Last week, my beloved advisor Sally Merry passed away after a battle with cancer. Sally and I were planning to meet for dinner on the first of April this year. I had planned to treat her to a fancy meal in celebration of a new job. Sally was my advisor and I was deeply grateful for her guidance. As COVID-19 spread, and plans for the month of March, and then April began to be canceled, we realized we would have to settle for a Skype instead. She wrote, in the midst of her chemo treatments: “Maybe things will change…not too likely, but we can hope.” Somehow, and as usual over the years, Sally’s measured optimism was ever striking.
As I am re-reading our correspondence, I recall how for some of her students – myself included – Sally’s advice was the difference between completing our PhDs with confidence and feeling discouraged and dropping out. Sally was generous and accommodating. She came to conversations with enduring curiosity and had a knack for distilling exchanges in a way that left me energized and focused. Whether brainstorming chapter titles, unpacking ethnographic anecdotes, or mapping out book-length arguments, Sally was game and full of patient abundance. When she was away, she would invite students to use her office. I have fond memories of writing at her desk and drifting off to gaze at a map of Hawai’i on her wall.
>> Sally’s intellectual commitments to thinking against totalizing narratives of dominant forces, whether colonial law, international human rights discourse, capitalist expansion and other juggernauts, were palpable in the mentorship she practiced. She challenged conventional hierarchies, treating students as intellectual equals. I remember nervously sitting on an email in which she had shared an article draft and invited my feedback for the first time, only to receive sincere appreciation for my response. Attentive to our various constraints, she guided us to recognize and craft our own paths.
Sally is remarkable for how she made so many of us feel like we were special. She was genuinely curious about our motivations, interests, and experiences. In many ways, she was an academic parent to me, but without the imposition of any expectations that come with such special exchanges. I think I only heard her ever complain about academic presses publishing hardcover books. She talked little about her personal life; I can only hope to hike some of the miles of trails she enjoyed exploring with her family. Sally has given those of us touched by her ideas and mentorship the gift of an ineffable kinship. That her day of departure corresponded to the holy Hindu period of ancestor remembrance and my day of birth has opened up an avenue for reflections for me concerning social vitality and cycles of life and death. Sally’s indefatigable spirit continues on through the blessings of her scholarship and our memories of her. I have Sally’s voice in my head, she insisted on saying things simply and using words judiciously, even when it felt like there was so much to convey. It’s hard to conceive of moving forward without her exceptional wisdom and support. I miss her.