A week or so ago, I had a debate with my siblings. It started off as typical group-chat fare: I ask a difficult question, with an interest in seeing how people think about the question, rather than coming up with a solution. My question was: “Do y’all think we were just ‘chilling’ in Africa before the Europeans arrived?” Immediately, my eldest brother was suspicious:
Jason: ppl had civilizations, empires, villages, cities. im not sure what you are looking for
My question, which I did not intend to be provocative but invariably was, was more rooted in the construction of history — its inherently fictitious nature — than in documenting a set of historical truths. By outlining the fictions of history, I mean to dispel the pretense to truth that makes certain fictions viable as histories and bars others from consideration as myths, legends or mere stories. In this case, I am questioning the common history of blackness endemic to a particular brand of post-Négritude thinkers, call them hoteps or neo-Négritudists or Afrocentrists. I am not interested in telling you that Molefi Kete Asante is wrong because I don’t think he is anymore wrong than Orlando Patterson or David Brion Davis. Rather, historians and philosophers of history endeavor to narrativize history, to make past events make sense within a continuity, and to explain what had hitherto remained inexplicable. Once you acknowledge that all history is fiction, you are able to ask an entirely new set of questions that read to those who accept history-as-fact as little more than idle provocation. As I’ve said to friends in passing, the critic is ultimately a mad person. But I’ll save this for another post.Continue reading “notes on method I: lessons from the group chat”
It is your tenth month in this place. You have moved apartments, thrown away old clothes, replaced them — and yet still you are here. In this endless moment that is also a beginning. The slow eschaton.
Your friends have left you. Scattered across the country, hiding in place. You Zoom them sometimes and it makes your heart light to see their faces through the digital fog. You crave an intimacy you cannot name, the dim warmth of sitting besides, facing another person. You are always cold, even when the heat is blasting in your apartment. Your cat (or a friend’s cat) sits on your lap, but you do not feel her warmth.Continue reading “the slow eschaton”
When I was in Senegal, I came down with my first bout of chronic gastritis. I am able to name that mystery ailment of stomach cramps and perpetual nausea only in hindsight. When I was there – not to the discredit of the fine Senegalese doctors I saw – I had no idea what was causing me everyday distress in my bowels. From the moment I woke up until I glided into sleep that night, I bore discomfort in my chest, my stomach and my throat. The first few weeks were awkward for me. I was the only boy in the program, but was no longer able to perform the quintessentially masculine mastery over my body. I was distraught, constantly uncomfortable, belching slow, endless burps from an empty stomach, all as I gripped my stomach and responded to questions in my practiced, if a bit inflexible, French. The other students in the cohort pitied me and would offer me anything they had that might soothe my problem. Before the first week was through, my parents and I were discussing the possibility of me withdrawing from my program in Dakar. “I’m not mentally present,” I told them, almost crying as I clutched my distended belly on the red leather coach in the back of our school building. “I don’t think I can do this.”
As you may know, I didn’t withdraw from SIT Senegal. Rather, I sank into a paranoiac life. I began hoarding spicy ginger candies that I could buy for 15 CFA at a little stand around the corner from our school. I would eat at least five or six of these everyday, at any moment when I began to feel queasy and uneasy. I never didn’t have one with me, and I knew exactly which ones I liked (I did not care for the pineapple ones). I wasn’t as adventurous as I would have liked to have been, mainly because I was young, anxious and undeniably foreign, but also because I didn’t know when my body would suddenly turn on me and start calling the shots. I often lived vicariously through the freer women in my program, half-wanting to go with them to eat sandwiches prepared at the dodgy sidewalk café, but always content, nevertheless, in my croque monsieur, my dried mango and my digestive cookies.
There was a girl in my program who left Senegal. Unlike me, she came down with something while we were there. Perhaps it was from food she’d eaten; an apple or orange she hadn’t properly sanitized with eau de javel or an ill-placed, ill-sipped glass of local water served at a restaurant, or her own body rebelling against her because it could. Needless to say, this girl had the fortitude to leave Senegal in the middle of the program, much to the shock of the employees of our program. The director shook his head in disbelief when he told us that no one had ever left the program, not even years prior when the ebola outbreak struck West Africa and stalled study abroad applications. I won’t go into the details about this girl, but I will note that nearly everyone had grown tired of her literal belly-aching by the time she actually departed. She complained ceaselessly about her perpetual nausea, her inability to name and thus fix her problem, and her unending fear of eating anything. She wanted, desperately, to be home with her parents, not because they could fix the problem (her parents, if I recall, were therapists) but because home is where comfort lies. Being sick abroad is absolutely terrible. You can take my word for it, as someone who felt they would vomit any minute while sulking about the Panthéon.
I bring up this anecdote for a couple of reasons: 1) to give some context for what I’m currently dealing with (or trying to deal with) 2) to underline a key point which I’ll make in this post 3) to draw a picture of what it feels like to be in this body.
I bring up this anecdote – of Senegal and the girl who left – because I remember being asked by one of the students after the girl left halfway through our program, whether or not I had overcome my own gastric woes. The question was posed to me after everyone (myself included, I must concede) ragged on the girl [in an admittedly harsh manner] about her endless complaining. I told my friend that my condition hadn’t improved, a response she undoubtedly wasn’t expected. Her face lit up with shock and pity, but I did not accept it.
“My condition hasn’t improved much at all. I just stopped talking about it.”Continue reading “The Chicken and the Egg”
I’m tired, y’all. Tired of reading about everything that’s going on. Tired of being tired of hearing about stuff I know I need to be paying more attention to. Tired of things going back to normal. Tired of weird stares on the street. Tired of being watched on our way to the protest. Tired of feeling the need to participate or to be a part of a solution. Tired of defending rebellion. Tired of historicizing revolt. Tired of trying to think of a way to make my work more about the pressing issues facing people like me in the world. Tired of debating the utility of my work with myself. Tired of ‘deferring to people who know more about these issues.’ Tired of the weight of my silence. Tired of three-minute spurts of social media use before I’ve seen too much. Tired of seeing the same posts reshared.
Tired of strange fruit. Tired of despising black trans people. Tired of not caring about black women. Tired of not hearing black women. Tired of not seeing black women. Tired of wishing black queer people would ‘not be so aggressive’ or ‘in our face.’
Tired of continuing to invest energy in white people, in white feelings, in whiteness, even when you swear you’re doing no such thing.
Tired of feeling compelled to watch videos of Black people getting killed because I watch every single one of them. Tired of feeling that familiar anticipatory numbness, seeing the mist of blood and the vertiginous swirl of the bodycams. Tired of hearing the pleas. Tired of reading the pleas. Tired of feeling hollow.
Tired of the ongoing existential crisis that is being black in an antiblack world. Tired of defending the dead. Tired of the Zong, the Amistad. Tired of Harper’s Ferry, Gettysburg. Tired of Gorée, Christiansborg, Whydah. Tired of Matouba. Tired of not being able to fly home. Tired of homesickness for nowhere. Tired of talk of return. Tired of the ghosts in my mouth.
Tired like ER Braithwaite when he sat beside a white liberal man on a train in the Northeast United States and become someone else’s negro. Tired because I’m still stuck reading Black Skins, White Masks when y’all are re-re-rereading The Wretched of the Earth. Tired of seeing things from multiple angles. Tired of being diplomatic, apologetic, a devil’s advocate.
Tired of talking. Tired of my own voice. Tired of my epidermalization. Tired of history.
Tired of making myself small for other people. Tired of being the only Black person at the department party. Tired of asking ‘would they have said this to a white person?’ Tired of defending transracial coalitions. Tired of reminding other black people that your blackness doesn’t excuse or explain away your discrimination of other nonwhite groups.
Tired of buying things at the store because if I leave emptyhanded, I’m a thief. Tired of needing a receipt.
Tired of explaining my theory of blackness. Tired of theorizing an impossible world without race or gender or sexuality. Tired of prophesizing. Tired of being read as a pessimist. Tired of expecting my optimism to be legible. Tired of being both Caliban and Ariel. Tired of being Othello. Tired of being my own Iago. Tired of my créolité.
Tired of the word ‘abjection’ at the back of my throat. Tired of being the ‘race person.’ Tired of being the resident postcolonial theorist. Tired of defending postcolonial theory. Tired of postcolonial theory.
I’m tired of being everyone else’s negro. I’m tired of being my own negro. I’m tired. Leave me alone.
I don’t have much to say about the riots or the protests. I’ve tried drafting a post for the past few days and nothing has come out. It all sounds trite or too formal or too academic. Writing your vulnerability is difficult, but you all know this.
In times like this, I feel my blackness the most. I watched the video of George Floyd’s life getting snuffed out, just like I watched the spray of blood as Ahmaud Arbery was shot dead. I acknowledge people’s right to abstain, but I never do. And each time, I feel a certain nothingness inside of me. What’s wrong with me? I just watched a snuff film, watched this man beg and plead and gasp while this fucking cop applied pressure to his trachea until he went limp. He was probably dead by the end of the video. I watched a man get murdered for no reason. So why do I feel nothing?
I don’t post on social media when things like this happen. I avoid talking about it with my friends because I resist unraveling the bundle of nerves around my true feelings. No one can put my fragile life back together, so why bother? Or, I’m afraid that there are no true feelings thereunder, that what I feel I feel is just an illusion. Affective gas. Existential indigestion.
You don’t have to tell me that there’s nothing protecting me from being another Ahmaud or Michael or Korryn or Tony or Sandra or Breonna or Trayvon or Amadou or Sean or George or Eric. Mine is another name to dry out your mouth at a sun-parched rally and scrawl onto your picket sign. Another face to break the internet.
I already know it, and it’s the knowledge of my knowing that I avoid. I live so squarely inside of my body that I can feel my skin tighten as I shrink in the presence of white people. Obedient and obeisant. Willing to serve. I’m never unaware of who and what I am in this world, even when I’m trying to be someone or something else.
I avoid Facebook, Instagram and Reddit because everyone is talking about the latest killing, saying the same old things. Voicing their hot-blooded anger and grief. A stir, a collective weeping. Then the lull before it happens again. This time is different and I’m glad. I adore the crimson glow on the horizon while I watch the world burn from a distance.
There were protests in New Haven today. Had I known of them, I would have had to make the decision of whether I wanted to go or not. I don’t think I would have gone, had I been given the choice. I can’t furnish you with an explanation that doesn’t sound like an excuse. It’s all nonsense in my mouth, a meaningful jabbing with the tips of my fingers.
I abstain because I think about my racial experience every minute of every day. Whenever I go into a store, I feel their eyes on my back. I’m careful of where I put my hands, careful to not seem too shifty or shady. Very rarely do I enter a store without making a purchase because I don’t want people to think I’ve stolen something. My grandmother’s voice is in my ears: “Always ask for a bag.” Why, I asked, a stupid child not yet aware of what he is. “People will think you stole if you don’t get a bag.”
Whenever I sit in a seminar room, I police myself. I’m eager, I’ll admit it. I do my homework, I like the sound of my own voice. But somewhere in a region of my mind I’m whispering “That’s enough, Xavier. You’ve spoken too much. Shut up shut up shut up shut up shut up.” A fifteen second point feels like I’ve been talking for thirty minutes. I imagine their green and blue eyes rolling. “Why does he always have to talk about race?” My point was too long, meandering, incoherent and baseless. I’m taking up space, I’m expanding and smothering everyone in the room with my dark continent of a body. I imagine hearing their thoughts in my head as a kind of prejudicial telepathy. “Stupid, arrogant, garrulous n*gger.”
I don’t share my emotions with others. Very few people have seen me cry or angry or excited. In general I’m rather neutral because being neutral is safe. But this isn’t a façade, but a defense mechanism. Boisterous, rambunctious and loud black children get set apart. They draw too much attention to themselves and demonstrate that they won’t survive in a white demure world obsessed with decorum and homogeneity. Black kids with ambition learn to keep themselves small, even when they pretend that being tiny is partial to their truest selves. Being black in white spaces means believing your mask is your personality, after all.
It means believing that being in diverse and integrated spaces means you no longer have to know your place. Nothing was ever further from the truth. A diverse and integrated space means that your place has been ordained. You have an office now: resident black. Be grateful and don’t look so darn melancholy. Try to put on a smile.
Somewhere in the deepest recesses of my mind is a person I don’t recognize. I keep him imprisoned in the frigid Fort de Joux of my mind. A war criminal, a terrorist, I leave him there to ice over and die.
I’m not okay, but I’ll survive.
I know my silence doesn’t mean what I feel people think it means. When I don’t post or reshare the links to resources, relief funds, mutual aid – it’s not that I don’t care or that I’m unbothered. I choose my quiet to protect myself because I still have to deal with a racist world when the protesters go home and classes start again and things return to normal. I tune out because protecting myself keeps me alive.
Survival isn’t enough, though.
I fear this post makes no sense, but I’ll post it anyways. I’m used to my emotions not making sense. I’ve accepted that emotions never make sense. Nevertheless, I haven’t been articulate and I may have even soured your image of me. I accept this if it’s the case. I’ve always feared that I’m secretly a cold, calculating and manipulative person with little to no warmth or passion. Maybe I am, and my numbness to all of this is just a symptom.
I wish I felt comfortable going out and protesting, writing thinkpieces, posting my thoughts and opinions to Instagram, standing off against the police. I’m grateful that there are people out there doing what I can’t or won’t do.
Perhaps I’m nothing but a sniveling craven of an academic hiding behind his books, preaching of a world he’s too afraid to build. And if that’s the case, can I accept myself with grace and kindness, even if that means being rejected by you?
Is my grief and fury, tinged with melancholy and stained with pessimism, legible to you?
Does it need to be?
Image: Faith Ringgold
Your quarantine begins on March 8. Spring break opens with the administrative murmurings of temporary closure. Days later, the news is confirmed with an email from one of too many deans. New Haven is quiet over the breaks, but this time the silence hurts rather than heals. Undergrads, grad students, postdocs secret themselves away to home, to silk-sand beaches, European cities, or dusky archives. The air is cold, but the sun sings of the coming of spring. The trees know it before we do. For them, very little has changed.
A handful of your friends meets up every now and then to get work done at a local café. Then “the ick” arrives in New Haven, and suddenly that is no longer possible. Cafés, restaurants, bars close here as they do around the world. The streets are empty. They even shut down the traffic lights downtown, claiming there’s not enough people to sustain so intricate a spider web of streets and signals. The entire earth retreats indoors to endure a new normal.
Quarantine has been a void. Time doesn’t matter. Diet doesn’t matter. Discipline doesn’t matter. There is a rhythm to life but you can’t catch it, can’t jump into it. As you grow accustomed to the tempo, there’s a change – things get faster, your feet get slower. Your body sags and dips, you stutter. You slip, you fall. You heave yourself up, try to get back into the saddle of the day, but it’s not so easy anymore. Wouldn’t this be an easy transition? Most of your work can be done at home, anyways. You have all your books. You have a working computer, a stablish internet connection. You have assignments, tasks, lectures to keep your days ordered and organized. Yet, you can’t catch a break. Although you cannot master the dance of the new normal, your graceless feet-tripping is in sync with everyone else whose feet clatter in this endless night. Every day is Friday evening, but you have the flu.
In the first few weeks, you were feeling good. You’re still gainfully employed and grateful. You did not quite ache for the presence of others, but found the sudden prohibition on connection unnerving. You formed a closed loop with friends to steady the course, and vowed to hang out with only one another as you wait for this nauseating song to end. Yet it whirs on, your feet ache, and no doubt you and your selected friends have outgrown the charm of one another’s presence. There are voices in my ears telling you things you know are not true, as is prone to happen every time the seasons change. April showers water the flower of dread in your mind’s garden.
The semester picks up again, and you and the teaching staff for your course stumble your way through the first few sessions. You-all meet perhaps too often, sometimes just to hear the simulacrum of another person’s voice or to consider the facsimile of another person’s face. A cyber fatigue creeps – you know it very well, now. Something about Zoom wrings you out. A day full of back-to-back meetings and go-see’s around New Haven is the equivalent of two one-hour Zoom meetings, during which you have not moved from that uncomfortable chair in your living room. You sigh because you’re tired of talking to people. You sigh because you miss talking to people.
You go on walks around your neighborhood. At first you do not like this. You are disturbed by how few people wear face masks. You wear yours in order to remind people of their lack of consideration for the health and wellbeing of others. They’re so selfish, you sneer in the vault of your mind. On the days you forgot yours at home, you feel every particle that lands on your body. You are nauseated by every surface you must touch. Every door handle and credit card terminal fills you with dread. You wash your hands, but you never count to 20 (or is it 40? You can’t remember). You wash your hands with scalding hot water, because your mother said that only hot water can kill germs. But viruses aren’t alive, and thus cannot be killed.
You listen to the news as you get in your morning exercise. Or maybe you listen as you eat your third bowl of Cheerios. Who can judge you, sitting there in your underwear on your couch, your cat (or a friend’s cat) skating around your feet? Korva Coleman tells you about something stupid and/or terrible that the president said in his now-daily coronavirus briefings. You laugh at the absurdity, or your furl your brows – there is no difference. You complete another uninspired set of sit-ups and feel the muscles tense under your paunch of quarantine weight. Outside it’s raining.
The semester is over and you let out a sigh of relief. You finish your grading, send out your grades and wish your students a good summer. Then you find that you have nothing left to do. It’s the end of April, and you’ve given yourself until June to begin working on your dissertation. You come up with all sorts of funny ideas on how to fill the month between now and then. They are funny because they are absurd — you lack the discipline or the resolve to get them done. You clean your apartment for the fourth time this week. You take your daily two-hour nap.
You’ve taken up alcohol as a hobby. The clerk at the liquor store at the end of the block now recognizes you, even when your face is covered by your repurposed pillowcase mask. You smile to greet her as you enter, but she can’t see it. You buy your six pack of Lagunitas, your Spanish red, your bargain whiskey. You swipe from behind the plastic curtain draped between you and her.
You find yourself in “the weird part” of YouTube. Why do yo find videos about wasp nests being removed from the inside of walls so fascinating? You love when the man pulls out the fat wriggling grubs and feeds them to his clucking hens. You watch with contentment as a mink flushes rats from their underground dens, only for their necks to be snapped by a motley crew of hounds. Your YouTube algorithm is entirely fucked up. This is who you are now.
You break social distancing protocol every week, it seems. Sometimes you go to the store simply because you know you shouldn’t. Sometimes you meet your dealer and he chats you up in his dirty car for far too long. You don’t know where he’s been, who’s company he’s kept. You may have even had an illicit Tinder date out of desperation, your body starving, your mind ratty with stir-crazy boredom. The two of you are so anxious that whatever happens between you isn’t very good. And even if it’s good, this person has already proven themselves reckless and irresponsible. You two have no future together. Of course you never speak again.
You’ve gotten fat.
You’re hungry all the time.
Are you depressed?
You’ve started talking to yourself… or now you’re more comfortable doing it without the fear of someone in the hallway, through the wall, hearing you.
You started reading a book and did not finish. It’s like you can’t absorb anything. You read the same lines over and over again. You give up and check what’s going on on Twitter. When you put your phone down, the book has tumbled to the floor and it’s now nighttime.
You miss your mother.
You’re wearing that shirt again. When was the last time you did laundry? Changed your sheets? Brushed your teeth?
You have so many plans for when outside opens again. First is brunch with your friends. Bottomless mimosas. Laughter. Sunlight. Next is a concert. You’ll match your mask with your fit. That should be enough, right? Then maybe a quick trip somewhere to spread the ick. A poor Caribbean country too desiccated by the sudden drop in tourism that they don’t turn you back at the border. Hot sand between your toes. American food served poolside by brown servants coughing in their elbows. Cocktail umbrellas. Pinyah coladas. You wake up from your fantasy. 80,000 Americans dead.
It seems a package from Amazon is waiting for you every morning. You feel conflicted because Bezos is trash and people are dying in Amazon warehouses. Each parcel could be contaminated. You wash your hands after handling, although you feel like it doesn’t eve matter. You don’t want to support this company anymore, but you also don’t have much of a choice. You’ve been conditioned to not tolerate anything other than two-day shipping. Why wait 8 days for your conditioner to arrive, when it could be here by tomorrow at 8pm, for two dollars cheaper? You order because you alone cannot defeat Bezos’ monopoly and you feel defeated. When your purchase arrives twenty seven hours later, you’ve already forgotten that you’re upset.
This is your life in the bunker, cruising along the Möbius strip. Your new normal. You stare out your window, and for a minute you forget that you’re in the endtimes. A cardinal is singing somewhere. Fat bellied robins pick at worms in the grass. The trees bud, blossom, thicken, scatter pollen, dance in the breeze.
The air is cold, but the sun sings of the coming of spring. The trees wave to one another. For them, very little has changed.
Image by Papa Ibra Tall
I began 2019 on a plane to Paris. I was going to conduct some archival research, or at least this was my excuse. In hindsight, I didn’t really do much research, although I did spend most of my time in the belly of the BnF. I went for the purpose of pushing myself to do something I found kind of frightening. The prospect of traveling to another country unaccompanied made me a bit too aware of how free I truly am. I write this two days after leaving the infantile protection I still enjoy within my parent’s presence, having returned to New Haven where I’m entirely an adult, like it or not. A year ago, the notion of my independence, much coveted as a child, filled me with an unanticipated kind of dread. Even though I had technically been living on my own as an adult during my first two years of grad school, I hardly felt as if I really was independent. Yale had taken over my guardianship, was paying me an allowance, taking me to my doctor’s appointments while giving me enough space to think I was doing all of these things myself (all that’s changed is my awareness of this). Yet, I still found myself frightened by my own freedom. The existential cliff of being autonomous and ungoverned, finally cast off into dark and ominous waters. I could go to Paris and have experiences I think I need. I could stay and wonder what would have happened had I gone. In both scenarios, I would be forced to bear my own consequences.
I had to acknowledge that it was me who controlled the tempo and key of my life.
That this frightened me so much, as I was forcing myself to apply for the grants, come up with the project description, get the letters of recommendation, buy my tickets, and book my lodging, told me one important thing about myself: I did not trust myself. I had my freedom finally, but I did not know what freedom meant or that freedom could possibly feel so undesirable once it was attained. The burden of choice, the threat of repercussions. Placed atop my feigned belief in being able to handle anything the world or God threw my way, my mental composition seemed unfit to handle the everyday crisis of being. At times I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it, that things were too hard. Like most people my age, I leaned into the web of lies that tells us that other people can steel our resolve, that things like love and companionship can illuminate the sea’s darkness. I grew lovesick for love I’ve never had. The notion of friends having social connections to which I was not firmly attached bothered me, because I perceived of their activities together, as friends among themselves, as based on my exclusion. How absurd, but one cannot really be aware of oneself when they are so preconditioned to silence reason when feeling takes the mic. I expected people to just “get me” and for me to just “get people,” because it all seemed so easy when I looked in on other people’s lives.
My voyeurism told me that I was insufficient in some way. I had convinced myself that something out there could fix the aching lack, and I was disappointed when I could not manage to find this something.
All the while, I had not been able to name what was ailing me.
I was too naïve to realize that my pain wasn’t any different than anyone else’s, and that for most it was a tolerable, perhaps even permissible, pain. A pain for which the word pain may seem even too harsh, too acute. Not a pain, but an ache. Not an ache, but discomfort. A bit of gas Indigestion. Nausea.
I started wondering at 14 if, when I was being assembled at the plant, someone had fastened something a bit too tight
Added a bit too much of a strong ingredient.
Overcooked, overstuffed, ruined it?
Had someone let the pot boil dry?
And if so, must the boy be thrown away?
preface OR white tenured professor mourns an imagined bygone era
A few months ago, I had a conversation with a professor in my department. It was one of those long meetings where we ended up discussing just about everything. This particular professor enjoys a prestige and esteem most would find enviable. And he wielded his status like a weapon, in the ways professors of such clout typically do. As we were chatting, I began to unfold my aspirations and my fears for the coming years. As I feel like everyone knows at this point, I am planning to take the next two years to study for my dissertation, conduct some archival research and write my dissertation, presumably and preferably away from campus. I’ve thus been in the process of applying for grants to fund these two years of travel and study and was asking this professor for advice. Interweaved into this conversation were my inevitably legible trepidations about my job prospects. Comp Lit at Yale has a decent hiring record, but the lack of any semblance of institutional support for my research project and the rather vague and open-ended image of my dissertation committee has left me with a feeling of insecurity I’m sure won’t go away until I’ve accepted a job offer somewhere.Continue reading “fear of a black future”
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.Continue reading “How I learned to read a book in a foreign language”
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.Continue reading “Notes from underground OR why I stopped writing poems”