Rani Neutill recalls a literary workshop in which a white man critiqued her ability to write in “proper” English.
Rani Neutill | Longreads | May 2019 | 11 minutes (2,723 words)
It is day three of the writing workshop. I sit in a small room with a table fit for ten. The chairs, blue and plastic, are uncomfortable. The table, smooth. The walls, buttercream. I cram writing, reading, and workshopping into four hours a day. Each morning a slight wind breaks through the New England summer heat and wafts salt through the air. It reminds me that the ocean is not far away. I am grateful to have five days away from waiting tables and teaching so I can learn and write.
Covered in greens, reds, and orange, I wear tank tops that expose my tattoos, that make eyes follow the lines of my decorated arms. My skin has grown into a deep brown from the sun’s finesse, from the batches of melanin that lay under my flesh, from my mother’s Indian blood.
All my classmates are white.
I have meticulously selected this date, smack in the middle of the week to present my work. I wanted time to get acclimated, to know my fellow classmates, to feel comfortable around them. When I walked into the room on the first day, I felt my difference, my race, my arms marked with color. I knew my story would be different. How questions of racism and immigration might not pertain to the other members of my class. The eight pages I workshop are from the memoir I’ve been writing for three years about my mentally ill Bengali immigrant mother and the way she tragically died. A memoir about the silence around mental illness within South Asian communities. A memoir about the costs of beauty defined by racism, a quintessential Bengali story about the impact of the forces of migration and colonialism.
The teacher is intelligent and kind and has encouraged helpful criticism, beginning with an author’s strengths. She does not like the Iowa Workshop type of annihilating appraisal. Students talk about what they like. Then a fellow workshopper says,
“I guess I’m the only one who hated this piece.”
My skin combusts into tendrils from the force of his statement. My back sharpens. Eyes wide, I turn towards this man. I am thankful there is a student between us so I don’t have to be near his translucent skin, his bald head shimmering under the fluorescent lights. Sweat beading on his brow. His long grey and red beard, his attempt to look distinct. His small silver earrings, his attempt to look edgy.
The class takes a quick breath, exhaling after two Mississippi seconds. It is a pause and silence that registers what was said. That impenetrable word, hate.
“I found myself furiously crossing things out and correcting grammar, fixing sentences and wondering when this writer learned to speak English.”
I wonder if he has British blood. I was a professor of postcolonial literature for sixteen years. I am familiar with the white man’s interrogation of colonized peoples’ ability to speak English. I read and taught Freud and Lacan to analyze the white man’s words; Kipling, Macaulay, EM Forster all come to mind.
I am livid. I was born in the United States. English is my first language and I speak it fluently, but am embarrassed because my relationship with the language is fraught. My mother’s English was fractured. Her accent muddled white people’s perception of her. She tried hard to rid herself of that accent, to sound like a “real” American. As she grew older, her Indian accent crept back in and her English became broken.