With the Fire on High: The Writing Process in COVID-19 - Higher Education

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With the Fire on High: The Writing Process in COVID-19

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I toss and turn, side to side, and finally I lay flat on my back staring at the white ceiling. These white walls only reinforce the racial pigmentation that is most valued in the U.S.—Whiteness. I see 45 in the imagery, a distinct orange color that I wish to discard like pulp from an orange—once squeezed for fresh juice. We need a fresh president.

These white walls. Blank, just like my computer screen. The cursor blinks. It has a rhythm of tick-tock, tick-tock—yes, the tenure track-clock is running. Will my mind allow my body the connection needed so that words leave my fingertips today?

I let out a sob, exhale, and roll over. I fall back to sleep. I dream. I am back to being five-years old. It is pitch dark. I can hear my grandmother’s voice. She is telling me about the chickens, horses, and cows in el rancho. There’s the imagery of her cooking as a fourteen-year-old teen for her father and brothers before a day’s work. I proceed to ask her a question, but before I can get it out. I hear, “It was all a dream, I use to read…”

Biggie Smalls—what is going on? His voice grows louder, “Word Up!” I awake and realize it is not a dream it is COVID-19. A time that is changing everything and no one will forget. —I say aloud, “Alexa, stop. Alexa, play the news.” She responds, “Here is what is new from The New York Times.” The voice changes, “From The New York Times, I am Michael Barbaro. Today is Monday and here is what you need to know today…” It is the only news I can bare to swallow these days. A sound bite of terror.

I gather the energy to get out of bed and start the day. I open my planner while drinking my coffee. A long to-do list stares back at me. My inner voice says, “well I missed that book chapter deadline, that manuscript is past due, my second research project never launched, I need to reply to those emails, oh and get feedback to my doc students. Ugh.” I slam the planner shut. Overwhelmed, exhausted, anxiety ridden. I reach for my phone to text my support system. The text message sent, “How are we all doing today?” to several chains from coast to coast.

Dr. Nichole Margarita Garcia

Waiting for replies, I decide to clean every inch of my apartment in an irrational manner. Ding, ding, it is my Afro-Dominicana colegas reminding me to breathe, laughing about couch and nail polish purchases, and texting through our writing struggles. I breathe a litter lighter. Ding, ding, it is my Mexicana colegas and stories fill the text chain about singing Chente, trying to achieve the best Samba, and how our mami scholar is doing with her kids during this time. We discuss our level of privileges and the contradictions we live as women of color academics while many of our parents and family members are essential workers. No writing is discussed, just our mental and physical well-being.

Inhale and release. I am not alone. Productivity is arbitrary.

Drs. Leslie D. Gonzalez and Kimberly A. Griffin recently released a report titled “Supporting Faculty During & After COVID-19: Don’t Let Go of Equity,” which they detail the obstacles faculty face during this time and how institutions can best support this population. Productivity is a significant aspect they caution institutions and academia to highly consider as tenure extensions are occurring. Gonzalez and Griffin state: “[tenure extensions do not] relieve pressure for faculty productivity and like any other policy, without strong equity safeguards, they can be applied unevenly and inequitably. Moreover, tenure extensions do nothing for the majority of faculty who hold contingent appointments and who also tend to be women and racially minoritized persons.”

For me to be productive as a woman of color in academia, my writing needs to be driven by a connection to what is real, lived, and urgent. COVID-19 is not normal, and I argue should not be considered the “new” norm.  Academia was already difficult and combined with COVID-19 will have lasting effects on the “productivity” of women of color for years to come.

I give up on writing and being “productive.”

Teen fiction is my refuge. I reach for With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo, an Afro-Dominican poet and author. The story is from the perspective of Emoni, an Afro-Latina and teen mother who negotiates and contemplates her dream of becoming a chef. I read and imagine her voice in my mind. She states: “Some days, when my feelings are like this, like a full pot of water with the fire on high, I don’t know what to cook. Plans and ideas escape my mind instead I let my heart and hands take control, guided by a voice on the inside that tells me what goes where.”

I shut the book and hug it. It is our hearts that guide what we choose to do and not to do. I do not write when I am in trauma and survivor mode. I return to stories and oral traditions. Oral traditions and story telling have always been in my communities. It is how we heal. It is where academia does not get to enter. During this time, we do not have the answers, and that is ok. We cannot fix this, but we can say yes this all hurts because it matters. Every single experience is not too small or large. It all counts.

It is time to light the fire and pass the torch to the next generation of mujeres. I log-in for a virtual happy hour to write our stories through our oral traditions–cuentos, consejos, dichos, palabras. Our “productivity” is not measurable because we are all exceptional.

Dr. Nichole Margarita Garcia is an assistant professor of Higher Education at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. You can follow her on Twitter @DrNicholeGarcia

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