How have colonialism and empire contributed to modern-day science and medicine? How can work from women of color feminisms and healing justice movements inform how we practice wellness in our daily lives? Is there room for a holistic approach to productivity within academia?
In episode 29 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach talks with guest Tala Khanmalek about how academics can incorporate healing justice and disability justice into academic workflows, how a holistic approach to graduate school enabled Tala to create social justice projects, and what a healing justice and disability justice-based world would look like.
Guest: Tala Khanmalek
Tala is a postdoctoral research associate in the American Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies Programs at Princeton University.
She completed her PhD in the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of California, Berkeley with a Designated Emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and was a visiting scholar at the University of California, Santa Cruz’s Science and Justice Research Center.
Tala’s work both within and outside of academia calls attention to how various forms of storytelling expose the intimate impacts of health disparities and their institutionalized roots in historical patterns of discrimination. She has founded, directed, and participated in a wide range of community-based projects in the Bay Area including the Cultural Conservancy, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Body Politic Think Tank, the Healing Clinic Collective, the Niroga Institute’s Integral Health Fellowship Program, and Womyn’s Circle.
She is also a blogger for SWANA Story reCollection, a digital archive of medicine stories from South West Asia and North Africa.
In addition to being a creative writer herself, Tala is a sailor and has been involved with projects that highlight the role of water in healing, disability, and social justice activism.
She is currently working on her first book manuscript, Living Laboratories: Remapping the Legacy of Experiments in American Empire, and establishing a community-based organization, Sailing for Social Justice, that further links the sea to social movements through sailing.
We chatted about
- Tala’s forthcoming book project, Living Laboratories: Remapping the Legacy of Experiments in American Empire (3:17)
- Healing justice as a framework to rethink health and unhealth (06:48)
- How academics can incorporate healing justice principles (11:38)
- How Grad School Rockstars helped Tala create social justice projects (15:58)
- Imagining otherwise (22:10)
Tala’s book manuscript Living Laboratories
In this book project I look at what I call a ‘living laboratory,’ which is a transnational site of state-sanctioned medical experimentation on populations that are deemed to harbor disease. I look at four different—though deeply conceptually and historically interconnected—living laboratory sites from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century.
The elusive definition of “healing justice”
One of the things I love about healing justice is it, to some extent, resists fixed definitions, and that parallels my experience as a chronically ill femme of color.
The dangerous productivity narrative within academia
There is a huge emphasis in academia on productivity. It’s so salient that even critical-POC [people of color] focused resources for academics emphasize productivity in an ableist way.
Incorporating healing justice principles in your daily practice
I’ve had to continually work on emptying my need for result, and instead focus on developing a flexible practice that allows me to be productive in a way that works for me.
The accessibility of Grad School Rockstars
What drew me to the rockstar program, and one of my favorite things about it, is that it was very accessible to me. It was something that I could actually commit to and do.
The unique offerings of the Grad School Rockstars community
I loved that it was diverse, interdisciplinary, and social-justice oriented. That’s something that I certainly wasn’t getting from the job market-related or dissertation writing-related offerings that my previous institution had available.
I’m drawn to literature, and I try to uplift the ways in which folks are imagining otherwise through these creative genres. Yes, we can imagine other resolutions, other possibilities, and I think also we’re enacting them every day on a day-to-day basis, in small and large ways.
More from Tala Khanmalek
Projects and people discussed
- Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
- Healing Clinic Collective
- nineteen sixty nine, ethnic studies journal
- Cultural Conservatory Guardians of the Water Program
- nineteen sixty nine Special Issue on Healing Justice
- US Social Forum in Detroit 2010
- Reflections from Detroit: Transforming Wellness & Wholeness” by Cara Page
- Allied Media Conference
- 2012 Allied Media Conference healing justice principles
- Badass Visionary Healers healing justice principles
- Sins Invalid healing justice principles
- Alexis Pauline Gumbs
- Almah Lavon
- Dark Sciences Retreat
- Alondra Nelson, author of Body and Soul
- The Feminist Wire
- Tala’s piece on forced sterilization in California state prisons
- Justice Now, community-based organization in the Bay Area
- Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha, editors of Octavia’s Brood,
About Imagine Otherwise
Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.
Cathy Hannabach (00:03):
Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host Cathy Hannabach.
Cathy Hannabach (00:22):
Welcome to the Imagine Otherwise podcast, which is produced by Ideas on Fire an academic editing and consulting agency, helping progressive interdisciplinary scholars write awesome texts in live and public conversations and create more just worlds. This week’s episode is brought to you by our grad school rockstar program and dissertation rockstar bootcamp. Enrollment for both are now open for spring 2017. Both of these programs help progressive interdisciplinary scholars like those featured on this podcast create awesome work, build accountability and community for their projects and rock their interdisciplinary careers. If you or someone you know is a grad student who wants to create a regular writing routine, stop drowning in email, don’t we all, prioritize self care and actually finish their dissertation alongside other social justice oriented scholars, you can go to ideasonfire.net to find out more.
Cathy Hannabach (01:18):
This is episode 29 and my guest today is Tala Khanmalek. Tala is a postdoctoral research associate in the American studies and gender and sexuality studies programs at Princeton University. She completed her PhD in the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of California, Berkeley with a Designated Emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She was a visiting scholar at the University of California, Santa Cruz’s Science and Justice Research Center.
Cathy Hannabach (01:46):
Tala’s work both within and outside of academia calls attention to how various forms of storytelling expose the intimate impacts of health disparities and their institutionalized roots in historical patterns of discrimination. She has founded, directed, and participated in a wide range of community-based projects in the Bay Area including the Cultural Conservancy, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Body Politic Think Tank, the Healing Circle Collective, the Niroga Institute’s Integral Health Fellowship Program, and Womyn’s Circle.
Cathy Hannabach (02:20):
She is also a blogger for SWANA Story reCollection, a digital archive of medicine stories from South West Asia and North Africa. In addition to being a creative writer herself, Tala is a sailor and has been involved with projects that highlight the role of water in healing, disability, and social justice activism. She is currently working on her first book manuscript, Living Laboratories, which we talk about in the interview, and establishing a community-based organization called Sailing for Social Justice, that further links the sea to social justice movements through sailing.
Cathy Hannabach (02:55):
Tala is here today to talk about how academics can incorporate healing justice and disability justice into academic workflows, how a holistic approach to graduate school enabled her to create social justice projects and what a healing justice and disability justice based world might look like. Thank you so much for being with us Tala.
Tala Khanmalek (03:16):
Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Cathy Hannabach (03:18):
So you’re currently working on your first book manuscript, which is very exciting and that’s called Living Laboratories: Remapping the Legacy of Experiments in American Empire. What’s that book about?
Tala Khanmalek (03:30):
So my first book, project Living Laboratories in kind of very broad terms is about how science and medicine have shaped and also been shaped by histories of slavery, colonialism and empire to kind of determine the boundaries of human existence. So in this book project, I explore that by looking at what I call a living laboratory, which is a transnational site of state sanction medical experimentation on populations that are deemed to harbor disease. And in the book, I look at four different though deeply conceptually and historically interconnected living laboratories from the mid 18th to the mid 19th century. And most importantly, I look at these sites through the scientific archive, but I also pair that archive with women of color feminist texts of the late 20th century and look at how these texts kind of reframe this legacy of living laboratories for our present.
Cathy Hannabach (04:55):
Can you give us an example of one of those living laboratories that you look at?
Tala Khanmalek (05:00):
Sure. So one of them is actually the El Paso immigration station at the U.S.-Mexico border. And that in that chapter of the book, I pair archives on the disinfection plants at that site that was operating from the early 1900s, and well way into way past the mid 19th century. And actually pair those archives with Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands, to think about the medical experimentation that happened there in that disinfection plant.
Cathy Hannabach (05:44):
This interest in health, in wellness, and in the kind of the violence that’s wrapped up in how we think of health and wellness given histories of colonialism, it seems to play out across your various projects, which is really fantastic. So clearly here’s a scholarly example of how you explore this, but you have also been really active in community organizations that focus on healing justice. You’ve worked with the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in the Bay area, their Body Politic Think Tank, which is such a cool name. You’ve also worked with the Healing Clinic Collective, the Cultural, how do you say that word?
Tala Khanmalek (06:24):
Cathy Hannabach (06:25):
Thank you. Guardians of the water program.
Tala Khanmalek (06:29):
We both got it wrong.
Cathy Hannabach (06:31):
And you’re also the founder of Womyn’s Circle.
Tala Khanmalek (06:33):
Cathy Hannabach (06:33):
So just to kind of start off what is Healing Justice and then maybe you can talk about what that means for you and why you think it’s so important to do this kind of work.
Tala Khanmalek (06:42):
Yeah, that’s a great question and thank you so much for asking. The first thing that came to mind when I was reflecting on this question is that a few years ago in 2013, I was the executive editor of this academic journal called 1969. And I edited a special issue on healing justice and actually in the outro to that issue, I wrote, I don’t know what healing justice means. Even after this whole process, I don’t know what it means. And actually that’s precisely one of the things I love about healing justice is that it, it to some extent resists fixed definitions. And I feel like that really actually parallels my lived experience as a chronically ill femme of color.
Tala Khanmalek (07:38):
But having said that, there are some foundational healing justice principles and I like to refer always back to those outlined by Cara Page who in 2010 wrote this piece called Reflections From Detroit: Transforming Wellness and Wholeness, that emerged from Cara’s activism and work at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit in 2010. And it was at the U.S. Social Forum that Cara was part of organizing a healing justice practice space that the Allied Media conference also started to organize thereafter. A few years later in 2012 the Allied Media conference came up with a set of principles a few years after that in the Bay area, the Bad Ass Visionary Healers. They re-posted Cara’s principles alongside the AMCs principles and then added to the list.
Tala Khanmalek (08:49):
And then one of my favorite kind of set of principles was recently last year by Sins Invalid. Basically to finally get at your question, I think at rock bottom, what healing justice provides for me at least, is a framework for transforming wellness and wholeness as Cara puts it and really rethinking what it means to be healthy and unhealthy. So on the one hand, healing justice points to the fact that oppression has material effects on us, on our minds, bodies and spirits. And at the same time it really uplifts wellness practices as a transformative response to the way that oppression materially impacts us. And like for example, this past year actually I had the honor of participating in this retreat organized by Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Almah Lavon in Austin, Texas called Dark Sciences. And the retreat was about how we can leverage basically our dreams in the service of healing justice.
Tala Khanmalek (10:09):
Healing justice does all this in part by drawing on, as I mentioned earlier, lived experiences, but also our embodied modes of theorizing and approaching issues like wellness, wholeness, healthiness, unhealthiness, and really thinking about the personal as being political. In healing justice movements, we often turn to the work of black indigenous and women of color feminisms as a cannon from which we can pull useful concepts. And I guess the one last thing I would also add is that healing justice isn’t new and that the work of folks like Alondra Nelson and in her a second to last book, Body and Soul, kind of shows us how health activism has always been a part of social movements. And Body and Soul is about the Black Panther party’s legacy of health activism. So the final thing I would add is that healing justice is not new.
Cathy Hannabach (11:19):
Do you have any advice for maybe how academics in particular can incorporate healing justice principles either personally, so practices that we can do ourselves, but also maybe how departments or the structural aspects of academia can better incorporate healing justice principles?
Tala Khanmalek (11:39):
Yes. Yes I do. And this is something obviously I’ve been grappling with. I grappled with it throughout my graduate career BEcause it was actually after the first year of graduate school that I acquired chronic illness. And it’s something that I still grapple with now. And I think the first thing that comes to mind is this emphasis in academia on productivity. And it’s so salient that even kind of critical POC focused resources for academics really emphasize productivity in a kind of ablest way. And so I think one thing that we can do is transform our relationship to productivity and even as we’re working in spaces that privilege it, privileged productivity in relation to writing over all else. So for me this looks like grounding myself in what my dear friend Kian Abedini calls crypt time. So as a chronically ill academic who’s also neurodiverse, this means that I move in slow motion because I have to. And so I’ve been thinking about and working with embracing my own pace versus kind of forcing myself to be productive in really evilest ways, if that makes sense. I’ve had to continually work on kind of emptying my need for a result and instead like focusing on developing like a flexible practice that allows me to be productive in a way that works for me.
Cathy Hannabach (13:31):
It seems like there’s some interesting connections to the slow professor movement that’s been taking off lately. This, a shared sense of wanting to critique or find an alternative to exactly as you put it, that overwhelming emphasis on produce, produce, produce, produce that academia is designed around particularly these days, right. It seems like that’s an increasing demand in comparison to previous decades. And yet the slow professor movement isn’t inherently about healing justice per se, but it seems like there’s some interesting connections there.
Tala Khanmalek (14:06):
Absolutely. And when I was a visiting scholar at the Science and Justice Research Center, the folks over there were thinking about slow science and what it means to work on issues related to science and justice across disciplines, but really take the time to actually build relationships. For example, with folks as part of what it means to do that work at the intersection of science and justice. And so I definitely think there’s a relationship and I think that, connecting that to healing justice more explicitly would look more like developing anti-ableist pace, but in a way that’s situated and specific. So in a way that for me, for example, resonates with my experience as a chronically ill thumb of color as a first gen scholar, scholar activist.
Cathy Hannabach (15:10):
So in addition to being a kind of rockstar scholar and community activist yourself, you’re also a graduate of the Ideas on Fires, grad school rockstar program, which is how we met originally, which is the group coaching program that we offer to kind of combine the lessons from progressive social justice movements with the practices that we find ourselves in academia. So I’d love to hear your thoughts on the experience you had in the program. How have the skills and approaches that you learned help you in your subsequent work? And do you maybe have any advice for current enrolled rockstars or people who are contemplating the program?
Tala Khanmalek (15:54):
Yes. Well for people who are contemplating the program, my kind of advice is to enroll in it, immediately. I love to the program. And another thing I wanted to mention in relation to your last question was about accessibility and making our classrooms and academic events more accessible. And what drew me to the rockstar program and one of my favorite things about it is that it was very accessible to me. It was something that I could actually do, commit to and do. And can I share a few more things I loved about the program?
Cathy Hannabach (16:38):
Yes, by all means.
Tala Khanmalek (16:42):
Okay, kind of jumping on this topic of accessibility, another thing I really appreciated about the program is that it took a very kind of holistic approach to academic coaching. And so I learned a lot about different aspects of myself and was able to work through those things in kind of all these different modes.
Tala Khanmalek (17:05):
There was also the opportunity to write out stuff for myself, but then share stuff on a blog and then comment on other folks’ stuff. So there were all these different kind of ways that I could engage with the different tools that you shared with us. Those tools have actually been really helpful and I do use WorkFlowy for example to this very day. And one are the things that I really took from the program were all those tools that you and the other participants shared.
Tala Khanmalek (17:42):
And also the importance of having an accountability structure was something that I implemented from that point on and still have in my life, thinking about different ways of approaching longterm writing projects, which links back to my, what I was sharing in response to your previous question about honoring my pace and redefining productivity for myself. So learning how to divide things up into bite size pieces and work towards something gradually. Also I loved that it was diverse, interdisciplinary, social justice oriented. I mean that’s something that I certainly wasn’t getting from the kind of job market related or dissertation writing related offerings that my previous institution had available.
Cathy Hannabach (18:43):
So you mentioned writing and kind of long term writing projects and you’ve written in a variety of publications. You’ve obviously written scholarship, you’re working on a scholarly book, but you’ve also either been interviewed in or written pieces for a number of public or open access, feminist ethnic studies in public health publications. For instance, you have pieces in The Feminist Wire. You mentioned your work with 1969 the journal. How did you get involved in writing for those public or open access venues?
Tala Khanmalek (19:17):
I got involved in writing for public open access web publications and actually, when I was the executive editor of 1969, we made 1969 also public and open access. But I got involved with The Feminist Wire really early on, I think in maybe my first year of graduate school. And for me it was and still is a way of being what my friend Alexis Pauline Gumbs calls a community accountable scholar or a community accountable intellectual. And so on the one hand it was a, speaking of kind of like work ethic, it was a nice way to balance the more isolated and highly or what can be a highly individualistic process of dissertation writing and making it that process more communal. But more than anything, it was a way for me to basically share the research that I was conducting in the university with the community and just break that kind of university community boundary and also receive feedback.
Tala Khanmalek (20:43):
A few years ago I published this piece on The Feminist Wire on cases of forced sterilization in California state prisons. And I wrote this piece and within 24 hours I received feedback on it from Justice Now, this community based organization in the Bay area. And so it’s a way of also, it has always been a way for me to also receive critical constructive feedback from community members, from community organizations who are doing work on the ground in relation to the issues that I was researching in school.
Cathy Hannabach (21:29):
That brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask people, which is the big question, the potentially scary question, but I think the most fun question. And that’s your version of a better world. Obviously this podcast focuses on projects and people that are imagining other worlds, that are imagining otherwise, right. So I’ll ask you, what’s that version of a better world that you’re working towards when you write your scholarship, when you create your public writing, when you work on healing justice, what kind of world do you want?
Tala Khanmalek (22:04):
Oh my goodness. I love this question too. I’m working towards a world, a non-violent world for all of us. And my work in particular focuses on the violence perpetuated through the medical industrial complex, which of course is related to all these other systems of these violent systems of oppression. And I think what I want to mention that’s really important to me is the fact that it’s not just that I’m working towards kind of like recovering certain groups of people into this master narrative. So what I mean by that is, is yes, it’s so important to make health care for example, affordable and accessible to everyone and in particular to those who are most impacted by the medical industrial complex. And beyond that, I think what I’m always working towards is as you said, imagining otherwise, imagining a world without insurance for example. What would that actually look like?
Tala Khanmalek (23:17):
And it’s something I think about every day in part because it’s something I have to deal with every day. And so I’m working on creating the conditions of possibility for another way to exist. And I think it’s also important to mention that, that other way already does exist. It’s very much here and now and I feel it on a day to day basis and enacted on a day to day basis. So I think for example, like the work I did with the Healing Clinic Collective in the Bay area where we organized pop up clinics in different neighborhoods throughout the East Bay that offered free alternative health care services. That is a way of enacting another world here and now. And I think that’s also part of why in my research, I’m so drawn to literature and try to uplift the ways in which folks are imagining otherwise through the these creative genres.
Tala Khanmalek (24:26):
Yes, we can imagine other resolutions, other possibilities. And I think also we’re enacting them everyday on a day-to-day basis in small and large ways. What I just said reminds me of, and maybe this is a good place to wrap up my response to this question, but it reminds me a lot of what Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha have been saying about how organizers and activists are, the work that we do is very sci-fi. And they write about this in the, in the introduction to Octavia’s Brood, which they recently co-edited and talk about how we’re trying to create these alternative worlds all the time and are creating them in the here and now. And that, that’s an act of speculative fiction.
Cathy Hannabach (25:21):
So many of our podcast guests have mentioned that book and those authors. So it seems like a very common, inspirational thread that runs across a lot of the episodes, which is fantastic.
Tala Khanmalek (25:32):
Cathy Hannabach (25:34):
Well, thank you so much for being with us and sharing your version of imagining otherwise.
Tala Khanmalek (25:40):
Thank you so much for having me. It was such an honor.
Cathy Hannabach (25:47):
Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Check out our website at ideasonfire.net to listen to full episodes, read show notes, and see links to the people, books, and projects discussed on the show. While you’re there, be sure to sign up for our newsletter to find out when new episodes are released, and to get tips to help you rock your interdisciplinary career.