In the spring of 2000, I took an anthropology course on culture and power in Latin America with Marisol de la Cadena, who writes on indigenousness in Peru. In that class, I planned to write a seminar paper on the idea of race in Brazil. When I went to the library, however, I became overwhelmed with all of the available literature on that topic. At that point, Professor de la Cadena suggested to me that I write my paper on Afro-Peruvians. When I went to the library, there was practically nothing on Afro-Peruvians. This seemed like a challenge, and I was ready to take it on.
Some online research revealed that there were a few papers on Afro-Peruvians housed at the library at Columbia University in New York. They were not available for Inter-Library loan. So, I went to Columbia and managed to get in the library and to copy the papers. I used those papers and a few general works about race in Latin America to write my seminar paper. I was excited to have a potential dissertation topic about which so little had been written.
As I delved further into the project, however, I realized that the lack of literature on Afro-Peruvians meant that I had to engage with all of the literature on race in Latin America. I had to read the literature on race in Brazil that I had initially shied away from. In addition, I had to read about Colombia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and every other piece of scholarship on race in the region that I could find. There is always more to read, but I got through enough such that my professors agreed to give me a Ph.D. in the spring of 2005.
Then, I began the long process of revising the dissertation into a book. To write Yo Soy Negro: Blackness in Peru, I realized I also needed to engage the literature on the black diaspora. The book became a conversation between the literature on race in Latin America and that on blackness in the diaspora. So, I had to read (and write) some more.
I think my story shows that you should write your dissertation on a topic about which you are passionate and eager to learn more for two reasons. 1) It is a long process: It took over a decade of reading and writing for me to go from the initial idea to my published book. 2) It is more important to follow your passion than look for a hole in the literature. Whether you choose a topic that has never been done before or one that has been done many times before, you still will have lots of work to do. If you are passionate about the work, however, it can be quite rewarding.