Can the Neo-Colonialist Writers Shut Up? Thank You in Advance – Eunsong Kim
Question 5: I feel like you’re preventing writers and poets from writing what they want to write about…
Answer 1: “The oppressors are afraid of losing the ‘freedom’ to oppress.” – Paulo Freire
Answer 2: “The oppressors are afraid of losing the ‘freedom’ to oppress.” – Paulo Freire
Question 6: Then what do we write about? Just ourselves? What if we want to write about parts of the world we don’t live in/other people?
Answer 1: Maybe instead of wanting to conquer and author, we should listen and read. Maybe instead of pretending that we have the questions and the answers, we should acknowledge that we don’t have either.
Answer 2: No one wants your “fantasies of the other” poems. Really. Truly. There’s been enough. Let’s move on.
Question 7: You’re being too theoretical! Poetry isn’t about theory. This poem has nothing to do with theory.
Answer 1: You know, I really hope that some people in our field get past this bullshit anti-intellectualism. It’s so phony I can’t handle it. If you deal in language, I would think that theory, especially language and literature theory, would be really important to you. If language is not important to you… I don’t know what to say.
Answer 2: I think poets who tell me they don’t read theory are really weird. They say things like, “I don’t want it to ruin my writing, I won’t be able to stop analyzing myself,” which is nuts. If you think your language tools are a collection of fragile orchids that cannot see too much sunlight or they will die, then you’re probably just writing really, truly horrifically racist, colonialist, phallic poems without even realizing it – and maybe they should die. We live in a language system that encourages white supremacy, that privileges Standard English and male subjects. I would like to think that new language producers might be interested in breaking this cycle. Theory is a really useful tool for this.
Answer 3: Reading some theory, particularly Orientalism by Edward Said, probably would’ve been really helpful to Gilbert. He would’ve had to think of his position differently and within a historical context. He would’ve had to ask serious questions about representing the “Other” and the colonial and contemporary consequences of white misrepresentations. He would’ve had to think about his power and positioning: as a writer, as a member of the global north, as a user of Standard American English.
Accusation 3: I ask that we reject careless English, careless language. Reject caricatures as poetry. Or call it out when it’s done.
I don’t think it’s too late for us to re-read this poem. We can look at it through a critical gaze, we can be suspicious of its assumed a prioris, we can reject the binaries that it creates. We should look at this poem through the tradition of colonial aesthetics and white male “othering.” We should then always ask language for more.
And we should look to poets who grappled with questions of suffering in a meaningful and critical way. Audre Lorde thought about both large-scale suffering (Black diaspora, structural racism within academe) and her own cancer. But she never created simple equations or answers. There is nothing tidy about large-scale suffering, large-scale injustice – and our connections to them.
There are poems about India. About history. About violence, horror, and impossibility that we need to read again and again. I am thinking particularly about “Farewell” by Agha Shahid Ali. About the line in the 3rd stanza: “My memory is again in the way of your history.” This is a perfect response to poets like Jack Gilbert, who have no memories but consistently crafted this history, this representation of the “East,” the “poor,” the “unadorned.”
at the fountain are laughing together between …. / …. smiling and laughing while
The white male gaze doesn’t understand why or how “they” could be laughing. He chooses to interpret this laughter as joy, as the kind of joy that he knows. He chooses to interpret this laughter as a kind of contentment they must have with their lives and to their “awfulness.” He could not fathom, like so many white male writers and artists before him, that this laughter, these breaks, these moments are ruptures. Are impossibilities. Are moments he did not schedule, that no one allowed, that he cannot take. They are outside of his colonial space and time. They are outside of his grasp, his world. Their laughter momentarily explodes. They are the weapons the secrets the time that he cannot consume.
“They” are feral in his mind. And yet he thinks they share his laughter, his pleasure. He cannot imagine this laughter as being a kind of resistance, a kind of rejection of his world. He believes that their laughter is included in his realm.
He has always been wrong.
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Eunsong Kim is a writer, researcher and educator mostly residing in San Diego. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in: Minnesota Review, Iowa Review, Seattle Review, Tinfish, Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, The Margins and others. Feel free to tweet her @clepsydras. For more: www.eun-song.org.