3 June 2012
I’m not so sure I believe
I’m not so sure I believe that
I fit in
So I rise up and look down from an eagle-eye view
I watch all you people, you’re like pieces of a puzzle
This I ponder
And it seems it’s all connected and this mosaic is a patchwork sea
And if it’s all connected a shifting mosaic on a patchwork sea
We are all puzzle pieces
We are all puzzles
We are all puzzle pieces
We are all trying to fit in
Now don’t be alarmed
I’m not I’m listening…and observing
But don’t be alarmed
I’m not I’m listening, I’m always listening now, listening now
Don’t be alarmed, no I’m listening
I glide through the clouds, down
I’m asking no questions
As I slip into my place I know I don’t
Need all of the answer right now
Nate Maingard, “Puzzle Pieces,” 2012
I’m currently sitting at my picnic table/writing desk on a crisp autumn Sunday afternoon. The windows are open, letting in the sunlight as well as a bit of a chill, and I sit here with a mug of tea and bowl of popcorn while an exhausted graduate student sleeps in my bed. It’s been a busy two months.
For the last two weeks, Irina Spector-Marks, another PhD student in the history program at the University of Illinois, has been in Durban, looking at archival documents as part of her first research trip. It’s been a bit surreal and somewhat full circle to experience the city and country with her, going to archives, restaurants, parks, and beaches with a new visitor. Part of the trip allows me to see this place I’ve grown to love and care for so intimately through the eyes of both a friend and a neophyte, so to speak. Things that seem settled or common suddenly get thrown into strange formulations, and things that I’ve believed or thought were knowable take on new character when you’re with someone new to it all. I guess that could be a rough theme for this entire trip, and these past two months in particular.
Since I last wrote, I turned twenty-eight, went to Johannesburg and back, and plowed my way through hundreds of documents over decades of history. I’ve pored over legislative debates surrounding immigration, drunkenness, sexual morality, racism, and missionaries; I’ve continued to attempt putting all of these documents in a chain in my mind, somehow selecting, editing, interpreting, processing them, in hopes of eventually making a narrative that explains, decodes, reframes, enlightens us about our purpose and place here. Things that seem logical or easy continue to unnerve me, and I continue to find new challenges in the archival documents that make me wonder what I’m doing, exactly.
In mid-May, I became painfully aware of my need for a break from researching. Fortunately, I had several friends graciously offer me places to stay and friendships to deepen while in Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, and a place I’d not seriously visited since 2004.
Joburg is big. Joburg is intense. Joburg reminds me a lot of the more bizarre parts of Los Angeles, with its sprawl, its juxtapositions of intense poverty and terrifying luxury, it’s history of gold rush rumours and disappointments, and its pretense as a city of dreams and reinventions, where ‘anyone’ can make it big and successfully. It was no coincidence that I read Stephen Simm’s riotously satirical novel Miss KwaKwa, about a scheming, brilliant, ruthlessly Sotho beauty pageant winner who attempts to make it big in eGoli, the city of dreams. I read the book while taking buses, trains, taxis, and riding in friend’s cars, and traveling over much of the strange, teeming city.
I walked the depressing corridors of the University of Johannesburg, described as a friend as “clearly the intended backdrop for a dystopian zombie apocalypse,” cringed in the airconditioned perfection of the elite wealthy shopping malls of Sandton, caught mini-bus taxis in the city centre, and pondered domesticity with university lecturers and ironic artists living in the stolid suburbs of Randburg. What I liked most were the ways in which people shared with me how the city impacted them, how they felt at home.
My friends Stephen and Nafisa are recent transplants to Joburg from Durban, and they kindly opened their home to me, making me delicious food while I plied them with gin and played with their adorable three year old son. The family that they’d built in the city, and more importantly, the work they were committed to doing with university students in making history relevant, and beautiful and significant touched me. On a Tuesday afternoon, the three of us piled into their car after leaving the university, as Stephen described a day at work. His eyes flashed as he talked about connections students were making, as they way that they could piece each thing together, and how words on a dry page instead through alchemy, became keys to understanding their own past and hopefully their future. For the two of them, I could hear in that moment, the squat houses of the suburbs rushing past my window, that Joburg was about helping people see what was around them all the time, tuning them into the sounds of their history and the connections ahead of them.
With my friend April, the words seemed a bit more bittersweet. A graduate student from the States, she was back on another research trip. We sat on a sun-drenched patio in the shabbily chic corners of Melville, cradling tiny porcelain vessels of espresso and pouring out from our hearts three years of pent up frustrations and hopes and fears. I heard about her work—which is brilliant—and about her plans and about what she wanted. At one point she talked about how Joburg felt like home, or at least one of the few solid ones as a grad student putting in the required work and constant trips back to a site. We smiled, ruefully, at our wandering lives, and at the ways that some places become like lodestars pointing us onward and giving us senses of connection.
On a bright Friday afternoon, my dear friend Sekoetlane Jacob and I walked around the streets of Joburg’s city centre. We stopped and lingered for a while at the city’s high court. SJ had originally studied law, but felt more drawn to advocacy work, particularly focusing on combating the institutional and ingrained nature of violence against women. “This place brings out so many feelings,” he said, staring at the imposing edifice across the street from us. I adjusted the straps of my bag impatiently, until I saw how serious he looked. “I remember being here, standing outside during all of the madness after Zuma’s rape trial. How after that woman was villanized openly in the press and public for so many reason, people protested, demonstrated, laid their bodies down on those steps…” He shivered, in spite of the afternoon heat. I did as well. “This place matters so much to me,” he continued, crinkling his brow and sweeping one hand outward, pointing across the intersection. “I hate it. I hate what it makes me feel. But I also feel so much here. I feel the struggle, that things aren’t done, that they’re constantly being made and…battled here, Teej. It’s not over at all—but this place makes me tired.” His features softened as he ran a hand through his hair and turned to look at me, attempting a half-smile.
For me, Joburg was a whirlwind. I felt the shifting of hundreds of puzzle pieces—of friends and fits and hopes and dreams sliding into each other and against each other, making new shapes and each person trying to connect. It became too much for me to handle on Friday, as I thought of people I loved here, that I knew here, and how soon I’d be returning to the States. In the Sandton mall, in an upscale café, of all places, I began crying uncontrollably. I did try to stop, really. It just seemed gauche to be surrounded by manicured, seemingly successful people, and for tears to fall, like a slow, salted rain, unbidden into my coffee cup. It was a lot at once, and I wasn’t quite sure why. I pushed it away with a healthy dose of mortification and commonsensically told myself I had a few days left before a final month of work in Durban.
Which brings me back to a month of work in Durban. I’ve been typing frantically, checking archives, working, worrying, wondering. I was asked to write articles for a very cool Africa-focused blog, one focusing on LGBT rights and another on violence against lesbian women in South Africa. I have hugged a lot of friends and shared a ton of meals lately. I leave for the States on June 20th, and I wonder exactly how to get ready for such a happening. It looks like I’ve been given funding to go on a brief research trip in London in July, and then I’ll head back to Illinois for a year of writing most of my dissertation. In the midst of all of this, I didn’t really think I’d have a bit of a personal breakthrough, however.
I thrive best
with a beard and a pipe
and a parrot on each side
but now I can't do this without you
I never thought I would compromise
I never thought I would compromise
I never thought I would compromise
Let's unite tonight
we shouldn't fight
embrace you tight
let's unite tonight
Bjork, “Unison,” 2001.
Two weeks ago, Irina arrived, and it’s been a wonderful sense of disorientation to ‘show’ her this place I most certainly do not own, and to share the experiences that I have come to claim. In addition, another friend, Will, a fellow history PhD student from the UK, came to stay for the past two days. Taking Irina and Will to cafes and the archives, and markets, and up and down Durban streets has been surreal, wonderful, and reassuring. Yet it’s also pointed out to me quite a bit about myself and my life.
Graduate school is an incredibly solitary experience, particularly if you are pursuing a PhD in history, a discipline which demands hour after hour, week after week, year after year, of writing and reading alone. It is an exercise occasionally on the edges of sanity, as you lack the ability to sometimes connect your work to the masses of people around you. It is, simply, an isolating experience, especially for someone who self-identifies as sociable. In particular our works and triumphs and hopes are often so very solitary because they take place in archives and in our minds and our fever dreams and on runs or in the shower or when typing frantic panicked emails to our supervisors.
The past seventy –two hours have spent me in near constant communication with two other PhD students and budding historians. We’ve lived and breathed our work; we’ve chatted animatedly about the empire and historiography, and work. We’ve been in the archives and spaces together, and processed. And for me, it was just mind-blowing. As someone who has begun to accept the ‘rules’ of my studies—that I will be alone, that I am a fortress, that my work is solitary—it was a direct challenge to that.
It was only a matter of time before I began to think beyond that.
Despite the fact that I am insanely sociable, that I make friends easily and frequently, and somewhat deeply, I also live like an island. I’ve not been in a real romantic relationship of significance in the past four years, I invest in my friendships to a point, but I also keep a series of watertight locks on my interior life. Yet there was in this moment of intensive community for these past three days, a deep, bubbling desire to be more than my maintained, friendly, ordered self. What would it mean to more purposefully live in planned sharing, community, and engagement? What would my life look like if I was open to being vulnerable, to being loved, or to accepting openly that I do deserve good things in this world? Would it be more meaningful than right now? I feel that these final days and these encounters are forcing me to ask so much of myself, in myself.
“Facing myself is not something I’m good at it,” SJ said once. I had the sneaking suspicion that he was talking about both himself and me at the same time. I keep a tight lock on myself, focusing on work andthen on other people, in order to stay sane and be productive and valuable, and get shit done. But I find myself wondering, restlessly, what would it look like to be vulnerable again? What would it look like to be open to community, and to be engaged, and to be challenged?
I think of the puzzle pieces I saw in Joburg, the intensive three days here in Durban, and I wonder if I’m spending most of my days avoiding those connections by superficially smiling past them in hypersociality or putting my head down and powering through my work. If there’s anything I’m challenging myself in the remaining seventeen days I have in South Africa, and onward to London, California, Illinois, and beyond, it’s to be open to those connections. To the vulnerability. To being committed into being with people and trying to move through life far more integrated with you people that might (and almost certainly will) hurt me.
So I’m going to ask you all to hold me accountable to these choices, and I’m grateful for you all every step of the way so far. Some of you I’ll see very, very soon. Some of you I can’t bear to think of leaving just yet. But I demand to be deeper, and more connected in these next few days, weeks, months. I want to live more in unison with you guys, and less in my own island.