There is a group of people around the world who are oppressed regardless of race, class, economic status, country of origin or religion: women. I make my way through Tribeca with my Borough of Manhattan Community College students—who had spent the semester studying civil disobedience—from our classroom in the Fiterman building, up Greenwich Street to the main campus at 199 Chambers Street, passing Roy Shifrin’s bronze sculpture of Icarus in the entrance plaza, to moderate a panel for Women’s History—Herstory—month. This free and public event, “Writing Women,” was a conversation with three women who write in different disciplines—Celeste Lim, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Terese Svoboda—regarding their accomplishments and the theme of Women Rising. My students and I make our way to one of the larger lecture rooms N451, picking up a large coffee with skim milk (requested for Spivak by her lovely assistant Kristen Reichhardt) from the downstairs cafeteria on the way. While we waited for the event to begin, the seats filled up as people trickled in, and the panelists began to talk and joke with the students. After I had introduced the three amazing women, each read from their work or shared an anecdote before I began the Q&A. Towards the end of the panel, the microphone moves around the room to various students who ask their thoughtfully prepared questions. The panel discussion was followed by an opportunity to mingle—audience, students, and presenters—with refreshments and an assortment of delicious school-catered-cookies—chocolate chip and red velvet—everyone gathered around the table talking to the panelists enthusiastically.
Of Chinese descent, author Celeste Lim was born and raised in Malaysia, where she spent the first seventeen years of her life envious of the children she read about in English storybooks. Now, she has the desire to give the same gift—the awareness of exciting worlds that exist beyond where we live—to children through her own writing. An MFA graduate of Manhattanville College and The New School, Celeste now lives in Queens with her Pomeranian, Hamlet. When I met Celeste as she began her degree in Writing for Children at the New School welcoming ceremony, all the incoming students were asked why they write, and in reaction to the Barbie doll blonde princesses and male western protagonists of fiction for young people, Celeste replied, “To see myself in books.” The Crystal Ribbon, her first novel, depicts the Chinese traditional practice of marrying off young girls to a baby male they then raise as a handmaid. Kirkus Reviews says, “This hopeful coming-of-age story weaves together historical facts and spiritual/cultural beliefs to tell a tale of empowerment from the perspective of a poor, young female…Fantasy, history, folklores, memorable characters, and even a hint of humour converge for a great read.”
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is a professor at Columbia University and a founding member of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. She translated Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology from French to English in 1976, bringing its philosophy of deconstruction to English-speaking audiences. Spivak has published an abundance of work, been awarded numerous prizes, and is an activist in rural education and feminist and ecological social movements. Her seminal piece, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” explored the position of women in colonial countries, the inability of the powerless to express themselves, and the haunting image of her great aunt Bhubaneshwari Bhaduri’s suicide at seventeen. Spivak is credited as being one of the founders of postcolonial studies, a credit she also deconstructs. Her areas of interests include 19th and 20th-century literature, politics of culture, Marxism, feminism, deconstruction, poststructuralism, and globalization. A self declared Europeanist, Spivak has said the humanities can protect us against intellectual colonialism; the humanities are the health system of a culture, as we must train our souls to do right. Reform is not enough; we must rearrange our desires. Her forthcoming book is Running After Du Bois.
Terese Svoboda has published seventeen books of poetry, fiction, memoir, biography, and translation. Among her awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship, Bobst Prize in fiction, Iowa Prize for poetry, NEH for translation, O. Henry Award, Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, Pushcart Prize, Bellagio fellowship, and several NYFA Feloowships. Her opera WET premiered at L.A.’s Disney Hall. Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, and Professor Harriman’s Steam Air-Ship were published in 2016. The Maine in Spain, a chapbook, is forthcoming in 2018. Her book Bohemian Girl rewrites a traditional Huckleberry Finn-type narrative, placing a female at the centre of the action instead, as Harriet encounters the brutal dark landscape of the American West. Svoboda also works as a film producer and activist, founding a scholarship for the Nuer people of South Sudan in Nebraska, producing a PBS documentary on South Sudanese Girls learning to quilt with Nebraskan women. When I interviewed her for my book on Women and Writing and asked how women are represented in literature, she said, “Usually as silent, sanguine, creatures that can’t be known, and I think that’s probably true because I’m speaking about how they are portrayed by men.”
Gayatri Spivak: I want to say just something about my grandmother’s sister [Bhubaneshwari Bhaduri]. I am very glad that you were able to pronounce her name. My mother—when I told her I was going to write about her, was very troubled and said, “What? You’re going to give her name?” and I said, “No, nobody is going to notice.” And in fact, nobody noticed. I didn’t say in my essay that she was my grandmother’s sister; all that I got was very hostile published reactions more than thirty years ago. And before I come to her, I want to say to you [speaking to Celeste Lim] that I very much resonated with your work because my grandmother—my father’s mother—was married at five, and my own mother’s grandmother—my great-grandmother—was married at ten or eleven or something and was widowed at thirteen and then remarried and became very independent. Women’s history, eh? She was very independent, and I don’t even know what kind of education she had. My father’s mother could read a little bit but couldn’t write. But I have her body, you know? She was married at five; she was shorter. She was a little girl, and they were married for social security, you know? But they were not sent to their husband’s house until they were reproductive, and so on. And so by the time she came to her husband’s house, she was much taller than her husband. So when I shot up at eleven, my father said to me, “Look, I saw my mother walk like this all her life.” Actually, it’s very nice to be tall. People are envious of you because you are tall. I was very, very tall at eleven and menstruated the same year; it was a killer year. She was also a very good manager of people because my father’s father—who was a landowner’s agent for a landowner—had a little bit of land, and my grandmother looked after the land. I never saw her, so I hope I have taken after her also in her personality. You know what I mean? And I often think when something or the other happens—because she was there in the village, my father and her brother and his brother never wore clothes until they were six or seven years old. Just a metal ring around their middle. They put on a little more to go to school, but that was it. So I would think that when I do things, you know, what would my grandmother think? I mean, I’m her granddaughter, after all. I must have shared—I must have—some kind of spirit. She must have been somewhat unusual. Not just an illiterate village girl.
Celeste Lim: I feel exactly the same thing.
Spivak: I’m sure that you do. And the other grandmother—she was so independent that she wanted to do something for herself. What would she do in the nineteenth century? So she actually opened a pawnshop, which was near the backdoor of their house. Why? Because, of course, women, if they were in poor shape—and you know with their faces covered—they could bring the jewelry they got at their marriage to another woman pawnbroker, right? So when I was married the first time, my mother gave me a pair of earrings saying everything else was redeemed, but this one was not redeemed. She said, “Baronani”—this is what she called her—”she was the most independent woman in her generation, and you are in yours, so these are yours.” So I wear these earrings—I don’t know whose they were because they were not redeemed from my great-grandmother’s pawnshop—because my great grandmother was so independent, she wanted to do something. I thought that this would not be inappropriate. It’s not my own prose—but it is, I’m speaking, so think of it as my prose, okay?
Bhubaneshwari Bhaduri, my grandmother’s sister—she was part of the armed struggle against the British. It used to be called “terrorism” with some pride, actually—so she was part of the armed struggle against the British. And she was good, and when she was given a killing assignment—an assassination assignment—she found that she was not able to kill. And so according to the rules of those kinds of organizations—if you read Dostoyevsky you know what those organizations were like—she hanged herself. She killed herself. But she waited four days to menstruate because she did not want anyone to think that she was killing herself because she had an illicit pregnancy because that was the only reason why young girls killed themselves. And so she wrote in her body her resistance against the way in which women were defined because remember, there was the practice of burning widows—living widows—on their husband’s pyre. So this young little girl—she was only seventeen—she hanged herself saying, “I will not be defined.” I still choke up when I talk about her. “I will not be defined as somebody who killed herself because of a man, just one man.” And she also wrote a letter to her own sister, my grandmother, which was to be opened sixty years later because obviously we were in this situation with the British, etcetera. Under the radar, remember? So therefore, when the letter was opened, this was understood even more. Nobody knew why she had killed herself. Clearly, it was not for a man. Now this I understood. In the first writing, I did not write that this woman was my grandmother’s sister because then everybody would have loved me. You know, like my great-grandmother was a slave, and here I am an upwardly class mobile woman teaching at a good U.S. university—by writing that then everybody begins to love me. What is that? So I hadn’t written this, so therefore I got all kinds of hostilities. Spivak refused the voice to the subaltern, etcetera and nonsense. They hadn’t read carefully. But at any rate, what happened then was that in this situation of politics she was not allowed to be ethical. In this situation of politics of British imperialism, she was not allowed to be ethical, so she killed herself. And I understood. I learned this lesson from her. And it happens again and again. Today, I hear that there are immigrant women in this city who say, “We pay taxes.” Now paying taxes is a wonderful thing. Paying taxes, in fact, is revenue for state; it’s a way for social justice; it’s a way to the welfare state. But when—this is a course on civil disobedience—not to pay taxes is civil disobedience—a country puts more than seventy-eight percent of its budget on defense, then you pay taxes, and you kill people. So this is the situation between ethics and politics. This is what my grandmother’s sister taught me. That’s why I wanted to tell the story. She didn’t just hang herself because other women didn’t like her. No, she was a fighter.
One last sentence, and I’m gone. I’m not gone, really, but, you see that Marxist, feminist, deconstructivist in Gabriel’s introduction? You know those three labels—you know how that happened? That’s part of my faculty description at Columbia, right? The thing is that the Marxist, feminist, deconstructivist was written about me by a guy called Colin MacCabe. Nice English guy. Why? Because when my third book—you see, I’m seventy-five years old—therefore I have more than one book, otherwise I’d lose my job—so when my third book came out, the editor thought nobody would read my book In Other Words if some well-known guy didn’t write the introduction. So he wrote an introduction, this Colin MacCabe, and in this introduction he called me a Marxist, feminist, deconstructivist, and I have not been able to live down that damned label. So please remember that I don’t take enough care to kind of undo it. It comes back again.
Gabriel Don (Brooklyn Rail): What role can theory and writing play in creating change? Literary theory, theoretical books, academia, the humanities, fiction, poems, histories, memoirs, memoirs of women, children’s books; how can they help women rise and create real-world action?
Terese Svoboda: Well obviously, in my case, I’m hoping that people recognize that history goes in cycles and that women have a place in history to speak up and express themselves. That’s the first level.
Spivak: It’s a very important question. Theory is an English word, which comes from a Greek word. I am a teacher, and there’s a woman from my country, in New Dehli, who chose me as her mentor, and her question was: “How can theory be joined to political activism?” First I wanted to know what she thought theory was, and she gave me some completely Modern, post-colonial stuff that she’s reading that has to do with her own situation: an upper-class woman from Ashoka University in New Delhi. Not everyone from the Global South is dying of hunger. You see, that’s the problem when you just say, “The Global South.” It’s a very reverse-racist phrase—you forget class. I told her, “Look, it’s a Greek word. It is an action word. Theorein. It is to make visible—to make the truth visible, as in the theatre.” We’ve forgotten what that is—that theorizing is a practice. We’ve forgotten that. Everybody theorizes. It’s not just big books that are written. The real problem is whose theorizing is recognized? And that’s the task of teachers.
I have these schools among the landless illiterate in India—for thirty years now. I am going there next week to teach. I go eight to nine times a year. I say to them: “I’m repaying ancestral debts. I’m a caste Hindu—we screwed you for thousands of years. So therefore, I am your servant.” So in that situation, what do you teach? You teach Theorein, as the Greeks thought of it, because it is a Greek word. I’m not obliged to teach all the time in both English and Greek. I know other languages. I teach in my village schools in Bengali. I’m not using the word “theory” there, but this task: to make visible, as in the theatre, the truth emerging—this is the task for anyone interested in social justice: man, woman, upper-primate, whatever. To theorize—it’s an activity—to theorize is a halfway-house. It is always normed by what you do practice. It is always changed, and I’m not alone in saying this. Those who really do theorize know that they don’t repeat themselves. They don’t apply their theory. If you learn theory to apply it, you’re dead. Because whatever you are doing, you will kill it. You will turn it into an example of the theory you have learned from someone else. This is the problem with teaching theory so that you can apply it. No—theorizing is something you do, and you read other people’s theories like creative writing, and they get internalized. It’s not at all to apply. Theory is normed by what happens, and our task is to recognize theorizing when it is not blue-eyed and blonde-haired and dressed in a three-piece suit. That’s why teachers are needed.
I gave you a long answer because this is a very fine question, and other people ask this question, like this young woman from Delhi. The second meeting I said, “What is political activism?” And she brings up something about democratic structures in India. I said, “No, if you’re using the word Democracy—think of it big.” I gave her the Hindi word, Ganatantra—her mother tongue is Hindi—and I said, “What does this word mean, Ganatantra?” And you know, she is so remote from her own kind that she didn’t understand the word for Democracy in her mother tongue. She said: “It means Republic.” You go back and read Plato’s Republic—read it in the bilingual edition, and just read the section on Democracy, and then think about it because I don’t have to say Democracy to all Indians, but I can’t say Ganatantra to you. You don’t know what the word means, so go back to the Greeks if Democracy is the only word you know. Therefore, theory is not something that is just taught in elite enclaves, books of theory, so that you can learn the names of theorists—mostly men—who wrote this, that, and the third thing. Theorizing is an activity to make visible the truth to people who do not resemble you at all. It’s not just for your own kind. That’s something to remember.
Lim: I would like to say that Gayatri’s answers and talks about her grandmother inspired me to say this to you today. I feel like there are two kinds of people in the world: those who make legacies and those who live under other people’s legacies. My great-grandmother was a legacy maker. That’s why we’re inspired by her. She fled China when she was married with her three sons because it was a time in China when there was great famine, when parents would eat their children. Let’s say you have five kids: you sacrificed one so you can feed the whole household—that’s how bad the famine was. People ate pebbles; people ate roots—anything they could get their hands on. And that was the time when instead of staying with her family, like a legacy-liver would do, she made her own path; she created her own legacy. She fled China with her three sons and made a home for us in Malaysia. That’s why we’re Malaysian-Chinese for three generations. The rest of her family, her posteriors, live under her legacy. But I was inspired by her, and that’s why I set out to create my own legacy in her footsteps. I really felt the same way when you said you hope you resemble or aspire to be like your grandmother because she was inspirational. I think only two things make legacy-makers: one is desperation, and the other is inspiration. So out of desperation, you create your own path; you make your own legacy. And out of inspiration, like I did—I was inspired by my great grandmother to step out on my own and inspire other people. Inspiration, as long as you keep yourself inspired through the works of other people and people you aspire to become—people you want to be like—you keep reading their works, you look at their lives, you look at their achievements, and you will want to do something that will have the same impact, or more, on other people. That’s how people rise in power.
Rail: In what ways does being a woman interfere with being considered “intellectual?” Do you think women are judged solely as sexual objects or objects of beauty, rather than thinking, intellectual beings?
Lim: I have a lot to say about this. Is this a crazy hair color?
Rail: No. [Audience murmurs in agreement]
Lim: No? Are you serious? Do you know what my mom told me I looked like when I got this?
Spivak: I know—but you tell.
Lim: Well, you tell me if you guessed right—she said, “Celeste, you look like a prostitute.”
Spivak: There we go. I was going to say whore!
Lim: It’s so common! Especially in Far Eastern countries, it is so, so common. My boyfriend even told me, “Prostitutes don’t have hair like that!”
Spivak: What’s wrong with being a prostitute? That’s the real question here!
Lim: The only thing that is making her cringe is me doing things to my appearance that will affect my marriage-ability. That’s what society tells her. That’s what the “Livers” do. They feel like they have to follow what society tells them they should look like because the only life they know is the best life, and the only life my mother knows is being a married spouse and having children; she feels like that is the best life she can want for her kids, and that’s the way she is pushing us. It’s not bad, but it’s not what everyone wants.
Svodoba: I’m thinking.
Spivak: The thing is that yes, of course it stands in the way. Now, for example, if I walk out into the street and the people “don’t know” that I am a professor at a pretty elite school, I’m treated as an old, colored lady wearing a costume. I’m treated like an infant or an idiot. You know, this will be my experience when I walk out right now. I was on this television show that David Eisenhower has called “The Whole Truth.” It was about feminism here and in the world in the age of Trump. There was a very nice Trump supporter—her husband is in the Foreign Service. She has five children and is dressed in fantastic clothes. She says to me—because I was trying to talk about women and their needs and obligations and powers— “Don’t talk down.” She is a Princeton graduate. I said, “What are you talking about? What did your teachers do to you at Princeton that you think that if a teacher talks like a teacher that she is talking down? I’m not talking down.” Then I said, “And you know if we walked out of this room, you dressed in your wonderful clothes, your color, your age, and your beauty, and then me, who do you think will be talking down to whom?” At least, Professor Eisenhower and you [to Don] have given me the chance to speak my mind in public. Therefore, the fact that a woman is not treated like an intellectual—this is something that I live every day. When I was young, although it is hard to believe now, I was a dish! Then it was like the other way, right? I mean, you [To Svoboda] won the Guggenheim. Now—I won’t name any names because these are very well-known people—when I first came to Cornell in 1961 there was no awareness about sexual harassment. We actually worked hard to bring those things in. Every teacher treated me like a sexual object! The man I’m speaking about is a very well-known man who was even honored by Obama, pressed his hands on my breasts, and I said, “Look, I’m sorry.” You know what he tells me? “I’m on the standing committee of the Guggenheim.” So I said to him, “Well, I guess I just won’t win the Guggenheim.” I did later.
Svoboda: It only took me twenty years…
Spivak: I know! I did later. But nobody pressed your breasts!
Spivak: But not for the Guggenheim, right?
Svoboda: Not for the Guggenheim.
Spivak: That’s what I mean.
Svoboda: Two of the poets that I wanted to support my application—after the deadline was over, I discovered they didn’t write the application—
Spivak: There we go!
Svoboda: —because I had, obviously, not put out…
Spivak: You had not put out! See, that is what I’m saying. But my oldest dissertation director was a prince, Paul de Man. One couldn’t imagine that he would sink there. He was extraordinarily wonderful. So there was that. But my mother—and I want to speak in favor of my mother here—my mother was married at fourteen, my brother was born when she was fifteen, but my father recognized that his child-bride was an intellectual—not just somebody who thought women should be educated, that kind of crap, which is just talk down. He recognized that she may be more intelligent than he was. This is why I say my father is wonderful. So he actually protected her so that—they had children in between her exams—she got a B.A. in 1935, an M.A. in 1937—which is as good as a PhD today—when she was twenty-four years old.
My father died in 1955, and so when I was fifteen and she was a widow—a Hindu widow, and marriages are still arranged in my family—my mother told me: “Dear, people say arranged marriages are bad, but they are not all bad.” Since she had a graduate degree in Bengali, she spoke high Bengali, so I’m translating it in high English. She said something like this: “Choosing someone in a libidinous rush is not necessarily free choice. Because people only look at the bad arranged marriages, that’s how they are judged. In fact, when parents arrange a marriage, they go into an investigation like you wouldn’t believe—because marriage is a social contract!” I was in my third year of college and in the Young Communist League when offers for my hand in marriage were coming in, so she told me: “Dear, you already have so much of a life outside of the house. I don’t know what will make you happy. I can’t arrange your marriage.” This was an unbelievable bold statement for a forty-three-year-old Hindu widow to tell me in 1957. She freed me because she knew that I could blame her later. She knew! She knew me well enough that I could understand that she had rewritten my—like education can rewrite honor as your productive right—she rewrote me so that today with three husbands gone, no children, which is seen as very bad luck even by educated people because there are two kinds of people in the world: child-ed and unchild-ed. But she made me understand that I was free. So I will say that my mother was unbelievable. There is so much more that I could say, but there isn’t enough time. We must all speak. Once you set me on my mother, I cannot stop.
Svoboda: Well… you are lucky.
Spivak: I know!
Svoboda: I’m from the Midwest. Both my parents have advanced degrees. I’m the oldest of nine children. When it came time for me to go to college, my father didn’t believe that women should go to college. So I had to work my way through college, and when I got a scholarship at Columbia, he loaned me the money for the first year at six-percent interest.
Spivak: Oh my.
Svoboda: And that continues. That’s the Midwestern tradition of the “pioneers”: the woman does not count—unless you have nine children. The only other instance that occurred to me was when I had a boyfriend in Montreal, and I would fly up every weekend from New York in the good old days when it only cost fourteen dollars, and one trip I was called back by customs into the proverbial light-bulbed room and questioned over and over again. They wanted to know what I did, and I said that I was a poet and they said, “No, you’re not.” They finally said: “You’re a typist. You can go.”
Rail: To what extent, when you read, is there the assumption that the subject is of the West and the subject is a male, and so on in relation to the protagonist’s history, geography, class, gender and race? And how do you try to undo this in your writing?
Svoboda: Well when I write, it is all about me. So that doesn’t come into play. I don’t think about that. Mostly because I don’t write for an audience, I never think anyone is going to read it.
Spivak: I don’t either.
Svoboda: Yeah! And if I’m amusing myself, I assume you’re going to have an interest, too. I just assume it, and if you don’t want to read it, you don’t have to, and Huckleberry Finn can just go you-know-what himself.
Lim: I grew up in Malaysia, but I grew up reading English books. And guess what English books are about? Very, very fair children in a far away country that I had no idea what the place is like. I just had books. I had Hollywood movies to look at, but in my very young mind, the conception that formed was that English books could only be about Western people. If you wanted to look for Chinese girls in a story, in exciting adventures, doing exciting things, you went to Mandarin books. That’s why I’m bilingual, you know? Believe it or not, the first story I ever wrote when I was seventeen was in English because I could only write in English. My Mandarin wasn’t anywhere as good as my English. I read so many more English books than I did Mandarin books, and I felt that I could only—if I wanted to write in English—write about Western life or Western people. My first book was about three Caucasian sisters who lived in New York City—a place that I had never been to. I made up streets that sounded English. I imagined what it looked like and lots of other things that I could only put in there because I had learned about them through English books and things. Understandably, the manuscripts stayed in my drawer. So it was a very crippling conception for my writing, and believe it or not, I only managed to get around that conception when I came here when I was around twenty-seven, twenty-eight. And I was still writing about Caucasian people until I decided to come here and see for myself the magical place that existed only in books, to actually write something. I actually learned through writing class that you are allowed to write about your own experience. English is not only for people whose first language is English. In retrospect, I cannot believe it took me so long to realize that because there were no books about Chinese girls or anything in English. My first professor told me in our first class together to “draw inspiration from your reservoir of your seminal experience.” So I’m like, seminal experience?
Spivak: A very male metaphor!
Lim: So she explained what it was, and I felt, “Am I allowed to do this?” She said, “We’d would love to hear about it.” That’s how The Crystal Ribbon was conceived, amazingly.
Lim: I think it did a load of wonders. It suddenly opened up so many things for me to write about. Suddenly, I felt like I had a new calling in writing. If I, from an obscure country that a majority of American people have never heard about—could be inspired by what was to me a fantasy land—because we don’t celebrate Christmas the same way, we don’t have snow, my life resembled nothing of the children that live in the books—to me, I might as well be reading Harry Potter; it’s a fantasy land. If I could be inspired by children or books that were set in a world that I completely didn’t connect with, if I could be inspired by that, and through this inspiration I traveled outside of my little nook to see things for myself and do great things for myself, I could do the same for other people. I want to inspire them to venture out and create—do things for yourself, and see things for yourself.
Spivak: Now the thing is that, as you [to Svoboda] said, I am a very fortunate person—very unusual parents. They were, themselves, plain-living, high-thinking, anti-casteist, wonderful people. On the other hand, don’t think that this means money. All of the money that I ever inherited from my dad, at today’s exchange rate would be about fifteen dollars—800 rupees—it was a little more at that time. He died when I was thirteen, and I’ve supported myself since I was seventeen years old. I came here because I was an editor of a journal where I had so criticized the university that I was told by my best teacher that I would not get a first class in M.A. At that time, if you didn’t have rich parents and you couldn’t pay to come abroad because of the five-year plans in India—if you were in the humanities, and you didn’t get a first class, then you couldn’t even get a passport. So I wanted to leave and stay abroad.
What happens: I met Spivak, and so on. Also, I got a job when I was twenty-three. I got tenured and this and that, so I didn’t particularly care, and I stayed but didn’t become a citizen. So I supported myself and borrowed money on a life-mortgage because I had no collateral. I didn’t tell my mother I had done it right in the middle of my M.A. So I’m not talking about money or class. I’m talking about the fact that I was fortunate in their gift of spirit to me.
But I was also fortunate in the fact that, unlike most Indian upper-class people that will be here, I did not go to a convent school. I went to a school where I was taught by Christianized tribals and outcasts—untouchables—because my parents were that way. We don’t come from that caste. We are caste Hindus, but on the other hand they were complete anti-casteist. They felt that we caste Hindus had treated these people badly for thousands of years. Colonialism is 300 to 500 years. It’s nothing—it’s the day before yesterday. We are an old culture, and we have actually oppressed the so-called “tribals” and the so-called “untouchables” for thousands of years—5,000 to 8,000 years. We are a settler colony. Therefore, they sent us to this school where they knew that the teachers would teach like there was no tomorrow because these people who had been treated like animals by us were now teaching us. That school made me. So to an extent, my whole attitude toward colonialism is a little complicated. You know, it isn’t just “they’re bad, they’re bad; we’re good, we’re good.” It ain’t like that. This school was in Bengali. I didn’t go to school in English, so I still read, write, teach, publish, lecture in Bengali. Not a problem. I’m in my native language. The fact is that I’m good at languages. I learned English at one school, in one class. There was an English class, and I learned English. Therefore, I don’t feel removed from anything. I have these schools, so I have to go home. I’m not nostalgic about the Republic of India or anything. I am extremely critical of the Republic of India as a citizen ought to be—an intellectual. I’m also very critical of the country of my residence, which is the United States. So therefore, in that situation what I’m also against is Nationalism. “Love me because I’m Indian” is not my stuff. I’m against Nationalism as much in India as I am here or as I am anywhere because I was put in a position where I was made to understand from a very young age that Democracy means other people, not just my rights, but also equality for people who do not resemble me at all.
All the stuff I was reading was written by Indian nationalists who brought an independence for sure, but the India imagined by Ghandi and Nehru and people like that since they were upper-class folks, ignored that. Ghandi and Nehru were educated in Great Britain and were barristers. Nehru wrote a book called Discovery of India—their India was what my friend and ally, Edward Said, would call “Orientalist.” And Orientalist visions of countries bring in independence, but independence is not a revolution. National liberation is not a revolution. People don’t change. So therefore, I have no problem thinking that white is just a color. I have no problem because I was brought up that way. I was brought up to be very critical of my own kind, so I don’t think that the Europeans have the union ticket to oppression. We have been pretty bad oppressors ourselves. Class is something that we need to think about. Therefore, it’s not a problem.
I’m teaching this text called Globalization: Global and Universal. My first text was Fanon, and I said that I’m not teaching Fanon because he’s African—actually he wasn’t of course; he’s Caribbean—but I’m not teaching him because he’s from Martinique, etcetera. I’m just teaching him because he is the best example of the argument. I don’t care what color he was at this point. You ought to listen to him because he is the best example of his argument. One more thing I will say: my students in those areas—the landless illiterates, a very backward area—they don’t remember colonialism. If United States folks have forgotten Vietnam, these people are illiterate, so how will they remember colonialism? Independence happened in 1947, but they remember caste oppression. They remember us because we are still screwing them. I asked someone—because Independence Day is celebrated, and I give talks all over the place—so I asked a kid, “Hey, what was independence all about?” He said: “We chased out the British.” I said, “Who are the British?” He said, “I don’t know.” So I said, “What did they do? “Well, they didn’t let us celebrate Independence Day.” See, so colonialism is a joke there because we were the oppressors. One has to know that the largest sectors of the illiterate in India, Asia, and Africa are not necessarily still focused on white and black. They’re not. Because black is the only color they see. It’s everybody. They’re focused on class. They’re focused on fat cats and no infrastructure. One must not think that the imperial countries, where there is horrible racism—the middle passage—that’s the example of oppression all over the world. That is even Euro-centric.
I show them the picture because they don’t have maps or anything: “Look at this little place. They won!” Let’s think of Europe for a minute—just a tiny little corner, right? Why did they win? And I talk about how simple English is as a language, just twenty-six letters and what kinds of sounds can be made? I asked them to love English because we also love our mother tongue. It’s not a problem. And then I also tell them about James Watt and the little high school kid who is looking at the map. I mean this is a joke. I romanticize this thing. They don’t know about anything in Europe. We are ruining them: the rich in India. Rich Indians are ruining them. I talk to them about belly dancing and steam engines—some of my students have not seen trains. I’m talking about India, contemporary India. I’ll be there next week. Therefore, Europe becomes an example of really paying attention and so on. It’s not like Dipesh Chakrabarty Provincializing Europe, but make it one example amongst many. It’s not true that it’s our kind that always has to be praised and “please love me, it’s all about me.” No, it ain’t about me! It’s about other people. That’s what democracy is. I say to these poor people—other people’s children—because they vote. They vote! If they are voting, they can’t just think about their own rights, however poor they are. So, that’s my story. I’m sorry I got a little passionate about this, but you see, this is what my life is about. I’m going to see them again next week.
Rail: In terms of the theme of BMCC’s Herstory month—the theme women rising and women in particular—what do reading and writing give access to? And then just because a woman is reading or a woman is writing or a woman is speaking does not mean someone’s reading her or someone’s listening to her. Very often people can become uncomfortable when a woman asks for space, even if she is being reasonable in her demands for space, so what do reading and writing give access to, and how can the silenced, the unheard, be heard? What role can writers and teachers play in giving a voice to those who do not have one?
Lim: I think it all comes down to what I said before: inspiration is so, so important because people are inspired to be brave. People are inspired to stand up and say things and do things for their own good. So I think it is important when we read and write and when we receive things from other women that we allow ourselves to be inspired. And that we allow ourselves to be moved in a direction that we feel we should go in, and when we’re inspired, inspiration gives us motivation and the drive to do something with ourselves and do something for the betterment of either ourselves or others. And I think that’s it because you can read 10,000 books, but if you don’t allow yourself to be touched or moved in any way, you can sit through a class, you can sit through anything, you can watch movies, you can sit there and receive 100% and process it the same way if you don’t allow yourself to be inspired. I think it’s all up to the person who is receiving what is being given to them.
Svoboda: If you see something, say something. An axiom I’m going to say is: “Just say no!” In other words, I related to you the story of how I was un-encouraged as a young woman, and my response was resistance.
Spivak: There we go…
Svoboda: And fury. And I was going to do what I was going to do no matter what. So now whenever I get the little red flag that says, “No, you’re a poet, you can’t write a novel,” I write a novel. And then, “No, you won’t to be able to write a biography. You can’t do that, you’re not a scholar.” And then I want to make a point that one thing I learned in this biography is that sometimes your contribution can be your art rather than your activism. You have to be involved in understanding the world in a complex way. I go to demonstrations and am at those situations, but I’m not necessarily going to jail like Grace Paley and a number of other famous literary people. So there are a variety of ways to express yourself in that situation. My last point is that I translated the songs of the South Sudanese people called the Nuer a long time ago because they had no one else to do the translations. They spoke English, but they didn’t have that access that I did at that point, so it’s a very complicated place to be. I really can’t speak for them, but I acted as a conduit so that the world could see the beauty of their oral tradition, and then I have to disappear in that way of representing. Being of the wrong race or wrong culture at the wrong time is a handicap, but still the piece was written.
Spivak: I know how you feel, but it shouldn’t be a handicap because white is not a color; it is a set of attitudes, and you don’t have that set of attitudes. I just wrote this to someone on the right to join the others who are critical of the same thing from within the group. And once someone earns that right, who cares if the skin is a little pinky-brown (which is called white)?
Spivak: I would also agree very much that you as a translator have to disappear.
Svoboda: Yes, of course.
Spivak: There are people now who have ideas of a translation where if they make mistakes and foreign-ize and stuff like that, then what they translate becomes better. Of course everybody makes mistakes. That’s not the point, and indeed that can add something to what you’ve translated, like the authorized version, but that doesn’t mean you choose to make mistakes so that the translation will become better. I completely agree with you: you have to disappear. And in terms of reading and writing, somebody interviewed me at Columbia—it was just a database type thing, so I realized that she was completely uninterested in what I was saying, and at one point she asked me, how has my self-concept changed, and I had to say that as a result of this thing which is not really activism, it is also teaching…
Spivak: …I teach at Columbia, and that salary allows me to run these schools. It’s teaching. My standards are the same. No one thinks my teaching at Columbia is activism, so why is this activism? I don’t enjoy reading books that much anymore because of the way in which generalizations are made. You can tell that these people have never touched way below the NGO radar—the real bottom. Where in fact people have imaginations. One of my illiterate friends, Nimai Lohar—he sang a song which translated would say, “My mind makes as if to fly; circumstances do not give me wings.” That’s an imaginative couplet, and he is an illiterate person. See, people say, “Your literacy project?” What literacy project? When you send your children to school, are you sending them for literacy? No. I don’t think reading, writing, and numeracy—which are good things to have—make you good people. Those are statistics. It seems to me what is really needed is a style of education that cooks the soul slow. Everything now is speed and ease of learning—that’s not how one is able to use the kinds of things that are accessible to the top or might become accessible even to the bottom. I think that what is really needed is not just reading, writing, and numeracy, but some people who will think about the fact that the largest sectors of the electorate in the world are being subject to a class apartheid in education. They don’t even know the right to intellectual labor. At the top it’s the same thing—the right to intellectual labor, labor saving device, digital idealism, so that the right to intellectual labor I reach at both ends—Columbia, as well as these schools—and I do nothing but teach. That’s what I am. I entered school in 1946 and never left. One has to think about the fact that just reading and writing does nothing. In fact, as I say, there are illiterate people who are very smart. I don’t like illiteracy, which should not be confused with orality—that’s a different thing—but illiterate people who are very smart are ruined by bad education. Therefore, the quality of education—some of us need to think of that in terms of how you rearrange desires, how you serve your students. That’s a very different ballgame from just reading and writing and teaching—and reading and writing and being able to count.
Lim: I just want to build a bit on top of that because I was a teacher as well, not for very long, but I noticed that the problem of the majority of the students I taught back in Malaysia, was not their competency in reading, writing, and everything but their competency in critical thinking. Either they do know how to, or they refuse to, or they are too lazy to think. They are incapable—when encouraging discussion—they are incapable of coming up with sound things that actually make sense. Gayatri is very right in saying that education now is taking a whole lot of shortcuts—in Asian countries—I know for a fact in China—
Spivak: Also here, please don’t say just Asian countries.
Lim: I don’t know enough about America.
Spivak: Well I do. I am just giving you a supplement here. It’s not like we are better.
Lim: I don’t know about here, but as Gayatri said, here as well. Students are given a whole lot of shortcuts to score in exams. The goal in the end is about the result. Back where I came from, it’s all about results; it’s all about memorizing. Students are taught ways to write. They’re given formulas to write. Even in the English language, anything—formulas as though every single subject is math and science—there is a formula to remember how you write. That’s how you get full marks. That’s all people care about. It has impeded all of the students’ willingness. They feel that all their effort is being put into memorizing, and that’s all they’re going to do, and when you ask them to come up with something and to think about, or to provide, an opinion on something, they just can’t do it.
Rail: So not just thinking, but thinking for themselves and independent thinking—it’s so important. My last question before I’ll open it up to you [to students and audience]: To what extent is patriarchy ingrained in the English language, and how can we rebel against it? How do we de-colonize our minds, de-hegemonize our desires, and get rid of dualistic thinking—male female, man woman, public private, married unmarried, child un-childed, black white. How can we deconstruct the opposition between genders and displace these binaries?
Lim: I think a trap that a lot of people or women fall into is the trap of privileging what society deems as correct and incorrect—natural and unnatural. What is correctness? But when you see the world in terms of right and wrong, you’re living by someone else’s standards, and you’re not living according to yourself. I have a friend who says, “Oh I’m turning thirty. I need to get married.” But who told her that? Does she actually want to get married by thirty? She does not even know. She thinks she knows, but she doesn’t really. And she is being pressured to do all sorts of things that society, her parents, want of her, and when you allow yourself to be informed by what the majority thinks—and that’s the whole herd-mentality—that is when we let others control us and take control of our lives.
Svoboda: For the last thirty-forty years, I’ve been a dumb blonde—on purpose.
When I lived in Nuerland (South Sudan), I arrived—everybody was about seven foot tall. No one was wearing any clothes, and when they said hello to me, they spit on my head. And when I tried to do things like carry water on my head and cook, make roti kinds of things, everybody laughed. I couldn’t pound grain—I was like, zero. So when you apprehend that you are not a person in the world, you know the values are different everywhere you go. You understand who you are made of and where you can go.
Spivak: In spite of values being different and in spite of one wanting to break out for oneself and not follow others, I think one should also realize that one is after all also symptomatic of whole historical backgrounds. Culture is relative, and values are different because there is one that we are following. We don’t think we are following—even that is a kind of tradition: this kind of individualism that you have to say what you think and so on. I think there is a virtue in recognizing that it’s a class thing. To be able to say that I’m making a rupture, every single self-declared rupture is also a repetition. Human beings—we are not all kings of ourselves. To be so reliant upon oneself is to forget that one is also written in history, in geography, in all of that. That does not make one weak. To recognize one’s limits does not make one weak.
You see, the smart people that I have known—the really smart people—and it’s been my great good fortune to meet people who are much smarter than I am—Derrida, for example, and Bimal Krishna Matila. There are others whose names you don’t know. Why don’t you know it? Because this is the whole business of who gets known. He is very well-known among certain kinds of extremely well-trained philosophers, but Derrida is known more broadly. Why? Because an idiot girl translated him at twenty-five. At twenty-five years old I didn’t even know who he was—never heard his name. I ordered the book out of a catalogue. Now, of course, there is a language police out wanting to take that text back. They wrote to my publishers saying, “You know you should withdraw that book because everything is being organized by the University of Chicago.” Niche marketing, right? To an extent these very smart people—Edward Said—he says to me one day, “Gayatri, I wish I could write like Noam Chomsky.” I said to him: “Edward, are you crazy? Noam Chomsky is sitting in his study saying, ‘I wish I could write like Edward Said!’” And then he would give a talk, and he would turn to me after the whole thing was over and say, “Ah what stupidities I said.” You know, this thing of being able to recognize that one is imprisoned by one’s ignorance if one turns everything into one’s own so-called judgment—this is what humanity teaches you not to fall afraid. I mean, I teach, right? I have these seniors—these Columbia seniors, hand-picked and interviewed, only twelve—in my class every Wednesday. They don’t know how to do this. They don’t know how to make their imaginations flexible. They know how to write surveys; they know to make gists of things. Do you realize that when Dubois writes—W.E.B. Dubois—the first sentence of his chapter—General Strike on the Black Reconstructions—says when “Edward Ruffin fired the first shot at Fort Sumter, he freed the slaves.” This is a rhetorical sentence because Edward Ruffin was incredibly pro-slavery—in fact when the Yankees won, he killed himself. What Dubois is trying to say to us, rhetorically, is that you don’t know what you’re doing. You think you’re acting for yourself, but history writes itself through you. He actually brought about the Civil War. The fugitive slaves joined the Union Army; it became about freeing the slaves—before that, it wasn’t. So he is writing in this fantastic sentence, a rhetorical thing. Can you imagine that a very good philosophy senior who is taking a course on Heidegger could not understand and said that Dubois seems to be ignoring the fact that Ruffin was not for emancipation?
So what happens is that this ability—this focusing on one’s self is, I know, is a symptom of not really being all that smart. That’s what I say to my students. I say, “Look, make your imagination flexible so that you can go into another space.” Otherwise, you make your survey of Toni Morrison’s God Saves A Child. You have an idea already, and then you bring the book down to the limits of your ignorance. Try to read. We can all grow. Move with the text. Don’t just think about yourself. As I said before, democracy is not about me; democracy is about people who do not resemble me. The idea of being able to make one’s imagination so flexible that you can inhabit other spaces is not going to make you weak; it is going to make you stronger. One must take that risk of not always remaining confident that whatever I judge, whatever I say, whatever my fulfillment is—is what the world is for. No. If I have learned anything it is that I must be able to learn to make mistakes. Not just learn from my mistakes—because that’s much harder—but learn to make mistakes. In these thirty years of teaching these people, I still haven’t learned how to fashion a democratic pedagogy for children who have nothing, who at the age of five have to look after cows and other people’s cows and goats—children who have nothing and whose mind-machines have been ruined by thousands of years of the denial of intellectual labor. I haven’t learned yet, but that’s all right. It won’t happen in my lifetime. In 18th Brumaire, Marx says, “The revolution of the nineteenth century is going to get its content from the poetry of the future.” That’s what one must remember. It’s the poetry of the future! I may not be able to do any damn thing, but maybe I will be useful for someone I don’t know who will come down the line. It’s not just me.
Gabriel Don is a multidisciplinary artist or renaissance woman who works in a variety of mediums: a filmmaker, artist, photographer, musician and writer. She received her MFA in creative writing at The New School, where she worked as the Reading Series and Chapbook Competition Coordinator. Don currently teaches writing at BMCC. Her short stories are forthcoming in publications such as Gargoyle 70 and her poetry collection, Living Without Skin, is forthcoming with A Gathering of The Tribes, Fly By Night Press.