Tag Archives: Research

Cultural Knowledge

Such a loaded term – cultural knowledge – coming as it does with its own set of expectations and hints of secrets. When I try to unpack it a little, I think about how knowledge differs from appropriation and what the keepers of cultural knowledge can do to protect themselves from stealth and theft. And the answer is – very little. We live in times of exchange and borrowings and slippages and it is hard to skid to a stop, metaphorically speaking, and say – ‘You have gone too far.’

My cultural knowledge is a concentric circle that extends out from family and memories of family, to the community I grew up in, the school I went to, the families I married into, the town I left and the city I adopted; and the country I settled in and everything between. Growing up Indian in India, as a member of a minority sect within a minority religion taught me about culture from the inside. Growing up female in an orthodoxy that disapproved of girls and discouraged them from forming opinions or making decisions taught me to write in secret. Raising a female child outside the confines of country and cultural knowledge allowed me to trust my judgement and own my mistakes. This came at a cost – and a loss of language, tradition and family. I never imagined interpreting this complexity for easy consumption. I still can’t make dal-chawal-palida like mum does. I still shiver walking past death-scented marigolds. I still miss the drama of eid-ka-chand and diwali-ke phatake. But for more than three decades in this country, and counting, I’ve tried, and lost, translation.

Creative writing degrees across Australian universities have marketed the desirability of ‘the other.’ It is actually an advantage to write a story that falls outside the white, heterosexual norm and ‘people like me’ can tell those stories, supported by research and financial aid from our institutions. And for that we are very grateful. We need to be, because it is pointed out to us frequently by seemingly disingenuous white people. The grateful immigrant is as desirable as the grateful refugee. And in the halls of education, we share our culture carefully, because, you know, we don’t want to appear ungrateful, and after all, we are creative colleagues. It’s what we do. We imagine other realities so we can critique patriarchy and draw attention to the plight of women and children in those theocracies and pseudo democracies we come from. We stand together, white, brown and black people, in this new country of informed debate we have fashioned together, within the halls of academia.

So, in the spirit of ‘giving back’ we give away our cultural knowledge. We speak of those layers within the countries we grew up in, those of us who dream and speak in several languages. We explain the differences between our people, our food and our religions. We resist the familiar tropes that seek to define us. We agree to speak at seminars and meet colleagues for coffee to unpack that tricky terrain inscribed on our bodies and in our minds. We talk, we write and sometimes we rage at the lack of self-awareness evident in the language of appropriation. We notice the namastes and salaams and references to shakti and bhakti and try not to mind when we are encouraged to attend workshops on how to write ‘the other.’

Knowledge slips into appropriation so comfortably. It’s a marriage made in heaven, really. Gayatri Spivak, back in 1986, well before cultural appropriation was even a ‘thing,’ said she does not “make the tired nationalist claim that only a native can know the scene,” and in principle I agree. In these days of easy travel, when it is cheaper to go to Bali than Broome; when Australians regularly travel to India and Vietnam and Cambodia and come back transformed by poverty; you don’t need to be a native to know the scene. When you have experienced the country and the natives, and walked among their dusty streets, wearing their costumes, what harm can there be to sit down with one of us in Australia and ask about the things that puzzle you still, weeks after your visit, and after your tummy has settled down? And really, what harm can there be in writing about these experiences, in the interests of eliding differences or building bridges across cultures? The white gaze interprets, interrupts and translates, telling me that my cultural knowledge cannot be the sole interpretation of my reality in Australia.

I think about all I know, all that still informs my writing to this day, and realise I started writing as testimony. So I could have something for my daughter as she grew up and realised what it meant to be a young brown female in Australia. Of course, no amount of cultural knowledge and the thousands of years of ancient Eastern wisdom prepared me for the pitfalls of parenthood. Now that we are finally brown women together in a white country, one young and one not so young, the conversations with my daughter take on an urgency I did not anticipate. There is so much to tell her. So much to show her. Culture. Knowledge. Secrets. Family. Language. Grief. Outrage. To wear a sari without falling down. To understand instinctively that the word Masi always comes after my sister’s name but Aunty always comes before her name.

I don’t have answers and I doubt if I ever will. Uncertainty marks the immigrant passage much more effectively than gratitude. I have been fortunate and people have been generous. I try to give back more than I get. I am not an inexhaustible supply of cultural knowledge. Nor am I a culture hoarder. But my stories are mine to tell and cannot be bought for the price of a cup of coffee by intersectional feminists ‘exploring the idea of difference.’ And I guess that I am still able to grieve over, rage at, and feel the imposition of such selective cultural exchanges.

First published in: http://southerncrossings.com.au/arts-and-culture/cultural-knowledge/

 

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Bearing Witness

Google describes bearing witness as a term that refers to sharing our experiences with others, most notably in the communication to others of traumatic experiences. This term has been on my mind most of this year as I grapple with the hashtags of empathy and wondering why I had no desire to add #metoo to my status on Facebook. Maybe I just don’t believe in the existence of a global sisterhood. Maybe I don’t believe in the implied solidarity of a universal womanhood in need of rescue.  More specifically I question the efficacy of a white sisterhood with its awareness of intersectionality and its commitment to being my ally. But that, as they say, is another blog post.

It is the publicity given to Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger and their co-authored book, South of Forgiveness, that I wish to mostly focus on in this piece. Icelandic Elva was raped by the Australian Stranger as a teen and started up a correspondence with him which resulted in the pair getting together to talk and write about their experiences because, apparently, women bearing witness isn’t enough. When a man points out that remorse is possible and rape is wrong, it is suddenly a game changer in the narrative. Stranger raped an unconscious Elva for two hours. Now he appears on TED talks discussing his ‘repentance’ while Elva speaks of her need to establish contact with her violator as a means towards acceptance and healing.

Online forums hummed with dissent over this particular book for a while. Discussions polarised women; some advised strident feminists to listen instead of indulging in binaries and tired arguments about safe, sacred spaces. In one such forum, a woman made this extraordinary statement to another – ‘lynchings get us nowhere.’ The commenter appeared unaware of the charged racial connotations of the word despite having it pointed out to her several times. She also saw no irony in making that comment to a brown woman, offering up an apology of sorts a few comments later; acknowledging that words can be ‘funny’ sometimes and that a ‘fear of trampling’ over people’s feelings may prevent women from speaking out. It was hard to see the apology in that comment so I concluded that none was intended, and the word ‘lynching’ hung in the discussion like the proverbial post upon which the act was carried out in America. The concept of intersectionality came up often in the discussion as well, as a plea for understanding the perpetrator instead of condemning him. I prefer Kimberle Crenshaw’s take on intersectionality, where she advises bearing witness to the reality of multiple forms of exclusion. Such as the exclusion practiced in this particular forum when language was used specifically to disempower rather than authorise.

There are, however, other books written by women that put forward several passionate and reasoned arguments that may help change the narrative. One such book is Feeling the Fleshed Body by Brenda Downing. Downing uses somatic enquiry, lyrical prose and performance making responses to the trauma of rape. ‘Once touched, the body cannot be untouched,’ she says quietly at the start of her erudite and wide-ranging work on the body’s subversive capacity to express trauma through symptoms that are not always readily understood.

Feeling the Fleshed Body proposes that trauma significantly reduces the body’s capacity to be compassionate to itself, and that unacknowledged grief causes a fracturing of the mind and body that needs to be restored before acceptance and healing can begin. Downing refers to her ‘raped and censured body’ as crucial in finding the imperative for embodied forms of post-traumatic expression. ‘The struggle to speak and be heard’ is at the forefront of this enquiry into the aftermath of rape. The emphasis on ‘the feminine language of our bodies’ positions this work beside neuroscientific, philosophical and therapeutic contexts to argue that a separation of mind and body (inevitable when rape occurs) must be acknowledged before change can happen. As I read first hand accounts of the women Downing interviewed for her thesis, it is harder to accept that bearing witness must include a male perspective, as posited by Elva and her supporters. This is because women often relate their experiences of ‘not being heard’ by (male) health professionals, partners or parents.  They speak about feeling claustrophobic, disconnected, discounted and unheard. They report that they struggle with lifelong issues of trust and safety.

‘But how will we understand what it is in human societies that produces violence if we refuse to recognise the humanity of those who commit it?’ asks Elva. Really? Tom Stranger discounted the humanity of Thordis Elva when he raped her. He was a guest in her country and her home. He violated the expectations of her parents who thought he would look after her. He left her and went on with his life of privilege, education, employment and family, while hers fell apart. He did nothing to find out how she coped. She contacted him. And gave him a forum, a stage, a book deal. He accepts being labeled a ‘rapist.’ Should we applaud this enormous concession made by a man who raped a woman?

Clementine Ford speaks about the ‘mechanics of internalised misogyny’ in her excellent book, Fight Like A Girl. She says that women who dare to name and shame and call out patriarchy when they see it, are set upon by their own as well as men. She points out that she ‘doesn’t position men and their feelings front and centre.’ And this is an important point, which appears to be missing in the race to acknowledge Elva as ‘brave’ and her abuser as ‘perceptive.’ By positioning the feelings of a man at the centre of a narrative of rape, we discount the humanity of women like Ford who are routinely threatened and abused online by men for her activism and candour.

When women like Elva tell us their story, duly authenticated by a man, they push back the conversations Ford and Downing have made possible. Thordis Elva simply perpetuates the myth that a man’s acknowledgement of his crime will change the narrative of violence. Elva is entitled to her delusions but it is crucial to remember that the reality is far more dangerous. South of Forgiveness is not a game-changer. A 2014 news report revealed that one in six Australian women experienced sexual assault, making sexual crime in Australia, the third highest in the world. A man shoots his wife in front of her 4 children. Media reports indicate that he was a ‘nice’ man and this was ‘out of character.’ Ford suggests that society always finds ways to explain violence against women as an aberration, as a glitch on the radar, as the sudden breakdown of an otherwise ‘good bloke.’ Which is why reading Elva and Stranger’s story of redemption cannot be the only story. Humanising, normalising and validating a rapist because he happens to be educated and good-looking and remorseful, does us no favours. We need to continue to have nuanced discussions that truly bear witness.

Works cited:

Crenshaw, K. (2016) The urgency of intersectionality https://www.ted.com/taks/kimberle_crenshaw_the_urgency_of_intersectionality/ TED Woman October 2016

Downing, B. (2016). Feeling the Fleshed Body. Berlin: Peter Lang

Elva, T. & Stranger, T. (2016) South of Forgiveness.  Melbourne: Scribe https://www.ted.com/talks/thordis_elva_tom_stranger_our_story_of_rape_and_reconiliation/ TED Talks February 2017

Ford, C. (2016). Fight Like a Girl.  Australia: Allen & Unwin

India Diary – Part Four

The narrow gauge toy train staggered slowly up the steep slopes, up and up – almost 8000 feet up, towards the old summer capital of the British in India – Shimla, in the foothills of the Himalayas – the final leg of my journey through India.

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The Viceroys of India lived here; the Lords Amherst, Auckland, Curzon, Dalhousie, Mountbatten. Curzon built his famous golf course on a hilltop and named his daughter after it – Naldehra. The Freedom Treaty was signed here. M.M. Kaye who wrote The Far Pavilions was born here. The Afghan President studied here. And the Dalai Lama was visiting when we arrived from Delhi.

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The University of Himachal Pradesh hosted this stage of my research journey. The campus on Summerhill is approached through thick forest and winding roads. Monkeys swing from pine and deodar trees and rhododendrons spill down the hillside. Students and lecturers walk busily up and down the steep slopes and everyone smiles – it would be hard to be immune to the remote beauty of this place. On a tour of the gothic Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (formerly the Viceregal Lodge) it was easy to imagine liveried servants carrying tea and cucumber sandwiches up the curve of carpeted staircase to men wearing monocles and medals.
The colonial burden is felt here deeply – it is evident in the formality of University business, where the Dalai Lama is invited to bless graduating students; in the Tudor buildings that rise from its hilltops; in the naming of those buildings – Gorton Castle, Wildflower Cottage, the Town Hall on The Mall. Yet there is a fresh patriotism here, dissent and challenge in the voices that murmur in the hallways, subversion of the colonial stereotype in the choice of literature and research, of what it means to be Indian.

The academics at the University are clearly in this for the passion of their calling. They teach 20-30 classes six days a week and manage a cohort of 10-20 postgraduate students each. Somehow they found time for me. Nothing was too much trouble. I presented on a topic of my choice (Re-inventing Home) and ran a workshop on Creative Writing. Dr Pankaj Singh, Chair of the Centre for Australian and New Zealand Studies is now on my list of the top ten inspirational women of all time. She and her team are the most dedicated and nurturing teachers I have met in a long time.

And on a personal note, this is where my research made sense. For the past 4 years, I’ve been writing and re-writing my novel endlessly, with no idea how it was going to finish. On a cold sleety morning in Shimla, with snow on the Himalayas just visible over the ridge, I knew.

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