In 1996, I was a history graduate student on the fast-track to burning out. When I looked across my professional horizon, I saw only frustration and defeat. I had been on the path to becoming a professor for a while and had one remaining hurdle—my dissertation. But my research in Italy had foundered upon the rocks of the Byzantine system that predated online searches. It was the good old days of hands-on archival work—dusty books in dimly lit recesses of moldering libraries. My research bordered on archeology as I shifted and sorted through papers, looking for the clue that might lead me to documents crucial to my dissertation.
After months of searching, I had, with the help of a librarian at the National Library in Florence, finally unearthed the documents I needed about Anna Maria Mozzoni, an Italian suffragist and feminist. They were in Turin. But the archive was closed until the first week in September. They would open four days after I was scheduled to return home. I had neither the funding nor the personal resources to prolong my trip. I left Italy without ever seeing the documents I had spent months looking for. Without them I would have to rewrite my entire thesis.
Back in California, I was at loose ends. The academic year would not start for another month, and I was stuck. For long hours, I sat at my desk, staring at the books and papers I had accumulated, wondering if I could write my dissertation without those documents in Italy, slowly coming to terms with the fact that I would need to come up with a new topic. I shifted from my desk to the couch and sat with my failure, unwilling to admit I no longer had the drive to continue. My housemate, concerned about me, returned one evening from her job at the local bookstore and handed me a book.
“Read this,” she said. Her tone and expression made it clear she would brook no argument. The book was Kate Elliott’s Jaran.