A Foreign Marriage

Part 1: Before July 16, 2021.

Petar and I met during a lull in the pandemic. It was August, and the UK had been emerging from full lockdown in stages since June of 2020. Cafes were open, and the month was marked with uncanny bouts of sunny weather. I was in the very final stages of my PhD: during the lockdown, I had finalized and submitted my doctoral dissertation, and the defense examination, known in the UK  as the viva voce, was scheduled for August 19th. Already drained, I attempted preparations for the exam, expecting an aggressive grilling from the two examiners, experienced professors that I had never met, and I mentally prepared myself for the worst: major corrections, or even a resubmission.

We met at a café near the Bristol harborside, close to the statue of John Cabot. I was early; his train from Bath, where he lived at the time, was late. We sat at a saffron yellow table and somehow, three hours disappeared in a moment. I learned he was Bulgarian and he worked for a British tech company as a software engineer. He was a year younger (nine months!, he says emphatically) than me, and he had initially studied architecture and worked in the field for a few years, then moved to the Netherlands, then to Germany, and then the UK, taking on the challenging, underpaid, and often demoralizing work that Eastern European EU migrants often do – positions which underestimate their qualifications, education, and intelligence. He talked about a program where he worked on a 17th century boat from the Dutch golden age of sailing, a boat that brought the first settlers to Australia (though by accident). At the end of the date, as we walked toward his bus stop, I mentioned that my doctoral defense was later that week, and he wished me good luck. I met friends afterward and at that point, I knew, something was very different. Petar texted me later that week to wish me luck for my exam, and we set up another date. And another. And another.

Petar and I, on a trip to Cornwall in late 2020

Our relationship began as a sort of timer started for me: after successfully finishing the doctorate, I was eligible to extend my visa for a year, which would allow me time to look for a job that would provide longer-term visa stability. Perhaps in earlier years, this year would have looked generous, but in COVID-era, with massive government budget cuts to the field where I worked, and universities tightening their budgets and relying even more heavily on short-term contract labor, my job outlook was bleak. So Petar watched as I applied to jobs, celebrated with me when I got back requests for interviews, and comforted me when those possibilities, with the hours of preparation and practice, faded into nothing with three-line rejection responses. I applied again and again and again, along with way working more than full-time on short-term contracts and consultancies, and he was always there to listen, comfort, and encourage.

In May, it became very clear that, for me to stay in the UK, and for us to stay together, we would need to get married. It’s not the most romantic reason to get married, but it is the pragmatic one, and maybe the pragmatic one is the romantic one: I can’t imagine my life without him, and if we don’t get married, then we won’t be able to be together – I’ll go back to the U.S., where I haven’t lived for seven years, and we will be separated by diplomatic walls and literal sea ones. I can’t explain the kind of anxiety and stress that this kind of situation brings. The idea that my life – the world that I had constructed for myself, with Petar, my career network, and my tight, caring friendship circle, all in a place that I had called home for five years, the longest single period of my complicated, irregular adult life – might evaporate simply because I could not find a ‘real’ job was a form of existential dread that I’ve not otherwise experienced. He is a part of me now, and I can’t lose him.

At that time, I couldn’t help but feel bitter: I looked at the relationship trajectories of friends and family members, whose weddings were planned and carried out long before COVID-19, and I envied the amount of control that they were able to wield. On top of the unprecedented uncertainty of the environment we inhabited, our situation was further complicated by our citizenship: I was a foreigner in the UK, currently on a visa with a rapidly-approaching expiry date. Petar was also a foreigner, but he had been in the UK long enough to have semi-permanent status under the agreements signed when the U.K. left the EU. Being married to him, then, would provide equivalent status to being married to a U.K. citizen, and I would be able to apply for a two-year family visa, which could then be renewed. I would be allowed to continue to work, either in a full-time position or continued contract roles. We are citizens of two different countries who are living, working, and abiding within the regulations of a third.

Actually getting married is more complicated than it appears. In the U.K., since I was on a doctoral extension visa, I needed permission from the government to get married. When I first came across that line in the immigration documentation, I read it five times in shock. It made sense to me that a relationship might be investigated when a foreign spouse is applying for a visa through the citizen, but for the relationship to come under scrutiny just to get married? And, it got worse from there: to even start that process, we needed an appointment with the Bristol city council: with multiple months of lockdown and semi-lockdown, the council was swamped with requests and we weren’t going to get an appointment until late July – and that appointment would only start the immigration review, which could take weeks – and, we would still need to again apply for an additional appointment to actually carry out the marriage itself. Our best – and perhaps only option – was to get married abroad. For the U.S., Petar would need a visa: though Bulgaria is part of the EU, it is not part of the visa waiver program which would allow him 90 days without a visa. Instead, we looked at Bulgaria: like me, Petar hadn’t been home since before the start of the pandemic in early 2020. I started the first of a dozen checklists for the paperwork, appointments, and tests that we would need from both U.S. and Bulgarian authorities in order to be able to have the marriage there, with an eye on the ever-changing regulations that both the U.K. and Bulgaria instituted for international travel with COVID regulations.

May and June were impossibly difficult months, attempting to get all of the information and plan for any COVID contingencies. All the while, I continued applying to jobs, and Petar and I both worked full time in our remote positions. But there were bright spots: he surprised me with a sapphire engagement ring and a proposal, stating that we needed to do at least one thing the ‘correct’ way. My friends threw me a wonderful, loving pre-wedding hen party, complete with a flamingo theme and an inflatable hot tub in my dear friend Claire’s Cotswold garden. The paperwork chase continued in Bulgaria, where I juggled meeting my new family with a last-minute job interview and my ongoing work projects. And it all still seemed uncertain: up until a week before the wedding itself, I was still not sure that it would happen. We would be missing some stamp on some paperwork, or a last-minute COVID case spike would close the municipal office. But on the final check-in before the wedding, one week before the scheduled event, the officer took our clutch of paperwork, noted each and every essential stamp, checked each one off the list, examined our passports, and declared that it was all complete: all that was left was to return on July 16th at 2pm, when the ceremony would be held. Finally, I exhaled.

Part 2: July 16, 2021.

That week, in Plovdiv, temperatures topped 90 degrees Fahrenheit (30+ in Celsius). I grew up in summers with that kind of heat, but I lost my acclimation to it after five years of humid, mild English summers. As we all waited in the bright, open foyer of the municipal building, Petar’s mother Violetta flapped a folding fan in my face, trying to help me keep cool. I was wearing a tea-length cream dress, one I bought back in the UK that seemed ‘perfect’ for a summer wedding, but I now wished I was in one of those voluminous Saharan-desert caftans. Petar, handsome and polished in his dark navy suit, had to be a hundred times hotter, but only a few beads of sweat registered on his head. It was (finally) our wedding day.

Plovdiv, a city with Roman roots, is a 90-minute drive from Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Petar doesn’t like Sofia: it’s a big, bustling capital city. When the plane began the descent into the city, I could see the halo of smog and dust, not unlike my own hometown in California’s Sacramento Valley – but Sofia lacks the Delta breezes, which cool the nights and circulate the pollution there. To me, Sofia was a hot European capital, with wide boulevards and a center crowded with more than two thousand years of layered history alongside shiny (heat-reflecting) glass structures. There were building-sized billboards advertising sports betting and cigarettes; in all, it reminded me of Moscow and Warsaw and London and Rome. Each of those cities contrasts with a nearby smaller, calmer hub, those younger siblings of the older, more serious capital: Plovdiv is Bulgaria’s Krakow or Bristol or Florence. A city with history, an arts scene, a cooler, perhaps younger vibe. Plus – and this is a very big plus – Petar’s sister Jenny, who got married herself several years ago, lives in Plovdiv. When we were still in the UK, she was Petar’s eyes and ears on the ground, visiting offices, making appointments, and helping him know what we needed to do and get.

The municipal building is a prime example of mid-century Soviet architecture, revamped for the 21st century. We – Petar and I, his mother and father, Jenny and her husband and her mother-in-law, and several of Petar’s friends, including the Best Man and Best Woman – stand in a marble-lined foyer with a soaring ceiling and a wide, brass chandelier. A picturesque set of red-carpeted stairs lead to the second floor landing, where wood-paneled doors open to the room where marriage ceremonies are held. We watch another wedding party come down the stairs and patiently wait our turn. The Best Man (kum or кум in Bulgarian), Hristo, Petar’s close friend and roommate from university, chatted to me in English along with his wife Ralitsa, the Best Woman (kuma or кумa), who was seven months pregnant. Their two daughters, kitted out in matching dresses and headbands, entertain themselves by playing some sort of hot-lava game on the foyer tiles. In Bulgarian culture, the role of the Best Man and Woman is to guide the bride and groom in their marital life, providing help and support when needed. I met their sweet family a week before, when we all took a hike up one of the tepe – hills – in Plovidiv, called Младежки хълм or ‘Youth Hill’.

We had initially began wedding planning with the assumption that it would be small and quick – Petar initially joked about wearing shorts and a T-shirt. But it slowly became something else: I got a dress, he got a suit, and his friends and family members were invited along. Jenny kindly arranged for my hair and makeup to be done and we ordered a bouquet, an assortment of peonies, roses, and hydrangea from a florist that Jenny knew. Petar had a small white orchid tucked into the buttonhole of his suit, and a burgundy pocket square that matched his tie. I had on pale purple peep-toe satin heels, and a small dispensary’s worth of Band-aids to cushion all angles of feet, having gone at least a year without wearing high heels of any kind.

We are called up the red-carpeted stairs, and we go into a room, again paneled in the gray swirled marble tile from downstairs. We enter and I immediately laugh: on one wall was a massive, four-television display of the room itself; it was like watching yourself on CCTV. The girls quickly locate the camera at the top of the wall in the front of the room and mugged goofily, watching themselves on the screen. At the front of the room, on a sort of tiled stage area, is a dark wooden table, carved with elegant reliefs. Behind the table, a large version of the Plovdiv city symbol is hung on the wall, flanked with Bulgarian and EU flags. On the table, Jenny has placed some of the essentials of a Bulgarian wedding: the large, circle-shaped bread called pikta (питка) glazed with honey (the lifeblood of every Bulgarian), a bottle of champagne decorated with ribbon and silk flowers, and crystal champagne glasses, tied together with a long mauve ribbon. We step up onto the stage, careful that we are a pace from the edge to prevent falling backwards, with Hristo to my right and Ralitsa to Petar’s left. We hand over our identification documents (in case we had tried to switch out one of the players at the last minute, I assume), and then we wait for the municipal officer to return for the ceremony. Now, writing this weeks later, I struggle to remember the exact pieces of the ceremony that happened next. The photographs help with remembering the order, but I can recall little of the contents. It goes without saying that experiencing a cultural rite like getting married, while in another country and in a language that you do not understand, is a surreal experience.

The officiant returns, wearing a sash with the white, green, and red of the Bulgarian flag, and, standing in front of the seal, launches into a speech. Hristo leans over every so often to whisper some of what she was saying, something about marriage and two becoming one – writing this, I can’t recall what it was. I know that I recognized my name and Petar’s, and suddenly, she stops speaking and looks at me expectantly. I look to Hristo: “this is where you say yes.” So, I did: “да” (da). The officiant smiles at me and then goes on to Petar, where the process is less complicated. She brings over the rings, placed in a small velvet-lined basket. Petar picks up my ring – the delicate, Russian rose-gold ring with a little crown and tiny crystal in the center. The rings belonged to his parents: his father bought the crown ring in Volgograd, a city in Russia, on his way back from military exercises in Kazakhstan, early in the 1980s when he was a military officer and Bulgaria was a key member of the Warsaw Pact. Petar’s ring is much more simple: a gold band.

We are beckoned to the table to sign the paperwork, and the officiant points to the line where my signature will go. I look again to see my name written in Cyrillics: I still struggle with reminding my brain of the sound attached to each Cyrillic letter, but it is becoming easier, and silently, in my head, I sound out my own name. Лиан. Petar signs and then Hristo and Ralitsa. And then, the declaration: we are married, and now we kiss.

Somewhere in all of this, Hristo leans over to me and whispers urgently, “step on his foot!” “What?” I whisper back. “Just do it! Step on his food, hard!” Being the obedient girl that I am, I slam my left foot – not too hard – onto the suede of his right shoe. Immediately, our little audience of onlookers bursts into laughter and Petar looks immediately taken aback but then grins. “What did I just do?” I ask Hristo. “The first person to step on the other one is the one who will wear the pants in the relationship,” he tells me, laughing.

The officiant comes to shake our hands and brings over the pitka. Ahead of the wedding, when Petar mentioned that we would need to bring pitka with honey, I imagined a sort of pita bread and dip, not this car-tire sized delicacy. And, for the ceremony, no one warned me about the next part: we each take hold of one side of the pitka and tear; I end up with the much larger chunk, which, again, triggers laughter in our little audience. Apparently, this is another sign of relationship dominance – or just that I’m hungry at that point, and my hands are now sticky with honey. Petar’s parents come over and feed us each a piece of the bread: Damien, Petar’s father, puts a piece in my mouth, like formal communion in the Catholic church.

Finally, we are handed the champagne glasses, filled with just a small measure of champagne. As we hold the glasses, the ribbon curls downward, connecting the two of us as we drink. And then, the many congratulations begin: from Hristo and Ralitsa, then Violetta and Damien, and the others come up in progression to smile, hug, shake hands, and take photographs with us.

At some point, Petar and I leave the room, hand-in-hand. At the top of the stairs, one of Petar’s friends stands with a silver tray of small cupcakes, each with a little decoration on the top, and she passes them to each of the guests. The congratulations and photos continue until it’s time to leave, making room for the next couple’s marriage ceremony. The photographer races ahead of us and Petar holds tight to my hand as we descend the stairs and I watch each step, wary of my satin heels.

And that, quick as it was, was our Bulgarian marriage ceremony. Usually, it proceed is be followed by a religious ceremony within an Orthodox church, like one of the cool, heavily-decorated sanctuaries that we have visited in the previous days. And there would be other marriage customs as well, ones that make Petar light up when he talks about them: the bargaining and ‘kidnapping’ of the bride, a long night of partying, toasts, and dancing. None of these things are possible in the COVID era, and especially without any of my friends or family present. Before, during, and after the ceremony itself, I feel stirs of sadness, experiencing and witnessing this entire day without anyone who knows me apart from Petar – here, he is my only friend and family member, and even with these new friends and family, I cannot help but feel sad and a little bit alone, standing up by myself. We have agreed to have a proper ceremony in a church next year, once we have sorted our (my) immigration challenges and perhaps when travel will be easier and more people can come to celebrate. Maybe.

After the ceremony, we make our way slowly to the restaurant where all of the guests have gathered, with the photographer calling out poses and snapping along the way. The heat is wilting my bouquet and we stop at our hotel, just next to the restaurant, to dunk the flowers in water, change my shoes, and breathe for a moment in cold, air conditioned quiet. I look at Petar – now, my husband, but he hasn’t seemed to change at all. Now, we are married. I do feel a sense of calm, one that expands and settles over the next few weeks: that I am now part of a couple, that the struggles of one life can now be shared with a dear other. It isn’t just the strain of the visa, or of having a job and somehow the challenge of doctoral studies being ‘worth’ it. I feel a great peace, settling into a life with this man who I adore and adores me – and does not feel, in any way or shape, something foreign.

And now, a little party.




Girl, Woman, Doctor*

When I first moved to England, I was amused by the offerings for ‘title’ found in the drop-down box for online forms. I was accustomed to the usual Anglo-American English language assortment of titles – Miss, Ms., Mrs., Mr., Dr., Rev. – but the British versions brought an entirely new assortment of options, as pictured below. Lord – of course, this country and its bloody aristocracy. Professor Dame? Surgical commander?!?

Screen Shot 2020-08-16 at 08.44.36

But take another look at that list, and you can see the gender divide cutting through it. Male titles change with the upgrade of credentials: when a Mr. completes a doctorate, rises to the rank of general, or finishes divinity school and takes up a liturgical post. The 2018 U.S. Census noted that 2% or 4.5 million Americans hold a doctorate and of that total, 2.59 million are male. In the U.K., a mere 1.4% of the population hold doctorates. Sure, there are Reverends and Fathers and Professors (and Lords and Surgical Commanders) sprinkled in, but it’s fair to assume that the majority of American (and British) men will go through their entire life with a single title to select from the list: Mr.

But for women, titles denote not simply your academic, professional, or aristocratic qualification about another one entirely. And a majority of American women will, unlike men, encounter a title change in their lives: the transition from Miss to Mrs. when they marry a man**.

Some women, at a certain age, do make a change to their title without marriage, choosing to identify as Ms. rather than Miss. The choice between Miss and Ms. was a staple of feminist debate throughout the latter half of the twentieth century; Ms. as a title took off in the 1970s. But in the U.S., I would argue that there is still a strong preference for Mrs. According to Brides magazine, when addressing wedding invitations one should use ‘Miss’ only for women under the age of 18, the “catch-all, neutral term” of ‘Ms.’ for women older than 18, and ‘Mrs.’ for “any married woman,” including those women who choose to keep their own last name. Mrs. should also be used for widows, Brides tells us, “out of respect for her deceased husband.” Growing up in a conservative environment, Ms. always seemed like a political statement, an expression of liberalism and feminism in your refusal to cater to social expectations that normalize the disclosure of women’s marital status. Here in the U.K., some schools continue the practice wherein students call their female teachers ‘Miss’ (rather than Mrs. Smith or Mary) and their male teachers ‘Sir’ (rather than Mr. Smith or Robert). Professor Jennifer Coates called out this normalized linguistic sexism as “a depressing example of how women are given low status and men, no matter how young or new in the job they are, are given high status.” ‘Sir’, according to the BBC, is a carry-over from elitist boarding and grammar school education when all teachers were male (and students as well); ‘Miss’, instead, is the legacy of the government school system which barred married women from teaching until 1944.

Perhaps this experience is one that men cannot fully appreciate: that, as a woman, you are constantly identified by your marital status – or, by your active choice to not divulge your marital status (which is a disclosure in itself). Men, that ‘neutral’ state of humanness, are able to go through life with their marital status unmarked in everyday life. He may only need take off his wedding ring and that status – an individual, legal, and often religious status – can remain hidden. But for women, so much of our identity is inextricably linked to a man: Simone de Beauvoir in the Second Sex wrote that women (‘she’) are “determined and differentiated in relation to man, while he is not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other.”

I’m not decrying marriage, or the decision that many women take to change their title and often their surname. And for many women, there is no shame or irritation at receiving a wedding invitation addressed to Mr. and Mrs. John Smith. But to change your title, to become a doctor or a surgeon commander, for a woman, holds for me a strong sense of self ownership and accomplishment. Around the doctoral community, people often ask – “will you go by Dr.?” For some people – especially women, from my informal interactions – to label yourself doctor (even after 7-14 years of cumulative higher education endured to achieve it) appears pretentious – just look at the Twitter debates that rage around this question. Is a PhD a ‘real’ doctor? When a medical emergency occurs on an airplane, for example, no one is looking for a comparative educationalist. But even then, women’s accomplishments can be erased. Growing up, there was a husband and wife in my parents’ community – let’s call them the Garcias – and both were medical doctors. But the wife was often called “Mrs. Garcia” rather than “Dr. Garcia”; I was told that this was “to avoid confusion.”

So, yes. I’ve written the thesis (dissertation for Americans), defended it in a viva voce, and, after the university’s research degrees examination board confers my degree on 29 September, for the last time in my life, I will change my title.



*The title is a homage to one of my favourite books from the past year: Girl Woman Other by Bernardine Evaristo where she explores the many ideas of women and how they – we – don’t fit into pre-formed boxes of identity.

** The New York Times reported that married lesbian women don’t typically use the ‘Mrs.’ title.

Whose story, whose voice? Ethics of representation in journalistic narrative

In the past decade or so, a flurry of books have been published with ‘girl’ in the title — ‘girls’ riding endlessly on trains, sporting revenge vendettas, or managing scientific labs (I did really enjoy Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, check it out). The use of the word ‘girl’ when the character or memoirist is in fact, not a female child, makes me grit my teeth with the vexation of a grown woman; it reminds me of being told in Rwanda that there were just two options for describing the female sex: girl or wife.

Another such titular ‘girl’, who I found via the Tip Off podcast, is the subject of London-based journalist Cam Simpson’s 2018 book. In the podcast, Simpson described his work following illicit and unethical international labour chains which brought 12 Nepalese men to work with a Halliburton subcontractor in Iraq — where they were kidnapped and executed by Islamic extremists. The research was massive, spanning a decade with more than 80 interviews, and nearly a month in total spent with the wife of one victim: Kamala Thapa Magar. The first section of the book is dedicated to her narrative, detailing her life and journey in seeking justice and restitution from the global corporation that washed their hands of her husband’s murder. Her story, complemented by Simpson’s journalistic research into global labour supply chains and Halliburton, runs as a thread through the entirety of the book: for this reason, with Kamala as the narrative focal point, the book is titled The Girl from Kathmandu.

Yes, Simpson was telling Kamala’s story, doing what writers often like to term ‘giving her a voice’ and making known the pain that she suffered in losing her husband and not being able to get answers for why or how it occurred. The depth of Kamala’s grief features heavily in the narrative. The all-knowing, unidentified narrator drills deep into her thoughts with passages such as this one, describing her state of mind when she saw the video that recorded her husband’s brutal execution:

Kamala sank back into the chair, coldness seeping into her. She had tried to push the images, the infernal sounds, out of her mind, but now there were flashes: a white blindfold wrapping a face; a hunting knife against a throat; young men, some just boys, lying facedown beneath the sky; the barrel of a rifle. Then the sounds: the piercing, shrill wheezes; the staccato rifle reports; the ping echoing from an empty clip after the firing of a final round; the muffled, almost infernal wails. Blood pooling, turning desert dust into mud. She again fought tears.

Did Simpson ask her for this information? Did he ask her to relive the moment? Or, as I suspect, did he fictionalise her reaction, moving into her mind and putting thoughts into the character’s head? Simpson often did this in the sections which featured Kamala: he painted her story rather than talking with her. Kamala the character rarely speaks; her words are not preserved in quotes, as they might be if the story were told by her in first person narration or presented as an interview between her and Simpson. He describes experiences from her childhood and assures the reader that “Indeed, as soon as she was old enough to speak, Kamala spoke her mind, to boys and girls and men and women alike.” But we hear little of her voice: she is converted to a character within the story.

GoodReads reviewer Shristi pointed out that Simpson’s illustration of Kamala’s backstory  “seems like a film, fictionalised to a point where, in my opinion, the story starts to lose its impact as a work of journalism.” And even with the deep-dives into Kamala’s inner world, seen in account of her state of mind above, Kamala as a whole, human woman, is absent, as Shristi noted: “We hear her dialogues, but we don’t really hear her voice.”

From the notes at the end of the book, we know that Simpson spent many hours with Kamala across 2005, 2013, 2014, and 2016; he also did video follow-ups in 2016 and 2017. Yet we do not know if he share his notes with her, or asked her to read his drafts; we do not even know if he conducted the interviews in English or Nepali. He notes near the end of the book that a Nepalese lawyer who spoke English came along to the U.S. for hearings with Kamala and other Nepalese family members, so we can assume that some translation was required. Cam Simpson is named as the author and indeed, it is clear that it is his writing. Does Kamala receive a royalty from the book as it is her narrative and her story that drives — and titles — it?

Communications scholar Meryl Alper, author of Giving Voice, works to dispel the “powerfully harmful trope” that suggests that marginalised people can only be ‘processed’ through a more powerful voice. In an interview, she focused squarely on methodology, authorship, and rewards, noting that the notion of ‘giving voice’ “does not challenge the means and methods by which voice may have been obtained, taken, or even stolen in the first place, and how technology and technological infrastructure can and does uphold the status quo.”

Kamala is a living, breathing human woman, and one who, it appears, would have had some control in shaping the narrative of her life — she spent time with Simpson. In another book, which I threw down in rage more than once last week, there was no option for the primary character — another real, live, named human — to respond, correct errors, or even maintain ownership over the telling of his so-called ‘life story’.

Last week, during a brief holiday in Dorset, I picked through the shelf of paperbacks at our beachy Airbnb. Between Dan Brown and Patricia Cromwell novels, I found Philomena (also published as The Lost Child of Philomena, but this edition appeared as a film tie-in), which I knew as the film in which a UK journalist (author Martin Sixsmith) helps an Irish woman track down her long-lost son Anthony. Philomena Lee is a victim of the repressive Irish Catholic church, which in the 1950s condemned unmarried mothers to homes and adopted away their children without giving them a meaningful say in the process — or the chance to find those children later as adults. The 2013 film with Steve Coogan and Judi Dench focuses on Philomena’s the journey to find Anthony, and I expected the same of the book.

Don’t read this book. It reads like bad fiction; the dialogue is somehow worse than the hackneyed romance novels that I attempted to write as a preteen. The book is incorrectly titled: Philomena only appears in the beginning and end and there is no sustained focus on her journey or even Sixsmith’s research process in finding Anthony — renamed in the U.S. as Michael Hess — and combing through documents. Instead, Sixsmith writes a sensationalised, obviously fictional account of a gay man who was taken from his birth mother and tragically died of AIDS in the U.S. after an intriguing lifetime spent as a lawyer and closeted Republican employee. Sixsmith has no qualms in reporting on the aspects of Michael Hess’s life that the man perhaps would not have wanted printed — instances of casual and dangerous sex, dubious and nonsensical ‘recalls’ of his own birth, the pain of rejection and the tension of being a gay man working for obviously homophobic organisations. His Michael is a tortured, dark soul, untethered from his birth mother and longing for a sense of place and home.

But individuals who appear within the book have called out Sixsmith’s loose and dirty reporting: Susan Kavanagh who appeared as Michael’s assistant and confidant in the book wrote that Sixsmith only spoke with her for two hours when organising his book pitch. She didn’t hear anything and was “appalled” to read the account that Sixsmith later produced. Michael’s partner of 15 years described the book as “about a three out of 10, in terms of accuracy“. But without internet searching, how is one to know that? There is only a vague and usual tag at the front of the book, one which resembles the disclaimer from the opening credits of a ‘true story’ movie, one that claims that some events and conversations have been created for dramatic purposes.

But beyond that, who gave Sixsmith the right to tell Michael Hess’s story? Michael passed away a decade prior to publication, and Sixsmith indicated that he got onto the story through the friend of a friend at a New Years Eve party in the early noughties. When Hess died, did his ‘life rights’ suddenly pass into the public domain, like an expired copyright after 70 years?

Sixsmith, a journalist whose bio on the very first page of the book lists him as a graduate of Oxford, Harvard, and the Sorbonne, is mostly invisible in the story: aside from a few chapter endings, we don’t see his method or his approach, how he could possibly have gleaned the information that he presented as fact. Like Simpson, he relies on his journalistic credentials (bolstered by his linkage to those three elite institutions) to assure the reader that the content was sourced in an ethical way; the tag of journalism bears the weight of ‘objective’ truth in a way that even academic research in the social sciences does not often claim.

These are high-profile examples, but what really triggered this blog post was a more local moment, when an academic colleague posted on a social media platform that they had been published on a global media platform. Though it wasn’t an academic journal, any form of publication online, especially connected to current affairs, helps academics to cultivate a presence as public intellectual, which is often an essential route to getting jobs or status within your institution. And for the media site, my colleague’s title has cache: being listed as an ‘academic’ or ‘scholar’ attached to a UK Russell Group institution easily tops ‘English teacher who likes to write blogs in Africa’.

They celebrated their success with a post that read, “I was published on [site] this week” and included a link to the publication. When I accessed it, I was immediately confused. Though my colleague’s name was listed as the author, the article began in first person: “I run an NGO in [developing/Global South/conflict nation]” and went on to describe the plight of those inhabitants in a nation rocked by Covid and long-term violence. It became clear that this was not my colleague speaking in first person, but rather the narrative of the man with the NGO. But my colleague’s name was the only author listed — clicking on it linked to other articles that they had written for the media site.

‘Lifting’ voices? 

For all three of these instances, we could argue that in each, the author is using their privilege and access to mainstream publishing to shed light upon some plight of injustice. My classmate even wrote in another social media post that use of the first person was a distinct narrative choice made “to lift the voices of people who don’t often get heard.” I appreciate the distinction here between ‘lifting’ their voices and ‘giving’ them voice. But when you speak for them — in first person or deeply personal third person omniscient, is that ‘lifting’ their voices, or simply using their words and their story to yourself benefit, to gain financial or social or interpersonal capital?

Journalists, I assume you are not unaware of the politics of representation, and certainly not unaware of them in this cultural moment. I read Robin DiAngelo’s White Privilege and saw it as a useful introductory volume especially for white people who struggle to acknowledge the deep-seated racism that ebbs through American culture and history and settles deep within our sense of self. But DiAngelo, like many others, has made her career out of addressing fixing racism and educating whites — the same task that many women of colour have done without lucrative publishing contracts or jobs as corporate diversity trainers. For those authors, including myself, how do we benefit in making our careers around injustice? Are we honest with ourselves about what it gives us?

Perhaps it is four years of doctoral training and work, but I now cast a more critical methodological eye on journalistic nonfiction. In each of these examples, were they to follow tenets of a reflexive, critical, ethical research practice, might be presented differently. So, a few humble suggestions:

  1. Ask yourself: if I were in the shoes of the person, would I want this information openly shared? How does this information create the boundaries of the subject, how does it limit or shape their personality in others’ imaginations, how does this impact how this person will be understood or remembered? Am I writing in a way to conjure audience response (what Shristi calls “trauma porn” in the case of Girl) or to actually push for change and meaningful action? Perhaps rewriting an interview from the interviewee’s perspective might be interesting, but with that action, what are you erasing — and what are you adding? Sensationalism? Click bait?
  2. Share credit and authorship. If it is an interview, then list the interviewee first. I recognise that the writer does the work – writing takes great effort, even when it is editing or cleaning up’ spoken work. But what message is being conveyed when you take solo credit (and accolades and royalties) for another person’s story?
  3. In third person narrative, make clear who ‘you’ (the narrator) are: as the portal through which another person’s story is processed, you cannot make yourself invisible. This appears as a fallacy borrowed from positivist empirical science; but in all of these examples, I imagine an attuned audience cocking their head to the side, continually flipping back to the front cover or the author byline – “who wrote this?” Instead of retelling a backstory like a film flashback, indicate your presence. “Kamala told me about her childhood… she relayed stories and said, ‘….’.” Don’t usurp her voice or ignore that your own is neutral.
  4. Admit — to yourself, and within the narrative itself — that you also benefit from taking, processing, and distributing this person’s story. It might only be social cache and not financial, but still, your voice as the author is a definitive statement of ownership.

Textile Adventures via Ouagadougou’s Blue Gold

Five years ago, I went to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, a landlocked West African nation. I never wrote a full blog post about it, mostly because I was there for a training conference and had only a few opportunities to venture outside of the hotel. But on arrival the first day, my friend and colleague Jessica and I made our way from the hotel’s leafy lakeside neighborhood to Ouagadougou (pronounced wa-ga-doo-goo) proper. Later that year, I would get into a serious car accident and lose nearly all photos from 2014-2015 when my computer melted into a puddle on the passenger seat of my burned-out Honda Civic. So all I have is my memory, five years later, to recount our market adventure.

We hailed a shared cab – a cross between a private cab and a very very small bus – from one of the usual stops. In terrible French, I told the driver where we were headed, and handed over the required fare in cefas, the currency shared by a handful of West African nations. He motioned us out the door at the stop and we made our way to the central indoor market. The market that I remember was a brutalist structure, somehow both an indoor and outdoor space, with a looping path through the building, up stairs, across elevated walkways, with patches of sunlight between floor after floor of stalls lit with bare lightbulbs. I was immediately disoriented: a market is enough sensory input on a good day, on flat ground outside, but here, I was reminded of the winding bowels of the Warsaw Centrale train station, where time seemed to suspend.

As usual, two white women created a minor spectacle: the hawkers calling in French, children suddenly appearing at our side, adamant that they would guide us through the market. I don’t remember what Jessica was looking for, but I had a mission: indigo fabric produced from Mossi artisans. I had done a little textile sleuthing before flying from Rwanda to Burkina Faso. I’d expected a textile culture similar to Malian Bògòlanfini mud cloth, which is currently enjoying a moment of popularity in on Pinterest boards and modernist-Boho interior design*. Burkina Faso sits at the edge of the Sahara; the desert’s hot harmattan winds roll through during the dry season. And from Google satellite, the color of the land is an ombre from desert to dusty green in the south, with Ouagadougou squarely in shades of tan. I remember that same color when I arrived: everything a muted, dusted, brown. I assumed that the cloth culture would match: the muted tones and simple but striking figures of tannic palette mud cloth. But instead, in my pre-trip research, I came across the deep blue of indigo. Indigo. Blue gold.

         Blue gold across the world.

Indigo, that rich blue hue, shows up in textiles across the world. The dye is derived from plant members of the indigofera tinctorial family: leaves are boiled or steeped and the resulting deep blue plant tea is fermented and then used for dyeing processes. According to Indigo Arts, indigofera tinctorial grows across Asia (India, Indonesia, China, Japan, and Korea), the Americas (Mexico, Guatemala, Haiti, and Peru), and all across Africa. Each region has its own recipe and approach, from fermenting the dye to techniques to affix it and pattern the textiles.

In Sri Lanka, I visited AMMA, a non-profit collective that trains women in weaving, dyeing, and sewing techniques. Their dyes were far more muted that what indigofera tinctorial would produce; the women of AMMA choose instead to use food scraps and local flora to dye their loom-woven fabric. One of the women showed me a book with samples of the dyeing compounds and time required for their bespoke colors. In the kitchen attached to the workspace, a large pot bubbled away with a cut of loomed fabric and avocado skins that looked like pieces of old tyres. The color result, though, defied the messiness of the production process.

Avocado skins and their resulting hues at AMMA. 

The first step for dyeing any textile is, of course, having some form of textile to begin with: in Burkina Faso, Mossi indigo artisans would initially use strip weaving – like the strips that form the basis of Ghanaian kente cloth – which allows textile makers to use small looms and stitch each strip together to form a larger piece of cloth.

Historic kente and a loom at the National Museum of Ghana, Accra

I didn’t see these versions for sale in the Ouagadougou market – and perhaps would not have been able to afford the high price tag for such labor-intensive goods. Instead, we were presented with the more budget option: artisans used pre-manufactured damask fabric as the canvas for resist dyeing. Jessica and I found ourselves in a closet-sized stall, plastic-wrapped cuts of the indigo-dyed damask surrounding us from floor to ceiling. I didn’t even know where to start, but left with six cuts of the fabric, two of which, five years later, house-bound because of the coronavirus lockdown, I am using to hand quilt a bed-covering that I started sewing with my grandmother in California.


Today, when I hold the Ouagadougou fabric up to the English summer sun, I can see the base underneath the rich color: it’s a lightweight material with a subtle embossed pattern, the fabric of tablecloths and curtains beloved by grannies the world over. The pattern is like a watermark, adding a subtle texture, perceptible when I begin a running stitch to sandwich the pieces of the quilt together and begin to produce that slightly puffy, textured quilted surface.


The embossing of the damask. 

        Resist methods.

So many of the traditions which utilize indigo dye – Japanese shibori, Indonesian batiks, Nigerian Adire cloth – specialize in different forms of resist dyeing, either through some form of tying or stamping or painting the fabric with a substance that will be removed after the dyeing process. The Yoruba of Nigeria produce Adire cloth; they employ raffia resist methods, such as tying small portions of the fabric or binding up stones or sticks (see Indigo Arts). As with the rubber band tie-dye method favored by American summer camps, the bound and scrunched spots remain white whilst the rest of the cloth becomes rich blue. Similar methods are practiced with Japanese shibori (a word which means to wring, squeeze, or press). The primary fabric with large sunbursts that I’m using in the quilt – one I am loath to cut – was created with this method.

Adire and shibori artisans also use folding methods, where fabric is elaborately folded and bound around pieces of wood or cardboard. The piece I use for the edge of the bedcover displays this method, where some sort of accordion folding, binding, and dyeing process results in a subtle herringbone design. Tapered oval shapes are embossed on the damask under the dye – visible in the photo.


Herringbone design from a folding method dyeing technique. 

A final method – and perhaps the most common throughout Africa, especially in manufactured cloth – uses wax (or, for Adire, starch). During a trip to Ghana, my friend Annie and I tried a basic wax dyeing process: large andinkra stamps were dipped in hot wax and then stamped onto white fabric. That fabric was then dyed, fixed, and rinsed; the final stage involved a rinse in very hot water to loosen the wax. What remained was the crinkled white fabric beneath. I used the resulting fabric for a throw showcasing what will be the final stage for the Ouagadougou fabric: the old world tradition of hand quilting.


This is the stage where my textile adventure becomes more domestic and home-bound. I got back to the States mid-2015, a two month break between contract projects in East Africa. I brought back fabric that I bought for my grandmother in Rwanda: the vivid Dutch wax fabric ubiquitous in East African markets. I remember one pattern I brought her: a rich chocolate background decorated with vines, ferns, birds … and yo-yos. To me this was emblematic of the artistic joy de vivre of East African prints: another favorite included a design of mustard yellow background dotted with 10-inch electric fans. Another fabric that I commonly saw fashioned into wrappers, headscarves, and full Rwandan dresses had symbols for money: British pounds, U.S. dollars, Japanese yen, and the € of euros. These patterns were downright dull in comparison to fabrics I saw in DR Congo and throughout West Africa: limited-edition prints of politicians running for office (and others that celebrated America’s first African-American president) or in memorial of the recently departed, their faces looking out seriously from shoulders, bellies, backs, and calves.

My indigo fabrics, I decided, were destined for quilts. I had one print made into a dress, but every time I wore the dress, my stomach and upper thighs were patinaed blue like the skin of a washed-out Smurf. Multiple washing could not compete with sweat and friction and it continues, to this day, to leach a subtle cool hue: thank goodness we don’t have any white furniture.

         My grandmother, the artisan. 

I learned how to quilt from my grandmother, Nancy. When I was in university, I would join her at a Meissner’s sewing machine store, for one Friday night each month. The store called it “UFO Night” – “unfinished objects”. You paid $5, contributed a potluck dish to share with the other quilters and seamstresses, and brought a project that you had started but just couldn’t manage to finish. I was always the youngest by multiple decades. My grandmother would bring a machine for her and one for me, and we would work side by side: she often worked on quilt blocks from block-of-the-month clubs; I made ill-fitting garments that usually went unworn. The Meissner’s store, a large industrial building off of the I-80 business loop in Sacramento with a giant sewing needle outside, carried a selection of expensive quilting fabric alongside sergers and long-arm quilting machines. I was quickly seduced by the prints which mimicked Japanese designs: untranslated red kanji on a black backdrop, intricate cranes and women in kimonos, gold-edged koi. I would buy fat quarters (1/4 yard cuts) of the fabrics that spoke to me – more than 20 in total, over several months. Watching the cutting and piecing techniques of the women around me, and (usually) heeding the prudent advice of my expert grandmother, I machine pieced my first full-sized quilt top, managing the required geometry and seam-allowance math for a straight, flat finished piece.


Quilt geometry: trying to ensure that corners match — always a little unsteady with hand piecing. Detail from a quilt of East African fabrics made for my supervisor’s sister. 

For weeks after finishing the quilt top, I sat on her sofa, watching black-and-white war era rom-coms like The More the Merrier and Dear Ruth and completing by hand the actual quilting for the finished product. A quilt consists of three layers: the top, the batting (or wadding as they call it in the UK), and the backing. Stitching goes through all three layers, holding the pieces in place and creating that slightly puffy, textured quilted surface. My grandmother once told me that stitching should be a maximum of one inch apart on all sides: otherwise, the batting inside of the quilt would slip around and degrade or get bunched up. A properly-made quilt has stitching running across all of the surfaces – perhaps not as tight as the lines in the andinkra quilt photographer earlier, but tight enough to pucker the surface and keep the quilt sandwich from disintegrating.

My grandmother hates hand-quilting for exactly the reason I love it: it’s tedious, laborious, and often awkward; a full-sized quilt takes more hours than I care to add up. She prefers machine quilting and usually takes her completed quilt tops to a woman who has an expensive long-armed quilting machine that can be programmed with different designs. The results are beautiful and the process is mesmerizing to watch. I tried to approximate the results and attempted top-stitching with a regular sewing machine – and hated the results.

On a trip to Pennsylvania, she had purchased a round table quilt from an Amish collective: a sweet wedding ring design in Provençal colors, dusty roses and robin egg blues. I remember it sitting atop the clear plastic tablecloth that she used to protect the oak dining table. The tiny quilt was hand-stitched: the white stitches were fluid, following perfectly the gentle arcs of the ring design. Each stitch was perfection: not the machine perfection but the near-perfect possible only by an expert hand. I wanted my quilt to look like that, with the small neat dashes that complemented the patterns underneath. So, for my Japanese-patterned quilt, I sat with a large hoop draped across my lap and sweated through August, gold thread slowly tightening and centering each square of the design.

Women for centuries have quilted. Quilts have functioned as dowries or markers for weddings and births. Unlike jewelry, they serve a very useful and domestic purpose. I have long associated patchwork scrap quilts – those built slowly, piece by piece, from the remnants of other garments – with American culture as the work of pioneers and ex-slaves who needed to conserve and utilize every last scrap.  Readers of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series and Arleta Richardson’s Grandma’s Attic series probably recall the references to scrap quilts, pieced together from remnants of other sewing projects. These quilts were evocative for their owners: each fabric and pattern recalls memories of other garments, events, house furnishings, relationships, dresses handed down.

Pillow cover from AMMA, a women's collective in Sri Lanka

An AMMA finished product: a pillow cover, hand-made from start to finish, which mimics a scrap quilt design and is finished with wide hand-stitching. 

At Jane Austen’s home in Hampshire, the quilt pictured below is on display. The placard that sat beside the quilt behind glass indicated that it was constructed by Jane, her sister Cassandra, and her mother – like many scrap quilts, it was a group effort, scraps shared and gifted from various homes. The quilt (actually a coverlet, as the sign reads – it didn’t have wadding, only a quilt top and backing) consists of 64 fabrics from both upholstery and dress fabrics, and more than 3000 separate diamond squares. Jane wrote a letter to Cassandra at one point asking, “have you remembered to collect pieces for the patchwork – we are at a standstill.”

Detail from quilt at Jane Austen's house in Chawton

Detail of Jane Austen’s quilt from her house in Chawton, Hampshire. 

Quilting continues to be a thread that binds my grandmother and me, even if we are separated by thousands of miles: she in Northern California and me in Southwestern England. We send each other pictures of our projects: she’s been less able to work these days, but what she produces is still impeccable. She takes far more care with her cutting and her lines; my work is more impatient and home-spun. I sent her East African wax fabric placemats for Christmas – just three, since I ran out of fabric, and all of them a little kittywompous since I stitched them by hand in a hotel room in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka during a work trip last year. But knowing her, she is treasuring them, keeping them in her drawer of placemats, using them when the occasion calls for something brown and green and African.

And when this project nears completion – the one that I started at her house, cutting the indigo fabrics and cursing the rich dye of the fabric coming off on my fingers and using one of her machines to stitch the border – when I have completed the top-stitching and the quilt becomes something useable, I will send her photos, and she will tell me that she is happy that someone, like her, sees the joy and beauty of this practice. It remains for me a strange bridge between my life and my loves: my grandmother, this art form, and the rich and storied textiles that I’ve stumbled across in traveling in East and West Africa.

With love for my grandmother, Nancy.


My grandmother and I, in 1985. 


*On a separate note, it’s worth noting that African (and a multitude of other indigenous textile and art forms) designs and ascetics are routinely appropriated and used by prominent designers (e.g. here and here and here) without permission or without consulting the tribes and cultures that produce and value them. There’s plenty of cheap versions of patterns like mud cloth, but please consider what you are buying, who you are enriching, and who is being erased from your purchase. So rather than shell out for cheap version of mud cloth from a big box fabric store, do some research to purchase a more expensive (but probably more durable and far more beautiful) product from the artisans who originated it.

On belonging

Green tracts freckled with white sheep surround the roads, the pastures like a patchwork quilt divided by short stone walls, textured with lichen. Down in the south of England, the daffodils have already come and gone, withered to crinkled brown tissue. They remain hearty here in the Midlands, gathered in sprays that line the roads, buttery or white with soft baby yellow and mandarin trumpets.

I am with a carful of friends in the Peak District; for our spring break, we are visiting great houses and putting to good use our National Trust memberships. We’ve had blue skies each day – Carolina blue, mostly, sometimes clotted with clouds that cast shadows and drop the temperature by ten degrees. Claire is driving; many of the roads are single-lane, made myopic with hairpin turns and rock walls that threaten to scrape the car doors. But it is continually pleasant: we wind through grey stone villages laced with purple hyacinth, past parish churches with graveyards full of tilted headstones, through steam emanating from the occasional industrial blight. Mostly, though, it is green pastures and sheep – lambs tottering on new legs, nosing at their mothers. Today we are headed for our premier stop, one I’ve been waiting to see for years.

The vast spread of the manor holdings become apparent even before the sat nav tells us where to turn off the main road: the house is further ahead, but all around us, all of a sudden, the grassland is not mown but certainly manicured – planned, purposeful grass. Knobbled rock walls are replaced with lines of trees. We pass the manor’s farm shop – ‘the best in England,’ the sign claims – and edge of a golf course that abuts the road. Claire takes a left turn onto smooth pavement; a quarter mile and then, there it is.


First we see only a fountain spray, a perpendicular column of water shooting heavenward, then a great house that unfurls before us, honeyed stone made golden in the early afternoon sun. Later, we will go close enough to see the details that glint in the spring light: gilded window frames, Cavendo tutus (‘safe through caution’) in serif capitals along the edge of the roof, all situated within the pleasing harmony of Capability Brown’s un-engineered gardening: Chatsworth House. Our chatter comes to a standstill as we drive past.

This is a massive stately home in Derbyshire, seat of the Earls – and then Dukes – of Devonshire and part of the Cavendish family for nearly 500 years; Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned here, on and off. The first few centuries of the house are marked with immense wealth; today, like many similar manors, it is run by a charitable trust which protects and cares for the buildings and the many works of art and treasures housed within. You can look at this house and shake your head at the opulence: 126 rooms, with only a fifth open to the public, the others occupied (when he’s there) by the 12th Duke of Devonshire and his family.

This house appears in literature – Jane Austen mentions it as one of the Peak District houses visited by Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. This legacy is carried into film – it appeared as Pemberley in the 2005 adaptation, the contested version which shoehorned a three-hundred-page novel into 120 minutes. Kiera Knightly is Elizabeth and Matthew Mcfayden is Darcy; Chatsworth nods at this with a bust of Macfayden’s head in the gift shop marked with a sign that says ‘please do not kiss.’ Beyond this, it takes on whatever form the reader’s imagination requires.


Tour signs guide us from the entrance, a dark, simply adorned space that smells heavily of fire logs, and through to the Painted Hall, where the ceilings sweep up and nearly every inch is gilded or covered in oil paints depicting the life of Julius Cesar. It seems to situate the family, the residents of this house, within a lineage of Western history, within a lineage of culture, power, sophistication, enlightenment. These paintings and statues – classical tradition, sure, but also an argument for inheritance, pointing back at the founding of Rome as if to say, this is where we began.

Perhaps this is why Americans like me drift back towards the place of our ancestors – instead of murals and statues, we throw parades and festivals and special days that celebrate Irish, Scottish, German, Polish, Japanese, Hmong heritage. And then we come back to the motherland, awed by the ancient found in everyday life. But I see it as something similar – looking for connection, looking for belonging within the broader sweep of human history, as our family histories are so often cleaved by the oceans and ancestors with their eyes focused on the future.

For me personally, the history of my family, outside of living memory, is patchy – most of it learned from a late-night climb up the Ancestry.com tree with some occasional stories from parents or grandparents, but only about their immediate relatives. Even then, there’s so much that disappears when the person dies. One of my grandfathers had a child outside of his marriages, someone I’ve never met, meaning I’ve got a mysterious uncle floating around LA somewhere. We often pass on myth and legend; someone back in the lineage somewhere said that we might be related to Thomas Jefferson or Lady Godiva; this comes up when I ask questions. Even if that were true, we are so far removed that it confers no greater understanding of the place of either side of my family in history; it informs me little about myself.

My parents’ sense of belonging is found in their chosen religious tradition, one that eschews the pomp of church history – their sanctuary is purposefully stark white; there is no incense or robes or any of the trappings of ecclesiastical faith. Their purity in the pursuit of Truth has caused a deep rift, one that untethers me from the moorings that parents typically offer.

But this is also very much the story of the United States. America has always presented itself as a stage for reinvention, to create yourself. We go hard into what we do: the pursuit of money, the exercise of religiosity, speculation, fundamentalism – big, bold, brash. The dogma of individualism convinces us that we don’t need others and we certainly don’t need the past – reinvention is far easier when your past doesn’t stare you in the face on a daily basis. It can breed showmanship, posturing, bloated confidence, or, conversely, introspection, self-awareness, caution. Maya Angelou once stated, ‘You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.’


Statue of the veiled vestal virgin, light of Rome in her hands

The house tour weaves through to a landing in a yellow room, brightened by skylights in a dome above. Arranged on the wall, two floors tall, is the family gallery, preserved in oil – portraits of the succession of dukes, sisters painted by John Singer Sargent as Gibson girls in white gowns and striped sashes, men in fluffy wigs, pointed chins, posh eyes.

For these people, to belong is something decided at birth. Social capital and connections are forged through boarding school, small elite college membership, the dense network of interrelated families and influence; to walk into places and feel that you belong, that you are not an interloper or obvious guest. I often wonder how this feels, for family and upbringing and education to decide your place and who you are, to begin your life in the world with the privilege – and the prison – of not having to be your own entrepreneur. This privilege means that other entire communities exist; this group or tribe once enjoyed exclusive access to things of beauty created by artisans working at the behest and sponsorship of such patrons: a carved pianoforte inlayed with pearl, the Rembrandt with its burst of light upon the subject’s face, the vast library of history and poetry and literature, wrapped in leather and stamped in gold.

So we don’t belong to this as we amble through their home; and yet, it is through those books that we can find a toehold, an edge of connection – not to belong to this elite class, but in human lineage. We find ourselves in literature – the continuity of thought, emotion, ideas, what makes us human. We feel related to characters, story arcs, lines of poetry –  it’s been a hard month, and I recite lines from Mary Oliver’s ‘Wild Geese’ as a form of CBT.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place in the family of things.

Wild geese, books, maybe a belonging that we engineer. We move on to the next room, the sun streaming into the courtyard outside and the illuminating the painted wallpaper.



The Road South

There aren’t many bus journeys in Rwanda that culminate in ice cream, but this one does. It’s a bright, clear Thursday, and I’m on the bus to Huye. This city in the Southern Province, along with being the home of the national university and the intellectual heart of the country, features the best ice cream [possibly] in East Africa. There’s a new gelato place in Kigali’s slick new mall, Kigali Heights, but I haven’t been there yet and I want to believe that this is still the best place, so I’ll hold onto it for the moment.

But it’s been a slow ride. I scheduled a meeting for mid-afternoon, and planned my journey time specifically around the promise of ice cream. But it’s been a slow journey; an extended police checkpoint stop, an expanse of unpaved road clotted with traffic, and the steady pace of the bus are whittling away my ice cream time. The speed thing is new; I was told by a few Rwandans right after arriving that the government recently introduced speed governors. When I first heard about this, I pictured a new class of police officers, the Speed Governors, out on the roads near the cops with the hairdryer-shaped speed guns. But the Governors would be more resplendently attired, perhaps in capes crisscrossed with traditional back and white beading, like the fantastic designs coming out of local Rwandan ateliers.  But alas, speed governors are simply devices which prevent the bus from traveling over 60km/hour, instituted to curb the reckless driving of national bus companies looking to increase the number of trips and thus their earnings. The result is basically a one-third increase in travel time, but also a more enjoyable journey with fewer panicked reverse-fantasies of buses plunging off winding mountain roads and subsequent death. Now, the buses chug pleasantly along, occasionally gathering enough speed to pass a fume-belching construction truck.


This is what we bus for… well, among other things

To take buses through Rwanda, especially the Southern Province, is to wind through the reality of ordinary people outside of the capital. Rwandan roads are used by all, not just those in cars or buses. You will see men pushing bicycles like beasts of burden, loaded with lumpy white woven bags, probably cassava or carrots or potatoes for market. Occasional motos zip past, especially when we get closer to cities, their drivers wearing blue or red or high vis green pinnies marked with the names of their moto taxi cooperative. There are always police, dressed in navy uniforms with shiny lug-sole boots, and sometimes military (RPF) vehicles, immediately apparent by their particular shade of green. SUVs blaze up and down the roads, some with radio antenna that bob along with the car as it speeds past our slow boat, almost all bearing logos or signage from some NGO or another. We’re overtaken by battered Toyota Carreras, sleek Prados with black-tinted windows, and RPF-green military Corollas. I’ve said it before, but this continent runs on AKs, Blue Band margarine, and Toyota.

We pass one of my favorite buildings: a square, cement mosque just past Muhanga with a misshapen dome, which I appreciate not for its beauty but it’s vibrant robin’s egg, almost Tiffany Blue color. Mosques are easy to identify – there are often no minarets but diminutive crescent moons atop their roofs. Other buildings are similarly identifiable: the road to Huye has at least four significant genocide memorial sites. They are recognizable by their common design: there are often wide cement slab placed over mass graves, and bricked, open-air patios with walls inscribed with victims’ names. Sometimes you will also see gated cemeteries, individual graves built up with platforms of white tile and wide, standing crosses. While the start of the genocide and the week of commemoration come early in April, beginning on the 7th, the months of April, May, and June are part of the memorial period, and nearly every organization, business, and school is slung with a commemoration banner inscribed with the kwibuka flame and the line “remember, unite, renew.” They are everywhere, and especially evident on this road: banners in pale gray with the unmistakable flame.

But most of the time, it’s a road ping-pong between rural areas and short stretches of strip-mall-like shops, some raw concrete gray, others painted bright blue, yellow, red, green. The colors are shorthand for the sponsoring company: they provide the paint, slap on a large logo, and your shop gets an upgrade. You learn quickly to recognize the color and the sponsoring company: MTN mobile’s unmistakable, Africa-wide sunshine mustard yellow, bright cobalt for Primus, a regional beer company, red for Airtel, another airtime and internet provider. There’s not much variation in the shops that pass the window, and while English might be the language of academic instruction, shop signage remains consistently French: paperterie for all of your paper needs, salons and coiffeur decorated with painted pictures of hair braiding and trim and fade services, a multitude of Chezs – Chez Jean, Chez Dieu – usually small cafes and buffets or guesthouses.

Sometimes the bus will stop, often to pick up more passengers or let a few off. It’s slow going outside of Muhanga, where over and over again a passenger will knock on a window or tap a coin against the chassis of the bus, alerting the driver to let them off. When we make “official” stops, sometimes just on the side of the road near an outlet for the bus company, young men and woman come to the bus, pulling open the windows, and showing off their wares: clear plastic buckets filled with small bags of groundnuts, milk in liter jugs shaped like jerry cans, loaves of bread wrapped in white wax paper, water, Fanta, glutenous biscuits. But nothing can compare to the thought of ice cream and I attempt to send impatient vibes to the driver: come on, mate, let’s get this show on the road.

But there’s no changing it: the speed governor means you can’t go any faster, and as usual, I am often the only one in a hurry. So maybe there’s the lesson: chill out, Leanne, relax, enjoy the scenery. We pull back onto the main road and quickly find ourselves behind a dump truck slowing to a crawl as we reach the section of road under construction. The pavement turns quickly to red dirt and clouds of dust mean that the passengers pull the windows closed. Outside, a brave cyclist, clad in the sponsored spandex that indicates his place as a Team Rwanda rider, maneuvers the bumps of the dirt road.

Almost there, I tell myself. Ice cream awaits.

Into the Field (Part 2)

Honey-colored brick buildings surround a bright, manicured quadrangle, edged with shrubs and featuring Our Lady encased in glass. In the classrooms, wooden desks in tight rows are carved with years – decades? – of teenage musings. Our glow-in-the-dark Lord and Savior hangs on crucifixes above the blackboards. The full picture is reminiscent of my own parochial childhood – with a few substitutions beyond the plastic Jesus: the wood carvings are 21st century-centric (Kylie, Kendrick Lamar, F*ck Taliban?), not to mention that the location is probably six thousand miles from my idyllic Northern California hometown.

I’m at a boarding school in the Southern Province of Rwanda, not quite awake for the 7:40 start time. The school specializes in science concentrations at A-level (Senior 4-6, equivalent of senior high school in the U.S.), but the student body also includes O-levels (Senior 1-3, junior high). All of the students are gathered in the quad, grouped around the headmistress on the basketball court. After they sang the school song and the national anthem, they scatter to their classrooms and she comes to shake my hand. Like any ex-Catholic school girl, I smiled and tried not to remember my own strict, similarly short and square headmistress (well, principal) wringing a cheating confession out of 2nd-grade me.


It’s the first day of proper data collection: my research is with a teacher association, and one aspect of the many methods I have engineered for the project involves observation and interviews with individual member teachers. Thus, I am wearing a dress and functioning as the center of school gossip on a cool morning: the thing about quadrangles is you can’t hide, and the thing about being white in Rwanda is you really can’t hide. Students in royal blue sweaters and white shirts and ties embroidered with the school crest rush past me; one kind, brave Senior 5 soul greets me and takes me to the Teacher’s Room where I find the “Maurice,” the association teacher that I will shadow today.

Back in my teaching days, I would always get a little nervous when being observed, regardless of whether it was my boss, some visiting delegation, or even a colleague. But today, the roles are reversed: Maurice seems cool, collected, and unbothered by my presence, and I’m the one who’s sweating and shaking a bit and constantly dropping her pen. As a PhD student, starting your data collection is declaring your allegiance to one philosophical orientation and beginning the process of knowledge construction. Knowledge begins with data, and especially important for qualitative researchers, extensive thought and care should be put into how you collect that data. I have put in that thought and care, but this is where it becomes something real.

Until this point, it’s all been theoretical. Who I am as a researcher is passionate but theoretical, recorded in proposal documents and argued in an upgrade panel, but it is a construction, an ideal. Data collection is when you morph into that person, or a totally different one, where you start to work and communicate and face decisions and problems and become mired in messiness. It’s where things can get personally uncomfortable. Not just sitting in the back of the class, balanced on a stool, trying to remember what I am supposed to be looking for and recording for this observation, what will set me up for our later series of prompted interviews.

Maurice has so many class periods, I lose count: maybe seven? Some are short, only 30 minutes; others are more than an hour. All of the classes are A-level and divided for the concentration: MCB (Mathematics, Chemistry and Biology), MCE (Mathematics, Computing, and Economics), and MPC (Mathematics, Physics, and Computing) – but I probably got at least one of those wrong. It all seems like my own high school subject nightmare. So. Much. Math. Some of the rooms are expansive concrete boxes like my old Musanze classrooms, loud and echoing with every movement across the uneven floor, lit by daylight, with peeling, crumbling blackboards painted on the walls. Some are bricked, hung with ubiquitous net curtains and featuring detailed images drawn on the boards: one classroom for MCE has an elaborate drawing of an Excel spreadsheet. The teacher-artist has used multiple colors of chalk and indicated screen details down to the battery percentage on the bottom toolbar. That’s one way to deal with limited technology.


Behold, He glows: a literal interpretation of John 8:12

For each classroom, I introduce myself. By the seventh class, it’s rushed and to the point. Leanne. Research. American. UK for Phd (yes, I know it’s strange). PhD (don’t do a PhD, you’ll go crazy). They ask me many of the same questions. Married? No. How old? Guess (they are either very polite or very poor at estimation). Some of the classes ask detailed questions – how do I improve my public speaking ability? Others are less interesting – what’s your favorite drink? I wasn’t going to say “gin and tonic” out loud at a Catholic school, so apparently it’s a mocktail of mango juice and Vittolo, the local sparkling water option. After the introductions, I take a position in the back of the room.

Qualitative researchers are (rightly) neurotic over this idea of position and positionality – beyond my wooden stool. Kant famously argued that we cannot possibly experience “things-in-themselves” but can only experience them as they appear to us, encapsulated here by writer Anais Nin: “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Whatever the world is, we process it through our selves. It doesn’t mean that research is some therapeutic self-exploration (unlike, say… blogs…) but it means that we are aware that we exist as a filter for that data and subsequently constructed knowledge.

Without getting too far down the research philosophy rabbit hole, I hold a critical constructivist research philosophy which argues that the social world is constructed. If you think the world is one giant canvas and if we design the right camera, the right experiment, the right path, we can see it correctly and document it and pass this Knowledge onto the future generations, that’s the opposing viewpoint: positivism (well, that’s the quick and dirty and reductionist version; I’m sure I’ll get some emails for that). But constructivists think the world is more messily put together, and knowledge reflects this: critical constructivist capo Joe Kincheloe (2005) argues that from this perspective, it is “misleading to merely study random outcomes… isolated ‘facts’ and ‘truths'” (p. 2). Knowledge rather always involves a knower who is permanently linked to a historical and social context : “how the knower constructs the known constitutes what we think of as reality” (p. 2). Thus, for researchers, especially, our position in this place is important. We can’t just fade into the background, become the nameless automaton behind the experiment. As researchers, we play an exaggerated role in constructing knowledge and deciding what “counts” as knowledge. That’s quick and dirty as well, but ultimately, this perspective requires humility, caution, and social awareness in the practice of research.

As such, critical constructivism requires being aware of who you are, what you’re doing, how you’re behaving, how you are reflecting on your work, how dynamics of power and postcolonialism enter the equation. It means examining your biases and what goes into the questions you ask, how your hear the answer. Obviously, you can’t remove yourself from the work – and to believe that is possible is itself naïveté. Instead, we have to recognize who we are in the situation. To quote from my progression document, the solution is an anti-solution: observe, listen, ask questions and be ready to receive responses that cut at the base of who I think I am, recognize the privilege I have and be able to talk about it with honesty and openness. Gadamer (1989) suggests laying bare your affiliations or “horizons” and consider their impact on your interpretation, what he labels a “fusion of horizons” (p. 370). When this is done fully and intentionally, it is meant to be deeply painful in separating what I actually believe and value from what I express as beliefs and values. It I am asking this of my participants in examining their own practice as teachers, I should be doing the same thing. There’s the discomfort.

I tell myself that this classroom, this moment of mentally pressing record is where it all begins, but that’s not exactly true: PhDs require you to define and package your philosophy, epistemology, ontology, and axiology, but really, none of this is linear – just like travel, research requires that you keep going back over yourself, learning more about who you are and what you think and how all of that changes when you are confronted with things that are different and unknown. So I settle in and watch as Maurice divides the blackboard into sections for the class to review last week’s material: “What I know” and “What I want to know.” Fitting. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a girl nudge a folded note towards a broad-shouldered boy while her deskmate furiously copies Maurice’s board composition. I start making margin notes in pink pen. Honey-colored bricks, a bright quadrangle, glow-in-the-dark Jesus. 



Gadamer, H.-G. (1989). Truth and method (2nd, revis ed.). London: Continuum.

Kincheloe, J. (2005). Critical constructivism primer. New York: Peter Lang.


Into the Field (Part 1)

Day 1. Back in Rwanda after a two-year hiatus. Not jet-lagged, since it’s only one hour ahead of the UK, but definitely sleep-deprived. As an old hand at Kigali city buses, I rock up to the bus shelter outside of Chez Lando and call at the man hanging out of the window of a wide white bus to ask if he’s headed for Town (Kigali speak for the downtown district, rather than the line that goes to the coach station, Nyambugogo). He gives a noncommittal yes and I attempt to board with three 100 franc coins clutched in my hand. But the man is a passenger, not the cash collector who would normally sit in the window seat and beckon at potential riders; this colorful character has been transformed into a small plastic yellow circle, bolted to the handrail. Passengers push past me and press keycards to the circle: it’s a card reader like those used at my university for building access. It chirps and the driver nods them on. And here am I, the sweaty muzungu troglodyte, trying to give someone my coins to get a ride to the downtown district.

It’s kind of a cliché among foreigners in Rwanda – leave for a month, they say, and there will be a new skyscraper when you return. It’s not so far from the truth. My first trip to Rwanda was in 2014; since then, Kigali has added a convention center, multiple upscale hotels with rooftop cocktail hours far out of my price range, and a bevy of high-rise glass monstrosities favored by Chinese construction companies. As a result, the government has rerouted roads and converted areas to pedestrian-only to accommodate it all. And, apparently, upgraded to a 21st century bus ticketing system.

Since I’m blocking the door and holding up the flow of capital city traffic, a kind woman loans me her card and I pass her the coins; I take a seat in the back and three more people shoehorn in next to me. The bus takes a route that is mostly familiar, but brighter, somehow. A shopping center seemingly modeled after Soviet design sensibilities is behind fences that advertise the construction company and preview the coming remodel: the flat, rain-puddle roof has been replaced with a wide, sweeping parabola recalls a cruise ship lido deck, bare concrete walls are now plated with shining, slick tile like a three-story Mac store. As we round the curve that starts the climb toward Town, I spy the new high rise that protrudes from the top of the hill like a glass needle and we pass a new hotel, half white, half brick, punctuated with the geometrical lines of imigongo, the traditional Rwandan art form that uses cow dung and clay and colors that mimic the mustard and ochre of the countryside. In a sea of soulless glass edifices and cruise-ship chic, this particular building could only be found in Rwanda. It’s beautiful. It’s a statement of identity. The whole city seems different to me – perhaps just when taken in contrast to my sunny, sepia nostalgia, my memories of clear blue skies and pink bougainvillea by the Embassy pool and the aqua curtains of my Parliament classroom.


Not exactly high rises; man with beer bike on a dirt road 

Kigali has changed; I have changed. Who I am and what I’m doing here is completely different, and I can’t tell if the city actually looks that different or if I am projecting myself upon it. In 2014, I first arrived here as a teacher – I was totally unprepared for the next two years of my life, but eventually I fell into a rhythm with Rwanda, a sort of peace with how to get by and how to operate and who I was in that space. And now, I’m back, for a much shorter period and with a completely different brief. Researcher, not teacher.

The road to get here with this new title was far rockier; without a contract from the U.S. Department of State, the Embassy was not available to jump through all of the bureaucratic hoops for visas and permissions. My colleagues at Bristol have lovingly suffered through months of my nail-biting and anxious outbursts over the multi-stage research permit and visa process; from just trying to figure out what to do to flipping my lid when hearing that the reason no one is responding is because the government shifted research permitting to an entirely different department. They probably did this to spite me, I cried in exasperation and resisted the urge to hurl university property out of the doc room window.

But here I am: through Immigration, permit promised for pickup this week. And it has all become very real, that deep, gnawing realization that all of the preparation, two years in essence, has led to this point, to this change of positionality: researcher.

[to be continued]


Refugee trauma and the ESL classroom

I originally wrote this three years ago when I was in Northern California, working with a refugee resettlement organization. I spent 3.5 years volunteering there, and during that time, I met more than 200 refugees who were resettled in the Sacramento area. They came from all over the world, but primarily Iraq, Afghanistan (many of whom worked as translators with the U.S. military), Burundi, Bhutan, Nepal, Kenya… the list goes on.

This past Friday, Donald Trump suspended the refugee resettlement program by executive order. Just a few facts, none of which are “alternative” – refugees are defined as people who must flee their home country to escape war, persecution, and violence. Number of refugees that the U.S. pledged to resettle in 2017 following a multiyear vetting process: 110,000. Number of refugees resettled in the U.S. who have committed known acts of terrorism, EVER: 0.

I don’t write well when shaking with emotional rage, but I want to say something, to defend the 200+ people that I knew well. This article was originally published with TESOL International Association’s Refugee Concerns newsletter and it speaks mainly to educators about strategies for dealing with students (such as refugees) who have experienced severe trauma (like many, many refugees).

One final note before the article: the organization I worked with, the International Rescue Committee, was founded at the suggestion of Albert Einstein, a refugee who fled to the U.S. to escape the Third Reich.


October 2013

His distress was palpable, evidenced in knotted eyebrows and a subtle tremor that shook throughout his rail-thin body. He grabbed my hand impulsively and put it against his heart so I could share in (or at least understand) his terror. His words were impeded by his lack of language, and whatever English he did have was impeded by his extreme stress. “The men…the room…” he managed to get out with labored breaths.

Only because of an earlier conversation with his caseworker did I know what the problem was: He was a new refugee client, and he had identified himself, at least to the caseworker and the hosting organization, as gay. On his first night in English class, only a few days after he arrived in the United States, he was still terrified to be in a small room with other speakers of his language group, large men who may have appeared similar to his overseas tormentors. I’ve volunteered with this organization for 3 years and learned that if I get a hunch that past trauma is trickling into a situation, I am probably right.

His situation was a unique one, to say the least: refugee, gay, from a conservative country, spoke almost no English, most likely suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or similar. To be dealt a few of those cards would certainly be a challenge, but all of them? I’m no psychologist, and like the majority of English teachers, even those like myself who have a master’s degree in teaching the subject, I’m ill-equipped to deal with this challenge. My program didn’t require or even offer a course in ESL and PTSD, just as they offered very little training outside of teaching for well-equipped classrooms full of literate, economically steady, enthusiastic English learners. Like many other instructors in my situation, I had to gauge my reaction to similar situations with a mix of experience and self- research.

This incident, despite involving a very unique individual, can be compared to many similar ones experienced by ESL instructors who work with refugees or asylum seekers. Stressful outbursts, as in the example given, demonstrate one of the greatest challenges of working with posttrauma populations. Refugees, asylum seekers, and some immigrant groups have a “substantially higher risk than the general population for a variety of specific psychiatric disorders—related to their exposure to war, violence, torture, forced migration and exile and to the uncertainty of their status in the countries where they seek asylum” (Kirmayer et al., 2011, p. E961). Unfortunately, when a refugee or asylum seeker resettles in a new country, past traumas are often exacerbated by the serious psychological stress caused by poor adjustment to the culture of the resettlement country (Schweitzer, Melville, Steel, & Lacherez, 2006). Because ESL teachers often have longer periods of contact with their refugee students than other social service providers (such as resettlement agency case workers), stressful outbursts or other classroom issues, such as interpersonal conflicts, can commonly occur. Classrooms often function as safe zones, “where the students can have the opportunity not only to learn English…but also to learn about and discuss many of the cultural adjustment issues and other facets of their new lives” (Adkins, Birman, Sample, Brod, & Silver, 1999, p. 17). This safe place not only provides a platform for students to learn the language that will assist in their acculturation processes, but it also provides a form of self-expression that “engenders stronger mental health” (Adkins et al.,1999, p. 17)

Many refugees, whether they are clinically diagnosed with suffering from PTSD or other disorders, experience a variety of symptoms caused by the stress and trauma resulting from their past and even ongoing experiences. These factors may be manifested in symptoms such as physical ailments (headaches, backaches, and stomachaches), somatic issues (sleeping in class or complaining of a lack of sleep at night), attention issues, lack of participation in or withdrawal from social interaction, frequent absences, and/or emotional or behavioral issues (Adkins et al., 1999, p. 19). Extensive medical and psychological research has demonstrated that these mental problems are prevalent within the refugee community, but, for a teacher working on a day-to-day basis with these students, the research might not be so important as solutions to the issue.

In the 1999 publication through the Spring Institute, Adkins, Birman, Sample, Brod, and Silver provide an excellent manual that instructs ESL teachers in methods for adapting their classroom pedagogy, methods, and activities to facilitate positive acculturation in response to these mental health issues. But when teachers are faced with outbursts similar to the example presented, they need to be prepared to spontaneously address the problem and help the student to reach a state of calm. To help deal with the effects of PTSD and other stress, emotion, or deeper psychological issues or trauma-related outbursts that manifest themselves in the classroom, teachers have to be proactive about educating and preparing themselves for these incidents, but also in sharing effective techniques and strategies for coping with these issues within the community of practice. In this situation, I followed a protocol that I have used in a variety of similar contexts:

1. Use nonverbal cues to demonstrate compassion and understanding.As refugee English teachers, this is often our default mode. But these situations require an extra measure of compassion: demonstrating empathy with obvious facial expressions (especially for low-level speakers) and a calm, low tone of voice. Horsman (1997) suggests “words and looks of encouragement” (p. 22) over physical contact, as physical boundaries are important to respect and even more difficult to infer in stressful moments.

2. Allow them to be separate from the class. In this situation, I was fortunate that another person could step in and cover the class for a few minutes, which might not be possible in every situation. It is important to help preserve the refugee’s sense of dignity (i.e., not allow others to see his or her distress) and allow them the space to calm down, so it is essential to step outside and away from the trigger. Horsman (1997) noted that refugees dealing with trauma need physical “places to go outside the program when the feelings are ‘too much’ for themselves or for others to deal with in the class or group” (p. 30). Following the incident, I sought to demonstrate to students that they were not “bound” to the classroom and were free to step out if they felt the need.

3. Shift their focus away from what is affecting them. It sounds like something a therapist might caution against, but most teachers, like me, aren’t trained as counselors, and to take on that role could possibly do more harm than good. Revert to what you know you are skilled at: teaching English. In this situation, I took out a copy of the English diagnostic that we used and started to go through it orally with him, effectively shifting his focus away from the situation. This isn’t to say that their experience isn’t valuable or that the teacher is attempting to invalidate the importance of their past. Instead, the teacher is saving those conversations or topics for a more appropriate, less charged environment where students can operate at their own comfort level.

4. Instill confidence. As we went through the very basic material at the start of the test, I made sure to praise him and offer positive reinforcement for everything that he did right, and provide very tempered, occasional correction for his issues. This not only helped his stress subside, but focused him back on the ultimate purpose of the class: to improve his English.

In this particular situation, the pattern that I followed allowed the student to rejoin the class after 20 minutes outside of the room. By the end of class, he was raising his hand to ask questions and even interacting with the men whose presence had caused his panic earlier in the class. With continuing sensitivity to his needs, his teachers can help him and others like him better reach their potential, and move further away from trauma-based outbursts to focus on the positive possibilities that lie ahead. The experience showed me, very clearly, that, as an instructor, I am continually responsible for not only my refugee students’ academic experience but their emotional well-being.

These strategies were gleaned from personal experience and informed by research, but should not be taken as a scientific technique or as one developed by a specialist in trauma. Instead, they are one solution for dealing with stressful outbursts in the moment, keeping the student’s needs first, and helping to maintain their personal dignity and sense of self.


Adkins, M. A., Birman, D., Sample, E., Brod, S., & Silver, M. (1999). Cultural adjustment, mental health, and ESL: The refugee experience, the role of the teacher, and ESL activities. Denver, CO: Spring Institute for International Studies.

Horsman, J. (1997). “But I’m not a therapist”: Furthering discussion about literacy work with survivors of trauma. The Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women. Retrieved from http://en.copian.ca/library/research/therapist/1.htm.

Kirmeyer, L., Narasiah, L., Munoz, M., Rashid, M., Ryder, A., Guzder, J., … & Pottie, K. (2011). Common mental health problems in immigrants and refugees: General approach in primary care. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 183(12), 959–967. DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.090292

Schweitzer, R., Melville, F., Steel, Z., & Lacherez, P. (2006). Trauma, post-migration living difficulties, and social support as predictors of psychological adjustment in resettled Sudanese refugees. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 40, 179–187.

Neogothic and Neon Paint: Arriving in Bristol

When I see him, I’m mid-way up Park Street, the road that connects the lush, grassy triangle of College  Green to the neo gothic Wills Tower, the edge of the university campus. Brazen, bearded, clad in a tee shirt and tattoo sleeves, slamming down the hill on a longboard, slaloming around the road’s divider line. I stop and watch as he blazes downhill at maybe twenty miles per hour, taking me back to late nights at my undergraduate university looking for my car in the multi-story parking garage with gleeful skaters screaming past, barely avoiding the cement pylons.


Yarn-bombing and an artistic response to soot-blackened buildings 

Tattoos, longboards, and skinny jeans: my friend Steve described Bristol as “England’s Portland,” and since, more than one non-Bristolian has told me that the “rest of England” views it as green, hipster, “bio” (organic), all phrases similarly co-opted when outsiders describe the Pacific Northwest and California’s Bay Area. My past home, Sacramento, prides (maybe that’s the wrong word) itself in projecting a similar ethos: in a recent study looking to define and identify the most “hipster” cities in the U.S., Sacramento came in fourth, behind Seattle, Portland, and Denver. The researchers came up with a list of businesses which “target” hipster culture, and checked the ratios of these businesses per 10,000 city residents. The businesses? “Microbreweries (manufacturers), records/tapes/CD (retail), music dealers, coffee shops (non-chains only), beer & ale (retail), thrift shops, bicycle dealers, tattoo parlors, and music and live entertainment.”


On the university campus; a little more mod than postmodern

Even just this road with its steep, rapid upward pitch, Park Street, illustrates that past sentence. On the ten minute walk from my building to the university, I pass three music stores (instruments and records), two vintage clothing stores, two charity (read: thrift) shops, a piercing parlor, two non-chain coffee/tea shops, and two art supply stores. It’s s seductive walk: I buy gingerbread rooibos tea in nylon sachets from a shop with a silhouetted swallow on the logo (always put a bird on it) and mint-green plates from a charity shop. I often find myself in a sea of fashion ripped from 90s closets – short denim skirts with buttons down the front, high-wasted jeans with pockets high on the butt, those ubiquitous circa-1999 polyester Delia’s sweaters, cropped above the belly button.


Banksy’s statue left over from Banksy vs. Bristol Museum exhibition 

Hip – or hipster – this city has it boatloads (appropriate given its past as a shipping city and its scenic locale on the River Avon). One of it’s most famous sons is Banksy, the anonymous street artist famous for [illicitly] stencilling cleverly subversive and political images on the sides of buildings and walls (for more see Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film for Street Art 101). I walk daily past one of his most famous pieces, a naked man hanging off the “window” of a sexual health clinic. It’s been vandalised with blue paint, but remains – more than one person joins me in photographing it from the sidewalk.


Street art is all over this city, illicit and clearly non-illicit. I visited Bristol for three days in April when trying to decide it and another school, and happened to look up while stumbling down one street – and saw a mural from one of my favorite artists, El Mac. It seemed like an invitation, a blessing – that somehow this was the right place to be.


El Mac, “Clothed with the Sun” 2011


Something else by someone else, painted on the side of St. John’s Church

There’s something that I love about street art, the way it adds color to a city – not just tagging but artistic interest. But the city isn’t all neon paint and suspended naked men, it’s flashes of modernity in a historical mishmash. And the historical still dominates – it’s the hardest layer, the most permanent in this city, buildings that reflect Regency, Tudor, Georgian – a city that has gone through an adolescence and adulthood, reinventing itself in each era.


Brunel’s suspension bridge over the Avon Gorge


The university seems to have found the balance between neo Gothic and neon – outside of the Great Hall in Wills Tower for induction week 

Up the hill, past the art and the art stores, towards a university with equal parts historical buildings and steel, brick, and glass. A few days in and I’m already certain – I’m going to like this place.


Hang a left for the university: an uncertain world.