In addition to chemotherapy and radiation, self-care has been an important part of my cancer treatment. Self-care can be difficult for many of us, despite how important it is, because of the expectation that we stay busy on productive, worthwhile activities. Thus, for me, self-care often means exercise and reading-both useful and relaxing. However, another soothing activity is watching television…way too much television. Needless to say, I am at odds with this habit. With access to Netflix, Hulu, AmazonPrime, HBO-GO, etc. it’s rare that I can’t find something to distract and entertain at any given moment. However, while in graduate school a beloved professor/mentor likened watching television during the day to drinking before 5pm. As someone who does most of their work at home, this slightly nagging inner voice prevented me from diversions that would have interfered with work.
However, does watching tv and doing something valuable have to be mutually exclusive? After a particularly difficult day of doctor appointments, and after having already binged the new episodes of “The Great British Baking Show” on Netflix, I happened upon a show entitled “Fake or Fortune”. “Fake or Fortune” is a BBC program hosted by journalist, Fiona Bruce and art dealer, Philip Mould. The two come together, along with various researching side-kicks, to investigate the style, material, and provenance of art works in order to determine their authenticity. From the start I was hooked, not only because I’m an art historian but also because the art mysteries were hugely entertaining. However, the more I watched, the more I saw the value in the series also as a teaching tool.
Bruce and Mould, along with historians, curators, art historians, scientists, gallery owners, cultural institutions, and librarians, show the lengthy and laborious process of research. What a gift this could be to students who struggle with exactly that. The hosts, and hosts of scholars who help them along, rely on interviews with collectors, connoisseurs, and curators. They dig through insurance inventories, gallery archives, and sales receipts. They travel to local libraries, foreign countries, and scientific labs to find clues in the unlikeliest of places. Perhaps most important in its accessibility to the viewer is the way they present research as a fun, and important, investigation.
Again, the more episodes I watched, the more I saw how I could use this in the classroom and how it could help my students in their approach to historical research. Although I have passed shied away from the use of videos in the classroom, and certainly pop culture programs such as this one, I plan to show my students an episode in the next few weeks. I’ll have to leave this post on a bit of a cliff-hanger (the value is currently in its theory stage), but my theory is that viewing research through this new lens will help them in their own projects. At the least, they will get a fuller sense of what goes into the research process; it’s just not lonely hours in a library with mountains of monographs. Research is also talking to people, reading journals, watching documentaries, looking at photographs, collaborating people in and outside your field, and confronting preconceived notions and hopes.
I’ve been taking a break from my own personal research projects during treatment, but watching tv has me getting excited about them again. Wait…did I just tun my only self-care guilty pleasure into work? Oh well.
Good books are the ones you can’t get off your mind.
You continue to think about them, mull over the plot lines and character development, try to discern the ending’s “meaning”––especially when the novel is a “tough read,” one that takes you out of your comfort zone and causes you to see people and places in a new light.
I just finished Ananda Devi’s Ève de ses décombres (Gallimard, 2006), and it is what I classify as a “good book.” When I fell asleep, and the moment I woke up, the novel was on my mind. And luckily for you, it’s available in English as Eve Out of Her Ruins (Deep Vellum, 2016). (J. M. G. Le Clézio, who won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote the forward to the novel’s English translation; I haven’t read it yet, but I’m dying to.)
Ananda Devi is both a scholar and novelist. Born in Trois-Boutiques, Mauritius, she earned a doctorate in social anthropology from the School for Oriental and African Studies in London. After spending time in Congo-Brazzaville, she moved to Switzerland. Devi has published more than a dozen novels and also writes poetry and short stories. She writes in French, but incorporates Mauritian Creole into her texts; much of her work is set in the island of Mauritius, which is located off the eastern coast of Africa. The French government named Devi a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 2010. In 2006, the author won the Prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie for Ève de ses décombres.
For my academic work, I veer towards novels written in poetic prose. These are the texts that make me want to write and attempt to untangle various layers of meaning and discern the literary devices that create meaning. The novel’s polyvocality is one of the poetic aspects that drew me in. It is told through the voices of 4 young adults––Sad, Ève, Savita, and Clélio––who disturb the reader’s desire to make quick assumptions by following a singular narrative. The poetic style illustrates the characters’ exploration of the complex and difficult psychological development of youth. There is also a nameless narrator whose thoughts appear in italicized font, noting their non-physical existence in the text’s setting.
The characters live in the city of Troumaron, which might be a wordplay on the familiar word for “sewer” in French trou and the color “brown,” marron, a name that disrupts the stereotype of Mauritius as a tourist destination with sandy beaches and palm trees.The young people in this novel are at a grave disadvantage: they suffer from being a neglected group on a small island with few few role models and resources they need to succeed. The only teacher we meet in the novel is ineffective (an extreme understatement) and their parents are worn down by economic struggles and harmful gender dynamics. The text’s violence is certainly tied to Mauritius’ postcolonial history, which I do not fully understand but am interested in knowing more about. In the novel, the volcano that created the island becomes a metaphor for the violence in their own lives. While Savita feels herself being swallowed by the disaster
“My feet are sinking in lava. Soon I won’t be able to move anymore. The volcano will tear me to pieces.” (73)
Sad feels he might have the chance to escape it
“I don’t want to be one of those waking up the volcano. This island was born from a volcano. One eruption is enough.” (126)
Other scholars have written on the inexpressibility of pain, such as that which is experienced by the characters, particularly the young women, in Ève de ses décombres. I’ve also been thinking about how poetic language serves as a possible, and perhaps ethical, way to narrate stories of extreme violence and trauma, which we might call correlates of “pain.” Devi’s poetic language imbues the fear, confusion, and identity disruption that often results from these situations.
Ève de ses décombres, (like Devi’s other novels) also caught my attention because of its subject matter. The novel closely examines the “construction and confinement of femininity” through the main character, Ève, who struggles with disembodiment. Ève uses her body as a source of power to get what she wants. And yet these endless sexual encounters in exchange for material objects comes with a price as she slowly loses her sense of self. Because of the themes it tackles, Devi claims that this story extends outside the borders of Mauritius:
“I am not only talking about Mauritius in my books, I am talking about human beings who happen to live in Mauritius and who could be from anywhere in the world. This is particularly so for Ève, whose four young people could be from anywhere — a Parisian suburb or a South American city.” (Devi cited in a LARB interview with the translator, Jeffrey Zuckerman)
I have a feeling that my relationship with Devi’s texts will be a long one. Her 2018 novel Manger l’autre (Eating the Other) is now on my bedside table, and I’m already wondering how it will figure into my next book project on consumption.
Part 3 in an ongoing series about Tanya’s fall elective on American women’s history. See Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
It’s September, which must mean that my course is ACTUALLY under way. Yippee!
We started the school year two weeks ago, and as expected, it’s been a good – but intense – two weeks of getting to know my students, getting my first lesson plans out the door, and, unexpectedly, getting hit with a massive head cold (on the second day of school, no less).
When I last talked to you, I pulled the veil back on my initial course planning efforts for my one-trimester Intro to American Women’s History. But a month ago, I didn’t know how many students I’d end up with, or who they were, or what they would want to do.
I’ve now solved 2 of those three problems, and reader, it’s about get interesting.
It’s been a while. Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but I have. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to sit down and put my thoughts to paper and today I do so for release. Writing functions as such an important catharsis for me, which is why I was so desperate to get back to the page after a very long, and unexpected, writing hiatus.
I wish I could say it was for exciting reasons, but alas, it was not. As you read in my last post, 2019 started out much the same as it always has, but it did not maintain its mundanity. The next post I had planned to write was going to feature the professional conference I attended in February. Instead, directly after that conference, I was confronted with a life changing diagnosis; Colorectal Cancer, Stage IV.
I tried crying about it for about a week, contemplating my demise, but it didn’t suit me. Neither did eating my feelings instead of writing them down (although mindfully eating a bag of Doritos does have its merits). So here I am, doing something I usually loathe, making my personal life public. I’ve gone back and forth about this post, and about extending my hiatus, but then I remembered that “the personal is political”, and felt empowered by idea that one’s personal experience can help political or social discourse. Perhaps that is what I’m supposed to do with this experience.
I finished my 8th and final round of chemo at the end of July and today I start radiation as I also begin another semester teaching art history at 2 community colleges. My doctors and I have high expectations for remission, but it will be a long road until then. I remain my optimistic self and fortunately, the nature of my job has allowed me to use the summer to focus on my health and my family. I was also fortunate that, despite a demanding schedule of chemo, radiation, and surgery, I was, and continue to be, able to work, semi-normally, with the help of my family, friends, and colleagues. It truly does take a village.
Now let me pause for a moment right here, dear reader, to assure you that this isn’t intended to be a traditional cancer post. I’m not ready to detail my treatment or any deep insights I may have gained from this humbling experience. I may never have insights. I still change the cat litter and my daughter still steals my phone to use the toilet. I guess at the the least I’ve learned to be thankful that everyone else in this house has a colon functioning better than I. In addition, I have yet to fully face the fears that come with this disease. Not yet. I need space from it and time to figure out what my relationship with cancer will be.
However, fighting cancer has heightened the lens through which I view the world and my own life. Detailing my journey (thus far) to close family and friends, I quickly noticed my over-use of the word “lucky”. Lucky that I had doctors who took me seriously when I told them my pain was unusual. Lucky that those doctors sprung to action. Lucky my co-workers stepped in to teach the classes I was unable to attend and help me finish my spring semester so I didn’t lose the already tenuous hold I have on my contingent faculty position. Lucky that my husband has good insurance and kind co-workers as well. Lucky that I’m surrounded by family that are friends and friends that are family who have come to help take care of me, my child, my house, my cooking and cleaning, because considering hiring help on an adjunct salary is laughable.
As a long-term, career, adjunct professor, I’ve always kept up with information about the status of contingent faculty experiences, but that attention is now focused even more with one question: what if this happens to someone else who isn’t so “lucky”. The answer to that question isn’t hard to find since my story is not unique. The death of Margaret Mary Vojtko sparked much debate about the treatment of adjuncts as did the death of Thea Hunter. Both women had done everything right, in terms of securing degrees and accolades, which should have garnered them success in their respective fields. Instead, they both died in poverty. In addition, there are myriad articles detailing the realities of life as a contingent employee, including data on low pay and the need to secure additional jobs to make ends meet, which is easier said than done.
Reflecting on my mortality, and how expendable I seem to be to the field I’ve devoted myself to for decades, has made me realize just how integral I am. I have been teaching part-time at community colleges and universities in the DMV for about 15 years. At the onset, I felt as many in my position probably have: adjunct work was the consolation prize. I took the abuse about failure and not being good enough to be full time or tenured because I thought I deserved it.
Luckily, I’ve stopped thinking of my position in these terms. I am great at what I do: I’m invested in my students, I’m committed to my field, I attend (on my own dime) conferences, symposia, and local lectures that keep me up to date on research and pedagogy, and perhaps most importantly, I fulfill a need in the system. That’s something that seems to be lost in this: I’m not the desperate one. The adjunct, the graduate student, the post-doc, the non-tenured are not disposable. Not only is it common decency to provide a living wage and a safety net for any worker, this respect should be given to those upon who we so desperately rely. Instead, so many of us are left to rely on luck.
Despite our part-time status, we are not contingent humans. The problem now resides in a system that has not evolved to understand our power and our worth. Academia is not doing me a favor. It’s the other way around
Again, I survive the system purely because of luck, but many others do not have the same support system. Thus, we need to come together within the profession. It’s time for us to collectively bargain for rights we deserve. We didn’t lose the game, we didn’t fail, the job system changed, so our approach to it needs to change as well. I know people will balk at the idea of unionization and detail the varied reasons it won’t fix the problem. However, at this point we’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas. (There really is a Simpsons reference for every occasion).
Luckily, I know I will survive both cancer and a life as an adjunct professor, but I’d like colleagues in a position like mine to have the same outlook.
In addition to writing publicly about this very personal struggle, my cancer diagnosis caused me to do something else uncharacteristic: I purchased a book of encouraging quotes.
“…Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.” (@realDonaldTrump on Twitter, Jul 14, 2019)
These comments came from “the occupant of the White House’s” Twitter feed. Most unfortunately, these words revive a fear of the Other that has plagued American history. Uttered from the mouth of a white man, this Other has often represented non-white and female identities. This is unmistakably the identitarian tension at stake in the president’s derogatory remarks directed at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar. In an effort to erect another boundary between himself and these Congresswomen, the president falsely stated that they were not natural-born American citizens and ordered them to “go back” to the “places from which they came.” As we all well know by this point, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Pressley are natural-born US citizens, and Omar became a citizen in 2000 after immigrating from Somalia as a child. All of the women responded to Trump on Twitter that indeed, the country “we all swear to” is the United States (Ocasio-Cortez) and that “THIS is what racism looks like” (Pressley). While researching this news story, I was immediately taken back to a novel we read in my French Women Writers course this past Spring.
“You can go back where you came from.” (Rudy Descas in Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye)
This all-too-familiar phrase––a paraphrase of the president’s comments––appears midway through prominent French author Marie NDiaye’s three-part novel, Three Strong Women. NDiaye is the first black woman to receive France’s highest literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, which she was awarded for Three Strong Women. Published in 2009, the novel touches on several current political concerns in the US: distinction between fact and fiction, trust in authority, systemic racism, sexual equality, and xenophobia. It is unsurprising that this French novel reflects tensions in American political terrain as both countries currently suffer from an uptick in right-wing nationalism. Continue reading “Political Literature: Marie NDiaye’s “Three Strong Women””→
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.
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 forallow 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.
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!
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.
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.
As 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 !