Month: January 2017

Thoughts on The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

Content warning: Sexual assault, abortion trauma, domestic violence

You know, before I go into talking about the book, which is commendable even as I critique it, I will say it’s been a hard week. In the United States, there have been a number of really depressing developments, which I wrote about in a previous post. The newest is the #MuslimBan. I cannot overstate how dehumanizing a move that is. At the same time, though, it has sparked some pretty spectacular protests all over the country. While I personally doubt the administration cares much about why people protest, I do think protests hinder normal operations. I think this is actually where our strength lies. Hinder the normal operation of things. Throw a wrench in the gears. If things are slowing down, that means the effects of capitalism and colonization come to at least a temporary halt. That means we can buy time to do more strategic planning.

tsbuSo I recently finished The Space Between Us, published in 2005which could actually provide some insight into the turmoil that is under way. If I’m being really honest, the plot is not unlike that of The Help, except the role of Skeeter Phelan is played by Umrigar herself. That is probably my biggest critique of the book; Umrigar’s role is not unlike those of well-intentioned anthropologists who think they are “saving” Native Americans by collecting data on their lives and presenting it to the world. In reality, they take from the community without really giving anything in return. Just as Skeeter plays white savior to Aibilene, Umrigar plays upper-middle-class hero to Bhima. Umrigar claims that the character of Bhima is based on a real person who served her family when she lived in Mumbai. If that is the case, did the Bhima of Umrigar’s life ever receive any compensation for basically being her inspiration? Was she given any credit for providing the details to fill the pages of this book? While I can understand Umrigar and the person she is writing about may not keep in touch due to social taboos in India or because of the passage of time, nothing is explicitly stated about the process by which this story was told in the interview that follows the text. I prefer a little more transparency.

In addition, the “message” of the novel is a little heavy-handed if you ask me, though perhaps understandably so. The experience of poverty (which, it should be noted, is neither mine nor Umrigar’s) is to have the effects of sexism and classism compounded in everyday life. Thus, Bhima’s family experiences AIDS, an industrial accident, alcoholism, separation and displacement, sexual assault trauma, and abortion trauma. The character Sera Dubash also experiences domestic violence. You’ll notice a lot of these are phenomena that disproportionately impact women. It does feel like every few chapters, Umrigar hits us over the head with the message “INDIANS NEED TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT THE STATE OF ITS WORKING CLASS WOMEN.”

By contrast, what makes this book radical is Umrigar’s descriptions of Bhima’s thoughts. The process is frequently laced with a humor that only the Previously or Currently Colonized will understand. In one example, Bhima describes her encounters with white people:

Serabai had once explained to her why these people had yellow hair and skin the color of a hospital wall–about how something was missing from their bodies…She felt sorry for them then and, seeing their long hair and shabby clothes, wanted to give them some money, but Sera laughed at that and said she needn’t pity them, they actually were very proud of their white skin. How can you be proud if something is missing from your body? Bhima wanted to ask, but before she could, Sera said they didn’t need money from her and that they came from places far richer than she could imagine. Now Bhima was sure that Sera was lying…one look at their dirty hair, faded shirts, and torn blue pants, and any fool could see that these untidy, colorless people were very poor. (2005, p.93)

Bhima has clearly never been around white people before, and her worldview reflects this reality. The beauty of her lack of (Western) education is that she does not think that structures of power apply to her (and in fact, they don’t!). Thus, she does not follow the narrative of being “less fortunate” or inferior to the white people she encounters. If anything, she truly believes she could be of help–to them! In spite of Bhima’s stubbornness, Umrigar’s description of her won me over with this passage.

Furthermore, Umrigar’s greatest strength is her ability to describe rare moments of humanity, especially those shared or experienced by women. The strength with which I relate to some of these moments is eerie. For example, this is a moment when Bhima is massaging Sera’s arm, after Sera has been beaten by her husband:

Sera recoiled. Bhima had never touched her before…Although Bhima’s thin but strong hands were only massaging her arm, Sera felt her whole body sigh. She felt life beginning to stir in her veins…Even at the sweetest moment of lovemaking with Feroz, it never felt as generous, as selfless as this massage did…When you got right down to it, sex was ultimately a selfish act, the expectations of one body intrinsically woven into the needs of another. (p. 108)

I am bemused by how Umrigar seems to know the inner workings of my head. Perhaps this is a common experience among Desis? Among women of color? Among all women, even? I am not sure, but this moment embodies the eroticism described by bell hooks, the kind that is not sexual, but life-giving. It is a kind of human connection I have only felt with other women. My tendency to intellectualize causes me to connect with people on more of a conversational level rather than a physical one. Even then, my discussions with other women make me feel more connected to them than I ever have during sexual encounters with men.

Bhima is capable of giving life with her hands. Moreover, Bhima seems to symbolize those whose humanity is still in tact to give this kind of care. She is a simple person–not stupid, but uncomplicated. While she massages Sera, her only concern is to keep the arm from scarring and to make Sera physically better; to stop what she is doing because of class divisions does not even cross her mind, though it crosses Sera’s. This seems indicative of how deeply Bhima, and people like her, knows her own and others’ humanity.

The eeriness does not stop there. Many of Maya and Sera’s experiences are ones that I relate to as well. After her abortion, Maya is described as

…stone-faced, as if the abortion doctor has killed more than her baby, as if he has…scooped out her beating heart, just as Bhima scoops out the fibrous innards of the red pumpkin that Serabai puts in her daal. (p. 129)

Maya refuses to go back to school or take a job after her abortion. Again, I question whether or not this is a universally Desi experience. It cannot be some mistake that I remember this feeling after my own abortion. I was told I would feel relief afterwards. I waited for days, weeks, and months to feel anything. I did not feel anything, and it was not until I found a therapist 9 months later that I understood why. My therapist said that a person who is allowed to mourn publicly will feel relief. This is how people move on after someone they love dies; they grieve, and their community comes together. But for many women who get an abortion, we are not allowed to grieve publicly because we do not want people to know that this is what we have done. Thus, we grieve alone and internally. No one comes to our side to comfort us. People treat us as though nothing has happened, as though we should be the same. It is not the same. Knowing I could have had a 5-month-old child right now is sometimes unbearable. My only consolation is that perhaps if I am lucky enough to give birth in this life, it will be under far better circumstances than the ones I’m in now.

Maya’s experience with sexual assault is also strikingly familiar to me. Viraf asks her to give him a back massage somewhat flirtatiously, but she is unaware of how powerless she truly is.

It felt good to be giving him so much pleasure. As her hands kneaded and caressed Viraf’s back…Maya felt important and strong–and powerful…But then he spun around so fast that for one confusing moment, her hands strummed air…and somehow [she recognized] she was the cause of that tension…And her awe turning to pride and the pride turning to panic…She protested; she did not protest. It did not matter, because it was inevitable what was about to happen…(p.277)

I admire Umrigar for the ambivalence of this excerpt. Sexual assault is rarely the violent, horrific act that Alice Sebold describes in The Lovely Bones. It is frequently much more gray. This passage is immensely complicated. On one hand, Maya seems to discover for the first time that she possesses an immense bodily intelligence–one that people who are more embedded into society’s upper crust or positions of privilege hardly know. I have a theory that because of capitalistic consumption, people in the upper strata of society cannot easily know that kind of intelligence. They listen too much to propaganda about what they are “supposed” to be doing, instead of listening to The Gut, which operates on a far more physical, sensory frequency.

At the same time, Maya’s discovery is not an invitation, and Viraf takes advantage of this moment when she is incredibly vulnerable. This is something men have done to me again and again. The power to unfurl the human body is terribly dangerous, simply because it puts one in close proximity to another person. When I was a much more naive person, men I hung out with asked if I would mind cuddling or if they could sit next to me when we watch a movie in their apartment, and somehow I never saw sexual assault coming. The word “sex” was never explicitly said, so I was never even given a chance to say “no”. And in the end, it was always me who walked away with a reputation for being “easy”. This is the power that men have–with the skills of a lawyer, they trap me in situations I cannot escape from, and then act as though it was my fault.

Sera’s experience with her abusive husband, Feroz, also reflects the hypocrisy of sexism. Her situation is complicated by the fact that she and her husband shared many friends, and these friends knew very little about the reality of her life. When her best friend asks her if she is missing her “dear husband”, these are Sera’s thoughts:

Sera looks at her oldest friend, unsure of what to say. She envies Aban her innocence, her simple way of dividing the world into love and not-love; good and bad…Does she miss Feroz? She is unsure of the answer. She does not miss the shame-inducing beatings…In fact, what she misses is not the marriage, but the dream of the marriage. (p. 160)

Sera has to deal with a complicated grief after her husband dies. Her friends and family remember him fondly as “loving husband” or “loving father”. She knows a very different reality, and is not able to share this with the people she knows because she has hidden the truth from them for the duration of her marriage. Arguably, the only person who actually knows what has transpired in her marriage are Dinaz, her daughter, and Bhima, her maidservant.

This is also a feeling I can relate to. Abuse can be convoluted when community is involved. I have avoided events, blocked people on social media, and blocked phone calls from people because of the abuse I experienced from men I used to date. I was stupid enough to choose men whose parents are friends with my parents or whose social circles intersect with mine somehow. On rare occasions (because I have mostly left these circles behind at this point) those people come up to me and tell me things like “You and that person seemed like such a great couple! Why did it end?” or “Why weren’t you at this event? We really missed you!” And I know I never give them a satisfying response because dragging the truth out in the open means defending myself against an onslaught. These people would feign confusion, defend my abusers and rapists, or tell me to get over my feelings before they admit to obvious facts–that sexism is a violent structure, that women are frequently abused by the people closest to them, and that I tell the truth.

On a last note, I think my favorite thing about this novel is the Pathan. This is a character from Bhima’s past, a man who used to twist balloons at a stall on Chowpatty Beach in Mumbai. A Pathan is a person of ethnic Afghan descent, and the word is synonymous with the Pashtun people. Bhima and Gopal would frequently encounter the Pathan when they were younger and went for walks together at the beach. This was one memorable exchange:

Gopal had said, “Compared to our Bombay, with the monsoons and all, your Afghanistan must seem as dried up as an old woman, no? All hills it is, dry as a bone, correct? I saw a picture of it once.”

She had expected the Pathan to be insulted, but he laughed, “Nahi, sahib,” he said in his low, dreamy voice. “My Afghanistan is very beautiful. A hard land, yes, full of mountains, but toughness has its own beauty.” (pp. 199-200)

I think it is no mistake that Umrigar evoked the image of a woman with this exchange. I think it is no mistake that the earth has always been called “Mother Earth”. Just as the Pathan defends his homeland as beautiful, I would like to think this exchange alludes to, in Warsan Shire’s words, “women who are difficult to love”.

I also think it is no mistake that the Pathan symbolizes a number of things, of which the most important are perhaps God (or a Creator of some sort) and diasporic people. He is depicted as a creator of beautiful, colorful things (his balloons) that give children joy. Yet, his life was probably not easy, as he says:

“Everybody in my homeland is a poet, sahib. The country makes you so…That is, everybody was a poet. Now the country is broken. Too many people fighting over the poor land, and the land is sick in its heart. Night and day it is weeping. Now it cannot take care of its sons and daughters…There is a saying in my community…They say that when something is very beautiful, the Gods of Jealousy notice it. Then they must destroy it. Even if it’s their own creation, its beauty begins to make them jealous and they are afraid it will overshadow them. So they destroy the very temples they have built.”(pp. 200-201)

This excerpt made me cry the first time I read it. I’m not sure I can even convey what it means to me, but I can tell you what images come to mind. I think of Natives fighting for their land, and for the right to live, and for a chance at creating a more meaningful life than the one the American dream offers. I think of all the immigrants that come to this country under the illusion that life is going to be better, only to find out being successful in this country is a pipe dream, and perhaps even to be turned away at the doorstep. I think of the land we live on being ravaged for its resources, in order to keep feeding a capitalist existence that allows for a select few to live in luxury that the vast majority of people will never know. I think of the wars of this century and the last, almost all of them started over colonial feuds, and which only colonizers have any hope of “winning” (what does that even mean? To “win” a war? At what cost are wars won? How inhuman do you have to be to want that?).

In short, I admire the depth and reverence that Umrigar gives to her characters. While I wrote a pretty lengthy post here, I still have a great number of thoughts on this novel, things I am still grappling with because I struggle to find the words to describe them.

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State of the Union (Day 6, post-inauguration)

(Written on January 26, 2017)

Someone I know stated two days ago that so far, our mango-in-chief’s reign has not been bad; it has in fact been much worse than we thought it would be. There is not a day this week that I signed on to social media profiles and I didn’t see a stream of voices reaching a fever pitch indicating the myriad ways in which we are in danger. This is the news, in no particular order:

It is becoming clear that our orange buffoon was never personally invested in taking the role of president. Rather, he is serving the interests of the ruling class of this nation. He is their vehicle, and they have had ample time to organize for this purpose. It seems as though all of these people being appointed to the highest offices in the land were waiting in the wings for their cue. They are now advancing the agenda of the wealthy, as well as that of colonizers. As time progresses, I predict these changes will be reported as “progress” or “development” of this country, instead of the destruction that it truly is, because of the gubmint’s gradual control over the media.

One of the reasons it is taking so long for liberals to organize (besides the obvious: Republicans control both the house and the senate) is because they have been artificially dispersed by identity politics. Democrats seem to think they cannot serve everyone’s interests because they must cater to communities divided by race, gender, and a horde of other identities (this theory is not my own; I probably got it from a radical Black woman. Just so y’all know). They do not see the need to reframe this narrative in a historically accurate way, though I am also conflicted as to how it can be reframed. On one hand, it does seem like a class conflict. The various constituents of the left are all vying in some way or another for access to resources. On the other, it also seems like a conflict of colonized and colonizer. (Wealthy) white Americans, whatever that means any more, are looking for ways to acquire more land and resources to serve its interests, with no regard for people or the environment.

I am not sure what about all of this scares me the most. I do think that “moderates” can no longer be trusted from this point on. Many moderates receive their news from mainstream media, which is slowly being either silenced by the gubmint, or annexed to serve their purposes. Moderates may soon think that what the gubmint is doing is okay for a gubmint to do, simply from being fed the same messages every day and not being critical about them. Just today, I had a student, who did not seem to have any particular political affiliation, argue in her (2-paragraph, nonetheless) paper that a wall between the US and Mexico “has to” be built to “keep out drug dealers and freeloaders”. Where does this rhetoric come from? Why is this the topic she chose for a “current event” paper? I’m sure we do not have to look too hard for the answers.

While I am concerned at present, I am also of the belief that the worst is yet to come. I am seeing a pattern where even moderate liberals are inching right to placate the right (granted, this might just be because of my geographic location). The American middle class has been coerced so thoroughly into professionalizing and digitializing that it has forgotten it has a voice. It will now not lift a finger to stop this onslaught.

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I knew the orange buffoon would become the president in 2016. These are my predictions now. For those of us who are resisting, it will not get easier. Our higher-ups and co-workers will not support us in our work. People will not be kind to us when they find out what we do. In fact, they will do their best to silence and hinder us, which can get very, very violent. There has been talk to re-instate the House Un-American Activities Committee. I am putting myself in danger by even writing these words.

If you did not know that this is how it would be, you were clearly living in some castle in the sky. But also, if you are not prepared for this reality, you are of no use. I mean that honestly (I’m talking to you, white women). This is, really and truly, one of those times when feelings must be put aside and the needs of people around us must be a priority. Please keep in mind your feelings are not important when Black and Brown people are being killed by the cops, undocumented people are being deported, and people’s humanity and dignity are being threatened. We do not have time to coddle you. In this movement, it is all hands on deck.

We need to get very, very good at supporting and communicating with one another. And I actually mean face-to-face. Much as we like our internet space, I am not sure how much longer electricity will be accessible in a time like this, let alone the internet. But also, these are material problems. Immigrants are physically being deported. Women’s bodies are being physically threatened. Muslims are being physically harassed. Native land will physically be re-appropriated. I hate to say it, because I know how much even I love internet theorizing, but until we come up with physical, real-time responses, there is very little that will come of our rage.

Resources for action that I have found useful:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/17Rj40_i39gTuo4hMNNmhToL0_NnJnzjnr3Tx90nTPfE/mobilebasic

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1FKXcRFOg5VS-UjCyH2jmgRTm-sQY_PB65Gxo-rwMT6A/mobilebasic

For further reading:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1QYENgyc4lINlGwcJUnjl_7lDf5xSL5WL0pEJUEOZbF4/edit

The Creating Change 2017 Review

I got back Sunday night from my first ever Creating Change conference! To give you all a brief roadmap fo this post, I’ll be talking about the experience by first evaluating how accurate my predictions were from the Preview, and then evaluating the conference itself.

For the evaluation, I have devised a system of 5 categories that I will use to assess my experience. The categories are Venue, Crowd, Workshops, Logistics, and Utility of Experience. I find that venues are really important for conferences. It can become obvious very quickly if a venue is not equipped to accommodate a conference. Venue is closely tied to Logistics, though it gets its own category because the venue and conference logistics are handled by two different sets of humans. The venue is sometimes more closely tied to the community, whereas the conference may not be. Crowd just means who attended the conference. As in, what kind of human beings were there? I know it’s super judgmental to make this a category, but to be honest, it’s the make-or-break category for me. A lot of my enjoyment comes from the people I meet. Workshops are undeniably important as well. The topics of workshops tells me what is relevant to the community at the moment. It also tells me who the conference thinks is worthy of attention. Lastly, Utility of Experience refers to what practical information I can take from the conference. Basically it answers the question, did I get something out of it that I can apply to my life? After all, when I’m paying money to go, I do want some useful information.

I will evaluate each category on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being the lowest score and 10 being the highest score. I am aware of the problematic nature of quantifying what is arguably a qualitative experience, but I find that quantifying gives people some idea of my own standards so I don’t just seem like a needlessly critical person.

Implicit Biases

I will acknowledge here that there are certain biases with which I approached this conference. The first and most obvious one is that I am a cisgender femme person of color, so I don’t necessarily look queer and might therefore be treated differently than people who are visibly queer. I am also bisexual/pansexual/asexual, which frequently impacts my ability to find community of any sort.

In addition, my experience of this conference is impacted by my past experiences. The most recent conferences I went to were the New England QTPOC Conference (2015), East Coast Asian American Student Union (2014), and Asian Americans Advancing Justice (2013). If you can’t tell from the titles, all of those conferences were by and for people of color. Of those three, Advancing Justice was by far my favorite. I attended that conference as a senior undergraduate. Most of the workshops at that conference were panel-style, so we had access to many working professionals who came from a community organizing background. These were people who are passionate about what they do, and eager to encourage young people to find their voice, so the Utility and the Crowd factor were very high (I did, in fact, find an internship with Advancing Justice in 2015). I must concede, I judge most conferences based on my experience at Advancing Justice (neither ECAASU nor NEQTPOC compared even remotely).

Furthermore (and I will most likely talk about this further in the Logistics section), I actually ended up not going to about half the workshop sessions of Creating Change. This was partly because I wanted to explore Philadelphia, a city I have never visited before. It was also partly because as a person who works evening shifts, I just can’t be awake at 9:00am. At least 2 days of the 5 days that I attended, I slept in so that I could recover from the early schedule of the day before, and to avoid becoming sick.

Evaluation of Preview

Reading my preview is really funny now because I seem to know myself quite well. All of my hopes were accurate. I did nearly all of my processing with one of my friends from graduate school. I’m so thankful she was present or this conference would have been a hot mess for me. As it turns out, the Racial Justice Institute was one of the high points for me. Being in spaces exclusively for POC was a great way to start. Exploring Philly was another high point. My friend and I ate a lot of good food and saw the entirety of the Philadelphia Art Museum during the course of our stay.

My concerns were equally accurate. As it turns out, I did sleep in on a number of days. I think pacing myself the way I did helped with processing, as does writing. As it turns out, there was one solitary caucus group for asexual/aromantic people. It was on an evening when I was out with a friend, though, so inevitably, I didn’t go (which tells you something. That was the one intentional space for aces. There are some identities in the queer spectrum that were given 3 or 4 workshops/caucuses). I did get to connect with Bi/Pan/Fluid folks, another set of identities that doesn’t get a whole lot of attention, so that was nice. The conference did feel like it was geared toward students, though. With the exception of one hour-long caucus group at the end of Thursday, there was very little to help young professionals connect with mentors or one another. There were a lot of workshops to help community organizers increase outreach, but not a lot for helping people gain jobs with those organizations. Thus, it was difficult for me to feel involved with the community at times.

Evaluation of the Conference

Venue: 8

20170121_163813

The Philadelphia Marriott Hotel on the foggy morning of Saturday, January 21

This hotel staff was unbelievably friendly. I didn’t think it was possible to find people in the north who meet my Southern standards for hospitality, but these people did. It probably doesn’t hurt that the city of Philadelphia is like, 44.1% Black (US Census Bureau, 2014, http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045216/00) and therefore doesn’t feel as northern as, say, New England. The hotel staff of the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown was excellent. They would greet me the second I walked in, and they were very helpful with directions to places both within and outside of the hotel. And the hotel is beautiful, too. While it was somewhat labyrinthine at times, it was very accessible, with elevators and escalators to all the conference floors. The only thing that keeps me from giving the conference a 10 in this category is that a lot of the time, the bathrooms were not too clean. Honestly, even just a little air freshener would really have made a difference. In addition, there was not too much space to lounge. The lobby only had two small sitting areas for a conference of some 4,000 (number may not be accurate) people.

Crowd: 5

I’ll start with the good. I think the workshops that intentionally attracted POC did a great job (both with regard to facilitators as well as audience). Those were definitely the spaces where I actually had fun and felt like I could talk to people in the room. This was regardless of the social identities of the POC in the room. Across the board, the spaces that were exclusively for POC were more comfortable for me. I’ll give you an idea of how I felt the rest of the time at Creating Change. While I was there, I did present almost exclusively feminine; so lots of sweater dresses and makeup and boots. If I’m being honest, from what I could observe, there were very few people (feminine, masculine or otherwise) who presented feminine at all (with the exception of people in the POC spaces. So if I could put an emoji here, it would be the “hm…I wonder” one.) Across the board, the “uniform” for this conference seemed to be some variation of jeans, combat boots, sweatery things, and maybe a beanie if folks were feeling real adventurous. Perhaps this is a little cissexist or classist of me to say, but it felt very high-school. And in the same breath, the femmes I did see were so unapologetic, which I love. They wore things like off-the-shoulder dresses or magenta pants or badass red nail polish. If you are one of those people, I salute you.

There were also very few fat people except, again, within POC spaces. Somehow, I’m thinking none of these things are coincidences. In short, this crowd did not impress me. There are some exceptions to this rule, but it seemed really white.

Workshops: 5

The workshops at this conference were very hit-or-miss. I think my Friday morning workshops had a big impact on this score. I felt like I wasn’t finding my mojo. I came late to my first session (BPFQ: Bisexual, Pansexual, Fluid, Queer Interesecting Identities on College Campuses), which had been moved to a different room because there were a lot of people in attendance. I didn’t think to ask until about 15 minutes after I got there, and then I moved to the actual session. It seemed like it had been really good, but by the time I got there, the room was in small groups for the last activity. I was still able to join a group, and they were having a great conversation, but I didn’t get to see much of the workshop. My second session (Confronting Islamophobia in the LGBTQIA+ Community) was hard to watch. It was clear to me that the facilitator was wildly nervous. They seemed to cater to people who had never before engaged with Islamophobia. It seemed very introductory. Also, the audience was not woke at all. There were a handful of about 5 people basically carrying the conversation, but a lot of the (white) people there refused to speak at all, probably out of fear of their own racism. I left about halfway through and found another workshop (Faith and Family Acceptance in the API Community). The facilitators in this one were more comfortable and had created a welcoming space by putting the chairs in a circle. But by the time I got there, they were on their last story and were really in the closing stages. I think after those first few sessions, I was not too enthusiastic about more workshops, and I chose instead to explore Philadelphia. I didn’t attend another session until Saturday night, but those were the better ones I attended (Not Your Respectable QPOC, and the South Asian Caucus). In Not Your Respectable QPOC, I received very little practical information, but it was great to find a community of individuals who empathize with me when I describe racism. The South Asian Caucus was interesting. I don’t think any of us necessarily agreed on what was most important, nor could we agree on how to talk about the issues, but I thought that was a good thing. It is an indication that a space like that is needed to figure those things out.

respectability

Participants at the Not Your Respectable QPOC Workshop

Logistics: 3

I do wonder if this is the real reason why the workshops were not quite what I expected. The logistics of this conference were strange. On one hand, I did appreciate the 90-minute sessions. It was long enough to really delve into a topic. However, if it was a boring session, it also took a while to figure it out so I could go to one that I actually cared about. I didn’t attend the lunch plenaries or the keynote for this reason. If they weren’t fun, who knows whether or not I would be comfortable leaving. In addition, there were SO. MANY. WORKSHOPS. According to the website, there were 250 in the course of about 2 days, not counting the day-long institutes or Leadership Academies. There were 4 sessions a day, so for any given session, a person had to choose one of about 30 workshops. THAT. IS. RIDICULOUS. I understand this allows for a large variety, but I think a better screening process is badly needed, especially when some topics are getting 4 workshops and some are getting just one. (Granted, I do understand that some queer identities urgently need that kind of visibility, and I don’t think that should be overlooked. But also…why the hell do we need to talk about atheism and faith communities so much? Is that really a pressing issue?! I would think more about getting jobs or applying for healthcare is in order!). But then again, what do I know.

I feel like this problem could be solved by making sessions or lunch shorter and spreading workshops out over 5 sessions a day instead of 4. At least then, we don’t have this ponderous dilemma of choice. In addition, I would definitely advocate for starting later. Maybe one session before lunch and more after lunch.

frijan20

This is the schedule for only half the Friday workshops. The entire schedule looked like this. SO MUCH STUFF.

Utility of Experience: 5

As of right now, it’s hard for me to tell whether or not the experience was useful. I did get to meet a few student affairs professionals, and many of them said they were going to NASPA, so I look forward to seeing them again and possibly building more community. I do feel lucky to have found people in my field of work who identify the same way as I do.

However, they’re so far away! Everyone is up north or way out west. I’m always the only one in the South. *Sad face emoji*

In general, I feel like my interests don’t match the community’s, and perhaps that is why this conference didn’t really serve my needs. I have no interest in being out to anyone. I feel like the healing that could happen for me occurs mostly around QPOC, who don’t seem to care as much that “queer” is much further down my list of priorities than my more visible identities as a brown person and a woman.

I do think that queerness needed to be talked about more explicitly. I know I should probably take a gender studies class if that’s what I want, but I don’t like school, or more accurately, how much money school costs. While I could read a book, I also like the process of externalizing my thoughts, and I wish I had had more opportunity to do that at the conference.

~*~

In short, I do think either my expectations might have been too high, or Creating Change is slightly overrated. Frankly, the experience leaves me wishing there were more regional conferences for people like me. I know in Tampa, there are a huge number of queer clubs, but I’m not a night life person. I’d much rather meet in the day. Right now, besides student organizations, I don’t see a whole lot of opportunity for that. Here’s to hope for the NASPA Conference.

The Creating Change Preview

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Center city from South Street Bridge. (Source: King of Hearts, wikimedia commons)

Hey y’all, so the first conference from the Spring Preview is around the corner. On Tuesday, January 17, I will head to Philadelphia for the Creating Change Conference. Woohoo!

In my master’s program at the beginning of a class or a workshop, we used to do this activity called Hopes and Concerns (Adams et al., 2013, Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice). It’s quite self explanatory; basically, the students would share what they hope to gain from the class and also the things they worried would happen in a space where delicate topics were being discussed. I share this because this is loosely how this post will be organized. I will start with my hopes for this conference, and then I’ll go into the critical stuff that you all love.

Hopes:

I’m so excited! This conference will take place in Philadelphia, a city I’ve never visited. A few of my friends from my master’s program will also be at the conference, so I’m excited to meet them. In particular, I’m glad that I’ll have at least one other person to debrief with. This conference is pretty long and involved, so I’m guessing there will be a lot to process.

The variety of stuff on the schedule looks really great. I appreciate how they made the effort to separate people of color into different sections for the racial justice institute. I’m also impressed that there will be a workshop on Islamophobia in the queer community during this conference. I cannot wait to be around people who are critically conscious again, especially after the last few days at my job (which I’m sure I’ll post about soon enough).

I’m also looking forward to exploring Philly in my down time (or in those periods that I don’t feel like sitting in a session). My friends and I have made plans to do some non-conference things while we are there, like eat good food, watch movies, and maybe do a bit of touristy shit. It will be a nice break from the company I’ve had to keep the last few weeks. I almost feel like I’m going on vacation.

Concerns:

This is a long-ass conference. We’re talking about, like 6 days. I’m self aware enough to know that I’m most likely going to miss at least one morning session a few of those days so that I can sleep in. Sleep is no joke to me.

Because it is long, I also wonder if I will have time to process all the things I experience. Of course, I will be armed to the teeth with my usual notebook and pens to write all my thoughts, but I wonder if that will be enough. I’m sure if I do have time, you all will hear plenty.

Though it may seem unfounded in a crowd that is relatively woke, I am always skeptical that conferences will be very white, or centered on the thoughts of white people. I do see a lot of effort being made at this conference to keep that in check, but I can never be entirely sure. After all, I did a master’s degree in Social Justice Education and I still found my share of people who believe, say, and do very racist things.

I’m also suspicious at the lack of activity for asexual folks. I might just have to look more closely through the schedule, but I don’t see anything in particular for the asexual spectrum. I’m concerned because I was hoping to connect with other ace folks while I was there. Where’s that at? Where are my aces?

There’s also a lot of stuff on this schedule that I need to have explained. For example, what is a hospitality suite? What’s a butterfly? And I suspect that might be reflective of other things about the conference; for instance, people may talk mad theory that I can’t follow. It’s a definite possibility. We’re essentially throwing a bunch of people who have studied queer and gender theory in a hotel together. I’m not really about that academia life, so I hope it won’t be hard to find people I relate to.

Lastly, while this conference does attract people of all ages, it will most likely be geared toward undergraduate students, who I expect are the majority of the participants. Don’t get me wrong, I love students. They’re passionate and critical and brilliant, and they keep me from gouging my eyes out when I’m at work. However, I do think I am in a different stage of development than I was as an undergraduate. I’m a young professional looking for direction, mentors, and a better job. Speaking from my experience, students tend to be finding their voice, searching for community, and looking for emotional validation. Thus, many of the conversations might revolve around theory and might be more idealistic and less practical, which I can appreciate and I think those conversations are important for re-energizing us when we feel stuck. However, I need practical solutions right now. I need to feel as though the community is working in a direction that is sustainable, safe, and focuses on tangible benefits. I need to know that the most marginalized folks are being heard, and I will only believe it if I see improvement in real time.

~*~

It will be interesting to track how I feel during this conference. I do think having these hopes and concerns written out will be a good benchmark for me in the days to come. Look forward to lots of pictures. I’ll keep you posted.

Letter to my Patrons

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Tampa Skyline

Dear Patrons,

Yes, patrons, as in the ones who pay me for my labor. I am thankful to my followers as well, especially those of you who read regularly. I hope that if this is a financially stable period of your life, you will be so kind as to subscribe to my Patreon page. Any amount is greatly appreciated.

But I’m thanking my patrons specifically because this marks a significant development in my career as a writer. This month, for the first time, I am being paid for my writing, which is a big deal considering I have been writing for time immemorial (okay, perhaps not that long, but it feels like most of my life), and I have received almost no compensation all this time for the work.

It is scary how easy it is for women of color to internalize a feeling of unworthiness. I discovered I was a good writer when I was very young. At the age of five, I could already write sentences in English. Throughout elementary school, I was told by one teacher after another that I was an incredibly talented writer. Somewhere along the way, I arrived at the conclusion that writing must be easy. After all, I was good at it. I, a simple little brown girl to whom teachers could hardly be bothered to give attention, had mastered that skill even without their help. (This is the honest truth. My immigrant parents from India taught me more than my school teachers in the Southern public school system.) How hard could it be?

Only after I entered graduate school, and now as a writing tutor, I realized this act that I think is so simple is actually really, really complicated. I’ve been asked time and again by close friends–brilliant, talented people who I admire–to look over their papers before they are submitted. Marginalization in the academy has a lot to do with how you are perceived. Many of the writers of color I know have not been told a fraction of the amount I have that they are brilliant, talented people. In fact, most have been told the exact opposite. A lot of them fear that they will be perceived as incompetent when they write.

Writing is a delicate art. The messages we internalize show up throughout the writing process. For me, it is just a way to put our ideas on paper, but for people who are never told that their ideas matter, writing is painful and tedious.

I have a complicated relationship with humility. When I talk about how I became a good writer, it sounds to me as though I’m bragging. In truth, writing has been my saving grace in many ways. As a child, I was terribly shy. I deeply internalized the idea that most people don’t want to hear women speak. Only in recent years did I become capable of breaking down my communication barriers and making an effort to actually tell people the depths of my thoughts. In place of the spoken word, I leaned on the written word to express myself. In that context, I became a versatile writer. Writing had to do everything for me that speaking does for everyone else.

The feeling of knowing that people around the world read this blog is hard to describe. I think the response my brain usually comes up with is “why?”, a response that probably came from years of harmful messages about my “place” in the world. I can name this much: I am thrilled to have your readership. I thank you for allowing me to be my authentic self in this context, and I look forward to sharing more with you.

Irreverently yours,

Leonie