Knowing Michael

Dr Corinna Di Niro and Dr Alex Dunkin present the editorial in duoenthographic form as co-editors in conversation about how the issue came into being, the life of the late Dr Noble, and the papers in the issue.

Dr Corinna Di Niro and Dr Alex Dunkin

 

Bios

Corinna Di Niro is a sessional academic on teaching only contracts at the University of South Australia. She is a performing artist, director, teacher, TEDx speaker and creative-researcher. Corinna completed her PhD in Commedia dell’Arte in 2016, runs her own theatre company, Stage Secrets, and continues to publish in her areas of interest: theatre and women / casuals in academia.

Alex Dunkin is the author of Coming Out Catholic, Homebody, and Fair Day, co-editor of Peering Through: Sharing Decades of Queer Experiences, and the founder of Buon-Cattivi Press. Alex has worked as a journalist for LGBTIQA+ magazines and is a performing arts reviewer with Glam Adelaide. Alex teaches professional and creative writing on casual contracts at the University of South Australia.

 

Keywords

Dr Michael Noble; Duoethnography; Gender; Sexualities; Intersex

 

Introduction

Di Niro: Dr. Michael Laurence Noble was born in 1959 and passed away in 2018. He lived with difference all his life. This special issue combines papers dedicated to the late Dr Noble with papers presented at the sixth Annual South Australian Gender, Sex & Sexualities Postgraduate and Early Career Research (GSS) Conference ‘Past, Present and Future: contested histories and emerging identities’ (23-24 September 2019), and has been put together to honour the life, work and legacy of a man born out of his time. Dr Noble was a researcher, writer, historian, activist and a former member of the GSS conference organising team—he was also a wonderful friend to many. This editorial is in duoethnographic form and presents the co-editors in conversation about how the issue came into being, the life of the late Dr Noble, and the papers in the issue. We chose to write this editorial in this way because duoethnography (Norris, Lund & Sawyer 2012) sits within the methodological framework wherein groups of researchers share and reflect upon lived experiences to identify themes and connections to broader issues. This style of writing is reflective of Pinar’s (1975) ‘currere’, which sees life as a curriculum to be studied. Given Michael’s passion for education, we thought he would appreciate us using this mode of writing as research.

 

Michael’s Legacy 

Dunkin: A few years ago, just prior to Michael passing, I was working on an oral history project, Peering Through: Sharing decades of queer experiences (Dunkin and Fell eds. 2018). It was a chance to add to the stories of our elders and have them written down for wider access. Dr Amelia Walker mentioned that Michael might be interested and when I got in touch via Facebook he was but it would depend on his energy. He was in the later stages of his illness and we weren’t able to do the interview in the end. Through this special issue, I was able to find out that someone else was able to get what I couldn’t, an interview with Michael to share his personal stories about his upbringing and his daily life behind his astonishing work as an educator and activist. We are fortunate now to hear Michael in his own words within this special issue. How did you hear about the special issue?

Di Niro: I had known Michael for a number of years. We were both doing our PhDs and were part of a support group made up of other HDR candidates that would meet every three weeks to help each other by reading and reviewing chapters, discussing theories and just being there for support when the system let us down. Michael had told me about his illness and I called him in his final days to say goodbye. Dr Amelia Walker had told me about the idea of this special issue and asked if I would be a co-editor. Of course I said yes.

Dunkin: I didn’t get to know Michael as much in person outside GSS, but I did have the pleasure of learning from his work in the process of helping publish his creative artefact. I was later informed that Michael’s legacy features in the name of the conference where we met. Through his role as an advisor, Michael pushed for sex to appear separately from gender and sexualities. Such a change continues the activism that appeared throughout Michael’s life. Michael guaranteed that there was space in the conference for sex to not be mixed or pushed under umbrella terms but exist with the air it deserves.

Di Niro: Yes, Michael was very interested in this and a strong advocate. Tell me more about his artefact. I knew this was part of his PhD but I had only read a few bits here and there in the early stages of development.

Dunkin: I was first informed of the artefact, Nicholas Culpeper and the Mystery of the Philosopher’s Stone (Noble 2019), around the same time as I was told of the planned special issue. Initially, I read the artefact by itself to understand it as a standalone creative piece. There was an incredible accessibility to it. In some cases of historical non-fiction, there is a lot of background knowledge in the lead up to understanding what is occurring within the creative text. That wasn’t present in Michael’s work. He created the character of Zachariah to introduce and guide the reader through the world that Nicholas Culpeper had left behind and into the legacy that was building from his name. There is a certain moment in a later chapter where the tone changes and this new character voice appears. It is where Michael’s understanding of Culpeper shines through and it is with a gentleness and care that I found prominent in other areas of Michael’s writing. Following this experience with the creative work, I delved into the exegesis. While reading I found Michael had produced a series of work that granted access to the same knowledge but through multiple means. The artefact is a creative and relaxing introduction to the life and work of Culpeper, and the exegesis is an academic evaluation of the same knowledge. Nicholas Culpeper and the Mystery of the Philosopher’s Stone was published in September 2019. What did you think of Michael’s work while you were studying together and later after it had been published?

Di Niro: I was always fascinated by the way Michael articulated his ideas. I was always lost in his words and with my vivid imagination I would recreate the scenes in my head. Michael was ahead of me in terms of where we were at with our PhDs, so I remember fondly listening to him speak so beautifully and thinking, “Gosh, I’ve got some catching up to do!” But Michael was lovely and genuine and never made me feel inferior to him. It was a pleasure to be a part of his book launch with you, both at GSS conference and at UniSA, and announce that we would be co-editing a special issue to honour him. I bought a copy of the book and have cherished reading it. It makes me feel like Michael is right next to me each time I turn the page.

Dunkin: That would have been incredible having such a supportive network during the PhD. How did you find yours and Michael’s work and research develop over that time? Did you have a chance to read the earlier versions of the artefact and how did they compare to the published manuscript?

Di Niro: I did read his early drafts. I remember one particular session he had offered a part of a chapter he was working on and had asked the group—about five to seven of us—to read it and provide feedback. He always wrote well, and we’d often joke about how particularly fussy he was when it came to grammar in those very early drafts. Michael was doing his PhD on a part-time basis and I know he spent years working on his artefact. He benefited a lot from our group sessions and would take on board many of our comments and feedback. The final work was richer and deeper, a lot more expressive and colourful. That attests to Michael’s love and dedication to his studies.

 

Michael and Education

Dunkin: When I think back on what I learned directly from Michael, it came back to our social connection. We initially met at the GSS conference; it was my first time presenting to a conference with a paper connecting to my own research. I was on the panel of GSS and literature where one researcher presented a paper on whether intersex people are mentioned in the Bible. The short of it is that there are no concrete examples. They filled their paper with mentions of God being all welcoming but proceeded in the panel Q&A to comment on how they “disagree with homosexuality” along with other comments that felt like bait for an argument. Following the paper, during the networking time, Michael was incredibly calm and measured in discussion with this person while, as you can imagine, others were quite upset that a safe and welcoming place had been in some ways violated or improperly used. I was chatting with Michael afterwards and we connected quickly through our own personal histories with religion and this person’s presentation was part of it. Michael explained a concept within some religious areas that I wasn’t aware of, the idea of a Jesus-like experience. An experience where people can seek persecution, hunt out moments where they feel attacked just for expressing a religious view. The experience can come from essentially poking people until they react and then occupy the victim space. There was a quick way to defuse this tactic that I learned from Michael that day; niceties and politeness are the way to go. They cost less than anger emotionally. I will admit it takes a bit of practice to swallow down the instincts when someone begins to talk badly about and suggest punishment for how you were born and justifying it through religion, but it was something that has since been invaluable and been applied to other areas, even down to when academic criticism or reviews can come across or appear to be personal.

Di Niro: Michael had a great way of looking at life and dealing with confrontational situations.

Dunkin: While studying at the same time as Michael, what sort of topics came up and stood out from your discussions?

Di Niro: When Michael and I would catch up, our conversations would drift from our studies and into our personal lives. I was going through some pretty rough times and one day, Michael just stopped in mid conversation, looked at me and said, “Corinna, what’s wrong?” I must have had a troubled look on my face. I knew right then that Michael was someone I could talk to. He never judged me and guided me to a more peaceful way of dealing with what was going on for me at that time. That’s clearly from his knowledge and practice in mindfulness, spirituality and meditation. When I felt out of control and chaotic, Michael brought the calm.

Dunkin: Michael had quite a way of teaching from experience and a clear passion for learning. From his early life until his PhD study, Magill seemed to be a second home. Did you experience this while learning with him?

Di Niro: Magill campus was definitely his second home. Michael didn’t want a ceremony or formal funeral. Rather, he wanted a quiet gathering and asked for his ashes to be spread along the creek on campus. He really loved that spot. He had a lovely view of the creek from his office window and would spend a lot of time there. I’m sure Michael is very happy to know that this final wish was carried out, as, with the permission of the Kaurna People and University of South Australia, he was the first to have his ashes laid on any UniSA campus. I was honoured to be invited to participate in this special ceremony and helped spread his ashes. It’s now a spot I go to whenever I am on campus to say hi to him or just when I need some time away from my screen.

 

Knowing Michael 

Di Niro: Whenever I was around Michael, I always felt a sense of calm. He was incredibly kind and gentle, and had such a positive outlook on life, despite all he went through. I always considered Michael to be a close friend, even if we couldn’t spend a lot of time together, because the moments we did spend together were incredibly valuable and memorable.

Dunkin: I found that sense of calm as well from Michael. There was also a sense of certainty behind what he was saying. In some short comments, I could see how he could be understood as blunt, but I found direct. The oral history piece in this special issue allowed me to understand further how this skill had developed over time and decreased potential misunderstandings.

Di Niro: Me too. Hearing this from Michael himself as he was nearing death. Dr David Sweet’s oral history piece is a real treasure and will greatly assist in Michael’s legacy continuing.

Dunkin: Are there particular moments from your social connection with Michael that stand out when you reflect on the personal legacies?

Di Niro: One thing our group did well was to celebrate when each of us finally submitted our PhDs and/or got them conferred. I remember Michael coming along to my celebration, and of course I was at his. Even though it took Michael many years to complete his PhD (he was doing it part-time), it never phased him that others would submit and graduate before him. Michael was never jealous. He simply took everything in his stride and was happy to share in celebrating everyone’s success. His attitude to life was clearly shaped through his thirty years of Buddhism and having what truly is a very compassionate soul. I used to be someone who took on too much work and then felt rushed when under pressure with multiple and fast approaching deadlines. Michael helped me to change that. He would talk to me about finding the right balance and valuing life more. He would never talk about his own life nearing the end, rather, he would encourage me to look after myself and appreciate life. I can only guess that Michael had these conversations with me because he was aware of his own life ending and he wanted to play a part in helping me be a better version of myself.

Dunkin: There was a moment at a drinks and networking event when I was chatting with Michael and the topic of labels worked into the conversation. There had been conversations again around religion, identity, and the concept of recovering. It was with Michael and in the social setting that I was introduced to the label and meaning behind a survivor. Growing up gay, in a small country town, with a family gravitated around religion, it did feel like an ongoing struggle through recovery. After that night there was strength from the concept of surviving and knowing that at some point the recovery does stop because the healing is complete. The use of the label ‘survivor’ became a signpost of the time the power shifted.

Di Niro: That’s so interesting. Can you help me to understand this term ‘survivor’?

Dunkin: Certainly. During that conversation we began to cover how certain events during our lives appear to have power over us in a way that forces us about in a manner that removes our autonomy and can make us a victim. The results can make life more difficult, present triggers, and can even explain certain behaviours. After a while, and a lot of personal development, the power shifts. The initial event no longer has power over us and we are in charge of how that event can influence our lives. It’s in that the role from victim evolves to survivor. In hindsight, it was a rather short part of the night’s conversations, but I found there was a lot of power within the points Michael raised. Did you have similar moments socialising with Michael?

Di Niro: Socialising with Michael was always fun, and a real treat. Michael’s final hurrah was my wedding day on 8 April 2018. He made it to the ceremony —I remember seeing his red shirt in the sea of close family and friends standing in the park but I didn’t get a chance to chat to him. Later that evening, I received a message from him: “Sorry I didn’t make it to the Reception, I was just too tired and felt very sick. I did however attend the wedding, which was very nice.”

 

First wave intersex activist

Dunkin: One part of Michael’s legacy that continues today is in the title ‘Gender, Sex and Sexuality’ conference. I didn’t know this until 2019, when Dr Walker informed me that it was Michael’s idea to have ‘sex’ as a separate component of the conference name so that it wasn’t pushed into either or both the gender or sexuality aspects of the conference.

I knew of Michael’s consultancy work for the conference but not much of the details. In conversations, the topics tended toward other aspects of our lives, such as spirituality and education. Was this a similar experience in your interactions?

Di Niro: Yes, my interactions with Michael were similar, we discussed education and hobbies mostly. This is why I am delighted that this special issue includes papers from the GSS conference because they, though not directly responding to Michael, raise themes that were of importance to him. This includes LGBTQIA+ issues and subjugated knowledges in general. These contributions also reflect the flow-on impact of Michael’s life and work, because his contributions to the conference were significant and new generations of PhD candidates and ECRs continue to benefit from his labour, albeit not always in obvious ways.

Dunkin: For the artefact and this special issue I continued to read about and around Michael’s work, including a series of articles he published for Intersex Human Rights Australia (IHRA) (formerly Organisation Intersex International Australia). Michael, through his advocacy work, became a first wave intersex activist. He wrote and pushed for the medical community, and the wider society, to understand that there isn’t a sex binary (male/female) but a variation, which had for a long time been medicalised. In doing so, treating through medication and surgery, which was more for making other people comfortable, rather than accepting a child as they are. His efforts and concerns were even raised in the Australian Senate (Carpenter 2014). In Michael’s articles, and in his interview with Dr David Sweet (2019), he explains his adult diagnosis of Klinefelter Syndrome and in the process discovered answers to aspects of himself and his past. In his writings, he shares that he did eventually accept medical treatment in the form of hormone therapy, which he found to be traumatic. In his own words he said: “I lost contact with my heart” (Noble 2010). From reading all this and from what I already knew about Michael, I understood further where his spirituality informed and benefitted his life. It also added to my knowledge of how Michael cared for others. He did essential work with IHRA but I don’t recall him putting that information forward in our conversations.

Di Niro: Yes, Michael has published a few articles for IHRA that really do shed light on what his life was like. I encourage our readers to read Michael’s own words about his world, and to read his now published artefact (Noble 2003; 2010; 2019).

 

Michael: final words

Dunkin: Michael had a fantastic way of sharing knowledge and educating. His commitment to accuracy and understanding is clear in the legacy he has left behind, through his written pieces and also within his advocacy work. This special edition of Writing From Below continues this work. The papers connect to, reflect upon and even share Michael’s own words in a way that exhibit how Michael connected with others. I hope it would make Michael proud. It has been a pleasure to experience and re-experience Michael and his work as part of the production of this journal issue.

Di Niro: Michael was someone who truly cared for others. This is also evident in his work with students who speak English as a second language, which he told me he found very rewarding to provide one-to-one tutoring. We’ve shared here our thoughts, memories, and experiences of/with Michael, but there is so much more to Michael that will be shared within this special issue. The articles that follow commonly discuss his commitment to social justice and they reflect on different aspects of who he was and how his legacy lives on through those who knew him. I think the best way to introduce this special issue is to let Michael have the last word. This is an excerpt of the biography he published for IHRA in 2010 after he freed himself from years of profound and traumatic medical interventions. Michael, you are greatly missed but certainly not forgotten.

Now I soar in the freedom of living and being who I am, rather than existing according to the dictates of others. My confidence and self-esteem are the greatest they have ever been (Noble 2010).

 

References

Carpenter, Morgan. 2014. Cross-party speeches on intersex health in Australian Senate. ihra.org.au. Viewed 10th July 2020. <https://ihra.org.au/25037/cross-party-speeches-intersex-health-australian-senate/>.

Dunkin, Alex and Fell, Greg. 2018. Peering Through: Sharing decades of queer experiences. Adelaide: Buon-Cattivi Press.

Noble, Michael. 2003. Representations of Klinefelter Syndrome. ihra.org.au. Viewed 8th July 2020. <https://ihra.org.au/18161/representations-klinefelter-syndrome/>.

Noble, Michael 2010. Michael Noble: I am me and I am OK. ihra.org.au. Viewed 9th July 2020. <https://ihra.org.au/18138/opinion-michael-noble/>.

Noble, Michael. 2019. Nicholas Culpeper and the Mystery of the Philosopher’s Stone. Adelaide: Buon-Cattivi Press.

Norris, Joe, Lund, Darren & Sawyer, Richard 2012, Duoethnography: dialogic methods for social, health and educational research, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek

Pinar, William 1975 ‘The Method of “Currere”‘, Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Research Association (Washington, D. C., April 1975). Viewed 10th July 2020. <https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED104766.pdf>.

Sweet, David. 2019. Noble, Michael. unisa.edu.au/ohh. Viewed 8th July 2020. <https://unisa.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Sessions/List.aspx#folderID=%2296e517ed-f601-472f-a9a5-aae80076bee5%22&view=0>.

 

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