The first set from my series of poems making use of language found in pre-1914 medical texts can now be read at Figure 1. While the idea behind the poetry has its roots in books so physical I can smell them and feel their pages near crumble, it was the Internet Archive that served as point of access to the texts I actually used. The importance of both digital and physical text to to this project says as much about embodiment now as the books themselves did about embodiment in the time when they were printed.
Over the past few days, in shared taxis and before bed, I have read the first two books in Meg Elison’s Road to Nowhere trilogy which explores the former U.S. in the years after an autoimmune disease devastates the population, killing women disproportionately. These books are uneven novels. As the speed at which I read them suggests, they are true page turners. You want to know how characters survive, or don’t, and the narrative’s early following of characters after they leave the eponymous midwife promises the reader that those questions will always be answered.
Elison plays with cliches of apocalyptic fiction with limited success. For example, in the first book, the main character sleeps through the apocalypse with the fever though, as a nurse on a maternity ward, she witnesses its beginning. The trope is thus not fully followed. Still, it is a bit disappointing not to get more of those final moments of the old world in flashback.
What the main character of the first book, who might better be described as many-named than unnamed, discovers quickly upon waking is that social deterioration and the altered balance between the genders has turned most men into predators who hunt and enslave women. At this historical moment, with a sexual predator in the White House, that seems terribly believable Even the good men in The Book of the Unnamed Midwife tend to belong settlements that fall into gender essentialism in their efforts to repopulate the earth.
It is really only in the second book that this essentialism is fully explored and problematized. At the same time, however, The Book of Etta contains a number of plot weakness—specifically, deus ex machina characters with unexplained spiritual powers and a weapons cache.
The third book, The Book of Flora, is not yet published and I expect that I will read it, though it isn’t a release for which I will be counting down the days.
Background: One of the hazards of living in Majuro is the dog pack. These dogs are neither stray nor feral, but are not controlled or generally treated as pets.
I was talking with a student about a particular dog down the back road near campus who has attacked a number of faculty. One time when he went after me, I lost my keys and only got them back through the incredible kindness of a witness.
Student: Yeah, that’s my brother’s dog. We trained him to be that way. He keeps the kids away.
Me: Could you at least train him not to go after ri-bālle [foreigners]?
Student: laughs He’s always been that way. He likes white meat. He’s racist.
Me: No, he can’t be racist because institutional power doesn’t support his going after white people.
When someone criticizes NFL players who sit or kneel during the US national anthem for disrespecting veterans, it’s reasonable to reply that they are not disrespecting the military, because the protest is not, in fact, about the military. In the face disbelief, it is also reasonable to marshal the testimony of veterans who support the protest. These responses, however, leave dangerous assumptions untouched: namely, that respect for the military should have priority over all other considerations and that the opinions of those who have military experience are more valuable than those of of other citizens. These assumptions are not characteristic of a civil democracy. In a democracy, civil society takes priority; there is a reason that the Command In Chief is a civilian.
The better response when someone claims that a protest against unjust killings of citizens disrespects the military is “So what if it did?” A society that prioritizes the feelings of the military is already approaching military rule.
Of course, in this case, racism has enabled the focus on military feelings. Racism has made black people vulnerable not only to police brutality but also to having their lives regarded as less important than perceptions of respect for soldiers. That does not mean that the expectation that the military be venerated will never be placed above other citizens’ lives, or even above all civilian lives. Rather, it is a toehold, as toeholds for authoritarianism and other oppressions have often begun with already oppressed groups.
To be clear, I am not advocating for disrespect of individual soldiers or veterans any more than I would advocate for the disrespect of other individual citizens (Nazis being an exception). What I am doing is to point out the danger in accepting the terms of an argument in which deference to symbols associated with the military takes precedence over everything else.
Over the summer, at a conference-closing roundtable, the discussion turned to what senior scholars could do for younger ones, with the latter meaning mostly graduate students. As neither category applied to me, I slipped out of the room for more coffee. Across a table piled high with maple bear claws, I told a fellow caffeine-seeker that the whole conversation was making me feel very middle-aged.
“Maybe a little middle-aged,” he replied.
But the truth is that I don’t know where I fit in terms of career-stage. “Early Career Researcher” can be used to refer to recent PhDs, but how many years is recent? Five years? If that’s the measure, I’m on the edge. Or is it measured by publication of a monograph, in which case I’m already in some other category? Or maybe it has to do with your job, in which case I’m confused again. I work at a community college in the middle of the Pacific that does not have tenure, but on the other hand I have a leadership position as Chair of my department. In that position, I sometimes advise more recent PhDs on how to keep publishing despite the heavy load of teaching and service we require. And I do not experience the insecurity typically faced by faculty working in contingent positions.
I’m also in a different kind of middle because I do both critical and creative writing. I finished my MFA five years before I started my PhD. Back then I only wrote poetry, but more recently I have worked in prose fiction and creative nonfiction as well. My personal essay about my issues with forgiveness culture has affected more lives than anything else I have ever written. So how should I be distributing my writing time?
With these competing positions, identities, and demands on my time, I never seem to fit easily into any community, academic or otherwise. Marginality is not a new experience for me, but I’m wondering how common my sense of being in-between is in academia today and what, if anything, disciplines should do to address it.
- How to be an academic? (thesiswhisperer.com)
- Peter H. Huang, Adventures in Higher Education, Happiness, and Mindfulness (lawprofessors.typepad.com)
At Chronicle Vitae, Rob Jenkins has written about the ways he tries to sell students on taking literature courses. I quibble with the idea of literature as “a record” of what people thought: while the ideals, lifestyles, and assumptions of a time can be read into and with a work of literature, the connection is not straightforward enough to call a literary text a record of historical thought. It is within this quibble that much of the value of a literature course can be found for those students who may never pursue literary studies again: these courses help students develop their abilities to understand how a story or other expression is designed to act upon them, to understand what is shown, what is hidden, and what lies somewhere in between.
I am not talking only about a hermeneutics of suspicion: I am talking, too, about how we understand the relationship between teller and told, between creator and society. Practicing thinking about these questions will allow students to make better future judgments not only about texts that already exist but also about those that we cannot yet anticipate. How do we think about a politician’s narrative or about a rambling monologue from a guy at the pub? How do we think about the uses of poetry by the State?
For my students in the Marshall Islands, the role of literature in cultural survival is also urgent. It may not seem to be so important for the vast majority of American college students. However, when we consider the survival of marginalized subcultures, the importance becomes greater. There is also the question of how the perspective of the strange or marginalized individual on society survives, which I think is how I got started with poetry and other forms in the first place. (The line between literary studies and creative writing has never been especially bright or wide for me.)
Sometimes it seems frustratingly utilitarian to have to justify the value of literature courses, but as long as we refuse to reduce it to “employable skills,” we are doing both ourselves and our students a service. Remembering why we do what we do can only make use more careful thinkers and writers.