Waking up this morning to the news about Beloved Toni Morrison’s departure from this benighted world of ours, now, at this awful time in history when we need herstories more than ever to light a path out of the darkness that seemingly envelops us from all sides—well, it just felt like the breaking of the proverbial straw.
I did not know her personally but her work created worlds I could travel in, not as a tourist, but as a fellow traveler searching for the shared questions we are compelled to ask, must ask, keep asking. Her creative spark met the sparks that fuel the dissident, questioning, questing creativity of other great writers especially the women of color from around the world like my dear and respected friend Nawal el Saadawi of Egypt. Their creative dissidence has stoked my own, emboldened me in my life to take the steps, however small, to live with courage, and without resting on easy answers or being content with glib questions dealing with symptoms rather than causes of illnesses that continue to afflict our souls.
In one of the many memorable comments she made in her Nobel award acceptance speech, Morrison claimed that “oppressive language does more than represent violence, it is violence.” At a recent gathering in New York City that I was invited to attend, I had occasion to ponder the deep wisdom of her observation, when I found myself in a situation that I only gradually realised was one of verbal and intellectual assault.
I was invited on a week night, late, to a smoke filled gathering inside a Manhattan building (yes, lots of smoke, a throwback to another era that still haunts our present)—of a handful of artists and literary types, 4 women including me, and 4 men, to meet with a famous Egyptian novelist. This Big Man, is known for a bestselling novel originally written in Arabic which was translated into English and later became a film. I went despite some trepidation that the writer might turn out to be rather like one of the misogynistic men who populate that novel (in other smoke-filled rooms); and I was unfortunately not mistaken even though as a writer and literary critic, I always try to give a wide berth for differences between authors and the characters they create. There’s no way to sugarcoat this encounter, however: he turned out to be just what I’d suspected. And his language expressing disdain for academics, scholars, especially for women who talk or write about sex, for eg those who write about female genital mutilation (like Nawal), for anyone and everyone with opinions different from his own— well, it was indeed the language of violence, full of anger and sarcasm belittling others’ efforts and achievements in order to inflate his own.
“Can I say something, can you all give me a minute?” became his constant refrain every time any one of us (esp the women) tried to say something; this was his passive-aggressive way to shut us up so he could talk endlessly about his own fame, about how he was “Da Man,” standing in heroic defiance against the military and the mullahs of Egypt. Indeed, it was this critical stance of his that had attracted me to the gathering to meet him in person—but his “dissidence”’turned out to have none of the creative solidarity which is the hallmark of women writers Iike Morrison and Saadawi who also have fought the powers-that-be, while simultaneously helping and providing empathy for others in struggle. The former shepherded the work of so many African American writers including women like Angela Davis, through the publication process in her role as Editor at Random House. And Saadawi has been a role model throughout her long career, encouraging connections between women working for social change across borders, inviting us to participate in the Arab Womens Solidarity Association conferences she organized in the 1990s in Cairo where we could develop and nurture cross cultural connections.
No-Mr Big wanted to talk only about himself, his lone heroism in taking on all his critics, including academics who “knew nothing about writing” and were simply there to mooch off the “real talent” of which he was a prime example! When I mentioned I was an academic he smiled and said disparagingly to the company assembled, “ ah you see, now this woman” ( at one point I encouraged him to just call me “nasty woman”—he didn’t get the reference)—“ this woman will not like me, she’ll try to attack me”— all the while refusing to let me get a word in edgewise about anything he or his Iranian sidekick were saying! The Iranian guy-lets call him Mohsin-—played the sycophant throughout, excitedly thumping on the table anytime I or anyone else tried to intervene in said writer’s monologue, “let him speak” or “let him finish”…
When an Egyptian-British woman-a visual artist sitting next to Mr Big— muttered the word “fuck” at one point trying desperately to make a point about the challenges faced by women in society, one of the rare times she actually spoke/was allowed to speak—the famous novelist turned to her, cutting off her larger point, to ask salaciously, “why do you use this word, fuck? Explain to me how “fuck” is used in the English language. I thought it’s a word to talk about how you have sex in a particular way, but you are using it to express, what, exactly?” His vulgarity made “that woman” uncomfortable as she gamely tried to hold her own, although she apologised for using the word “fuck” and remained deferential to the “great writer.”
The worst part of the evening came when after listening to the interminable stream of self-aggrandising phrases pouring out of the writer’s mouth, about how he had won this prize and that, how he’d been translated in this language and that, who he had told off in no uncertain terms in this place or that, and on and on—i asked whether he knew Nawal. OMG! What a fusillade of words escaped his tongue, language as violence! Da Man started disparaging her in the ugliest of words, admitting at one point as I confronted him that “ yes ok, maybe one time she was an influential writer” but he insisted she was now a confused old woman who had no principles, was greedy and in the pay of western agencies and NGOs, and when I mentioned how she’d been left by her husband of many decades for a woman 40 years younger and to whom he’d made over Nawal’s hard-earned money and property, the writer sneered, laughing “she was the low class one, he didn’t need her money.” He then rolled his eyes and said to all gathered “you know Nawal only became famous in the West because she wrote about sex and female… what do you call it.. circumcision.” This remark really sent me over the edge. I yelled (the only way to be heard there, unfortunately ) —that it was female genital mutilation she had exposed as the evil it was, not to be compared to male “circumcision.” He shrugged and said “ it’s not so serious… “ I expressed incredulity at his ignorance, at which point the Iranian started screaming at me saying why was I so concerned with female circumcision ( he refused to use the term mutilation despite what I’d said)—.when really, men were equally oppressed by male circumcision? That it was as bad if not worse than, what I was calling FGM and far more prevalent? At this point, after pointing out that Nawal had fought for an end to male circumcision too in Egypt, I called both him and the famous writer sexists and misogynists, which invited more sarcastic eye-rolling from them both, and “ Oh so now this woman, this great academic who knows everything, calls us sexists, ohohoh..” from the sidekick.
To break up the ugly confrontation the evening had now clearly devolved into, the man who runs a literary circle in town and who’d invited me there, turned to another young man present, who hadn’t spoken a word all evening and begged him to tell us what he thought. The young man, who appeared to me to be in his early thirties and African American, said he had remained quiet as he’d wanted to “observe and learn” and “anyway, there hadn’t been much chance” to get a word in edgewise! He then, in a slightly halting at first, but increasingly firmer and stronger voice, said that he agreed with me, and that indeed he could see there was a very sexist power play going on around the table which needed to be recognized and stopped.
A bunch of older Arab and Iranian “progressive” men had been outed for their sexism by a young black American man! I jumped up then, thanked him for his courage in speaking out in such a gathering, and left; but not before the older of the other women there thanked me for coming and saying what I had; she said she’d appreciated the point of view I’d fought to express.
It had been a bizarre evening that was a real throwback to times and gendered ways of relating we think are past but aren’t quite…. we continue to “play in the dark” as Morrison underscored in her book of essays about the enduring ways racism and race relations continue to plague American literary culture.
And that is why it is so important to value and honour and nurture our friendships with other creative dissidents. One of my happiest and most cherished memories from this summer will be the gathering at our home with dear respected comrades like Ella Shohat, Bob Stam, Gayatri Gopinath, Awam Ampka, Gunja Sengupta, Jean Graham-Jones, Edi Giunta, Zoovia Hamiduddin. Here were folks whose work we celebrated, especially new books by Bob Stam and Gayatri Gopinath, Bob’s on World Lit and Transnational Cinema and Music, and GG’s on the Visual Culture of Queer Diaspora. I requested Edi Giunta to read from her recently completed memoir on growing up as a young woman in Sicily in the 1970s, and my friend Zoovia from her translation of a novel by a major Indian Urdu feminist writer of the 1920s, who happened to be her grand uncle. He also happened to be a man, quite unlike the men I’d met recently who had shown so little respect for women; although I’d been heartened by the young man at that gathering who represented a new generation and the hope that some of the hard work done by women and men like my friends —and their ancestors—will continue to mould a better, more equitable world.
We must stand up to the violence of thought and language the famous writer and his acolyte represent. We must nurture each other and build community through an alternative and uplifting language that accords respect to all beyond divisions of color, creed, class and gender . We must carry on. In Morrison’s words, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”