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?

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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.)

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!