I first saw Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years (2012) when it was screened at the FWSA Biennial Conference in June 2013 at the University of Nottingham. The film focuses on the time the African American, feminist, lesbian, warrior, poet, Audre Lorde spent travelling back and forth to Berlin between 1984 and 1992, and her influence on the Afro-German community.
The documentary is made up of home movie footage taken by Dagmar Schultz (director), and after the screening, a member of the audience asked Schultz if she had filmed Lorde with the intention of making a film with it; Schultz told us that she just felt that Lorde’s presence was important, her time in Berlin was important and she was moved to record it. I am thankful that she did, because Schultz has presented us with something very important: a historical document of a period in Lorde’s life that many of us knew little about, a view of a transformative moment in Afro-German History, and also a fascinating, warming, and healing exchange between a transnational feminist sisterhood.
The film is a collage of dinner parties, social events, public lectures, and planning meetings for several Afro-German community groups Lorde inspired. This is peppered with audio sequences set to still photographs in which Lorde is no longer speaking with her friends or to an audience within a particular shot; instead her voice is stripped of its original setting and she becomes the most prominent narrator of this posthumous documentary, signalling the longevity of her prose, poetry, thinking and activism.
The Berlin Years also gives generous time to Lorde’s significance as a unifying figure; many scenes feature Lorde discussing the notion of difference and encouraging her listeners, both onscreen and the viewers, to approach differences of race, gender and sexuality in positive and progressive ways. We see Lorde as muse who inspired many Afro-German women to write about their experiences and record their cultural history, for example, Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out (eds. May Opitz, Katharina Oguntoye, Dagmar Schultz). More importantly, the documentary represents the exchange of knowledge and ideas that Lorde encouraged.
At the heart of The Berlin Years is the woman-centred community that Lorde fostered during her time in Berlin. As her health deteriorates the most striking scenes are those in which she is surrounded by women who care for her, comfort her and listen to her. We see Lorde taking simple pleasure in activities such as making necklaces or preparing and serving food for her friends at a time when her appetite was waning. All of these moments involve sharing and giving back in some way (the extras included in the DVD provide even more of these scenes). Ultimately we see the kindness and generosity, as well as activism, that can flourish when women come together to, in Gloria Anzaldúa’s words, “do the work that matters” (The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader, 314).
Check out some reactions to Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years at the FWSA conference here:
Is there anything more annoying that getting that book that will almost certainly be an essential part of your Works Cited/Bibliography only to discover that there is no index!? We all know that we can not read every single book we cite from cover to cover. We don’t have the time, and quite frankly, we don’t always have the patience! Therefore, when someone tells you that you should read the bits about the theme of X in Book Y it is natural to flip to the back of the book and check the index unless all the information is contained in one or two chapters. Of course, with Google Books at our fingertips it can make the search through an index-less book a bit easier. But we all know the limits of the preview. Oh, how cruel the world can be!
Quite simply, indexes speed up the research process. We cannot always rely on chapter titles, or even book titles, to tell us exactly what a given book discusses. Often, these cleverly punning chapter titles are fun to read, but give little away about their actual content. A well-stocked index can lead the researcher to the sections s/he needs while at the same time giving an overall flavour of the book and demonstrate connections between various subjects addressed within which may even lead to full cover to cover read.
Something almost as frustrating as no index at all are name indexes…..no themes, keywords or other issues….just names! That’s great if you are looking for a person, but otherwise what is the point! Therefore, not only should all academic books have indexes, but they should have fully comprehensive indexes that cover all the potential needs of the reader. Academic books are being priced more and more out of reach of many scholars. When you scrape together a week’s rent to buy that must-have new monograph or edited collection an index is at least a small and useful consolation prize.
I am moved to write this post after watching Rory O’Neill’s speech in the Abbey Theatre. O’Neill’s speech follows on from comments he made about homophobia on the Saturday Night Show which prompted RTE to pay out €85,000 to the Iona Institute Catholic lobbying group.
O’Neill’s description of oppression in Ireland is familiar to many of us. His account of standing at a pedestrian crossing and feeling the need to check one’s self due to the expectation that a slur or an object (or both) is about to be hurled out of a car in his direction is something that I can certainly relate to. From the time I cut my hair short I quickly realised that a segment of the population is unnerved, even insulted by the sight of a woman daring to appear in public without long Rupunzalesque locks, heels and a pretty dress. I stand at every pedestrian crossing holding my breath, cringing inwardly, waiting for one of the following: “dyke,” “muff-diver,” “lezzie,” “fag,” “fanny licker.”
According to the powers that be, RTE, Iona, the government, it is wrong to talk of such oppression, and worse to claim any hurt from being on the receiving end of it. Apparently those most damaged by homophobia are the perpetrators rather than the victims. I find this hard to believe when I think of the many times I have been publicly accosted. I find it hard to believe that the car full of giggling strangers who don’t know my name, who I am, or what my sexual orientation is ride off into the sunset feeling worse than I do.
I remember sitting on a bus when an inebriated man twice my size towered over me and proceeded to tell me that all I needed to be set straight was a real man, and that he would come to my home and show me exactly “what a real man could do.” I remember hurrying away from that bus to the safety of my Fiancé’s car and feeling so thankful that I was going home with an evolved gentleman.
I also remember being offered a job on condition that I change my hair to “something more suitable for dealing with the public.” I turned it down.
I could recount so many instances where I have been made feel terrified and oppressed due to my gender and the way in which I choose to present myself to the world. Do I really believe that for each one of these instances a group of repressed Catholics are flagellating themselves amid throes of emotional agony due to homophobia? No. How could anyone?
RTE have donated to €85,000 to continued oppression against those who do not conform to conservative Catholic “values.” I can express this from the safety of my laptop; but Rory O’Neill took a very brave and necessary stand in the Abbey Theatre. For that I salute him and will feel less alone the next time I stand at a dreaded pedestrian crossing.
Over the Christmas break I binge-watched several “teacher movies,” one of my regular holiday hobbies along with re-reading the Little Women series and the Harry Potter collection. I never had a Mr Keating (Dead Poets Society) or a Ms Gruwell (Freedom Writers). I certainly had several good, even excellent, teachers throughout my education, but never one who made the classroom a site of potential for major personal and social transformation.
In many ways films like Dead Poets Society (1989), Dangerous Minds (1995), Mona Lisa Smile (2003), Freedom Writers (2007), Precious (2009) and The English Teacher (2013), while at times a little far-fetched, often represent the ideal that many young teachers dream of embodying when first faced with the daunting task of education. These films depict teachers, sometimes very naïve ones, attempting to engage with students who are completely close-minded or cut off from education due to society and/or personal circumstances. Entire classes filled with 20+ students await every opportunity to blatantly ignore or undermine their ever hopeful educator, and ultimately the teacher gently breaks down the barriers and forms incredible bonds with her/his former aggressors. Many “teacher movies” present us with protagonists who go against the grain of the institution or the advice of their loved ones to educate their unruly students, often to the detriment of their careers and/or relationships.
These mavericks and miracle workers were the bread and butter of my younger self as I dreamed of a humble spot at the top of a classroom to call my own. I wouldn’t be so daring as Mr Keating to invite my students to climb upon my desk for fear of injury; my delicate stomach would keep me from riding the biggest roller-coaster with my students à la Ms Johnson; although, I have always dreamed of delivering a hearty rendition of the “[t]here are no victims in this classroom” scene from Dangerous Minds! However, I think the fighting spirit of these teachers against all manner of obstacles reflects at least some of the whats and whys of teaching.
Taking money from our own pockets to fund materials and reward students is a reality. Caring enough about a student to visit their family is a regular occurrence. Managing to get through to the most unruly students does happen. Unfortunately, as is portrayed in Dead Poets Society and Dangerous Minds, losing a student to the insurmountable stresses of their particular situation is a real possibility.
For all their melodrama these movies pinpoint many of the hopes and fears we teachers feel:
- To inspire our students, even one, to make positive changes in their lives
- To educate them about important issues in the world
- To give them tools to navigate the ups and downs of life
- To instill moral values and independent thinking.
- That our guidance may ultimately fail them
- That the ABCs and 123s of a curriculum will not be enough to prepare them for the outside world.
A life-altering educational achievement like the one we see unfold in Freedom Writers is certainly rare. However, re-watching these films time and again always reminds me of the many reasons why my own education has always been of such value to me, and the many things I wanted to bring to the classroom. One of the best moments I have had as a teacher was a student telling me that I was one of the key reasons she chose to pursue a degree in English. This, and the many assignments that reveal that a student has really got what you were trying to teach them are the many everyday satisfactions that we can take from our role in the classroom.
It has been several weeks since I last posted here and a lot has happened in that time revolving around academic writing and poetry. First, November was Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo). I managed to reach just under 7,000 words, less than last year, but not to shabby nonetheless. Of course, #AcWriMo is so much more than a frantic burst of writing energy, it is a global collective of scholars sharing the experience of academic writing, encouraging one another, providing hints, tips, and support along the way. I made some new connections and garnered some useful tips to help me through this final stretch of my doctoral studies.
I also had the pleasure of being involved in a wonderful event called Poetry Kitchen: Alphabet Soup for the Soul which took place in University College Cork on the 5th of December. This event sought to raise funds, food, hats, scarves and gloves for Cork Penny Dinners, one of Cork’s oldest care-giving organisations. My colleague, Niamh O’Mahony and I asked a number of writers in the university to deliver short readings on the theme of food, sharing, meals, etc. We had a host of staff and students wowing the crowd with their creative talents. Moreover, we raised a large amount of donations: €314.60, 123 items of food and almost 70 hats, scarves and gloves.
In other news I have been busy jumping for joy following the news that my favourite poet, Lorna Dee Cervantes will be visiting UCC next June to give a poetry reading and launch her new collection, Sueño, as part of a 2-day research symposium on the subject of “Pathways, Explorations, Approaches” in Mexican and Mexican American Studies. The CFP is still open for this and it promises to be a very exciting event! Cervantes’s visit is particularly exciting for me given that half of my thesis is dedicated to an analysis of her work. Hearing her read is going to add a whole new dimension to my understanding of her poetry!
So, that’s all my news and excuses for not posting as regularly as usual here! Hopefully you think they are good ones – I certainly do! Regular musings shall resume shortly!
In the spirit of Halloween I have come up with three simple costumes inspired by 19th century American short stories. Whether you are a somewhat troubled trickster or a passive treater there’s something for everyone.
For the more passive trick or treater…..
Rip Van Winkle! Yes, this guy is really easy. He comes from a short story of the same name by Washington Irving. Set before and after the American Revolutionary War, it follows Rip as he falls into a deep slumber atop the Catskills after drinking some mysterious liquor among a group of complete strangers. He awakens years later to find that his family and friends have died and America’s allegiance has switched from King George III to George Washington.
To dress up as Rip, all you need to do is find a comfortable spot on the outskirts of your town donning a full beard and a glass of something potent. Then simply have a nice snooze and awaken in the depths of confusion.
For those who would like to be the conscience of their loved ones for one night only……
The Tell-Tale Heart is the costume for you. The short story of the same name, penned by Edgar Allan Poe, features “a tell-tale heart” which is the manifestation of the narrator’s guilt having just committed murder. The heart begins with a subtle throb and grows to a maddening beat, leading the narrator to admit his guilt and invite the police to tear up the floorboards and reveal his crime.
Simply find or construct a good heart costume and glare at the shiftiest of your peers for the duration of Halloween. To achieve the ultimate Halloween trick though, try squeezing beneath the floorboards (or furniture if more comfortable) of your guiltiest friend’s home and making throbbing noises every time they enter the room!
Finally, for those of us who like to be “part of the furniture” so to speak….
Try The Yellow Wallpaper! Again, this costume idea comes from the short story of the same name by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The yellow wallpaper adorns the bedroom of a young woman who is confined there by her husband due to what he calls “a temporary nervous depression – a slight nervous tendency.” Today, we call this post-natal depression and have more humane methods of treating it rather than locking women up like prisoners with nothing to stimulate them but the four walls of their cell.
If The Yellow Wallpaper is the costume for you all you need is the right shade of clothing and a good lick of matching body paint. Then stand against the nearest wall and blink disconcertingly at passersby.
A colleague shared the above image with me and I was reminded of so many books that have drawn me in to the point where I feel like I’m part of the narrative. For me, the trauma comes from having to let go of immersed narrative experiences. Women and girls in literature like George Kirrin, Jo March and Buffy Summers diluted my awkward childhood and teen years with soothing images of independent tomboys with attitude and ambition.
It started with The Famous Five series. Of course I wanted to be George, a tomboy whose family and friends accept her to the point where they are happy to forego her real name, Georgina, allow her to wear boy’s clothes and crop her hair. I remember begging my mother to allow me to chop off all my goldilocks like George (didn’t work!). I felt utterly ruined by my name, Donna, which means “lady” – no name for a relentless tomboy!
Later it was Jo March of Little Women, the 19th century tomboy whose independent spirit captured my imagination! Again we have a character who adopts a masculine version of her name, crops her hair, uses slang, earns her own living and almost always rejects society’s expectations of her. As well as this, the matriarchal household was of great appeal to me, not having any sisters.
As a teenager Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a revelation – a female superhero who banishes her abusive boyfriend to hell, repeatedly saves the world from annihilation, and has a witticism for every situation. Of course this may seem like a deviation from the literary theme of this post. But one look at my Buffy book collection should assure the reader otherwise!
Not only did these women protagonists reassure my growing sense of self, but they encouraged me to read more and I have no doubt that they played a significant role in shaping my education and career choices to date. Then imagine my disappointment when I re-read The Famous Five last Christmas and found myself thinking what a petulant child George was – I guess this means I am getting old…
However, I had my annual Little Women indulgence this summer followed of course by Good Wives, Little Men and Jo’s Boys. As always I was Jo, annoyed by Meg, bored by Beth, impatient with Amy, but warmed by the enduring Jo. Often readers comment on Jo being a sell-out for marrying. While it was probably the case that Louisa May Alcott may have compromised with the ideals of her contemporaries with this plot decision, one must not forget that Jo refused to settle for less than a man who respected her as an independent, intellectual equal. Let us also remember that Jo was the main breadwinner and head of the family in Little Men and Jo’s Boys.
Finally, Buffy has become even more dear to me in the wake of the current Twilight-infused Fifty Shades of misogynist mania – need I elaborate on these books’ shared message on the importance of having a boyfriend who abuses and infantilises you???
I recently read a post by the Thesis Whisperer that asked, “what is your edge?” In this time of economic crisis and job scarcity how can you as a doctoral candidate use your unique strengths to gain a career that suits your skills if not your research interests. This post came to me during a crisis. I was internally panicking about my future and whether or not I was being taken seriously by friends and family outside of academia. I realised that most people outside of my academic colleagues and friends do not understand what I do, what my everyday work life involves and why I am doing it. This reveals a problem with outreach. Many people assume that a PhD student will immediately get a lectureship upon finishing their studies, that this is a streamlined, easy progression. The reality is that more and more people are pursuing doctoral research, and there are less academic jobs available to us,. Therefore, we often have to investigate other options. Realising this can be scary, stressful and worrying. Trying to explain or even justify this to others is very difficult.
The Thesis Whisperer states that passion follows skill, and when I examined my own skills this became a very relevant statement. Aside from the obvious ones like writing and research, PhD students develop a variety of useful skills during their studies. Over the course of my PhD, for example, I have organised a number of events: conferences, a book launch, and art exhibition. The first time round, I was unsure. I asked lots of questions and made some mistakes. Since then I have become more efficient at organisation and I really enjoy it. I relish the opportunity to do so. I am naturally a multi-tasker and event management gives me the chance to put that side of my personality to good use.
Since beginning my PhD I have become more immersed in social media. I use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, academia.edu, and I blog. I use these outlets for publicity, debate, conversation, learning and outreach. On several occasions I have been asked to live blog and tweet at events like workshops and conferences. Through this I have developed an ability to process and disseminate vast amounts of information quickly while at the same time engaging with the public who interact with the events via social media. I suppose this is a digital and/or communication skill. It is certainly a skill that I am passionate about and one I hope to put to good use after completing my doctoral research.
So, taking these two examples from my own experience, I now realise that when people quiz me about what I do and why I bother, I have more to offer than just a bumbling explanation of form and genre in Chicana poetry. I can in fact tell them about the transferable skills that I have developed, skills that are applicable to any number of careers, and that show the diverse value of doing a PhD.