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.


In her study Fathers and Daughters, Sue Sharpe writes:

In Asian families, fathers are generally even more removed from the everyday discourse of personal and especially female issues, and such communication between father and daughter may be minimal.

This notion that South Asian men are at best remote, at worst ineffective fathers, is one of the most persistent ways in which the masculinity of men from the Indian sub-continent is undermined. It is a trope replayed regularly in novels, television series, and films (My Beautiful Laundrette, Mississippi Masala, Bend it like Beckham, East is East, Intimacy, The God of Small Things). It might seem questionable to criticize those representations when the authors and directors are themselves South Asian–surely unhappy families are the bread and butter of all fictional representations. While that is true to some degree, much depends on how those representations circulate. Hanif Kureishi is quite acute, at least in My Beautiful LaundretteIntimacy is a different matter–at demonstrating how the illusions of empire have destroyed Hussein Ali’s abilities to be an effective father to his son Omar. Mississippi Masala is also a deep meditation on how colonialism destroys relationships between friends and family members, and the relationship between Mina and her father Jay is actually much more recognizable to me than most depictions of Asian fathers and daughters.

Such representations do not circulate in a vacuum, they occupy the same space as other narratives, with which they unwittingly collude and recombine. The trope of the bad Asian father, for example, makes space for the commonplace colonial narrative in which, to use Spivak’s evocative phrase, white men are saving brown women from brown men. How then, to tell the tale of being a brown girl, the daughter of a brown man, without running headlong across these narrative minefields? How, especially, to tell the story of being a brown woman who loves white men without seeming to participate in the colonization of brown men as ineffective or undesirable fathers and lovers?

One of the strands in the tangle I’ve begun unravelling in this week’s posts is my father. He was the person who first taught me that since I was not a beautiful girl I would have to rely on my intellect to make myself a place in the world. I was never Daddy’s little princess, but I was also free to be a thinking, questioning mind. The importance of being encouraged to think and speak my own opinions from childhood is almost certainly the reason that I was able to become a professor. Nevertheless, my father was the main source of one of most limiting self-beliefs and I have tried to find a way to think about that, about his role in it, without losing my love of him.

What I’ve come to understand is that he was subject to his own racist prejudices about beauty. Like many a South Asian, he found fair skin more beautiful than dark skin. It is one of the more absurd realities of South Asians that their attitude to dark skin easily matches the racist prejudices of some Western people. There are countless products and techniques on offer in the Indian sub-continent to become ‘fair and lovely’. I spent several months of my teenage years dutifully applying a paste of turmeric and sandalwood to my skin in order to make it ‘better’, and it was only when I lived on my own that I was finally able to go out in the summer and get as dark as I liked without being rebuked. In this sense, as Stuart Hall has written so usefully about in the context of the Caribbean, there is a fantastically complex layer of colour prejudice that people of colour practice among and upon themselves. In general, my father appreciated what are usually thought of as North Indian features (fairer skin, lighter coloured eyes, sharper facial features, straight, silky hair). He would have adored Aishwarya Rai. Stubbornly, he persisted in these preferences despite the fact that the only place he ever lived on the sub-continent was Southern India. When my pure Tamil, South Indian mother married into the family, it was commonly understood that she was not beautiful, and all I heard most of my life was how much I look like her.

My father was a very charming man. He was the kind of man who turns up at a party and within minutes is comfortably chatting up the two best looking women in the room. So I have to give him credit for being able to see my mother when he did meet her. He told me once that he fell in love with her because of how she took care of her patients. He thought she was a very good, kind person, and that seemed more important to him than other considerations. In a similar way, it did not really matter to him that I wasn’t a beautiful girl, because he appreciated that I could think for myself.

Sometimes it is painful to think that he would have walked straight past both my and my mother at a party, and it isn’t an insignificant burden to leave your only daughter with that sense of herself. But if I can learn to love white men through racism, then why should I do any less for my father? He did not ever learn to decolonize his aesthetic ideals and preferences, but his life was not determined by them, and he too had to find love in a racist and colonized world.






‘Love is not a victory march/It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah’ — Leonard Cohen

My partner of some twenty years is a man who many would consider white. He comes from a Northern European country whose inhabitants only recently became ‘white’ according to the culture and science of race, but using the common-sense of racial thinking he looks the way white men look. What does that mean? He has fair skin. He tans in the summer, but usually only after burning and peeling first. When he was a little boy his hair was white blonde and now it is a brown colour with flecks of copper and grey in it. He has a long torso, as Northern Europeans often do, and relatively short legs (his legs are as long as mine, though I am a good eighteen centimetres shorter than him).  He has the kind of body that comes from centuries of living at the northern limits of Europe.

I’ve never had to explain racism to him. I can come home at the end of the day and describe all the micro-aggressions I have encountered without ever having to hear ‘Are you sure you didn’t imagine that?’ or ‘Maybe you just over-reacted’. I’ve never had to explain why I didn’t want to go somewhere because it might be hostile or dangerous for me. I’ve never had to listen to him apologize for his racist friends or family because ‘basically they’re good people’. And none of those things are down to me. I didn’t have to teach him about race or racism because he had already done a lot of thinking about those things before we met. He did not expect me to teach him. He had taught himself and he wanted to be with me, not learn from me or feel good about how tolerant and open-minded he is.

It is difficult to adequately describe how such sheer human recognition of who you are, what your reality is, feels like to a woman of colour raised in the West. It is beyond feeling beautiful or cherished or loved. It is something like feeling free again, except you didn’t actually realize you were imprisoned before that moment.

As I described in Sunday’s post, however, before I met my partner the only discussions I ever had with men were about how fundamentally they could not desire me because of my skin, culture or race. It would be romantic and idealist in the extreme to suppose that one encounter, however sustained it has come to be in my life, would wipe out the effect of all those other encounters, or of all the encounters I’ve had since with all kinds of white men in white spaces. My desires are still colonized, and I find myself drawn to men who, with some part of my mind and body, I know are unable to see me as I am. I do feel that if just one of those men–the men who cannot find women of colour desirable–would nevertheless have to step outside himself towards me, then I would win the racism competition. I would have triumphed over racism with the sheer force of my mind, or my body, or my personality. I know that is absurd, and yet it does shape my desires and encounters with the world. It isn’t borne of love, or even friendly pedagogical desire, but a kind of aggression, towards myself as much as towards the man. Because I have enough self-awareness to know that it is aggression I relate to many men, especially men I find attractive, by containing or effacing myself. I help them in their efforts to erase me, because the alternative would be to insist on myself in a destructive and ultimately self-defeating manner.

Perhaps that is a slightly too stark account of the complicated tangle of desire that arises between white men and women of colour because another reality of those encounters is that I go on finding those men attractive. The young men who told the teenage me that they could never love me were not strangers, they were friends, sometimes good friends, people whose intelligence, creativity, physical grace, and sense of humour, had already made them so attractive to me.

I don’t really know whether it is tragic or romantic that love persists through racism, but the fact that it does is probably because we are all caught up in racialized thinking whether we understand it or not. You can tell yourself that you’re not a racist, you’ve just never dated a woman of colour before; or you just don’t happen to find women of colour attractive (and yeah, that’s a lot of women in the world you can’t imagine as beautiful). You can tell yourself that you’re interested in that man because he’s handsome, he makes you laugh, he makes you think, and you can learn to persistently ignore the fact that he doesn’t seem to have noticed you’re a woman of colour (maybe he doesn’t ‘see’ race). You can tell yourself all sorts of things in order to love and be loved.













Last year I was in the pub with a group of students from a course on contemporary women’s writing and the discussion turned to who they loved or lusted after. After almost all of them had whipped out their smart phones to show me images of musicians and actors I’d never heard of, we began to discuss the attributes that made these men desirable. One quality was almost unanimous: the men had to be taller than them, or if they were tall women themselves then the men had to be at least as tall as them. Whatever else was negotiable, this was not. As one young woman noted, a tall man made her feel both feminine and protected. Although she was the only person to articulate the link exactly this way, others around the table nodded in agreement.

How do you know that what you have learned to desire is not your own oppression? If you are a straight woman, how do you know that this desire for a man taller than you is ‘just’ an aesthetic concern (pretending, for the moment, that there is such a thing as aesthetics-without-politics), and not a long-buried code for reminding yourself that you need male protection in the world, that the world is a dangerous and unmanageable place without a man to defend you.

That example may be too obvious to be immediately persuasive, but it is at work in various ‘purely’ aesthetic considerations. If you have been raised in England there is something unarguably attractive about an upper-class voice. Whether it is a man’s voice, say Hugh Grant or Colin Firth, or a woman’s voice, say Emilia Fox or Keeley Hawes, it has a particular timbre, cadence, and pitch. You can find those sounds pleasing–and they are–but they are pleasing in the context of what they signify. They signify class position, which in turn codes for other capacities such as education, breeding, and an ease about money. Upper-class voices in England tend to be lower-pitched, rhythmically controlled, and not too fast or frenetically paced, suggesting, for example, a life that is lived in large, comfortable country estates rather than urban glamour. The English ear is very carefully attuned to voice, which might also explain why, according to recent studies, British people increasingly use difference voices in different spheres of their lives (for instance, their regional working class accent when they are home with family and friends, but their Londonish middle class accent when they are at work). It is an interesting compromise with the social formation: it doesn’t quite go the whole way in refusing class and national aspirations, but it does recognize that you don’t have to be middle class, you just have to reproduce some of the codes of that class. (This isn’t a new game of class chess in Britain, but people seem to play it more openly nowadays.)

To find a working-class accent, or a short man, attractive, then, requires a kind of learning and it can occur in various ways. Perhaps you’ve grown up among working-class men and their voices feel real and substantial to you in a way other voices don’t; or you’ve really examined your own beliefs about class and don’t feel the thrill of the upper-classes anymore because it embodies the unearned privilege of the bourgeoisie. (If you think that second instance is far-fetched, read Orwell’s meditations on how he learned to unthink the embodiment of his class habits.) One thing I know from teaching literature is that you can learn to love and appreciate aesthetic forms that are new and unfamiliar to you once you understand how they work. Once you work out what stream-of-consciousness is doing, or why postmodern narrative fragments time and place, you can take real pleasure in immersing yourself in texts composed using those techniques. Human beings really aren’t different, in this sense, from any other form you take pleasure in knowing.

When my family arrived in Canada, the landscape of bodies and faces changed completely. I grew up in a neighbourhood in London that was quite mixed, but as with most areas in London it was a specific mix. At that time, for example, my primary school was largely composed of Italians, Greeks, Northern and Eastern European Jews, and South Asians. At my secondary school on the Canadian prairie the mix shifted to Ukrainian, Nordic, German, and what I think of as ‘old’ English faces (the kind of faces you see in the Southern US too, but rarely in England anymore). Through sheer proximity and familiarity, those faces became as attractive to me as any of the boys I had grown up with in London.

Nevertheless, familiarity is not a universal condition for learning desire. One of the dangers of learning about love in a racist world is that you might learn not to value the people you spend the most time with. My family of origin is entirely South Asian, and South Asian men simply do not fit the criteria of desirable masculine bodies in the West. They are often shorter and slighter than the British or North American average and they have higher-pitched voices or different registers of expressing emotion, which make them read as too feminine for men. (And, if you’ve spotted the stereotype in the Big Bang Theory, well done!) At the same time because of increasing paranoia and Islamophobia in the West, South Asian men read as violent, abusive, and dangerous, the more despicably so because they don’t seem like ‘real’ men. The particular problem of South Asian men is that they appear both violent and effeminate, contradicting Western gender norms in two directions at once. Now is a particularly difficult time to be a South Asian man, or a brown man generally, and be a desirable subject. South Asian women raised in the West, raised on Eurocentric ideals of masculinity, also find it difficult to find South Asian men desirable. One of the smaller, but intensely tragic effects of colonial culture, is finding you cannot love the men and women who look like you.

At some point during the conversation in the pub, the young women asked of me ‘what kind of men do you find attractive then’. I’m not sure whether this was the casual prurient curiosity students have about their professors, or whether they thought I had a solution to the problem of desire. I gave them one answer (much googling on smart phones ensued once again), but to be wholly honest will require another blog post.









In the course of my teaching career, I’ve only had one personal conversation with a student about how pedagogy works as a scene of desire. The student thought that one reason straight female students experienced desire for straight male professors is because they have something to offer (their youth, beauty, interest), whereas straight male students have nothing to offer straight female professors (their youth, their inexperience, their lack of knowledge in comparison with the professor). It is an accurate analysis, not because that is how it actually works but because that is how it is supposed to work, and you’ve seen this scenario in probably every film and television series about university students ever made. Men are desirable because of their knowledge, experience, and authority. Women are desirable because of their interest in men’s (superior) knowledge, experience, and authority. It does follow from this that male professors are, de facto, desirable, and female professors are a problem.

As a phd student I tutored a course where one young woman unconsciously performed a highly charged, slow motion toss of her long beautiful hair every time the course leader, a senior male professor, was anywhere near her. I remember it because it contrasted sharply with my own experience of the, few, straight young men in the class who always seemed to be angry with me (gay students behaved quite differently). When they did come to tutorials, they constantly argued with me in unconstructive ways, challenging my authority rather than forming their own arguments. When I answered their questions, they were never impressed or persuaded, but seemed even more displeased that they had been openly contradicted.

Much of this is par for the course when you first start teaching. If you haven’t noticed it before in daily life it is a shock to realize that here too heteronormative and racist patterns of relating to bodies are the norm. And of course, you become implicated in it yourself. At first you are angry about it, then you find you’re inordinately pleased when male students are impressed with your teaching because you must really be good if, finally, they think you are good at your job. Or, on the other hand, you encounter brilliant young women and catch yourself pushing them harder than the male students because you don’t need them to approve of you. Or, perhaps you befriend your female students because it is easier to relate to them, thereby working around the question of sex-gender tensions, and your male students feel that you are oddly unapproachable.

Here, as elsewhere, the thing is to unravel your own thinking about pedagogy and desire, as both student and teacher. Until quite recently I thought that I had made peace with how I teach, but what shaped me as a student gives me a persistent sense of myself as an undesirable body in the classroom, in academia, in the world generally. I am not sure you can deconstruct your relationship to teaching separately from your relationship to learning. Perhaps this is why I like to imagine love itself as a pedagogical process, one that is mutual and reciprocal because both lovers are student and teacher in turn.

I stay close to the example of the university classroom because it forms the ground of my every day life, but the questions and problems aren’t confined to that space. The classroom is not separate and insulated from the world, and learning is not a process that is confined to formal educational institutions. I find myself returning to the questions I’ve asked in other posts this month, can you learn what you don’t already know? Can you love what you’ve never imagined? Are there things that cannot be learned? What are the conditions under which you could love differently? What is a teacher-lover to do in a world where students can only learn what is already familiar, imaginable, recognizable?








During my first term as a graduate student I was in a seminar where something went wrong between various students and the professor. The professor gave unwelcome sexualized attention to one member of the seminar, made openly patronizing remarks to others, under-marked some coursework, and was unwilling to discuss any of this with the students in the presence of the Director of Graduate Studies. There was nothing especially egregious about this particular case and it did not result in any sanctions against the professor. As a faculty member myself now, I would say the professor in question was not a particularly skillful teacher, and had the bad luck to be called on several instances of unacceptable behaviour at the same time by an organized group of students.

It was known in the department, I heard from one of the students who made the complaint, that several female students had found it difficult to work with this particular professor, but no-one had ever conclusively shown that they were harmed. In this particular case, I think the advice of senior female faculty not to pursue a complaint was actually a form of care for the student. They had the experience and judgement to recognize that nothing would change except that a promising young scholar’s career would finish before it had even started.

I did not think very much about the professor or that experience again until some years later at the end of my first year as a phd student when, with the fullest measure of naivety that I am capable of, I happened to write on a feedback form about my first year in the program that my supervisor and I were not building as much rapport as I would have liked.

The next supervision was a painful experience. My supervisor had seen my comments on the form and proceeded to give an impassioned speech about how difficult it was as a male professor to supervise female research students. I knew that I had offended him very deeply, although I had very little context for understanding why the situation was quite so fraught. I thought that I was simply expressing an ordinary, human failure to connect, nothing that a few beers at the local pub wouldn’t fix. I do remember that I had chosen the word rapport specifically to implicate myself in the problem, and not to accuse my supervisor.

We never spoke about this again after the speech, but it coloured the whole of my experience as a research student because it intersected in a particular way with two things: my own narratives about myself as a desirable subject, and the cultural narrative about love and pedagogy that I wrote about yesterday.

My supervisor explained that it was not possible to develop too familiar a relationship with female research students because it could be so easily misconstrued. He had decided to manage the risk of misconstruction by maintaining a professional relationship with his students, but one that was carefully managed to avoid anything that could open the way to an actual human relationship. I understood that, and it made perfect sense to me, but it also meant that my experience as a research student became incredibly lonely. I continuously felt that I was some sort of problem to my supervisor and I had to manage all the emotional and motivational difficulties of my graduate work by myself. I didn’t feel that I could reach out to him.

This is a difficult thing to write about because as I know from my earliest days as a graduate student, professors make unwelcome sexual advances to their students, and I don’t want to minimize the harm and pain that it causes to the students. Sexual harassment, on whatever scale, is always an egregious violation of the trust a student places in you. At the same time, we are surrounded by narratives about the eros of pedagogy, especially between older men and younger women, and how I experienced my intellectual apprenticeship was not so much as even an undesirable subject, but a completely indifferent one. It was possible for my supervisor to simply decide not to notice me as a human being at all, and simultaneously read and engage with my words.

This experience reinforced the split, that many scholars have written about in academia, between the body and the mind for me. From my early teens, I figured that I didn’t have very much to offer people except my intellect, but when it was so resolutely separated from my body, the effect was especially curious. I became more and more convinced that my dissertation had to be something really remarkable to make it possible for my sense of self to survive the process intact–I had to make up for the indifference that my physical presence elicited.

When you find yourself a narrative, the evidence that confirms your reading gathers around you with ever greater intensity. Every seminar I attended, every conference paper I gave, began to be shot through with this strange sense that I was there purely as a mind. I didn’t exist except as my ideas. Sometimes I think this was probably helpful. I went to conferences where some of the scholars I admired most came up to me to express their interest in my work and I was not alarmed, as I really ought to have been, because my body was elsewhere.

The final nail in my coffin came at a conference in Denmark when I gave a paper about the disappearance of women of colour in psychoanalytic theory, using the work of Indian theorists to show how we might return race to the schema. During the question and answer period one member of the audience, without any academic expertise on my topic or in my discipline, proceeded to give me a mini-discourse about how Indian women needed to learn the lessons of Western feminism. I could see that no-one else in the audience agreed with her, but she was very striking and held everyone’s attention, probably because she was so physically at ease in the centre of the room. She had been a model and after a successful modelling career had decided to study for a doctorate. After the panel, several people came up to me individually to express their agreement with my argument and interest in my work, but for me the damage was complete. My confidence as a scholar was never the same after that particular conference, not because I don’t believe in my work, but because in one more perverse twist, my bodily presence worked against me. My body didn’t matter, and I thought I had learned to live with that, until my body did matter because my mind couldn’t make up for the fact that I wasn’t some other, actually desirable woman. I couldn’t be in the same place where my work was. And I couldn’t be without my work.

Years of studying race and gender should have led me to understand these kinds of experiences in the world, except that such intellectual work is partly a self-protective gesture. It is an attempt to think your way out of the problem that your body becomes to you in a racist, sexist, homophobic world. But your body doesn’t cease to be that problem when you become an academic, it is there in place of the work.