Anniversaries can be funny things: overdetermined occasions on which we attempt to fit ourselves into a narrative or trajectory of progress. I tended to think of my academic career in this way: judging where I was by an abstract idea of where I thought I should be (based on yet another abstraction of what counts as success). The problem is, of course, that life doesn’t really work this way. The concept of uniform progress toward a pre-determined goal tends to preclude the formation of new relationships and ideas, to shut out alternative possibilities, and to disallow failure. As I learned intimately last year, failure is simultaneously the cause for acute distress, a personal testing ground, and perhaps – if we let it be – a space of generation and creativity.
Leaving academia nearly a year ago was the most difficult thing I have ever done. For twenty years I had worked toward the goal of teaching as a professor. I lived, breathed, and dreamed the literature, theory, and pedagogy of postcolonial and gender studies. My relationship with my students – growing our ideas and minds together – was so rewarding that it almost allowed me to put aside the very real exploitative conditions of adjuct labor in the academy. Of course, these conditions did eventually catch up with me, and I found myself unmoored.
In her book, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010), Elizabeth Freeman draws our attention to the multivalent ways that queer artists disrupt the normative imperative of time-as-progress and progress-as-value by orienting in and toward the past, reclaiming the past, and refusing futurity (among other methods). In so doing, they transform the concept of time from a linear trajectory to one that resists simple delineation: all folds and loops, detours, and lines of flight. Rather than being cast aside, the past is put into “meaningful, transformative relation with the present,” while the future is removed from its pedestal and interwoven by the weft of the past/present.
The melancholic space into which I veered after leaving the course onto which I had so forcibly tied my adult self was – in actuality – the space in which time-as-progress receded enough to allow my childhood love for art to reenter my life. Using Eric G. Wilson’s terminology in Against Happiness (2009), it was a space of generative melancholia. Finding myself unable to write (the creative act which I had nurtured all these years), I turned intuitively to drawing, the creative act I had neglected but never forgotten. How could I express the deep and conflicting feelings of sadness and anger at the loss of my career, the love and commitment I felt for my family, and the hope that I still harbored of offering something of substance to my community if not in words?
What has made this venture (back) into art so compelling is that it has allowed me to bring my past (my childhood days spent drawing and painting; my furious consumption of fairy and folk tales on the sunlit floor of the Dublin public library; my research into the sartorial ideas of the Victorians and Edwardians; my dissertation research on the textiles, fabrics, and discourses of Orientalism during the British Raj) to bear on the new ways I am learning to communicate and share with the communities in which I move on a daily basis. My desire to draw, to paint, to create is not burdened by expectations (I have none) or an abstract criteria of value (I do not come out of a graduate program in art). Rather, I am free to orient myself in any and all directions from which good ideas and creative inspirations come, and in so doing, to continue engaging with people and ideas in new and multivalent ways.
I was empowered to begin exploring this alternative way of being in the world because six months ago two women, Bon Abedeen and Tina Broker of West Elm South Coast Plaza, believed that the drawings I had done for myself were worthy of sharing with others. It has been sustained by the overwhelming outpouring of support from friends, family, and perfect strangers who have honored me by bringing my work into their lives. It has grown in numerous unexpected directions – like an amoeba wildly spouting new legs – because of the creativity, expertise, and mentorship of professionals with whom I have had the fortune to meet and collaborate. I do not know where this venture will take me, only that I am not done drawing from the well of experience, knowledge and affect, and that in so doing I hope to continue finding ways to connect, share, and transform.