Monday, November 7, 2016

Notes from the Road

Last week after teaching classes in Wolfville I packed my carry-on suitcase, kissed B. and bébé goodbye, and got into a taxi. I was heading to Toronto for my first ever reading from my new, non-academic book. Three and a half days later I am sitting in the Montreal airport waiting for my delayed flight to take me home to Halifax. I will hug B. and bébé. B. and I will get ready for the week. I hope to get home with enough time to take the dog (and me, really) for a walk. To have enough time to get my lectures ready and help with the things that need doing over the weekend. What follows is a collection of loosely connected thoughts and moments from my time on the road with my still-new-to-me book:

Book readings are fun!
Several years ago I had the opportunity to see Erín Moure and Karis Shearer talk about the reading as a public and discursive space for poetics to unfold differently. (You can read their essay here). I have only ever been an audience member or a facilitator at a literary reading, so I had no idea what to expect when I shifted to the other side of things and was a reader myself. I know how to give a lecture and a conference paper, I said to B., but what makes a good reading? 

I'm not sure I know, but I can tell you this: preparing for a reading was fun. When I started to get out of my own way (you know, when I started to quell those imposter-syndrome voices) I realized that reading a book I wrote meant I was the subject-matter expert! This might seem obvious, but for me it was revelatory. Even when I am presenting a conference paper I am keenly aware of how partial my subject expertise is--I almost always present work that is in-process or being aired in public for the first time, and while this was true for the new book it felt different some how. Lighter? I'm not sure that's the right word. Perhaps its just the cliched-but-true saying that a change is as good as a break. And yesterday, as I sat beside my dear friend Johanna Skibsrud waiting to hear her read from her newest book of poetry, as I listened to a former student and now friend, graduate student, writer, and conference co-organizer Karissa Laroque introduce us and talk about intergenerational friendship, I'll tell you this: I was feeling pretty wonderful about the CanLit world despite/in spite of news to the contrary.

Writing a non-academic book doesn't mean its a non-academic book
On Thursday, the day after I got to read at the Pivot Reading series with Stevie Howell and Leesa Dean and Rob Taylor I drove to Kitchener-Waterloo. There, I got to speak with the Gender and Women's Studies Students at the University of Waterloo, and then to give a lecture at St. Jerome's University as part of the UN Women Solidarity Movement for Gender Equity. I know, I'm lucky. What surprised me so much, though, is that these universities were willing to bring me in to speak to their students and read to them from my book. A book that I thought--until recently--wasn't "academic enough," whatever that means.

But we know what that means, don't we? I thought an academic book was one that underwent peer review, was published by an academic press, and helped one's tenure file (if one has a tenure file). Those books--those academic books--are the kinds of books I am familiar with, they are the kinds I strive to write. When I wrote Notes from a Feminist Killjoy I wasn't thinking about whether or not it would get me an academic job. I was thinking about how much I love Sara Ahmed's thinking, how much I love Maggie Nelson's thinking, how much I love Zora Neale Hurston's thinking, and how I wanted to try and write out my own attempts to think with them and others.

I wrote an academic book, it turns out, but it turns out that in working with a non-academic publisher (yay BookThug!) I wrote it for me, and not reviewer #2. The research is there, the footnotes are there, the rigour is there, but in a different form. And what I remembered, in trying to reconcile what I'd made with where I trained, is what I try to teach my students: epistemology is not uniform. Funny, how we have to keep remembering to unlearn our habitual lines of thought.

There are more innovative ways to run a roundtable discussion
Off the Page is part of the Writers Read Series at Concordia. See the schedule here.

On of the last roundtable discussions at Off the Page--a student-facilitated conference co-ordinated by the inimitable Sina Queyras and Concordia students--was like nothing I've ever seen before, much less had the opportunity to take part in. Here's the scene: several months ago I received an invitation from Off the Page to come participate on "A Roundtable Discussion on Appropriation." The prompt I was given was Lionel Shriver's unapologetic and racist speech defending her own caricatures of people of colour and defending anyone's right (white rights, it would seem) to write whatever they please. Participants of this roundtable discussion were given a few articles to read. We were also asked about dietary restrictions. Why? Because, as the organizers wrote, we'd be sitting on stage eating dinner together while talking through appropriation, "rights" when writing, and who has a place at the table. This invitation made me nervous and excited. Of course I said yes.

So, last night at Temps Libre, I walked into a room with a small stage. On the stage was a dinner table replete with wine, water, cheese and bread and tapenade, and four other people I had not met until that moment. Indeed, as we quickly learned, none of us knew each other (though some of us knew of each other). At the table was Trish Salah, Kai Cheng Thom, Madelyne Beccles, Fariha Roísín, and me. As we sat across from one another, first introducing ourselves, then, at Kai's suggestion, doing an emotional check-in and intentions-setting for our selves and the audience, we were served food. The food had been prepared for us by an amazing member of the organizing committee, and they carefully placed plates of it in front of us as we, five strangers to each other, grappled with questions of ethics, accountability, and belonging from our five different histories.

The conversation wasn't so much slow as careful and tentative at first. It seemed, without saying, that we were trying to go around the table and make sure each of us responded to an idea or a question before we went on. But, as the evening progressed, as we became not so much less aware of the audience than more comfortable with it and each other (I think, at least that's how it was for me) words moved across the table more organically. People talked, they fell silent. Always, though, we were listening to one another. We started leaning over and giggling. At one point our amazing chef brought figs with pumpkin seeds out and I whispered to Kai "hold me while I swoon.

There was a sixth chair at the table, which was meant for audience members. It was empty for a while, and then one audience member came, sat with us, had a glass of wine, and contributed to the conversation. From that point on there was a line to come sit at the table. We shared food. We talked. I know I learned for everyone, and I felt listened to when I spoke. When it was over I felt something had shifted, if only for the time we were at the table.

How much more can we ask from a panel of relative strangers getting together to talk before an audience?

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