Processing the Past

October 26, 2016

Danielle Geller

LIS Alum Combines Writing and Archives for a Unique Perspective

Danielle Geller ’14LS combines her archives training with creative nonfiction to create a unique window into the past. A recent winner of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Award for her writing, Geller shares how her studies in LIS have informed her creative work. 

Congratulations on being selected as a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award winner! What writing projects are you currently working on?

Thank you so much! It's an incredible honor, and I'm so grateful to the Foundation, my mentors, and everyone who has ever read my work and given me advice on how to make it stronger. Currently, I am working on two projects. My memoir, Dog Flowers, is primarily about caretaking and my dysfunctional family. The second project is a collection of essays, tentatively called Off-reservation Indians, drawing on my experiences as a researcher and archivist to grapple with the weight of Native American history on my mother, her family on the reservation, and my three sisters.

What drew you to pursue your MFA in creative nonfiction?

I've always been a writer, but as an undergrad I was advised to wait to pursue an MFA—to get a little more life experience and distance from the things I was writing about. That’s how I ended up in Boston, at Simmons, in the library and archives profession. But after my mother passed away in 2013, the only way I knew how to deal with her loss was to start writing again. And after I started writing again and looked at the very rough draft I produced, I knew I wanted to study creative writing more seriously.

What inspires your writing?

The easy and unsatisfactory answer is ‘everything.’ Most of my writing, though, starts with a memory. I love to write a scene with dialogue from memory, and then I have to sit back and think about what I am trying to say and why.

Can you tell us about your time at SLIS?

I loved the opportunity it gave me to dip my toes into a lot of different archives and repositories. One summer I was an intern at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, where I worked in the Repatriation Department and learned so much about the difficult and complicated process of returning sensitive cultural materials to indigenous communities.

My archives training is having an enormous impact on my current writing projects. One of the motifs of my essay collection is the act of "processing"—processing a physical collection, the evidence my mother left me of her life. In some ways, this has been my substitute for processing all of my complex emotions about her death. And my studies at Simmons gave me a lot of tools to start uncovering her childhood on the reservation, which she didn't like to talk about with me.

Your work seems most interested in exploring cultural identity. How do you think the LIS field can best support the preservation of cultural heritage?

There are a lot of small and local organizations doing great work in this area, but for the bigger academic institutions, it's important to invite your communities into this conversation. I'm thinking of a project I worked on at Northeastern University. The university collaborated with the African American community of Lower Roxbury to begin an oral history project, with the hopes of preserving the memories and experiences of a community displaced by the City of Boston's urban renewal programs. Those kinds of projects aren't easy to undertake, but I think there was a lot of good that came out of it.

As a side note, if anyone's interested in that oral history project, the interviews are all available on Northeastern University's DRS. I'd recommend listening to the interviews with Richard G. Brown. I wish I could have met him in person!

Is there anything else you wish I’d asked you?

My cats’ names are Little Foot and Kara Thrace. But no, I think we've covered a lot of ground! Thank you again. And I miss you, Boston! (sort of.)

Photo courtesy of Danielle Geller.