As a queer, nonbinary, Mexican/Finnish-American person, Victoria Koski-Karell feels at home in the in-between. Victoria is currently in their seventh year of the University of Michigan Medical Scientist Training Program, where they are completing dual doctoral degrees in medicine and anthropology. During graduate school, they've also earned a certificate from the U-M Program in Science, Technology, and Society. Their dissertation project, Following Water: The Poetics of Osmosis in the Wake of Cholera in Haiti, fits within a larger interest into how changes unfold—or what recurs—along membranes marking such alleged binaries as the natural and cultural, human and nonhuman, past and future, ordinary and exceptional, bodies and technology, death and (forms of) life. When not in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Victoria lives with their partner and dog in Ann Arbor.
Victoria Koski-Karell was interviewed by Nathan Liebetreu, a marketing and media intern at the Institute for the Humanities.
N.L.: Good morning Victoria, thank you so much for doing this interview. To start us off, what are you reading this week?
V.K.K.: This week, I'm (re)reading In the Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe; Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet edited by Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt; and Plastic Water: The Social and Material Life of Bottled Water by Gay Hawkins, Emily Potter, and Kane Race.
The three books I'm reading this week in many ways jointly undergird the theoretical arguments of a dissertation chapter I'm writing at the moment. Between 2015-2019, I gathered ethnographic data on the cholera epidemic and burgeoning reverse osmosis water market in Haiti. My forthcoming chapter draws on the comments, reflections, and stories people shared with me to suggest that the outbreak of cholera constitutes and perpetuates in Black lives both an "abyssal beginning" of traumatic loss and an "unfolding event" still haunting the waters that people drink.
N.L.: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions thoughtfully. While researching the above books you mentioned, it was fascinating how Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet exposes us to the active remnants of gigantic past human errors—the ghosts—that affect millions of people's daily lives and their co-occurring other-than-human life forms. "Challenging us to look at life in new and excitingly different ways, each part of this two-sided volume is informative, fascinating, and a source of stimulation to new thoughts and activisms," as described by Michael G. Hadfield, Professor Emeritus, Pacific Biosciences Research Center. It was also captivating to go over how Christina Sharpe interrogates literary, visual, cinematic, and quotidian representations of Black life in her book In the Wake. A very important read in the current time we live in.
Reading over Plastic Water: The Social and Material Life of Bottled Water, it was informative to learn about how branded water bottles insinuate themselves into our daily lives, why water became an economic good and no longer a common resource but a commercial product.
I can see how your reading can complement your theoretical arguments for your dissertation. Are topics on water and issues related to humans and their interaction with their environment and each other a matter of interest to you? If so, why? And If not, please feel free to correct me.
V.K.K.: I'm thrilled to know that you had a chance to look into these books—they're all fascinating reads.
Yes, you're certainly right to pick up on that! I've long been fascinated by not only the relationship between humans and non-humans, but also the webs of relationality that implicate us all: the connectivity of connectedness. A kind of physics of living. It's quite clear that these meshworks, as Tim Ingold calls them, exist, but how are they made? What sustains them? How do they shift? When and how do they disintegrate? What do they demand? What differences emerge within and through them? What happens when new dynamics take shape? What is at stake in webs of relationality? I ponder these questions often, especially as I move among different settings or think across different scales. Perhaps I became drawn to them out of a curiosity about how interactions among humans and non-humans manifest biologically, often disparately affecting some groups more than others; or out of grasping for an alternative narrative to the brutal individualism underpinning economic and social logics prevalent in the United States; or out of a reassurance that none of us is ever alone. As a nonsubstitutable substance essential for life on this planet, water is, therefore, a lifelong companion to each of us and elemental to a physics of living. But, while common properties cohere around what we call water, not all waters are the same. By paying attention to how water in various forms and compositions is used or consumed, how it moves or becomes contained, how it transforms or is transformed, how it carries the traces of history, I've found that we can learn a great deal about the ways people navigate their connectivity with one another and with their surroundings.
N.L.: Is there a common theme you address in your professional or personal life?
V.K.K.: One theme that carries through my life, both professionally and personally, is a concern for justice. Most especially a concern for justice as an approach that attempts to understand, recognize, and bring awareness to how present inequities are embedded in recurring histories of environmental destruction, violent social hierarchies, wealth disparities, and intergenerational trauma.
N.L.: Can you touch on your project and why it's a matter of interest to you?
V.K.K.: Very briefly, my project examines the ways in which a market of reverse osmosis drinking-water has expanded in the wake of Haiti's cholera epidemic. I began traveling to North Haiti in 2008 at age 17 after growing up learning about Haitian history and culture from my dad, an archaeologist who himself started traveling there for fieldwork in 1977. During my third visit two years later, my dad, sister, and I were in the northern city of Cap-Haitien on January 12, 2010 when a massive earthquake struck Haiti's capital, killing an estimated 250,000 people. Though we could feel the quake, no one in Cap-Haitien was seriously harmed. After that experience, I committed myself to learning as much as I could about Haiti and working in solidarity with people I met there who are dedicated to serving their communities. Nine months after the earthquake, and for the first time in Haiti's history, an epidemic of cholera erupted in Haiti's central region and quickly spread throughout the country. In my third year of college at the time, I decided to devote my undergraduate thesis project to understanding the implications of cholera as a novel disease in Haiti and lived there for three months in the summer of 2011 conducting ethnographic fieldwork. Once I finished writing my thesis, I applied what I had learned as the Cholera Advocacy Intern at a Boston-based nonprofit organization then-called Physicians for Haiti. I served in this role until November 2012, and afterwards began working at Partners In Health. Throughout those years, I continued researching Haiti's cholera epidemic and supporting related social justice efforts. Later, while in medical school, it was during two months of fieldwork in Central Haiti in summer 2017 when I really began noticing how reverse osmosis drinking-water enterprises and products had proliferated, even in what might be considered rural areas. Many people in both city and countryside settings described how they started drinking RO water because they didn't want to die from cholera. RO water became a matter of interest to me because it matters to the people I’ve met in Haiti.
N.L.: Victoria, it has been my pleasure to speak with you, and I’ve found our conversion to be extremely insightful. As my departing and last question to end this interview, I wanted to ask a question we end our fellow interviews by. If you were stranded on a deserted island, what would be the one book you would want to have with you and why?
V.K.K.: What a fun question! If I were stranded on a deserted island, I think I’d like to have with me Jorge Luis Borges’s Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley. I remember first reading "The Library of Babel" in high school and becoming enamored at once of Latin American surrealist literature. Throughout the years after, I would think back to the story with surprising frequency—few works have haunted me quite as much. Partway through my first year of medical school at the University of Michigan, I was craving short fictional texts to balance the firehose of science I was studying. While perusing Literati one day, I spotted this Borges collection as though re-encountering an old friend. It's been a constant, nourishing companion ever since. On a practical level, it's certainly long enough to occupy plenty of time while alone on an island! The stories themselves also provide such magnificent mazes, dreams, and metaphors that always amaze and astound me no matter how many times I've read and wandered through them.