Every so often you read a book that gives shape to the things you have been working through and it feels miraculous that the book found you just at the moment when it did. If you had encountered the same book at another time and in another space you might not have listened so attentively, but at this moment reading such a book is like hearing a song that is at the same time deeply familiar and utterly new. I had this experience reading Billy-Ray Belcourt’s novel-memoir, A Minor Chorus and since he articulates so beautifully many things that have been on my mind I thought I would use the idea of the found poem to make a short memoir out of his novel. A found poem is created through the words found in another text and arranged in a way that is meaningful to the writer who found (read) the poem. Though there are many significant ways in which his experience as a queer member of the Driftpile Cree Nation is far from mine, there are other ways in which his style of thinking through colonialism, the university and writing resonate strongly with me. This ‘found memoir’ is not an attempt to overwrite his text or obscure the voices of the indigenous protagonists he represents in the novel, but to explore what his text allows me to see and interrogate in my own life. I hope this might lead you to pick up the original text and read its thoughtfully poetic meditation on what it feels like to live under conditions of settler-colonialism in Canada today.

The page references given for every quotation are to the first edition of A Minor Chorus by Billy-Ray Belcourt, published in 2022 by Hamish Hamilton.

Singing along to the minor chorus

“I wanted to leave academia. This thought, which wasn’t so much intrusive as it was a response to an ongoing crisis of creativity, permeated my days” (3).

“I’d been experiencing life as a problem of form”(4).

“It seemed unavoidable now that I wanted my writing not to advance an institutional body of knowledge … but instead to invent an exit route, to make something out of nothing” (4).

“I don’t think theory and prose, or whatever you want me to call it, are that distant. They both ask us to refuse a romance of the present. They’re streets in the same city, and sometimes they intersect. I think I’m already planted at that intersection. I’m already under its streetlights” (12).

I don’t want to bear the unbearable” (17).

“My anxieties weren’t just about writing but living; the two had become enmeshed” (20).

“How do you intend to write both an autobiography and a novel?” (59).

“Michael’s story reminded me of Judith Butler’s observation that we sometimes choose to stay attached to what injures us rather than gamble with what it might feel like to be in the world without the attachment. The psychological investment is so large it seems counter-intuitive to relinquish it, irrespective of the consequences. We don’t want to lose too much, to be left with so little” (68).

“Suppose a body were trapped between two parentheses, made out to be an aside, a distraction, a trace of another narrative possibility. Would you set it free, set it loose on the world?” (72).

“Was I endeavouring to hear the sounds made when someone broke through a story they hadn’t written for themselves? At that moment I couldn’t think of anything else worth doing” (157).

“I’ve made all this racket about ideas and literature and art, but really what I’ve wanted most was to be loved” (160).

“Was I happy? That evening I sat down at my desk to finally begin writing the novel I hoped would answer that question” (179).

In a 2010 interview with the writer Jonathan Franzen he spoke about the shame that had blocked him from writing for about a decade. Working through that shame allowed him to write his bestselling novel The Corrections. What caught my eye was the advice, from his fellow writer, David Means, that enabled him to begin writing again: ‘You don’t write through shame; you write around it.’ Franzen says that he did not really know what that advice meant, but it allowed him to begin writing.

This advice was intuitively interesting, but I was not altogether convinced by the idea that writing deals with shame, whether by exorcizing it or turning it into something useful (like, say, a prize-winning novel). Instead, it seemed to me, Means’ advice recognized the fact that you cannot use the shame–it is in many ways too powerful for that–but you have to go on writing anyway. The telling might not allow the writer to be rid of the shame, but at least it would not stop the writer from writing.

In Franzen’s case this advice seemed to work because the writing and the shame were, ultimately, separable. Franzen felt shame about things he had experienced in his life and wanted to make public in writing; the hurdle was to cope with the shame of being the person who had done those things and his friend reassured him that it did not have to stop him from writing. In reflecting on why the advice seemed to resonate with me, though I had none of the shame Franzen was describing, what confused me was that I seem to find writing itself somehow shameful. How, then, to write around that? Was it even possible to write around that kind of shame?

I found the beginning of an answer in Elspeth Probyn’s essay ‘Writing Shame‘, in which she explores the relationship writing and shame might have to each other.

There is a shame in being highly interested in something and unable to convey it to others, to evoke the same degree of interest in them and to convince them it is warranted. The risk of writing is always that you will fail to interest or engage readers. (72)

As Probyn goes on to explore through readings of TE Lawrence and Primo Levi, this is also one of the ways in which writing is profoundly embodied. Writers want to do things to others with their writing–they want their passions, properly and artfully written down, to move other people’s bodies. No surprise if, as Probyn says some pages later, ‘writing takes its toll on the body that writes and the bodies that read or listen’ (76). We strain and tense our bodies to put what moves us onto the page; if we have not simply exposed ourselves and made ourselves ridiculous (a big risk), then our readers are moved too.

Probyn captures something reassuring about this since, understood in this way writing becomes the location for profoundly ethical acts. If we want our writing to do things to people, and we feel some shame about that, we have the basis for an ethics.

After reading and re-reading Probyn’s essay several times, I had to ask myself, why was I still not writing certain things? One of the reasons I read about writing is that I keep hoping to unlock the puzzle of why I don’t do the writing I mean to do. Sometimes I feel desperate about this in a way that I cannot even explain. All I’ve ever wanted to do since I was young is to write–to have people read my writing and think or feel something that my writing made possible. And it dawns on me that in order to get further with this, I have to take Probyn’s point about embodiment more seriously and more personally. I have to begin from my body.

When I am out in the world, I spend a lot of my energy containing myself. For a long time, longer than I can find an origin for, it has seemed to me that I am too much. I feel too much. I find too much meaning in the world. I laugh too much. I take things too seriously. Some of that is a professional hazard. Humanities scholars are experts in producing meanings. We pay close attention to things that we are fascinated by, and people are constantly telling us these are not worth the time and thought we give to them. (Why do you love that, is the question at the heart of much critique of humanities scholarship and teaching.)

I work very hard to keep my energy, the extravagant quality of me, to myself and underneath that work is the idea that people do not want to be touched or moved by me. Quite literally in daily life I am careful to keep my naturally tactile way of being within limits. Sometimes I am not able to and I always worry about those encounters afterwards. Did the person flinch? Was it acceptable that I touched their arm? Should I have hugged them that long? I am not very good at understanding how people perceive and respond to me physically and consequently don’t know how much or how often I may touch the world.

Despite this habit of containment, I find that my own sensation hasn’t become dulled. If anything, I feel more, and more intensely, as I get older, and yet I can do less and less with it on the page. Writing is an intimacy with the world that I do not always feel is permitted to me, which perhaps explains why I have remained so long in academic contexts where writing about affects, structures of feeling, and emotions are allowed as long as they become ‘useful’ to other scholars in the course of their work. The ethics of such writing is clear because it is scaffolded by a system that takes the academic writer’s body out of the writing in a particular way; it’s acceptable to write about the melancholy in Arundhati Roy or Jamaica Kincaid because it’s about them and their writing. They’ve already moved the world with their writing and you don’t have to carry the responsibility of moving anyone with yours. You can remain concealed. Useful. Unashamed.

But what happens to the self who writes in such a way? The psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott observed “it is a joy to be hidden, and disaster not to be found.” It’s like playing a game of hide-and-seek that has gone on just a little bit too long. At the first, the delight in finding a clever place to hide is palpable. People think they know where to find you, looking in the obvious places, and you giggle very quietly to yourself because you’ve hidden somewhere they will never think to look. And the longer they don’t find you, the more invested you become in keeping this little hiding space to yourself because it’s so skillful of you to have found this way of being undetectable and you go on being delighted until you realize no one is looking for you anymore. 

I don’t believe academic writing necessarily works this way for everyone. There are plenty of charismatic and larger-than-life academics who use their academic writing to be seen, to write around shame as Franzen described, or to recuperate concepts like shame, as Probyn’s writing does. For me, and for a long time, academic writing has functioned as a way of reaffirming for myself I can’t touch the world as others do so this is the writing I can safely, unashamedly, have. I stay hidden here and no one has found me yet.


Dadi had poor, thin hair. She pulled wispy strands of grey and white hair into the smallest of knots at the back of her head. In the summer she brushed her hair in the back garden, before making her morning cup of coffee, and she would wind the loose hairs together into a small whorl that she left in the grass. It was for the little songbirds in our garden, the ones who stole our cherries every summer, who could use the discarded hair to make their nests. Now that I have a garden, and the same poor, thin hair, I do the same.  

Most of the day Dadi was in the kitchen, making something out of her spices and the vegetables my uncle bought under her direction at the Indian shops in Finchley. With a cup of afternoon tea, there might be fritters made from split yellow peas or taro root, and at dinner there might be thin, soupy dal, Mauritian style, served with the velvety leaves of the same taro root plant. Saturday lunches would be simple, perhaps manioc steamed and served with a sharp coriander chutney freshly crushed on the dark slab granite that sat on a low wall just outside the back door to the garden. Little morsels of vegetables that only indentured labourers chopped up for their meals in Mauritius, and kept on eating for the rest of their lives and migrations. Sometimes lunch might be more elaborate, dal puri that Dadi would spend all morning rolling, stuffing, and cooking on the small gas cooker, served hot with rasam (the only concession to South Indian food in that home), tomato chutney, and curried potatoes.  

After my father died, she became very still. She did not cook by then but sat at the centre of the household that kept on moving around her. She did not cook, or sew, or grow any more plants. 

The first time I stop making things is after her death. My dissertation sits neglected on my desk. My appetite disappears. One weekend, late in the winter, a friend coaxes me to a workshop where some Anglican ladies teach us how to make banners from remnants of clothes, tablecloths, and curtains, and we spend an afternoon quietly assembling the pieces into a whole.   

I do not have any children. I have not written very much, not nearly enough to be a real writer. Sometimes I make jam from fruit we have picked in the Essex hedgerows. But I cannot go out into the garden because I am afraid of the little frogs that hop unexpectedly out of the undergrowth. I watch the birds, though, and listen to them from inside the house. They sing and build their nests.  

We can make life out of the merest scraps. 

Some years ago, I read about a textile artist who collected all the little scraps of silk thread in her studio and scattered them around her garden one winter. In the spring, walking the paths around her home, she found several nests, knitted together with the bright colours. This was called art.  
A Bible, bound in yellow leather that is cracking, a doctor’s set of syringes in a battered tin box, a solitary letter written in a large, neat hand.  

In my grandparents’ house in Madras was a glass cabinet that contained a set of hardbound, faux-leather blue books collected by my grandmother. There was a key in the cabinet that locked the books away, but every time I asked Tha-tha he would open it for me and let me choose whichever one I wanted. In the drowsy afternoons, I lay on the bed beneath the garlanded portrait of my grandmother and read Austen, Eliot, Bronte. They were very beautiful to hold, with fine paper pages, and silky, blue ribbon markers. The spines were tooled in light gold, with the titles and names of the authors set out among the curlicues. Engraved portraits of the authors in the front pages and scholarly introductions carefully explained the significance of each novel.  

When I was a teenager, I begged my parents to buy me an album, highlights of Madama Butterfly by Puccini. They were nonplussed that I needed such an expensive Deutsche Grammophon recording, but they bought it for me. My mother was reminded of her own childhood, when my grandmother would play opera records on her gramophone and everyone else would leave the house because they could not bear the high-pitched sounds and singing. My mother is tickled by the similarity. How has a love of opera seeped into me from this grandmother I never met.  

My grandfather’s letters, on thin, blue airmail paper, told me all about his wife. She was the first woman to graduate with a medical degree from the university in Chennai (she wasn’t), a feat she accomplished while married and pregnant with my mother (she did). She was invited to attend the Queen’s garden party, and took a ship to England by herself to attend. She became the medical superintendent of Kalyani hospital. She was patient and generous, nursing members of her extended family at home when she wasn’t at the hospital. She was a beloved mother and peacemaker. 

She was never t/here. 

Everyone says she worked herself to death, working a night shift at the hospital and then returning after coming off duty because an expectant mother wanted Dr Satya and no one else to attend the birth of her child. Surely it wasn’t that one life that caused her death? Surely, they mean that she always worked too hard. Or do they mean that she chose to keep doing the same thing over and over again, hoping this time it would give her life? Her parents had named her Mercy, after all, the child given to them after three miscarried lives.  

On my face I wear my grandmother’s expressions, the ones I’ve learned from my mother’s face. I do not have the same eyes or cheekbones or lips, but somehow I reproduce my grandmother every time I laugh or read Jane Eyre or someone addresses me as ‘Dr’.     

I wrote this little piece in 2019, having been mulling over questions of colonialism, productivity, and my own family history on the blog for a little while. When I came across a call for submissions for a book about subaltern women, I wrote this more autobiographical essay first, as a way to think through some of my thoughts and feelings. The book chapter ‘Unhomed Knowledge’ was eventually published here in 2021, but the work that preceded it was, until now, just lurking in my computer.

In this essay, I was thinking especially about the way that in theoretical terms, the work that my Dadi did in the home would be classified as reproductive labour because she did the work that enabled the rest of us to do our work; whereas the work my other grandmother did would be considered productive. Reading the work of feminist postcolonial scholars who were remaking theories of labour, I began to play with this division. The terms are reversed here deliberately to honour my Dadi, who was present, who was there in my life when I needed her. She was always showing me how to live, not how to work, and writing this was a way of thanking her for that .

I want to move again, to set myself back in motion through the world.

Sometimes I remember what it is like to swing my arms and feel my feet on the ground and then it’s gone and the grief settles back on the crown of my head. Many days it is possible to create the illusion of movement — people see me in one place and then another, the moving is inferred. They see a smile on my face, the mobility of my facial expressions reassures them that something is happening in there, in here. But for some time now, there’s been very little movement, just the memory of what it is like to be a body in the world.

I don’t know what to say next. I am beginning to understand my procrastination differently now and it is why I am here again, writing, trying to make sense of what it is that stops me, why I can’t move forward, why the thought of movement itself should seem so alien to a person who was once a dancer. When I started this blog I was focused on ‘fixing’ the procrastination in my academic life so that I could become the person I was expected to be, that I expected myself to be. It wasn’t that I couldn’t write or did not have ideas. It seemed to be something more difficult to pin down, a kind of subterranean inner lake in which part of me was held down, not quite drowning, but moored.

Slowly, I did learn to write more for academic publication and as a result of developing a slow but steady output of academic work, I’ve realized that this was not the real issue. One of the many, many hazards of allowing the institution to set the targets and goals for your ‘success’ as an academic is that it fundamentally disconnects you from what writing means for you, for your process as a writer, a thinker, a person. I thought the problem was that I was not publishing enough articles in scholarly journals and books. That was not the problem. The problem is not that I cannot or do not write. The problem is that, that kind of writing is bound up with a process of becoming someone I could no longer be, a person I knew I had lost and could never get back, but was desperately trying to reconstitute through my efforts to follow academic norms.

And so now I realize that making my way of out of procrastination is a process of working through the grief of losing the person I never became and will never become. For me this is entangled with the actual deaths of various significant people in my life since my late teens: my father, my best friend, my grandmother, my doctoral supervisor, and most recently my paternal aunt with whom I lived for most of my childhood. At first, mourning them seemed to be a separate issue from problems with writing, something that was happening alongside the writing and making me sad or lonely, unable to be in the flow of life, but not fundamentally about the writing itself. But then I notice that every time I experience a death, it changes my relationship to writing. In her memoir about mourning the death of her son, Time Lived, Without its Flow, Denise Riley notices that “You can’t, it seems, take the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity.” Now I begin to see that grief is a holding on to what you already know you have lost — a state of knowing that future is gone and being unable, nevertheless, to become someone else. I’ve been trying, for so long, to hold on to myself, to the idea of myself that was embedded in the relationships I had with the people I lost, but I also know they are gone and the next task is to let the unbecoming of grief unfold. Who can I become without the people I have loved?; who can I become without their ideas of me, ideas I clung to and used to move myself through this world?

A haibun for my lost aunt.

The wave returning

to the water once again.

Form disappearing.

The day after we cremate her body, we begin preparations for our own journey to Finland. There is a coolness under the early summer skies that refuses to transform into heat.  

In the fire bowl

small orange coals are glowing

tens of setting suns.

In the mornings, I persist in trying to eat some kind of breakfast, after nights in which I wake up on the hour every hour with a racing heart, starting punctually at 3 am. I write emails, do laundry, cook meals I have no appetite for, and pack, hoping that my mind will take the cue. The days stay tight and grey, and I abandon my daily walk.

Through the rainy day

the squirrel persists with life,

chasing his own tail.

Sympathy flowers

wilting on the windowsill.

Rain falls all day.

Really, it’s too soon yet–it has only been five days–but I keep a watch for any animals who insistently want to befriend me. When my grandmother died, cats began to follow me around until I greeted them. I wonder what aunty is becoming.

A sunny morning.

Seeds drifting in the wind

towards other homes.

We make our crossing to Hoek van Holland from Harwich in calm and cloudy light. The sea is so still that we hardly notice the movement of the boat. 

The sky keeps its form,

just as the open sea does.

All things are themselves.

In Germany, we arrive at a Rococo yellow dream rising out of an industrial park. One foot inside the dreamhouse brings aunty to mind immediately — the place is full of dolls and toys and miniatures, lovingly arranged in the way that an adult collector brings to such whimsical objects. She is here, everywhere. 

Fairy tale castle,

filled with one woman’s treasures,

calling us to play.

In old Lübeck the people are preparing to celebrate Hansa ways, decorating the streets in cheerful swathes of plain cloth, setting deck chairs along the riverbank for people to stop and enjoy the water, and rehearsing their songs and dances. At the hotel, our hostess chats with us over breakfast and says that as soon as she gets a moment, she will join the party. 

A burst of mango

on my dry and anxious tongue.

Life is possible.

The Trave carries

the weight of my thoughts away

without asking why.

Everything in the town and hotel is designed to cheer and delight the soul, but we are not Hansa people, and we have two more boats to take before we get home. 

Mind still travelling,

though the body comes to rest

again and again.

Our last crossing from Kapelskär to Naantali is easy. We eat karjalan paisti and roasted potatoes from the buffet, and gaze at every tiny spit of land we pass in the archipelago, dreaming of an island of our own.

A vibrant stillness.

Falling light on the open sea

brings us home again.

Aunty has made her last crossing too now. The thirteenth day falls as we arrive in Helsinki and the first thing we do is walk to the old fish harbour and eat some creamy salmon soup. The city feels quiet. It’s soothing to walk, among the Helsinki folk, back to our old neighbourhood. 

A young man limping,

walking through the tenderness.

No other way home.

Yes, you can create your own kind of reading (of the writer’s block). “What is hindering me?” “What is helping me?” “What led to this situation?” Even, “What situation am I in?” Because a lot of times you don’t know, you can’t figure out what the hell is wrong.

–Gloria Anzaldua

I. Slept-in-Jesus

My first memory of Paatti is a small black and white photo, printed on the cover of a small pamphlet that my mother kept tucked inside her Bible. On the front it said Mercy Satya had ‘slept-in-Jesus.’ As a child I did not understand what that meant. It sounded peaceful and, without having any more information about her at first than this image, it seemed to suit the mild-looking face.

When I was a girl we regularly visited Tha-tha‘s house in Madras, where the original of the printed photo was framed and hanging on the wall, surrounded by smaller wedding portraits of each of her children. The little pamphlet was all over the house too, tucked into piles of paper or in books. In the same room where her photograph was displayed, there was a set of glass-fronted bookcases along the longest wall that housed Paatti’s large collection of dark blue leather-bound classic English novels, from the widely read Pride and Prejudice and Mill on the Floss to the more obscure Ainsworth’s Windsor Castle and Borrow’s Lavengro. When I had permission to open the cabinets and choose books to read, I would find, suddenly falling from the pages, yet another copy of Paatti’s face looking at me.

My Dadi, my father’s mother, was the living presence of grandmother to me; Paatti was an image of some other kind of woman. She had done things that no one I knew had done, and she would appear, suddenly, in unusual places in my life. When I was a teenager and asked my baffled parents for an opera album, I heard about Paatti’s fondness for opera. She had opera records that she played on the family gramophone, and everyone would leave the house so they did not have to be subjected to those awful sounds. Another day, seeing news of the Queen’s annual Garden Party, my mother casually said, ‘Oh your grandmother was invited to the Queen’s Garden Party when I was a girl. She took a ship from India to England all by herself to attend.’

There was nothing my grandfather liked better than to tell me stories about Paatti. In the thin, blue aerogramme letters he wrote to me from Madras, he told me all about her accomplishments. She was one of the first women to graduate as a doctor from Madras Medical College; something she did as a married woman with children, carrying at least one of her pregnancies through those studies; she went to work as a doctor in Ceylon after she qualified; and eventually she was made Head of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the Kalyani Hospital on Edward Elliott’s Road.

From the stories that other people told, I learned that she was a very patient and kind person. My mother says that even when she was working full-time at the hospital, she would be caring for friends and relatives in the family home. My great-grandmother, Chellammal, lived with my grandparents, and was by all accounts a rather mischievous lady who well into her nineties was still driving my grandfather to his wit’s end with her quirky ways. She died just six months before my grandmother. One morning, as was the household routine, my grandmother took a cup of hot South Indian coffee in to her mother, only to discover she had passed away peacefully in her bed during the night.

My grandmother died after suffering a stroke at the age of fifty-four. She had worked a double shift at the hospital because some one had not turned up to work their shift, and because one of the women who went into labour during the night particularly wanted to be attended by Dr Satya. Paatti lay in a coma for almost two weeks after she had her stroke, something my mother later described to me when we were sitting by my father’s bedside exactly twenty years later. She never recovered consciousness. She slept in Jesus two weeks before my mother’s twenty-sixth birthday.


(Mercy and Prema, late 1960s.)

II. Discipline

My father died when I was eighteen and he was forty-nine. He’d never been sick a day in his life until he was diagnosed with cancer. After he was diagnosed he went back to work and kept to his routine just as he had before. The other day I was thinking about how I would hear him humming in the morning as he put the kettle on and made his breakfast. When he was happily pottering around the house, he was always humming, usually bits of old Hindi film songs, sometimes switching to songs by the Beatles, or Mauritian séga. He would wake up at 6 am, wash, meditate for 30 minutes, make his tea (while humming), eat breakfast, get dressed, and go to work. He left the house at 8.10 am. Sometimes I went with him, if I was ready.

He was a very steady and disciplined man, and he expected a version of this from both me and my brother. He didn’t accept excuses about badly done schoolwork, chores, music practice, or anything else. If he had asked you to do it, he expected it to be done well and thoroughly. When I was a child I never really thought very much about this. It was only later that I realized how odd it was to bring home a report card filled with 95s and 97s only to be asked, ‘what happened to the other three percent?’ I accepted that was how things were. In fact, I found my mother’s attempts to reassure me that 90 or 89 was quite acceptable rather disturbing–as if she thought I might not be able to manage it and was trying to provide me with excuses. If I had to explain that thinking now, I would say I thought that my father was giving me the tools to become a person like my Paatti–a person who would do extraordinary things, who would exceed the limitations that people had for her, a person who would not be constrained by anything because her talent and discipline would take her anywhere she wanted to go.

III. The work of colonialism

It was only two years ago that my mother finally told me why my grandmother went to work in Ceylon. My mother and I were discussing my own situation, working away from home and family, and she explained that Paatti went away because the director of the hospital where she was working (the same hospital that she would, in fact, one day run) an English woman, a missionary, had told her that an Indian woman would never be allowed to run the hospital, even in post-Independence India. Paatti believed that if she went to work in a foreign country and returned to Madras with that experience it would be very difficult to refuse her the job, so she went to Ceylon. She worked abroad for about ten years. She raised the two youngest boys, who were still very little then, by herself, while my grandfather looked after the two oldest children in Madras. My mother remembers the journeys to see her mother in Jaffna, in small propeller planes, whenever she had a break from school.

Though my mother and I have had regular conversations about racism and colonialism all my life, she had never told me this part of the story before. To me Paatti was a figure of ‘pure’ accomplishment. She worked hard because she wanted to, because she was a good Christian and believed in mission work, because she was energetic and talented and passionate and curious.

I imagine she was some of those things. She was also a woman born and brought up in colonial India. When I look at her compulsion to work now, through this lens, I see something a bit different. My mother, in uncharacteristically gloomy moments, sometimes says ‘your grandmother worked herself to death’. She spent ten years of her life away from her husband and two of her children because she needed to be better than good, better than qualified, to have a chance of a job at home in Madras. When she returned home, and got her job at Kalyani Hospital, she had just another ten years or so before she died. She saw her oldest child marry and held her first grandchild in her arms, but she was gone before the rest of us came into the world.

Now my mother, living in our little house in England, watches me coming and going from my job abroad, and she wonders what will become of me. I wonder too. Should I keep taking the risk my grandmother took, hoping that one day I’ll get a job back home? I am afraid to do anything else, because of the other set of risks my mother took. My mother followed her husband everywhere his work took them, giving up the work she had been trained to do, and when he died young, she was left on her own in a place where she had no family or other resources. In Canada, her hard work and postgraduate medical training, in another twist of colonial practice, went totally unrecognized.

IV. Dead ends

My father seldom spoke about racism in the particular. He did not discuss the things that happened to him at home. It was my mother who told me, much later, about the everyday incidents that happened when they worked in England. Papa, on his way home from night shift on the bus, sitting silently while young white English men burned holes into the arms of his suits with their cigarettes. Both of them working long hours in A&E with patients who would say to their face ‘I don’t want this paki touching me.’

They both knew exactly what it was like to be a brown worker in the Western world, but what we learned in our home was that we needed to work hard so that at least we would not be excluded from the system. When I brought home a report card full of high marks, it wasn’t an accomplishment because it was merely what I needed to do to be acceptable to the system. And when I was younger, I didn’t question that. At times, it seemed to me that my father had a certain vanity and conceit about academic achievement, one I didn’t share and found off-putting, but now I think it was the pride of a colonized man trying to remind himself every day that he went to work, there was a young woman coming after him who was going to make good on all the indignity.

These are the moments when my procrastination weighs on me the most heavily. I know I should be working harder. It is a feeling I carry with me all the time. And at the same time, I’m deeply resentful and angry about all the work that has been going on in my family for at least three generations now, but always seems to lead us back to where we started–migrants, looking for work somewhere else, split from the family and friends that make it possible to go to work day after day without physically and mentally exhausting yourself. I want to work harder and escape from this place, this moment in my life, where all I see is my own failure to progress, the result of my failure to work harder, more consistently, more effectively. And yet, I feel exhausted. I have to force myself to work harder and harder just to stay upright, to stay standing still.

Set into this frame I think of my procrastination increasingly as a kind of safety valve, insisting that I should not lose my health and life in the way that my father and Paatti did–working harder and harder to convince themselves that racism and colonialism were not shaping their lives in spite of them. They both thought that if they just worked hard enough, they could have the most ordinary of things: a job, a home in the same place as their job, the everyday routines of family life and friendship.

I keep trying to let the resentment and anger go, so that I can return to work. I don’t seem to be able to. I kept trying to fashion this post into a narrative that would be helpful rather than immiserating, a triumph of hope (and hard work) over experience. I thought about all the ways my father and grandmother went ‘wrong’ by focusing on their own careers, rather than breaking out of the middle-class model of individualist career success and instead thinking of social movements and change. And I realized that this was unfair because both of them worked in mission and public hospitals all their working lives, both were committed to work that was for others, building better health and wellbeing in the communities they lived in. I thought about my mother, barred from the work she trained to do partly so that she could preserve her family life–and yet she too finds herself in the same place in the end of her life as she was at the beginning, first split from her mother, then from her daughter, by the demands of work. No matter how hard I tried to write it in other ways, I couldn’t make anything else out of it than this. No matter how hard I try, I can’t make anything else out of this.

V. Life, decolonized 

This is a photograph of Paatti as a young woman, before she became Mercy Satya and was still Mercy Jesudasan.


I think I owe it to her to find another way to work; not to reproduce the life she tried to make, but to orient myself towards work in a way that does not require me to use up my life.

Writing about colonialism, or postcolonial theory, in itself does not manage the feelings of incapacity and isolation I carry with me as a consequence of colonial legacies. It certainly doesn’t make amends for the loneliness of being without the love and support of my father and grandmother. There must be a way to do work that is decolonized, as well as decolonizing in its effects. There must be a way to live that the colonial machine cannot use for its own ends.














Is this good?

Does this suck?

I’m not sure when these two questions became the only two questions I had about my work, or when making pictures and stories turned into something I called ‘my work’ — I just know I’d stopped enjoying it and instead began to dread it.


For the next 30 years I chased after only good drawing. While I drew, my main feelings were doubt and worry, and when I finished my only feelings were relief and regret. I never drew for fun anymore — and I’d forgotten about that strange floating feeling making lines on paper used to give me. I’d forgotten how stories used to bubble up out of the lines and surprise me. It was why I started drawing –to meet those lines and stories.

One thing was missing, but I had no idea what it was.

Is this good?

Does this suck?

I can’t even tell anymore.

The two questions held that part of me hostage.

Quoted from What it is: the formless thing which gives things form, by Lynda Barry.

Those of you who were reading November’s posts might be interested to know that I have indeed begun a second blog entitled ‘The object of autobiography’, which you can find here.

My procrastinatory habits notwithstanding, I found it difficult to motivate myself to begin the second blog because the recent death of my doctoral supervisor returned me, mentally, emotionally, and intellectually to a frame of mind in which writing seemed frankly impossible. Nevertheless, today was an important deadline for me to keep because it is the anniversary of my father’s death. The whole project has, therefore, begun on a more shaky and difficult foundation than I anticipated in my previous post, but I hope it will be no less effective for all that. I have a kind of horror of producing messy, incoherent writing that does not say exactly what I mean it to say, but finding myself back in a place I thought I could escape through writing, I realize I have no choice but to write through it.










When I started this blog in 2011 I wasn’t quite sure what would happen. A friend with a degree in online journalism had been encouraging me to blog for a few years, but I’d never seriously considered it until I found myself with the continuing desire to write and the inescapable fact that, nevertheless, I wasn’t writing.

My rationale for writing the blog was that by paying close attention to the procrastination and, at the same time, cultivating a regular habit of writing, I might eventually get rid of the writer’s block. It did not work out like that, partly because I did not post regularly enough. Saying something in public about something I find personally quite shameful also felt strange and uncomfortable, especially since I share my posts via the Twitter account that my colleagues and students read. Eventually, though, there was a danger that I could just write endlessly about not writing without any change in my writing process.

This past month of blogging has shifted the balance of things for me. In some part that is because of the decision not to try to produce something new every day, but to work on a long post and then untangle and elaborate upon it in various ways. This allowed me to follow my thoughts in different directions, sometimes going further into scholarly questions that relate to my research, and sometimes going further into my own formation as a reader, teacher, and writer.

What has surprised me is how much the autobiographical element of the writing has developed an energy of its own. That might sound strange given that this is a blog, where personal writing is expected, but a personal element is not the same as autobiographical thinking. There is something to Cvetkovich’s idea as I discussed in week 2 that memoir is a particular kind of research method, one that gives shape and form to theorizing the world that cannot be expressed in any other way. For that reason I am going to spend much of the month of December working on the foundations for a new blog project that is clearly focused on autobiography. I hope that many of you who have come to read here this month will visit there.

As I work towards that I would ask you, both new and longstanding readers of the blog, to share with me what you found particularly interesting or useful about what you’ve read here this month. What would you like to read more about? What questions were still left unanswered that you’d like to see discussed again? What other directions could the writing go?

Finally, thanks to all of you for your time and attention this month. For the first time in a while, I feel encouraged about my writing because of your generosity.








Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Murray, Johann Zoffany

Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Elizabeth Murray, artist unknown. (Private collection, Scone Palace, Scotland.)


The portrait of Belle and her cousin is revealed at a crucial moment in Amma Asante’s 2013 film. Until this moment in the narrative all the other painted depictions of black people who Belle has seen, whether in other fine paintings hanging at Kenwood House, or crude tavern signs, have been signs of black inferiority. Finally, she sees herself.

The portrait is unusual in art history terms because it depicts a black woman and a white woman whose faces, and eyes, are at the same level in the composition. Although there are important distinctions between the two women, in their poses, styles of dress, and gestures, there is also a visual balance and equivalence between them which, as the film shows us, was by no means common in visual representations of black people.

Much of the discussion of Asante’s film has focused on the historical accuracy of the film, perhaps a reaction to the way in which the film was framed as an important intervention into the silence on race, slavery, and black subjects in cultural representations of British history. This question of accuracy is a common enough tactic of diversion from the questions that the film tries to raise, and it inevitably occurs whenever a scholar or writer makes an intervention into the politics of representation. This is not to say that we should not strive to make films or write novels that take history seriously, but it is to point out that the politics of historical representation, scholarly or otherwise, are always already shaped by what it is we are allowed to say. To say that Belle is an historically inaccurate film is to ignore the director’s intention to guide us towards a reflection on what it means to be represented. Where Asante’s film asks, what is it that a woman of colour sees when she looks at the world, critics answer, you’ve used the wrong colour for the world.

The structure of the narrative leads the viewer from what we see when we look at ‘historical’ depictions of eighteenth-century England, much like the paintings Belle sees on the walls of Kenwood House, to the moment when she finally sees herself represented in a way that is both recognizable to her and is a kind of revelation. She sees herself as she lives, on affectionate terms with her cousin, but she also sees herself as she has never (yet) experienced, which is as an equal.

It would be tempting to jump straight to the notion of representation as mirror here, but much earlier in the film there is a moment when Belle actually does look at herself in a mirror and a quite different scene ensues. It is a raw and painful scene for any person of colour to watch, because what happens when Belle looks in the mirror is a moment of powerful self-hatred. She looks at herself, touches her own skin, then begins to hit and pull at herself. (Thank you to this site for making the stills of the film available.)

Dido looking at herself in the mirror 1Dido looking at herself in the mirror 2Dido looking at herself in the mirrror 3

Belle has access to a mirror. She can see herself in a looking-glass at any moment she chooses. What she does not have access to is a means to represent herself.


The Belgian literary critic George Gusdorf was one of the first scholars to consider autobiography a serious enough genre to require theorizing. In fact he considers autobiography to be the genre of Western civilization par excellence because it is the natural culmination of the Western capacity for self-reflection and self-examination. This capacity is possible, in part, as a result of the technology of the mirror. As he writes,

The primitive who has not been forewarned is frightened of his reflection in the mirror, just as he is terrified of a photographic or motion-picture image. The child of civilization, on the other hand, has had all the leisure to make himself at home with the changing garments of appearances that he has clothed himself in under the alluring influence of the mirror (‘Conditions and Limits of Autobiography’, 33).

Gusdorf collapses mirrors, photographs, and films into one, but I would argue that mirrors, as a form of reflection, are quite different from representations such as photographs and film, and that to miss the distinction is another version of the criticism that Belle is historically inaccurate. Questions of accuracy and reflection proceed from a logic that is very sure of what is, from a position as writer or viewer with a secure, and already secured, relation to representation. What is so interesting about Asante’s film is her ability to dramatize the other side of representation, the person whose relationship to representation is not yet in her hands, but who needs representation, as much as reflection, to make sense of herself.

The painting of Belle is not wholly separate from her reflection–reflection and representation do have a relationship to each other–but it is something more than mere reflection, mere accuracy. It is a representation of other possibilities of being Belle. As Misan Sagay, one of the earlier screen writers on the film, and Amma Asante have spoken about in interviews, seeing the original portrait of Belle was a similar kind of moment for them as artists. Sagay and Asante saw in one artist’s representation from the eighteenth century that it could be possible to write and produce other kinds of representations of women of colour in the twenty-first century.


Two moments in the film suggest just how important representation is. The first, as I noted above, is the fact that looking in a mirror does not help Belle. The second is that it is not Belle’s relationship with her concealed suitor Mr Davinier that is transformed by the end of the film, but her relationship with the man who stands in the place of her father, Lord Mansfield.

One of the first things that Lord Mansfield does when young Belle enters the house is to show her the family portraits, the pictures of the great men who have gone before her. Here, as for Gusdorf,  representation works like a mirror for him too. He sees himself in that lineage, he understands his place as someone who has to uphold the traditions and trajectories established by what is, what has been,  and what he knows. As a result of this, the portrait of Belle and her cousin affects him as deeply as it affects Belle. He and Belle are by themselves when they see the portrait for the first time, and the scene is a crucial repetition of the scene in which he has shown Belle who the Murray family is. This time, he sees that Belle is his family. He has said as much, and acted upon it throughout the narrative, but now he also sees it represented in a way that he did not understand before. Mr Davinier knows very soon after he has met Belle that he loves her, and there is no transformation for him to undergo (which is perhaps why he takes pleasure in observing her portrait being painted and she feels so ashamed of being watched). Lord Mansfield needs a representation to understand that he has not really seen what he has already felt. He has loved Belle almost since he first met her too, but he has not known what that love represents about him.


Self transformation is not the result of seeing yourself reflected in a mirror, or in paintings, films or novels that you take for accurate portrayals of life. The transformations we long for, love and freedom, come through repeated and creative processes of representation. We see ourselves when we have the means to represent ourselves, and we transform ourselves when we use those means.