Zoe Holman (QMUL) - 2022-23 Students

Forgetting Atlantis – Essay on Lost Deaths and their Lives

Over two decades of academic, professional and creative practice, my writing has investigated subjects of global relevance through a variety of mediums, including journalism, essays, creative and experimental non-fiction and poetry. This commitment to foregrounding and exploring socio-political themes—from armed conflict and migration, to gender, ecology and colonialism—has been reflected in my publications for Australian and international outlets such as London Review of Books, The Guardian, The Lifted Brow, Jacobin, New Humanist and Open Democracy. Most notably, my first non-fiction book, Where the Water Ends (supported by Australia Council funding) employed innovative research and writing practices to document experiences of asylum-seeking in Europe through narratives from migrants and others including, activists, politicians, NGO staff and community members. The work testifies to my practical ability to realise complex artistic projects and communicate sensitively across cultural and social divides, while maintaining keen awareness of the implications of my practice. The positive reception of the book, which was long-listed for the 2021 Walkley Book Award, likewise reflects how my work aims to explore matters of ethical consequence in a unique, accessible and compelling style. I am dedicated to evolving and expanding my creative practice in the pursuit of further original and engaging knowledge production through my next book project. Like my previous work, the proposed book project aims to augment understandings of human experiences that often fall beyond the scope of sustained public attention, including gender identity, migration, ecology, sexual violence, disability and suicide. In investigating four case-studies through novel narrative strategies, it aspires to document events in a manner that is both of relevance and reach to general audiences. The book’s value lies as much in the form of narration as in the content itself, as the creative practice combines primary and secondary research with the author’s own empirical reflections. The result is a work of experimental non-fiction that burrows into different cultural, relational and corporeal definitions of the human. In doing so, it seeks an original contribution to both non-fiction reflections on modes of living and dying, as well as to the experimental essay medium itself. 

About your project: Tell us about your project, outlining hat you want to do, the creative rationale, the activity involved, and the key steps you will undertake to deliver this 5,600

Through four creative non-fiction essays, this book project investigates under-examined, and arguably urgent, questions around the human experience, as evoked by the conditions of four individual lives and deaths.
The first of its case-studies investigates the circumstance of Dimitra Kalogiannis, a trans-woman from Lesvos, who disappeared in 2021, aged 64, after escaping from the psychiatric hospital in Athens to which her family had committed her. Only months later, it was reported that Dimitra had been killed several days after the escape in a ‘hit-and-run’ incident, though the body was never disinterred for formal DNA identification. A key thread in this narrative is Dimitra’s home village of Skala Sikaminias, where thousands of asylum-seekers landed from 2015 on journeys into Europe—migrants with whom Dimitra expressed solidarity and whose bodies have likewise met anonymous ends across the continent. As a banner in Dimitra’s memory in the square of Lesvos town declared, ‘So many dead on these islands, and all of them different.’ The second essay explores the figure of Natalia Molchanova, the world’s most decorated freediver at the time she disappeared during a lesson in Spanish waters in 2015, aged 53. Her body was never found. Taking up freediving in mid-life after two-decades of parenting and a divorce, Molchanova swiftly broke world records while becoming a professor at Moscow University where she pioneered studies of freediving psychology. This philosophy underpins the essay as it examines what it means for a 40-year-old woman to achieve unprecedented human feats, but equally, for the human body to hold its breath and descend voluntarily to what many freedivers describe as the threshold between life and death. The third case-study reflects on the activities of Christian nun Sister Valsa John, murdered in 2011 when a mob broke into her home in India’s Jharkhand state where she was campaigning for the rights of local tribes against mining projects. Sister John’s narrative sits at the nexus of multiple defining forces—capitalism, indigeneity, religion, environmentalism, political insurgency, patriarchy and colonialism. As backdrop to the essay’s exploration of these themes, in particular India’s high rate of assassination of environmentalists, are mythologies around the original ‘tree huggers’, the Indian women who martyred themselves three centuries earlier in an effort to save trees from destruction by a royal palace. The final essay re-focuses from the global to the personal, narrating the author’s own efforts to unearth the story of a formative childhood friend who committed suicide in Paris in 2017, reportedly after being diagnosed with an incurable neuro-degenerative disease. Having only sporadic contact with B, the author lacks any contextual information about B’s life circumstances or condition save for a letter from the Greek philosopher Epicurus to Menoeceus that the 35-year-old B left for circulation among friends at the time of his death. The essay thus draws on memory, correspondence and interviews to explore questions of B’s bodily and intellectual autonomy, alongside the Epicurean notion that to one for whom ‘happiness as the greatest good’, death means nothing.   
Though premised on deceased individuals, death thus represents only half the investigation in this project. For paramount here are also questions about its subjects’ modes of existence—lives studied for their ability to evoke more universal themes and highlight wider omissions in our conceptions of what it is to be and to live as human. Among these are our relationships to our own bodies, of our bodies to other bodies and the natural world, and our ability to foresee or submit to our own ends. The project thereby refuses to reduce individuals to their deaths, but rather illuminates what has been overlooked, forgotten or erased in our memories of these lives. The concept of the unresolved thereby assumes dual significance here, as the project also serves as an inquiry into the unaddressed problematics of ways of living—that is, into what remains out of reach in both lives and deaths. 

Primary supervisor: Prof. Brian Dillon, QMUL

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