How I learned to read a book in a foreign language

Let’s go back to 2015. I had just finished taking the French language courses at Swarthmore. This means that I was able to hold the most basic of conversations in French, often with generous assistance from my professors. My knowledge of French literature, French culture, French politics, anything really, was limited to whatever my instructors had taught us in class. And because my instructors taught only in French, my knowledge was really centered around what little I could actually understand. It was in the summer of 2015 that I first decided I would study abroad in Senegal during my junior spring. In order to prepare myself, I prepared an independent course of study with my advisor on West African literature, with an emphasis on Senegalese literature. I’ll link the syllabus here.

Prior to this independent study, I read my first novel in French outside of class, which was Ousmane Sembène’s Xala. As to be expected, I did not understand much of what I was reading. I found I was getting frustrated with my inability to make sense of the plot, mainly because I didn’t know what half of the words meant. I had the bare fundamentals of French grammar, so I could roughly tell you how the sentence was working, but I couldn’t really tell you what the verb meant, and therefore the sentence was partially void of meaning. I kept reading, expecting that with time I would improve, but I can’t say that this happened. However, I went into the independent study knowing that, because this was the first time I’d be reading novels in French, I decided to take notes and consult my advisor on the best course of action. I have since committed what she’s told me and what I’ve learned to memory, and cannot really report what I learned then to you, since it’s been assimilated into my general approach to literature more broadly. Nevertheless, it’s four years later and I’m reading French novels every week, often at the same pace and with the same degree of rigor with which I read an English novel. And I’m here now to give you some tips on how to do this.

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Notes from underground OR why I stopped writing poems

Let’s set the stage: the year is 2013.  I am 18 years old, fresh out of undergrad and feeling excited, albeit uncontrollably anxious, to be “independent” and in college. Like many of my friends, I had joined the poetry group at Swarthmore. Unbeknownst to me, the poetry group was mainly frequented by competitive slam and spoken word poets – and this was a kind of writing that I had never experienced. In high school, I had read the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath TS Eliot and have wanted to be an esoteric “page” poet like them, weaving into my confessional works a kind of opacity which would protect me from the otherwise inscrutable vulnerability of my work. I had enjoyed my work so much, and have published on some blogs and in my high school literary magazine, even, that I had decided to join the group, although I knew I would not really be understood. Now, I don’t want to make it out like I was the best poet in the world. In fact, I thought I was quite bad and have much room to improve. But nevertheless, I like what I as writing, I liked how strange and discomfiting my work was. But I found that people would blankly stare at me when I would share my work. Not knowing what to make of this, I turned inwards and grew afraid that I was being misunderstood. I slowly stopped going to the club meetings, fearing further misunderstanding.

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a formless life

This year I witnessed a number of changes. I stopped going to the gym, began to eat poorly, and started ordering out more often. I do not really know why all of these things happened all at once. But the end result was what one could anticipate: unwanted weight gain and unnecessary credit card debt. Although the debt isn’t too bad at all, my weight gain has unnerved me for more than just superficial and vain reasons. What I’m finding frustrating is shifting out of a feedback loop of bad and worse habits. And it’s not simply because dieting and exercising are hard but because I’ve rarely had to work for anything.

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How I’ve grown during my second year of graduate school

Summertime, and the living is easy.

Hey. It’s been a while. I’ve been away from my blog, trying to figure some things out about myself. I have let myself go in more ways than one, and am in the process of (re)injecting some discipline back into my life. It’s hard. I often want to give up, and find that an amorphous life, while undesirable, is certainly easier. But then I get frustrated with a formless, shapeless, shiftless life and fly into a fit of trying to do too much, only to slip even further into a voided life. I’m on my way, though, and that’s all that matters.

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notes from a trip to Paris

I am writing to you from the research library of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. As of today (Tuesday, January 8, 2019) I have only two days left in France. After returning, I’ll spend an evening in New Jersey, sleeping and doing laundry before returning to equally cold New Haven for yet another semester of grad school. I must admit, I’m not looking forward to going back. My time in Paris has been enjoyable. Besides not really having a taste for French food, I haven’t had anything negative to say at all. My ability to speak French (I’ll go into this in more detail below) grants me access to an anonymity that I imagine many American tourists cannot enjoy. When speaking to someone, they do not do the tourist thing with me, switching to English in order to facilitate communication. I have only had this happen one time during my time in Paris, and that was when I prompted a librarian in English about how to reserve my seat and access my texts. When on the trains, I find that I am not typically flagged as a non-Francophone foreigner, and I wonder if this is because of racial dynamics which encode what a Black person is and does in France. I won’t be able to really pick this apart in the next two days, but it’s food for thought.

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Slavery and History in Chamoiseau’s L’Esclave vieil homme et le molosse

This is a presentation script prepared for Christopher Miller’s course Slavery and its Aftermath in French and Francophone Literature.

L’esclave vieil homme et le molosse is a novel written by Martinican author and 1992 Prix Goncourt winner Patrick Chamoiseau, published originally by Gallimard in 1997. The novel tells the story of an old man who, under the spell of a mythical ailment known only as the décharge, flees captivity into the woods surrounding his master’s plantation. He is thereafter chased by the Master and his mastiff, the rest of the novel recounting the triptych of these three characters’ inevitable boundedness to one another. While there is so much to be said about this short text, my presentation today will attempt to situate Chamoiseau’s novel within a political and aesthetic discourse on history in relation to Martinique’s curious position within the French nationalist archipelago. When we read a novel like L’esclave vieil homme, we are not only reading a novel about a past which has been, within the French cultural and national memory, willfully repressed and unquestionably overlooked, but we are also, in our act of reading, contributing to a counternarrative, a counter-history which brings into questions contextualizes, resists and defies the dominant narrative, that thing which we call History with a capital H. My presentation will look exactly at the question of L’esclave vieil homme as a literary object which attempts to reconfigure the ways we ought to think about French History with a capital H as a historical imposition which subjects of les vieilles colonies in particular must endure. In doing so, I draw broad strokes around the complexities and intricacies of a particularly ultramarin possibility for postcolonialism, given that colonialism in the Antilles and Reunion never formally ended.

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abyssal antihumanism

Calvin Warren, Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism and Emancipation, Duke University Press, 2018

Calvin Warren’s book Ontological Terror opens with an anecdote. Invited to “meditate on [the] globalized sadism” of antiblackness at a conference at which he anticipated “a festival of humanism in which presenters would share their solutions to the problem of antiblackness (if they acknowledged antiblackness),” Warren’s presentation is met with outright hostility from a crowd typically used to the “’yes we can!’ rhetoric and unbounded optimism” of what he defines as the Black humanist tradition. Early on in Ontological Terror, Warren cleaves himself from what he understands to be the mainstream of Black thinkers, philosophers and social critics by ascribing himself to a heavily Heideggerian camp of what can ostensibly be labeled “Afro-nihilism.” I do not offer this label glibly, in order to signal at the Afropessimist work which hums throughout Ontological Terror; I do so to highlight a specific agenda which is at the center of this short albeit sweeping text. Warren posits, in his response to the outrage of his critique of humanism, of the falsity and impossibility of social reform for what he perceives to be the hearthstone of Western (“world”) civilization – antiblackness, – that the source of the Black intellectual malaise in response to continued violence against Black people is precisely a Black intellectual indebtedness to humanism and postmetaphysics as frameworks wherein Black subjectivity can be isolated and liberated from the bondage of antiblackness. Warren does not posit a posthuman framework, insofar that the affix post may insinuate a departure from a previously established framework, but argues for a kind of antihumanism, an “ontological revolution” which departs from a European intellectual milieu which has been assimilated into a Black cultural perspective and moves towards a framework which can expose the “nothing” of Black being. Or, at least, this is what I read Ontological Terror to be doing. In order to redeem what in many ways is a troubling and disturbing text, I offer this absolutory reading, in hopes that my own interventions, from my intellectual and personal subject position, can situate a text like Ontological Terror. In many ways, this is not possible within our current academic, philosophical and cultural context – how exactly can we approach a humanistic study of Black life if we assume that Black people are in fact not human subjects?

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bibliophobia

What’s in a text? A year ago, I wrote a post called why read? whose content and ruminations continue to shape my perspectives on grad school. In this post are the first grumblings of a profound feeling of dread that grows between me and the primary act of my profession – the task of reading. Although I barely broach the notion in that post, beneath the surface, you can pick out a discourse of what I shall call bibliophobia, or the fear of books. In writing this short piece, I hope to delve further into a series of logical and affective knots in my character, with the (perhaps naïve) hope that their exposition will in some way make these knots, these nodes of discomfort, a bit easier to undo.

While reading, I am struck by two feelings. The first is the will to understand what is being read. This goes beyond the basic skills of reading comprehension that are massaged into us as children, the analytical detective work of exposing what a text says. In many ways, this is related to my predisposition to a kind of obsessive and paranoiac anxiety, for all texts say something, but most texts say things to me which they do not seem to say to others. When reading a novel like Une vie de boy, I’m fascinated by questions of textuality, interiority and the diary form in ways which many critics seem to overlook. Within the academic profession, this is a positive factor; I am filling a gap in the scholarship of this particular novel with my own reading. Yet, it is the very idea that few people have looked at Une vie de boy from this perspective which frightens me. I find that I am frightened by the idea of my own unique reading, primarily because I am disturbed with the concept of misreading. I do not want to be wrong, although I resist the idea of a dominant reading.

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great expectations

It is no surprise that I am my greatest enemy. I’m impulsive, I am not very organized, and I am self-defeating. Yet, beneath it all, I believe, is a great potential. It is perhaps this potential, this possibility for greatness, that fuels the seasickness of my ego; a constant vacillation between a tremendous ambition and an ever-present feeling of dread.

It’s a week into the semester and I’m feeling a bit drained. I have not done a good job of anticipating the tidal wave which is the school year. This summer, as I have already said, was mild and calm. I spent time collecting myself, getting things in order, and taking stock of a tumultuous year. Yet, the semester has begun and I feel already partially undone. Whatever tidying and sealing I did this summer has already started to fray at the edges and untie itself. This much is to be expected, but not at so rapid a pace. A summer spent reading and trying to inhabit the spirit of the “specialist,” to feel knowledgeable about a certain topic or corpus; one week has thrown an entire three months into question. Yet, I refuse to let graduate school rob me of my charisma and of my sense of power.

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Unconscionable feelings: a primer for everyday affect theory

To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

TS Eliot, “The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock”

Feelings never had no ethics,
Feelings never have been ethical.

Devonte Hynes (Blood Orange), “Nappy Wonder,” Negro Swan

What is an argument, really? A disagreement, yes, but what is it beneath that? What can we see when we peel away the skin of a dispute and peer inside? A woman is arguing with her boyfriend over something small and insignificant; leaving the cap off the toothpaste, dropping his shoes in the foyer when he comes in from work, farting under the sheets of their communal bed. These are small, if annoying, offenses. But what do they say? What she thinks is: “I find these things that you do without thinking annoying.” This is a valid point, even if more laidback people would be prone to shrug at what can be easily written off as “anal retention” or “nitpickiness.” Yet, her boyfriend resists her claims, arguing that his girlfriend is obsessed with order and cleanliness, that it is not in his nature to be so mindlessly tidy. He turns the conversation on its head by claiming that the perception of his negative cleanliness is actually the presence of her excess of tidiness, her fascist need for control. This is an argument because beneath the surface of minutia and bullshit, of petty squabbles, is a deeper issue which rises to the surface, which ceases to just be affect, “unconscionable feelings,” in the moment of linguistic interchange. What is missing is a critique of feeling, not thinking.

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