Dec 162014
 December 16, 2014

I admit that since author (and 2014 Kenan Distinguished Lecturer) Teju Cole took a self-described “Twitter break” back in July I’ve been eager to note and collect his creative output wherever else it appears—Facebook, Swiss magazines, et al. I quite like the material and content of what Cole writes, photographs, etc—but perhaps more than that I’m intrigued by his shape-shifting, his ways of playing with and emphasizing form—and the person behind the form—itself. Lately he’s taken to his official [author's] Facebook page to post updates with a personal inflection: a book recommendation, an image from recent protests in New York City, an article he published.

Last week, Cole posted an interview he’d done with The New York Times, part of “Reading the Times With,” a recurring series. “When I agreed a while back to participate in the New York Times’ feature ‘Reading the Times With,’” Cole writes, “I had no way of knowing that the date we’d selected, Dec 10, would prove to be such a heavy news day.” Indeed, posted last Thursday, this article coincided with the release of the Senate report detailing the C.I.A. and its torture program.

In the piece, Cole’s interviewer, Susan Lehman, proceeds to ask what he thinks about the Times’s coverage of the report that day. And Cole proceeds to dissect it. He gives the headline a “B+,” for his perception of its mild language and avoidance of the word “torture.” He then evaluates the paper’s coverage of events in Nigeria. He advocates for replacements for [most of] the current Times’ op-ed writers. He likes, and consistently reads, the Arts section. He discloses that he’d really like to write for satiric news site The Onion.

The fact that I’m surprised by this interview, and by the existence of this Times feature, is perhaps a reflection of my recent distancing from the Times. When my family began receiving it several years ago, the paper—especially the Sunday paper—functioned as a world-opening for me, in the same way watching Italian existentialist films for the first time during a high-school summer program did. I was starting to develop a vocabulary for the things I was curious about as a young adult, and for that reason it felt important for me to chomp down articles on films (some Italian and existentialist) that would hit North Carolina theaters approximately three months after they did New York. (Then and now, I still read the Arts section much more frequently and deeply than I do others).

But now—and I think discovering the Twitter parody account “The Times is On It” resonated with me—I feel differently. I cringe when the Times’s travel reporters pounce on Durham’s “DIY District”; I grow suspicious of the paper’s complicity in developing “Brooklyn-esque” as international currency and category. I ogle at minimalist design and travelwear in T Magazine but feel as though I’m living in another world, from which such pricey minimalist world is unattainable. I guess that’s the point; but should a major national newspaper read like an escapist venture?

In Cole’s interview he mentions Margaret Sullivan’s “Public Editor” column, which I enjoy for similar reasons that I enjoy Cole’s interview: it represents critique as practice. In her column, Sullivan writes things like “How to Survive a Journalistic Disaster 101″ (about the Rolling Stone/UVA sexual assault reportage fiasco, which I wrote about briefly last week) and “Pricey Doughnuts, Pricier Homes, Priced-Out Readers.” In the latter she addresses a common criticism from Times readers “who are frustrated by what they describe as elitism in the paper’s worldview, and who would like The Times and its staff to remember that the median household income in the United States is close to $52,000 a year, and that about 15 percent of Americans live in poverty.” (She goes on to say that fewer than one percent of front-page news articles deal with poverty). Her conclusion? The Times’s “lofty” coverage helps keep its traditional audiences intact while paving the way for the hard-hitting, perspective-broadening journalism on which the paper prides itself.

She and Cole (and I) would probably agree that there’s more road to be paved, and be paved conscientiously. But it’s columns like hers and interviews like Cole’s that keep me reading and writing about the news, which to me means thinking about the “news”—and particularly large mainstream news sources—as occupying a particularly odd place between institutions and individual people. This seems an apt reminder right now, when journalistic ethics feel particularly tenuous, and off-the-page human action is loud and unapologetically present. How to reconcile these spheres? I’d say part of it is bending the words of mainstream media to match the nuance of lived experience. It’s a tall order, but I’ll happily share the words of those who are trying.


Dec 072014
 December 7, 2014

Last weekend, Elizabeth Lauten, the communications director for a Republican representative, apologized for criticizing Sasha and Malia Obama’s appearances at the annual White House turkey pardon. “Please know that these judgmental feelings truly have no place in my heart,” she wrote. “Furthermore, I’d like to apologize to all of those who I have hurt and offended with my words, and pledge to learn and grow (and I assure you I have) from this experience.” Lauten formally resigned.

At the National Book Awards ceremony this year, author Daniel Handler—otherwise known as Lemony Snicket—introduced author Jacqueline Woodson, the winner of the Young Adult category—with a joke about her race. “I clearly failed, and I’m sorry,” he wrote later, in a tweet. “My remarks on Wednesday night were monstrously inappropriate and yes, racist.” He donated $10,000 to the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and agreed to match up to 100,000 for other contributors.

A Huffington Post journalist apologized for being a member of the media. The NYPD officer who killed Eric Garner said, “I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner.” He did not use the words “I am sorry.”

As I began to write this piece, Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana published a “Note to [Their] Readers.” He explained that the magazine now has reason not to believe the rape claims of a UVA student the magazine reported on in a high-profile news feature several weeks ago. “We are taking this seriously,” Dana writes, “and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.”


In her notes for “All Apologies,” the last essay in the collection Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss explains that for source material she tracked instances of the word “sorry” in national newspapers from the past 30 years (No Man’s Land was published in 2009). The essay catalogues and arranges apologies in a way similar to what I’ve done above. In between recounting official apologies issued on behalf of the U.S. federal government—for the victims of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, for Japanese internment—Biss weaves her own:

“Stop,” my brother told me. We were standing in the yard with rakes in our hands. My little brother was not a skinny kid anymore. He was fully grown, and we stood facing each other suddenly as adults. “You always do that,” he told me, “and then you think you can just apologize. If you were really sorry, you wouldn’t do it again.” (Biss, 193)*.

The Lauten incident came up in a conversation with my parents the other day. When does an apology feel genuine?, my mother wondered. This question feels new to me now, as much as I’ve been taught—implicitly and explicitly, and since preschool—to think about it, and to Do the Right Thing in turn. When I was younger, the course to apology felt much more clear: If you do something wrong, say you’re sorry, and mean it. And so: when I was five, I shoplifted a small model Dalmatian from Blockbuster; 101 Dalmatians had just been released. I felt so bad about it that I confessed an hour later to my parents, who brought me back to the store so I could apologize to the manager. He accepted, sheepishly. I think, this week, of “Criming While White,” but I did not offer this story, or any other story, in a tweet.

That question my mother raised feels new to me now, I think, because it’s not easy to answer. It’s not easy to answer because its response depends—upends—on the person, or persons, for whom an apology is intended. And that circles back to another question, which feels to me like the question, and often goes unsaid: Who, or what, compels us to act?


Right now, and this week in particular, I feel small. This feeling remains as I pull at my small strands of short hair, thinking that when I reach the ends, answers will rebound, and I’ll feel more than the meeting of my fingertips. This feeling of smallness is ironic—dangerous, even—because I know that my various layers of privilege out-embody me. I decide this week to catalogue recent cultural apologies, to try to focus on something specific. There is anger, and violence, and racism, and I am overwhelmed, and I feel sorry that I am. I am overwhelmed right now in witnessing social spaces where empathy seems secondary, and yet I am complicit in holding those spaces because of my skin color. I write to puncture that space, but I also write with the fear, and guilt, of taking it up.

“If I apologized for slavery, would you accept?” This question forms one small line at the bottom of page 196 of Biss’s book. It would be easy to miss if you were reading quickly or unattuned to Biss’s economy of sentences or the way she fits big inquiries into small spaces. This is probably one of the lines that made reviewers find her book provocative. It is part of why I find her book provocative, and necessary.

I think of her writing as active listening. I read a voice that is frustrated, and pained, and aware of its power—and therefore further frustrated and pained. I read a voice that listens: as a journalist, to black communities in San Diego; as a neighbor, to the history of Rogers Park, in Chicago. I am talking about this book a lot right now with people I am close to who look like me, and who look like Biss: white, well-educated, middle-class. It is an easy point of connection. Admitting to the desire for this connection is not as easy. I want people who look like me to read it because it offers a model of self-inquiry and self-critique that is uncommon, and uncommonly public.


I am sensitive; I have always known this about myself. The thing I fear the most is doing the wrong thing. (Do the Right Thing). Through 12 years of prestigious and progressive public schooling and through most of four at Duke, I often prefaced contributions in class with “I’m sorry” or “I’m not sure if this is right, but…” Then I learned, through a professional workshop, that I didn’t have to apologize, as a woman, for taking up space or for having ideas. Throughout those 16 years none of my peers held me accountable for that. Many of them, of course, were doing the same thing.

Throughout 16 years of progressive education I did not often engage in conversations about race, either with those who share my skin color or with those who do not. I did not have the language, despite believing I did, to place myself among others. I did not have the language to place myself.


Ideally apologies are as much about self as other. They reflect, they incur, sympathy, sometimes empathy, and they are self-reflexive in turn.

Apologies are ideal because they are impossible. When the words are said and when the reparations are paid, the body remains. I believe in the body, even when I am most cerebral. I dance with my body; I also write with my body, and listen with my body. I attend a demonstration. I don’t say much, other than I’m glad to be here. I join the chant of “Black Lives Matter.” I thank those who organized it. I listen. I bookmark a lot of articles by a lot of different voices and I read them. I look at news images. I listen. I critique my listening. I realize it is a privilege to listen. I listen because I should not have to be told to do so in the first place.

“I listen as much to my own imaginings, as I watch those fleeting glimpses of my thoughts cross my consciousness, as I listen to others,” Dr. Wahneema Lubiano writes, as part of the new “No Apologies” campaign at Duke. “And I know that my work, my affinities, my life, are all richer for that listening. Listening is my way of recognizing the beckonings from others that might not be noted as easily when I am only hearing my voice speaking.”

I consider what the world would look like, what our conversations would look like, if we replaced “work ethic” with “listening ethic.” I write in order to do so. I write to try to make that which out-embodies me visible, and to claim it, and to interrogate it: that is the responsibility and product of having privilege and choosing to listen. This is not an exceptional action; it is an everyday practice.

“Listening does its own work,” Lubiano continues, “[it] is a result of strength, of endurance even against a long history of marginalization—yes, but it is at the same time a muscle, the deployment of which makes a social world possible.”


*Excerpted from the essay “All Apologies,” from Notes From No Man’s Land, by Eula Biss. You can listen to a collaborative reading of the essay, produced by Ninth Letter and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, here.

Nov 212014
 November 21, 2014

It’s common knowledge—at least at Duke— that as the semester ends, academic work picks up, and students move into isolation and try to hold out for a) Thanksgiving, that harbinger of ‘the end,’ and, in quick succession, b) winter break, that solidification of one semester’s end and a few weeks to pretend that the next one won’t begin. Spoiler: it does, eventually.

Working on the flip side—no longer as a student, but now as a staffer who works in oftentimes student-oriented university programming—it’s common knowledge that instead of trying to reform student behavior or their workload or both, we try to avoid planning too many large-scale events during the end of the semester. This past week, however, a few large-scale events presented in some form by Kenan drew admirably good-sized amounts of students and publics alike. It’s heartening to witness people attend events out of sheer interest, and even more so to witness people attend events out of an apparent interest in coming together against a backdrop of intense isolation. Because especially in these days of early darkness and chapped lips, coupled with the ambiguous sense of things ending and maybe? maybe not? beginning again, it’s easy to feel alone.

A typical scene at Hack Duke. Photo by Katherine Scott.

A typical scene at Hack Duke. Photo by Katherine Scott.

A recap of some events this past week that energized my late-fall blues:

Friday, November 14: Opening of the Nannerl O. Keohane and Frank Hawkins Kenan Gallery. Several students, faculty, staff, and community members gathered for the opening reception and remarks. The gallery will house both a permanent collection—chock-full of outstanding visual art by local artists, including CDS faculty member and photographer M.J. Sharp, and past What is Good Art winners—and a rotating collection, now displaying Kenan’s Good Question series. You can see photos from the event here.

Saturday-Sunday, November 15-16: Hack Duke: Code for Good. Team Kenan co-sponsored the third-ever Hack Duke event, which brought together teams of students to huddle together over the course of two days—largely sans-sleep—and engineer projects exploring the connection between technology and social good. The teams organized around four tracks: Inequality, Energy and the Environment, Education, and Health and Wellness. See the students in action here, and learn more about the event and its teams on the Hack Duke website.

Tuesday, November 18: “The Sacredness of the Secular and the Secularity of the Sacred: Re-imagining the Role of Religions in Public Life.” Renowed philosopher Charles Taylor participated in a public interview with KIE Senior Fellow Luke Bretherton in the Goodson Chapel at the Divinity School. The Chapel—a formidable space fit for a formidable guest—was packed full, mostly with Divinity School students. Taylor and Bretherton talked about the changing nature of faith communities, the convergence of political issues and religion in the public sphere, and the line between beneficent and misanthropic action in modern institutions (among other topics). We sent some live-tweets out during the event (if you want to backtrack to this Tuesday’s Twitter timeline), and there will be a video of the talk available soon through Kenan’s website.

Wednesday-Thursday, November 19-20: “Appropriate? Or Appropriation?” fashion show and panel (11/19), and discussion (11/20) with Adrienne Keene on “Social Media, Activism, and Mascots.” The Forum for Scholars and Publics and Team Kenan teamed up to present a series exploring Native American fashion and identity. The fashion show and panel on Wednesday evening displayed apparel and jewelry from Native American designers and brought together Adrienne Keene, postdoctoral fellow at Brown and author of the blog Native Appropriations; Jessica Metcalfe, author of the Beyond Buckskin blog & boutique; Susan Scafidi, Fordham Law professor and and founder of the Fashion Law Institute; and Shayne Watson, fashion designer (Shayne Watson Designs). Keene returned the next day to the Forum for Scholars and Publics for an invigorating lunch discussion on recent mascot appropriation controversies. There were two excellent student-authored pieces reflecting and reporting on the series of events: one from Recess in the Duke Chronicle, and one from Duke Today.


Nov 142014
 November 14, 2014

Where does this piece start? Where does the conversation begin?

Say it begins in a room on West Campus, at the bottom of a building, beneath exposed orange pipes. Gathered around a table, in the same place where last week Eula Biss sat, are two South African writers—one a librettist and composer, the other a journalist and blogger. Gathered around them is a mix of people: they are racially diverse, they come from Durham, they come from Duke, they come from both. They come into the city, and into this campus, and into this room, at different points in time. Some come into the room after the discussion starts. Some say that they have just moved to the city from Brooklyn, and from elsewhere. The librettist and journalist have moved to Durham for just a month, to share their stories with people like the ones who’ve come here to share theirs today.

Neo Muyanga and Khadija Patel are the inaugural recipients of the WiSER-Duke Visiting Writing Fellowship. The new cross-institutional program, between Johannesburg (the University of the Witwatersrand) and Durham (Duke), is designed to grant accomplished non-academic writers the chance to work within academic spaces. I first became interested in the program because I read that one of my former professors, Sarah Nuttall, would be helping to facilitate the exchange. Then I began reading about the two fellows’ work—about Muyanga’s compositions and co-founding of the Pan African Space Station, and about Patel’s journalism for South Africa’s Daily Maverick and her current book project on Mayfair, a suburb of Johannesburg. Enthralled by what I now knew, I expected to sit, further enthralled, as the two talked about what they do. There would be probing but mild-mannered questions from the audience about their work, and we would eat nice food and leave feeling happy with ourselves.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion writes in The White Album. In her first book, The Balloonists, Eula Biss quotes her back: “‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ writes Joan Didion, with a certain skepticism. We also live by the stories we tell.” I like how Biss, with the same skepticism, re-fashions Didion’s words in order to say something not only about our tendency, as humans, to narrativize in order to make meaning. Biss seems to be suggesting that we’re bound by these stories, in our action and inaction. And I’d go further: that which binds us in turn renders us, and our stories, necessarily incomplete.

I like the different angles Didion’s and Biss’s words create. I felt these angles take shape during the event at the Forum for Scholars and Publics. The conversation with Muyanga and Patel was formally structured around the term “black money”—referring to the rise of the black middle class in Johannesburg but also, I found out, to the trajectory of the black middle class in Durham. The conversation hinged on the stories its participants were willing to tell, about how race, urban development, and economic power interlock in Durham. We think there’s a connection here, the South Africans said. I’ll give you my context if you give me yours.

The first response: this conversation should begin elsewhere—downtown, outside the academy, in a black church, or library, or other community space. This sentiment—that the conversation is necessarily incomplete—is one I don’t often hear voiced so plainly during on-campus discussions about Duke and Durham. I appreciated it, as much as I appreciate how necessary it is to hold these types of conversations on campus. The comment gave the event texture, and gave spirit to the comments and questions that followed, things that piggy-backed off each other, like: who do cities belong to, and how does that ‘who’ factor into how cities are designed? If cities from Durham to Brooklyn to Johannesburg are modeling themselves into a universal currency of artisanal hipness, who’s able to ‘play’ in these spheres, and who’s left out? When we imagine the cities—and realities—of the future, do we envision the oppressed rising to extreme wealth? Do we want the realities we live with now?

Muyanga and Patel responded back, fashioning the audience comments into reflections on their experiences of Johannesburg. I caught Muyanga afterward and brought up my research project in Dublin, how I’d been investigating the closure of an arts space in the city center. My story didn’t really have a point; it served as a sort of proof that I’d studied the types of things we all spent an hour talking about. I realize now that being in that room and sharing something about living in Durham would have been enough. I have lived in this particular city for almost six years now. I know my knowledge is incomplete, but that gives me fuel—as does sitting in a room on West Campus, sitting alongside others, and placing ‘our’ cities in conversation.


Nov 022014
 November 2, 2014

Remember the “Pocahotness” frat party email back in December of 2011? I do. Not because I received it while a student at Duke, but because I saw Nicole Daniels’s Chronicle editorial, replete with the predictable slew of inflammatory comments, the next day. The party in question, she explains, was held by the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity; its theme, which Daniels’s friend “nonchalantly texted her,” was “Pilgrims and Indians.” Daniels goes on to say how she found the theme appalling in its racial insensitivity but decided to go nonetheless, in order to evaluate the event herself. She places herself among her peers, astonished at their willing participation in the theme. She closes with a collective moral indictment: “Everyone who attended this party should feel ashamed. We are students at a prestigious university, and we should know better.”

Image from the "Appropriate? Or Appropriation" event.

Image from the “Appropriate? Or Appropriation” event.

It’s roughly Halloween as I write this, which made me mis-remember the piece, and the party, as a Halloween event. It was not. It was a pre-Thanksgiving shindig, “intended to celebrate Thanksgiving,” as the Pi Kappa Phi apology letter stated. While I’m not someone who moved through Duke tending to conceive of holidays like Thanksgiving as cause for a rager, I acknowledge that there are, plausibly, student groups that did. And I don’t have a moral indictment for that urge, so long as that urge is pursued conscientiously—and, in the case of this party, I believe it was not. The fraternity’s response letter said as much. The letter is actually remarkable in its defenselessness; the brothers acknowledge that the party offended, and they apologize for that offense. They even went a step further, organizing an event called “Culture Clash,” co-hosted by Pi Kapp and the Native American Student Association. I didn’t attend, but I’m curious about how that went.

I’m curious, especially in these days surrounding and following Halloween, about how we behave on days surrounding and following holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving. There are obvious performative differences between the two: one is a one-off involving costumes, transforming into someone else—or at least the outward appearance of someone else—for a night; the other brings friends and family together for gratitude and a shared meal. I say “performative” to call attention to our actions within the 24 hours (and then some) during which we’re called to celebrate. History is complicated; sustaining meaningful dialogue about the ethics of holiday behavior during said holiday (or party) gets in the way of action, especially action involving costume and debauchery. Thus, perhaps, our tendency to do stupid things like throw a party with a racist (or sexist, classist, heterosexist, etc.) theme. Talking about the big stuff is hard. Why not just barely dip into it, with a hastily thrown-together costume, in the name of fun?

There are so many articles and essays that treat the question of “Appropriate? Or Appropriation?” (I’m borrowing this phrasing from an upcoming event hosted by Team Kenan and the Forum for Scholars and Publics). One I read recently is from the Walker Art Center’s teen-oriented blog. On dress-up holidays like Halloween, Mason Santos writes, “we get caught up in our own freedom, which unfortunately creates the belief that we are entitled to do what we want…‘I can wear what I want,’ and, ‘I can choose to represent another culture the way I want’ are often phrases that come up when a person is trying to defend their choice of wearing an offensive costume. Rather than thinking about another person’s right to feeling comfortable in their community, we think about our own right to do what we desire.”

Following this line, holidays like Halloween suddenly seem less communal and more liminal. We walk around as half-selves, Picasso-painting-faced, one limb invoking ‘normal’ us, the other invoking Andy Warhol, or a zombie, or Nicki Minaj, or “Pocahotness.” Halloween makes people gravitate together, creating an implausible collection of characters, real and imagined, from different time periods, social spaces, and communities. The oddity of this shared space becomes a given, which makes it difficult to interrogate why we do it in the first place—and thus even more difficult to interrogate the perceived ease of opting into others’ realities via a one-night costume.

In this way I appreciate the “Culture Clash” event, even if I didn’t go, and I appreciate the upcoming “Appropriate? Or Appropriation?” fashion show and panel. I appreciate, primarily, that these events exist, and that they exist in order to give space to party participants—like me, like you—to appear, sans-costumery, and think about the fictions we adopt on a daily basis. I appreciate that these events exist to propose that these fictions, while sustainable for some, are not sustainable, but rather demeaning and detrimental, for others. I appreciate that this is uncomfortable, even scary, to reckon with. ‘Tis the season for Halloween horror, right?


Oct 172014
 October 17, 2014

Eula Biss dedicates her 2009 essay collection Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays to “[her] baby, who doesn’t have a name yet”; she dedicates 2014’s On Immunity: An Inoculation to “other mothers, with gratitude to mine.”  Here I mean to draw attention to an idea that we all already know: that dedications are acknowledgments of the other, before the book—whether fiction, nonfiction, poetry, whathaveyou—runs it course. They read like declarations of being for, and that implies something quite meaningful, I think: that one person’s labor and artistry can exist for others, and thus that this work exists in a continuum with life, with other people.On Immunity

“There is some truth, now, to the idea that public health is not strictly for people like me, but it is through us, literally through our bodies, that certain public health measures are enacted.” This is Biss writing early in On Immunity about herd immunity, which essentially equates to the vaccination of a majority in protection of a minority—“the minority of the population that is particularly vulnerable to a given disease.” In all the press about Biss’s book—just Google “Eula Biss On Immunity”— there’s much said about how the book originated from Biss’s own pregnancy and deciding whether or not to immunize her son. This is also, often, how I begin to relate the “story” of On Immunity to friends and family.

But there is something deeper at work in Biss’s narrative, which she uses to unravel the cultural history of immunity through her own experiences and through the words of pediatricians, disease scientists, Susan Sontag, and Rachel Carson (among others). Biss writes with a singular persistence from, at, around, and through her status as a well-educated, financially stable white woman and mother. “People like me” isn’t a droll invocation of empathy, of generalization; it’s Biss’s extreme precision in placing herself, and those who share her demographic characteristics, on a continuum with those who do not. It’s not even so much a placing as it is a recognizing, and abiding-by: we are human, we all contain sickness and health, we share airplanes and blood drive queues. One of my favorite passages of Biss’s book takes place in one of these queues; Biss is giving blood “to repay the loan [she] was given,” upon her giving birth, “by some other anonymous donor.” She writes:

“I try to imagine that donor now as I look at the people in the chairs across from me—a muscular man studying flash cards and a middle-aged woman reading a novel and a man in a business suit looking at his phone. They are the same people I might see waiting for the train, but here they are bathed in an aura of altruism.”

It may be that circumstances like giving blood—or receiving yearly vaccinations— illuminate why we do so in the first place. We give, and receive, in order to become part of a majority in protection of a minority, and how conveniently visceral this experience is:

“When the needles are inserted into the people across from me, I notice each of their faces twist, for just an instant, into a grimace. I dread giving blood, and because I have been sitting here imagining these others are more willing to give than myself, it is surprising to see this look flash across their faces. As the nurse pushes the needles into my arm, I feel my face make the same expression. I, too, dislike it.”

I think, here, about the Terence quotation, which was brought up at the “Apartness” poetry event last week: I am human: nothing human is alien to me. I think, as a writer, about the commonly held notion that writing is birthed from alienation, from a need to reconcile the self with that which feels un-self-like. I think of a recent tweet from a conference on women writers in New York, in which The Empathy Exams author Leslie Jamison is quoted as saying, “All writing is about empathy.”

These may feel like grand-gesture ideas; even, perhaps, like didactic throughlines. Besides, my body is separate from your body, and I am too busy trying to figure out how to avoid your cough so that you do not infect me.

Yet we play host for weakened disease so that we may not catch it in full; we give blood, literally indebted to those who did the same for us. Eula Biss: “Our bodies are not war machines that attack everything foreign and unfamiliar…but gardens where, under the right conditions, we live in balance with many other organisms. In the garden of the body, we look inward and find not self, but other.”

Next month, Eula Biss visits Duke as part of the inaugural Kenan-Center for Documentary Studies Visiting Writers Series in Ethics, Society, and Documentary Art. In the spring, Leslie Jamison visits.

As it happens, Jamison has that same Terence quotation tattooed across her arm. She wrote a short piece about it in The New York Times. “It hurt just enough to make me feel like something was happening,” she says about the tattooing process. “There was a sense of deserving—that I’d earned this by hurting for it. It was an old logic I hadn’t felt in a while: Pain justifies ownership.” Perhaps, also, it reinstates collectivity; it brings us into one body; it molds our faces into the same contorted expressions; it makes us visible to one another as we board the trains together.


Oct 102014
 October 10, 2014

On Wednesday, sophomore Lara Haft convened the Coffeehouse and asked all of us to turn off our normal audience-participation mode (read: quiet, no thumbs tapping on screens, no murmurs to disturb the performers). Disturbance, she explained, should be the norm for this event. She reminded us—or, explained—that this was a poetry slam, and we—slouched and standing and sipping nice drinks—would need to give to the performers so that they could give back. “So, that means snapping,” Haft said, demonstrating, “and if you like what they’re saying, if it speaks to you, say mmmm!”


Senior Destiny Hemphill performs at “Apartness: Race, Gender, and the Ethics of Storytelling” this past Wednesday.

And mmmms were said. We gave so that they could give back. The evening—under the heady title “Apartness: Poetry, Race, and the Ethics of Storytelling”—began with a slew of diverse slam poets from Duke and Durham and everywhere in between. There was a high-schooler who spoke with elegant immediacy about her race and family history; there was G Yamazawa, a Durham native and the 2014 National Poetry Slam Winner. He performed poems about identity and growing up as a North Carolina-born Japanese-American (“Make some noise if you grew up in an immigrant household!”). His language drifted in and out of conversational Japanese; his parents and his grandmother were in the crowd, laughing in response to G’s family jokes.

I’d attended spoken word events before, but perhaps never listened as closely. I was struck by how all the poems performed on Wednesday spoke so distinctly to where each of the performers comes from: their families, their ethnicities, their histories. Each piece was inextricable from its speaker; each piece was unapologetic presence. Collectively, they felt like origin stories unfurled in real time. Lara, who spent her summer as a Kenan Summer Fellow conducting oral histories with woman veterans of the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements in Birmingham, Alabama and Cape Town, South Africa, respectively, shared a poem about what it felt like to be a “wannabe poet with a research grant.” I edited Lara’s letters home over the summer but hadn’t met her in person until this week. Through her letters, I had one idea of her story and how she came into this particular research project. I watched (and edited) as she moved through different communities and physical geographies, trying to reconcile her outsiderness—her apartness—in each one. In her powerful final piece, she writes about her journal from the summer, which was unexpectedly destroyed:

I flipped gingerly through the soggy pages, taking stock of everything I’d written. Since I’d started the notebook, at the beginning of the summer, I’d filled 157 pages. There are doodles, to-do lists, notes scribbled during my interviews. There’s the first version of these blog posts, notes to self, drafted poems about parking lots, single mothers, and mince-meat pies. There’s Eileen’s kitchen table, where she shows me newspaper clippings and I give her computer lessons. There’s the scent of frying samosas in Davinia’s kitchen, where her stories of anti-apartheid marches blend with the sound of bubbling oil.

I realize it’s not a moral or perfect phrasing I need for my poems, but these flickering, precarious images. It’s these moments, suspended in ink, over which I feel like a guardian. There’s a certain ink-blotness of time, a blurring that seeps in from the edges. Decades leak like open water bottles, memories fade to pinks and oranges. Stories of the past warp and whither, from time or misspellings or the solubility of ink.

Reading something on paper and hearing it in person are never the same, right? Each form gives a different effect; each encounter with the material produces a different response. During the panel that followed the performances, Professors Adriane Lentz-Smith (Duke) and Randall Kenan (UNC), along with G Yamazawa, talked about the preservation and passage of stories from their different disciplinary perspectives. They talked about what their work aims to do; as a historian, Lentz-Smith explained, she “pushes people to inhabit,” whereas a poet might “push people to see.” All storytellers, they agreed that the ethics of storytelling are endlessly complicated, but that there is worth, after all, in the telling. The worth circles back to the ethical responsibility of the teller. It’s about “making your choices visible,” Lentz-Smith said. Coming together that evening and listening to each others’ stories felt like an exercise in visibility—an acknowledgement of apartness, but a movement, if even for a few hours’ time, toward togetherness.


Oct 032014
 October 3, 2014

I’ve been meaning to update you all on the documentary project I’ve been working on since June. As I wrote back in the summer, I traveled to Dublin with the DukeEngage cohort to undertake my own investigation: the recent suspension, via the Dublin City Council, of The Exchange, a collective arts center in downtown Dublin. At present, I’m 34 pages deep in transcriptions from interviews I conducted with Exchange volunteers, activists, academics, arts administrators, and politicians. Once I’ve transcribed the last few interviews, I’ll begin to post updates on the blog from time to time as I put the pieces of the story together.

It’s still difficult to visualize, at this point, what exactly the story I write will look like. But I am certain, especially in the midst of ongoing press about the closure of The Exchange and similar arts venues in Dublin, that the story I write will attempt to interrogate both the closures themselves and the ways in which I came to know them, and their sphere of actors and participants. Why do I care? What experiences stateside, both personally felt and otherwise, contribute to my interest in the collapse of creative spaces anywhere? What kind of story can a relative ‘outsider’ tell about these stories generally, and The Exchange’s story specifically?

A few days ago, writer, artist, and radio documentarian Gareth Stack published a short audio documentary about the startling trend of creative spaces closing in the city, and what can be inferred from this trend about Dublin’s, and Ireland’s financial wherewithal. Put another way, in the prelude to his report: ”Could the city’s economic status be gauged from the number of independent arts spaces that’ve closed down, suggesting a new competition for space?” In the piece, Gareth interviews representatives of several different arts spaces about gentrification, the relationship between art-making and place, and the ways in which arts organizations’ structures are changing as demand for real estate threatens to erase them.

Gareth actually contacted me over the summer, referred by an Exchange volunteer who I talked to several times during the two weeks I was in the city. He was just then beginning the radio piece and was looking for more contacts, more stories of spaces being threatened with closure (or in the process of closing). His piece is helpful as I continue to contextualize The Exchange’s story within other ones, as well as recreate my experience from the summer on the pages of a Word document.

But the thing I like most about Gareth’s piece—which stands alone as culture reportage—is the way it’s embedded, on his personal website, within a longer (written) narrative of his own connection to these creative spaces, especially The Exchange. You can read this piece, replete with photos from his time at The Exchange,  here. He talks about how he found both The Exchange and another non-hierarchical collective space, Seomra Spraoi, after graduating from college. “I found myself footloose and penniless,” he writes. “Ireland didn’t seem to offer anything in the way of meaningful, ethical work, and I couldn’t afford to emigrate.” Volunteering at The Exchange offered him an alternative, and quickly became a vibrant community in which he played a key part. He calls his time there “three of the most creative, rewarding years of my life.” The language he uses to describe and to commemorate his time there is not dissimilar from that of other volunteers I interviewed over the summer. I have hours of audio recordings that are made up, simply, of different voices describing their favorite events, exhibitions, and moments spent at The Exchange. The details of their experience testify to the venue’s uniqueness. I wonder, still, what it would’ve been like to be there.

Gareth’s longer narrative is another voice, and another testimony, for this evolving archive. (Several of the volunteers I interviewed told me my piece would add to the archive, too). And I say “evolving” because in the wake of these closures there’s another trend forming: what these people will do with their memories, with their relationships, with their art, with their activism. There’s the question of what Dublin’s —or Durham’s, or any city’s—creative architecture will look like in 10 years, but there’s also the question of what it will look like in two months. And this archive is part of that doing.


Sep 262014
 September 26, 2014

There are several things that interest me about Alice Gregory’s recent New Yorker profile of Bard College president Leon Botstein (the New Yorker paywall is still down, so you can read it here). There’s the objective feat—and perhaps oddity—of Botstein’s 40-year (and counting) leadership of the college, and the fairly young age (27) at which his tenure began. There are Botstein’s intellectual proclivities that position him somewhere between savant and dilettante: he entered college at age 16, did Ph.D. work on the social history of Viennese modernist music, and devotes time to social justice work and orchestra conducting. There’s the institution itself: small, secluded, and aggressively committed to the liberal arts. Extracurricular accoutrements like Greek life and athletics don’t jive there in the way they would at, say, a school like Duke. The types of students Bard tends to attract, Gregory (a Bard alumna) explains, are “easy to caricature.” Instead of “being student-body presidents or varsity point guards, they took black-and-white photographs of their friends’ shoes, wrote first chapters of postmodern novels, and played in noise bands. They were apt to believe that their talents and interests could be assessed only subjectively.”

Leon Botstein, conducting Bard. Illustration for The New Yorker by John Cuneo.

Leon Botstein, conducting Bard. Illustration for The New Yorker by John Cuneo.

But the most interesting question the piece arises for me—as a writer, as a reader, and as someone fairly embedded in contemporary higher education— is who, or what, exactly, is being profiled. I left the piece wanting to read at least five more pages of it. I wanted the seedy details of undergraduate life at Bard; I wanted to know what the “parties” Gregory alludes to are like. When I applied to college I was definitely a B&W photo-taker and postmodern novel enthusiast (I didn’t know what “noise” music was until later, when a friend at UNC—who almost went to Bard—explained it to me). Back then, I didn’t know who Botstein was. I didn’t think about the imprints of college presidents on “their” respective institutions, but I nevertheless focused my attention on institutional culture. Did the students at X college care about learning? Did they care about it enough to lay on the grass and talk philosophy into the morning hours? What scenery would I observe from the classroom of my avant-garde poetry seminar? I had the sense that Bard would foster a distinctly different undergraduate experience than a place like Duke. I erred on the side of Duke. And despite that decision’s tie to my sense that Duke and Durham’s relationship was more substantial than that of many New England liberal arts colleges, I still saw colleges as tiny islands. Collectively constructed, but somehow singular in their identities.

Reading about a place like Bard—and about its selfsame leader—does make me think about the college student I could’ve been had I attended elsewhere. But moreso these days it makes me think about what sustainable educational institutions look like in 2014 (and counting). How are their finances managed? Do they have finances in the first place? Do the “eye-catching initiatives” Gregory mentions secure funding, or is it more lucrative to pound the pavement of the traditional liberal arts? Do these initiatives line up with the culture of the student body, and how is that body consciously—or unconsciously—shifting?

I think about Black Mountain College, that remarkable progressive institution nestled in the hills outside of Asheville that attracted an all-star list of 20th century artists and educators. It stayed (financially) alive for only 24 years, from 1933-1957, but the the lore seems to grow bigger with each passing decade. (In fact, the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center just received significant expansion funds). There are books written by alumni with feverish appreciation for their school and time spent there; there are odes to larger-than-life professors and poets; there are odes to being young in the 1940s and happening to attend Black Mountain, and the ensuing magical convergence of these two things. I came across a funny exchange on Twitter in response to Gregory’s article. The respondent suggested that Bard should’ve “followed the route of Black Mountain rather than becoming Botstein University.” Gregory’s response: “Even though Black Mountain doesn’t exist anymore?” Maybe it’s a suggestion that Bard break post-Botstein and, to borrow that modernist adage, “make it new.” Or maybe Bard will cease to exist as the world knows it, as Bard-Botstein are inextricably linked. Then what? The institution—any institution—will look different, but that’s not a passive action. Even as our educational landscape changes, I imagine that learning spaces will subsist: collectively constructed, but somehow singular in their identities.


Sep 192014
 September 19, 2014

After several months away, Kenan’s finally headed back to our home base, the West Duke building. Keep track of the move on our Instagram (@KenanEthics).

West Duke's new tracklights and seating arrangements!

West Duke’s new tracklights and seating arrangements!