The value of the Bakhtinian notion of the “long drawer”.
I have been a researcher since childhood. I have discovered that my researcher persona seldom takes a holiday. Conversations I have—and have had (or overheard), the books I read and have read, the events I participate in or observe become intrinsic to my life. The garnered information is stored, often in a journal, sometimes in memory, sometimes on tape or in pictures, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, but is there to be “drawn” on when I need it!
Connecting my familiar to what is, at first, strange carries it with me into my writing. Remembering stories and myths allows me, indeed provokes me, as author, to use my ‘long drawer’. A colleague mentioned (in passing) ‘the long drawer’. He was speaking about Bakhtin’s custom of ‘drawing’ on material that he had written many years earlier. The play on the word ‘drawer’ (I imagine the material was kept in a bureau of some sort) and ‘drawing’ upon it, befits the way I work and research and remember. These things I keep: letters, essays, and notes; I write down dreams, conversations and memories of conversations; I eavesdrop and take notes. I keep journals, diaries, taped interviews, lists, and newspaper clippings—many of which I draw on at various stages in my work.
When the dreaded block happens, I plunge my hand into one of the various boxes that serves to house the bits and pieces. I find in my ‘long drawer’ journals and diaries that go back forty years or more; scraps of paper with notes are even older. I remember the journals and letters I destroyed when I left Africa and regret that I was so imprudent and impulsive in burning them. The papers and letters I did keep take on a meaningfulness that makes me realise I was an historian, an ethnographer, an anthropologist, before I knew what the words meant. Among the treasures that remain in the cache, my ‘long drawer’, are my father’s handwritten notes of the eulogy he gave at his mother’s funeral in 1967—the year my daughter was born—and just by seeing his handwriting I feel and savour the threads that link the generations: I remember the fountain pen he used, I remember my grandmother’s funeral, and most of all, I remember my father.
The correspondence and conversations with friends, relatives, Australians, Zimbabweans, and expatriate Rhodesians is evident and the anonymous others whose words and conversations, overheard, are stored for retrieval when I need them. In the long drawer, past impacts on the present and the present on the past and traces of autobiography are spoor to draw in the reader.
This post is now part of my long drawer and in it I have drawn on my doctoral thesis, emails to friends and other hoarded sources.
Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975)