In Memoriam: Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez

by Joni Adamson, Arizona State University

SUSAN BERRY BRILL DE RAMIREZ passed away on Monday, October 30, 2018. She was born on April 25, 1955, in Englewood, New Jersey, the daughter of Dorothy Ann Retallack Brill and Dr. Robert M. Brill.  She attended the University of Wisconsin (BA, English), University of Chicago (MA, English), University of Wisconsin (MBA, Management), and University of New Mexico (PhD, Literary Criticism and Theory).

Those who knew her will fondly remember meeting her at Western Literature (WLA), Association for the Study of American Indian Literature (ASAIL), and Modern Language of America (MLA) conferences where she was delivering presentations that helped theorize and expand the fields of indigenous studies, environmental justice critical studies, and place studies. Later she would go on to engage meaningfully in the theorization of postcolonial studies. She was also a member of ASLE, and the Semiotic Society of America, National Council of Teachers of English, and National Women’s Studies Association.

Susan took a position as assistant professor at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, in August 1991 and quickly advanced to associate and full on the strength of her prolific writing and award-winning teaching. She authored Wittgenstein and Critical Theory (1995), Contemporary American Indian Literatures and the Oral Tradition (1999), Native American Life-History Narratives (2007), and Women Ethnographers and Native Women Storytellers (2014). She was a good friend of Acoma poet and writer Simon Ortiz and an authority on his writings.  With Evelina Zuni Lucero, she co-edited Simon J. Ortiz: A Poetic Legacy of Indigenous Continuance (2009).

At ASLE conferences, Susan stood out for the distinctive way that she expressed her care and interest in the lives and work of everyone she met.  I will not be the only person to remember that over coffee between sessions, she would fix her eyes on you as you immediately felt the positivity, joyfulness and generosity in her response to whatever you were saying. She listened attentively, then asked you surprisingly unexpected, but always insightful questions.  Her friends will also remember conversations with her about her own life, beliefs, and years at Bradley University.  She always spoke lovingly about her husband, Antonio Ramirez Barron, who she met after arriving in Peoria.  She never failed to promote a vegan lifestyle, advocate weightlifting and yoga, or tell you about how her Baha’i faith shaped her fierce love and dedication to her son. She was lovingly invested in restoring the tall-grass prairie on her small property in the country.  It was obvious to everyone who met her that she lived her life intentionally and prayerfully in support of the well-being of every human, animal and plant.

ASLE members will also remember her provocative and important presentations on storytelling, sacred ecologies, “placefulness,” Indigenous geographies of belonging, migration and diaspora that she was known for in her publications.  In the last decade or so, she had begun to think about how her background in business administration and management might benefit entering college students.  She wrote Make College Work for You (2014) and I vividly remember her excitement when describing this book and her desire to increase the educational success not just of Bradley students, but college students everywhere.

Susan also published on the Baha’i faith and will be remembered for her writings about “conversive relationality” in which one practices “centering the sacred and decentering the self” (Journal of Baha’i Studies Vol. 7, n. 2 [1995]). This was obviously the philosophy she lived by as she generously volunteered as a faculty member for the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE)—a distance education, alternative university which provides online learning and bachelor degrees for members of the Baha’i Faith in Iran who are barred from attending university.

For her outstanding scholarship, teaching, leadership in service learning, and generous service to her professional organizations, department, and spiritual, Indigenous, and local Illinois communities, she was awarded a named chair by Bradley University, the Caterpillar Professor of English.

In discussing our sadness about the untimely passing of our friend and colleague,  David Moore told me that he spoke to Susan about her Bahá’í faith often.  He said, “there is a beautiful passage by ‘Abdu’l-Baha about death, where the power of a soul is released more fully into the world in that process.  And it feels as though Susan’s presence for good has indeed been amplified in some ways now.”

David and I agree that it is indeed the case that Susan is leaving some larger good in the world. The faith that permeated her life now permeates her passing and reminds us that we can all listen and converse with others attentively as we try to “decenter the self.”  In her speaking and writing, she was constantly calling out for justice and religious freedom for the vulnerable and persecuted and, remembering her, we can work to “center the sacred” as we struggle for better, more just relations for all living beings.

Susan is survived by her loving sister, Dr. Dawn Brill Duques, brother, Dr. Robert M. Brill, a niece, three nephews, and eleven grand nieces and nephews. In lieu of any memorial gifts, they have suggested donations “In Memory of Dr. Susan Brill de Ramirez” to the Bradley University English Department (address: 1501 W Bradley Ave., Peoria, IL 61625).  Members of the Baha’i faith may make donations to The Baha’i Center (address: 5209 N. University, Peoria, IL 61604).