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.

“Heaven Rained Millet and the Ghosts Wailed at Night”: The Invention of a Genre Socialist Science Fiction

by Milan Reynolds

It was a red-tinged evening in late October, students and faculty gathered to hear Virginia Conn read and speak about her first chapter – the beginning of a compelling dissertation about socialist science fiction in the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union (1918-1986). Virginia proceeded to give a fascinating presentation on the linguistic roots and narrative particularities of sci-fi within each country and the ways in which politics and literature reciprocally shaped each other. Beginning from a point of analysis that asserts socialist sci-fi is qualitatively different from non-socialist sci-fi as well as the more widely recognized genre of socialist realism, Virginia described how those differences produced material effects and constructed individual and national consciousness in specific ways.

The constraints imposed on writers by both socialist governments included limiting the scope of works to a “near-future reality” of roughly fifty years and ensuring the plausibility of scientific speculation. Virginia also traced the origins of the genre through the multiple translations that the word “sci-fi” went through in its passage between countries. In fact, China was using the genre category of science fiction before its popular adoption in English literature. These strict writing guidelines served specific functions within the construction of each nation and often caused the literature to be dismissed as propaganda, but Virginia made the compelling argument that it cannot only be viewed as such. The works analyzed display a distinct utopian socialist praxis, predicated by science – romantic, revolutionary, and exceeding the bounds and stigma of pure propaganda.

Linking these themes, Virginia brought a modern term into the mix borrowed from Winfried Pauleit: the photographesomenon. Coming from film theory, it describes the surveillance camera image – an “objective view” of the past whose meaning is then written by the future. This illustrates the way that socialist sci-fi evacuated the past by creating subjects defined by an anticipatory “collective view”. One compelling example Virginia drew on was the use of illustrated guides in China that showed how to grow crops and other quotidian, valuable skills that lead to collective autonomy. She argued convincingly that such texts could be linked to socialist sci-fi in its utopian, near future agenda. This led to interesting questions about how socialist sci-fi complicates the genre category of sci-fi. In many cases, the literature used “science” as an educational tool, and “fiction” as a way to draw interest from a wide audience of readers, including using visual materials for populations with mixed levels of literacy. Soviet and Chinese socialism used sci-fi to self-define towards a collective utopian goal. 

The presentation moved into several questions from guests about the trajectories of the genre within each country and how they paralleled or diverged from each other. Virginia emphasized the dynamic exchange of ideologies and tropes while noting their differences and separate progressions as well. Other questions brought up the tension between science and fiction, at least commonly positioned as opposing elements, and how this was navigated in a socialist setting. As the colloquium came to a close, smaller conversations were sparked over food and drinks, everyone coming away with a richer understanding of the history and possibilities of socialist science fiction. Congratulations to Virginia on an amazing presentation!

The Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Summer School

By Rudrani Gangopadhyay

The Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Summer School this year, set in Kolkata (previously called Calcutta), was titled “Calcutta: City/Contemporaneity.” I returned to my hometown in June to attend this summer school, incidentally hosted by my alma mater, Jadavpur University. Aside from being my hometown and one of the foci of my own research, Calcutta/Kolkata is also one of the most important urban centers in South Asia, and particularly India. As the erstwhile capital of undivided British India, the city had been at the heart of some of the core debates surrounding colonialism, nationalism, partition, refugeehood, and has consequently also been central to articulations of the same through literature, theatre, and cinema. Even in the decades after the nation’s violent shift to postcoloniality, the city has continued to occupy a unique space in the national sociopolitical and cultural imagination.

Summer school poster

The multidisciplinary summer school focused on contemporary debates informing Calcutta’s intellectual traditions as much as it took note of the physical spaces of their action and their lived reality: streets, coffee houses, bazaars, universities. The summer school format included lectures by notable scholars in the morning, and a seminar style discussion featuring the summer school participants and the scholars where the lecture as well as pre-circulated readings were discussed. The evenings were dedicated to film screenings, live performances, round table discussions, or walks through diverse neighborhoods of the city to get a sense of the urban landscape. The modules of the intensive summer school were ‘The City and the Urban Landscape’, ‘Calcutta/Cinema/City’, ‘City Histories: Deposed Kings, Mobile Labour’, ‘(In)visible Publics’, ‘City and Literature: Printed Worlds’, ‘City and Literature: Voices of the Outsiders’, and ‘The Question of Urbanity.’

Trash in the city

My own favorite module was that on ‘Calcutta/Cinema/City’, featuring lectures by scholars I deeply admire: Kaushik Bhaumik, Moinak Biswas, Subhajit Chatterjee, Madhuja Mukherjee, and M. Madhava Prasad. One of the fascinating aspects of Calcutta and its representations in cinema that have emerged in recent years recognize much of the city through absences of lost times and places. This nostalgic recognition of change in the city is made visible by use of certain set tropes that are becoming increasingly symptomatic of this genre of films: the locations are mostly the same older colonial parts of the city, the buildings are Victorian mansions from these parts of the city, and they emphasize a certain kind of antique object-oriented art design within the interior of said mansions, etc. If these reel tropes evoke and re-manifest certain memories of a particular time in Calcutta, they also ruthlessly erase the present-day lived reality of Kolkata that exists beyond this cinematically codified Calcutta. The conversations about the city and cinema in the summer school surrounding the city’s vexed relationship with space, time, and history were really relevant to my own work.

Calcutta 71 Film Poster

It is the city’s strange inability to be located in a singular place and time at any given time that resonated through the lectures framing the summer school, which opened with a lecture titled ‘When is Calcutta?’ by Partha Chatterjee and closed with one titled ‘Where is Kolkata?’ by Sukanta Chaudhuri. Both lectures made way for more questions than answers perhaps, but certainly opened newer avenues for the research of all those who attended them.

Sukanta Chaudhuri lecturing on ‘Where is Kolkata?’

Aside from the enriching learning experience that were the lectures and seminars, perhaps what I appreciated most are the spaces the summer school created for informal discussions between participants and scholars, during which I got a chance to discuss my own work as well as theirs. I suppose it is unsurprising that this should be the case in a city like Kolkata, a city characterized by adda, endless conversations over tea or coffee that effortlessly goes from one subject to another, traveling through history and around the world without moving in time or space.

Adda at Calcutta Coffee House

I am thankful to the Rutgers Program in Comparative Literature as well as the Cinema Studies Program and the South Asian Studies Program for supporting my trip to Kolkata to attend the summer school.

 

Decolonial Research Methods in Latin America and the Caribbean

By Paulina Barrios

A couple of weeks ago, on October 25th the Rutgers Advanced Institute for Critical Caribbean Studies with the sponsorship of the Center for Cultural Analysis and the Program in Comparative Literature held a series of activities focused on decoloniality in South Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. The final activity for the day was the book presentation of: Smash the Pillars: Decoloniality and the Imaginary of Color in the Dutch Kingdom and Kuxlejal Politics: Indigenous Autonomy, Race, and Decolonizing Research in Zapatista Communities. This was held at the community center headed by Lazos America Unida in downtown New Brunswick. The center was organized to accommodate everyone around tables with Mexican sarapes (colorful cloths) and the session was able to start on time at 4.30 pm with an introduction from Prof. Nelson Maldonado-Torres. After speaking to the importance of the work that Lazos does with the Mexican immigrant community in New Brunswick, Prof. Maldonado-Torres presented Prof. Mariana Mora, from the Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology in Mexico City, Prof. Melissa F Weiner from the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, and Prof. Antonio Carmona Báez, President of the University of St. Martin, St. Marteen.

Prof. Mora began with a brief presentation of her book Kuxlejal Politics: Indigenous Autonomy, Race, and Decolonizing Research in Zapatista Communities published by University of Texas Press in 2018. Her main motivation with this book was to understand what decolonial strategies Zapatista communities mobilize to fight against the Mexican state’s neoliberal and racialized policies and assert their autonomy. She went on to describe how, despite the state’s denial to speak of race and racism, indigenous peoples are constantly living under violent and racist conditions. For example, indigenous peoples often either work a land they have no ownership over or face state and private actors that value their land over their lives and livelihoods. Prof.  Mora contends that this structural violence and continuous plundering led to the political moment where indigenous peoples from Chiapas decided to rebel against the state.  Embeded in the conversation was also a recognition that this structural violence is a remnant of colonial power and economic structures, such as the plantation system.

She then went on to explain how the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Liberation Army, EZLN) transitioned from an armed struggle and its declaration of war against the Mexican state in 1994 towards a focus on defining and defending their autonomy. This led to building autonomous institutions and a full break from all public systems, including health and education. Prof. Mora was involved in the effort to define autonomous pedagogical methods and educational programs with other academics and members of Zapatista communities. Therefore, for her book she returned to Zapatista communities to co-design her methods with community members and generate a research project that would answer her questions and the communities’ needs. The result of this collective work was a focus on autonomy and the politics of a collective life, tied to a territory and nature, in her own words: “when you are fighting against genocide, the political is the fact that we are alive”.

Prof. Weiner followed this presentation, thanking the invitation and emphasizing how happy both she and Prof. Carmona Báez were to present this book in a non-academic space. She explained that since Smash the Pillars: Decoloniality and the Imaginary of Color in the Dutch Kingdom is about decolonial struggle and resistance she found it extremely important that people beyond the academy become involved in the conversation. She started her presentation by linking New Brunswick itself, and even Rutgers University, to the Dutch colonial past and slavery. Since the book focuses on Dutch colonialism and the struggle to decolonize its narrative and memory, she emphasized the direct connection it has to this Dutch colonial history and its ties to slavery, which are often silenced or ignored. Prof. Carmona Báez then added a personal perspective to this history by drawing on his own experience as a Protestant Puerto Rican from New York and being “spiritually conditioned by the Dutch and Calvinism”. With this context both editors then turned to the book itself, starting with an explanation of the title. They explained how Dutch society was built on specific pillars framed under religion. Thus, Protestants and Catholics each had their own banks, schools, and churches. Other pillars were added in the 19th and 20th centuries based on workers and women’s movements, broadening the definition of identities in the Netherlands. However, all of these pillars were designed to exclude. Similar to Prof. Mora’s description of Mexican racialized institutions and policies, these pillars did not include enslaved peoples or the indigenous peoples whose lands they took. As the title suggests, these pillars should be broken down to liberate the different narratives, histories, and bodies that have been silenced.

They went on to describe a growing movement from the past eight years that focuses on raising consciousness of racism in the Netherlands, despite the constant negation of this reality, and the need to learn these other histories. Both local and international struggles have come together at this particular juncture in cases such as the fight against black face tied to the Dutch Christmas figure Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) and Black Lives Matter in the United States. The editors presented this juncture as an example of how colonial pillars are being smashed across the world. They then turned to the structure of the book and how they consciously went against the traditional structure of having theorists first and then activist authors. As part of their decolonial method in the first section they center activists’ fight against racism with specific suggestions from activist students on how to decolonize the university. The second section is more theoretical and focuses on decolonial thought in the context of Dutch colonial history. They closed by turning their focus to ‘the imaginary of color’, defined as the collection of narratives, (hi)stories, and art expressions, that counter the official story, that counter the pillars. The decolonial imaginary of color is also transatlantic and emphasizes a historical trajectory that reaches up to today. Hence, both these books spoke to the need to smash the concept of a unique History, colonial power structures that remain, and racist pillars that are designed to exclude.

Koreanness Beside Itself: Queer Mobility and Diasporic Belonging

by Duncan MacKinnon

The Decoloniality Workshop held its only meeting of the fall semester on October 17th, 2018, to discuss Haruki Eda’s (Sociology PhD candidate, Rutgers University—New Brunswick) dissertation chapter entitled “Koreanness Beside Itself: Queer Mobility and Diasporic Belonging.” The chapter examined how some diasporic Koreans in the U.S. draw from embodied, sensorial, and emotional experiences in political organizing and forming a sense of community. In particular, it examined the role of queer diaspora as a modality of community organizing in articulating a different sense of Koreanness that creates other possibilities than those offered by hegemonic, heteronormative, nationalist figurations.

In his presentation, Eda contextualized the chapter and explained further its place within his dissertation project. His dissertation is an ethnography of Korean American community organizing, drawn from fieldwork with a number of community organizations who do largely transnational work (such as taking trips to Japan and Korea to meet with local organizations there and to build solidarity between the movements in U.S., Korea, and Japan). While these grassroots organizations were not formally labeled as queer or feminist organizations, a majority of the members were Korean women and queer people who brought their experiences and critical points of view into their organizing. The project tracks ways in which these organizations resist reifying national boundaries and nationalist identification to instead be more expansive in recognizing those who are seen as less Korean because of their differences, such as being diasporic, LGBTQ, or Zainichi Koreans (the communities of Koreans in Japan). This project instead turns toward the embodied experience of being Korean as at the intersection of the discursive and materialist in grounding the reality of being Korean.

Jeong Eun Annabel We (Comparative Literature PhD candidate, Rutgers University—New Brunswick) served as discussant for this meeting. In her comments, she first highlighted the special atmosphere that the chapter had in its writing, and how this is experienced powerfully in reading it. She noted how the queer Korean organizers of Eda’s ethnography undergo transformations in their understandings of both queer and Korean identities beyond the hegemonic narratives that they couldn’t see themselves in. In light of these processes of redefinition for the participants, she suggested giving more space in the chapter to exploring the moments of realization and transformation. She also asked about the role of ceremony and ritual in this chapter, and how certain practices and spaces within these organizing communities take on spiritual, ceremonial, and ritualistic characteristics. One particular example of this was the way in which the poongmul drumming practice that Eda analyzes in the chapter transforms a political rally space and enacts a collective and spiritual enactment of non-human agency or intersubjective agency.

With these insightful questions opening the conversation, the workshop then had a vibrant discussion of a range of questions and comments about Eda’s chapter and project as a whole. Some of the major features that came up in this discussion were Eda’s methodological contributions in approaching this project in the way that he does, reflecting on the theoretical engagements in the project, suggestions of different literature to bring into the project, and the project’s place within sociological scholarship.

The Decoloniality Workshop is an interdisciplinary space for scholars in training to present work in progress in a relaxed academic setting committed to the transformation of standard academic practice. Please visit https://decolonialityworkshop.wordpress.com/ for more information about past and future events.

Mariana Mora and Antonio Carmona Báez on ‘Decolonizing Knowledge and Research in ‘Latin’ America and the Caribbean’

By Amanda González Izquierdo

For the fourth event of the “What is Decoloniality?” speaker series, the Rutgers Advanced Institute for Critical Caribbean Studies, the Center for Cultural Analysis, and the Program in Comparative Literature were proud to host Dr. Mariana Mora (Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology, México) and Dr. Antonio Carmona Báez (President, University of St. Martin, St. Maarten). On the morning of October 25, Dr. Mora and Dr. Carmona Baéz gave a talk titled “Decolonizing Knowledge and Research in ‘Latin’ America and the Caribbean.” This was the first talk in the speaker series that featured two scholars in conversation and listening to them side-by-side allowed us to understand that even though there are commonalities in the experience of colonization, we should be careful not to make generalizations and should instead be mindful of the nuances and particularities of the distinct modalities of colonialism and their effects on different communities. 

Dr. Carmona Baez, co-editor of Smash the Pillars: Decoloniality and the Imaginary of Color in the Dutch Kingdom (2018), focused on St. Maarten, a constituent state of the Dutch Kingdom. He opened the discussion by highlighting the dichotomy of servitude vs. ownership that he has witnessed at the University of St. Maarten. The university specializes in hospitality, which is directly related to the fact that revenues from tourism are the backbone of the island. However, the business program is growing steadily because students are interested in owning corporations. This is due in large part to colonial powers and investment banks creating a market for international entrepreneurs.  This is often followed by the emigration of qualified students, which Dr. Carmona Báez describes as a brain drain to the island, or, unsustainable recovery and development. To offset that, Dr. Carmona Báez proposes a decolonial sustainable recovery and development, which is based on brain gain. This means creating the conditions for the “return of the diaspora”:  the return of the knowledgeable people that have left the island. He also proposes the use of local research and community-based development. He closed his portion of the talk by talking about jollification: a celebration of collective efforts. This celebration occurs as members of a community build houses and the elderly sit with children to tell them their histories. For him, a big part of decolonial recovery and development is precisely this kind of activity, where action and celebration happen not separately but simultaneously and, most importantly, in community.

Dr. Mora, author of Kuxlejal Politics: Indigenous Autonomy, Race, and Decolonizing Research in Zapatista Communities (2017) discussed the form her research took in writing her recently-published book. Dr. Mora opened by saying that academia is not absolved from neo-colonialism and explained how academic research has colonial overtones: it is seen as an extractivist knowledge wherein base/raw material that takes the form of oral histories provided by subjugated peoples is provided to a researcher, who then makes meaning out of that information by classifying and systematizing it in writing. Though the Zapatistas accepted that Dr. Mora do research in their communities, they redefined the terms of that research. First, they rejected Dr. Mora’s plan to conduct individual case stories in favor of a collective story in the form of group interviews. They also rejected Dr. Mora’s proposal to do a deep study of two communities, since they believed that this would silence the rest. Instead, they required that she go to at least twelve of the thirty-five municipalities. In their most decolonial action, they subverted the notion of extractivist knowledge. During Dr. Mora’s interviews, the Zapatistas themselves prepared their own synthetizations of their own histories, which they then read out loud, thus destabilizing the oral/written dichotomies and the suggestive power of the binary. This allowed them to have an active role in the production of knowledge and in the process situated themselves as subjects of their own histories. 

The exchange challenged us to think about coloniality and decoloniality across geopolitical frameworks and reminded us that the effects of colonization are still being felt and require radical praxes. It also provided us with original, context-sensitive responses from agents actively fighting colonial epistemes and redefining knowledge in their day-to-day lives.