Monday, June 21, 2010

Adichie, My Students and Failure of Imagination

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s video (The Danger of a Single Story) has been doing its rounds on the blogosphere for a while now. Since I was teaching a writing class last semester where the students needed to write an auto-ethnography for their final projects, I screened it for my class too. Most of my students are white, upper middle-class Texan kids. Very young, ie, 17-19 years of age. Not that the questions which Adichie raises in this speech ever lose their significance, but I think, what she does especially well is to re-think about the politics of stereotypes. A discussion on stereotypes, in my experience, often helps to initiate discussions of gender, race, class and imperialism inside the classroom settings.

What struck me about my students’ reactions was, when they began to comment, how quickly, almost all of them identified with the American roommate Adichie talks about. I am not blaming them, because I think that was an honest response. Save for a couple, my students were all American. So, I wasn’t surprised. And in their good-intentioned kind of ways, they were trying to think through hard questions like, What would my reactions have been like if Adichie was my roommate? What would I do now? How can one enter upon conversations without offending people who possess backgrounds vastly dissimilar from ours? And I recognize, these are all very difficult questions to grapple with. What is more, there isn’t any one definite answer. I would go even to that extent to say that I don’t think anyone ever ceases to struggle with these questions if one is serious and honest about the multi-layered implications of these interactions.

But what was fascinating (and scary) for me was the fact that none of my students made any efforts to process the fact that what it had meant for Adichie. Was she hurt? Did she feel embarrassed? Angry? Shocked? All of the above? In short, what surprised me was my students’ inability to imagine the implications of such realities and conversations upon the disadvantaged, the not-so-privileged, or plain and simple minority. Lack of empathy too, one can say. Although I don’t know the answers, I can’t help thinking, this is inextricably linked with the global production of a neo-liberal consent amongst the privileged youth. And I cannot help feeling concerned, worried and plain scared.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

First Person/Third Person Dilemma

I have been recently told that the long narrative poem I wrote would better serve the purpose with me using a first-person voice. Because the third person, the use of the "she" creates a distance between the reader and the protagonist of the poem. There were some other interesting suggestions which this particular reader, a poet herself, made. But what I have been thinking is that, do I really want my readers to identify with the protagonist of the poem? What are the implications of that identification?

If I have to be very straightforward about it, I am trying to create a persona, who is a princess and who is leaving her father's palace to try to create an identity for herself. And this she does, by writing about herself. So, in many ways, I am talking about the relationship between creativity and institutions. How leaving the shadows of the state is an essential act for attaining a certain degree of creative autonomy. Now that process is damn hard! I don't think anyone can undertake that, not to speak of the fact that this very idea of autonomy I am trying to write about here is debatable. Can anyone be fully autonomous? My answer is, no. The struggle to attain autonomy is a continuous one, and hopefully, that's the direction that the other poems in the series are moving towards!

Although I am not totally convinced yet, I am moving towards a decision that I will let the third person stay in there. I don't want my readers to identify lock, stock and barrel with a character who is undertaking something that's clearly damn hard. I want them to feel a certain kind of awe, I want them to feel that distance and I want them to analyze what the protagonist in this poem is doing through a critical distance.

But I need to get back to a revision of the poem, and I will get down to it, once I am in Kolkata. The next few days are going to be too chaotic!