The global citizenry shows increasing apathy towards each other’s social and political conditions.
“I hope activists see their work as pedagogical.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Aparna Mishra Tarc. Tarc is Associate Professor of Education at York University. Her book is Literacy of the Other: Renarrating Humanity.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Aparna Mishra Tarc: Literacy of the Other: Renarrating Humanity advances a post-colonial and post-humanist pedagogy of literacy. I reconceive literacy as the child’s entry into language, particularly discourses and stories of her existence that form or word a self. My book argues that our instrumental and formulaic literacies of reading have given way to limited interpretive capacities in engaging ourselves, others and the world. As a result, and as we can see today, the global citizenry shows increasing apathy towards each other’s social and political conditions. As well, particularly in North American countries, we hold amnesiac views of colonial histories that ground our multicultural presents. These histories continue to steer political and social climates that are increasingly antagonistic and divisive to migrants and minority groups inside and outside of borders. I would argue that the present intensification of news and information propagates the rise of populist fascism in nations across the world. I attribute this rise as much to the decline in critical and sympathetic reading capacities of citizens as it is a feature of a resurgence of white supremacy returning us to archaic colonial mindsets. As Paulo Freire and Jacques Derrida argue differently: How we learn to read and write the word, others and the world significantly impacts on how we can engage fictions of the social reality that dominant powers create and immerse us in. What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I hope activists and community organizers see the critical importance of advancing close and careful reading of the times amongst their members. I also hope activists see their work as pedagogical. Acting as a pedagogical subject, differs a bit from politically acting. When we act pedagogically, we think publically with others, we generate collective imaginaries that orient us towards justice. What made Martin Luther King an exemplary pedagogical actor was his soft use of a fiercely imaginative force. He creatively put action to words to educate us on a history of racism as he protested against it. The words MLK delivered in multiple addresses are deliberate, intentional and sustaining: his poetic and rhetorical pedagogy continues in the present day to mobilize millions to fight against anti-black racism that plagues us all.
Creative language is critical to our dreaming, thinking, moving, surviving. I think we should promote the pedagogical delivery of such compelling language as a form of acting. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which I engage in my book, Sethe and Paul D’s reparation for the unspeakable atrocities they have borne comes through the hard work of repairing the racist language meant to demean them, to rob significance of their existence. They actively mobilize the word, they dredge it up from the unthinkable to re-invest it with the power of significance of their own terms and reference. They show that creative, significant, meaningful language can and has rewritten the stories of communities to advance their social renewal from the inside out. Word work is critical to our imagining and enacting the hard work of justice in the real world.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
The project of re-narrating humanity is an un-learning. It differs from the decolonial strategy. The one I put forth is creative, to make something new out of the ruins of personal and social history. To tell another story, one must take apart the dominant discourses doing us and our children in. Unraveling the language used to construct dominant stories, readers learn to identify to unlearn the logical figures and reasoned-out procedures of white mythology, normativity, and misogyny we affectively internalize when learning to read. For example, I learned to read in schooling using the Dick and Jane primers by Zerna Sharpe. All the time I was learning to read these books, I can remember my seven-year old self thinking: who do these children think they are? I felt I was nothing like them. I imagine millions of children like me thought the same. Thinking now about the primers, children stories, I can see how a certain version of human being was being advanced: white, gendered, healthy, innocent, adventurous, heteronormative, free. The version of childhood advanced in the primers I read as a child continues to bother me, so much I wrote a book about it now! The project of unlearning is a difficult one because we internalize representations like Dick and Jane from birth on. How do we reject stories our parents and teachers, adults we trust, gave to and of us in childhood? How do we learn to write stories apart from the ones the social makes of us? This, I argue, is inherently an educational project, one that begins at birth.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Toni Morrison is foundational to my thinking of the power of language, of words to form, deform and reform and renew human existence. Reading the Bluest Eye as a child and young woman offered me a story beyond Dick and Jane, beyond the one white society wrote for me, one my parents tried to resist but could not completely. In this profound way Morrison’s works have sustained me, gifted me with words to articulate myself to others. Jacques Derrida’s work continues to influence my thinking on ways to dismantle the logics of whiteness and misogynist metaphors fortifying the discourse of reason to advance white man as the human proper. Gayatri Spivak’s postcolonial framing of the aesthetic force of the literary greatly steer my educational project. James Baldwin and Loraine Hansberry’s friendship and Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde’s difficult conversations on race embody the power intellectual friendship can hold for one’s thinking. I take refuge in poetry always, the words of Tagore and T.S. Elliot and Carolyn Forché. Hannah Arendt’s political courage orients my academic obligation to speak out when other people’s lives, especially the lives of children, are at stake. Lately, I turn quite a bit to Lyndsey Stonebridge’s lyrical engagement with the situation of migrants in her book Placeless People. J.M. Coetzee’s work, which I also discuss in the book, resonates with my sense of what it means to be a feeling, thinking person in a broken but beautiful world. His singular creative and courageous literary imagination set in the world has moved millions. Musicians like Tracy Chapman, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan carry me on and forward in the most difficult of times. My colleagues Mario Di Paolantonio and Warren Crichlow have sustained and restored my thinking for years. But most of all my children, my mother, father, my siblings, and my partner Paul, also a reader and writer and intellectual, inspire me every single day.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
My book is about imagining new worlds through the literary words we might generate to dream and realize it. This is an old idea. Storytelling the world to renew it is an ancient practice engaged in many civilizations. Throughout our sorry modern history of human violence, it is stirring words, usually of a single person, that remind us of who we are deep down inside: fragile, failed vulnerable creatures we feel ourselves to be. The literary and creative arts, I argue through all my work, can teach us to imagine new visions and vocabularies of felt existence. I know it can because the art of creation teaches me all that I know. I learn to speak with Toni Morrison’s words, see with John Berger’s piercing vision, hear with Ilya Kaminsky’s inner voice, learn to live with fictional characters in novels. We massively read some novelists and witness their luminous vocabulary take over the lexicon, initiate a counter-culture, become part of a new way of inhabiting yourself and being with others. From this quality of being altered by literature, we speak, see, hear, relearn our minds, again in a community of others with nothing and everything in common, and we are not the same. The way to reimagine the world is to regrow our children with regenerating stories as J.M. Coetzee does, and to teach our children to read the world through a literary and poetic frame to open their mind. Now more than ever the world’s people need to take a day off, or a month or a year, (and as I revise my thoughts, right now we presently are being forced to do so) and read and speak to each other about our insights. This would be a radical social and political humanizing act for me: to collectively read to and of each other. Riffing off the words of the great poet Audre Lorde in lifelong literary conversation with her friend Adrienne Rich: Reading poetry is not a luxury, Lorde insists—our lives depend on it Rich admits. We cannot afford to succumb to the mean, dumb, brute hyper-masculinist, racist violence, fascist violence, of our time. To renew sustained faith in the literary, in poetry, storytelling, and literature is increasingly a radical pedagogical act. None of us can afford not to read, to use this new and re-found knowledge to imagine dream, think, engage, act in and renew the world . We need a deeply affecting education that sustains us to re-find to retell our humanity, and we need it now.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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