Writing and Research

Thinking about what to write in this week’s blog, I mull over the events at the Lessons with Persephone Retreat at the weekend. In the quiet of the Retreat, writing came easily. At the moment, this blog is going nowhere.

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When we were talking about if, and when, we had been published, I mentioned that I had only published in a couple of academic journals and one chapter in a book. This chapter was a shared enterprise with my PhD Supervisor, Prof. Jenny de Reuck, and a colleague who was also one of Jenny’s Post Grads, Sharifa Ahjum. The title of the chapter is “The Remembrance of Things Past”: Memory and Migration as Tropes in the Construction of Postgraduate Subjectivities. (You can see we didn’t resile from long and involved titles). When I reread it now, I am struck by the clarity of the writing and the sense of community we shared.

The book is Bartlett, A & Mercer G (Eds) (2001) Postgraduate Research Supervision: Transforming (R)Elations. New York. Peter Lang. pp 233-245.

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The paragraphs that I want to bring to this blog are my own.

In the beginning my doctoral research was to follow my own background – about the women who went to Africa, not from England. That was the intention. In the event, I didn’t follow that research – a common enough story for any PhD Candidate.

In this essay, I moved to writing about Jenny, Sharifa and I – our positionality and affective ethnicity. This is what I wrote: “Where do I stand to Jenny? Where do I stand to Sharifa? How are we so inclusive of each other? It is our coming out of Africa that is our ‘affective ethnicity’. Our form of ethnicity is beyond blood and colour. We draw our connection from our African origins, shared memories of experiences from a country we have left. ‘Affective ethnicity’; meta-ethnicity! Affective pedagogy!” I drew on the work of Moshe Shokeid (‘An Anthropologist’s Work between Moving Genres’ in Ethnos. Vol 57, 1 – 4, 233- 44, 1992.)

Following this I bemoan the fact that I have such difficulty in understanding some of the texts such as Foucault and Bhabha. Sharifa can read and understand these but I battle to make sense of such abstract concepts. Here, again, I quote myself, “Is it my age that stands between me and truly understanding these readings? Has my mind closed the doors—atrophied in the cells? Am I trapped in ignorance? Sometimes I bang my fists against these closed doors, “Open up! Open up!” I call, then, “Think Woman! Think!” Who is the teacher who can lead me to comprehension? Where is the insight that I deny myself? Self-proscribed knowledge, self-proscribed wisdom.

Finally, back to the beginning.

The first entry in my PhD journal reads thus:

Some of the things I want to include:

The spiritual aspect.

The sense of self.

The sense of place.

Identity as a fragile, contextual thing … I worry about my rigidity.

Can I sustain the energy?

The essence is this, researching and writing a doctoral thesis is a lonely thing to do. It is atonement for curiosity; an exercise in humility; self-inflicted isolation. Nevertheless, this is my search for an identity in an alien space. I was never brought up to be an academic. I was never brought up to be an Australian. I catch a glimpse of myself and ask “Who are you?” or maybe, “Who do you think you are?” And then I continue—because what else is there to do?

So, I did continue and eventually, a couple of days before I turned 60, I was notified that I was through. I was now a bona fide doctor.

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Writing and Research

The Long Drawer revisited

I wrote this Blog seven years ago and wanted to draw on it again today. I was stuck for a topic so this is my ‘go to’ box. I’ve added a couple of photos and edited it slightly (some of it seemed a bit garbled). I had to copy and paste as I didn’t know how to bring the post to the top of my Blog.

I dipped my hand into one of the files just a moment ago and came up with this – I cut it out of the Weekend Australian Magazine in February, 2001. So, it isn’t all serious stuff!

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As you can see from the photo, there’s nothing posh about my Long Drawer. The cardboard box has has had a few incarnations – packing case, repository for academic drafts, and toy box for Rosie amongst other things.

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My Long Drawer – box

The value of the Bakhtinian notion of the “long drawer”.

I have been a researcher since childhood. I have discovered that my researcher persona seldom takes a holiday. Conversations I have—and have had (or overheard), the books I read and have read, the events I participate in or observe become intrinsic to my life. The garnered information is stored, often in a journal, sometimes in memory, sometimes on tape or in pictures, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, but is there to be “drawn” on when I need it!

Connecting my familiar to what is, at first strange, carries me into my writing. Remembering stories and myths allows me, indeed provokes me, as author, to use my ‘long drawer’. A colleague mentioned (in passing) ‘the long drawer’. He was speaking about Bakhtin’s custom of ‘drawing’ on material that he had written many years earlier. The play on the word ‘drawer’ (I imagine the material was kept in a bureau of some sort) and ‘drawing’ upon it, befits the way I work and research and remember. These things I keep: letters, essays, and notes; I write down dreams, conversations and memories of conversations; I eavesdrop and take notes. I keep journals, diaries, taped interviews, lists, and newspaper clippings—many of which I draw on at various stages in my work.

When the dreaded block happens, I plunge my hand into one of the various boxes or files that serve to house the bits and pieces. I find in my ‘long drawer’ journals and diaries that go back forty years or more; scraps of paper with notes are even older. I remember the journals and letters I destroyed when I left Africa and regret that I was so imprudent and impulsive in burning them. The papers and letters I did keep take on a meaningfulness that makes me realise I was an historian, an ethnographer, an anthropologist, before I knew what the words meant. Among the treasures that remain in the cache, my ‘long drawer’, are my father’s handwritten notes of the eulogy he gave at his mother’s funeral in 1967—the year my daughter was born—and just by seeing his handwriting I feel and savour the threads that link the generations: I remember the fountain pen he used, I remember my grandmother’s funeral, and most of all, I remember my father.

The correspondence and conversations with friends, relatives, Australians, Zimbabweans, and expatriate Rhodesians is evident and the anonymous others whose words and conversations, overheard, are stored for retrieval when I need them. In the long drawer, past impacts on the present and the present on the past and traces of autobiography are spoor to draw in the reader.

This post is now part of my long drawer and in it I have drawn on my doctoral thesis, emails to friends and other hoarded sources.

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Looking tidy today!

Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975)

The Long Drawer revisited

Disappearing mugs of tea & coffee, and Academic Writing is a mask

I don’t know about you but this is what happens to me … I am sitting, comfortably – probably reading or doing a sudoko – quietly sipping on a mug of hot tea (please note, I’m very careful not to write ‘a hot mug of tea’) or hot coffee. After a couple of sips I reach out again for the mug and it is empty. In the words of Julius Sumner Miller, “Why is this so?” My attention may have wandered for a moment, but only a moment so where did the tea go? I have a theory, I have many theories that are totally useless in the event.

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This tea/coffee discussion is not a proper entry for my blog.

I am writing a more whinging blog about why I can’t access my own academic papers published in journals. I’d put the paper up on Academia.com but the original paper is long gone. The journal article I’m thinking of was on an ancient computer that died about 15 years ago. I’ve got the hard copy and I know if I copy it out I’ll change it! The Journal of Australian Studies claim copyright and I can’t even copy my own writing without written permission from the Editor. So, you’ll not be able to read my paper, Recollection of Identity: The Reassembly of the Migrant in JAS #77 2003 pp 109-116. Some academics have cited the work and that makes me feel it was worthwhile.

Nowadays, I use the academic style to hide behind. I have lots of things to say but they are not always acceptable. I stifle the urge to write publicly because what I have to say is inflammatory, to me and to others. Betrayal, loathing, exclusion, hate, love.

Academic writing is a mask.

Disappearing mugs of tea & coffee, and Academic Writing is a mask