Sites of Contestation, Letters Between Friends

Dear Reader,

It was late evening, almost closing time, as we sat across from one another in a booth at a local coffee shop, working on separate final papers for a seminar we were both taking. K strummed her fingers to the Motown pumping through the speaker overhead, lazily watching the employees as they chatted and cleaned up the bar for the night.

Her mind was elsewhere, already home and anticipating the week ahead. J also seemed distracted, taken to contemplating the lingering sip in her coffee cup, long gone cold in neglect. Her productivity came in fits and bursts, fingers sprinting and resting in erratic waves.

J: Writing this paper is so much harder than I imagined it being. The words just aren’t coming together. K sighed deeply and nodded once in acknowledgment, returning guiltily back to her screen.

It was then that the idea crept up, slowly and sheepishly, before settling firmly with insistence. K shifted abruptly in her seat, alarmed by the swift arrival and sudden embedding of such an idea. J: What is it? K: I was just thinking… it’s just… wouldn’t this be so much easier to express if we could somehow write these papers together?

What follows is a series of letters between the two of us – Julie and Keavy, two friends and agitators – that meditate on how we, as graduate students, step into the academic world inevitably carrying prior knowledges with us and must continually agonize about how to do justice to and with them in academic life. As we write to each other, we also write to you, in the hope that these reflections might help to remind you of the prior knowledges you also carry.

In these letters, prior knowledges are emotions, stories, places, relationships, and memories we accumulate over time. The trusting, patient space of our friendship allowed us to peel back those layers for ourselves and for each other, so we can better understand who and how we have come to be. We hope that our attempt to capture this process reminds you to stay curious about the layers that make you who you are, the people and places that comprise those layers, and the relationships that help you to hold them with a gentle firmness and take them seriously.

The letters highlight the process of learning to interrogate and work with our situatedness within the academy, our evolving positions within spaces of academic knowledge production and our resulting relationships with our work sites, disciplines, political commitments, and people we have become entangled with. We engage the experiences, sensitivities, and impulses with which we enter and navigate academic spaces, asking each other and you, reader, how we might remember and retain the bits of ourselves that existed prior to our entry into the academy, or that stand in excess of the academic world’s demands.

Reflecting on the process of writing together in a narrated letter form, we realize how much of what shows up on these pages likely would not have surfaced without each other’s provocations, questions, and stories. The threads in these letters could only emerge in relation and in conversation and were only possible through the security found in the mutual care and trust of a loving friendship. Writing together, we see our ideas find expression in shapes and colors that would have never been possible writing alone.

Our stories remain our own, but our understandings have become intertwined, mutually informing, interrupting and co-constituting one another such that it no longer feels important whether an idea emerges from ‘Julie’s’ letter, or from ‘Keavy’s’ letter. We discuss early in this process how single authorship is a mirage, and how the feedback loops and messy processes of layered effects run through and underpin any expression of thought, academic or otherwise. This project is our first attempt to explore what it might mean to explicitly name, celebrate, and give space to these collective influences rather than spending energy on trying to suppress them or on falsely delineating separation in our expression. Through this togetherness in writing, we begin to see how we might otherwise spend those energies, and what unforeseen intellectual, emotional, and political possibilities arise.

That evening in the coffee shop, J let out the tiniest of smirks, as if K had not just suggested (only five days out from a deadline) to drastically alter and combine the separate papers they had both been working on for the past month! It only took her an instant to decide. J: Yes, sure. Let’s do it. K: Really? Okay, what do we do? J: I don’t know… but let’s talk about it…

Dear Keavy,

We’ve spoken often about the possibility of writing together, and I’m so excited to start! Thank you for your willingness to embrace the risks and vulnerabilities demanded by this project. I am so grateful for the space of our friendship.

In these early stages of our journeys in grad school, I am struggling with questions of research sites, questions that are made more challenging by the ways our work is defined within the academy. Within the context of school and research, my grappling with two ‘homes’ I have loved, grown from, and battled is frequently reduced to the following question: Tanzania or South Dakota? My relationships to these places are intertwined with the ways I understand myself, and this complicates the framing of this decision as a simple choice between a research project in Tanzania or a research project in the Black Hills.

The questions I am clumsily considering are so sticky and entangled that the only way I know how to proceed is in conversation. My ideas have been shifting and growing in relation to your ideas… none of my evolving stories make as much sense or hold as much meaning in isolation from your stories.

Through the process of writing together, I hope that we deepen our appreciation for the possibilities opened up when our thoughts and movements bump up against one another in loving friendship. As with any writing, I anticipate there will be limits to what our letters will be able to express or capture. Our exchanges, as always, will be partial and full of opacities and missteps. Yet these gaps seem generative, reminders of the unfolding, chaotic, and fluid nature of how we come to know and who we claim to be.

In our seminar last spring, Himadeep Muppidi in a Skype conversation with our class pushed us to think about the question: what is it that we cannot say? “What is it that’s bubbling up, but we can’t write about?”1 I think our conversations might offer a space to say some of what we feel but cannot yet articulate – and I also know that silences will remain.

What do these letters make possible, and what will necessarily remain impossible? Can we even answer this? Does it matter?

Humbly yours,


Dear Julie,

Your letter reminds me of the impossibility of capturing in full all the conversations, fears, joys, and moments of frustration that pulse and reverberate through our lives together in Minneapolis. I think of the places our conversations have been staged – in classrooms, at home, on bikes, and spaces in between. I am reminded of all the laughter and frustrations, of partially-formed thoughts bounced around over late night popcorn, of the interwoven pieces of life that muddy divisions between home, work, play, and sustenance. I imagine all these moments and emotions settling and sticking to our bones, reshifting into new kaleidoscopic configurations with every additional experience.

This churning accumulation helps me to think about our shared grappling with questions of research location. As you mention, the process of defining and refining where our dissertation research takes place is often reduced to a simple decision between two bounded sites. Instead of this, I’m thinking about how to articulate the ‘where’ of my research in a way that does justice to the way my political understandings and sense of self have moved across and been shaped by my geographies. How can we better address the nuances of the world in our analyses, taking into careful consideration the particular and messy ways we travel through and return to fragmented spaces and sites?

In thinking through these questions, I am drawn to the thread in your previous letter that takes up Himadeep’s provocation – what is it that we cannot say? Remember when our fellow graduate student told us he could not stay in his PhD program? He described again the ways he felt invisibilized and silenced, his experience of the deep exclusions embedded in the theoretical canons we are all forced to regurgitate, and a complete dismissal of non-academic knowledges that he brought with himself into grad school from his other lives. I remember the difficulty of the next few days for us, the questions we could not shake: How to be a friend and a colleague at this delicate juncture? How to support each other as full humans beyond academic spaces, in partial and tenuous ways?

Reflecting on these tensions within graduate school brings me back to my own memories of living in New Orleans, an adopted home that I have since left. I return not just to the place of New Orleans, but to my particular embodied memories of New Orleans and the knowledges held within. I am reminded of a particular moment with a friend while we visited my Aunt’s home in the French Quarter. It was the first truly cold November evening and the gas heater hissed in maudlin protest at its new-found chore.

I remember how odd it was to see him in her apartment, sitting at the table under etchings of Jackson Square framed in painted wood and dusty glass. His eyes caught mine across the vast and tangled geographies between us as we listened to my Aunt’s wine-fueled tales. I sensed it then, how I had not realized before this moment that I held her New Orleans in my heart and bones… how far, in the center of this city that birthed him, he was from home. Later that evening I walked him back to his house through the muddied streets of the Marigny and the Backwater, until I lined my toes up against the ledge where one universe ended and the other began, on the bridge between his New Orleans and hers.

This story might seem tangential, but I guess what I’m trying to explain is that when I reference memories of my New Orleans, I mean a lot of things. In part, like in my memories of that night in my Aunt’s house, I am referring to a long process of grappling with the politics of race and privilege, questions with such deep roots in that city. I am referring to the process of working through my own family history and entanglements to place to think about survival, loss, privilege, and home.

But also contained in memories of my New Orleans are other relationships and violences that developed within them that forced me to leave the South for Chicago – sexual assault and abusive relationships that made it impossible to stay, despite the powerful friendships like the one I’ve described above that reoriented my relationship to my own positionality.

It’s risky to excavate the folds of layered memories, because precious things lie inside – doing second lines down Esplanade and cooking gumbo until the early morning – but really scary things lie there too – abandoned homes and deep wounds that cause painful unkindnesses to ourselves and to those we love. It takes patience and trust to carefully think through those layers. But it also takes a constant vigilance to ensure that this process of self-reflection is not a shield against changing or challenging yourself, that the excavation does not become a place to hide.

What I am trying to get at is, as much as I want our friend here at UMN to stay in the academy, I also don’t have to imagine how some places become so toxic that they are uninhabitable. I know that attempting to change rotten systems and institutions from within almost always involves careful compromises. And when those compromises collapse above and below us, sometimes self-preservation necessitates exit. When met with failures and tension, may we keep in mind how difficult and differentially experienced this all is, and how deeply oppressive structures cut.

In short, the people whose ideas the academy needs most desperately are often the ones who will be violently pushed out and silenced. So, when asked ‘where is your work?’ and ‘what is your project?’ the answer I cannot seem to articulate is that the work is here, in these conversations, in the never-ending and limited efforts to carve out spaces where we can show up for each other… so that the voices and bodies these institutions need so desperately can remain.

Gratefully yours,


Dear Keavy,

Thanks for reminding me of that evening. I remember the resonances we each felt upon hearing our friend’s story, how we were able to identify so powerfully with some aspects of the challenges he faces – and how, just as powerfully, certain pieces of his struggle remained firmly beyond what we were able to know or feel. I remember feeling pulled in two very different directions in my reaction to what he shared with us. In the sense that I could relate, I wanted to say: I hear you, I’m here with you, and I know others are here, too.

There is a phrase in Swahili: tupo pamoja. This translates into an expression of solidarity: We are here, in this precise location, together. Taken as a whole, the phrase signifies: I feel you, I am with you.

Don’t leave. I will work to make this bearable for you, because the interruptions your presence makes here are worth fighting for. But even as I am writing this, I’m also conscious that, because of how we are differently positioned, I will never fully understand the battles our friend is fighting, and so I hesitate. Who am I to suggest he should stay? Your call that we ‘keep in mind how difficult and differentially experienced this all is, and how deeply oppressive structures cut’ resonates powerfully.

It feels fitting that you’ve connected these rich complexities we carry with us, the sedimented layers built up over time and space, with the question of research locations. Perhaps part of my difficulty in declaring that I have already decided between working in Tanzania and working in South Dakota is grounded in my discomfort with the suggestion that we can ever fully let go of places, or that the places we step into ever agree to let go of us.

Still, compelling reasons arise for moving on. In my case, there exist both reasons to end my work in Tanzania as well as reasons to follow the impulses leading me to the Black Hills. My position in relation to each of these sites of struggle is fraught, marked by centuries of racialized violence. Navigating my position in Tanzania involves grappling with the neocolonial and imperialist geopolitics which mark my relationship to that place.

Navigating my position in the Black Hills, so close to where I grew up, involves working through tensions of a slightly more personal nature. The forces working to perpetuate ongoing colonial practices in South Dakota and throughout the US are strong, and their indoctrination is fierce, tightly braided into creation stories and modern myths through which racist and colonial ideologies are reproduced every single day. These stories run powerfully through the institutions and practices of liberal democracy, and it’s one thing to analyze them in the abstract. But, as you’ve shared through your own memories and stories of New Orleans, these stories also mark our experiences of family, lineage, and inheritance. Working in the Black Hills will force a helpful proximity between my work and the rest of my life – my family, my childhood, my assumptions – which is important because anti-colonial politics are not just about where I work, but about where I come from, where I live now, and where I visit and play, both invited and uninvited. I’m so struck by your description of that night at your Aunt’s home because it is exactly that clashing of worlds that I sense I need, that will push me in the way I need to be pushed.

I wonder what possibilities might exist besides simply ‘moving on’ from Tanzania to South Dakota, on the one hand, or engaging in a reductive comparison, on the other hand. I’m aware of the privilege of options and mobility which makes this conversation possible, and how that privilege shapes my intellectual and political work.  We also know that a much longer history of movement, of conquest and resistance and life despite these things, connects these geographies. Here and there are entangled, and there is no running away from either.

Thanks for listening,


Dear Julie,

Sorry for the delay – I am finding it difficult to write. These articulations feel unborn and still murky, swirling in a deep reservoir, submerged and half-formed…

Tupo pamoja – we are here, in this precise location. Together. When thinking about my engagements with organized labor, from El Salvador to Chicago and beyond, I have been both leaning on and wrestling with the notion of solidarity. And I can’t seem to pin down a definition that encompasses what I understand the word to mean. Often I hear ‘solidarity’ used to refer to the tupo pamoja meaning, a static, bearing-witness-to understanding of solidarity. I feel like I should go, out of solidarity. As if by showing up in the same space, by simply invoking a sense of unity, we could offer the necessary support. But, to me, this understanding of solidarity sounds complete and definitive, as if we already know in advance what solidarity looks like, feels like, and requires us to be. Tupo pamoja – we are here, in this precise location, together.

But what of the locations that are not precise? What of the places which we do not and cannot both inhabit? What is solidarity in relation to these places and non-places? To answer these questions, I need an understanding of solidarity that is at once sharper and softer than inherited definitions that rely on sameness. I think a good place to start is with Richa Nagar and Susan Geiger’s notion of situated solidarities, which insists on embedded, context-specific articulations of solidarity necessarily rooted in the particularities of geographical, institutional, and social locations.2 But I feel compelled to keep asking questions about what situatedness means in the context of movement, non-locations, and difference… when solidarity becomes not a thing to hold or a place to stand on, but a way of being and relating that is always under constant revision.

This writing reminds me of a political gathering in Chicago that drew together education activists, labor unions, and racial justice organizations to support the teachers’ contract fight with the city. Tensions arose when labor organizers extended a message of solidarity to workers present from police unions. This caused a breakdown in trust between organized labor and Black Lives Matter activists that had shown up to support the teachers’ union, and led to unexpected contestations and powerful discussions that shaped the Chicago Teachers’ Union contract fight. More specifically, I think it brought about a renewed commitment on the part of labor to practice what they know to be true – that being anti-capitalist and pro-worker is not enough, and that an analysis of class is harmful if it does not also include at its foundation an analysis of race and state-sanctioned racial violence.

This example reminds me that solidarity as process, as failure and accountability, cannot exist without incommensurability. I sense a simultaneity of the way these processes work together – moments and manifestations of irreconcilable difference as intrinsic to developing deeper analyses of our own partialities and how they exist in relation to other realities and half-truths, however unstable, overlapping, and multiple they might be.

Yet, how do we find language to express our own positionality when the grounds of struggle, solidarity, accountability, and incommensurability are constantly shifting, in contestation, and up for negotiation? When I read your words on navigating your position in relation to research in both Tanzania and the Black Hills, I am reminded of the importance of this question, to ask it of ourselves and of others, but not to demand complete answers, to accept shrugs and stutters.

Unsure and in process, but always with love,


Dear Keavy,

I find your language around sharpness and softness so appropriate, especially because this is one quality that our friendship has helped me to try to cultivate. I’m inspired by your ability to see a softness in the razor edge – to hold tightly to your intuitions, refusing to let go completely but always willing to change your grip and reassess. I see you doing this for me, letting me abide in whatever I might be facing without pushing towards resolution, and giving me patient company there. I also see you doing this in the world, refusing to be made blunt or muted but always with a tender sense of openness.

I sense that your bringing together of memories, experiences, and scholarly engagements is exactly what people like Richa and Himadeep are calling for – a recognition that to tell stories is to ‘do theory,’ to try, however partially and mistakenly, to work through our own movements through the world in connection to and at a stubborn remove from the movements of others – this is to theorize.

You and I have talked about my awareness of and concerns about the gap between how I express myself out loud and in written word, between how my worries and priorities roll around in my head and how they tumble out onto paper, between how I feel in the academy and how I write or speak in the academy. For me, these moments demonstrate just how disciplined I have become even in just a few semesters, how deeply ingrained in me are the conventional norms of writing and being in the academy which drive toward authority, expertise, and certainty. These letters are helping me to move beyond this tension… this form allows me to process in ways that bring all these matters of concern onto the page and into the conversation.

Writing letters (especially to you!) allows me to move away from the tight arguments and tidy formulations of conventional academic writing. When writing a paper or drafting an article, I feel pressure to make strong, analytical connections that present every thought within a coherent framework. Letters allow me to escape this structure and expectation in my own thinking and writing. These exchanges allow for different kinds of connections to emerge, as well as provide space for not making connections, for letting things sit, for ruminations and mistakes. They allow me to understand writing not as static and closed, but as living threads in relation and in conversation. Writing to each other, with each other, and through one another, I see our friendship and trust as epistemic resources that allow us to write with deeper honesty, vulnerability, and commitment in ways that were not accessible to us previously.

As I look back over letters we have sent each other, I also notice how stories and knowledge gained from places that you carry with you are showing up in my early theorizations of my own project.  I notice how the collective geographies of our friendship are informing the ways we both build our own individual ‘sites’ in proposals and talks. This feels connected to the limitations of research ‘sites’ that you brought up before, how bounds are placed on where we consider our academic work to be. Once we complicate divisions between what we consider intellectual, political, or personal, then we can try to draw neat and tidy lines around what our ‘project’ is… but even then, the contours of that project end up being influenced in all kinds of ways by all kinds of things – knowledges, memories, commitments, instincts – and so much that might lie outside of those lines.

Our friendship has given me space to write and think and share more fully, in a way that feels truer and realer than the boundedness required by the academy. At times, this writing has given me the strength to push my ‘project’ in more expansive directions, in ways that more closely approximate the actual mess of the world. However, the question of what aspects of myself I should make accessible to the academy continues to be a real one for me – and so our friendship and these letters continue to be a precious space of knowledge-making and knowledge-keeping that doesn’t directly overlap with academic spaces.

I’m so grateful for you!



Dear Julie,

Your point about struggling with the difference between how you know your own thoughts in your head and how they show up on the page resonates deeply with me. Especially when writing within the context of graduate work, I feel two concurrent anxieties – on the one hand, a pressure to perform theoretical mastery and, on the other, a desire to reject the alienating authoritative tone and disciplined certainty of my own writing.  I am caught between coming to terms with my distaste and refusal of academic norms, while simultaneously getting entrenched within them, and I am left to dwell on the sticky balances of academic legibility, performance, and survival.

The tension between inclusion and self-preservation within the academy feels inescapable to me. I feel strongly that if I cannot be here on my own terms, that if who I am forced to be in the academy compromises who I am and want to be, there is no point in being here in the first place. I still feel this way. As long as I am here, however, this space, this game, requires an element of compromise. How will we possibly retain our own sense of self and critique of this mess, when we are constantly learning the performance of theory and disciplinary norms? Perhaps more impossibly, how can we trust that we will ever truly shed this performance, so ingrained in how we understand our scholarship and our work?

When thinking about being here on my own terms, I am reminded of the deep and tangled roots that sustain those terms. It feels appropriate to share a poem with you that I wrote a few months ago. In the poem, I tried to articulate how memories of growing up around a family of academics still give me energy and possibility, even as I experience my own academic life in a way that feels startlingly colder than those memories. I have tentatively entitled it 505 Maple Ave, or alternative genealogies of my PhD…

I have an overflowing file cabinet stuffed with childhood memories of barbecue lullabies, cascading harmonies formed from the mirth and indeterminate revelry of adults in a nearby room. All music and politics of moonlight and living and well-seasoned food. In the Tyson house where I stayed, activity was always centered around the kitchen table or the piano, depending on the time of day (and related hungers). Tim, the restaurant chef turned writer turned professor, always served up something to feed you. I can still smell the tangy heat of his chargrilled chicken cooking slowly on the porch, the moisture of steaming rice creating condensation on the back windows and the back of my throat. He dished up old family recipes – seminars stuffed with freedom rides, Vernon, Oxford, NC, and the truth that blood has signed all of our names in ways we cannot deny nor change. I can recall this all from my stomach, and its memories of trying to nourish and digest for a growing body not yet fully formed by its place in the world.

But above all, I remember the piano. That piano made friends with everyone – familiar strangers, loved ones, new students, old teachers, the tone deaf and musically gifted. People who’d been there before. People who’d never come again. It didn’t matter one bit. We would sing and laugh, out of tune and slightly off beat, distinct melodies that recognized one another just enough to hold together in passing. We’d stack up sheet music and essay drafts, pages of left hands, right hands, and theoretical tangos locked in step, until the stacks towered high enough to serve as impromptu stools for our growing choral symphony. But when the hour grew older than we were and the conversations turned to places we could not follow, the grown folks would send us children to bed. As we climbed the stairs and scurried to our dreams, those hymns and freedom songs would wave us goodnight, too entangled with bellows of laughter and delight to tuck us in properly.

In the bedroom upstairs, I abandoned my usual spot on the right half of the futon next to Hope. I fell asleep instead with my ear pressed firmly against the aging salmon carpet, my arms in a diamond shape above my head with palms flat and fingers extended, at once praising and embracing the vibrations from the piano below. Perhaps it is this night (and so many of the other early nights like it) that makes me crane my neck for one more longing smell or sound when my back is turned resolutely against the academy, when I have sworn that joy does not and cannot exist within those halls.

The truth is that sometimes that living room of open doors and folks in passing still feels like the center of the universe.

All for now,


Dear Reader,

We wanted to write to you, with a little distance, especially as we move forward with revisions of these letters for public viewing. Writing for an end-of-term project, the original letters were deeply intimate and contextual as we attempted to use our writing and close friendship as spaces to work through the questions that run through this exchange. The original letters contained layered illusions to personal trajectories, stories, and past conversations without pause for elaboration, because the shared knowledge was already assumed. In the process of revising this exchange for publication and staging it for the readers of AGITATE!, our writing as well as the context and orientation of our letters have necessarily changed.

We have tried to strike a balance between the intimacy of these letters between close friends and the expectations associated with public-facing performance. This balance, perhaps better described as a tension, remains unresolved in this final version. Full of partial and incomplete stories, our letters are an effort to probe and play with the tensions among deep intimacy and vulnerability and the performance of academic writing.

Looking forward,

Julie and Keavy

Suggested citation:
McFadden, M. and J. Santella. 2019. “Sites of Contestation, Letters Between Friends.” AGITATE! 1:
  1. Himadeep Muppidi, April 5, 2016. Skype conversation with GEOG 8980: Caste, Race, Indigeneity (graduate seminar), instructor: Richa Nagar, University of Minnesota.
  2.  Richa Nagar, Muddying the Waters: Coauthoring Feminisms across Scholarship and Activism (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2014), 86.

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