Brown Bag Lunch on “Comparative Worldings: The Case of Indian Literatures”

by Thato Magano

On April 8th, the Program in Comparative Literature’s Brown Bag series hosted Professor Preetha Mani (Comp Lit, AMESALL), who presented a paper from her upcoming book, where she takes up questions concerning Indian literatures as forms of comparative literatures. In her talk, excerpted from the first chapter of the book, Prof. Mani reflected on the conceptions of Indian literature that came to the fore in the 1930s and how these conceptions sought to unite Indian people in a common vision, as a corollary to ideas of a national language. Central to her meditation were questions of what constitutes world literature and how Indian writers of the time challenged the aggregative models of world literature by creating alternative conceptions of the world as constitutive to their practice.

Taking us on a temporal journey and describing the ways writers formed cohorts and circles to explore and debate questions of translation, uncovered was an appreciation of the ways these writers took up translation questions in world literary production, thus placing translation at the forefront of anti-imperialist efforts. There was also a consideration of how these writers defined literariness as a way of interrogating the status of world literature, and as such, performing acts of worldings that created alternative standards of literary value.

Following her query “Is a text translatable because it is literary or is it literary because it is translatable?” the answer is found in the ways worldliness is defined. Showing some of the challenges with theories of world literature and their aggregative borders that apply European standards to mark what belong and what doesn’t, Prof. Mani’s impulse is to define a new methodology of what constitutes worldliness. “What if literature is something more than a single literary discourse? What if literary processes of worlding have different origins? Can we see these as distinct processes informed by specific socio-political processes?” Prof Mani uses the case of Tamil writers and how they addressed these questions, showing how these writers welcomed foreignness and untranslatability in the face of changing world literary standards and norms. These writers embraced contaminated language, using multiple languages to defamiliarize Tamil literature and mark it as part of the worlding project and still part of the Indian literary and language project.

Thus, worlding is a multi-scalar approach that considers the meta literary approaches that shape which texts are considered world literature. As such, worlding is a useful ontological category for Prof. Mani as it enables a way of engaging or producing a kind of human community that ties us all through language, yet is still broader than just language as it also produces conceptions of what can be defined as literary.

Decoloniality Workshop: “Fucking with [The] Family: The Queer Promise in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions”

by María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán with notes by Haruki Eda and Rafael Vizcaíno, and pictures by Rafael Vizcaíno

At the beginning of the Spring semester, on February 19th, 2019, Comparative Literature PhD student Thato Magano shared with the Decoloniality Workshop audience their soon-to-be published paper[i],“Fucking with [The] Family: The Queer Promise in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions.”  In it, Thato highlighted the importance of Nervous Conditions as a critical feminist text that “negotiates the seemingly inescapable bind of inter- and intra- cultural patriarchal prescriptions,” and emphasized its significance within Black studies, African Literature and postcolonial studies.

Thato builds up on the work of Susan Andrade and Tendai Marima, and challenges previous readings that describe the main character and narrator of the novel, Tambu, as heterosexual and as representative of the nation. Thato instead argues that Tambu and her cousin Nyasha, with whom she holds an intimate relationship, exist as “queer subjects not synchronous with national reproductive time.” The article places them as figures that “rearticulate sexual politics” and radicalizes queer politics. Thato centers the queer subject within the often-restrictive political discourse of black experience, and analyses how lesbian desire within Nervous Conditions opposes the family as social norm. Through its exploration of Tambu and Nyasha’s relationship, “Fucking with [The] Family” proposes a reading of “incest as a queer emotion, affect and aesthetic that can be instrumental in destabilizing heteronormative nationalist desires in postcolonial literatures.”

In the Q&A section, audience members were interested in exploring with Thato the cultural limitations of incest, the distinction between queer identity and queer politics, and the relationship between queerness and spirituality. Students who work on Caribbean Literature asked about the relationship that Thato sees between African epistemologies and those of the Caribbean where literary queerness is usually analyzed through a spiritual lens. To this inquiry Thato answered that spirituality is often used as mediation (or mediating tool) for talking about queer intimacies, “my investment is to try to produce two subjects who can stand in their own terms… my resistance is against the premise that queer sexuality can only emerge in a cultural context (e.g. mythology, culture, spirituality), but that cultural context privileges heterosexual production and national time…so these sorts of mediations that queer subjectivity can only hinge upon is what I am resisting.”

The conversation continued outside of the meeting room, as Thato’s fascinating paper brought up more questions and conversation topics. Thato’s paper and the presentation successfully met its goal, to examine Nervous Conditionsas a text that “negotiates escaping heteronormative conventions of Black female subjectivity”, and “make[s] legible alternative modes of caring and belonging within the nation” outside the heteronormative construction of the family. This paper allowed a richer understanding of queerness and brought to light many of the assumptions that exist when reading about relationships among black women. Congratulations to Thato Magano on a wonderful presentation!

[i]It has been accepted for publication by the Research in African Literatures Journal (RiAL).

Puerto Rican Blackness through a Cuban Lens: A Colloquium Presentation by María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán

by Phil Yakushev

Comparative Literature hosted its first colloquium on April 1, when María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán presented “Puerto Rican Blackness through a Cuban Lens” and contextualized this talk within her dissertation-in-progress. María Elizabeth’s project seeks to challenge what she identifies as a common tendency in studies of African diasporas—a centering of Anglophone spaces which, in turn, leaves the Spanish Caribbean at the periphery of this field. Her presentation, structured around two 19thcentury Spanish Caribbean texts, not only directly resisted this dynamic of African diaspora studies but also showed how love practiced by black and mix-raced women, as agents, can challenge the constraints of the nation and establish community.

María Elizabeth used two works to build her case: Puerto Rican playwright Alejandro Tapia y Rivera’s La Cuarterona, and Cuban novelist Ciriollo Villaverde’s Cecilia Valdés. These texts share several similarities, making them useful for a comparatist who traces how literary characters and black subjectivities in the Caribbean were shaped by their recognized relationship to slavery and how these recognitions effected social relations. Both works were written in the late 19thcentury by authors who were renowned in their spaces; their plots proceed around racially ambiguous female characters of African descent who fall in love with white men in times of slavery; both feature incest; and, perhaps curiously, both works are set in Habana. María Elizabeth used the latter similarity to illustrate the complex relationship between black subjectivities in the Spanish Caribbean, the family and the nation, and love and incest. Tapia most probably did not set his play in Cuba out of ignorance of how race operated on his own island, and María Elizabeth summarized the scholarly debates around question of setting. As she argued, Rivera places La Cuarterona in Cuba to present the “audience with a transnational perspective that allows for connections between isolated spaces and bring to light a pressing issue,” that of blackness and slavery.

For María Elizabeth, this transnational perspective is vital. Overall, she “seeks to study blackness as a way of being that centers relationships and community, instead of addressing the nation which has established modes of love that constrain black subjects.” Both nation and language act as constraints even in the study of African diasporas, with conventional approaches being less willing to engage with black experiences in the Spanish Caribbean and Brazil, where myths of “racial democracy and mesizaje are foundational and place an impediment” to a conventional discourse on blackness in which slavery is critical. María Elizabeth’s work, then, seeks to push African diaspora studies in at least three ways: broadening scholarship beyond Anglophone spaces, exploring the role of the nation in constructing racial ideology within the Spanish Caribbean itself, and showing how black and mixed-race women characters can challenge the dominance of the nation and its foundational unit, the family, by building their own communities. While love, in the texts María Elizabeth is working with for her dissertation, often takes on forms often identified as perverse—such as incest—she was careful to stress that, for characters in these literatures, love often does not ultimately fail. Rather, love becomes a way to form relationships among colonized communities, with instances of unconventional love creating “cracks on the concrete of coloniality, as fissures that challenge to break the colonial version of the family unit.”

After discussing these texts and introducing her analytical frames, María Elizabeth previewed the rest of her dissertation, and its themes and structure. The project, as a whole, will juxtapose and compare the black subjectivities produced, and reproduced, in literatures of the Hispanic and Anglophone Caribbeans. Other chapters in her work will explore Michelle Cliff’s Abeng and the limits of creole solidarity in Jamaica, as well as Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowningand how love and relationships in the Virgin Islands can function outside of the colonial-sexual matrix. María Elizabeth hopes that her comparatist approach will not only expand African diaspora studies beyond the Anglophone but, relatedly, disrupt a potentially paralyzing centrality of slavery within the field. As she said, “Despite the long-lasting damage that slavery has left on peoples of the Afro-Diaspora, our ability to love affirms our ways of thriving, our ways of moving forward, and beyond, trauma as framework.” As a whole, then, María Elizabeth’s work seeks to highlight how literature can unleash the ability of love to serve as praxis and “heal the wounds of enslavement.”  Her colloquium presentation provided a powerful and fascinating preview of this critical endeavor.

Global Africa, Migration, Literature, and the Arts

by Joseph Sepulveda

On March 28th, I attended “Global Africa, Migration, Literature, and the Arts”, a three-day symposium held at Rutgers University. I will focus in this blog post on two parts of the Global Africa conference that I witnessed. The first is a collective presentation led and written by Thato Magano entitled “Cacophonous Cognates: A Hybrid”, which he performed alongside Alexandria Smith and Paulina Barrios. The performance was also accompanied by the drumming of Roger Noguerol, with technical support from Gabriel Bámgbóṣé and Yuanqiu Jiang. The second part is the keynote lecture by the Glissantian Manthia Diawara, whose focus was a mediation on the importance of returning to the philosophy of Èdouard Glissant for our current moment.

I listened to the performance piece “Cacophonous Cognates” not in order to try to understand it but to feel it as poetry. The choral qualities of the pieces that Thato Magano assembled reflected on our cosmic being, blackness, colonialism, love and endurance. The work transmitted what it meant to attend to the suffering and love of black people. Magano cited Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake, and in many ways the piece felt and communicated what it means to love blackness under conditions of its undoing. It spoke about a longing for the textures, beauty, and luminance of blackness; it honored the ancestors and black mothering; it limned in its multivocality the possibility of becoming, gesturing toward our collective and unbridled transformation.

After the performance, I listened to Manthia Diawara’s reflections on  Édouard Glissant and the poet-philosopher’s singularity— for Diawara Glissant is a philosopher who breaks from filiation, and he emphasized Glissant’s sans père(ness), his distance from Western philosophy of monotheism and root-identity (identité-racine), of an essential totalitarian Western understanding of being, in favor of a world in Relation. But beyond highlighting Glissant’s eminence, Diawara’s speech resonated with the earlier performance in a number of ways. For Diawara, Glissant is a poet whose poetic concepts touch on and illuminate a world not of self/other opposition but of an extension of the self in relation to the Other. This is the essence of Relation. Moreover, Diawara pointed to another key Glissantian concept that resonated with Thato Magano’s performance: the ethics of opacity. While opacity can be understood as a failure to reveal or make oneself transparent, for Glissant the right to opacity is crucial to identity and to resisting the will to dominate. It becomes crucial therefore, to paraphrase Diawara, to not only take note of one’s own opacity to oneself but to grant to others the impossibility of ever fully comprehending. This failure, however, should not be the cause of despair but should open the way to creating a different collective world beyond possessive drives to conquer and control what can be or exist.

Myth of White Genocide in South Africa

by Rafael Vizcaino

On March 25, 2019, the Decoloniality Workshop held its 7thmeeting, hosting Professor Nicky Falkof from Wits University in South Africa. Falkof presented a section of her current book project, an analysis of risk, anxiety, and moral panic in post-apartheid South Africa. Falkof’s presentation focused on how right-wing Afrikaner community organizations in South Africa have adopted the liberal language of civil and minority rights to position themselves as victims in the social and political atmosphere of post-Apartheid South Africa. Central to these movements’ rhetorical strategies of victimization is the development and propagation of the idea of “white genocide” to negotiate their decentered status in a post-apartheid South Africa where land restitution, affirmative action, and other policies of decolonization have been implemented at the national level.

Thato Magano, Rutgers PhD student in Comparative Literature from South Africa, opened the discussion session as Falkof’s discussant. Thato highlighted the importance of studying “white pathology” within the South African academy and questioned the overlaps and divergences between Afrikaner identity, on the one hand, and white identity, on the other. The subsequent dialogue with the audience members connected the South African context to the present U.S. context, where over the last decade there has been a quantifiable rise in the number of organized white supremacist organizations, many of which also mobilize the rhetoric of “white genocide” as a reaction to the ongoing demographic and cultural changes in the U.S. population. A crucial set of conversations also centered on the dynamics among white victimhood, white fear and white guilt. Another significant discussion questioned whether Falkof’s intervention could be conceived as being critical not just of racist “illiberal” discourse, but also of the very liberal framework that easily lends itself to a facile appropriation by reactionary fascistic agendas. Falkof closed the discussion with a reflection on the complexities of using her own institutional positionality as a white female academic to not reproduce whiteness.

The Decoloniality Workshop is currently preparing its fall of 2019 line up, which will include a pedagogy workshop for graduate students of color, as well as collaborations with other graduate-student-led spaces across the university. For more information and the most recent updates, please visit the workshop’s website at https://decolonialityworkshop.wordpress.com/

Across Words: The Affective Politics of Learning Another(’s) Language

By Amanda González Izquierdo

 

On February 28th, 2019, Rutgers welcomed Dr. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, Global Distinguished Professor of English at NYU, for a talk titled “Across Words: The Affective Politics of Learning Another(’s) Language.” The event was sponsored by Rutgers Libraries and the departments of English and African, Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Literatures.

Dr. Sunder Rajan engaged with the question of decentering global English and to do so, she considered three texts that explore the practices and rationales of learning a foreign language: Mark Sanders’ Learning Zulu: A Secret History of Language in South Africa, Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words, and Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, which was translated from Korean into English by Deborah Smith.

Dr. Sunder Rajan began with a discussion of colonialism and its politics of language. She noted that the educational policies instituted by colonizers onto colonized lands upheld a hierarchy of language whereby the language of the colonizer was to be spoken and native tongues were to be suppressed. In Learning Zulu: A Secret History of Language in South Africa, Mark Sanders explains that when settlers learned Zulu upon colonization, they actually created a pidgin, Fanagalo, in which the syntax was English and the vocabulary was supplied from Zulu and other African languages. The settlers created Fanagalo in order to issue orders. Sanders believes that by learning Zulu, he is “making reparations.” Dr. Sunder Rajan revealed that the book’s first line is in Zulu and translates to “I beg forgiveness.” This forgiveness is for “a whole history of sinning.” The learning of Zulu for no reason other than to make reparations, in a “non-instrumental way that makes it meaningful,” reveals that the process of learning another’s language has an affective quality.

Moving on from the colonial context to the context of immigration/diaspora, Dr. Sunder Rajan then began her discussion on Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri’s first book in Italian, translated into English as In Other Words, is written as an author’s autobiography and it includes two pieces of creative writing that are allegories of her learning Italian. At the time that Lahiri started learning the language, she was already an established Anglophone writer. The question that emerged was: Why relocate to Italian when she was already successful in English? Lahiri wanted to try out new ways of being in writing: “it’s a new possibility and reality that Lahiri wishes to exemplify.” For the author, writing in a new language is like being born again.

Finally, Dr. Sunder Rajan spoke about the translation by Deborah Smith of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. Dr. Sunder Rajan noted that the translator is often a “disregarded appendage” even in successful works of translation. Perhaps it is this that made it so significant that when The Vegetarian won the Man Booker International Prize for fiction in 2016, the award was, for the first time in history, shared equally between author and translator. Smith was a monolingual native English speaker until she was 22, when she decided to learn to speak Korean because she felt limited by her inability to speak other languages. In just a few years she was proficient and decided to undertake the translation of The Vegetarian. At the time, the British market for translation of foreign fictions had doubled and translated works were selling better than books that had been originally published in English. Smith has since established her own publishing house, Tilted Axis, in order to publish more experimental foreign fiction specifically from South and Southeast Asia.

Dr. Sundar Rajan concluded by saying that it was important to note that all three authors that she discussed were working from a place of privilege. All of them, as English speakers in a world where English is the hegemonic tongue, did not need to learn another language but rather had the choice to do so.