Academia and Academic Writing Need Liberating

This month we published Decolonising Multilingualism by Alison Phipps, the first book in our new series Writing Without Borders. In this post Alison explains how the idea for the book came about.

“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

― Lilla Watson

‘You have to write a book about this.’ ‘When are you writing the book about this?’ If I had a penny for every time someone said this I’d be a very rich woman.

The last 15 years of my life have been spent gradually shifting a life lived predominantly with those in the metaphorical global north, to being predominantly surrounded by those in the global south. My family is a family of refugees, not everyone, but a large number these days. My work as an academic, advocate, activist and artist all revolves around themes of refuge, and the stories of what it means to live as a refugee or to have had your homeland destroyed or taken away or threatened by violent or powerful, oppressive forces. This means there are people in my office and conversations in my phone and email and social media everyday, asking me for accompaniment, advice, support. Every hour there is an interruption, a need to react, regroup, pause, and precious little time to think.

But writing, of course, is thinking, and it can be freedom. And the more the pressure to write a book about my worklife/lifework has grown, the clearer it became to me that this could not and would not be within the usual genre of an academic monograph or journal articles. Raymond Williams says that ‘Form always has an active material base.’ It’s no accident that the long novel was born with the creation of the bourgeois and the first really partially leisured, educated class, with the time, and therefore means, to read. The new forms in this age of social media are the tweet, the blog, the image, the Facebook post. These ways of micro-journaling and sharing have stood in for me, for a while, as a proxy for carving out the time and energy to write that ‘academic monograph’. As the 2015 crisis of hospitality hit Europe and people from Syria, especially, began crossing the Mediterranean, the pressure to write grew considerably, and I found myself developing the form of the essay, the newspaper article, and poetry, out of the social journaling.

‘You should write a book.’

For a while I’ve been referring to these present times as structurally similar to times of war. My poetry anthology, published last year with Tawona Sitholé, The Warriors Who Do Not Fight, contains the refrain ‘It is war time’, over and over as a way of prompting the poet and reader to remember that things are not as they were. That whilst the bodies may not be piling up in our own country, they are piling up where people are seeking sanctuary, and on those journeys of flight. And if you live your life with people who have suffered war and oppression and have sought refuge in other lands, then the aftermath and enduring consequences bring the consequences of war and the necessities of peace-making actions very much to your own shore. And in war time the forms which have emerged in the past are essays, pamphlets, poetry, play scripts. I have found myself defending my lack of a monograph by saying ‘There are not times for the luxury of the long book. Those are for peace time work, when we can think without a gun to our heads.’

I eventually plucked up the courage to speak to Anna Roderick at Multilingual Matters about this feeling and the suggestion that a short book series might be formed. She was open, willing and pointed to many early career researchers wanting more subjective, autoethnographic and creative ways of writing which would reflect their subjective, autoethnographic and increasingly creative ways of undertaking research. To this I added the work I’d been doing, before it became the trend in academic discourse, on decolonising research. It’s hard to be serious about any form of indigenous studies without being serious about decolonising research.

What would decolonial forms look like, which also reflected the urgencies of the times and the material and affective realities of the relationships from which ‘fieldwork’ is born? Anna invited me to answer my own question and this short book is my answer.

Alison reading from her book at the SOLAS festival

The experience has been liberating. Liberating from the metricised yet utterly outdated forms of assessment which represent the Research Excellence Framework; liberating as it gives me something I know I can share with participants without it being so necessarily long winded and academic that only someone with a doctoral training can access the text; liberating as I could bring my creative writing and essay and journalistic modes to bear; liberating because I could still work theoretically and think with the page; liberating because I could cite beyond the frameworks of my training; liberating because I could walk right over borders set for me when I first began becoming a researcher.

The quotation from Lilla Watson is one I return to regularly to check in with myself and those I am working with, to guard against the assumptions of ‘helping’ and ‘needing to save’. And to guard against the perpetuation of too many colonial habits, though these cannot be entirely erased from a life lived under colonial, imperial assumptions. But in writing this piece for Multilingual Matters, who have graciously published my work for nearly 20 years, I realise that this is something they have done for me. Academia and academic writing needs liberating. And there are some very exciting manuscripts forthcoming on their list. Writing Without Borders as a series is a way, perhaps small and not the on the global scale we might expect, of mutually liberating work, by working together on something a bit different, but of its time.

“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

 

Here’s an extract from the book, read by Alison:

For more information about this book please see our website. Alison will be donating all royalties earned from the book to the Scottish Refugee Council and Forest Peoples Programmes

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