Text as Memoir: Tales of Travel, Immigration, and Exile was the theme of the 2012 South Atlantic Modern Language Association. Memoir and travel, two of my favorite topics, drew me to this conference – a southern hospitality version of the national MLA conference. As part of this conference, participants were looking to find a place for their work. They all seemed to know what they are doing and why they are there. They teach, they write, they are known in this circle of scholars – or know a path they will follow to get known. Me, I was watching. Yet, watching in the spirit of the conference.
My first thought was that I was an exile. Not in the sense that I’ve been driven away from home to live in a foreign land. This was more of a self-imposed exile. I wanted to play at being a scholar, but not follow the traditional career path. Throughout the gathering, people affectionately referred to this conference as a single word, samla. I kept naming the letters, S A M L A. As I had expected, everyone seemed to be a professor or a grad student on their way to working in the academy. I’m a campus minister; on the campus, but also an outsider. Though the exile may have been mostly in my head, it felt quite real as I walked that halls and overheard people talking about their classes, their research, their writing, their department politics and I saw no way to enter this world.
However, I was also playing the role of immigrant. I longed to be part of this group, or a similar one, actively engaged with research and the academy. I wanted to do more than watch. As I listened to panels on finding religion in post-enlightenment texts and redefining great books for the 21st century, I wanted to jump right into research myself. My mind thinks about the work I must to do take this immigrant journey – who will be my guide, how will I learn the language of the academy, what do I need to do to start teaching? I have a partial passport, a Ph.D., but there is more work to do and that path isn’t very clear for someone who hasn’t been playing by the rules of teaching, publishing.
Yet, there were definitely times when I felt like a fellow traveler. As part of a panel on religious travel in literature, I presented a paper on pilgrimage in Little Women. In the small group that attended and participated we shared collegial conversations about all the papers presented. At a lunch I sat down at a table with two other women, one a graduate student. I was able to hear a bit of her story and share about my work with students in similar places on their doctoral journeys. She expressed interest in the possibility of integrating faith and scholarship. Something that she hadn’t thought would be possible. In these places I was surprised to find myself a traveler, even though it had a different look than those around me.
Without planning it, at SAMLA I was authoring a new memoir melding the experiences of exile, immigrant, and traveler. It’s an uneasy place to be – one of those liminal places I refer to so often, but don’t always like to be in. However in this uncertainty I was slowly defining a place – or at least finding new places to travel even while outside the group.