Unscholarly Confessions on Reading

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Katerina Teaiwa as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Katerina is Head of Department of Gender, Media and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History & Language at Australia National University, as well as President of the Australian Association for Pacific Studies. Her book Consuming Ocean Island: Stories of People and Phosphate from Banaba (Indiana University Press, 2015) focuses on histories of phosphate mining in the central pacific, specifically the movement of Banaban rock and the complex relations created by the mining, shipping, production and consumption of superphosphate and ensuing commodities (watch the book trailer on youtube). This Banaba work inspired a permanent exhibition at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which tells the story of phosphate mining in the Pacific through Banaban dance. She is currently collaborating in the The Anthropocene Kitchen project to convert her book and research into a science comic.]

They say to write well you should read well: “read more and write better” proclaims the Writing Forward blog. And in her Savage Minds essay Ruth Behar states: “It comes down to this: you can only write as well as what you read.”

While I have to write regularly as an academic, I’m currently struggling to identify good reading practices in my weekly or even monthly routine. How do we define good practices? Is what influences us as academics primarily the “high quality” sources — the peer reviewed articles and books, the classical texts or novels, the rich ethnographic texts, fieldwork or other reliable data — that we expect to find cited in our colleagues’ work, and that we regularly assign to our students?

My colleagues often chat about the latest award winning literature they’ve read and when I read their work and reflect on their word choices and sentence structure I can see clearly that regularly consuming good literature, non-fiction, or scholarly writing has helped shape their excellent choice of prose. Ideas are conveyed with just that right balance of substance, insight and scholarly flourish. My elder sister, who is also an academic, a poet, and definitely a wordsmith, does this very well.

As I write this, I look across to the small library on my husband’s bedside table displaying titles such as The Corporeal Image, Material Ecocriticism, The Island of the Colorblind, Musicophilia and others by Pramoedya Toer, Ursula Le Guin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ray Bradbury and Michael Pollan. His mother was an editor for Penguin and their country home, before it was tragically destroyed in the Black Saturday Victoria bushfires of 2009, held the most wonderful library of classics and more for readers of all ages. He didn’t go to university for any kind of study until the age of thirty- two but was, and still is, a voracious and selective reader. Both he and my elder sister read dictionaries as children. Read dictionaries, like they were storybooks.

My side of the bed is a different story. Instead of serious literature and classics, there are two novels by Johanna Lyndsey (Tender Rebel and Heart of Thunder), something by Nora Roberts, 25 Ways to Awaken your Birth Power, What to Expect When you’re Expecting, Nightmares and Dreamscapes, and that trio of magazines I cannot pass at the checkout stand– Woman’s Day, New Idea and Who. I know a fair bit about what Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are purported to be up to though I skip anything on Princess Kate, the Bachelor, and the Bachelorette. The best literature on my side of the bed is by Stephen King and while Tender Rebel is now in the rubbish bin I am still reading every other line of Heart of Thunder featuring a male protagonist who is grossly just enough “savage” and just enough “civilized” to hold the attention of the feisty, red-haired female lead.

How did I, a decolonizing, wannabe decarbonizing, armchair activist, university teacher, ethnographer, interdisciplinary Pacific Studies scholar, and, recently, actual book author, get to this place? Rather than automatically blaming the regular periods of burnout or the hormones flowing through my body in the third trimester of what I’m calling a “mechanically challenging pregnancy”, I’d like to try to answer that question by looking back at my life as the product of an intensely cross-cultural Banaban-I-Kiribati-American household.

I grew up in the Fiji Islands in Savusavu, Levuka, Lautoka and finally Suva, where we lived outside town in a new development called Tacirua Heights, inland, in a home with floor to ceiling books, magazines, encyclopedias, and dictionaries. The majority of our relatives lived on Rabi Island in the far north, a community displaced by phosphate mining on Banaba in Kiribati, but at the time it was rather difficult to get to on any regular basis. Unlike my husband’s secular environment, our house also featured an abundance of religious, Catholic objects, literature and biblical texts. Our family of mum and dad, three girls, two dogs and a short-lived cat occupied a modest, three bedroom house on a street with no name, no telephone or television service (well to be fair the whole of Fiji had no TV at the time), few neighbors, a 180 degree view of the Suva coast, and no garbage collection. This last detail I mention because one of my clearest memories is of my father suffering from the effects of a small explosion that happened during the routine household waste burn. It singed off all the hair from his legs and left many scars.

 

Daddy burning rubbish
My father incinerating household waste in the backyard. Photo by Katerina Teaiwa.

 

Around the fire pit we had an abundant and beautiful tropical flower and food garden producing bananas, coconuts, papaya, soursop, passion fruit, lemons, cassava, taro, bele, yams, chili peppers, curry leaf, vanilla, and star fruit among other seasonal fruits and vegetables. Inside the house was a veritable library, and an old Betamax system and video screen on which we watched, on repeat, Hello Dolly, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Fiddler on the Roof, Star Wars, the Faerie Tale Theatre series and ballet tapes sent over from the US, particularly Coppelia, the Nutcracker, Swan Lake and occasionally Dance Theatre of Harlem.

These were complemented by cheap video rentals of taped, American and Australian television shows such as the Cosby Show, Facts of Life and Young Talent Time. When the video was off, and my younger sister and I weren’t holding our parents hostage as audience for our over choreographed musical extravaganzas, there were my father’s amazing stories of growing up on Tabiteuea in Kiribati, and on Rabi, of paying his way through primary and secondary school by working for Catholic priests, and of his many encounters with Fijian, Banaban and I-Kiribati ghosts and spirits. We would join in Banaban community events, learn cultural dances, attend mass held variously in the Kiribati, Fijian and English languages while speaking just English at home. To add to the diversity, my younger sister and I attended a Chinese primary school in Suva and like the rest of the students spent eight years doing rote style reading and writing in Mandarin taught with the bopomofo notation system. To say we were raised in Fiji with an eclectic mix of cultural content and influences would be putting it mildly.

My personal bookshelves were stacked with comics and books I had carefully collected and traded through my primary and secondary school years. They featured entire collections of Enid Blyton “classics”, the Famous Five and Secret Seven series, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, dodgy Mills and Boon, Silhouette, and Harlequin romance novels, Sweet Valley High books, and Archie, Asterix, the fairly racist Phantom and Tin Tin, and other comics from the Marvel and DC publishers. My collections were formidable, and I would bury myself in these stories for hours at a time. This was not the norm for a young Pacific Islander. While a few of my friends were into reading, we were privileged in terms of our access to books and other educational materials. This was a choice of my middle class parents to spend their income in a certain way. A visible mark of status in Fiji is a new and large family car, preferably a four-wheel drive, and we always had the humblest car in town–a light blue 1976 Honda civic, then a banana colored boat of a 1982 Hyundai Stellar, and at the end of high school a white 1984 Toyota Corolla station wagon (manual drive) that my mum still owns. Having an African American mother from a military family who was raised by a librarian and US Colonel to value literature, dance, art and music over all other material things certainly made a difference.

While I wasn’t always reading “the classics,” and Enid Blyton has to be the worst-most-popular-British-author-of-all-time, all this was enough to foster an intense imagination and sense of creativity which has served me well in life and in academia. I became conscious of the ways in which different kinds of conspicuous consumption shaped and marked sociality and status in Fiji from a young age. I was perpetually embarrassed by our lack of visible affluence but less aware of the other forms of privilege we clearly had until I reached my PhD studies without ever taking a break from school and then began to reflect on how I got there. My sisters and I just constantly gulped down knowledge and all three of us kept studying until two reached PhD and the other MD.

One day in the early 1990s while I was far from Fiji studying at Santa Clara University, my mother threw out or donated every last one of my hundreds of books, magazines and comics. She’d actually secretly disapproved of my reading choices and only kept the Asterix and Tin Tin collections which I maintain to this day. Aside from these and the large number of scholarly books I now keep in my office at work, I no longer have any books which I particularly love or care for. I spend far more time on social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, and, when I can, consume a variety of television programs including The 100, Game of Thrones, Master Chef, The Biggest Loser, and America’s Next Top Model. I still teach, write, research, present at conferences, and publish academic articles and book chapters, but these are now very clearly separate and discernible from the rest of my “literary” and popular cultural consumption. Other than my students’ writing, everything I read regularly is disposable or accessible from a mobile device, and I gaze ambivalently at my excellent office collection believing I am an academic imposter.

So many life influences shape us as academics, as anthropologists who study others, or in my case, our own Pacific communities. Our approaches, methods and words are shaped by a variety of factors beyond the scholarly genealogies and lines of thought in which we visibly situate ourselves. Our scholarly writing often reflects just a fragment of our life histories or daily practices when we write in an effort to be more objective, more scientific, more authoritative, more scholarly in our work. I don’t know why I cannot bring myself to read good books but I am always reading in that sense of looking at something carefully in order to make meaning.

I’ve been reading lots of popular culture in this way, and, to repeat my own advice citing the late Epeli Hau’ofa in Consuming Ocean Island, reading landscapes and seascapes in a multi-scalar fashion for decades. My husband reminded me of this during a phone call from the top of a mountain at Wee Jasper in the Yass Valley just ninety minutes from where we now live in Canberra, two hours from the east Australian coastline. Our rather cluttered home is near another mountain, Mount Majura, which I see everyday from our bedroom window. My little family regularly walks its trails discussing ants, drop bears, kangaroo poo and all the misspelling in the hastily produced nature signs that the housing developers of “The Fair”, at the mountain’s base, were required to erect. Canberra, which in the Ngambri language is said to mean “cleavage”, and for the Ngunawal people, “meeting place”, is, in all material ways, nothing like Suva. Nevertheless, of all the places I’ve lived both these homes, one near, and one far from the sea, have provided security, nurturing and the most inspiring grounds from which to read the world.

 

Mt Majura dusk
Dusk at the base of Mount Majura near our home in Canberra. Photo by Katerina Teaiwa.

 

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

0 thoughts on “Unscholarly Confessions on Reading