Department of English

Episode 11: Brandon Callender, Part 2

Brandon Callender

2 April 2021


[Joy] Moving on to a more fun question: I think you mentioned playing board games during quarantine. Are there any other quarantine activities that you’ve been doing this past year? What’s your favorite quarantine activity?

[Brandon Callender] I love the invitation to think of the quarantine activities as “fun!” I’m trying to think…I think for me, more so, it’s been calming activities, centering activities. One of the things that has been very delightful for me has been cooking. Almost more delightful than cooking, though, has been buying cooking supplies, where I’ve been restocking my kitchen with things I don’t know if I’ll use more than once. I’m just building up an arsenal of things; preparing for the banquets, the potlucks, the things I would love to have when this is all through. One thing I do with board games is I paint the miniatures—these things are as tiny as your thumbnail—taking a really tiny brush and painting them is something I do pretty regularly during quarantine. Same with cooking: learning all these recipes and skills I hope to share with people one day.

I think the kind of hope that these activities are giving me during quarantine is that they all point in the direction of a world where we can gather again. When you paint miniatures and figurines, it’s in the hope that someone will play this game with you and look at them. As when I’m cooking things, I hope that I’ll be able to share them with people. For me, that’s been kind of a preparation for the time when we can all gather again.

Alongside that, the most soothing activity I’ve taken on, which I never would have thought of before the quarantine, has been reading cookbooks at night to go to bed. I think this is perhaps because of the English discipline-mindedness that I can’t stop reading books, looking for meanings in them, right? The ability to wind down with pleasure reading is really hard for me at night ‘cause I’m always building projects. Most of them are never going to happen, but my mind is always trying to stage conversations: “Oh, I could do this with this and this and this.” I can’t do that with cookbooks, at least not so easily. A lot of times, just to go to bed, I’ll read not just the stories that frame the cookbooks, but very carefully, the ingredients and the steps you’re supposed to take. They usually calm me down.

The one thing I’ll say is there’s one book that has been kind of annoying me a little bit—it’s a book that’s on how to preserve jams and fruits. I love the book, I love the images, I love the recipes, but this woman—who I think is a wealthy white woman in Oakland—she presumes that I have things in my backyard that I just don’t. She tells me to go around the back and, like, go to my grapevine. I’m like, “In what world do I have a grapevine in my backyard?” or “How am I going to get the fig fresh off the tree?” I think the close reader, the paranoid reader, comes out in me in those moments because I start to mine what would otherwise be very simple instructions for the kind of privilege that everywhere guides her writing. But that, for me, has been a really calming, centering pandemic exercise, particularly alongside my meditation.

[Ethan] I definitely know where you’re coming from with the cookbooks that are assuming that you have ingredients you don’t have, because I’ve also experienced that, where they’re like, “Go to the pantry and get the coriander!” and I’m like…

[Brandon Callender] Haha!

[Ethan] …I’m a college student! Going off of these more recreational activities, do you have any magazines or newspapers or publications that you read for fun? I know you mentioned the cookbooks, but is there anything else you designate as outside of your research?

[Brandon Callender] I mean, I think the closest thing that comes to it right now is D&D manuals and board game manuals. Sometimes, I’ll read instruction manuals for games I will perhaps never play. D&D, I hope to play; D&D, I’ve also played, only like 2, 3 times, but I watch people play it on YouTube a lot, just because I find it very calming and enjoyable. I think, again, because it’s so impractical, I love the joy of watching someone assemble a world and assemble a set of rules within which people can gather. Even if I don’t ever play the game, it just makes me feel really good to see that laid out.

As far as the news: I look at CNN, I look at NPR. I engage perhaps too often in the kind of “doomsday scrolling” I think many of us do, but most of my reading is grounded in scholarship. It’s weird; I really love scholarship. I actually would read them for pleasure a lot of times: studies of things I would never want to work on, just because I like it when people pull me completely out of my world of interest and into something else.

I’m really bad with podcasts; I’ve never really caught onto it. There’s one I’ve started listening to a little bit, which is called “The Black Witch Academy.” It’s a group of black women who not only extoll their thoughts and thinking around witchcraft and the supernatural as practicing witches, but also use it to think about mental wellness in a way that I think is really refreshing. By and large—Ethan, as I think you know—I’m a big audio booker. Most of the time, I just move through the world with a really constant narration which is just pouring through my ears. There is this one weird moment I remember early in my graduate career. I was listening to too much Oscar Wilde audio recordings, and I remember I just started to get really snippy. Everything I was saying was really sassy, as a result, because I was living nonstop in this very quipping world. It became weird to me, when I was listening to all these novels, to hear that people could just say things in the world. I almost expected there to be a “she said” or “he said” attached to it, just because everything I was reading was moving through a world where you’re participating in the real world, but someone’s constantly telling you a story while you’re going to the supermarket, while you’re making your food. I think a lot of my pleasure reading comes through audiobooking for that reason.

[Joy] Going off of your love for audiobooks and your encounters with Oscar Wilde, is there a particular book that you would like to recommend for others who are either interested in the same genre of literature as you are, or just in general? Any novel or other piece of work that you would like to recommend to our audience?

[Brandon Callender] That one, I’m still thinking about! I used to have this dream when I wanted to be a high school teacher that I would have on my desk the kind of prescription pad that doctors use to make specific recommendations for illnesses; a kind of pad that looks like that, but is used to recommend books to students. I kind of loved the idea of being able to sit with a student and say, “I know completely what you’re going through. You need to check this out.” That makes recommendations, for me, feel really specific to the kind of folks and dialogues we’re having.

I think there’s a part of me that struggles to think of a book that everyone should read. I think the one that most immediately comes up for me is Samuel Delany’s The Mad Man because it was, for me, one of the most transformative and difficult and joyful books I’ve read. Rather than give a plot summary, I’ll say it’s a pornographic text, and one that is very well-versed and well-handled in the kind of philosophy that Delany’s leveraging about a black, queer world of open sex. I remember I had to read this for graduate school, and I was in a class with maybe 14 students. I was one of 3 or 4 people who were actually able to finish this book. I say that because most people put it down after, like, page 3 because it engages in really graphic sex acts which, to many, felt over the top, like eating feces and things that I don’t think sat well with the kind of palettes students brought to it. Even as I approached it with an open mind, I remember there was something very visceral, for the first time, for me reading that book. The eating things—that actually didn’t cause any reaction in me when I read it, but there were certain thing that happened that actually triggered my gag reflex a little bit. I had to routinely put the book down for 2,3 minutes to reset before I could come back to it. I wonder if it’s something in the way that book so deeply stripped down my preparedness, my boundaries, my expectations, that really prepared me for the phenomenal wisdom that he brought through it. I would recommend that book if that sounds like something you want to read. And always Toni Morrison’s Sula, which for me is one of my favorite texts.

[Ethan] Yeah. Another thing I’m wondering is how you separate your research and books you’re reading for yourself. Do you try to make that distinction, or are you always in this “professor brain” where you just read everything with that idea that you might be approaching something academically?

[Brandon Callender] I think it’s really, for me, a lot of the latter these days. I read within a kind of orbit of interests that is always me trying to work on something. It’s always trying to set other authors and texts in conversations, and it kind of feels like I’m always building future projects. One of the closest writers that’s allowed me to escape that tendency a little bit has been a poet, Leonard Nathan. During my undergraduate experience, I fell in love with his ways of writing nostalgia, his ways of writing about animals and small home furnishings—just a very intimate, domestic world that allows me to think about my childhood. I think Leonard Nathan, for me, has been more along the voice of journaling than the voice of the academic. I think there’s a sort of incredible patience with which I sometimes find an author is able to unfold a memory that is so particular for them. It doesn’t feel like they’re trying to make a point the shared or generalizable world. They’re clearly just feeling so intensely; they’re trying to flesh out some part of their own past in a way that inspires me to go into myself. In that moment, again, I don’t feel so much like I’m trying to think of a claim or a project that I can advance, that everyone can read publicly, but about a lurch into my interior that often leads me to pick up my journal. Particularly in texts surrounding animals, he has a text on birdwatching (and actually I do enjoy birdwatching), so I will read his text and rather than feel like I need to go write an essay, I’ll feel like I really need to go outside. It helps me reset. But I do really struggle, I think, with the productivist urge in me to always turn something into a project. I can be frank—it’s something I’m working on, because you don’t want your whole life to feel like you’re trying to fit it on your CV. I think that that does tend to happen when I pick up a book a lot of times these days.

[Joy] I want to ask one more question before we wrap it up. Even though it’s been your first year at Brandeis, is there any place in Brandeis that you personally love to go, or just to write, or to relax? If not Brandeis, is there anywhere in the Boston area that you love to relax or write or just chill in?

[Brandon Callender] Yeah, I’ve only been to campus 3 times so far. I’ve only bumped into a student once, although it was a kind of aftereffect because afterwards, the student reached out to me and was like, “Was that you?” But it feels really lovely to see everyone’s life in motion, just because I haven’t had much of a sense of who everyone is beyond the Zoom screen panel gallery. A lot of the peace I find in the Waltham area, which is where I’m currently staying, has come through—some of my students know—through cemeteries. I really love the cemeteries around here. There’s one—I actually don’t even know what the name of it is, so I can’t direct us to it. But I know that when I first moved here, particularly in the fall, when all the leaves start to change—I’m a really big autumn person—I’m not sure if it’s advised, and I’m not sure if I would do it again because I’m not sure if you’re allowed to loiter in cemeteries this way, but I sort of used someone’s tomb as a standing desk and was just reading and writing and working there. It  felt really peaceful; it felt really nicely socially distant. It just feels so much quieter, tucked away from the noise, and with the trees and with the crunching leaves and everything. It’s a generalizable location, but I’ve been to maybe 3 or 4 cemeteries since I’ve been here, and those seem to be the spots that really resonate with me the most.

[Ethan] Yeah, I don’t know if you’ve been to the cemetery that’s kind of right next to campus, right behind the athletic complex, and it has the river along a lot of the paths—I really like going to that one for runs and stuff. That’s so cool that you sit in cemeteries too, ‘cause I like running around the cemetery! I’ll literally just do laps around that one cemetery…

[Brandon Callender] Haha!

[Ethan]…that’s really weird, but…

[Brandon Callender] I get you. I felt weird, ‘cause in the beginning, of the year, I was reading about Zombies and stuff in the cemetery. It felt terrifically scene in a kind of way…I would just go there and read Gothic fiction, and it just felt very weirdly peaceful.

[Ethan] Well, those are all the questions that we have for you. This was as super fun conversation, and thanks so much for coming on the English Department Podcast!

[Joy] Thank you so much!

[Brandon Callender] Absolutely. Thank y’all for having me!