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Writing Life No. 20: An Interview with Emma Kowal

This article is part of the series:

One evening in December 2021, in a small South African coastal town where my best friend’s bustling wedding preparations were underway, I got goosebumps. I turned off the music, looked up from my reading, and said “please listen to this”. Then I read out the opening line of Chapter 2 from Emma Kowal’s forthcoming book:

‘One night in the winter of 2009, the ghost of a dead anatomist visited an Aboriginal poet and sliced through her body with a scalpel’.

Talking over Zoom the next day, Emma would tell me that it was this – the condensation of a story into a single line – that compelled her to press on through the two pandemic years that made writing so elusive. Emma’s forthcoming book, Haunting Biology: Science and Indigeneity in Australia, is a meditation on connections across time and space.

How does one recognize a haunting? Can the ghosts of past eras be silenced? What is at stake in trying to do so? In her work, Emma claims the uncomfortable inheritance of her ‘disciplinary ancestors’ in anthropology and looks at it from all angles. Once the reader plunges in with her, she enters into an arcane space. I flew home all the way back to Melbourne, then to Broome, then to Europe in the seven months since reading Emma’s final draft. The sense of the uncanny has accompanied me throughout transnational travel, the clamor of marriage and death, devastating global news, Covid’s peaks and troughs, and myriad personal currents. Her joys and struggles while writing the book formed the backdrop to our conversations about writing.

In the edited transcript below, Emma satisfies my curiosity about her writing space, her process, aims, arguments, citational choices, and her labor as a mother and writer in the field of STS. Her gentle lessons were to listen to the fieldsite (as to ghosts), to write and edit until you find your voice, and to care foremost for the reader. Emma suggests that all writing is haunted. Perhaps the visceral experience of reading her work – the goosebumps, the nerves, relief and wonder I experienced stem from her almost metaphysical process. She believes the argument exists before her hands start to type. She has to write and edit to unearth it. And when she is deep in her craft – in her writing space – she is another person. Transmuted from the domestic, administrative, and leadership tasks that ever threaten to intrude.

CARINA TRUYTS: For millions of people, the pandemic’s extensive lockdowns saw our personal and professional lives bleed together in a blur of family, personal and work lives that was new to many of us. What has it been like for you?

EMMA KOWAL: I think for many carers the pandemic was a shift in degree rather than kind, an intensification of stresses that were already ‘normal’. I actually addressed this broader issue in my Paul Bourke annual public lecture in 2015. I wrote the lecture to reflect on my first book, but I felt compelled to make a point about how difficult it is for people with serious care responsibilities to function in academia, or anywhere in the workforce really. I consciously committed the faux pas of bleeding the social and professional and showed the photographs of writing my thesis while my unusually mobile baby approaches. I started to write the thesis when I was pregnant. I didn’t get very far, because, as I found out, my brain just doesn’t work when I’m pregnant. After giving birth I found I could write even though I was waking up every two or three hours during the night. My desk space became invaded – it meant writing with the tugging of crawling babies at the wheels of my desk chair. Later, it meant taking my kids to the movies and writing in the cinema foyer: ‘stolen moments’. Now that I am parenting teenagers, it means breaking up writing with chores – a kind of domestic ‘pomodoro’ system. During that first pregnancy, I felt I needed a space that wasn’t my home to write. A lovely friend let me share her office at Charles Darwin University, but then once I had the baby it was like, ‘I can write anywhere, anytime’. For better or worse, my perception of my needs had shrunk.

CT: So your ‘writing space’ isn’t physically or materially anchored?

EK: It’s almost like a physical place. It’s a mental space, but it’s like a physical place in the sense that you have to find your way back to it. It’s a place where you have something you want to communicate, that you really believe in. It’s taking your view of the world and attempting to translate that into words that someone else can receive. This is what artists do through visual means or sound. Those moments when I reach that place are magical. I love that person I get to be. The person who is the writer. She’s a part of me that I love, and I wish I could hang out with her more.

CT: I was lucky enough to hang out with her on a recent long-haul flight as I read your final draft of Haunting Biology: Science and Indigeneity in Australia, and it was very comforting to do so. Am I right in saying that the book tells stories from the history of scientific research on Indigenous people, revealing the stakes of difference, especially biological difference, as an intellectual tool with very real socio-political outcomes? And that it explores the ghosts of science past and their role in the moral quagmires of genomic futures?

EK: Yes!

CT: You feature celebrated – and infamous – ‘dead white men’ of Australian science, like biologists turned anthropologists Baldwin Spencer and Alfred Cort Haddon, anatomists Colin Mackenzie and Andrew Abbie, and physiologist Cedric Stanton Hicks. Why this choice?

EK: I use these stories to explore the history of scientific research on Indigenous people across the long twentieth century and up to the present. For example, the dead anatomist of the opening line, for example, is Colin Mackenzie, Melbourne surgeon and anatomist who transformed his personal collection of Australian animals and skeletal remains of Indigenous people into the Australian Institute of Anatomy in Canberra in 1931. In the 1980s the building became the National Film and Sound Archive. When Aboriginal poet and academic Romaine Moreton took up a fellowship there in 2009, she was violently confronted by Mackenzie’s ghost as she slept in his old residence next door. Unpacking this story reveals the intertwined histories and futures of bones and blood samples taken from Indigenous people.

CT: You end with a tale of the enigmatic model of Baldwin Spencer, who co-authored Native Tribes of Central Australia (1898) and founded the Melbourne Museum. I was fascinated by the postcolonial twist, when Spencer’s likeness was ironically placed in a glass case as part of an exhibition at the museum in 2000.

EK: Yes, that exhibition aimed to demonstrate the changing power dynamics of 21st century Australian society. By following Spencer’s model after the exhibition was dismantled, through the backstage of the museum and all the way into a dark room populated with the secret and sacred objects he collected, I found I could use Spencer’s story to ask questions about ghostly traces contained within the more recent decolonial turn in scholarship.

CT: Themes of ghostliness are a throughline of the chapters, and mirrored a kind of haunting closeness I experienced. I felt that even when I put the iPad down, even when the plane landed, even when a week of holiday and the rich busy lifeworld of home and longed-for social encounters had saturated my mind and body, I would still be able to recall what you had written. I still felt close to your arguments. It felt both lean and rich at the same time. This compelling kind of reading experience is not easy to produce. Can you talk about your technique, or structure?

EK: Thank you Carina for such a beautiful and supportive reading. And yeah… I wish I had something – some structure – to report. But no, I just fumble along until the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter finds its form. When students are often told to use qualitative research packages, I say, ‘well, your brain is the most complex qualitative research package that you could possibly imagine’ (not to discount that some people find them very useful!). I care about the reader, and believe you need to hold their hand and take them on a journey through the beautiful garden that you have created.

My approach takes time. It’s just time…Ideas and thoughts that have been building up for years. I’ve travelled through different field sites over my career but there’s always been a pathway from one to the next, and questions provoked by the different disciplines and scholarly cultures I’ve been able to access through my double degree in Medicine and Liberal Arts and experience in Indigenous healthcare. So, the themes of the liberal management of difference and help and harm have emerged. There is this oscillating tension between the potential for help and harm in the context of the ongoing harm of settler colonialism.

CT: These questions of help and harm seem to move with you, I recognise them from your first book Trapped in the Gap: Doing Good in Indigenous Australia.  Is there a consistent message that emerges across your work? Or some aim in particular that you are ‘fighting for’? How have your convictions changed? How have they influenced your position and voice?

EK: If I had to summarize everything in one word, it would be ‘ambivalence’. I would say there is a lot of writing, which if you had to summarise what it is trying to illuminate in one word, it would be ‘erasure,’ or ‘exclusion’, as in, this group of people is being excluded or oppressed by this social structure. I can write in that mode, but generally when I’m writing my solo work, the wisdom I offer is a deeper understanding of ambivalence. This is partly a function of the fieldsites I have chosen, places where there are significant resources put towards addressing structural inequality. I want to examine what happens when people are genuinely trying to do the right thing, and what I see are tensions and aporias. I aim to actually describe that accurately, to explain how it’s inherently contradictory, how there’s no escape. There is no answer. We just have these tensions.

I suppose I’m answering your question in this way because I am not trying to convince the reader to have a particular view. I don’t have a strong opinion really about anything to do with my fieldsites. For example, people are now collecting blood samples or saliva samples with what we currently believe is the correct model of consent: full, prior and informed. We expect and hope that, in the eyes of those who come after us, we will not have been wrong (to use the future perfect tense that Elizabeth Povinelli has taught me about). We hope that we will not have been wrong (and that hope is important). But I know that we will have been wrong in some way. And I suppose I come from that historical sensibility. I don’t know if its nihilistic or pessimistic or something else.. …but it’s what I’ve learned.

CT: As a reader you really get to experience that tension in the book, and because you share both glimpses of your personal journey with what is called ‘intergenerational trauma’ and the professional imperative of ‘listening’ to ghosts, this imparts a strong message of accountability. I really love the sense of surprise and satisfaction in the story where you cold-call a scientist who had collected an enormous number of blood samples – and he asks for your help! It cements the ambivalence around help and harm. Is that your favorite chapter?

EK: (laughs) Well they’re all my favourites … they’re all my children that I love equally. I suppose, though, my firstborn is that chapter. That was a story that very literally had a haunting. Colin Mackenzie is the main dead white man of that chapter who started the Institute of Anatomy in Canberra. As I looked more into the story, I saw the film The Darkside by Warwick Thornton, one of our very best Indigenous filmmakers, that told me about Mackenzie’s haunting of Romaine Moreton. With that I had the beginning and the centre of gravity of the chapter. And it’s such a big chapter.

CT: How did you manage the size and scope of it?

EK: With that chapter, it just got bigger and bigger as I revised it and revised it. I feel like I’m asking a lot of the reader. I’ve submitted it to journals along the way, but it was almost too unwieldy to stand alone and reviewers could see that. I wasn’t able to tame it into a stand-alone article, and I didn’t want to tame it.

CT: I’m glad you didn’t, it seems to hold everything together? It feels ‘just right’!

EK: It works for a book because of its other supporting structures. The chapter has this very long arc – from the 20th century to the present and it deliberately takes us through a lot of the different disciplines that contributed to making biological knowledge about Indigenous people. The Baldwin Spencer chapter, the last chapter, is another favourite.

CT: How so?

EK: When I was researching it, very ghost-like things were happening, which is perfect for this book. Those moments in fieldwork, or a moment of encounter with an archive or the story when you’re like ‘Oh my god, this is perfect!’ are such a gift, almost a drug. It’s so addictive, when it happens, and it happens so seldomly.  

CT: As I read I couldn’t help but long to see some references to the race science literature in South Africa. I think this stems from the impulse to cite everything and everyone – and I know it can hinder narrative flow if it isn’t done right. How do you make choices about citing this or that? 

EK: I have a wonderful colleague and friend who said to me “you haven’t really cited me correctly you know”. I’d lumped them in with others in a way that was not fully accurate, and I was so glad that they told me and that I could address that. Of course, there will be people who feel annoyed if a citation to their work goes missing in the editing process, and that’s probably inevitable. But also, academia is a social field and it’s okay to have those relationships in mind when you make changes and include things.

CT: I really appreciate that sentiment – the reminder that our words are part of this social world, and that citations are part of relationship- making. Do you have a particular order to your writing and thinking process?

EK: I’m one of those people that writes in order to figure out what I’m trying to say. It’s almost like the argument is there, and I need to give it a chance to express itself. And then I do a lot of editing – pruning and pruning, cutting back the dead bits that aren’t contributing to the argument, so it can grow better. Then I’ll get to the point where I’ll go back to the start of the chapter to read again and I’ll think ‘that’s it. It sounds good. It’s my voice.’ It won’t be perfect, but the review process helps. Reviewers tell you when you’ve gone too quickly through the argument and got ahead of the reader.

CT: The idea of haunting is a perfect device here – it does a lot of work but doesn’t feel forced. At what point do you decide on a framework? Was it born early in the process, or pieced together over time?

EK: I suppose I’m fairly promiscuous with theoretical frameworks. I try and see where the material takes me, and once I’m there I try and do my good academic labour on the concept that seems to be emerging and ask ‘how does this concept work here?’ I wrote the first part of this book when I was on sabbatical at Yale in the second half of 2015 so it’s a long time ago.  Since that time, life has intruded a lot into my writing. Obviously Covid – Melbourne had the longest lockdowns in the world and I was a sole parent, but before that, a divorce. And over that time I have become more senior at work and in the discipline and this has taken up more and more of my time. I feel like my commitments to this book and to my arguments have never wavered, but my ability to actually put two sentences together has. I haven’t always had the space to do that. You have to have the time to find your way back to the space of writing. This means trying not to stay away from a piece for too long. It means starting at the beginning of the chapter every time I wade back in. I don’t like to plunge into cold water! (laughs).

CT: Beyond these ‘life intervening’ challenges, has writing changed as you’ve gotten older and progressed in your career? [Laughing] Asking in the hope that it’ll become easier for me to ‘find my way back’!

EK: One part of growing older is that the literary journey I take readers on is more important to me. I’m not trying as hard to make the most complex theoretical arguments possible. I remember hearing more senior scholars talk about the importance of narrative and storytelling when I was younger. Now I can see what they were talking about!

 Figure 2: Carina’s writing desk

Carina Truyts is an anthropology staff member at Sol Plaatje University, (South Africa), and PhD student at Deakin University (Australia). Her ethnographic work on nourishment and metabolism explores the spatio-temporal and everyday implications of postgenomic thinking in the urban space of Kimberley and in the Cape Winelands, in South Africa. Twitter: @foodanthrop

Emma Kowal is Professor of Anthropology and Deputy Director of the Alfred Deakin Institute at Deakin University in Melbourne. She is a cultural and medical anthropologist who previously worked as a medical doctor and public health researcher. Her research interests lie at the intersection of anthropology, STS, and Indigenous studies. She is the current President of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S). Twitter: @profemmakowal


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.

The first installment of the series appeared weekly in Somatosphere from early December 2020 and the second from June 2021. We continue to openly invite further contributions to the series. Please contact series editors Anna Harris (a.harris@maastrichtuniversity.nl) or Denielle Elliott (dae@yorku.ca) to express interest.


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