Getting Ahead of Myself: Blogging & the PhD

Sometimes, when I cannot quite keep track of everything I still need to do to finish my PhD. Or worse: everything I might have done, or: the things I definitely should have done but cannot possibly do anymore… At these moments, lost in the mealstrom of worries and stress, I find that thinking about what I want to put in the foreword of my book calms me down.

The foreword is the part that most people will end up reading, anyway – let’s not kid ourselves. It is also the section I turn to immediately when a colleague finishes. Perhaps because the foreword is a reminder that beyond the exterior of the academic, and the elaborate results encapsulated in the thesis, there is a person with a network and relationships and that what really portrays strength is the appreciation of other people in one’s life in the midst of a commitment to the very solitary endeavour that is a thesis. It is wonderful to get a glimpse of someone’s intellectual biography (or the beginning of it), the serendipities and the efforts, the important encouragements and support systems, the people, the loves, the families, the friends.

Strangely (or perhaps not so much), with the advent of my work on my PhD project, I began to neglect the blog. Even more so when Pim and then Emmi arrived on the scene. And however much I might wish that it had been different; this is also one of the things that I cannot change now.

That being said, I cannot deny the importance of this blog in my own intellectual biography – and particularly in the whole PhD process, even if I have not been that present here for the past few years. Despite my silence and absence, I think I have come to understand the blog’s significance more and more during the past few months.

These are the things I contemplate when I draft a foreword in my mind. Why? Because, besides close friends and family and a number of colleagues: I think it is my blogging network that deserves pride of place in my foreword.

Truth is, I would never be the kind of researcher I am today without all of you. I would not be as critical a thinker. I would not be a feminist-in-progress, or not anywhere near where I am in that process now. I would forever be further behind on all the topics that you are so wise and adamant about.

The more I learn (and this is a never-ending process, right?) the more I see that the seeds for many of the things I signal now, were planted by things you mentioned years ago and that I did not realise were so integral back then. Please bear with me as I slowly work through topics you have worked through some time before, as I realise the wisdom of what you said back then, often only fully in retrospect. I continually wish I were as erudite and learned and thoughtful as you.

And in the midst of this ongoing process, you have been so kind and patient. The loneliness that is seemingly integral to pursuing a PhD has been much less salient because of you.

So, while it might be a long while yet before I get to write my actual foreword, I wanted to say this, perhaps a little bit ahead of time: Thank you ever so much for the conversations, the reading, the writing, and all the support.

Reading, Lately

I am hardly the reader I was years ago. With the arrival of Pim, and later Emmi, my reading time dwindled. And I know there are people out there who will say that finding time to read is really about making it a priority. And perhaps this is true. But in between a full-time job, a partner with a full-time job which involves lots of travel, and two children (one of whom is a baby who refuses to go to sleep on her own at night), I often find myself lucky to just be able to sit down on the couch and watch a TV show. And even that is usually 30 minutes tops. Reading with a (hopefully) sleeping baby on your chest is simply not as easily done, particularly when you have all the lights turned off in the hopes of letting the baby sleep.

So yes, most days I call myself lucky if I get 3 pages of reading in before I blissfully get to close my eyes in the hopes of catching a few hours of sleep.

The fact that reading is not exactly the priority it once was, however, does not mean I have stopped reading altogether. It simply means that whereas I used to read a book in two days, I am now content if I manage to read a book in two weeks.

Today, I thought I would tell you a little bit about the last books I read. If nothing else, they have one unifying characteristic: they count as Diverse Reads. I hope to continue reading more diverse literature in the upcoming months.

Listen, Slowly - Thanhha LaiListen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai

Ok, so I basically picked up this book because of the beautiful cover. Luckily, it offered more than just a pretty picture.

Listen, Slowly tells the story of Mai, who has to travel to Vietnam with her grandmother during her summer break. Mai’s grandmother wants to find out what really happened to her husband during the Vietnam war. Mai’s parents think this would be a great time for Mai to find out more about her culture. But Mai does not agree: she wants to be at the beach, at home, with her friends. And so, she wants this trip to be over as soon as possible: Vietnam may be important to her parents, but Mai does not think of it as part of her own identity.

In the beginning, I felt Mai was a bit too much of a “whiny teenager”. The set-up was a little obvious and from the beginning you knew that by the end of the story, Mai would have learned about her own prejudices and find something worthwhile in her trip. The middle and end of the book made up for my annoyances with the first part, however. What I particularly liked were the scenes between Mai and her grandmother. As I said on Litsy, these scenes are truly the core of the book. They portray Mai’s growing respect for her grandmother and Vietnam.

Listen, Slowly also offers beautiful language. Thanhha Lai surely has a way with words.

“I tell you of loss, my child, so you will listen, slowly, and know that in life every emotion is fated to rear itself within your being. Don’t judge it proper or ugly. It’s simply there and yours. When you should happen to cry, then cry, knowing that just as easily you will laugh again and cry again. Your feelings will enter the currents of your core and there they shall remain.”

Blackbird FlyBlackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly

Twelve-year-old Apple has two best friends. She never invites her friends over to her house because she is afraid of their reaction to Filipino food and her mother’s mistakes when she talks English. In her fear of being perceived as “different”, Apple has always felt alone.

At the beginning of the new schoolyear, Apple is put on the “Dog Log” by the popular boys in school. This list of the most unpopular girls in school challenges Apple’s friendships: instead of defending Apple, her two friends stay silent around their boyfriends – the boys who composed the list – and start to slowly conform to their opinions more and more.

Friendless and embarrassed, Apple turns to music for comfort: she listens to the casette of Beatles songs that she knows her father used to listen to and she pursues her dream of playing these songs herself on a guitar.

Blackbird Fly is incredibly effective in its portrayal of racism as well as bullying. Not having been on the receiving end of the pervasive racism that Kelly addresses in the story, it feels a little weird to judge whether that was done well. I can say that it surely made clear how racism becomes part of the smallest gestures and how even these can hurt.

Another thing I felt was particularly strong was the portrayal of silent standers-by, who look away or do not speak up when they see racism or bullying occur (the two intertwine in this story, not saying they are the same thing). In addressing this non-addressing, Kelly makes a very important point: in not speaking up we become implicated in the hurt that is caused. Kelly does not turn this into a story of good vs. bad, but rather manages to blur the edges. You can still do harm without necesarily intending to do so. The reader gets to understand and sympathise with some of the reasons behind not speaking up, but is still pointed towards the fact that speaking up is the better choice. I loved that about this book.

And then, of course, there is Apple. She is the most relatable heroine. Flawed but so courageous. Watching her find her solace in music, her finding new, truer friends who she helped to be who they wanted to be while they helped her, was such a joy. I just want to hug her close.

After reading this I mostly wished that I could go back in time and make my younger self read this book. Because it addresses so many things that speak to young teenagers, without becoming patronizing. To some extend this is the same old story about school and friends and bullying and being true to yourself, but it also manages to address deeper societal problems in a friendly, hopeful manner and through a relatable and kind heroine.


Which diverse books would you recommend I read next?

I am thinking of giving audiobooks a try, given the whole reading conundrum, are there any titles you’d recommend?

Currently I am reading: Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit & Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.


The True Cost: Film Still

Shopping after watching The True Cost

There is sheer idiocy to the fact that somehow, I need people to show me through a documentary what I already knew for it to truly make a difference in my life. It tells you something of the relative comfort with which I can surround myself if I so wish (and so, in essense, this is a story of my privilege). If I so choose, I could live my life and not care about anything else that goes on in the world, if I don’t actively want to care. I think this is in due part to the way we have organised our society, but it is also about personal responsibility. (There is something about this strange limbo that has had me very upset in the past months, but perhaps this is a subject for a different time).

Anyway, I have been trying to more actively inform myself about certain issues in the past months. At one point, I stumbled upon the documentary The True Cost on Netflix (which, again, tells you something re: ‘entertainment bubble’, or whatever). Since watching it, I have not been able to think about shopping in the same way. Or, really, I have not been able to walk across a city centre in the same manner.

The True CostWhat The True Cost does is portray the manner in which our current consumption of clothes (fast fashion) is a drain on the environment as well as on human rights. Fashion pollutes both through the environmental unfriendly production of most cotton as well as the fast turnaround in the fashion industry, which means we end up with lots of landfills with discarded clothes. Human rights are of course involved in the production of clothing, with factory workers in dangerous and unhealthy conditions working for ridiculously low salaries.

As I said, in essence, I knew. But The True Cost manages to bring the point home in a manner that brought me from a vague awareness while stepping into the H&M to a true rethinking of how I wanted to approach clothes and how to do so.

I think the strength of The True Cost is in addressing the different aspects that are troubling about the fashion industry. It is not just about one of these issues but it brings together the harvesting of cotton, the chemical processes involved in the production of leather, the conditions of factory workers, and our consumer society in which advertisements for new fashion statements are everywhere and it is easy to buy new clothes because they are cheap, our throw-away lifestyle and the effect that that waste has on other communities across the world.

There were things I did not know, or hadn’t fully realised, such as: the fact that the fashion industry is the second-most polluting industry in the world, apart from the oil industry (I had to stop and let that sink in for a while); that the production of ‘natural’ materials such as cotton and leather involve so much chemicals; that donating clothes has such an impact on communities across the world, which are left with piles and piles of clothes wreaking havoc on local production and the landscape.

Most of all, I think The True Cost manages to give a human face to what is wrong with the system, and through it’s montages of Black Friday sales and other such-like events it manages to illustrate the absurdity of the manner in which we are now accustomed to consume clothes.

– – –

There is a reflex that I have noticed in myself when it comes to documentaries or readings of this kind. They devastate me for a while. And I am utterly upset. And then life continues as it was. And I continue my daily life as I always did. More aware, perhaps, in the back of my mind, of all of this stuff, and yet not taking action because it is hard and everywhere you turn there is the danger of people thinking you are being too pessimistic or just generally whining about stuff you need not care about or which you need not make your personal burden. Not to mention the fact that finding ethical clothing is difficult and takes a lot more effort then simply going to the shopping centre and seeing what is on sale.

I found myself doing the same after watching The True Cost. After two pregnancies I had rather a shortage of clothes because I had hardly bought anything new after I became pregnant the first time around, always thinking that I was not sure what my figure and weight would be like and so not bothering. My jeans were threadbare and so was my underwear. After having Emmi and being lucky enough to lose weight fast (which made the maternity clothes look rather weird on me), I had to have a few options to wear when I returned to work. And so I went to a chain store and bought a few outfits.

The True Cost: Film Still

Movie still from The True Cost

And then I remembered The True Cost and how I had wanted to do things differently after watching it – failing miserably even 3 weeks in.

Since then I have been trying to be more conscious of what I buy and how I buy. I admit, it has been a struggle. The outfits I bought in the summer were for summer and so I am scarce on fall and winter clothes. I am trying to turn to ethical and eco fashion but finding brands that suit me and determining how they will look on me (since I have to buy online to have access to them most of the time) has proven hard work. These clothes are also more expensive, and since there is a lot to replace after 3 years I cannot say that this has been an outright success.

But, here’s the thing. I am committed to the idea that small things matter. If this is one of the few ways in which I can contribute to change then I need to believe that my choices in consumption matter. And so this is what I am trying to do. I can’t do it all, I can’t buy full-on new ethical clothes for the whole family, so for now I am concentrating on my own wardrobe. Also, there will be times when I can’t and I am trying not to feel guilty about buying socks at my regular retailer (although I do).

I cannot say that I have drawn up a set of rules for myself, but they are loosely there at the back of my mind:

  • I have to tell myself this again and again: You need not be perfect, nor does your wardrobe need to be. I am aiming for a fair amount/percentage of conscious clothes first of all;
  • I do not do rigourous culling of clothes anymore. Things I do not like at the moment I packed away for later reference, and for those I know I won’t ever wear again I am still looking for a proper way of donating;
  • My first impulse was to get rid of all clothes in my closet, having seen the way in which they were made. But this is not productive (I think). So, rather, I am trying to get as much use out of them as possible, which means that they will not have been a waste;
  • If I have to buy new things, I am trying to work by the “30 wear rule“. Will I wear it 30 times? Can I combine the item in different manners, making it suitable for different settings? Do I really really like it? I have to admit that I have not yet tried this for regular retailer clothes, since I have not stepped inside these stores out of self-protection, but I think this would work nicely for those clothes as well.
  • I need to look into repurposing clothes or buying second-hand. But I admit that this would take up more time and I am finding it difficult to fit that into my life right now;
  • I am continuously trying to challenge the messages you receive through advertising and by simply walking through the city centre for myself. It is tiring, I admit. But it has also helped me to feel less compulsed to buy stuff, to do a double-take on whether I need something (both for clothes and for other items), and to set up a mechanism that makes me more aware that the way I have consumed in the past (and I am not  a fashionista at all) is not normal.

– – –

All of this not to say that you shouldn’t buy clothes in the way you want to. Or that you are wrong, wrong, wrong for wearing a dress bought at the Primark (because that is not necessarily the case). But I said I wanted this to be a place where I write about my own small efforts in a world that seems too big to change. And I have decided that my best approach to this is by highlighting what I have learned and how I am trying to progress from there. And to show how puzzled I am in my efforts. How imperfect they are. Because I have found that aiming for perfection is rather paralising. As is trying to address all the wrongs in the world. So I am picking my battles. And right now, the way I approach clothes is one of those battles.

On Blogging

Starting Anew: On Blogging

I never yet told you that we had a daughter 6 months ago. My silence was not intentional, it just sort of… happened. There were multiple reasons at play. First, of course, was the utter chaos having a baby brings. Particularly one with colic and reflux. Particularly when you find out once again that you are not good at being a stay-at-home mom (though also not a good full-time working mom). I admire those who can face those first three months and talk only of the joy. I will always talk about mixed blessings (note: this certainly does not mean I do not love my children unconditionally).

But there were more reasons. And this is where my blog truly comes into play.

Returning to blogging about books has felt a little.. strange and strained. More happened in the past few months other than the fact that home life was a central point of reference: the world came crashing in. It happened in multiple ways that have collided and escalated in recent months, but that have been building for some time now: Brexit, Paris climate talks, US election rhetoric, Dutch politics & political debates, and the overall discomfort with my acquired academic ability to deconstruct which has to some extent resulted in an inability to be socially involved.

And so for months now, I have been pondering and going back and forth on how I want to reshape my blog into a place where I can write about these things, ponder them, figure out a way to (probably inadequately) work with some of these issues.  And I am not sure if I can do so through books only. If I were as smart and engaged as Ana is, for example, I might. But instead, I have found that I often use writing about books as a fall-back option which allows me to signal things, but not act per se. Or to simply ignore these issues altogether. (I am not saying that this is wrong: it just does not work for me at the moment).

Had you asked me one month ago I would have told you something along these lines: I was going to reshape this blog into something beyond books. I’d try to turn it into something that acknowledged the manifold Iris-es that the internet apparently makes you separate from each other in order to be a better “branded” blog. It would be about the small joys of my life, about something related to the work I do, about children, about books, about politics and it would trace the small steps through which I was trying to become more involved in social, political and environmental issues.

And then, of course, Trump happened. And suddenly the world tilted yet a little bit further. Right now I am not sure if I can comfortably talk about my “small world” in face of the bigger picture. I am also not sure if documenting imperfect engagement is worthwhile, and whether I should not leave words to those who have thought all of this through so much better.

But here’s the thing: In my years of blogging (and I have done so in many forms, beginning with my livejournal account during teenage years) I have always sought to find meaning and shape my life through writing about it, in one form or another.. Yes, I could simply use a private diary, but a blog’s semi-public setting helps me to keep myself accountable and to find comfort in like-minded souls. Or so I hope. I never set out to have a perfectly branded blog, and I do not need to do so now. And I only ever waste a small amount of space on the internet, if my words are a waste at all. For all the ways in which I wish I could simply reinvent my blog to reflect what I really want it to be, perhaps the first step is to hit [publish]  once more and see if there are still people willing to read along.

This is why I am not moving domains. This is also why, for now, I have put my previous posts on private: I need the feeling of a blank slate, but in the context of my familiar circle, to explore how I want to give shape to blogging and my life in general. How I want to relate to a world that seems to call for more immediate engagement and activism lately, or, very probably, it has always done so and I have only begun to realise it in these past 6 months. A blank slate, also, because it allows for space to figure out how I want to address the balance between political awareness and social engagement on the one hand and my daily work and small joys on the other hand.

My blog will always ever be imperfect (and this is me counselling myself), but I know that my safest bet to feel I am meaningfully adressing my life and the world is through keeping some form of account. I know how often I wish I could read more on how people can be multiple things at once: friends, parents, readers, labourers, thinkers, contributors, activists. How people imperfectly try to work towards a better world, for so often I feel that I can’t do it right so perhaps I shouldn’t even try. If this is what I’d like to read, perhaps this should also be my aim? It need not be perfect (another reminder to myself), and it is alright to focus on one of these themes in certain periods if that feels more comfortable. But I would like to proclaim my blog wide open for all of these things. And hopefully I will be able to actively reshape it in that direction in the upcoming months.