Signifiers, Saris & Samosas

Chris Creighton Kelly and Aruna Srivastava

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This dialogue is a composite of a conversation between Chris Creighton Kelly and Aruna Srivastava. It is a reflective and reflexive reconstruction of issues raised at Desh Pradesh.

A Common Language

Aruna: I think that a common or shared language is a very suspicious concept.

Chris: It's that the common language is the dominant language. Right? That's what you're suspicious of.

Aruna: Even any common language that seems common or shared soon becomes, first a lingua franca, and then it becomes a sort of way of seeing things that excludes others.

Chris: No, that's a good point. How do you acknowledge that? Let's just take it back to the conference. At Desh Pradesh, for example, people brought up agenda, like class, that are all entirely appropriate on some level, because the conference had not addressed them, but then all the agenda and grievances started coming out on the table, very fast, very quickly. And as we discussed before, that's because there's no place to air those agenda. People come with their grievances; I don't want to call it baggage because that implies that they shouldn't have it. It's totally legitimate grievances that people have, from whatever their position.

And they come to a space which is a semi-safe space, let's say it that way—

Aruna: A safer space—

Chris: A safer space, okay, and out it comes. And how do you feel about a position where someone comes into a situation like that and says, "No, this person can't speak. What this person is saying hurts me too much, takes up too much space, is racist, homophobic, sexist, misogynist, whatever 'ism' that is touching there, and I don't want this person to speak." It may be that that's just the way this person feels, but I don't care, this is not a space for those views"?

Aruna: I have a lot sympathy for that—

Chris: For shutting people up?

Aruna: In certain contexts, yeah. And I think my only reason in this particular situation for resisting that at Desh Pradesh was recognizing difference.

-"Is a roomful of brown-

Chris: No, I agree-ness enough?"

Aruna: So that would have been one of the reasons I would have said okay, let's not shut this person down.

Chris: We talk about racial dynamic facilitation or facilitation along gender. It acknowledges that it’s not a liberal context.

Aruna: And my feeling is that eventually it would really teach a lot of people a great deal to actually have an event like Desh where you included as many different kinds of groups, in terms of race and class; or geographical origin; or age, which was mentioned as well. And see how radically heterogenous then things become. With the anger arising there about homophobia, that in a peculiar sense would become an example of one sort of dominating discourse silencing another group’s sense of what makes the world right and wrong.

Chris: But how can you allow for that? How can you create a context where all the ‘isms’ are on the politically correct side?

Aruna: I don’t think you can. In that sort of liberal way, which is where I get really uncomfortable with this, you have to allow that if you’re going to include working class participants, for example, then what you have to do is include the possibilities of their very class creating a whole set of views and identities that are inimical to yours. The organizing structure of the conference would still be not with those people, would be with, by and large, middle class people.

Chris: Well, just to go back to this notion for a minute of brown people speaking theory. Is there a way of doing theory that is not west- ern European based? Because most of the writers and academics of colour in the world are, even if they don’t live in the western world, they’ve been trained in the western world. They’ve gone to school, they’re part of this international academic elite.

Aruna: My suspicion of the question is that theory is not necessarily western. I want to challenge somehow the assumption that, because theorists are trained and working within western institutions, therefore their theory is western. Because that begs the whole question of identity, the fact that these people, as privileged as their backgrounds may have been, have come from other places—

Chris: Yeah, regardless of their class, they’ve come from another culture and another place.

Aruna: And there’s a sort of an awareness that comes with that, even if it’s a learned awareness—in my case I would suggest that in many ways my sense of racial and political identity is learned. I’ve learned it through my education and peer group and so forth. But that doesn’t mean that, because it’s learned that it’s not real, or that it’s undeniably and irrevocably western.

Chris: That’s a good point. Not so much Gayatri Spivak, because I do see that as mostly western discourse, but if I look at Trinh T. Minh-ha, she does an academic thing in the sense that she stands up in a room full of people and begins to talk from a text, but when she does that, she’s moving her own subjectivity, she’s talking from four or five different places at the same time. It reminded me almost of a kind of presentation that an artist might make. It had a certain æsthetic to it. As much as any question can be value-free, and no question is, is it possible to do theory? I think what I’m hearing back from you is obviously yes, and it doesn’t matter even it it’s filtered through western thought or western philosophy like binary opposites, all these kind of dialectical principles, all these taken for given ways in which we see the world.

Cultural Appropriation

Chris: When I think about cross-cultural communication or cultural appropriation the issue becomes more and more clear to me, apart from the kind of reduced and reductionist debates that go on in this country, like “If you haven’t lived it, you can’t write about it,” and on the other side this liberal, male, you’ve heard it before, “It’s my imagination, you can’t put chains around my imagination.” When we really start to look at it, this idea that if a culture, or a cultural tradition has lasted thousands of years, and is strong, relatively, speaking—people understand it. It’s got a lot of artifacts, a lot of rituals, a lot of institutions that support it, money goes into it. It’s in the vernacular, people understand it, at least in a minimal kind of way. They can then afford to take on things like western discourse, and inflect it, filter it put new energy into it, to revitalize it in some sense. The search for a 'people of colour' way of thinking right now is really starting to infiltrate everywhere because the Western mind is looking for new intellectual vistas to conquer. But what about a culture that has not been allowed to survive, that has had to be on the run, like most aboriginal cultures in the world, and that is surviving completely despite, not because of, some invigorating cross-cultural activity? Because often it will be aboriginal people that will comment about this business of theory and how theory obstructs rather than connects us. But I don’t want to be reductionist about aboriginal people either. There are Native academics.

Aruna: And there certainly are Native art- ists. I don’t know because I, personally, have learned most in a very immediate way about remaking western culture and ideas through aboriginal art, where you have an artist like George Littlechild who consciously uses both sets of traditions, and makes strong use of post- modern irony, in entitling his pieces. Their strength comes from our perhaps false perception that this is a culture that is disappearing; these artists do a very strong and willful act of appropriation that really reaches the westerners as well as the aborigi- nal viewer or reader. A lot of identity politics in a sense requests that you stake out a certain ground and refuse...there’s a certain purity—

Chris: Essentialism.

Aruna: I’m not sure I’d go as far as essentialism.

Chris: Nationalism, perhaps.

Aruna: Once you see those identities in practice, in the contemporary post-modern world, there are very few of those cultural forms that actually inhabit that exclusive space of essentialism...


Chris: I wonder if that dialectical synthesis of modernism, the ethical stance of modernism, and the liberating multiplicity-of-voices way of post-modernism, which drops from the modernist side all of the ‘isms’, its ethno- centricity, its pillaging of other cultures, its male baggage, and drops from the post-modern side the kind of apolitical morality of—Well, isn't it all fun, it's just a phantasmagora of images," and moves forward so that we can still talk about multiplicity of voices, experiences, cultures, but have some kind of ethical way of working; I wonder if that isn't post-colonial? I wonder if that is an ethic to strive for? I don't want to call it an ideology because I'm very suspicious of that word, but if we embrace post-colonialism as more than a theoretical construct, as a way of living in the world, and away of understanding the world, understanding every transaction and interchange in the world. Are you comfortable with the term, post-colonial? A lot of people aren't.

Aruna: In my experience again it's aboriginal people who have had most trouble with the concept of post-colonialism. And I'm not comfortable with the term post-colonialism. I think it's like using 'modernism' and 'modernity'—for me there's something about the concept that makes me want to call it 'post-coloniality'—the state of being in the world—

Chris: As opposed to '-ism.'

Aruna: Yes. Because then you can quite differently argue that post-colonialism is somehow dependent on the idea of colonialism and imperialism and so forth. I think historically, in asense, it is, but in another sense it's not—

Chris: It's that it is existent both before, during and now, hopefully, after the colonials.
I do think that it is a particular historical moment. I really do. I think that all the forces that created colonialism have come back to haunt Europeans. The birth-rate, technology, migration, movement of capital, every strategy that they used to dominate the world for five hundred years—Who's got the technology? Who's got all the people? Who's moving where? Hello?" I'm fond of saying these days that the white race will be the first race to go. And I think it's dawned on a few white people, and they're joining the Reform party, but a few other people haven't figured that out yet. What's the world going to look like in a hundred years? Really. What's Canada going to look like?


Chris: I bet I know something that my post-colonial friend loves.

Aruna: Oh, yes, you have to be raised on it, though. I'm one of those people who gets into this argument about whether Vegemite is better than Marmite.

Chris: Vegemite is not Marmite. Vegemite is a poor substitution for the real thing. And you know, Australians are like that, they're like Canadians, they think that they are substitutions.

Signifiers, Saris and Samosas

Chris: One thing that Zainub (Verjee) said the other night was "I'm glad you brought the incense and candles to the meeting." It's a kind of Indian semiotic. Are there specific religious, historical modes, customs, cultural practices, "South Asian" ones, that can be brought to bear? Using that as a metaphor could you talk about South Asian places?

Aruna: I'm not sure. My instinctive answer to that is that there's nothing special because of the absolute diversity of South Asianness. Not only because in a place like Desh you had people coming from a variety of different historical cultures and religions—

Chris: Countries, and castes—

Aruna: But also you have added several types of generations worth of migration. Just take me as an example. Hybrid.

Chris: Or me.

Aruna: Or you. Of hybridity. There should be a recognition of some of those semiotic structures, so that we would say, okay, that is loosely-speaking "South Asian" even though we know it's not, like the idea of candles and the incense.

Chris: So the sari is no way out, or 'in,' is that what you're saying? The sari can't contribute to a sense of identity?

Aruna: No, I guess what I think is, that if it does, it only contributes as a kind of marker, not as any real historic connection between all those diverse groups.

Chris: Only as a marker, wait a minute. I'm not going to let you slip by with that. Only as a marker?

Aruna: What I mean is, say in a geographically distinct community, say where my father comes from, a small, small caste, and a family in that caste, so you'd have this real specificity of interest, so that the sari there functions in all sorts of ways to indicate, or as a sign of, a religious unity, a historical unity, a family unity. It tells the people in that community something about gender, and all sorts of things. Whereas at a place like Desh—

Chris: All it does is signify Indianness.

Aruna: Signifies a kind of Indianness.

Chris: Signifies 'other' to white people and a 'kind of Indianness' to other Indians.

Aruna: But to some of the other South Asian people, for people whose histories are in the Caribbean, that becomes much more problematic.

Chris: I agree, especially people from the Caribbean. One of those persons said to me at the conference, "If I see one more sari—"

Aruna: Or, "If I see one more samosa"...

Poco Pedagogy

Chris: In a sense, we've been talking about all the same things that the conference was talking about. So I think that you already know, Aruna, it's how people sit in a space, it's the notion of the panel as a kind of colonial mentality, pedagogically speaking. It's a question of circles, it's a question of light, it's a question of a way of speaking and ultimately, in any kind of setting like that with hundreds of people, it's a question of really good facilitation.

Aruna: The size of agroup, I would have liked to see facilitating things at Desh Pradesh by paring down the size of the group. But I am thinking about something else, too.

Chris: Okay, but before we go on, what do you do when you're there? How do you make the rupture and therefore deal with the fragmentation that you see? That’s important to know and I think you have that knowledge to share.

Aruna: Part of that does depend on what position you’re in, but I would say that if I felt that I had an insider’s authority, I would have called ‘time-out’ immediately as soon as there was a hint of disruption and said that this is the kind of thing that needs airing, and in a sense, larger contexts, smaller groups. I would have also suggested that if the individuals involved, the actual individuals involved in the discussion, wanted to discuss the issues separately, they should do so. And possibly using, if that’s the threatening kind of situation it might have been, to use allies for both parties so that you would have a group of four or five people. So they could sort out in their personal dynamics, what’s going on as well as their political dynamics. And then you still can't avoid the potential of more confronta- tions happening as you do that large group thing, but at least you would have a time and a space where people are coming together.

Identity and racism

Aruna: There still is something in terms of identity. Something struck me about what you just said about ‘real’ Indians, and those not being you and I, and that sense of weird inauthenticity, and fraudulence, at times coupled with a sense of belonging. Gloria Anzaldua talks about the mestiza, about the accusations against all the types of interraciality that there are. She says something about that mestiza, mixedness, as being the crux, crisis of identity for someone who is Chicana. The threat comes from those like us, who are hybrid or from those who, like a ‘real’ Chicana, might have a white mother.

Chris: Well that’s when we choose racially to place ourselves in the middle of something dangerous, but if we are already a hybrid person, then we have no choice, like bi-sexual people; they’re always under attack from both sides.

Aruna: There was a sense of community at Desh Pradesh which was based on its conceptualization as a South Asian event.

Chris: It was pre-constructed to have a South Asian identity, whatever that identity turned out to be.

Aruna: Those of us who were there who were South Asian did imagine ourselves within that identity.

Chris: But I consider myself to be on the outside of that circle, not at the centre— Aruna: Oh clearly, I feel that way too.

Chris: It’s interesting to wonder who might see themselves at the centre.

Aruna: I’m not sure that many people would identify themselves with the centre of a conceptual South Asianess, but I think others did see themselves as being closer or centres of certain groups that are figuratively South Asian. Say, the Ismiali community, from East Africa, or a bunch of people who speak the same language, or all the jokes about those of us who didn’t understand Gujarati. That became clear when the Sikhs were there as well—

Chris: Speaking Punjabi—

Auna: Yes. And you could hear them talking,
arguing among themselves—

Chris: There were Punjabis there that aren’t Sikhs too. So as I understand you, one of the signifiers to move you to the centre is language.

Aruna: Language, religion.

Chris: I’ve come up with this interesting hierarchy that I’ve tried to figure out what to do with. People, I actually mean white people, use the following categories of signifiers. The first one is what I would call language or utterance, or accent—what comes out of a person’s mouth. And if what comes out of their mouth is only Punjabi, then that’s a certain kind of signifier. If what comes out of their mouth is kind of confused English, that’s a signifier. If what comes out of their mouth is English with an accent, that’s a signifier. And if what comes out of a mouth like mine, someone with a brown skin who speaks ‘proper’ English, it’s a very confusing signifier, right? Then, the second signifier is cultural ways. That has to do with what kind of food you eat, how you dress, even really subtle things, like body language, how you walk, not what you speak, but how you speak, even like the way you might move when you’re speaking. I think of these as cultural ways, not lifestyles, but life ways, cultural life ways of people of colour. The third level of signifier, the most obvious one, is this—skin. Someone who I work with and respect a lot, says “our skins have histories.”Regardless of who we are, or how else we either construct our- selves or others, if white people see this skin, or that skin—poof—they’re into some kind of notion of otherness. What’s interesting to me is that the first one can change, very easily, it can even change within a lifetime; the second one can change very quickly, as a friend of mine says, “I’m a Jew—a culinary Jew.” The third one, which is colour, is the one, of course, that you can’t change. You can, but only at great expense and great attack on your body. So racism is all those semiotics functioning at the same time.

Aruna: Yes, because I was thinking about the kinds of racist verbal attacks I’ve had have all focused on my Indianness; you know I’ve been called a Paki; in Vancouver for some peculiar reason people use the word Hindoo. Fucking Hindoos; thought at least they’re getting more accurate. It’s as if there’s a sort of sixth sense that has something to do with skin colour, the racist’s sense. No one has ever in that public context identified my Indianness in anything other than a racist way.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
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Chris Creighton-Kelly
Chris Creighton-Kelly is an interdisciplinary artist, writer and cultural critic born in the UK with South Asian/British roots. His artworks have been presented across Canada and in India, Europe & the USA.
Aruna Srivastava
Aruna Srivastava is a professor whose interests are Post-Colonial Literature and cultural activism.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
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