I am on sabbatical.
These are words of luscious luxury, words every academic yearns to say. My first sabbatical was in 2009, and ever since I have measured my life in seven-year increments. It’s divine.
I don’t mind gloating. Not about this. I’ve chosen a profession that doesn’t pay particularly well, but has many perks—long vacations at Christmas and in the summer, flexible scheduling, free books. And sabbaticals.
In my first sabbatical, I worked on a memoir about my mother, my aunt, and ultimately, me. I have continued working on it on and off, and have a draft that finally feels done. Or done-ish. I just need to get a publisher to agree with me. I’ll keep you posted.
My second sabbatical was in the fall of 2015, and my official project was to research and write about being a white professor of African American and post-colonial literature. I did do that—I wrote two articles and a creative piece, and I interviewed other professors, as well as many people I grew up with in Shaker Heights, Ohio, about living in a community that made conscious efforts towards racial harmony. But I also devoted a lot of time to the memoir from my first sabbatical.
Funnily enough, though my current sabbatical project is to develop a study-abroad course on African American Artists in France (poor me, I have to go to France), I am also newly committed to writing a new memoir focused on race, going deeper into the work I did on my last sabbatical. I will begin a ten-month manuscript workshop on memoir in March, and will pull together writings I have done on this topic over several decades (ha! if I can find them), and of course produce new writing.
Last year, I was in a year-long manuscript group with the same wonderful organization (Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop) for a novel I had begun on a whim. Wondering what it would be like for a Jane Austen era woman to shed her stays and revel in modern women’s undergarments, or no undergarments, who cares? I began a story about a time-traveling Jane Austen character. Given my preoccupation with racial issues, the story led me to less whimsical territory, including a police shooting of a Black character in the story. I began this novel before the killing of George Floyd, but well after Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Emmett Till, and so many others. I kind got over my head in this story – I’ve never written a novel or even much fiction. It seemed like a good idea to return to my wheelhouse, memoir, to confront these knotty issues of race and white privilege. I’ve been churning out some new words.
So here I am, in Berkeley, California, visiting my boyfriend’s family, avoiding heavy snowfall in western Mass, and (not) missing the beginning of the semester. I have begun my sabbatical project, writing lots of emails, checking out tours of Black Paris, and today I went to a local European language bookstore that is only open from 3 to 5 on Thursdays and bought four volumes of French fiction: two by Colette, one Marguerite Duras, and a new publication by a writer named Laetitia Colombani called Le Cerf-volant (The Kite). A blurb on the back declares the novel “Un hymne puissant à la sororité” (“a powerful hymn of sisterhood”), and it was recommended by the suitably rumpled proprietor. The bookstore was a delight of overstacked bookshelves of mostly French, but some Spanish and a few Portuguese titles, both used and new. Online sales probably keep the place going, but I’m glad I was there for that 2 hour in-person window today.
Soon I will begin a French course online, to prepare for my trip to France in April or May.
Sabbatical is a wonderful thing. Berkeley, California is sunny and warm. I am a lucky woman.