Dr. Allison B. Wolf: “Speak clearly to your readers”

…Thank you for the question because I worry that with a book about immigration injustice throughout the Americas, readers will just get depressed. But instead I hope that they get angry that these things are going on and use that anger to see that we can resist and improve things. The point of having knowledge […]

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…Thank you for the question because I worry that with a book about immigration injustice throughout the Americas, readers will just get depressed. But instead I hope that they get angry that these things are going on and use that anger to see that we can resist and improve things. The point of having knowledge is to empower us to take action and fight not only for immigrants but for our values. I hope readers will complete the book, then, with a sense that they can be part of the solution.

As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Allison B. Wolf.

Allison B. Wolf, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Affiliated Faculty of the Center for Migration Studies at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia specializing in philosophy of immigration, feminist philosophy, and political theory.

Before moving to Colombia, she was Professor of Philosophy and the Director of the Honors Program at Simpson College in Iowa. Her book, Just Immigration in the Americas: A Feminist Account (Rowman & Littlefield International) was just published in September 2020 and her coedited collection (with Catalina González Quintero and Ana María Forero Angel), Incarnating Feelings, Constructing Communities: Experiencing Emotions in the Americas through Education, Violence, and Public Policy (Palgrave MacMillan) has just been released. Dr. Wolf’s work has also been published in various journals and collections, including Hypatia, Comparative Studies in Asian and Latin American Philosophies, International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics, and the Journal of Global Ethics.

Thank you so much for joining us Dr. Wolf! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

I wish I had a good story for you, but it was pretty much by accident. I started my undergraduate studies planning on studying medicine and I wanted to stand out from the pack of biology majors to get into medical school and the guy I was dating at the time (who I later married) suggested I study philosophy. In my second year, I took a Bioethics course and I thought “wow, this is much more interesting then practicing medicine will ever be!” So, I decided then and there to get a doctorate in philosophy. I had no idea at all what that meant.

So, I went on to graduate school in philosophy, where I pursued bioethics and feminist philosophy. And I loved it! When I was writing my dissertation, I was offered the chance to go to Costa Rica for three months as a teaching assistant and I decided I had to go or I would regret it my whole life. So, in the summer of 2002 I was off to the Central American nation … and something awakened in me that has only grown stronger: a love of Spanish and Latin America, a curiosity to better understand its culture, history, and peoples, and a deep desire to live there. From that moment on, even though I went on to serve as a philosophy professor in Iowa for 15 years before moving to Latin America, I dedicated myself to these pursuits and started writing on global justice in Latin America — studying Spanish, spending as much time in Latin America as possible, especially in Costa Rica, and learning Latin American philosophy, history, and politics. Once the large numbers of unaccompanied Central American children began arriving to the U.S. I realized that fighting immigration injustice against these groups had to be a focal point of my life and I began to conceive of the book.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

This is a great question. I think the most interesting thing that has happened to me over my career has been my reception in Latin America compared to the United States. In the United States philosophy, especially feminist philosophy, is not seen as relevant to everyday life; people think we philosophers live in our ivory towers and do not talk about or do anything interesting that pertains to contemporary life. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth (just look at my work on how to create safe and just environments for women to give birth or creating just immigration policy), but tends not to be recognized in the United States. In Latin America, by contrast, suddenly people think that what I have to say matters — people constantly invite me to do podcasts, I am interviewed for various magazines, and people want to know what I think of matters of the day. And the same goes for my other colleagues in the Philosophy department. So, I think I am fascinated about how a profession could be respected in one place and denigrated in another.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

I think the biggest challenge I faced was my own feeling that I could not write a book — either that nobody would want to publish/read it or that I had nothing to say. Especially in philosophy, which has a tradition of literally thousands of years, I had an idea that if I did not have some new theory that would be read hundreds of years from now then what I had to say was unimportant. But then a few things happened. First, I started talking to colleagues who I trust about my ideas and asked them for feedback, which was invaluable since they were encouraging. Second, I stopped thinking in terms of “writing a book” and instead about what I wanted to say and what I would need to do to say it. When I thought of things that way, the task seemed much more manageable (and it was!). Third, one night a few years ago I was at a feminist philosophy conference and after dinner a bunch of people were outside by the hotel pool (you have no idea how fun feminist philosophy conferences can be ☺). Among the folks who were there was a very prominent scholar who has written many books and she was talking about how insecure she was about her work. And at that moment I thought, “Wait, if she has the same insecurities as I have, I have nothing to lose — I am going to write this book!”

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

This is a hard question, mostly because I have made so many mistakes — when I first started as a college professor and still today. I am trying to think of when those mistakes were funny. Well, I remember my first year I was teaching a class on Political Philosophy when, out of the blue, a student just up and walked out! Just left the room without so much as a goodbye. So, I sarcastically said: “Bye Andrew!” on his way out and the entire class erupted in hysterical laughter. I must have had the most confused look on my face because some of the students said to me: “Dr. Wolf, Andrew told you at the beginning of class that he had to leave early for a medical appointment,” and I, still totally confused simply said: “really?!?, ok.” But the class just kept laughing and laughing and my confusion kept growing and growing. Finally, another student said to me: “Dr. Wolf, you looked straight at him and said: ‘thanks for telling me. Good luck and let me know what the doctor said.’” I had not only forgotten what the student told me but that I had even had a conversation with him 30 minutes before!

Of course, I can say that I learned some important lessons here, like that I need to pay more attention when students speak to me. But, to be honest I think what I really learned was that I need to say sarcastic things to myself and not out loud.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I am really excited about the three major projects that I am working on now. First, since I am living and working in Bogotá, I have begun projects on immigration justice related to Venezuelan immigration in Colombia, especially related to the lives of Venezuelan women and the challenges they face every day. One that is especially exciting is an endeavor with two colleagues — Catalina González Quintero (philosophy) and Gracy Pelacani (law) to interrogate the rhetoric of Venezuelan immigration to Colombia, how it is gendered, and how it is connected to various legal responses to the migrants and the injustices Venezuelan women face. Second, I am working with some colleagues at the Law school at Universidad de los Andes to explore the limits of what legal measures can do to bring about immigration justice. And, finally — and this is completely unrelated to immigration and so it is even more exciting for me — is that I am working on putting together a new book on new directions in Jewish Ethics with my colleague at California State University Northridge, Jennifer Thompson that explores contemporary ways to think about and apply core ideas of Jewish ethics without focusing on rabbinical and biblical texts.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

As a book on immigration in the Americas, I share many stories, cases, and examples in my book — stories of children separated from their parents, stories of U.S. men in Costa Rica engaging with sex workers (Costa Rican and Nicaraguan), and stories of immigration raids. But, by far, the story that was the most interesting (and that hit me hardest), were the stories of Central American asylum seekers forced to wait in Mexico for their claim to be processed. One such woman from Honduras explicitly told authorities that she could not wait for her asylum claim court date in Mexico because, as a Honduran woman, Mexico was unsafe. U.S. officials refused to believe her and sent her back to Mexico, where she was kidnapped and raped by multiple assailants. And yet, this continues to happen and multiple border agents are deeply torn by the fact that they are sending women like her back to what they know is a violent circumstance but are not able to do otherwise because of the Remain in Mexico policy. One such asylum officer is Ursela, who reported that she interviewed a woman who told her she was afraid that if she was sent back to Mexico, she would be raped. Ursela believed her but was obligated to send her back (despite evidence supporting her claim) because the policy requires that the woman could only not be sent back if she could identify the specific individual might rape her in Mexico, not a general fear. I just cannot get this story — or the fact that it is so common — out of my head.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

Thank you for the question because I worry that with a book about immigration injustice throughout the Americas, readers will just get depressed. But instead I hope that they get angry that these things are going on and use that anger to see that we can resist and improve things. The point of having knowledge is to empower us to take action and fight not only for immigrants but for our values. I hope readers will complete the book, then, with a sense that they can be part of the solution.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

I appreciate the fact that you would imply that I am a great author ☺ I would like to think you are right.

  1. Write from your heart/your passions. I always know when a project is not ready based on how much I am repeating what other people said or when I feel disconnected emotionally (like too in my head). When I write, though, from a sense of anger or a sense of injustice or from a desire to act, then I know that I am saying something that matters.
  2. Write in small doses — 45-minute units at a time. I learned this trick as a graduate student at Michigan State. I used to think (and I believe many still do) that I had to write as much as I could without taking a break. I thought I would lose my ideas somehow or that I would forget what I wanted to say. But the opposite is actually the case. The more I write in 45-minute chunks, the more productive I am. So, what you do is set a timer for 45 minutes and, whatever happens, do not stop writing. When the timer goes off, take 1–2 minutes to write what you will do in the next 45-minute segment. Then take a 10 minutes break doing anything that is not writing — take a walk, do some yoga, call a friend. And then start again.
  3. Speak clearly to your readers. Sometimes academics (and other writers as well) think that to sound smart means that we need to use vocabulary that is hard to understand, or jargon. Or, we think that it makes us look less smart if we speak simply, directly, and clearly. I take a different view. I want people to read and understand my work (otherwise what good does it do?). So, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of writing clearly.
  4. Presume your readers are smart (rather than needing to be educated by you). People who read books are intelligent and intellectually curious. They want to learn. So, write in a way that respects that and that respects all of your readers. Nobody wants to be lectured to or made to feel dumb.
  5. Try to consider the voices you are not representing in the conversation. Too often we, inadvertently, write in ways that exclude the voices of others. While I do not think that anybody can write in a way that accounts for every group, we can write with consciousness in ways that try to invite other voices into the conversation. So, while we write, we can ask: Which voices am I trying to include? Which ones might I be excluding? Why those? How can they become part of the project, even if in a small way” Etc.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

I am sure many will say that reading extensively helps writing and that is clearly true. But in my case the habit that I know contributed the most to becoming a great writer has been editing. For me, even in answering these questions, it is in the editing that the real creativity comes to light and my voice shines through. This is hard to learn, though, because every time you cut things out, you feel like you are eliminating hours, if not days and weeks, of hard work. But it is nonetheless necessary — I wish we all focused more on this part of the writing process.

I learned this in a painful way. Let me explain. I like to talk — I talk a lot. And, as you can imagine, when I write early drafts of essays, chapters, or books, I write a lot. And I am very proud of those words. But I was always told to have someone else read work before you turn it in. So, following this sage wisdom, I gave a term paper to my college roommate at the time, who was an English major. She read the work with care, looked up at me, and said: “you write too much; you need an editor!” I will be honest, this hurt deeply and, in some ways, the insecurity that it engendered has stayed with me (after all, as a very good student my whole life, I was only learning how to take constructive criticism). But I listened to my former roommate and I got an editor — myself. I read on how to write, how to edit, and, from that moment on, I always completed drafts with a long time to spare so that I could edit. And when I did I saw that my initial thoughts were just those — first thoughts — and that in editing I could not simply correct grammatical errors, but craft my voice and what I want it to convey.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I think the literature that inspires me the most is the radical, pluralistic, feminist literature, especially written by Latina and Latinx scholars. In part, I think this is because these works help me make sense of the world — they help me realize that I am not crazy to think certain things and I am not alone. In part, I think it is because this literature is fresh and full of new ways to understand the world that I think is really intellectually exciting.

I always love fiction that tells the same story from different perspectives — like Cloud Atlas, The Tortilla Curtain, The Hours, and The Leavers. I love how it forces us to question our own arrogant ideas that we know what is happening or that we have the information we need to make determinations. I love how it takes us into different worlds to which we would never visit. And I love how it makes me wonder what else I do not know.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

What a wonderful question, thank you for asking it. I think the movement I would start would be one aimed at reducing violence against migrant women of all kinds — feminicide, rape, torture, exploitation, obstetric violence, human trafficking, and other forms of abuse. So many of these women have to deal with so much loss (their homeland, their families, sometimes their children, their sense of self and safety, etc) that I think if we could stop violence against them, then we would have the effect of stopping violence against all women, cis and trans. As someone whose goal is to create a world without oppression, a huge step in achieving that would be to fight and reduce violence of vulnerable migrant women.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

People can follow me on Twitter: @AllisonBWolf1

People can also look at other academic work I am doing at: https://uniandes.academia.edu/AllisonWolf

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

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