Writing Anthropology and Such or “Once More, with Feeling”

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this guest column from Gina Athena Ulysse as the launch post of our new Writers’ Workshop series. Gina is an associate professor of anthropology at Wesleyan University. Born in Haiti, she has lived in the United States for the last thirty years. She is also a poet, performance artist and multi-media artist. Prof U, as her students call her, is the author of Downtown Ladies: Informal Commercial Importers, A Haitian Anthropologist and Self-Making in Jamaica (Chicago 2008). She recently completed Why Haiti Needs New Narratives, a collection of post-quake dispatches, essays and meditations written between 2010-2012. Currently, she is developing, VooDooDoll, What if Haiti Were a Woman, a performance-installation project. Most recently, her writing has been published in Gastronomica, Souls, and Transition.)

When I write, there’s a slight lag- a-whatever- space-between when words strung together into phrases or sentences are transmitted onto the page with fingers trained as intermediaries.  A right hand injury made me identify this pause as I became more conscious of various aspects and levels in my writing. Not being able to type gave me a new relationship to interludes in my process.

I started to learn a dictation program that made me grouchy. It insisted I follow its rules, stripping off the last vestiges of an old accent and making me pronounce certain words the Anglo way so it recognized them. Fortunately, it also decidedly made me very happy and even freer: in some ways this limitation helped open me to just what it is that I want to write at this particular point in my life and most importantly, for what reason.

The basics matter, so here they are: I am tenured faculty member at Wesleyan University, a black woman from Haiti who speaks her mind and used to describe herself as a performance artist masquerading as an academic or an accidental academic. I have never been conventional (not as a grad student or pre-tenure faculty) and am certainly not about to make a u-turn now. More often then not, I choose to honor the verve that drives my quest to confront the visceral. All of that to say, I take risks. My writing has always occurred within intersections from theory to form. As I have yet to meet a human subject who lives life along disciplinary lines, I don’t usually fret about it.

[Fair warning: Unless you consider yourself something of a misfit trying to navigate this terrain, this may not be for you.]

What I have found over the years is that the more aware I am of both the broader professional and personal contexts within which I write, the easier it is for me to write.  Looking back, I recall those moments when I was a dissertating grad student battling the paralysis that came with the all-too-common fear of being a first-generation everything working to make space for herself as an expert in a discipline, where decades later minorities are still underrepresented. I made it through and faced said fears again when writing the book. At one point I was truly stuck, spending hours at the office unable to write anything new. I got over this block and owe the deluge that followed in part to the senior white male colleague who once bellowed, “You can’t give a fuck! You will never write if you are worried about your critics. You will never write!”

His brazen privilege reminded me of previous conversations with my advisor and mentors about professional paths, theoretical lineages and decisions concerning what it means to do reflexive anthropology. Be prepared for the navel-gazing backlash [check!], the silencing [check!], the charge that such work is soft or illegitimate [check! check!] and too political [check!]. I embraced the reflexive turn precisely to consider both what I had learned and how I came to that knowledge. Moreover, I deploy reflexivity to expose what I like to call the “social luxury of whiteness” since I certainly do not benefit from the convenience of being unmarked as Trouillot so aptly put it. (It’s all in the book.) A post-Zora interventionist, as I call myself, this approach continues to suit my projects and my chosen interlocutors.  Yet, the old fears and issues still come up (there are more evaluations and even more gatekeepers) though I confront them much quicker as I get older. Once they are out of the way, other impediments to my writing tend to be rather practical such as career plan, enough time, the right conditions and a healthy body and hand.

When I was a junior faculty member, muddling through the unfair extra burden of my joint-position in AfAm and Anthro, there was a little protection, which allowed me to carve spaces and get the first book done. Nothing, however, had prepared me for the gendered, racialized and classed division of affective service labor post-tenure that ultimately determines who gets to pursue a future as an intellectual and who is expected to be faithfully committed to institution building.  That’s the primary reason fewer women and minorities are full professors. Indeed, in more ways than one, I almost became a casualty of the ivory ceiling.

Luckily, the performer had been slowly removing her mask over the years while a devastating earthquake forced a detour from my second project luring me into new directions. Listening to my muses and responding to the call of 1/12/2010 inspired experimentation with different forms of writing and expression. The situation in Haiti—the reason I became an anthropologist—rendered the stakes the highest they have ever been during my academic career. I embarked on an urgent public anthropology spree, penning opinion pieces, blogging and performing both for sanity and because I could offer another perspective. In the end, I produced non-traditional works that were not part of the “original” “plan,” (as if there was one), but which now comprise an unconventional book of essays and blogs.

These days, I am no longer split between a program and a department. The structural conditions that once impeded me, which practically required a survival guide, no longer exist. For the very first time in my entire career as faculty, I have unencumbered time to be contemplative, thus ready to engage a work that has been on the back burner as I develop installments of a large-scale performance project. I find it useful and fun to think about my writing time as studio time.

Conditions need to be optimal yet flexible. Now that I have to rely on the disciplining microphone to capture my thoughts, I try to accommodate my very specific habits. I opt for regular, longer slots of time when the outside world cannot intrude. Turn off all electronics except iTunes. I need music especially when starting something new. I have been listening to the same Mozart boxed set for over 25 years. Thank god for the invention of the compact disc. Yet, I prefer the atmosphere of a noisy café when revising. I have playlists for different phases of writing with everything from Bookman Eksperyans to Awolnation. Decades ago, I realized that I am not a linear writer, but more of a quilt maker. I am content when I produce chunks. I have also learned to not berate myself if I can’t come up with anything. There are works by certain poets and art books near my desk (or in the moveable studio bag), which I need and reach for when words are not whirling out of my head as I face the screen.  As long as I am present in the space and in conversation with artists or even in silence, I now consider myself writing.

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ng writing as a practice that requires my full attention has helped me cultivate a healthier and more integrated relationship to my discursive and expressive meditations.  It’s not a chore; I look forward to the process.  As I have to manually (and painfully) scroll pages, my injured hand reminds me why the work I do must be of deeper significance, why it must truly matter to me and also be full of inspiration.

[Written during the 123rd birthday of Zora Neale Hurston, my title is in part a riff of her controversial 1938 essay “Art and Such” and the only musical episode (7th) of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the series' sixth season.]

9 thoughts on “Writing Anthropology and Such or “Once More, with Feeling”

  1. [redacted]
    Chelsi — thanks for reblogging this post, but we don’t accept reblogging comments in our comments section, so I’ve edited this comment out. Feel free to use a ping back to publicize your post :) -Rex

  2. Thanks so much for this piece, Gina, and especially for the encouragement to take risks even when they seem so hard, so impossible, so unreachable for all sorts of reasons and constraints.

    The one line that I think provides the bass, in a sense, to the entire piece, and even more so to your entire oeuvre, is this one: “More often than not, I choose to honor the verve that drives my quest to confront the visceral.”

    The visceral. Here are the four definitions my online Merriam-Webster dictionary gave:
    1. felt in or as if in the internal organs of the body
    2. not intellectual
    3. dealing with crude or elemental emotions
    4. of, relating to, or located on or among the viscera

    Exactly some of the places where ethnography–and verve–can be most needed. Just as you say.

  3. Carole, I’m struck by your definitions of visceral. Part of what I am trying to do in the work I’m writing is to write, literarily, from my organs, tissue, bones through practices I’ve learned in various movement practices: Authentic Movement, Continnuum Movement and Body, Mind, Centering: using the breath, sound, and attention to move from different organ systems, parts of the body. Still writing about the world out there, but trying to do so from another part – or more parts – the world inside. I find it brings a freshness to my writing that often isn’t there, a sense of discovery. Anyway, I’m curious if others experiment with this and, if so, what they’ve found?

    Thanks for the insights and the encouragement!

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