Looking for the Heart in America

By Nick Skilton

Nick Skilton is a PhD Candidate with the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research. He is currently at the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting in Tampa, Florida.

CanineSexuality and gender is something that I’ve always spent a lot of time thinking about. Even when I’ve gotten it wrong (it’s been a regular feature of my life as a kid from the suburbs), I’ve tried to use it as an experience to help me get it right. It’s been a long, rocky, weaving, disastrous and beautiful trail. I’m not saying I understand things perfectly these days – I mean, who could? – but I feel I’ve definitely found enlightenment to the point where I can approach sex and gender from both a personal and an academic place and find meaning there. Writing a PhD from a queer perspective, you spend a lot of time interrogating your own life, trying to find meaning that is academically relatable. It’s not always apparent. Often it’s completely invisible, as your life descends into a mess that academic writing can never capture or represent. But sometimes personal experience is a catalysing process that lends meaning to everything that you write about, everything that you wanted to say but lacked the embodied form that makes expression possible, every thought that inhabits your daily being and inevitably threads its meaning into academic praxis anyway, so that as ever, the two become inseparable.


When the object of study is intimacy, separating the personal from the often academic becomes a case of ‘how much sharing is too much sharing’? I’m struggling to make them indistinct right now as I weave my way again through parts of America, this time working cross-continental, to present a paper on my research. To present myself as someone that has something potentially illuminating to say about intimacy. My lover in the Bay Area where I recently spent a week before the AAG conference says that I’m not afraid of intimacy. That I am open to possibility. High praise from someone with a book publishing deal on the subject of queer love. Strangely, this is not the lover I planned to come to the Bay Area to visit, but an old lover revisited. Intimacy rediscovered from 9 years ago. Another lifetime, where ideas of sexuality and gender were more often left wanting than found welcoming. Without expectation, we fell into co-habitation almost immediately. I would make breakfast and coffee while my lover would gently hack away at their book. They would drive and I would DJ as we plunged through strange mouldy towns of the Californian hinterland. On rainy days stuck inside, I would care for their new canine companion while they went to work to care for and love other peoples’ children. All of which seemed natural, except I was 12000km from home with someone I hadn’t seen in a decade. Endless conversations about the nature of love, what is a relationship, how to be an ethical lover, and what to share and what is/should be shared between partners. For that week, we lived closeness and reciprocity. These conditions will eventually be some of the themes in my research that I will have to elicit coherent responses about when I start asking questions of my research participants. Knowing my intimate self, and knowing some of the spectrum of human intimacy is a part of research that I can’t ignore. It’s also a part that I hope I never stop learning about, and that my job (writing a PhD) continues to be an undertaking that helps me to build love relationships with friends and strangers that are uniquely repetitious and endlessly fulfilling.

The author, Nick Skilton.

The author, Nick Skilton.


Now if this is seeming somewhat personal, it’s not through lack of intention. And it relates back to personal life imbuing academic praxis. Sometimes there are people, like my lover Bay Area lover, who help make sense out of all of the madness and indiscriminate doubt about your own ability and place in academia. Who as a writer, understand that writing is skill, power, joy, form, and practice combined. Who, in our conversations about intimacy, demonstrated the difference between the immediacy and mayhem of spoken word, and the desire, contradiction, poetry and art of the written version of those same conversations. How by containing on paper things that you are unable or too afraid to say in person, they become less yours, and more independent / abstract / universal in written form. And how very beautiful / memorable / provoking it can be when you are forced to pay attention to and relate the details of experience. Something that I hope to be able to recreate when I tell stories about the lives of my research participants.

But tonight, I just wanted to write something with passion, to re-embody the regal bust of academia found on lofty mantels with its garden-variety sensory, sexual, frivolous, fountainous cousin sculpted in the messy gardens of our personal lives.

If you’re on Twitter you can follow @NickSkilton as he tweets from the conference. Follow conference updates using the hashtag #AAG2014.

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