Reading is a Political Encounter: On Violence, Language, and Selective Forgetting
Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi Finds Lessons in History, From Tehran to Orange County
History class, Tehran, 1994: Our teacher, a devout woman with a white diamond-shaped face framed by a black hijab, asked us to transcribe in our notebooks the heroic story of Ruholla Khomeini’s rise to power from our history textbook. Woven into the story was an invective against America, referred to as “the great Satan,” the impure empire against which Khomeini’s halo of purity shone brighter. We were instructed to copy the story five times. I refused, stating that I considered the exercise to be an act of brain washing. I have no idea to this day how I knew to call the exercise by its name. I’ve often wondered if what provoked me more than the attempt to indoctrinate us with the story of Khomeini’s heroic rise to power, a narrative sanctified through repetition, was how facile and unmasked her objective was. Easy does it, she must have thought to herself.
I was suspended. I had to sign a document acknowledging that I had attempted to incite violence. I loved going to school after that. I looked forward to feeling the unbuckled tide of resistance, to feeling my character come into being through the energy of friction. I felt like a warrior, a child warrior, ready to wage war against an educational system that actively and openly inserted state-sanctioned attitudes into our minds that subjugated us as women and taught us that our survival was contingent upon our silence.
But over time, my understanding of that incident became more complex. I grew to love the teacher who had suspended me. To be more precise, I came to respect her fury, her anger which was rooted in the erasures she had endured prior to the Islamic Revolution. The Shah’s Islamophobic ideology of westernization (the hijab was largely forbidden), his White Revolution and his mythical racist claims of belonging to an Aryan race as if Iranians are secular and ethnically homogenous, had injured her sense of dignity, the right to her own freedom as a devout Muslim woman. I did not resist her religious identity or its outward expression, but the surveillance of female bodies that both regimes practiced and the force with which reactionary and dueling historical narratives of purity and moral superiority were imposed upon my psyche in the classroom.
American history class, Orange County, 1997: I sat slumped in my chair, bored. Our teacher, a young redhead who wore polo T-shirts lazily tucked into slacks, handed us our tests on the Vietnam War. We’d learned the history of the war in broad, uneven strokes that reaffirmed and glorified the story of American sacrifice, our country’s spirit of service. We were taught the story of American moral authority, American divine purity. He said, “If I were taking it, I’d get a C.” The popular kids (wealthy, white) chuckled. I understood that the teacher had made an inside joke, that he was seeking their approval while also giving them permission to disinvest from the lessons of history.
If I asked one of those kids to borrow a pencil, they would often pretend they hadn’t heard me. They wouldn’t even turn to look at me. Or at the other immigrant students. It didn’t faze me. I continued to ask them to borrow this or that, as a kind of experiment. Each time, I thought to myself: How easily you betray your preferences! I learned that white privilege includes the right to pretend not to see or hear that which interrupts their right to uncomplicated pleasure. I suppose this was a kind of history lesson.
The narrative of the “New World” which, in its very nomenclature erases the violence of settler-colonialism, lived in the bodies of these young students in the form of an emotional and cognitive dissociation, a dissonance they did not know to recognize or to name. They operated within the parameters of an unspoken contract: remember only what glorifies you, acknowledge only what reaffirms your superiority. Nowhere in sight was the history of genocide or slavery, the failures of the Reparation, the use of Latin America as the empire’s backyard, the toxic annihilation and coopting of the Middle East, itself a term invented by the colonial project. No wonder the students couldn’t turn to look at me, at any of us immigrants, or hear us when we asked them a question. Acknowledging our humanity would cause too much of a disruption in the story line they were being invited to perpetuate.
I remember more starkly what I did not learn than what I did learn. The knowledge I have, I acquired on my own, through what I have come to call reconnaissance reading. I learned that each of the three countries I was raised in—Iran and America, as well as Spain—can be held up like a mirror to the other to trace the history of colonialism. I learned that the concept of the nation-state began in 1492 with the Reconquista, which sought to eradicate pluralism from Iberia through ethnic cleansing. I learned that the Spanish exercise in political modernity, in nation-building through the purging of Jews and Muslims, inspired Iberia’s colonization of the Americas and the subsequent ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples in the so-called New World. I learned that the settler-colonialism that manifested in America arrived on the heels of Spanish colonialism. I learned that this very model of nation formation, this very exercise in state building, continues to be the dominant mode of political modernity. I learned that our current state of affairs cannot be disentangled from deep history. That the devastation of the Middle East through military occupation, displacement, annihilation and internal collapse, got its start in Europe with the purging of non-white and non-Christian populations in the service of building a homogenous nation-state. I learned that violence was used purposefully by each new nation to generate political identities.I learned that white privilege includes the right to pretend not to see or hear that which interrupts their right to uncomplicated pleasure. I suppose this was a kind of history lesson.
So, what does history have to do with literature? Violence with language? Everything. The way we learn to tell stories can be traced to the ethics of the history classes we were raised in. And the ethics of those history classes can be traced to the narratives engaged by each nation-state at the time of its inception. The degree to which we notice these links has everything to do with whether or not our bodies are visible in the histories we are presented with. Are our ancestors represented? If they are acknowledged, how are they presented? As heroes, stars, villains, barbarians? Are we taught to feel shame as we watch our peers learn to loathe our ancestors? Are we taught to feel invisible because our stories have not been archived, are not being taught or transmitted? Have we learned that we belong to a vanishing history? These questions, which were never raised in my early education, became the central questions of my writing life. What does the continual need to manufacture an enemy say about the American, the Spanish, or the Iranian psyche? And how are minoritized writers innovating the technology of the novel or the poem—expanding language’s capaciousness—as we respond to and archive state-sanctioned violence, as we make our histories visible once more?
There is a quote by Audre Lorde that gets to the heart of the matter: “In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear—fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live.” Lorde points to the threat of making oneself visible in language when one has been made a target of history. What she is saying is, Speak and you may die, don’t speak and you will vanish. This is the double-edged sword of minoritization, of the subjugation of a group through a process of systemic mislabeling, coopting, dismissing, diminishing, bondage, deprivation, alienation, population transfer and erasure.The way we learn to tell stories can be traced to the ethics of the history classes we were raised in.
Minorities are created by the apparatus of the modern nation-state, which generates and arranges political subjectivities into a hierarchy in the service of the ‘dominant’ group. This is a form of direct rule. But the violence doesn’t end there. The dominant group’s structures of thought and feeling are perpetuated through conventions of cultural and literal production that affirm their illusion of homogeneity. This is a form of indirect rule, of ‘soft’ vigilantism that writers like Audre Lorde push back against. Lorde’s words have taught me that every speech act is both an act of resistance and a gesture of potential death. It is as if one is raising one’s hand to say, “I’m here!” knowing full well that we are subject to being “found, fixed and finished,” to use a term from military operations in the Middle East. As Joy Harjo says: “Be who you are, even if it kills you. It will. Over and over again. Even as you live.”
The longing to understand interconnections on a large scale is what makes history. But that is not what we are taught makes a good story. We are taught to disengage history, to focus instead on the private yearnings of an individual, or a family, without recognizing the ripples of geopolitical crisis that informs what kind of bread is broken at the dinner table and from whence it is procured. We are taught to write fiction of a more local, domestic yearning. We are taught to avoid an elliptical temporal sensibility, to avoid blurring the boundaries between the past and the present, the living and the dead. We are taught to deny that this aesthetic ideal is interwoven with the politics of minoritization, with the story of political modernity, homogenization and domination.
But the thing is, no reader comes to a book with a neutral gaze, devoid of a subject position. Whether or not we are inclined to acknowledge it, the fact remains that reading is a political encounter. And that writing that bears witness to catastrophe captures the affective work of violence, the ways in which the uncanny energy of terror has been wielded and deployed by nations to generate political subjects and national ideologies that reinforce social and material hierarchies. Writers like Arundhati Roy, Elias Khoury, and Angela Davis, whose work connects the struggles in Ferguson to the Palestinian struggle, Mahmoud Darwish, Nawal El Saadawi, and James Baldwin, who spent so much of his life in the Middle East, allow us to imagine an alternate future, to see the connections between systems of domination across the globe and to name them accordingly.
Literatures of Annihilation, Exile and Resistance is a research collective founded by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, and co-sponsored by the College of Arts & Letters and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and Cambridge University’s Archives of the Disappeared Initiative. Other sponsors include the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies at the University of Notre Dame and Harvard University’s Religion, Conflict and Peace Initiative.
Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Savage Tongues is available now via Mariner Books.