Creative Histories: Vulnerability, Emotions, and the Undoing of the Self, by Sonja Boon

“I liked your writing, the flow, the words… It all works,” my editor, Allyson Latta, told me after she read through a draft of the opening section of the memoir I’m currently working on.

“But what are the emotional stakes?”

My current research project, writes Sonja Boon, is about messy histories – those pasts that tangle in what Mary Louise Pratt (1991) has termed the “contact zone,” the site of colonial encounter that emerges in the spaces between historical, geographical, and political borders. Using autoethnography, I am examining the relationships between migration, memory, and identity as these are mapped onto conceptual and material landscapes in The Netherlands, Suriname, and Newfoundland, in order to interrogate the politics and possibilities of (post)colonial subjectivities and identities. Central to my research process has been a deep engagement with colonial archives in The Netherlands, Suriname, the UK, and Canada.

I had anticipated that I would write journal articles and book chapters in relation to this project. And I have (2017, 2018, and a few more under review). But then I decided I needed to write a memoir as well.

Suddenly things got, well … messy.

If memoir is about emotional truth, how could I best integrate the personal into the academic, the academic into the personal? What stories would I include, and how would I include them? What right did I have to tell these stories? What did it mean to be so deeply embedded in my research project?

These questions have shadowed me throughout my project as I struggled to figure out how best to approach my work, and from there, how best to write about it. This post – a shortened version of my #CreativeHistories17 paper – is an attempt to capture some of that continuing internal conversation as it continues to shape my writing and thinking.

Allyson asked about the emotional stakes after having already read two drafts of the first twenty-five thousand words of my project. I’d been writing for months by this point. In fact, some sections dated from over two full years previously. I’d written and rewritten, organized and reorganized. I’d turned everything inside out several times. I thought I was getting somewhere.

The problem was that I was speaking to the converted, Allyson said. I was writing to those who would already be interested in the topic, people like her who loved the complex tangles of family histories. In essence, I was speaking to the target audience of the Creative Histories conference.

“See, my husband doesn’t understand why this stuff matters so much,” she said, “And those are the readers you want to get – the ones who wouldn’t naturally be interested. You have to get them emotionally invested not just in the story, but in you as the narrator of that story.”

And there’s the rub.

Because through my training – even as a feminist scholar – I’d learned that research isn’t supposed to be about emotional investments. Of course we have emotional investments in our work; such investments often propel us into new projects. Emotional investments, too, shape our research questions, determine our methods, influence our analyses. But we’re supposed to be analytical about them, interrogate them, examine them. As Kirby, Greaves and Reid (2006) articulate it:

We must be aware of our subjectivity and be capable of identifying its impact while continuously interrogating it. Research methodologies and methods have been developed by people who see the world in particular ways, and every time a research tool is used, the researcher must be aware that it contains the perspectives of those who created it. Being responsive to these potential assumptions or tacit theories in ourselves and others is the essence of reflexivity. Reflexivity requires that we embrace our subjectivity and actively identify its impact on the research process. In other words, how can you, the researcher … continuously reflect upon your own worldview, the impact of the questions you ask, the issues you explore and the methods of investigation and analysis that you employ? Further, how can you utilize the knowledge that results from your research responsibly and ethically, to make a positive difference?” (19-20)

Emotions, in the end, are engines that we need to understand if we are to work ethically and responsibly, but they are not the stuff of research; we’re not necessarily supposed to write about them.

“You also write analytically,” Allyson said, “and to a certain extent that’s you. But I feel like you’re too much of an observer of yourself and not enough inside yourself.”

Got it in one.

I realized, after our phone conversation, that I’d taken the observer stance as a sort of protective gesture. It was a way to create some distance, to step back; a way to keep some semblance of the objective researcher in the face of work that was becoming more intimate with every step.

Middelburg, The Hague, Paramaribo, even St. John’s: I had sat in reading room after reading room undone by the fragments of the colonial archive arrayed around me. This pattern repeated itself with every new archival collection I encountered. I got lost in the archives, tangled in stories that I could barely read, let alone tell. Every time I tried to write, I got stuck between pompous academese or maudlin melodrama. And neither approach was true to what was emerging from my archival searching and research journaling.

What were the emotional stakes?

Allyson’s voice challenged me. What, in the end, was I trying to say with all of these words? What made this matter? Why should anyone care?

The stakes, I finally realized, were me.

Unlike any other research project I’d previously embarked on, this research process had completely unmoored me.

Grief.

Rage.

Hopelessness.

Loss.

Wonder.

Desire.

Longing.

That, in the end, is what this research was all about. And in this particular research process, the archival materials were not after all, the “primary sources” as I had originally thought; rather, they were a vehicle – a conduit – for the emotional journey of complicated belonging, and thus part of a much larger project about the stories we tell about who we are and how we came to be.

What does it mean to take the emotional work of research seriously; to acknowledge that these emotions are also knowledge? What does emotional work mean in the context of the archival research that is the backbone of the historical method?

In an article about the relationships between lived experience and scholarly research, Vinh Nguyen writes, “I want to explore what it means to be both subjective and critical. I want to write in a ‘critical’ manner that is attached, embodied, and felt. I want to let the self facilitate criticality – in a different sense” (472). Such an approach to research is deeply intimate; it requires the researcher – as the site of research – to make herself profoundly vulnerable. It requires her to navigate not only the vagaries of the colonial archive, but also the sometimes painful intimacies of the archives of the self.

It also requires her to ask difficult questions about which stories one can – or should – tell and which ones she can’t. The ethics of research can never be purely objective and this is all the more so for family history. Not all stories, Eve Tuck & K. Wayne Yang argue, should be told. Not all stories have a right to be told: “Tissue samples, blood draws, and cheek swabs are not only our own; the DNA contained in them is shared by our relatives, our ancestors, our future generations ….This is equally true of stories.” (233-4). And they are right. Just because someone tells you something doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s yours to share. Just because you’ve lived something doesn’t mean that the story is your own. Stories are webs. And jiggling one side of the web can – and will – affect all other parts it. As Julia Blackburn noted in the keynote at the conference, past and present are interwoven; the past pulls through into the present. More prosaically, as my father used to say, you can’t just pee in one side of the pool.

Archives. Intimacy. Vulnerability. Ethics. Desire. Past. Present. Where does all of this leave me?

“Stories are wondrous things,” Thomas King observed in The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. “And they are dangerous” (9).

Until this particular research project, I hadn’t realized how true this was.

 


References

Boon, Sonja. “Dusting for Fingerprints: Bodily Traces, Embodied Memories and the Forensic Self,” Life Writing vol. 14, no. 1, 2017, pp. 69-82. Open access: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14484528.2016.1241207

Snooks, Gina and Boon, Sonja. “Salt Fish and Molasses: Unsettling the Palate in the Spaces Between Two Continents,” European Journal of Life Writing. forthcoming.

King, Thomas. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Anansi, 2003.

Kirby, Greaves & Reid. Experience Research Social Change: Methods Beyond the Mainstream. Broadview, 2006.

Nguyen, Vinh. “Mẹ-search, Hauntings, and Critical Distance,” Life Writing, vol. 1, no. 4 2015, pp. 467-477.

Pratt, Mary Louise. “The Arts of the Contact Zone.” In D. Bartholomae and A. Petrosky. Wavs of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. Bedford-St. Martin’s, 2002.

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “R-Words: Refusing Research,” in D. Paris and M. T. Winn, Eds. Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with youth and Communities. Sage Publications, 2014.

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