A colleague and I step outside into the sun, clutching our keep cups, and head over to our spot which overlooks the University of Sydney’s oval. We sit facing the grounds, and on the far side I can make out the blurry figure of a man reclining on a bench, disappearing occasionally behind a cloud of vape smoke.
Grant and I chat over our coffees in the shade, debriefing on our day’s progress so far. He asks what I’m working on next, and I mention I am about to commence writing this piece. However, I am struggling to settle on a suitable hook—hooks are important things in academic writing, and it seems important here, too, to fabricate a coherent, unifying theme around which to frame my reading practices.
I mull out loud, walking Grant through several potential angles. I have just finished Jane Harper’s The Lost Man, and now I am onto Emma Viskic’s And Fire Came Down, so perhaps I am interested in subversive Australian crime fiction which engages with the harsh Australian landscape. But this is overly glib. I am also about to wrap up Fiona Wright’s The World Was Whole, and I just finished, finally, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and they both surely meditate on embodiment, and the way we pass through the physical world, but remain, somehow, forever cut off from it, unable to access it… That seems neat.
Grant listens to me dither, before he offers a solution.
‘You could just, you know, say what you’re actually reading. Then there’s nothing to decide.’
‘Hmm,’ I say, and pause. ‘Damn, you’re right. Why didn’t I think to just tell the truth?’
What The Lost Man really impressed me with, and what stunned me about it, was its handling of gendered and family violence, and the legacies they create inside families, as well as its complex depiction of the interplay between structure and agency. I was thinking about the structure-agency problem because I had also just finished re-reading Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, for an undergraduate course on political theory I was marking. This made me dwell anew on the possibility of agency, as I found myself reading both books as if they were companion pieces to one another. Hobbes’ human is a lifeless machine, made up only of material components and motions acting upon each other. There is no mind in Hobbes’ account of being, only the physical brain, and the extent of our free will is confined to the movements that we make, away from or towards sources of pain and pleasure. Hobbes’ account of agency can be summed up as the following: your brain and body just do things for you, in a chain of causation that you exert no control over. I had found myself agreeing with Hobbes on this. But did that make me a determinist? If so, how, then, do Nathan and Bub inch toward genuine change throughout the course of The Lost Man, taking concrete actions to chip away at and break the cycle of abuse, in contrast to their other male relatives who remain trapped within it? What spark, if not free will, do they possess, that the others don’t?
Flattening, segmenting and tweaking reality so that it suits my purpose better is a terrible compulsion that I have been trying to unlearn. For example, I have only recently disclosed to Grant that I write—that I want to be a Writer, too, in addition to an Academic—as if memoir and prose are somehow discontinuous with the stuff one writes as a researcher. He doesn’t care that much because it’s not that important, but it’s a fact I had theretofore neurotically hidden throughout my academic career. I have led a double life involving multiple Twitter accounts and vacillating representations of my hobbies and interests and their relative weight. Depending on my audience, I claim either that, I write on the side or that I work on my PhD on the side.
While much of this low-level chicanery is the result of my struggle to come up with an integrated account of my sense of self, and to accept that my identity can hold both a love of literature and political theory in equal measure, it is also curiously typical in the era of precarity. One of the more important pieces of career advice I have received is that it is important never to seem as if you are a dabbler. You must be unwaveringly certain about what you want to do now and in the long-term, so that employers can be assured of what product they are buying. It’s also not enough to show up; you also need to love and possess passion for your vocation, and present a unified self who is committed in both body and mind. Two books I read in the final months of 2018, and which I found so revelatory that I proceeded to recommend them ad infinitum to everyone I spoke to thereafter, were Australian academic Miya Tokumitsu’s Do What You Love and Other Myths About Happiness and Success, and the late Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Both short tomes drive this very point home, with Fisher writing that ‘labor … now makes affective, as well as productive demands, on workers.’
For years, and in both career realms, I have proclaimed exclusivity, acting as if nothing else has ever held my focus. Most of my friends from the Writing World either don’t know or repeatedly forget, because it seems so dissonant, that my PhD is not in creative writing. Inside academia, I preferred to keep my mouth shut wholesale, to avoid being branded with either of the career-killing epithets multi- or inter-disciplinary.
However, it is a myth, or at least a mistake, to believe that we can neatly silo aspects of our lives off from one another like this. A month before I told Grant my underwhelming secret, my PhD supervisor and I sat chatting in her office. She plays the radio relentlessly, adjusting the volume down for meetings, so a French murmur ran in the background of our conversation. As we wrapped up, she asked why I had skipped a conference I was due to attend recently, with no warning. I wanted to say, If you could read my memoir, you wouldn’t need to ask. You’d know there was some kind of familial catastrophe; it’s so inevitable it’s predetermined.
I gave her the closed-off, cagey version of the story, and finished with, ‘When your family is like mine, there are a lot of crises to attend to, and you have no choice but to drop things and go to them. I guess I’m just always going to seem uncommitted, to some people.’
She disagreed, more vehemently than I expected, and insisted that if I just told people things, I could make them realise that I wasn’t uncommitted—I didn’t have to skip ahead to acceptance when I could exert just a little initiative. Moreover, I couldn’t just keep things to myself, and keep all my worlds separate, because they tended to bleed into one another anyway. So I made an effort to start telling those I trusted more things about myself, both regarding my dysfunctional family and my pursuits outside of academia.
This mistake applies to word as much as world, I think: neither is there a way to prevent the literary from touching the non-literary, nor is there a way to neatly sum up our readerly identities without imputing artificial coherence onto them. This especially because I doubt there are many of us who read in anything other than a peripatetic, bricolaged fashion.
The first year of a PhD is widely regarded as a ‘reading year’. One is supposed to curate a list, pre-determining the relevance of the selected texts to one’s own thesis—whatever it turns out to be, four years from now—and work through that list in a focused manner, and by the end of the process emerge as au fait with the sub-sub-field they have chosen to develop expertise in. One year into my PhD, however, I have found that it is just as difficult to read with intention as it is to live with it. My To-Read list grows longer as I instead follow unrelated research detours, or revisit and rekindle my love of sci-fi, or pluck random texts off my bookshelf instead. More students I speak to have arrived at their thesis arguments via jolting upright at 2 or 3 in the morning, overcome by a flash of inspiration, than through methodical and delimited reading practices which better suit a lifeless machine.
So often our minds, which are sense-making without being machines, do much of the work of selection and interpretation for us, and everything I consume seems to talk to everything else without my knowledge or permission, given my preference for compartments. If I am consequently building a body of knowledge out of this, it’s not me choosing its shape.
And so it is inevitable that when I read Suneeta Peres da Costa’s lyrical novella Saudade, I integrate its insights on neo-colonialism into my thesis on Turkey and its Kurdish population. It is inevitable that when I read Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem, and immediately thereafter pick up its sequel, The Dark Forest, I can’t help but read them alongside a PhD book, Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. Both texts grapple with the void carved out by the loss of meaning, whether when confronted with the genocidal threat of an impending alien invasion, or the absence of a final cause for humankind. Both texts posit our choices as being either to end one’s own life, or to step, alive, into the chaos. Both advocate that we step into the chaos.
Eda Gunaydin is a Turkish-Australian writer and researcher. She is working on a forthcoming debut collection, and is the current Dinny O’Hearn Fellow with the University of Melbourne’s Australian Centre. edagunaydin.com