This post has been slowly taking shape in my head since last year’s ISA in Toronto. A year late, I know, but maybe now it can act as some kind of refresher as we head into this year’s festivities. (In fact, as I write these words with a cup of tea in front of me, I’m watching the last of the sunrise over Faubourg-Marigny.)
Last year, as there has been for a few years now, there was a roundtable that consisted of people telling stories – personal stories, political stories, literary stories. The room was packed, as it always is for the storytelling roundtable. People stood leaning against the walls, cross-legged on the floor, and sometimes two to a seat. The air was warm and still. The stories were touching, wryly acerbic, and occasionally silly. One storyteller, though, both caught and divided the audience’s attention. She told a powerful story of victimisation in multiple voices, drawn from our own ranks at the ISA, and laid bare the systemic problem of sexism and sexual harassment in the academy. It was the sort of story that had half the audience stunned into silence and the other half nodding in knowing agreement.
In the wake of that story, the discussion took on a life of its own, with a number of audience members calling for solidarity, empathy, and action. Others were shocked and claimed no knowledge that such a world existed under their very noses. Still others shrugged it off, saying that the story lacked an understanding of the complicity of its own narrator (or rather, its narrators) – that it was a kind of call, but one that should not be answered. Sitting in the audience, I said nothing, watched and listened as the tension in the room crested and abated.
Two years earlier, in a similar conference room in San Diego, I had told a story of my own. I hadn’t planned to tell that particular story – in fact, I’d decided months earlier to present a piece I had written for my doctoral thesis that had gotten a warm reception in other settings, which has since appeared here in another form. That was someone else’s story, from my fieldwork in Cuba. But, about two weeks before the start of the ISA, a story of my own came to me all at once and I wrote it in less than an hour. I brought both with me to the roundtable and sat them on the table in front of me, in case I lost the nerve to tell my own story, but somehow I managed it, shaking hands and all.