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Monthly Archives: May 2014

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.

A beautiful piece on Black Girl Dangerous on the complexities of belonging… At Sea: Growing Up, Seeking Home. Here’s just a snippet. It’s definitely worth reading the whole thing.

When I returned to the clean boulevards of California, I carried other places in the little things: homemade lunches my classmates prodded at—Japanese onigiri, Filipino pancit. The seiza in my body; the doubt on my tongue. But soon, I begged for Lunchables, traded my strips of seaweed for brightly colored Gushers. When I moved to New York, the kids made faces at my “fishy green stuff”; my seaweed lost its currency, so I ate fewer Gushers and unlearned the taste of the sea.

Sometimes, the little things were too little to point to—too aqueous, perhaps, too vague. It was not until 6th grade when I learned that no American referred to summertime relief as “air-con” or that referring to your footwear as “flip-flops” was the only way to be understood when you meant slippers. I thought I spoke with my family in English, but it was not the language of my classmates. As I grew older, I had snacks, not merienda; I wore tanks, not spaghetti straps; I exchanged gifts, not pasalubongs. When, during the summer after 7th grade, I asked a friend to turn down the “AC,” I felt something tiny in me finally die.

Surfacing. It’s been a long, administratively overwhelming term and I’m only now starting to emerge from the depths. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been much to write or think about, because there has. There just hasn’t been the time or space to really poke at stuff. And so, instead of just posting random links to interesting bits and pieces, I put things on hold, and carefully copied and pasted some of those links for later exploration.

So I guess, I’ll start at the top. A number of weeks ago, a friend pointed me to the case of three books in the Harvard University rare book collection. Now rare books are always a treasure. You can feel the history, and you can sense your genetic material mingling with that of countless others who have also felt and read the book you’re holding. As many will tell you, this is the particular magic of archival work.

But these books are different: it’s possible that they are covered in human skin. Indeed, one of them contains the following inscription:

the bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Mbesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace.”

This isn’t nearly as gruesome as it seems on the outside. After all, there is a long tradition of mementi mori; that is, of keeping bits and pieces of people as gestures of devotion and memorialization. Heck, we even do it today: baby teeth, umbilical cord stumps, first locks of hair, placentas … the list goes on and on. Indeed, I remember seeing a child’s leg cast on my grandmother’s neighbour’s mantle. It had dried flowers in it. Interestingly, my parents don’t recall this, so perhaps this was one of those things that only seven year olds see.

Even given this long tradition, the thought of stretching human skin onto a book cover does move into realms that are well beyond the usual Victorian locketed hair locks. There is, however, much to consider in relation to the stretched flesh that covers these books.

In 2000, Sara Ahmed and Jackie Stacey edited a collection of scholarly essays entitled Thinking Through the Skin.  In it, they introduce the notion of dermography, of skin-writing – what they call “think[ing] with or through the skin.” As they observe:

The word “dermographia” is a medical term that means writing on, or marking, the skin. But here we use it to suggest that skin is itself also an effect of such marking. This is not to say that skin can be reduced to writing, for the skin matters as matter: it is a substantial, tactile covering that bears the weight of the body. But the substance of the skin is itself dependent on regimes of writing that mark the skin in different ways or that produce the skin as marked. The skin is a writerly effect. We could also suggest that writing is an effect of skin: the touch of the technologies that produce the words; the skin that is shed in the endless processes of composition and decomposition …. Writing can be thought of as skin, in the sense that what we write causes ripples and flows that “skin us” into being; we write, we skin. (15)

Conceptually, their work links to earlier work by noted historian, Barbara Duden; more specifically, her 1993 book, Disembodying Women: Perspectives on Pregnancy and the Unborn.

Here Duden is interested in what she refers to as the “skinning” of the pregnant woman, the rendering transparent of her body in such a way as to both undermine her pregnant subjectivity and simultaneously, to assert the agency – and transcendence – of the fetus. What happens, she asks, when what was previously invisible – the fetus – becomes visible? When technologies render transparent the pregnant skin? When the pregnant woman is “skinned”?

The further I went into a history of the body – that is, a history of the female body – the more clearly I saw that there are two stories to be told. One is the story of what can be seen by physicians, artisits, and women themselves. It deals with woman as her flesh and being is, or can be, exposed to the gaze. More subtly, it is the story of what can be imagined as long as we keep to the sense of image as that which could be seen. The other is the story of touch and vision, which grope in the darkness beneath the skin. When one of us goes to a medical clinic, she usually has something wrong and can describe it as something that is. In contrast, those distant woman I have tried to approach come to the physician and tell him what has happened to them. They report on events that come at them from the outside or go on within them. At first I thought this was only a different use of grammar, but soon I recognized that in those days women suffered from experiences that have lost all meaning for us. They report on an “ebbing” and “flowing” and “curdling” and “hardening” and, above all, on an interior orientation of their being that is mysterious today but which in their own time was immediately understandable, not only to other women, but also to the physician. Forced to see, to represent, to imagine, we have a restricted sensorium for the invisible shapes inside us. The Enlightenment has removed from our bellies, as from our minds, any reality that is not perceived by the eye. Body history, as I have come to recognize, is to a large extent a history of the unseen. (8)

It is this inside-ness – this body knowledge beneath the skin that also informs the thoughtworlds of corporeal feminists, among them Vicki Kirby, whose words I shared in an earlier blog post.

Skin is, indeed, the foundational point of contact between self and other; according to Imogen Tyler, in an essay entitled “Skin-tight: Celebrity, Pregnancy and Subjectivity” which is  included in Ahmed and Stacey’s collection, skin is “the border zone upon which self and not-self is perpetually played out” (77). Through touch, our skin is the first point of contact with the world around us, even as it simultaneously functions as the envelope that encases and protects our vulnerable and fragile flesh. Is it any wonder, then, that human skin might be so carefully stretched across the cover of a book? Skin, it seems, would be the ideal memento mori, a way of memorializing – through touch, feel, texture – those important to us.

But Barbara Duden suggests that skin performs another, perhaps more important function, in that it assure the bodily agency and bodily subjectivity of the pregnant subject. To skin that body, is to also skin a pregnant woman’s bodily subjectivity:

Once there was a time when pregnant women quickened, and when this happened they knew they were with child. It might take place in a drawing room, as we know from the kings’ mistress, but most of the time it occurred while hoeing, cooking, or sewing. Making this know, the woman’s delcration changed her state. A modern woman has no comparable power to redefine her social status by making a statement about her body. In our society, we are accepted as sick, healthy or pregnant only when we are certified as such by a professional. Yet from our perspective, we think the women of 1720 were at the mercy of their bodies. They had nothing like our access to a lab or a clinic. What they did have was the power to testify to an experience which was not just private but intimately nonshareable, and this definitively changed their social standing. A woman might be under suspicion of pregnancy, or have been pregnant in hindsight, but without her own witness, no woman was definitely pregnant. For at least two thousand years, the annunciation of quickening took place in her own secret parts. (94)

Sadly (although perhaps not for Jonas Wright), recent testing on this Harvard volume has revealed that the cover is not human skin at all, but rather, the much more common sheepskin.