On my bulletin board is a photo from almost 20 years ago. I took the photo down today to examine it, and the more I look at it, the more I wonder why it deserves a place among the special mementos there.
Arms folded, face glowing, radiant smile, I stand in front of City Lights, the iconic San Francisco bookstore started by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953. I remember we had fun that trip, and I look happy. Yet it’s the portrait of a faker. The fakery is that I am wearing a hot pink button-down shirt under a black jacket. The hot pink cover on a book of love poems in the window display matches the uncharacteristic hot pink of my blouse.
It’s late May 2004, and my then-husband and I are in San Francisco. We are staying at the Hyatt Regency in the Embarcadero for the 15th Annual American Literature Association conference. I’ve just started my PhD program, and this is my first real conference presentation. What a heady feeling to stay in a fancy hotel, to rub shoulders with people like Maxine Hong Kingston, Charles Johnson, and Arnold Rampersad. To see my name in the printed program: “From the Cultural Margin: Sinclair Lewis’s Quest for Symbolic Goods,” Madeline Walker, University of Victoria, British Columbia.
I wasn’t particularly interested in Sinclair Lewis, writer of early 20th century novels like Main Street and It Can’t Happen Here. But I’d gotten an A on an essay about him and the “literary field” (Pierre Bourdieu) in one of my PhD seminars, and my professor mentioned there was a Sinclair Lewis Society. Perhaps they were accepting papers for the upcoming conference. At that time in my life, my energy was almost wholly other-directed. I wasn’t sure what I wanted, but if somebody else wanted something for me, or thought I should do something, I would do it. Dear professor: You think I’m capable of presenting my ideas at an international conference, even though I’m only one year into my PhD? Okay! I’ll go for it. I took it as a challenge.
When I got in touch with the society, the president told me they hadn’t had a Sinclair Lewis panel at the ALA for a while—it seemed interest in Lewis was waning in the aughts. But I pressed on, bothering him with several more emails. And finally, they were able to find one other presenter to join me, and a small panel of two represented the Sinclair Lewis Society at the ALA that year.
I look back now from the distance of years and see my hunger for attention and approval. An A-hound since grade school, I had continued my quest for excellence, for pats on the head, for being seen as “special.” When I look back at grad school, sometimes it seems like I dreamed a long dream. Disconnected from my inner self, I was like a robot scanning for other people’s opinions about what I should be and do.
I don’t remember much about the conference except attending my professor’s presentation on F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton. I sat behind his two young children and observed how they stayed very still, hands folded on their laps, watching their father orate in dense language, his glasses glinting under the overhead lights, his fresh young face like a rosy, earnest teenager’s.
How were those children even possible? I wondered at their unnatural stillness. And I remember my own presentation, scheduled late on the last day of the conference. Only a few diehards were in the audience, and two of them were my husband and my professor. I got through it by riding that ambition, that force that through the green fuse drives the flower. As Dylan Thomas writes, that same force “blasts the roots of trees/ [and] Is my destroyer.”
While my ambition seemed admirable, it was actually self-destructive. A drive for approval propelled me through graduate school. I chose topics not with my heart (answering the question, What truly matters to me?) but from my head—looking for subjects and trends that interested my (mostly male) professors and supervisors. I was mildly interested in the topic for the conference paper, but in a purely intellectual way, an arms-length kind of way. I pretended Lewis and symbolic capital captivated me, but it was my teacher’s interest rather than mine. My argument—that Sinclair Lewis accrued more symbolic capital by refusing a literary award than by accepting it—seems wholly irrelevant to me now.
I went on to present at many more conferences on the way to completing the PhD. But I consistently calibrated my ideas to please others—how could I get the most praise from my all-male committee? The hot pink shirt I wore in that photograph taken near the beginning of my journey was a metaphor for the charade I was acting in, the pretense that this was the real me.
During a break in the conference, I wandered into a women’s clothing store on the ground floor concourse of the Hyatt Regency. A two-for-one sale was on: I bought two oversized shirts made of silky synthetic fabric, one white and one hot pink. I felt daring, as if I were dressing this new PhD student-version of myself. Perhaps I would stand out in a crowd—stop wearing black so much, start showing off a little. Speak in public, garner attention, express bold ideas. But I rarely wore either shirt, especially the hot pink number. When I put it on, I didn’t feel like me. I didn’t feel comfortable. So, I would take it off again.
The pink shirt is like my pilgrimage in academia. Trying to be pink shirt when I am really black shirt. Searching for the holy out there, but never finding it. Not realizing that it’s in here.
The weird part is that academia was never the problem. The problem was not trusting and pursuing my own interests. Not pursuing the study of women’s poetry and the body or motherhood or the multiple other threads that pulled me. Not holding my own fascinations with reverence, but instead, trailing after other people’s fascinations, thinking that if I aligned my interests with them, I might get the attention I craved.
I’m tacking the photo back in its place. I need it to remind me not to wear hot pink, but instead to touch into the hot pink centre of myself, for that’s where my truth lives.
Thomas, Dylan. https://poets.org/poem/force-through-green-fuse-drives-flowe