Josna Rege

283. Categories or Continuums?

In Education, India, Inter/Transnational, Nature, Stories, United States, women & gender, Words & phrases on September 6, 2014 at 3:20 pm
(from dream-astrology.blogspot.com)

(from dream-astrology.blogspot.com)

I’m a Cancer, but born on the cusp of Gemini. So I’m home-loving, even deeply traditional, on the one hand, extroverted and edgy on the other.

Why do I find myself accounting in this way for the fact that I’m a bundle of contradictions, even though I really believe that astrology—at least as a way of understanding and explaining character and personality—is a load of old bollocks? Does a superficial recourse to the Zodiac and other manmade categories like it really help me to know myself, is it just an easy and acceptable way of accounting for my nature, of reducing my complexity and variability to something to which I can give a name?

It’s true that there’s little I love more than savoring a cup of tea in my favorite china tea-cup or, all things being equal, curling up with a packet of Digestive biscuits and a book I’ve read umpteen times before. At the same time I am a creature of strong opinions, frequently full of enthusiasm for everything I do and with the drive that enables me to do battle with the outside world (even if, in my heart of hearts, I’d rather not).

{from whensallymetslly.co.uk)

{from whensallymetslly.co.uk)

When I was a child I distinctly remember thinking how glad I was that I was a girl. Why? Because, I reasoned, a girl doesn’t have to go to war and a girl doesn’t have to make the first move. But then I was also a chatterbox who loved to perform, the kind of annoying child who sits in the front row and shoots her hand up the instant the teacher asks a question. When I was a teenager I remember agonizing over the dilemma of liking a certain boy, but wanting to be sure of his interest in me before I actively pursued him. Otherwise, I asked myself, how would I ever be sure whether he really liked me or whether he had just fallen prey to me? But after holding myself back for a few short days, hoping to discern whether he had any particular interest in me, I couldn’t stand it any longer and pursued him anyway. After all, this was 1970, the era of women’s liberation, no longer the dark ages when a young woman (we rejected the word “girl”) either had to wait passively for a man to pursue her, holding him at bay until she had extracted a pledge of marriage from him, or subtly exercised her feminine wiles to attract and entrap her unsuspecting man, all the while allowing him to think that in fact he had been the pursuer. But all along, in my heart of hearts, I would rather that he had pursued me from the beginning.

chromosomes

Curious, isn’t it, society’s investment in the difference between the sexes, when 22 out of the 23 pairs of human chromosomes in every human cell are the same, and only one, the pair of sex chromosomes, is different. Do we ever know how much of this difference is inherent in our very natures, our hormones, our genetic makeup, and how much is imposed on us and inculcated in us by society? I teach contemporary theory to undergraduates, and there too, even as social construction is a buzzword so too is la différence (not to mention Jacques Derrida’s différance). When it comes to the study of gender theory, I show them how concepts of femininity and masculinity vary both temporally and spatially, across centuries and societies, which argues for the constructedness of their identities. At the same time we discuss French feminists and others who celebrate the essential, biological differences between men and women. Moving on to current gender politics, we discuss genders and transgenders, both those who identify with one or the other and those who seek to break with gender binaries altogether.

1600-Genderbread-Person

My students, even the most conservative, find it relatively easy to accept that there are people with different gender identities and sexual preferences from their own, and even to accept that they deserve equal rights under the law. What they find much more difficult, though, is to entertain a questioning of their own gender identity in anything other than fixed or unitary terms. And yet the older I become, the more I come to believe that all these socially constructed categories, whether they are the notion of two genders, or nine Enneagrams, or twelve signs of the Zodiac, merely seek to simplify the complex and shifting mystery of who we are. The most accurate explanatory concept that I have come across is that of the continuum.

A critical contribution to feminist theory in the 1970s and 1980s was the late Adrienne Rich’s 1986 landmark essay, Compulsory Sexuality and Lesbian Existence. In our contemporary theory class, discussion often focuses on her notion of the lesbian continuum. It sought to create a stronger sense of community between heterosexual feminists and lesbian feminists by proposing that the concept of gender identity was not binary, but could more accurately be seen as a continuum; further, that being a woman-identified woman need not be narrowly limited to sexual activity, but could include a whole range of non-sexual intimate relationships with other women.

My heterosexual female students tend to accept Rich’s argument, but only to a certain point, sadly, missing most of Rich’s point as I understand it. They are quite willing to accept that their relationships with their best girlfriends have an importance to them that could not be replaced by relationship with a man, even if that man was their lover or husband. They resent it when their preference for spending time with their girlfriends, whether it’s having sleepovers with them or walking down the street arm-in-arm, is labeled as “lesbian” by onlookers or jealous boyfriends. They are willing to embrace and defend these homosocial relationships and even to elevate them over relationships with the opposite sex. But they stop short of seeing them as part of Rich’s lesbian continuum, which posits “all relations among women as different in degree but not in kind from erotic love” (Eric, Engendering Theory). That is, no matter how much the idea of a continuum makes eminent sense to them, as soon as there is any danger of their being perceived as homosexual, they reject the continuum and rush to shore up the wall between themselves and lesbians. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s homosexual panic takes hold.

Arhdanareeshwara (kamat.com_

Ardhanareeshwara (kamat.com)

 

When I am in India I love wearing nothing more than a sari. In the United States, it tends to exoticize and embarrass me (see TMA 154, Saraswati and Sari-wearing), but in India, where it is the norm for women, it gives me pleasure on so many levels, from the ritual of draping it, to the flowing feel of walking in it, to the sense of belonging it offers to an insider-outsider like me. Yet when I return to the States, the beautiful saris languish in my closet in favor of a nondescript, socially acceptable uniform at work and, at home, the same pair of worn old jeans day after day. When I was last in India having a videochat with a new American friend, she was startled to see my apparent transformation. Suddenly I looked like “one of them,” someone she didn’t know. In her sudden panic, she couldn’t help but blurt out that she hoped that I would be myself again when I got home.

The truth is, each and all of these shifting and changing identities is/are me, severally and together. I continually slide back and forth between and among them, and resent the notion that I should have to hide or deny any of them, just as I reject the notion that one of them is my “real self.” That self, still elusive after all these years, is much, much more than can be contained in a set of clunky categories. In my view (with apologies to Believers), “Cancer on the cusp of Gemini” gestures towards it, perhaps as well as any categorizing system, but really doesn’t have a clue.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

282. It’s Only Temporary

In Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on September 1, 2014 at 4:22 am

EvHelpRACJan1977-1

When our family first immigrated to the United States, I was quite certain, at age fifteen, that I would leave as soon as I came of age. Year after year, decade after decade, as I completed my undergraduate studies, went to work, paid taxes, traveled to different parts of the country, married, and had a child, I continued to tell myself that my sojourn was only temporary; more than four decades later, here I still am. “Temporary” turned out to be a very long time. But as long as I thought of my American sojourn as temporary, I did not make a whole-hearted commitment to it.

Officially, my immigration status remained that of an outsider: Permanent Resident Alien (as if I were a species of space invader), which I proclaimed with pride, even braggadocio. One of my mentors in graduate school, Prof R. Radhakrishnan, had made the point that for many immigrants to the United States there was little emotional incentive to acquiring citizenship when it entailed a loss, a fall from the condition of sovereign citizen to that of a minority—a process he called “minoritization.” Like many immigrants, long after I could have become a naturalized citizen I continued to feel that I would lose more than I would gain by doing so. Indeed, I might have chosen to remain a resident alien had it not been for the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. After September 11th, when even immigrants with permanent resident status were threatened with losing basic civic and human rights, my sense of insecurity as a non-citizen finally outweighed my reluctance to give up my other identities and I filed for naturalized citizenship. (There was another reason I decided to file when I did, and that was my growing sense of irresponsibility. I couldn’t vote, and now that my son was old enough to do so, what kind of example was I setting him?)

So, like many immigrants, I found myself staying, but all the while refraining from putting down roots very deep, looking backward as much as I looked around me. As the years passed I realized periodically that I had lived, loved, and worked in the U.S. for half, then two- thirds, then three-quarters of my life. This was as permanent as it got. And yet, emotionally, I continued to look elsewhere for sustenance, to my parents’ places of origin.

Of course, everything in this world is temporary; but that makes it all the more urgent that we pay attention and cherish the here and now. Everything changes and passes away, and while we are looking elsewhere, it flows right on by. This does not mean that we must live for the present—at least, not for the present alone—but it does mean that we should live in the present—as the Sufis say, in the world, but not of it. I accept that I am nourished by other soils, but I must also remember to be here now, precisely because it’s only temporary.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

281. Invasion of the Potato Beetles

In 1980s, Family, Food, Nature, places, Work on August 14, 2014 at 9:19 pm

fresh-picked Yukon Golds (from restlesschipotle.com)

fresh-picked Yukon Golds (from restlesschipotle.com)

In my experience, potatoes and potato beetles go together as love is said to go with marriage in the old song: you can’t have the pleasures of one without the travails of the other. And potato beetle warfare is hellish; so much so that since that summer in Winchendon, circa 1987, when the Colorado potato beetles invaded, we have ventured to grow potatoes only twice. This year, the second time, the results have been wonderful, and—so far, anyway—consequence-free.

I hadn’t realized how much that summer had affected me until a city friend of mine, recently returned from a rejuvenating weekend visit to a friend’s farm, mentioned innocently in an email message that he had spent some pleasant hours “picking potato beetles off plants and picking the world’s biggest blueberries.” On the first readthrough, my eyes must have skipped right over the former activity to the pleasing image of the gigantic blueberries; on the second, I was filled with revulsion. I realized then how deep I must have buried my own memories of potato beetle-picking, a chore about as far from the idyll of blueberry-picking as one could possibly imagine.

At the time, Andrew and I were living on the farm with Maureen, Rudy, and Charlie, and Nikhil and Eric were babies. We maintained a large home garden together, and in addition Maureen and Rudy grew perennials and enough vegetables to support a small, all-organic CSA, mostly for friends in the city. To this end they had planted a large number of tomato plants, followed by a smaller number of eggplants, and, behind them, what we hoped would be a modest crop of potatoes. The previous year we had had some trouble with Colorado potato beetles, but I don’t remember having had much difficulty keeping them in check, even with organic pest control. This year, it was an altogether different story.

Colorado Potatoes Beetle larvae, munching (from livingwithinsects.wordpress.com)

Colorado Potatoes Beetle larvae, munching (from livingwithinsects.wordpress.com)

The glistening salmon-pink larvae munched their way through the potato crop like squat, squelchy locusts, growing steadily all the while, and moved right on to the eggplant. Eggplant was hard to cultivate to maturation in Winchendon because of the short growing season, and we knew that we had to up our game. We issued a desperate call for reinforcements, friends from the city to come out and participate in an all-out campaign. But they were now slow to respond, though they had been initially charmed by the opportunity to spend a working weekend on our organic farm. It was not for nothing that our friend Harvey had dubbed it the Gulag, and only partly in jest; meanwhile, the mature beetles were laying eggs, and the situation was about to get out of control.

Mature beetles at work. (Photo by David Cappaert, Michigan State University, www.insectimages.org)

Mature beetles at work. (Photo by David Cappaert, Michigan State University, http://www.insectimages.org)

The population exploded on the weekend that our intrepid friend Reva answered the call for help. Reva, then in medical school, had always been an immensely capable person for whom no difficulty was too great to be overcome. As soon as she had stepped into our mud-trodden farm kitchen, she stepped up to the sinkful of breakfast dishes and began working her way through them with a speed and determination not unlike the potato beetles themselves. Then, sink and dish-drainer cleared, she drew up a plan of action over a large mug of coffee. First, we were to set out into the field en masse, working our way toward the eggplant from the tomatoes, so as to head the enemy off before they got to our prize crop. Reva would come in and make lunch for all the hungry workers, and then, after the babies were tucked into bed, perhaps we could take in a movie or have a relaxing evening after a job well done. No one contradicted her, but farmers are a pessimistic lot; and not without good reason.

We duly set out with our waxed cardboard milk cartons half-filled with water. I’ve forgotten whose ingenious idea this had been, but for me, the most repulsive part of the job had always been crushing the beetles, whether it was the sticky yellow mass of eggs, the shiny soft-skinned larvae, or the fully-formed adults with hard, crunchy exoskeletons. This system simply called for us to drop the creatures into the water and close the lid back up: out of sight, out of mind—sort of. We set out in a close phalanx, aiming to move systematically through the tomato crop, scooping up any of the advance guard, until we reached the eggplants, where the work would get fast and furious. But we had reckoned without those tens of thousands of mindlessly-masticating jaws. We started finding them only a few rows into the precious tomato plants, and soon realized that we were fighting a losing battle; the potato plants were devastated, the eggplants were already a write-off, and we would have to fight for our lives if we wanted to salvage any tomatoes at all.

Devastation (Photograph by Lyle J. Buss, University of Florida)

Devastation (Photograph by Lyle J. Buss, University of Florida)

I can’t tell you how traumatic the next few hours were, as we embarked on an orgy of killing under the unforgiving summer sun. We worked until our hands were stinking and stained yellow and we were ready to drop from heat exhaustion. When we dragged ourselves back into the house, dear Reva was drying and clearing away the dishes and had a spread laid out ready for us on the kitchen table. After scrubbing the evidence off our hands, we fell upon the food like locusts. As we ate, despite Reva’s best efforts to keep the conversation on current affairs, new and recommended reading, even the state of the nuclear industry—anything but potato beetles—the talk inevitably turned to the gloomy subject of the state of the crops and the diminishing prospects for a viable harvest. The verdict from the die-hards was that there would be no harvest unless we went out for a second stint in the fields and finished the job. How long might that last, someone ventured to ask? Until dark or the mosquitoes descended, whichever came first, came the grim reply.

I could see Reva’s visions of a civilized Saturday evening watching a movie or engaging in quiet conversation becoming a distant dream. Fiercely loyal friend that she was, this was the way she had chosen to spend a rare 36 hours off from her punishing residency at Harlem hospital. Dismissing her disappointment, she offered to babysit the boys, so as allow the rest of us go back out for a second stint. But then she turned around and saw the kitchen sink, which had been empty and polished clean just a few minutes before. It was yet again as full of dirty dishes as it had been when she had waded into the job first thing that morning. It was only then, when she realized that the work was truly never-ending, that our fearless friend gave way to despair, broken at last by the Gulag.

roasted Yukon Gold potatoes (from urbancookery.com)

roasted Yukon Gold potatoes (from urbancookery.com)

This year, I tried not to think about the fact that Andrew had taken some old, sprouting potatoes out back and put them in the ground. Last week he astounded and delighted me when he came in with two big bags of beautifully formed Russets and Yukon Golds, heavenly when we roasted them in olive oil and garlic. Discovering all over again the incomparable taste of home-grown new potatoes, I dared to hope that we were finally out from under the Curse of the Potato Beetles. More likely, though, it’ll only mean the beginning of a new population cycle, especially when the word gets out among them that we had a good Solanum harvest this year.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

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