A glittering lake down below, the winding path takes me atop a sacred hill. I come across two people and a young child. We recognize each other and revolve hellos: “What are you doing here?”, she asks. It’s a professor from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Professorial Fellow, Lyla Mehta. (She had led a module session on ecofeminism and feminist political ecology, the latter of which became an anchor for my thesis.) I fill her in on what I’m about to begin, and she makes the connection, stating that she’ll be at this evening’s welcome celebration. Small world. They continue down to town, then the beach. I take a breath and stand myself up straight, looking ahead, and up at the terracotta destination. The sun holds my face with warm open palms. “I’m doing this.” I say to myself. After a good steep walk, I arrive at the towering wooden doors. Behind them, unknown. Surrounding the structure, vines of grapes abound on the grounds. Here; we gathered.
The view from the convento of the surrounding grounds and Lake Bolsena
It was 2019; August. Pre-Covid. Pre- well, everything: “The Pandemic”; “The Great Reset”; “The Great Resignation”. Times were yet unprecedented. We were still unmasked in bliss. This form of gathering took the shape of a writer’s retreat. Organized by Dr. Wendy Harcourt, Professor of Gender, Diversity and Sustainable Development at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University in The Hague (ISS), an array of researchers—novices, like myself, and established, alike—gathered. We gathered for seven days. Some of us came by train, others by plane, but we made the trip to the Convento di Santa Maria del Giglio in Bolsena, Italy, all the same. Some of us had met each other before, in class or through projects, while others were meeting for the first time. Scholars from ISS and other institutions like Wageningen University & Research (WUR) met in the backyard for aperitivo. The retreat was underway.
Sunset at the convento on the first night of the retreat
Over the next several days, we discussed the readings inside the convento, on walkshops (a concept borrowed from Melissa Leach), in town, and along the shoreline. From Aime Carrillo Rowe’s rethinking of ‘a “politics of location” as a “politics of relation”’ and proposal of a ‘differential belonging’ (2005) to ‘experiential immersion’ as presented by Katherine Irwin (2006), we shared thoughts, challenged assumptions, and reworked the material like clay; the retreat, our kiln. As a mere graduate student, I was in awe, and trying to soak up each second with open ears. I was welcome to speak, however, and encouraged even: It was a timely extension of my experience in IDS modules where I learned how to exercise enthusiasm with restraint, allowing others to share their points of view rather than dominating the discussion. The retreat served as a humble reminder of the spaces that I had been able to enter with my M.A., Gender and Development colleagues as well as the trust instilled in each other whilst we shared our respective knowing(s), both tacit and explicit.
Throughout the retreat, I was also mining my thesis as it was due in September 2019, once I returned to Brighton. The chance to set it down, take steps away, gather perspective, and come back to it with fresh eyes was an invaluable part of my writing process that summer. I had the privilege of catching a tickled breeze on my face as I watched the sun rise and the cool stone corridors kept me calm amidst the heat of the Italian sun and anxiety of my deadlined days.
The streets of Bolsena
As the tender vegetables, portioned pasta, and some vino dissipated, so too did my worries about which mark I would receive or how my writing would be perceived. What a release. (Dancing away the last night in candlelight also helped.) At last, we regrouped the next morning, on departure day, and reflected. What’s next? Ultimately, some of us decided to write a book together. We sketched out preliminary ideas and made plans to reconnect online before meeting again in person. Emails were exchanged. A timeline was engaged.
And so we reconnected—over email, at first. Then, the first outbreaks. How to proceed if we can’t meet in person again? A video call, perhaps? Well, you know the rest… Many Zoom calls and rounds of edits later, our book was published in January 2022: Feminist Methodologies: Experiments, Collaborations and Reflections by Palgrave MacMillan. As stated on the website, it:
It’s also open access, which means that you have free and unlimited access.
I couldn’t have written my chapter without the year that I spent at IDS as a MAGAD student, and am all sorts of grateful for our module convenor and tutor, Deepta Chopra and Meenakshi Krishnan, respectively; advisors and mentors Tessa Lewin and Sohela Nazneen; and all of the teaching faculty at IDS as well as other cohort members. A sincere thank you to Dr. Harcourt for the scholarship opportunity to attend the retreat and my fellow authors.
All photos taken by Emily R. O'Hara
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