Nyla Matuk on identity and privilege
“THE FEMINISM I identified with as a student,” Laura Kipnis wrote recently in an essay on professor-student love affairs, “stressed independence and resilience.” Kipnis was making a case that standing for women’s rights means recruiting a certain resilience, contra the melodrama of helpless victimhood currently hijacking the narrative of on-campus liaisons. In this narrative, students are powerless prey and faculty members, de facto predators. She concluded that the prohibitions sweeping American universities infantilize us all with their presumption of a Hobbesian order. By tightly proscribing sexual interest, the new rules are creating a cowering citizenry. Unsurprisingly, Kipnis’ piece—which set off a social media storm—was met by an inquisition of sorts, when students filed Title IX charges against her, accusing her of creating a hostile and discriminatory school environment.
Kipnis’ essay, and the Kafkaeque trial into which she was plunged, got me thinking about the idea of agency in identity politics.* Such notions are not new. I grappled with them over 20 years ago in my Master’s thesis. I was curious, then, about the moral sources of Western literary expression, and wondered whether multiculturalism could be seen as one such source. It seemed to me diversity had become the desirable by-product of free expression, a tenet that originated in the Enlightenment and continued to develop during the Romantic period. Charles Taylor, in his book Sources of the Self, argues that some of us seek creative expression to obtain recognition. The more diverse our voices—so the liberal narrative goes—the richer our cultural output and the more inclusive our society.
Consider Canadian poet Colin Fulton’s 2015 canvass of poetry prize winners and prize jurying in Canada. He pointed out that white poets (people, we’re left to assume, primarily*** of Anglo-Irish-Scots-Germanic-Eastern European and other Caucasian ethnicities predominant in Canada) have been over-represented in the prize results and adjudication processes from 1981 to 2015. All this whiteness, for Fulton, comes with a cost: “it’s about who gets to exist and who doesn’t, about who they exist for and who decides.” One potential reason for white over-representation: non-whites’ aesthetic tastes differ from whites’, already the majority in prize culture. Even more insidiously, another explanation might be that non-white poets are being frozen out of adjudication work. Or it might be traced to a complicated set of circumstances having to do with non-whites from immigrant families gravitating away from the Canadian literary arts, thus lowering the number of their submissions to such prizes.
Whatever the causes, Fulton’s data show us that multiculturalism is not a feature of the literary reward system in Canada, a country that for decades has prided itself on recognizing cultural and ethnic diversity. But what if we harnessed the idea of agency the way Kipnis has celebrated it—that is, as a form of independence and resilience—and applied it as an antidote to Fulton's grim statistics? Taylor would see the recruitment of agency into our conversations about literary phenomena as a valorization of multicultural politics, imbuing those concerns with something more meaningful than the frivolous, postmodern celebration of difference. It flies in the face of the ‘death of the author’ and its variants. What if Canadian poets of colour decided to see themselves as agents in their own careers rather than giving in to the feelings of voicelessness and victimization that can come from discovering a system-wide shut-out like the one Fulton revealed?
RECENTLY, THE CANADIAN poet Phoebe Wang wrote a blog post that took up Fulton’s findings. She ruminated on her own ethnic makeup and how she seemed to have beat the odds as a person of colour by winning a poetry prize.** She also discussed the challenges in being a creative writer and the personal conditions (MFA studies, encouraging parents) that enabled her to embrace that life choice. Not all non-white writers, after all, are blessed with such assets. Her observation, however, that the issue isn’t only about contests but about “why so few of us are writing at all” really intrigued me. It implied that writers of colour were discouraged from writing altogether because of the sort of non-recognition documented in Fulton’s study.
I wasn’t sure if Wang’s blog post was chiefly concerned with (a) her perception of a dearth of writers among those who are not white, or (b) the institutional bias against writers of colour. But I bristled at this in particular: “I cannot address my racial category, because it is addressing me.” Those words sound the victim alarm. They suggest that conditions over which we have no control will swallow us, that self-determination will take a back seat to outside forces. Is this the reason “why so few of us are writing at all”?
Shouldn’t something be said for personal gumption, agency, or going against the hand you’re dealt? I’ll say here that I had no writer role models of similar ethnicity, nor parental encouragement of the kinds Wang listed. Growing up in east-end Ottawa, I spoke English at home, but from the age of 5 until the beginning of high school, I spent my days at French Catholic schools among French Canadians. Speaking English was forbidden in school and the rule almost never broken. My parents are neither French nor Catholic, and at school I learned French from others, switching back to English when I got home. Not only are my parents Muslim, instead of Catholic, each was from a different ethnic background; my father is from Palestine, and my mother, whose mother tongue is Urdu but whose ethnic makeup is Turkish and Afghan, was born and raised in Delhi, India. Between them, they spoke English well, but certainly not perfectly. I speak neither Urdu nor Arabic.
Both at school and in my own home, I was an outsider—a kind of stranger engaged in accommodation polka on at least two different fronts, and mostly failing to match up culturally, ethnically, and religiously. (Although my parents are more or less secular, they reckoned that Christian schools had been good enough for them, and so the Franco-Ontarian Catholic nuns would be good enough for me.) To their credit, les écoles La Vérendrye and Pauline-Vanier made me fluent in French, and I don’t speak with an English accent. As a bonus, they branded the French mass and Our Father into my memory.
In other words, we all live with disadvantages and privileges; it’s what we do with those influences—what agency we bring—that affects whether we write or don’t.
My early experiences with the racism of the French Canadians in my school (yes, the racism of children), and my outsider condition, taught me how to be an active creative force in my own life. If those were the conditions of a victim, if they were the conditions, as Wang would conceive of it, of a racial (or ethnic) category that ‘I could not address because it was addressing me,’ I’d likely have given up long ago.
One checks one’s privileges and disadvantages. But really, how much support does one need? As one of a few non-white kids in my school, with no role model of similar ethnicity, nor the later advantage of MFA studies or parents encouraging literary expression, I nonetheless turned out to be a writer. I refused to call myself a victim, the kind of person American universities have now decided must be protected from acting on their own agency and that Fulton’s study now suggests can only be “seen” through prizes.
My bit of resilience—the kind Kipnis advocates for—came from living between cultures, negotiating my identity on several fronts. And I identify a little with what Jasmine Gui observed in her essay on living in the Toronto literary scene as an outsider: “in trying to work out how I feel, language is where I can come to some peace with my discomfort.” There is something to be said for being caught in between, something like this poem by the young British poet Zaffar Kunial. The speaker is talking about a father, but it could’ve been about my own mother, whom I can nearly hear telling me the same thing, in her imperfect Urdu-inflected English (the father’s mother tongue is one spoken in Kashmir, Northern India, so the accent I detect is similar to Urdu).
So much of the poem’s significance rests on what it means to be caught in between cultures, to be ethnically, possibly racially, always somewhat ‘different.’ While the speaker’s resilience seems on the wane, the self-awareness of his difference, the difference of his nativity to that of his father, makes me think he might find some way to sort himself out–to get out from under all the ways being different can crush you, if you let it.
by Zaffar Kunial
I couldn’t tell you now what possessed me
to shut summer out and stay in my room.
Or at least attempt to. In bed mostly.
It’s my dad, standing in the door frame
not entering—but pausing to shape advice
that keeps coming back. ‘Whatever is matter,
must enjoy the life.’ He pronounced this twice.
And me. I heard wrongness in putting a the
before life. In two minds. Ashamed. Aware.
That I knew better, though was stuck inside
while the sun was out. That I’m native here.
In a halfway house. Like that sticking word.
The definite article, half right, half
wrong, still present between enjoy and life.
*I use ‘identity politics’ advisedly. It occurred to me that it was a bit of a dated term and then recently I came across this webchat with Hanif Kureishi, where he attempts to widen the parameters: “I noticed as a young man growing up, and I grew up in the 1950s and early 60s when Britain was much whiter than it is now, that other people had a problem with people of colour. And for some time, this did as they say, my head in. After a while I realised that this was a political and social issue, rather than something that concerned my psychological health. I saw that Britain had to change. There was an idea that whiteness was the standard, that whiteness was the bar, as it were. Just as at that time heterosexuality was considered to be the sexual standard. Things would only improve for all of us if these categories were questioned, dismissed, and we could begin to see things differently. As I say, this is a political, social and cultural issue. It's terrible when people become locked into identities that are too narrow for them, when they see themselves exclusively as, say, straight, Muslim, white, or whatever it is. You might say we need a more creative view of human possibility. The arts might be one way of advancing this.”
**Wang says, "I felt all the things I should feel: wonder, disbelief, pride, shock” about winning the prize from a literary journal. It’s surprising to me that "wonder" and "shock" are part of this experience; is it necessary to put so much importance on prizes of this kind? Why aggrandize oneself further with a melodramatic reaction to an accolade of this kind? The obsessive preoccupation with praise in literary culture and literary prize culture, the general immoderacy, is pretty tedious. And Wang is not alone. It might simply be good practice to avoid writing essays in response to your winning a prize. I'm not sure how prizes lend legitimacy at all—they're awarded based on opinions that are as judgmental as anyone's.
NYLA MATUK is the author of Sumptuary Laws (2012).
***Correction: This piece originally included the typo "not primarily."