March 2, 2012

AMINA ARRAF: A “Queered” Antidote

Nancy Agabian writes in the March issue of The Brooklyn Rail:

An event that seemed to measure American writers’ tolerance for dealing with race took place last year when the poet Claudia Rankine, who is black, took offense to “The Change,” a poem by Tony Hoagland, who is white. The speaker of “The Change,” who is also white, describes a black tennis player in stereotypically racist terms and then reveals that “I couldn’t help wanting / the white girl to come out on top, / because she was one of my kind, my tribe, / with her pale eyes and thin lips.” The narrator also celebrates the win of the black player as “the end of an era,” closing on the line, “and we were changed.” When Rankine asked her colleague about the poem, he admitted that the speaker was racist, made it clear that he wasn’t the speaker, and stated his preference not to explain the poem to a poet, adding, “This poem is for white people.” Rankine responded at the Associated Writing Programs conference with more questions, unsure whether Hoagland was aware of the poem’s lack of condemnation for racist attitudes. Further, she sensed that his claim that the poem was “for white people” was taking a historical form of entitlement, telling her, a black woman, to back off. She concluded her speech by pleading, “Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that I am present. My alertness, my openness, my desire to engage my colleague’s poem, my colleague’s words, actually demands my presence, my looking back at him. So here I am looking back, talking back and, as insane as it is, saying, please.” Rankine went on to call for submissions from writers of all racial backgrounds to broaden the discussion about “creative imagination and race” on her website. What resulted was a cavalcade of voices, asking and defending who gets to say what, why, how, and about whom in terms of race. [. . .]

I write this examination on racism, sexism, and representation in conjunction with the release of a book that I have been involved with for a few years: Queered: What’s to be done with Xcentric Art, a catalogue and document of the work of Queering Yerevan, a collective of Armenian women writers, artists, and activists living in Armenia and in the Armenian diaspora in the U.S., Europe, and North Africa. As we discussed how to promote the book, some members mentioned that they didn’t want the audience to be limited only to queer and/or Armenian readers. This called up the “nobody cares” voice in me, not so different, I now realize, from MacMaster feeling unheard because of his identity; it also helped me respond to the Amina scandal of last summer in a way I couldn’t do till now, with the power of a collective behind me.

The original members of Queering Yerevan (QY) communicated to each other first over a listserv as they found each other, became acquainted, compared their life experiences, then debated their purpose. Eventually they came to create three annual art events together as well as posting regularly on a shared blog. The book represents this work, sandwiching images from the exhibitions between texts that represent the group’s history: e-mail correspondence, rejection letters from foundations for support, resignations from various members, challenges to art institutions, a report on an art demonstration against militarism, an academic treatise on queer aesthetics, and an open letter in protest to homophobic articles about homosexuality in the Armenian media, among other documents. Much of the work isn’t translated, so there are Armenian texts that will remain mysterious unless you find an Armenian reader to sit with you and go over them—and Armenian readers won’t understand the English unless they find a translator as well: This represents the way the group communicated to each other, with speakers of different abilities among us.

Read the full article here.

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