All the sleeping women
Are now awake and moving.
– Yosano Akiko (1911)
For all women who already know this narrative;
For all women touched by the Great Writers, named, unnamed, and some listed as letters;
For all who commune in the trauma and healing promised herein;
For all who believe in the power of radical transgressive border-crossing love;
For my Happiness, and my son and my daughter, so that you may walk differently;
For the ex with whom love remains the last transgression —
The year after I started teaching in Texas, his novel came out. Ten years after the event of our relationship, ten tortured years where we continued to communicate, a sort of communication that involved him reaching out, letting me know I made all the wrong decisions in my life, and then, asking for forgiveness and another chance, I thought I should teach his novel in my classes. The novel itself was important, won the Pulitzer, and by teaching it enough times, I thought it would do the trick. The classroom is sacral: all that goes through it turns magical and I would emerge whole. I would finally be rid of my ghost-love and I could sanitize our past through the distance offered by teaching and making a monument of his work for my students. Somehow, that plan failed.
What I do is teach, write, and think on, most often, feminist texts and theories. Such a pedagogy has not just carried me through the classrooms over the decades, but become a mooring post in life. It offers me a vision and a strategy, a way to love radically, think fearlessly, and keep renewing, as I can, the bridges between projects of feminism and social justice. Gloria Anzaldua’s vision, a vision that has carried many a woman through a dark day, has been valuable in thinking through the rubble of this event in my life. In Borderlands, Anzaldua offers a prophetic amalgam that helps women identify the productive potential of the mestiza way, the middle spaces she calls the nepantla. For women of the many elsewheres, women who continually travel and cross borders, Anzaldua’s psychic restlessness gives a fist bump of legitimacy, an anchor in the cultural collisions many of us remain mired in. Rather than a counter stance, she speaks of developing a position that is inclusive, inaugurating for us the amasamiento, a creature of both light and darkness.
I identify in a category not formalized or accepted in colonial census charts or western ways of understanding the other, as a black South Asian. I am an Indian who lays claim to the global community of black consciousness, and I reside between so many worlds of belonging and unbelonging. In racializing colorism and politicizing my own experience of antipathy witnessed toward the color of my skin, I crafted my own passport into marooned and shapeshifting black communities that gave credence to ontologies and a posteriori narratives over normative constructions of race, ethnicities, and nationalities.
Ten years later, now in 2018, as the Great Writer tours the country for his children’s book, he comes to my city. We meet. We speak about our past and say what we have already said hundreds of times to one another—my hurt, his apology, his trauma, his everything. He had already shared a rough draft of his confessional piece with me. He spoke to his editors as I drove him around town, on whether his piece should directly invoke the #MeToo movement or not. What I had not seen was the short paragraph he added referencing our specific past. To be a pit stop in a city he considered an isolated maw and follow the deep sigh of the phrase, in the meantime, perhaps says it all.
To be named, and yet not named. Something broke in me when I read his synopsis of us, as if I had been summarily dismissed after twenty long years. Absolute erasure is a place without speech; a partial disclosure is like a door or window cracked open ever so slightly. Awakened, I see windows where once were walls, something Toni Morrison signals in her novel, Paradise. The Great Writer had always assessed that my inexperience in our years together left me as a novice in the art of love; apart, he accused me of being unskilled at letting go, a novice at mourning. The act of writing here is, in so many ways, a public ritual of both love and loss.
What he leaves out about the unnamed “S“is that she—I—was a student in the program that offered him his first faculty position. While he does share she—I—was ready to let go of everything for him, he leaves out that after each night together, he would swear her to silence in the early hours of the morning. Somehow that silence continued. After spending the night in her bed, he would insist, “This is nothing, you know that, right?” which she quickly translated to mean, “I am nothing.” In praising S for her blackness, what he leaves out are the elisions wherein he does not necessarily reference that the very same S was not black enough for him, a black that was embodied and interpellated as black by neither institutions of authority nor communities he called his own. While he gives the role of ‘black is beautiful’ spokesperson to her lettered persona, she remained persona non grata, in a material sense.
Not enough can be said about sexual relationships that start in a coercive silence; the damage can be indefinite and lifelong. The silence perhaps he was practicing all his life on his childhood sexual trauma is replicated and manifested in all these different forms with women—long-term relationships, one-night stands, our own relationship and relationships like it—open, porous, unreferenced, incomplete. Moving from S to Y, what feels like a way of working through the alphabet also references entire lives that are being simultaneously resurrected and erased.
I wish to share my poem that makes its way into his heart, and then, emerges as the epithet on blackness to describe me, in his catalogue of lovers. This is evidence of a type of a poem, an imaginary I was engaging in my twenties when I imagined revolutionaries as doing the work of reconstituting the self. When the Great Writer walked into my life, this was the mask he had on. I fell for it.
Growing up a dark-skinned South Indian in a homogenous Punjabi enclave in the capital city of Delhi in the 1970s, I was subjected to a colorism that is very familiar to most people from the South Asian subcontinent. I was always too dark to be played with, too dark to be touched in case the color rubbed off, and by age five, it was already determined that I was too dark to ever find a good husband. Kaali Kaluti Baingan Looti. I was called names, derided, pushed about, castigated, and despite it all, I kept an integral sense of my own self-worth and beauty. Most of that has to do with the strength of the women in my family, and the hard work of my mother who always reminded me of her darkness and beauty as one and the same thing. It helped me to know that the mythology I come from, and read on my own terms, boasted many black beauties that somehow are buried in the annals of modern media and Bollywood, and yet, I knew even in those early days that black is bold, indomitable, and involves a sort of world-making.
Immigrating to the United States thus offered me the diasporic’s path to community, and community I found not in the fellow diasporics from the subcontinent but the black and brown othered communities, people with whom I forged a kinship founded on empowerment, resistance, and a political vision to counter patriarchal and normative subjections. My immediate kin were women from disparate corners of the world with similar experiences and of course, black and brown women here in the US who already knew what I was talking about and could offer the sort of sisterhood I yearned for, a racialized belonging where the agency to label arose from within. When I met the Great Writer, I had recently finished teaching, for a couple of years, in Baltimore in a high school that was nearly all-black, a place in America that felt the closest to home I have felt, more so than my childhood in Delhi. Being immersed in such a community, despite all the struggles of capital and history that it strains against, was healing for me personally since I found a sort of blanket acceptance of me that felt new, a sense of being at home in my body. Rather than the alienated double-consciousness the great DuBois wrote about, in Baltimore, I had a singular consciousness in a single city.
Meeting him in this period in my life, as I was beginning to self-represent in powerful ways, was attractive to him. And then, on the very same terms, he rejected me. I was not black enough; I was not from his island. The political vision of solidarity and resistance across borders were all left at the door. I did not fit the feminine ideal to which he prescribed, and in many ways, I fell subject to the machismo and patriarchal prescriptions of an elsewhere, and came up short. My epistemic privilege, what Uma Narayan explains can help us see what those in more privileged positions are unable to see, the privilege that helps take off the blinders and gives us what Jose Medina calls kaleidoscopic vision, finally helps me see how epistemic privileges can also cross each other out. His privilege, even when it came to oppression, was far greater than mine, and he got to call the shots. It made sense why he had to keep finding new lovers; I did not fit the bill.
In many ways, he loved me for my blackness and discarded me for the same. That is a mindfuck I have not fully recovered from even today.
I have come to love
the color of my skin, believe this.
I remain the rust reminder
of the man who made mother,
then left grandmother,
pregnant, bone thin,
condemned in an Indian village
The decade of her independence.
I am not filled with hate.
Senile, ninety-two, his feet
useless, house-bound, he is dying.
Mother, a good woman, tells me
not to hate, not to remember,
or to remember another way.
Despite years of hating, our
current distance, miles of crow shit,
wires, tracks, sky and water, I listen.
After all, past the childhood of name calling,
Spit-tossing, crow grazing,
she was the one who turned to me, said beautiful —
you are a piece of me.
I have compared this skin
to an eggplant, a burnt piece of wheat bread,
Nonetheless, I have come to love
the color of my skin, believe this.
Revolutionaries — there are never enough
to save the world, drowning under the weight
of too many sorrows. Still, the mongoose
flashes his long tail, a raised flag —
Revolutionaries ought to spin
the dark girls into beautiful.
Some people will stay sad
no matter where they move, or what they learn,
or how many defiant dark women they meet.
Like thieves in their own houses, they remove
every mirror and stealthily work
the muscle of self-denigration.
Moments like these, they forget to translate
the black heart into beautiful.
Me, I just drink watery rice soup,
thank Kali for her iridescence,
dance to the chatter of morning crows.
Since he had already sent me a draft of this confessional, halfway through writing it, I knew he was going to step forth publicly with the trauma from his childhood. I applauded him. Told him he was brave. Told him it is going to help countless men, and women, and children. Told him to have courage, and be luminous. And said nothing about me. When we met last month, he called me one of his special past girlfriends, someone who continues to make her presence known. I corrected, an absent presence. Even in his narratives, I thought to myself, I am nowhere. Perhaps it is that thought that generated this pity point of a narrative he inserted, a seat amidst the lettered lovers in his catalog.
It feels like the right time to share how the rest of us are doing, the rest who never desired to be part of this bursting-at-the-seams club of hurt souls, united most probably in the one fact that gives us admission to this premier league, identifying as proud and defiant women of color. Color does not come easy. For most of us, hailing from different sites in the globe, forging a sisterhood of pride and empowerment came through active work in solidarity with sisters from everywhere and nowhere, women who struggled against imperial patriarchies, capitalist, normative, nationalist structures in place within and beyond their own communities that limited their own sense of selves. The strangeness of my past and my complicity in so much of what happened is hard to fully crystallize; I remember one morning during graduate school when he called and told me to go to the doc and get checked out for STDs; his lover had just confessed that she might have transmitted something to him, and he had broken up with her, and she was crying, he shared, just out of control. Stunned, I also remember a strong desire to hold this lover of his whom I did not know but felt so intimate in knowing her loss of him. My time with the Great Writer was a daily practice in the art of juggling love and loss.
How does trauma work? Trauma repeats, as Shoshana Felman and Cathy Caruth teach us. If you ask women, many will share trauma of early childhood, adolescence, or adulthood, how someone somewhere sexually violated, molested, or assaulted them. Can trauma and violation give you a free pass to somehow narrate your way out of the endless hurt you have bestowed upon your countless lovers, many of whom you have kept in a state of indefinite and muddled wait that never reaches resolution?
I teach in a men’s prison in Texas. Some of the men are in there for violent crimes, often acts of violence against women they love. Many, if not most of the men, have experienced trauma. It can be a conversation starter and a closer. How does trauma shape who you are and what you do? Trauma repeats, is cyclical by nature, and so on and so forth. Hurt people hurt people. However, and perhaps because of the nature of the crimes and the fact that this substrata of humanity is paying for whatever it doled out, the men present a certain dignity and resolute opposition to justify trauma they enacted due to trauma they experienced. The linearity of that narrative, no matter how much structural theory and compassion I might pedagogically dole out toward a symbolic exoneration, the men refuse to cap to it. One trauma does not and should not become an alibi for the other.
Feminist writers and thinkers respond to the Great Writer and sum up the problematics of how black and brown women function as collateral damage in his journey to recovery, and ask, “What is it like?” Yes, he does leave his women behind in the darkness, emerging clean and free, but the hidden costs of this cleansing are borne by women of color, as argued in responses written by Maiysha Kai and Gwen Benaway. The very first day I saw him on our campus at his reading, when I was in my second year as an MFA student, I ran out. I had a sense that whatever lay ahead was dangerous, and perhaps it is exactly as Carol Vance formulates: pleasure, for women trained in normative patriarchy, is read as danger, and thus, my reaction.
What worked out really well in keeping our relationship a secret is that he came from cultures of toxic masculinity and I came from cultures of shame so we were the perfect combo, if nothing else, that helped sustain our dysfunctional behavior. Later, when our paths crossed, I always ended up extending hospitality. Called by another professor of color to welcome the Great Writer to our town, I was dispatched to drive him around so he could find bookshelves, our first time alone. Then I took him to my apartment to heat up food I had cooked. That turned into something else quickly. While I was still the student and he a faculty member at the university, and power/privilege so clearly tilted towards him, I thought I needed to give. To never say no. And still, I came up short. I came up wanting. He could perpetrate cruelty infinitely and I could suffer endlessly. And we could perform this love ritual in secret for perpetuity.
Geographies of Intimacy: Decolonizing Small Spaces
Since the day I read his personal history, I have been in a state of tumult. For twenty years, I have somehow kept the pain of this relationship at bay, buried skin-deep and managed to move through my days, move forward and do what has not diminished me, forge ahead by doing things that feel right—teaching, writing, finding a partner, having children, and staying tethered in the material daily reality that has kept me grounded. When the piece appeared in print, I saw that he had finally chosen to include a paean to me, a quick sign that gives me room in his long catalog. Somehow, this inclusion, after years of absolute erasure, has left me stung, like having been smacked across the face so hard that your jaw stays tight from hurt. The brief and hurried inclusion in a few words leaves me seething in ways unexpected, even to me. A story untold turns into other things, a sickness perhaps, or even a weakness. Instead, the story, again—
From the beginning, this relationship worked on my complete compliance and silence. In the extremely white spaces of a privileged private university, there can be a bond formed amidst the few itinerant people of color, especially if they can be forged on common political visions and sense of community. He hated the cold city up north and I ended up acting as his local ride and shelter; however, I was to not speak of our cohabitations or relationship, if you could even name it that. Since it was a thing without a name, I kept it buried, and continued to do so long after leaving that city, and him.
Yet, on regular intervals, he resurfaced, communicated, and signaled how I was making a mistake in leaving him, and that I should give him another chance. What I never could make clear to him is that this chance was never palatable. He always spoke about me moving back to the city and setting me up with a place where he could visit when he pleased. To me, it felt like a bourgeois form of modern-day concubinage and I refused. To that, he would say I was a hard-ass third-world mala or negra or whatever names he might call his many lovers. In his email missives, he always returned with the same questions, the same concerns, the same sadness, and had me hooked. Where I come from, perhaps there is no greater insult than to be spit upon. The love he doled my way always felt like a metaphoric spit in the face. And yet, I kept turning my face to him.
I am guilty of being unable to stop communicating with him, and more importantly, caring for him long past the due date of what training in patriarchy teaches that a “good woman” ought to feel, do, and be. These spell out the geographies of our intimacy and this act of writing is a method to decolonize these small spaces, the smallest of them being the gaps of light between locked arms, bodies, mouths that surrender, and somehow manage to lose their ways in the wild spaces between pleasure and violence. In many ways, Jamaica Kincaid’s delineation of small places haunts these intimate geographies. Colonial tropes somehow make their way into the bedrooms where the dominant lover, generally the man, is able to wrestle a seat of authority for himself, a site from where he can decree all the ways in which his lover is short of the right attributes, reminding us of the colonial gaze of ascertaining value in the subject population. The women, in these partnerships, if they can be called that, are then left with lesser resources, a smaller voice, and lesser opportunities to ever thrive or leave these places of confinement. Inevitably then, spaces of resistance become sites of co-optation. Considering the never-ending cycle of trauma that the Great Writer has been in and writing about, and the struggles of writers from the type of historical legacy and material conditions that he rose against, it was next to impossible for me as a graduate student in those years, as a woman of color, to speak ill or rail against and pitch up a counter stance to his presence; it is nearly impossible to press against one another in these insulated white spaces of privilege where color is already so rare that the political vision demands a resilience to stick together rather than fall apart.
A girlfriend of mine, a fellow graduate student in another program, shared that he told her how he is deeply attracted to strong women of color, and inevitably, he finds the crack in them and breaks them before taking off. It is his way of teaching them a lesson, a gift he leaves behind for them in resilience. It is sort of like a continual experiment for him—she tells me this in the hope that I will wake up and get out. I did not. Even though I never ran towards him, I never did fully run away. My ambiguity is my fault. The question remains, why is his behavior sanctioned? Why is it cool, acceptable, or revolutionary? Why seek out an embattled people who already suffer the depredations of patriarchy, racism, sexism, nationalisms, fundamentalism, and other such systems of inequality, specifically, seek them out to destroy them? Why is this narrative so attractive that—for a lover whom he barely acknowledges in a footnote and yet, follows up with for twenty-odd years—it is repeated as if choreographed? As Kamala Das once decried to her critics and well-wishers, I say, “Why not leave me alone?”
Lovers Waking and Moving After Damage
The Great Writer is sharp, savvy, and entertaining. His work stands in for the work many of us might seek to do and project, works that stage feminist solidarity through composite women of color he constructs with a tenderness in inverse proportion to the brutality with which he discards his lovers and keeps their stories.
By accepting his narrative of trauma as the linear narrative that propels the carnage of love in his fifty odd years on the planet, he further legitimizes the networks of historical systems of erasures and structural violence in which the lives of black and brown women are always already mired. By accepting what he brings to the table, once again, many of us who struggled to grab our seats are disappeared from our narratives. Many of us go back to the shadows where we have always resided, as props and footnotes in the stories of powerful men. The Great Writer offers the argumentative lever for much more menacing phallic figures to excuse their iniquities because of the sufferings reaped upon them in earlier chapters of their lives.
I am hoping that in the dialogues the Great Writer has generated between his eviscerating confessional and the #MeToo movement, there can be a generative space that makes room for the third world other, not as the native informants as Spivak would have us marked, but rather, as bodies that carry forth epistemic advantages while not fully belonging in the white spaces, bodies who are interested in constructing a new mythos as dreamed up by Anzaldua, bodies that are grateful for the manifesto of rights and proclamations and promises authorized by the collective behind Combahee, and bodies that are interested in articulating themselves through their experiences and positionality, vis-à-vis the works of Theresa de Lauretis and Linda Alcoff: a deeper site-based knowledge that allows for women’s mutable and ever-changing experiences to be represented, interpreted and spoken about.
I am arguing for a radical feminist positionality that emerges out of the liminal zones, women perched forever on various borderlines, fronteras, who can reorient the imperial gaze, the colonial gaze, the hierarchical gaze of even their lovers who participate in the old economy of rating women’s bodies and ontologies against one another, so that women are named authorial subjects, able to control their stories, and no longer remain in the shadow of the Great Writers, Thinkers, and Philosophers.
A. K. Ramanujan, a poet, translator and folklorist I admire, tells a folk tale from India about a woman who has a story and a song. She refuses to share her two gifts so they turn into a pair of shoes and a coat, which the husband mistakes as evidence of a lover, the ultimate transgression in classical patriarchy. If a story is not told, it turns into other things, he cautions. For women, unfortunately, both telling and not telling can have profound implications. Regardless, here I am in the circle, telling mine.
Rumpus original art by Aubrey Nolan.