Mar 202015
 March 20, 2015

The Leslie Jamison Do Lunch.

Author Leslie Jamison’s visit to Duke as the second Kenan-CDS Visiting Writer in Ethics, Society, and Documentary Art was a two-day whirlwind that engaged undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff, and Triangle community members. Taken on face value, this description would suit just about any campus residency involving a high-profile practitioner, artist, or scholar. But this one felt singular, in a way; as a professor and mentor of mine said, Jamison’s visit, which centered on her much-awarded, lauded, and widely read essay collection The Empathy Exams, “touche[d] so many needs and nerves across campus.” I think this was due, in part, to the issue at the heart of her work—empathy—which prompts (and prompted) such wide-ranging micro and macro reverberations.

A Team Kenan Do Lunch on Wednesday brought Jamison and 20+ students together to explore questions surrounding the anxiety of expertise in storytelling, gender and writing, and the challenges of crafting a healthy relationship between creative work and everyday living. Staff book club, which convened on Thursday morning with Kenan and Center for Documentary Studies staff members, prompted a lively conversation about the metrics of empathy—When do we give? How do we position ourselves in terms of the needs of others?

Jamison at the public reading.

Jamison at the public reading.

Jamison’s panel discussion at the Forum for Scholars and Publics on Thursday, for which she was joined by Jehanne Gheith (Associate Professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies and MSW), and Lauren Henschel (Duke senior and documentary photographer), was, in one audience member’s words, “awesome, moving, powerful, transformative.” The panel, entitled “Ghost Pain: Caregiving, Documentary, and Radical Empathy,” allowed the trio to share their experiences encountering pain and engendering empathy in their respective practices. Another audience member praised the discussion’s “grounded personal moments of vulnerability.” Their reflections on each others’ work felt electric and connective (and they said as much afterward).

At her public reading on Wednesday night, Jamison read “The Broken Heart of James Agee,” a short essay from a small collection of essays—”Pain Tours II”—within The Empathy Exams (a version of “Agee” was published in The Believer in 2012). About Agee’s infamous Let us Now Praise Famous Men, a 400+-page genre-bending, hulking textual thing that attempts to write about sharecroppers in the Deep South but instead writes about how hard it is to write about, and therefore document, anything, Jamison writes:

Empathy is contagion. Agee wants his words to stay in us as “deepest and most iron anguish and guilt.” They have stayed; they do stay; they catch as splinters, still, in the open, supplicating palms of this essay. If it were possible, Agee claims, he wouldn’t have used words at all: “If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here.” In this way, we are prepared for the four hundred pages of writing that follow. “A piece of the body torn out by the roots,” he continues, “might be more to the point.”

Jamison, Gheith, and Henschel after the FSP panel.

Jamison, Gheith, and Henschel after the FSP panel.

Jamison’s visit was about writing, but it was also, and fundamentally, about so much more. It was about presence: it was about different folks coming out to one or more of her events, and connecting with each other—I had no idea I’d see you here!—and connecting with Jamison in turn (she wrote personal notes in the books of attendees, and they signed her copy of The Empathy Exams). It created a space where global health students met English students; where scholarship became public and personal; where Triangle community members mingled in academic building, talking about what they do, where they work, and how they encountered Jamison’s work. This visit, much like Eula Biss’s in the fall, had a pulse, and that pulse had—has—indentations. Those indentations will live on in our shared conversation, in our shared air—the latter of which, as Jamison said, is as ubiquitous as instances of, and possibilities for, empathy.


Mar 142015
 March 14, 2015

I think sometimes about how the same eagerness with which we share “interesting” articles on the web also leads us to shame, destruct, and otherwise terrorize fellow humans on the internet. There is this shame spiral, and on one end is our pleasure in connectivity, in reading a think-piece that gels with our worldview, and on the other are our impulses (fully realized) toward alienation, i.e., look at what this horrible person has posted or tweeted and, come on, gang, let’s destroy him/her. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I wonder about what can be said, chemically speaking, of the uneven space between our uniting to uplift and our uniting to disparage and condemn. The pleasure spiral toes both lines.

In the spirit of “sharing” online, I wanted to highlight a recent article, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life” (I kind of love the headline, as it seems to riff on the cringeworthy clickbait parlayed so often nowadays). It’s an excerpt from a forthcoming book by author Jon Ronson called, fittingly, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. In the essay, Ronson details the now-famous online shaming of former corporate communications maven Justine Sacco. On her way to visit family in South Africa, Sacco fired off a series of seemingly innocuous tweets, and then a not-so-innocuous one that sealed her internet fate as she flew, unknowing, across the continents. Ronson relays the series of events that mobilized the tweeting public into a sham[ing] spiral, as hashtags like “#HasJustineLandedYet” reveled in anticipatory destructive glee. And it was destructive: it seemed the entire world, or at least the contingent of active tweeters, rallied against her; news outlets proclaimed their disgust; Sacco was ultimately fired from her high-profile job. And then Ronson, as part of a larger-scale project in which he interviewed other victims of online shaming, eventually met Sacco and talked to her over the course of several months. He differentiates her earlier responses (defensive, corrective, apologetic, shocked) from later ones, when she refuses to disclose information about her current situation. In a conscientious move, she denies her casting as victim: “Anything that puts the spotlight on me is a negative,” she says. 

Embedded in this story is the common knowledge that it’s easier to position someone or something as the enemy and then bludgeon him/her/it repeatedly, either in tweets or think-pieces, when you haven’t met him or her in person, or engaged on a personal level. Ronson affirms this; he writes that he made an effort to interview the shaming victims included in his book project in-person, whenever possible. These are the conversations, presumably, where nuance becomes possible. In a lot of ways, despite Twitter’s democratic reach, I think the medium is best at mass-mobilization—which, even if geared toward stretching visibility around a certain topic, cause, or campaign, can also shut out space for ambivalence. I can think of several times I took to Twitter or Facebook, dissatisfied with what I perceived to be an over-simplified channeling of an issue or viewpoint; I’d type, sometimes hit “send,” and then sit in full-body-pulsing fear of not saying it exactly right, not issuing enough eloquence in my challenge so as to make a mark. Because despite its 140-character limit, Twitter is hardly a flippant medium. As Ronson’s piece illustrates, the stakes feel higher and higher on both sides of that spiral: to pioneer a ‘new’ viewpoint around which the masses can congregate (religious imagery not intended here), either for ‘better’ or for ‘worse,’ becomes the objective. The ethics here get murkier and murkier: how do we speak out at all, and to what end? Who do we consider, and not consider, either in our line of fire or in our line of solidarity? Ronson’s piece doesn’t offer answers, necessarily, but it does speak out, in a way; it outlines these dilemmas and some of their consequences.


Mar 062015
 March 6, 2015

It’s no coincidence that the person who initially introduced me to the work of Leslie Jamison is now the one with whom I’ve conspired to bring the author to campus next week. About a year and a half ago, thanks to my former professor Duncan Murrell, who directs the writing program at the Center for Documentary Studies, I began seeing mentions of something called The Empathy ExamsI was curious, but wary; it felt as though there’d been a slew of mainstream media reportage of late that broached the topic of empathy, usually producing absolute conclusions—whether to say that “rich people just care less” or “reading literary fiction improves empathy.” The latter take was, and is, especially popular (and especially controversial, insofar as such a topic may be deemed controversial). Around this time, I was very kindly sent an article with a headline reaffirming literature’s empathy-inducing qualities. Next to it I annotated, with a healthy dose of snark, “breaking news!”—both to signal my agreement that, yes, I think reading literature can allow us to better visualize, understand, and therefore care about the lives of others; but also that the undercurrent of so many writings on empathy seemed to prefer, and promise, shortcuts over what we surely must understand by now as the messiness and nuance of human experience. The subjective spaces where we try, and fail, to empathize. The spaces where we promulgate the merits of empathy but cannot give our full attention to another.

The poster for Jamison's upcoming visit on March 18 and 19.

The poster for Jamison’s upcoming visit on March 18 and 19.

And then I read an excerpt, in The Believer, from this forthcoming something called The Empathy Exams, and immediately I knew I felt something different. Here was a writer writing against herself, against her minute actions and her macro-histories. The essay, also called “The Empathy Exams,” is about Jamison’s experience as a medical actor. She writes about getting paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose. She also writes about herself, as Leslie Jamison, about her pregnancy and subsequent abortion at age twenty-five, about her drinking, her boyfriend, her ailments, her loves. About her ability and inability to minister care, and about her expectations to receive it, and frustrations in not receiving it. She interweaves the instructions for her “standardized patient” with an imagined set, for “Leslie Jamison.” She concludes with the latter. An excerpt:

You wake up from another round of anesthesia and they tell you all their burning didn’t burn away the part of your heart that was broken. You come back and find you aren’t alone. You weren’t alone when you were cramping through the night and you’re not alone now. Dave spends every night in the hospital. You want to tell him how disgusting your body feels: your unwashed skin and greasy hair. You want him to listen, for hours if necessary, and feel everything exactly as you feel it—your pair of hearts in such synchronized rhythm any monitor would show it; your pair of hearts playing two crippled bunnies doing whatever they can. There is no end to this fantasy of closeness. Who else is gonna bring you a broken arrow? You want him to break with you. You want him to hurt in a womb he doesn’t have; you want him to admit he can’t hurt that way.

I read these essays one by one in Dublin last summer, upon returning each night to my living space from long interviews with a lot of people I’d never met before. I would catch up on food I hadn’t had time to eat earlier, lie down, and open the book. The combination of these practices just fit. In one of her essays, Jamison visits Texas to attend a gathering of people claiming to suffer from an elusive condition called Morgellons Disease. In another, to support her runner sibling, she attends the Barkley Marathons, an almost unbelievable constellation of treacherous runs through the woods near Wartburg, Tennesse. She travels to Mexicali and consorts with radical poets; she gets punched in the face in Nicaragua; she slips into a “gang tour” in Los Angeles; she writes about stereotypes of “wounded women.” In these essays Jamison doesn’t prescribe or moralize; her voice undulates across the circumstances in which she both plants herself and finds herself. She creates space by exposing the connections between events, texts, relationships, assaults, proclamations of guilt and innocence. This is the writing of someone who moves through the motions by refusing to move forward until she works out why and how she enters these motions in the first place. In her own words:

Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I’m deep in my own. To say “going through the motions”this isn’t reduction so much as acknowledgment of the effort—the labor, the motions, the dance—of getting inside another person’s state of heart or mind.

Jamison visits Duke on March 18 and 19 (she will give a public reading on Wednesday, the 18). It’s funny—this post began as a mechanism to link to some samples of her work for those who might be interested (speaking of, you can find lots more here, here, and a nice interview here). It evolved into my own re-reading of some of her work, and an emotional weightiness, and charge, in feeling myself identify. And that feeling—or my moving through the motions of it—gave rise to more questions. This is, I think, the bare motion prompted by experiencing material—be it artistic, scientific, spiritual, or perhaps all three—that is powerful, worthwhile, and unique.


Feb 272015
 February 27, 2015

It is important, I think, in the crafting of a certain identity—be it national, regional, personal, et. al—to call upon the identity-crafting work of those who came before. So Chuck Reece, editor of the online magazine The Bitter Southerner, does in his attempt to explain the origins and purpose of the magazine. In his editor’s note (“We Are Bitter”), Reece quotes William Faulkner in Absalom, Absalom, as Mississippi-bred Quentin Compson’s Canadian roommate demands of his Southern friend: “Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.” Reece builds on this in his own writing: Why, and how, to live with so much historical baggage, so much collective guilt? To what degree is the guilt even collective?

Image courtesy of The Bitter Southerner.

Image courtesy of The Bitter Southerner.

The solution for some, it seems, is to refashion the South’s regional identity into something at once sweet, edgy, and newfangled (hence the ever-popular branding of the “New South”). I worry that this branding, in an effort to make amends, sidesteps the loaded history that our region has moved through, and that has placed us where we are now—it gets over without the work of having got over, so to speak. When he visited Duke and UNC a few weeks ago, Reece talked about the work his publication is trying to do in contrast to a quick and easy celebration of a “renewed” cosmopolitan South. Perhaps paradoxically, The Bitter Southerner offers beautifully designed multimedia stories about the South every Tuesday—stories so beautiful I might even call them sweet, edgy, and newfangled—while their content attempts to get at the confusing, bizarre, unique, and—dare I say—ugly aspects of the contemporary South.

The story published this week is called “Made in Durham,” and it’s an excerpt from a larger multimedia zine project by local photographer Justin Cook. I think it’s powerful and worthwhile for several reasons. It’s likely the first mainstream media photo essay consideration I’ve seen of the interplay between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Durham(s), with an attention to who, specifically is making said claims—and who’s reaping the benefits. (See the Fullsteam water gun shot, contrasted with nearly every other photo in the series). It brings the incessant talk about “urban renewal” into glaring contrast with what residents of Durham’s Southside neighborhood call urban “removal.” Perhaps most importantly, Cook’s photo essay doesn’t shy away from talking about urban violence and incarceration and how these things are bound up with race and civic responsibility. Cook’s individual note is especially potent in its grappling with questions of agency and empathy that should come up in any serious conversation about the claims we stake for the cities and regions that we live in. “We hope these images will celebrate Durham,” Cook writes, “but also challenge us to create the best Durham for everyone.”


Feb 202015
 February 20, 2015

I have a lot of love for my hometown, and a lot of that love originates, I think, in growing up attuned to the praises sung for it. The chorus of “it’s safe,” and “it’s lovely,” and “such good schools,” and “what a great place to grow up,” swells into a sweet song that compels me—dare I say evermore—back to it. Chapel Hill, like my home state’s prized dogwood, looks and feels benevolent; it is stately houses with sweeping porches that you pass en route downtown, but none so stately that you couldn’t ring the doorbell if lost. It is dewy grass cushioning bare feet in the springtime; it is progressive politics and well-educated folks, recuperating the South’s blemished history; it is a university that served, for me, as the paragon for what a university is, and how such an institution can live in its community.

The measures of my dissatisfaction from growing up in such a space don’t detract from its near-fictive qualities. The town’s praises that have buffered me are those that presume and promulgate its equal-footed geographies, its opportunities for all, its all-around good vibes.

Good vibes. “The sadness is inescapable,” a friend—a Duke student—recently wrote to me in an email. She and I were exchanging words about the murders in Chapel Hill last week. Writing “last week” reminds me that it was last week; the time since then has felt like a stalled short-circuit. The event feels more devastating with each new day, even as the tributes multiply in form and source: from the Triangle’s (and the nation’s, and the world’s) Muslim community, from the UNC School of Dentistry community, from local colleges and universities—and, importantly, from those unaffiliated with any of these spheres. As the stories of the “three winners” migrate, I imagine a supportive unaffiliated lot grows: a self-identified Christian from the Midwest contributes to Deah Barakat’s Syrian dental relief fund. Someone who identifies ambivalently as “from here”—from the piedmont, from North Carolina, from the South—says, “I’m here, with you.”

I’m having trouble placing myself. Last Tuesday evening, I was taking a nap less than five miles from the condominium complex where the murders took place. In conversation, I insist on this geography, on this shared space, but often the throughline stops there. I’m folded back into shock, alienated from my own grief, and in turn from the grief of others. My conversations about the tragedy differ markedly, even hostilely, from the official words issued about the origins of the violence: a turf war, a “dispute” over parking spaces. Such language could, in another context, be laughed away as an idiosyncracy of Chapel Hill’s peaceful neighborhoods, the sort of everyday messiness excused by the sense that we’re all buying into the same ethos of place.

But, now: to what extent are we willing to wage this peace, to claim this as idiosyncracy? What are the grounds on which a community constitutes itself? Can a community constitute itself through its own excavation?

The point of my writing this is not to remain at the level of think-piece mental gymnastics; it is not solely to amplify the discordance between a supposedly tolerant small town and an act of unfathomable violence that its residents initiated and continue to suffer from. This is a popular framing of this recent violence, as is its reaction of disbelief. Duke doctoral student Cynthia R. Greenlee—who, like me, has called the communities of both Chapel Hill and Durham home— wrote about this reaction last week in the American Prospect. What this tragedy requires us to do is wrest our own power and our own histories from the big-picture narrative swirl. It requires us to connect the dots, which means insisting on our shared geography. A dispute about space does not, and cannot, arise from the ether; its roots are in the asphalt, the air, the dewy grass we share. The towns—Chapel Hill, Durham, or elsewhere—in which we live and the communities we want to welcome us. As Greenlee writes,

Fights over space—whether in subways or suburban neighborhoods—are more often contests about privilege: Who gets to be in this space? Who dictates the use and control of the space? And what happens when people who aren’t like some pre-determined and overdetermined notion of what constitutes “us” gets in our space?

I ask again: Can a community constitute itself through its own excavation? Can the collective sorrow re-orient our relationship to the spaces we share, to the spaces claimed as home? Charlotte Fryar, a friend of mine and a doctoral student at UNC wrote, in charting a history of murder in Chapel Hill, that “placelessness can be an action.” Only, it seems, if we recognize the danger of placelessness—and the ways we’re complicit in its creation.

Feb 122015
 February 12, 2015

Several minutes into political consultant David Axelrod’s conversation with reporter Dave Davies on NPR’s Fresh Air, Axelrod begins to detail the nitty-gritty of presidential campaign debate preparations. Fresh off the publication of his memoir, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, Axelrod—who was, at various points, Obama’s senior advisor and communications director, respectively—was in a reflective, anecdotal mood. Using Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign as an example, he explains to Davies that the first campaign debate between existing president and challenger is typically a “killing field” for the president. So it was, he reflected, with Obama’s initial performance against Mitt Romney. These debates, Axelrod explained, are “not freeform discussions; they’re parallel performances.” Every word must be solid, each gesture—verbal and metaphorical—must be rehearsed. A good performance, Axelrod alluded, should have the president’s staff mouthing each word as issued by the president in real-time.

President Obama, Jon Favreau, David Axelrod, and Robert Gibbs working on Obama's 2008 Democratic presidential acceptance speech. Image courtesy of Ad Week.

President Obama, Jon Favreau, David Axelrod, and Robert Gibbs working on Obama’s 2008 Democratic presidential acceptance speech. Image courtesy of Ad Week.

Listening to the interview—and to Axelrod’s comments on the necessity of narrative precision—I couldn’t help but think of Jon Favreau, Obama’s former chief speechwriter. (Favreau will visit Duke in two weeks’ time, as a Kenan practitioner in residence). Favreau has often been referred to as Obama’s “mind-reader,” uniquely able to channel not only the president’s thematic concerns and political objectives but also his rhetorical thrust into the text of speeches.

The interview with Axelrod serves, I think, as good prelude to Favreau’s upcoming visit, which is titled “Words Matter: Storytelling with President Obama in an Age of Sound Bites.” Both invoke the importance of storytelling and narrative—themselves both nuanced art forms and processes that can often be lost beneath the seductively broad idea of “politics.” Listening to the words of both Favreau and Axelrod—who elsewhere in the NPR interview refers to the president’s role as a “big-picture narrator” rather than an “announcer for the government”—I’m able to re-attune to the role of craft in rhetoric and public speech, and the impulses behind that craft to connect and widen, rather than alienate. As Favreau recounted from an early interaction (read: interview) with then-senator Obama, when he was trying to articulate his speechwriting theory in order to to get the gig: “A speech can broaden the circle of people who care about this stuff. How do you say to the average person that’s been hurting: ‘I hear you. I’m there.’?” Favreau’s theory gestures towards empathy: it looks to lift up the least visible in order to tell a wider story, to increase the realm of visibility itself. This rhetoric has, indeed, characterized Obama’s presidency; it has also narrated, since his first election, a story of America—one in which the issues of the everyday are paramount, and family, tradition, race, and class are aligned as much with the president’s personal identity as with the national pulse. I’m curious about how Favreau tapped into and helped build that pulse. And I’m curious about how that pulse will sustain or transform as we enter into the next presidential election cycle.


Feb 062015
 February 6, 2015

It is a curiosity of 2015 that when sitting in your office, computer open, you can see news unfold while missing the nugget of actual news entirely. There is a few-minutes’ range in which the article link is published, and then article link gives way to original commentary, and original commentary—often humorous—replaces the news nugget itself. Such was the case earlier this week when suddenly my social media feeds became bloated with references to Harper Lee (yes, that Harper Lee). I missed that few-minutes’ range and arrived for exclamatory tweets invoking Lee’s name, and silly riffs on the title of her sole published work, To Kill a Mockingbird. I’d find out, with the few-seconds’ handiwork of typing “Harper Lee” into Google, that those riffs on that one title were purposefully to-the-point: Lee’s publisher announced earlier this week that Lee, at age 88, would publish her second book, a prequel-of-sorts to Mockingbird.

Lee's first novel. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Lee’s first novel. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

I heaved a metaphorical sigh of relief—now I was in-the-know, part of the zeitgeist tide, and could craft my own response. I did so without much digging, and with the comfort of conversational immediacy; on Twitter, I could be brief and briefly insightful about the matter, without having to write, or even think out, a think-piece first. And so I took aim at the jokiness which seemed to dominate the social media response to Lee’s news. Why was it radical that she publish another work at her age? Where was our acknowledgment of and appreciation for a life lived outside of, but in tandem with, an outstanding literary work that has endured since 1960? I thought it said something about our collective [in]ability to celebrate the lifelong work of an accomplished woman writer, about how the news disrupts easy categorization of Lee as a reclusive crone. It was just earlier this week that an obituary for Australian author Colleen McCullough went viral, with its sharers calling attention to the demeaning language with which the author described the deceased’s physical appearance. I wonder if Lee’s eventual obit would read similarly, focusing on her decision not to publish another work until her later years.

These are all, of course, imaginary wanderings, just as the jokes were, and are. What unites them, I think, is an impulse toward self-preservation: an urge to be remembered for that statement issued five minutes ago, whether it be a joke, like one I saw from numerous Twitter authors, “2 Kill 2 Mockingbird,” or a subtle admonishing of said jokes, like my statements. The anxiety I feel before publishing a quip online is interlinked with my anxiety about whether or not these snatches of conversation serve any purpose other than to mark territory in the digital sphere.

These anxieties, and these published statements, traffic in emotionality; their publication grounds emotions in time, so that we may revisit them, and think that is what I felt then or why did I feel so protective over Lee’s oeuvre? I see, and participate in, this slow albeit frenzied charting of cultural consensus, and think, do these tweets a canon make? There’ve been several articles published over the last few days that muckrake the dirty, ethically knotty details of the announcement regarding Go Set a Watchman. In uncovering details that a 180-character dispatch cannot, these articles question whether Lee’s ‘decision’ to publish was actually her decision in the first place, given her physical and mental capabilities, and her lawyer’s perhaps-too-convenient discovery of the new manuscript. These articles include no quotes from Lee herself—because Lee herself didn’t issue any, at least until The Guardian reported that Lee was, allegedly in her own words, “alive and kicking and happy as hell” about this second novel being published.

“Alive and kicking and happy as hell” may be a genuine sentiment, or it may be another emotion byte intended (and perhaps engineered) both to provoke and appease, and perhaps inspire a feeling of intimacy, of connectedness, with the much-mystiqued author herself. The statement almost reads like a tweet, and in a way I can see it unfold on my feed along with every other exclamation and every other joke, in which we fashion ourselves closer and closer to said cultural touchstone—be it Harper Lee, or her novel(s), or anything else. There is, ostensibly, a certain type of participation encouraged here: a participation in the preservation of other people’s lives, and the lives of their ideas. Maybe the jokes keep coming because we assume a collective understanding of said person, said idea, said touchstone. And, in the United States, To Kill a Mockingbird functions as a touchstone indeed, if its ubiquitous inclusion in grade-school English curricula is any indication. I haven’t read it since ninth grade, but I know the plot and its themes front-to-back. I know both are still relevant, given the ways our histories have moved since 1960. I know I want to read it again, especially after hearing about the coming of Lee’s second book.

In the conclusion of Jessa Crispin’s vehemently-titled New York Times editorial (“Don’t Do It, Harper Lee”) about the Harper Lee hoopla, Crispin proclaims:

We have been greedy. One great book is enough. The appetite for more Harper Lee (and more J. D. Salinger, among others) stems from wanting to recreate that first encounter. That moment we went from not having read To Kill a Mockingbird to having read and loved To Kill a Mockingbird.

But we can’t wipe the past and go back into it anew. And sometimes when our high expectations come crashing down, it’s not only our emotions that bear the brunt of the fall. Sometimes we take others out with us.

I don’t question the significance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but I do question, and bristle against, the tyranny of pinning certain works of literature to categories like “great” or “awful”—and especially the suggestion that we do so before they are published, before we, as readers, can engage with the material itself. I bristle, in a similar way, against the rapidity with which our responses to the news align in one way or another, and the extent to which our jokes repeat themselves so as to draw us farther from each other, or else closer to our own self-image. And sometimes we take others out with us: we perpetuate stereotypical images that feel close because, paradoxically, they feel far away: an aging author, in a small Southern town. The perpetuation of these images gives me ethical qualms; so does the lack, or murkiness, of information surrounding Lee’s agency in publishing her second novel.

What to do, then? I’m conflicted. If this new novel is indeed published, I imagine I’ll read it. In the meantime, I’ll seek out more information. I’ll also seek to engage that which already exists: a well-written novel about race in America, which feels relevant to me in a way my 14-year-old self couldn’t have imagined. I imagine the same would be true for many of us.


Jan 302015
 January 30, 2015

I didn’t make it to the opening party for Area 919 last weekend, but I like to imagine that if I had, I’d have imitated the movements of a small child, insofar as I’d be playful and hop around but I would not—definitely not—touch the art. I’d bend over to peer through the open circles of Casey Cook’s undulating sculpture Whoa, Nelly! Through the holes my eyes would settle upon a painting on the opposite wall, which would mean they’d fixate on the dark grain of Damian Stamer’s Requiem. What at first looks like a contained interior scene—an abandoned piano, an old chair—slowly begins to expand: objects composed of scraped paint uncover other objects, until, hey, is that a tree branch up there? Looks like it. The wall placard explains that Stamer “create[s] haunting environments borrowed from the rural landscape of north Durham County, where he grew up.” I’m reminded of a recent holiday drive through north Durham, and then through Oxford, and then through southwest Virginia. I remember the darkness under the eaves of stately Oxford houses, which made me think about the riots Tim Tyson writes about in Blood Done Sign My Name. But I also remember how the sunset gathered on the long flat lawns outside the downtown, lawns abutting forests that looked like they could go on forever. If I could tie all that together in a painting, maybe it’d look—or feel—something like how Stamer’s looks and feels to me now.

A snapshot of Area 919. Image courtesy of the Nasher Museum website.

A snapshot of Area 919. Image courtesy of the Nasher Museum website.

In my opening remarks for this year’s Ethics Film Series, which began this week with The Visitor, I gave some background for the theme—“Sound Beliefs.” I’ve given this background before, in writing and in speech; I repeat it, like a mantra: I wanted to pick something, some things, that felt both tactile and complex. I use this phrase as if the two terms stand in opposition, but when I say it they always hang together. I felt the same urge as I stood between Cook’s sculpture and Stamer’s painting, and then again when I stood between Cook’s sculpture and Neill Prewitt and Yuxtapongo’s installation Exploded Hipster, whose contents—local band and record label shirts, a stray Converse shoe, all crowdsourced from the Triangle’s music community—snake outward on the white gallery wall. Tactile, yes; they’re t-shirts, once hugged by warm bodies, some of whom I probably know personally, many of whom I probably follow on Twitter. I imagine a landscape of friendship and artistry, idiosyncratic and colorful, abstract and necessarily unfamiliar, to a certain degree (i.e., who did that Merge t-shirt belong to? Ah, yes, we’ve once made eye contact). But I also see that landscape, in front of me. I almost want to stick my arm through, to try it on for a while.

Area 919 is powerful in its assertion of a creative world through the hanging together of multiple creative worlds. This is something that art, and its curation, do well. “All of [the artists of Area 919] contribute to a vibrant and innovative artist community, helping to establish the Triangle as a growing creative center,” the exhibition detail reads. In effect, that exhibition detail is writing the community into a space, just as its artists are writing, painting, molding, imaging their selves, and their works, into a space. I feel similarly when I read the words of the women featured in “A Food Sisterhood Flourishes in North Carolina,” and the words of the many commenters, insisting that the New York Times should have included another woman chef, another women-helmed restaurant, to more holistically honor the vibrancy of North Carolina’s food scene. That web would look different, yes—as it would look different, from the get-go, from any one chef’s, or artist’s, perspective. And so it would from yours or mine.

It’s possible, but not easy, to build community on the foundation of diversity; it’s possible, but even less easy, for that sense of community to be validated externally in a way that feels fair, representative, and holistic to those who did the work in the first place. And yet that is the work that remains: the getting up in the morning, the painting, the writing, the meeting people, the attending (or not attending). The pieces included in Area 919 honor that work by bringing different worlds together in one space: so tactile that you, and you, and you, can peer through the circles, too.


Jan 232015
 January 23, 2015
Shavar Jeffries. Image courtesy of the Wall Street Journal.

Shavar Jeffries. Image courtesy of the Wall Street Journal.

Shavar Jeffries’s public talk next week, the first in Kenan’s new practitioner-in-residence program, carries a heady title: “Ethical Leadership: Self-Sacrifice as Public Service.” And it should: Jeffries, a noted civil rights attorney and 2014 Newark, NJ mayoral candidate, has over his career thus far committed himself to notoriously heady issues—urban crime, public education, and the politics that envelop these, and other, arenas. Jeffries’s work, and especially the nature of his leadership, remind me of conversations had over the two years I’ve been involved with the pre-orientation program Project Change. I’m reminded, specifically, of one of the program’s core stipulations: “You will be expected to think critically and creatively about how leaders emerge from everyday experiences to build and sustain inclusive communities that value diversity and promote social justice.”

In preparation for Jeffries’s visit, I’d encourage you to check out two recent articles that give a sense both for Jeffries’s personal background and the political and cultural context from which he, and his work, emerge. Almost a year ago, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an op-ed/profile of Jeffries; it talks about Jeffries’s upbringing in and outside Newark, and the ways in which he returned to the city with an eye toward political reform. For a longer read, there’s “Schooled,” Dale Russakoff’s lengthy investigative report in the New Yorker, which details the multi-pronged effort led by Mark Zuckerberg, Cory Booker, the former mayor of Newark, and Chris Christie, current governor of New Jersey, to revamp and reform Newark’s school system, one of the nation’s lowest-performing. Jeffries appears toward the end of the piece—which itself was published just around the time of the mayoral election—advocating for better communication between Newark residents and political leadership. This type of communication seems to require an empathetic balance—a call for both “sides,” so to speak, to see each other, and maybe less “side”-like in the first place. I’m curious, and excited, to hear Jeffries speak this coming week—to hear about how he strives to achieve empathetic balance in his own leadership, and how “self-sacrifice” has marked his growth as a leader.


Jan 152015
 January 15, 2015

I often tell people that Andrea Patiño, a Colombia native and a 2012 Duke graduate, is the most well-traveled person I know. She grew up in Bogotá, went to high school in Norway, has spent summers and semesters at Duke in the Netherlands, Ghana, Togo, Palestine, and New York City, and always seems to be traveling between continents. As a photojournalist and a cultural anthropologist, she seeks out multicultural stories; as an immigrant, she thinks a lot about mobility. In 2012, directly after graduation, Patiño was awarded a Hine Fellowship through the Center for Documentary Studies, and it was through this program that she moved to Boston, encountered the immense cultural diversity of neighboring city Lynn, and embarked on a multimedia documentary exploration—From the World to Lynn: Stories of Immigration, which opens as a full-fledged exhibition at CDS tonight. I spoke recently with Patiño, who is currently a graduate student in visual communication at UNC-Chapel-Hill, about the exhibition (which is also online here), how she finds herself in her documentary work, and the power of personal narratives.

KI: Tell me about the entry point to [From the World to Lynn]—was it through a particular person you met?

A map showing all of the countries from which immigrants have traveled to Lynn. Image courtesy of Andrea Patiño; part of the exhibit From the World to Lynn.

A map showing all of the countries from which immigrants have traveled to Lynn. Image courtesy of Andrea Patiño; part of the exhibit From the World to Lynn.

AP: I moved to Boston [to partner with nonprofit RAW Art Works] and was commuting to Lynn, and I realized pretty quickly that it was an incredibly diverse place. I did some research and found out that almost 30 percent of the population is foreign-born, which is a ridiculously high number—a lot higher than Massachusetts, and more than the national average. That was fascinating right away, and also in contrast to Lynn’s reputation. When you go to Massachusetts everyone says, “don’t go to Lynn, there’s a lot of crime and gang violence,” and so you never really get to hear the fact that it’s such a diverse place, and so rich, culturally and historically. That’s kind of outside of the narrative. Also, just the fact of going [to Lynn daily] and seeing all the different restaurants with different foods and walking the streets and hearing all these different languages. There was a Russian bakery, and a taco place, and lots of Iraqi people around as well. Lynn’s a refugee resettlement city.

When I was doing my work with RAW, I started reaching out to resettlement agencies, and the first one I went to was an Arabic association. Also through RAW I met children of immigrants and second-generation immigrants.

KI: I remember earlier this year we were talking about your current work, about how you’re trying to orient a lot of your documentary projects around immigration. Did [the Lynn project] cement that interest?

AP: I think doing this project reaffirmed a profound interest that I have [in immigration]. It’s such a relevant and important issue—especially in terms of questions about mobility nowadays when everyone’s moving around constantly. Once this project was done, hearing from the subjects [of the photographs] was really powerful, and validated my work in a way that was very profound. That really confirmed that [immigration] is a topic I want to keep working on, because it also felt important to them—having those stories out.

For me as well, I’m trying to figure it out. I’m an immigrant myself, and it’s a completely different kind of immigration story. I’m here for education and sometimes that gets lost; [immigration stories] are nuanced. But here in North Carolina, unlike in Boston, there’s more of a Hispanic presence and I will probably continue doing work on that for the rest of grad school.

A portrait of Antonio, who immigrated from El Salvador. Photo courtesy of Andrea Patiño; part of the exhibit From the World to Lynn.

A portrait of Antonio, who immigrated from El Salvador. Photo courtesy of Andrea Patiño; part of the exhibit From the World to Lynn.

KI: Speaking of the story of your immigration, I was struck by your exchange with Antonio [an immigrant from El Salvador, photographed as part of From the World to Lynn] who flipped it back on you, and asked you why you were so interested in immigration. Can you talk a little bit about that dynamic?

AP: That was so surprising and honestly so good to me, to be confronted with that question. He was an undocumented, unaccompanied minor, which was a huge thing last summer in the States, but he came 11 years ago. At that point, as I was doing all the interviews, I was trying to figure out my own status. My work permit was running out in the States, and honestly it was a very hard. It produced a lot of anxiety. I was trying to figure it out: either I would have to leave, or try get a job that would sponsor my visa. And I’m explaining all of this to [Antonio] and he’s like, “why don’t you stay, and be undocumented?” It’s the first time anyone has asked me that. That was very powerful. Of course it’s something I had never considered, because of the implications of it. It meant I wouldn’t be able to go back home [to Colombia], or if did, I wouldn’t be able to come back [to the U.S.]. Some people choose [to stay, undocumented] because they don’t have any better option. I think that also reveals the nuances of why people come, why people stay, why people make those kinds of choices.

KI: Has, and/or how has, your thinking about immigration changed?

AP: I think it reaffirmed that personal narratives—though often dismissed—are so important in showing how complicated these decisions are. It also got me thinking about the right to migrate, but also the right not to migrate. The idea that if you don’t want to move, why would you have to move? Which is the case for a lot of people who are forced to move.

Mobility for me is such a big issue. When I first came [to the U.S. and Duke], I did my first summer abroad in Netherlands. I said I needed a visa, and everyone was like, “what is that, why can’t you just…?” Which is completely understandable: If your mobility has never been questioned, growing up, why would you even think about it? I’m somebody who has been able to travel a lot despite all these limitations. I’ve been denied a visa here and there, which is really frustrating. Of course a lot of people say, “why don’t people come [to the U.S.] legally?” but don’t realize that there are all these processes. It’s virtually impossible [to immigrate legally, to obtain a visa] if you are, for example, an impoverished person from Central America.

Also, for me, the situation in Lynn with the Iraqi refugees was really interesting. It connects to the idea of the war in Iraq, to America’s involvement and how that had a very tangible impact on people’s lives who are now coming here. What’s that relationship between an American citizen whose taxes paid for the war and someone who’s coming here? How does that relationship work? How are we involved and responsible?

KI: How has your photographic style evolved through your other projects—including photographs of slave castles in Ghana and Palestinian youth in Nablus—up to this point, a show made up solely of portraits?

AP: [During a class] last semester at UNC was the first time I really had to think more deliberately about style. [With the Lynn project], I was going with my gut, trying to figure things out by myself. I thought portraits were more important in this project because I really wanted them to go together with the voices of the people telling the stories, so you can see the portrait while listening.

KI: What does it mean to you to come full-circle and exhibit your work at Duke?

AP: I’ve been at the Center for Documentary Studies forever, from [being a] front-desk receptionist to having an exhibit there. It definitely feels like a bit of a completion. [The place] was so important in my Duke experience, even though I only took one class there.

This is the first time I have an exhibit up. I remember [at the beginning of the fellowship], my advisors were talking about how you’re going to try many ideas and maybe many of them are going to fail. But you’re going to have time and support to do the project you want to do. I think that kind of support is kind of rare, for somebody to tell you right after graduation that you have the opportunity to fail if you need it. So going back to Duke, and back to CDS, feels like a good first exhibit and also a closure to a long circle.

KI: What are you working on right now? What’s your next big project?

AP: I’m thinking about my [graduate] thesis pretty soon. I would be interested to see how Obama’s recent executive action is going to play out and unfold for a lot of families.

From the World to Lynn is on view at the Center for Documentary Studies until April 13. See more of Patiño’s work here.