this is the oppressor’s language
yet I need to talk to you.
Adrienne Rich, “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children”
I imagine them hearing spoken English as the oppressor’s language, yet I imagine them also realizing that this language would need to be possessed, taken, claimed as a space of resistance.
bell hooks, “Language: Teaching New Worlds/New Words”
Some time between last year’s summer and today, I seem to have forgotten how to write “academically.” The confluence of (a) physically returning to Asia for a longer term than usual—from December 2018 to April 2019, to be exact—and regularly switching from one language to another; (b) the different decolonization movements occurring all over the world, i.e., the de-centering of dominant narratives in female spaces, people of color spaces, etc. ; and (c) personally wrestling with what it means to be a postcolonial doctoral student has put me in a quandary.
If I did what the academic institution expected of me—for example, submit a candidacy portfolio written in English about what I, a female international student from the Philippines, a third world Southeast Asian nation that had been formerly colonized by the United States, had done during my graduate studies in America thus far, with everything properly cited in APA—would I be perpetuating certain systemic oppressions?
I probably sound like I’m overthinking things, but bear with me here. For example:
For the writers who straddle two or more cultures, such as those in the diaspora, the language used for creative purposes is of the utmost importance. The use of one colonial language instead of another in diasporic writings conveys an immediate hierarchical relocation of literature. […] Imperialism has laid the groundwork for globalization by making English the lingua franca for international exchange. (Ponzanesi, 2004, p. 14)
The fact that I’m using English right now implies that there are parts of me that I’m unable to express unless I translate and adjust them to fit the conventional academic frame (which is heavily western). There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this per se; after all, any kind of communication relies on different kinds of translation. But now that I’m about to complete my fourth year of graduate studies in the United States and, admittedly, having never deeply grappled with how my identity plays into my scholarship until recently, I now wonder what I might have been suppressing all this time. Am I doing anyone any favors by sticking to what’s familiar, what’s comfortable, for this so-called institution called “academia”?
In the article “Making the academe matter again,” Harvard professor Abraham Loeb (2018) writes about how scholarly work often gives the public the impression that “the truth is revealed through a neat, orderly, and logical process” when “in fact, it resembles a battlefield, littered with miscalculations, failed experiments, and discarded assumptions.” Loeb posits that transparency about the research process “might enhance trust and create more space for innovation, with an informed public accepting that risk is the unavoidable and worthwhile cost of groundbreaking and broadly beneficial discoveries”.
This candidacy portfolio is my opportunity to be transparent with you, dear reader, about where I am in my academic journey. I am terrified about the fact that I seem to be in the middle of some kind of rebellious academic adolescence and you are caught in the sandstorm of it. From this point on, I cannot promise a linear narrative that neatly falls into a theoretical framework. I cannot promise that I can compartmentalize myself into separate boxes of academic, artist, citizen, and so on. I cannot promise that I won’t contradict myself at some point. (I probably will write “…as an academic” at some point and wince.) I cannot promise beautiful prose. I cannot even promise that I can capture myself in perfect English. I cannot promise that you will like what you see.
Haruki Murakami, in Kafka on the Shore, writes, “…this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step.”
Let’s go then.