Psychology Undergrad Edits Memoir By Grammy Winner
March 5, 2014
Last month we spoke with English prof Rachel Wenrick about her experience co-authoring “Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music” alongside Grammy Award-winning singer Angélique Kidjo. And while it was a highly collaborative project between the writer and singer, Wenrick is the first to say they couldn’t have done it without the help of Drexel psychology student and Humanities Fellow, Khushbu Patel.
We talked with Patel to find out what attracted her to the project and how it ultimately helped her grow as a social scientist.
Q: From what we hear, you have a pretty interesting background: starting out as a BS/MD student in biology, moving to psychology, and then taking a humanities fellowship with Rachel Wenrick, an English professor. What drew you to this particular project?
A: It’s so strange to see it written out that way—seems like I just can’t make up my mind! For me, the last few years have really been a process of self-exploration through these external disciplines and projects. I think it’s very easy to become absorbed in the mindset of “I need to only do the things that will have a direct impact on my future self, my next step.” After all, it is a logical approach and rewarded in the structure of our society. So, I’ve really been trying to balance that by taking on roles that speak to me in some way, whether or not I see them linearly impacting my “ultimate” career move.
I became interested in this particular humanities fellowship project for a number of reasons. Though I am not currently studying literature or writing in direct ways at Drexel, I’ve essentially learned to navigate the world and my own self through these two mediums, and so, I am incredibly fascinated by the writing process. To have the opportunity to work in some capacity on a to-be-published book is one of those things that would hold a permanent spot on my ever-shifting bucket list. Beyond this, I knew the book would be tracing the story of a West African woman. My grandmother was born in Uganda, East Africa, though her family was forced to leave the country very early on in her life. It’s a piece of my history that I have only minimally been able to explore so far, and I was interested in seeing how one woman’s story might resonate and reflect moments of another’s.
Finally, I cannot deny that an opportunity to collaborate with Rachel on a project was incredibly appealing. I had the chance to work with Rachel as a professor and also a supervisor (at what I consider one of Drexel’s gems—the Writing Center), and so I knew that collaborating with her would present me with work that would ultimately challenge me to push my bounds as a writer, reader, thinker.
Q: What role did you play in the writing process of “Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music”?
A: I came onto this project as a research assistant, thinking I would get to engage in some research to help enrich the historical and cultural context of Angelique’s story, but I quickly realized I would be given the opportunity to do way more than I originally thought. Initially, I helped sift through some translational material that was coming in for the book. From there, my modes of conducting research kept expanding.
A very important component of the “Spirit Rising” project was that it is a collaboratively written autobiography. It is a very specific genre, the boundaries of which are hard to define and therefore a challenge to navigate. With Rachel’s guidance, I delved into the collaborative autobiographies of some of the greats. I was fortunate enough to spend hours of that summer pouring over works like Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles: Volume One,” Harry Belafonte’s “My Song,” and Miriam Makeba’s “Makeba: My Story” in order to extract the moments that felt most real and captivating for me as a reader.
The most exciting role during my time with this project was serving as one of the first readers of the manuscript. As drafts of the chapters were composed, I read through each chapter with a very focused lens. What sentiments does this chapter evoke? Is there something missing, something I am craving more of as a reader? What kind of question can I ask to expose this missing element? These are the types of questions with which I explored the raw manuscript draft.
Q: What was the hardest part of this project? Most rewarding?
A: Truthfully, I think one of the greatest challenges—and concurrently, rewards—this project brought to light was of a personal nature. I was given this grand opportunity to contribute to a project that felt larger-than-life in many ways. Though I’ve always felt confident in my ability to work hard, it was a more muddled process to be able to gauge whether or not I could do a satisfactory job in serving as a reader for the memoir. I wasn’t as technically versed in language composition as an English major might have been, or as knowledgeable about regional and cultural intricacies of West Africa as an anthropology or history major might have been, or even as embedded in the world of music as someone pursuing this subject might have been. So, I developed my reading in the ways I felt I could most contribute: by sensing the connections being made in Angelique’s story and helping to elicit where they could be strengthened. I’m not sure if I recognized this fully while I was immersed in the work, but it’s certainly something I’ve been able to reflect on since.
Q: How did working on this memoir affect your work as a psychology major?
A: The way I see my experience in the discipline of psychology is that it is a fairly formalized, research-driven structure within which I can better understand the psychological meta-narratives of populations and explore ways in which those conditions can be improved. My experience with this memoir project was valuable in showing me how to navigate with intense familiarity the life story of a complete stranger, and then explore the nuances of relaying it to the public while translating that sense of familiarity. That’s essentially what we are always doing: constructing our personal stories, telling others’ stories, and finding meaningful ways to make those collide.
Q: Do you see yourself working on writing/editing projects in the future?
A: In a word: yes. In five words: I really, really hope so.
Q: What are your post-graduation plans?
A: You see my responses are shrinking in word count as I slowly reach this question that plagues college seniors. I’m very excited, though, to be graduating in a matter of just a few weeks! Right now, I’m working with a team at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that falls under their Violence Prevention Initiative, and which focuses on delivering an aggression intervention to urban elementary schools. I feel so excited about this work. I think it takes a positive, preventative orientation in addressing the issue of childhood, school-based violence, and so I’m hoping to continue with this work in a greater capacity after graduating. Also, I’d love to take on some personal, creative projects in that time.