Luggage can take different meanings. It can be a physical object or a concept; a tote full of items or a bearer of past baggage and burdens, as Dr. Susan Harlan expands upon in her new book, Luggage.
On March 26 in ZSR’s Special Collections Reading Room, students and community members gathered to learn not just about the contents of the book but also about the experience Harlan, an English professor at Wake Forest, had when writing beyond academia.
Recently published in Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, Harlan’s book packs up her readers with her, exploring luggage and its part in narratives of gender, displacement, time, consumption, labor and more.
“I think a lot about luggage,” Harlan said. “Luggage creates an infinite capacity to signify about secrets, preservation and about the self; it is both authenticating and constructive.”
Harlan discussed how she wanted the structure of the book to feel, in a way, “packed.”
Tying together the idea of luggage in infamous novels and films including Mary Poppins, Anne of Green Gables and others, Harlan explained her desire for the book to explore how suitcases can be disruptive: taken apart and unpacked, but also a space of imagination.
“A child’s imagination is fueled by spaces that contain desires,” Harlan said. “Poppin’s bag is a freedom from lack (as her) carpet bag is infinite and full of all of her desires … her traveling light is linked to her freedom to come and go as she pleases.”
In contrast to Poppin’s bag, in Anne of Green Gables, Anne’s bag represents the lack of possession and ownership while still threading a theme of imagination children — and adults — can find in luggage.
“The abstract part of luggage like in Anne of Green Gables and the meaning of her bag as she traveled that were personal yet representative [expands on] the possibilities of luggage as a concept,” said Joy Gambill, a ZSR librarian.
Harlan shared her challenges, pleasures and overall experience writing a non-academic book with students and community members.
“This was a good first non-academic book project for me because it allowed me to draw on my academic training but draw on things that felt more like freedoms (for me),” Harlan said.
Harlan expressed her desire to aim the book at the general public rather than a niche group of academics in a particular realm. Utilizing the essay as a form while still drawing on her backbone as an academic, Harlan informed the audience of her experience reaching different audiences through her writing for a short book.
“I was really surprised to learn that most academics assume they don’t have a ‘reader’ per say,” said senior Laurel Hagaman. “As a student, I use academic writing all the time when doing research, but it made me reconsider why I use it and realize this is probably one of the few, if only, times I will read academic research.”
Due to the short nature of the book, Harlan expressed that leaving out many aspects of luggage became a challenging, yet exciting and decisive aspect: expressing that leaving out length became a silver lining because she could be more concise and accessible to an audience beyond the academic world.
“Leaving out [aspects in the book] can be very productive, and for the reader of a shorter book, [it] can exist in a particular moment in your life,” Harlan said.
Harlan also expressed how choices considering luggage were important to the writing process because they reminded her of what she physically packs and leaves out of her totes, trunks and luggage.
“There tends to be a personal element to non-academic writing, which I personally found to be rewarding,” Harlan said.
This event featured a pop-up exhibit of luggage from the Wake Forest University Archives and ZSR manuscript collections.