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Volume 19

The Other Side - Spring 2018


Written by
Torsa Ghosal

Torsa Ghosal is the Associate Editor of Papercuts magazine. She is the author of the novel, Open Couplets (2017), published by Yoda Press in India. Her poems and short stories have appeared in venues such as The Hindu BLink, Aaduna, Poydras Review, Unsplendid, Himal Southasian, and Muse India. She is also a researcher, specializing in narrative theories–-that is, the systematic study of the aesthetic experiences offered by stories across media–-and 20th-/21st- century experimental literary forms. Her critical and scholarly writings can be found in Storyworlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies, South Asian Review, Media-N: Journal of the New Media Caucus, Post Script, and Latinos and Narrative Media. In the past, she has assisted the editors of the journal, Prose Studies: History, Theory, Criticism. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor of post-1945 English literature at California State University, Sacramento.


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Brown Girl goes to teach English in America



You are your body, declares Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife in philosopher-author-critic William Gass’s “fictional essay” Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife (1971). The Lonesome Wife, whom Gass imagines via language, is also pictured on the book’s pages as a flesh-and-blood woman, lying naked, awaiting touch. And she is touched whenever readers open the book, thumb through its pages—she moans at a reader, who will occupy the second-person pronoun “you” and play along, “OO-OOO-OO my Mister Handsome, how could you?”

Gass’s book is at once about the pleasures of reading—jouissanceand an allegory for communication in which body is language is self is meaning. It is also a (poststructuralist) universe, wherein the author, having imagined the Lonesome Wife, has departed. Now it is up to the reader to touch and imagine her back to life. Her subjectivity is uncertain, open to determination by the reader, but within the constraints of the signifying media—i.e. language, which is also her body.

I am my body, but this body is the reader’s imagination. It does not belong to me.

My body speaks the language of difference in America. My tongue too. It takes no time for readers to notice that I do not roll my Rs. And just like that I become the brown girl, whose subjectivity is defined within the ambits of a culture. The culture is, of course, imagined—a mish-mash of bindi, saree, what-do-you-call-that-festival-of-colours, poverty, arranged marriages, parents waiting to come babysit on super-visas as soon as they get a chance. I am my body, but this body is the reader’s imagination. It does not belong to me.

Within the particular disciplinary or institutional framework of literary studies in the US, which happens to be my professional circuit—my body belongs with South Asian Studies clusters, Postcolonial theory, World literatures, Ethnic Studies, and Diversity tokens. Nothing could be more ironic: these areas of scholarship are meant to question the cultural hegemony of the predominantly white British and American canons. But by locating the language of difference that my body speaks with the different “Others,” my reader—you—either intend to cast the Brown Girl aside and continue with business as usual, or tell the Brown Girl that she doesn’t get to choose—after all, one does not choose the feet one walks in.

Because a Brown Girl is her body:


Brown Girl (let’s call her BG henceforth) applies to grad schools in the US with a Statement of Purpose that says she wants to study the impact of electronic technologies on narrative styles of contemporary British and American fictions. Over the past six months, she has spent as many hours combing through US News Rankings and university websites for the right fit, based on her areas of interest, as her uncle-aunt have given over to Star Plus masterpieces, such as Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai. And it pays off—well, almost. A school she gets into asks her if she can fund her research through a fellowship that supports scholarly work directed toward increasing diversity and uplifting minorities.

Now, BG is interested in the formal aspects of literary texts, the aesthetic experiences those offer, and how stories are told across media. Of course, the texts she studies include those written by authors who identify as ethnic and sexual minorities. However, BG isn’t sure why this fellowship application has been thrown her way since the focus of her research isn’t “culture” but literary form (not that these are mutually exclusive but in the world of highly-specialized doctoral and postdoctoral research, they aren’t the same things either). She completes the fellowship application anyway at the admission committee’s behest, suspicious that pointing her—the applicant from India—to the Diversity fellowship must have been somebody’s idea of affirmative action. She does not end up going to this school but that does not mean benevolent prejudice is behind her.


BG is in grad school in the US, taking a class in literary theory. During introductions, she’d said she was here to study postmodernist literature. A few weeks later, the white professor—while discussing the state of the academic job market in the US—says BG will have an easier time finding a job than the rest of her cohort because jobs are booming in “US ethnic and postcolonial studies” (in post-recession US, academic jobs in any Humanities concentration aren’t exactly booming, but that’s another story).

Brown Girl wonders why the world (that is, the United States of America) takes it upon itself to change brown people’s minds.

BG is baffled. Is the professor suggesting BG will eventually switch her concentration? Or is the professor implying that even if BG were to study postmodernist literature, she would still “pass” as a specialist in some other field? Following a night or two of under-reading, overreading, and critically analysing the professor’s statement, as English majors are wont to do, BG decides to meet the professor to seek clarity. Turns out the professor had misheard BG’s interests. Now, having been told a second time, the professor offers some well-meaning advice: BG can consider adding a South Asian American text or two to her dissertation, for that is what any hiring university will expect of a brown girl.

BG’s supervising professor (also white) luckily does not share this pragmatic vision of scholarship and encourages her to study what she wants to study, came here to study.


BG meets a brown professor in her university while still in grad studies. Brown professor finds BG’s research topic “interesting;” yes, he uses that non-committal epithet—the polite person’s go-to adjective for things they don’t care for or don’t get. Over coffee, the brown professor asks BG whether she isn’t studying literature from South Asia because she takes it to be inferior to the American and British texts? By now BG knows enough to get what the question actually implies: fresh off the boat from India, you, brown girl, need to reflect on your choices and you will know you have been interpellated to be ashamed of yourself; you, erstwhile colonial subject, I see you. BG’s subjectivity and her choices have once again been pre-determined, and she is judged for being the subject the brown professor believes her to be. Only this time, it’s Brown-to-Brown. He was like her once, the brown professor adds. The earnestness in his voice touches BG, and she momentarily believes she has not been imagined via the language of difference. The brown professor continues—the world (that is, the United States of America) told him to look at his skin and re-consider what he would really like to read and here he is, researching what he has always admired—literature from South Asia. BG wonders why the world (that is, the United States of America) takes it upon itself to change brown people’s minds.


As a teaching assistant in grad school, BG offers a composition course on innovative narrative forms, using short stories by American and British authors of colour as case studies. A disgruntled student evaluation says BG doesn’t look like someone who should teach English. Yes, because to teach English one must have wings. JK. To teach English one must be white. Perhaps, also have a penis? BG wouldn’t know—BG constantly misplaces pens; good thing she hasn’t been trusted with a penis.

Another student alleges BG always teaches stories that interest only her, given her “background.” At the outset, BG takes it to mean she teaches stories that employ experimental narrative strategies, and that this student doesn’t enjoy them. Self-erasing, self-reflexive, eccentric narratives aren’t for everyone; take the critics who turn their noses up at experimental writing and complain that it’s just authors showing-off language skills in seemingly plotless texts. Maybe BG’s student will one day be one of those critics, use the composition skills BG has taught over the semester to write in New York Review of Books or something, but err, the director of the teaching program knows better—what the student meant was (he explains) that as a person of colour, BG only teaches texts by authors of colour, and that’s what annoys the student. As BG stares at the director for a second too long, processing what he’s just said, he reminds BG she shouldn’t let one student’s bigotry affect her. Except, it’s not just one student.


“We are all mad here” by Shanzay Subzwari. 2016. Gouache and pencil on digital print. 18 x 8 inches.


BG takes creative writing seminars. Her professors tell BG over and over she should feel free to write what she knows. This means she shouldn’t feel obliged to write the kinds of stories that often appear in literary magazines in the US—to put it crudely, the kinds of stories that foreground “white” experiences. BG appreciates the professors showing her that the literary world is not constricted, and it is for her to explore all avenues in front of her. But each time BG writes a poem with long lines, in the writing workshop it is read as a potential ghazal in English. One day BG ends up writing a ghazal in English for the poetry class. In yet another writing class, BG is asked to pitch a story. She pitches a darkly humorous plot about a woman obsessed with death. The professor asks if she could pitch a story that only she could write. She pitches one about a conflict in India. It is approved.


BG gets hired in an English department to teach contemporary English literature with her specialisation and expertise. BG thinks this is it. At a meet and greet, she has “post-1945 literature” written on a label stuck to her shirt. An acquaintance (also with a PhD in English, though not from her department) shakes her hand and asks about her dissertation topic. BG gives her the elevator speech that came in handy when BG was in the job market. After a round of hors d’oeuvres, the acquaintance—wide-eyed and all ears—asks, “So how does your dissertation contribute to the field of postcolonial studies?” BG swallows a sun-dried tomato. I didn’t say my doctoral thesis contributes to postcolonial studies, she says. Oh, didn’t you? The acquaintance considers the curiosity that is BG. Acquaintance, then, apologises for mishearing.


BG comes out of a bar at night and gets an Uber to go home. The white driver asks her about her day at the bar—was it busy? It is the kind of cryptic question endemic to small talk that BG knows can go in all sorts of directions. Yes, she says, it was busy in there, but BG doesn’t know if that’s how it’s been all day since she wasn’t hanging out there until 9 p.m. or so. The Uber driver turns to face BG. “You don’t work there?” This has happened to BG before. At a DSW she has been mistaken to be a worker rather than a customer. BG explains to the Uber driver that she doesn’t work at the bar. BG teaches English at the state university. The Uber driver considers this information. Finally, she says, all her English teachers were terrible, “but you look like you know what you do.”


Do I? I, your Brown Girl, only know that my body will be (mis)read. That my skin, the surface, will be all some readers need to make meaning. My body is the language in which I am imagined.

But also, that I can refuse to give in to my reader’s touch. My body need not make sense. I can be the language that is, for now, nothing but gibberish.




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