Lectures

Writing Life No. 8: An interview with Angela Garcia

This article is part of the series:

Angela Garcia is known for her intimate, literary accounts of suffering and addiction in New Mexico. A compelling account, her monograph, The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and Dispossession along the Rio Grande, challenged portrayals of heroin users in a context of a failing medical system that is under staffed, with inadequate funding, in the context of a colonial landscape scarred by histories of dispossession, violence, and pain. I reached out to her for this interview because I have always admired her work, in part, for its literary quality. Her writing moves me. I also assign her papers in syllabi and students similarly tell me they are touched by her writing in ways they do not expect from scholarly writing. When we started talking about this interview, we realized we had something in common aside from being cultural anthropologists who had written about communities plagued by addictions, inequalities and violent histories – we both now live and work with neurological conditions. And for both of us, these neurological conditions have become areas of scholarly inspiration. In this interview we talk about how writing with a neurological disorder changes your writing process, and her approach to writing ethnography more generally.

Oblivion by Angela Garcia

The word falls into silence and abandons me

Still announcing itself like birth. I tell it

Don’t go. Take me with you.

Take me to sentences that sink each day

Forming the ground of paper.

Angela’s office

Denielle Elliott (DE): Do you want to begin my telling me about your new writing project?

Angela Garcia (AG): I have two projects underway. One is an ethnography. I’ve been working on it for years and it’s finally at a stage where I feel like I’ve done the heavy lifting. In the broadest sense, the ethnography is about five different rooms in Mexico City filled with youth who are enmeshed in violence, and the stories they and the rooms tell. The other writing project is new and less clear. I’m trying to permit myself to work with this lack of clarity because it’s essentially what I’m interested in—the absence of clarity, which is also a state I sometimes find myself in these days. I don’t mean lack of clarity as in unable to make decisions, but rather the loss of the grounds upon which decisions are made. I’m interested in how this loss of a ground, this obscurity, can become a force for thought and writing.

As it happens, my writing for this project began with a prompt from my neurologists. I don’t talk about it much but I have epilepsy and related neurological problems. To better understand what was happening, my neurologists asked me to record my neurological disturbances in detailed terms—what happened and when, where, what I felt, what preceded the event or feeling, how long it lasted, and so forth. The idea was to take this information and, alongside the neurological tests, develop a clearer picture of what was happening. But the more I recorded the more aware I became of the unknown. I was losing sense of things and at the same time becoming hyperaware of sense. It was strange—this simultaneous sensitivity to sense and loss of it.

I began to write about it.

I’ve always been interested in craft, but in a kind of craft that doesn’t suffocate. As a writer and a reader I prefer some open space. But these days there are times when spaces open up without design or warning. I can be typing away and suddenly language disappears. I can’t find words. I evacuate. It’s like being absorbed into a sink hole. This is probably too much information, but it’s relevant, I think, to the question of ethnographic writing. I’m trying not to fill these holes up with something firm and locatable. Instead, I’m trying to write with the gaps, to permit them the space they created. So you can say that the writing for my second project is a bit unformed, but unformed in the sense of what is, which is a kind of poetry. Poetry needs space. It’s not argument. I’m not interested in argument.

There are plenty of anthropologists who are frustrated with the expectations of academic writing, and the fact that writing itself is undervalued in our discipline. We are asked and are expected to ask, what’s the point? Where’s the intervention, the definition? What’s the contribution to knowledge? Such questions are a good guide for ethnography, but they’re not the only guide. Ethnography that strays from this line of development is often seen as sentimental, experimental, or even just “beautiful.” It’s considered suspect and is often derided as apolitical or anti-intellectual. This is outrageous to me because emotion enables politics and thought. And for someone like me, my sometimes difficult with “sticking to the point” or stay closing to the “golden thread,” well, it’s made me excited about the possibilities of the unformed. 

DE: I am so happy to have this conversation because it resonates with how I’ve been approaching a similar project. I’ve been thinking about experimental writing in relation to my own neurological condition and I’ve been thinking about the writing project as being reflective of the jumps in time, the sort of time travel – the gaps, the missing memory, and the sensorial sensitivity. So, I’m trying to figure out a way to write so that the form represents some of what I feel, sense, and experience daily.

AG: I totally understand and also have those sensorial experiences. Like, I may just be walking down the street and all of a sudden it feels like I’ve entered somewhere new. Like the ground has suddenly shifted. There is a filter. Perception bends. The fixity of what came before this shift fades away. It can be really beautiful, this shift into somewhere new – I mean, it’s frightening – but it is also really beautiful. And then I exit out of this somewhere, which is not a place, more like a passage, and everything suddenly feels hard and angular. Is angularity clarity? I don’t think so.

It’s so hard to describe, isn’t it? Because we lack a language for shifts in perception. Bergson offered some contours for thinking about this.  The surrealists, too. But anthropologists? One of my neurologists has taken a great interest in anthropology and says he hopes I might study epilepsy and neurology. But what would I have to say about it as an anthropologist? What would I want to say? I’d rather write a poem.

When my language falls into a sink hole, or when my thoughts are absorbed by a cloud, well, these strange happenings have made me very aware that not everything translates into a sentence, a paragraph, an article, a monograph. And this lack of translation doesn’t mean it’s not worth thinking or writing.  Quite the opposite! There’s something to be thought and written from the space of the sink hole. Maybe this sounds like a desperate grasping of someone who is afraid of what’s happening to her brain. And surely there is an element of this. But I also see the importance of engaging these gaps without filling them in with something already familiar. These gaps are not already familiar.

So, yes, I completely understand the sense of entering into another world.

DE: Yes, I had tried to write about something similar in a paper I wrote last year about memory. Not of semantic memory (actual lost memory), but as aphasia. The recall process has become slower for me. I’ve tried to think of this condition not necessarily as a bad thing, but as full of possibility, or potential. It’s as if something is coming … like the ellipses (which I adopted from Lauren Berlant). Once I get over the anxiety of thinking, “oh I forgot that word,” I can think about that experience of both forgetting and remembering at once. But since I wrote that paper, I feel somewhat differently. There are memory losses that I feel less optimistic about. I worry now about forgetting memories that are about loss and love.

AG: I think that there are examples that can help guide us. Maurice Blanchot’s fragment.[1] The instability of pronouns in Marguerite Duras’ novels.

So I am creating a form for myself that also has ellipses, breaks, instabilities, and not seeing them as failure or lack of style, but the way writing unfolds. I started reading Dostoevsky again. He had epilepsy and there’s always a character in his books with epilepsy, though it’s not named as such. There’s always a description of a seizure and its often quite brutal. Embedded in this description is a larger story. The seizure scene is both small, fleeting, explosive, vital. I’ve become obsessed, again, with Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann, Teresa de Ávila, and others who have written, often in passing, about their experiences with a neurological disorder.

DE: Earlier you mentioned that you’d rather write a poem about your neurological experiences. Tell me more about how you approach poems and poetry within your writing?

AG: I’ve always been drawn to poetry’s vulnerability and willingness to be misunderstood and rejected, which is also its strength. When I write poetry I’m continuously reordering and dis-ordering structure and sound to try to illuminate something. These days that something is language, memory and one’s ground. So there’s a lot of subtraction. 

DE: What about memoirs? I’m curious about your approach to writing about oneself and whether you approach it as memoir, autoethnography, or intimate ethnography. I’ve been reading all sorts of different memoirs lately and trying to like figure out how people write about themselves both inside and outside the academy.

AG: I haven’t read very many. Honestly, I think that there are too many memoirs. An editor recently asked me, what is it that you, an anthropologist, can bring to memoir that’s different? It’s a good question and I don’t know. What I’m writing ultimately has elements of memoir but it’s not a coming of age story, nor does it focus on one period or issue in my life.

DE: Wasn’t it Michael Jackson who wrote that every ethnography is about the anthropologist? So, one might ask what isn’t memoir in anthropology? But what I’ve been thinking about the past year is the different ways that anthropologists use their own life experiences as a point of departure. Whether it is Lochlann Jain in Malignant or Susan Greenhalgh and Paul Stoller who have a more conventional approach to memoirs of illness. I am trying to figure out for me what would be the way that I might be able to write about myself. Part of my aim with the Neurological Imaginaries project was the challenge to turn the ethnographic lens around and focus on my own life, as a way to understand what it would feel like to have to convey the intimate personal details of my life that I often ask of my participants. I realize now that I find it really challenging to write about myself at all!

AG: There was an element of memoir in The Pastoral Clinic, because I’m from the place that I was writing about. My intimacy with the place, people and the subject matter is pretty evident in the book. A number of anthropologists reacted harshly to my book because of this. I didn’t hide the “intimacy.” Some academics considered my book overly sentimental, apolitical, unethical or –

DE: Too intimate?

AG: Yes, too intimate. And I think this is a really interesting reaction. There is something to consider there. This assumption that, if there’s too much intimacy, or closeness, then it can’t be proper anthropology, or if there’s too much emotion, it isn’t theoretical, political. But isn’t ethnography supposed to, in some way, emerge from some sort of intimacy with a subject or object, or a desire for it? Intimacy is a very deep aspect of thought, and ethics. And so, when there’s this distrust of intimacy, well,  I think that this speaks to a very old legacy about reason that anthropology is still in the grips of.

But in The Pastoral Clinic I did feel the pressure to keep intimacy below the surface, although it really never was.  It erupted at times. And putting it out there was risky. Yes, I totally understand the difficulty that you’re describing about writing oneself more explicitly.

DE: I’m also very interested in your writing process. I remember reading somewhere that Margaret Atwood sat down early every morning and wrote I think it was three to five pages per day. And if she did five pages in an hour then she was done and then she had the rest of the day to do what she liked, but if it took her eight hours, then she was there for eight hours. I thought that was a really interesting strategy. So one of the questions I have for you — is writing easy for you? Do you write first drafts or do you write and revise and delete and revise … what’s your process?

AG: I have a horrible process and right now it’s even worse because I have two kids schooling at home. I do something that I should not do, which is every time I sit down to write, I go backwards, often to the first sentence. Maybe this has something to do with my musical training. The other thing that I do, and I think this is actually a good thing, is read my writing aloud. I want to hear it. If the sound doesn’t work I go back and I work on its sound some more. I want the sound of my writing to help carry the idea or story, not necessarily in the sense of melody, but the musical key.

I’m losing functionality of my hands. It comes and goes. So I just started using transcription software. It’s awkward because it’s so new. But what is useful and exciting is that I can be anywhere and I can be writing. In bed, dozing off. I can just speak and the next day I go to my computer and there it is. Speaking the writing first, unhindered, really changes what’s written. This is not the way that I’ve traditionally worked, but I’m having to adapt my writing practice.  

I can go for days without writing a word, but I think about words and their sound all the time. I also have a notebook, I scribble things down. I have stickies with scribble all over my wall and I move them around.

DE: When you were talking just now about not being able to use your right hand, that made me think about the difference between using a computer or other digital technologies versus long-hand cursive writing with a notebook. I wish I could move entirely to digital because I feel like it would be much more efficient but at the end of the day I need a notebook or a note pad to write things out. I particularly love writing with a pencil. I think it’s the sensation of pencil scratching along paper that I can feel through my fingers. I’ll have two drafts going, one on the screen and another on a paper pad. Do you still, when you can, prefer cursive writing?

AG: Yes, I do too. I have a notebook for each writing project. A grey covered one for jotting ideas down, and a black one for private journaling, which sometimes leads me back to the grey one. I still write by hand with a very fine-tipped pen. I’m struck by how my penmanship has changed. When I can no longer write by hand, well, that’s going to be very painful for me. If I could, I would be old school and just write by hand and have a beautiful woman decipher and transcribe my writing. Like the guys did in the old days, except I’d give her credit and pay her properly.

Denielle’s writing space with her ever-present writing assistant

Denielle Elliott is a socio-cultural anthropologist at York University where she is the deputy-director of the Harriet Tubman Institute. She is a founding member of the Centre for Imaginative Ethnography, and co-editor of A Different Kind of Ethnography (University of Toronto Press, 2016) and the author of Reimagining Science and Statecraft in Postcolonial Kenya: Stories from an African Scientist (Routledge, 2018). Twitter: @of_anthropology

Angela Garcia is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University. Her work considers historical and institutional processes through which violence and suffering is produced and lived in Southwest USA and Mexico. Her research is oriented toward understanding how attachments, affect, and practices of intimacy are important registers of politics and economy. Garcia’s book, The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and Dispossession Along The Rio Grande (University of California Press, 2010) received the 2012 Victor Turner Prize and a 2010 Pen Center USA Award.


Notes

[1] See Blanchot, Maurice. 1995. The Writing of the Disaster. Translated by Ann Smock. Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press.


About the series

Writing Life focuses on the craft of writing in the social studies of medicine. Amidst the current challenges to making texts, this series invites scholars in our field to take time to reflect, in conversation with each other, on how to navigate and nurture their craft.

Each post in Writing Life delves into the black boxes of writing life, exploring the specificities of producing texts about the lives of those entangled in illness, care, pain, diagnosis, experiment, research, suffering, and recovery.  The spirit of the contributions is collaborative — an exploration through dialogue. In crafting the posts, authors also explore a research practice central to our fields – interviewing – and the work and art of transcribing and editing other people’s words.

We openly invite further contributions to this series to appear in Spring/Summer 2021. Please contact series editors Anna Harris (a.harris@maastrichtuniversity.nl) or Denielle Elliott (dae@yorku.ca) to express interest. You may already have someone in mind to interview or be interviewed by, but we can also make recommendations.


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