On a sunny Tuesday morning, I meet Patricia Mascia. You may not know who she is but she is one of the most important gears of the English department, without whom it certainly would not work as well as it does. Maybe you know her under a different name. Ever gotten an email from “secrétariat-anglais”? Yupp, that’s her.
So, on that sunny Tuesday morning, she welcomes me in the English department’s common room and offers me something to drink. I am excited to have a chat, get to know her better and ask her all the questions that the MUSE team has prepared for this day.
We sit down.
“Hi! Are you ready?” I ask her. “Could you introduce yourself to our readers in a few words?” She gives me a warm smile. “My name is Patricia Mascia, I’m 36. I grew up near Morges. I did quite a lot of gymnastics until I was 20 and I like sports and reading.” We discover that we grew up in the same village and get excited about it for a few seconds. After I’ve told her very specifically in which house I grew up, I ask her to tell me about her work and responsibilities. She explains that her “tasks here are mostly helping with administrative matters, both in the English and the Italian section. The preparation of exam sessions is a big part of my job, too.”
“What would you say is the best part about your work?” I ask her in response. “I would say it’s the multilingual aspect of the job. I really like speaking English, Italian and French every day. It’s cool. Also because I think here people are just really kind and it’s a nice environment to work in.”
“So you speak English, Italian and French!” I get excited about her multilingualism. “Could you tell me a little more about your linguistic background?”
“My mother tongue is French, I learnt Italian and English at school. I wanted to become a translator so I’ve always liked foreign languages. It’s like a passion. After high school I entered the university of Geneva in Translation Studies. I finished my BA in 2010. After that I got married and had children so I had kind of a break there. I was my husband’s company’s secretary until last year but I missed speaking foreign languages so I began doing substitute teaching in schools in both English and Italian and I liked it! Because of that I tried to enroll in the HEP in Lausanne. As my background was mainly linguistics, I was asked to do literature classes here at UNIL. So I did crédits complémentaires in English and Italian, 40 ECTS credits. I finished in 2019. I thought it was so cool so I did one year of master’s classes in English until I saw the job advert for my current job last year. So my parcours isn’t very straight-forward!” She chuckles. We shake our heads at all the stories we’ve heard from people having to retake credits to enroll in certain schools. I realize that she knows the department both as a student and as a staff member! “Yeah!” she laughs. “I knew the teachers from a different point of view.”
Not being able to let go of the topic of languages, I ask her a follow-up question: “If you could learn any language instantly without having to learn it, what language would that be?” “Chinese,” she tells me. “I’m not sure why. Maybe because I find the signs, the way it’s written, fascinating.” I nod with approval, but before I go even more astray asking her even more questions about languages that I was not sent here to ask, I ask her if her secretary job at her husband’s company was her first job. She tells me that was indeed her first full-time job but that she had had a few small jobs while studying. When I ask her what she did more specifically, she lists working at Coop and in a bakery on the weekends. A quite typical student experience.
For my last work-related question I ask how she prefers to work, independently? Or as a team? “Independently,” she tells me honestly. “I’m a very independent person. I think it’s partly because I’m not able to delegate and I like to organize my time.” I tell her how relatable she is and that it’s hard to delegate when asking someone else to do something takes as much time as doing it ourselves. She strongly agrees. She adds “it’s problematic though because sometimes you feel like you would need help but you’re not able to ask.” Very understandable. We conclude that we do our best to learn how to delegate and, who knows, maybe one day we’ll be able to do it!
“Let’s move onto my less work-related and weirder and funnier questions,” I suggest. “What’s your favorite thing about Lausanne?” “I think I like its dynamism,” she decides. “A lot of events take place here. I like the energy of the place.”
Picking up on the fact that she said she liked to read and, well, works for the faculty of Arts, I ask her what she likes to read more exactly. “Life stories and biographies,” she lists as her favorite genres. She elaborates “You can learn from someone’s experience, so I really like that.” “Do you read in several languages?” I ask her. “I would say English and French and a little less in Italian.” At this point I tell her how impressive I find it that she works in not one but two of her foreign languages. She modestly tells me that she finds English to be her weakest language and that she wants to improve. “You know,” she recounts. “In Translation Studies, it’s always written, you never have to speak. It’s quite different skills that are required and you always translate from the foreign language into your mother tongue.” “Did you translate into both English and Italian?” “Yes, and Spanish. I did Spanish as well.” One more language! I am impressed.
“Are you watching any TV shows at the moment?” She tells me that TV shows aren’t really her thing but movies are. Romantic movies, to be specific. As the holidays are approaching and many of my friends are already suffering from (or enjoying) Christmas-movie-fever, I ask her if she’s a fan of them too. And yes, she watches Christmas movies, indeed!
I warn her that I’m about to ask her a very, very specific question. “What is your favorite seasoning or spice? Fitting with the whole Christmas theme she tells me “I love cinnamon and cinnamon-scented candles!” That sounds lovely and I now crave cinnamon. “Are you a dog or a cat person? Or perhaps a bird person?” I continue with my rather specific questions. “I’m more of a dog person,” she first says. “Even though we have a rabbit at home! I could be a rabbit person?” We agree that we don’t really talk about “rabbit” people and that we love dogs but that they are a big commitment so we don’t have any at the moment.
I ask her a question that I am very excited about: “If you could have an unlimited supply of one thing for the rest of your life, what would you choose?” I give her some time to think. “Maybe cappuccino!” she laughs. How very relatable. (Is anyone else craving cappuccino with cinnamon right now?) “I really like your answer!” I reply. “If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?” I enquire. “If you’re talking about a public figure, I would say Nelson Mandela. I admire him for his courage.” “And if you could teleport anywhere right now, where would you go?” Her eyes light up: “On a sunny island!” “You’re not a winter person?” I ask her. “No, not at all!” We laugh together about how nice it would be to be in a really sunny place right now and get our vitamin D. We complain about daylight savings: “It’s only one hour but it’s so difficult”, Patricia tells me. “It’s 6 pm and I want to sleep! It’s frustrating.”
For my last question in this interview, I ask her what’s an easy way to do something nice for someone. “I think the simplest things are sometimes the most appreciated: a kind word, a little attention. Sometimes I try to put myself in someone else’s shoes to try to think of something that could be helpful.” Following that sweet answer, I thank her a lot for the lovely chat and the laughs and I let her go back to her work.
Tonia Ramogida: Thank you for accepting to do the interview. I was really looking forward to speaking with you.
Cécile Heim: (laughs) I was really surprised that you asked me! I’m at the end of my contract now—I have, what, ten days left on it? (laughs) I’m going to defend my dissertation, my PhD, at the end of April. I’m at the end of my time at university, really.
TR: Oh, wow. So, you’re all done? You’ve written it?
CH: Yeah, I’m essentially done. I’m putting the final touches on my dissertation as we speak. I just came from it. I’m taking a break now.
TR: Cheers! Congratulations!
CH: Thank you! My goal is to finish everything this week and send it, so my experts and professors will have a full month to read through everything again, and to prepare for the soutenance. So, I’m at the very end of that journey.
TR: Oh, wow. It’s a book? It’s long?
CH: It depends on how you define a book. In terms of length, it’s definitely a book; it’s probably an encyclopaedia. (laughs) Without the bibliography, the first version was 369 pages which is awfully long. I’m trying to shorten it now by cutting out everything that people have found repetitive. But it’s not a book in the sense that it’s not published. I can turn it into a book afterwards if that is something that I want to do. But yeah, it’s long.
TR: You must feel a great sense of accomplishment.
CH: I mean, not really. Frankly, when you hand it in the first time, you’re just super happy that this huge weight is off your shoulders. And then you have to get back to it. For me, it’s the revision part that I found awfully difficult.
Before I even started the PhD, I heard so many horror stories about writer’s block, and people not being able to motivate themselves for five years, and then having to rush for one year to finish their dissertation.
Luckily for me, that never happened. I never hit writer’s block. I was always happy to work on my dissertation, all the way until I handed it in the first time which was on the… 17th of December, just before Christmas. And then it was like, “Ah! Finally, I can breathe again!” Then I had the colloque in early February, and when I had to get back to it, I had a really, really hard time. I couldn’t for many weeks.
You don’t really get a sense of accomplishment because you’re never done anyway. The kind of work that we do is not the kind where you can tick a box at the end. It’s never done. You could always pursue it; you could always take it further. You could always just improve on whatever you’ve done, no matter how much of a perfectionist you are.
Everybody has a different opinion, so you can have ten experts and you’ll have ten different opinions—sometimes contradictory, and sometimes they will agree…. Essentially, at some point, you just have to stop yourself. If you wait for the moment that you’re done, that’s never going to happen.
For me the struggle was to wind back in my brain, to put the backwards gear in, and to go back to the dissertation before moving on to the next step, which is applying for jobs… and just trying to plan the rest of my life. (laughs)
TR: Yeah, that’s, um… No Pressure.
CH: No pressure at all, yeah. (laughs) No pressure at all.
CH: Oh, yeah, I’m so happy with that. It’s fantastic.
The advantage that we have when we study and work in Switzerland is that it’s a really small community. Everyone knows each other, and they’re all super nice and very supportive, generally speaking, of young scholars. And a lot of it is just sheer coincidence. For example, I got a position with the Swiss Association for North American Studies (SANAS)—I’m the Swiss delegate for the European Association of American Studies (EAAS). It’s a fantastic job. I absolutely love it. But I only got it because Boris resigned at the right time, and because Agnieszka was supposed to take it but couldn’t for personal reasons. So, they asked me, but it was a “Shit! We don’t have anyone—what about Cécile? Let’s ask her” kind of thing. It was a complete coincidence. I ended up having a fantastic time and I loved doing it.
And that’s how the DICE Network came about. It’s a network that I co-founded with Prof. Aleksandra Izgarjan from the University of Novi Sad in Serbia. It’s sponsored by the EAAS. We’re not an academic association per se, because we’re a non-profit, non-money-holding-in-any-way kind of network. But we’re working through the EAAS, who are a recognized association, to connect people within Europe or people interested in working with Europeans on these fields. The goal is to work across fields.
You know, there are quite a few people in Europe who work on Indigenous Studies or on Black Studies, but they all are in their little corners, and that’s why, very often, they feel isolated. But when you actually start looking around and working with various associations, you realize that these fields are growing really fast and there are actually an increasing number of people working on them—it’s just that they don’t necessarily know each other or know of each other.
With the Serbian delegate, we had this idea of creating a network. We did, and it just took off overwhelmingly. Now, all of a sudden, we’re managing more than 150 members—which is fantastic—but we never expected it to take off like that. It just proves how necessary it was and how big the demand is.
In a couple of weeks, there’s the EAAS biennial conference. This year, it’s in Madrid. We decided to ride the wave. We’re going to have our first public appearance as a network. We created a few panels; we’ll have a round table, and… our first general assembly where we’re going to vote on the network’s articles. It’s going to be a thing—a real thing!
TR: That’s awesome!
CH: Yeah, it’s really cool.
I mean, I think a big part of what academia is, you just walk through it, and hold on as much as you can. Opportunities pop up and you can take them or leave them. Sometimes you get really lucky and sometimes you get horribly unlucky.… I just got really lucky, I think.
TR: I have a question from the editing team at MUSE: what do you take away from your time at UNIL? You’ve been there a number of years now. How many years in total?
CH: I did all of my studies there—except during my BA I went away for a year to Glasgow, and then during my MA I went away for six months to Vancouver, to UBC, your home town.
CH: I worked for a year and then talked to Agnieszka. I was like, “Okay, let’s do a PhD if you’re still up for it,” and she said, “Yes, but there is no available assistant position right now, but we are still seeking for someone to go on a Teaching Assistant exchange at Buffalo, in the state of New York.” I said, “Sure, let’s do that.” I did that for two years and then I came back and worked for a year at UNIL as a chargée de cours, and then as a regular teacher at a different school. Then I started the contract that I have now, which I have been on for five years. So, yes, it’s an institution that I’ve been in and out of for many, many years. It’s been one of these on-off relationships….
TR: Ah, yes… those.
CH: (laughs) So what do I take from that experience?
I take from it pretty much what you would take from all on-off relationships, which is that you love it and sometimes you also realize that you need a break from it. That it doesn’t only do you good, or that it’s time to move on.
It’s hard to summarize what I take from it in a few sentences because I learned so much there. You know, I very much became – … I think one could say that I very much grew into to the adult that I am now at UNIL. And thanks to UNIL. And thanks to the teachers I had at UNIL. But also, especially, the texts that I read and the opportunities that UNIL created for me.
So I guess I’m just slightly more… slightly wiser than I was before. It’s hard to say.
I was a student there. I became a teacher there. I became a researcher there. I had really good times. I also had some of the toughest times of my life. Not just because of UNIL… a lot converged at one point in my life—it was private stuff, but also stuff at work—and it just felt apocalyptic…. So, yeah… I take a lot from it. (laughs)
CH: Jenn and Agnieszka did an incredible job with that series.
I really regret that I couldn’t be there for more events because of that bloody dissertation. (laughs) No, no, it’s not bloody at all (laughs), but I needed to work so I really couldn’t join for more events.
I hope they’re going to do more stuff like that. It’s absolutely fantastic what they’ve done. I think it’s the kind of topics that students are really concerned by, not just for research purposes or whatever, but because it is a struggle everyday in their lives.
I think there are many topics like that that people don’t talk about enough just yet in academia as research or as material that needs to be taught.
I think it was a wonderful event and I hope that there’s going to be more. Having said this, I would understand if they just couldn’t create more because every time teachers create events like this, this is on a purely voluntary basis—they don’t get paid more, they don’t get any kind of discharge of teaching or anything like that. It’s a tremendous amount of work, in addition to the full-time job that they already have. It’s a huge investment on their part and I think that was fabulous.
TR: How did you come to study what you study?
CH: That’s a good question. It’s a question I try to answer in my dissertation.
Part of the answer is that I was always frustrated with hearing only one side of the story. When I started my studies in English, I had a great time. It was all good, but it was mainly white, male authors that we read. You had a Black author once in a while. This is not to say that these are not fascinating subjects or texts to study—but I just felt like it wasn’t answering a lot of the questions I had. And I think it was when I started going abroad during my exchanges that I started realizing what direction I needed to go in to find the answers I was looking for.
If I had to pin-point a moment, I’d definitely say it was my exchange at UBC in Vancouver, my six months there, that really started it all. That’s when I had my first classes in Indigenous literatures… and I volunteered there at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre (DEWC).
TR: Did you?
TR: Oh my God, really.
CH: It was a fascinating experience.
It was really easy for me to talk to one teacher at UBC—she’s still there, her name is Lorraine Weir. She was a great teacher and we talked a lot together. She said, “You should really go and have a look at the DEWC because you seem interested in working with Indigenous women, and you seem interested in topics such as sexual violence or domestic violence or just gender violence in general. Maybe you’d be interested in hearing some of the stories women have to tell there.”
I quickly realized what kind of place it was, but I didn’t shy away from it still. It was an incredibly fascinating experience. This is where I started seeing the importance between research and activism. And the kind of impact that volunteer work can have on your research, and on your work as an academic and as a teacher.
I then wrote my MA thesis on Indigenous women’s plays, on the tropes of movement and mobility. It was a shit MA thesis—like, don’t go and look it up. (laughs)
But, yeah, I think it all started in Vancouver for me.
TR: I’m curious, what are your thoughts on Canada as a settler-colonial project? And, again, no worries if there’s anything you say that you don’t want published.
CH: Well, I mean, pretty much everything that I say here I will have published even worse versions of already, so no worries. (laughs)
I mean, everything I say about Canada is true as well for other states, like the United States, but also South Africa—although the situation there is slightly different—or Australia and New Zealand. Even here in Europe. Or even non-settler-colonial states.
I think there are interesting parallels in policies and ideology to be drawn between settler-colonial states and European states. Obviously, settler-colonial states are very much influenced by the originally colonizing continent of Europe. Let’s talk about these connections a little bit later.
These states are not post-colonial. They are still colonizing the lands of people. So, for me, the Canadian, and American, and Australian states are illegitimate in that sense. Unless they are able to acknowledge Indigenous peoples and their governments in addition to their own relation to Indigenous peoples, they remain illegitimate.
I think it’s fair to say there is a colonial relationship between the contemporary states of Canada or the US and that this relationship can still be described in many ways as genocidal.
Do I think that… all government people in Canada and the US are complete pricks who… actively want to kill off all Indigenous peoples? No. I do think that some of them—I don’t know how many—have sincere intentions of trying to create a good relationship. I also believe that a lot of politicians really believe that by enacting certain laws or policies they think they’re improving Indigenous peoples’ lives, even though they clearly aren’t. I think it’s a lot more complicated than black and white, obviously.
I think that states such as Canada and the US are so far behind in their understanding of themselves. And this is where literature comes in. Here I know a little more about the US than I do about Canada—but I think it’s fascinating to try to understand how narratives come into play when it comes to creating national identity and national history—which ends up being monolithic, linear, and sanitized in many ways.
You have stories and theories such as the Frontier Thesis, or the City on the Hill, or the Promised Land, or Manifest Destiny. These are all narratives… stories that people tell themselves to rearrange the world in a way that makes sense to them. And very often, excluding any other vision of that.
TR: What you say about nations like Canada not understanding themselves is interesting.
On Canada’s first-ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation last year, Justin Trudeau ignored two invitations from Kúkpi7 Roseanne Casimir, chief of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation, to attend one of the country’s biggest events in Kamloops, British Columbia. A couple months earlier, they found the unmarked graves of 215 children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
He nevertheless decided to take a 6-hour flight from Ottawa to British Columbia to spend the day vacationing with his family in Tofino, a rural surfing town on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
This man positioned himself as a ray of hope for a progressive, feminist kind of politics. It’s upsetting.
CH: Hugely. But he’s by far not the only one. We actually see a lot of those.
I think that people like Trudeau—like Emmanuel Macron in France—I’m half-French, my mom’s French, so most of my family now is in France, except for my brother who’s here, and my niece… anyway—people like Trudeau and Macron are typical products of the neoliberal state.
I think they are exceptional failures—no, sorry, they are not exceptional—they are precisely the result of the logical failures of neoliberal, very often socialist politics.
These are children of politicians who thought that it was enough to just have a diverse government to be fair and not be oppressive anymore. These are people who thought that you just need to have enough women in your government in order to not be sexist anymore. These are typical neoliberal moves where a lot is done for the show, for the appearance, or because it is trendy to do so, without actually understanding the systemic repercussions of oppression. Without actually understanding that violence is something that is structural or that oppression is something that is systemic. These are people who want to find quick solutions for profoundly embedded ills.
I mean, the kind of oppressions that Indigenous people face—but also that women face in many of our European countries—or that People of Colour face—this violence, this kind of oppression is something that stems from centuries ago, that does come from colonization. This is profoundly embedded. This is actually inscribed in the very structure on which our societies function and are based, on which our laws are written. To think that it is enough to have one Black person or one Indigenous person in your government to solve all problems of oppression against People of Colour or Indigenous people or whoever—is ludicrous.
This is a typical neoliberal attitude of, “Oh, let’s just be multicultural, and that’s the solution to everything,” without understanding that these are institutional, systemic, structural issues that need profound reworking.
Where did I read this lately? I think it’s in Histories of Racial Capitalism—it’s a book that just came out—and they say in there that there never existed any form of capitalism other than racial capitalism. And to actually create an egalitarian society—that is, a non-racist society—one doesn’t just need to be anti-racist, one needs to redistribute wealth. Our current economies are founded very much on slavery. But, of course, this is an absolute taboo.
TR: I took a class with Dr. Enit Steiner last semester and we read a book by Olaudah Equiano, which brought to light the economic and industrial side of slavery. My partner and their sibling got into roasting coffee beans, buying green beans direct, and researching the coffee market. And then you find out that coffee is the second most-traded commodity in the world after oil—and you’re like, hold on, wait—
TR: Are all these coffee harvesters happy people?
CH: Yeah. Do you remember how coffee came to Europe?
TR: Oh, God. I don’t.
CH: Well, it was part of the triangular slave trade.
TR: Oh, was it? Yeah, there we go.
CH: Yeah, so these coffee harvesters are probably not very happy….
But what do we do now? You know, that’s the thing. We can create all of that knowledge which is important and which we need to do. We can educate people. We can write articles on it—which is a crucial task—but it’s still not going to be good enough.
The truth is, I have reached a point—and maybe this is just too tainted by everything that’s going on in the world—I have reached a point where I don’t honestly think that we’re ever going to be capable of creating a fair and just society for all. There’s too much work to be done. Every time we take a step forward, we go two steps back. There was a huge backlash after Barak Obama, for example, even though he wasn’t the most anti-racist kind of president.
I hit the point where I just raise my hands to the sky and say, “I don’t know what to do now,” because we have all that knowledge. We also know about climate change—we’ve known for years. We know about mass extinction—we’ve known for years. Does anyone do anything against it? No, not really. Does it stop people enmasse from taking the plane to go somewhere? No. Does it stop me from going anywhere? No, not really. I mean, what the fuck does it take for us to change?
There are things that I do to try to prevent climate change. It’s nowhere good enough. There’s still more I could do, so why don’t I do it? Why don’t we do it, generally, as a society? Why don’t we move away from excessive consumerism? Why don’t we move away from fishing out the oceans? Why don’t we move away from relating to the land in extremely extractive ways, and start relating to it in more equal ways? Or start to respect it as a living being, instead of as a resource to be exploited?
I don’t have any answers. Bourdieu would say it’s habits—we have been socialized, acculturized like that; it’s just our habit to do so. Habits sound harmless—but they’re extremely difficult to break. And I think it’s more than this. I think it’s just that deep down, we don’t really want to change.
TR: Something I’ve noticed, among a couple of the women I know here—who are maybe, like, 10 or so years older than me—so, early to mid-forties—a couple times when I brought up the topic of feminism… the response was, “Oh, no, je suis pas du tout féministe mais… I negotiated a higher salary for myself, or, I have my own place and my independence and don’t want to live with my partner,” you know? So, is ‘feminist’ still a ‘bad word’? What’s the deal with that?
CH: Well, it’s really funny you should say that, because I had almost the reverse experience.
I’m 35 now and was talking with younger women who are in their late teens or early 20s. This was a few weeks ago, when I did a substitution at a high school here in Fribourg.
I taught an English class and wasn’t given the programme. I’m like, “Okay, I’m just going to do whatever I want,” so I gave them some Emily Dickinson to read, some Harlem Renaissance poems, some this and that…. I had a great time with them. We didn’t at all do the grammar program we were supposed to. (laughs)
Anyway, I had a few conversations with them about feminism. They all say, “Yeah, I’m a feminist! I’m a feminist!” And I’m like, “Great, what does that entail? How would you define being a feminist?” And they’re like, “Well, I’m the same as a man. I’m equal to men.” And I’m like, “Great, absolutely.” And I say, “So why do you always dress in the sexiest way possible? Why do you always have to keep sexualizing yourself?” And some of them are like, “Well, that’s just my style.” And I’m like, “Great, that’s a cool style to have…. Is there anything to it? Why do you girls on Instagram do the duck mouth picture all the time? What is feminist about that?”
It was very interesting for me, because I had a generation in front of me who wasn’t shy about claiming themselves as being feminist. But I didn’t really see a lot of feminism in how they were behaving in their day-to-day workplace or high school. …
That’s where I would differentiate between feminist theories or feminist discourse and the identity of feminist. I think these are two different things and I think that emerges from what you and I have been saying just now.
You can face someone who lives in the most feminist way possible without identifying as a feminist, because, for that generation, to be a feminist meant being lesbian—not that being lesbian is bad in any way—but there was the social stigma that came with that. For that generation, being feminist meant never being in a relationship…. In French, feminists were often called les mal baisées or things like that. It was as if being a feminist stemmed from some kind of discontent or from an eternal state of unhappiness that was self-induced.
These women are now 40 or so, but they’re from the 70s, right? That’s second-wave feminism—and after that came a huge backlash. The 80s and 90s are a huge backlash for feminists, historically speaking. So, I understand if people who became adults during a time when feminists suffered a huge backlash don’t want to identify as feminists even though they do live in a very feminist way.
And now we can maybe see a little bit of the contrary. People who become adults now do want to claim that identity because it’s cool, because we have the hashtags, the massive social media movements, the Journée de la Femme. We live in moment in our society where it is cool to be considered a feminist. But I don’t think that everyone who actually claims that identity really understands what it entails. Some of them certainly do. But I don’t think that all of them do.
I think that’s where we have to differentiate between claiming an identity—being feminist—or being queer—or being any other kind of identity you might want to claim—and actually acting or living according to that identity.
Another question that raises is: what does it mean to be a feminist?
When you claim that identity, are you not a feminist when you walk around in sexy clothes? Was I wrong to ask that question to my students? Of course, I would never say that someone who walks around in a hyper-sexualized way is a bad feminist, if they then advance the cause, or if they don’t accept subordination. But then, who am I to make that decision?
To answer your original question—whether ‘feminist’ is a ‘bad word’—no, not anymore. But then, it’s changed. And I really wonder what it means to claim that identity.
Would I claim that identity? Absolutely, yes.
Why do I claim that identity? Well, because I’ve studied feminist theories; my research is heavily influenced from that. I would consider my work to be feminist work. Because I try to fight inequality between men and women wherever I can. But does it take all of that to rightfully claim being a feminist? I really don’t know.
This is where I find Roxanne Gay’s book Bad Feminist really interesting. It had very good and very bad critiques, but I think it raises interesting questions. Again, I have no answer.
This will be the most frustrating interview you will ever do. Whatever question you will ask me, I’ll ask you fifty back.
TR: Fine by me.
Being Canadian and a bit homesick, I got really caught up in following the Truckers’ Protest—the Freedom Convoy—that took place in Ottawa in January and February 2022. Some convoy supporters said they wanted this to be a Canadian version of the January 6th attempted insurrection in Washington, DC.
It was crazy to see a super-disruptive protest movement literally shut down parliament and the downtown core of the nation’s capital—and to have that go on for nearly a month without any serious intervention from police.
TR: Yeah. In November 2021, militarized police troops with attack dogs, helicopters, snipers came down on a relatively small number of peaceful, unarmed land defenders. They used a chainsaw to break through a door and put journalists in jail.
(You can find the land defenders’ video of the raid here; please note the content warning for police violence against Indigenous women. This video provides further commentary.)
One of the issues raised was the double standard in terms of who is allowed to protest, to be disruptive. What were your thoughts on that?
CH: That’s a really interesting question.
I didn’t really think about the Canadian example as much as about the French example, which is very similar.
In 2020 and 2021, there was a huge wave of Black Lives Matter protests that came all the way here to Europe. In France, these protests lasted for a while, because there were a few incidences of Black—especially young men—who had been hurt, and a few of them killed, by the French police, in similarly unjustified circumstances as in the United States.
When these protests happened, the crackdown from the government was massive, really massive. They were deplored in the media in general. There were very few media who were sympathetic to these protests. Nobody understood why statues like Colbert would be put down—you know Colbert?
TR: You’re going to have to explain that one to me.
CH: Colbert was an economic minister in France under Louis XIV. At the same time, he was also one of the founders of the triangular slave trade. He’s the author of the Code Noir—which is kind of like 18th century French Jim Crow laws—which justified slavery.
During these Black Lives Matter protests, statues of Colbert were pulled down and desecrated. French people were like, “No! But why? This is holy!” Black Lives Matter protests were received very negatively.
Even to this day, as soon as you start talking about decolonization, about anti-racism, about systemic racism—these are ‘bad words’ in France.
People will tell you that you’re some sort of woke academic or woke leftie who just wants to follow the ideological fashion of the day. Or they’ll tell you you’re completely exaggerating.
But then, something like three weeks ago, there were massive independence protests in Corsica. People from Corsica attacked the police, and put quite a few of them in hospital. And the French media and public opinion were like, “Aw, so cute! Little independentists! Aren’t they cute and lovely? Look at their beautiful little island! We love them so!”
The difference in reaction—the double standard, precisely—is just ludicrous. So that is very similar to the double standard that you were talking about between the Truckers who are considered almost cute—
TR: They blocked the Canada-US border at three spots.
CH: And they probably did a lot more damage than a lot of the Indigenous protesters, protesting pipelines or water dams or any kind of project.
The double standard exists. It’s undeniable. It is there. It is horrifying to see. It’s simply impossible to deny that it exists and that people aren’t treated in similar ways. This is the proof.
What’s fascinating is that this is so strongly connected to public perception as well. This kind of public discourse doesn’t just come from politicians. It is also media representation.
These are representations that are circulating differently through media who are supposed to be independent from politics, which leads me to say, it’s not just about politics, is it? It’s not just about law. It’s really very much about discourse, representation, about perception, about ideology, about the symbolic part as well as the nitty-gritty legal, technical part.
TR: I went to an all-girls Catholic high school which turned me off the religion for one lifetime. In June, I found out that the nuns that founded my school actually founded the Kamloops school—
CH: —the residential school?
CH: Oh, shit.
TR: Yeah. They founded or staffed at least 5 other schools in BC, and one in Alaska. They found 215 graves at the Kamloops school, 160 at the Kuper Island school, and most recently, 93 at the Cariboo school in Williams Lake.
Every year, my high school took the Grade 11 class on a trip to Vancouver Island to see stuff related to the order’s history like the convent and the ‘pioneer schoolhouse’—which is a small, 1840 log cabin located on the grounds of the Royal British Columbia Museum.
So, we went to see what is basically a glorified shed built by these so-called bringers of hospitals and schools who voyaged out West from Quebec to provide services to people during the Gold Rush, or whatever.
We visited Providence Farm, which is now a community farm for people with disabilities. Back in the day, it was a residential school, and later also an orphanage for Indigenous children. We were never told any of that. Or about their involvement in the residential school system. The story we got was ‘Pioneer Nuns’….
CH: (laughs) … Pioneer Nuns…
CH: It’s funny how they try to make it a feminist thing—
TR: —and they did! There was this weird feminist/anti-feminist thing going on. They were really good at instilling anxiety in girls. It’s the creation of the character that gets me: the Pioneer Nun. I mean, what were these nuns actually doing?
CH: If you start reading Black feminist theories or Indigenous feminist theories, the degree of complicity of a lot of whitestream feminist theories with imperial or settler-colonial projects is absolutely horrifying.
One example is the slave mistress who fights for her rights while subduing Black people as a free labour force. There are also many accounts of the on-off relationship between the whitestream feminist movement for voting rights in the US and the abolitionist movements.
If you read Angela Davis’s Women, Race and Class, she has a very detailed account about that relationship—how whitestream feminists at first were keen on working with abolitionists to end slavery and to gain the right to vote for Black people as well as women. As soon as Black men started receiving the vote, they became major racists because they were like, “They’re becoming our enemy now, because they are taking the voting right away from us.” That’s obviously a simplistic, reductionist version of their logic, but it’s not as shocking and as despairing as it might seem. You’re like, “How is it that when you fight one oppression, you end up creating another one?” That’s horrible; that’s not the point. But it’s by far not unheard of. This is common.
The Pioneer Nun—it’s one of these feminist histories that one has to be very, very leery of. I think that this is also a kind of divide-and-conquer strategy of the settler-colonial ideology in general. If you have minorities fighting against each other, they won’t bother you too much by trying to actually change things. That sounds very conspirationist, but I think that’s what it is.
The Pioneer Nun image. Well, it’s a ridiculous image. I don’t want to offend anyone, but I just don’t see how you can be Catholic and feminist at the same time. These are profoundly opposing value systems to me. If anyone can explain it to me, that would be lovely. But I haven’t been able to create that connection just yet. While it is ludicrous to me on that level, in addition to that, I think it’s very perverted on the settler-colonial edge that it takes.
TR: After the discovery, there was a letter written by an alumna who’s an investigative journalist now. She’s done work on fake Indigenous art.
The letter was signed by over 1000 students and alumnae and called for the school to make specific changes, like ceasing all visits to the Farm, implementing the Truth and Reconciliation CommissionCalls to Action by developing ongoing curriculum on residential schools and the Sisters’ involvement, as well as editing school material and signage that “glorify colonization.”
It goes to show how deep that ideology goes. I grew up right next to a First Nation and knew nothing about it.
CH: You’re not the first person I’ve heard that from. When I was in Buffalo, I heard very much the same.
While I was in Vancouver, I met a good friend of mine who also came from Lausanne. We both studied at UNIL at the same time, in different years. But it’s only in Vancouver that we met. We had very different experiences of Vancouver.
I took these classes on Indigenous literatures. I became more and more involved in Indigenous issues. I went to protests. And, of course, I did the internship at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre where there were a lot of Indigenous women.
My friend didn’t have that experience at all. She said, “Oh, I didn’t realize the Downtown Eastside is full of poor Indigenous people. This is something that passed me by. I was just told, ‘Don’t go into the east side of downtown.’ Nobody told you why, and I felt I was happy with that information. I felt like I didn’t need to know anymore.” She had a very, very different experience from me. I think to this day she perceives the city in a very different way than I do.
And I think it’s part of the identity that settlers have created for themselves. For them to legitimately inhabit that place, they need to ignore Indigenous people. Otherwise, it doesn’t work.
TR: There was an episode on a Canadaland podcast series called “The Police.” It dealt with the history of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).
TR: —it’s grim.
CH: Yes, the RCMP. I hated them before I fully understood who exactly they were. (laughs)
Do you know the book by Maria Campbell? She’s a Métis author and she wrote what is essentially an autobiography called Half-Breed. … It was quite a big success from the start. She published the book for the first time when there was a growing interest for Indigenous authors and Indigenous life narratives.
Maria Campbell is still alive. They interviewed her after they found the passage and were like, “Did you want to take this passage out?” And she was like, “No! I wanted to keep it in!” It was silently edited out. The publishers cut it out without her consent.
It’s a passage that talks about her rape by two RCMP officers in her own home. I don’t know what the publishers decided. I guess they thought it put the RCMP in too much of a bad light.
It’s funny, because everyone who has read the first version is like, “Something is missing. Something is not making sense…. Now that we know about this passage, everything falls into place.” Maria Campbell says, “Yeah; that’s why I didn’t want it cut out, because it didn’t make sense without it!”
The RCMP is a very dangerous, executive part of the settler-colonial government. It’s dangerous because they’re not tied to a specific territory. They can go wherever. Within their larger organization, they have smaller jurisdictions, but as an organisation, they’re entitled to go pretty much anywhere. There’s very little oversight. It’s a tightly-woven network of buddies—most of them men, most of them white. For a long time and still now, they enjoy a massive amount of prestige because it’s called ‘Royal.’ To me, it’s one of the more dangerous institutions that Canada has. Maybe even more so than the actual police.
Content Warning: The following two questions and the links within them deal with subject matter that may be triggering for some readers. These portions touch on police brutality against Indigenous peoples and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
TR: APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network) News did an investigation recently where an Indigenous woman spoke out about how she did sex work and had dealings with active police officers.
It touched on this idea of certain cases not being investigated properly, because how many of the perpetrators are actually the cops themselves?
CH: Oh, absolutely.
The amount of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women in Canada, but also in the United States—if we limit ourselves to North America—Mexico being quite a different context, so I’m not going to speak too much about that—the number of women and girls who have disappeared is massive, massive, massive.
Such governmental bodies as the police and the RCMP are not innocent in that.
There have been some inquiries, occasionally.
For example, there was a fairly famous case in Northern Manitoba—Helen Betty Osborne, in the 1970s.
She left her community to go to school in town to become a teacher. One night she was walking home from a friend’s and she was assaulted and brutally raped and killed. When she was found, it was obvious there was foul play. But the police didn’t really do anything. Her relatives had to push them. And then the police were like, “Yeah, okay she was attacked and killed.”
It took years and years for them to bring the perpetrators—and they very well knew who they were—to justice, but they got off pretty much scot-free.
There was a huge outcry again from the Indigenous population and the story managed to somehow reach the national news. This led to an inquiry against the RCMP who handled the investigation and butchered it. I mean, they did a shit job. Like they couldn’t care less. And they’ve done that over and over and over again.
TR: Of course, yeah. There was a report recently on APTN about Indigenous men and boys who’ve gone missing along the Highway of Tears, in addition to all the women. Which is why your work is so important. It’s not only women, it’s everyone.
CH: It is absolutely everyone.
I think that the case of gendered violence highlights the colonial character of it even more. Which is why I decided to focus on that. It connects pillars—foundational values of settler-colonial society—to the form of violence that Indigenous women experience today. I can talk a little bit more about that later on.
The Highway of Tears is an example of the location of mass disappearance. Winnipeg’s Red River is another one. Hudson’s Bay is yet another. There are all these places—which end up just being Canada, in general—where Indigenous people disappear enmasse. And hardly anything is done against it.
(This documentary film provides further information about The Highway of Tears, the Downtown Eastside, and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada.)
It’s about Indigenous peoples’ death in custody. The last chapter is on freezing deaths. Obviously, it’s not a fun read… but it sheds some light on the particularly colonial character of the police and the RCMP. But also, how they work not just individually, but as a network, as an institution.
(In addition to the National Film Board documentary linked above, this podcast episode provides more information about freezing deaths or ‘starlight tours‘.)
It’s very sweet of you to say that my work is important. I think the topic is. I don’t think that my work about it is.
Maybe this is the PhD syndrome that I’m experiencing but I just don’t really see the impact that I’m going to have. You’re pretty much the only person I know who cares about my work right now. (laughs)
Obviously, I’m interested in the topic. Obviously, I think it’s crucial. Obviously, I’m happy to spend years of my life working on it, researching it, trying to understand it, to fight it. I just don’t think that my contribution to it is that important. Also, it would be arrogant if I did. (laughs)
TR: Probably. (laughs)
TR: So, there’s a photo of a horse on your personal website.
CH: (laughs some more)
TR: Who is that horse? Because he looks very friendly with you.
CH: Oh, that horse. (laughs) It was love at first sight.
His name is Brew. And he was a massive, massive Shire horse. I didn’t know him that well but I immediately fell in love with him. It was when I was in Scotland, in 2009. At the end of my exchange year—after I finished courses and my job at a hotel—I took several weeks and I travelled around Scotland. I went to the Outer Hebrides. The picture was taken on the west coast of Lewis. I was staying at a youth hostel with a friend. We were the only two guests there—it wasn’t quite summer vacation yet. There was Apple—the donkey—and Brew, the Shire horse.
They were the friendliest inhabitants of the island. (laughs)
The Outer Hebrides is quite the place. It’s very austere. When you arrive with the ferry on Lewis, people will not speak in English around you; they will immediately switch to Gaelic. It’s a very closed community. I wouldn’t say unfriendly, but not the most welcoming.
But I had a blast with Brew. I always brought him an apple.
I love horses. I’ve been riding horses for many years now.
TR: What do you do? How do you ride?
CH: Jumping, dressage, hiking, trekking.
TR: Oh, wow. You do it all!
CH: Yeah, I love it. Very much. Some of the most important relationships that I’ve grown up with have been with horses.
TR: I hear you.
CH: They taught me so much.
TR: Like what?
CH: They taught me not to hold a grudge. They never do. I feel like they live so much better for it. They taught me patience. They taught me kindness. They taught me self-control. When a horse gets scared, it flees. When you want to keep your horse under control when it’s scared, you cannot let it feel that you’re scared. You have to tell them that everything is all right. You have to override your own emotions to make sure that you can control the horse’s.
One of the most important lessons is that they taught me a whole different language. One that doesn’t work through words. But that isn’t any less meaningful because of that.
Animals are really wise. It’s a shame that we haven’t learnt to listen more to them. Horses are great teachers and companions. And they’re just lovely.
TR: Do you have a horse now?
CH: No, I could never afford it.
I still haven’t quite come to grips with that sport that I love so much which is riding horses. I’m like, “If you really love horses, wouldn’t you prefer for them to be free and happy, without having to carry humans around on their back—humans that very often mistreat them?”
I also don’t want to enter that entire horse economy which treats these beautiful beings as commodities. I’m profoundly against that. At the same time, I love them. I want to be with them, and spend my free time with them. It’s hard to do that without entering that economy. I haven’t found a good way of doing that yet.
I don’t think I could have my own horse unless I have my own stables. But that requires way too much money that I’m never going to have.
Anyway, ‘no’ is the short answer. (laughs)
TR: I had rats. And I had them free-range, no cage. When I moved to Switzerland, I shipped my rats here, because, you know, I couldn’t leave my rats. They’re people. They don’t live long. Definitely not as long as horses. But they’re empathetic, intelligent little beings. If you take the time to interact with them on their level, within their boundaries, they’re incredible. They’re little spheres of personality, full individuals. I understand those relationships that you can have with them.
CH: I think all animals. Cats are the same. Dogs are the same. Birds are the same. All animals are like that.
The only kind of animals I haven’t really had a connection to yet are fish—I find them fascinating, but it’s hard to communicate with them in the same way. (laughs)
Snakes scare me a little bit.
I try to love all insects, but I really hit my limits with mosquitoes. (laughs)
TR: (laughs) Especially the one at night in your ear.
CH: Fruit flies… (laughs) I try to love them all. It’s difficult sometimes.
We didn’t have animals at home and nobody else in my family rides. I don’t know where that comes from. My family, they weren’t very wealthy—and I always loved horses….
I didn’t cry a lot as a child. I was a weird, spaced-off, sing-song-y kind of child, but I didn’t cry a lot. The times that I cried were, obviously, when I was hurt very badly, and when a horse came by my window, and I couldn’t touch it and be with it and ride it. That would break my heart, every time.
When I was seven, my mom was like, “I’ve had enough! I don’t know what to do with you anymore!” (laughs)
TR: Riding lessons!
CH: (laughs) She brought me to the nearest barn and there they were, like, “Oh, she’s too young to ride still, but she can do de la voltige”—which is like gymnastics, but on a horseback. I did that until I was nine and was finally allowed to start riding lessons. …
First it was one lesson per week. Obviously, that wasn’t enough very quickly. So, I struck a bargain with the barn owners and said, “What if I come and clean the stables so I can ride for free?” They said, “Let’s do that.”
That was the beginning of a very intense riding career. I was really glad that my mum finally gave in! (laughs)
TR: That’s really sweet.
CH: Whenever I hear people say stuff like “Animals are really like humans,” I’m like, “Really? You haven’t realized that before?” What the fuck took you so long to realize that animals have feelings? That they’re intelligent? That they can interact? Why does it take us so long? Why are we always so surprised when we realize how clever beavers are? Of course, they are! How arrogant of us to not think any different!
TR: The thing that gets me is when I think about how much space rats actually need and how they’re kept in labs. Shoeboxes.
CH: Do you still have them?
TR: No, they passed away. I needed to just stop myself because I go overboard. They take over the house, and I’m home-making them organic food. I loved them so much. I don’t think I loved anything as much as my rats. Don’t tell my partner.
CH: (laughs) Your secret is safe here.
CH: A few months ago, we voted on whether we wanted to get rid of all animal experiments in Switzerland. Did you follow that?
TR: No, I didn’t; but I remember hearing about it.
CH: Exactly. I talked to friends about it who are biologists or who work as scientists. And I was like, “What do you think of it?” They’re like, “If that vote comes through, I’m going to be jobless very quickly.” They’re like, “It would put Switzerland back into the Middle Ages when it comes to medication, beauty products, etcetera. It would really not be good. And it wouldn’t just be that in Switzerland we couldn’t have animal trials, it would mean that we would not be allowed to import products from abroad that have been created based on animal trials, so that would cut us off completely, etcetera.” I’m like, “I don’t care! I vote yes! Let’s do this! We’ve got to find another way!” (laughs)
TR: Did it pass?
CH: No, of course not. (laughs)
TR: (laughs) … The industry is huge….
CH: The pharma industry in Switzerland is way too massive for that kind of thing to pass. Way too massive. I mean, we have, what? Three or four of the world’s biggest pharma industries, here, in our tiny, tiny country. It’s ridiculous.
TR: Not to mention the reputation of beauty products overseas. I know of one company that ships massive amounts of product to China. That’s basically their entire business. Everyone wants Swiss beauty products, apparently.
CH: And here people can’t even afford them. (laughs)
TR: No, of course, not (laughs). Okay, I think I’m going to stop the recorder.
CH: You have enough material?
TR: Oh, yes, I think so. We’re good.
Thank you, Cécile, for taking the time to speak with me. I definitely enjoyed it, and I think our readers will as well.
Ever wondered what goes on inside Unil’s stationary store? Well we went to find Enrico in his colorful little shop, and he graciously accepted to answer a few questions for us. Read on to learn about Enrico’s everyday life and you’ll never pass by his store without saying hello again! [version française en-dessous]
Can you introduce yourself and say a few words about your job?
My name is Enrico. I’ve always worked in mechanics, and now I’m here because I found this job for my wife, it’s her professional field.
For how many years have you been working in the University of Lausanne, and how did you end up here?
It has been 15-16 years. I took this job with my wife and now that we’re retired, we keep working here because we enjoy it, we want to be in contact with people, rather than being confined at home.
What does the usual workday look like?
In general, my wife comes in the morning and, as a sleeper, I come between 10:00 and 12:00. Then we wait for people to come and go. But there’s very few people coming now.
Since when did you notice that?
Since we closed for a year due to Covid-19. Even with the reopening there’s less students around, because lots of them still study at home. Besides, students are now used to working without paper, without supplies.
What do you sell the most?
Everything and anything, we sell everything that is useful in a university. Some things go faster than others, but it’s hard to say which ones, and it changes over time. For example, we used to bind books a lot, because the Reprographie only made copies and we bound them. But now they’re making copies that are already bound…
That could be interesting to some students! Do you still do bindings?
We still do, but very few. But we have plastic or metal spiral bindings of all sizes, and we also make glued bindings. And it’s cheaper than in other shops in the city (because, you know, sometimes we check the market prices).
What are the advantages of working here?
It’s a good way to spend time and to have some human interaction, I’ve always liked that. Some students come just to have a coffee and chat, because they can tell I also enjoy having a talk. It’s something that has always been part of my life: I’ve coached football teams, trained apprentices when I was working as a mechanic, … This desire to socialize is something that comes back.
So you like students? They are polite and respectful to you?
Students are generally decent with us, sometimes someone will be [pause; probably meaning “a bit unpleasant”], but it’s rare. In principle, when you’re decent to someone they repay you.
What are some disadvantages of your job?
There aren’t. I mean, the margins we make are really thin, so as long as we’re working here and don’t need the money to live, it’s going to continue. But if someone comes here after us, they’ll be younger and they’ll need a decent salary, because my wife and I never took a proper salary. So if it doesn’t make enough money, sooner or later the shop will have to shut down, that’s how it goes… But as for us, we’re happy here.
So you’re thinking about leaving?
Yes, my wife and I are thinking about working for a few more months and then we might put up an offer… Then instead of spending our time here, we’ll be able to travel around for 3 or 4 days at a time, see a city and then another. In the end, you can meet people just as well when travelling.
How did COVID impact you personally?
It impacted me like everyone else. Having to stay home, you learn to stay inside. And now it’s nice to be back and to see people again!
I agree! Finally, is there something you’d like to say to students?
You have to study if you want to get somewhere, today even a university degree is not always enough. You have to constantly challenge yourself. For example, when I was working [as a mechanic], every time there was something new, I’d go and take an evening class, because you can’t do things you know nothing about. That’s why I think the most important thing is to have solid bases in life, and then question yourself whenever it’s necessary.
T’es-tu déjà demandé.e ce qui se passe dans la papeterie de l’Unil? Et bien, nous sommes allées trouver Enrico dans son petit magasin plein de couleurs, et il a accepté de répondre à quelques questions pour nous. Continue de lire pour en savoir plus sur son quotidien, et tu ne passeras plus jamais devant sa boutique sans le saluer!
Pouvez-vous vous présenter et dire quelques mots à votre sujet ?
Mon nom c’est Enrico. J’ai toujours travaillé dans la mécanique, et maintenant je suis là parce que j’ai trouvé ce travail pour ma femme, c’est son domaine à elle.
Depuis combien de temps travaillez-vous à l’Université de Lausanne, et comment êtes-vous arrivé ici ?
Ça fait 15-16 ans. On avait pris ce travail ensemble, ma femme et moi, et maintenant qu’on est à la retraite on l’a gardé parce qu’on aime ça, on aime pas rester enfermés à la maison, on a envie de rester en contact avec les gens.
A quoi ressemble votre journée de travail habituellement ?
En général ma femme vient le matin et moi qui suis dormeur je viens vers 10-12h. Après on attend que les gens viennent et puis qu’ils s’en aillent. Mais actuellement il y a très peu de monde.
Depuis quand avez-vous remarqué qu’il y a moins de monde ?
Depuis que ça a fermé pendant une année à cause du covid. Même avec la réouverture il y a beaucoup moins d’étudiants, il y en a encore beaucoup qui travaillent à la maison. Et puis maintenant ils sont habitués à travailler sans papier, sans matériel.
Quel est le produit que vous vendez le plus?
Tout et n’importe quoi, tout ce qui est utile à l’université. Il y a des choses qui partent plus vite mais c’est difficile à dire lesquelles, et ça change avec le temps. Par exemple on faisait beaucoup de reliures ici avant, parce que la reprographie faisait que des copies et nous on faisait les reliures. Mais maintenant ils font des copies déjà reliées…
Ça pourrait intéresser certain.e.s étudiant.e.s de savoir ça ! Vous faites toujours des reliures ?
On en fait encore quelques-unes, très très peu. Mais on a des reliures en spirales plastique ou métal de toutes les tailles, et on fait aussi des reliures collées, et c’est moins cher qu’en ville (parce que de temps en temps on se renseigne sur les prix du marché).
Quels sont les avantages de votre travail ici ?
C’est un bon passe-temps pour avoir un contact humain, moi j’ai toujours aimé ça. Il y a des étudiants qui viennent juste pour parler en prenant un café parce qu’ils voient que j’aime bien le contact. C’est quelque chose qui a toujours été présent dans ma vie : j’ai entraîné des équipes de football, j’ai eu des apprentis quand je travaillais, cette envie de sociabiliser c’est quelque chose qui revient.
Donc vous appréciez les étudiants et les étudiantes ? Ils et elles sont polies et respectueuses avec vous ?
Les étudiants, ils sont assez corrects avec nous, de temps en temps il y a quelqu’un de [pause; signifiant probablement “un peu désagréable”], mais c’est rare. En principe, quand on est correct avec les gens ils nous le rendent.
Quels sont les désavantages de votre travail ici ?
Il y en a pas. Après les marges sont très petites, donc tant que c’est nous qui sommes là et qu’on vit pas de ça, ça va continuer. Mais si quelqu’un reprend ce sera des personnes un peu plus jeunes et il leur faudra une paye, parce que ma femme et moi on a jamais pris une vraie paye. Si le volume de caisse est trop bas, tôt ou tard ils seront destinés à fermer, parce que c’est comme ça… Mais nous on est contents ici.
Vous pensez donc à arrêter?
Oui, avec ma femme on pense travailler encore quelques mois et après peut-être qu’on mettra une annonce [pour trouver quelqu’un d’autre] … Après au lieu de passer le temps à la papeterie on pourra faire des petits voyages de 3-4 jours, voir une ville quelques jours puis une autre. Au final en voyageant on voit du monde la même chose.
Comment le COVID vous a-t-il affecté personnellement ?
Il m’a affecté comme tout le monde. Devoir rester à la maison, on apprend à rester enfermé. Et maintenant ça fait plaisir de retourner au travail et de voir du monde !
Je suis d’accord ! Finalement, avez-vous un message pour les étudiants et les étudiantes ?
Il faut étudier, si vous voulez arriver à quelque chose de nos jours même un diplôme universitaire c’est pas toujours suffisant. Il faut se remettre en question continuellement dans la vie. Moi par exemple quand je travaillais [comme mécanicien], chaque fois qu’il y avait des nouveautés j’allais faire des cours du soir, parce qu’on peut pas faire des choses quand on les connaît pas. C’est pour ça que je dis que l’important c’est d’avoir des bases très solides dans la vie et après se remettre une question à chaque fois que c’est nécessaire.
Merci beaucoup, c’était un plaisir de parler avec vous !
One fine day in April, the university’s shepherd, Bob Martin, generously agreed to meet us in front of his sheepfold to answer our questions and explain all about his sheep. [version française en-dessous]
Could you say a few words about yourself, who you are, and why you are here?
My name is Bob Martin, I’m the university shepherd, and I’ve been looking after the sheep at the university since about 2013-2014. I’m in my forties, and then before this fabulous job I was a car mechanic. Yes, a radical change of profession, because I was a bit fed up with it, I felt that I had done all I could with that job, and then I wanted to work with animals, especially dogs. That’s where I found this job that does a bit of both.
How long have you been looking after sheep?
I’ve been looking after sheep since I started here. It was all new to me. So since 2011 I’ve been in the sheep business a bit, and then in 2014 I took over the university flock.
Is there a certain breed of sheep, a certain kind of sheep that you have?
Yes, I currently have two breeds of sheep: the Nez-Noirs du Valais and the Roux du Valais. The Roux du Valais were originally endangered and the Nez-Noirs I chose for aesthetics, because I love them and they’re a bit like plushies. I thought it would be nice to have a couple of plushies around the university.
What do they look like? How do we recognize them?
Well, the Nez-Noirs are quite easy, hence their name: they are all white with black noses and then they have black spots on all their joints. And then the Roux du Valais are red. And the little bonus of these two breeds is that the females and the males have horns.
Oh yes! Because here I see some of them and they all have horns!
Yes, they (“elles”, French feminine form) all have horns.
Ah, they are all females! And I see that you also use dogs. How do you work with them?
I have three dogs at the moment. I have a little bitch who is 5 months old that I have to train to take over for my very old dog [a dog suddenly becomes concerned and barks] who is now 11 years old. And then there’s Will who’s in the middle, who is 7 years old, he turned 7 this weekend by the way. I always work with two dogs and then I always have a ‘spare’ one in case one gets hurt [it’s still barking] or for other situations.
Do the sheep have names? Or numbers? How are they recognised? What do you call them?
Officially they have a number, a BDTA number. They are registered in a Swiss database. And then all the sheep that have papers have a name and all my favourites have a name too. Let’s say that out of the 260 that I have, there are about a hundred that have names, but I don’t know them all by heart.
So are there some sheep that have a personality, that you can recognise, [the little dog barks] with whom you have a more special relationship?
Absolutely, yes! So I do have what we call my favourite. Punky, she’s called. And she’s also the one I take to classes, to schools, for example, because she’s quite calm [the little dog really wants attention and barks again], and that’s what’s so nice.
Is she the little one?
Yes, I haven’t taught her to stop barking yet. We’ll make do. He laughs.
Are there any misconceptions about sheep, or anything we don’t know at all? Something we think about sheep that is not true?
I would say the first misconception is that we always say that we are as stupid as a sheep or that we follow like a sheep. And it’s true that we follow like a sheep, because they are animals who live in a herd. But they are far from stupid, I noticed. When you live with them every day, you can see that they all have their own character, and sometimes their own strong ideas. So that’s what I also find nice about sheep.
Very interesting answer! And why are the sheep at UNIL specifically?
Well, there are sheep everywhere, but it’s also a bit of an emblematic model of the university. Back in the day, UNIL’s land was agricultural land and when they designed the first buildings, they decided to keep this system of sheep on the site. I think the sheep have been on the site since before we were born. I’m the third or fourth shepherd at the university. The sheepfold where the sheep are in winter – I bring them in between Christmas, New Year, until the first of April – this sheepfold that’s just behind us has always been there, so it’s really an iconic building of the university. It was built at the same time as the university buildings.
How do you decide where to put your sheep? Is there a schedule? Do you rotate them around the different parts of the campus?
Yes, we have a plot plan of about 45 plots for grazing on the university. Depending on the season, the growth of the grass, the work on the site, the events, and everything else around the university, we try to organise ourselves as best we can to graze these plots. We go on the plots between two and three times a year.
Are the sheep divided into small groups, or do they usually stay in groups of 260?
Now we have two flocks. There’s a small flock for the small plots of eight to ten sheep, and there’s a large flock that’s between thirty and forty sheep for the large plots.
How did your partnership with UNIL start?
I trained as a shepherd at Châteauneuf, and in this training there was the lady who looked after the sheep at the university. That’s how I got into the system and I had the opportunity to take over the flock.
Wonderful, so you are the successor! Do you use sheep as “natural mowers” elsewhere or only at UNIL?
Well, of my 260 sheep, between 30 and 50 graze at UNIL during the season. With the rest of the sheep, I use exactly the same system in Geneva’s communes, or for the army, for the road service, for civil protection, for many other institutions.
Est-ce que vous pourriez dire quelques mots sur vous, sur qui vous êtes, sur pourquoi vous êtes là ?
Je m’appelle Bob Martin, je suis le berger de l’université, et puis ça fait environ depuis 2013-2014 que je m’occupe des moutons à l’université. J’ai une quarantaine d’années, et puis avant ce fabuleux métier j’étais mécanicien automobile. Oui, changement radical de métier, parce que j’en avais un peu marre, je sentais que j’avais fait le tour de ce métier-là, et puis je voulais travailler à la base avec les animaux, et surtout les chiens. C’est là où j’ai trouvé ce métier qui fait un peu les deux.
Depuis quand vous occupez-vous de moutons ?
Alors j’ai commencé à m’occuper de moutons en même temps que j’ai commencé ici. C’était tout nouveau pour moi. Donc depuis 2011 je suis un peu dans le monde des moutons, et puis depuis 2014 j’ai repris le troupeau de l’université.
Est-ce qu’il y a une certaine race de moutons, une certaine espèce de moutons que vous avez ?
Alors oui, moi j’ai actuellement deux races de moutons: il y a les Nez-Noirs du Valais et les Roux du Valais. Les Roux du Valais étaient à la base en voie de disparition et puis les Nez Noirs, je les ai surtout pris pour l’esthétique, parce que je les adore et c’est un peu des peluches. Je me suis dit que ça ferait bien autour de l’université d’avoir deux trois peluches.
A quoi est-ce qu’ils ressemblent ? Comment est-ce qu’on les reconnaît ?
Alors les Nez Noirs c’est assez facile, d’où leur nom: ils sont tout blancs avec le nez noir et puis ils ont les taches de toutes les articulations qui sont noires. Et puis les Roux du Valais sont roux. Et le petit plus de ces deux races là, c’est que les femelles et les mâles ont des cornes.
Ah oui ! Parce que là j’en vois quelques-uns qui ont tous des cornes !
Oui, elles ont toutes des cornes.
Ah ce sont toutes des femelles !Et je vois que vous utilisez aussi des chiens. Comment travaillez-vous ?
Alors là j’ai actuellement trois chiens. J’ai une petite chienne qui a 5 mois que je dois éduquer pour la relève pour ma toute vieille chienne [un chien se sent tout d’un coup concerné et aboie] de maintenant 11 ans. Et puis il y a le juste milieu Will, qui a 7 ans, qui a eu 7 ans ce weekend d’ailleurs. Et puis je travaille toujours avec deux chiens et puis j’en ai toujours un « de réserve » au cas où il y en a un qui est blessé [et il aboie encore] ou pour d’autres situations.
Est-ce que les moutons ont des noms ? Ou des numéros ? Comment est-ce qu’on les reconnaît ? Comment on les appelle ?
Officiellement, ils ont un numéro, un numéro BDTA. Ils sont enregistrés dans une base de données suisse. Et puis après tous les moutons qui ont des papiers ont un nom et puis toutes mes préférées ont un nom aussi. On va dire que sur les 260 que j’ai, il y en a une centaine qui ont des noms, mais je ne le sais pas tous par cœur.
Donc il y a quand même certains moutons qui ont une personnalité, qu’on peut reconnaître, [la petite chienne aboie] avec qui vous avez une relation plus particulière ?
Tout à fait oui ! Alors j’ai toujours ce qu’on appelle ma préférée.Punky, elle s’appelle. Et puis c’est elle aussi que je prends par exemple dans les classes, dans les écoles parce qu’elle est assez calme [la petite chienne a vraiment envie d’attention et aboie encore], et puis c’est ça qui est chouette.
C’est elle la toute petite ?
Oui, je ne lui ai pas encore appris à arrêter d’aboyer. On fera avec. Il rit.
Est-ce qu’il y a des idées reçues sur les moutons, ou quelque chose qu’on ne sait pas du tout ? Quelque chose qu’on pense des moutons alors que c’est pas du tout vrai ?
Je dirais la première idée reçue, on dit toujours qu’on est bête comme un mouton ou qu’on suit comme un mouton. Alors qu’on suit comme un mouton, c’est vrai parce que c’est quand même des animaux qui vivent en troupeau. Mais ils sont quand même loin d’être bêtes, j’ai remarqué. Quand on vit tous les jours avec eux, on voit qu’ils ont tous leur caractère, et puis aussi des fois leurs idées bien tranchées. Donc c’est ça que je trouve aussi sympa dans les moutons.
Très intéressant comme réponse! Et pourquoi les moutons sont à l’UNIL spécifiquement?
Alors, il y a des moutons partout mais c’est aussi un peu le modèle emblématique de l’université. A l’époque, le terrain de l’UNIL était des terres agricoles et quand ils ont dessiné les premiers bâtiments, ils ont décidé de garder ce système de moutons sur le site. Je pense que les moutons sont sur le site depuis avant qu’on soit nés. Je suis le troisième ou le quatrième berger de l’université. La bergerie où les moutons sont en hiver – je les rentre entre Noël, nouvel an, jusqu’au premier avril – cette bergerie qui se trouve juste derrière nous a toujours été là, donc c’est vraiment un bâtiment emblématique de l’université. Elle a été construite en même temps que les bâtiments universitaires.
Comment décidez-vous d’où placer vos moutons? Est-ce qu’il y a un planning? On les fait tourner sur les différentes parties du campus?
Oui, on a un plan parcellaire d’environ 45 parcelles pour brouter sur l’université. En fonction de la saison, de la pousse de l’herbe, des travaux sur le site, des manifestations, de tout ce qu’il y a autour de l’université, on essaye de s’organiser au mieux pour pâturer ces parcelles. On passe entre deux à trois fois par année sur les parcelles.
Est-ce que les moutons sont divisés en petits groupes, ou ils restent généralement en groupe de 260?
Maintenant on fait deux troupeaux. Il y a un petit troupeau pour les petites parcelles entre huit et dix têtes, et il y a un grand troupeau qui est entre trente et quarante têtes pour les grandes parcelles.
Comment a commencé votre partenariat avec l’UNIL?
Alors, pour la petite histoire, j’ai fait la formation de berger à Châteauneuf, et dans cette formation il y avait la dame qui s’occupait des moutons à l’université. Par ce biais-là je suis rentré dans ce système et j’ai eu l’opportunité de reprendre le troupeau.
Magnifique, donc vous êtes le successeur! Est-ce que vous utilisez des moutons comme “tondeuses naturelles” autre part aussi ou qu’à l’UNIL?
Alors, de mes 260 moutons, il y en a entre 30 et 50 qui pâturent à l’UNIL à la saison. Avec le reste des moutons, je fais exactement le même système dans des communes genevoises, ou pour l’armée, pour le service des routes, pour la protection civile, pour plein d’autres institutions.
Earlier this semester, Agnieszka kindly accepted to sit down with us over Zoom: the perfect occasion to get to know the person she is beyond the screen!
Hello, Agnieszka. Welcome. Thank you for sitting down with us!
You have been at UNIL for fifteen years, is that right?
I guess so! I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right. This year it will be fifteen years.
So, who are you? Where are you from? Where have you worked? What are you currently working on?
I come from several different places, which currently makes me a person with three nationalities: I am Polish, American, and Swiss. I was born in Poland, I grew up in California and had most of my education there. Then I spent twelve years in Geneva before coming to Lausanne. I’ve been here for fifteen years now, that’s true! I sort of lost my sense of time, partly because I’ve just enjoyed being here, in Lausanne, so much. I think it’s a really great department and it’s allowed me to have a lot of freedom in terms of what I teach and what I research, and really to blossom in a lot of ways, intellectually. So, I have very much enjoyed being at Lausanne and I look forward to being here until I retire in about another thirteen years.
Well, the other thing I am – I should mention this : I’m a really different person than when I first arrived. I had a huge thing happen to me three years ago: my son died. He was about to start the university. He was going to be at the faculty, like you guys, maybe even in the same year. So, that has completely changed me and remapped my world. It maybe doesn’t look like it so much from the outside because I’m still working and doing the same things, but I think that on the inside I’m very different and I’m doing those things differently and they mean different things to me. It’s certainly made me put a lot more of myself into my teaching. The fact that my son would have been at the faculty… It’s a huge sadness of mine, that he never actually made it to the university. But it makes me see the students that I’m teaching as reflections of what he could have been here, and what I would want to give them maybe flows a little bit from what I would have wanted him to find here.
In terms of my parcours and major research projects: I’ve always been interested in the relationship between society and literature and how social issues can be engaged with in literature, how they filter into literature and what literature can do to think about important political and social issues. My first book was about the nineteenth century gothic and how major writers like Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, and Henry James used the gothic in various rich and subtle ways to engage with the huge issues of their time like slavery, class, gender, and capitalism. The gothic is a strain of my research that is still there. I’m working on several essays even right now.
My second book was even closer to home, as an Americanist: it was about war and how we tell stories about war through popular culture. The United States is a very militaristic country, but it has not won a war since 1945, and even then, arguably, it won the war only because of the Soviet Army on the Eastern front. It may not have been able to win all by itself, and the fact that it dropped these two terrible bombs on civilians in Japan shows that it has not won a war because of great or effective fighting, – whatever that would even be – which I don’t believe in, in the last seventy years. It’s been engaged in one destructive war after another, killing people abroad, killing Americans, destroying economies. And yet, America continues to think of war as a worthwhile endeavour, as a glorious, important test of a people, and of individuals, and of a country. I think that a lot of that work of persuasion to see things in that way is being done through Hollywood, and through popular culture. That’s what my last book was about, about looking at how the formulas that are used for that come from literature more generally and have a long history, like melodrama, or adventure, that are used to make war seem exciting and meaningful. That book just came out a couple of months ago, I’m still in the process of promoting it and getting reviews and so on. It took me a long time to write it because I was interrupted by being Head of Department, and then I stopped working really effectively for a couple of years after my son passed away. So, it took me about six years to write that book.
My next project is going to be about ecology, the environment and the planet, in some way or another. I’m not quite sure what the corpus is going to be, or what the research question is going to be, but that’s where I’m headed for the next book.
Congratulations on your book! And we are very excited about your new project.
We are currently going through hard times and we wanted to know how teaching online has been for you.
That’s a great question. I have to say, personally, I had to adapt and learn how to do it very quickly but I have not found it to be as disruptive as I think it probably is for students. I really feel for how lonely it is for students to be alone at home all the time. That’s really not what university is about. University is not just learning, it’s also the whole social environment, it’s making friends, it’s changing and becoming a different person in those three or five years. You can’t do that alone in your room. You really have to do that as a part of a class that you’re going through, with your volée, as part of an environment and all the different things that are impacting you. That’s been a tragedy for students.
Now, as a teacher, I have found it to be not so bad! I actually enjoy being able to see people’s names and faces up close and I find that the break-out rooms work really well, I find that using the chat as a support while I’m talking to the class has been very helpful. I’ve found that I’ve had to prepare more and be more engaged in my classes, while the students seem to be as well, so it’s more intense and tiring, but sometimes I feel like it’s better teaching in terms of some of the discussions and interactions, especially since my classes in the last few years have gotten really big. There are sometimes forty or more students, and it’s very easy for forty people to just become really passive, whereas when you’re on a screen, you’re very visible with your face. I try to discourage having your video off, because then I don’t even know if somebody’s there or not! It’s sometimes easier to get shyer people to talk. The dynamic has been different. I find that it hasn’t been necessarily detrimental to teaching. I certainly enjoy being safe: I’ve appreciated the fact that I don’t have to worry about catching COVID in the classroom or wearing a mask while I speak and I can just focus on teaching. I also appreciate the extra time it’s given me, you know, the time I would spend showering, getting dressed, commuting. I have more time to read, to take walks, to be with my daughter or my partner. That’s been the good side of teaching online, but I do recognise that for students it’s been very difficult overall.
What is the favourite class you have ever given?
There’s different kinds of favourite classes. *She laughs* I love teaching the master’s class in “New American Studies” because I put a lot of my intellectual history and engagement into that class. I can see how, when students learn some of the things, and they get these tools, I see them going off and writing master’s papers or mémoires and it’s very exciting to see them taking things that I’ve brought to them but then running with it and doing things I hadn’t even thought of. So, I’d say that the recurrent annual master’s class I teach in “American Studies” is probably the most fun and exciting regular class that I teach.
Then there are more occasional classes that I thought to have been very interesting. I taught a class on feminism once with Isis Giraldo, when she was still here. That was a class that felt really… dangerous to teach. I remember getting nervous, my heart beating, before going in. We were giving students texts to read from the 1960s and the 1970s that were extremely critical of male writers and patriarchal structures. I just never knew how students would react and I’d get scared, almost, before class, going “oh my god, what am I doing?”. And then a student told me once, when I said this, “you know, I do too! I get scared the night before class, I’m really nervous”. But it feels like there’s something really important going on, but something dangerous, that really affects people personally a lot and makes them question their entire way of being in the world. So, I don’t know if that is my favourite class but it is definitely one I will never forget and that was very important to teach.
Since you’ve been around Lausanne for quite a while, how have you been liking it? Is there a place in the region that you really like, and that you’d want us to go to and see?
Well, I do love being here, especially for the department, I have to say. It is really the most collegial, friendly, open department I’ve ever been in, and I have been in various universities and various departments. I love the students, they’re curious and eager to learn. I have never had a discipline problem in all these years of teaching, I mean… maybe people whispering a little bit too much in the Anglo-American literary survey sometimes, but that’s the worst of it, and I know people who teach in high school who tell me horrible stories. So I feel very lucky in terms of students and how much extra work they do, all the extra-curricular activities they do, like MUSE! It’s just amazing how people get so involved or are so excited about language, and literature and the community that we have. I love the department for all those reasons, and the region is beautiful.
But, I grew up in California right along the coast of the Pacific Ocean, and I have to say that I really miss the ocean, I miss the beach and I miss the horizon. I miss the fact that you could go to the beach when you’re sad or on a winter day and just look into infinity. When I first moved to Switzerland I felt very hemmed in by the mountains. Now it has been twenty-five years since I live in Switzerland – I came in ninety-four – and I have learned to love the mountains and to love the lake. We’re really privileged in terms of the natural environment. I have a little forest right near my house, and I talked with a park ranger once who told me that eighty-five percent of the Swiss population has a forest within ten minutes walking distance from their home. That’s really nice.
One of my favorite places is a walk in Crissier called the “Sentier de la Cascade”. I go there several times a year and it’s always different because of all the different colours; in winter there is more light, in summer it is more green and cool, and it’s just a beautiful walk along a river that goes to a waterfall. That’s my favorite place within a ten-miles radius.
[Note from the interviewee: Since we had the interview I have discovered the Venoge and the walk alongside it between St. Sulpice and Bussigny and this has definitely become my other favorite place along with the Cascade walk!]
What is your favorite book of all time ?
That’s a tough question. That’s a cruel question. *She laughs and pauses* Well, a book that I come back to as a teacher, my favorite book that I teach over and over again is Beloved by Toni Morrison. But my favorite book of all time… I can’t give you a single book but there is an author that I love reading and re-reading, and that’s Louise Erdrich. She is a Native American writer and I never get tired of her books, and whether I read it for the first time or for the fifth time I always find so many new answers and richness. I also find her vision of the world so balanced between the gritty and difficult, the luminous and quirky, the sexual and witty, and it is just such an interesting mix of everything that I find inspiring. So I would say that any book by Louise Erdrich would be one of my favorite books.
[Note from the interviewee: In rereading this interview I thought of several more that have profoundly marked me and I’d like to mention them: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Nancy Huston’s Dolce Agonia, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Tim Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume.]
Is there a piece of advice you were given that you think is very important and that you would like to share ?
I don’t remember getting a lot of advice when I was younger. Maybe I should have gotten more! The one thing that really stands out of my mind is something my mom told me. She was a dentist – my family comes from Poland – and under the communist regime women were encouraged to get higher education and a lot of women were able to get into good skilled professions. So my mom said to me – she said this when I was quite young – that the most important thing in life for a woman is to be financially independent, to never depend on a man for your livelihood, as it always makes the relationship totally skewed. So you have to be free and independent, to be able to enter any relationship with your full free-will and to stay independent within it so that you can leave if you have to. That was a piece of advice that I took to heart and I continue to find very relevant when I look around the world and I see the situation of women in general. Around the planet most women are in various degrees of servitude and a lot of it has to do with not being able to be financially independent and make their own choices.
What do you think would be the most surprising scientific discovery imaginable ?
Parallel universes. I’m very interested in physics and all the wonky, weird stuff that goes on, contemporary physics looking at dark matter that makes up ninety-five percent of the universe, and the weird ways subatomic particles behave, the way they get paired and then they start to behave in a way that is talked about in Only Lovers Left Alive as “spooky action“, which is the way time and space get folded into one another… Just all the magical stuff that seems completely surreal, that physics is about. So if there was some kind of definitive proof of parallel universes or other dimensions or that time is just an illusion, that would be pretty surprising!
If you could add anyone on Mount Rushmore, who would it be and why ?
First of all, I think it needs a woman up there and I’d say it’s about time that people of color in the United States start to get some celebration and recognition. So, I guess I would put up Harriet Tubman. She was the runaway, the escaped slave who helped other slaves to escape along the “Underground Railroad”. She’s being put on the twenty dollars bill hopefully soon, but I could definitely see her mixing things up on Mount Rushmore.
Have you ever tasted the Migros Ice Tea and what do you think of it ?
*She laughs* I don’t really drink ice tea anymore because it’s too sweet, but I have tasted Migros Ice Tea and I agree that it’s probably the best in the world (although I wish they would make an unsweetened version of it).
Dr. Juliette Vuille: I’m fine, thank you. I’m moving house, so I’m just packing up my apartment, it’s pretty exciting. It’s Monday morning, I’ve just finished correcting mock midterm exams and now I’m seeing you so you are the highlight of my day! Last weekend my friends decided to have a barbecue to enjoy the nice weather but when we arrived it started raining so – oh well!
How did this very odd rentrée go for you?
I think it was a little bit depressing simply because when we moved everything online last semester, there seemed to be an end in sight. We’re now all in semi-confinement again, without much of an idea of when this is going to end. Last time, teaching on Zoom, transferring exactly the same type of teaching we had in person online, was not fun: it was a lot of work. It was ok because I thought, “Well, it’s going to end soon and next semester will be better.”
Since this is my last year at the University and I really like to teach, it was a little bit depressing to see that there’s no end in sight. But by now I think I’m getting into the groove of things! I think the first three weeks were hard, because we didn’t know for the longest time what would happen and how much we’d be able to teach, or how. I had this idea that if teaching was going to be online, I wanted to change what I was going to do, and especially how I was going to do it, because it’s not the same thing to teach online or “en présentiel.” So I thought there’s no point in trying to do a seminar on the same subject, and maybe it would be nice to take advantage of the possibilities of online teaching: my goal was to create a class for which the final project would be to update some Wikipedia entries about medieval English Women, which are so often overlooked, as well as female scholars who have focused on gender in the medieval period. Things like that would have been cool. But then the Décanat told us “you need to keep exactly the same thing because it might move en présentiel and then might be back online.”
I teach a class on Margery Kempe, a fifteenth-century mystic who is very drama-drama-drama! She has fourteen children, she tries to become a brewer and a miller, and then she has visions of God: she gets married to God in Rome and she goes on pilgrimages everywhere… She also cries all the time, which makes her a super annoying dinner guest. I was thinking it might be a good idea to use the component of being online for this class, even though we needed to keep the same subjects. So I created a Twitter handle for the class (@MargeryRocks), and all the students actually tweet out memes every week – and they’re really good! This woman lends herself particularly well to memes and it’s been pretty funny, but also a great didactic tool. Creating those memes is actually a good way for students to clarify for themselves key concepts, and really get the gist out of the reading. It’s been going pretty well.
What classes are you teaching this semester?
I am teaching that class on Margery Kempe, a woman who was accused of heresy and who represents very much the limits of acceptable behaviour in the Medieval Period, especially for women in the public space. That’s a third year class. I’m using her as a limit case for students to grasp the historical context of the time, such as notions of heresy, affective piety, and the practice of pilgrimage. Since she always skirts the unacceptable, she is a great tool to understand what, in fact, is! Besides this one, I have a second year class on the House of Fame by Chaucer, which focuses more on literary authority and intertextuality. I’m having students read bits of Virgil, Ovid, Dante or the Roman de la Rose, for example at the same time as they read the House, so they can gauge how Chaucer is using all of those sources and is referring to them time and again. In the “Discovery” class, you get to study Chaucer but you never get to see how intertextual he really is, how he’s bouncing off ideas that exist somewhere else. If you only have Chaucer to read, you don’t really understand what amazing things he’s doing to the dream vision genre. That’s been really cool. I don’t really know about the students, but I know I’ve really been enjoying myself! Those are the only two classes I’m teaching, only four hours this semester!
We only have one to two MA classes per semester in medieval now. We used to only have one, taught each semester by Professor Renevey, but I really wanted to teach some MA classes, so when Rory Critten and myself arrived three years ago, we lobbied to be able to teach one each every year. I love teaching MA seminars, and I allows us to have students who want to do their mémoires with us as well!
You had to take care of the timetables, so how did everything go in relation to the covid regulations?
Every person in the administrative department has their little hat on, so for example I take care, with other people, of the social media page on Facebook. My biggest job by far though, is the timetable, which I work on with Ana Gomes Correia, the doctoral assistant in American Literature, who is really good. Usually we start compiling the timetable every year, it’s about 120 different classes, and the goal is not to have any clashes between classes of the same level, especially MAs (because we don’t have many such seminars) but also second and third years. Once we removed as many clashes as we can, there’s one form per class that has to be filled, with a different code depending on what you can validate it in. So for example if you have a third year class that you can do as an option, in medieval, or in gender studies then it will have different codes for each of these validations. We then have to check all of those codes.
This year, things weren’t so different, because we had no choice over what was going to happen, and therefore prepared everything as usual. It was the Décanat dealing with the Rectorat – so between the University that wanted to keep a third of the teaching en présentiel with a token system, and the Décanat, which disagreed. It was also a back-and-forth with the Canton, because they had to validate it as well so we were all waiting to know what was going to happen. When we were told, there was a bit of work to deal with new “covid size” classroom occupancy, as each room was evaluated and its occupancy was reduced by about a third. Occupancy is always a problem even in normal times, as you probably have experienced by having to sit on the window-sill for some of your popular seminars! So we had to move a lot of classes around and then we realised it was all for nothing because most of those classes were not happening in person! Now a lot of people are teaching from 8:30 to 10 because we had to change that and everybody had already made their timetable. It was a little tricky, but not as much as you may think. The Décanat did the main part of the work and were key in the decision-making process. I think that their decision to keep as many of the first-year workshops en présentiel was a good one. The transition from high school to university can be tough, and last year I saw that a lot of first year students lost track of classes when it all moved online. It was a good idea, therefore, to keep as many first-year workshops as possible in person, I just wish I were teaching first-year classes this semester! At the same time, I think that in the next couple of weeks, everything is moving back online anyway. (Editor’s note: this interview was conducted on the 26th of October)
Do you have any classes en présence?
Lex: I have one class that is taught “en commodal” which means that the students who have the right colour token can physically go to uni, and the rest of the students follow online, which is a bit weird honestly.
Juliette: I’m part of the Conseil de Faculté and a lot of the students are saying “if you’re moving things back on campus (which is what has been happening in the past few weeks) only to move then back online again, it needs to be “commodal,” but this type of teaching is not ideal for teachers. And “commodal” is funny to me because “commode” is an old-fashioned word for toilet in English so it makes me laugh! I taught this MA seminar in the context of the SPEC MA in medieval studies (overseen by the CEMEP) (editor’s note: Juliette was in charge of organising this spécialisation programme last year), and we organised conferences and public lectures at the Palais the Rumine for this. The last time I taught in person was on the 13th of March, for one of the mini-conferences for this SPEC MA! It feels such a long time ago! Last semester, my MA seminar which was linked to this SPEC moved online, and the students only had my voice and a PowerPoint, which must have been really boring for them. This SPEC MA, however, is not only lectures, but is also intended to develop “professionalizing skills”, often involving practical work in archives or museums. So for example one of my students was scheduled to help Ramona Fritschi, the archivist of the BCU, in cataloguing the Special Collections’ medieval manuscripts – because there actually isn’t a catalogue of them yet. Since however everything closed, we had to find something else for the students who needed to do practical work. I managed to find images of an as-yet unedited Middle English text, which the student transcribed, and which we are now planning on publishing as an edition!
If we take an optimistic point of view, what are some positive aspects of this situation?
Well, all my students know my cat now! (We laugh) I think one positive aspect for me as a researcher is that in normal times we go to a lot of conferences overseas, especially during the Summer. Since most were cancelled this year, there was much more time for research and just to read. So that was nice, I managed to finish my first book! Holy Harlots in Medieval English Religious Literature: Authority, Exemplarity and Femininity. I also had time to do more work on my other project which is about messenger figures in Chaucer’s works, and how they act as metapoetic devices for the author to represent himself in his poems, as a poet transmitting stories just as messenger convey news. In other ways, the situation had a negative impact, because it gets really tiresome to communicate with other researchers via Zoom and Skype. But actually this type of communication also allowed me to get closer to my colleagues based in the US because I’m always home and we Skype every day. On the other hand, I communicate less with my colleagues in Lausanne. So there’s good and bad!
For teaching, I don’t know… Some teachers said that some students contribute more via Zoom than they used to in person. But the problem is that some students don’t have access to a good internet connection or a good microphone so they’re effectively silenced by technology, a real shame, and something that discriminates between well off students and others. That’s why I do my best to record my classes, but then there are legal problems with that as well, because one has to make sure that it’s alright to record the Zoom meeting with every student. Also, there’s the problem of students who have several classes at the same time. Sometimes they might choose to never go to the one class that is recorded, and as you may know, watching something that is recorded takes twice as much time than actually following it live. For example, you pause the recording because you didn’t understand something, and you can’t ask questions, and so on, so it’s not that great. This is a very unusual situation, and trying to pretend as though it’s the same as before, and that people can learn the same way they could in person, or that you can do the same amount of work is illusory. So I’ve been trying to adapt it. I tried to plan the same amount of work for my classes as usual, but I realised, “this is not going to happen” so I altered some readings because in class we don’t have time to discuss all the material. Everything takes more time: for instance, you start the class and you have to wait for everyone to connect, or you create a breakout room and people take time to leave, and come back.
Are you on campus sometimes or do you only work from home?
I try to go to campus once a week, but last week it’s been recommended that we don’t come. I have this very nice apartment, very medieval because it’s right next to the cathedral of Lausanne, but it’s been a bit claustrophobic: it doesn’t have a balcony or anything. Right now I’m talking to you from my kitchen table, which doubles as my office desk! This led me to decide to move to the mountains, near Sion in Valais where I’m going to rent a chalet with a garden, for the same price as this apartment! Right now, there’s no point being in town, really. I’m moving for a year. In the future I think I’m going to go on campus twice a week to have meetings and go to the library. Right now I usually just go to the library and come back home. I have the chance, unlike most people, to be able to work from home completely: I can do almost everything online, apart from going to the library. It’s just a little bit depressing to stay in my apartment, so I like going on campus but I don’t know for how long I’m going to be able to do that. The recommendation is “don’t go if you don’t have to” and sadly I don’t always have to.
Now for more personal quarantine-related questions. Do you have a favourite mask?
I have quite a few of the fabric ones, I wash them all the time. I do like to accessorize so if I’m wearing red, I wear a red mask.
We all talk about COVID-19 a lot and we all have different names to call it. Some people came up with creative names like “the Rona.” Do you have a favourite way to refer to it?
I guess I just use “the pandemic” but I feel everybody is always talking about it, so I mostly just try and avoid the subject.
What did you binge-watch during quarantine?
I think that, surprisingly, I watched less TV than usual! But to answer the question, well, there are stupid things I like to wath. There’s what I call “massage of the brain” TV series, like Brooklyn 99. What is cool about that show is that they develop a very specific language, and with my friends we speak like the characters and meet up on Zoom to watch the show together. We have private jokes about it, and even matching t-shirts (pineapple sluts, anyone?). Apart from that, I’ve been watching movies, French movies, Japanese movies, … I haven’t watched so many TV shows.
Now a few questions to get the readers to know you better! Do you have a favourite beverage at the moment?
Let me think about it… Well I have some friends who have a brewery called La Mine and their beers all have names with “mine” in it, like “La Parchemine,” which I of course love because I’m a medievalist geek (laughs). Otherwise, I’ve been drinking artisanal beer from local breweries in Suisse Romande. Ever since I’ve lived in England where there are so many artisanal beers from microbreweries, I’ve been interested in them and in ale. I also like gin and tonic and whiskey. Otherwise, I’m a big tea and coffee drinker. I always have my cup of tea when I’m teaching. Kevin Curran and I always have a cup when we teach, and we often teach in adjoining rooms, so we often run into each other while going to our respective classrooms each with our own cup! I have my special cup that I like to use for teaching. It’s all black but when you pour hot water into it, it reveals a manuscript page.
What’s the last book you’ve finished reading?
I’m always reading four or five books at the same time. Right now I’m reading The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, she’s an amazing author. It’s about an Indian scientist who immigrates to the US. I’m also reading the end of the Wolf Hall trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel. She mostly writes historical novels. She won the Booker prize for the first two books in this trilogy. It’s about Thomas Cromwell and Henry the VIIIth. What impressed me about her is that, in my research I have studied an early XVIth century mystic, Elizabeth Barton, who is commonly referred to as the first martyr of Henry the VIIIth’s reformation. Barton only constitutes a quite insignificant character in Mantel’s book, but she had read all of the sources I had found on her for my research! That is very impressive for a fiction writer. However her last book is a bit too long, if I am honest, that’s why I read Lahiri at the same time.
Quickfire round! Cats or dogs?
I’m usually a dog person but I got roped into adopting a cat and I love her!
Christmas or Halloween?
Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter?
Very good question! I would say Lord of the Rings because I read it as a child and I loved it. But Harry Potter is how I learned English. I had never done English at school (preferring the infinitely more useful Ancient Greek as an option), so when I was 17 and wanted to take English at Uni, I went to England and there read Harry Potter in English, as it was not too difficult for a beginner to read, so I associate it with one of the best discoveries of my life: the English language.
Chocolate: dark, milk or white?
Dark and milk chocolate, the ones that are real chocolate (laughs). White is too sugary.
So that was all for today! Thank you very much Juliette!
I really miss human contact so whenever I can get a bit of it through Zoom, I really appreciate it. Chatting with Juliette was really nice and enjoyable!
As we all don’t really remember anything about our normal lives, let’s start talking a little about that: where are you isolating right now?
Okay, well, I’m mentally floating between Lausanne and where I am. I don’t know if you know the Narnian Chronicles? In the fifth book, there’s a place called the “wood between the worlds” where the children go and every pond they jump into is a different world but the wood between the worlds is a very sleepy in-between kind of place and they don’t quite know where they are. So that’s where I mentally am. But physically I’m in a small village outside of Oxford, with a big garden full of apple trees and wild animals, deer and foxes and badgers and my family, my English family. My dad is elderly so he is “shielding” and I do the shopping. She laughs. We manage it that way. In short, in a village outside Oxford beside a river and a garden full of wild animals is where I am.
In this virtual reality, what do you fill your days with?
Mostly preparing for classes. I don’t know how you find your zoom classes but I find them quite tiring to prepare for and tiring to be in. I mean, it’s lovely to see people, so there’s a kind of magic connection, especially with the geographic space as well, for me. So that’s wonderful. But at the same time it’s like all your energy is soaked up. So, I haven’t done any research since the lock-down. She chuckles. I’ve just been outside in the garden, reading my course books or inside, planning away, reading secondary criticism, things like that. Yeah, those are my days.
So, the typical question everybody seems to be asking these days: have you picked up any old or new hobby?
I’m playing my cello a lot more! I’m playing a piece by Bloch called “Prayer” which is very, very melancholic. I probably shouldn’t play it. It’s like the combined anguish from past centuries. She laughs. So, I’m playing that and a lovely light piece called “Sicilienne”. The cello is completely physical and it’s a completely different language. There’s a lot of background stress. I keep up with the news obsessively. So, in the middle of this beautiful May tranquillity you’re very aware of tragedy all around, and playing the cello helps get into a different space. It’s just a way to escape that world situation. So, I’m doing quite a bit of that. I’m also making friends with the animals in the garden and the people in the village, you know, across the walls. So, those are my hobbies.
Okay, let’s try and think back a little to how we used to be, in “the other times”. First of all, tell me a bit about your background. Where are you from? Where have you studied? Where have you worked?
Rachel laughs at the prospect of a long answer to my long question.
I think I have a lot of background but I don’t know where to start! I was born in Oxford, I went to nursery school in Glasgow and then moved to Toronto. I had my childhood in Toronto, in the city. My dad worked at the university of Toronto, in the French department. I remember days off from school when the streets were covered in snow and tobogganing down the streets. So, I think of Toronto as a time when you have days off in the winter. I went to a little French school, it was quite small but it meant that we were learning everything in two languages. The city streets that we lived in were extremely multicultural. So, I guess I got a taste for that already in Toronto.
My grandparents, even though they’re English, moved there in the 1920s when Canada was going through its modernism. They were very much involved with a group of Canadian painters who went up North, painting the Inuit cultures and the landscapes, and my grandmother went as their canoe-carrier. She was with these seven now quite famous male painters, and she was the one carrying their canoe and taking them around. And my grandfather was a professor in Toronto – this is on my mother’s side. My grandmother was the first woman to be hired by Toronto University in English. In fact, one of the first people that she lectured to was the famous Canadian critic Northrop Frye, and he just sat in the front row and opened a newspaper and read the whole time in protest at being lectured to by a woman. She was experiencing that kind of attitude in the 1930s and she was so nervous that she was sick before every lecture she gave. But she had a lot of courage, so she kept going.
I’ve been thinking about my grandparents a lot lately. They were part of a magazine called “The Canadian Forum” that was talking politically about opening up Canada to modernism and inventing a new language of painting and poetry. My grandmother went to Europe, toured around, met the Bauhaus, and motorcycled over to Russia to find out about theatre there, Chekhov and so on. It was quite exciting. They knew DH Lawrence and Frieda Lawrence, and went down to visit them in New Mexico. It was a big modernist moment, happening a bit later than in Europe. So, growing up in Toronto I felt kind of connected to this history of leaving behind a Victorian period and becoming modern, especially the women. It gives me a lot of strength to think about them. So that was my childhood.
Then we moved to Chappaqua, a little village outside of New York where my mother had had her childhood, or at least somewhere near there, in the northeast of the US. It was a very idyllic little town that my sister and I thought was too small for us. But there was a wonderful school where you were free to do art and music and theatre. Then I went to Yale University to study Classics. Basically, I chose that because the English department was totally riven between old-fashioned studies and deconstruction, post-structuralism, it was kind of the centre for deconstruction with Derrida and De Man and people like that. I was just a naïve 18-year-old and I didn’t like fights, so I did Classics to escape all of that. Yale was quite stressful, full of very brilliant, very neurotic, driven, ambitious people, even in the Classics department. So, I went to Rome for a year and had a nice relaxed time there. After that I came back to Oxford to take up English – and to take up rowing! I spent a lot of time on the river or reading. I stayed there to do an extra degree, a DPhil on Milton and Virgil. So that was the end of my schooling.
She laughs again, thinking about her very elaborate answer.
Where did I work? My first jobs were teaching posts at London and Oxford just to pay the bills. Then I went to Prague for two years to teach at the Charles University. Prague was very different just after the Velvet Revolution. It was like being thrown into the heart of a historical change, then moving from the Soviet Bloc to the West. My students were fantastically interesting to teach because they had not only undergone this revolution but orchestrated it, they were really the movement of change. It was the first time I saw an intellectual become president: a poet, a dramatist became president of the country. My students had been involved in the revolution and it had all been remarkably peaceful. So to see that kind of optimism and to see the arts suddenly revived and made free and at the head of cultural life… it’s really the only time in my life I’ve experienced that possibility. That was very exciting.
After that, I had to get a real job. I ended up in Sheffield in the North of England where I taught for the first half of my career, very happily. I love Sheffield. It’s hilly like Lausanne and surrounded by green and it’s a kind of funky and student-oriented city. My niece is there now and absolutely loves it. Yeah! I taught there for seventeen years. And then I moved here! In 2010. So that’s the circle.
That is beautiful! Before I pick up on those elements again, you’ve mentioned to me that you also used to be part of a student magazine?
I was actually in one at school! I was on the editorial team in my high school, so younger than you are now. It was fun. We got to write for it. That was great. I think that was my main publishing phase of my writing. It was called “Sartori”, I wrote poems about rabbits and elves and dream worlds. A bit embarrassing, really, to look back on. Oh, and I also wrote for the “Patent Trader”. It was a local newspaper, I did the human-interest stories for them. I got to interview people about their travels in India or cats stuck up trees, people with rare diseases. And when I worked in Prague, I also wrote for the English language newspaper there. That was a bit like working for a magazine in that I got to review all of these plays by playwrights who had been shut out of intellectual life until that year; they were beginning to open up little theatres like Theatre on the Balustrade, putting on Beckett and Shakespeare in their own, sort of, Czech way. So, I got to review those. My Czech was just good enough at that point to write that. That was a bit like a student magazine. But not like MUSE. MUSE is great. It’s an institution all of its own. I really admire it. I think you should definitely keep going. Yeah, keep going and keep interviews like this from staff short!, she says jokingly.
And right now, at UNIL, what are you specialised in and what made you get interested in that?
Well, what I’m not doing but what I will do when I get back to it is a book on Seamus Heaney and Virgil. So, it’s two poets, a contemporary and an ancient one and I suppose that unites my interest in contemporary literature and ancient literature. It keeps coming back to this story of the descent into the underworld, which I guess has a been a specialism of mine for the past ten years. I’ve written about descents into hell, descents into modern forms of hell and all modern forms of dream worlds. I think it’s been a long interest because it’s in a way one of the first forms of epic narrative! And I really like long stories, partly because they sustain you through your life and they have that sense of a life within them. I think they are some of the most ancient stories around. They’ve been with human culture really from the beginning. I think they enter different forms now; in films, epics are still really with us, whether in poetry or prose. And the story about going into the underworld, I guess, interests me because it has that fantasy element to it. It’s also sort of where you work out your own underworld or your own inner spirit. You find out your own roots. So, even if it’s within a largely secular context, I think we still have a sense of an underworld being a real place. Different people think about this in different ways.
Seamus Heaney’s underworlds involve the Classics and they also involve his own history in Ireland, which involves a kind of unconscious of culture. He really has a sense of a literary tradition which he’s tapping into as well as into himself. So, this book is a way to think about, maybe, that kind of journey into the underworld that the individual artist makes, but also how it hooks them into a sustaining tradition, and how we kind of bring that memory forward with us. So yeah! That’s what I should be working on.
And then in the background I have another project that has been ongoing since I got to Lausanne about birdsong and music and contemporary poetry. But it’s very difficult and I’m not really that much of an expert on birds or biology. But I love the aerial quality of poetry and the way, as we’ve been talking about in the Jamie course [this semester’s BA seminar on Ecopoetics and Kathleen Jamie], the way that poetry extends into non-human languages and non-human ways of thinking. I suppose it’s an extension of thinking about the epic, which is all about migrating into different worlds. I’m really fascinated by the edges of the human and talking to other creatures or listening to what they have to say. But I don’t really know how to write about that. So, that’s a project I have in the background. I do strange little articles about it and hopefully that will come together into some kind of shape after this Heaney book.
I’ve also heard that this year is your first year teaching ILA, now virtually of course. How has that experience been for you?
It’s great. I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s a bit more raw because this is most students’ first experience of university. They haven’t got sophisticated and cynical about the whole thing yet. My impression is of meeting people who are still learning this approach and when you drop a piece of work, a poem or a play into that learning pool of energy, it quickly becomes some new amazing plant that just has these thoughts from nowhere. I find that very exciting and I really miss seeing them face to face because that kind of connection with a work takes a human presence rather than a computer screen, I think. So, as they’re finding their roots I think it must be quite destabilising in their first year of university to be suddenly shunted into a virtual environment. I think it’s probably hardest for the first years, this transition. And they’re very bravely doing their best. Up until the lock-down, yeah, I just found enormous potential. People were just developing very, very quickly and growing into a university life. That’s really great to see. Yes, it’s a challenge but I really enjoy it.
I also think the student-teacher relationship is really special, and students might like to be reminded that their current teachers have been students too, and are still, in a way. We never stop learning. I’ve had wonderful English teachers from an early age, but if I had to single out three teachers who have changed my life, I would say they were Stanley Tucci – the father of the currently famous actor – who was my art teacher at school and who really trained my eye visually – a great, gifted artist. Then Lucy Newlyn, who taught me Romantic poetry at Oxford, Coleridge, especially. She is a poet herself now, who taught me to look for the ragged edges and the moments of fracture and failure from which we often derive our strengths. And Johanna Messner, my cello teacher, who has a wonderful, complex, aural imagination. It’s a joy to learn from her.
How awesome! What a beautiful conclusion. So, you’ve been in Lausanne for ten years!
Nearly, yeah! In August, it will be ten years.
So even though I know you’re not there right now, how have you liked Lausanne as a city over the years?
Well, I love it geographically. I love, obviously, the mountains and the lake and the way the city is laid out. So, the light and the mountains and the lake have made a big impression on me, like it does on every visitor. And then it’s very steeped in English literature. TS Eliot’s The Waste Land was written in Lausanne, or partly written there. So, in a way it’s coming home, but coming home in a displaced way. I love the real multilingualism, even more than in Canada. It is a place where polylinguistic facility just goes on all the time. So those are the things I love most about it.
But now I live in a village outside of Morges where it’s completely quiet. It’s a big attic space, a great place to go and work. I bought it because I can play the cello there without bothering anybody. But, you know, if you find yourself a bunker to live in, it’s still a bunker! So, I miss living in the heart of Lausanne, but it’s very expensive. I think I need to discover the soul of its funkiness. That will be my aim in the next five years, to discover the funky soul of Lausanne, which so far has eluded me. But it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived. When I was interviewed for coming here, I had a terrible interview, I had this horrifying sense of witnessing paradise and that I had just blown my chances! But I got lucky and I got to live in paradise. Yeah, I’m grateful, unbelievably grateful to be here.
That’s beautiful! I’m so glad you enjoy Lausanne. And so, you have been in the English department for ten years as well! How does the UNIL English department differ from other institutions you’ve been in before?
Well, I think that’s what I love even more than Lausanne itself. I think our English department is like a family, really. I’ve worked in two or three other institutions, and I’ve never really experienced this sense of attachment elsewhere. I mean, it has the ups and downs of a family life, but there’s a very, very strong feeling of connection to your students and to your other members of staff, and a sense of obligation, which kind of is a burden as well. It’s a life attachment and I think we all feel, as far as I know, completely committed to the place and the department, as well as to our individual careers. I think it’s much more normal in a research English department to be devoted to your field and the colleagues in your field and to have an attachment to your authors and your libraries. All of which is true for us too! But what’s unique, in my experience anyway, is this sense of attachment to the department and every single person in it and their lives and their students. So, that’s what makes Lausanne special for me.
And concerning the students… it’s amazing how creative people are. I find it kind of unique to students and I think particularly the students in our department that I’ve been privileged to work with. There’s no limit to what people are willing to explore, taking English into music or into their arts or into theatre. Yes, I just feel like there’s this whole imaginative country that is available here to explore for the students who want to do that – I was very surprised to find that here. It wasn’t something I was necessarily looking for..
I guess, some of the things that stand out, to put flesh and bones on that, is how in one of my first years here I went to a production directed by Roelof Overmeer. He retired quite recently but he put on theatre productions all the time and they either tended to be very intense, with one or two people exploring his soul or Shakespeare’s soul or something. And then there were the other kinds of production which involved fifty people and it was completely carnivalesque and improvised and I really loved those, actually. There was one of The Tempest, which seemed to have every other member of the student body in it, at least thirty people on the stage at once. And it was in this makeshift theatre on the campus, not the Grange, but somewhere outside. It was really carnivalesque and wild. You couldn’t anticipate what was going to happen next but there were all of these brilliant cameo performances and that sense of theatre being a complete community experience, and Shakespeare at the heart of it. That was a great moment.
And then we had Kathleen Jamie here one year, very recently, and she read in the foyer of the Grange which is this beautiful building with columns and wooden rafters, and so it’s right for poetry. She’s quite a reserved, prickly character but during a question and answer, the students who’d been studying her just kept asking questions and the room just kind of warmed up and she warmed up. It was partly the space and the interest generated by the students and her very strong poetic voice that filled it. So, that was something that I think could’ve only happened there, or here, on our campus.
And I guess, what I like best, and this happens all the time so it’s difficult to think about a particular episode, is when a student starts saying something about a work you think you know well and it’s totally fresh. The top of your head just feels like it’s coming off because it opens up worlds for you that you thought were limited. That happens all the time. It happened in my Heaney seminar last semester almost every week. I also think you get a lot out of the MA memoirs, supervising them, because you get to see a student at the end of their studies pulling things together but discovering their own voice, discovering confidently how to become expert in a subject. So, this semester I have been supervising Laura Vogel, an MA student who developed her thesis from a course that was called “Animal and Child” and we looked at children’s literature and the representation of animals in it. She decided to do her memoir on this in Harry Potter and she’s become an expert on animal studies and animals in our culture and has gone way beyond what I know. It’s just wonderful to see somebody go far in their field and you get to know them working week by week and seeing them develop a mode of thought and a style that suits them. So I like that about our department too, you get this chance, really, to zero in on a particular student and help them further themselves.
Cool, now that we’ve talked about university and work, say we’re allowed to go anywhere we want and you’re independently wealthy and do not have to work. What would we find you doing with this time?
Wow, anywhere in the world? Well, I think I would have to go to the Galapagos, not to live there but to visit. I think I would go with my nieces, both of them who want to go and study the animals there. And having done that, I think one part of me would like to have a sculpture studio on the seaside. So, if I’m independently wealthy, I’ll do that. I’ll buy a little shack by the sea. Maybe close to Brighton so I could visit the city but I could be in my shack with my rock, sculpting.
That doesn’t really take much money so I think I would like to buy an island to have a sanctuary for all species, all waifs and strays in the world could come and live there, particularly retired working animals – donkeys and bears and animals that have had to be performing or working and have nowhere to go. So, I’d have this big island. It’d be full of creatures. I think people would be allowed in measure on the island as long as they liked all the other persons who are living there as well. And I would have to think in larger terms what I can do to contribute to changing our culture to something environmentally sustainable. I think that’s the big work that needs to be done by the people in the humanities as well as scientists, and that does mean working together. So, wherever I was I would try working with that community to find a sustainable way of existing. That means sharing your vegetables, water each other’s plants. Just a day to day interactivity that feeds the green world instead of destroying it. And I think that would take a while, so I would be busy doing that.
So, you mentioned Narnia earlier: if you could, what fictional place would you like to go to or visit?
Okay, so, I’ve been trying to get into Narnia since I was eight. I opened all the closets, I tried to open the tops of stairs with screw drivers, thinking it was behind there and left gaping holes in all the furniture in the house. And I thought I got there. I was quite a good liar, so I would come home from walks in the woods and tell my friends and my family that I had been to Narnia. They believed it, and I more than half believed it. So, in some ways I have been there already. But I would like now to go to Narnia but my own version of it. I don’t like the version that CS Lewis created anymore. Oh, that sounds sacrilegious because he created it, it’s his country but I would want to go to my version where it was not quite so anthropocentric.
So, I’d go to Narnia for the animals. I would go to the House of Elrond for the stories, I think. I love the idea of everybody gathering by the fire and playing their stories to music so I would go to the house of Elrond. And Lothlórien for the trees, obviously. So, it would have to be a mixture of the House of Elrond and Lothlórien in the Lord of the Rings, and Narnia. That would do. All made modern and ecocentric as well.
How lovely! Last question. I thought it was too boring and mainstream to ask you if you were a cat or a dog person so: what is your favourite type of bird?
Oh wow, that is very difficult. I can answer about the dogs and cats more easily. I like our ordinary garden birds because they’re with me daily and it would have to be between blackbirds and robins because I love bird song and the blackbirds are obviously the ones who sing… but robins interact with you. If you go out in my garden, here in Oxford, there’s a robin, six feet away, talking to you and looking at you. I think I’m an animal person rather than dog, cat or bird-. But I have to say I do love all dogs, whereas cats, I take on their individual merits. If they don’t kill birds. There’s a Siamese I’ve befriended because she’s rather awkward. She comes to visit, she looks lost, she looks confused, she’s not interested in birds, so I’ve started to give her cheese, I suppose I shouldn’t. But anyway, she comes to visit, she follows me around the house.
But it’s very difficult to say because the whole thing fascinates me, like I said, this interface with another creature who’s willing to learn your language and who also forces you to step out of your humanness a bit and to learn theirs. I just love that interaction, the shift in yourself that goes on and the shift in the creature that you’re interacting with. So, I suppose for the bird it would have to be a robin because I do get that sense of interspecies communication from them. I think it’s astonishing that they’re not afraid. They watch you and they listen. I even take my cello out and play Bach and they say, you know, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! I’m singing right here!” They don’t like it at all actually, they get quite disturbed. But yeah, there’s a great interaction. Garden robin. I’ll go for that.
Okay! Thank you so much. This was really lovely, it was really nice to talk to you and to get such lovely answers to all of these questions.
Thank you very much, I feel very honoured. It’s a pleasure to be interviewed.
This autumn semester, Unil and Lancaster students were brought together for a course on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight “on location”, which led them from the wilderness of Northwest England to the Swiss Alps. In addition to a few sessions before the trips on campus, the course was composed of two intensive weeks of reading, learning, exploring and going on adventures!
During the Lancaster week, participants of the course spent the first day in Lancaster University and in the castle, before visiting the historic house of Hutton-in-the-Forest and the castle of Carlisle on the second day. The third day marked the most adventurous part of the trip, since it brought the Gawain enthusiasts to Gradbach bunkhouse, a scout camp bunkhouse in the Peak District from where they could walk to Lud’s Church, an impressive natural site and possible inspiration for the Green Knight’s Green Chapel. The next day was spent partly in the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, where they were able to learn more about weapons and armours in the Middle Ages.
The Unil week started at Romainmôtier, where the participants stayed at the refuge of Champbaillard, and visited the well-known Romainmôtier Abbey. This week also included sessions where the students had the opportunity to present and discuss their topics and ideas for their assessment of the course. After a walk in the forest on the second day, everyone left Romainmôtier to visit the Château de Chillon, before spending the night at a chalet in Les Diablerets. The next morning, they were given the opportunity to “hunt” wild animals by trying to track them and spot them in the mountains. The trip ended with Les Diablerets covered in snow the next morning, before the participants had to say goodbye and leave for Lausanne or Lancaster.
Of course, in addition to visits and sightseeing, the trips were an opportunity to enjoy stimulating reading sessions and lectures which encouraged the students to consider the relationship between space and narrative in Gawain in many different ways. Sadly, it is impossible to summarise them all here, but that just means you have to take the course in two years time!
Hi Denis! Although we were both part of this experience, we wanted to get your perspective for this MUSE Magazine issue! So first question: where did the idea of this new collaboration with Lancaster University come from?
I don’t know exactly who started the overall collaboration, but it is the rectorates of the universities of Lancaster and Unil who started what they call their “privileged partnership”, so it happened at a very high level. And then of course the international relations were responsible for making arrangements with the universities and members of the universities.
For this trip in particular, I can’t remember whether it was me or Clare… Well, what happened is that the collaboration with my colleague Clare Egan started as I heard about her appointment: she was appointed as the new teacher in medieval English at Lancaster — there was none when the partnership started. So she was appointed soon after the beginning of the partnership, and as soon as I heard, I was delighted because it meant I had someone I could collaborate with, and I invited her to the Chaucer Weekend [i. e. the Chaucer in the Alps Weekend that happens every spring semester]. So the first time we met, Clare Egan, and Liz Oakley-Brown as well, came for one of the Chaucer Weekends, and that Chaucer Weekend on that occasion was on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. They really enjoyed that weekend, and I think what they really liked about it was also the fact that there were first-year students, MA students, and perhaps even Doctoral students, so a mixture of students from different levels, and it was not formal at all, we learned to read aloud, and so on. So that’s how it started, and then I think we got to know one another quite well, and I can’t be sure, but I may have said I’d heard about the Romanticism partnership and suggested we should do something, we agreed that we should, and that’s how it started.
Why choose Sir Gawain and the Green Knight specifically?
In fact, the first idea with Clare when we decided that we wanted to do a course together was to do something on northern literature, northern authors. One of the reasons is because Lancaster is more or less in the North, and because we’ve got this FNS project in Lausanne about “Late Medieval Devotion to Northern English Saints” — for that project, we have a doctoral student working on northern literature, particularly hagiographies, and Christiania Whitehead is working on that as well. So we agreed that it would be nice to do that and select texts from the north of England, and we had already made a kind of selection of texts, and then we thought “as a first, it may be a bit too difficult to organise, so why not go back to something that we know quite well?” They had already experienced a kind of informal setting, that is, at the weekend, so why not Gawain?
That’s one of the reasons. The second one of course is that the wilderness and the idea of location work really well with a text like Sir Gawain. If you look at other romances, from Chrétien de Troyes and so on for instance, location is much more vague than what we’ve got in Sir Gawain. Even “The Carle of Carlisle” [the other text that the students studied for this course] is not as specific, so I think location is really central to that poem, so it was really appropriate to choose this text.
The importance of location in Gawain is related to our next question: why study medieval literature “on location”? What makes the trips interesting for studying this field, in comparison to a course which would take place only in a classroom?
Well I think, of course it’s impossible to recuperate the past, and to believe “OK, we are in Lud’s Church and that’s what it was”, because first of all we don’t know whether that’s the real location, and if it were, it has changed, certainly, and we don’t know what those changes are, so I think that’s one thing we must remember: to be on location does not mean that we are “back” in a medieval space (laughs). That’s one thing, but on the other hand, I think it can evoke and it triggers different ways of perceiving the text just because the space is different. And in a sense, when we first organised the course I thought that the Swiss week would be a bit of an excuse, just to complement the Lancaster one, and for me it turned out to be as interesting as the Lancaster week because I think the Swiss location is as evocative as the Lancaster one, and has different qualities which Lancaster hasn’t got, but the Lancaster location had other attractions. So I don’t think that it mattered very much in the end.
And of course, to do it on location means that we’re not doing it in the classroom, and I think the relationship with the students is very different, and we get to know one another in a very different way, for instance you know now that I play my French horn on a regular basis (laughs). But I think the discussions are also different. And it’s interesting: I’ve used the debate format in a classroom and I had done so before. It went very well, but there was perhaps a bit more tension and people were not so happy to have lost and so on… In a context where we know one another and we are perhaps a bit more relaxed about how we feel about one another, I think that kind of thing is less prone to happen.
In a sense, to do something on location or perhaps outside of the classroom gives a different kind of dynamics to the exchanges, and I consider that to be quite important.
How did both of the trips go? Did they meet your expectations?
Yes, they absolutely met my expectations! I think the Lancaster week went very very well, I was pleasantly surprised by the differences as well: in Lancaster, we were on campus for most of the time — initially I thought it was not as exciting as being elsewhere, and when we talked about what could be changed about the trips with everyone, we said that spending more time in the bunkhouse would perhaps be good, but in the end I quite liked also being on campus. So yes, I think the Lancaster week worked very well, worked fine, we travelled more and we were much more on the road because of the visits that we made. The Swiss week worked very well as well, we couldn’t do everything we had planned, as the Glacier visit was not possible, but it turned out to be a perfect day, and it would have been to much to rush to the Glacier in the afternoon. I would have been interested to see how we felt up there, and perhaps talk about weather in relation to the text, and so on, but I don’t think we missed too much. We also talked about having the students be a bit more involved with the food. But pedagogically, I’m very happy about how it went. I suggested that there could be presentations by students and I think we could do that again, but perhaps we could ask for even more preparation, as for some presentations it didn’t feel like a huge amount of work had been put into preparation — but that was fine for this time. One of the differences between Lancaster and the Swiss stay was that there were more teaching sessions, whereas in Lancaster we had more reading sessions than thematic sessions. I think there could have been one or two more teaching sessions in Lancaster. The difficulty of a class like that is that we wanted to achieve a lot: to read aloud — but in my view, I don’t think that it’s enough at the Master’s level, to develop some themes — we could have done a few more, then the student presentations were interesting, it hopefully helped you to think of your essay, and then of course we had the visits, the excursions, and of course in terms of teaching it feels lighter to go to Chillon and visit the Château than the reading of four articles on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But it’s nevertheless teaching and instruction, and pedagogically useful, so I think one needs to measure all of those aspects.
Was anything more difficult to deal with?
Well, there was this little incident of the train journey to Sion [i. e. part of the group took the wrong train and got lost], but I wasn’t involved (laughs). I think the organisation went very well, and apart from that little hiccup I don’t think there were any major hiccups. I mean, one thing that I’m not sure I would change but I felt that when we were going up to the Vallon d’Ozon (Romainmôtier), some may have found it a bit difficult and slightly dangerous, as it was quite steep, in some parts. In a sense, doing that with Swiss students, I wouldn’t even have thought about it, and then doing it with the English students, suddenly I thought “oh, it’s true, perhaps they’re not used to climbing up hills like that”. So I don’t think that I would change it but I would be more aware that it potentially feels a bit more threatening for the English students. What is always a bit painful with regards to those events that are outside of the classroom is that now I’m getting the bills; I have paid the bills and now I need to be reimbursed and it takes a lot of time. Even this morning I have received information about the “randonnée”, the wilderness session, and I want to pay the person as quickly as possible because he would probably be happy to have the money. It’s been complicated because I gave my personal address when I should’ve given the university address, so we made the correction, and now I just received an email saying that they would like the list of people who took part in the “randonnée”, so I filled in the names of all the students from Unil and I have all of your last names but I don’t have the names of the English students, so I’m sending an email to Clare… Those are aspects that I don’t like very much, they’re the things that are a little bit annoying. In a sense for me the whole organisation is far from being over. For instance, Clare has to send me the tickets she bought in Lausanne, I will have to fill in the third form for reimbursement. It has to be done and of course I want to be reimbursed, but those are aspects that are [annoying]. Of course they’re unavoidable, there’s always an administrative part that’s more heavy. Paola: that’s less fun Denis: less fun, much less fun
This trip brought students from the Lancaster and Lausanne universities together. Do you think the group got along well, and did the collaboration between the students bring something else to the study of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?
Of course it’s something that one wouldn’t know [in advance], whether it would work or not, and my impression is that it worked superbly well, I mean I really had the impression that you built up a very nice relationship with the entire group. I have no sense at all of any difficulties or anything like that, so I have a really very positive impression of the dynamic of the group, between the students but also between us the teachers and the students. I was very, very impressed by the quality of the human relationships, I mean perhaps you will tell me that it wasn’t as good as I thought it was but I hope not! (laughs) But in a sense, if it was as good as I think it was, then of course, is it always going to be like that if we do it again, or was it just by chance that we had the right kind of people who were present in both groups? I really felt it worked very, very well. And I think that the little introductory session that Clare organised, which in a sense felt a little bit easy, I mean it wasn’t so much what you did, but the fact that you did something together which created a bond from the start, you know, using the spaghetti to define a space that was linked to Gawain [i. e. the students had to build a space found in the poem out of spaghetti and strings]. I thought that that was really good, and I could see that from the moment that she asked you to do it you were chatting and saying “oh why don’t we do this” and I think that was really, really great and it probably helped to immediately create a nice collaboration and friendship with the students.
What were the highlights of both trips for you?
I think that Lud’s Church visit was definitely one of the highlights of the Lancaster trip. Emilie: Why?
Well I had seen pictures of Lud’s Church, you know, it’s on the poster there (i. e. the poster advertising the course), so I could visualise Lud’s Church, but to be there was more than I could have imagined, it was more impressive. [It was] narrower than I would have imagined. And it corresponds of course with one of the climaxes of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that meeting [between Gawain and the Green Knight], I think it worked incredibly well. It came towards the end of our stay as well, so I thought it came at the right moment. It was a very powerful moment for me personally, and I think I could also see that many students were very excited about this particular space. So I think it also fit in very well with our main theme of location and the importance of space. And then for the Swiss part I think it was the wilderness [walk]. Initially I thought that it was perhaps not as well connected to the text as some of the other sessions, but I thought it turned out to be incredibly relevant to the text and to what we had been talking about and to what we talked about afterwards in the session on ecocriticism and wilderness, and I think there were some of the points that Michel Perreten made, on for instance hunting techniques and preservation of game but also the relationships between wilderness, woods and animals, that were very, very relevant to what we were talking about in the text itself. So I would say those two [were the highlights of the trips], but I could easily find some other moments that were equally as powerful.
Finally, do you have any conclusive words, anything else to say?
Well yes, I think it’s important to mention also the nice collaboration that we had, Clare, Liz, myself and Christiania: if I think of the medievalist that is Clare, I think it would have been difficult to find a better colleague for such a collaboration. So I think the collaboration with her and Liz has been from the start very nice and very easy, very relaxed. I think Clare is very much an outdoor person as well, so she combines academic qualities but also an interest in nature, in sporting activities, if one can say so, and again I think for a week like that [the one in Switzerland], or the Lancaster one as well, you can’t be just an academic, you need to have some other qualities and I think she’s got them, so it’s been wonderful to collaborate with her. I think one needs to have a good collaboration with the teachers, which hopefully then is perhaps reflected also in the group of students, hopefully, and it seemed to have worked, so the importance of the collaboration with my colleagues is to be mentioned. And yes I mean another, or second part to my conclusion is that I hope that it would be possible to have more seminars like that and that the next generation of Master’s level students will be interested in attending such a class. Paola: Are you organising it next year? Denis: No, next year probably not, because I have been invited to teach at the Venice International University in the autumn, so I will probably skip next year and do it in two years’ time. Emilie: Great, thank you for having us!
If you don’t know who Eva Suarato Adams is, I wouldn’t blame you. And yet, you should, as she is behind almost every email you receive from the English department and is an invaluable help to all the staff members who get lost in the administrative maze of the UNIL. Here at MUSE, we decided it was time we got to know who was hiding behind email@example.com, and Eva very kindly made time in her busy schedule to answer my questions.
I begin the interview with an essential, if banal, question, and ask her how long she has been in Lausanne and working for the university. I was actually born in Lausanne, she tells me, so I have been here for many years, for ever almost! But I left Lausanne in 2000, went to the Dominican Republic, and I spent more than ten years there. We came back, with my husband and the kids, in 2010, quite a long time ago now. I started working here in 2011.
Impressed and intrigued by the exotic destination she had chosen, I urge her to tell me more. Well, to be very honest with you, when I was here in Lausanne before leaving, I used to study medicine – which was a fail! She laughs, obviously well over the disappointment. I had a brilliant “échec définitif”, just like many other people, right? So, I actually went to the Dominican Republic just to, you know, learn Spanish. I was supposed to stay there six months, but then it turned out I stayed there for ten years! And I used to work in tourism there, for a receptive tour operator, so something completely different from what I do now. But it was very interesting.
As we have brought up the topic of work, my next question asks whether she has always worked for the secretariat of both the English and the Italian departments. My contract since the beginning was really to work for both departments, she informs me. I’m very lucky because my father is Italian, so when I was a kid we spoke Italian at home. Just like all the young people here, I learned English at school. She pulls a face, clearly not impressed with the level she used to have. But then, in the Dominican Republic, I used to work for a Canadian company, which means that I had to speak English every day – which definitely comes in handy now!
Eva has mentioned quite a few languages so far, and I wonder how many she speaks. Well, we speak Spanish at home, so with French that’s four. Oh, and German too! When I tell her how impressive that is, she modestly responds to the compliment with, Oh, I’ve lost a lot of vocabulary, so I can’t really say that I speak German anymore. We both end up laughingly agreeing that in Switzerland, we always let the Swiss Germans practise their French anyway!
I come back to her role as secretary and ask whether she notices any stark differences between the two departments she manages. First of all, I have to say I am very lucky because I work for two very nice and friendly departments. They’re quite different just because they don’t have the same size – at all. The English department is probably one of the biggest ones in the faculty, whereas the Italian department is way smaller.
‘How many students does the Italian department have?’, I ask. Mmm, she wonders. Right now, I couldn’t tell but much less than the English department. It makes a difference, you know? Also, I think one of the big differences is that some of the Italian teachers actually live in Italy. So they travel every week. I don’t get the chance to see them all the time. The teachers in the English department mainly live here. Even if they are not teaching, let’s say on Mondays, they’re still around, so I get a chance to see them.
We then turn to the more practical aspects of her job, and she tells me that one of her main tasks is to lend a helping hand to the teachers. I ask if she sees herself as the person behind the scene who fixes problems, or if that would be putting it too bluntly. I just try to help, to be honest. I don’t think that I have any magic tricks to fix everything, she adds while laughing. I’m just trying to do my best, and really help the teachers in their admin tasks, and make sure that what I can do, is done.
‘What is the strangest request you’ve ever had to deal with, either from a student or a member of staff?’, I wonder. Oh gosh, she laughs, that’s hard to say. We have pretty reasonable people working and studying here. Honestly, let me think about it. She ponders for a bit. Nothing comes to mind really… you know, it’s probably because when I used to work for that tour operator back in the Dominican Republic, there, she insists, I had so many weird requests from tourists that probably, now, something that would sound weird to you doesn’t sound weird to me at all. I naturally ask for an example. Well, I’ve had clients complaining about the water of the sea being too salty. That type of thing. They couldn’t understand that in the 21st century we still hadn’t found a way to ‘desalt’ the sea.
Moving on from the ridiculousness of some people, I ask Eva to pick three books she would want at her side if she ended up stranded on a desert island Oh, that’s a tough question. She takes the time to consider her possible choices. I’m thinking about the books that I’ve read recently…what was the last one…A book that I really liked was La vérité sur l’affaire Harry Québert, there is a show on TV going on about it right now. It’s one of those books that you can’t stop reading once you’ve started – a real page-turner. I also like Dan Brown as an author… Oh, yes, another book I’ve read quite recently was from [Leïla]Slimani, a Chanson douce, a book whichwon the Prix Goncourt I think, in 2017 probably. A quick internet search reveals that the novel did indeed win the Prix Goncourt, but in 2016. That was an excellent book. A little dark, but very good. Of course, I work for a literary department and I enjoy books by more “serious” authors, but I haven’t got as much time as I would like to read. So, when I really have the chance, let’s say when I’m on holiday, I just want to read something light, entertaining, that allows me to escape. As she says this, I can’t help but think about how long it has been since I’ve read a book without having to take notes at the same time. Needless to say, I wholeheartedly agree with her wish for a bit of escapism.
My next question is about authors, and she once more has to make a choice: if she could have dinner with any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? She immediately groans. That’s a tough question too! Mmm, either it would be a very, very old author, like Caesar. Seeing my surprise, she explains further: I used to study Latin, and the texts were very interesting. Plus, he is someone who had the chance to live and see many things. So that would be my pick if I had to go way back in time. And otherwise, well, many of them really, from Shakespeare to more contemporary authors like the three I mentioned before. Joël Dicker especially. He is a young author, and it would be interesting to know how he came to that career, what makes him tick as a writer.
When I had stepped into her office earlier, Eva had mentioned that she was currently quite busy. I ask her whether this is a particularly intense time of the academic year for her. Yes, it is, because we have to work on the budget, and then we are already working on the January exam session too. And it’s also that time of the year when we have a lot of pleasant and extremely nice events. We both start giggling at this point as from her tone it is obvious there is a big “but” coming. But sometimes there are too many things happening at the same time. It’s not only because of the job. I have two kids, and there’s the school party, and the kindergarten party… it never stops!
Promising that I have two more questions and that I would then leave her in peace, I ask her if she is someone who sticks to traditions at Christmas, or if she likes to try new things at this time of the year. This immediately makes her laugh. I definitely stick to traditions! I’ve spent so many years in the Caribbean having Christmas under the palm trees! Honestly, that was probably the only time of the year when I really missed being home. Christmas is a time when you want to be surrounded by your family, in a cold place, possibly with snow. And again, my father is Italian, so I come from a rather traditional family. Yes, I definitely stick to traditions at Christmas!
‘Last question’, I say, having thoroughly enjoyed myself and half wishing we could carry on talking. ‘Have you made any particular wishes or resolutions for the New Year? Or have you not had the time to think about them yet?’ Gosh, well, honestly… my biggest wish, and that may sound weird, is to just keep on being happy. If my family, my friends, and myself can keep on being healthy and happy, I think that’s quite good! And then all the rest will just be a bonus.
We conclude the interview on that joyful and uplifting note and, after thanking Eva for her time, I take my leave with a smile on my lips.
Benjamin Pickford joined Unil’s English Department this semester as a maître assistant. He is originally from Guildford, though has lived in London, and taught in Nottingham and Edinburgh before coming to Lausanne. He specialises in American literature, used to want to be Bob Dylan, and knows how to bake sourdough bread. If you’re interested in getting to know this newest member of staff, keep on reading below.
Describe yourself in 10 seconds or less, GO!
Ehhmm oh god that’s really hard, sorry, I’m so unspontaneous I have to plan things like that. I really can’t do those because I find it so difficult, I have to just think about which part I have to describe. I don’t know, I’m an Englishman in Switzerland.
Could you talk a little bit about your academic interests, the academic path you took, what you teach now?
Of course. I did my PhD on Ralph Waldo Emerson, and I’ve worked on American literature since I started my studies, but I did my master’s thesis on French philosophy. So I’m interested in philosophy and literature, and the kind of intersection between them, especially in the 19th century. But here at Unil, I teach American literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries and I’m particularly interested in literature’s relation to capitalism. I’ll be teaching more on that from next year onward. I guess that’s the main thing I work on, literature and capitalism and Marx, those kinds of approaches.
What made you decide on literature?
This is a long story. I left school when I was 16 and I got my worst mark in English literature. All I wanted to do was get involved in music, which is what I did. But it was while I got involved with music that I realised that all this music I was really interested in, which is kind of American music of the 60s and 70s, was all deeply related to American literature of the 20s and 50s, and so that sent me back through that, and once you go down that rabbit hole, you just keep on going down through the tiers of literary history that potentially interest you. So I did that, and then I went back as a mature student to do American literature at a university in London that did an undergraduate degree in English and American literature. If I had to pin it down to one book, it was probably ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac: the sort of book between music, and thinking ‘ah there’s a whole literary tradition behind this.’ That was the book that opened the door to all of that stuff.
As a child, who did you think you’d grow up to be, and how does that compare to who you did grow up to be?
This is a weird thing, I don’t distinctly remember my childhood as being sort of childhood, it was just different stages. I think until I was about 12, I thought I would be the sort of person that my grandfather was, who was a mechanical engineer. And that was what I sort of persuaded myself and my teachers I was going to do, until a few years after that. But then about the age of 12 onwards, I thought I was going to be a musician. I was going to be Bob Dylan for whatever generation that was going to be, but that didn’t pan out either. So, I don’t know, that doesn’t mean that I had any genuine faith that was the case, but then I don’t think I had a very reasonable, or very reasoned, sense of expectation or plan for the future, because I didn’t really know. I used to love playing music, and that was that.
What brought you to Lausanne?
I’ve been looking for something outside the UK for a long time, since before even my PhD. I’ve been applying for all of those things and this is the one that came through, basically. I applied to go to Berlin, to Aarhus in Denmark, the US. Some universities in the UK are good, but it’s kind of an oppressive place. And also, I’m not a very British-British person; I don’t like the cold weather – actually no-one likes the cold weather – I don’t like the food very much, I like the sense of humour, but other than that, there are not many things about the UK that I like. So I’ve been keen to get out and see a bit more of the world, and this is the first step. I don’t know whether it’ll be long-term of short-term, but I’m enjoying it so far. I’m just looking for something different, really. I came here not really knowing what to expect. Two things I did know about Lausanne were that T. S. Eliot wrote the first draft of ‘The Wasteland’ around here, and that the art brut collection is here, because I’ve always been interested in Jean Dubuffet and outsider art. I’d long-intended to come here, and to be honest that was probably the first thing that persuaded me that Lausanne would be a good place to come. If they’ve got a museum about outsider art then it’s definitely worth a shot.
What were your first impressions of Lausanne when you came?
That it’s beautiful, obviously. I think that’s probably everybody thinks. I liked the fact that it’s really studenty because that normally means that a place is interesting. The first couple of months I spent here, I just walked through from near Pont Bessières down to the old town, to Ouchy and kind of did a loop around and walked all the way back. It’s beautiful, but it’s also got a fairly young population, which is nice. And it’s small; I like small cities. I lived in Edinburgh most recently, and it reminded me – not in terms of the climate or the architecture of Edinburgh – but it did remind me of the sense of the city that feels like a city but only just on the side of feeling like a city. It’s still small enough to feel like you’re not oppressed by the sheer number of people that live there, or the fact that there’s nothing that you can see beyond the city. You can see the mountains, you can see the hills, it’s really nice. I like it.
In that vein, how do you find the English department?
I really like it: really friendly and a real sense of community in the department, which has not been the case in every department I’ve ever worked in. It’s big enough to be diverse, but small enough to be very friendly and welcoming. And the particularly interesting thing for me, and this is apparently a common thing, but the way the PhD students are fully integrated into the members of the faculty, essentially, for the duration of their studies, is amazing. And the student population is interesting, there’s a lot going on, everyone is friendly; it’s very collegiate, I like it a lot. And it’s in this wonderful building.
What was the strangest teaching experience you’ve ever had?
I guess it’s not that strange, I’ve never had the sort of cow-come-through-the-classroom or have a fire alarm or anything like that. One of the most strange educational experience all-round, was when I had an evening course at a night school in London to get into university. We went to see a performance of ‘Waiting for Godot’ because we were working on that play. The key thing about ‘Waiting for Godot’ is that they’re not waiting for anything: Godot never shows up, and the second act is the same as the first one. Anyway, half-way through the second act of this performance, the guy playing Vladimir dropped dead of a heart attack on stage. Like, he died. And I hadn’t finished reading ‘Waiting for Godot’ at this point, and so it was 30 seconds or more before I realised that this wasn’t part of the play, so I had this flash of an experience of ‘Waiting for Godot.’ Anyway, I taught ‘Waiting for Godot’ when I was in Edinburgh last year, and it was actually much more productive to think about it in terms of staging: what happens if you could see one of the actors dying half-way through in the performance of this play? And so it is not a particularly peculiar teaching experience – it amounted to more of a peculiar experience of that particular play – but I suppose it’s one of the things that teaches that it can be interesting to take a counter-factual approach to the text that you’re doing.
What are you currently working on?
So I’ve got 2 books: one is the extension of my PhD, and the other one is the extension of my post-doc. One is a biography of Emerson’s literary persona rather than Emerson himself, and looks at how he created this literary persona which takes on literally a life of its own after his death. The whole thing is deeply related to the way that he wrote, and it thinks about this kind of literary persona in American literary history afterwards. Which is either going to be really niche, or really general, and I’m not quite sure which direction I was going to go in yet, I’ll have to see. And the other one is called ‘Capital in American Poetics’ and it looks at American poetics and American literary theory in the latter half of the 19th century. So that’s what I’m doing at the moment, which is not very similar to most of the Americanists in this department. But those are the two books I’m hoping to have published in the 4-year contract I’ve got here at the moment.
Which fictional character best represents you and why?
That’s really hard. It’s the sort of thing that you’d imagine someone who works on literature would just be able to come out with one, and that’s actually really challenging. I guess if there’s any time when I’ve identified with literary characters, it’s the kind of weird, repressed narrators of Kafka’s novels. There’s just something in the thought process of those characters that makes a lot of sense to me, but then I guess the reason that it makes sense to one is that Kafka is trying to represent those thought processes as being completely logical and reasonable under these peculiar conditions. And so I guess because there is a kind of life experience that feels more necessary. Because the character has to get through this particular situation that they’re in, I mean the character never does get through, he always ends up being crushed to death or suffocated or whatever, there’s just something like that when you’re in a particularly strange environment and just think ‘ok what’s next, what’s next, what’s next’.
Do you have any secret or not-so-secret talents?
Well, I play the guitar. I’m a very, very committed cyclist, I cycle a lot and that’s kind of what takes up an awful lot of time. I can bake sourdough bread but I don’t have to here, because the boulangeries sell stuff that is not absolute, complete and utter crap, unlike in the UK. British bread is diabolical. So yes, I can bake pretty good bread, but I don’t do it because it takes hours and I only did it out of necessity before.
What would your Walden look like?
That’s a really interesting question. I’ve been to Concord a few times because I work on Emerson, so you necessarily work on Thoreau. Always had a lot of problems with Thoreau – I think he’s fascinating, I love his writing, but when you come to it critically, there’s just too many problems to leave it with a considered opinion. One of those problems is that Walden itself, if you walk to Walden from Emerson’s house, which is where Thoreau used to go get pies, it’s about a mile, it’s not very far. So it’s a kind of miniature escape, and Thoreau could only squat on this land because his friend [Emerson] owned it. And he squatted there by virtue of the fact that his friends helped him build this hut, and he could still go back to Concord to get food. But when you walk to Walden now, and you leave Concord and you go down the road – that is the old Turnpike road that leaves town from Emerson’s house – you think ‘oh, this is just how it would have been, I mean there’s a few more cars, it’s the tarmac, but still it’s beautiful’. And then you get almost there, and there’s a six-lane highway, literally next to Walden pond, that you have to cross in order to get there. And I think all of those things slightly taint my idea of a sort of escape, or what Walden represented for Thoreau. I think the same thing in a way would be amazing, a remote hut, a lake view, an opportunity just to do all that thinking. But then the fact that there’s now this six-lane Turnpike, right next to it, flags up the fact that that’s impossible. You can’t have that Walden, least of all in the 21st century. And I suppose that the 20th century equivalent in European philosophy, Heidegger, who used to go sitting under trees and sitting at his hut and writing his books and ignoring the fact that Europe was tearing itself to pieces around him. So I guess if I did have a Walden, it would have to be close enough to civilisation for me to accept the fact that this was really a kind of Bourgeois delusion that I was indulging it.
Those are all of our questions for now, thank you very much for the interview!
“I don’t have my full body presence without my coffee”
Interview with Kevin Curran
Beginning of term, new classes, new students, and new professors. New professors that students don’t always know. It seems to me that for a long while, each time I mentioned Kevin, people would reply “who?” and I would say “you know the new professor of early modern English literature.” But you probably know him by now; he’s that handsome guy walking around the department with a neat shirt and necktie, not a single hair out of place, a clear-cut moustache, and a cup of coffee in his hand.
So here I am, headed for his office for an interview. The first thing that you notice when you walk into his office is the imposing emptiness. A few books, an empty bottle of water, an almost empty cup of coffee, and a drawing that says “Keep calm and Macbeth on.” I walk in and he immediately offers me some space on his desk, with a cheerful “oh, the interviewer!” While I set my recorder and laptop, I tell him that I have basic questions and silly questions. He laughs. The kind of laugh that says “this should be interesting” and “oh my, what did I agree to?” at the same time.
As he talks, he looks at me in the eye, as if my laptop didn’t exist between us. He talks with his hands, seems very at ease, rolls back and forth in his chair. The whole interview feels like an informal chat over a cup of coffee. I get more confident and ask my first questions, trying not to sound like some kind of inspector.
Quite obviously, my first question concerns our English department and its uniqueness. “This department was particularly welcoming, particularly friendly, very helpful,” Kevin tells me. “So yeah, I had a very good experience arriving here,” he adds with a smile. Despite having been part of the department for only a few months so far, Kevin has already noticed two special features that make it unique.
“First of all,” he says, “I think the department is very egalitarian. I think there’s a real spirit of shared governance and collaboration. And I was very struck by that because for an American coming into the Swiss system, if you just look at the structure of the system from the outside—both the departmental structure and the university structure in general—it looks very hierarchical. There are many ranks and different corps that the ranks are divided into, and people in different sections have different kinds of obligations and duties and they seem pretty fixed,” he explains patiently. “But then you get here and you realize that, in practice, the spirit of the place completely disregards those boundaries for the most part, and people really work together. And there’s a real sense of respect. There is a real commitment to finding consensus. When there’s new ideas on the table in terms of departmental policy or procedure, people take the time to schedule the meetings that are needed, to listen to each other and to talk about things.”
One thing you notice when talking to Kevin is how dedicated he is in his answers. No short answer will do, only detailed explanations based on careful observations. He leans on his desk, clears his throat, and continues. “The other thing that I’ve noticed is that the students in the department are incredibly creative. That’s very striking. It’s not just that they are creative in their thoughts and their contributions to class, there’s a real kind of entrepreneurship that’s mixed with that creativity. Students make things, they start things: theater groups, performance events, reading groups. These are not official university organizations with a faculty adviser. These are things that the students do. And they do them well, they do them at a very professional level.”
After such praise of our beloved department, I cannot wait to hear him talk about our lovely city. “The city?” he says with wide eyes, “the city, I really love. You know, it’s not like when I arrived in the American South for the first time: in Texas, people are like knocking at your door and saying hello and inviting you over. The people of Lausanne aren’t a warm welcoming people in terms of personal interaction, but I think there’s a real kind of politeness on the street. People have very good manners.” Kevin adds that Lausanne is much smaller than other cities he’s lived in, such as Paris, Montreal, and Dublin. “And I’m particularly impressed by the fact that a city you know relatively small has so much going on in the arts: so many theater companies, so many dance troupes, an amazing music scene that extends genres from classical to indie rock. So there seems to be an extraordinary amount of energy in the city, especially in relation to its size.”
As Kevin is a Shakespeare scholar, my next set of questions concerns, quite obviously, Shakespeare. However, in an attempt to be creative and entertaining, my questions are personal rather than scholarly. Thus, I first ask him his funniest memory linked to Shakespeare. “Hmm, good question,” he says, sipping on his coffee. “I don’t know if I have any personal experiences viewing or reading Shakespeare that are particularly funny, but I definitely have loads of funny memories in teaching Shakespeare. From students. And I find, you know, especially undergraduate students can take a liberty with Shakespeare that some of us who have been highly trained and for whom Shakespeare is linked to a profession and something serious with high stakes are not as willing to take those liberties.” As he explains this, I think of Caliban, making a silent comparison between undergraduate students and this character who complains about having been forced to learn a certain language, just like students seem to be trained to learn a certain analysis of Shakespeare. I smile and report my attention back to my interlocutor. “For example,” he continues, “when I used to assign directing projects in my undergraduate classes—projects where they’d have to actually make a film of a scene, write about it and then submit it to me, and I’d watch all these films—I have laughed so hard at some of these. And I think a lot of times, students gravitate towards the humorous, towards lightening the subject of matter rather than darkening it. But without losing any of the intellectual depth, in fact sometimes with the effect of bringing more interesting ideas out of the text. I’ve encountered such funny ideas in those projects, things I would have never dreamed of. And I think that’s because these students are coming to this material fresh, without a set of expectations and assumptions that are hedging them in.”
It is with a smile on my lips that I ask my next question: can you describe yourself with a Shakespeare character? Kevin laughs. He takes time to think, visibly mentally going through all of Shakespeare’s plays to find a suitable alter ego. “I don’t know, most of Shakespeare’s characters are so…,” he hesitates, “… have such deep flaws.” We both laugh at this quick analysis. “I feel like I’m gonna come off either looking very arrogant or like a deeply flawed person if I compare myself to Hamlet or Macbeth or Prospero, you know. There are major problems with that comparison.” He sips a mouthful of coffee. “I think some of the characters I’ve been most interested in have been Shakespeare’s women characters. Helena from Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ophelia from Hamlet. They often strike me as more human because they’re not required to meet these generic standards of historical figure or tragic hero or clown. All of which can be individualized a bit through particular characters in particular plays, but also always have this broader typological function to play. And a lot of the women characters aren’t locked as readily into those modes. I feel I can connect more with them sometimes and they’re often more complicated figures, I guess also because Shakespeare was particularly adept at writing female characters at a time when that wasn’t necessarily an expectation.”
I leave my personal questions aside for a moment and come back to a more departmental discussion as I ask Kevin about the Lausanne Shakespeare Festival, an event that recently came to life thanks to the collaboration of a handful of Shakespeare aficionados. Excitement sparkles in his eyes as he describes our common project. “Well, the Lausanne Shakespeare Festival is happening from June 24th to June 25th 2016 at Théâtre La Grange de Dorigny,” he says, checking the dates on his iPhone. “The idea really came out of just making some very basic observations about what’s going on here at the university and here in the city. I noticed that there’s a lot of theatrical talent, there’s a lot of theatrical activity, and a lot of it remarkably gravitates around Shakespeare. And at the same time, I saw this lack of an actual official Shakespeare event, which so many other universities and so many other cities around Europe and North America and elsewhere seem to have. So it seemed natural to do something that could get the university and the city some positive attention, that could be fun, and also that would, in a sense, be kind of easy because the pieces are all there already. All the people are there, all the talent is there. Hell, we even have a theater on campus! You know, that’s really nice.” He laughs. “And it also happens to be a university where both the faculty and the administration are very open to creative initiatives, which is not something to be taken for granted because even many very prosperous and successful universities are not always open to new ideas, especially in the arts and humanities. But that’s the case here, so that’s wonderful.” Kevin pauses to catch his breath and sip some coffee. “So that’s the idea,” he continues. “So this is going to take place. Everything is being organized. And the first year is going to be quite modest, you know, it’s gonna be a couple of plays, a couple of workshops, and some other events going on as well. And I hope that it will grow over the years. I hope that it will grow in scale, ambition; I hope that it’ll get more and more attention, and I hope that it’ll also continue to be unique. I don’t want it to be just another Shakespeare festival that happens to be in Lausanne. I want it to be Lausanne’s Shakespeare Festival, to have a distinct footprint on it. And we’re gonna try to make this happen from the beginning by having performances in both French and English for example, and by having everything created by local people rather than bringing in experts from England or North America. But as I stay here longer and learn more about the place and the people, I think there’s gonna be even more ways I discover of making the festival unique. And other people will have ideas about that too. I’m looking forward to it!”
As I quickly go over my notes, a new question forms in my mind, something I had not thought of but that springs from Kevin’s previous answers. I notice that creativity from students seems important to him and ask how he fits that into his classes. “Well, on the one hand, there’s just the pragmatics of integrating creativity. And that involves assigning projects that have both a critical and a creative component. It involves posing questions in class that veer out of the literary critical and into the theatrical for example. All of this stuff is also premised on a certain attitude about the profession of literary scholarship which I think is very important. That attitude is, for me, that artists and critics, or artists and scholars, have a lot to learn from each other and they actually have more in common than we sometimes think.” I nod in agreement. “The artists are often seen as less rigorously intellectual than scholars, and more pragmatic, more like craftsmen. And scholarship is often seen in the humanities as kind of just another version of the social sciences where we gather certain facts and try to make certain arguments and prove them with our facts. And I think both are unfair characterizations. Good scholarship is always creative. It should always be about invention. And no matter how much we rely on facts to connect our ideas to a certain historical context, we should also always continue to think about what the plays, poems and novels we study continue to make possible in our own ethical and political grounds. And this is about imagination and being creative. And I also think that good art is grounded in critical thinking; that a good play, for example, starts with asking hard questions about the text, about the language, about character. You have to find answers to those questions and then make decisions based on them. So I think when we put those two modes of thinking into conversation, we’re drawing from the widest possible intellectual pallet. You know, literary criticism doesn’t have to be just history on a literary theme. Literary scholarship is, or at least can be, much more complex, much more creative and inventive than that, and to me that’s a great opportunity. So if you come into the classroom with that set of assumptions, and you try to communicate that to the students and make them excited about it, then you have an environment where you can think like this. And then the students start being receptive to non-traditional assignments as well. They see it as an opportunity rather than something scary.”
With this interview, I also want to uncover a part of Kevin that has nothing to do with his profession, and therefore I ask him if he had a special talent. He first laughs, but quickly starts describing his love for music. “Well, music is my other great passion. And modesty forbids to say that I have a true talent, I don’t know. But it’s definitely my other great passion. I love music. I like playing music, and listening to music, and going to see live music, and talking about music with people; I mean, I love music. And I think that if I hadn’t become a professor, something in the world of music or musical performance would have been the next kind of step.” I ask what kind of music he likes, and he answers without hesitation. “Rock. Rock is my home base. But I take that term rock in its widest possible formation. So I mean, if you go to a record store—although even saying record store sounds a bit dated now—but if you go to a record store and look in the rock category, you find things that are experimental, you find electronica, you find very heavy things, you find folk influence things, you find things with hip hop influence, contemporary indie music has a strong classical baroque influence as well. And I’m interested in all of that. And because of that wide range, I also end up listening to lots of classical music, I listen to hip hop, I listen to metal.” Having noticed his tattoo—the symbols of rewind, play, stop, and fast forward on his left forearm—I ask him if his passion for music is what inspired it. “It is!” he says with enthusiasm. “I guess it is kind of the story behind my tattoo, that’s right! You know, I’ve never been forced to talk about it, but I guess in some ways the tattoo is an intersection of interests in language and interests in music. There’s a clear musical reference here, but these are hieroglyphs also, right? It’s a symbolic language. Some languages die, you know, and I wonder if these symbols will constitute a dead language at some point because these symbols used to have a real analog meaning: pressing this button meant that reels turned in that direction. We don’t have that anymore, but you know if you listen to music, you’re still gonna have them, although it means nothing, literally. But it kinda survives, you know.”
As the interview draws to a close, Kevin finishes his coffee and that makes me think of just one last question; a question that seems to define the man. And thus, I ask him to add a final word about coffee at UNIL. He laughs. “Yes, people have noticed that I drink a lot of coffee. And, you know, the one thing I’m having a hard time adjusting to is the fact that I used to always teach with coffee. I like coffee, but it’s also a prop and a habit, and it’s come to help me think. And of course, in America, you get these very large coffees; they’re very hot, they take a long time to drink. It’s not the best way to drink coffee, but it’s very handy if you want to drink coffee during a class because you’re gonna do a class for an hour and a half and this thing is gonna last for the full duration of the class. Well, now I have these very small coffees and it’s a real problem. I come in with my coffee and by the time I get to the top of the stairs, it’s cold. And I get into the classroom and I finish it after five or ten minutes. And you know, I feel like kind of an amputee: I don’t have my full body presence without my coffee. So I’m kind of adapting to this. But then again, if that’s your biggest problem in your new job, it means things are probably going pretty well,” he concludes with a smile.
The Tragedy of Macbeth directed by the talented Florence Rivero was presented during this year’s Fécule Festival and received high praises from students and other members of the Unil community. Despite her very tight schedule, Florence took the time to answer a few of our questions regarding her interpretation of this timeless play.
Dear Florence, you now have quite a few successful play directing experiences behind you and I am confident you have many more ahead. Could you tell us what was your main challenge for this play in particular?
For this adaptation of Macbeth, I decided to mostly focus on the internal and psychological struggle of the characters, avoiding any supernatural or mystical interpretations. A very significant challenge was how to show to the audience the psychological distress our characters are going through. How does one show a fragile mind, a psychological manipulation, psychopathological consequences, hastily made decisions from a broken mind and internal suffering? To do so, a lot of work was done acting-wise and with the relation towards the audience. However, the most important element was the adaptation of the original script. That is where it all started, the first step, where everything had to make sense so it could actually work later on stage. This is the first of four productions where I have done an unrestricted and careful adaptation of a Shakespearian play, focusing on what I personally wanted to highlight.
What do you wish to emphasise most in your version of Macbeth? What approach did you choose for this play?
My emphasis is on the psychological journey of the character of Macbeth. That is the reason why I kept the original title of the play in its entirety: The Tragedy of Macbeth. I really wanted to show this tragic character’s mental decline. I do not see a bloodthirsty man wanting power; I see a man who is destroyed by it, even during the process of acquiring it. I want the public to feel compassion for him or at least to relate to his tragic being. He is not an evil character; he is lost and mentally disturbed.
You are rather known in Unil for staging the lighter and more comic of Shakespeare’s plays. Was this a change for you or have you already had this kind of experience in the past?
Our choice to start doing comic plays four years ago was because the troupe and I thought they were easier to do and more accessible to the public (I question that now). However, after our first play, Much Ado About Nothing in 2012, my wish was to follow up with a tragedy, but I did not feel ready as a director. We then did A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2013 and I still did not feel ready after it. Nevertheless, I wanted to start experimenting, that is why I decided to direct A Winter’s Tale last year. It is a tragicomedy that presents a very serious and sad first half, followed by a comical second part. That experience really helped me to make the transition to a classic tragedy. I would still love to do more comedies, but I think I feel more comfortable doing tragedies. They inspire me greatly.
We guess you had your say in the selection of the cast, of course. Who plays the main character Macbeth and why did you choose this person?
Raphaël Meyer plays my main character. We met when he did the casting for A Midsummer Night’s Dream back in 2013, where he eventually played my character’s love interest. Raphaël and I have been together as a couple since then. In 2014, he played Camillo in A Winter’s Tale, a small character yet a motor for many of the actions and twists of the play. Raphaël transformed Camillo from a simple functional character to an endearing, complex and multidimensional one. I was so impressed by his work that when I decided to do Macbeth, I thought he would be perfect for the role. Sadly, he didn’t want to audition for it since he felt incapable of portraying such a big and intense character. It actually took me months to convince him and to reassure him that he did have the talent and acting potential to do it. He did finally audition and got the role by a unanimous decision of our four-member jury. I’m very lucky to have him as Macbeth, although I cannot lie, it is a difficult challenge to direct your significant other. Fortunately it worked out great at the end, for both the play and for our relationship!
Blood is a very important symbol in this tragedy; will there be blood for all our gory/gothic lovers?
Blood is extremely important in this play! For me, its physical presence is fundamental. However, it is very important not to overuse it. Shakespeare mentions the presence of blood in several scenes and in my opinion, those should be the only times where it must be shown on stage. Blood represents the tangible reality. It should be there to remind both the characters and the public of the consequences of their actions. So to answer your question, yes, there will be blood.
Your choice of character for yourself also changes from what your public is used to. You play the witch who prophesizes many, if not all, of the events of the play. What made you choose this character and what do you like most about playing the witch?
As most of you may know, the witches in Macbeth are originally three sisters. In this adaptation, I decided to portray them as only one character: a mentality disabled beggar. I like the fact that she is a real person, suffering from real psychopathologies. Her prophecies can then be interpreted as merely coincidences, or maybe as psychological influences on Macbeth’s decisions and actions, and not as a mystical force. As an actress, playing this character has been very demanding. It is both a very physical and mental character and it demands a lot of energy. I’m usually exhausted after one scene, but it has been a very enjoyable experience.
If you did not get the chance to see Florence Rivero’s version of The Tragedy of Macbeth, it will be played three more times on the 29th, 30th and 31st of May at the Centre Pluriculturel et social d’Ouchy (CPO)! For more information please visit the Sweet Sorrow Theater Group’s website at www.sweetsorrowtheater.com!
Interview with Juliette and Eugénie – 10th of December 2014
MUSE: Could you present yourselves briefly for us?
Juliette: Shall I start? I am Juliette, I am from Switzerland actually, I was born in Vevey. I have been doing ballet and contemporary dance ever since I was a child. I am in my second year of MA in English and French at the Unil.
Eugénie: Hi, I am Eugénie. I am a master student in English. Actually I don’t have any hobbies any more (joking). I don’t really have time to do anything else! But I used to like sports, tennis and snowboarding and such.
MUSE: Do you remember how you felt on your first day at Unil? Can you remember?
Eugénie: At that time, I had not gone to school for a year. I had taken a gap year between high school and Unil so it was pretty scary for me. I felt like I had forgotten everything I knew, but there was some part of excitement of course.
Juliette:Yes I guess for me too. It was a really new step. Everything was so big and there were so many people! I wasn’t used to that. But I remember the presentation for the English section. The teachers seemed all really nice and welcoming so that part reassured me.
Can you describe for us what your everyday tasks are as assistants?
Eugénie:My job usually consists in making posters and flyers for the department. When there is a special event in the section we usually also participate in the organization. Basically we are here for the teachers: we try to help them and do our best to make their life easier.
Juliette:I’m maybe more linked to the Linguistics section, for which I do administrative tasks, like contacting various people for different kinds of projects, or translations. I work more specifically with Jürg to help him set up his course for next semester on “Language Recovery after a Stroke”. Besides, we’re in charge of the Department Library, we do a few scans, and other administrative stuff.
And how would you describe how you feel in your current position in Unil?
Juliette:I would say I feel more at home now.
Juliette: Actually, it really is like my little home.
Eugénie: Yes it is true. We study what we like, we do things we enjoy, teachers are always welcoming and very nice.
Can you think of a particular teacher who helped you decide and choose what you want for you yourselves and your life?
Eugénie: Go ahead, take this one.
Juliette: It is hard to pick just one, because a lot of them throughout my school years had an influence. My French teachers in secondary school and high school really helped me see that literature was my thing. And now at Unil, many of the English teachers have also mattered a lot in my choices. They really helped me see what I want to do in my life, maybe Martine more specifically since she’s the one who introduced me to Translation Studies.
Eugénie: My English teacher in high school influenced my choice truly. But I guess I would say that Agniezska is the one who made me discover that I really enjoy Gothic fictions and those kind of readings.
Juliette: It’s really hard to pick one quote, but maybe Nietzsche’s “Without music, life would be an error.”
If the English Department was an animal, what would it be and why?
Juliette:A Cat! she says bursting out laughing.
Eugénie:Yes, something cuddling, you know, something cute and always warm.
Juliette: but still independent!
Eugénie: Yes, something cute and nice. A little Guinea pig, or maybe not, I don’t know, she laughs. Let’s say a dog. It’s like your best friend but still you should not mess with it too much.
Do you have future plans, or should we not talk about that?
Juliette: I would like to do a PhD and stay as long as possible at University, though I know it is very very difficult to pursue an academic career afterwards. But I’ll try at least a PhD, then we will see.
Eugénie: Yes, me too. The more I study here, the more I want to work here. However if that does not work out I guess I’ll just become some kind of French teacher, though that is not really the first option.
What is your dream?
Juliette: Not to have regrets, I would say, and to be happy with the choices I made and where I’m going. And try to enjoy the moment.
Eugénie: Personally, I want to have the feeling that I have lived, you know, that I have done things, that I have travelled and I did not simply stay put, doing nothing at all.
If your colleague was a color, what would she be and why?
Eugénie: Juliette would be pink. She is always happy and nice. Or yellow like the sun. She is always in a good mood, ready to help you.
Juliette:Oh I really don’t know
Eugénie: Just say orange, no need to explain.
Juliette: Yes orange is quite good. It is lively like you. And it’s a warm colour, which shows how caring you are, always ready to help others (sometimes to the point of forgetting about yourself).
Which is your favourite band now?
Eugénie: For me right now it is Tegan and Sara, Canadian twin sisters.
Juliette: For me it is the Arctic Monkeys.
Eugénie: We have very different taste in music. I don’t know much about Juliette’s music. Every band she listens to I have never heard of, she laughs.
Juliette: I like what she listens to actually. Angus and Julia Stone for example. The last concert you went to of Ben Howard. He is quite nice as well.
Which was you favourite band when you were 13, if you remember?
Juliette:It was U2. Bands like U2 or Queen have been around ever since I was a kid, she laughs.
Eugénie: I used to love Sum41, Linkin Park, you know, these rock bands, Avril Lavigne.
Juliette:Oh yeah! Sk8ter boy and all.
Now for seasonal questions: Do you like the Christmas season?
Juliette: Yes! Because we can watch Love Actually again! she laughs. Christmas season is fun. It is the only part of winter that is cool, because I don’t really like winter actually.
Eugénie: Well for me winter is cool when there is snow, but there is not even snow now. It is just cold. Though I still think it is nice.
What does Christmas mean to you?
Eugénie: Gifts! Money! she jokes. Family gatherings and such, you know. My birthday actually comes right after Christmas so it is really a festive time and a celebration for me.
Juliette:I would say that too, it’s really about family gatherings around great food for me.
2014 is coming to its term and again I realize how time flies by super fast. My plan to figure out what comes next, after I leave the cosiness of UNIL, has not much evolved since the beginning of the year. So I decided to ask around and see what other ‘humans of the English Department’ have to say about their plans for that thing called ‘Future’. But I also wanted to know more about their childhood and asked a number of people two questions:
MUSE: What did you want to become as a child? And now? What do you want to be now?
Frank, 23: When I was a kid I wanted to be something between an astronaut and an archaeologist, maybe like an archaeologist on the moon!
And now… I want to be a rock star! … I’m still at university, I’m allowed to dream!
Chloe, 22: When I was about 5 I wanted to become a post office counter woman, because I loved to stamp things.
Now I want to be what I am meant to be… I don’t know… a singer!
Raphael, 23: Between the age of 7 and 13 I wanted to become an actor. Now: a filmmaker.
Philip, 27: As a child I wanted to be a football player. Now I want to become a full professor at UNIL or Harvard as second choice, (or else a go-go dancer).
Constance, 26: I wanted to be a lot of things as a kid: a baker, a pilot, an archaeologist, an astronomer and an archer (most things that started with an a really…). Now I want to be a journalist, or else a Red Cross special envoy.
Florence, 28: I wanted to be a Disney animator after I watched the Little Mermaid. My dad showed me the making of and I got really exited about that. Now I want to be either a filmmaker or a theatre director. (MUSE: Or both at the same time?) And maybe you could also put ‘famous’ in front of that!
Renaud, 27: When I was small I wanted to become an oceanographer… or oceanologist? Anyway… now I just want to be happy!
Damien, 28: I always wanted to become a palaeontologist, but I didn’t manage… maybe because I didn’t dig deeply enough. Now I, I guess just want to be an outsider, a bit off and with a shovel in my hand…
Marie, 25: I wanted to become a fashion stylist and then an archaeologist. And now, now I just don’t want to be bored.
Agnieszka, 46: I spent my whole childhood planning to be a vet and I enrolled in university as I biology major at first. Now if I had to change jobs or could start over again I would become an investigative reporter. I think it’s a super important profession and it would be nice to feel like your work can make a difference. With teaching it’s harder to see long term results.
Valeria, 24: I wanted to become a fashion designer when I was a child, and now I am torn between actor and writer, or anything to do with theatre and film or publishing and writing.
Frédéric, 22: I always wanted to become a rail-road engineer driving locomotives. Now I want to become Boris Vejdovsky’s PhD student.
Luc, 24: I also wanted to be a rail-road engineer but on a very precise section of line, between Porrentruy and Alle. (For your information: the distance between Porrentruy and Alle is 4.7km, it is a 5min train drive. MUSE)
Now I probably want to be an inspiring French teacher somewhere abroad, starting with the US.
Patricia: I wanted to become a veterinary surgeon when I was a child. Now I want to be a linguist at university of Lausanne.
Interview with Marie Walz, graduate assistant in English and Comparative Literature
To begin with, could you tell us more about your academic path and how you came to start a PhD?
Sure, I can do that. Well, actually I haven’t been going straight towards a PhD in English. I had always wanted to be an archaeologist since I was very young, and so I started University in Archaeology and English with this clear idea in mind. I chose English as my second discipline de base because I was coming back from a year in Oxford where I had learnt English. Since I was into classic culture, I studied Latin and Greek at school instead of English, which is the reason why I decided to go and learn English in Oxford. Since I really enjoyed the experience and the language, I thought, why not go on and study English in parallel from Archaeology? But as I really got into Archaeology at University, I came to realise how hard it was to make a living out of it and it turned out to be more of a hobby than what I wanted to do with my life. At the same time, my interest in English literature was growing, especially in medieval and fairy-tale literature. As a result, I dropped Archaeology when I started my Master to make History of religions – my discipline complémentaire at the BA – my second discipline. As far as English was concerned, I carried on taking classes in medieval literature as well as fairy-tale studies and happened to be following simultaneously a class with Marco Nievergelt on Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and another with Martine Hennard Dutheil on Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Working on the two topics at the same time, I enjoyed noticing how much intertext there was between Spenser’s poem and Carter’s stories, so much so that I jumped on that subject for my mémoire. I didn’t want to do a PhD at that time – I hadn’t even thought of this possibility – but as I got to the end of my mémoire, I could feel there’d be more to be done on the topic and I guess I would have felt frustrated not to have been able to develop those pending aspects. Around the same time, Martine told me about an available assistantship in the section and encouraged me to apply. Because I realised I wanted to explore my topic more in depth, I took the opportunity, and so here I am!
How did you realise English literature was your thing?
I guess I already knew it in Oxford, though unconsciously maybe. But, as I’ve told you, I had been interested in Latin and Greek culture for a long time, since my teenage-hood. Because it was such a passion, I was not ready to give up on it so quickly, so I thought I would at least give it a serious try. And yet, I really got into English literature when I was in Oxford and I enjoyed so much going to those bookshops which also have little cafés in which you can read whilst having a cup of tea. This is one of those great things they have in England and I found all this really appealing. Nevertheless, I had not realised yet that English literature would be so central because of my other centre of interest. It became clear when I actually started studying that English literature was something I could not live without. I wasn’t thinking of a PhD yet though, but I realised that I was definitely keen on reading in English and that I would always want English books to be in my living-room.
Can you tell us more about your job in the Department? How do you juggle between your own research, your teaching and the assistantship you do with the section?
Well, juggling is really the most difficult part of the job. All these tasks are interesting and I love doing them all. I also love reading, but this is probably the activity to which I’ve got less time to give unfortunately. The assistantship requires a lot of administration, but then it gives you the feeling to be part of the Department, which is also nice. The main difficulty is to make sure that teaching and administrative tasks do not take over your research. You have to be careful to devote 50% of your time to research and another 50% to the other tasks, but this is really a hard thing. Inevitably, I find myself working less on my PhD during the semester when teaching and administration take over. But I try to focus more exclusively on my research during the semester breaks. I also try to set up deadlines for articles and conferences throughout the semester as another way of working on my research and making indirect progress on my PhD by exploring specific aspects of my topic.
How does the life of a PhD student look like? How do you carry your research itself?
When I started, I had this ideal plan in mind of spending my first three years on research and then turning to the writing stage. But I quickly realised that this was a bit of a utopia, because I did not take the teaching into account. So what I try to do now is to set up aims connected to the PhD thesis for the semester breaks. As I said, working on articles and conference papers during the semester helps make progress, too. But it is really important to set precise goals all the time, otherwise you’re faced with too many things to do simultaneously. Even if I don’t reach all my goals, it helps me organise my thoughts and research, and it also allows me to get a broader view of my PhD to spot what is missing and should still be addressed in my work. Five years may seem pretty long to complete a PhD, but it’s actually difficult to deal with such a limited amount of time. Even if I theoretically anticipated this, time still goes faster than excepted in reality and it’s hard to find ways of dealing with that. But I reassure myself with the fact that even if I don’t actually write, I am still working on my research. Part of the writing process does not take place in the redaction itself, which I find reassuring. I guess I’d get depressed it that wasn’t the case!
Now let’s turn to your PhD itself. What is your research actually focusing on? And how did you decide to explore this particular topic?
My PhD thesis is the continuation of my mémoire. For the mémoire, I compared Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and Angela Carter’s collection of fairy tale rewritings, The Bloody Chamber. This was my initial corpus of study but as I got to develop my PhD thesis, I included more texts by Carter that resonate with Spenser’s epic poem, for instance The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. My principal aim is to study the intertexts and connections between these two authors’ works. We know that Carter took classes in medieval and early modern literature at University and scholars have acknowledged the links between her texts and medieval and Renaissance literature in a few studies, but no one has fully explored the influence of medieval literature on her work, so I thought there was a gap to fill in there. The part of my PhD thesis which studies the connections between The Faerie Queene and The Bloody Chamber is very much centred on intertexts, on the textual relationships between these two works, but as I explored my topic more in depth, I started to bring in other texts, such as Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, which oriented my research towards another type of comparison, namely through the genre of allegory. Spenser’s poem is an allegory and Carter reclaims the genre in her own writing. I am now asking myself such questions as ‘what does it mean to reclaim this genre for feminism? how does Carter’s take on allegory change its conventions?’ etc. So my PhD got to adopt a new angle, more theoretical and genre-related, making it a much more complex project.
Coming back to your job with the Department, I know that you had to take on one more class this semester because of the great amount of new first-year students. How do you explain the growing size of the English Department and its attractiveness for new students?
That’s because we’re cool! (laughs) More seriously, I see different reasons explaining this popularity. First of all, I guess students are willing to study English and American literatures because they’re massively present in the media today. For instance, a lot of Hollywood films are based on that kind of literature. It is really part of the culture we’re exposed to in our everyday lives. Then, students are also probably interested in English as a language. Since it is the most used language in the world, they might feel the need to master it. These students may be disappointed though, because they haven’t quite realised what we do in the Department. We always lose some students at the end of the first year, possibly for that reason. But in short English, both as a language and a component of culture, is part of the atmosphere we are all bathed in, which may explain many students’ interest. I also think that, within the Department itself, we offer a range of subjects that are quite attractive and more interesting than more traditional fields. We are open to new trends, such as Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Gothic fiction, Gender and Queer Studies, Translation Studies, and many others. So I guess these are attractive and more modern fields than what may be offered in other disciplines.
Would you have any advice for students wishing to pursue an academic career?
Since I personally never thought of doing a PhD before actually starting one, I have no advice on how to situate yourself during your studies. But I’d say that students interested in an academic career should always do their best in classes and really invest themselves in their studies. They should also talk to their teachers and supervisors about their interest, because it’s always good to let them know so that they can help with advice. But I think the most important advice I could give students is to work on a topic they’re passionate about. A PhD really takes up all your life and, even when you’re not actually working on it, it’s always at the back of your mind. The MA memoire, taking place over six months or even a year, is already a good try out to see if you’re ready to spend three or five years of your life on a topic. So, in short, what I think is most required if you would like to write a PhD is passion and enjoying working on a topic and a set of texts. Your thesis then becomes so closely related to your life that you also find yourself enriched by your topic. I personally connect quite strongly to a quote by Judith Butler who said that “We lose ourselves in what we read, only to return to ourselves, transformed and part of a more expansive world.”
 Judith Butler’s McGill Commencement Address on Value of Reading and Humanities, 30 May 2013.