|Soka University of America|
He sits to write but the words won't emerge. He wants to write. Every time, he begins to write, he chokes. He wants to write but he feels paralyzed by words lodged in his throat.
His heaving tongue cannot dislodge the burden of history, of memory, desire, of language.
She writes, schedule yourself for a few hours every day without distraction.
He is easily and quickly distracted. Memories and daily happenings intrude constantly, incessantly on his concentration.
She writes, I think you need to take a deep breath and try and shed the old stuff - renew yourself and start as if from a different tack.
He starts again. He tries to make sense of his need to write and of his resistance to writing.
What silences you, she asks. What are you afraid of?
He is afraid that he will lose himself in language, afraid that he doesn't have language that is adequate at his disposal, afraid that the language he has disposes him. He is afraid that in writing he will become absorbed in the manipulations of language, afraid that language will begin to speak him.
He is anxious about resisting the pressures to speak/think/write correctly, anxious that his fears of how he will be read will police his desires to write in forms that do not conform to hegemony-making ways. But he is also anxious about how his resistances and his writing will be read.
He wonders if all language is simultaneously a rupturing and a silencing.
The room he writes in is small and cluttered with his belongings. A bed, a desk and chair, a dresser, two bookcases, another chair, a mirror. Piles of books and papers cover the tops of things. There is a window that looks out onto the alley but the building across blocks the light. It is always dark in this room.
He likes the darkness. He finds it comforting and compelling but he imagines writing in an uncluttered room.
He writes against the landscape of dis-ease. A story in the Los Angeles Times. One in four children born in Los Angeles county will not have health insurance. Another story in the Los Angeles Times. Area hospitals have made it a habitual practice to dump patients on skid row. Frequently these are mentally ill patients, who have nowhere else to go. They are dropped off on the streets, without even prescription medication. This is the state of the richest nation in the world, the land of wealth and opportunity.
He begins to think of clutter as symptomatic of these times.
The Ku Klux Klan are allowed to march in cities across the US - they are sanctioned the right to proclaim their hatred often even from the steps of State Capitols. But the homeless are routinely evicted from public spaces. Queers are beaten up for being in the wrong place at the right time. So-called 'illegal aliens' are hounded and deported.
Elvira Arellano, a single undocumented working mother, characterized by one US Immigration and Customs Enforcement official as 'a criminal fugitive alien', forced into sanctuary in a Chicago church after an immigration judge orders her to appear for deportation, is arrested by federal immigration officials at an immigrants' rights rally outside Our Lady of Angels Church in Los Angeles, watched by her eight-year-old son, a US citizen. She is deported the following day.
Memories and daily occurrences trespass.
An (im)migrant from the third world, an 'international' academic living/writing/teaching in the US, the heart of empire, he collects and recollects memories, desires, trespasses, engages his circumstances.
As he attempts to make sense of what is around him, bombs explode in Fallujah, Basra, Beirut, Gaza.
Contemplating the politics of writing, language, desire, he recognizes what a privilege it is to not be living at the frontlines of exploding bombs.
He recognizes the privilege, his privilege, of being able to contemplate the politics of writing, language, desire away from the frontlines of exploding bombs.
In the in-between of diasporic displacement, he wonders if his engagements with the local make him parochial, insular, US-centric. He wonders if his deliberations, his struggles, are self-indulgent.
With such wonderings, he begins to write, tentatively, hesitantly. How can he write but in fits and starts? How can any writer write without the encroachment of memories, desires, incessant upheavals?
What silences you? What are you afraid of? It is language that he fears, the language of the fathers. He fears that in writing he will swallow the language of the fathers.
Why should he claim this language, write in the voice of the fathers?
This language of the fathers bestows credibility, authority, integrity, honour; but what does it make him lose? This language of the fathers offers privileges but what sacrifices must he make to speak in it? This language of the fathers grants respectability, morality, esteem, but what violences must he be complicit with to write it?
Why should he uphold the tradition of the fathers? Why should he pledge allegiance to the fatherland, to the language of men when that language dishonours him, shames him, lies to him?
A writer should disrupt language that excludes to oppress, rupture language that oppresses. A writer should attempt to interrogate language, question its limits, its screens. A writer should dare to imagine.
He recalls often Rachel Blau DuPlessis's words, 'the struggle on the page is not decorative' (1990: 173).
His lover asks, why are you suspicious of language? Why do you distrust it so much?
Language does not come easily to him. He struggles with words. He loves words but his relationship to words is uneasy, troubled, tentative. He wants both to do and undo language at once.
Dreams of a common language, a universal language, confound him.
He notes that as South Africa moves towards embracing the eleven official languages in its new constitution, the US moves toward English-only legislation. Australia introduces a proposal to require a new citizenship test in English for all future immigrants.
What is at stake in the dream for a common language, a familiar tongue? What issues of power are embedded in this dream for a common language? What yearnings? What desires? What ambitions?
Writing leads into a web of struggles. He struggles with writing and with the language that he has. He feels both estranged from and united with the language he has.
The language that he has is the language of the law, of the colonizers, of the fatherland. Where is he in this language, the language of law, the language of the colonizers, the language of the fatherland? Where are queers in the language? The sexually transgressive? Language is the enemy and yet he needs this language to speak. This is the old dilemma.
He struggles with language, trying to open language to accommodate disparate desires, tensions, but sometimes he feels strangled by language.
Overwhelmed by notions of right and wrong, of earning a passing grade, students learn not to experiment. They may not have learnt all or any of the rules but they have been trained to believe that if they want to do well in the US academy they must follow the rules. And the rules that they think they must follow are the usual ones. Start with a thesis. Be objective. Anticipate the objections that opponents of your position will make, and try and respond to their objections. Do not use personal experiences. Oh, okay, use personal experiences but try and make your experiences universal. Write for the general reader. Be universal. Appeal to everybody. Of course, students don't always follow these rules but most of them learn to recognize that these are the rules and that they will be punished if they don't follow the rules. But good writing rarely emerges from following all the rules. Good writing emerges when writers take risks and are encouraged to take risks. Good writing seldom emerges without risks.
He wants to teach in ways that will let his students take risks. He wants to encourage them to take risks. He knows this is risky for them and for him. Risks excite him and he wants to dispel the myth often invoked into enforcing conformity-that it is only those with privilege who can afford to take risks.
Desire consumes him. It marks him. He is often accused of not wanting to give up desire. Desire brings him pleasure. Pleasure is not spurious. He understands why it is seen as dangerous to the social and moral order but he does not want to, cannot, imagine a theory without desire and pleasure. He does not want to imagine a theory that does not interrogate the social and moral order. He wants to think with both his head and his heart, at once.
Her will is simple. The pieces of furniture given her by friends should be returned to them. Anything else my grandson wants should go to him.
He sits in the room immobilized. He wants the room to be imprinted on his memory. This is the room in which she spent the last five years of her life, the first room that she ever had that she could call her own.
He remembers asking her, after all those years of living with others, don't you get lonely staying by yourself? She tells him she loves the comfort of seclusion. She tells him it is a relief, a joy. She likes the reliability of her own companionship.
A year before she died, she visited him. They are drinking tea. He tells her she should write about her life, about moving from Lahore to Delhi to Toronto. She says, my life is not important. She asks about his writing. He tells her he is struggling to write. She tells him, you do not have to destroy your bhoots; respect the demons that haunt you.
Among her things are several notebooks. In them, detailed budgets and inventories of things to do and buy.
What is our responsibility? What is our responsibility? The question resounds.
Is he being irresponsible in suggesting that it is impossible to prepare students in one writing class to write across the curriculum? What does it mean for teachers of composition to take on the task of preparing students to write across disciplines? Can we in fact prepare students for all disciplines? And what if the ways in which we are expected to prepare them for different disciplines go against our convictions of liberal education, of critical thinking? Should we, as teachers of composition, be expected to teach our students to unabashedly delight in capitalism and global corporatism because the mandate of business is to exult in capitalism and corporate greed? Should we, as teachers of composition, be expected to teach our students writing without pointing out sexist, racist, homophobic, classist, ageist practices that many disciplines (including our own) are built upon?
Isn't it our responsibility as teachers of writing many of whom are also cultural theorists and critical thinkers to make our students critical of the writing that expects them to become agents for the hegemony, to become nothing but good, compliant, middle-class consumers? Is that not our responsibility?
He is moving in language.
What are you most afraid of, a former lover asks him? He tells the lover that he is afraid of language. The lover says language can kill.
'Official language kills, resist standardization' - words on a poster in a used bookstore in London.
He is in Britain visiting his relatives.
His aunt teaches his cousin to speak English only. His aunt is scared his sister and he may corrupt their cousin's speech. His sister and he are only allowed to visit their cousin in the presence of their aunt. In England now, no need to speak Hindi.
Enunciate your vowels carefully or what will people think?
She becomes silent.
'Official language kills, resist standardization.'
He notes that in their 'Introduction for Students', Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg write:
Few, if any, articles in our academic journals follow these guidelines, and yet notions of good writing in most handbooks and readers are predicated on considering carefully what those who oppose your positions will think and on pleasing those who oppose your positions.
He wonders, if we have always to think of our opposition, would anyone be able to write?
What does it mean to write as rupture?
The ruptured tongue is coherent, incoherent, rational, irrational, consistent, inconsistent.
The ruptured tongue is wild. It is unsightly, ungainly, repulsive, bent.
But the ruptured tongue is not broken. It doesn't need to be fixed. It cannot be claimed by the State, or in the name of the fathers or the oppressors.
The ruptured tongue cannot be contained or recuperated in the name of the nation.
The ruptured tongue seeks the edge and crosses over.
He mentions how in turning to the media for news of the tragedy, he finds the BBC repeatedly referring to Sri Lanka as the 'holiday island'. Whose/what interests does such a construction serve, he asks. Holiday island for whom? What biases are reflected in such a choice of words? Is Sri Lanka a holiday island for the people who live and work there, many of whom struggle merely to survive? Is Sri Lanka a holiday island for those who have been engaged in and living with the effects of a twenty-year civil war?
He discusses reports and images in the media that showed some tourists in Phuket resuming their holidays immediately. He finds it indeed commendable that some tourists did not return 'home', but wonders what it means to resume holiday-making so quickly and be determined to have a holiday at sites that overnight became sources of grief for so many people. A tourist from Australia is quoted by BBC as saying, 'We came back to Phuket the next morning and it was a shock to see everything. But we're not too worried about staying - we've got a holiday to have' (BBC 2004). What does it mean when having a holiday gets seen as a right, as something tourists who have traveled from elsewhere are entitled to, even in the face of enormous loss and destruction?
And, what does it mean when leading media outlets in North America focus undue attention on the fact that some Westerners have died, along with tens of thousands of Asians?
And, doesn't this have everything to do with sentences and words?
And, as critical thinkers and writers, isn't it our responsibility and work to interrogate the ideological biases that words and sentences carry?
And, isn't this a particularly appropriate time to break out of the insularity of North American tunnel vision?
After class, the students rush to the Chair to complain that they are not being taught how to write.
He wants his students to confront the easy formulas, to think outside the structuring logic of heteropatriarchy. Surely we can agree that all good writing is clear, another colleague states. He asks what is meant by clarity. His colleague tells him writing that is generally intelligible. But intelligible to whom? And why should good writing only be writing that is intelligible to most people? What if the goal of the writer is not to be intelligible to most people? He tells his colleague that he is not sure that he would agree that all good writing is clear and that clarity should be the only criteria for good writing. He tells his colleague that clarity in any case is not an objective criterion. His colleague tells him that students need to be taught to write clearly and that it is our obligation to teach them to write clearly. If we don't teach them the basic skills of writing clearly, then we fail them.
He is tired of this argument. He tries to explain how writing clearly becomes an excuse to squash students' linguistic peculiarities, to mold their distinctive voices into the voice of standard discourse. Writing clearly becomes a way of reducing, simplifying, and is often an excuse for anti-intellectualism. He tells his colleagues this but they are not convinced.
He wants to scream there is strength in undisciplined thinking, in emotional thinking, that it is possible and necessary to imagine new ways of thinking. He feels hysterical.
Long before he returned, he had been thinking of departure and rupture, of betrayal and loss. Return is sometimes accompanied by gain but always by loss. Having lived away for ten years, each time he returns, the city he grew up in and loves is less like the city in which as a person of some privilege he came of age, in which he explored his desires, lost his innocence.
So much has changed.
Not only has he had to rethink his faith, undoubtedly a false faith afforded only to some by the luxury of privilege, that no matter what happens elsewhere in India, in Bombay it is always business as usual - the atrocities of 1992 and 1993 have made certain of that - but more significantly, the secular India in which he grew up seems to be quickly eroding.
The city has been taken over by a Hindu nationalist party whose goal is to claim Maharastra, the great land, for Maharastrians only.
The many inhabitants of the city (the mongrel, hybridized city that is the capital of Maharastra) who have lived here for decades, who were born here, are suddenly marked as intruders, as outsiders.
In the daily newspaper he reads an interview with Salman Rushdie who says that 'the country that came into being in 1947 is being transformed into something else' - what it is being transformed into seems intolerant, insular, and frightening.
Perhaps it is nostalgia and the privileges afforded by class that make him think of the city's history as more secular than it ever was.
He doesn't want to idealize the city. It is built on terrible inequalities that have always divided its inhabitants. More people still sleep on the streets and in the slums than in secure houses and apartments.
A sign above one of the three elevators in the building his mother lives in reads: 'For Domestics Only'.
An effeminate boy, he was constantly teased and harassed by his peers.
But he learnt to suppress his effeminate tendencies. He learnt to adapt. He learnt to belong but who did he learn to belong to?
They are sitting on the parapet overlooking the sea. The boy says, you know, you have beautiful legs. He is embarrassed at the pleasure these words bring. The boy says, you know, I am gay. He says he does not know. The boy asks, are you gay? He lies. He says, no, I am not gay.
He shuts himself off from the boy. He has learnt to kill part of his self. He does not want to claim what he has come to see as connected with his effeminacy, his weakness.
He is struggling to remember.
He wishes he could tell a different narrative of his life at fifteen but it is this memory that returns to stalk him. He knows how his life would have been different then had he been able to say the words, yes, I am gay.
Effeminates of the world unite.
Who are we? What are we doing in this alien landscape, you ask. He says nothing. You say you long to belong. You ask, don't you feel a sense of loss? Don't you feel you gave up all claims to belonging when you left, when you decided to come to these shores? He says he gave up all illusions of belonging long before then. He says he never felt like he belonged, that he doesn't understand what it means to belong, that he is not sure he wants to belong because belonging always seems to involve compromising, that not everyone can compromise even if they want to.
Long ago, he gave up the need and desire to belong. He knew that as a queer and as a half-breed he certainly didn't belong in dominant articulations of India and Indian. He doesn't want to belong and he doesn't want to be accepted but he does want to have rights. For him the question of rights is distinct from a sense of belonging.
To belong. To fit, to conform, to suit. This desire to belong always predicated on the desire to conform. But can everyone even conform if they want to? What about the poor, the queer, the undesirable? Will they be allowed to conform? Can they conform? Why is there such a premium on belonging? What about the pleasures of not belonging? The pleasures of being different? The pleasures of not conforming? Of resisting?
At a talk, a well-known composition theorist says in response to a question about the margins that, of course, all people at the margins want ultimately to be a part of the centre because the centre is the locus of power.
Implicit in this need to belong is the need for approval. We want our students to seek our approval and we want to be in a position to give them our approval. Teaching and learning are often about approval. But what kind of teaching and learning can take place when teaching/learning is only about approval? Approval suggests that someone is in a position to approve and someone needs to be approved. He wants to rethink this model that seems to be inherently flawed. He wants to overturn it.
He wants to resist being swallowed by the centre. He wants to resist being shaped entirely by the form of the centre. The power of the centre to consume and to subsume is enormous.
He suggests that there can be strength in being at the margins. There can be power. There can be pleasure. For those with privilege, the margins may also be a place to unlearn privilege.
Whose blood is on his language? Can he rid his tongue of imperialism, his language of its bloodied history, its bloodied past?
Whose blood does his language carry, contain? How can he write in it and respect the blood of the dead?
What would the dead say to him if he said to them that it is language, this language that carries with it the stains of the dead, that frees him as much as it contains and constrains me? The dead are on his tongue.
The history of his bloodied language, the imperialism on his tongue, is riddled with torture and destruction. In using this language, he must rememory this. He cannot use the language of the oppressors, of the interventionists without negotiating with this burden that language brings.
Such unfettered enthusiasm worries him. He mentions that he is fearful of a multiculturalism that seeks only to increase racial and ethnic diversity without interrogating methods of knowledge production and overturning eurocentric frameworks. He fears multiculturalism becoming an instrument for reinvigorating and reinscribing unquestioned whiteness and white-centred methodologies and frameworks.
One panellist who responds to his comment says that certain conventions and standards have to be upheld, that students need to master standard forms and methodologies before they learn about other forms/methodologies.
He is tired and screams that if multicultural education doesn't involve questioning hegemonic forms and changing dominant frameworks then that's the point at which we should say fuck multiculturalism to avoid domesticating and co-opting difference. The mere presence of racial and ethnic 'other' bodies is not enough. Before the other panellists can respond, the moderator intervenes and calls the discussion to a close. His outburst is seen as a disruption of the proceedings that are expected to conform to genteel conventions of behaviour, of civility. Emotion is disallowed.
Later, a well-meaning well-known colleague approaches him and asks why he, as a person of colour, seems intent on sabotaging efforts to bring difference and ethnic diversity into the academy. The well-meaning well-known colleague tells him that he should be delighted that the Dean's office is taking an interest, any interest, in multiculturalism.
Instead of writing to a disagreeable opponent who must be persuaded by one's argument/s in accordance with the political, social, and related pedagogical dictates of liberal pluralism, he imagines writing in tones contemptuous of polite give-and-take, and of writing with rage and with contempt.
He imagines the productive liberation that comes with writing for a blatant disregard for - or, even a scathing mockery of - those who disagree with him.
Taking risks in writing is not a cliché.
He imagines contesting the fundamental assumptions of many contemporary composition theories and pedagogical practices that privilege moderation, rationality, unity, consistency, and decorum over pleasure and excess.
Risky writing enacts its own rhetoric. The risk shapes the rhetoric.
He imagines taking risks and confronting the consequences.
Who proclaimed that language/writing should be stripped of imagination and desire?
Who proclaimed that writing should only be used to record not to re-order?
Who proclaimed writing should be used devoid of emotion?
Who proclaimed writing should be used to persuade, to argue, but not to explore and to imagine?
Who proclaimed writing should be firm, sure, not tentative, uncertain, provisional?
Who proclaimed writing could be free of politics?
Who proclaimed writing could be free of ideological biases?
Who proclaimed language was not living and evolving and shifting?
He wonders who proclaimed writing/language should follow the dominant cultural script, should always obey the rules?
Writing is traumatic but there is pleasure in the trauma of writing. Make the text tremble, make it speak. Mould it to your vision, hurl it across the seas, across time, space, across geographies.
The pleasures of writing, of (re)creating, (re)visioning.
He says to his lover, I want you to write words on my body. His lover asks, what should I write? He says write a secret. He turns over and offers his back, his shoulders, his buttocks, his thighs. Write, he urges, write me a secret. The lover writes. He writhes under his lover's words. The lover finishes. He lies still. Shall I, the lover asks, read my secret, reveal it to you? No, he says, it's your secret, and goes to take a shower.
Another black man dragged to his death. A gay boy tortured and tied to a post and left to die. More women smeared and disfigured and tortured on a daily basis than he can even keep track of.
US and Allied bombs continue to pound Iraq and any other target in the Third World that they fancy, but life in the 'First World' generally goes on undisturbed, unperturbed, as usual.
In the face of such crises, how should a writer write? How should a writer be able to continue to believe in writing, in the power of writing to affect?
And how can any writer/teacher make the separation between the academic and the non-academic? How can any writer/teacher in the academy claim that the academic is not punctured by the non-academic?
How can a writer and teacher in the academy especially fail to recognize that we are imbricated intimately in the fabric of imperialist economies of power?
For an academic to pretend that those of us in the academy are outside the history and forces of global geopolitics and design of imperialism is a crime.
In the face of this reality, writing is particularly contentious. But in the face of such materiality, he knows now more than ever before that engaged writing is not a luxury, that writing, that art, that poetry are as intrinsic and necessary as the air we breathe.
Sometimes it is hard to be convinced because writing in fact changes little but it has potency. It can affect, inspire, move one to action. He needs to believe this in order to write and teach.
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Acknowledgements: I thank Ian Barnard, Andrea A Lunsford, Jacqueline
Jones Royster, Valerie Lee, Debra Moddelmog, two anonymous reviewers for
TEXT, and the editors of TEXT Jen Webb and Nigel Krauth
for their insightful readings and valuable suggestions, Nuzhat Abbas for
the title, and Paul Saint-Amour and Frank Cioffi for their encouraging
Currently Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition at Soka University of America, Aneil Rallin has also held tenure-track appointments at York University in Toronto and California State University at San Marcos, where he directed the writing program. He grew up in Bombay and lives in Los Angeles. He is generally interested in activist/perverse/'deviant' rhetorics.
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Vol 11 No 2 October 2007
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb