Q&A with Elizabeth Povinelli, Author of The Inheritance

Elizabeth A. Povinelli is Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies at Columbia University and a founding member of the Karrabing Film Collective. She is the author of five books from Duke University Press, including Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism (2016). Her newest book is a graphic memoir called The Inheritance, in which she explores her family’s history and the events, traumas, and social structures that define our individual and collective pasts and futures.

This book is a major departure for you in two ways: it is a memoir, and it is a graphic memoir. How do you see The Inheritance fitting in with or diverging from your body of scholarly work? Do you consider The Inheritance to be a scholarly text?

I think any way I answer this question of whether The Inheritance is a scholarly text will come across as a dodge. On the one hand, my scholarly life cannot be excised from my work in other genres—in this text or the films and installations I do with other members of the Karrabing Film Collective. And, in the case of The Inheritance, several specific scholarly debates animate and influence the text including debates in critical race and indigenous theory, in affect theory and the nature of subjectivity, and, of course, history and memory. On the other hand, I don’t intend it to be a scholarly history, but rather a memoir of accumulated affects and memories as these have hardened and cracked across the infrastructures of a socially formed life. Even as I believe that theory always works best when understood as a drama of thought, I let a certain meandering of being in the world take charge of The Inheritance in a way I wouldn’t in my scholarly work.

The combination of COVID-19 isolation and the increased attention to Black Lives Matter and the racial divide in America made 2020 a year of introspection for many Americans, both in terms of encouraging renewed appreciation for the importance of their communities, and demanding a recognition of their complicity in the racist structures that have shaped our world. The Inheritance feels timely for the way it captures your own process of grappling with these questions. How long have you been working out this story for yourself, and why was it important for you to tell it now?

I began concentrating on this project in 2015. One of the initial impetuses was to respond to the weird way I saw white Americans using DNA testing to give themselves an ethnicity while nevertheless  retaining their racial superiority. I thought, what were these people trying to dodge ethically while they socially maintained their position in an American racial and colonial structure? Having a culture became a way of being something other than just white as white became more marked within anticolonial and antiracism movements. As I fiddled with the form and movement of the story across the years, White Nationalism and White Pride seized this discourse of White Culture. From Proud Boys to many Trump supporters, we hear explicitly what I thought I was hearing in the background of the DNA commercials, “Why can’t white people have pride in their culture?” For me, this is another way of saying, “Europeans are the creators and owners of civilization.”

In other words, The Inheritance is an invitation for readers to reflect on their motivations for looking to the past to find their truth as well as to  understand that the racial and colonial infrastructures that convey us in the present find their roots there. I guess the last bit of text in Act II sums this up for me: “As Mother held her hand to my face and we looked into the mirror, I wondered who I was becoming in the unbridgeable rift between Carisolo and Karezol. I should have been thinking about what was happening to me as this fault line opened up in America.”

If the book feels timely, no matter that it started in 2015, I think this is because the Black Lives Matter protests are building on a problem that is lodged in the origins of the so-called American Experiment. It is part of the American grammar, as Hortense Spillers put it. A large part of the story I tell is located in the deep South but, as James Baldwin noted, racism was never just a Southern problem. I grew up in the racial and colonial grammar of the US, no matter that my family drama was focused on a tiny village across the Atlantic, nestled in the foothills of what are now the Italian Alps. I thought it was important to show that even if you know exactly where you come from—I mean exactly and for hundreds of years—if you are absorbed into the racial and colonial structure of the US, your life is implicated in this structure. It’s for this reason, I end the book with the assertion that inheritance doesn’t merely come from the past, but is a place in the ongoing present in a world structured to care for the existence of some and not of others. The point is to think about how we wish to alter these infrastructures of inheritance.

Maps and schematics feature prominently in your illustrations, as do old family photos. Why was the visual element of this story so important to convey? How, if at all, does your work on film with the Karrabing Collective prepare you to transition to graphic storytelling?

Yes, another impetus for the project was to give a sort of backstory to my long relationship with Indigenous Belyuen families and then with the Karrabing Film Collective. When I arrived at Belyuen in 1984 fresh out of St John’s College, I felt such an uncanny kinship with people living there. I think The Inheritance gives a sense why—our shared love of hunting in the bush/woods; our shared relationship to a nonnational kinship-based mode of belonging to country, and our shared history of personal and social violence. But as I said above, these shared affiliations are located within and apprehended by structures of social discrimination that exist no matter how one’s deep love and regard. These racial and colonial infrastructures are not melted because one loves others, although love can provide a motive force for unworking them.. I use affiliation in the way Edward Said suggested, as distinct from filiation. Filiation for him refers to a set of inherited locations while affiliation refers to networks of relationships that people consciously create. 

My Povinelli family never made a huge distinction between artistic and scholarly practices—science experiments went side-by-side with short story writing, drawing, painting, and song performance. Exuberance and melancholia were always side-kicks in these endeavors. My father had wanted to be an artist, but it was hard enough for him to convince his father to let him become an engineer. He hid his drawings in the bottom drawer of his desk at home—and told us that engineering was at its heart a form of truthful creation. My mother wanted to be a singer but had us instead. I guess, as a kind of compromise formation, she made up songs for us to sing along to. We were that kind of family–everyone assumed that everyone could move across expressive, creative genres and that science, art, and thought were all inventive and all oriented to uncovering truth. This Povinelli attitude toward thought and expression is very much conversant with the Karrabing.

As for the visual element, The Inheritance initially had almost no written text. My first idea was that the reader should feel the force of the images with very little by way of writing in order to simulate the experience of looking at an image (the map) one cannot make sense of as one is hearing it passionately described in a language one does not know. I was curious how much a reader would comprehend, how deeply they might be affected, whether it would suggest to them the inseparable but irreducible difference between affect and sense. 

Has putting together The Inheritance at all changed how you think about writing? Are there more graphic or personal works ahead for you?

I think it has helped hone my writing in this genre—a nonfiction story-telling form. But I remain committed to maintaining, where necessary, thick distinctions between genres of writing. My academic work is doing something different from what I am doing in The Inheritance and what we are doing in our Karrabing films. I wouldn’t want to live in a world in which there was only one mode of voicing across all the genres of thought, writing, and image work. For me at least, the way my mind works in my academic books is different to how it works drawing and painting, writing goofy poems and songs, telling tall tales and recounting more serious histories. 

The short answer to whether more graphically oriented works are coming is, yes! How I answer the question of the personal is trickier. All my work is deeply personal. On the one hand, I always tell students that the best intellectual work comes from placing critical thought at the root of a personal passion. I know the personal conditions that drive my academic writing. On the other hand, I don’t think of The Inheritance as personal. I think of it as using me (little Elizabeth) as a case study of the ancestral present. I hope there are other installments, but no one has invented that time expansion/compression machine yet, so it all depends on how much time I can sequester for these and Karrabing projects. 

Read a selection of The Inheritance for free and save 30% on the book using the coupon code E21PVNLI. And stay tuned for Elizabeth Povinellli’s next book, Between Gaia and Ground, out in September 2021.

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