The Diasporic Aesthetic: Spectral Knowing in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s ‘Black-Eyed Women’

This was originally presented at the MELUS conference in Cincinnati, OH 2019


            The first story in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s collection The Refugees is entitled “Black-Eyed Women.” A thirty-eight-year-old ghost-writer and her mother, two Vietnamese refugees living in America, are visited by the son of the family. The ghost-writing protagonist has a specialty in writing memoirs of victims who have survived horrible tragedy, her current project that of a man named Victor whose entire family was killed in an airplane crash along with 170 others. The ghost of the narrator’s brother visits the family home three times total, each time trying to force his sister to acknowledge one big thing she has tried to forget: the tragedy that befell their family on the boat taking them from Vietnam to asylum. She was raped and her brother was killed by pirates who boarded just before the boat could make it to an island.

This paper addresses the question of the refugee experience in narrative form through a close reading of “Black-Eyed Women.” Does Thanh Nguyen’s story mimic, unsettle, give commentary to, relate, or compress the titular figure of his collection’s experience? If so, how? This paper contends that “Black-Eyed Women” plays on the act of storytelling and the figure of the ‘ghost’ in order to thematically and structurally reify the liminality and precarity of ‘the refugee experience’ while still giving commentary to this kind of naming as itself a construction. Thanh Nguyen’s work is best situated in conversation with various pieces of criticism on borderlessness, statelessness, the “migrant” and “refugee” “crisis” as well as scholarship on the Vietnamese diaspora in studies of South Asia- and Asia-America. The story complicates and undermines any normative consensus of these terms or experiences, a consensus which is rooted in a reductive understanding of the ‘refugee’ as a figure in fiction and the Vietnamese/Asian-American in the American literary consciousness. Thanh Nguyen’s work is a particular focus for me because it brings to light the complexities that exist in the narratives of every refugee, using very specific narratives rooted in the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American diaspora.

The analysis of this essay builds on the work of Geetha Ganapathy-Doré and Helga Ramsey-Kurz in On the Move: The Journey of Refugees in New Literatures in English, which unfortunately does not take up the Vietnamese diaspora despite being rooted in understanding post-colonial and post-communist nation-building. In addition to On the Move, this paper is alongside the work of Mimi Thi Nguyen, Jacques Rancière, Yến Lê Espiritu, and some of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s own criticism.

This essay points the significance of the work of Thanh Nguyen, who, having won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, has begun the process of bringing refugee narratives to the foreground of American literary culture.

The representation of the refugee figure thematically occurs in the act of storytelling. Storytelling in “Black-Eyed Women” acts as an important act of performing a pieced-together or more cohesive narrative, as an act of generational connection, and as an act of giving reality to the otherwise untold or silenced. Helga Ramsey-Kurz in On the Move: The Journey of Refugees in New Literatures in English notices a “lacerated quality of [Anne Michaels’ novel Fugitive Pieces] as an expression of the daunting incompleteness characteristic of the Jewish diaspora’s collective memory” (29). These “disparate fragments” are “waiting to be pieced together by the reader, to be assembled and reassembled into different life stories” (28).

In “Black-Eyed Women,” the protagonist, as a ghostwriter, makes a living piecing together disparate narratives into coherent tragic memoirs. This process operates distinctly as “entering into fog,” Thanh Nguyen writes, “from this world to the unearthly world of words” (12). The moments in the story when she writes Victor’s memoir are spread across the surface level of the action plot. While this represents, as being on the surface level, a linear passage of time, the aesthetic is still thus: “disparate fragments…waiting to be pieced together by the reader” (Ramsey-Kurz 28). The narrative of writing Victor’s memoir, then, seems to be aesthetically representative of a diasporic assemblage. But Victor is not a refugee. Yet, he is a ghost. Throughout the story there are plays on the word “ghost” and the figure of the ghost beyond just the actual ghost of the brother that visits the two women. Having undergone such tragedy, Victor is described as “spectral, the heat of grief rendering him pale and nearly translucent” (10). Tragedy, then, seems to dice up linear narrative into fragments. These fragments become both indicative of structural tragedy, namely what caused or staged the tragedy (the war in Vietnam, for example) and an aesthetic performance of diaspora itself. This is certainly true of the protagonist’s story, who is revealed to have been raped and witness to her brother’s murder only after the ghost of her brother visits a third time. Only after this can the protagonist write a book of her own. This new collection of ghost stories for the protagonist is just the cohesion required after the visit from her brother’s ghost. The “unearthly world of words,” as she calls it, is only opened up or made accessible by a visit from an unearthly figure, the ghost (12). We will come back to the figure of the ghost. But the point remains that storytelling itself finds a cohesion even in performing disparate or what I have dubbed diasporic narrative.

Yến Lê Espiritu’s project in Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es) is a critical account of the “cross-generational transmission of historical memory” that, in the American consciousness, has been silenced—rebranded as a means to justify the war in Vietnam (147). The nature of storytelling for refugee families, according to Espiritu’s anthropological study, is in a distillation of memory or carrying out of collective memory. This is to say that storytelling, as an act, is a motion of cross-generational connection and respect and a motion of silence.

In “Black-Eyed Women,” the narrator repeats the phrase “she would say once, twice, or perhaps three times” (21). The narrator’s mother tells several ghost stories and “tales of woe” (7). “In a country where possessions counted for everything,” she says, “we had no belongings except our stories” (7). A story, then, is a vessel for familial connection and the sustenance or presence of the family. In other words, telling stories unite or sustain familial bonds, like at the end of the story when the “nightly ritual” becomes mother and daughter sitting and telling stories. They also establish legitimacy to the family itself. In having no other belongings but stories, the family exists as its stories and the stories themselves are proof the family exists. The presence of the family, then, is maintained only in the telling stories. Despite the son and father of their family being dead, they each live on not only in the memoir the protagonist decides to write at the end of the story, but in the story we read, “Black-Eyed Women.” When her mother asks “Why write down what I’m telling you,” her daughter replies “Someone has to” (20). This imperative statement makes storytelling and recording a requirement. This is to say that storytelling and story-recording is important in maintaining the presence of a family in a given space and in re-establishing familial bonds within the space of the family. Without this, stories remain in their original space and pop like bubbles, disappearing just as quickly as they are brought into existence.

As a representation of the refugee family, this storytelling is not only in what is told but what remains untold. In “Black-Eyed Women,” the narrator notes that “for all the ghost stories [my mother] possessed, there was one story she did not want to tell, one type of company she did not want to keep. They were there in the kitchen with us, the ghosts of the refugees and the ghosts of the pirates, the ghost of the boat watching us with those eyes that never closed, even the ghost of the girl I once was, the only ghosts my mother feared” (19-20). The ghost stories, then, may be the ghosts themselves. In the same way the family’s existence can be affirmed by the telling of stories, the existence of ghosts can be affirmed in telling ghost stories. However, in saying these ghosts are the “type of company [mother] did not want to keep,” the narrator seems to suggest that her mother does not tell some ghost stories. This does not negate those stories’ existence or the existence of those ghosts. Despite the protagonist and her mother ignoring the ghosts of their tragic past, they still exist. This ruptures the connection between orality and story-recording. Whereas storytelling here requires orality, the telling of the story (from mother to daughter or vice versa), acknowledging some ghosts and some stories exist even despite remaining untold divorces the power that storytelling has in sustaining the existence of ghosts from oral performance.

Ghosts haunt. Ghosts exist outside of stories or despite stories being silenced. If the project of storytelling, though, is in maintaining one’s own existence in the same way that families exist by telling stories, “Black-Eyed Women” seems to suggest ghost stories must also be told. If for no other reason, ghost stories must be told to legitimize ghosts’ existence. Their haunting does not go away because we ignore their telling. This we know from the final exchange between the narrator and her brother’s ghost: “I’ve tried to forget,” she says (14). “But you haven’t,” he replies (14). “I can’t” (14). Ignoring ghost stories does not make them disappear. However, the cathartic nature of giving them reality, as we see happening in “Black-Eyed Women,” is significant in the thematic representation the refugee.

This brings me to the final act of storytelling. Storytelling, as Espiritu notes in the final chapter of Body Counts, is legitimizing of memory and in that way can become even more generative (171).

Viet Thanh Nguyen in “Refugee Memories and Asian American Critique” says, “The study of Southeast Asians in the United States is therefore an effort to recall a history of war that most US citizens remember imperfectly, if at all…It is the ghosts of the past, present, and future countries that haunt the study and the stories of Southeast Asians in these United States” (914-5). Storytelling gives reality to untold or silenced narrative. It also makes deeper the shallow. While throughout the story there are moments that subtly tell of the tragedy that befell the family on the boat, the entire story is not revealed until the third visit from the ghost of the narrator’s brother.

On page five, the narrator says, “I remembered how he looked the last time, and any humor that I felt vanished. The stunned look on his face, the open eyes that did not flinch even with the splintered board of the boat’s deck pressing against his cheek—I did not want to see him again, assuming there was something or someone to see” (5). Despite not wanting to see her brother again, she does. And despite not wanting to remember what happened on the boat, she cannot forget. The act of storytelling at this point in the story is more implicit than before. Instead of a character telling a story within the story, there is only revealed in a long passage the memory that cannot itself be pinned down any longer. After she is raped on the boat, she says “the world was muzzled, the way it would be ever afterward with my mother and father and myself, none of us uttering another sound on this matter. Their silence and my own would cut me again and again” (16). This is what remains haunting of the ghost the narrator has become. Her brother tells her “You died too, you just don’t know it” (17). It is the implicit act of revealing the story from the boat that makes real the catharsis of that grief. After this, the narrator sobs “without shame and without fear” sitting next to her brother’s ghost (18). It would seem the problems of being single and without children at thirty-eight, insecurities the narrator notes early on in the story, are related to the muzzling of reality after the day on the boat. Telling this story even to us, the readers, becomes cathartic by not only revealing the true horror of the day on the boat and in so doing representing the reality of the refugees’ experience, but also in maintaining the integrity of telling stories that continue to haunt. One is reminded of the second epigraph of Thanh Nguyen’s collection, from James Fenton’s “A German Requiem,” “It is not your memories which haunt you. / It is what you have written down. / It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget. / What you must go on forgetting all your life.” What makes this implicit storytelling possible, though, is the figure of the ghost in the story. I lastly want to return to this figure to discuss the structural representation of the refugee in “Black-Eyed Women.”

The figure of the ghost opens up the sequence of events in the story. As the protagonist’s mother notes, “Ghosts don’t live by our rules.” Structurally, the ghost provides a space in which the past and present can be invoked outside of any austere linearity.

The first epigraph to Thanh Nguyen’s collection, from Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp, reads “ghosts, who, because they’re outside of time, are the only ones with time.” In other words, because ghosts exist outside of any linear structure, they can operate inside both a present and a past simultaneously. As a figure in the story, the ghost of the protagonist’s brother gives Thanh Nguyen the ability to tell a story that is both in the present and in the past. We are both on the boat decades before the present and in the present, talking to the ghost and writing Victor’s memoir. The flashbacks in the story are opened up by the ghost in that every time the ghost is in-scene or mentioned in-scene, the possibility for a disruption of the linearity of the story exponentially increases. The narrator, at thirty-eight, is standing next to her brother, who has not changed since the day on the boat, when he was fifteen (8).

How does this relate to the refugee? One’s status as refugee insists both a present narrative and a narrative of a past: the event or set of events that create one’s refugee status. It is not necessarily ground-breaking to acknowledge that refugees, as people, have past and present narratives. However, it would be wise to remember that the majority of asylum-seekers are seeking asylum because of an event either indirectly or directly caused by the nations into which refugees seek asylum. This is to say that any denial of refugees by the nations which may have indirectly or directly caused the events which produced these refugees is also a denial either of participation in these events or a denial of these events ever happening. What the figure of the ghost allows in Thanh Nguyen’s story is, as a figure that disrupts time, the acknowledgement of time’s creation, structure, and the ability to have time usurped. In other words, time can be manipulated, or its trajectory can be denied or controlled. And it is. By state power. All the time.

In using the figure of the ghost and the act of storytelling, Thanh Nguyen’s story structurally introduces the reality of the refugee to mainstream literary culture. Much of my argument derives from Jacques Rancière’s understanding that form and politics are intertwined in not only a representative way but also in an aesthetic way and what Rancière calls a choreographic way. Namely, it is in storytelling itself and the structural recognition of borderlessness and manipulative nature of time that allow Thanh Nguyen’s writing to be politically and historically motivated on the aesthetic level. This is crucial. Espiritu notes the importance of academic inquiry into critical refugee study, perhaps as a discipline. Thanh Nguyen and other Anglophone writers of refugee narratives, then, provide an opportunity for the American university hegemony to reflect on Western Empire and postcolonial efforts to historicize the tragedy that has befallen the most precarious among us. Critical discussion of this literature provides what Claudia Rankine calls a “meditative space” to further understand our own participation and obligation in every and all human crises.

Works Cited

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Translated by Willard R. Trask, Princeton Univ. Press, 1953.

Cabot, Heath. “‘Refugee Voices’: Tragedy, Ghosts, and the Anthropology of Not Knowing.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Vol. 45, No. 6, 2016, pp. 645-672.

Duong, Lan. “Diasporic Returns and the Making of Vietnamese American Ghost Films in Vietnam.” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S., Vol. 41, No. 3, Fall 2016, pp. 153-170

Espiritu, Yến Lê. Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es). Univ. of California Press, 2014.

Ganapathy-Doré, Geetha and Ramsey-Kurz, Helga, editors. On the Move: The Journey of Refugees in New Literatures in English. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012.

Haley, Madigan. “The Novel at the World Scale: (on David Palumbo-Liu, Bruce Robbins, and Nirvana Tanoukhi, eds., Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World: System, Scale, Culture [2011]; John Hegglund, World Views: Metageographies of Modernist Fiction [2012]; John Marx, Geopolitics and the Anglophone Novel, 1890-2011 [2012]; and Elizabeth Anker, Fictions of Dignity: Embodying Human Rights in World Literature [2012]).” Minnesota Review, No. 82, 2014, pp. 111-125, Accessed on 27 Feb 2017.

Kwon, Heonik. Ghosts of War in Vietnam. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. Print.

Le, C.N. Asian American Assimilation: Ethnicity, Immigration, and Socioeconomic Attainment. LFB Scholarly Publishing, LLC, 2007.

Leshkowich, Ann Marie. “Wandering Ghosts of Late Socialism: Conflict, Metaphor, and Memory in a Southern Vietnamese Marketplace.” Journal of Asian Studies 67.1 (2008): 5-41. Print.

Nail, Thomas. The Figure of the Migrant. Stanford Univ. Press, 2015.

Nguyen, Mimi Thi. The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages. Duke Univ. Press, 2012.

Nguyen, Viet Thanh. “A Novel Intervention: Remembering The Vietnam War, A Conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning Author Viet Thanh Nguyen.” World Policy Journal, Vol. 33, No. 3, Fall 2016, pp. 65-71, Accessed on 24 Feb 2017.

—. “Representing Reconciliation: Le Ly Hayslip and the Victimized Body.” positions, Vol. 5, No. 2, Fall 1997, pp. 605-642.

—. “Refugee Memories and Asian American Critique.” positions: east asia cultures critique, Vol. 20, No. 3, Summer 2012, pp. 911-942, Accessed on 24 Feb 2017.

—. The Refugees. Grove Press, 2017.

Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Translated by Gabriel Rockhill, Continuum, 2004.

The Polemics of Andrew Piper’s Enumerations

This is in response to Andrew Piper’s new book Enumerations: Data and Literary Study (Univ of Chicago Press, Aug 2018).

Piper’s characterization of literary studies does not hold up to contemporary literary studies (of which he is a part). He only uses examples from Auerbach and Barthes. While both of these are mammoth names in literary criticism, there are many useful counterexamples to Piper’s claims about modeling, which he places in a false binary against literary criticism. What Piper seems to say is that literary criticism is bad at doing what it sets out to do because it fails to “foreground the constructedness of knowledge and the observer’s place within it,” which is something he suggests models do inherently (9). However, I’m not sure this is so. An important counterexample to this inherent quality of modeling can be found in the critical genre of new historicism, which Piper particularly damns as failing its own premises, a “great [paradox] of intellectual history” (8). Susan Sontag is one critic who comes to mind that would remind Piper that models, like images and other cultural creations, only reveal their processes/biases of creation when they are presented with this in mind. In other words, models will only “implicate us within them” if they make explicit these means of presentation (11).

Models, though, are tricky because, as Piper points out, “much of the language of empiricism that has surrounded the initial rise of the field” centers a notion of equivalence between numerating and objectivity (ibid). This is to say that modeling may actually be a place at the bottom of a steep hill where each step is marred by the weight of the societal perception that when something is in a graph it is scientifically proven and thus objectively true. Models, therefore, do not fundamentally make explicit their biases or constructedness because they are also produced in a culture that associates modeling with objective truth. This critique of modeling is, of course, a new historicist one. I am obviously skeptical that modeling inherently prompts a hermeneutic analysis of the data it models. On the contrary, I think the perception is that when data is modeled, its conclusions are fixed truths. In the same way Piper argues against Auerbach’s misuse of anecdotal evidence, models can be and are used as anecdotal proof of ideological claims. This is what I mean when I say he sets up modeling and literary criticism (particularly new historicism) into a false binary. They need not be battling. A better argument for Piper’s book would be that modeling and new historicist methodologies ought to be employed to “foreground the constructedness of knowledge and the observer’s place within it” by disassociating societal claims that models showcase objective truth.

Piper thinks criticism is “magic,” whereby “the imperious pronouncements of the literary critic who is only ever right” disseminates knowledge but this is not inherently so (11). Many critics, including those who study gender and sexuality and those who do cultural studies, seek as their onus the revealing of the proliferation of structures of power like that of the “magic” “imperious” critic. Critical University Studies does so within academia itself. Piper caricatures criticism as a big bad wolf-type villain, which frames his intervention as a vive la revolution stick-it-to-the-man. But neither of these things are true. Critical processes are developed over decades and centuries, are constantly reflexive, and are thus not fixed truths. They can make “the study of literature more architectonic and less agonistic, more social and collective” (11). For examples, a critic interested in doing cultural studies must first understand the precedent methodologies of critics like Grascmi, Althusser, Leclau, and even Marx because cultural studies did not up-and-go like the Big Bang. On the contrary, it was developed out of many questions posed by different critics using different methods and data as well as out of the critiques of previous systems of criticism in much the same way empirical science developed. The glaring difference, of course, is that only one of these things is ripped to shreds by Piper.

Piper does acknowledge that his processes are “in many ways no different from the critic’s approach,” though this is only after setting up a polemic against criticism (17). I actually agree with much of Piper’s conclusions about the ways digital computation modeling can reveal how “context is never fixed, but always perspectival” (ibid). My friction is in suggesting that modeling inherently does this without first making it an explicit goal, acknowledging that modeling exists in a system of empirical-centrist dogma that frames the conclusions of numerating methodologies as objective truth. “Focusing on the implicatedness of modeling,” in Piper’s words, “helps us see the intersections…rather than the mutual exclusivity” of “nascent empiricism or residual subjectivity surrounding reading” (19). Piper’s presentation of repetitive, implicated, distributed, and diagrammatic reading may shift contemporary studies away from binaries like “distant/close, deep/shallow, critical attached” reading. His book may, indeed, “[mark] out an end of a particular tradition, in which the technologies of the book and the photograph have been used as the exclusive tools of understanding those very same media” (21). Why, though, does Piper begin the book with a polemic against the very criticism he wishes to employ via computation modeling? In other words, Enumerations may actually be the most recent formulation of new historicism, not its enemy.

Form(s) and Ideology: Thinking Through the Diaspora in Gaiutra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman

The Water Lily

This article began, perhaps, when a fellow graduate student asked of our Intro to Literary Theory class “what is it about the form of the assemblage that makes it useful to think through minoritized or marginalized identities?” Or perhaps this article began at a small conference where I presented a paper on a ghost story about the Vietnamese diaspora and the respondent asked if I had thought through what a diasporic aesthetic would look like in a general, theoretical sense. It may have begun, too, when I attended a lecture where the honored guest gave a history of high theory during which he mentioned that all theory is based on the premise that something progressively specific ought to be applicable to multiple contexts. Each of these are like the radial leaves of water lilies in the shallow slews of the lake where my father brought me each summer as a child to learn how to fish, connected beneath murky waters to a single root system and complementary to one another as they gather sunlight and carbon dioxide for the organism; though, at the surface they appear to be singular and ordinary.

I do not see my father much now; and I never fish. The lake was man-made for a power plant that has, since we left for the final time, begun to warm the water and acidify its chemistry, something that will undoubtedly affect the flora and fauna that have made it home. As I am not a botanist by training, I am unsure these plants were actually water lilies at all. Yet, their deep-water root system, rope-like stems that gather at a single point at the bottom of the lake, flat leaves that collect sunlight and carbon dioxide, returns to me in thinking through form and conceptualizations of diaspora. As Kim D. Butler notes, “The word ‘diaspora’ is defined, at its simplest, as the dispersal of a people from its original homeland.”[1] Butler emphasizes later that “there must be some relationship to an actual or imagined homeland” for an imagined community to be considered a diaspora.[2] We might understand, for the water lily, the homeland as the root system, and the relationship or perceived connection to a conceptual or actual homeland as the rope-like stem that joins the root to the green, flat leaf or the colorful flowers at and above the water’s surface. This connection in form between the water lily and diaspora is not meant to undermine the latter’s political histories and present crises ­– rising nationalism, international warfare, and global capitalism has displaced and neglected more refugees and other diasporan peoples in the contemporary moment than perhaps ever before.[3] On the contrary, in using the concept of the water lily to physicalize the conceptualization of a lived reality, we might better protect and further a discourse of these imagined communities.[4] It is with this impetus that I will think through Gaiutra Bahadur’s text Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture in the coming pages.

Bahadur does not explicitly theorize the diaspora she seeks to trace, the Indo-Caribbean indenture under which her great-grandmother and the generation after lived. Nonetheless, her family’s ancestral journey consists of two dispersals, fitting Butler’s (and Cohen’s) definition of diaspora[5], once from India to Guyana and again from Guyana to the U.S.[6] Bahadur’s return to these two locations (Guyana and India) is an attempt, she says, to discover whatever repressed history there was on female women under indenture and empire, to make something of the association she felt with Indian Americans in New Jersey that, though like “solidarity,” was ultimately “somehow, off…barely [acknowledged] kinship.”[7] Like many theorists of diaspora, for questions of identity, Bahadur looks “in the personal rather than the political.”[8] Thus, while she is not, perhaps, interested in theorizing the diaspora of Indo-Caribbean women, she is nonetheless interested in how these dispersals can help her “locate [herself].”[9] In other words, she is attempting to piece together an identity of the water lily by looking to the stems and the roots. She even journeys to Scotland, where most of the plantation speculators of Berbice, Guyana originated and where the concept of indenture was born.[10] This is crucial, as it suggests a theory of diaspora that does not simply reference the physical dislocation of peoples, as Butler or Cohen might have it, but takes into account the imperial and political machinations of empire. Diaspora for Bahadur is not just the dispersal of peoples but of capital and ideologies, principally the capital and ideologies that manufacture dispersal(s) of people. While Butler makes reference to ideological developments in terms of a diaspora’s own identity theorization, she does not consider ideologies or capital as essential to defining typologies of diaspora.[11] As I will argue in this article, Bahadur’s text prompts us to think through different conceptualizations of diaspora.

Bahadur is not necessarily unique in her conceptualization of diaspora, albeit quite subtle and nearly implicit. There are scholars who, in thinking through conceptualizations of diaspora, have similarly theorized connections to identity that take into account imperial pasts. Hazel Carby’s “anti-memoir”[12] Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands thinks through her personal identity in much the same way Bahadur’s text does, isolating (an) instant(s) of dispersal amid imperial history using alternating formal and informal archives as evidence. The most famous text theorizing diaspora in the Atlantic context, at least of the last few decades, has been Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, which sought to theorize diaspora in terms that made clear “the experiences of black people were part of the abstract modernity [some find] so puzzling” in order “to produce as evidence some of the things that black intellectuals had said—sometimes as defenders of the West, sometimes as its sharpest critics—about their sense of embeddedness in the modern world.”[13] As some have noted, Gilroy’s appropriation of diaspora as a concept signifies the use of the term as exclusively pertaining to descendants of Africans in the Atlantic world.[14] This would render its inclusion in this article irrelevant. However, what Gilroy calls “the main aesthetic consideration” is how black identity becomes represented in modern texts through “polyphonic qualities” to combat any “ontologically grounded essentialism” about race.[15] This is to say that conceptualizations of diaspora, for Gilroy, must take into account how they are presented. He later adds

The narratives of loss, exile, and journeying …like particular elements of musical performance serve a mnemonic function: directing the consciousness of the group back to significant, nodal points in its common history and its social memory. The telling and retelling of these stories plays a special role, organizing the consciousness of the ‘racial group’ socially and striking the important balance between inside and outside activity—the different practices, cognitive, habitual, and performative, that are required to invent, maintain, and renew identity.[16]

Thus, Gilroy notices a performative practice of diaspora whereby an enjoined content-and-form dialectic develops: not only is dispersal and homeland thematized, they are represented formally in the structure of the text. This formal physicalization of the diaspora as it presents itself in Bahadur’s text is the topic of this article.

Similar to Edwards, Aisha Khan argues against essentializing the conceptualization of diaspora in order to further its use in this discourse. Khan stresses that tying diaspora to culture, geography, or race has reproduced the very essentialism diaspora seeks to undermine or make fluid.[17] To this end, “identity,” she writes, “need not necessarily be the ultimate analytical destination or significance, nor do taxonomies of cultural features need to be diaspora studies’ methodological path.”[18] This to say that many theorists use diaspora to think through individual identities and the commonalities between them, something Khan states we ought to question. Using Khan’s proposal to turn to Bahadur’s text, then, we might think through not just how identity plays out in the formal articulations of diaspora but how “hybridization of radical ideas and revolutionary ideologies” might be a part of an “intellectual cross-fertilization” between multiple diasporan peoples or cultures.[19] One such instance of this might again be the inclusion of the chapter on Scotland called “Every Ancestor,” which we have examined briefly above. In point of fact, this addition is a formal inclusion, a physicalization of diaspora that does not indicate identity but rather begins with ‘intellectual cross-fertilization.’

In the coming pages, we will look to Bahadur’s use of structural choices, formalist measures, in order to theorize how diaspora functions not only for her “quest for identity”[20] and history but also for ideology, aesthetics, and gender. Physicalizing diaspora, perhaps what Gilroy would call ‘performative’ diaspora, produces a specific kind of knowledge: that of reflection. It foregrounds the constructedness of historical narrative by resisting more straightforward forms, preferring instead the form of the assemblage. Moreover, because Bahadur’s text showcases a more literary formulation of scholarship—one that narrates questions, doubts, and hypotheses and uses informal as well as formal archives—it is inherently political. In Coolie Woman, one will find no ‘grand narrative’ or feigned objectivity. Instead, it exists as an anti-memoir, both fictive and real.


Bahadur spends much time in Coolie Woman on how different things shape(d) her understanding of self. Indeed, one reading of her book might be about what the self can be or has been. For our purposes, though, we will focus on formal measures through which Bahadur theorizes identity. The physicalization of identity in Bahadur’s text is like that of the water lily, the diaspora: heterogeneous features that are simultaneously complementary and connected. These formal qualities include the “jagged”[21] structure of the text, which includes images in a centerfold; epigraphs for nearly every chapter; songs; knowledge from both informal, verbal interviews and memories as well as formal archives and research into regional mythologies; even full paragraphs of a catalogue of questions. The title itself has a piecemeal meaning, to which the Preface is dedicated:

‘Coolie’ may bare a jagged edge, like a broken bottle raised in threat. But it also ricochets still down dirty lanes in the Guyanese village where I was born, in far more complicated ways, in greetings that are sometimes menacing but also often affectionate and intimate, signifying a sense of shared beginnings.[22]

Thus, the very identity of the text itself is like an assemblage. This analysis is of the surface as well as the deeper meaning-making of which Bahadur’s text is a part. The dialectic between the form of the text and the content is routinely highlighted.

Bahadur uses metaphors again and again of cutting up and piecing together disparate fragments as well as of compartmentalization, all of which see their formal articulations in the text itself. The title of the first chapter, “The Magician’s Box,” is a reference to the cliché act of the beautiful magician’s assistant getting locked into a box and “cut … in half.”[23] She notes that when her family moved to the U.S., the religious ephemera for worship were put away in a linen closet, which she parallels to her sense of “claustrophobia” in the shared and “crowded” apartment.[24] Her sense of language and self is fragmentary:

Take away my language, and you also take away access to the stories that my forebears created, in the cadences that they created them. Educate me in a language lacking in the rhythms of home, and I am likely to speak as a segmented self…[Creolese] is what we spoke inside our immigrant home; this was our cracked, our stained-glass English, made from smashed bits of multicolored glass, a thing of beauty constructed of fragments.[25]

Each of these metaphors of the fragmentary anticipate the disparate form the text takes. This form resists cohesion, suggesting were this text to be considered a “quest for identity,”[26] it would also need to be represented in a way that takes into account these different yet complementary pieces. This is a Gilroysian impetus: foregrounding the “polyphonic qualities”[27] at structural level in order to undermine ontological essentialism.

The fragmentariness of identity does not end with Bahadur’s or her family’s sense of self. This is an understanding of identity that comes up again and again in Coolie Woman. In the chapter called “Her Middle Passage,” Bahadur tells the story of a stowaway single mother called Munia on The Lena who was “caught with not one assumed identity, but two,” “a ticket borrowed from one legitimately registered laborer and an emigration pass belonging to another.” In her statement to British Guiana’s immigration chief, she explicitly says no one forced her on-board, that she was exercising her own free will. Thus, for Munia, she finds agency in the fragmented identity she constructs. In the chapter called “Beautiful Woman Without a Nose,” Bahadur tells of Makundi, a troubled man who spent several stints in an asylum, ruled criminally insane by courts, and eventually sentenced to life in prison after committing several physical assaults and a murder. He is read as “a profoundly disoriented man, unable to come to terms with his new identity and environment” and “unable to grasp or realize his position.”[28] For Makundi, his assimilation was stunted by the fragmentariness of his diasporic identity, which caused him to lash out and reap havoc on society. Munia and Makundi live different consequences of their fragmentariness, but each of Bahadur’s accounts of identity come back to the notion of the assemblage, the diaspora.

Similar also to Gilroy’s call for the performative practice is Bahadur’s suggestion that “the British didn’t recruit ‘coolies’ for their sugar cane fields. Rather, they made ‘coolies.’”[29] She calls this “apparent undoing”[30] of the caste identities Indians leave behind for a place in Guyana “reverse alchemy”[31]:

The system took gardeners, palanquin-bearers, goldsmiths, cow-minders, leather makers, boatmen, soldiers, and priests with centuries-old identities based on religion, kin and occupation and turned them all into an indistinguishable, degraded mass of plantation laborers without caste or family.[32]

This imperial trauma of erasure ultimately follows through to violence committed by men against women and mental health issues in survivors of the journey to the West Indies. However, it also creates an opportunity for freedom for pregnant unwed women, women and children wishing to escape treachery, and others who have for generations been impoverished who see indenture as an opportunity for social mobility.

These varying consequences find their way into how the text presents itself. The notion that the British ‘made coolies’ points to the act of making, how power can construct, and thus how Bahadur’s analysis may de-construct or re-construct the narratives she encounters. The narratives in Coolie Woman oscillate between those of female agency like the Munia who adopts multiple personas to stay aboard The Lena and those of lament like this folk song, quoted in Bahadur’s chapter on the recruitment of indentured Indians:

When we reached Calcutta, our miseries increased.
We were stripped of all our beautiful clothes,
Rosary beads and sacred threads.
Bengali rags decorated us now.
The sadhu’s hair was shaved.
And sadhu, Dom, Chamar and Bhangi,
All were thrown together in a room.[33]

This act of being ‘thrown together’ might very well be the reason for Bahadur’s formal physicalization of diaspora. Just before this, Bahadur notes that “the clothes issued to any particular group of migrants were identical. They were a uniform.”[34] Bahadur’s text is anything but uniform. It favors the fragmented, the disjointed, and it might well be a form of liberatory action against uniformization, against lumping together all Indians of indenture, an act of imperial terror that, while it cannot be undone, can be undermined.

In the final pages of Bahadur’s book, she returns to the life her great-grandmother Sujaria created in British Guiana:

She instilled in her son and her son’s sons a sense of duty to family religious in its fervor and commitment. They labored as a unit, with children working too, because they had to—to feed each hungering body and also each starving sense of self, to eke out peasant existences away from the exploitation and indignity of the plantation, in villages where they might nourish themselves with institutions remembered from India and seek the consolations of religion, kin and identity.[35]

This ‘eking out existence away from exploitation and indignity’ is the very performance Bahadur’s text gives us, where the nuances of religion, kin, and identity are revisited in a form that articulates difference, fragmentariness, and connection.


Coolie Woman begins and ends with Bahadur’s female relatives. Any repressed history the book reveals is of the indentured Indo-Caribbean female. Many of the ‘archives’ Bahadur consults are verbal accounts given to her by women she interviews, songs she hears women singing, even the tattoos and jewelry the women have. This is perhaps a looser understanding of the formalist argument for which this article is aiming; however, one might find the inclusion of these non-traditional archives as physicalizing the nuanced diaspora Bahadur seeks to analyze. In other words, the mere inclusion of particular archival knowledge is a formal choice. A scholar may consult hundreds of pieces of archival knowledge that do not make the publication they write. Thus, each choice of inclusion or deletion is a formal one. Moreover, because many of this non-traditional archival knowledge comes from women and as non-traditional archival knowledge it undermines the kind of power we ordinarily give to institutional archives, it might be said that the kind of historical scholarship in which Bahadur is taking part is a feminist historical scholarship.

These ‘non-traditional’ archival sources also include information on mythological and religious debates, notions of gender authority and conduct, and imagery. Thus, part of Bahadur’s project is ideological research. As we have come to before, the inclusion of the “Every Ancestor” chapter is exclusively based on the ideological connection Scotland has to British Guiana – namely, that “the plan to replace slaves with indentured Indians in the Caribbean”[36] was conceived by a Scotsman. The current section of this article will focus on the inclusion of this ideological archival knowledge, arguing their inclusion as a formal measure. We began by acknowledging that diaspora foremost insinuates dispersal; this dispersal is not only of people and their identity, but also of ideologies. Thus, the physicalization of the diaspora in Coolie Woman must comprise of these inclusions. Moreover, in a Khanian sense, shifting focus from identity’s connection to diaspora might further the discourse of diaspora studies.

We must begin with violence, as imperialism does. In a chapter titled “Beautiful Woman Without a Nose,” Bahadur reveals the troubling afterlives of colonial violence. For Bahadur, it seems gendered violence against women follows through on the imperial project, yet this violence is not displaced from Indian culture. She begins the chapter discussing the Hindu epic Ramayan. Men identity with the character Ram, “an incarnated god” that “wanders demon-infested forests, far from home, barely clothed…in his deprivation, in his fixed term of exile, they see their own.” Bahadur continues:

For these displaced Hindus, the Ramayan is lifeblood. That it courses with anxiety about adultery only makes it more relevant. The epic, like the diaspora that identifies with it, is preoccupied with women who break the codes of accepted sexual behavior. Their punishment takes breath away. Through the din and onslaught of insects, the immigrants huddled in the night recount what befell Ravan’s sister, Surpanakha, and why it did.[37]

Surpanakha is mutilated at the instruction of Ram, her nose and ears cut off by a sword, the first of which represents honor in Indian mythology and folklore.[38] Bahadur’s inclusion of this cultural knowledge is important because it becomes a lens through which she perceives men justifying the mutilation of the women in their community. In other words, Bahadur resists a progressivist urge to erase this fixedly violent ideological text from the record. The reader must encounter the Indian folklore and mythology that includes female body mutilation. Bahadur even comes back to this patriarchal structure at the end of the book: “leaving the plantation was a feat…the family was likewise rebuilt, on concrete pillars of custom, religion and strictly defined gender roles.”[39] Bahadur resists orientalizing her subjects, though. The text places the invocation of the Ramayan alongside the context of the infrastructural violence of imperialism and at the end of the book, when “the patriarchal institutions [are] restored,” it is read as a form of protecting the community’s honor amid the severe poverty in which the British leave their former subjects. Bahadur also uses the conditional word ‘perhaps’ several times to suggest there is not a sole reason why men act so violently against women but many:

Men accustomed to authority based on their gender, caste or family position were ousted. On plantations, they confronted a system that flaunted its total control over them…As the men lost status and identity, perhaps maintaining patriarchal traditions from India assumed fatal importance. Perhaps they grasped at their faith, with the fundamentalism that displacement can foster. Perhaps they maimed and killed to resist the control of planters as well as to reassert their control over their women.[40]

The violence against women was not only the consequence of culture but of the colonial context under which all of the indentured people lived. “The violence was double-headed,” Bahadur notes, “directed at colonial authorities as well as coolie women.”[41] That both of these are cited as impetus for violence against women is crucial in considering the ideological constructions of indentured society and thus of the construction of Coolie Woman.

Bahadur’s use of these stories of violence are formal measures for at least two reasons. First, that they are included is a choice of form in the sense that Bahadur may easily have written of mutilation in a different way, using different sources as archival knowledge, and perhaps arguing different reasons for men mutilating women. The second reason is more important. Bahadur presents not one but several sources of this violence: the colonial infrastructure of violence, the cultural texts like the Ramayan, and the fundamental associations of gender roles. The effect this creates for the reader is the foregrounding of construction. Like each of the leaves atop the water that is ultimately connected and complementary for the life of the water lily, each of these sources has just as much reason to be the stimulus of the violence as the other and those not presented in the text. Furthermore, the text comes to each of these sources with as much conditionality as the other, using the word ‘perhaps’ again and again, a word used just as often if not more as the catalogues of questions and the metaphors for fragmentary identity. Bahadur’s use of this conditional word ‘perhaps,’ which indicates a sense of speculation and suspicion, is on par with suggesting there is no way to know the real reason why this violence plays out; yet, we ought to consider them each. The reader, then, is returned to the way the book is itself a formal construction, pieced together using many sources, all narrative and none impartial. One might even read these instances of ‘perhaps’ and interrogative catalogues as the Gilroysian “nodal points” to which diasporan social memory returns. This notwithstanding, the emphasis on constructedness of the text is a physicalization of the lived reality of the diaspora, one that creates reflective forms of knowledge about historical scholarship and the archive itself.

When Bahadur goes to Scotland, she reports feeling “disoriented”[42] at how similar place names were between Guyana and the Scottish Highlands. In “Every Ancestor,” she notes several connections between Guyana and Scotland, directing us to think through an implicit parallel. While Bahadur says the purpose of the trip to Scotland was to “learn more about an overseer on Rose Hall Plantation,”[43] ultimately drawing the connection between a man called George Sutherland and an indentured woman called Sukhri in her hometown of Cumberland, the chapter begins with discussions of the colonial time period. Not only does Bahadur divulge narratives of miscegenation by rich Scots seeking a “playground”[44] in the British West Indies, she draws an implicit connection between the loss of the clan system at the command of the British Empire’s Clearance policy and the erasure of Indians’ castes on their journey to indenture. The “semi-forced migration of Indian indentured laborers”[45] Bahadur notes in “Beautiful Woman Without A Nose” sounds deeply similar to the Clearances, “the forced evictions from the Highlands of those who cultivated land to make way for more profitable sheep…[igniting] the wide-scale and typically permanent emigration of tenants and their families.”[46] Thus, Bahadur is thinking through not only the histories of diaspora but of migration and imperialism, which are so tied to the former. Though its explicit purpose is clearly to find more on George Sutherland and his “misdeeds”[47] with an indentured woman, the takeaway of this chapter’s inclusion in Coolie Woman for our purposes may be, in a Khanian sense, the “material and immaterial” connections these diasporas show us.

The liberatory acts this text foregrounds are not clear parallels of each other, however; and Bahadur resists this when she recognizes that while many of the Scots who traveled to the British West Indies from homelessness, others were speculators and landowners, and of those who were homeless in Scotland, they became overseers and managers in places like Guyana, not indentured. The Scots who emigrated to the British West Indies were still much better off than the indentured Indians and their descendants. However, that they sought power over the indentured after escaping the power of empire in the U.K draws another parallel between the indentured men and the Scots. Where power flaunts its violence and emasculation, those under its control will surely take out their frustration on those below them in status. We might consider these parallels both material and immaterial connections between the Scottish and the indentured in that they propagate ideologies of power and empire and operate through violence and capital.

If the explicit goal of the chapter was to count ‘every ancestor,’ as the title suggests, why begin drawing this connection? The inclusion of this parallel is similar to the use of the ‘perhaps’ as anaphora and the countless catalogues of questions: to problematize the way form presents historical archive. Bahadur’s book is not only the story of her indentured great-grandmother, it is the story of imperial power, violence, and the agency subjects find despite these. Therefore, of course the text includes this information on the Clearance policy in the Scottish Highlands. This is Bahadur’s physicalization of diaspora, again, in that its inclusion was inherently a choice of form. Furthermore, as it plays out the Khanian notion of material and immaterial connections, it furthers the way diaspora might be conceptualized.


I began this article with the conditional anaphora Bahadur uses again and again in her text and I would like to end it the same. Perhaps some will find Coolie Woman poorly executed, unfocused, or too ambitious. Perhaps Bahadur had no intention of formalizing diasporan identity or ideological and capital dispersals. Perhaps you remain unconvinced by my reading of Coolie Woman, preferring another. You may read Coolie Woman as a collection of different understandings of the word ‘coolie.’ Or maybe, like me, you read the text as this and more, an assemblage, a fragmentary piece of stained glass, unfinished and jagged. Perhaps this text is like the water lily, a physicalization I have tried to overlay onto our theoriziation of diaspora and form: perhaps it presents several leaves, flowers even, that are only connected by the material bindings until our analysis reveals the stems that tie them together and to a system of roots at the bottom of the lake.

Bahadur’s text warrants closer attention to how scholars consciously choose form to create different kinds of knowledge. This knowledge is reflective, as I have tried to show, in that it reveals that thought went into the construction of this text. This knowledge is political, as it foregrounds constructedness itself of historiography and narrative, undermining any hegemonic understanding of history as an ‘objective’ or singular truth. That Coolie Woman is profoundly literary, optioning storylines over datasets, suggests history is and must be narrative, that we think through concepts like imperialist violence, empire, and gender roles best by encountering stories. There is, therefore, an important place for the aesthetic in studying our world and its machinations.


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. (New York: Verso, 1983).

Bahadur, Gaiutra. Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Butler, Kim D. “Defining Diaspora, Refining a Discourse.” Diaspora 10, no. 2 (Fall 2001): 189-219.

Carby, Hazel. “Where Are You From?” Paper presented at the University of Miami Center for the Humanities Henry King Stanford Distinguished Professors Lecture Series, Coral Gables, FL, September 2018.

—. Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands. New York: Verso, 2019.

Cohen, Robin. “Diasporas and the Nation-State: From Victims to Challengers.” International Affairs 72, no.3 (July 1996): 507-520.

Edwards, Brent Hayes. “The Uses of Diaspora.” Social Text 66, no. 1 (Spring 2001): 45-73.

Ericson, Mathias. “‘Sweden Has Been Naïve’: Nationalism, Protectionism and Securitisation in Response to the Refugee Crisis of 2015.” Social Inclusion 6, no. 4 (2018): 95-102.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Khan, Aisha. “Material and Immaterial Bodies: Diaspora Studies and the Problem of Culture, Identity, and Race.” Small Axe 19, no. 3 (November 2015): 29-49.

Narcowicz, Kasia. “‘Refugees Not Welcome Here’: State, Church and Civil Society Responses to the Refugee Crisis in Poland.” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 31, no. 4 (December 2018): 357-373.

Nimako, Kwame and Stephen Small. “Theorizing Black Europe and African Diaspora: Implications for Citizenship, Nativism, and Xenophobia.” In Black Europe and the African Diaspora, edited by Darlene Clark Hine, Trica Danielle Keaton, Stephen Small, 211-237. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

Zunes, Stephen. “Europe’s Refugee Crisis, Terrorism, and Islamophobia.” Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice 29, no. 2 (2017): 1-6.

[1] Kim D. Butler, “Defining Diaspora, Refining a Discourse,” Diaspora 10, no. 2 (Fall 2001): 189.

[2] Ibid., 192

[3] See Ericson (2018), Narcowicz (2018), Nimako and Small (2009), Zunes (2017).

[4] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 1983).

[5] Butler, 192 and Robin Cohen, “Diasporas and the Nation-State: From Victims to Challengers,” International Affairs 72, no.3 (July 1996): 514-515.

[6] Gaiutra Bahadur, Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 4 and 19.

[7] Ibid., 8.

[8] Ibid., 11.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 179.

[11] Butler, 198.

[12] Hazel Carby, “Where Are You From?” (presentation, University of Miami Center for the Humanities Henry King Stanford Distinguished Professors Lecture Series, Coral Gables, FL, September 20, 2018).

[13] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), ix.

[14] Brent Hayes Edwards, “The Uses of Diaspora,” Social Text 66, no. 1 (Spring 2001): 45.

[15] Gilroy, 32.

[16] Ibid., 198 (emphasis mine).

[17] Aisha Khan, “Material and Immaterial Bodies: Diaspora Studies and the Problem of Culture, Identity, and Race,” Small Axe 19, no. 3 (November 2015): 29 and 40.

[18] Ibid., 41.

[19] Ibid., 41-42.

[20] Bahadur, 176.

[21] Ibid., xxi.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 15.

[24] Ibid., 5.

[25] Ibid., 6-7 (emphasis mine).

[26] Ibid., 176.

[27] Gilroy, 32.

[28] Bahadur, 126.

[29] Bahadur, 43.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Bahadur, 44.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., 208.

[36] Bahadur, 179.

[37] Ibid., 106.

[38] Ibid., 107.

[39] Ibid., 206.

[40] Bahadur, 129 (emphasis mine).

[41] Ibid.

[42] Bahadur, 180.

[43] Ibid., 185.

[44] Bahadur, 182.

[45] Bahadur, 129.

[46] Ibid., 183.

[47] Ibid., 185.

The Sentence Queers Modernism: What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

The review in The New Yorker of Garth Greenwell’s first novel What Belongs To You argues the whole novel reads like a single sentence and calls the text Woolfian.[1] To consider this prescription on its own terms, the present essay (1) thinks through what the Modernist sentence was, (2) asks whether Greenwell’s novel develops a/the neo-modernist sentence, and (3) finally, posits how the narrative’s thematic queerness might interact with its syntactical experimentation.

The Modernist Sentence

While the Russian Formalists may have disdained the mimetic function of art[2], the totem of literary criticism on the Modernist movement has remained Erich Auerbach’s final chapter in Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Called “The Brown Stocking” after a passage from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the chapter articulates a sort-of checklist of the Modernist fictional form in its relation to depicting reality. For Auerbach,

The essential characteristic of the technique represented by Virginia Woolf is that we are given not merely one person whose [consciousness] (that is, the impressions it receives) is rendered, but many persons, with frequent shifts from one to the other…The multiplicity of persons suggests that we are here after all confronted with an endeavor to investigate an objective reality, that is, specifically, the “real” Mrs. Ramsay. She is… as it were encircled by the content of all the various consciousnesses directed upon her (including her own); there is an attempt to approach her from many sides as closely as human possibilities of perception and expression can succeed in doing. The design of a close approach to objective reality by means of numerous subjective impressions received by various individuals (and at various times) is important in the modern technique which we are here examining.[3]

Auerbach is theorizing the unique way the Modernist depicts personal consciousness: through the interpolation of multiple subjective perspectives. This may relate to David Hume’s notion of the “bundle or collection of different perceptions”[4] that make up the self — Auerbach does not make it clear from which philosophical tract he is pulling these prescriptions beyond Woolf’s text itself. Nonetheless, according to Auerbach, the wholeness of the subject in Modernist form is articulated through the multiple perspectives that align around that subject.

This, of course, is not a prescriptive of the syntax of Modernist sentences. However, Auerbach does mention the “dreamlike wealth of a process of consciousness which traverses a whole subjective universe”[5] not long after the above passage in relation to the Woolfian sentence. In that passage, he is referring to the way the surface action is interrupted by thoughts about a subject that may go on longer than what the reader would guess is the end-time of the surface action. For example: looking up at someone does not take much time, Auerbach notes. Yet, in the Woolf text, this action is imbued with thoughts that go on far beyond the elapse of time needed to look up. This is often called ‘stream-of-consciousness’—though I am less tempted to use this phrase because, as a former professor once noted, it is not entirely accurate for all Modernist authors, especially American Modernists. A better phrase might be the ‘formal articulation of thought.’ Regardless what one may call it, this articulation presents itself through the sentence, often very long sentences with multiple ‘excurses’ (Auerbach’s term for the interjection of subjective thought into surface action). The presentation, then, is the long sentence that delves into layers upon layers of interjections. For Auerbach, the purpose is to attempt holistic representation of various subjects in order that we get the sense of objectivity.

The syntactical experiments, which they ought to be so called as they occur as part of the sentence and are indeed manipulating the sentence in order to perform something (consciousness), provide complexification of the scene, character, and form. As Auerbach notes, the interjections within the sentences provide a “polyphonic treatment of the image which releases it,” which is to say that it can provide a fuller view of the image, especially if that image is a character’s complex relationship with another. The interjections, as we will see in Greenwell’s novel, may simply be a fleeting opinion of the setting, character, or image. This, however, does not undermine its power to complexify since ultimately this provides another layer or quality to that setting, character or image. This affinity for complexification has resulted in some referring to Modernist narrative as wordy and boring, the sentences too long and ultimately leading into even more cryptic details. However, this detraction might actually prove the experimental quality of the Woolfian form in the sense that ‘the takeaway’ of the text is not its thematic narrative but its formal quality.

That the Modernist sentence is experimental first and narrative second surely relates to the Russian Formalist premise that art’s constructedness is what makes it art. While Jakobson’s immigration to the U.S. was decades after, the Modernist and Russian Formalist movements occurred nearly simultaneously. The Modernist critique model of New Criticism was king in the U.S. but its relation to Russian Formalist technique cannot be denied. Both recognize the text as the master of its own devices, denied cultural or psychological readings, and claimed objective or scientific ability. Since the nature of Russian Formalist movements is rather heterogenous and its supposed doctrine is more epistemological, one might correlate Russian Formalism as the umbrella term for which New Criticism creates one (of many) specific methodologies (figure 1).

Figure 1

image description: chart featuring Russian Formalism as being the umbrella under which new criticism, systemic formalism, and linguistic formalism arise

This notwithstanding, both Russian Formalist and the Modernist sentence foreground the constructedness rather than the narrative’s function. This is to say that the narrative takes a backseat to the form of the sentence presenting consciousness. Auerbach says as much in his final words on Woolf:

The momentary present which the author directly reports and which appears as established fact…is nothing but an occasion…The stress is placed entirely on what the occasion releases, things which are not seen directly but by reflection, which are not tied to the present of the framing occurrence which releases them.[6]

The stress is on the experiment. The point is not to imbue the measuring of a sock with large narrative importance but rather to use it as an entrance into the consciousness and memory of the subject, as an occasion for complexification. Moreover, that this experiment (the articulation of thought) is performed through the sentence specifically is important and distinct since the sentence is but one of many forms the text may take.

Memory, of course, plays a crucial part in the subjective experience and thus will play a crucial part in the Modernist sentence. After Woolf, Auerbach turns to Proust, whose narrative ‘occasions’ are not irrelevant to the complexification they release in the same way as in Woolf’s text. According to Auerbach, Proust will use the solitary perspective ‘I’ and, in order to achieve objective representation of that perspective, uses subjective memory (rather than multi-personal perspectives). One occasion opens up a memory in Proust’s text so that the present self is articulated as the sum of the present experience and all past experiences.[7] This break in the temporal action, which Auerbach calls the use of “reflected consciousness and time strata,”[8] is something Modernists do well. And more importantly for this paper, it is something they often do within a single sentence.

Greenwell and other similar experimental authors adopt many of these methods: namely, the use of multiple perspectives, temporal interruption by memory, and long syntactical articulations of thought. This begs the question, of course, whether the Modernist movement is revived. Entire monographs have been written on the upsurge of Modernist technique in the contemporary moment. The subject of this paper is not the use of the technique in a general sense but in the performance of this technique using the sentence. The sentence is important because it is the medium through which the relationship between narrative and reader is articulated. The alteration or manipulation of the sentence, especially when the narrative takes a backseat to this experimentation with the sentence, changes this relationship. Auerbach notes the Modernist style as doing just that:

It makes severe demands on the reader’s patience and learning by its dizzying whirl of motifs, wealth of words and concepts, perpetual playing upon their countless associations, and the ever rearoused but never satisfied doubt as to what order is ultimately hidden behind so much apparent arbitrariness.[9]

The ‘order’ to which he refers brings us again to the Russian Formalist premise for making something of the ‘apparent arbitrariness’ within a complex text. Auerbach, whose study is about the representation of reality, may call the mishegoss the text presents ‘apparent arbitrariness,’ but this paper sees the text as inherently imbued with constructedness. In reading the sentences’ performances, whether as representations of reality or consciousness or whatever else, the power, function, and meaning of the text may also reveal itself.

            To recapitulate before the following section on Greenwell’s novel, then, the Modernist technique is characterized by long sentences since the surface action is often interrupted by a stream of thoughts or a memory. This interruption may serve to complexify the action and/or as a representation of the subject’s own thought process, which often exists within the present action, of course, but which is also colored by the memory or opining released in the interruptive episodes. These episodes Auerbach calls excurses, a term I will also use.

Greenwell’s Sentence

            In What Belongs to You, the form emulates the Modernists’: most if not all of the dialogue is without quotation marks (something Auerbach notes of Woolf’s) and is told to the reader in past-tense as if the entirety of the text is memory; the novel is made up of three long chapters, the middle of which is itself an excursus, detailing the childhood experience and relationship between the narrator and his father and complicating the first and last chapter, which both take place in the present and are about the narrator finding out his father has died and spending time with a sex worker he meets and for whom develops affection named Mitko. In Greenwell’s novel, the sentences build on each other much the same way the Modernist sentence does: through excurses. The first clause is followed by an appositive phrase, then continued, then clarified. Take the first two sentences of the novel as a primary example:

That my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should in turn have made my desire for him less, if not done away with completely. But warning, in places like the bathrooms at the National Palace of Culture, where we met, is like some element coterminous with the air, ubiquitous and inescapable, so that it becomes part of those who inhabit it, and thus part and parcel of the desire that draws us there.[10]

The ubiquity of words alone is at least reminiscent, at most an emulation of the Modernist style, one might say; though there are plenty of post-modernists one could point out as counterexamples. Nonetheless, the narrative’s need to clarify even the minutest of details with phrases like “even a minor one” or “part and parcel” and “if not done away with completely” looks like a formal articulation of thought, or a stream of consciousness.

Moreover, the text is plagued by the memory of the protagonist. This is not to say that narrators in other traditions are not concerned with memory because, as many others have pointed out, they very much are. However, the sentence itself becomes the vehicle of the narrator’s memorializing, the location of its dispersion. While the Modernist technique uses present action to introduce memory, though, Greenwell’s text seems to be fraught with the narrator’s personal history from the very first sentence. The narrator mentions this flood of memory after he finds out his father has died:

I must have passed the august, slightly crumbling buildings of my school, the Soviet blocks of the policy academy, the gate with its guards, the dogs curled in the shade beside it; I must have passed them though I have no memory of them now. I was seeing something else, images that burst in on me, scenes from a childhood I hadn’t thought of for years; I had worked hard to forget them but now they came all at once, too quickly to make any sense of them.[11]

After this is a catalogue of “distinct scenes of the life [he] had left behind.” Each sentence or clause of these following sentences opens up a new excurses into the familial memory he had not thought of before. There is mention of his grandparents’ farm, his parents’ disdain for their hometowns, the importance of remembering familial struggle with poverty, his father reprimanding him for using Southern American colloquial words like ‘y’all’ and ‘ain’t.’ This diatribe of memories is all opened up when the narrator is doing something Auerbach may call ‘arbitrary’ — walking through the city. Notice that the above passage is just two sentences. In the first, the landscape he operates every day: the post-Soviet landscape in Bulgaria. In the second, the introduction of the excursus.

This barrage of images or cataloguing technique is something Modernist Claude McKay uses in his first novel Home to Harlem. And just as with What Belongs to You, these devices are syntactical. Take for example this passage from McKay’s novel:

Jake felt like one passing through a dream, vivid in rich, varied colors. It was revelation beautiful in his mind. That brief account of an island of savage black people, who fought for collective liberty and was struggling to create a culture of their own. A romance of his race, just down there by Panama. How strange![12]

This passage opens up into a brief history of both the opinions of American blacks about “poor [n-word]s”[13] and the diasporization of African peoples itself, which the protagonist Jake had not thought through before: “he felt like a boy who stands with the map of the world in colors before him, and feels the wonder of the world.”[14] This nearly-didactic memory of the African diaspora in McKay’s text can help us model our thinking of Greenwell’s text in the sense that for McKay, the form of the novel is immensely heterogenous. McKay’s novel has song lyrics, poetry, and as in this example history inserted onto the line of the text. This does not necessarily serve the immediate needs of the plot, but it certainly complexifies its thematic material and its formal interplay is given to us most often and most discreetly through the sentence. McKay’s use of songs and poetry in the text are often indented as quotations and/or italicized, which is to say are easy to spot on the page because they are surrounded by blank space. However, his use of devices like cataloguing, switching perspective, direct address, and articulating thought are more discreetly presented in that they are incorporated into the sentence structure. Similarly, for Greenwell’s novel, the entirety of the dialogue, the memories, and the action are incorporated into the discreet representation: the sentence. If you look at the pages, there is very little blank space, especially in the second chapter since it is a single paragraph, not a single indentation and the rare italicization of Bulgarian words. Even the names of the characters in What Belongs to You are discreet; Mitko is the only named character, his father and others named for their relation (“father” “sister” “fellow teacher”), and his other potential beau is called K.

            Understanding the discretion of the sentences in Greenwell’s novel is not without meaning. This discretion is matched quite directly with the discretion of the relationship between the narrator and Mitko. Despite the narrator’s infatuation with him, Mitko is ultimately a financial burden on the narrator. The discretion of their meeting is itself what propels the sexual appeal of Mitko for the narrator, which he notes even at their first meeting:

There was no acknowledgement of the strange location of our encounter…I felt an anxiety made up of equal parts desire and unease at the mystery of his presence and purpose.[15]

This meeting occurs in the middle of the afternoon, the narrator noting that the city was still bustling above their subterranean location, going about their day. Later, when Mitko and the narrator meet again in the bathroom, their encounter is quick and this, too, is sexually exciting for the narrator. As their relationship develops, Mitko will disappear for many weeks but show up at the narrator’s house for money or food. The relationship between the narrator and Mitko, then, is shaped intensely by discretion. It makes sense, then, why the sentences, though careful in their length and constructed memorializing, do not announce these functions. Whether this discretion relates to the queer theme of the novel (since McKay, too, was queer, though his characters were not explicitly) will be discussed in the following section.

What most relates to Auerbach’s holistic replication of self-consciousness through the interpolation of multiple perspectives is a passage in the second chapter, when the narrator has already found out about his father’s death and is remembering the distance that plagued their relationship:

He was polite sometimes, sweet, but he could be rude, too, he was rough with some of them, it was like he was a different person with each one. It was like that for me, too, I thought as I listened to [his sister], it’s one of the things I crave in the sites I use, that I can carry on these multiple conversations, each its own window so that sometimes my screen is filled with them; and in each I have the sense of being entirely false and entirely true, like a self in a story, I suppose, or the self I inhabit when I teach, the self of authority and example. I know they’re all I have, these partial selves, true and false at once, that any ideal of wholeness I long for is a sham; but I do long for it, I think I glimpse it sometimes, I even imagine I’ve felt it. Maybe it’s an illusion but I think I did feel this wholeness in the field with my father, alone and with the night surrounding us, and my father was necessary to it even as he withdrew…[16]

This passage is extremely complex in many ways. First, its syntax seemingly has no rules since at times independent clauses will just be separated by commas rather than conjunctions or periods and at other times they are separated by semi-colons. Second, this passage offers several interpolating excurses: the surface level action, which is a discussion with the narrator’s sister; the memory of the father in the field; the chat rooms; and the discussion of the self, itself broken into different productions for the chat rooms, the classroom, and the familial space. In order to address the first of these (the syntax), we must consider the second (the excurses).

            We have here a passage which splays the self into different excurses much the same way the Modernist writer would do. Much like the Proust, the individual’s actions have lain bare the multiple narratives from memory of the narrator. These memories, interpolated and splayed across the narration are, of course, formalized within the structures of the sentences, which are themselves frayed and jagged like the edge of a broken glass bottle.

[1] See Wood 2016.

[2] Selden, 18.

[3] See Auerbach 1953, 536.

[4] See Hume 1739, VI.4.

[5] Auerbach, 538.

[6] Auerbach, 541.

[7] Auerbach, 542.

[8] Ibid., 545.

[9] Ibid., 544.

[10] See Greenwell 2016, 1.

[11] Greenwell, 62-3.

[12] See McKay1928, 134.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Greenwell, 5.

[16] Ibid., 69-70.

Toward a Queer/Blind Poetics: Kathi Wolfe’s Love and Kumquats

Kathi Wolfe. Love and Kumquats: New and Selected Poems. Baltimore, MD: BrickHouse Books Inc., 2019. Reviewed by Preston Taylor Stone, originally published in the South Carolina Review (52.2 – Spring 2020)

Kathi Wolfe writes in SCR 51.2, “Poetry emerges not only from the body (our physical, sensory, emotional, loving, sexy, dying bodies) but out of the body politic (the intersection of our culture, politics and social attitudes)” (169). It is no small measure to create a body of work that is born from the body, represents the body, and burgeons the body. Wolfe’s Love and Kumquats does so. The collection offers political commentary on events spanning from the Charleston, SC Emmanuel AME church massacre to Yom Kippur. In each poem, Wolfe renegotiates the relationship between the body-as-a-form, the form of the poem, and the body politic. Readers should expect perspective that is wholly personal and political, confident and intellectual, and without apology queer and disabled.

In the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 5.2, Christina Scheuer writes

By creating an aesthetic object that bridges the gap between the sayable and the unsayable, disability poetry can be circulated among groups of people, not only forging new communities of poets and critics, but also extending or changing the terms of the conversations that people are having about disability, the body, aesthetic theory, accessibility, and communication (159).

To read Wolfe’s queer/blind poetry, then, is to inhabit a positionality of communication and accessibility that is radically abundant. Or, as Wolfe puts it in “Self-Portrait During Total-Eclipse,” “looking up / locking eyes / with the blindness / god covorting” (21).

“Watch me roll my sightless eyes!” begins her poem “Blindista,” in the characteristic tone of Wolfe’s character Uppity Blind Girl, the confident and boisterous seer of Wolfe’s more confident poetry. To see does not mean to have sight, Wolfe reasons in her work. She creates, recreates, and refuses to accept the construction of the scopocentric world. In its place, Wolfe constructs her own.

One might wonder how to queer blind poetics or how to blind queer poetics. Wolfe does both. In “Blindista,” for example, she refocuses the queer eye/‘I’, which at the start laments being effeminized as a child, into blind perception when she writes (in the voice of Uppity), “I want to inhale / champagne, be tickled by the feathers / of a boa around my shoulders, and swim / in the silk tresses flowing down my back (18).” The queer ‘I’/eye here sees what it feels, sight cut from the text/body while sensuality remains. The queer subject is imbued with blindness that is not void of sensuality, since sensuality is not scopocentric for Wolfe’s poetry. In “Blindista,” the sensuality is alternatively sensorial: “inhale / champagne” “swim / in the silk.”

In the third section of the collection, from her first book The Helen Keller Poems, she continuously readjusts (and queers) hegemonic figures of history. “J. Edgar Hoover Curses Helen” juxtaposes queer(ish) and disabled heroes Keller and Emma Goldman with the title’s queer FBI founder; “Frank O’Hara Speaks of Helen Keller” conjoins Keller’s and O’Hara’s lives with one another; and in the final stanza of “Talking to Helen,” the speaker imagines a sensual fantasy that begins with eating sausage and includes “brushing up against” Helen Keller’s fingers, which then untie the knots of injustice. “Dancing with Martha Graham” (50) includes the lines “you hold me so close your sweat becomes mine” and “my silk dress melts into your organza gown.” Thus, the queering of blind poetics is akin to adjoining bodies, histories, births, and deaths. The speaker of the Hoover poem ends with “if only you’d been thrown in the river and drowned;” The speaker of the O’Hara poem: “And, I remember, / Helen, that you and I were born on the same day, under / the same sign of the zodiac!” And in “Talking to Helen,” the subjects ‘I’ and ‘you’ of lines like “I can’t inhale mustard without hearing your voice. Or / sip wine without brushing up against your fingers become” become “us” in “injustice ties us up.”

This ad/conjoining of bodies, histories, births, and deaths is not just a queering of blind poetics but an argument Wolfe is staging about spatiality. The fourth and largest section of poetry after which the collection is named, “Love and Kumquats,” begins with the poem “To Do List.” The poem begins with what we might consider normative elements of a to-do list: making coffee and sorting socks. However, the remainder of the poem pairs these normative elements with things like “Walk / around the universe / and back. / Meet and greet / the human condition. / Pack picnic lunch / for your ghost.” Hence, the surreal exists amid (and does not replace) the real. The vehicle for these staged magical realist encounters are wordplays: paradoxes, oxymorons, ironies, abstractions, and, in the above example, specters. The queering of blind poetics, then, renegotiates spatiality in a way that, I would argue, is not necessarily always about form but is certainly consumed with notions of navigating and inhabiting space within the poem. For example, in the poem “Lying Here in These Fierce Pajamas” (57), Wolfe writes, “I want to dance with you / in our Cole Porter world / where anything goes except disaster / and the common currency is laughter.” Using wor(l)dplay here between Cole Porter, dancing, and Anything Goes, the poem implies what Ernst Bloch would call a ‘utopian impulse.’ Fredric Jameson will later propose that the practice of utopia “attempts to project new spatial totalities” (Archaeologies of the Future, 3). This poem not only plays with the word but originates a new world. This is the job of poets, Wolfe contends, writing in a column for Scene4:

Poets aren’t legislators.  Yet, poetry, often poem by poem, can change hearts and minds.  Line by line, stanza by stanza, it can make us thirsty for justice. Metaphor by metaphor, rhyme by rhyme, poetry can make us not only envision but work for social change (“Getting Uppity,” January 2014).

Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain writes that since the feeling of pain is without referential object and the imagination is only its referential object without experiential feeling, imagination is the object of pain and pain the experience of imagination. The plays that Wolfe stages with pain in this volume are sparse, but they are telling. “Dancing in the Dark” and “Ruins” stand out as examples here. The former, about the Three Blind Mice, begins lighthearted but quickly turns to the traumatic process of losing one’s vision: “The last image fading from their retinas: shadows / of hungry cats. The slice of that knife! Cutting off their tails. Almost / beheading their souls” (67). The latter poem, “Ruins,” calls this “burning, darkening” process “a dying queen” (65). There is no shortage of imagination in Wolfe’s work, which mixes these tragedies amid comedic and romantic poems like “Love and Kumquats” (63), “Searching” (72), and God’s Horoscope” (73-74).

Throughout the entire collection, nearly every poem, is a knack Wolfe has for allusion, which “Breaking Up with Myself” calls “name-dropping” (59). This is to Wolfe’s credit that she can find ways to weave together histories, mythologies, and poetics. From Wolfe’s queer/blind speakers and audiences come an inarguably impeccable talent worth feeling.