Setting aside time to write and then actually writing during that time, is difficult to say the least. This was a consensus of Prof. Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman (AAAS, ENG, WGS) and Prof. Jasmine Johnson (AAAS, WGS) during a session of the Writers @ Work series, a discussion that offered an intimate glimpse into Johnson and Abdur-Rahman’s writing processes. 

During the event in the Alumni lounge in Usdan Student Center, each writer also shared excerpts from her current writing projects. Johnson read a piece from her upcoming manuscript that focuses on the industry of West African dance in the United States and Guinea. Abdur-Rahman shared an opinion piece, as well as an excerpt from her book that explores political and ideological implications of generic experimentation in visual art and black fiction — as noted the moderator of the event Prof. Gina Pugliese (ENG). 

Pugliese opened the discussion by asking Johnson and Abdur-Rahman to describe their writing spaces — whether they choose to write in public spaces or private spaces and if they have specific objects or reference unique to their writing spaces, Johnson answered — and Abdur-Rahman agreed — that she could not have a single writing setting because the moments of inspiration for writing happen everywhere, and so carving out blocks of time has proven to be ineffective. 

Abdur-Rahman answered in response to a question about the inspiration behind pursuing research questions, “As I’m formulating research questions, I’m thinking about what are the kinds of questions that matter now in my discipline?” She continued, “I like to be moved by what’s happening in the world. Even as I’m a writer and a professor, I like to think of myself as an agent in the world, and so my source of inspiration often comes from the kind of ethical questions that end up constituting my research.”  

Abdur-Rahman’s areas of expertise include American and African-American literature and culture, critical race theory and multi-ethnic feminisms. She is a two-time winner of the Darwin T. Turner Award for Best Essay of the Year in African American Review. Abdur-Rahman read aloud from her upcoming second book, provisionally titled “Millennial Style: The Politics of Experiment in Contemporary African Diasporic Culture.” According to Abdur Rahman, the book theorizes about the “aesthetics of intimacy” and links aesthetic innovation to racial politics in contemporary black cultural production of high experiment. 

Johnson is a founding member of the The Collegium for African Diaspora Dance and has areas of expertise including Afro-diasporic dance, black feminisms and West African politics and culture. Before reading aloud from the final chapter of her manuscript, she introduced it by explaining its focus on the industry of West African dance and drum tourism. According to Johnson, this type of tourism, often called “homecoming trips,” is the biggest tourist industry in Guinea and consists primarily of white and European women traveling to Guinea to drum and dance. 

Johnson explained that the popularity of these trips comes in part from the nature of the dancing and drumming providing an intimate exchange that is grounded in encountering Africa, connecting with diaspora and “what it means for non-black bodies to return home.” 

These homecomings have a different significance for Guineans however; “it is in part because it is very difficult to have the freedom of movement in Guinea, because of the legacy of colonialism there specifically. Dance and drum tourism becomes a way that folks actually get to move in ways that they may not have access to,” Johnson commented. 

Both of the upcoming works by Johnson and Abdur-Rahman were powerful to hear aloud, especially as they were given life by the authors themselves. The Writers @ Work event, part of a series hosted by Writing @ Brandeis, served as a cozy platform to hear the writing thought process and to get a preview of some professors’ own scholarly work.