Joan Fleming’s notebook is wonderful: ‘I admit I am a better cartographer of the human heart than of any actual landscape’

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This candid piece by Joan Fleming on doing research in a desert is just wonderful. It is a fascinating view of the way the academic brain and the poet brain absorb, reflect and refract both experience and location, ideas and feelings, beauty, an unfamiliar world, an insistent heartbeat.


‘For the last few weeks, my out-of-office reply told anyone who tried to contact me that I was on an academic research trip in the Tanami desert.

Sleeping in swags, cooking on fires, chatting, laughing, wandering about the desert in a convoy of four-wheel-drives, taking photographs of the dunes and the sunsets.

Can I convince you that this is research? I realise it sounds a bit suspect. I took a stack of books with me, and hardly opened a single one. All my field notes are impressions and poetry. In fact, I think I left my critical language brain entirely behind.

I found myself so caught up in the moment-to-moment practical and emotional demands of the trip, that I couldn’t find the space or time to translate what I was experiencing into Thesis Language. What academese might gloss as gauging bicultural responses to postcolonial narratives through embodied auto-ethnography was really bouncing along through unmapped spinifex country with the audiobook of Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria playing through the rented hilux speakers, with three generations of Warlpiri women in the back seat, and leaning into the discomfort when the novel’s most despicable Uptown characters indulged in a vomit of racial slurs.’

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