Monday, October 24, 2011

Politics of Location

"Begin with the material. Pick up again the long struggle against lofty and privileged abstraction." (Adrienne Rich, "Notes Towards a Politics of Location")

I am finishing a dissertation. Which is to say, I am writing the last chapter of the middle section, the final author-based chapter before the conclusion. After I finish this chapter (and, heaven help us, my goal is this Friday for a first draft), I will turn to a mixed-up process of drafting the conclusion as I revise the earlier chapters, beginning with a substantial re-write of the introduction.

The introduction and three subsequent chapters total somewhere around 240 pages of double-spaced text at this point, not counting bibliographies. I think the project will come in at approximately 350 pages of text, when all is said and done. Then I will have to format with the grad school standards of wide margins for binding, which may put it over 400 pages. This is a little terrifying to contemplate. I may begin accepting donations for printing costs.

I haven't talked much about the dissertation on this blog, at least not about its content. I thought I might use the blog to work out ideas, post musings about my topics, even post notes from my reading. What I realized, though, is that there is something comforting and good about writing exercises that are more concrete, more material, in Adrienne Rich's words. Writing about sensory details, the small pieces of a life lived in a place and a body, is a good exercise for someone who spends a lot of her time in the heady realm of theories and ideas, discussions of literary form and philosophical ethics. And so I use this space to tell you, for instance, about the hue of the sky and the leaves through the seasons, about the sound of the rain on the windows, about the steam coming off my cup of tea, about recipes that have thrilled me.

Recently a friend emailed and said that she was glad for those sensory snippets, but she also wondered how I was, how the work was going. I will tell you: it is hard to be a writer. It is hard to be a scholar. It is a privilege, and I am especially privileged to be funded and supported (and therefore obligated) to do this work full-time. But the dreaded writer's block does haunt me. Days go by where I feel like nothing happens because I make myself sit at the computer and try to work, knowing that if I don't show up the work will never be accomplished, but the process is slow and I long to just go for very long walks through the leaves or find a novel in the public library and sit in a cafe and read it all day or re-upholster my pitiful chairs or do something, anything else.

And then there are days when it flows, when I find myself engrossed in the research and writing, when pages multiply and time passes unacknowledged and I forget to eat and find myself nearly panting with the joy of the process. There is fear, and there is delight, in this work.

Perhaps in the coming weeks, as I work through my final synthesis of the project, I'll post more about it. Perhaps, in addition to telling you that I've found a phenomenal new method to cook brown rice (!), I'll also tell you about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and her paradoxical treatment of post-colonial Christianity.

For now, though, I will tell you that the sky is darkening, my desk a pool of lamplight, and that snow is on the way. Snow. And as I write about Adichie's literary representations of Nigeria, contemplating what it means to "speak" through literature, and how it matters who is listening, and what it means to embrace a faith propagated by missionaries who viewed one's culture as wholly wicked and inferior, I am aware of the distance between my own experiences and this other place, this warm place of mangoes and cashews. I write from a cold valley surrounded by whitened mountain ranges. This place--this concrete, material reality--matters in my heady writing, too. That is something to think about.


  1. BEAUTIFUL meditation, Cindy! And I'm delighted to hear that you're heading toward Conclusion City now!!! I admire your diligence, which is what opens up the space for those moments of panting flow. (Which sounds like I'm writing about something very different, but you know what I mean.) :-)

  2. So I meant to comment ages ago, but couldn't get my fingers free (and this moment little L is sabotaging my comment by hitting the ctrl button and making each letter I type a strange command)... Please don't forget about the brown rice! :) You've really piqued my curiosity. That and your work ethic takes my breath away. I'm in total awe of it.