Graduate school English literature symposium. Presentation on orientalism, as I am in my Edward Said phase (which came after my Plath obsession but before my Frantz Fanon kick). I work in some stuff about the occupation of Palestine, the suppression of its artistic and political voice. Orientalizing is feminizing the other, as a way to dominate it, I explain. This is the stuff I’ve been devouring for two years, the words that have shaped and honed my own voice.
In the elevator afterwards, having doors jolted open for me by the dean, and then squeezed between a white-haired emeritus (specialty: Milton) and a just-tenured associate (specialty: Chaucer). Accolades all around. My chances for the teaching assistantship look good.
“Are you ready for your interview?”
“I think so.”
A hand on my shoulder. Voice proudly in my ear: “It’s funny. You talked about exoticizing the other, and I just kept thinking how exotic you looked.”
Chuckles, heads nodding. I don’t know if I’m supposed to say “thank you.”
The ting. My floor. The doors sweep open to welcome me. I have arrived.
Later, in the graduate student study room, which is really a closet for extra textbooks into which two old desks and an old Macintosh have been jammed, I cannot stop thinking about Brendan McShane, a blond boy in my sixth grade class, who came from a whole clan of stout blond boys. Their father was a reverend of some small start-up church and they all—all eight McShanes—lived on the top level of a funeral home in a three-bedroom suite. In sixth grade, Brendan and I competed in the township’s spelling bee, and he got the word “cafeteria.” I just knew what was coming to him. As he stood at the microphone, at the front of the Knights of Columbus hall, his tall, thick body and his wide red face, Brendan had to see it coming too.
“Now that’s a word,” said the announcer, the Knights of Columbus president who owned the hardware store and thought of himself as a CEO. “That’s a word you look like you should know.” Some titters from the audience. He felt encouraged. “Cafeteria,” he repeated. “Here’s a sentence. I bet you spend a lot of time in the cafeteria, don’t you, Brendan?” Some more laughs, but I turned to look back at the row of McShanes, who all looked redder and grimmer than usual. And I knew, more deeply and intuitively than the citizens of our small town could have realized—those sheep who sat and giggled in that audience under the leaky drop ceiling of an old building—that this moment would define the life and outlook of my sixth grade classmate, a kid who studied hard, loved listening to Guns ’n Roses, and never bothered anybody. That ignited anxiety within me, an unease that took days to fade. I spent the next week at school searching Brendan’s face, studying his every action, for signs of recovery. Did I ever find it? I look around the crammed graduate study room, at the discarded books on a makeshift shelf, at a can of pens than nobody uses, and I worry all over again about a boy whose family moved away after another year and whom I never really knew.
2. Rising Action
Two months away from receiving my Master’s degree. In my full-blown Toril Moi phase.
“You know, she was involved with Terry Eagleton,” says my advisor, leaning forward in the Mexican restaurant with the parrot tables and the hanging sombreros. I don’t know who decorated this place according to a Spanish nightmare. “She’s lovely, that woman. I heard her speak years ago. You know, she reminds me of you a bit.”
“She looks like me?” I know that this is impossible, that it doesn’t make sense that I resemble a Norwegian blonde.
“No, no. But you both have that glamorous flair.” He takes a dainty bite of his burrito, leaving a dab of guacamole on his lips, and wonders aloud if they serve wine at this place.
I’m twenty-six and living in a wannabe southern city where everyone calls me “Miss” and people spend summer weekends smashing the claws of crabs with mallets, fishing out every chunk of meat they can, excavating the corpses with flair. Finishing a Ph.D. doesn’t seem like it’s going to work out for me, because I am an adult now with a mortgage to prove it. Married to a computer programmer who speaks fluent HTML and is proficient in Java and doesn’t enjoy modern poetry. “You want to see ‘symbol?’ Come see the code for this website I’m building.” But I’m busy, hunting for a job and learning the streets and avenues and neighborhoods of the city where the homeless rate staggers me.
Adjunct teaching (online, weeknights 7-10 p.m., Saturdays 9-2 p.m.) is paying off: I have an interview, after two years of applications and tailored cover letters and paragraphs on assessment and Bloom’s taxonomy. A real interview for a tenure-track position at a small college in the suburbs where everyone is curious and friendly, where Wawa is a bona-fide hang-out, and where the Dollar Tree, Romano’s Pizza, M&T Bank, and Starbucks (yes, there’s one even here) form the crux of “downtown.” Years later, I will hear students speak of “going downtown,” but they don’t mean to the dark urban streets where legless veterans sit with cardboard signs, but to the strip mall where the movie theater and bowling alley beckon. They have had licenses for years but never had to parallel park or to watch out for rats before walking past alleyways, have never even walked past alleyways at all, or by a homeless person who didn’t care if they dropped a coin in his shoe or not.
I get the job.
The call comes that evening from the department chairwoman; I’d spent my morning presenting to a room full of English faculty and one geography professor who doesn’t seem to know why he’s listening to a staged lecture on the thesis statement. But the job is mine, and I have an office with a real door and a desk that I share with no one. Everyone smiles, everyone seems curious. One woman, who wears lots of beaded jewelry, is thrilled that the department has finally hired someone of a “different ethnicity.” In my excitement to have health benefits, I ignore her wording. In a few weeks, I come to realize something else, that the secretary, who blasts Jesus music and Joel Osteen sermons from her work station, rations out red pens and tablets only to me. Supplies are apparently free for everyone else. When I ask for a second dry-erase marker, she asks, in all seriousness, “Well, now, how much are you writing on the board?” She limits my photocopies, running to the machine when she hears it whir into action. Only my room schedules get messed up. Everyone else teaches in the same building, but I’m sprinting across campus during the 15-minute intervals, no time to even stop at my office, struggling not to drop three separate Norton anthologies.
Later, after tenure, at the retirement party of one of my colleagues, the guest of honor will tell me, “You know, we almost didn’t hire you. You were intimidating.” He has more wine from a glass with a James-Joyce-profile charm around its stem. I think of Leopold Bloom, so different, so unknown, such an exile in his own city of Dublin.
As one of my teaching duties, I am assigned African American literature, for which I am not qualified, having never even taken it in graduate school. This is a small college, and there are no courses offered in post-colonial literature, but I know nothing about African American literature except that I like Langston Hughes, I read Richard Wright’s memoir once, and I have seen Maya Angelou twice: on Oprah and at the Clinton inauguration.
“Well, you’re a person of color, so you’re probably best qualified to teach it.” This is what I am told. I want tenure, so I keep quiet and find myself in the library on weekends, reading texts, practicing auto-didacticism with great trepidation (Is it pronounced DuBois or Du-Bwah? Did Hughes really resent Zora Neale Hurston? What was the uproar over Alice Walker’s novel really about?)
I worry about forming strong opinions on these matters.
I construct syllabi, leaving out folklore, slave songs–-I need years before I can dive into that. I am saddened that Hughes later thought the Harlem Renaissance was a disappointment. I discover, on the library’s third floor, over a semester of weekends, Elizabeth Keckley. And Olaudah Equino. And Malcolm. Oh, Malcolm. Where have you been all my life? More specifically, post-NOI Malcolm, post-hajj Malcolm, the Malcolm of the wide dreams and the red hair and four baby girls.
“Professor, are you black?”
“I just thought… maybe.”
He is a young man, curly hair, perpetual hoodie. Resembles a smooth-faced LL Cool J, circa 1989. Since the unit on Malcolm and dignity, he’d been wearing an X t-shirt and wondering why, in school, he only ever learned about Martin (and not even Poor-People’s-Campaign, anti-Vietnam Martin, but I -Have -a-Dream Martin).
An op-ed appears in the local newspaper, complaining about how little diversity exists at our college. For such a tiny campus, the piece gets a lot of attention. An administrator wants to form an exploratory committee. Everyone is in an uproar about it. “But they don’t consider age and gender in these studies,” the beaded professor complains to anyone who will listen. In one year, I am asked to serve on twelve committees, at which people turn to me publicly and ask, “So, what are your thoughts on this?”
I again come across DuBois, whose name I’ve learned to pronounce correctly (rhymes with voice), and his “What does it feel like to be a problem?” I find that my poor White students, with tattoos and gaged earlobes, whose parents barely finished high school and who run farms or work in mechanic shops, relate to it as much as my Black students. One young man, who looks like the Brendan McShane of my memories, stops me after class to say that he argued with his father about affirmative action the other day. “He thinks it’s a waste of money, and unfair, and it’ll hurt me and my kids in the long run.” He admits this to me quietly, after all the other students have left the room.
“What did you tell him? What do you think?”
“I just said I didn’t know. I have to look at it more before I have an opinion, I guess.”
“That’s the right attitude,” I tell him, and I feel so proud. “You have an intellectual instinct,” I say, “because you admit what you don’t know and you’re willing to study it before you talk about it.” He leaves, pleased, and I feel for the first time that I am in the right place. Simultaneously, I feel like a hypocrite because I’m inspiring a student who’s enrolled in a class I’m only qualified to teach because of my ethnic resume. But then again, maybe it’s my lack of qualifications that make me want to do a good job, to really make this class mean something to all my students.
At the beginning of the spring semester, a professional development seminar: The unifying theme of the half-day session is international education. It opens with coffee and bagels, some Danish, and is followed with a lunch billed as “international.” They’re really trying hard. In reality, the fare consists of a Greek salad, French chicken cordon bleu, Polish kielbasa sandwiches, and Italian tiramisu for dessert.
Before lunch, the faculty sit for a keynote by a DC-based think-tank researcher who discusses the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, and what we should have all learned from it. Afterwards he opens the floor for discussion, and my colleagues thoughtfully comment on how the war on terrorism has heightened the need for awareness of other cultures on college campuses. Our own campus has changed—more international students, more ex-military, more ethnic minorities are enrolling every year.
The presenter’s PowerPoint features some slides of young Muslim women wearing hijab, and so The Question inevitably arises. A political science professor mentions how more young Muslim women in hijab were on campus and the concerns that she has about this. She worries that these young women might be pressured to wear the veil, and that they might not be getting the most out of their college experiences. Her concern seems to stem from a feminist perspective and sympathy for these young women; she wants desperately to enlighten them, to welcome them into the fold of strong, assertive womanhood.
I have tenure now, so fuck it. I raise my hand and stand up. A tremor ripples through me as I look out over the sea of gray hair and white faces, and I hope nobody can hear it in my voice.
“I think you’re jumping to conclusions about those young women,” I say. “The veil is worn in different ways and for different reasons.” Then I sit down. There is silence. Part of me can’t believe I stood up, that I said something so simple, but that challenges a perspective everyone thinks so progressive, so culturally sensitive. I think about how I will tell this story to Rana, one of my best friends, who started veiling back in grad school. I comfort myself and pass these awkward seconds imagining her response: “Assholes,” she’ll say, laughing, making me wonder why I allow myself to get so worked up in the first place.
Think-tank Guy beseeches the audience for another question, and he looks more nervous than I sounded until an accounting instructor asks a question about internships. The room seems to exhale.
When the presentation ends, I head over to the European Grand Tour luncheon, wondering if I’ve been rude. Nobody mentions my comment, so I spend the luncheon thinking about my students in hijab. I usually pass by them as they chat with friends, or as they hurry from the parking lot to class. They seem, on the surface, congenial, busy, surrounded by friends—in short, like other well-adjusted students.
Yet there is a group of girls, I want to scream, about whom nobody seems concerned at such professional development sessions: those who dress to be “hot” on campus. Imagine this: it’s late September, during an unusually cold week, when most sensible people are layering a sweatshirt or sweater over their t-shirts and officially trading in their summer shorts for jeans, and yet some of our female students defy such logic. Short skirts or shorts, bare legs, Uggs.
Why, I want to ask them, are you trying so hard to be seen?
Fundamentalism, I think, is to be found in the pages and photographs of Elle, Mademoiselle, Vogue. It’s Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley, naked on the cover of Vanity Fair, with a clothed Tom Ford. It’s the jihad of Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus naked on a metal wrecking ball, licking a chain, letting tweens everywhere think it’s sexy. I want to find the beaded professor, my esteemed colleague, and talk about who needs liberating.
4. Falling Action
“I would like to do my research paper on Jesus Christ.”
Perhaps my silence encourages her, because she begins to speak more comfortably, freely. The Lord has changed her life, and so she wants to help others now. I am silent because it dawns on me, only after several minutes, that she is not discussing a potential topic for her research paper. I forget about my original concern, that is, helping her understand the point of a scholarly investigation—and I worry about something else. Because she – this girl in an Old Navy sweatshirt and baggy jeans – wants to convert me.
An eighteen-year-old Osteenite wants to convert me. I’ve been chosen.
As she speaks, I remember the National Geographic survey that was published not too long ago… nine in ten young Americans couldn’t find Afghanistan on a map. Only 30 percent can find Israel. Half don’t know the Sudan is in Africa.
I become annoyed.
I finally cut her off to tell her that I am actually Christian, and so she no longer needs to fret over my soul. I end up confusing her.
“But you’re Middle Eastern, right?”
“Yes, I am.” I answer. “And so was Jesus Christ.”
She leaves without understanding. And for once, I’m too irritated to fix everything.
New Orleans is dying.
I’m on bed rest with my first pregnancy. I was carrying twins, but one is lost, and I’m trying to hold on to the other one. Blood soaks through every hour. “Only get up to urinate,” the OB said. “Shower every other day, if you must.” The secretary at work starts a rumor that I’m milking the system. And I can’t confront hearsay, can’t seize gossip by the throat and break its teeth. Can’t shine a light on “You didn’t hear it from me, but…”
It’s two weeks now. I’m even tired of my books. TV is all I have.
So I watch the post-flood trauma, the bloated bodies float in mud-dried street puddles in the French Quarter. Terrified women allow their babies to be strapped to lifts by soldiers, to ascend from rooftops where the water is lapping over the shingles and cars and streetlamps float by aimlessly.
My baby is saved too, proving she was alive by waving her fingers at me during an ultrasound, and I return to work weeks later. My life has changed in these weeks: I’m grateful, I’m humbled, I’m allowing myself to imagine motherhood.
I try to catch up with all that I have missed—lists of bolded emails, stacks of unopened mail, student papers—but everyone is still talking about Hurricane Katrina, the damage, the lives ruined.
“These people suffer from a learned helplessness,” says one of my mentors, lowering her voice as though she is confiding in me. “It’s a shame,” she adds, maybe in the wake of my appalled expression, “but when you’re told to leave, you need to leave.”