08 June 2015

Remembering Professor Lisi Oliver

I want to share some memories of my mentor and dissertation director Professor Lisi Oliver, who was killed while cycling in East Feliciana Parish on Sunday.
I remember walking to Lisi’s office some years ago. It was mid-September. The weather was still stifling. I was coming to talk to her about my dissertation, which was stifling me in a much different way. I walked slowly. Just thinking about my writing made my stomach clench and breathing more difficult.
Lisi was sitting at her desk with a stack of homework assignments next to her. She held one of these in her hands. Surfin’ USA was rolling across the office from the small radio that she had placed in her window.
I watched Lisi enjoying the song for a moment before she noticed I was there. She tapped the floor with one foot and bobbed her head along to the beat while she scanned the homework with her eyes.
A smile split across my face. And just like that, the knots in my stomach untied themselves, my breathing steadied, and I was no longer so worried about talking about my dissertation.
Lisi had that effect on whomever she met. People would come alive just by being near her.
Lisi had told me on numerous occasions leading up to my preliminary exam on Old and Middle English how much she loved The Seafarer, a poem that gives many people fits to translate. She would get this look whenever she mentioned it. Her eyes would grow bigger and brighter, as though she could hear the sea faintly but irresistibly calling to her.
I studied The Seafarer until it wasn’t a question of whether or not I could translate any given passage but rather how I would choose to parse specific phrases on the spur of the moment. 
Lisi put The Dream of the Rood on the exam. We laughed and laughed when I told her how certain I was that it would be The Seafarer and how much time I had spent studying it. “Oh, but I do love The Seafarer,” she had said with that bright look of hers.
Lisi was fond of saying things like “Knowing Latin makes you a better person” and “Knowing Grimm’s Law is like having The Force.” I believe both of those statements with every bit of my being.
I met Lisi at the end of my first year of graduate school. I was coming to terms with the fact that studying pure critical theory, which I had wanted to do, not only would make me less marketable as a scholar but also that it was too damned depressing for me to make a career out of studying it.
Having settled on medieval literature, which had always interested me for personal and professional reasons, I approached my department chair, who told me without hesitation that I needed to have Lisi chair my master’s thesis.
Lisi did not know a thing about me other than what little the department chair told her about me by way of introduction and what little I nervously added about my background and interests when we met.
Lisi unhesitatingly took me under her wing. She was just that kind of person. And she built me up for the next 9 years.
On the day of my prospectus defense, Lisi confidently told me, “This won’t take long. You know more about the subject than I do.”
When the draft of my dissertation that I initially planned to defend wasn’t what my committee expected, Lisi made it a point to tell me that I was a great writer.
Lisi’s faith in me never wavered, even when I was at my lowest and had little faith that I could finish. On the day I graduated, Lisi was every bit as excited as I was, for me, and for everyone graduating with me.
Lisi made studying medieval literature cool. She once brought authentic Danish axes to class to help her students visualize what Sir Gawain was facing when the Green Knight was about to behead him, or so Sir Gawain thought.
Lisi was unapologetically a nerd. Her office was filled with replicas of trebuchets, posters of medieval towns, and the like. And she wore things like earrings shaped like axes to class.
I was but one of the thousands of students that Lisi helped succeed. I would sit outside her office waiting my turn to see her while she was advising undergraduates. Students would go into her office, shoulders drooping, faces hanging. Invariably, they would leave smiling or laughing, shoulders held high.
I’ve been reading all the comments friends and colleagues have been posting about Lisi on Facebook today. Like them, I am heartbroken that Lisi is no longer with us. I keep wishing that the news of her death isn’t true, even though I know it is.

But I am also thinking about the boundless energy Lisi shared with me and everyone who met her. I am thinking about her infectious smile. I am thinking about the way she laughed. And I am thinking about her rolling along to Surfin’ USA.

19 January 2015

MLK Day 2015

Today marks the day we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

As I sat down to write this post, I told myself I wasn’t going to cite any inspirational words that the slain civil rights leader said while he was alive. Forty-seven years have passed since King’s assassination. Yet America’s social institutions and cultural attitudes are still structured such that many of us enjoy privileges we did not earn that black-skinned people, brown-skinned people, women, and pretty much every minority you can think of do not.

Because of this fact, I feel like my calling attention to something uplifting King once said would white-wash all of the injustices that have been inflicted upon black people since King helped start the civil rights movement.

And I’m thinking of everything that has happened in the United States in recent years that tells me just how deeply divided its people still are. I’m thinking of Michael Brown and Ferguson. I’m thinking of Eric Garner and the NYPD. I’m thinking of Rumain Brisbon. I’m thinking of Tamir Rice. I’m thinking of Trayvon Martin. I’m thinking of all of the black lives that should have counted as much as mine but did not, those stories that made the news and, just as importantly, those that did not.

I wasn’t going to quote King. But he said these words during the Montgomery Bus boycotts in 1958:
“True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.”

Some fifty years since King uttered those words, they rip through me. They haunt me. Because the black boys and men I have mentioned did not get justice. They’re families and friends did not get justice.

I do not think that no progress has been made since the civil rights movement began. Nor do I think that King’s inspirational words carry no weight. We should be awed by the power of his words to uplift, to encourage, to motivate. But I think that, every day and especially today, we need to stop and listen to the stories that King, civil rights leaders, and the black community have been telling us. And that story is that black lives matter. That story is, no justice, no peace.

14 January 2015

E pluribus unum: Free Speech and Charlie Hebdo, Baga, Etc.

I am still reeling from the attacks last week that snuffed out the lives of sixteen people in Paris and at least 2000 villagers near Baga in Borno State, Nigeria. And these are not the only tragedies that deserve our attention.

I mourn for the people of France. I mourn for the people of Nigeria. I am troubled by the string of attacks that Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and the Taliban have carried out since the New Year began, not just in Paris and Baga but also in other parts of Nigeria, in Cameroon, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Last week in Yemen, a car bomb that exploded in the capital Sanaa killed 33 people and injured 62.

But I am also troubled by some of the responses I am seeing directed at Muslims by western societies in the wake of these horrific events.

Much of the rhetoric promulgated following the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo has been framed as an attack on freedom of speech. I don’t buy this. TejuCole has eloquently shown how western societies have sought to control what their citizens can and can’t say, often with impunity and with chilling results. Freedom of speech, then, has been under attack by the very people who purport to defend it.

Nor are the surveillance apparatuses that countries like the United States have put in place dismantled when a new administration with ostensibly different objectives takes over the reins of governance. Rather, these tools are continually tweaked and updated in the name of free speech. Barely seven days have passed since English Prime Minister David Cameron, in expressing his solidarity with France, stated that we must defend this right and others. Yet Cameron vowed yesterday that, if reelected, his government will move to curtail free speech by givingpolice and surveillance agencies virtually unrestricted access to phoneconversations and online communications.

I want to be clear. Terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and the Taliban present an immediate danger, particularly to Muslim women, but also to people from all walks of life. They are made up of men who seek to impose their extremely narrow-minded world view on everyone, frequently through violence, rather than welcome differing points of view. We should be outraged when they commit atrocities in the name of that world view. We should take more than a passing interest when they seize land and resources as they did in Nigeria last week in an effort to remake the world as they see fit. And we should mourn for the innocent people they rape and slaughter.

But here’s the thing. In our rush to condemn the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, many of us have quickly distilled what happened down to a caricature of what the Muslim world as a whole looks like. Many people took to twitter with the hashtag #killallmuslims. Many people, some of whom I love, have made comments that Muslims who do not appreciate the freedoms that they are afforded by western societies can get out and stop threatening “our” way of life.

These kinds of distilled responses have consequences that can be difficult to see from the point of view of those who make them but have a real and lasting impact on those whom they target. First of all, they go against the tenets of free speech that we purport to cherish in that they quickly dominate the discussion and silence differing views that are not necessarily opposed to our own, such as the views of Muslims in France who have condemned the attacks on Charlie Hebdo but who also rightly point out that they are treated with suspicion and mistrust by their fellow citizens and by their government.

These responses also obscure the real suffering that Muslims within and without the western world have endured. Few of the people decrying this attack on free speech have recognized that Ahmed Merabet, a French Muslim police officer, died in the attack on Charlie Hebdo, though some have via the hashtag #JeSuisAhmed. Likewise, as Teju Cole and others have pointed out, western media outlets provided almost no coverage of the attack on Baga. This despite that the attack there took place before the events in Paris. Despite that Boko Haram spent five days raping and killing women and children. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was an atrocity that deserved our attention. But that news should have reached us on the heels of news of the attack on Baga rather than vice versa. So too, the attack in Yemen, which took place hours prior to the attack in Paris. And this is to say nothing of the history of violence that has been enacted upon Muslims since Islam’s inception.

I am outraged and troubled by the events we have born witness to over the last week. We all should be if we are the kind of people we think we are. But our outrage and grief do not gives us carte blanche to trample on the rights of others who are every bit as outraged and grief stricken as we are yet are concerned about how we view and treat them. And while I hardly think we’d be better off under the kind of policies and doctrines that Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and the Taliban would give us, I also don’t think we do ourselves any credit by sweeping under the rug our own attempts to monitor and silence ourselves and those who disagree with our sometimes narrow minded views, all in the name of liberty.

07 January 2015

Je ne suis pas Charlie

I assume most everyone by now has heard of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine in Paris, by at least two and possibly three Islamist extremists. Or if you haven’t heard and you’re reading my blog, the very short version is that 12 people at the magazine were killed, including editor and chief cartoonist Stephane Charbonnier and three other well-known cartoonists. The gunmen were heard to say in French that “We have avenged the prophet Muhammad” and in Arabic “God is Greatest.” The attack appears to be a reprisal for several cartoons and tweets that lampooned Muhammad, some of which go back to 2012. Charbonnier had been living under police protection prior to the attack.

Let me make my views clear. I unequivocally do not condone attacks on the magazine or any attacks, for that matter, that target civilians. Like many people the world over, I am deeply troubled by these events. At the same time, I am also troubled by the rhetoric I am reading in the aftermath of this attack, both by those who, in rightly sympathizing with the victims, are tweeting and posting images saying “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) and by Western leaders. I’ll start with the former.

I think the idea behind “Je suis Charlie,” an idea that the offices of Charlie Hebdo started, is well intentioned. The idea is that the newspaper will not be cowed by acts of terrorism. And those who have taken the time to retweet and share this message are trying to say “We are with you. We support you” as well as “We could have been among the dead.”

What troubles me about “Je suis Charlie” is not the intention behind the message but the impact. For one, if you can tweet or share “Je suis Charlie,” unless you were at the offices of Charlie Hebdo that day (less than a day ago as I write this), you’re not a victim. It’s a little insensitive to pretend you are. More troubling still, the message “Je suis Charlie” in and of itself is a bit divisive. I need to get into what Western leaders have been saying about the attack as well as the history of Islam in France to show you what I mean here.

Not surprisingly, leaders from the West, as well as of a few other countries like Egypt, have condemned the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. Also unsurprisingly, at least to me, Western leaders have couched their outrage at the attacks in very specific terms that defend Western ideas about democracy in one way or another. Along these lines, French President Francois Hollande in particular has made several seemingly innocuous statements such as “Freedom is always bigger than barbarism,” and “This is a difficult moment for France. We have prevented several attacks. We knew that we were still under threat because we are a country that cherishes freedom.”

Hollande is not alone in characterizing France as a bastion of freedom. In condemning the attacks, President Barack Obama said that “the French people have stood up for the universal values that generations of our people have defended.” Echoing these sentiments, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described the dead cartoonists as “martyrs for liberty.”

And in a speech given with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, English Prime Minister David Cameron said that “We stand absolutely united with the French people against terrorism and against this threat to our values-free speech, the rule of law, democracy. It’s absolutely essential we defend those values today and every day.”

All these leaders talk about a people’s right to defend their ideals. And in the abstract, I absolutely agree. But the reality of democracy, the rule of law, and freedom in France when it comes to its Islamic citizenry is much more complicated than these statements allow.

The history of Islam in France goes back to at least 1830, when the French invaded Algiers on the flimsiest of pretexts. The French occupied the African nation until 1962, when following 8 years of brutal war marked by acts of terrorism committed by both sides, the Algerian people won their independence. For some 132 years then, France occupied Algiers, an occupation which led to forced, mass emigrations of Algerian peasants to France and vice versa. For this reason and many others, Islam is the second largest religion in France today.

Yet Muslim citizens of France are hardly first class citizens. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the French enacted schemes and laws designed to pressure and in some cases force Muslims living in France to leave. In the 1990s, France enacted further restrictions on immigration and tightened security around the country against concerns of possible terrorist attacks, some of which may have been legitimate but which ultimately did nothing to make North Africans and their descendants living in France feel welcome. France enacted similar anti-immigration measures as recently as 2012.

Likewise, France has not exactly given equal space to Islam. Despite the significant Muslim population in France (the largest in the EU), many of the country’s “mosques” in reality are little more than prayer rooms, some of which have been intentionally or unintentionally tucked away in the basements of buildings. Also, the French have not always taken kindly to the wearing of traditional Islamic garb. Tensions flared on several occasions, most notably in 1989 when a French school teacher banned 3-girls from wearing head scarves because, in his view, these religious symbols went against the “secular tradition” of France’s schools. In 2004, France passed a law preventing school children from wearing religious symbols of any kind. And in 2013, France contemplated extending the ban on religious symbols to universities.

I don’t bring up any of this to suggest that the people of France have it coming when extremists attack the innocent. Nobody but nobody deserves to die because of religious differences or differences of any kind, and I deplore that the gunmen, who proclaimed that they are men of faith, did so at the moment they took human lives.

At the same time, and this is what is truly important to me here as far as the rhetoric I am reading goes, I do not see that France as a whole can claim to be a united country that values each and every one of its citizens equally. I do not see that the rhetoric President Hollande or any of the other Western leaders I have cited applies equally to everyone when France systematically enacted laws that clearly singled out one particular group (and France is hardly alone in adopting such tactics against minority communities). Even the ban on all religious symbols, while perhaps well intentioned, has the greatest impact on the country’s Islamic community.

And so I am troubled by “Je suis Charlie” not merely because it is insensitive to the victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo but also because it unintentionally but no less problematically leaves out France’s Muslim population, Charlie being a traditional French name with decidedly Western roots.

A very smart person I know has taught me that the Jihadists (by which I think is meant extremists, because at its root the word jihad does not mean holy war but is closer to struggle and does not necessarily imply military action of any sort) are never going to stop, no matter how much we might wish that were true. And I agree with that, so we must fight acts of terror. At the same time though, I don’t believe this latest terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo was random even as it was cold, calculated, brutal, deadly. Martin Luther King once said that violence is the language of the unheard. No, I don’t think terrorism is ever an appropriate way to express yourself. No, I don’t think the men who attacked Charlie Hebdo are sweet, innocent, misunderstood. They made clear statements of who they are in both word and deed. But I do think the attack on Charlie Hebdo is entangled with the way that France and the West as a whole has historically seen Islam as foreign, threatening, and so on. That doesn't tell the whole story, not by a long shot. But it tells some of it, and we’d better damn well start listening to ourselves, because I promise you the Muslim world is listening, and what we’re saying on the one hand and doing on the other hand doesn't square up.

30 December 2014

Why I don't Want to See "Unbroken."

And why don’t I want to see it, you may well ask? I’m not thinking about how the movie was put together—not entirely at any rate—since I have not seen it. I have seen the trailer though, I’ve read some reviews, and I cannot get around how this movie looks like it facilitates white privilege. Let me walk you through my reasoning.

First, a wee bit of background. Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book of the same name, “Unbroken” chronicles the life of WWII veteran and POW Louis Zamperini. Director Angelina Jolie and co-writers the Coen brothers have billed the movie as a story about “survival,” “resilience,” “redemption.” Regardless of the film’s merits, critics have associated the usual words about WWII with the movie. Manohla Dargis writes that “[Zamperini’s] is one of those stories that has come to define the Greatest Generation.” Although Justin Chang offers us a look at what’s at stake, noting that Ms. Jolie and co. are pushing for a major award, he describes the movie as a “capably stirring, morally unambiguous and classically polished prestige picture about an unusually spirited member of the Greatest Generation who survived a hell beyond anyone's imagination.”

Here’s where things get sticky for me. Despite that African Americans served alongside whites in World War II, the former do not appear to be well represented in “Unbroken.” Indeed, the lone exception that I could find is a “brief glimpse” of Jesse Owens, played by Sierra Leone sprinter Bangalie Keita. If there more references to African Americans in the movie, film reviewers have not mentioned them.

Let me be clear. I am not trivializing either Zamperini’s experience as a WWII veteran and POW survivor or the story that Ms. Jolie and the Coen brothers set out to tell in making this film. And I am aware that the vast majority of Americans who served in WWII were white and that Zamperini was one of the few survivors from the war whose story could be told some 60 years later. But that’s just it: Zamperini and the millions of white Americans who served in WWII don’t have to fight to tell their stories. Their story dominates the picture we have of what WWII was like. Whereas the fact that almost no African Americans are depicted in the movie clearly reflects the fact that, unlike their white counterparts, they do have to fight to be recognized. I’m willing to bet very few white people know that anywhere between 125,000 and 1.2 million African Americans served in WWII or that the Tuskegee Airmen were the first blacks ALLOWED to serve as aviators in the United States armed forces. And despite serving their country and proving their worth in battle, these soldiers were discriminated against at home and in the theatre (Jim Crow laws were in effect until 1965).

I’m well educated, and I’m ashamed to admit I had not heard of the Tuskegee Airmen until today. Which is precisely the point I’m making. I knew the watered down, white version of history everyone knows, not the far more nuanced, far more compelling one. Because I didn't make an effort until now to know it even as I was chaffing at what I was seeing and not seeing in the trailers for “Unbroken.”

If you think I’m exaggerating the problem with black people having to fight to tell their stories or to fight even for the same screen space, let me give you some more examples that came up in my research. For one, when I googled an image search on Bengalie Keita—a picture of him was not provided at the IMDB—I saw some pictures of Keita and other black people but also lots of white people, including Jack OConnell, who plays Zamperini in the film, but also Republican congressmen John Boehner, Taylor Swift, and perhaps most disturbingly, Oscar Pistorius. In contrast, something like 96 percent of the pictures I saw of Jack OConnell were of himself. And not one black person is depicted instead of OConnell.

Moreover, whereas Zamperini’s story has not been questioned to any serious degree, almost immediately upon release the movie “Selma” and the story it tells has been contested by Joseph A. Califano, former Special Assistant for Domestic Affairs under President Lyndon B. Johnson, who wrote an op-ed on the film entitled “The movie ‘Selma’ has a glaring flaw.” In a nutshell, Califano’s beef is that the movie unfairly portrays Johnson and the FBI: “Selma was LBJ’s idea,” Califano writes, “he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted—and he didn’t use the FBI to disparage him.” Quite frankly, I’m amazed at Califano’s gall in trying to credit LBJ with organizing the Selma marches. I also guess the fact that the current President of the United States has had to fight every day he has held office to be treated with respect has escaped Califano’s notice. And although I think that’s shitty enough, there are worse examples I could trot out of how blacks have been portrayed for protesting the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and countless others. I promise you, few of the words the media has used to describe these people compare favorably to “survival,” “resilience,” or “redemption.” And of course, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and countless others are dead because they happened to be black. And that’s just the last six months, let alone the last two-hundred some years of systematic, violent discrimination and oppression of the American black community.

In closing, I don’t want to see “Unbroken” not because it might not be a good film but because I don’t think it’s the movie anyone, and especially white people, needs to be seeing right now. We could do with a few more movies about Selma and the civil rights movement (and yeah, I do plan to see the one out now). We could do with a few about the Tuskegee Airmen.

10 December 2014

'Tis the Season...For Anti-Multicultural Memes

December is upon us. Many people around the world will gather to remember one tradition or another this month. Most of us are familiar with the main stream ones: Christmas, Hannukah, New Year's Eve. In addition, Mexicans will observe the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe; Kenyans Jamhuri Day; Shiite Muslims Arba'een or Chehlom, which this year falls on 13 December on the Gregorian Calendar; and many more besides these.

I think most Americans recognize on some level the positive role that multiculturalism has played in shaping the kind of country the United States has become, whether that means enjoying a dish that has transcended ethnic borders (gumbo or jambalaya, anyone!?!) or something deeper. But for some Americans, when confronted with the reality that not everyone wants to be told “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” all sense of understanding what a diverse and culturally rich country we live in falls to the ground like the pine needles on last year’s tree.

What’s all the fuss is the constant refrain by holiday well wishers. Can’t I say something nice to a stranger? Why are these people so unfriendly!?!

One popular meme making the rounds on Facebook this year goes, “I don’t understand what the big deal is…If you are Jewish, tell me: Happy Hanukkah. If you are Christian, tell me: Merry Christmas. If you are African American, tell me: Joyous Kwanza. If you don’t prefer those, tell me: Happy Holidays. I will not be offended. I will be thankful that you took the time to say something nice to me.”

Ostensibly, the writer of this meme and those who choose to post it to Facebook may mean well. Whether the sentiment is sincere or not, the meme at least attempts to include several cultural traditions. But the underlying message, whether intentional or not, is that people are too sensitive and that political correctness has hijacked the reasons for the seasons, as it were. The writer also implies that, since they aren't the type to get easily offended by some kind of holiday wish, you shouldn't be offended either when they wish you Merry Christmas or whatever. More on this last point later.

So here are some of the problems with telling someone you don’t know anything about, “Hey, I’m cool with however you choose to celebrate this time of year. Don’t be afraid to tell me! I welcome diverse holiday greetings!”

I’ll start with the most obvious issue: not everyone celebrates one of the three traditions the meme names. I’m not expecting an all-inclusive list of traditions here either. That’s not even the point. Rather, the meme makes several huge assumptions about the cultures it mentions and even a few about those it doesn't. Most African Americans don’t celebrate Kwanza, for instance. Not every black person you meet is necessarily African American, for that matter. Likewise, not everyone chooses to celebrate anything or follow each and every custom of a particular holiday.

This leads me to problem number two: not everyone on the planet may wish to give you any kind of holiday greeting. There may be any number of reasons for this that you haven’t thought of. I’ll choose atheists for my example, partly because I’m an atheist and partly because I can readily illustrate what I'm talking about.

What would you expect me to say if I happened to meet you on 25 December? Happy-I-Don’t-Believe-What-You-Believe-Day? I’m not going to lie and pretend that I share your views, so what could I say that wouldn't sound false or weird or rude? If someone wishes me Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, I don’t take offense, but I also usually say “Thank You” and leave it at that. That answer is not at all unfriendly, and it shows that I understand your views are different than mine. But I've received lots of funny looks when I've said this, as if saying thanks is confusing. And of course not one of these confused people bothered to ask me what I believe.

My point is, if you really respect that everyone on the planet is as an individual with their own life story and history, you respect that no harm is meant just because that person chooses not to greet you or respond in the exact way that you would like.

So, to return to the very first words in this meme, when you tell someone that you don't understand what the fuss is about, you're telling them that you're not interested in their point of view. You're saying that, because you personally don't see a problem, then a problem must not exist, that the person is making it up, that they are overreacting or being overly sensitive.

There are two huge, interrelated problems with this kind of thinking: 1) you take away another person's right to tell their story (or even not tell it); 2) you rob yourself of an opportunity to learn something about someone different than you. Sometimes these differences are small, subtle, not easy to see. But that does not make them unimportant. You probably grasp the fact that electrons exist even though you cannot see them without the aid of precision instruments. But they turn out to be one of the fundamental building blocks of the universe. In much the same way, differences are a fundamental part of what makes each of us human.

If you truly embrace multiculturalism and respect what other people may believe or not believe, you don't go around shouting, "I'm open to different points of view! And Merry Christmas!" That attitude isn't about other people and how they might feel. It's about you. You get to know them. That starts with saying hello, but mostly you stop talking and listen to what they have to say. And you respect that they may not want to talk to you. That doesn't make anyone good or bad. It makes us real people.

27 October 2011

Mapping Close Readings

Today was somewhat off of my usual routine. A good friend needed a lift to and from a Doctor’s appointment. I don’t begrudge her this, of course, and I knew about the appointment a day in advance, so I was able to reschedule my day accordingly. I also brought work with me and got a bit done while I was waiting. Calling today hectic or something of that nature would be misleading and unfair. But I do feel like it was rather packed. In addition to helping my friend, I’ve entered another publishing cycle at my job and have been editing news items. All this is to say that tonight’s entry is going to be a relatively short one.

Over all, I think this has been a fairly productive week up to this point, although I’m not certain how much I will be able to get done tomorrow, since I have plans for the evening that are going to require some preparation during the day. But certainly I’ve accomplished more over the last four days than I did all of last week and feel good about that. I’ve been spending most of my time the last several days writing zero drafts of what I think the chapter I am working on is going to be about (and I’ve tentatively decided it’s going to be a full blown chapter rather than part of one) and highlighting key ideas in all of the close readings I have done thus far. I had already done this one way by bolding items that I thought were thought provoking. Now I’m using colored highlighters in order to categorize the information into overarching topics and subtopics.

Deciding on how to highlight my close readings offered me a somewhat challenging task. It was difficult at first to know how I wanted to arrange the information. I only have five colors to choose from, so I needed to decide on rather broad topics. The three most closely related topics are ‘the conqueror’, the ‘conquered’, and ‘translation / theoretical concerns’. I chose red (for the aggressors!), blue, and orange for these respectively. I’ve also chosen yellow as a sort of hodge podge color for items I’m not sure how to categorize, as they could fall into one or several of these three categories, or none. Lastly, green is for ‘dialogue’, which I think ended up being one of the more useful tangents I repeatedly came back to in my close readings.

Something rather interesting has been happening as I’ve highlighted the already highlighted material from my close readings in color. I’ve seen that many of my sentences are organized in terms of several of the topics I have chosen. A sentence can begin by mentioning the conquerors, for instance, which I highlight in red. But it can end with discussion of translation (orange) and /or the conquered (blue). Instead of marking sentences in one color, I am marking them in several, as best I can, to reflect these distinct references. And what is emerging from this is a kind of map of the dialogue that seems to be going on between the way I think of the conquerors (mostly but not only Arthur and his forces) and the conquered ‘in translation’. Very often I’ll have a sentence where orange mediates between red and blue (or vice versa), so that I can see a definite pattern of thought in many of the paragraphs I’ve written.

Admittedly, the patterns that are emerging in my writing have a lot to do with the way I have decided to utilize the color choices available to me. In a very real sense, these patterns have been predetermined by me. Nonetheless, I find seeing a visual representation of how I have approached the topics I have been wrestling with extremely exciting and thought provoking. And I am gathering valuable information in a very quick way. Even if I decide that this arrangement does not make much sense later on, for instance, I have still cut down on a lot of the guess work at the beginning of the more careful drafting process rather than later. And I can more readily visualize how other topics like dialogue feed into my ideas about the conquerors, translation or whatever, which is important to think about as I attempt to put all of this information into a more less cohesive narrative.