To be “of” is to belong, to relate, to be with. The preposition implies a presence, paints a positive space. But to be “of” is also a classification and thus a narrowing in, the way a phylum will always be a part of its kingdom. And so, in the United States, to be “of color” is to belong and to not belong, both at the same time. But maybe this confusion isn’t a problem at all. How can the fact of a person be a problem?
Certainly there is a problem, the solipsistic problem of whiteness, always kept on center with centrifugal force, its constant compulsion to refer to the “other,” so many distinct people all at once. The problem, then, is how this whiteness that refers to itself as “us,” and to everyone else as “them”; the construction of enemies is somehow necessary to its power, to its sense of self. No matter that this othering is cruel, that it leaves so many people stranded, as Jaswinder Bolina writes in “Empathy for the Devil,” an essay from his new collection Of Color, “in the moat between us and them.” The white straw man protests: but generality is efficient, practical, easy. And he would be right: of course it’s easier to talk about racism in America on general terms, the plight of the BIPOC, etc. In whiteness’s name, it might even be useful. But if we are to progress, or at the very least to maintain hope against despair, specificity is what’s necessary, a moral practice and an aesthetic one: a way of cultivating justice by seeing what’s been made to appear invisible.
In all of Bolina’s essays, life hangs in the balance of “of” and “of color,” and here I mean “life” both literally and as a way to point toward what makes life worth living. Of Color is driven by a relentless question: what to do with the life a person of color has, which is also one that is happening to him? The essays are restricted to liminal spaces that, almost despite themselves, are simultaneously the real thing. After reading the collection, a friend of mine said: “So what?” And, in a way, he’s right. Of Color might appear to be of little consequence, a thorough examination of Bolina’s life––of his writing career, his marriage, his neighborhood, his classroom––but without deliverance. But perhaps it is our want for firm ground that Bolina is challenging. A philosophy student in college, he seems most comfortable wading through doubt, content to wrangle words with a philosopher’s concern for the notion of the good. To inquire into the quality of life, it seems, is always central to his project, never so plainly as in his prose. So, he progresses from the problem of “us” versus “them” to inquire into what hangs in the balance: “I find myself in the moat between us and them,” he writes, “where there’s heroism in murder and murder in heroism.”
Here, Bolina is referring to what it was like for him, and so many others that fit into that overstuffed category of American desi, in the days after September 11, 2001, when the nation was under attack and then on the attack, with a bounty on Osama bin Laden’s head. An American with a target suddenly on his skin, Bolina finds himself “a part of the problem I feel apart from,” an embodiment of that odd, painstaking duality. Looking for clarity, Bolina dissects the statements of another “tawny-skinned man” who says to him, on September 14: “They should find the people that did this and shoot them in the street.” And then: “But, you know, it’s amazing what they did.” Exactly who “they” refers to remains unclear.
For the dominant culture unfamiliar with the in-between, the double meaning of “they” might seem an impossible contradiction. For Bolina, the “stereoscopic” perspective is the only sure thing, the only truth that can hold both despair and hope. Like “they,” like “of color,” America is a container of many truths, the condition of seeing “through both sides of the bullet hole” at once. Bolina’s swift phrase of reclamation: “This,” he writes, referring to the coexistence of his contradictory truths, “is the amazing thing”: the truths that defy logic, that render it absurd.
Bolina’s essay “Writing like a White Guy,” the first he wrote for the collection, begins with his father’s plea for him to write under a pseudonym. “‘They won’t publish you if they see your name,’ he says. ‘They’ll know you’re not one of them.’” Bolina understands, but also thinks his father underestimates the progress that’s been made, even as the progression of the essay undoes Bolina’s faith in that progress, and uncovers the subtle ways in which whiteness has already taken its toll on him:
…the word assimilation shares a Latin root with the word similar, implying that the outsider will be accepted simply by becoming more like his neighbors. But such becoming demands the negation of an old identity to make room for a new one, and, in this, assimilation is a destructive, rather than constructive, process.
Bolina calls “Writing Like a White Guy” an “accidental essay,” as he calls himself an “accidental essayist.” He didn’t mean to write Of Color; he had to. He had to because he was in the audience of Claudia Rankine’s 2016 AWP conference keynote address, the one she ended with a call to attendees to suss out their own prejudices and implications in systemic racisms, specifically those within the institution of literature, saying: “Writing then is and should be an arena full of discomfort as we try to keep present the differences that keep us in relation.” The trap Bolina found himself in was revealed in a way he could no longer deny: “In my writing, I only have the parlance of whiteness to express my brownness. The parlance of privilege.” His poetry, his song, would have to wait. He turned to the essay to examine the cage.
My working definition of art lies somewhere between the song and the cage, in the gap between the forces of generosity and prejudice. When I am moved by a painting or a poem, it is usually because I feel as if I’ve been given the gift of someone else’s most sincere truth, and it obliterates what I thought I knew. I picture the process of art as the life-cycle of a wall, constructed in the same way my prejudices are, brick by brick. When it’s done, and after a while, the wall has become so familiar to me that I forget it is even there. Then along comes an artist whose work reveals the wall. The revelation destroys it. Where before there was a room I mistook for the world, there is now a wide-open field. For me this is the greatest pleasure of being alive, which is not without the grief that comes in extricating myself from my own point of view. This is the joy of art, and also its necessity.
And so Bolina’s essays sit at the pinnacle of literary philosophy, of art, his clear seeing of formative prejudices the same as destroying them. In “Writing like a White Guy,” Bolina writes about his own experience of fear and freedom, the reason he would rather not have had to write this book: “Race will come to define me even when I attempt to avoid it because of the way our evasions always come to define the contours of our fixations.” Then, in the next breath, the reward: “When I write, the language belongs to me.” But how does this happen, this process of seeing, of destroying, of becoming more free?
Both subtly and overtly, in both craft and clear phrases, Bolina seems to find something like an answer in specificity and sincerity. Consider the essay “American, Indian.” Perhaps you just skip over the comma; it’s easy enough to do, and if so, the meaning is changed completely. Now the phrase refers to the founding mistake of the United States, in which “here” was thought to be somewhere else. But the comma is here, in and of itself an insistence on specificity, and it changes everything—American, Indian—and yet still, it is a gross oversimplification.
In narrowing in on the kind of American, Indian he is, Bolina begins with a Bollywood accent in Chicago, and then moves outward to his “uncles” and “aunties” who are Gujarati and Pakistani, Hindu and Muslim. Next he’s in the terrain of language, of the Punjabi he speaks and the Urdu and Hindi he can muddle through. He traces his family back to Bolina Doaba, Punjab, the place from which his family takes its name, even if it’s not where he’s from, even if he hardly knows it. The word desi feels okay to him, as okay as a term that refers to a massive region can; at least it approximates the tenuousness of his connection to that place white people are looking for when they ask where he’s from. But none of his desi-ness is the answer: he’s from Chicago, living in Miami. He’s an American. He’s from here.
“American, Indian” is the sort of essay that only a poet can write, the kind that simultaneously turns a comma into a space large enough to hold the generality of “of color,” and into a person, into the writer behind the page. As author, Bolina sublimates into the pause between the words, a Barthesian turn into a form of death, where the problem of identity is no longer the author’s but a problem of language and of whiteness and of America. By succumbing to the silent withdrawal of a comma, by becoming a breath, Bolina yields to the liminal and slips through the bars of his cage. Maybe it’s because Bolina’s humility has proved so difficult to conjure in my own life that I see it so clearly here, why I’m marveling, as if watching a magician at work. Bolina waves a comma like a wand and the positive space recedes, the negative space rises to the surface, the play of words proffering a sense of relief.
But Bolina is not a magician, although sometimes a poet, a philosopher, can appear as one. He is simply paying attention. He’s being sincere. And so Bolina will do in Of Color what a magician cannot: he will reveal how the trick is done. Speaking as an educator to his students, he writes: “Language is much bigger than you. Naturally, this will generate some conflict. The poem will sometimes need to be silent where you want to speak, or be explicit where you would turn to muttering… I tell them it’s okay. You’re here to relinquish, I tell them. You’re here to sever a nerve.”