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.