transience of mind and liberty of contract

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Last night I saw Milk for the first time, and I was deeply affected. I left the theater wondering what I’ve done to enact change in my world, and I couldn’t come up with much. I’ve changed many on the individual level through my work with student writers, but I haven’t created any social impact.

And that made me sad, and a little angry.

I thought a lot about Unplanted, and, more than anything, a research proposal I wrote during my first quarter at UW Bothell. I had been out of school for several years, and was very interested in writing. I knew that I loved writing, but I knew little about how to actually go about it. Two classes that I took that quarter really shaped me as a writer. I wrote my first short story, “Unplanted,” and I wrote several short pieces about the actual act of writing, not the process, but the act-pen to paper.

I also became very interested in migrant farmworkers. I’m not sure exactly where that interest came from. I had been intrigued for some time with Steinbeck, especially Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath. Right before I went back to school, I read In Dubious Battle for the first time. One of my classes was an introduction to interdisciplinary studies, and the theme was ‘work.’ I thought a lot about the work of the writer, and, after reading Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey, in a class on Modern Eastern Europe, all of my interests began to converge. I thought of transience, migrant lifestyles, and how to explore those notions through writing-both fiction and non.

I can point back to that spring as the time when this project truly began, and I now find myself returning to what I read and wrote during that time in an attempt to remind myself of the seeds of my curiosities and passions. I took my research proposal very seriously, and I thought then about pursuing it, actually moving to Yakima and doing the work I proposed in that paper: living and working with migrants and learning about their culture, their choices and their lifestyles.  I still think of doing that, though I am so entrenched in my own life and work that it doesn’t seem like a feasible pursuit.

But after seeing Milk, that part of me that wonders about social activism thinks seriously about the potentials of such a study. I’m not a researcher, though. I’m a writer of fiction. And it’s through my abilities as a writer that I can explore activism. When I first wrote “Unplanted,” I thought of it as a sort of political piece. And in grad school, I continued to think of it as such. But then I became so attached to Mattie that I sort of let go of the politics of migrant work and focused more on characterization, and on her transience.

When I saw Michael Cunningham’s performance on Friday, I jotted down a couple things. I keep mulling over one phrase in particular: ‘transience of mind.’ I thought of this in terms of mental illness and personal instability. I planned what I would say to Cunningham if he asked me what Unplanted is about, and I thought of telling him that it’s about transience, particularly transience of mind. I didn’t really know what that meant, but it seemed important and I thought he might get it.

When others ask me what the book is (or will be) about, I tell them it’s about migrant workers, and transience and mental illness, and I am certain that that’s true. So, in thinking about the intersections of those three ideas, I am back to wondering about politics, and how this book can (and should) lend to the conversation about the plight of migrant farmworkers. I look at that paper I wrote and I see another phrase I need to consider: ‘liberty of contract.’ I need to think of this in both political and personal veins.

So when I am not writing fiction, I am doing research. I am rereading some of the sources I read when I wrote that paper ten years ago, and I am seeking out other sources related to poverty, social class and individual choice to ‘live off the grid’ or ‘drop out of society.’

I am not sure where all of this is going.

My research proposal ignores some very important issues, specifically ethnicity and privilege. I know that Mattie and Joe are quite privileged; they are white and they have chosen this lifestyle (at least, Joe has).

As I think of how all of these issues will/should converge, I become even more overwhelmed, and I am left wondering (as I have been for months) where to begin. So I have returned to the very beginning. I typed up much of what I wrote in that proposal. The writing is not very good, and I know that I would change many things if I were to rewrite it, but that’s not why I am looking at it today. I am looking to it for personal inspiration, so that I can return to those things that initially interested me and informed my writing. And I am finding quite a bit of interesting ideas. Just typing that paper has helped me. It has helped to center me, and to centralize my focus and ideas. I look at it now more as cathartic in nature, more than academic.

The next step: reviewing the notes I wrote when I workshopped Unplanted, and the feedback others gave me.


Here’s the research proposal, not in its entirety:

Within the past two-hundred years this country has been trampled by the feet of nomads, wandering from place to place in search of work. Migrant farmworkers exist to this day in great numbers throughout this country, and especially in Washington State, but are rarely discussed when the topic of work is at hand. I was curious about the limitations of freedom that rule the lives of the migrant worker in today’s society. I would like to satisfy this curiosity by involving myself in a full-fledged research project that explores the lives of these modern-day nomads. My research will encompass these ideas by asking the question: how do migrant farmworkers in Washington State view their liberty of contract. A thorough investigation into their lifestyle through observation and interview would help us understand their dilemmas and pave a pathway to lessening the hardships they face.

Migrant farmworkers live behind the backdrop of society, yet we reap the benefits of their labor, day in and day out. Their hardships aren’t dinner topics, though. We don’t discuss their poor wages, substandard housing, or ungodly living conditions as we eat the fruit of their labors. In fact, migrant workers are rarely discussed at all. Not only is the topic avoided in daily conversations, but there is also little reference information on our nation’s nomads. More specifically, there is even less information on the migrant farmworkers that lie closer to home, here in Washington State.

In Laboring for Freedom, Daniel Jacoby argues that freedom is elusive and stressed the importance of freedom of contract, or the ability to have control over bargaining rights in the workplace. He poses the question: just how free is the American laborer? Are Americans as free as we think we are? Jacoby maintains that contract is a key element of freedom; using this idea he poses his claim that the ideas of freedom are not consistent. In his historical tour of the US labor force, Jacoby fails to address migrant farmworkers.

I believe that migrant farmworkers are a key element in American society and their liberty of contract needs to be discussed. They continue to pursue this lifestyle. Why? Interactions and firsthand accounts of their work process would reveal the answer to this question and reveal how they view their liberty of contract.

In preparation of this proposal, I conducted a fairly comprehensive library and database search, which revealed a mass of general information on migrant workers’ lives. The information I found, however, was outdated; the majority of the information stretched back to the 1960’s. I believe the reason for the surge of research during this time period was sparked by Cesar Chavez’s rally for farmworkers and the resulting media attention that ensued.

There was also a mass of information released in the 1980’s. Several students at the University of Washington conducted dissertations on the plight of the migrant farmworker in Washington, but, again, this research was conducted at least seventeen years ago.

The most recent book I could find on farmworkers was Rothernberg’s With These Hands (1998). Even this text does not delve deeply into the lives of the migrant work; it is, instead, a collage of the lives of farmworkers, migrant and stable.

Databases and journals provided some “big picture” views of the American farmworker, but unveiled little about those in Washington State. The Expanded Academic Index contained the most articles on migrant workers, though few were relevant to the thesis of this proposal.

I reviewed several studies in which migrant workers were observed and interviewed. Patterson and Rothernberg detail their difficulties in acquiring information from the workers. Workers were reluctant to divulge information before they developed relationships with the informants. Observers were looked upon as members of higher class societies and, even though they worked in the fields, did not fit into the workers’ sphere. This led to misconstrued information and skewed survey results.

Despite the limited information, the general consensus is that migrant workers are not achieving true liberty of contract. Yet they persist in their endeavors. Seven hundred thousand of them roam our country today (Rothenberg). With three hundred thousand children and one hundred thousand dependents, the feet of one million people, all trying to survive the quandary of the migrant farmworkers trample this country, searching for work in fields and orchards. Their adversities remain the same now as they have for decades.

Migrant farmworkers seek out work based on the harvest, following a seasonal path from south to north, quite often packed into a car that serves at their home. When work is found, temporary housing is often available in the form of dilapidated shacks, worn-out busses, or converted shipping containers. It is not uncommon that meals are cooked over open fires and running water is scarce (Heaps). A worker’s day can last from eight to sixteen hours and is backbreaking.

American society has chosen to ignore the “poorest and most disadvantaged class of American workers” (Rothenberg 1). Migrant farmworkers move from place to place out of need rather than will. Migrant families are anomalous American families. They are often homeless and live far below the poverty line. As of 1998, their average yearly income was $5,000 per year.

Given this, the questions still remain: How do the workers deal with their lifestyle? Do they believe they are achieving liberty of contract? Why do they pursue migratory lifestyle when other jobs are at hand? Only an exhaustive study could answer these questions. Interviews and observations are the ideal means of achieving the necessary information. An idea study would span two complete harvest cycles and would cover the three areas most populated by migrant workers. It is important to know why workers seek out the work in the areas they pursue. It is also important to know which places they return to year after year, and for what reason. Do they return because housing or pay is optimal, or for other reasons? A bond must occur between the respondents and the informants in a manner that will create a freedom of expression on the respondent’s part and allow for validity in responses.

A sampling of survey questions would include, but would not be limited to, the subjects of economic need, attitudes and general needs. Questions would ask to what extents needs are being achieved and what is needed to achieve those needs if they are not already being served. Workers should, be asked if they are satisfied with their work, and if they would seek other opportunities if they felt they could. They should also be asked about the accommodations/living conditions they look for in seeking out a work site and if the accommodations they encounter usually suffice.

These questions in no means serve as a boundary for the subjects that should be delved into. A thorough research of the history of migrant workers would serve as a foundation for formali9zingt the surveys.

Such surveys and observations could reveal information that would assist in getting to the root of the dilemmas facing migrant workers. Books can be written and books can be read, but until a supportive and sympathetic study is performed, we will continue to be fed the same horrific statistics.

Author: Kim Sharp

more later

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