It’s November 2019 in Seattle, Washington. I am attending the annual meetings of my primary professional organization, the American Anthropological Association (AAA). It is the first time I have spoken to a large gathering of fellow anthropologists since my diagnosis, in 2016, with a genetic connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. For almost the entire previous decade, my life has been occupied with an increasingly unruly body and a complicated, traumatizing medical system; all the plans I had to continue fieldwork in north India have dissipated into the swirl of physician apathy around me: I can’t help you. I don’t know why this is happening to you. Have you tried yoga or meditation? About a month before the meetings, an experimental new treatment has helped my mobility levels; I don’t bring my wheelchair to the conference. I stand in front of an audience without assistance for the first time in years.
It’s not just the first time I’m in front of a professional audience in a while. It’s also the first time I am calling on my training—the training that also built my body, along with my special genetic coding, beginning in ballet and tap lessons at age five—as a dancer, a stage performer. I haven’t “performed,” since I left my playwrighting major in 1995, seduced away by my love for cultural anthropology. But for this presentation, behind me on a large screen, film sequences are spliced together, my (pre-Covid-19) largely housebound life of the previous several years flashing for all to see. Knitting, which I do to pass the time when my hands cooperate; untangling balls of yarn; wrapping a broken wrist (a constant risk, given my condition) in an Ace bandage. Next comes rare footage of myself at age seventeen, dancing on a stage, seeming graceful but now, I can see – I point out to the audience – a body riddled with signs of a deeply problematic hypermobility in almost every joint.
I talk about how embodied autoethnography and spoken word performance are helping me deal with the ethical quagmire of studying a thing that I also am: a confused disabled chronically ill woman in a lot of pain, looking for answers in social media forums and from international specialists and from within my own family history. I talk about the pain—pain so fierce even the guys writing the objective pain scales feel sorry for me. Pain that can’t be written in realist genres so I have to resort to the imagery of childhood nightmares about cartoon villains. And I talk about the loss. The career, travel, more children, I might have had that will never be.
More remarkable than standing on my often-pained legs is that I have given myself permission to put all these things into this presentation: the dancer, the anthropologist, the woman in pain. They’re all on the dais with me. We can say a lot about how far various academic disciplines have come in embracing novel forms of research and presentation. But still. this talk is unusual. How did it come to be?
It was born seven months earlier, when Dorinne Kondo contacted me, having been given my info by a close mutual friend, who told her that I was also working with genre-bending forms of ethnography. That I was also dealing with a rapidly changing adult body that was reshaping the lines between work, art, and survival in my life. “I’m going to put together a panel,” she said, inviting me to contribute. And then she suggested that presentations need not be traditional conference papers – that we might present in whatever genre best suited the work we were doing. A simple suggestion, really, that, it is no exaggeration to say, has changed my life.
I read Worldmaking after my first conversation and email exchanges with Dorinne and it was like coming home, attending a joyful all-out dance party, getting a backstage pass to some of the most important productions in recent US theater history, and being deeply challenged as an aspiring anti-racist scholar, all at the same time. So when I heard that Syndicate was interested in convening a symposium about the book, I jumped at the chance to help organize it, a task that has truly been my great privilege. While the pieces collected here will not allow readers to turn away from the realities of anti-Blackness, Asian-hate, the ongoing extractions of settler colonialism, and their intersection with so many other forms of racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, economic oppression and all the structures of privilege and violent erasure that tell people “this is not your world, you have no right to make it,” they will also bring, I believe, great joy.
In recent conversations with Dorinne, we have discussed the way that the kind of joy that arises from work like Worldmaking does not mean happiness. Joy, in this sense, is the erotic, as imagined by Audre Lorde (also referenced in Lin’s piece below): that possibility of connection and meaning that gets you out of bed in the morning in the face of the horror show. These artistic-scholarly responses to Worldmaking also produce joy – the kind that rises up when people tell the truth about a thing in a creative way so that we can feel our connection and distance at the same time: reparative creativity, a concept mentioned in every piece as a keystone of this important book.
In her discussion of the playwrighting and performance practices of Anna Deavere Smith, Kondo describes this simultaneous move in which Smith, or any of us engaged in the work of making art and scholarship rooted in social relationships, leap toward one another through language or performance or embodied listening, without erasing or collapsing power-laden difference. To make these leaps, artist-scholars must practice what she calls “radical availability to others” (106). And, indeed, while none of the authors in this symposium speak from exactly the same racial, social, economic, or historical position, they have made themselves radically available to Kondo’s text, to one another, and to you, the readers. The results are extraordinary.
It is also important to mention that Kondo’s descriptions of working on the dramaturgical teams of both Smith and David Henry Hwang are ethnographic gold that should be taught regularly in performance studies, theater, and anthropology departments around the world.
As she says in Worldmaking, one aspect of the theater that drew Kondo from being an observer to a creator of theater is its deep, essential sociality—the way a performance relies on the energy and expertise of so many people working together for a common goal, even if it is no obvious at the outset what that goal is. Kondo has taken that expertise and transferred it back into anthropology and allied fields in such a way that on that stage in 2019 I could feel supported enough to try something I had literally never seen at a professional scholarly conference, something painfully self-revelatory, and feel supported, even joyous, about the whole thing. Her role in our field is path-breaking and her entire career stands as a testament to the effort to create and support truly interdisciplinary work that refuses zealously guarded disciplinary borders—as an earlier-career scholar with the benefit of her mentorship, I can personally attest to the great gift she has given not only me, but so many others.
And look, Dorinne Kondo has done it yet again! Conjured a magical group of serious play-mates and interlocutors to discuss some of the highlights of Worldmaking! The contributions gathered here—which Kondo herself has called an almost embarrassing wealth of intellectual and artistic riches—and the layered, rich, diverse meanings they have all taken from this incomparably creative work—are a testament to Kondo’s importance as a scholar on and off the page. Following her visionary lead, most of the contributors here have chosen nontraditional forms for their responses, from a short play (Lin) to a personal “confession” (Singh) to an artful reflection on the crafting/making of bodies as reparative creativity as seen in the bodybuilding practices of Tommy Kono (Chow). And the dialogue between Kondo and Christen Smith about the staging of “Seamless” at the 2018 AAA, as well as the birth of Wakanda University, should be seen as no less than an oral history of a pivotal moment in the history of anthropology in the United States for the way it is situated in pressing questions about the discipline’s ongoing anti-Black racism, colonial “othering,” and practices of extractive knowledge-making.
I could not be happier to share this set of essays with you and to express my gratitude to my friend, mentor, and teacher, Dorinne Kondo.