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AAS professor Imani Perry on bridging creative and academic writing

Wrapping Up Women's History Month with Writing, Part 3

<h6>Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian

As Women’s History Month came to a close, we wanted to highlight literature curated by some of Princeton’s incredible female faculty. So many women at Princeton are not only advancing breakthroughs in their respective fields, but also translating their lived experiences into words to inspire — to move, challenge, and encourage — others.

Over the past year, faculty members have been asked to navigate an unforeseen academic year in the midst of racial reckoning. Despite the challenges that came with shifting online, connecting with students, and confronting societal tensions, female faculty at Princeton have continued to channel passion into teaching and creating. To bring the celebration of women — their contributions to culture, history, and society — to The Daily Princetonian, we spoke to a few of the many inspiring female authors working at Princeton on what it means to be a professor, writer, and mentor during these turbulent times.

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While these authors work in fields as diverse as engineering, literature, and social policy, their experiences highlighted elements of commonality that have shaped their personal perspectives. These women discussed the balance of work and motherhood, the traditional split between storytelling and academic writing, and their advice to the next generation of female authors. With words of encouragement and stories of perseverance and compassion, this impressive contingent of Princeton professors offered a poignant perspective on the rapidly evolving work of female academics.

African American Studies professor Imani Perry 

"If you have something meaningful to say or do, I think you have a responsibility to honor that. It's not selfish or egotistical. It is simply believing in your gift and doing what you can for the world."

- Professor Imani Perry


In addition to African American Studies, Perry is affiliated with several departments and programs including the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies, Law and Public Affairs, and the University Center for Human Values.

Perry’s writing spans multiple genres, bridging the gap between creative nonfiction and academic writing. Reflecting on the breadth of her work, Perry said, “a persistent theme is that I write in passionate pursuit of the beloved community and against all forms of domination …  [One challenge] is the division that is often made between scholarly writing and creative writing. I refuse the distinction, but there are many people in both academia and publishing who would like to keep these genres completely separate. I'm grateful that I have finally reached a moment in my career in which I can write in the way I choose, and therefore do my best work, which is an outgrowth of who I am as a researcher, an intellectual, and an artist.”

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This notion of flexibility mirrors the complexity in Perry’s work. She commented on how her writing has found its way into multiple distinct circles depending upon where it is most resonant.

“I love that different people are drawn to different writings of mine. It means readers bring themselves to the text, their interests and passions,” she said.

Praise for the intersectionality of Perry’s books has gained traction, particularly in a global moment of racial reckoning. Free copies of her book “Breathe: A Letter to my Sons” were distributed in Summer 2020 to undergraduates who opted in as part of the Undergraduate Student Government's anti-racism book initiative. But Perry discussed how, though her writing has been used in issue-based conversations, this line of thinking is not how she approaches her work.

“I tend not to think of issues in my work as much as trying to understand how this world was made,” Perry said.

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Perry clarified that her work isn’t structured around these controversial issues — rather, it is structured around “how we might dismantle what doesn't serve humanity. The problems of white supremacy, of patriarchy, of economic exploitation and domination, of colonialism and imperialism — they're always there in everything I do. And a vision of a just world is always the foundation of my work.”

When reflecting on the impact of the pandemic on her work, Perry commented that she believes “quarantine made [her] memory sharper.” She also brought up the unique position of current Princeton undergraduates. She said that “young people now will have a kind of generational wisdom and insight that is wholly distinct.” She described how this younger population faces a myriad of generation-defining factors — from economic crisis, political debate, and protest, to “transformation in social communication.” 

Beyond the scope of this specific, generation-shaping moment, young female writers are grappling with a broader scheme of historical inequity and gate-keeping. Perry’s advice to these young women? “In every endeavor, including writing, it is essential that [you] remain dedicated to [your] pursuits,” she says. “It is very easy, still, for women to be convinced to play small and diminish their efforts. Many extremely talented women invest far more in others than themselves.”

Perry acknowledged other women as a lineage of inspiring teachers who contributed to her motivation and success. “Each of my most precious teachers had a very particular voice,” she noted. “Through example, they modeled the importance of cultivating your own voice and perspective.”

Perry also discussed her experiences with challenges and sacrifices common among female authors: having less time to write after having children and learning to balance personal and professional life. She said, “I learned to write in small periods of time. A paragraph here, a sentence there. I also began writing very early in the morning or late at night once I became a mother. I like to write when the world is quiet.”

Perry gave a shout-out to English and African American Studies professor Autumn Womack, as well as Art and Archeology and African American Studies professor Anna Arabindan-Kesson, commenting on their captivating writing and their impact on their readers.

Reflecting on literature, life, and communication, Perry described the ties formed by written work, something particularly relevant in a global moment defined by distance and isolation: “Reading and writing are best when they're places of communion between strangers. That's where their spiritual power lies, in connection.”

Note from the writers: These models of female creativity and ability underscore the depth of experience within Princeton’s accomplished community. Though we highlight their words and works now, their achievements continue to engage and inspire even when underrecognized. They remind us that finding your voice, regardless of the form it takes, is crucial as we work towards a world that derives strength from women’s words and actions. Thus, we urge you to carve out spaces for self-expression and recognize the power your words can hold.

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