryn N. McDaniel’s piece in our book draws wonderfully on these same assumptions in the way it parallels Rey in the Sequel films with Harry, in their character arcs and their growth into their roles as heroes.

Eric: What other avenues for Star Wars inquiry has this project opened up in your mind? What questions do you want answered next…and why?

Amy: I want to know what comes next for Star Wars! The essays in our anthology highlight points of continuity and evolution in Star Wars storytelling over time and across different formats, and their insights encourage me to continue to dig deeper. I’m particularly intrigued by how recent Star Wars works have sharpened the focus on those who are not Jedi or Sith but instead everyday people trying to survive. More than ever, I am interested in exploring how Star Wars creators and fans together are asking big questions about important subjects — about authoritarianism and control, for example, and resilience and resistance. In short, Star Wars is both timeless and timely, inspired by history and informed by the present, and working on this project has left me with fresh energy as I contemplate new works of Star Wars storytelling, why they matter and speak to us, and how their ideas will follow me into my research, classroom, and fandom community.

Emily: I hope to keep exploring the spiritual elements of Star Wars in ways that help fans understand ourselves and our instinctive reactions of wonder (as Ian Doescher puts it so well in the book’s foreword) and how we can foster that sense of wonder in other areas of life—to our and to society’s benefit. I’ve also gotten involved in Star Wars costuming in the last few years, and it’s been a great source of joy for me. But I also find the culture of it fascinating, and I can envision pursuing academic work that draws on the experience of being “embedded” with my local costuming communities. Ethnography could be a really interesting way to explore what motivates and drives these talented makers of costumes and props from a galaxy far, far away.

Learn more about the book, Star Wars: Essays Exploring a Galaxy Far, Far Away, and visit the editors’ official pages: Emily Strand and Amy Sturgis