Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Why We Should Sit in on Each Other's Classes More Often

Not content with sitting in on 6 of my new colleagues' classes this semester as their mentor, I also subbed for my chair the first day her class discussed Amitava Kumar's Passport Photos a couple of weeks ago and decided to sit in on the last day today. Talk about productive, for all of us. From the students' descriptions of it that first day, Kumar's book reminded me of a few passages from Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee, which I mentioned to the chair, who then passed them along to her students today. In the course of the discussion, a student pointed us to Kumar's response to Arundhati Roy's "banner of writerly protest": "If protesting against having a nuclear bomb implanted in my brain is anti-Hindu and anti-national, then I secede. I hereby declare myself an independent, mobile republic" (170-171).

A writer can do this. Declare that she is a nation unto herself! Even invite others. We're now open to immigration! The reason these bold declarations don't diminish my sense of alienation, and, in fact, only enhance it, is the quick realization that I'm not utterly mobile in history. There are miles of barbed wire. Of all sorts. And this becomes clear most of all when Roy rightly says: "However many garlands we heap on our scientists, however many medals we pin to their chests, the truth is that it's far easier to make a bomb than to educate four hundred million people." If I secede, if Roy secedes, we secede also from that difficulty. To put it differently, to secede is as easy as to make a bomb.

The real task, even for those who as diasporics think of seceding, is to contemplate that difficulty. Of how in our minds we allow ourselves to believe that it was ever possible to find a space of withdrawal. It is, also, inevitably, the problem of a collectivity, far beyond individual issues or even nations. Neither writers nor scientists can save the world by themselves. Or escape it entirely. That is the plain truth of the nuclear bomb. When it explodes, it finishes us wherever we reside in our mobile republic. (171)

Pretty useful stuff for starting to teach "The Custom-House" today. (And, for that matter, for plugging the WAAGNFNP.) Not to mention that the "Nationality" chapter from which this passage comes opens with a mini-reading of "Douloti the Bountiful," which I just taught last week in Postcolonial Hawthorne. Or that the "Date of Birth" chapter is particularly relevant for Hawthorne, who was, after all, born on the 4th of July. Or that the "Identifying Marks" chapter may prove crucial to my research on the picturesque, colonialism, and race. Or that the "Profession" chapter is perfect for the graduate course on professional development I'll be teaching next spring. All this from a guy who hasn't read Moby-Dick. Not bad.