The Sweet Solitude of Summer

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The Canal Saint-Martin, to which many Parisians flock on evenings and weekends.

When I was a kid, my mom would walk into my room to find me passed out amidst villages of Weebles, Barbie dolls, and race-car tracks. I often exhausted myself over traveling the endless avenues of invention. I also holed up in my room to sketch my immediate surroundings––my bed, Christmas postcards, the garden. I loved nothing more than the quiet privacy of my own space where I could construct worlds. Unsurprisingly, my favorite school assignments were writing portfolios because they allowed me to delve into memories and to create new, fictional ones that opened up transportation into other realms. Thinking back on this time of my life, my childhood creativity surprises me. Perhaps I was so creative because, within the confines of my room, I had a place of my own where my imagination could unwind, unsupervised (at least for a moment). 

Growing older got the best of me and I sought out this solitude a little less and became (a little too) invested in less-productive activities (and who could blame me with the recent emergence of MTV and AIM, two pastimes that easily consumed the free time of a pubescent girl). In the past half a decade, I’ve realized that I need––and have started to crave––more (productive, creative) alone time. Now that I no longer have a room of my own (I’m married) and am still waiting on that dreamy, closed-off, individual office space, I have to carve out time for seclusion––my preferred writing mode. This is what I was able to do for a short period this summer. And in Paris, nonetheless.

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Parisian rooftops from the Centre Pompidou.

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The Bookish Flâneuse in Paris

In her recent book, Lauren Elkin displaces the focus from the 19th-century flâneur—dreamed up by Baudelaire as someone who ambles aimlessly, soaking up inspiration from their surroundings—to the contemporary flâneuse, the woman who “gets to know the city by wandering its streets, investigating its dark corners, peering behind its facades, penetrating its secret courtyards.” One’s ability to wander and investigate is surely dependent on skin color, nationality, gender, ability, and class, among other things. The role and privilege of the flâneur as a privileged, cosmopolitan, white male has been critiqued by a number of writers (see these pieces by Doreen St. Félix and Aysegül Savas, and this book by Teju Cole). Elkin’s text falls into this line of thinking.

My own exploration of big cities—in the current case, Paris—is facilitated by my skin color and (in most scenarios) my American nationality. I know the city well and feel generally safe, though, as a woman, I avoid wandering alone too much at night. (Which now doesn’t fall until around 10pm. It’s marvelous.) 

I’ve been in Paris for nearly two weeks now, and—I have to admit—most of my promenades have been powered by GPS. I’m a planner. An obsessive one even. Often, I’ll plot out a destination and then stroll around that area as a way to plan for allow some spontaneous exploration. And these Parisian promenades almost always have one of two themes: food and books. In my search for the best bookshops that Paris has to offer, I have found two that top my list. It should be known, of course, that this list is totally biased (but aren’t they all?) as I’m pretty partial to bookstores that overlap with my research and pleasure-reading interests.   

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I have been visiting Violette and Co for years now. I usually stay near the Canal Saint-Martin in the 10th or 11th arrondissement (neighborhood) of Paris, which makes this bookstore a 30-minute walk southeast down the Boulevard Voltaire. This boulevard was one of the major routes created by Haussmann who completely renovated Paris under Napoleon III in the 19th century. The boulevard carries the name of a canonical writer and philosopher. But my destination aims to shake up such canons!

I go to Violette and Co to get inspiration, buy feminist paraphernalia, and drift into my happy place. Their funky, hot pink façade decorated with feminist street art would have pulled me in even if I hadn’t discovered it in one of my FOMO-driven google searches. The bookshop was founded around fifteen years ago by two women wanting to fill a gap: Paris needed a bookstore that both addressed LGBTQ+ issues and also emphasized women authors and feminist theory & pop culture. At Violette and Co, I am a kid in a candy store. Their collection is thoughtfully curated and they give helpful, direct advice on your book searches. And not only do they offer a solid variety of textual genres, but the owners also host literary discussions, book clubs, book trades, and artistic exhibitions. On my most recent visit, I spotted that they had just hosted a discussion with author Jo Güstin as part of Le Festival Nio Far (Decolonial Festival of Visual and Performing Arts). Sadly, I missed Güstin’s talk, but snagged the book!

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Given my love for feminist bookstores, it is a surprise then that I just visited Librairie des femmes for the first time during this summer visit to Paris. The walk from the Canal Saint-Martin to the 6th arrondissement where des femmes is located has to be one of my favorites. To get there, I took the long route to walk down rue de Turenne and through the Marais via rue Vieille du Temple. This road winds through the Jewish Quarter (which houses some of the best falafel you’ll ever eat) and the fashionable shops and bustling cafés of the 3rd and 4th arrondissements.

On my way to des femmes, I extended my path down the Seine to pass by Notre Dame, which is in a major state of repair and closed off to visitors. The juxtaposition between modern industry and Gothic architecture struck me as both mesmerizing and shocking.

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The last part of this promenade had me gliding through the 5th and 6th arrondissements. This area carries the name of the Quartier Latin (the Latin Quarter) where a number of Parisian university campuses are located (the Sorbonne, namely)–thus the name of the area, as Latin was the exclusive language of study in the Middle Ages when many of these universities were founded. The area has become somewhat touristy, but I am able to get over this because I get to majorly geek out here. The Latin Quarter is to bookstores as churches are to the American South.

The Librairie des femmes is a dual bookstore and publishing house that was established in 1974, when it was open from 11am until midnight (sadly, they have since revised their opening hours!). Antoinette Fouque, a major figure of second-wave French feminism and a contemporary psychoanalyst and political commentator, founded the bookstore. Des femmes has since served as a meeting space and major producer and seller of women’s writing from the early 20th-century to today.

The shop has three comfortable chairs and encourages visitors to stay and browse a while. (I spent at least 30 minutes perusing the bookstore’s titles and displays before finally deciding on a couple titles.) They not only carry titles that they publish under the des femmes name, but they also have a wide variety of literary, sociological, psychoanalytic, and historical works correlating with their mission: to highlight and exhibit the creative force of women.

IMG_9575As I was trying to find this bookstore, I first stumbled on the adjoining building: Espace des femmes. This space is connected to the bookstore by an alleyway flanked with greenery. The zen, light-filled room houses exhibitions, debates, and performances. This time, I got to take advantage of a display of Emmelene Landon’s “Pacific portraits.” The artist’s landscapes enlivened the gallery with swaths of turquoise, gold, and navy. And I was more than delighted to find that the exhibit’s expository text was authored by Marie Darrieussecq, one of France’s foremost novelists.

I’m learning more that a good bookshop not only prints and offers thought-provoking literature but also provides a space for engagement, community, and reflection. It also inspires the discovery of Paris for this bookish flâneuse

Next on the docket in Paris? A jump from bookstore promenades to library visits. I’ll soon be spending a week at the Bibliothèque nationale de France to study some manuscripts for a current research project. Ciao for now, and à bientôt !

On Late Work and Penalties

Not long ago, I mentioned my school’s late work policy in passing on Twitter, and someone wanted to know more, suggesting I write about it here. This week, I’m putting on my teacher hat, and I’ll focus my twitter time on teaching resources (some related to late work, some not).

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Nadine Labaki’s “Capernaum”: Film Thoughts & Historical Background

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In an attempt to elevate my self-care routine, I’ve started to take myself out on dates a little more often. I actually *love* to spend time alone. I’m probably not the only Humanites PhD who feels blissfully energized by an evening of solitude and reflection in the company of art, film, and food.

This goal has resulted in an uptick of visits to my local independent theater. Given my penchant for female artists and francophone media, when I saw the trailer for Capernaum, a film directed by Lebanese director Nadine Labaki, I immediately knew that it would figure into my solo-night-out calendar. I’ve been fascinated with Lebanon ever since I read Etel Adnan’s novel Sitt Marie Rose in a French feminisms grad seminar (so much so that it became the focus of a dissertation chapter!).

Continue reading “Nadine Labaki’s “Capernaum”: Film Thoughts & Historical Background”

When inspiration doesn’t hit, write.

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I’m going to be honest. I struggled to write my post this month. It might have been the long to-do list leading into Spring Break (next week!), or the other writing projects that have taken most of my attention. Actually, if I’m being really honest, I wrote an entire post and decided it was the wrong topic at the wrong time. So, maybe inspiration hit, but it missed.

In the Q&A of the keynote address at a conference I attended this weekend, a student asked Brontez Purnell how he responds to writer’s block. First, he answered that he doesn’t really have that problem but the opposite, “writer’s vomit.” (Purnell was the recipient of the 2018 Whiting Award, so we’re not all that surprised that he’s amazing and doesn’t struggle with writer’s block.) But then he shared that leaving your writing project for an hour and writing about what is directly in front of you, like that 5×5 square of wall before your eyes, can help to release the tension while still exercising the writing muscle. So, I am going to take his advice. Sort of. I’m breaking from my traditional, more-focused post to share some general updates and things that are on my mind. Continue reading “When inspiration doesn’t hit, write.”

Writing a Trade History Book, Part 2: The Proposal

Click here to see Writing a Trade History Book, Part 1: The Introduction.

When I wrote my first Non-fiction book proposals, with all of its moveable parts, I felt intimidated. I had to create an overview, author bio, market analysis, competition, plan for promotion, the table of contents, my chapter summaries, and a detailed explanation of my source materials before a literary agent would even consider looking at my idea for a book.

I definitely can’t tell you how to write a non-fiction book proposal (thankfully others have gotten into that), but I can tell you about my experience creating and revising my first one (I’m now working on my second, woo!), and how worth it it really was.

Of course I loved creating the table of contents and the chapter summaries. Doing that helps you figure out if you’ve got enough material for a book, or if you’re trying to collapse too many elements into one. And the part where I explain my source materials? Really fun- I loved gathering all of my books, microfilms, photocopies, and archival photos into once place and taking stock of all there is. Seeing all the primary sources together like that helped me to ask where the silences were, and where the meatiest parts of the story existed. That caused me to make a few changes to my table of contents. Then gathering up my secondary sources helped me to figure out if my book had a chance of being fair and balanced, or if I over-relied on a handful of historians whose interpretations I enjoy more.

But then there were the other parts. A big shout-out to my agent for being patient enough with me to revise them multiple times before sending it on to publishers. The other parts are much more marketing-oriented. I tried to imagine how someone in the book-selling business would see this book of mine, and how they would sell it. On which shelf would it go? To which books could I compare it? What kind of reader would want it? How could it be made most profitable without losing its essence and integrity?

Writing those parts of the book proposal showed me that I hadn’t been paying enough attention to the world of publishing. And that’s to be expected- I’ve spent the past twelve years in academia. While I do read widely and enjoy trade history books (and other trade non-fiction), the majority of the books I’ve gone through in that time have been academic. That means that I have been exposed mostly to books created to fulfill professional curiosity and research gaps, not books created to entertain and teach the public about history. I had to entirely re-orient myself.

Thankfully, that’s where the teacher-brain took over. I sell history to everyday people all the time. My students, whether they are undergrads or older adults continuing their education for fun, do better with historic material if it’s presented in an interesting way. I weave together all kinds of stories for them upon which to hang all the facts and theories they need to know. I’m always picking the unconventional and surprising historic figures in my primary sources and showing students the larger paradoxes of the time periods through these characters’ daily lives. When my students lean forward and stop surfing the net, I know it’s a story that will sell.

Writing the book proposal taught me that the main difference between writing an academic and a trade book is like the main difference between sitting in the archives and standing at the lectern: it’s audience. The “So what?” is important in any non-fiction book, but the other academics who read your academic book don’t need it: they understand the intrinsic importance of most historic research, and if your book has to do with their topic, they’ll give it a glance. In a trade book, however, how well you nail the “so what?” is everything. If you show your readers how everyday people were affected by the thing you’re writing, they want to know more. Just like you’ve got to convince your students that the time and money they have invested in your class will pay off, you’ve got to reassure the reader that your book is worth it. It’s a mental shift that affects every other part of the proposal and your book, and opens up so many exciting avenues to explore.




First Impressions 15 years in the Making

by Lynn Clement


Ah, February.  The month that heralds the final demise of the dreaded January and when I can consider my semester officially off to a successful start.  It occurred to me recently that 2019 marks an important anniversary for me.  It was 15 years ago that I started teaching art history.

A lot has changed in that time: schools, technology, hair-dos, but nothing more than how I approach that first day with my students.

For many of the early years in my career I felt that my main hurdle upon meeting a group of students at the start of the semester was getting through the syllabus without everyone falling asleep, myself included.  However, I now know that addressing the issue of relevancy on that first day is most crucial.  This has become even more urgent as students, and I for that matter, need more from art history.

I begin with a question: “Why does a college require you to take a class such as this?”

In my experience this is a more productive question than those asked of me when I was on the other side of the podium.  Questions like “why are you here?” or “what do art historians do?” or (my most despised) “what is art?” often dead end with answers like “because the college is forcing me to take this class” and “we look at art” and (my most dreaded) silence.  Art history was not required at my university, but I was very lucky to happen upon it completely by accident.  I still feel lucky, but also saddened and a bit angry that it had not been a part of the traditional curriculum at any point of my education.  This is because I immediately saw its worth.  This is what I want my students to consider the moment we meet.

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Thus, my class now begins with a discussion of critical thinking.  We talk about what it means to think critically about what we see in the world around us and how we can hone the skills they already have.  I don’t have to search very hard for examples that support how this will help them after they step out of the classroom.  We are bombarded with visual culture at every moment with smartphones, laptops, tablets, television, and on the surfaces of public transportation.  We now also seem to live in this terrible time in which you can see a video or photograph and be told that what you are seeing is NOT actually what you are seeing.  How do we learn to trust our own eyes and our own analysis of what we see?  Hopefully by taking my class.

This discussion leads us to an actual exercise in looking.  Again, I try to pick an image that is relevant, which is why we’ve been spending a lot of time with Napoleon’s portrait in the Tuileries gardens from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.  This image easily shows how power can be conveyed through the visual and heavily contrived, also by those in power.

I also try to speak to relevancy in terms of my assignments. It’s just not a hoop, or torture, I put them through because I’m a terrible person!  Really!  I focus less on the parameters of the assignment and instead on why I feel the assignments are important and what skills they’ll strengthen through their successful completion.

I’m particularly proud of the way my final research paper has shifted over the years.  While traditional research papers are still an option, I’ve found that more and more students are interested in researching and assessing how visual culture is presented to them in their communities.

Taking inspiration from the call to decolonize museums (like those made by Olga Viso), the Museums Are Not Neutral movement spurred by LaTanya Autry, and Uncomfortable Art Tours provided by art historian and independent art guide Alice Proctor, I ask my students to prepare a grant proposal, or marketing/business plan that would help to diversify a museums holdings. To complete the paper they need to research the current state of a museum (either the diversity of their holdings, the diversity of what they show on the walls, or how the information provided in wall text or on the museum website might be hiding hard historical truths.)  They have to state the specific problem to be solved or task to be accomplished and explain how do they propose to solve the problem or what questions they need to ask to solve the problem?

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Not surprising, my students have gone above and beyond my expectations for this assignment.  In addition to considering how race is treated in their local museums, they are examining gender, access for the differently abled, and issues with conservation and preservation.  What I like most is that they get what I’m trying to do with this assignment and they have used their experiences and creativity to expand what can be done.  Thus, needless to say, the evolution continues.

I’m not sure if I’ll still be teaching in 15 years.  With the state of the college system who know what it will become (more on that in another post). However, I like that I’ve seen this kind of change and improvement in my own approach to teaching art history and it gives me hope for the future…even in the bleak midwinter.