A Game of Names
There is something that I didn’t tell Michael during the course of our filming, although it bothered me. The episode started on our first day of shooting. After running around Paris trying to find a tableau that would serve as the perfect commentary for racial tension or racism in action, we found ourselves exhausted, and shuttling back in a cab to the Fondation Cartier and its exhibit Beauté Congo.
In the car, we suddenly started filming. We were, after all, stuck in the rain in a cab on a Paris afternoon, and why not go for it, hand-to-hand, face-to-face?
After a brief intro, I launched my assault (and I take full poetic license for this):
“So Michael, we’ve been talking a lot about the racial tensions and distances between Black and white communities in America. But what about people of different ethnicities? Where do they fit in the spectrum, and what are their encounters with racism or othering in the United States?” I wanted to know because in a weird way, being of an ethnic minority, being neither Black nor white, it felt too often that our communities were being regulated to the bleachers without our consent.
Michael answered. He talked about a colleague and writing friend and his experiences with racism and marginality in the US as an Asian-American man. His observations were surgical.
“But,” I said, “those are good answers but they are a bit academic. It’s a scholarly trope to talk about the Asian male body as being feminized by the white male gaze. But I guess my question for you really is, do you feel the same racial ambiguity or even complex series of emotions and social anxieties towards Asian-Americans or Latinx folks or Native Americans as you do towards Black Americans?”
Michael paused, looked at me, and just as he was beginning to answer, our taxi arrived at the Beauté Congo exhibit.
* * *
When we were standing in line for the exhibit, Michael suggested to Christopher, our cameraman, that we keep on filming. So we did. And I really should have been paying more attention to what he said next. He spoke quietly, looking up from his hand-written notes, and glanced sideways at me, “Rita, I’m just going to turn up the heat.”
And so, in the rain, covered by a too-thin umbrella, Michael launched his assault.
“You’re just a privileged kid from the suburbs.” He would accuse me later of being born with a silver spoon. He was chagrined that I had mentioned Harvard during the orientation of the workshop we were both teaching at. He said that I always took the higher, moralistic position on things. That I was some sort of truth-seeker. That basically, I didn’t want to get my hands dirty. That I essentially pooh-poohed any discussion on race and instead went for the safe, predictable PC route. That I was not digging deeper inside myself. That I was not confused enough yet. That I did seem a little damn righteous.
The tirade continued, publicly, as we waited in the line to enter the Fondation Cartier, for what seemed to me like an eternity lasting only 15 minutes. What’s the saying? Time slows when you’re not having fun.
And just as the mic was turned over to me, we arrived at the ticket booth. Michael paid for all of our tickets. We went inside without talking to one another.
"GANGOPADHYAY SAYS, TO BE A TRUE POET, A REAL POET, A REAL WRITER (WHATEVER THAT MEANS), ONE HAS TO SHUN IMMORTALITY. THAT’S BOTH A POWERFUL AND LAUGHABLE STATEMENT TO ME."
After some time, once we had played a game of hide and seek between paintings and looked at the Congolese art, the conversation began to flow almost naturally. We studied paintings, magazine covers, and collages, and read the bodies in them for intent and subversion. In many of the pieces, the gaze of the voyeur was flipped back on the voyeur, himself. Michael and I struck up a conversation about a painting of four discombobulated Black musicians playing in a band, whose erased faces and organs were attached to what looked like computerized instruments. I mentioned that the players wore the forced smiles of performers on stage, and that their expressions seemed to climax and fall. “Almost like coitus and post-coitus,” Michael said. The conversation continued until two women from security flagged us down. I tried to convince them that the filming was for a private project, but they were reluctant to let us continue. Later. I translated what I said to them to Michael, and he smiled back at me, “So you can be bad.”
* * *
The first day of filming was frustrating and somehow surreal. It felt like we had walked into a hallway full of mirrors and as we provoked each other with questions, the glasses behind us began to crack one at a time. Where there should have been shards in the floor, there was only the sound of glass breaking. Where there should have been our reflections, there was something else. It reminded me of a line from a poem I had once written: Diver, you have seen your face, mirrored in a hundred forms, now see mine.
* * *
Later, I would reflect on Michael’s uncanny ability to read people. If I was the truth-seeker, what was he? And moreover, I really hoped that he hadn’t looked up my name. If he knew what it meant, it would only add fuel to the fire.
There was a time when I was so bored with writing my nearly 500-page dissertation, that I transcribed my name, literally, into my thesis. It came up in a section in which I was talking about the modernist South Asian poet as a new voyager—traversing the unknowns of outer space. Space, itself, could have been a location of culture, a history, a mindset, any series of limitations.
The poem in which I examined my name, in which I drew the history of my naming was Sunil Gangopadhyay’s “For Poetry Alone.”
শুধু কবিতার জন্য
শুধু কবিতার জন্য এই জন্ম, শুধু কবিতার
জন্য কিছু খেলা, শুধু কবিতার জন্য একা হিম সন্ধেবেলা
ভুবন পেরিয়ে আসা, শুধু কবিতার জন্য
অপলক মুখশ্রীর শান্তি এক-ঝলক;
শুধু কবিতার জন্য তুমি নারী, শুধু
কবিতার জন্য এত রক্তপাত, মেঘে গাঙ্গেয় প্রপাত
শুধু কবিতার জন্য আরো দীর্ঘদিন বেঁচে থাকতে লোভ হয়
মানুষের মতো ক্ষোভময় বেঁচে থাকা, শুধু কবিতার
জন্য আমি অমরত্ব তাচ্ছিল্য করেছি।
"For Poetry Alone"
by Sunil Gangopadhyay (1934-2012)
For poetry alone, this birth
for poetry alone, this play
for poetry alone, this solitary voyage
in the twilight hours on winter days
For poetry alone, sudden moments of peace
emanating from a beautiful face
For poetry alone, you are woman,
For poetry alone such bloodied paths
and monsoon clouds over the Ganges’s bank
For poetry alone, this desire to live longer that painful life which mortals live
For poetry alone, I have shunned immortality.
It’s still a poem that pings. It’s naïve and weirdly beautiful. It’s simple but somehow wow.
In the liner notes for the poem, I fiddled with my name. Gangopadhyay says, to be a true poet, a real poet, a real writer (whatever that means), one has to shun immortality. That’s both a powerful and laughable statement to me. What writer doesn’t want to become immortal? Isn’t that what we try to do each day: try to make our legacy learn to walk one tottering step at a time?
But here’s a writer who wants none of that. Poetry is written for many reasons, from personal to psychological to political to sexual to just plain lyrical. Poetry is written for every reason but that.
Fame, legacy, import—are those things that a poet shuns? Or, in order to be a true poet, does one have to create art that surpasses what’s already known and what’s expected to illuminate? Does creating great art mean letting go of one’s good intent?
Immortality: amaratva. I was stuck on that word. And so was my mom. Before I was born, she was debating a series of names to call me. She wanted something that would sound good to American ears but still ring with meaning to desis’. The names she chose ran the gamut from Sheila (which was a popular name for dancers and mistresses in Bollywood films of the late 70s and early 80s) to Ria (“An Indian Speaks of Rivers”) to Eva. My grandmother, who was a Sanskrit scholar turned writer and storyteller extraordinaire, vetoed that last choice. “Everyone knows that Eva Braun was Hitler’s mistress. I’m not going to have a granddaughter of mine with that namesake.” So the list fluctuated but eventually my mother settled between two choices, “Amrita” and “Rita.” Amrita might have actually been her first choice. And boy was it a hell of a name. “Amrita,” like amaratva in Sunil Gangopadhyay’s poem, meant “immortality” or that “which cannot die.” I’ve also seen it translated as “the immortal ambrosia of the gods.” Who knew that ambrosia was as popular in Mount Kailash as it was in Mount Olympus?
Anyway, the story goes, that when I was born in Walnut Creek under the careful care of Dr. Honeychurch, the nurses had asked my mom what she had wanted to name me, and she had said, “Amrita.” But when the birth certificate was presented to her, it simply had the name “Rita Banerjee” on it.
The nurses must have misheard her. My mother would tease me as a child, “They must have thought that I said ‘um, Rita,’ to them for your name.”
Even as a kid, I only half-believed her. There’s something in the eyes. If you look at a person just right, you can almost tell how they feel. It’s a good way to cop out liars, too.
Anyway, the long story short is that my mother had really settled on “Rita” as my name. But that wasn’t the story that she told to our relatives back home. Whenever we went to India in my childhood or attended a Banga Sammelan or a huge puja festival complete with tablas, bhajans, and kids in painted moustaches and gold-threaded turbans, my mom would tell her Bengali friends when asked, “My daughter’s good name is Amrita and her called-name is Rita.” And so everyone believed it, even my great aunt, to this day.
But everyone who knew me knew I was Rita. In middle school, my lit teacher, a Vietnam vet who rode a motorcycle and had a poster of Bob Dylan, smoking, with shades, hanging above his chalkboard, used to tease, singing “Lovely Rita” every time I sat down, sinking lower into my flannel collar in the back of class. People called me “Meter Maid,” too.
But Rita, in Sanskrit, has a special meaning. One I never told to Michael when he was accusing me of being too high-minded, moralistic, or simply trying to be a truth-seeker. My grandmother, who would sneak off to write short stories in the afternoon, would tell me sometimes when I asked, “Your name, Rita, means eternal truth.” A beautiful suggestion.
"IT’S NOT LIKE WE, THE CHILDREN OF THE ‘90S, WERE THE MODEL UN OR ANYTHING, BUT WHAT WE WERE WAS DIVERSE WITHOUT NECESSARILY PAYING LIP SERVICE TO THAT WORD."
Really, the concept of “Rita,” or ṛta in Sanskrit, refers to the cosmic order of the universe. It’s what keeps the cycle of life, death, and rebirth in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain philosophy going. It’s what keeps things in check and keeps things moving. From ṛta comes other Indo-European words like “right” (as in “correct,” “law,” or “principle”) and righteous (as in “you righteous bastard”). So what’s in a name?
That’s it, and Rita is all my own. Reading his new book the other day, I found out that Michael once had a girlfriend in Iowa who was a poet and whose name was also Rita. What a coincidence, you righteous bastard.
Paris is Burning
Writing about race
in America is
with a revolver
and six bullets.
* * *
In recent years, one of the most illuminating pieces I’ve read on race and power and what it means to be an American artist has been by Jaswinder Bolina in “Writing Like a White Guy.”
In the article, Bolina talks about his difficulties breaking into the American creative writing industry. Several lit mentors suggested to him that he use a pseudonym to get published—something more Anglo-Saxon, something more Protestant, something that would seem more familiar so that Americans could finally get his writing. Finally get that he had something to say.
But Bolina gave both decorum and convention the bird. He took what was considered a dead weight, his own name, and continued to write under it, submit under it. He embraced his handicap, essentially his own marginalization, and subverted it. The essay is revealing of this entire process but a touchstone moment occurs when Bolina finally confronts his albatross, and talks about power and race in America:
At a panel in 2004, a professor of political philosophy, Caribbean-born with a doctorate from the University of Toronto, explains that he never understood why the question in America is often a question of race. A scholar of Marxist thinking, he says in nearly every other industrialized nation on Earth, the first question is a question of class, and accordingly class is the first conflict. He says it wasn’t until he moved to the United States in the early ‘70s—about the same time my father arrived—that he intellectually and viscerally understood that America is a place where class historically coincides with race. This, he says, is the heaviest legacy of slavery and segregation.
To many immigrants, the professor and my father included, this conflation between success and skin color is a foreign one. In their native lands, where there exists a relative homogeneity in the racial makeup of the population or a pervasive mingling of races, the “minorities” of America are classed based on socioeconomic status derived from any number of factors, and race is rarely, if ever, principal in these. You can look down on anybody even though they share your skin color if you have land enough, wealth enough, caste and education enough. It’s only arriving in England that the Indian—who might not even recognize the descriptor “Indian,” preferring instead a regional or religious identity to a national one—realizes anyone resembling him is subject to the derision “coolie”…
The racially African but ethnically Other philosophy professor understands the oddness of this as well as anyone. He explains that in the United States, as anywhere, the first question remains a question of class, but the coincidence between class and color make the first American social conflict a conflict of race. As such, for the racial immigrant and his offspring, racial difference need be mitigated whenever possible, if only to lubricate the cogs of class mobility: nearer to whiteness, nearer to wealth. (3-4)
* * *
This is class warfare—what’s happening in America right now. The American economy has been in the gutter since 2008 and someone’s got to pick up the blame. The scapegoating is easy. Almost second nature. It helps to have a society built like a totem pole with the lowest rung occupied by a black mask and the highest point painted with a white face. Every rung in between showcases twisted limbs, body parts, people crouching, stomping on each others' shoulders.
This is the phallic heart of America. This is America where every human has an object value. This is America where a single spot of melanin indicates a depreciating monetary return. This is the American Dream. This is America where homespun hides hierarchy. This is America where everyone is a rung on a fucking totem pole, and every rung indicates a caste and creed. This is America where silence is golden, where every phallus would be a silencer, and every totem a golden fruit. This is America where whiteness is wealth. This is America that never forgets to paint her face. This is America where forgetting the mask is a totem is taboo.
* * *
Are we all affected by racism in the United States? In this joke, are you the pot or the kettle?
Having grown up in the suburbs of central Jersey, a forty-five minute commute to New York City, I don’t recall many direct experiences with racism as a kid. Sure, being a child in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the stories of the Dotbusters in Jersey City was on the tip of everyone’s tongue at family gatherings and every desi party or social function. The Dotbusters of Jersey City targeted Indian women and girls because of the bindi worn on their heads. The message was clear: get out of town, immigrant, you don’t belong.
But the idea of belonging was a funny curse. Growing up in the middle of the suburbs, in a town we used to jokingly refer to as the middle of nowhere, belonging was an odd thing. We thought we were Americans because we were born and raised here. And by the luck of the draw, our little middle-of-nowhere town was inhabited by not just Indians, but by Filipinos, Chinese, and Taiwanese families, Koreans, recent African immigrants, Italians, Greeks, a relatively large Jewish population, and a number of kids with Slavic names. It’s not like we, the children of the ‘90s, were the model UN or anything, but what we were was diverse without necessarily paying lip service to that word. In the 90’s, our town was also at the epicenter of the battle between grunge and rap. In middle school, everyone wore flannel and cried over Kurt Cobain. By high school, it was Tupac and Biggie—“Hypnotize” and hip-hop won out.
As children, we hung out in each other’s living rooms—girls, boys, kids who spoke different languages, kids who spoke just one, kids with big houses, kids with single parents—all of us playing video games, Manhunt through backyards filled with fireflies, attack games that involved coke bottles and toads by the local riverbeds. There was a weird egalitarianism in childhood. Race, ethnicity, language, culture—all of those things were there, but just like the adult world and adult consciousness, they were just slightly beyond the line of sight.
Not that things didn’t come into focus, unexpectedly. As a kid, while spending an afternoon with Ebony, who used to come over to play video games with us, she asked me an unexpected question. One I’d never thought about much before. We were in her backyard. Her younger sister, with thick round glasses, was elsewhere. I often met the sisters in the Bookmobile which would stop on lazy summer afternoons in front of their house, which was a block away from where I lived. That afternoon, Ebony and I were talking about classmates. She lived across the street from Jamie Papp, who kicked ass at Duck Hunt, and whose father was an Elvis impersonator. They had lion statues on both sides of their driveway and a fountain on their yard and the best haunted house for Halloween in the neighborhood.
Running around with Ebony, we darted through her house filled with yellow curtains, to her lawn which was manicured like Astroturf. Her mom would sometimes watch us as we played. I remember that her dad wore glasses, too, and was quiet like Ebony’s sister.
That afternoon we giggled and talked and ran away from their watchful eyes. In the yard, Ebony popped the question on me. “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?”
Who? I wanted to ask but I knew better. “Why?” I said.
“Well, my mom wanted to know if you believe in God.”
I furrowed my brows. Truth is, I never thought about God that much, at least not at that age and not as much as other people seemed to do. The neighbors who lived behind us were Gujarati and had two girls my age. One afternoon, they came over for popsicles and insisted on eating all the red ones in the carton. “Why?” I had asked Heena, the older sister. “Because,” she said, scrunching her face as if I came from another planet, “because red is God’s favorite color.”
Why? I thought to myself then, angry somehow. Why? Who gets to decide?
Later, with Ebony, I was getting that same uneasy feeling in my stomach. We were playing outside and her mother was watching us from the kitchen window.
“I mean,” she said, “do you believe in one God?”
One God? I kept my mouth shut as if silence could keep the future at bay. I knew what the Americans said about us. It was in the classrooms, it was in the textbooks, it was on TV.
“I mean,” I began, lying, “my mom and I believe in one God.”
“And your Dad?” Ebony asked, her black eyes filled with determination. My black eyes filled with confusion.
“Well…” Really how much could I really stretch this? Better to give her a grain of truth to make the lie more palatable. “I’m not sure about my dad. I mean, he might believe in more than one god.”
“I see,” Ebony said, quietly.
We hung around for a couple more minutes after that. But it was dinnertime, so I went home. It was a strange walk back. It’s as if the future was being written with every step.
After that day, I didn’t really see Ebony at our Nintendo sessions anymore. I would sometimes see her in the hallways at school or at the Bookmobile when she and her younger bespectacled sister stopped by to read through the shelf of Stephen King.
I always wanted to say something to her. But I was never invited back to play.
* * *
"FRESHMAN YEAR OF HIGH SCHOOL, MY FRIENDS CONVINCED ME TO SIGN UP FOR A GROUP CALLED 'ORIGINS'... WE HAD DEBATES ABOUT HOW ALL THOSE KIDS OF IMMIGRANT PARENTS, WHO WERE NOT BLACK OR WHITE, COULD LEARN TO TALK ABOUT THEMSELVES."
My first kiss: He was Black and we were in middle school. We were returning home from a biology field trip to Sandy Hook. We had to collect algae specimens from the marshes there. But we were all obsessed with the nude beach just out of reach. How far away from the marshes and river reeds would you have to wander to get a peak at some naked sunbathers? We strategized our voyeurism for hours, and tried to escape from the class to edge down the beach. But the sand was endless and the water gray. And in the end, the only sign of the nude beach we found was a bloated tampon lying on the sand.
Later on the bus ride home, I was sitting in the back with a bunch of kids playing truth or dare. The truth games started off with innocuous questions like “are you a virgin?” or “how much of a virgin are you?” The dares were equally innocuous. Under fire next was a kid who was shorter than me and looked about two years younger. We were both skinny as twigs. He got up to kiss me. I think it started with a dare.
* * *
By high school, I was a music-kid, something of a math nerd, and an obsessive reader. On school nights, I’d stay up late reading books that were not assigned for class. And ‘round midnight, with too many words on the brain, I would get up to write stories, poems, lyrics, plot lines—anything that made the hand itch. In the mornings, I’d wake up an hour early to go to band practice. After school, I helped to edit Eidolon, the literary magazine of our high school. Although I had been in newspaper clubs before, I had no interest in journalism in my early teens. Freshman year of high school, my friends convinced me to sign up for a group called “Origins.”
Origins was all about racial difference, and as the name suggests, racial origin. It was a club where people spoke openly about their family histories, their ethnic origins, and the traumas of race and racism they had experienced in their life. Every meeting was packed with students and every meeting was equally eye opening and uncomfortable. We had debates on the floor about affirmative action. We were called at random from our seats. We had debates about Bill Clinton being called the first Black president. We had debates about how all those kids of immigrant parents, who were neither Black nor white, could learn to talk about themselves.
The club definitely helped generate conversation, but in a way, it also helped to categorize and separate us. After each meeting, I always felt that I had been given an identity that I needed to workshop and uphold like a shield to the horrors of the world. The problem was, I wasn’t sure if I agreed with the identity being assigned to me. Nothing was so cut and dry. And moreover, why should I just be one more pattern?
* * *
That thing about race
Once you become an adult,
all gloves, all bets,
everything is off
* * *
Some prickly things about race:
1. When I was in my early twenties, recently graduated from college, and in Seattle to do my MFA, it would annoy me to no end when Seattleites (read: white) asked me when I had moved to the country or exactly where I had been born. When I was feeling especially prickly, I would answer back, “I guess I moved here when I was born...in California.”
2. Once on a date with a lit major in Seattle, when I asked the musician who was pestering us with an accordion in Pioneer Square if he could play bossa nova music instead, he asked me, “Are you from Brazil?”
3. When I told them I was Indian, I got the question “which tribe?”
4. Later, when I told my lit date that I would be going to India for a cousin’s wedding that summer, he said, “It’s back to the mother-ship, huh?”
5. Back in New Jersey, at a family gathering, I told my relatives that I was dating a Japanese guy in Seattle. My great uncle laughed, “So what, does he make you walk twenty steps behind him?”
6. In Seattle, a professor in a postcolonialism class (which I gleefully dropped) once surveyed the room and pointed to the only white guy in the room beside himself and said, “I guess we’re the only two Americans in the room!” Later, he emailed an apology to me but I still dropped his class.
7. An English professor at a university in Boston (which shall not be named) once pointed across the hall and said we could take classes in the African Studies department if we found his syllabus to be lacking in Black voices.
8. Also in Boston, a very famous poetics professor once asked me if my native tongue was English since my essay writing contained the veneer of journalistic prose.
9. Another poetry professor looked over at me, at that time dressed in a knitted beanie hat, corduroy jacket, and jeans, and said, “Have you had to fight a lot in your life?”
10. When I was about to introduce my German boyfriend to my parents over Thanksgiving, my father said to me on the phone, “But don’t you want to marry a nice Bengali boy. Someone like me?”
11. Once while visiting my boyfriend in Seattle, a Black man boarding the bus behind us said, “So you like some tan?”
12. Too many strangers I have met for the first time in America, when told that I am Indian, have responded by saying, “I like Indian food,” or “I’ve had Indian food, once.”
13. On the way to the library back home, I had a minor fender-bender. A car, trying to cross traffic, pulled up halfway on my lane and just stopped instead of turning. The distance was too short between us. When the police came to check out what happened, I puffed up to defend my turf. The family in the other car was Indian, but they were “fresh off the boat” or “fobulous,” as we snickered about the international students in college. The police listened to me speak perfect Jersey-girl Americanese and chided the family with the rambling words and heavy accents. Secretly, I got a kick out of that.
14. Once, in Berkeley, I met up with a former student of my husband’s, who had studied abroad that summer with him in Leiden. I had no idea why she wanted to meet with me. She was a lawyer by profession and was only taking Indian Civ for fun. Halfway through dinner, she dropped the bomb: “I’m surprised he would marry someone like you.”
15. My first week in Munich, when I realized I was, at the time, the only South Asian in my neighborhood by a mile, a woman came up to me at a metro stop, and said that she loved yoga and that her guru would love to meet me if I was free.
16. At AWP, when I was a grad student and still fawning over my first meeting with Junot Díaz, I came back to my low-budget hotel room only to be greeted by the owner of the hotel at the door. He said that his girlfriend had just broken up with him and he was already over 40 and wanted a baby. He then proceeded to look me up and down as if he could see through my boots and sweater and skirt. He said that he had heard that Indian women make great surrogate mothers and that he had found a website where you hire Indian women and their bodies to have cheap, pain-free babies for you.
17. Speechless after that moment, I recalled that the story that Junot had read, the first story in his collection, This is How You Lose Her, was about a young Dominican man at Rutgers who cheated on his then Black American girlfriend with a “curry pussy.” Yep, that passage: redacted. Final Cut Pro.
18. Overall, what did I learn about racism in my 20s and early 30s? I learned it comes in many forms, and always when you least expect it.
When Michael and I started filming on the second day, we decided to go to a neighborhood in Paris called Barbès—this was a place, Chris, our cameraman said, which was full of people of color and recent immigrants. When we had initially talked about filming locations over email, I hesitated to go to a neighborhood where people of color would serve as salad dressing for our shots. After those barbed exchanges on camera the first day of shooting, I called my husband back at home. He listened to me complain and then had a suggestion, “If you don’t want the passersby in Barbès to just be framing your shot,” he said, “why not just interview them instead? You can ask them questions about race and racism in France and in America. And you can see if their views match up with yours or with Michael’s.”
Bingo! When I suggested the plan to Michael the next afternoon, he seemed pleased. But when I told him the origin of the brilliant idea, he said, “Wait a second. You’re telling me that the dandy came up with this?”
“Yes, the German guy with the British accent.”
“He’s not a dandy!”
* * *
Nous faisons un film sur le thème de la race et du racisme aux États-Unis. Que pensez-vous de la race en Amérique? Que pensez-vous sur la conflit entre la noire et la blanche?
Comment est la race en France adressée?
* * *
“Wow, Barbès has changed a lot,” Chris, our cameraman said, as we stood at a busy intersection that featured a McDonald's, a glittery coffeehouse, a newly built mini-mall, and numerous tobacco and phone card stores. “It used to be a lot grittier.”
I looked around the street. There were young men in sharp suits and glossy shoes, young women in tight jeans and oversized glasses, women in multi-colored hijabs, men hanging outside kebab stores in stone-washed slacks and bomber jackets. For every person who looked down and out, another walked by who looked like she owned the place. There were Black people, white people, Turkish people, Arab people, Indian people—everyone here. Barbès was an intersection. On initial glance, it looked like any neighborhood in Brooklyn. It was full of minorities and there were hipsters swaggering at every corner.
“There also used to be a lot more color here,” Chris mumbled under his breath as I gave him the side-eye.
"OVERALL, WHAT DID I LEARN ABOUT RACISM IN MY 20S AND EARLY 30S? I LEARNED IT COMES IN MANY FORMS, AND ALWAYS WHEN YOU LEAST EXPECT IT.
* * *
But, as it turned out, filming in Barbès was a rush. It was terrifying to approach random strangers on the street with a microphone, unsteady camera, and a voice full of shaky questions and random phrases in French. But over the last few days, Michael, Chris, and I had become something like Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, right? Un pour tous.
One of the best moments during filming happened unexpectedly. We were filming two young Black men—one in a crisp white dress shirt named Livio, and the other in a Supra baseball cap and navy tee named Loïc. The question that they both fixated on, initially, was the difference between racism in the US and in France. Loïc, in blue, said, “Aux États Unis, le racisme est une rampage.” (In the United States, racism is a rampage). Livio described society as a pyramid built on money—its hierarchal structure and obsession with wealth was the source of all hypocrisy, he said. But then he went on to say, “tout est raciste. Ego appartient à tout.” (Everything is racist. An ego belongs to everyone.)
At a certain point during filming, the interview turned into Livio’s solo. He gave examples of the racism and discrimination he had experienced in France and commented on the racial violence in the United States. Loïc, mostly nodded in agreement, but once Livio took center stage, it was hard to get a word in edgewise.
During the tail end of our three or four interview segments with Livio and Loïc, a short, stocky middle-aged man of South Asian descent came up to our group. Many passersby were watching us filming and some even waved to the camera or walked with it when Michael and I had sauntered down the street earlier. Others told us to get out of their neighborhood with phrases like “Fuck English.”
This time, this man didn’t stop to wave but leaned back on a parking pole just to Livio’s right side and just listened. He watched us interview for a while and then gestured to me. Since Michael was holding the mic, I went over to him off camera.
“आप क्या हिन्दुस्तानी हैं?” (Are you Hindustani?) He asked.
“हाँ, मैं भारतीय हूँ।” (Yes, I am Indian). I answered.
“आप क्या हिंदी बोलती हैं?” (Do you speak Hindi?)
“थोड़ा थोड़ा। मैं बंगाली बोलती हूँ।” (A little. I speak Bengali.)
“आप क्या फ्रेंच बोलते हैं?” (Do you speak French?) I asked him as he crossed his ankles and leaned further against the traffic pole.
“नहीं, मुझे फ्रेंच नहीं आती।” (No, I don’t understand French.)
“और अंग्रेजी?”(And English?)
“थोड़ा थोड़ा। मैं श्रीलंका से हूँ।” (A little. I’m from Sri Lanka.)
“यह सब क्या है?” (What is all of this?) He gestured back to Michael, Chris, Livio, Loïc, and the small crowd of bystanders watching us.
“हम एक फिल्म कर रहे हैं - 'रेस' के उपर।” (We’re making a film project—on race.)
“अच्छा।” (Okay,) he took in the scene, and after a beat said, “मैं ने सोचा कि आप हिन्दुस्तानी हैं। और मुझे लगा कि आप लड़की हैं बहुत सुन्दर! आप मेरे साथ
कफी पीयेँगी।?” (I thought you were Hindustani. And I thought to myself what a beautiful girl! Would you like to have coffee with me?)
“नहीं, शुक्रिया।” (No, thanks.) I said, trying to keep the laughter out of my voice. “घर पर मेरे पति हैं। फिर भी, बहुत शुक्रिया।” (There’s a husband at home. But thank you).
The Sri Lankan man gave me a wink and a “ta ta” and went off on his way. I looked as his figure disappeared into the crowd, and thought this is a man who would never make it on tape. He was of an ethnic minority, but who would validate his presence, let alone his ideas on race?
* * *
The last interview we did in Barbès was at a chichi coffeehouse with walls full of glass windows and an open-air roof. Too bad the service didn't match the ceiling.
It was late afternoon, and the sun, already low in the sky, haloed behind us. Michael and I got into the boxing ring. This afternoon, it was the usual topics. In this conversation, who was Chomsky and who was Foucault? Who was the moral zealot and who was the clear-eyed rebel? We traded words and hands and glances.
Our eyes fell on everyone else entering and leaving and chatting in the room as well. The place was filled with locals—there were French people of color, sure, but also a whole assortment of hipsters. At the hipster table behind us, the white kids were wearing bowties, khaki jackets, apothecary glasses, Aztec wraps, and over-the-top chignons. To our left was a young black man in a silver suit.
“It would be great if we could get him on camera,” Michael said, pointing with his finger at his chin.
“Yeah, but how?” I looked at the young man who was leaning towards the woman across from him and clearly engrossed in conversation. He was wearing a matte silver-gray suit, framed by a white collar, and a head full of pinned-back dreadlocks. The woman across the table from him looked Middle-Eastern. She was younger than he was, with brown hair and wide eyes. She looked casual and student-esque in her floral top as she turned towards him. They talked quickly, leaning into one another as we watched them, sipping our coffee. They must have been aware of our keen interest in them because periodically they would pause in mid-conversation and turn their heads towards us. The glances went two ways.
After much fan-dancing over coffee cups, we finally got up the nerve to say hello.
“This is it,” Michael said to Chris and me as the couple got up to leave. This would be our only chance to talk to them.
“Pardon, monsieur,” I said, as the young Black man and his girlfriend walked by our table. They paused and looked at us as I told them about our film project. When I asked them if they would like to be interviewed, the young man looked to the woman he was with.
She shrugged and looked sheepishly back at him.
"MANY PASSERSBY WERE WATCHING US FILMING AND SOME EVEN WAVED TO THE CAMERA OR WALKED WITH IT WHEN MICHAEL AND I HAD SAUNTERED DOWN THE STREET EARLIER. OTHERS TOLD US TO GET OUT OF THEIR NEIGHBORHOOD WITH PHRASES LIKE 'FUCK ENGLISH.'"
I guess it was all the confirmation he needed, because he grabbed the empty seat to Chris’s right and sat down. Chris moved down and found a seat for the young woman so we could all sit at the table together. Michael got up, too, and then our conversation began.
Chris explained to the couple that he would like to film them for the documentary we were making. I told them about the general theme for the film. But, perhaps because they were young or happy or even well-to-do, they declined to be taped on film. We were allowed to record their conversation. At least that was better than nothing.
He was Zowa, and she, Ariane. The first thing we asked the couple was about their experiences with race and racism in France.
They both had radically different experiences. Zowa came out by saying that he hadn’t felt much racial discrimination directly. He was, after all, part of the African bourgeoisie, and he didn’t feel threatened on the streets or betrayed by his fellow countrymen. He also explained that despite being African, he belonged to the long lineage of French culture.
Ariane had a slightly different take. Many of the women we'd interviewed in Barbès refused to talk about race or racial discrimination with us or said that they had not encountered much racism (a group of Muslim women in hijabs said they had to run home to take care of their babies and couldn’t talk, another young student in a hijab said she had never felt targeted by racism). On the streets of Barbès, these comments seemed jolting. Several African men had said yes to our interviews, and many of the younger African men had said that they had encountered hypocrisy in society and of course, direct racism. The older African men had faced discrimination as well. And perhaps only one Black woman had said the same. So why had so many women of color in France refused to talk about racism or any discrimination they had felt personally?
The question bothered me. Ariane was the first woman to say that she had faced some discrimination, perhaps because she was considered mixed race.
Later that evening, when I spoke with Fazia, the Algerian receptionist at the hotel we were staying at, she said that in France women encounter much less explicit racism and discrimination than men. “If you have a beautiful face, what are they going to say? They’re not afraid of you. They want you,” Fazia had said, her eyes glowing. Her family was Kabyle, an ethnic minority in Algeria. Marguerite, my friend who was a scholar and former Latin teacher in France, would later tell me, “Of all Algerians, those who are Kabyle are the most beautiful and the most liberal. Maybe their beauty comes from their independence.” Needless to say, Fazia, who looked like a super model, seemed as if she could easily call forth a fleet of ships and an army of men. Likewise, her older sister, Fatima, who was absent that summer, could literally knock the wind out of you with just one glance. And their younger brother with his skinny ties and skinny jeans poured hot tea like he was offering you a proposition. And maybe he was.
In any case, Ariane was one of the first women to discuss encountering racism in France. But Zowa contradicted her. He went on to talk about his take on race and racism in the US in comparison to France.
“It was only when I went to the US did I realize I was a Black man,” Zowa said.
“I was dating a white woman at that time.” I saw Ariane slouch down in her seat as he said that. “And my girlfriend and I, we were visiting New York and renting an apartment in Harlem. It was only there in New York that I encountered the brutality of racism. They didn’t like it. The Americans didn’t like me being there with a white woman.”
Ariane, who had been leaning back further and further in her seat away from him, looked positively miffed. Her lips twisted as she tried to catch his attention. But Zowa kept on talking.
“It was the only place where I had no history. Where people saw me, and all they saw was a color. It didn’t matter who I was.”
“It was because you were with her,” Ariane bit in.
“No,” Zowa contradicted like a sage, “it was the attitude of the Americans.”
The interview went on like this for a while. Like Livio before him, Zowa enjoyed basking in the spotlight. As he did, Ariane disappeared a little. By the end of the interview, she was barely looking at him. After I asked for their contact info, he shook our hands and said thank you. Ariane did, too, but she was already heading for the door. Zowa followed but he faced us, smiling as he walked out. He was completely oblivious to the tension brewing in his girlfriend.
“How did it go?” Michael asked, waiting for us in the hallway outside. Chris and I had been so absorbed in the interview that I hadn’t even realized that Michael had left the room.
“Um,” I said, as we watched Zowa head down the stairs with Ariane speaking quickly and quietly beside him, “I think those two are headed for a fight.”
Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds
I’ve been thinking a lot about what Michael said. About that Ross McElwee quote:
“When are we caressing? When are we exploiting? Are they the same? Maybe it’s impossible not to do both. Maybe that’s the truth of human relationships.”
The McElwee quote suggests that every caress is a moment of exploitation. Isn’t that what we’d like it to be?
Where else does a caress turn into exploitation? In the voyeur’s watchful eye? In that elongated moment of antici—pation? In the erotics of conversation, the domination and submission in the very act of speaking—of listening?
Is it in that moment when a fan watching the tension escalate between two teams on a basketball court, decides to throw a drink at the player he most loves? Most despises? Could care less about?
Is it in the pat on the back by a master to a slave? Is it in the transaction between an owner and a pet? Is it in the tugging of hair by a lover who’s absent? Who likes to be in charge? Who only sees his image in the mirror in front of them?
For animals who thrive on touch, what’s in a caress?
* * *
There’s a little game we play. The neighbor across the street and me. It started the day we moved in. Her balcony faces our kitchen window. The first week I was in Munich, it was the dead of winter. The snow fell like ash in the streets. The sidewalks were iced.
And coming into our apartment for the first time, the first thing I noticed that evening was that window.
That evening, we made mulled wine and ate powdered Christmas cake. Our kitchen was lit with candles. The table littered with chestnuts and shells.
Across the street from us, just fifteen feet away, the balcony was dark. But there was a man standing there.
Once the festivities were over, I turned off all the lights, and moved the dishes over into the sink. I turned on the water and looked outside and noticed him still staring across the street. He was looking directly at me. He looked tall. He might have been Turkish or Moroccan. And he was buff.
This I knew because he wasn’t wearing a shirt. Even though everyone else was in oversized sweaters in Munich.
We continued our staring contest. Me with soapsuds on my hands—him with something like a grin on his face. It was hard tell in the dark. And the moment veered into the eerie side of erotic.
I turned off the water, thinking I’d had enough. Suddenly grateful for the distance and the snow and all the stairs between us.
That was the first and last time I saw that man on my neighbor’s balcony. But soon after that night, the woman who owned the flat across from ours—the one with the orchid and the Buddha in her window, the one whose hallway directly lit into her bathroom, and whose bedroom stood directly behind her balcony—began this little game of ours.
We called it “Rear Window.” Because this game started at night. It began every evening when we entered the kitchen. We made dinner at six, at seven, sometimes even at ten. And at all these times, she was there. At first, we waved it off as a coincidence.
“She just likes to smoke,” my husband stood, drying the dishes behind me.
“It’s weird,” I said, stacking away the dishes. My husband left the room and flicked the light switch behind him. Now our kitchen was dark. Just like her balcony. I watched her from the corner of our window. Hoping not to be detected.
All I needed was a pair of striped pajamas, a cast, and some binoculars to transform into Jimmy Stewart. But what would I see? A murder? An assignation? A lonely neighbor who was just a bit too nosy staring back at me?
The game continued every night. And it became more elaborate. Over the course of the two years we’ve lived in the apartment, our neighbor has found ingenious ways to escape our detection.
After a couple of nights of pitch darkness from the flat across the street, I thought she had gone on vacation. I looked through the window aimlessly as I wiped the countertops, trying to get a glimpse of her Buddha statue through the curtains.
And that’s when I noticed it. A single red flickering ember suspended in thin air, just a few inches from the balcony guard-rail across from me. It was a Hitchcockian caress.
She had turned off all the lights in her apartment so we wouldn’t see her shadow sitting there. But she was watching just the same. As if we were some sort of sports channel and she just couldn’t get enough.
“At least she’s not plotting our murder,” I said to my husband when he came in to grab a drink.
“Are you sure about that?” he said, nonchalantly.
And so we decided to keep ourselves in play.
She pretends not to be there. And we pretend not to see her.
* * *
Small towns, microphones, conversations on race. Sometimes even a moment of exploitation is a moment of acknowledgement. Isn’t that what our interviews were all about?
Is a caress that moment when an individual—a person of color, a video-gamer, a wimp, a book slut, a woman, a passerby, a person off camera, an American in France, a lady in a wheelchair, a man in a silver suit, a girl in a hijab, an observer leaning against a post and speaking Hindi, a friend, a foe listening, really listening—tries to access the mind of another, trying to ask that question what do you see? Why? What do you see in this world of ours? How do you see me?
Is that moment a caress or is it something else? Is the very act of wanting to know—to know better, to know more, to access the mind, the heart of another—is that a caress or is that an inherent exploitation? Always a trespass of sorts?
Is that what we do to everyone not like us? Does the very act of looking closely or listening deeply suggest that we are encountering and are enraptured by the exotic?
Is it because we hunger to belong to a club, any club in the world, really, that wouldn’t have someone like us for a member?
So what’s in a gaze, friend, foe, lover, rival?
There’s intimacy, intimidation, surprise, sure. But in that moment, in that brief connection of eyes, is something more primordial, something sidereal and unknown.
In that moment, is a caress an exploitation? Or is a caress a fucking privilege?
Rita Banerjee is the editor of CREDO: An Anthology of Manifestos and Sourcebook for Creative Writing (C&R Press, March 2018) and the author of the poetry collection Echo in Four Beats (Finishing Line Press, February 2018), the novella “A Night with Kali” in Approaching Footsteps (Spider Road Press, 2016), and the poetry chapbook Cracklers at Night (Finishing Line Press, 2010). She is the judge for the 2017 Minerva Rising “Dare to Speak” Poetry Chapbook Contest, and the Executive Creative Director of the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop. She is currently working on a documentary film about race, voyeurism, and intimacy in the United States and in France, a novel about a Tamil-Jewish American family in crisis during a post-authoritarian regime, and a collection of essays on race, sex, politics, and everything cool.