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All posts by Raja Swamy

Remembering Dr. Rebecca Klenk

Obituary from The Daily Times


Rebecca Klenk died of pancreatic cancer, peacefully at home in Maryville, Tennessee, at the foot of the Smoky Mountains, on November 15th, 2020. Becca was born in Boston and grew up mostly in New York – Riverdale, Chappaqua, Ardsley, and out in the countryside near Cooperstown – with a two-year stint as a preschooler in New Orleans. She was happiest outdoors and in the company of horses, dogs, cats, and her three siblings. After an early childhood living in cities and towns, during her teenage years Becca became a country girl. Horses were a special passion in those days; Becca was never more at ease than when roaming through the hills and woods on her own, carried by a favorite horse. She also loved to write – just for herself, not for teachers – especially about riding horses in the woods. She graduated from Cooperstown Central Junior-Senior High School in 1981, an able but not especially enthusiastic student, and followed her family’s move to Colorado, where she attended Colorado College (her college application essay narrated the pleasure of riding horses in the woods). Having chosen Colorado College primarily for its proximity to the Rocky Mountains and fully expecting to spend far more time hiking than studying, it was actually in the context of the rigorous liberal arts curriculum there that Becca discovered her intellectualism and capacity as a scholar. She graduated in 1985 with a BA in Anthropology, a love of writing, and keen interests in critical theory, poverty, and environmental degradation in the US and abroad. Not ready for graduate school, Becca spent three years traveling, working as a physical therapy assistant in a Denver hospital, as a fisheries biologist aboard boats in the Bering Sea, and as a deckhand on fishing scows off the coast of Yakobi Island, Alaska. This time shaped her plan to continue studies in Anthropology at the University of Washington. Becca was ready to take up all school had to offer – she worked as a research assistant for a paleoethnobotanist and two medical anthropologists, learned Hindi, dove into challenging theoretical texts, and prepared for fieldwork in rural Himalayan India, where she planned to study village women’s social justice activism to control local forest resources. After almost a decade of study, fieldwork, writing, and teaching, Becca completed a doctorate in Anthropology in 1999, her life transformed, especially by relationships formed during more than two years spent living in a rural Himalayan village. Just as she was finishing her dissertation, life blew in yet another new direction: a move to small-town Appalachia, a new mountain range to explore and a new Tennessee home, a move for love. There Becca shaped an offer to adjunct a course at the University of Tennessee into much more, learned that she loved to teach, continued to love writing, and with her husband Dan Klingensmith raised their beautiful son, Aaron. Together with Dan, she did the usual stuff of academic life: wrote a book and articles about research in India, prepared classes, mentored twenty-somethings, wrote grant applications, presented conference papers, dealt with exquisitely petty politics. But she also returned with her family to India for further research in 2007 and 2014, and she returned on her own in 2009 and 2015. She regularly offered courses on Gender and Globalization, South Asia, an introduction to race, an introduction to Global Studies, Women, Politics and the Law and others. Two favorites were a course on Bollywood cinema and one on the cultural anthropology of mountain environments. After a rich life lived in many places, with dear ones spread across the globe, in the end, it was Maryville, Tennessee that became Becca’s home; she loved the big old trees in her back yard, the small garden of herbs, flowers and vegetables that she tended with Dan, long walks in the local park with dog and human friends and ventures up into the Smoky Mountains for longer hikes. In her last months, she was never happier than with Aaron, Dan, and their canine and feline companions cozily settled into their house for an evening in each other’s company. Becca’s loss is deeply felt by her son Aaron Klingensmith, her husband Daniel Klingensmith, mother Anne Stribling Klenk, sisters Sarah Hanson and Melissa Klenk, brother Chris Klenk, mother-in-law Betty Klingensmith, brothers- and sisters-in-law Craig Hanson, Sally Hoff, William Hoff, Charles Klingensmith, Satoko Klingensmith, John Klingensmith, Erin Fraher, Mary Klingensmith and Doug Hanto; nephews and nieces Dylan Hanson, Parker Hanson, Will Hoff, Britt Hoff, Susan Hoff, Margaret Hopkins, Adam Hopkins, Anna Klingensmith, Sara Maeve Klingensmith, Tucker Hall and Tenley Hall, her godmother Mary Mather, her godson Paul Kiefer, cousins Annie Armistead and Sarah Meltzoff, and many other cousins and grand-nephews and nieces, and many, many wonderful friends scattered over the country and the world. She is predeceased by her father, Eugene L. Klenk, and her father-in-law, Walter Klingensmith. Aaron and Dan would like to thank their family and friends for their support, and also the wonderful staff of the UT Hospice Services program. Due to the COVID pandemic, a memorial service will be held remotely. In lieu of flowers, her family suggests gifts to the University of Tennessee’s program in Disaster, Displacement and Human Rights. You may give securely online at, or mail checks payable to UT Foundation/DDHR to 1525 University Avenue, Knoxville, TN 37921. (Please note on any check or online that the gift is in memory of Rebecca Klenk.) Smith Funeral & Cremation Service, Maryville, 865-983-1000,

This blog is a space for creative and reflective writing by faculty and students, that foregrounds the complexities under-girding and giving shape to our present historical predicament. Caught in the vortex of the Covid-19 pandemic, racism, capitalism, economic inequality, nationalism, neo-fascism, war, and climate change, people across the world are faced with unprecedented levels of uncertainty and social, economic and political upheaval.

Can the term ‘disaster’ provide direction to critical inquiries into the problem of social injustice? What does it mean to consider the Covid-19 pandemic as a disaster, cognizant of the fact that it today mercilessly stakes its own spatio-temporality, undeterred by our expectations that it behave like a temporally book-ended and spatially constrained disaster?

What of racism, of the sort that was visited upon the person of George Floyd in Minneapolis, or countless other Black women, men, and children murdered by the police over the last few years alone? Unlike the COVID-19 pandemic, here human agency, intent and motive are inescapable facts, but so too is the historically rooted structural coherence between state and social orders, which sustains anti-Black tyranny inasmuch as it protects white privilege and private property. White supremacist ideology, despite its historical and geographical particularities, is also pandemic-like: it knows no geographical boundaries, and its historical roots are depressingly deep, holding together the subsoil of modernity itself, nurtured by slavery, colonialism, and capitalism.

How might we productively think about social injustice through the frame of disasters? Can we continue compartmentalizing catastrophes depending on their natural or anthropogenic provenance? When the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-Black police and carcereal violence, catastrophic levels of unemployment, and a host of disasters conditioned by rampant structural racism shape the cruel horizon of possibility for millions of Black people in America? Does imagining people as vulnerable prevent us from bearing witness to their oppression? Can our scholarly pre-occupation with resilience blind us to the challenge and necessity of resistance?

This blog is a modest attempt to open up conversations on what *is* as well as what *ought to be* from a critical disaster studies perspective, attempting to necessarily blur conventional lines drawn between disaster vulnerability and social injustice, resilience and resistance, critique and practice. It, like its subject matter, is a work in process, and hopefully, progress.