PhD, Qayqa, and Love

16 May

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The Meadows, just behind the main University of Edinburgh campus

Two days ago, I took this photo. It was an incredibly hot day and I was wandering around the Meadows with my dog Rumi to quietly celebrate. I was about to sign an acceptance form for a full scholarship, provided by the Carnegie Trust, to do a PhD on Lyme disease in Scotland, in the field of Social Anthropology, at the University of Edinburgh.

I can’t tell you how overjoyed I am, so I want to tell you the story, but FIRST, I want to reply to the lingering questions about Qayqa, because the PhD and Qayqa are siblings in a way.

As you may remember, I launched a crowdfunding project to fund the publication of my novel Qayqa. So many of you supported me, gave me so much love and trust, and I thank you to this day for even when I give you Qayqa, I will remain indebted to you for believing in me and trusting me. But that was over 5 years ago and you haven’t received the book yet, so let’s rewind a few years because I want to give you insight into what happened.

My intention at the time, the motivation for the crowdfunding project, was to get Qayqa out as quickly as possible. It was no longer about publishing her; I wanted to expel her. I felt that I was suffocating in her, drowning under her weight, and I was beginning to to desperately tear around me to get out. This was of no fault of her own.

The stories we write are intertwined with our personal narratives, and Qayqa – whose autobiographical elements are “limited” to my interests in anthropology, ethnobotany, circus arts and Andean cosmology – will always be linked with my partner at the time, Mark Klawikowski. As I was realising that Qayqa was not a short story but an actual long-time project, he and I were realising our love. All the conversations I needed to have in her creation, I had with him. All the mischievous secrets of her development, all the solitary nights writing, all the characters growing – all were a world we shared and grew together. His imagination intertwined with mine and together our thrilled and breathless minds grew a forest in which we ran wild. He sketched the exploits of the characters that I described. He found the real-life Mama Ti in a restaurant in Peru and ran back to tell me. He stayed up all night, inspired by the idea of the potato Ochoa, cutting up his old bed mattress to make Ochoa as a puppet.

Describing this, tonight, I need to laugh and cry. I’m sure you can feel it in my words. The end of the relationship was more than just that; it was the unravelling of these worlds we had grown together. The slow and respectful dismantling of a forest in which fantastic creatures had been born, had lived tremendous lives, and who knew where they would live now. If they would live.

Understandably, it took Mark over a year to finish the illustrations he had promised for Qayqa. Being the man he is, he honoured his promise of our artistic collaboration and continued to work on them. He met with me to discuss them, sent me photos when I was away, and created incredible art on A6 or A7-sized paper. He exhibited them at one of my crowdfunding parties, and I know that party felt more like an end than the celebration of a birth.

I left Germany when it ended. I needed to rebuild myself, so I went to the roots: I returned to my country of birth, Peru, and volunteered in Cusco for a total of 5-6 months. It was there that I wondered what my next step would be, and decided I would return to university to complete my Bachelors. Choosing anthropology as a career path was not a difficult one. I was instantly drawn to it, so I packed up my last things in Germany, thanked Mark for everything, and moved to Scotland.

I was sure Scotland would just be a 4-year thing. I was determined to keep my roots in my suitcase and leave once the Bachelors was done. Go back to being an artist, continue writing, and who knows…

But I fell in love with anthropology. The more I learnt, the more I was filling up my glass, and the more I felt I could add to the forests in my head. I became fascinated by the minute creatures of anthropology, the zoonosis, and decided I needed to know more. I applied to do a Masters in Science in Medical Anthropology and the University of Edinburgh accepted me. And again, the worlds unfolded and I dove deeper and deeper.

For my course on Contagion, I wrote an essay on Lyme disease and in the subsequent tutorial, the professor stated it could be a PhD topic and asked who had written it. I raised my hand. He later sent me an email: “If you’re interested in doing a PhD in this, come see me.” I wasn’t interested in ticks or Lyme, but I was tremendously excited by this email offer, so I went. We spoke casually and he told me to think about it. I decided I’d be a fool not to try, and since zoonosis was my thing anyway, hell, why not?

Weeks of drafting and re-drafting proposals followed. Researching potential interview partners, pouring through newspaper articles, books, emailing potential supervisors. I applied for four scholarships, and then I hit ‘send’ and tried not to think about it. Everyone asked me what I’d do when my Masters was done. I’m superstitious like that so I said, “I’m looking at options.”

My dream was to stay. I’ve fallen in love with Scotland, and I fell in love with the potential of Lyme disease as a research topic (more on that another time). I love exploring Edinburgh, the new friends I have met, and through Rumi and our many hikes and walks, I feel I am witnessing a Scotland that I yearn to get to know better. I don’t want to leave, not just yet.

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Rumi exploring the Hermitage of Braid, Edinburgh

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At Rosslyn Glen with friends, Edinburgh

The day the email arrived offering me a scholarship, I lost my voice. I still can’t believe it. I can explore this beautiful country so much, calling a year of stomping about the Highlands fieldwork; I can attend conferences and learn so much more from my peers; and I can remain at one of the best universities, learning from internationally-admired researchers. I have vowed to work as hard as I can with this tremendous opportunity.

But there’s something very important I need to wrap up before that, and that’s Qayqa. I never intended to share my sadness over the end of that era in this blog, but it is the only way to honestly and openly explain to you – you who have trusted me – why it has taken so long for her to come to you. It was, and is, difficult to go back to her. I remember Mark’s voice over the phone when he called me to say: “I finished the last painting”. It was one of the greatest relief and a quiet sorrow, as we both let go of that last strand.

Years later, standing in different places in our lives, I hope to release Qayqa with the joy with which I wrote her. I am sure Mark will be thrilled that his beautiful illustrations, which he poured so many sleepless nights into, will finally be seen. My plan is to release her to you in August-September 2018, after my Masters dissertation has been handed in.

Thank you, endlessly, for your patience and your trust in me.

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This is my girl Rumi. She’s a Miniature Schnauzer named after the Sufi poet Jellaludin Rumi, and if you like her face, follow her on Instagram: @belovednonhumanother

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