I’m planning on going to the AWP conference, which is in Oregon in 2019, when March rolls around again. It’s a year away and registration doesn’t begin until July, but I’ve been postponing attendance for two years, so I’m leaving this note here to ensure that I actually attend this time. That way it’s a promise to which I can be held accountable. When July arrives and I have not registered, you must all express grievous disappointment in me. Public outrage has never motivated me to change, but it’s worth a shot.
More accurately, with the exception of work I rarely travel to another state unless I have some emotional attachment to it, like whether a friend lives there. But I need this conference, and that should be sufficient. One would think.
Shortly after reading my article regarding polygamy, a beloved friend of mine (shoutout) maintained that “the responsibility possessing your right hand” should remain “the responsibility your right hand possesses” (translated across all other versions as “what your right hands possess”) because it is grammatically the right hand that is doing the possessing. I could see her perspective, and frankly, she has studied Arabic in greater depth and detail than I have.
But I disagree.
Structurally, the fragment reads word-for-word, “what possessing your right hands” or “mā malakat aymānukum”—there shouldn’t be a dispute that the “what” refers to a responsibility or an oath. It does not refer to directly to women, if the fact that mā means what and not whom weren’t clear. The Qur’an itself provides this antecedent by employing the form l-aymāna (oath) and yamīnuka (rightfully possesses), describing the nature of the “right hand” as responsibility. I feel that this is a crucial point that every exegete has overlooked.
However, translating the structure into English doesn’t require an inversion for its meaning to remain intact, even when Arabic inverts the subject-object orientation. We say things like this English all the time, particularly in modern and even contemporary poetry. Years ago, I penned the line in a poem, “Braves sudden movement, eye to eye.” Simplified, the object is structured as the subject, even though conceptually it is the eye that is doing the meeting.
In fact, since most translations of the Qur’an are not casual English, I find it very interesting that translators choose to invoke the inversion to make the phrase casual (and in their minds, I’m sure, clearer) when that is not its state, rendering it a judgment call and a deliberate decision considering the flexibility of the original phrase in Arabic. It’s true that in English we don’t speak in the language of poetic inversions of casual statements, but neither are Qur’anic English translations informal.
Translating “mā malakat aymānukum” as “what [oath] is possessing your right hands” honors the fluidity of the phrase in Arabic, whereas English interrogates for clarity in the ownership via subject-object orientation, which is already a philosophically imposed assignment. The implications of the oath being the object rather than the subject, particularly when we incorrectly understand mā (what) to mean “women” and not “oath,” are drastically grave in English.
Placing the responsibility as possessing the right hand in English emphasizes women as the entitled subject, rather than men as the entitled subject: you have rights rather than he has control. Arabic, however, lulls of a quality of possessive uncertainty.
I floated this past my love Zeina, a native Arabic speaker. “It’s both right?” I asked her at an obscene hour of the night when she certainly should have been asleep. “It’s more fluid in Arabic whereas in contemporary English it means two very distinct things.”
“Yes it is both. I’ve never thought about it that way. I think both work grammatically.”
Since in the inverted English the ownership is over an oath or promise or responsibility and not women, I’m not married to either structure in translation. In fact, there are also benefits, like the relief of responsibility from the marginalized, when the phrase is structured as the right hand doing the possessing. But in case anyone is married to either, I present this reasoning for my maintaining the Arabic structure in the English translation.
Bear with me for a second, because I want to be painfully honest about south asian women in regards to an issue which speaks to why Rupi Kaur has been plagiarizing nayyirah waheed from the very beginning of her career. And when I say honesty, I am speaking of my own experience and perspective: I am prepared to reevaluate them.
One of the stereotypes south asian women confront is that we are “too overdramatic” and “too emotional.” I have sensed this attitude from non-south asian (white) people, and have heard it repeated by other south asian women. A woman in my undergrad once said, “Not to be racist, but I’m not friends with women of my own race, because south asian girls are always starting drama.” It’s a stereotype already that (all) girls are “always starting drama” but this is amplified with the south asian woman, who is viewed as too constantly on the brink of tears, driven by the fragility imbued in her “over”analytical character.
South asian cultures are deeply emotional. They are emotional in non-English languages, in south asian phrases where the senses run into each other, where colors are unapologetically intense and all perfumes are the liveliest jasmine (taken from the flower rather than the stems), in the undertones of abusive in-laws and the soft subversions of quickwitted women against sneering patriarchal men, in the quiet pains of feminine men and in the colonized violence against nonbinary people. It is emotional in ways that american culture cannot reproduce. As south asian men mock the accents with which their parents speak yet claim to love their cultures through these patronizing, minimizing, infidelitous derisions, so do south asian women, removed for a context we feel only deep in our subconscious memories, mirror the soft outbursts of the centuries our mothers lived even though we do not understand our motions. In the context of the restrictive English language and the emotion-starved “objectivity” of American culture, these reproductions are superficial. We shadow “drama” without knowing the source.
The south asian woman (when she is not american and even when she is) is always imaged with lowered lashes, unsmiling or smiling too softly, subdued in her pain and quiet about and because of it. The south asian woman erupts and refrains. She bubbles within herself and the emotion spills and she is too apologetic—to the point of inspiring irritation—when she cleans it up. She is seen as superficial, like an imitated accent, and she knows this and sees herself this way. She has a double conscience. She gropes in the dark for reasons to explain her behavior.
In our mothers, words that don’t exist in english perfectly encompass emotions we need entire phrases to translate and understand. The word obhimaan is one my mother always used; it is not anger. It is an anguished frustration enflamed specifically by the thoughtless or selfish actions of a loved one. It is not used with strangers: obhimaan can only be used in the context of love. There is no english equivalent unless you want to consider this paragraph of words.
In english there are despondency, pleasure, regret etc. and the slightly more complex melancholy, homesick—but nothing to describe the specific discontent of completing a fantasy, or confronting your own mortality at your grown daughter’s wedding, or the scientific thrill that attends a failure. What happens when you take a woman who comes from a language like this and shove her into the confines of english, with no memory of why she is the way she is?
When I first read Rupi Kaur, I thought immediately that it took the spirit from nayyirah waheed’s work. This is why, you’ll notice, I’ve never posted her writing on any social media platform. But I was uncomfortable with it for another reason. It’s uninspired. It’s superficial. There is a lack of honesty. It sounds painfully like a woman attempting to express herself in another woman’s language. Brown women have always leaned against black women while benefitting from certain privileges in a closer proximity to whiteness. And Rupi Kaur’s “poetry” was familiar in more than one respect.
I recognized that it sounded like another woman’s language not only because Kaur was attempting to impersonate waheed’s persona, but it was so recognizably an attempt to reproduce another’s language because this is what south asian women do—when we speak English, when we carry the pressures of our mothers against the flight of our own spirits, when we erupt in emotions that cannot translate through diaspora. We are vocal without knowing our voice. And this is something that we need to recognize, understand, and change.
We are lethal to each other as if scrambling to establish a theory first without knowing ourselves, and ultimately still attempting to apply the theories that have already been created for another woman to ourselves. As one commenter said, “desi women are more capable of producing their own emotions.” But we grow defensive and certainly toxic when any of us dares make an attempt that does not resemble what has already been lain out, and we celebrate those who do in their spiritual plagiarism. When we feel vacant ourselves because we cannot fasten reason to our emotions, any semblance of that vapidity in another, even if misplaced or projected, inspires our contempt. We will get nowhere if we continue to deter ourselves and other south asian women who are attempting to pave our own way and relieve the theories of black women of constant misuse, misappropriation, and plagiarism.
Leave the work of black women to black women. They have worked hard. We cannot adopt the struggle of another as a means to name our own growing pains.
I have some new posts coming, but am obliged to take care of some things… about you. Since I’ve announced that I am collecting pieces for an annual publication (guidelines for submission here) to which I am excited to read your contributions, I’m connecting all of you to the publisher accounts so that you can sort of keep tabs on the type of working we’re seeking. Our publishing house, Kajol Crescent, will be issuing the digital and print volumes of the fatal feminist.
To follow us on Instagram, and on Twitter, you can follow both at the handle @KajolCrescent.
Currently, the Instagram showcases more material than the Twitter, but soon the latter will be used for announcements. In order to pay our writers and artists, we’re going to start fundraising for the magazine very soon, but in the meantime, you’re welcome to view some of the work through our publishing house accounts. And of course, I will continue to bring you Qur’anic interpretations here.
I’m attaching a gallery from our insta. Not all of the material is new, but it will be soon. Thank you, as always, for accompanying me in these exegetical endeavors. And don’t forget to submit!
I hate Things Fall Apart. If Chinua Achebe’s objective in writing the atrocious novel had been to restore the dignity stripped away by Joseph Conrad’s more atrocious book Heart of Darkness, then Achebe accomplished restoring dignity to only the African man. The women in Things Fall Apart are not merely invisible, they are belittled in an effort to appease the white patriarchy through male to male comradery. (“You abuse your women? SO DO WE! See, we aren’t so undignified after all! We’re just as civilized as you!”) Over and over, we see that gender equality is compromised by the men who strive for racial equality.
One of the novels I want to discuss is Season of Migration to the North. “Objectively” speaking, the novel is beautifully written. It captures the torment of a man who travels to Europe from Northern Africa and is expected (by Europeans) to be the “over-sexualized” African. Frustrated, he plays into their expectations, seduces women and then leaves them, resulting in these women’s suicides.
So far, this isn’t too bad. It demonstrates how poisonous these racist stereotypes are to everyone involved. Except that, out of his bitterness, Mustafa Saeed considers the suicides a form of revenge against the European imperialists. By indirectly killing their women.
The reason this works is because white men and men of color alike are supposed to be like SUPER OFFENDED when anyone “infects” any of “their” women.
I’m going to talk about this novel because the theme of this post will be the deadly consequences of colonial expectations. I’m also going to talk about it because men are assholes, and this is an example of what is wrong with men of color fighting racism. When your strategy of “overthrowing” imperialism is to “contaminate” imperialist women and destroy their lives and abuse women of color so that you can pull a Chinua Achebe and restore your dignity according to the sexist standards that white patriarchy will recognize as dignified–well, frankly I don’t care how tormented you are or what happens to you in the process.
The other two books I will discuss are Nervous Conditions and Dog Eat Dog. These novels also fall under the theme of expectations–particularly, the expectation of gratefulness; of men of color who are supposed to be “grateful” for the opportunities given to them by white settlers–opportunities they wouldn’t have needed anyway if it weren’t for the white settlers; of women who are supposed to “grateful” for the provisions from the men who are supposed to control them–provisions that would have been unneeded had patriarchy not existed to rob women of the means to provide for themselves.
I will be presenting these novels in a series of analytical reviews. Let’s start now.
Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga presents the colonialist authority of language and education in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) as a means to inhabit the mind. In order to obtain all the financial security, respect, and self-efficiency that Tambu, the main character, sees her uncle Babamakuru maneuver, she must struggle to acquire an education that is distinctly British, interacting with the missionaries in Rhodesia.
Tambu critiques the functions of colonialist influence in her own notions. From the time her brother Nhamo begins living with Babamakuru, Tambu observes in him an inclination to prefer English to Shona, and this exacerbates the barrier between them—and between Nhamo and his family. Simultaneously, Tambu feels validated later as she browses through the library of her cousin Nyasha,
“Most of it [validation] did not come from the lessons they taught at school but from Nyasha’s various and extensive library. I read everything from Enid Blyton to the Bronte sisters, and responded to them all. Plunging into these books I knew I was being educated and I was filled with gratitude to the authors for introducing me to places where reason and inclination were not at odds.” (Dangarembga, 94)
She discovers the sense of selfhood and interaction with a legacy—one that isn’t hers, but a legacy nonetheless—that helps establish her selfhood and connects to her on a sublime level through tradition and storytelling; Tambu’s education and her readership begin to substitute that which colonialism had denied her: cultural identity. With the arrival of colonialism, culture becomes a luxury, the mark of the affluent, and only the culture of the dominant is recognized as valid and possesses the power to contribute the validation that Tambu experiences.
Although mystified at Nyasha’s “ungratefulness” toward Babamakuru for providing for her, Tambu begins to recognize that one cannot be grateful upon the “restoration” of a right that was wrongfully circumvented by the very party who circumvented it. “I know I should trust and obey and all that, but really he hasn’t the right,” Nyasha sobs after a physical altercation, Babamakuru’s second violation on her bodily autonomy to policing her clothes—the right, Nyasha identifies, belongs to her. (Dangarembga, 121) She, like her mother Maiguru, is thwarted from providing for herself because Babamakuru wrongfully claims the liability for her body as he claims Maiguru’s earnings—the clothes Nyasha wears (of which he disapproves) or the food she (doesn’t) consume—and Nyasha will not be “grateful” on the occasions on which he “allows” her to practice what should have been hers anyway.
Tambu begins to appreciate this is an assault on human dignity. As she speaks to Maiguru, Tambu begins to understand that Nyasha’s mother—whom Tambu deems worthy through (grateful) disposition and education of being Babamakuru’s wife—is not entirely satisfied with the role. Maiguru is as educated as Babamakuru and is robbed of her earnings. “ ‘What happens to your money?’ I asked. ‘The money that you earn. Does the government take it?’ […] ‘You could say that,’ my aunt laughed, forcing herself to be merry again but not succeeding.” (Dangarembga, 103)
The “government” to which Maiguru is referring is the obligatory payment to her “security”—her marriage to Babamakuru, which she explains to Tambu that she had chosen over her “self,” and the subsequent waiver of her decisions to use it as she determines is fit. Maiguru’s generosity is not recognized as such; it is only her duty as a wife, “payment” to her husband for generously securing her, a provision for which she should be grateful (regardless of the patriarchal structures situated to render her in need of it in the first place as to demand her thanks for restoring of what it had robbed her.) Babamakuru, however, constantly earns the praise of both Tambu and her (immediate and extended) family for his generosity, which comprises largely of Maiguru’s earnings. Tambu, deceived by the surface appearance of patriarchal dynamics in affluent families, affirms Nyasha’s inspection: “It is the same everywhere.” (Dangarembga, 121)
“The victimization, I saw, was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty, on lack of education or on tradition. It didn’t depend on any of the things I had thought it depended on. Men took it with them everywhere.” (Dangarembga, 118)
It’s a moment of revelation Tambu reports after Nyasha is beaten for acting like Babamakuru, a reason he explicitly cites—only he can act like a man, behavior he wouldn’t tolerate from anyone else toward him—as he violently exposes the hypocrisy of patriarchy.
Tambu encounters this duplicity with—and as an extension of—that which the missionaries and their perpetuation of British standards of education to measure excellence and deservingness exemplify. Through necessitating colonial education as a means of survival, and then expecting gratefulness for facilitating the fulfillment of that artificially imposed necessity, post-colonialists in Nervous Conditions, Dog Eat Dog, and Season of Migration to the North continue a colonist legacy. Resisting that legacy characteristically requires engaging in it.
In Dog Eat Dog by Niq Mhlongo, Dingz finds himself in a similar predicament as the first scene begins with a demand from the indifferent bursary at the university of his choice. Although Dingz lives in a post-colonial (and post-apartheid) South Africa, he must continuously contest its ramified claim on his identity. Either character must seek the education established by colonialist powers in order to resist these powers and their extensions, and they are expected to be grateful for the opportunity for such resistance.
This proves difficult, not only because of the corruption Dingz experiences—he is beaten when he decides to bring justice to two officers who had attempted to bribe him—but because in order to overcome the systematic subjugation Dingz, like Tambu, must engage in the educational arrangement that facilitated its manifestation. It’s an arrangement that he cannot make easily as a black South African: although he’d been exempted prior to applying to the university, the bursary informs Dingz that he does not qualify for aid, which he supposes is due to his race.
Dingz demonstrates this frustration rendered by the expectation to show gratefulness upon receiving what should have been his: eager to combat the injustices he experiences, the systematic retributions that left him in need of the aid that is denied to him, Dingz must personify a force of confrontation. When he is introduced, he has already developed a hyperawareness of race, fostered by the small inequalities he must encounter in its name. In the classroom, Dingz supplies,
“I was thinking about what I’d learned from some of my second-year friends, who had told me of a subtle form of racism practiced by some white lecturers. My sources had explained that these white lecturers didn’t know their black students by name, and that was why they often said ‘yes’ when asking them to respond to a question. As for the white students the white professors always addressed them politely by their full names.” (Mhlongo, 142)
Despite these microaggressions, appreciativeness is expected of Dingz. His own reckless, overly masculine behavior discernably shares the blame for his dismissal from residency at the Y, but as the residency coordinator divulges, “…remember we did you a great favor letting you stay at the res in the first place. We’re supposed to give preference for those who come from far away” (Mhlongo, 142, emphasis mine—‘code language’ for blacks [who would live far away compared to whites as prevailing colonialist patterns despite active disruption of apartheid practices]) Dingz is expected to behave suitably out of gratefulness.
Thematically, Mustafa Saeed in Tayeb Salih’sSeason of Migration to the North embodies the result of the infliction of colonial expectation—and the dynamics of gender weaponized under colonial influence. An African man who has excelled in his English studies and travelled to Oxford after earning a scholarship, Saeed becomes resentful of the impressions of his English company and their applied stereotypes of the “exotic African.”
He begins to exhibit the imagined attributes that the Europeans he meet impose on him and continuously seduces English women with tales of the supposed wilderness where he grew up and promises of marriage, until each one, deceived, commits suicide. He marries Jean Morris, who consistently is cruel to him and destroys his possessions and whom he murders in an attempt to repossess his weakened sense of control as the retaliatory conqueror.
Saeed’s description of his bedroom in itself is that of the dominion of a conqueror who has weaponized sexual gender relations, “a graveyard that looked on to a garden,” an “operating theatre in a hospital.” To seduce European women he plays to “Oriental” expectations so that they were dazzled and moved, and his bedroom exemplifies this; the room was “heavy with the smell of burning sandalwood and incense, and in the bathroom were pungent Eastern perfumes, lotions, unguents, powders, and pills.” (Salih, 27) Although Saeed’s professor, defending him on trial, insists that it was not Saeed who was the cause of the suicides, but that the women were killed by “the germ of a deadly disease that assailed them a thousand years ago,” (Salih, 29) Mustafa Saeed, knowing how encounters with a people who directly objectify him has led to his devastation, is convinced he is the cause.
In response to the colonial objectification of himself, he seduces the women in an attempt to invert the consuming desire of the West to possess the East, and a futile one to reclaim his autonomic power and identity. Ironically the image of Saeed which his professor employs to defend Saeed and free him from the allegations are also that which destroy him, and he wants to stand before the court and say, “This is untrue, a fabrication. It was I who killed them. I am the desert of thirst. I am no Othello. I am no lie. Why don’t you sentence me to be hanged and so kill the lie?’ (Salih, 29.)
The reference is significant: Othello, a caricature of the African man whom the English apply to their perspective of the East, is the type who pursues women seducing them with stories, perceived as silly, a de-masculinized figure as to feminize the conquered East by the functioning Western patriarchy, of which racism is a facet—Mustafa Saeed, however, demonstrated that he had driven the women mad to their own end, a weapon in himself, as powerful as Britain’s patriarchal force and the white privilege it entails, and that Othello is a lie. Saeed, seemingly ambivalent on his own colonization, employed a system of patriarchy against his lovers’ racism in this process—consequently, he inadvertently allied himself with an oppression, that of male privilege, to rid of another.
In his marriage to his second wife, Hosna bint Mahmoud, Saeed appears to have instilled ‘Western’ values. Bint Mahmoud is consequently denied her agency through the attribution of her behavior to the West, even though the narrator himself believes that the decision not to marry a second time is rightfully her own; Wad Rayyes, the man who is hellbent on forcing her to marry him, is the one who argues that circumcision is not a condition of Islam (Salih, 68), citing the practices of other Arabs themselves, revealing that he acknowledges that the ‘Sudanese’ have a right to their own cultural and religious interpretation, but employing this with a prohibitive degree of male privilege so as to corrupt interpretation and approach, as by the same Islamic—not Western—laws, Hosna bint Mahmoud has the right to refuse him in marriage. Although patriarchal inclinations are already prevalent in Arab-African culture, the encounter with the West exacerbates them, as the West renders the agency of Arab women to itself rather than to the women’s own culture, and Arab men affirm the attribution (so long as it validates their privilege) by accusing women who enforce their agency, like bint Mahmoud, has having been ‘poisoned’ by Western ideals.
Thus original gender dynamics are skewed and morphed under the impressions of colonialism to continuously benefit the privileged conqueror, whether they are whites, males, or both, by undermining the agency of the oppressed party and weaponizing them against one another. The women must now advance under the pressures of an external patriarchal system that is unlike the one in which they had lived, and this is what necessitates female independence: not the Western enforcement of patriarchy, nor an African one, but the pressures of these systems interactively.