Tuesday, May 20, 2014

On Being Apart, or A Part (after Catherine Taylor)

Catherine Taylor's Apart: the devil's in the preposition. Apart from; a part of. Or: we play a part, or we play apart. She's writing about the aftermath of South African apartheid. I'm thinking about Hawai`i. This is an inexact analogy, but it is one.

She quotes George Oppen: "We are not coeval / with a locality / But we imagine others are" (108). Or we imagine that some of us live at a point of origin that can be found through imagination and an archive.

My colleague told me that some graduate students want "to move into identity-based work," which means away from what I offer them. I work in identities falling apart. A part of identity work, but apart from it. My mother lost her culture; almost everyone I know at the university here is trying to find theirs. As an eighth grade teacher of mine said, you can't simply undo what you did; these are two different processes, that of putting together and falling apart. One is historical, the other medical. But both base themselves on the notion of identity, that there is one, that it is somewhat stable, that you can acquire or lose it.

Judith Butler, again quoted by Catherine Taylor: "Are there modes of belonging that can be rigorously non-nationalistic?" Butler writes about Hannah Arendt, who wants to belong, but abhors nations (for reasons utterly apparent): "she poses that question: what would non-nationalist modes of belonging be? I'm not sure she is describing reality as it is, but making use of language to invoke, incite, and solicit a different future" (108).

Taylor, whose family left apartheid South Africa when she was a child, knows guilt, parses it from shame, seems to favor shame. Guilt is white, though she also understands the instabilities of racial positions, either when she encounters a "colored woman" or when she remarks on her family's skin colors, which range from pale to dark. She wonders about her brother's racial make-up, until she reads Nadine Gordimer on how finding a drop of black blood becomes yet another power play for whites.

Her mother joined a group called the Black Sash, which tried to intervene against apartheid not by overthrowing it (who could?) but by manipulating its rules to help individuals in their daily lives. To subvert the institution by treating individuals it mistreats with humanity. Taylor is ambivalent about this group. It was bourgeois; its members led otherwise comfortable lives. Did they not recognize themselves as individuals, then, self-worthy in a barbaric regime?

I am not coeval with my location in Hawai`i, though I do live here, work here, have extended family here, love the place I inhabit. There is an inherent difficulty to not belonging, a deep anxiety to it. I felt another version of it growing up in northern Virginia, where I appeared to belong, but did not feel as if I did. For my nearly 25 years here I have watched as newcomers and long-time residents of Hawai`i wrestled with this problem. Here everyone suffers it, and it's often marked by one's color and by one's culture. Usually, these are plural, though the plural also foments anxiety. There's safety in the one, the singular, the pure, or so we think.

Here are some claims to belonging that circulate at the university I work for, if not the community at large: "My family has been here over 80 generations; my family worked the land as contract labor and speaks Pidgin." Only that first claim seems to hold water now, after a couple of decades during which the latter mode of belonging held brief sway. If you are a newcomer (and feel that you always will be, no matter how long you live here), there is no way in. So many (mostly white) colleagues work to belong by allying themselves with and for those whose claims seem better. They aim to make this "a Hawaiian place of knowledge" as the University's strategic plans calls it. As allies, they belong, if only metonymically, perhaps. As allies, they have power they would not have as "haole" or as outsiders.

These actions honor a terrible history. These actions also ignore other histories, and the present. To honor the present, I would argue, we need to respect everyone who lives here, whether or not they "belong." This category of belonging, while in many ways historical, in many ways psychological, is also a wedge to wielding power. If I belong, or if I work with someone who does belong, then I can control the narrative. In an intellectual community, the narrative is all. And it becomes curriculum, syllabus, arc of a course, a student or faculty career.

And so at UHM we rehearse the past; we try to parse out settler from native, as if so many of us are not both at once. We try to make right a terrible wrong by creating an echo chamber in which what happened in 1893 (the overthrow) also happened in 1959 (statehood) and happens every day now and so makes us perpetually angry. A former student tells me her professor said she would leave the islands if she were asked to do so by native Hawaiians who attained sovereignty. "But what about those who are mixed race, or who cannot afford to leave?" this student asked her. Such ideology does not coexist with common sense.

My fear is that we will remain angry as the sea levels rise, as storms get more violent, as the drought on the Big Island intensifies, as development covers all of O`ahu with condominium towers, suburbs by Gentry, as the military continues to control 20% (is it?) of O`ahu's land. Our anger over past wrongs cannot get in the way of our need to make allies to overcome the wrongs of the present.

Our anger can also make us weaker, less inclined to act in the world as it now exists. Taylor quotes Breyton Breytenbach on apartheid: "I have come to the stage where I don't want you to talk about Apartheid unless you also recognize how it flows from our shared history, how it dovetails with elements of your ideologies and sentiments, and how talking about it can morally neutralize the unimaginable horror of it. I refuse to continue being a party to the condemnation of Apartheid, which leads only to moral posturing. We are fattening the monster on our outcries of shame" (114).

In the past year, my department has voted for the following: a) to reduce the teaching load of tenure line faculty from 3-2 to 2-2, while releasing tenure line faculty from teaching freshman composition once every four semesters; b) to slash courses from the catalogue, because we don't have the personnel to teach them; c) to require anyone who teaches the course required of English majors to include "indigenous texts" on their syllabus, and to consider them in cultural and historical terms; d) to separate out what used to be Asia/Pacific into Asia and Asian diaspora (after an earlier attempt to make that Asian/Asian American) and indigenous Pacific and Hawaiian. And more. The courses that were slashed were almost all in literary studies, namely the traditional literature offered in English departments. The courses that were added were in indigenous Hawaiian and Pacific. The end result is to segregate fields by race, rather than join them by theme or aspiration.

When asked why we ought to require faculty members to teach indigenous texts, we are told that "we are teaching on stolen land." End of conversation. Or, we are told that "this is the only ethical thing to do." End of conversation. Or we are told to "do the hard work of retooling." End of conversation. As Laura Murphy writes in a review of Taylor's book: "She suggests that the privileged are envious of the irreproachable position of the oppressed. They long to identify with a position that is ethically indisputable. They long for the right to speak from a position not sullied by a legacy of hatred and oppression." How does one both agree with the force of these statements (yes, we are in Hawai`i and the Pacific and we really ought to teach those literatures), while arguing against their totalism? Are we not also in a larger Pacific, one that includes the Philippines, the Pacific Rim, the west coast of the north American continent? Does the trash that washes up on our shores not come--of late--from Japan's tsunami? Does the military presence not affect us all, no matter our race or ethnicity?

This is all food for conversation, but I fear we will not, can not, have it. Where "the only ethical thing to do" is something I do not agree with, clearly I do not belong at the table. Where the intensity of location as defined by original inhabitants completely overcomes any notion of location as where we are now, there is no dialogue. It just is.
These issues leach out of the department's public life, its intellectual life (as it were), into the personal. Many colleagues refuse to attend meetings because they are so painful. Others do not speak up because they fear being called racists. There's an excess of emotion at the meetings, but it bleeds into the conversation as a wedge, becomes persuasive in the ways that rhetoric are meant to be in our line of work. We cannot talk to one another. What to do about this immediate problem, the interpersonal? The one that causes us to take circuitous paths through the corridors, to avoid eye contact, to suffer simply for being at work? I'm reminded of Thich Nat Hanh's remark in his recent book on communication, that diplomats in a peace process should not start cold. They should, he writes, spend some time on a silent retreat, preparing to listen to one another, to deal with each other as individuals rather than as enemies. I doubt this would happen in my department, but that doesn't mean it would not be a good idea.

So what do we do now, those of us who want to belong-without-belonging, who want to expand the notion of location beyond what Barrett Watten calls "bad history," who are fascinated as much by the dissolution of identity as by its recreation, as much by family as a cross-genetic, trans-racial grouping as by who got what from the Webster line? Two recent conversations with friends provided some hints as to what is still possible, even at a university where much of what I've been describing above is written into rules that govern more departments than English.

One friend, Michael Epp, who ran a Pacific health organization for years, suggests that it's in the teaching practice, as well as publications (aka Tinfish Press), that alternatives can be posed. "Teach widely," he suggests, "offer a version of the Pacific that is expansive, that gestures toward a larger economic vision essential for the survival of Pacific cultures, if they can come together as a Blue Continent and exert more control over the resources and destiny of the Pacific. This will require a more cosmopolitan, more inclusive understanding of identity and belonging." Another friend, Murray Edmond, a poet and dramaturge from New Zealand/Aotearoa, wants to investigate what he calls "Pacific Modernism." Across the Pacific there have been writers who combined the interests of their location with methods aligned with Modernism: I suggested the work of Wayne Kaumuali`i Westlake to him, and he had several other figures he wants to work on. I don't want to steal Murray's thunder, so I'll leave it there. But this imaginative bridging of indigenous and Asian and European and American literary works strikes me as very promising. It won't change the world--no study of literature seems to do that!--but it might set our students to thinking about the very real complexities of not-belonging in the Pacific, or anywhere on this globe. There are other, more overtly political, ways to address these issues, too.

I was at a memorial service recently on the beach near the surf spot "Publics." The minister delivered the Christian service in English and Hawaiian. When the man's friends came up to talk story about him--a man in his mid-40s who had been very active until he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage--they began hesitantly, formally. Then they wen bus' out the Pidgin, brought themselves and their friends to life. The communities gathered to mourn were many: family, surfing buddies, work buddies, dirt bike buddies, members of his step-daughter's soccer ohana (I was in that group). After the canoe with his remains went out past the reef, joined by dozens on surfboards and even boogie boards, and then after the ceremony there ended, paddles and hands hit the water, which splashed high in the air. Those of us still on the shore clapped. He was home.

This was our present, and might be our future, if we can keep imagining. As Taylor quoted Butler writing of Arendt (a lovely female intellectual genealogy, that):" I'm not sure she is describing reality as it is, but making use of language to invoke, incite, and solicit a different future." Let us not fatten our monsters on outcries of shame, as Breytenbach wrote, but turn ourselves toward that future, in whatever model of togetherness we can muster.

Catherine Taylor, Apart. Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012.


Loriena Yancura said...

Well said, Susan. The future looks forward, not back.

Loriena Yancura said...

Well said, Susan. The future looks forward, not back.

Chris Beaule said...

What a wonderfully thoughtful and provocative post. I've struggled with belonging to a place where so many clearly don't want us, yet I find deep fulfillment in teaching. Somehow my classes are consistently full of open minded students who want to develop alternatives to bitterness, victimization, and being closed off. Indigenous and non-indigenous students alike see close parallels, and lessons too, in Latin America's histories and ways of constructing identities. I find it sad that our well educated, brilliant colleagues are often too scared or too emotionally ramped up to have the kinds of conversations that our students do. I was in Chuck Lawrence's faculty writing group this past year with several scholars who couldn't see past that story of white conquest, or my own skin color, to have a meaningful conversation about these issues. Yet the eleven students in Bolivia with me right now, including two native Hawaiians, and I had a wonderful discussion over dinner last night about colonialism and constructions of indigenous identity. The contrast between the two leaves me pessimistic about our university's ability to build a real intellectual community among us, or to heal those ugly wounds that so deeply divide departments and faculty bodies more generally. We have much to learn from our young charges about tolerance and open-minded ness.