Last week I attended the British Comparative Literature Association conference at the University of Essex, which was dedicated to the theme of migration. A very opportune title it turns out, as migration is not only a key function in comparative literature and translation studies but also a hot topic in social science terms.
Rosi Braidotti, in her plenary address, made a brief reference to the attack on humanities across Europe and the collective action organised by her fellow academics. Once upon a time I was also part of this community. But I soon found out I needed money for food and a roof over my head faster than it would take for an appropriate job to come around. This wasn’t a painful realisation: I had spent all of my years as a Ph.D. student doing a range of non-academic jobs and when the time came to get a full-time one I hadn’t even managed to submit my thesis yet.
Over the past few months I have seen several articles emanating from the US, which attack the idea that postgraduate studies in the humanities have anything to offer to anyone nowadays. What they do not seem to be taking into account is that people do incomprehensible stuff for all sorts of reasons and not just with a career in mind. Quite often, to start a degree is a way in to a new country. This was definitely my case. Shutting myself into a library on any day, sunny or otherwise, the former being admittedly rare, was not my idea of fun. I did love reading and exploring ideas, and sometimes even writing but I also needed the oxygen of social interaction with the world outside and the pleasure of ‘real’ jobs which offered me valuable skills such as unblocking constipated babies and developing negotiation techniques through engaging with certain impossible teenagers. My parallel universes offered me refuge from one another as I was trying to form an adult identity in a country other than my native one. I will always look back to those years with fondness even though I was often short of money and never got onto the property ladder. But being an adult is much more than that.
The first two days at the conference were spent in a bubble of excitement. How had I ever possibly wanted to leave this world of continuous intellectual challenge? Where discussing ideas became your daily bread? I did phone my partner on Tuesday and told him I didn’t want the bubble to burst, that I was dreading my return to the humdrum reality of unemployment. Oh the irony. Proving right all those humanities haters? Yes and no. What my training in humanities has resulted to, among else, is stubbornness in following my own decisions which have twice so far involved leaving a job without having found another one. Granted, I do not have kids but I have become very good at saving money and not desiring much material wealth – except books of course.
Two extra days down the conference line however and a few doses of scepticism paired with disillusionment were enough to do the trick. After attending a few of the following kinds of sessions: (i) non-timed, (ii) easily torn to pieces and (iii) myths done to death with most preponderant that of Narcissus, I found a certain kind of weariness growing and it wasn’t just in me. After Maria Tatar’s plenary on Sleeping Beauties which she ended with references to Angela Carter and after having to check that our current year was indeed 2013, I knew something was definitely wrong with our dear old humanities.
Over the past few years, being the degree junkie that I am, I have been working towards a second undergrad in international studies. The intellectual explorations of the third decade of my life made me realise that these need to be socially grounded, anchored to the reality around me and not to a self-referential framework completely detached from what was happening in the world. I was in a position to understand migrations in multiple contexts and not only because I was a migrant: I had always been most sensitive to the migrations of the ‘damnés de la terre’, the myriads of people who fight for a better future, since the times I was safely cajoled in my parents’ house. I’ve never made a career of anything; I’ve never been a politician defending immigration policy or made immigration policy or made a living out of studying migrations in literature as much as I would have wanted to. I continue to look around and the UK council estate life of my yesteryears has been replaced by the Stockholm suburbs. Very different but both inhabited by myriads of unseen and unheard people – and right at the bottom of the unseen and the unheard lie the lucky undocumented migrants, lucky because they have made it this far and still alive, still surviving.
Bidisha’s self-deprecating stint at the conference, which was followed only by a handful of people, was exaggerated. ‘What did I think I was doing’, she asked in reference to her PEN writing workshop for undocumented migrants, ‘these people were not there to write, I don’t know why they kept coming back. Do you think writing is important when you have to get food on to your table?’ Even I joined the chorus of ‘surely, there is some value in getting together’. But what Bidisha’s underlying message was saying to me loud and clear was ‘look, I have been with these people and there was nothing I could do for them so don’t you think that you are achieving anything by sitting in your ivory tower and talking Migration in literature’.
This blog is about migrations and settling and starting again, both in terms of my short-lived career as a literature critic and my understanding of the globalised world. I know being around helps and that Bidisha was lying, I know because I live around undocumented migrants too. I am an unemployed Ph.D. who volunteers in community projects – welcome to my world!