The Graduates

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Marianne Kaletzky

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Andrew S.: Hi, you're tuned in to 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. My name is Andrew Saintsing. This is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak with UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today, I'm joined by Marianne Kaletzky from the Department of Comparative Literature. Hi, Marianne. How are you doing today?


Marianne K.: I'm well. How are you?


Andrew S.: I'm doing well.


Marianne K.: Thanks for having me on your show.


Andrew S.: Yeah, it's great for you to be here. It's great to have you here. So, the reason I brought you on, I was looking through possible guests, and I found your information online. I saw that you had read a book that I have read and that I've never actually spoken to someone else who's read that book.


Marianne K.: It's a long book, so that's not that unusual.


Andrew S.: Right. So, the book is 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. I assume, probably lots of people listening won't have heard of that book either, so maybe you could describe it a little.


Marianne K.: Yeah, absolutely. So, I guess I can describe Bolaño a little bit. He's a Chilean writer who was an adult during the military coup in Chile, which put out a power their socialist government, brought Augusto Pinochet into power, a dictator who went about kind of systematically torturing a lot of people who had been involved in socialist and left wing movements. Bolaño was actually somebody who was rounded up by Pinochet. Eventually, he was freed, and then he became an exile living in different places outside Chile especially in his later life in Spain and kind of in some ways, self-consciously cultivated a mystique around himself that involved things like heroin addiction, this real image of the sort of tortured artist.

He has a number of novels that have been coming out in English in translation over the past 10 years. 2666 is the last one. It was actually published posthumously after his early death, and so it's an unfinished novel that was partly assembled by his editor. It's surprising that it was unfinished because it is, as you know, [crosstalk].


Andrew S.: Massive.


Marianne K.: Possibly, I think-


Andrew S.: Like 900 pages?


Marianne K.: Yeah, exactly. Almost a thousand pages in the English translation, so it's a sprawling book that's hard to describe. It's, in some senses, a mystery.


Andrew S.: Right. Actually, I've never understood the title of it. Do you know what the title means?


Marianne K.: The title is a mystery in itself, and there've been a lot of speculations as to what it might mean. It's kind of an apocalyptic novel, right? So, we can see it as looking forward to some year kind of associated with the number of the Beast, 666, right? Maybe this is the year of the future apocalypse, but it's never directly referenced in the book. So, that's one of the many kind of strange and kind of hallucinatory aspects of this book, is the title that's never explained.


Andrew S.: Right. Wow, so you gave like all that information about Roberto Bolaño, and I knew none of that when I read the book. When you a read a novel, do you find that you have to do all this research to contextualize it, to really get the most out of it or ...


Marianne K.: I mean, I think there are so many ways into a novel, and in general, I always say the best way in is your own way in. Maybe you'll tell me your own way in. For Bolaño, I had a specific approach, which is I actually hadn't read his work until I was actually in Chile in, what would that have been, 2006, and I was working at a newspaper. That was when his work was just starting to take off in English translation, and so people at this newspaper in the arts and letters section, which was where I worked, were obviously really excited that this Chilean writer was taking off in a kind of worldwide way. So, I knew the sort of culture and the idea and the image around him before I actually read the work. So, it was kind of reversed in that way from how I usually do it, which is usually, I pick up a book, and something about it speaks to me. I think that's how most of us are. I don't know what it was about 2666 for you.


Andrew S.: I think probably that title. I was just looking through books at a shelf. I was probably looking for ... Yeah, I had this phase where I was interested in reading more Latin American authors, and so I'd heard about Roberto Bolaño, and then I saw this book jacket. Looked really interesting. Like you said, it's complete mystery. So, I started reading it. It had, I don't know, this kind of atmosphere to it on the first couple of pages, right? It starts with that mystery, right, where the critics are like reading a book by a mysterious author. Maybe, I guess he kind of saw himself in that. Was it a German author?


Marianne K.: It's a German author. Yeah, with an Italian name, which is again, this kind of constant sense that you can't quite get a grasp on everything that's going on. So, yeah. He has a pseudonym, all kinds of strange kind of mysterious things around this author.


Andrew S.: Yeah, really interesting. There's a part in that book, I think it's towards the end. I always love this, like when you're reading a book, and the author kind of seems to be like justifying something about it, about what they've written. He basically just says you should read long books because it's where the author really can struggle with something. What do you think about that? Do you think long books are where we get kind of the most out of, or we get to see really what our author is trying to say or ... I also remember I read in the preface to Jorge Luis Borges, one of his Sword story collections, basically said you should be able to say whatever you want to say in five pages, right? So, I guess, I don't know. That's like two interesting philosophies.


Marianne K.: Well, yeah, absolutely. I think especially in the 20th century, we kind of see the novel especially going in two different directions. One of which is really condensed, the sort of Kafka mode where the language is pared down, and the book is often really short or someone like Coetzee, the South African writer who tends to write these, kind of just 100-page long books or the really sprawling novel.

For me, I've always the sprawling novel because of all the little rabbit holes you can go down. I'm writing a dissertation on distraction. I'm very much a partisan of distraction, and so yeah, things like Joyce's Ulysses, like 2666 where it's not all sort of sustained attention to one idea, but there are so many different kinds of modes of engagement and motifs that go away and come back.

What I think is so interesting in 2666 is there is really this one governing landscape, which is this desert border town called Santa Teresa, and it's really evoked, I don't know if you agree, but so vividly as this kind of apocalyptic desert landscape, and yet, the book goes to so many different literal geographic locations, right? Ukraine during the Second World War, and someone has a hallucination where they're traveling in China, I think, right? It really is able to go to so many places. I think it still coheres, but there are just so many avenues of exploration. I like that.


Andrew S.: Right, yeah. I guess we'll talk a little bit about your dissertation in a second, but so basically, you read 19th century, more English literature, but I try to read those like massive books by the postmodernists, by Americans like Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis. Do you ever read those books looking for like kind of just distracted-


Marianne K.: Or Infinite Jest.


Andrew S.: Right.


Marianne K.: Yeah, I mean I think it's a really interesting question of kind of what happens to the distracted sensibility and postmodernism? Often, I think we see it being cultivated really self-consciously in a way that that's not there necessarily in the 19th century novel where something a little bit more complicated is going on, but yeah, I think certainly with something Infinite Jest where David Foster Wallace puts in his own footnotes, right, it's kind of staging this process where you can get distracted and look at the footnote and come back to the text, right? There's this sort of constant splitting of attention. I do find that interesting. I think for me, there's something about Infinite Jest that it's a bit too neatly brought together. Something like 2666, it's a lot messier. I actually, I like that more. There are more loose sentences.


Andrew S.: Ah, okay, cool. Can you just give us more of aN overview of your dissertation so that we know a little bit more about that?


Marianne K.: Yeah, absolutely. So, it's a dissertation about distraction, as I said, and it's really making two claims, right? One is a sort of cultural history claim, and one is a claim that has more to do with aesthetics, the discipline of kind of how we think about perception and especially how we think about our approach to works of art. 

So, the sort of cultural history claim is really about the way that attention gets made a virtue during the 19th century. Before that, it wasn't really, and it especially wasn't in the sense that 19th century thinkers and the Victorians make it a virtue, which is that attention is this form of self-control, right? It's a way that you block out unproductive thoughts and unproductive impressions in the world to focus on what really matters, which in general is your work. So, I give a history of that and of the way that attention is made into this form of self-discipline, and that actually excludes all kinds of interesting things, right, that you might notice when you're not disciplining yourself so much to focus on these sorts of bureaucratic tasks or problem solving, all the things that Victorians really like. So, one of the cases I'm making is about how distraction is marginalized, and it's made a problem in the Victorian era, and that's still how we think about it now, right? It's something that we need to resist and avoid, and that wasn't necessarily true before. 

Then, the second thing I'm doing is actually making a claim for why I think we shouldn't resist and avoid distraction because I think that so often, really creative thinking or critical thinking, thinking that sort of unsettles our previous paradigm, it comes about through moments of distraction, right, because the thing that actually will make us think differently is something that's so outside our current framework that we only sort of see it out of the corner of our eye, right? So, really there's something to be said, I think, for distraction as a mode of creativity or a spur to critical thinking, right? There's something to be said for not just getting rid of it or treating it like a negative phenomenon that we need to avoid.


Andrew S.: We tend to think of the internet distracting us and having all these stimuli coming at us as problematic, but maybe it's not?


Marianne K.: I think it's not necessarily, and I guess it depends. One of the things I do is to distinguish between different kinds of distraction, right? I think there's a kind of distraction that actually takes us outside ourselves, right? You're on BART, you're trying to write an email or whatever, and you know somebody is there, some dance crew that comes on the train or somebody is having a conversation about how their rent is going up. Those are all kinds of distractions that actually might attune us to a community and the public world and also, the distractions that come up in our own mind where we're going about writing a report, but we noticed that some things a little bit off and going down that route, like actually paying attention to that distraction could maybe lead us to a new way of thinking.

So, those kinds of distractions where we're sort of noticing something outside ourselves or something that we didn't expect, those are the ones I'm really kind of invested in. Something like our phones, I think it is distraction, but it's not unexpected in the same way that the break-dancing crew on BART is because if you think about the media on our phones, they're also carefully curated for our preexisting interests. So, in a certain way, I'm interested in the kind of distraction that interrupts our usual habits of thinking and of perception. I think a lot of what we see on our phones and on the internet actually reinforces those habits. So, there's maybe a different claim to be made for noticing things on BART or in the street that you don't expect and that aren't necessarily what you were trying to do than to be made for looking at your phone.


Andrew S.: I see. So, it's sort of a distinction between distraction we choose for ourselves and distraction that comes at us unexpectedly.


Marianne K.: Yeah, or distraction that's produced ... I mean, not to be too much of a Marxist, although we can talk about that too, but there's, I think, a distinction between distraction that's produced for corporate ends and distraction that comes about in other ways, either from our own thought or from people in the world around us.


Andrew S.: When you read a novel, you kind of have to think about how it relates to what your research is, right? So, I guess you're kind of perpetually distracted, right, when you're reading a novel?


Marianne K.: I mean, that, for me, is really a huge part of the question because what I noticed when I was reading all these treatises, especially these slightly more popular treatises in the New York Times that said there's a crisis of the attention span, right, this is the idea. There's a national crisis with the attention span. No one can pay attention. They would always recommend reading 19th century novels as a kind of workout of training your attention so that you wouldn't get distracted all the time, right? 

Yeah, exactly as you say, so much of those novels, in many cases, it's not just about kind of moving forward with one particular plot. There are these little things that you get caught in and not only are there sort of distracting details within the novel itself, but for me, the best moment, I think always, when I'm reading a 19th century novel if it's Tolstoy or something is the moment when they say something about how ... and that's the way it is when you're talking to someone who's had one too many drinks, and you have that moment where you almost put the book down or at least you look up from it, and you're like, "Oh, right. I remember that other day, I was talking to someone, and in fact, they had had one too many drinks, and it was that way." Right?


Andrew S.: Right.


Marianne K.: It's actually the kind of cognitive processes that it starts or maybe more interesting and more pleasurable than just this rigid focus on getting on the plot.


Andrew S.: Yeah, I've never understood this idea where people want to just be able to read a certain number of pages in a certain amount of time, right? It's like you have to just go with the flow of what you're reading, right? Like you said, this page might take a long time because there's so much that either maybe it's difficult to read what the author is saying, or it's just everything the author is saying is making you think about something else. Then, there's some parts of the text where it's just like, "All right, this is getting me from one part of the novel to another part." [crosstalk]


Marianne K.: Yeah. That flexibility is really nice about novels, yeah, that you can have parts where you engage more intensely and parts where you step back. That's what I find ... Because I work on this now, I kind of am interested in the ways people read now and attention and distraction in that context. So, I actually tried a speed reading program, and I found it really anxiogenic and horrible because I don't know if you tried one, so these words just flash before your eyes, and you can't go back, right? It's faster and faster, so, it's not like listening to an audiobook. It's much faster than that. The idea is that you'll just have to train yourself to take in the important essence of the text, but yeah, it's all the kind of fun of reflection and unexpected thought and involuntary memory as Proust would say. That's all lost when you're having these words flash before your eyes.


Andrew S.: Right. What do you think is the point of a novel in some ways, right, like what is the author trying to do, and what are you trying to do? So, clearly, you don't think it's just to quickly read through and just get the basic plot line, right?


Marianne K.: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I guess it's a big question.


Andrew S.: Right. Sorry to put that on you. 


Marianne K.: Yeah, I guess I can only answer because we're in this academic world, right, it's like we can only answer by referring to other people who've maybe actually had the fortitude to answer the question, but I guess, so there's this Russian thinker from the early 20th century named Viktor Shklovsky, and his whole theory of art is art de-familiarizes the world by which, he means that actually, you go around the world, and you see things and interact with them so many times that your interaction with them becomes kind of automatic, right? So, you see a door, and you don't actually notice anything about how this particular door looks, what color it's painted, the weird notches in the side because you just think of the purpose of it, which is you can open and close it.

So, actually, so much of what's rich about what we perceive is lost because of this process of automatization because we need to go about the world and the ways that we need to go about the world make it so that our perception is more and more automatic, and we don't really notice what's around us. So, for him, and I think I have to agree here, the purpose of art is it makes it more difficult to see the world, so you might have a door described in a weird way as like a panel of woods swinging on hinges, and so you kind of have to work to figure out what the thing is. Actually, in that way, art allows you to see the world again, right? It's been made invisible to you because everything is so habitual, but now, it's kind of returned to you in a new form. 

So, for me, I mean, I think there's a particular kind of literature that really does that. I think that that is interesting to me, right, that ability to see things in a new way because you've missed them so many times, you know, and so it's not necessarily that you're confronted with a whole new reality, but that you see your own reality anew because it's been represented in a particular way.


Andrew S.: Yeah, that kind of fits in well with the distraction idea, right?


Marianne K.: Yeah. Yeah, so it's good. So, I have a consistent maybe framework way of looking at the world, but yeah, I think so for me, that's maybe part of it, but I think people are making all kinds of different claims for novels now and for fiction in general. Some people want to claim that novels make you more ethical because they teach you to sympathize with other people. I guess other people like these New York Times people I was talking about want to claim that they give you this great attention span, and then you can do data entry for 15 hours. So, I think people are thinking about this question in different ways, but for me, I do think there's something about that, just being able to see your own world in a new way. That's exciting.


Andrew S.: Right. Then, kind of a related question but a little different, so, we started by talking about 2666, which is this massive novel, which probably not very many people will read. I don't exactly know how to frame this question, but what are your thoughts on these novels that these authors put so much of themselves into, but then very few people will literally read versus maybe like Hemingway or something where it's very accessible and not necessarily everyone gets everything out of it, but basically anyone could pick up Hemingway and read it?


Marianne K.: Yeah. I mean, this is really a question for me, not just with Bolaño but especially ... One of my dissertation chapters is on James Joyce and Ulysses, which is one of these books that's really famously, people say, not readable outside academia, right, or you need to take it in a class. I can't speak to how many people realistically will read Ulysses, just given the economic constraints that press on our lives and the fact that I understand that if you're working two jobs and you have kids, it may not be your first priority, but I do think it's wrong to say that Ulysses isn't accessible in the sense that an ordinary person can't pick it up and read it because I actually think one can. I think that a lot of ... I mean, this is a comment that's a bit critical of academia, but I think sometimes, we present this idea that just because having certain knowledge could help you understand and work better, it slips into the idea that you have to have all this knowledge to even approach it.

I think especially with something Ulysses, everyone who reads it including people who have a really deep academic background, enjoys an Irish history and the cannon of English literature, there are things that they miss or that they don't get. There are other things that they pick up on just because they happen to be attuned to that particular thing. So, I think with Joyce, with Bolaño, I do think people can pick up these books and make their own way through them, right, which doesn't necessarily mean having all the "right knowledge" but that they are stories. Actually, with both those novels, they're very vivid characters, and there are really kind of governing sort of drives and questions and tensions and desires that I think anyone can sort of grab onto.


Andrew S.: Right. I didn't mean that ... I hope I didn't imply that some people can't read these books. I have a science background, and so, I mean I personally feel like anyone could do science, but there's lots of people who see math or see science, and then I think their mind just goes blank, or they just don't want to do it, and they tell themselves they can't do it. I feel like that's kind of what happens with these bigger novels, right? They look at this big tome, and they're like, "Ah, I can't read this." Then, they just go for something shorter, more accessible in the sense that it won't take a lot of themselves to get something out of it.


Marianne K.: Yeah, absolutely. I think it's a really interesting question, and I don't know if you have thoughts about it in the sciences of where that sense is produced. I mean, I think it goes further back certainly than just academia, right? There's something about the way maybe that K through 12 education works in this country that people who don't feel set apart for a certain discipline then feel like they can't even approach that discipline.


Andrew S.: Right. I don't know if I've formulated enough thoughts on that to really say something about it, but yeah, I agree. I think it happens definitely in K through 12. You can tell like just my memories of going through school by middle school, there are people who are just saying, "Oh, I'm not good at math." So, I don't know when exactly that happens. I guess it's hard to tell. Is it something that educators could improve on, or is it something that people are going tell themselves anyway? Yeah, I don't know.


Marianne K.: Right. Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I think there is ... I'm always kind of want to blame current historical and economic conditions. I do think especially now, and you see it with our students, there is such a sense that jobs are scarce and resources are scarce, and you really need to find the one place that you can sort of maximize your potential, and so people don't want to waste their time doing things that they're not good at. 


Andrew S.: Right. 


Marianne K.: I do think that it's a lamentable situation, not only because I think you can get a lot out of disciplines you're not good at, but also sometimes, you have to get a fair way into something to know actually whether you have an aptitude for it or not. So, yeah, I don't know if it's that or exactly what, but I certainly ... I share your sense that in some ways, it's even a worse situation with people who feel like they, at some point, were set apart as not having a skill in math or science, and now, can't even approach knowledge produced in those disciplines.


Andrew S.: Right. Yeah, that's definitely something that needs to be worked on more. It's interesting. Actually, you brought up the job prospects idea and how that affects what subject matters people look into because not to make any comments about comparative literature, but that tends to be one of the categories that people say, "Oh, that's not going to set me up economically."


Marianne K.: I'd never heard that. No. Now, you're telling me. Too far in.


Andrew S.: Well, how did you power through that?


Marianne K.: Yeah, I was a really interesting case because I actually started in the sciences, which I hadn't told you before this moment, so this is a big reveal. Then, it wasn't that I stopped liking the sciences, but when I was in college, I had a couple of classes in literature that really did something to me, and so, I decided to be an English major. From there, it also wasn't a given that I would go to graduate school. I spent time outside that doing other things. I guess there's a way for me to talk about it at the level of graduate students and academics and you know what to say about job prospects there, and then also for undergrads when they kind of come and say, "I want to major in comparative literature, so, what should I do?"

So, I guess to talk about it with grad students and academics, it's in comparative literature and in many of the humanities fields and also in non-humanities fields, there is this sense of a dwindling, a shrinking job pool. A lot of that, especially in the humanities, is coming not because there just aren't jobs for people who study these fields. In fact, there are tons, especially in things like teaching writing or teaching intro literature classes, teaching foreign language classes, and so often, people will say, "You shouldn't have gone to grad school in that. You should have known that there were no positions." Actually, there are a lot of positions, but they're increasingly being switched over to temporary low paying positions, so, jobs that used to come with eventual tenure, with stable pay and benefits and time for research, now come with none of those things. That is part of this larger crisis in higher education where tuition is going up, and student debt is going up, but money spent on instruction is steadily going down. 

So, my answer in that regard is I think we really need to be fighting for better quality of instruction, which also means better jobs for ourselves and really for the restoration of public education as something that is affordable and accessible to students and that also provides living wages and good jobs and research potential and room to grow for the people who work in it. Sorry about that. 


Andrew S.: No problem.


Marianne K.: So, that's kind of what to say about job prospects for academics. For students, I think there's a kind of different thing too, you said, which is I do think that being a critical thinker, being someone who can sort of creatively see an issue from different sides, being someone who can communicate clearly, I think those are all skills that can go into lots of things that don't involve teaching high school English or getting a graduate degree in comparative literature. So, that's the kind of plug that I'll make for undergraduate majors.


Andrew S.: You just think writing in general just helps you in life, and you could take that and apply that to any job really?


Marianne K.: Yeah. I mean, I think writing is actually something that a lot of people are really scared of. It's kind of like math, right? 


Andrew S.: Right.


Marianne K.: It's one of these skills that is so basic, and we all have to do it all the time whether we're sending a text, or we need to cut a recipe in half, but when it's named as a task that we have to do specifically, a lot of people freeze up. It's like, "I have to write this report. I absolutely can't do it. I'm no good at writing." So, I think actually kind of becoming fluent and comfortable in communicating your thoughts in written form, I think, is a massively important skill. I think it feeds into a lot of jobs.


Andrew S.: Right. Do you struggle with that still when you write?


Marianne K.: With writer's block?


Andrew S.: Yeah.


Marianne K.: I mean, yeah. I think everybody does sometimes. So, there are a lot of of books that have been written on this. There's one called how to write your dissertation in 15 minutes a day, which does not do what it says on the tin. You can't actually write your dissertation in 15 minutes a day, but it gives a few things that you can do when you have writer's block like you keep a sort of more casual first person diary about what's going well and what's going badly in the writing. At least, that way, writing is also still a place where you can express your thoughts and not just this horrible task that looms in front of you,


Andrew S.: I guess, so, there's the initial block of getting started, but then whenever I write something, I'll look back and I'll be like, "Ugh, sounds terrible." Do you ever have that feeling?


Marianne K.: I think everybody has that feeling. Yeah, I mean you have to say it's version zero, right? Everyone has that. I know people who name their documents, it's kind of Dickens article, version horrible, things like Dickens article, version really bad. Then, eventually, it's Dickens article, slightly acceptable if I've had a glass of wine. Then, finally, it becomes Dickens article kind of okay. So, I don't know. I think sometimes, it helps just to acknowledge that you have that feeling.


Andrew S.: Right. You read all of these novels by great novelists. Do you think they ever felt satisfied with what they had written?


Marianne K.: I mean, it's really interesting, and it so much depends on who you work on. There's the story of John Milton who wrote Paradise Lost. He was blind, and so he had to dictate to his daughters that apparently every morning, he would just call them into his room, and he would say, "I have to be milked," where the idea was that he would just produce this poetry in such a kind of natural, unwillful, just free way that it was like he was a cow being milked, which is a weird image, but that for him, it just happened so naturally in a kind of metabolic process. For a lot of writers I work on, people, for instance, like Joyce, they really had a lot of problems while they were writing these texts. Yeah, I think it certainly helps to keep that in mind.

I think that there is not such a correlation between being good at something and having a really easy time getting into it as we sometimes assume. That maybe goes back to our questions about math and about writing. I think we have this idea that we like as a culture that has to do with genius, and it's that sort of Mozart image where you just sit down at the piano, and you had no lessons, but you're just composing already, right? I think with literature, there are certainly some people who are like that, but there's not a kind of stable correlation between who writes great literature and sort of how easily they do it. 


Andrew S.: That was really great to have this conversation. [crosstalk]


Marianne K.: Thank you so much. 


Andrew S.: Yeah. Thank you for being here.

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2/16/2021

Jane Henderson

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So, sometimes I will say like, “Yeah, I just studied capitals.” Kind of ironically, I would say many geographers don't actually have a good sense of what most people think of as geography, like capitals, where to place countries on a map, and things like that. Which is kind of the funny part of our discipline. But it is… that is part of it and part of how you would teach that to younger students (especially like the K through 12 level). But it's also a lot broader than being able to sort of memorize and or locate places and countries on a map.Saintsing: Right. That's kind of like the foundation, right? I guess like being able to localize things in space. It's kind of like you need to have that in order to get to actually what you're really interested in in research in terms of geography?Henderson: In geography, I would say a core tenant especially when we study it at the university level and the PhD level is to always question and pay attention to power and political relationships that create space. To not take space and spatial locations for granted. But actually, to question the power and the development of space over time or throughout time. So, geography is not just memorizing and taking a state capital as is.Saintsing: In general, you know, we use maps because they're helpful, right? And so, like a lot of us are just assuming we just look at a map, and we're like, “This is the way the world looks.” But you're kind of interested in how that map came to be our representation of the way the world works and potentially like what are the reasons it could be different or the problems with the way it is represented on the map?Henderson: Correct. That's I think a big piece of geography and a good entry point into questioning how space is developed. Because it's often developed unevenly which is another concept that we look a lot at in geography. Why is it that we have separations between urban space and rural space? And why is it that the economies of urban spaces are different than rural spaces? How did those things develop? And how did investment in one also lead to disinvestment in the other? And what is the relationship between that across space? So, to your point, like say you were to pull out your Google Maps app on your phone and ask for directions to a certain location. There are some locations that Google doesn't offer you directions to, for example, because those locations may be for one reason or another invisible (in the sense that either people in power have made it so you can't locate them as a site of resistance, or people who have less power, marginalized peoples whose geography knowledge is also often overlooked, may also be invisiblized by some of these things). But we tend to take Google Maps as fact or as like a hard truth that this is how a city or a landscape or the planet essentially is laid out. And in geography we're just always questioning that, questioning these things like land, like space, like cities even, that seem to just be as opposed to processes that are made or spaces that are made.Saintsing: Okay, so there are locations, right? Like absent of human ideas about these locations. They're just like physical… The world is physically there, but then you're saying humans situate themselves and say what each place is. And so, when you say you can't get to that place on Google Maps, you're saying that maybe Google Maps tells you a place in this location that doesn't match another person's understanding of that location?Henderson: Essentially, yeah. So, the second part that you're saying, yes. You're correct that like people, places are imbued with meaning that we provide. And meaning is contested. It is given. It's like giving value to something, and just like any social relation or social process, that meaning, and that value given to a place necessarily has all of the other things that come with social relation: like difference, power inequality. I'll end there for that section. I want to address the first part because that does get into some of like the deep like, “Is there space?” Like that it just is without people giving it meaning. That's some of the like philosophy of geography, and there are… I could give listeners a recommendation to check out Henri Lefebvre if they… That's spelled H-E-N-R-I L-E-F-E-B-V-R-E if folks are interested in that. Because there is lively debate in geography. Just as we might think about time in different ways (like you can think about it linearly, circularly, and in all sorts of different ways), you can also think about space differently. It's not, what we call it in geography, like an empty vessel or an empty container upon which things just happen. But the very process of time passing is that things happen to create space as well. So, there… But there's different camps. Like some people disagree about how that happens. Like if there's something like absolute space or not.Saintsing: So, which camp do you fall into, would you say?Henderson: Okay, so I tend to agree with Lefebvre, which is the person I just referenced. In this textwhich takes like somewhat of a… It questions this very idea that I've also been trying to explain so far which is that we take space for granted as sort of the container or the cup that everything else happens in. So, racism just happens in space, but space is neutral. Historical events happen through time, but the place where they're happening is just – it just is. It's just neutral. And what Lefebvre does is say, “No, no, no. We're taking this for granted. We're not actually looking at how space and time are connected and how they're made together. How space is actually produced.” Yeah, I tend to agree with that because it makes a lot of sense when we're thinking about other geographic or like geopolitical forms that we take for granted. Something like the US-Mexico border for example. We just take for granted and assume that there is this line drawn in the sand, basically, that will delineate where one country's power ends and where another one’s begins. Another one, another country's power begins. But when you really look at it, there's all sorts of contestations along borders. There's power that extends beyond a border line, for example. There are a lot of different life forms, for example, certain types of migratory birds or monarch butterflies, things like that that wouldn't… that don't understand space in the same way that we as humans would understand it. Such that a border like the US-Mexico border doesn't really mean a lot unless there's a giant fence that prevents them from flying over to migrate, for example. So, I had set up this to say that that was like an example of that: space isn't just neutral. It's also contested the same way that time is, the same way that things we may know about science is contested, the same way that other kinds of politics are constantly being debated and kind of battled out in a political arena. We just tend to assume that space is the arena that everything happens on, but we don't tend to ask questions like: Who built this arena? Why do we use an arena at all? Where did the materials come from to create the arena that we're now battling out our political ideas on? And so, in geography we ask questions about that.Saintsing: I guess in science, you know, like we're limited by our questions and our understanding. And I guess we're striving towards something, though, that is universal maybe, you know. At least we try to like move towards that truth that isn't necessarily hinging on what questions we're asking, but like the actual fundamental principles. Like in physics, we're trying to find like the laws that hold the universe together. And I guess in geography, are you… Yeah, I guess you're basically, though, studying how humans occupy space, which can never… which doesn't… wouldn't ever really get you to a fundamental place, right? Because like you're not ultimately just trying to get to like, “This is where a mountain range is.” Like that's… that would be something that you could… that everyone could say like, “Yes, this mountain range occurs here.” But like it's what that mountain range means to the people around it and that live in it and that travel through it.Henderson: Yeah, I think this can get us into like a distinction that we have in geography between physical geography and human geography which… There is a lot more overlap and our department at Berkeley has graduate students and faculty in both camps. (Not every geography program is like that.) But the easiest way to define that division is that physical geography is a physical science, hard science. And then human geography is a social science more akin to anthropology and/or some humanities even. So, the way that you described it is that people in physical geography may, yes, look at mountain ranges or river patterns, watershed flows from that mountain range, and tell us sort of data about perhaps the sediment in the water or how to use these different watersheds in order to fight wildfires or things like that. And also there's a lot of like climate change science that happens in geography. And then what I do is on the human geography side. So, it is more of a social science. Which is to ask about, yes, like not only our human relationship or like people's relationship to this mountain range and (like in your example), but also to think… to read against and with the very scientists who are coming up with universal truths about this mountain range. Because what I think is really important in our field is basically acknowledging that even the things that we find to be universal truths are still using a particular framework of viewing the world. One that's couched in like the scientific method, for example, as like a way of knowing. But there are many other ways of knowing, and knowledge isn't like a capital K knowledge, and there's only one. But there might be knowledges or things like that that would help us understand the world around us. What I think human geography and where the social science side of geography can offer is just the reminders that even in science we take a lot of things for granted as being quote unquote “natural.” Human geography is… destabilizes that a little bit or a lot a bit, I guess. So, yeah. But I'm definitely on the human geography side. So, I would say I'm more akin… my methods, my research is like… is couched mostly within African American studies or Black studies, history, anthropology. The methods I use aren't quantitative methods typically.Saintsing: This has been very interesting stuff.Henderson: Oh, great. Okay.Saintsing: All of like the philosophy of geography and all of that. But it would be… We are moving through the time we have for the interview, so it would be really cool to know a little bit more about like actually what you are studying, you know, using these research approaches that you've discussed. So, like what kind of is your… the area of your research for your dissertation?Henderson: Yeah, my research site is in Minnesota, in Minneapolis, which is where I grew up. And I've kind of taken a winding route to get back here. Mostly or sort of broadly, my research is on Black experiences in Minnesota. And that stems from my own experience as a Black Minnesotan and my family's experiences as Black Minnesotans. But also, the kind of surprise around Blackness in Minnesota, which is to say that people don't expect there to be Black people in Minnesota or in a place in the Midwest or so far north or things like that. Why is it that some places are more intimately tied with the Black experience than others? And so, that to me is a really geographic question because it's asking us about the process of how place gets made and how people come to understand that place. So, Minnesota is a state that is understood to be a white place and pretty much exclusively a white place. Blackness is often not only invisibilized, but as Black people we have to constantly mediate our knowledge of this place against the sort of common perceptions (or a word that we use is imaginary) of Minnesota as a kind of nice liberal white state. So, I would say that's the basis of my work. And then, in order to get at some of these questions, I'm trying to put forth an intervention, which is in the field of Black geographies, which is where I'm kind of situated. My work is to think about geographies, Black geographies beyond the plantation. And what other geographic locations and sites, but also like words like other than the plantation we can use to understand Black experience of space. So, for me in Minnesota, this looks like: if I were to bring up to just general Minnesotans that there is racism in Minnesota, they might answer me by saying, “No, there isn't. Minnesota was one of the first states to give Black people – Black men the right to vote prior to any amendments in the federal constitution. And we didn't have slavery because we didn't have plantations in the North. So, therefore we don't have racism in Minnesota.” It's kind of like how the saying goes. And so, the plantation itself as like a place, like a geography just does not fit anywhere in Minnesotan's minds. It's like, “That is an elsewhere. That happens in the South. That doesn't happen here.” And it makes it really hard then to have a discussion about like anti-Black racism and or racism in general in Minnesota because the core geography, like the core site that we often use to explain racism, is the plantation. But what does that… what does that do if you don't… if people have no reference point to the plantation at all? There has to be other ways to explain the experience of Black people in a place. What my research does is try to think about other geographic forms. So, my research looks at the frontier because that does have a lot of purchase here in Minnesota as like how… like how to play… how do Black people understand themselves as like frontiers people? As opposed to like people tied to the plantation. And I'm hoping (because I'm not that far in my research yet) will be another way of just getting to this kind of Black way of knowing place and knowing our environment. Which is… tends to be different than sort of geographic knowledge that is taken as natural.Saintsing: So, you brought up like talking about the Black experience in relation to a plantation. Are you using it kind of like as a historical basis of rooting the black experience? Like where the Black experience originates? Is that kind of the idea with using that term?Henderson: The plantation?Saintsing: Yeah, yeah. The term the plantation. Specifically in the context of your… of like what you were discussing with your research.Henderson: The plantation is both like a historical site. Like you could go on a plantation tour in parts of the US South or things like that. But it's also a description of like a geography, meaning a place that can travel. And it travels because the way it organizes space might be similar. The kinds of logics that are developed or the kind of knowledge that's developed may be similar. And that's how it would travel.Saintsing; So, it's this kind of way in which people are interacting with each other. And like that's kind of like what's traveling. But then, that's interesting that… when you were talking about how white Minnesotans can say like, “Oh, there aren't plantations here.” So, I guess, yeah. Like the idea in geography that you can… that spaces replicate and like that something that occurs physically in one space can then like metastasize and like affect people in other places is a good… it's like a good way to describe something. But then, on the other side people who are looking to avoid grappling with this complex and harsh reality can then turn that around and say, “Okay, you're talking about this space, but it's somewhere else. And so, I can like physically locate this issue that I don't want to deal with in a completely other place. And then, I can say it doesn't happen. I don't have any part in it because I don't belong to that space.” So, that's very interesting.Henderson: And that is another key key site that geographers look at. Are the connections and the flow of resources (money, actual materials) through these spaces that people don't think of as being connected at all. And this happens every day. Like all the time we think about that something that is happening to us, a way that we are experiencing space in a city like in Berkeley has nothing to do with what people in Oklahoma City or in rural Oklahoma are experiencing. That there is no connection. But what we often times can uncover is that there are real connections between these places that don't only have to do with people moving from one place to another necessarily but all sorts of other ties and kinds of interconnectedness between spaces. So, you're right in seeing this as kind of a… it's both a helpful way of thinking about the Black experience as like plantation travels, but then it also… there's this kind of catch-22, which is people can skirt responsibility because that geography doesn't resonate with their lived experience or even their history. Like not even their lived experience but the history of the place that they live in. The kind of important thing for me to do is to try to understand what geographies do resonate with people here, and like how Black people both in history and in the present navigate that understanding of space. We have a lot of research on how Black people have resisted the plantation, how Black people have resisted and lived through the violence of the historical plantation and also the ways that the plantation has traveled. We don't have as much research on other geographies and how black people live through, in, and through those places as well. So, that's really what my work is trying to do.Saintsing: So, you're trying to root the Black experience in Minnesota without using this terminology of the plantation. You talked about frontier. You're trying to say like how we can root our understanding of the Black experience in Minnesota in this idea of frontier? And with the ultimate goal to then like have this framework that people can, I guess… Is the idea to better communicate to the Black experience outside of the Black community to the wider community? Or to kind of have a framework to talk within the Black community? Or both?Henderson: Yeah, I would say, perhaps prematurely, the hope would be for both. But another key part of my research that I have not yet talked to you about is that the main point of my intervention is to try and think about Black and Indigenous geographies together. And oftentimes discussions of the plantation and slavery alongside things like Indigenous genocide and dispossession of land, they don't always come together neatly in terms of a conversation both in academia and in sort of activist spaces. But what I have noticed so far in Minneapolis is that there is a lot of attention on Indigenous dispossession, Indigenous geographies, and Indigenous knowledge here that I have not always experienced in other places that, I mean, that I've lived and that I've researched. And so, my hope is that with thinking about other places that Black people live that might not have the plantation kind of hanging over us that we might come to better understandings and relationships with Indigenous peoples, as Black people with Indigenous peoples. So, in Minnesota that would be like the Dakota, Ojibwe peoples. And that just gives us a totally new way of understanding space. A new way of understanding geography and a new set of values around who matters in these places that I think, if we can get outside of some of the plantation and the really terrible violence of the plantation, we can think about how to be together differently. So, it is both for like white Minnesotans to be able to like understand their… like how they're implicated in racism. Because I'm not using the plantation. I'm using something that has… that resonates to white Minnesotans. But it's also more than that. It's more than like humanizing Black people for white people. My project is also trying to think more broadly about Black claims to land, how we interact with land, and how we do that with respect to the original inhabitants of this land. Indigenous Dakota people.Saintsing: This has been really interesting, but we're running out of time on the interview. Usually at the end of the interview we give our guests a chance to address the audience on any matter that they'd like to bring up or re-emphasize. Is there anything you'd like to leave us with before we go?Henderson: Yes. Hello, audience, all the listeners. It's been really great to talk with you, Andrew, about my work, and I would definitely encourage any listeners who are interested in geography to not only check out our department website at UC Berkeley, but also to think about your own neighborhoods, the places that you tend to go to. And even now during COVID to take a really close look at the spaces that you're in and try and think about like how they came to be that way. And look at those things with a critical eye. Like, “Why does the street that you lived on have this certain name? Or why is the school, the elementary school down the block, named after a certain person?” And I'd also encourage everybody to look up the (whichever place you might be), to look up whose Indigenous homelands you're on and how you might be able to ensure that Indigenous sovereignty is an active practice in your own work. And when you talk about like where you're from, there's a lot of resources on that. So, you could also email me for those if you have trouble.Saintsing: Thanks so much, Jane. Yeah, so if you're interested in getting in touch with Jane… And remember: we're speaking to Jane Henderson from the Department of Geography, and you can find her email on that website. Again, thank you so much for being on the show.Henderson: Yeah, thanks for having me. This was awesome.Saintsing: Tune in in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.
2/2/2021

Mohamad Jarada

Andrew Saintsing: You're tuned into 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Andrew Saintsing, and this is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today I'm joined by Mohamad Jarada from the Department of Anthropology. Welcome to the show, Mohamad.Mohamad Jarada: Hey, hey. How are you? How's it going? Thanks for having me.Saintsing: It's great. I'm so glad you're here. How are you doing?Jarada: I'm doing well. Beautiful day in Berkeley today.Saintsing: Yeah, weirdly unseasonably warm when we're interviewing this in January – doing this interview in January.Jarada: Yeah.Saintsing: So, I'm so glad to have you on here. I don't think I've had anyone from the Department of Anthropology, yet. And so, I'm really interested to hear more about your research. I'm also really interested to hear about your research because I saw that you do a lot of it in North Carolina, which is where I'm from. Could you just kind of introduce us a little bit to what you're doing? What your research is?Jarada: Yeah, sure. So, my research essentially takes civil rights as its focal point, but it does so by expanding our understanding historically and in the contemporary about how civil rights is practiced within local communities and how civil rights gets shaped within legal, political, and social discourses throughout post-Reconstruction United States of America. So, what I try to do in my research is look at certain communities certain, racialized communities, in particular communities who are criminalized, to see how they have used and construed the concept of civil rights and how that has been developed historically since again the late 19th century up until the present. And I do this in particular by trying to look at certain security documents because what I'm trying to do with the civil rights focal point is expand our understanding of civil rights beyond questions of voting political participation, etc., etc. And to think about how communities could protect themselves and defend themselves against things like hate violence and austere surveillance from the government or something of that sort.Saintsing: Wow, so your research is very relevant right now, right? It's… you're getting a lot of news stories that could probably be something you could look at for your research?Jarada: Absolutely, yeah. I mean right now civil rights is certainly a hot topic to discuss. I think it's sometimes, it's over-determined and misplaced about where it could be talked about or addressed publicly.Saintsing: What do you mean by over-determined?Jarada: I think that sometimes when we talk about racial struggles in the United States or communities who are criminalized by law enforcement agencies, oftentimes civil rights gets tokenized as the only resource or only form of recourse that these communities can seek. I think that it's important for me in my dissertation and in my research is to kind of delimit that space of what civil rights can do for these communities and the limits of what it can do for these communities as well.Saintsing: Sorry, but can you just say what you mean specifically by civil rights then?Jarada: Yeah, so the way I understand civil rights and the way I construe it as a, both as a historical concept and as a legal concept in my dissertation is something that is particularly referring to certain legal entitlements that are, that is offered by the state or by the federal government or by, depending on the time or era you're speaking about, by state government. And so, when I say civil rights I say the particular legal entitlement that a citizen, or a non-citizen for that matter, is given by the state generally and historically speaking. And this is where it gets kind of confusing or complex. It's differentiated especially by the Supreme Court by two different kinds of rights. So, there’s civil, there’s social, and there's political rights. And so, often times the Supreme Court, at least in the post-Reconstruction era, they differentiated these three different kinds of rights in order to address how they should matriculate formerly enslaved people into the national citizenry. So, the goal of civil rights is to ensure those legal entities and legal entitlements that are essential to being a citizen or living in the United States.Saintsing: Okay, and so you're saying that maybe the other rights that you talked about are not as emphasized and could be more important to the discussions that we're having in racial justice and social justice issues?Jarada: Precisely. So I mean these are discussions that are happening within political activists, social activist communities, where civil rights is often not really a significant part. Or it is a significant part, but the problem with civil rights is the legal regiment in order to get some kind of redress or get some kind of cure for a political, social, or legal injury. So, for example, if a civil rights of mine is transgressed, in order for me to get that remedied I would have to go through a large and extensive legal process that is a headache. And so, there are these other kinds of rights, particularly social, political. There are things like economic rights, too, that people are considering on the local level as well, to think about different ways or different forms of recourse that these communities could find in times of need or in times of vulnerability.Saintsing: Okay, and so civil rights we're saying we have to go through legal channels to address injustices or to make sure that people have these civil rights. But these other rights, political, economic, social rights, these are things that are addressed outside of court systems?Jarada: Well, no, they're… So, they are outside of court systems in the sense that they could be used or addressed or spoken about outside of legal processes and court systems, precisely. But they're highly defined by and created and constructed out of the Supreme Court essentially because… or legal debates that were happening, or presidential debates. So, part of my research is looking at this really funny early debate between this guy named Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. So, before Abraham Lincoln was the President of the United States, he was running for the Senator in Illinois. And he ran up against this kind of robust racist Stephen Douglas who truly believed in the institution of slavery. And so, it's in these debates (these are really famous debates) where the idea of social, political equality and rights somehow gets differentiated from legal, civil equality, rights, and entitlements. And it's so… they're constructed within these legal these legal arguments, these political debates, the court system. But they are… they have a more expansive capacity, or they're more expansive in the sense that communities can use them or address them or speak about them in a way that isn't limited by the courts per se. Okay, it is confusing. It definitely is. But it's both confusing, ambivalent, and unstable, and for all those reasons it makes political and social rights all the more contested and gives them potential to be used for these social justice or political justice initiatives.Saintsing: Okay, so you research specific case studies around this. So, could you kind of walk us through like a specific example that could help illustrate you know the intersections of these rights and how communities use different rights to address different issues/Jarada: Sure, so the community that I work in particularly is in North Carolina, and I've done research across the South. I've tried to do stuff in Virginia and Tennessee, but I chose North Carolina just because it was a pragmatic decision that I made. And it's kind of high… it's been highlighted within public channels especially within the communities I work with (which are particularly Muslim communities) because there was a kind of a brutal murder of these three Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina by this guy named Craig Hicks. And so, after this kind of tragic situation where these three Muslims, you know, Yusor, Deah, and Razan (that's what their names were) were murdered, the question about how to protect the community and what resources to use in this community to protect them was, you know, kind of got, kind of exploded. It's like, “how can these Muslim Americans protect themselves both from the fact that they're being surveilled by the government and at the same time being, you know, hurt, murdered, assaulted, vandalism on their on their religious basis, etc. And so, what I do with this community, or what I examine in particular this community is the kind of language they use, and the kind of resources they use. And essentially to get to the nitty-gritty and to reduce it to one element it goes back all the way to the question about civil rights and how they're differentiated from things like political and social rights. And so, for example, this community wants to protect themselves from, let's say, the possibility of their space being vandalized. So, what do they do? Some communities find recourse in law enforcement. So, some communities, say in Raleigh, North Carolina, are engaging with federal and state law enforcement, particularly the FBI and local police departments in order to protect themselves. And the language that they're using is civil rights, but on the side of things they're talking about how they could actually protect themselves socially and politically (precisely because the state or the federal government hasn't done their job) in order to protect themselves. Or those civil entitlements that they're given isn't sufficient to take care of themselves. So, how do they wield this concept of political, social rights is what I try to look at and what my conclusion essentially (or one of my conclusions is) that political and social rights get used to secure these communities. And it gives them impetus or motivation to take seriously their security. Like quite literally. So, they buy CCTV cameras. They go through the process of getting a license, a permit to carry a handgun. They are highly aware of their spatial awareness, and they take part in social initiatives to mend relationships between themselves and other communities. Or they take on political initiatives to make sure that people are voting for whoever they desire to vote for. In a place like North Carolina, which is a is a heavy purple state you know. North Carolina, when Trump won for the first time, he won by 0.5 percent. And so, it's these initiatives that they're focusing on. These social initiatives and these political initiatives that focus on their security, right? The focus on the security, not only of the physical livelihood, but the security of the religious practice that is outside of this boundary or this limited space of what we know as civil rights.Saintsing: Okay, right. So, you're going through the materials that these groups, like Muslim American groups in North Carolina are putting out, both in like legal documents and just in materials that (maybe like pamphlets they're handing out or like materials they're using to communicate with other groups or within their own group) and you're just kind of seeing the language they use and seeing the strategies they use?Jarada: Precisely, yeah. I mean, you're a great listener. I mean that is exactly what they're doing there. That's exactly what I'm doing as a researcher to kind of hone in on those like little sensibilities, those strategies, those relationships that they create that can't be reduced to simple civil rights or civic participation. There's something far deeper, and there's a deeper motivation, and there's a bigger stake at hand when we think about political and social justice in the United States for racialized and criminalized communities like Muslim Americans. The majority of Muslim Americans I worked with were either brown or are Black Muslims. And so, this was a heavy topic at hand that constantly got discussed in a lot of the meetings and interviews I had with my interlocutors.Saintsing: So, I saw also that you kind of look at things from a historical perspective. So, what were… was there like a big change (you mentioned the specific event in Chapel Hill) was there like actually really a big change in the way the Muslim community in North Carolina started interacting with other groups and started looking at themselves? Like what were, what were kind of… how did they view themselves before the incident? And what were really the changes we saw afterwards?Jarada: Great question. So, I mean… should… can I address the historical part?Saintsing: Yeah, definitely.Jarada: So, historically… I try to historically (again I said I look at Supreme Court cases and see how civil rights gets construed, but) I'm also attentive to the fact that, you know, North Carolina is a Southern state. And so, as a Southern state, we know that racism and racialization functions in pervasively… it's a huge part of a state like North Carolina. The first thing I remember when I got to North Carolina, and I first went when I was in… 2017. In the summer of 2017, I went to Durham. I got to Durham. I went on the bus, and the first thing I noticed was that everyone on the bus was a Black person and everyone near the bus station, which is near downtown Durham right next to Duke was white. And so, from the outset you could tell that there's these… there are these forms of racism or racialization or segregation that was just inherent to this part of the country. And so, the historical part both looks at, you know, Supreme Court cases (reading those cases trying to figure out how civil rights and social rights and political rights were construed). But the other part is being attentive to these kinds of ghostly specters that still reside and still have vestiges in a place like the American South. And so, I try to attend to that part as well in my research. But in terms of what had happened after the community had dealt with this big blow, this tragedy of these Muslims being murdered, there was a drastic change. I mean that event was a national event, not only for the Muslims in North Carolina. At that time, I was in Boston. I was doing my master’s degree at Boston in Harvard. And students across the campus were worried. They were scared. They felt a sense of anxiety about whether or not they were being protected. And this is in Boston. And so, in North Carolina, where this had happened, (and all of my interlocutors the majority of which always point to this event as a threshold) security became the essential issue in this community about how to protect themselves. And the way they did it was they created relationships with law enforcement, and they try to amend relationships with their particularly Christian neighbors and Jewish neighbors as well. And so, you see like a wave a wave of like civic, political, and social activism that's happening from the generation that grew up after 2015 when this event happened. And so, there were a lot of drastic changes after that event.Saintsing: And this was nationally. Like Muslim Americans in general. This is a huge event, and it's shaped across the country not just North Carolina.Jarada: Absolutely, and I can only speak about the effects that have happened in places that I've lived (so North Carolina, Boston, and California now) where I've seen communities take this question about security far more seriously than ever before. And that event was only one of a series of events that happened, like the Dylan Roof shootings in South Carolina at a Methodist church also was impetus. The Christchurch shootings in Australia were also an event that happened. And so, that event in particular focusing on Muslims in the United States pretty much changed a lot of the things in a lot of the ways that Muslims and mosques and the wider community thought about themselves and how they arranged their communal makeup and their spatial makeup. Yeah.Saintsing: Right, yeah, you brought up a bunch of different attacks on different denominations, different faiths and then there was also the Tree of Life massacre. Yeah. Is this, you know, thinking historically, is this an exceptional moment that all of these attacks are happening in these places of worship or on people specifically for their faith?Jarada: Yeah, I mean it's really hard to tell just because I mean historically, you know, speaking of Black churches, Black churches have been arsoned or been used as a as a tool by the KKK in particular or other white supremacy and hate groups to be to be arsoned or vandalized to foster fear and anxiety within Black communities for a very long time. Albeit these things aren't reported or documented because when you burn something it's, you know, it just disappears, or we don't have those or at least I don't have the resources to know historically about how these things have happened within the United States. But I can say that in the past two decades… I could say this. I could say that the events that have occurred within religious spaces like murders, stabbings, shootings have had a kind of singular response that has been significant. It's a significant change in religious communities in the United States, I think, where these communities are now fully taking security into their own hands. They're soliciting not only the help of law enforcement, but (I mean we could call them mercenaries) like private security firms who take care of religious communities. There are now, I know of two security firms that are particularly focused on religious communities. And they have a kind of like Christian Biblical motivation, you know. And so, I know that in the past two decades those events related to religious spaces have taken on this question of security far more seriously. So, it's interesting, you know, as a Muslim myself, when I'm in a mosque and you see a man with a handgun, that's something new. That isn't something that I was always privy to or aware of or I had to care for growing up as a young Muslim in California. So, yeah.Saintsing: It's so interesting to think about. You know, obviously this danger in public spaces in general is problematic and scary. But I guess in particular thinking about religious sites, you know churches, mosques, synagogues, temples… the fact that people have to worry about this and have to think about security when these spaces are supposed to be these welcoming spaces in general, you know. This is like a place where theoretically everyone could just come in and you know be welcome to worship. So, do you have any… has your research shown you anything about the way that, you know, these new security… thoughts about security and movement towards increasingly secure spaces has altered that aspect of places of worship?Jarada: Wonderful question. I mean you're asking a really great question, Andrew. I really appreciate this. Yeah, so this is an essential question that I'm trying to ask in my research about how is it possible that these traditions, right? These are religious traditions, like Islam, Christianity, Judaism, that's really kind of honing in on the question of neighborliness or being a neighbor with someone or helping someone out or being hospitable to people and attending to the poor, you know. And creating these virtues within a community, right? Things like charity, things like service. How do they do that given this fact that now mosques are (they quite literally… this one mosque in particular the Islamic Association of Raleigh has built a, you know… fortified their entire space with a wall, with a gate). And so, it's interesting to ask you know how the hell is someone going to know whether or not to come into space or feel welcomed into space if there's a wall blocking them from this and if they're not already part of the community. And so, the conclusion I've come to or from the interviews I've had and the people I've spoken to, it's really interesting. They believe that (and I would agree with them that) the construction of these walls, which creates a space or creates a division between oneself and one’s community and another community outside, is actually the condition for hospitality. It's the condition for a healthy relationship to one’s social world outside of themselves or welcoming someone inside the mosque, right? So, when you build a wall, one interlocutor would tell me, you're doing something to invite people in to ask questions and to be provoked in a particular way such that they ask “why is this Muslim community building a wall? And for what reason?” Or in the scenario where there was, there was cases where people would come outside the mosque wearing things like a pig, a hat with bacon and saying kryptonite for muslims or stuff like that, where they would stand outside of these mosques, and imams would come and invite them in. And so it's in this like really interesting scenario where you would think that building a wall and you would think that carrying guns and you would think that all these protective strategies that these communities are building and implementing are ways of pushing people away. But for them it's actually an invitation to both ask questions and to be welcomed inside the mosque. So long as they're safe, right? So, long they're also prepared in the situation in which someone wants to do something out of the ordinary. And I think that is where we get to the question of political and social justice or political and social rights. Where these communities take it seriously that the state or the federal and state government won't protect them. In these everyday situations, you won't have… 911 won't come immediately. And so, building these walls and holding guns, etc., etc. are both strategies to invite people in – strategies for hospitality – and strategies to protect themselves and their religious tradition. And so that they can have some kind of psychic relief when they're praying.Saintsing: Okay, yeah. So I'm really interested… I think your research is super interesting, and like the content of your research is really interesting, but I'd love to know more about like what it actually looks like when you go out and do research as an anthropologist. So, are you… so, you talk a lot about interviews? So, you're going actually into communities and interviewing people. But then you're also like looking at documents. Like how do you choose what to look at? How do you identify people for interviews? Just tell us a little bit about that process.Jarada: Yeah, I should say first and foremost, you know, I got really lucky. I mean the community I worked with in North Carolina were probably the most lovely people I've met in my life. I mean these people are caring, loving, welcoming, concerning, you know. Highly political and socially aware people that really care about both the community that are, that they live in (the non-Muslim community) and the communities they're a part of. And so, for me, I was, my job was really easy. I mean I woke up in the morning excited to do the research that I was doing. As an anthropologist, the first step for me is to gain some kind of trust between myself and this community, right? And that was kind of… I have to admit it was easy just because my name is Mohamad. I'm Muslim myself. I speak Arabic. And you know I pray. And so, I was first intending to kind of put myself within this community as a Muslim, right? And as a researcher. They knew from the outset that I was a researcher. I first… what I first did was just attend a bunch of meetings. I mean I would attend things from like random-ass dinners to you know events about civil rights to concerts to gatherings, social gatherings. I mean fires, what are they, bonfires. I mean I went to everything for like the first four months. I mean I was exhausted. But it was a lot of fun. And then people got to know me, and I got to know them. And so, as I started going to the more important events, events surrounding questions about political rights or social rights or activism or people running, Muslims running for mayor or Muslims running for political office. When I went to these events, that's when the question started happening. And because they knew me as a familiar face, and they were so kind, they were so open to giving me, giving me interviews. And so when I would do these interviews, they were just… they were just a lot of fun, man. You know you get excited about these things and these people are as excited as you, and the people I would talk to range from people who worked in tech to people who devoted their entire life to the religious communities like imams and other religious leaders. Or people who own subways. Or people who were financial advisors or people who wanted to be lawyers, et cetera, et cetera. And so, you get a diverse group of people all who are concentrated on this one task: security. And when you ask them and you provoke them, boy are they willing to talk. The job of an anthropologist is, or the job that I took as an anthropologist for the way I see, is to kind of get to know these little social minutia that surround these really important issues, right? Like you hear about these things on the news every day. You hear about these things on your podcast. You hear about these things everywhere, but nobody really knows what goes into those little interactions or those little happenings in the everyday in order to protect a community. In order to garner your social, political, and civil rights. And that was my goal, and I enjoyed it very much.Saintsing: Well, unfortunately, it looks like we're running out of time. It's been so great talking to you, Mohamad. Just a reminder: today I've been speaking with Mohamad Jarada from the Department of Anthropology about civil rights and other form of rights among different groups in America with a focus on Muslim Americans in the American South. Thank you so much for being on the show, Mohamad.Jarada: Andrew, it's been honestly my pleasure. And I really thank you for giving me the time and space to speak about my research. And truly your questions were really great. And I appreciate that.Saintsing: Thanks for saying that. Tune in in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.
1/19/2021

Giovana Figueroa

Andrew Saintsing: You're tuned into 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Andrew Saintsing, and this is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today I'm joined by Giovanna Figueroa from the Department of Integrative Biology. Welcome to the show, Giovanna.Giovanna Figueroa: Hey there.Saintsing: How's it going?Figueroa: It's going. I'm happy to be here.Saintsing: We're happy to have you. We're really interested in hearing about your research. So, you do field work in the Amazon rainforest, right?Figueroa: Yeah, that's true. I do field work in Peru, and my home base when I'm there is Iquitos.Saintsing: That's really cool. What do you? What are you looking at?Figueroa: So, I'm focusing my research on a genus of palm trees Oenocarpus, and specifically I'm focusing on Oenocarpus bataua, which is a really abundant palm tree in the Amazon. So, it's the seventh most abundant tree in the Amazon basin, and it spans like northern South America. So, I'm really interested in I guess like kind of people-plant interactions and also tropical ecology in general. So, I want to understand floristic abundance and diversity patterns and also how humans might have influenced these patterns. So, something interesting about this palm tree is that its fruit is really nutritious, and it's used to make like this beverage. It's called chapo de Ungurahui, and it's just like macerated pulp with some water. And sometimes folks will add some sugar also.Saintsing: Cool, okay. So, you're studying this palm tree that grows throughout the Amazon rainforest, and you're mostly focused on how people interact with it?Figueroa: That's like… that's a component of it. So, I want to look at the like finer scale, like variation of this palm tree. So, when I do my field work, I'm collecting a lot of fruit specimens and leaf specimens to do some molecular work to understand like the population-level structuring.Saintsing: And what do you mean by population-level structuring?Figueroa: Oh, so I want to see if there's any… like how much, I guess, structuring… like genetic structuring there is between populations. So, I visit different communities along different river, rivers in the Amazon, and I'm just, I want to like compare the genetic structuring to see if there's like any sort of like distinct genetic differences between these different populations along different rivers. But I'm also recording morphological variation in the fruits, so this… it can be related to like the size, the weight, but specifically the pulp color, So, I found fruits that are like a really deep purple. Some that are white, and then some that are like some like intermediate pinkish version of that. And then, there are some where the pulp looks like it's like essentially rotted, but when I talk to people, they're like, “this is the best one for oil content.” So, you wouldn't expect that because it looks really dry, but apparently, it's really rich in oil content. So, that's a lot of variation I'm looking at.Saintsing: Okay, cool. Okay, so this is one species of palm tree, but you're looking to see if there just happens to be differences genetically and morphologically across this range. I guess it's kind of like how a lot of agricultural plants, like you see big differences in the way their fruits and different parts of their vegetative structures look. Like that's kind of like what you're looking at in this palm tree?Figueroa: Yeah, I'd say that's correct. And I'm also looking across the genus also. Just so I have like a baseline to do evolutionary like comparisons I suppose. So, I'm not just looking at this one specific species. I'm looking at other related species which also produce fruit that's like similar in nutritional content some are also used to make beverages similar to the chapo de Ungurahui, but they're not as popular. And so, I'm like curious to see if there's like significant differences in the nutrition of these like lesser used foods. Or if maybe they're just not as popular because they're not as abundant.Saintsing: So, you you're saying that people just don't see them as much, so they don't go to them basically.Figueroa: Yeah, essentially. I don't know if that's why they're not as used because they're not as encountered or if they're actually just not as great of a food source. And I'm curious to like kind of explore that realm of my research, to like kind of also understand if people have influenced the geographic distribution of Oenocarpus bataua, this really, really abundant tree. Whether it's being used as much because it's been so abundant, it's so abundant, or if somehow through migration and past human management, this species has benefited from that and become more abundant.Saintsing: Right. Okay, so that's interesting. So, I guess when you first started talking about it, it kind of seemed like this was, we were talking about just kind of a wild plant, but is it kind of undergoing cultivation? Like people are…Figueroa: There's no, there's no evidence of like it being actively domesticated. Some folks consider it like incipient domestication, where it's just kind of like a byproduct of human presence. So, what I've noticed is that when people go collect, harvest this fruit, they just go into the surrounding forest to harvest it. But they don't actively plant it. However, like you know as you're walking through the forest and eating the fruits you can drop the seeds, and it will grow, and then when I see folks who are working their chacras, their plots of lands where they have their own like crop rotations for food, if there is one of these palm trees growing on that plot of land, they won't chop it down. They'll just like let it be because it takes a while for these to start producing fruits. So, it's more beneficial to just like leave it there but it's actually pretty difficult for, it's difficult for them to just start growing in like full sun areas. And so, a lot of these like agricultural plots are not shaded. They're full sun.Saintsing: So, these plants kind of have to be growing before people have moved in to like actually farm is what you're saying? I see. That's interesting. Yeah, in the Amazon is farming generally how we think of it in the US, or you know like people go in and clear a forest and then plant crops? Or do people kind of try to integrate into the existing ecosystem to grow? Because I assume a lot of the useful crops that would come out of the Amazon kind of work well in the natural ecosystem.Figueroa: Yeah, I think there's like a big spectrum of agricultural systems in the Amazon. And so, where like the places I visit specifically, what I notice is that folks have like an area of land that they just cut, they work. And that's their area of land. And they will just rotate through crops seasonally, but it's not like a huge chunk of land. And it's not monoculture like what we see here. So, it's kind of like mixed in. A few different crops. There might be some yucca, or like there will be plantains or something. And it's just kind of like all integrated. And then when that plot of land has kind of become like nutrient-deficient, they'll just like burn it. Let it rest for a bit, and it'll like regenerate into a second forest over time, and they'll move to like a second plot. But then they can go like switch off between these like new and like the secondary growth so that they're letting regeneration happen.Saintsing: Okay, so how much of your research would you say is actually interacting with local people in the Amazon, who are farmers or who just happen to live there and can guide you around and things like that?Figueroa: Quite a bit I'd say. So, I go to a lot of different communities, and every time I go I have to like present my like research ideas to either like the community members or the whole community. Each place has like their own protocols of like what is standard, and so I always have to like make sure that I have the permission from locals to actually carry on my work. And I always hire like a local guy to take me to the palm trees or like areas where they know that these palm trees grow. I learn a lot just like in my interactions. Like for example when I was telling you about the Oenocarpus variety, the one that looks like it's like rotted but is actually really high in oil content. Like I wouldn't have known that otherwise. And folks are just like, “oh, yeah this is good for this.” You know? So, just like in my like conversations I learned a lot.Saintsing: Yeah, definitely. Is that, is that trick (this kind of rotted-looking fruit) something that was specific to a like local area? Or was that kind of like commonly known throughout the places you're looking?Figueroa: I think it's… I think a few folks like when I like start talking to more people like here and there in different communities, they're like, “oh, yeah, those.” I think it is kind of known, but it… this variety isn't like really good for making like beverages the chapo de Ungurahui. So, people usually just let this one like stay on the tree. Or, they know this tree does not give good fruit, so like we're not going to collect them. So, like some people are just like, “Yeah, that's not good for like what we're looking for.” The beverage is like one of the main uses of these fruits. The oil is like secondary. But in some places I'm guessing like the oil is really popular. But once I start talking to other people, they're like, “yeah, yeah, those are really like fatty and oily. Not great for beverage, but good for like oil.”Saintsing: Okay, so what is this beverage exactly? Like what are people drinking it for? Or is it just kind of like a good drink?Figueroa: It's just a good drink. Yeah, but it's, I find it kind of rich. And a lot of people like don't drink… like they'll drink a lot of it, but they're like cautious to not drink too much of it like too close to like bedtime because it's like heavy. So, it's just like this fruit. You let the fruits soak in warm water to kind of soften them up a bit, and then you macerate everything, and you have this like mixture of pulp and seeds. And so, what folks do is they'll like remove the seeds and then pass this pulp with some water through like a sieve. And then, you have this like really like thick mixture of like water and pulp, and you can thin it out by adding more water. You can add some sugar to it to make it a little sweet, but on its own, it's pretty, it's like creamy. And I'd say it's like nutty tasting. And it's really good. It's just, like I say, it's heavy because it's really like fatty and protein rich. So, it's like a really great source of nutrition. It's actually a complete protein. It's like, it's important for the local, like just like subsistence level economy. But what's being seen now is that it's, we're starting to see these fruits like move out of the local communities into cities. And folks are like making ice creams or just like other yummy beverages or candies out of these fruits.Saintsing: So, it's being kind of commercialized you would say?Figueroa: Yeah, yeah. I think it's like being integrated into like a larger economy. So, that's something else that's kind of interesting. Because there's like a higher demand for the fruits now, a lot of folks have turned to like felling trees to collect fruits instead of climbing palm trees which is like the traditional and like I guess more sustainable, less destructive way of harvesting. I don't really know what the implications of that are. That's something that I want to explore. But I think that's going to come later in my research. Just kind of understanding like what exactly is over harvesting of a dominant tree… like what is the role of a dominant tree in the Amazon? Does something else take over? Like fill in its place? Or is this actually not that destructive? (Which I don't believe is the answer, but I'm not sure right now.) When I do my research, I partnered with this local fruit pulp company, processing company, and it's based in Iquitos. And they've developed this specialized climbing system. It's like a harness with two loops. And two loops for your feet. And it allows you to essentially just like walk up the palm trunk. And you can, it's really easy, and it's safe, and you can just like get up to the trunk in (if you're really good) like five minutes. It takes me a little longer. And then you just cut a mature raceme of fruits instead of having to like cut the whole tree down. And you lose a lot of potential with future fruits, you know,Saintsing: Because the tree is going to put out the fruit like every year?Figueroa: It's kind of continuously putting out fruit, and there's not like a real understood pattern of like when it's like fruiting period is. And there's a lot of like variation between populations also. Like every place I have visited, except for one community, I have always found ripe fruits. And I visited at like different times of the year because that's just how I can visit. So, yeah, they're kind of continuously producing fruits. And like most individuals, it's like there will be like one raceme with really ripe fruits, there will be a green raceme that will probably be ready like next year, and then there's like a little bud that will be a raceme in a year also or something like that. It's like an abundant source of really nutritious food. It's always producing.Saintsing: Yeah. So, okay. So, you go into, you fly into Peru, right? And then you have to just get yourself around to different communities that are kind of in remote areas in the rainforest? How? What is that like?Figueroa: Yeah, that's tough. So, I'm really lucky that my advisor Paul Fine, he has been working in Iquitos for like over 20 years. So, he has a really great network of collaborators and folks that he's, yeah, just worked with over the years. So, I'm able to meet with those people when I get to Iquitos. And they kind of help me out. So, like I will like… before I start my river travel, I like sit down and like ask for their advice on like where they recommend would be a good place to go. Like just telling them like, “this is what I'm looking for. I'm looking for a place that has Oenocarpus bataua. I'm also looking for a place that has Oenocarpus bacara. Like, where are some areas where you have seen this? And like what are some like good base communities that you think I can like go to and find folks to help take me to these places?” So, yeah, that's like my first step when I arrive to Peru. And then once that is done, oftentimes I'll try to establish contact before I go to these communities. But sometimes that's really difficult because, like some places, there's like one cell phone for the whole community. And like there might not be great cell phone reception, or like whoever has a hold of the cell phone, like maybe he's on a fishing trip and can't answer. So, sometimes it's difficult. So, I'll either keep trying to contact folks, or like send word of mouth through the rivers. Just be like, “oh, yeah.” Like, I'll meet someone like at one place, and then I'll like find out that this person is going to keep traveling, and I'll be like, “oh, if you stop in this community, will you just like kind of give folks a heads up that I am interested in working and will like probably be showing up in a week.”Saintsing: That's really interesting. When you say “river travel,” you mean you're on a boat?Figueroa: Yeah, let's see. What I usually do is, when I leave Iquitos, I will either have like, try to coordinate with someone from the fruit pulp company to take me to like a large, larger like central community in the river. And then from there I'll organize, like I'll like hire someone with a smaller boat to start taking me further out. Or sometimes I'll take like a public transportation or like a public boat. There are like so many different varieties. Like I can take a fast one. It'll get me there like relatively faster. I can take a slow one if I like feel like I have time, and it's like an overnight river trip. And I just hang a hammock and can like sleep. And it's more comfortable because we're not like crammed together. And then I just show up somewhere and like ask around and find someone who can/is willing to take me to my next site.Saintsing: And people are pretty friendly about it? They're… you don't really… you kind of always have somebody that'll help you when you get to these places?Figueroa: Yeah, I usually do. So, at least for like my… like wherever that first place is, I know, I like… I go with like a name or like someone in mind that I'm looking for specifically, or like people from Razac already know folks there. And they'll go with me and like will like ask. And if that person can't, they'll be like, “oh, but like you know my neighbor probably can.” So, then we'll go ask the neighbor, and as long as like I’m paying for the gas and like also like paying for the services, like people are happy to help me get to my places.Saintsing: So, you have to I guess tell people a plan, right? Before you start these trips. But how often would you say that plan is actually what happens on the ground?Figueroa: Yeah, I'd say like, maybe like 80 percent of the time that's what happens. Sometimes I have to switch the community site or like whatever. Like I thought there was going to be trees like immediately outside this forest. And like no. We have to actually go like 30 minutes up the river or something. So… But I mean it's not like a huge change in plans. Well, except for this past year.Saintsing: Right, yeah, that's what I was going to say.Figueroa: It's like probably like most unexpected of my trips.Saintsing: Yeah, so obviously this past year the issue was COVID-19. So, like what happened while you were on location? What was going on?Figueroa: I had planned for a two-week trip down the Nanay River, which is pretty like easy. I've traveled on the Nanay many times. So, I didn't think it was going to be a huge deal. But I was going further than I ever had. So, I made it about like (it was a 16-hour boat ride to this community called Tucaurco), and I was able to get all my collections done and everything. And then just by chance one night someone had turned on their TV and heard that there is like a lockdown in place for COVID-19. So, all like travel, like ground and fluvial (like river) travel was like suspended. And they told me that, and I was like, “oh, interesting. Okay.” And like in my head, I was just like, “I don't know how you like shut down river travel. Like that doesn't make sense.” Especially, a lot of folks like fish on the rivers. Like that… like this is how people get their food. Like I don't know how like you stop this. But luckily I had this GPS that the Field Safety Office let me borrow. And I was able to contact Paul, my advisor. And I just sent him a message. And I was like, “hey, I am hearing this stuff. I don't know what this means. Can you like do some research and let me know?” Because I couldn't get a hold of Julie, who's this other grad student from Princeton that I usually do a lot of, we try to coordinate our field work to overlap. Everything was just like still like really uncertain. So, I was like, “okay. I think maybe I should like make my way back to Iquitos.” And I got really lucky, and I found a team of medical workers that was in… they were doing malaria tests, and they were going to head back down the river towards Iquitos. And so I asked them if it would be possible for myself and Chapi, my field assistant, to like get a ride with them. And they were like, “yeah, of course.” So, they like took us pretty far down the river. Up to like right before the first, where the first river checkpoint would be. So, my plan was the following day was to like go to the river checkpoint and like talk to the national police who were there and just kind of like explain my situation and try to see if like I could get back to Iquitos. But before I could do that the national police showed up to this town Yamanote, where I was, and were like (and just kind of like went door to door) and just said, “this community is on a full lockdown. You can't leave.” I was there for almost two or like to the end of the lockdown because it was only supposed to be until the end of the month or something. But while this was all happening, I was like finally able to contact Julie, and she was like, “the US is like trying to like plan a like repatriation flight. You have to get to Iquitos.” And I was just like, “I don't know how I'm going to get to Iquitos. I have to pass two checkpoints. Like the military police showed up at the door and said I can't leave. Like, yeah, we’d get arrested.”Saintsing: What happened?Figueroa: I like went to the first checkpoint. They weren't going to let me go unless I had like proof that my name was like on a roster or like, yeah, a manifest sheet. A flight manifest. And I was like trying to like get in contact, like send WhatsApp messages to the embassy, so they can send me a PDF. But like it just wasn't working out. And then Chapi was able to talk to the police officer. And then I'm not sure what happened, but they let me go. So, we made it through like the first checkpoint to a little town that was like maybe two hours from that checkpoint. And from there Chapi had been able to contact someone that he had worked with before who he knew had a boat and would be willing to take us to Iquitos. And this man was like, “yeah, yeah. I'll take y'all to Iquitos, but I'm not going to be able to take you until tomorrow.” And I thought that was fine. But then I got a call from Julie saying like, “the flight's leaving tomorrow at 10 AM. You have to be here.” And I was like, “okay. I don't know if that's going to happen.” So, like I talked to the boat driver, and I was like asking him if it would be possible to leave like immediately. And he's like, “no, we can't because of the curfew and the checkpoint. Like, we have to leave tomorrow, or we have to leave at night.” And there is a curfew that started at I think at 8. And it was like from eight to like five in the morning. And so, like at seven, the man comes up to my like (our like little campsite), and he was like, “we should just leave now.” And I was like… I was really scared because I was like, “well, the curfew's about to start, and I am not Peruvian. And if I like… I don't want any of us to get caught. But like I… like from what I’ve heard from my friends in Iquitos is that like the consequences for being like breaking this curfew (especially if you're not a citizen) are like much more severe. But I, at the same time, I was like, “this is my one chance to like catch this flight. I don't know when there's going to be another repatriation flight straight out of Iquitos that's like a direct flight.” And so, we just went, and I don't know like how… like I'm not sure what happened. I fell asleep, and then like at six, five thirty, six in the morning, we’re in Iquitos. I was like, “okay?” And then it was just like a rush to get to my… the place I had been staying (a little like office apartment place), shower, and just pack up my essentials and get to the airport. And it was just… yeah, I was running on a lot of adrenaline and didn't really process how bizarre just like the whole journey back had been.Saintsing: Down the road, not on this particular project, but you are excited to be able to do more work like you have, you had done more freely before COVID in the future?Figueroa: Definitely, I really like field work. I think I like the fact that it keeps me on my feet a lot. I don't know. I don't… I don't think I do very well with like a lot of strict structures. So, like because things come up while I'm in the field, and I have to kind of like adapt, I like that. And I like being outside, too. I find it really rewarding just like interacting with plants and people and like just being immersed in it.Saintsing: Before you started your dissertation (actually going out and doing the field work) were you kind of more on the side that you were going to do like the evolutionary relationship, the genetic, you know, makeup of these communities of plants and the morphology and all of that? And then like communicating with the people kind of drew you also to the plant-human interactions? Or was that always like part of it all together before you started?Figueroa: That was always part of it. I've always been really drawn to like people-plant interactions. And just kind of looking at like, explicitly looking at like human and human participation in our environment as an ecological force. I think, up until recently, oftentimes the academic literature, just the way we like perceive ourselves has been really kind of to remove humans from the environment. So, I was really like, “I really wanted to explore these interactions in a non-domesticated species” for that reason. Because I think like domestication is like one extreme of a spectrum. And then we have like wild plants. But like what is this like in between space? And like how have humans been a part of this you know like spectrum? I suppose. So, that's always been one of my interests, and it was just trying to find a manageable species that like I felt like comfortable like studying during my PhD that fit those criteria that I was looking for.Saintsing: Right, yeah. And like how accurate is it to say anything is really wild, right? Like absent of human interaction.Figueroa: Yeah, I think there's like this like false notion of the Amazon and like a lot of forest as being pristine when like that's not really true. It's like humans have been here for a really long time and have been interacting with these forests.Saintsing: Yeah, it's like in California, you know, with fire management. We're figuring out how important it was to have people…Figueroa: …actively managing the forests.Saintsing: Yeah, exactly. Well, unfortunately it looks like we're running out of time on the interview. Is there anything you'd like to leave us with before we go?Figueroa: I think the aspect of my research that I like find most rewarding and that like I'd like to stress is just like how much there is to learn from like non-traditional, like non-academic settings. Like I learned so much just like on the like on the ground in the field just through my like interactions. And a lot of that has like really like helped how I like, how I shape my research. So, you know I think there's like knowledge to be learned like everywhere. And not just in textbooks, so yeah.Saintsing: Definitely. Thanks so much for that. Today, I've been speaking with Giovanna Figueroa from the Department of Integrative Biology, and we've learned a lot about her really cool work in the field in the Amazon rainforest in Peru. It's been so much fun talking to you, Giovanna.Figueroa: It’s been great talking to you, too.Saintsing: Tune in in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.