Under a streetlight

In 2017, I had a choice. An 8,000 mile commute, or unemployment.

The day before the job interview, I went for a walk and saw mountains, which seemed vast, nameless and near. The day was so bright; the streets largely empty; the earth adrift in heat. Dizzy with exhaustion, I felt out of place. I was tempted to climb the mountains up towards the radiance. I did not imagine how much these mountains could become a trap, leaving a hole that could swallow you up.

The scene was Stellenbosch, South Africa. Stellenbosch is a small city not far from Cape Town. One could characterize it as a capital of wine and white supremacy, a patriarchal city that was equally hostile to queer and trans people. The beautiful colonial houses in the city center were defended by electric fences and high gates, maintained by the labor of working-class Black people. Bourgeois white culture reached its apex in the heavenly voices of the university choir, a centerpiece of a classical music scene that catered to overwhelmingly white audiences, even though the choir programs by then incorporated a prudent selection of African compositions. Some called this place the intellectual home of apartheid. Its eponymous university handed out credentials to generations of white Afrikaans-speaking elites, whose right-wing descendents still dominate the campus and attempt, sometimes violently, to exclude the growing Black student population. It was not an obviously great fit for me, as a genderqueer white person with left politics from the North. But after a few years of failing to find permanent academic work near home, I had begun looking all over the world. I had classmates who had gone to teach in Kazakhstan, Australia, Singapore, Germany.

I went to the interview the day after my walk under the mountain, barely having slept, shivering from too much coffee. I was doing my best to look masculine; I had taken off my crazy nail colors and put on a tie. In a daze, I talked to a crowded seminar room about my research. I explained that I was exhausted, and the students smiled at me. A few hours later, there was a panel interview chaired by the Dean, a white political scientist. To the west, Simonsberg Mountain loomed blue and green through the window, and I was pleased by the good atmosphere that seemed to emerge from the room. The department chair smiled at me and asked what my plan was for the next five years; I said I wanted to finish my book and get better at teaching. Someone walked me out of the room afterwards, and said encouraging things in the hallway.

I had enjoyed the surreal interview, but I went home frightened that getting a job offer would be an impossible dilemma. The condition of my continued academic labor would be separation from Claude and Talia, who would stay in America; my “commute” to work would be three flights and 25 hours long. An unbearable situation, a moment of complicity with neocolonial structures of economic opportunity (why was an African academic not hired instead?), and a deeply gendered one too: resonant with the history of “men” traveling for work.

I did get offered a job, and I kept my unbearable feelings at bay, and I left for Stellenbosch in early September. I missed Talia, who had just moved to Cleveland, Ohio for her own new job. I missed Claude, not yet two years old. I left for the airport before dawn on a Monday. The shadowy form of my partner standing under the streetlight, watching me get in a taxi, was so overpowering that I immediately hid it away in a secret room of the hardest memories. Meanwhile Claude was too small to really understand my absence.

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