At the final banquet of the International Auto/Biography Association conference in Banff earlier this year, we were all invited to write a six word memoir. It could be about anything. Ourselves. Our research. A celebrity. Whatever. Modelling ourselves after our students, we moaned, griped and groaned, but then diligently set to work. After overthinking the project I came up with something unique, erudite, and suitably esoteric based on my doctoral research. The perfect academic’s memoir. (and, conveniently, also something that would work on lolmythesis.com, if I so desired).

Right after the dinner, however, I realized that I should have written something much simpler:

Come From Away: Newfoundlander By Choice

That about encapsulates the conundrum of living here, I think.

“Biology recapitulates geography; place becomes an island in the blood.”
Fred Wah, Diamond Grill, 23.

“We were not from the place where we lived and we could not remember where we were from or who we were. My grandfather could not summon up a vision of landscape or a people which could add up to a name. And it was profoundly disturbing.”
Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return, 5.

“As a mestiza I have no country…yet I am cultured because I am participating in the creating of yet another culture, a new story to explain the world and our participation in it, a new value system with images and symbols that connect us to each other and to the planet.  Soy un amasamiento, I am an act of kneading, of uniting and joining that which not only has produced both a creature of darkness and a creature of light, but also a creature that questions the definitions of light and dark and gives them new meaning.”
Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera, 48-49.

“The door is not on this map. The door is on my retina.”
Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return, 89.

“Maps don’t have beginnings, just edges. Some frayed and hazy margin of possibility, absence, gap. Shouts in the kitchen. Fish an! Side a fries! Over easy! On brown! I pick up an order and turn, back through the doors, whap! I pick up an order and turn, back through the doors, whap! My foot registers more than its own imprint, starts to read the stain of memory.”
Fred Wah, Diamond Grill, 1.

“Though the hyphen is in the middle, it is not in the centre. It is a property marker, a boundary post, a borderland, a bastard, a railroad, a last spike, a stain, a cypher, a rope, a knot, a chain (link), a foreign word, a warning sign, a head tax, a bridge, a no—man’s land, a nomadic, floating magic carpet, now you see it now you don’t. The hyphen is the hybrid’s dish, the mestiza’s whole wheat tortillas (Anzaldua 194), the Metis’ apple (red on the outside, white on the inside), the happa’s egg (white out, yellow in), the mulatto’s café au lait.”
Fred Wah, Faking It: Poetics and Hybridity, 73

“That logic of nationality was accompanied by behaviours that have always been unbearable for me. The French nation was colonial. How could I be from a France that colonized an Algerian country when I knew that we ourselves, German Czechoslovak Hungarian Jews, were other Arabs.”
Hélène Cixous, “Albums and Legends,” in Rootprints 204.

“To live at the Door of No Return is to live self consciously. To be always aware of your presence as a presence outside of yourself. And to have ‘others’ constantly remark on your presence as outside of itself. If to think is to exist, then we exist doubly. An ordinary conversation is never an ordinary conversation. One cannot say the simplest thing without doubling or being doubled for the image that emerged from the doorway. At a party you remark enthusiastically that you have been away, someplace where the sun has deliciously deepened the shade of your skin, and you look up from your bronzed shoulder to bewilderment …. Every space you occupy is public space, that is, space which is definable by everyone. That is, the image which emerges from the Door of No Return is public property belonging to a public exclusive of the Black bodies which signify it. One is aware of this ownership. One is constantly refuting it, or ignoring it, or troubling it, or parodying it, or tragically reaffirming it.”
Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return, 49-50.

“Between You and Me There is an I”

Between two stools
The hyphen lies
The eggs and the nest
The blind and the fold
The hinge of the city
The door and the jamb
The map and its edges
The wars I’ve not fought
The life and its lease
The rope but which end
The brink and disaster
The bank and the laughter
The spike below Chinaman’s Peak
That spot where the two rails meet

From beneath two stools
Hear the silence rise
The smoke ‘round your neck
The tongue and the dash
The cat and the cradle
The dog dead in the creek
The slash and the burn
The shadows of NAFTA
The head and the tax
Rock bluff and river
The laundry its mark
The height and the trestle
Cata and strophe
Not caboose but what’s after
Fred Wah, Is a door, 73

“The word ‘entredeux’: it is a word I used recently in Déluge to designate a true in-between – between a life which is ending and a life which is beginning. For me, an entredeux is: nothing. It is, because there is entredeux. But it is – I will go through metaphors – a moment in life where you are not entirely living, where you are almost dead. Where you are not dead. Where you are not yet in the process of reliving. These are the innumerable moments that touch us with bereavements of all sorts.. Either there is bereavement between men, violently, from the loss of a being who is a part of me – as if a piece of my body, of my house, were ruined, collapsed …. When an event arrives which evicts us from ourselves, we do not know how to ‘live.’ But we must. Thus we are launched into a space-time whose coordinates are all different from those we have always been accustomed to. In addition, these violent situations are always new. Always. At no moment can a previous bereavement serve as a model. It is, frightfully, all new: this is one of the most important experiences of our human histories. At times we are thrown into strangeness. This being abroad at home is what I call an entredeux. Wars cause entredeux in the histories of countries. But the worst war is the war where the enemy is on the inside; where the enemy is the person I love most in the world, is myself.”
Hélène Cixous, Rootprints, 9-10.

“There is a story – a tale. And I am the one who speaks it. That she, the one with the flying cheekbones that speak of yet another trace, was part Carib. Born in Arima – home of the almost-extinct Carib people. She! with the eyes of a tiger. And a skin so fine. I have no words for its colour: a genealogy of silences. The language helpless to describe our usness. To say her skin was ‘tawny’ is to stray into the Frank Yerby world of mulattos, octoroons, and quadroons. To say it was brown is to leave as much unsaid: it was also yellow and black and even red.”
M. NourbeSe Philip, “A Genealogy of Resistance,” 12

Are origins magnetic lines across an ocean
migrations of genetic spume or holds, dark
mysteries within which I carry further into the World
through blond and blue-eyed progeny father’s fathers
clan-name Wah from Canton east across the bridges
still or could it all be lateral craving hinted
in the bioplasmic cloud of simple other organism
as close as out under the apple tree?
Fred Wah, Breathin’ my name with a sigh, Talonbooks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I submitted my book manuscript last week. Such a simple sentence. Seven words arranged in a line. I could have written that I brushed my teeth last night. Or I shopped for groceries on Saturday. Or even, I mowed the lawn on Saturday because it was sunny. Simple, straightforward sentences.  And yet. There is so much more percolating under the surface.

The manuscript represents four years of thinking, reading, researching and writing. Annual research trips to Lausanne (I know, someone’s got to do it); many, many hours playing in the archives; lots of pain au chocolat and gruyère (not at the same time) and many long walks along the shores of Lake Geneva. It represents lots and lots of reading and writing. Many, many hours of thinking. More concept maps than I can count. 10 notebooks of archival writing and summarizing, every page marked up with colour, underlining, stars and arrows. Three fat binders of transcriptions and lists. More interlibrary loans than I can count. Lots of late nights. Gnashed teeth. Bliss. Joy. Tears. Frustration. Wonder. And also much laughter. Wouldn’t you laugh, too, if you read that someone’s seizures had been preceded by an “abuse of sweet pastries”?

The final two weeks before submission were devoted entirely to editing, probably the most painful and least creative work that exists: formatting footnotes, ensuring the bibliography was complete, going through the manuscript three times with a fine tooth comb for spelling and other errors. Incredibly,  I rearranged part of Chapter 4 completely three days before submitting, and rethought aspects of Chapter 6 a short while later. By the end, I couldn’t see straight. And I certainly couldn’t look at the manuscript anymore. And so… I saved it. I printed it. I wrote an email to the editor at the university press. And I hit send.

And then I sat with myself in disbelief.

Sending it off was both terrifying and exhilarating. Those were the exact words that I wrote to the editor. It was monumentous. A huge amount of work and it had finally taken shape. But the final stages of any project are always filled with doubt. My letters and I had journeyed so far together. We had come to know each other so well. Or so I believe. Does the story we have created together – for research is always a journey shaped by both researcher and participants – make sense?

Terrifying and exhilarating. An untameable energy that resembles, in so many ways, the feelings I used to have before a really important musical performance: a major competition, a concerto with orchestra, a live radio broadcast. Wonder and doubt. Bliss and struggle. Certainty, rightness, peace …. and fear, nerves and trembling.

Terrifying and exhilarating.

Imagine my surprise when I came across these exact words just last night, in Dani Shapiro’s new book, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. Shapiro writes with grace and wisdom about the practice of writing; of writing as an essential element not only of one’s work, but of one’s self. Peace. Struggle. Vulnerability. Endless patience. And underneath it all, an enduring commitment to writing as creative practice. It’s a wonderful book and I’d recommend it to anyone. In fact, I many well make it required reading for my graduate students, words they can draw on when the going gets tough.

In a chapter (are they chapters, really?) entitled, “Break,” about finishing a project, she writes

If beginnings require fortitude, and middles stamina – if, to paraphrase Annie Dillard, your work is a lion in a cage in your study, a wild thing you must visit every day in order to reassert your mastery over it – endings ask of you only that you take a step back. A day off? Two? Three? A long walk? A drive in the country? A bath? A few stiff drinks with a friend? All of the above? Go for it, I say. Take a break if you need one. Turn down that noisy mind and come back to the page later. That wild animal has taken a nap and is sitting contentedly in a corner of your study, chewing on the rug. You will finish. You have fashioned a world. It’s terrifying and exhilarating. If you have a pulse, this is exactly how you should feel. (196-7)

Terrifying and exhilarating.

Just a few days after I sent off the book manuscript, this came in the mail:

photo

Terrifying and exhilarating on a whole new level.

 

More on my quest to return to a more handwritten world (and yes, as I type this post, I am feeling the irony….). Here’s a short piece about what happened when a woman decided to send all her text messages in handwritten form:

I decided to blend a newfound interest in calligraphy with my lifelong passion for written correspondence to create a new kind of text messaging. The idea: I wanted to message friends using calligraphic texts for one week. The average 18-to-24-year-old sends and gets something like 4,000 messages a month, which includes sending more than 500 texts a week, according to Experian. The week of my experiment, I only sent 100. (I was 24 at the time.)

I think differently when I write by hand. I think in words, ideas, images. On a keyboard, I think in strokes… individual letters and the rhythms they produce when they are brought together.

Where might your handwriting take you?

I’m at the lovely Banff Centre for the biennial conference of the International Auto/Biography Association. My room, on the sixth floor of Lloyd Hall, looks out onto the mountains. It is, in the most literal sense, a room with a view. It’s raining and the smell of coniferous trees is incredible (and no, pinesol is no substitute…). And, in a few short hours, I’ll be immersed in discussions about autobiography in its many forms – as genre, theory, and practice.How fitting, then, that Carolyn Herbst Lewis would choose today to post a piece about our personal archiving practices:

This semester, I taught an introductory-level course on historical methods. One of our tasks was to consider an array of historical materials. We read novels and memoirs; watched documentaries and Hollywood films; read speeches and government policies; looked at architectural plans and advertisements for suburban homes. We even watched an episode of Star Trek. Throughout this exploration, we kept coming back to the question of how people of the past documented their daily lives. This prompted us to consider how historians of the future will examine our everyday lives. What sources will they use? What sources are we leaving behind? This was a frightening discussion because somehow we always came back to social media. Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Snapchat. The students and I shuddered in horror when we considered not just what historians of the future will think of us and our society, but also what we ourselves might see should we be the historians doing that research. I asked my students what I might think about their lives if I could see their Snapchat accounts. Some of them looked like they were going to cry. I felt the same when I imagined them looking at my Facebook timeline.

 

What pieces of ourselves will we leave to future historians, writers, family members? Will they see only the carefully-curated selves we post on social media sites? Or will we let them into the messiness of our everyday lives: the dishes we didn’t get to, the letter we forgot to write, the dust bunnies behind the stove, the dirty underwear draped onto the chess trophy?

My room has a view. But which view will I share with you? Today’s rainy, foggy view? Or tomorrow’s forecasted sunny view? The view with the bed made and everything in place, as I arrived yesterday? Or today’s cluttered space?

 

Images of a former textile mill, near Aberystwyth, Wales, closed since 1980. The rich colours of the yarns remain, even as the building crumbles around them. So many stories here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2624156/A-colourful-past-Haunting-images-abandoned-textile-wool-looms-stacks-yarn-shelves.html.

One of my grad students recently emailed to tell me how much her writing had improved – in quality and in quantity – over the past few months. She attributed this to reading fiction. In the busy-ness and stress of her thesis research, she’d forgotten to take the time to read fiction. But when she did, it paid off.

It’s funny, isn’t it? As academics, we often treat fiction as treats – bonbons to enjoy once our “real” work is done. And yet reading fiction can be as important to our thinking as all of the other ‘stuff’ we conventionally accept as ‘work’ reading. It seems obvious, so very obvious, indeed, that it’s something that I never even mention to my students. But in the hustle and bustle and flurry of paper, ideas, meetings, and grading that mark a usual term, reading “for pleasure” falls by the wayside, often the first victim of a culture of overwork.

By contrast, I spend a lot of time working on writing with my students, more, I suspect, than the majority of my colleagues. Together we draw on some of my favourite writing exercises from such books as Writing Down the Bones and Naming the World. This is work many have not done before. But it’s important, I tell them. Writing isn’t just something you do at the end of a research project. It’s not just a mopping up. No. It’s just as much a part of the politics of knowledge production as your research question, your theoretical framework, your methods, your methodologies. It’s about the relationship you build with your readers.

Language matters. Structure matters. None of this is neutral.

And there are more practical concerns, too. Writing well takes practice. It is a skill honed through careful work and attention. How on earth can a Master’s student expect to produce 125 pages if they haven’t ever written anything longer than 20 pages? How can a runner run a marathon if all they’ve ever done is run to catch the bus? And finally, style matters. A writer’s personal style doesn’t just emerge out of nowhere. It is massaged into being, shaped by word play, experimentation, exploration.

Sure, anyone can write a serviceable, passable, acceptable graduate thesis. But who wants to read a dry and boring piece of scholarship?

As a reader, I want to be seduced. I want to be drawn into the arguments, challenged, provoked, caressed, destroyed. I want you to lead me into your thoughtworld and I want to emerge with my brain and body on fire. And to write in this way, I say to my students, you need to explore. You need to experiment. You need to play. You need to make yourself – and your research – vulnerable. And you need to practice.

This kind of work took up fully a third of my graduate seminar this year. And it was time well spent. But what I didn’t take the time to tell them was that reading also matters.

I guess I took it for granted.

I assumed that they would be reading. And I assumed that they would be reading material outside of their required course readings. I assumed that they would love fiction, just as I, too, love fiction.

Perhaps those were false assumptions.

I’m on a Zadie Smith kick at the moment, inspired, perhaps, by her beautiful review essay, published in The New York Review of Books earlier this year. I’m in the middle of On Beauty, her 2005 novel. It’s a biting and devastating portrait of roads not taken and lives not lived, of the petty cruelties of academia and the moral self righteousness of both conservative and liberal social mores, and of the fragility of the human self. It’s raw and darkly humorous.

Yesterday, meanwhile, I was introduced to a completely different kind of storytelling. Anishinaabeg scholar, activist, and writer, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, on campus for a two day event, shared an origin story about maple trees, syrup and the production of maple sugar. It was a beautiful oral tale about a young girl who learns from a squirrel before teaching her mother and aunties. It was a story about how a community has come to understand itself through this gift of nature, which is intrinsic to treaty making, relationship building, songs, rituals, ceremonies – indeed, central to what Simpson calls “building [Anishinaabeg] nationhood.” In Simpson’s words, maple sugar is not just story, but theory, method, and methodology rolled together in one.

Both of these stories – Smith’s dark satire and Simpson’s theory, have reminded me, once again, of the evocative power of language. They remind me why words matter. And they remind me of just how amazing it can be when carefully chosen words come together into brilliant stories.

And so, my graduate student ducklings, here’s the nub of the story, as shared by one of your own: Read. Read the world. Taste it. Savour its flavours. Roll them around on your tongue. And then take those words and write them in your own voice. Your story is waiting.

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