When You Present Critical Findings About Your Friend at a Conference…and She’s in the Audience

img_4375Earlier this month I presented a small part of my research at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in Montreal, Canada. The conference took place in the wake of the devastating election results.

The timing of the conference couldn’t have been better. I needed to get out of D.C. and not worry about turning on the T.V. just to hear, repetitively, that Trump will be the next president. The election results felt personal, as it did for so many of us who are marginalized in America and for those who happen to give a damn about social justice and have made a life and career out of it.

Despite heading to Montreal with a flurry of gray clouds over me, I looked forward to meeting up with Elodie—my “research subject” and extraordinary friend. But, I felt nervous about giving my presentation, “The Right Kind of Other: Multicultural Imperialism and Flexible Citizenship in Women’s Olympic Beach Volleyball.”

I was going to talk about Elodie’s relative privilege over other African competitors, who she beat out for a berth to the 2012 Olympics. I had also prepared 13 PowerPoint slides with large pictures of her…in a bikini! This was not the glorious talk she perhaps imagined I’d give one day when I first asked if I could write about her life. The talk was physically and personally revealing of her.

It wasn’t until the final sentence of my talk that I felt, versus knew, the enormity of what I was actually doing. Holding back tears of gratitude, I read aloud:

“I have to thank Elodie, who has graciously allowed me to put under an academic microscope, her complex and beautiful life. Admitting one’s privilege is exceptionally difficult. I am profoundly impressed and humbled by Elodie’s openness to speak about her systemic privilege. I am thankful for and inspired by her difficult reflections and honesty.”

Elodie was in the audience and she sat there listening to my critical observations of her journey to the Olympics. She flew into Montreal to support me. She gave me permission to write about her and her family’s life. She trusted me to tell her story (the good, bad, and complicated).

I’m overwhelmed by her generosity in sharing her life for my academic career.

For a brief moment during the conference I panicked over the risk I was putting our friendship in. And then Elodie suggested we go get foot reflexology massages, eat Chinese food, and watch a movie at some point that weekend. We hadn’t just hung out, the two of us, since my son was born a year and a half ago.

IMG_4376.JPGAs we walked the streets of Montreal, we talked about our fears, hopes, and dreams, just like we had done growing up in downtown Toronto.

It’s intense, doing a dissertation largely based on one of my best friends’ life. It’s a massive and delicate responsibility. And yet, through this experience I’ve been able to have conversations with Elodie I may not have had otherwise. As an added bonus I’m able to share with her the frustrating, arduous, and exciting process of doing academic work, which so few people outside of academia know or appreciate. This experience has been personally and professionally enriching so far.

With 2016 coming to an end, I’m looking forward to phase two of “dissertating”—travel for research in 2017. I’ll be hitting up archives at the British Library in London, England, the Olympic Studies Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland, and visiting archives and Elodie’s family in Mauritius. Elodie plans to join me for parts of these travels, so stay tuned!

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The Dissertation Is My Olympics. The Olympics Is My Dissertation

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Thank goodness for the Rio Games. Just when I was falling into a rut with my doctoral work, the Summer Games begun. It’s early to feel burnt out considering I just started the dissertation journey. Perhaps defending my proposal only a few months after giving birth and then moving to the other side of the country have a lot to do with my premature burn out.

A wise auntie of mine told me recently that quitting on my PhD now would be like training hard for a marathon and stopping at mile three. She had me at the sports analogy.

With my auntie’s guidance, I gave myself the much needed permission to take this summer off with the promise to register for fall. In hind sight, I should have taken a break, A REAL BREAK, from school much earlier in the year. Instead, I inefficiently attempted to chip away at my work.

To my surprise, in the past eight months I managed to submit an abstract to the NWSA conference (which got accepted), teach a brand new (new for me) 400-level course, submit an essay to two medical humanities journals, conduct and transcribe a 90-minute interview, read a few books, analyze this FIVB video, and start a resource website for postpartum women. It’s not the most productive amount of work, considering the amount of time passed, but it’s something and I’m happy to have something.

Unfortunately, not giving myself a break—after two significant life transitions—has taken a huge toll on my ability to persevere with the dissertation. It’s work that requires so much delayed gratification and has uncertain professional and economic promises—a tough investment for a new parent. It also doesn’t help that people often find my work too abstract to sustain a genuine conversation, making it hard for friends and family to relate to why I continue down this solitary path that tests even the most resolute among us.

And just when I contemplated throwing in the towel (you like what I did there?) the Rio Games descended upon us in the most unrelenting way. I couldn’t be happier with the bombardment of Olympic news from EVERY SINGLE MEDIA OUTLET. Few people doing their doctoral work are inundated with so much “stuff” related to their research.

For the academic side of me, this Rio Olympics is especially interesting because it’s the first Games in Latin America, and it’s in a country that glorifies multiculturalism, hybridity, and mixed races as part of its national identity. Also, beach volleyball is a huge featured event partly due to its growing popularity around the world especially in regions with significant beach cultures like California and Brazil.

beach-1210567_1920The iconic Copacabana Beach, where the beach volleyball competitions are taking place, seems to be the epicenter of the sexualized representation of Brazilian women and fashion. This makes for fascinating observations on how the sport seamlessly blends into the beach/surf/bikini culture, naturalizing the heterosexiness of the players and drawing in a spectatorship different than those of other sports. (I’m talking about official beach dance entertainers.) Other really interesting things are happening in this Olympics that just scream for academic analysis include: the refugee team, the first American to compete in a hijab, commentary on the women’s Turkish beach volleyball pair competing fully clothed, the near banishment of the entire Russian team (doping related), Gisele Bündchen in the Opening Ceremony, the Opening Ceremony’s performative story of slavery in Brazil, Obama’s commentary on the cultural and political significance of the Games, the commercials celebrating diversity…There’s sooooo much!!

Really though, at the end of the day I’m binge-watching the Games because I’m so totally sucked into the glamor, excitement, and lure of the Olympics. I can discuss the inequalities of sports until the cows come home, but it doesn’t take away from my appreciation and awe these athletes and their mental and physical capabilities.

We don’t see the hours, days, weeks, and years of training that go into performing at such a high level of physical movement. We don’t always see the aches and pains or know about the athletes’ personal sacrifices and obstacles. Despite my critiques of the Games, their clichéd narratives and their unapologetic commercialization, I can’t deny (EVER) the Olympics’ amazing display of physical human accomplishment. I just can’t. Having played competitive sports through college, I only have a tiny glimpse of and resounding appreciation for what it takes to be an Olympian.

As the Rio Games continue, I’ll be glued to the TV and Internet hoping that this global event sparks the motivation I need to keep on keepin’ on with my dissertation. In a similar way these athletes trained for their moment on this global stage, I busted my ass these past several years intensively reading, researching, and writing to show my dissertation committee that I have what it takes. My “training” would be for not, if I stopped now. So let this dissertation be my Olympic debut.

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Using Pinterest for Thesis Inspiration

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Social media is usually a productivity deathtrap. This is especially true when we’re trying to write.

Too often I have to turn off the Internet as a safeguard against checking Facebook for the 17th time, that day. When I was prepping for my qualifying exams I deactivated my account.

But social media isn’t the enemy of our productivity. How we use it really matters.

Our relationship to social media is both parasitic and symbiotic. I’m sure you can come up with a decent list of how Facebook ruins your writing routine, so I’ll leave the loathing up to you. However, I do want to tell you about my new fascination with Pinterest. More about Pinterest here.

I’ve been using it to inspire ideas for my chapter on body politics and sport migration. There are several online articles about athletes who represent nations other than the ones they call “home.” I’ve started pinning ones about women who fit this bill (especially American women) on a private Pinterest board titled “Migrant Athletes.”

Am I going to use these articles in a chapter? Probably not. But collecting these stories are helping me on my dissertation writing journey in several ways.

  1. It reminds me that people outside of academia are also interested in migrant athletes in global sports competitions.
  2. I get to see the kinds of issues and debates that concern spectators about these athletes.
  3. I learn more about the way these athletes negotiate their public identities as ambassadors of a given nation.
  4. It grounds my research by showing me the lived manifestations of my theoretical thinking.
  5. It keeps me motivated and inspired to be part of this conversation in both the public and academic spheres.
  6. It’s helping me figure out my “so what?” for the chapter.

Pinterest is also a practical tool. Up until recently, I’ve been using bookmarks on my browser or Pocket to collect internet articles and videos. The problem is that I’m a visual learner and organizer.

I like the way most media on the web is set up to be pinned. Once pinned, I have my articles and videos in one aesthetically pleasing space, which I’m more likely to return to and update.

I know there are other tools to help with research organization like Evernote and OneNote. They’re useful for other aspects of my research. But for collecting online content, going back to read them, and getting inspiration from them, I like the simplicity and aesthetics of Pinterest.

My Postpartum (Blogging) Hiatus

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The last eight months of my life have been one transition after the other. Here are the most notable highlights:

  • I had a baby! It was a long time coming. Transitioning to parenthood has been intense.
  • Two months postpartum I cleaned up my dissertation proposal, defended it, and became ABD.
  • Two weeks after that, we moved to the D.C.
  • Two months after finding a place and settling in, I’ve been trying to establish a writing routine for my first chapter.
  • Now I’m teaching an online course “Multiculturalism in Hawai‘i,” ironically not while I’m in Hawai‘i.

During these transitions–some more momentous than others–it’s become glaringly clear that life doesn’t stop for grad school…and it shouldn’t. But this brings up issues of privilege again, especially gendered ones.

Grad life isn’t family friendly.

I’ve brought up issues about institutional family support before. This problem is even more pronounced in grad school with no economic protections, job security, benefits, social security, or even moral support for being a parent. To holistically thrive as a grad student, you need to be wealthy enough, ideally young or old enough (outside of childbearing age if you’re a woman), and emotionally tough as nails to endure. (Notice I didn’t even mention, “smart enough.”)

Relatively speaking, I have a lot going for me. My partner supports my PhD endeavors but it definitely places stress on our household finances, and inevitably our relationship. My dissertation committee members (and classmates) are quite supportive of my being a new mom. My committee members were some of the first to know that I was pregnant. They also commiserate about the academic “system” with me. Although tangible changes from their efforts are slow (not their faults), they’re trying, which is morally uplifting.

Despite the privileges that enable my grad school life, having this little human so overwhelmingly dependent on me for his survival exacerbate the aforementioned issues that make PhDing impossible for the vast majority of the population.

For now, I’ll keep forging ahead…

Can We Move on From Mother’s Day Please?

Every Mother’s Day is wrought with complex emotions for me (as well as thousands of others). Here are two main reasons why:

  • I lost my mother when I was 20. Five years before that, we all knew she was going to die of cancer.
  • I’ve been painfully trying to become a mother for the past four years. Here’s a small snippet about that journey.

Mother’s Day also seems to be a unique blend of Hallmark commercialization with a dash of self-promoting “altruism.” Think pink washing or the ALS ice bucket challenge, where one feels compelled to publicly announce how much s/he cares.

I’m not against raising awareness or acknowledging mothers, especially if they’re totally awesome like my mom was. I just question the meaningfulness of this day, and what message it sends to many of us who don’t fit into certain conventions. These people include, but aren’t limited to: motherless children, single mothers, mothers with crappy children, children with crappy mothers, women without children, women who’ve lost children, women who are struggling with fertility, LGBT families, blended families, awesome aunties/grandmothers/sisters who raised you, incarcerated mothers, mothers with terminal illnesses, etc.)

Five years ago Anne Lamott published this article about why she hates Mother’s Day, and last week Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote specifically about the problems valorizing motherhood as the highest attainable goal for women. Both are worthwhile reads.

Rather than celebrating the importance and value of mothers (or maternal women in our lives) through various forms of material or public displays of affection (e.g. Facebook posts), I wonder how we can make this day stand for something a little more substantial, without reinforcing conventions that tend to exclude many types of women, children, and families. Perhaps we can put our effort into actually supporting mothers in a concrete way. John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, suggests paid family leave, while simultaneously drawing attention to the rampant contradictions of how we actually do and don’t support mothers in America.

I highly recommend watching the full clip. The entertainment value alone is worth it.

Crowdfunding Your PhD?

fundzDoctoral work is a privilege. And PhD programs are saturated with people of privilege. Despite the increasing rate of student diversity (in all manners of the word), a vast majority of us PhDing come from relative degrees of privilege. It seems oxymoronic to consider oneself an underprivileged (and I’m writing largely in terms of SES) PhD student.

Because no one needs to have a PhD to survive in this world.

Yet, having no money is the crying call for us “struggling” grad students. Unless you have a cushy trust fund or won the lottery, grad life is a hard economic lifestyle regardless of marital or parental status, age, or other categories of “need” people foreground when trying to garner financial sympathy. (This is a phenomenon I’ll probably explore in a future post. I find it fascinating.)

So when I stumbled upon this article about crowd funding dissertations, I was intrigued. The author cites kickstarter’s less than 50% success rate, but that’s hardly grim compared to the odds of getting a major scholarship that can significantly alleviate financial burdens.

Another U.K. student wrote about crowd funding his doctoral studies (including course tuition). Both articles stress how challenging this path can be, which I don’t doubt.

It also seems like science or engineering projects with everyday application, or social philanthropic projects may be more appealing to potential supporters. I don’t know how humanities dissertations would fair considering how they lean toward abstract theoretical conceptions, which can be esoteric.

Could this strategy actually work? Are students heading in this direction?

My Five Book Rule

Now that I’m officially out of the coursework and exam prep phase, I get to read for (academic) interest and dare I say, fun!

My five book

My five book “to read” pile.

I don’t buy or have a lot of stuff—an economic reality of being a grad student and hating clutter—but I do like having a lot of physical books. Over the years I’ve purchased books faster than I could read them and having a pile of unread books plague me with buyer’s remorse.

So I made a rule: I can have a maximum of five unread books at a time in my home.

The idea for this self-imposed rule came after going to a fascinating talk featuring author Minae Mizumura who recently published The Fall of Language in the Age of English. I wanted to buy this book, but then realized I had five other wonderful books I’ve wanted to read (and are probably more relevant to my research and interests).

They are:

To help curb my impulse to buy books, I’ve started a “save for later” list. It’ll give me time to assess whether I really need another book on my already crowded shelves.

What does your reading pile look like?

Loving Research Even When It Sometimes Doesn’t Love You Back

One of 133 PDFs captured and save from Le Mauricien for future analysis.

One of 133 PDFs captured and save from Le Mauricien for future analysis.

Research is really exciting.

From my undergrad, master’s, and (now) PhD programs I’ve had the privilege to dabble in several kinds of research methods: statistical analysis, content analysis, experimental design, ethnographic work, focus groups and key informant interviews, oral history, archival research, survey implementation and analysis, program evaluation, build environment assessments, and etc.

Research projects have always been my favorite part of being in higher education. I find great satisfaction in all stages of the process from an idea’s inception to writing the report or final product, and everything in between.

To be clear, however, it’s not always easy or inspirational work. I’ve found that project logistics or using certain research tools is most frequently what challenges my romantic sensibilities toward research.

This weekend I started doing basic archival work on the Internet, assembling an initial collection of articles written about my biographical subject, Elodie Li Yuk Lo, and her assent to the Olympics.

I stumbled upon an archival goldmine—Lemauricien.com.

On Le Mauricien’s website, there are over 130 articles (many brief, about

My excitement quickly faded upon realizing two things:

  • My French is rusty—and Le Mauricien is a French publication.
  • Zotero doesn’t support this website.

I spent most of one morning PDFing 133 articles that contain “Elodie Li Yuk Lo.” I spent the better half of an afternoon manually filling in citation information that Zotero couldn’t capture (which is almost everything). And then I made the HUGE mistake of assuming that Zotero would automatically back up my work because I have a Firefox-hard drive syncing mechanism set up.

Then my laptop froze and shut down. All my work had disappeared upon rebooting.

I felt deeply betrayed by technology though I know this was largely a human error. I was pushing the limits of my laptop’s capacity, I didn’t check how to properly back up my work in Zotero, and I had way too many windows open and programs running.

I know there are monumentally worse things that could go wrong with archival research. Also, I’m entirely grateful that Lemauricien.com even has articles archived, searchable, and freely accessible on the Internet.

This experience serves as a good reminder that shit sometimes happens and in the grand spectrum of this project, loosing half a day’s worth of work on the computer isn’t that significant of a setback. Plus, I didn’t need to leave my home to access articles from Mauritius, I have PDF versions saved of all them (on multiple drives), and now I know how to properly back up my work on Zotero (which is potentially saving me from a much greater software catastrophe sometime down the line).

Do you have any research disaster stories, solutions, or suggestions?

Nominated for Something I Wrote?

best dundies ever pam coverWhen people say, “I’m just happy to have been nominated” for a particular award nomination, I tend to roll my eyes. Really? That statement often seems disingenuous.

And yet here I am feeling genuinely happy to be nominated for the 2015 Biography Prize for student work at the University of Hawai`i. In the mix are several life writing focused M.A. theses, PhD dissertations, and course work.

Craig Howes, an English professor and the director of the Center for Biographical Research at the university nominated the IVF story I wrote a few semesters ago. It’s the same one I presented and discussed at the Medical Humanities conference in Iowa last April.

I intended to submit this story for publication, but that priority fell to the side as I geared up for my qualifying exams. This nomination (while unlikely that I’ll win) is just the motivation and reminder I need to fix up the story and submit it somewhere already.

My writing isn’t perfect, and at times I let this goal of perfection hold me back from working on my next story, or from trying to get anything I’ve written published. I read over the most recent draft of the IVF story and was reminded that while my writing could use some work, the story itself is there along with the narrative arc, scene development, and emotional impact.

I wrote this IVF story to cope with and process the experience, offer some insight to others going through fertility challenges (and medical professionals in this field), and show how fertility (while deeply personal) can also be political.

Writing is my outlet. Many stories I write are for my eyes only, but once in a while I feel compelled to share. When I do, I feel vulnerable and shy. Strangely enough, it’s usually about the craft, not the content. I need to get over this self-consciousness and just work through (and on) the ill-placed punctuations, clunky transitions, poor grammar, and awkward word choices.

I wish I could muster my writing confidence from within. Perhaps that’ll come later. For the time being this writing nomination (my first ever) is just the boost in confidence I need to get this story out and into potential publishers’ in-boxes.

For that reason, among others, I’m so very happy just to have been nominated.

Passing the Qualifying Exams

If we analogize the PhD journey to climbing an Everest-like mountain, I’m heaving to catch my breath right now. I just passed my qualifying exam.

After reviewing two hundred (plus) books—divided into three reading lists (“Gendering American Studies,” “Body Politics,” and “Contemporary Life Narratives”) that culminated in a week long examination where I wrote three essays and orally defended them—I struggle to feel “qualified” in anything.

It’s the academic trap.

Like Einstein once said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” It was quite paralyzing to come to this realization, weeks before my exam. My exam committee reassured me that the goal wasn’t to know everything, but rather to understand and identify the trends/conversations happening in the field—a much more manageable task.

Post-exam, I gave myself a week and a half to catch up on sleep, to not read or write, and to cocoon myself in a protective bubble against thinking of other looming deadlines. These things are considered significant luxuries among graduate students.

After my brief reprise, it took very little effort to realize I’ve just climbed the first of several peaks of a seemingly infinite mountain. Remaining, I have my comprehensive exam, research/writing of a book-length manuscript, editing and defending the dissertation, attempting to get it published, and doing those things all over again–should I choose an academic career.

We know about the tortured artist who finds refuge in the act of creating art, but is there a similar romance to the tortured academic? Perhaps.

For outsiders, PhDing might seem elusive yet inspirational at best, and masochistic or self-delusional at worst. As an insider, this process is undoubtedly hard, but it’s easy to remember the privilege of my choice. I get to spend a good chunk of my days, weeks, and months absorbing the ideas of past and contemporary scholars and intellects, and then figure out how I can contribute to those conversations.

I get to geek out for a living.

I’m still planning on writing a cultural biography about my childhood friend Elodie Li Yuk Lo—the Chinese African Canadian beach volleyball Olympian.

…of course with the support of a published and well-respected team of very smart people. (Well, almost. I still need to get my dissertation proposal approved first.)

Writing About My Friend, the Olympian

UntitledThere’s nothing like signing up for a writing course to kick my ass into writing gear. Some people are self-motivated and determined to pump out pages without externally imposed deadlines and accountability.

I’m not that type of person.

I respond well to external pressure and deadlines, especially from an authority figure or someone scores smarter than me.

Before I get to write my book (dissertation), I need to write a proposal and my committee need to approve it. This is a significant milestone in my PhD journey not only because I’ll be that much closer to the end goal, but because I’ll have permission to start my research for a book I’ve been conceptualizing in my head for the past two years. As much as I love(d) taking courses and acquiring knowledge, I’m looking forward to contributing to an intellectual community. (The actually contributing part may still be a few years from now.)

I’m about 95% certain that I want to write a biography about my childhood friend Elodie Li Yuk Lo who is one of the first beach volleyball Olympians to represent Mauritius—a small African island nation. I feel so fortunate to be in an academic setting where I’m encouraged to use my personal experiences, knowledge, and connections to inform my research and writing. It still feels strange to think that personal topics can have a legitimate space in academia. Coming from a science and social science background, I’m still working on rethinking what constitutes “valid” or “authentic” scholarship.

Untitled1As I move forward with this class and program, I hope to use this blog to share my progress with the biography. To give you a little snippet of the vision, below is what I wrote for an in-class writing exercise attempting to explain (in plain language) what my project is about. Here’s an initial stab at describing the grand vision (which will most definitely change and evolve):

About fifty years ago during the Cold War, the International Olympic Committee started making a concerted effort to include and encourage newly independent African nations to participate in the world’s largest sporting event. Several sports governing bodies began introducing new rules to accommodate and encourage diverse entry of athletes from these less developed nations. About half a century later an ethnically Chinese beach volleyball player (Elodie Li Yuk Lo) took advantage of what is now known as the African Continental Trials to represent a tiny African island nation, called Mauritius, in beach volleyball. The book I’m writing examines Elodie’s journey to and participation in the London 2012 Olympics. Through Elodie’s story I explore how some athletes from developing nations struggle to compete and participate in the most elite sporting arena, demonstrating how the Olympics is an inherently unequal playing field. But Elodie’s story is more than her Olympic journey. As an ethnically Chinese woman, a fourth generation Mauritian, and a first generation Canadian, Elodie’s story is also about Asian and African migration in the 20th and 21st centuries, shattering many ideas of what we think we know about Asian or African immigrants in North America. Her story also shows us the politics of representing a nation and continent (where she is a racial minority), and how she navigates her multiple identities on a very public Olympic stage. But at the story’s core, this biography is about an athlete’s arduous journey to the Olympics fraught with roadblocks, close calls, pushing through self-doubt and injuries, media scrutiny, racial politics, lack of resources, and long training hours all culminating into one women’s experience of a lifetime.

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Breast Cancer and Its Metaphors

Trade_Secrets_-_Breast_Cancer_WalkAfter reading Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphor I’m left wondering whether the stories we tell others and ourselves about our bodies are truly ours—especially stories about diseases. Sontag’s work has me reconsidering my mother’s experience with breast cancer and how she carried herself as a woman with this disease.

My mother had a proclivity to use writing as a way to be heard and to advocate for immigrant women’s health in Canada. This was the mid-90s and breast cancer advocacy and rhetoric largely spoke to, and reflected, white middle-class women’s concerns. Relating a disease along classed and racial terms had (and still has) real life-impacting consequences in terms of access to care, stigma, prevention, support, and even death. Through her writing and activism, my mother occupied two spaces in Toronto’s breast cancer advocacy community: one, as an outsider resisting the narrowly defined ways women with the disease are (or aren’t) recognized; and two, as an insider participating in walks, fundraising, national meetings, and evoking similar language of victimhood and survivorship in her own narration of the disease.

When Sontag published Illness as Metaphor in 1978, the Pink Ribbon Campaign (making breast cancer awareness a household topic) was a little over a decade away. Sontag, then, was writing about the mythology and morality attached to various diseases such as tuberculosis, cancer, syphilis, and leprosy. She was tracing a genealogy, centuries long, of socially constructed ideas about these diseased bodies that romanticized, villainized, condemned, or stigmatized the inflicted. Sontag’s book intervenes on the notion that illness (especially certain kinds like TB and cancer) is representative of larger-than-life ideas about human existence and death, and argues that these metaphors are emblematic of social rhetoric, fears, morality, rather than the disease itself.

As a woman with breast cancer in the 1990s, my mother found herself in a transitioning community of women gaining momentum in combating and refusing the stigma attached to breast cancer. Those inflicted were turning into victims, then to survivors, and to heroines. The Pink Ribbon Campaign launched walks, marches, fundraising, and advocacy events. Women were creating a new social landscape to understand and combat this disease that so personally attacked one’s female anatomy.

But these grand heroic narratives—reminiscent of Second Wave Feminism—didn’t apply to women of color and poor women, such as my mother. So she fought to be heard, insisted that her concerns weren’t addressed in the larger movement, and helped start the first immigrant breast cancer support group in Toronto. She wrote about her experience as an immigrant woman with cancer in English and Japanese, she participated in community activities, gave keynote talks at conferences, and spoke to the media. She was undoubtedly a hero to me, and at the time her actions seemed to have lessened the burden of her disease on our family because of the “greater good.”

Sontag’s book Illness as Metaphor has me rethinking what breast cancer really is and what it did to my mother. While my mother’s advocacy for immigrant women’s health is something I admire, the rhetoric she drew upon to invoke similar narratives of victimhood, survivorship, and heroism aren’t standing the test of time. As Sontag demonstrates, socially fabricated views on diseases change as society does. Without having the language or ability to speak plainly about her disease, I now realize my memories of my mother with breast cancer are largely veiled behind a narrative largely constructed outside of her.

When we “talked,” my mother rarely separated the breast cancer discourse (or her objection to it) from what was actually happening to her body and how she was doing. We didn’t talk about her imminent death, or her fears and hopes for me. She never told me “this is just cancer, and this is how I’m going to go.” She made it so much more than that and lived her seven years with the disease as a “survivor” and fought the “fight” it until the very end. With so few memories of talking about the disease, her death, and how to carry on without her, I’m left wondering exactly what she was fighting for? Whose legacy she was really leaving?

 

“But at that time perhaps nobody will want any longer to compare anything awful to cancer, since the interest of the metaphor is precisely that it refers to a disease so overlaid with mystification, so charged with the fantasy of inescapable fatality. Our views about cancer, and the metaphors we have imposed on it, are so much a vehicle for the large insufficiencies of this culture: for our shallow attitude toward death, for our anxieties about feeling, for our reckless improvident responses to our real ‘problems of growth,’ for our inability to construct an advanced industrial society that properly regulates consumption, and for our justified fears of the increasingly violent course of history” (Illness as Metaphor 87).

PhD Exam Prep: It Begins

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Easing my way into week 1 of exam prep reading. Yes, there are two popular press books on this week’s stack!

It’s time.

Since day one of my PhD program I had spent too many moments fretting over the qualifying exams and doubting how I could ever read, discuss, and write about ~200 books in time. We didn’t read this copiously in the social sciences and I wondered if switching to the humanities was too lofty an ambition.

That was two years ago, and now I’m about to embark on my six month long reading journey. At the beginning of my coursework, I couldn’t have imagined how excited I would be to start reading approximately five books per week until this December. But I totally am!

Most of my academic experience (largely since high school) seemed a kin to perpetually eating a dry salad–you knew it was good for you so you endured through it but the reward was quite delayed and kind of obscure. I was (and still am) a fairly good and consistent student, yet I didn’t always love the experience and process of learning.

I never thought I would look this forward to preparing for such an intellectually intimidating exam. For the first time in all my many years of being in school, I finally feel ownership, direction, and autonomy over my education and intellect. It helps that I can choose most of my books (albeit within academic parameters) and concretely see how most of them will serve my intellectual future.

I’ve been told by professors and friends who are now well past their post-doc years that this study period is a special privilege, and that I’ll never have this opportunity again to dedicate so much time to reading. undoubtedly, I’ll need to remind myself of this privilege when I’m eyes deep in the jungle of dense theory and I feel like giving up.

Study tips and encouragement are most welcome!

Guest Post: The One-Body Problem

Tenure, She Wrote

by @scidoctress

I hold immense respect for my female friends and colleagues who are struggling to advance their own academic careers alongside a spouse’s. I’ve watched brilliant women find a plethora of creative solutions to the “two-body problem,” as it’s termed, from negotiating spousal hires to commuting great distances to settling for second- or third-choice jobs, sometimes even leaving academia altogether. I have attended countless seminars on work/life balance where the same inevitable questions arise: How do I balance my commitment to my children with my commitment to my research career? How do I juggle my husband’s career demands with my own? How do my academic husband and I strategize to find two professorships in the same university? When someone mentions the two-body problem, a palpable sense of collective panic seems to overtake the room. I can feel the married women around me bristle with the deep-seated fear that the…

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“Coming Out” About (In)fertility

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I haven’t been keeping my fertility challenge a secret per se. I have, however, for the past three years struggled negotiating the elusive “outside world” in relation to my frustrations, disappointments, and fears trying to conceive, which have wreaked havoc on my sense of self. More often than not, it has been easier (and felt safer) not to share these pains, pushing me further into isolation.

As an academic, I study health and disease narratives, politics of the body, and feminist discourse yet I’ve feared writing about my personal experiences that intersect my research interests. It has taken me three gynecological surgeries (one from IVF), 70+ needles (and counting), countless pills (steroids, estrogen, progesterone, baby aspirin, prenatal vitamins, letrozole, clomid, metformin, valium, antibiotics, etc.), and too many bloody months to finally write myself out of this silence.

Taking pen to paper (and fingers to keyboard), I started writing a nonfiction story about my IVF cycle last fall. It morphed into a meditation on what it felt like being a reproductively challenged woman in this society, a reflection on my late mother, and a realization that I no longer recognized the relationship I had with my body. On a whim, I submitted an abstract to (and got accepted to talk at) this medical humanities conference in Iowa where I shared my story and discussed the politics of fertility challenges as a larger social issue. This was my first “coming out” to people I didn’t know.

It felt really good to share.

In my breakout session many women shared their fertility stories, which was heartening. Some women were still grieving their miscarriages, job loss because of a pregnancy, and isolation despite several decades passed. Others were feeling “the pressure” and felt conflicted about their decision to pursue demanding professional careers. We all craved a safe space to openly talk about our concerns beyond select friends and family. The group supported my assertions that there simply aren’t enough conversations (public and private) about, and support for, fertility challenges.

A woman I met at the conference just tweeted this blog post to me about unique (and not so unique) fertility challenges in academia. From her, I learned that this week is National Infertility Awareness Week. While I dislike the term “infertility” or its classification as a disease (it’s too final, stigmatizing, and pathologizing), I love the idea of raising awareness about fertility challenges and engaging more people in a nuanced conversation.

Although each woman deals with her fertility challenges differently, the Internet seems to offer general lists, guidelines, and tips on how to help support the women we care about. Here are a few. A Google search will yield more.

These lists are a bit crass but they cut to the chase. Personally, I rather share lists of what have been unusually difficult and unexpectedly comforting (beyond the obvious) rather than a “to do” and “don’t” list.

These lists are far from exhaustive, but here goes.

Unanticipated difficulties:

  • Knowing no one else in their early thirties enduring IVF or other aggressive fertility treatments is a psychological mind f*#k.
  • It was easier to give needles to myself than have my partner do it. I don’t know why.
  • Every medicated month, I’ve had disruptive hot flashes, emotional turbulence, chronic headaches, and/or fantasies of wanting to punch irritating people (often troublesome students I teach).
  • Not knowing why I’m not getting pregnant (despite ovulating, having balanced hormones, newly cleared fallopian tubes, and good general health) has been a hellish liminal space. Okay this one might be kind of obvious.
  • Trying to become a mother rehashes the pain of loosing my mother (over a decade ago) to breast cancer.
  • With more medical intervention and involvement, the emotional pressure and expectation of getting pregnant swell. Reoccurring periods become increasingly devastating. This has been hard to manage at school and work.
  • I really hate feeling pitied. If I sense another’s discomfort or pity, my instinctual reflex is to ease that person’s awkwardness by minimizing my own experience and pain, and moving onto other “lighter” conversation. This has been incredibly counter-productive.
  • Trying this hard to become a mother tests my feminist and liberal sensibilities about how I measure my self-worth and define the meaning of family.
  • People tend to be better at responding to difficult events (like loosing a parent) than difficult non-events (like not becoming one). This has been isolating.

Pleasantly surprising acts of comfort:

  • The number of friends offering to help me with the medical stuff: needles, doctor appointments, post-operative care, research, etc.
  • Male friends and family doing research and asking specific questions about my procedures to better understand what I’m going through. All of them did one and/or the other.
  • People asking how my partner is holding up and asking how to support him.
  • Frequent or spontaneous calls, texts, and check-ins from friends on the most “ordinary” days recognizing that regular days are often challenging.
  • The number of women (mothers and non-mothers by circumstance or choice) sharing their own fears and vulnerabilities about fertility.
  • People matching my vulnerability by sharing some of their own (fertility related or not). This has been a helpful way for me to remember that we all have “stuff” going on.
  • Telling fellow grad students and departmental faculty. They have been a surprising and most welcomed support system. It’s also a huge relief and source of inspiration to be around people who embrace my desire not to separate the personal from the academic.
  • Those who sincerely ask questions (medical details, emotional state, how they can help, or whether I wanted to punch anyone that day, etc.)
  • My reproductive endocrinologist giving me hugs. Frequently. And letting me cry on her shoulders.
  • People who ask how I am, then ask how I really am after I tell them “I’m fine.”

In the spirit of National (In)fertility Awareness Week, I’d love to hear your thoughts stories, or questions. Sharing is caring after all.

And because all health campaigns need celebrity spokespeople…

 

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