I like to have magic in my life. So I’ve got lots of magic things in my house, like sliding bookcases and secret doors and a basement we dug out and secret rooms and an elvish inscription above my front door. I like to have magic in my life. I work hard, I like my job a lot, but I also believe in having fun. When the kids’ friends come round they often go straight to the basement - the entrance is a door that flips up and then there’s a staircase going down. And I’ve recently converted the attic space – it was unused which was offensive to me; unused space! It’s actually how I deal with stress in many ways, my various DIY projects. I really believe in having fun. So, do you know what I’m most proud of? I’m most proud of extracting fun out of almost any situation. Even grim moments at university, it might be a wry laugh but it’s a laugh.
Professionally I’m really proud of a particular book – ‘Intimate Indigeneities: Race, Sex, and History in the Small Spaces of Andean Life’. It took me many years to write. I’m very proud of it for a number of reasons. One is because of how it relates to my 25 years doing fieldwork in an indigenous village in the Andes. It was difficult to write because of all the information over so many years. But I tried to write it in an accessible way and bring people to life. It’s an academic book, but it sort of borrows from novelistic styles so you get to know the people in there. This is sort of my baby: you know, if you have a child, other people might not like your kid but you love them anyway, right? I mean, this book did actually do very well but actually it didn’t matter: this is my baby, this is my child and it went out into the world and it had its own life beyond me. I think it worked. I think as a piece of writing it worked. It got well reviewed and people who have read the book told me they burst out laughing in some places and burst into tears in others. This is professionally what I’m most proud of.
A lot of things inspire me. My students often really inspire me. They’re a funny bunch and I love teaching. I’m a head of department and I teach, which is a little unusual, and there’s no way anyone is going to take that away from me because I love it. My students are quite mad and they keep me sane. My students often have difficult lives, they have some big challenges and they come to class and we have a laugh. I’m quite tough on my students, I make them work and I challenge them. But we have a really good, interesting time. We laugh a lot, there’s lots of laughter in my sessions, and hard work! It sounds a bit naff but my students really do inspire me
An individual who inspires me is Teodosio Condori; he is the shaman of the village in Bolivia where I did my research. He’s somebody who I know professionally as it were, but I became very, very close to him and he became actually one of the most important people in my life. He died a couple of years ago and it really affected me. He only spoke Aymara, an indigenous language but was an incredibly knowledgeable man. He was also a healer so as well as communicating with the spirits he could also heal people and one day when I was there he conducted a rain making ceremony and it actually rained. He had an extraordinary presence. I’ve not taken many people to the village but anybody I’ve taken, they’ve always felt something just being around him, Even if they didn’t understand a word he said, there was something about the man which was very, very special. When he died the world he was brought up in, the indigenous world which is disappearing died with him. But he inspired me, certainly inspired me, and became one of the most important people in my entire life actually, which is why I have a picture of him in my office.
So I’ve got two mottos. One is rather serious and pompous. It’s by Immanuel Kant; sapere aude, ‘dare to know’. And that’s the curiosity of being an academic. Sometimes that’s hard – to dare to understand the world the way it is, rather than the way you would like it to be. You know, I’d rather know things which are difficult to know that to live in ignorance. But the other one is Oscar Wilde; ‘life is too important to be taken seriously’. Don’t take yourself too seriously, don’t take Brexit too seriously – you have to live and enjoy life and have hope and laugh and have a sense of humour.
How did I come to Essex? Well, I needed a job. I came here for a one year job. I was in the interview and somebody wrote something on a piece of paper and sort of started to pass it around. And then they asked me ‘would you have time this afternoon to interview for a permanent job’? So I said ‘yeah I think I might be able to fit you in’. So they offered me the job and I stayed. 23 years later it’s been a really good place for me! My daughter was born the day after I started here; the department has always been very supportive of me as a parent. It’s a lovely job because I was able to combine dropping the children off and picking them up from school with my work.
So what advice would I give me? I know some advice somebody gave me was to make sure you spend plenty of time with your children when they’re small – and I did. And it was really good advice and I’m really glad I took it. I don’t think I’ve taken my job too seriously, I really don’t, and that’s why I enjoy it so much. And insofar as I do it well, I think that’s why: I have fun.
Love well, that would be the advice I would give me, love well – yourself and others. That would be the best advice. Oh yes, and laugh, because life is too important to be taken seriously.
“Even if they didn’t understand a word he said, there was something about the man which was very special. When he died the world he was brought up in, the indigenous world which is disappearing went with him.”