The Smart Women’s Writing Desk, Part 1

I cleaned for you.

I know it doesn’t look like it, because my home desk is an eccentric travesty (or the desk of a maverick, as one of my super kind friends always says), but I spent a good 15 minutes cleaning up this desk. I was throwing out a half-empty vial of bubbles given to me during a Pride parade, tossing the 14 lipsticks (yes, there were 14) into a bag rather than having them strewn all over my stuff, hiding a fast food wrapper (my writing requires weekly crunchwraps, with plenty of Bajan pepper sauce, which, if you look closely, you’ll see I forgot to take back to the kitchen), stacking random papers and placing a clean notebook over the top of them as if it always looks like that, and blowing the dust off the top of my ancient speaker so no one would judge me.

20180716_093126.jpg
This is what my home writing desk looks like after 15 minutes of cleaning. I even lit a prayer candle!

Why do I feel the need for internet people to not judge me? I love being messy, but I hate being thought of as a messy person. Let’s just blame childhood and move on. That’s why my work desk (in an office I share with others) is very orderly. There’s a place for everything, and the ability for someone else to plug in their laptop and work without feeling like they are invading my personal space. That’s not the only reason I keep it clean, though.

At work, I have orderly thoughts. A large part of my job is helping to organize and prioritize the hundreds of pressing tasks that come to us from all of our project partners around the world- one of our Brazilian digitization teams hasn’t been paid yet, so I have to follow up with finance. An article I wrote for the Afro-Hispanic Review about cases of slave resistance in our archive needs another round of edits before it goes out, so I’ve got to make those. Our supervisor is going to Colombia, so I need to get a to-do list from her before she goes. Our grad student research assistants are due at any minute, so I need to make sure the space is ready for them to work in. A skype call is coming in in 30 minutes and there’s a grant application due soon so for the project I’ll be on in St. Eustatius. Have all of our volumes been ingested? Should we schedule a meeting with our partners at the library? Should I order lunch? What does everyone want?  Having a clean desk does help to impose that vital orderliness on a project that by its very nature wants to be chaotic at all times.

20180716_093153.jpg
My work desk. It does always look like this.

My home office though, is the place where I can tap into my own chaotic, creative brain.  I have the traces of several different projects there, as well as reminders of what’s important, why I’m working on them, who I am, and what I love. For example, in the top right corner, there’s a picture of Jem, an 80s cartoon show. The husband of a friend I went to grad school with worked for the same company as the woman who voiced Jem (Samantha Newark), and to surprise me got me her framed autograph. It means a lot to me- that he would know me well enough to know it’s something I would treasure.

My younger self loved Jem so much because she was, well, truly outrageous. She was the woman who had it all- She expressed herself through super femme 80s punkrock fashion, had a hunky boyfriend with purple hair (he was a bit dim, sure, but his heart was in the right place), and put her philanthropic careers first. She ran an orphanage for emotionally troubled girls, fronted an all-girl band, and worked for her record label, often doing free concerts for good causes. Though she was beautiful and stylish, that wasn’t her priority, but a means to an end. I loved that about her. I wanted to be creative and expressive and find ways for my talents to help people and resonate with them, too. Having her at my desk reminds me of what I’m working toward. And I love that right under her, is my bag of lipsticks. The stack of books hides it, but several of the colors- violet, fuchsia, orange – are colors she would wear. These are the things I keep around so that I keep doing things my child self is proud of.

There are lots of other gifts from friends at this desk- a figurine of Krampus (just a friendly little German Christmas demon who eats naughty children, given to me so that I can have a Krampus on Campus instead of Elf on a Shelf in December), a notebook with a glittery Cthulhu (just a friendly little Lovecraftian Edlrich horror abomination) who looks like swallowing the world is part of his drag performance, an incredible drawing of David Bowie as the goblin king from my favorite 80s cult classic film Labyrinth, several books gifted by friends who know the way I think and the types of thoughts I need to consume to stay well, a pirate mug, postcards from writers I love, and a rainbow patch of the Babadook (who has become somewhat of a queer icon, and as my friend said to me, “I’m Baba-shook!”). I like the thought of writing while surrounded by the things people gave me to support that habit. I think it’s important to turn toward those who do, and away from those who don’t.

Honorable mention goes to the desk itself. If you look closely, you’ll see that it’s not a desk- it’s a cheap folding table that is made of particleboard covered in a sticker of wood finishing that is peeling off. I found it leaning against a dumpster when I was a grad student. Someone had thrown it away because the legs fold weird and threaten to severely bruise your fingers if you don’t watch them.

I get asked a lot why I don’t just buy a real desk. I have a decent job. I could. But… I don’t know. I’ve written some amazing things at this table. It would feel disloyal, to just abandon it after it gave me several years of an amazing writing space.  Because… you have to honor those things that help you in some way. A writer’s space isn’t just a space, it’s a carefully (or uncarefully) curated area for your fledgling ideas, for your hopes, and for your dreams that you dare put on paper and send out into the world. I’ve cried at that desk, and I’ve cursed at that desk. I’ve eaten spicy crunchwraps at that desk. I’ve slumped over it, half asleep. And yet, when I look back over my body of work, academic, technical, non-fiction, fiction, both published and not, I’m really happy with it.

And I want to create so much more.

 

The Smart Women’s Summer, Part 1

Summer is in full swing and the Smart Women want to talk about what each of their summers looks like.

Mine?

I’ve already had a full summer’s worth of life crammed into my summer so far, but why not live in the fast lane?

I just got back from Barbados, where I presented on the Caribbean holdings of the Slave Societies Digital Archive at the Association of Caribbean Historians’ annual meeting. Let me tell you, this group of scholars is amazing. About half come from institutions in the Caribbean itself, and the rest from everywhere else. They do simultaneous translation so that people who don’t speak English, Spanish, and French can hear the latest scholarship of the full region and ask questions of people a language barrier would prevent them from asking. And they are the only scholarly organization that I know of, that has a end-of-conference fete written directly into the constitution. Our right to party is constitutional! And what a fete. You haven’t lived until you’ve been part of a group of scholars who can both bachata and whine. Continue reading “The Smart Women’s Summer, Part 1”

Taking A Risk: Teaching Slavery & Race to Students 50+ Yrs Old in the US South

I’ve just finished teaching what has been one of my most thought-provoking and soul-stirring classes this spring: a class on comparative slavery & race.

In today’s political climate.

In the US South.

To students 50+ years of age.

I’m glad I didn’t think it through too carefully, when this opportunity came around. I love teaching in a public history context- taking all of my research and writing, and transforming it into a narrative and compelling cast of characters that I present without any presumption of prior knowledge in the subject. It’s a double challenge for me- to ensure rigorousness without overwhelming my listeners. It takes me longer than the traditional lecture format to prepare, but when it works, it’s so worth it.

However, had I thought it through for a moment, I might not have agreed to do this particular class.

Why?

My classroom was full of people who lived through Jim Crow right here in Nashville, TN, the hotbed of the Civil Rights Movement. They remember when whites and people of color had to use separate facilities and weren’t allowed to marry. They read about the Lunch Counter Sit-Ins downtown when they happened.  They were children and young adults in 1960, when one of our city’s most promising civil rights activists, James Lawson, was expelled from the University that signs my paychecks.

And they were different people then, than they are now. They have seen so much more.

In this class, my black and my white students sat next to each other (something they would not have done when they were enrolled in school the first time around) and listened to a whippersnapper (that’s me, I’m the whippersnapper) contextualize that history for them in a broader Atlantic framework and chronology.

It’s been so humbling. Continue reading “Taking A Risk: Teaching Slavery & Race to Students 50+ Yrs Old in the US South”

3D Printing & The Digital Humanities

This semester, Vanderbilt’s new makerspace and center for innovation, the Wond’ry, approached us at the Slave Societies Digital Archive (SSDA) with space for an exhibit to showcase the unique and collaborative nature of the archive. In putting together the exhibit, another opportunity for collaboration emerged between SSDA, the Wond’ry, and three creative doctors of radiology at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital: the replication of sacred objects and art related to the archive, through 3D scanning and printing.

The Slave Societies Digital Archive preserves endangered documents related to Africans and African-descended peoples in slave societies from the 16th to the 20th centuries. The vast majority of records in the archive come from places in underserved areas of the Atlantic world with a high concentration of African-descended populations. Often the institutions lack funding to make their crumbling collections available to the public. SSDA teams take photographs of each page of these records in order to create a digital repository of unused primary sources for the history of Africans and their descendants in the Atlantic world. The exhibit at the Wond’ry displays the processes and workflow of the archive, and the populations whose stories await to be discovered within.

Bow with Devil
Dr. Hansen Bow using the 3D scanner at the radiology lab at VUMC.

Documents without context only tell a partial story. We wanted to show some of the objects that are important to the people found in our documents. The originals though, were too fragile to keep on display without supervision, and so Kevin Galloway at the Wond’ry suggested we try a collaborative approach. The doctors at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital Radiology Lab were excited to take on the challenge. The majority of their work with 3D scanning and printing involves medical models. SSDA’s objects, with their irregular shapes,  surfaces, and colors, proved to be a challenge.

Most interesting for me were the conversations that went into which features of reproductions are the most significant for communicating their cultural value to the viewer. The nature of scanning and printing with abs material on a 3D printer means that some details would have to be sacrificed, while others could be enhanced. At what point were the sacrifices and enhancements superficial, and at what point did they alter the meaning of the object? Continue reading “3D Printing & The Digital Humanities”

Introducing: Raquelle Bostow

Dear smart women (& others) who write,

I’m so incredibly pleased to introduce to you the newest member of team SWW!

raquelle b&w

Raquelle Bostow is a truly dangerous woman who has experience as managing editor for Holly Tucker’s Wonders & Marvels, and is in the process of launching a restaurant review site.  Like Tanya and I, she’s got a passion for the public humanities, working to find ways in which to use her writing experience and training to form partnerships with people and organizations that could use it. She sees education not as something that just happens in the classroom, but an ongoing process that happens within the self, and in every interaction.

She is currently a university lecturer in French who is on the job market. She’s looking at both traditional academic jobs, as well as “alt-ac” and “non-ac” positions that will let her utilize her skills in languages and in gender studies. She’ll bring us posts about what that process looks like, how to find mentors for each part of that process, self-care when not on the tenure track, her experience with writing groups, and foreign language teaching.

When I sat down with her for coffee, her vibe was so SWW it wasn’t even funny. She’s resilient, creative, hard-working, and determined to use her training to be thoughtful and reflective. She applies her insights to problems in the wider world, and that’s why we think you will love what she has to say.

I can’t wait!

-Angela Sutton

Choosing Your Next Writing Project

I’m pretty young, and already I have more projects ideas than I will be able to write in this lifetime. This is true even if I have the fortune of living well into my 90s (which I suspect I won’t, as my family’s history is riddled with darkly comedic early deaths- too much pull toward adventure, and not enough common sense in the Sutton genes).

I do periodically root out the “bad” ideas- the ones that wouldn’t work because of the mediums I write in, or the zeitgeist, or because they would be better expressed non-verbally, or by someone who isn’t me, or the ones that go beyond my current skillset, or the ones that wouldn’t help along any of my personal or career goals. I hesitate to call them bad though, as any idea can be good under the right circumstances. But I’m all about efficiency. Do I have time or inclination to cultivate new circumstances? Not right now. Let’s work with the circumstances I’ve already got.

So even after whittling down the list, it’s still too big. How do I pick and choose what gets written and which ideas go into the big ether of ideas to hopefully get recycled and occur to someone else? Continue reading “Choosing Your Next Writing Project”

Where History is Alive

I know, I’m sorry, I’m late!

Actually, I’m not sorry. I’m late with my post because I am on the beautiful Caribbean island of Sint Eustatius for work, and it is so heart-breakingly breathtaking that I needed a minute to just appreciate being here and learning.

SWW2You see, the formerly Dutch island is also a location in the nonfiction history book I’m writing. Known as the “Golden Rock,” it was the center of Atlantic Commerce in the 1700s, and a lot of that was deemed illicit by the other European superpowers of the time. It was filled to the gills with pirates, and plunder, and esoteric objects from around the world.

The island isn’t a big tourist destination (outside of a small and devoted group of returning diving and nature enthusiasts), and doesn’t have a place for larger cruise ships to dock, so much of the material remnants of this history remain. Down every alley, over every cliff, is evidence of corrupt governors, the enslaved, plantations, merchant homes, warehouses, etc. Yellow bricks imported from the Ijssel River regions in the sww4Netherlands comprise some of the most important ruins. Sherds of blue and white Delftware can be seen embedded in the runoff from several forts and plantations. Divers still regularly find glass beads used in trading in the sand. Many residents live in or on top of historically important buildings and sites. Everything is free and open to be viewed by anyone who cares enough to look. Every breath you take, is saltwater and history.

Thankfully this island also has people who appreciate all they have, and work hard to keep it safe for the future. I had the fortune of meeting them, and seeing the history through their eyes.  And you know what happened? I discovered that several of the things historians like to repeat about this island in the literature, had to have been written in error if they weren’t outright falsification.  When you can tangibly step into a place that you only before knew from the documents, a whole new truth unfolds right in front of your eyes.

This happened to me when I visited Ghana in 2010: many of the slave forts I wrote about, I had discovered in documents in The Hague, where most Dutch imperial materials are kept. From reading them, I had an idea in my head about what it must have been like. But actually going there, showed me that many of the things people wrote about would have been impossible. I walked several of the trails mentioned in the documents to see how long it took. I looked at the distances between forts, and how far away they were from the ocean, to see which cannon shots claimed in the literature could have made it, and which wouldn’t have. I saw the way the vegetation grew. I looked at how ruins were positioned. I realized at what points of the day which way the shadows would lie. I made note of the directions the wind blew. All of the sudden, a whole new world of what would have been possible and what wouldn’t opened up.

SWW1It’s the same here. Seeing the bays makes it obvious which could have sustained ships, and which would have wrecked them against the rocks. Seeing the plantation setups allows me to make guesses as to how many enslaved workers there could have been at any one time. Seeing the steep immensity of the inactive volcano known as the Quill (pictured above) makes it clear that no planting could have happened on its sides without some serious twenty-first century landscape architecture. Going to the ruins of the governor’s mansion helped me to see the types of things he could and could not see from his desk. All of these facts are incredibly helpful, and will breathe life into my book that I wasn’t even aware was missing.

I’m living the dream, folx.