“Foolish and Lucky”

A combination of hard work and pure chance brought Annamarie Jagose to the University of Sydney, writes Lane Sainty.

Annamarie Jagose. Photo: supplied.
Annamarie Jagose. Photo: supplied.

I first heard Annamarie Jagose’s name earlier this year when she participated in a debate on the proposition ‘same-sex marriage should not be legalised’. This was not remarkable because of the participation itself — after all, same-sex marriage has been discussed to death — but rather because Jagose, a queer, progressive woman, argued for the affirmative.

While this debate has constituted the bulk of Jagose’s media attention this year, she offers, as I discovered, much more than an alternative viewpoint on marriage. Jagose is a respected academic and a published novelist. She is also modest, describing herself as “lucky” throughout our interview, claiming that much of her success came from “being in the right place at the right time”.

Currently, Jagose is the head of the School of Letters, Art and Media (SLAM) in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney. She’s been employed as an academic for the past 20 years, but surprisingly, this was never part of her plan.

In fact, much of Jagose’s life seems to have been determined by chance. She grew up in the Waikato region of northern New Zealand, and ended up studying at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. Jagose cites scholarship restrictions as the reason for her choice of university and degree.

“If you were under 20, you were only eligible for a scholarship if you studied something that wasn’t available at your local university. At Canterbury, they offered a degree in Latin. So I did a degree in Latin,” she explains, laughing.

I ask what she was like at university, and she immediately responds: “A hopeless swot.” When she first arrived at the residency halls of Christchurch, she spent every spare minute studying.

“I didn’t exactly understand at first that not everybody was doing this,” she says, laughing again.

Her study habits were so extreme that they attracted light teasing from friends. “Some of my friends would say ‘Look, Annamarie, you worked for fifty hours on that essay, I’ve worked for two, you got an A plus and I got a B plus. So who’s the stupid one?’” she remembers. “And I could see their logic! But yes, I did work hard.” Jagose also mentions that she was involved in feminist, lesbian, and land rights activism.

Jagose moved to Victoria University of Wellington to complete her PhD, which eventually turned into her first book: Lesbian Utopics. Even then, Jagose had no idea what to do when she finished.

“I completed my PHD without ever thinking that I wanted to be an academic. I am the least sensible academic I know in this respect.”

She considered different career options, law among them. “Law was one of those things that careers counsellors always pushed at me at school, but then I thought oh, you’d have to be a lawyer, which seemed a disadvantage,” she comments wryly.

Her mother was increasingly concerned about her job prospects (“You’ve been at university for seven years now, what are you going to do?”), but instead of parental pressure, it was a chance conversation with a friend that got Jagose her first academic gig.

The friend was among the “sensible, well-informed PhD students” who searched for jobs amongst the educational hire pages in various international newspapers. She told Jagose that a job was going for a lectureship in English at the University of Melbourne; Jagose applied and got it. In retrospect, she considers herself more than a little lucky.

“That’s not really how you should apply for a job,” she says disapprovingly. “But it worked out for me.” Jagose started at the University of Melbourne in July of 1992, but it took a little time for her to start feeling like a real academic. “I always felt like a bit of a sham, because I had just sort of lucked into it,” she explains.

Nonetheless, she stuck at it, working at Melbourne until 2003 when she took a new position in Film, Television and Media Studies at the University of Auckland where she became a head of department for the first time in 2007. Her position as the Head of SLAM is the first non-teaching role she has ever held.

Academia aside, Jagose is also a published novelist, with three books under her belt. Slow Water, her most recent novel, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2004.

“Somebody told me once that the strange thing about my novels is that they are all totally different, not just in terms of what they’re about but almost as if they’d been written by three different people,” says Jagose. “I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

They certainly all sound different. In Translation is about a lesbian love triangle, Lulu a couple who raise a chimpanzee in their house for linguistic experimentation and Slow Water a nineteenth-century historical romance based on a real life sex scandal. Jagose explains the basic plot lines of each, concluding her précis of In Translation with “the shared love interest is a translator…and that’s sort of why it’s called In Translation. Oh god, that sounds like such a terrible novel.”

Her writing process is diligent and methodical. “I make it manageable for myself by saying ‘I will write x number of words a day,’” she explains. “I wrote my PhD by writing 400 words a day, and now I’ve raised that total to 500. In 20 years.” She laughs. Jagose admits that sometimes she doesn’t reach her target, but that “it doesn’t happen so often” only on “very unhappy days.”

Being able to write her first novel is another milestone Jagose puts down to luck. On the day she finished her PhD, she got a phone call informing her that she had won her first writers fellowship, to the value of $18,000.

“At first I thought someone was pulling my leg, because the application had asked for five to ten pages of a novel in progress, but I didn’t have a novel in progress, so I just thought ‘Well, I’ll just write one and send it,’” she recalls. “But because I’m such a slow writer, I only managed to write a paragraph. So although I would say to any student who asked me ‘They asked for five pages, so don’t apply if you’ve only got a paragraph,’ and even though if I was on a committee I wouldn’t award a prize to a person who only submitted a paragraph, somehow, it…it must have been a good paragraph.”

It’s only when I press her on it, saying that she doesn’t give herself much credit that Jagose relents — slightly — on the “foolish but lucky” line.

“Well, I did say that I was a swot at uni, didn’t I? I do work hard, that is fair to say. But there was a lot of luck there, because lots of people work hard. I didn’t have any kind of career plan…everything just lined up.”
Jagose admits that she doesn’t have a lot of spare time, but lately she and her partner have been spending time at dog training with their eight-month-old puppy. Jagose has been with her partner for 16 years, but is not married; hardly surprising, considering her views.

“I can truly say I have never wanted to be married,” says Jagose, explaining that she found the concept highly dubious from a very young age. At school in religious studies class she would ask the teachers how it was possible to promise to do something forever, as marriage or religious orders required. “I’d question it, saying: ‘How do you make a promise for the future? How do you say I will do this for all time, because I might not want it in ten years time?’And they said ‘Well, you just have to keep to your promise.’ And I just didn’t think it was a very good logic.”

On the media attention surrounding her pro-queer, yet anti-same-sex marriage views? “I’m rather hoping that soon people will stop asking me to speak about this topic, because I don’t have much else to say.”

When quizzed about the biggest challenge she has faced, Jagose pauses, and chooses her words carefully.

“On a personal front, I found it challenging to leave a family environment that was very close and affectionate, knowing that I had a trajectory that was going to take me outside the expected version of being like my parents. So coming out as a lesbian to my family was quite difficult, and for a long while I didn’t have the same relationship that I had previously had.”

But Jagose isn’t bitter. “Now that I’m older, I can see that it would have been a challenge for my family too, and one that with the passage of time they’ve actually managed fantastically.”

She also says that she has never experienced workplace discrimination on the basis of being a queer woman.

“No, no, I’ve been hired on the basis of it!” she says, explaining that when your first book is called Lesbian Utopics, those who might have a problem with queer women tend to stay out of your way.

“You’re off the hook from having to explain,’ she says. ‘And in my experience, universities tend to be much more progressive than conservative. That’s yet another way in which I’ve been incredibly lucky.’