Once Upon a Time in the West: The “Why Grad School?” Question and I-80 (and I-70, and I-15, and US-2, and US-6, and US-191, and US-313)

I’ve been on the road for five weeks.

I’ve seen sunsets in 360 degrees, Iowa so flat and its buildings so low that the sky feels bigger and more capacious than it is back home; I’ve seen Nebraska bursting with sunflowers and roads so empty you can lie down in the middle of them to get that one perfect shot. I’ve seen the letters T R U M P, bright red and five feet tall, standing off against me in a fight that’s five against one. I’ve come home to friends’ homes in Colorado, ventured to new corners of Wyoming to see a solar eclipse. I’ve seen giant windmills, piecemeal, lying prostrate on long flatbeds pulled by Mack trucks. They reminded me of whale carcasses being carted through the streets of Taiwan, a place I’ve never been but a memory that I still have.

Utah reminds me of the sea, too. Trilobites and salt flats. And when it pours rain in Nebraska, the parking lot feels like the sea at night. The west is like that–twisted.

I’ve come west to write my dissertation. PhD, English. My Ivory Tower looks a lot like I-80.

In the past five weeks, I’ve written blog posts for my graduate school beside quiet Nebraska lakes and letters of recommendation for my former students in motels spitting distance from the railroad tracks. In this part of the west, all of the towns follow the rails; the rails are living history and you do not exist here, not really, if you’re too far to hear them. It’s best to be close.

I’ve come, specifically, for an archive in Provo, and for the provenance of several images that can only be gained by driving to Delta and asking in person.

It’s best to be close.

I’ve read incarceration poetry atop the buttes of Canyonlands National Park, where it is 107 degrees and fresh water is far, far away. But I am only there for three days. The camps stayed open for three years, sometimes more.

By choice, I write notes about the Bureau of Reclamation and the WRA in Utah canyons cut off from the distractions of Wifi and cellular service, and tap away on my Macbook from inside of my tent before getting on highways where you see more cows than oncoming traffic.

The highways are built different out here, you know. I can’t tell you the details but navigation in the West is instinctive in ways Michigan will probably never be for me. I finally know how to read Utah addresses. I know that Nebraska’s road signs are extra conscientious. (“Look Again!” a sign asks, at a T-intersection in Alliance. “Stay In Your Lane!” asks another. The lanes aren’t narrow, they don’t wind. There are no special circumstances. It’s just a reminder.)

I’m learning, slowly, the families in Delta, Utah, in 1942, and in 2017.

I know that on Saturdays, the Topaz Museum is busy. Families visiting aunts, families in town while they wait for a rotary dinner. Families in between softball games. (The team name is “Venom.”) These things are as important to me as the museum itself, the history it tells that is also the history I am telling.

The docent on duty on September 9th, 2017 asks me how I chose my research topic (Japanese American incarceration). It’s a question I’ve had before, of course. When people ask it, sometimes they’re curious about my academic trajectory. Sometimes they just want to know my race, and it’s a PC way of asking. (A similar question: “What does your name mean?” Translation: Is it ethnic?)

I tell him, “I’m Japanese American.” This makes sense enough to him, but I know it’s not a good answer. It’s not an answer at all.

In Provo, Utah, I’m more connected with my graduate community than I’ve been all summer–even when on campus. But it’s September now, and the call to work and work well grows stronger as the days grow shorter. We log online from three different timezones and discuss our work, which spans many more. We resolve to get tattoos.

On the lawn of a university at which I am not a student, I have a meeting with a career coach back in Michigan. It is magic; it is a revelation. Even though I’ve spent more time with sunflowers this summer than with literary theory, my professional future feels viable.

It’s probably thanks to those sunflowers, too. Just as much as it is thanks to the fellowship that brought me here, the hours of coursework and the hundreds of thousands of words. The university service and the research assistantships and the conference presentations and that one time I took the GRE Lit exam in the basement of a bank in St. Petersburg, Russia.

“Why grad school?” is a difficult question to answer, moreso post-2008 and for more reasons than I care to rehash here. “Why literature?” is an even harder one, because now that I’ve been literate for two decades I’m not even sure I like books that much.

Luckily, an English PhD isn’t about liking books.

It’s signing a blood pact with your research project and being ready to give your life to it.

Now, people can do this in a variety of ways. Every Ivory Tower has its dungeon, after all. But whenever possible, I prefer my blood pacts to be collaborative and consensual. If I’m going to give my life to a research project, then that research project will need to be accepting of how I want to live my life.

So I drive.

And we learn each other, grad school and I. I spend one hellish week starving to death for too many research hours on end in the double-security National Archives in DC and Baltimore. Then I go west. Every mile on my odometer is as much a part of my dissertation as the words on my screen. Every nefarious rural gas pump I don’t know how to work. (There’s a secret lever. Did you know?) Every time I re-freeze the same juice boxes I’m using as my refrigerator for the month. Every time I launder my clothes in a motel sink. Every fact I learn about sea turtles because everything in this museum about mining is donated, even the exhibit furniture and once this furniture belonged to sea turtles. Every time Detroit draws looks of despair and derision from a Westerner. Every time Provo draws the same from the folks back home, if Michigan has ever been home.

These pieces matter, because they are the world my project will be speaking to, even if these pieces never read it. They are the world I’ll be looking for when I write up my resume for that career coach, and when my graduate friends and I talk about affect, and transnationalism, and the fabulistic form. They are the world in which my history, my project’s history, the history of Japanese American incarceration in the West in World War II, is inextricably enmeshed.

I am always thinking. But I am also driving, hiking, sweating. I am also driving 600 miles to see a beloved movie with a beloved friend one weekend, because I am free and I can and I will take my dissertation with me. And it doesn’t feel so far, really: This is the west and all of it is home.

Even when the streets are empty and the churches are full, and I am not inside one. Even when I’ve never been so keenly aware of whiteness as I have been here. Even when there’s a Subaru in the parking lot that declares TRUMP 2016 and NOT A LIBERAL on its bumper, because by default, owning a Subaru declares something quite different.

Because I am here to tell the story of the West, which is a story of railroads and white Christians and sunflowers and the Department of the Interior but it is also a story of Native dispossession and it is a story of Japanese American incarceration and even–because history is never discrete, and when you throw literature into the mix the rules get even fewer, and because again, this place is twisted–even travel bans and Caribbean hurricanes and the number of times social and environmental justice has gone to dust. As everything does, in the West.

I’m here to carry that dust between my toes, to let it coat my rims and lock up my CV axles and to let it carry me to an auto shop so I can drive to Delta–a place I’ve been and I place I return to every time I open my dissertation to work.

So I guess it’s been longer than five weeks. This is year five, by PhD standards. Almost year five billion, if it’s the salt beds counting.

Here me out:

Once upon a time

in the west


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