On Forgetting and Trauma

[Trigger Warning: Violence and Sexual Assault]

For those of you who have been reading my blog for nearly four years, you may know that its content is mostly lighthearted and optimistic (with very few exceptions). Today though I felt the need to write about my research. Some of you may not know that my literary and theoretical specialization is on memory and trauma studies.

My dissertation is a cross-examination of Videla and Pinochet’s dictatorship and the concentration camp experience in Western and Eastern Europe. The main question, however, that has always been of interest to me is how/what we remember and how/what we forget. Trauma affects memory far more than we like to think. Does that mean that what survivors and victims forget should be deemed more important than what they remember?

“In order to remember one must have forgotten; the forgotten is always an integral part of memory,” cultural theorist, Gunnthorunn Gudmundsdóttir, emphasizes in her last book, Representations of Forgetting in Life, Writing and Fiction. Gudmunsdóttir is speaking from the perspective of the repetitive nature of memory. Memory is indeed shaped by forgetting. Our memory creates a series of gaps for a reason. The hippocampus, which is the center of emotion, memory and the autonomic nervous system of our brain, allows us to remember based on emotions. What trauma victims forget is not the wound inflicted, but the details surrounding it.

From all the testimonies I’ve read, one thing has always struck me, victims shape their stories around a significant episode in their lives. For the Argentine women who were viciously raped by officers, it was the names these officers called them whilst being raped. For the Holocaust survivors, it was the witty story they said to the Nazi SS guard before entering the camps or the smell of burnt flesh as they spent hours working outside. Each event was shaped by a sensorial and emotional experience.

Holocaust survivors have forgotten the fact that there was a music band in Auschwitz.

Holocaust survivors have forgotten the specific details of conversations they had between prisoners or guards.

Argentine and Chilean survivors have forgotten the details of the games they played in detention centers in order to pass time.

None of these victims forget the truth, the real truth: the fact that inhumane and atrocious acts were committed against them.

Non-victims though want to forget.

Amnesia and Amnesty are closely intertwined etymologically from the Ancient Greek,  ἀμνηστία and ἀμνησία (a-mneme= to not remember). While a political power gives amnesty to perpetrators, they encourage the collective forgetting of crimes against humanity. They encourage us that because victims did not “fully remember”, we can completely forget.

In today’s world where some of us choose to not listen to the testimonies of victims, we must not fall into a collective amnesia where we forget the crimes committed against survivors. We must believe survivors. We must believe their words, their experiences, and their honest attempts at recollecting such traumatic events.

Maman, Papa, I don’t want to leave Paris

And so it begins…the countdown to my departure.

I feel like I want to savor every moment of Paris. I am progressively saying, “À bientôt” to the City of Lights and “Can’t wait” to get back to my life in the Midwest. Paris, a city that has worked its way into my heart, yet has managed to anger me the most. From the bustling métro rides to my strolls along Le Marais or Montmartre (two of my favorite neighborhoods, the latter I’m proud to call my own), I have to admit: I have fallen in love with Paris.

Take a left turn to take the métro? Run into a fabulous festival. Walk alongside la Seine? Fall in love with the beautiful sunset and have a little apéro. Forget to say Bonjour to the waitress? She’ll forget about you. Take your time taking out your Navigo Pass? Prepare yourself for the dirty looks, sighs and groans of Parisians

Paris is a contradiction, but it’s my contradiction and I love it so much.

Je ne veux pas quitter Paris, mais I have to…I’ll no longer speak Franglais with my expat friends or French on a daily basis. I’ll go back to an Anglophone world with no surprise expos, concerts or bisous avant de partir. The pains au chocolat and cheap wine will be limited [guys, Two-Buck-Chuck doesn’t count]. The sense of adventure will be gone from my Madisonian routine, but hélas, that’s the way it has to be.

Time has flown by, but I cherish every single moment I have spent here.

Living in Paris, even for such a short amount of time, has been an incredible and unforgettable adventure. I have a sense of melancholia and nostalgia that is endearingly inexplicable, but I appreciate it nonetheless. Paris, unlike other major cities I have lived in or visited, has worked its way into my heart and has produced the most complicated of emotions within me–emotions that I am unable to adequately describe in English.

Maman, Papa, je ne veux pas quitter Paris, mais I’ll be back !

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Métro-Boulot-Dodo

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Paris is a place of work for me. I wake up early in the morning, eat some French yogurt, and take the packed métro to the Archives or the Library. If I’m feeling fancy, I stop by the boulangerie and get a pain au chocolat.

There’s nothing luxurious or adventurous about this routine.

Parisians have the infamous expression, “Métro-Boulot-Dodo”, which basically just means “Metro-Work-Sleep”. I sometimes identify with this phenomenon. I get lost in the pursuit of my research and suddenly forget that there’s an entire world around it.

Work days in Paris are quite similar to work days in Wisconsin. I do what I’m supposed to do and when I’m supposed to do it. My schedule is quite flexible, but I work hard at what I do, yet…it’s a routine–one that I’ve built in so little time, but a routine nonetheless.

Paris may seem luxurious and fascinating (and it can be), but it’s not. After doing (very few) touristy things,  I realize just how different the tourist experience is from the I “métro-boulot-dodo” here. The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Sacre Cœur? They’re all full of people and, sure, that’s the condition of living in a city, but it’s different. I seem to feel more at ease when I have a routine and when I meet up friends for a picnic outside of the city or a drink in our neighborhood.

I don’t care for the glamorous side of Paris. I don’t care for the weird stereotypes that we built up in our heads about European cities.

I care about genuine people, places, and emotions. I care about a job well done, a conversation over my lunch break or post-work drinks with friends. I care about connections, literature, philosophy and art….and, frankly, that’s hard to do in a sea of tourists waiting to capture the perfect shot.

The funny thing is that I am a tourist. I’m a tourist and I live here. I’m living abroad and I’m not living abroad here. I also do want a nice picture by the Seine or the Eiffel Tower, but I care about the experience too much to let that deter myself from it.

I don’t mean to sound unappreciative of the city, but there’s so much more to learn from it.

 

Paris, I Love You, but…

Despite having been here for a couple of weeks, I feel like I have spent a lifetime in Paris.

I thought that the constant stimuli of the city was bringing me down, but I am slowly coming off the hump of being here. Paris is an amazing city. I love getting lost in the city. I love finding the cemetery where Alexandre Dumas and François Truffaut were buried as I finish off the crêpe from that little hole in the wall of Montmartre.

I love having great research days and feeling fortunate enough to dig into “Classified” documents from World War II. I love ordering a café from the Madame near the métro stop by the National Archives. I love being mistaken for a local and, hopefully, directing tourists to the right métro stop.

Enfin, I love all the things I get to experience in the city, but…there’s a part of me that feels uneasy in the city. A part of me that prefers to stay in with a giant mug of coffee while I read a giant book (which is frankly impossible because my roommates don’t even own a coffee maker of any kind). A (big) part of me enjoys having a routine, checking books out at the Madison Public Library (whose security is frankly a joke compared to the National Library in France), and writing my dissertation at Stone Creek Coffee.

I love Paris, but I love regularity. However, I’m open to Paris in ways that I didn’t think were possible: making tons of new French and American friends, ordering a Ricard at the old café in Pigalle, celebrating the World Cup (on a gagné !), and watching the Bastille Day fireworks by the Eiffel Tower.

More to come soon…1dZ9_RO5gNC7DRV6cUptEnwyjxjsl2LB-mkXh1vUf6wFRT8tbN38QYWBRTmbWNPuZX1c5h582WQwmtSrRTLZdj1OE-cT_XIjldUkCx-ZRrfXqmY6TvyQGfFz2z2qN2BwAPbSJbd_4xzUGuMVE8u_jxr0YAbSl_Iv0q-7bythkePJu28S0mnZo34Cvu

Paris…a week later

“He who contemplates the depths of Paris is seized with vertigo. Nothing is more fantastic. Nothing is more tragic. Nothing is more sublime.” Victor Hugo*

Ah, Paris…Victor Hugo does a wonderful job describing precisely how I feel about being in Paris. It’s only been a week since I got to Paris yet it feels like years. This city is a contradiction: radical beauty and sublime history engaging with terrible smells and unashamed disputes on the metro.

I cannot help to be amazed, surprised, and confused at this marvelous city. I am frankly never bored. There is so much to do and I’ve slowly gotten used to the hype of the city. I no longer need google maps to help me take the metro or to find out which route is better for work. I no longer get lost in a sea of unknown brands at the grocery store. I now get lost in the city and I enjoy it.

However, I keep thinking of this quote by Georg Simmel: “The psychological basis of the metropolitan type of individuality consists in the intensification of nervous stimulation which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli.”

Paris is the city that never sleeps, not New York City (sorry, New Yorkers!). There is always something to do. I am never bored. I am constantly being stimulated by motorcycles driving down the boulevard, live music on my street, people-watching from my apartment balcony, watching football matches with mes potes, drinking French rosé by the Seine and simply talking about the wonders (and downfalls) of Paris over some falafel.

I love this stimuli, but I hate it too…and, just like that, I am a living contradiction just like my Paris.

*Qui regarde au fond de Paris a le vertige. Rien de plus fantastique, rien de plus tragique, rien de plus superbe.

The Art of Flâne(use)rie

La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait.
Longue, mince, en grand deuil, douleur majestueuse,
Une femme passa, d’une main fastueuse
Soulevant, balançant le feston et l’ourlet;

“À une passante”, Charles Baudelaire*

We all know this love story: Girl meets city. Girl falls in love with City. The End.

We’re used to hearing the narrative of the City as a character. From Carrie Bradshaw to the amazing cross-dressing George Sand, women  have been falling in love with cities for centuries. What is so appealing about the city though? What makes us indulge in the fantasy of living in a giant organism full of displaced peoples trying to “find themselves”?

This is fascinating to me from the female point of view. Women have been drawn to walking the city, so much that they’ve done the impossible to do it: dress like a man, leave your husband and family (George Sand, again). All’s end that ends well, right?

Perhaps not.

The noun, flâneuse (f), and its masculine form, flâneur, come from the verb, flâner, which is cognate with the Old Norse, flana, which means to act rashly. What is a flâneur/flâneuse and why are we, as humans, so invested in the art of flâne(use)rie ?

Flâneur can simply be translated as “stroller”, but can mean someone who wanders the city aimlessly, observing, and not being observed. Perhaps this is why it’s difficult to ascertain the flâneuse within this context. Women are observed on the street. Cat-called. Humiliated. Harassed.

Paris is perhaps the queen city of flâneuserie, but it’s virtually impossible to not be noticed by men. With the French #MeToo hashtag, #BalanceTonPorc, which places blame on the aggressors rather than the victim, it is quite difficult to stroll the streets of Paris. I try to lose myself in the city, frowning, hoping to not be noticed by the passers-by, yet…it happens.

Bringing back Baudelaire’s male gaze onto the female passante, he reduces the flâneuse to the admiration of her body.^

How can I master the art of flâneuserie when I am a woman myself?

By the Seine, on the rues of Paris, down the streets of Montmartre, it does not matter, the flâneuse is not invisible, but rather seen.

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*The deafening road around me roared.
Tall, slim, in deep mourning, making majestic grief,
A woman passed, lifting and swinging
With a pompous gesture the ornamental hem of her garment (1974, Wagner)

^Some critics argue that Charles Baudelaire’s poems should not be reduced to his misogyny (*roll-eyes*), but rather his views on individualism. I want to make it clear though, he was a misogynist.

**I recommend Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse: Women Walk the city in Paris, New York, Tokyo,  Venice, and London. (I’d skip over the entire Tokyo chapter, for a number of reasons)

 

Lost in Paris: the art of getting lost

Coucou from Paris !

As I had mentioned before, I will be living in Paris for the Summer, which is fantastic and a dream come true, etc etc etc….BUT dang it, it is a hard city to get accustomed to!

It took me three hours to get from Charles de Gaulle to my apartment. After taking a well-deserved nap after a sleepless night, I started thinking about the art of getting lost. In the Catalan-French film, L’auberge espagnole, Xavier is in Barcelona for the first time with his luggage feeling lost and insecure. He says, “Quand on arrive dans une ville, on voit des rues en perspective des suites des bâtiments vides de sens…tout est inconnu, vierge.” [When we arrive in a city, we see streets in perspective of buildings empty of meaning…everything is unknown, virginal].

This short part of the film always always reminds me of life in a new city. Everything can be disorienting and bizarre. Even though Xavier knows the Spanish language (even though Catalonia’s official language is technically Catalan) and has a map that is supposed to guide him, he still manages to get lost. My biggest desire is always to find something to hold onto–something that feels familiar and not uncanny. Nonetheless, it is incredibly difficult to not get lost. It just happens to you. Oh, you were supposed to head west on Boulevard de Clichy, not east. Suddenly, the mind plays tricks on you spatially (regardless of how good you are at directions) and you find yourself in between two other fellow American tourists,  who are trying to find Moulin Rouge, trying to figure out where west is.

This feeling isn’t exclusive to Paris. I’ve felt this way in the many cities I’ve encountered: New York, Rio de Janeiro, San Juan and Madison (the latter two I live/have lived in for years too]. My first time driving in San Juan with my roommate turned out to be a two hour drive around the city trying to find this little bar that ended up being a block and a half away from our apartment. When I first moved to Madison, I went for a walk trying to find James Madison Park and I ended up in a crazy intersection facing Lake Monona instead of Lake Mendota. It happens, but then, magically, you figure out how to take public transportation. You figure out that the 14 in Rio is full of gatunes (thieves), so you try to avoid it. You realize that Lower Manhattan isn’t really that complicated to figure out even though it frankly feels that way after spending most of your time in Upper Manhattan.

My trick is to accept getting lost as a part of your experience in a new city. It’s not [as] tragic if you planned for it..or at least that’s what I tell myself!

 

 

Academia is full of surprises!

Grad school can definitely be a vicious cycle full of rejection, but there are many good things about it.  After a long and tough 2017 (hurricanes, rejections and disappointments galore), I was ready to give up on grad school. I don’t mean quitting because I’m not really a quitter, but rather taking a more easygoing approach to it. I have always been so high strung and overwhelmingly compulsive about everything that I tend to forget that it’s OKAY to have fun, be young and enjoy life.

Last Winter, I made the decision to finish my PhD without the intention of pursuing academia (i.e. academic jobs). I made this decision for a number of reasons: watching many of my colleagues get rejected to these jobs that they were more than qualified for, the unfortunate ghost of adjunct professorships (i.e. making the same lowly salary as a TA with none of the health benefits) that haunts the academic job market, and wanting a life (children, a house, and a livable income).

This resolution completely changed my life outlook, plans and overall mental health. As surprising as it may seem, letting go of academia has frankly been the best thing for my research, my applications and my well-being. How do I know this?

  1. Setting Goals and Meeting Them: I wrote my first chapter in one semester (~4 months) and I think I did a pretty decent job. I work best under schedules, so I planned multiple writing groups, and sketched out blocks of time where I could work solely on writing. I love the research I got to do and cannot wait to do more over the Summer.
  2. Work/Life Balance: Last semester, I got really into setting boundaries around what was my work time and what was my “life” time. One of my friends even got me into a TedTalk Podcast called “Work Life with Adam Grant”, which I highly recommend It discusses workaholic lifestyles, emotional labor, and many other important things. I decided that, unlike other semesters, I was not going to let graduate school become my number one priority in life. I would work 9-5PM (sometimes 6:00 PM) and I would avoid weekend labor…and somehow I managed to accomplish this. I did not respond to emails after 5:00 PM, but instead I did things that I enjoyed like reading for fun, writing or just binge-watching something on netflix.  I actually want to write another post about this specifically because grad school’s work obsession is frankly disturbing and beyond unhealthy.
  3. Grant/Fellowship/Scholarship/Job/Research Applications: In addition to writing time, I set times to work on specific applications that will help me further my non-academic (and academic) experiences. I applied to the same number of positions I do every year without expecting anything from them (I don’t think anyone wants to know the number because it’s so absurd…the amount of work that goes into these applications is crazy).
  4. Relaxed Outcomes Facing Rejection:.Out of  [insert ridiculous number here], I received about [insert adequate number] of rejections. Now, this does not mean that I was like yay, I didn’t get this one job I really wanted, but rather helped me keep myself in check. I went in with low expectations while still managing to dedicate a lot of time to my apps. Overall, I feel proud of myself for feeling OKAY about rejection and the great work I put into my applications.
  5. Actually Getting Awesome Grants (WHAT?!): As I said, I went into academia this past semester with very low expectations. I did not expect much from my applications, my dissertation or even my teaching (my pedagogy friends must be freaking out ). I received a fellowship that will allow me to further the field of public humanities doing a job that is very meaningful to me. I received a research fellowship AND a scholarship that will allow me to do research for my second chapter in PARIS, FRANCE.  This means that I get an all-paid expense research trip to Paris that will allow me to live there for most of the Summer!

When did it all change then?

I set out to find what I really loved and cared for in life: connections, philosophy, friendships, social justice endeavors, and celebrating accomplishments–even the smallest of them. In return, letting go of academia made me become a better scholar, teacher, friend, partner and person. I look into the details of my writing and research without becoming so focused on the general, big-picture outcome. I focus on helping my students enjoy themselves during class and understand tough philosophical concepts or complex narratives…and friends, this has paid off. 

I have made space for things that matter to me and have lessened my burdens. I don’t know if this blog post might actually help anyone, but this approach has really helped me. I feel lighter and less anxious about all the things that used to burden me. I feel like I have made the decisions that work best for me and I feel incredibly content and free!

How to Read Borges

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I remember the first time I came across a Jorge Luis Borges short story. I was fifteen years old and, for many years, I had refused to read literature in Spanish. Growing up bilingual (and having more access to the Spanish language), I thought that my American Lit courses in high school were far more interesting than my Spanish Lit classes, but there was something about Borges that just made me fall in love with the Spanish language. He assembled stories in such a specific way that I couldn’t help myself from becoming mesmerized by his writing.

The short story was far shorter than any other short story I had ever read. “Borges y yo” featured a conversation between the narrative Borges and the real Borges. This encounter between the two selves of Borges opened my eyes to the richness and beauty of modern literature.

Fast-forward a decade and so much has changed! I have a PhD minor in Latin American literature, have taught Borges to undergrads a number of times, presented academic papers on his short stories, and have reread his works hundreds of times, including the story, “Borges y yo”, that introduced me to his literary repertoire.

However, I don’t think I’ve ever figured out a way to read Borgesian literature. His literature is so strange, confusing, and jarring at times, yet its allure will always capture my attention. I want to explore the ways in which we can approach his short stories, for better or for worse:

  1. Obsessions: Borges is obsessed with the same number of artifacts that make an appearance in his literary works over and over again: Mirrors, Reflections, Tigers, Secret Societies, Libraries, Mazes, Labyrinths, Encyclopedias, and so on. As a scholar, I have fallen in love with these same artifacts and will forever be indebted to Borges. When you start to read Borges, you need to understand that the philosophical reflections on these objects have to do with Borges’s own perception of the world.
  2. Detective Stories: I was inspired to write this post due to the fact that I’m teaching a Global Detectives course this semester. Borges was obsessed with detective stories. From Edgar Allan Poe’s Inspector Dupin to GK Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries, he identified the fact that the world is a philosophical mystery. However, his criticism is that, unlike Dupin and Poirot, there is no real solution to the mystery. In fact, perhaps the mystery is better left unsolved.
  3. Combination of Literary Forms: Borges writes in such a specific way. His writing style obviously ranges from his beginnings as an avant garde poet to a successful fiction writer. His short stories may read like academic essays, his academic essays can be read as fiction and his prose style is definitely poetic. As soon as you identify these common threads, you have a distinct connection to his writing style.
  4. Philosophy: Borges was an avid reader and he seemed to favor German and American philosophy. With allusions to Martin Heidegger and John Dunne, Borges delved into ideas of time, dreams, and being throughout his literary works.

This isn’t meant to be an in-depth guide for Borges, but rather a way to identify what makes his fiction so peculiar. How does he manage to evoke such complex feelings? What is the recipe for his literature? What changes do we perceive in his speculative fiction that don’t show up in our world?

These all may be rhetorical questions, but after many years of studying Borges, I still don’t have a one-sentence answer to any of them. Borges, as an author, exploits the Spanish language in such a concise complex way…and, perhaps, that’s the shortest answer I could ever give you.

 

The Importance of Latin

A couple of years ago, I embarked on my ancient language requirement journey. I had, for some dumb reason, decided that Latin would be an easy language to master….I was wrong.

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Latin is a ridiculously complex language. Knowing that, you get to learn so much about your own native language (s). Latin grammar changed the way I looked at the world. I started drawing connections between Latin and English and Spanish and all the other languages I know… and it was quite the adventure.

My question is…why doesn’t anyone learn Latin anymore?

Sure, some Catholics make somewhat of an effort to learn Latin, but it’s still Ecclesiastical Latin (different from Classical Latin) and some just learn the Agnus Dei and the Sanctus. No one picks up a nice Latin textbook anymore. Why?

As a modern language learner, the process of learning Latin was actually quite difficult. It was an entirely different structure. Because Latin is, well, dead, I had to memorize a significant amount of paradigms and take a look at things from a different perspective. Latin shifted the way my brain works. It allowed me to truly break the boundaries of language in ways that I had never imagined.

Perhaps that sounds a little ambiguous. However, it is the closest description to how it felt to approach a dead language like this. For the meantime, I have been trying to pick up Ancient Greek (without much success)…but my heart will always have Latin. ❤