Semester’s Start Takes Me By Surprise, Again

Mimi Thi Nguyen stands in front of a tomatillo plant and fence in her backyard. It is late afternoon, and she holds some tomatoes in one hand. She is wearing a green and black dress from the 1980s, a black leather belt, and black leather studded boots.

My semester began this last Monday, and although I’m on teaching leave, I’m still working — there are all-day faculty meetings, for instance, as well as the usual committee service (in my case, for two programs because of my split appointment) and student mentoring on top of research and writing, which are an academic’s bread and butter. This includes the final stretch on my revisions to my manuscript, a co-edited collection on Southeast Asian/American studies, and my forthcoming Signs essay called “The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in an Age of Terror,” which is the foundation for my second book (and which I’ve given as a work-in-progress in many places kind enough to invite me to do so). Which is to say that I’m swamped once again, and may be posting irregularly, or much more briefly, here.

In the photograph above, I’m standing in my garden after the first of those all-day faculty meetings in a green and navy dress (from an ’80s time warp) and black leather belt, both given to me by my very best friend Iraya Robles for a belated birthday present. (The pockets are huge. I can totally put all the tomatillos and tomatoes I harvest semi-daily in them.) There’s lots more where this dress came from in Iraya’s vintage-packed apartment (she is an underground stylist as well as an above-ground vintage dealer, so her collection is amazing), and that came home with me in my suitcase — a mid-calf pink leather skirt, a sheer yellow ’70s ruffled blouse, a shrunken turquoise cardigan sweater, and dark blue jelly wedges, for instance. Spending time with Iraya, one of the most incredibly creative and intellectually curious persons I know, reminds me that our friendship over the last twenty years (she met me when I was a snarling, semi-feral punk rock anarchist in a tattered black uniform) has shaped who I am in innumerable, and invaluable, ways.

I also reconnected on my last trip to the Bay Area with filmmaker and writer Arwen Curry, one of my favorite people from that era in my life during which I spent half my time in “doing” graduate school, and the other half hanging out at the Maximumrocknroll house (green-taping the record collection, preparing for New Issue Day, reviewing zines, making dinner and hatching plans, whatever). Arwen was a coordinator at the magazine at the time, and we once spent long hours discussing the place of punk rock in our lives, especially how it informed, and at times constrained, our intellectual trajectories, creative impulses and political hopes. (And goofier enterprises, like the time we tried to start a punk rock Dungeons & Dragons game.) These questions are still with me, even now; so when Arwen and I met up in the Mission for a long lunch, we circled back to them as we took stock of what we’d done since we last saw each other. For an incredibly detailed account of this meeting of the minds, check out Arwen’s most recent online column at Maximumrocknroll. (Among other things, Arwen is an associate producer for Regarding Susan Sontag, as well as producing and directing a documentary about the amazing fantasy and science fiction author Ursula K. LeGuin, which frankly blows my mind. You can read an interview with Arwen about this second project at The Rejectionist.)

It was wonderful to spend time with both Iraya and Arwen, who together helped me to approach this coming semester’s work roster with these reminders: that this sort of work can be creative and sustain us in powerful ways, but also that work can just be a job, and not the whole world. I need to learn better how to live with, and in, this tension.




10 responses to “Semester’s Start Takes Me By Surprise, Again

  1. I love this post, Mimi. Partially because it mentions Ursula K. Leguin & your punk days & the past & important people from the past, but also because I can understand all the feelings of coming back from a long trip to the beginning of another school year. I hope you are able to find a balance this semester between work and the other things that make you happy!

  2. twistofdynamite

    As a graduate student beginning my third year of doctoral work, I really appreciate this post. I, too, need to figure out how to negotiate and appreciate that tension. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Agreed, absolutely agreed. I’m still a student, but juggling a slew of independent projects and work on the side. Gearing up for this fall is pretty stressful! Too often the work does feel like the whole world, but you’re right- as empowering and important as it is, living is something else. Tension can have its beautiful moments, though 😛

    Also, I LOVE that dress. Does it sound creepy to say that I wish I could wear it right this second? Your friend Iraya’s collection sounds incredible. Does she have a website?

    Loving the inspirational writing, as always.

  4. This is great. Your hair and dress were made for one another-haha. I love how you sprinkle in what-you-wear posts and thoughts on your present life trajectory. Seriously, one of my favourite blogs out there.

    And I can completely empathize. Brann and I are both at a major crossroads and we’re both juggling time intensive day jobs and trying to concurrently run separate businesses and we not only need to find a better balance but we need to find an eventual escape route. Sigh, it’s not easy. Best of luck to you-I’m sure you’ll succeed!

    • I like to think that this dress was made with me and my haircut in mind! Wearing it, I do feel like I should be lurking in an 1984 art gallery, eating sushi and mingling with Laurie Anderson and her turtlenecked friends.

  5. What an excellent post. You have such an amazing history. It’s really neat to read it and think about how your past affected in some indirect ways my own.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s