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.
In the United States, when I refused to speak her first language, my mother chased me around the house, wooden spoon in hand. I locked the door and hid under my bed, the darkness soothing me, coaxing me into invisibility.
A fellow workshopper says, ‘I guess I’m the only one who hated this piece.’ I recoil.
“I don’t want to speak Bengali!” I cried.
“It is my language. You must learn it!” she always screamed back.
Phrases became second nature and fell from my mouth with ease. Relatives in Calcutta always remarked, praising my mother,
“Baah! Rani toh khub bhalo Bangla bolte pare?”
My mother beamed with pride, proud that her American daughter was learning about her culture and adopting her native tongue. But she also needed to sound like an “American,” so no one would question where she belonged. They always did.
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My mother flew me across the world to visit her mother, my Dida, each year. My Dida did not speak English. When she tried, I had to stitch up the meaning between Bengali and English words, suturing them into something comprehensive. At times I missed months of school, and with them, the lessons on subject-verb agreement, on proper comma usage. My writing became fragmented. After my white father’s death, my mother lived off his life insurance, traveling around the world. When we went to places like Hong Kong and Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, people always asked her, “Where are you from?”
“Planet earth!” she’d respond.
I can still feel my mother’s hand wrapped tightly around my wrist as she pulled me through airports where I learned the names of whiskeys, vodkas, perfumes, and lipsticks in duty-free shops that were too brightly lit. Then I spent hours in uncomfortable airport lounge chairs, waiting to reach whatever temporary destination my mother had designed for us.
My mind falls back to my present reality and the man’s critique of my language. I bite my tongue and concentrate on the pain so I don’t cry. After all, I need to learn what’s wrong with my work for it to grow. But this man’s interrogation of my ability to write in English burns like the orange embers on the tip of a cigarette. I pray it quickly turns to ash.
No one intervenes to criticize his racist remarks. I know they notice the word hate from how the room loses its breath. But when I bring it up later, people say, “I didn’t notice he said that.” Hate is where they stopped listening because it does not pertain to them. They do not recognize how it festers with paternalistic condemnation of my ability to communicate in a language he believes he is master of. They do not register the ways his comments about my English are far worse than the word hate.
This man is a psychiatrist. He speaks of Freud and analysis. He is the dean of a prestigious medical school. He notes that many of the applicants are now Chinese and how hard it is for him to understand their broken English. As he says these things, the spittle of disdain forms around the corners of his mouth. He is assertive. Cocky. He continues his review of my pages, looks over at me, challenges me to look him directly in the eye. I am not up for the confrontation.
“Part of loving someone is telling them what you hate,” he says. “It is a gift of kindness.”
I think, How can you love me when you don’t even know me? I begin to wonder if he thinks of me when he is alone in a room, left with his anatomy.
Bile rises up my throat and reaches the tip of my tongue.
I note the history in his statement. How loving relates to hate. How hate relates to loving. When the British colonized India they believed they were saviors, rational beings who would educate the natives and give them real language, not babbling tongues. The British praised themselves for giving Indians the written word, saving them from the primitiveness of oral traditions. Desire for something Other festered within the British as they condemned the natives and their savage ways, saving Indian women from Indian men, giving Indians what they believed was the ultimate gift, the English language. I wonder if this is what the psychiatrist feels, the hubris of being a gift giver and savior, when he turns his head towards me and says, “I love you. I hate you, too.”
How much power he wields as he psychoanalyzes my words.
Later, I speak with the teacher. She doesn’t recall his remarks about my English but she does remember the use of the word hate. I explain to her how racist his assertions were, how wrong, but I flounder about. I feel shame, pettiness for not ignoring him and moving forward, and yet I know that I must mention the simmering cinders of his words now inside me. She is kind and asks, “How can I do better?”
I am grateful but have no answer.
That night I examine the man’s grammatical corrections and his marginal comments. I take in how literal he is. How very clinical and clean. How very dry. Anger sears in my throat. I stare at his edits for what seems like hours until I begin to rip the pages apart. First horizontally and then diagonally then vertically, every which way I can. I wish I had a lighter, could set fire to the edges and watch the curl of the burn, watch it decimate, incinerate his response to my sentences, my vowels and consonants. Instead, I take the pieces of paper and shove them into the small trashcan next to the kitchen sink. I push them down to the bottom amidst banana peels and coffee grounds. My hands now sticky and stubbled with trashy remains of his analysis. I immediately wash my hands, not bothering to dry them. I let the water drip off of me. I do not want any dry and clean remains of his analysis.
I think of Viet Nguyen’s OpEd in the New York Times about the place for people of color in the traditional Iowa Writing Workshop. The push towards showing, not telling. Nguyen notes this drive, how it does not recognize that people of color must tell their history, a history that was thrust upon them. They do not have the privilege of only showing, not telling. I think of the psychiatrist. I feel I must educate this man and make him confront his racism. I email the OpEd to the entire class. No one responds but him. His email is only to me. He tries to sound enlightened.
“I hope,” he writes, “it calls us to expand the methodology to be more inclusive.”
Does he remember his statements, his declarations about my ability to speak English? Why am I the only person he emails? Why was my work the only work he loved and hated? What do I provoke in him? What kind of love and hate?
The next evening students are invited to read a single page of their work to an audience. I muster up the courage to get on the stage amongst people who have published books and won prizes, so much more accomplished than me, I shake.
I walk to the podium with insecurity and fear. The psychiatrist is in the audience. I fix my gaze away from him and read about my mother, the harrowing way she died.
After, a woman approaches me and thanks me for my work. She tells me how she cried in response, how I evoked sadness and uncontrollable emotions. As I linger with her, the psychiatrist hovers nearby. I feel his loitering, his tall, thin frame looming towards me. The heat of his presence, his preoccupation with me and my work. I do not want him near me. I draw out my conversation to avoid his impending approach. Still, he waits.
When the woman leaves, he steps toward me to tell me what a good job I have done, as if his approval seals my talent. He is gracing me with his knowledge, his love that I vehemently want to destroy.
“I just wanted to tell you that you did an incredible job reading, really moving,” he says.
“Thank you, thanks, thanks,” I reply.
My skin tightens in response to his proximity. I hide my hatred and anger, uttering forced pleasantries.
“It was a great experience to read my work,” I nervously say. “I am glad you enjoyed it. It is hard for me to read my work amongst so many accomplished people.”
I am embarrassed by my admission, that I have confessed my insecurities. I walk away.
Months go by. An essay I have written is published. I am proud of this piece. It has taken months to revise. The essay is about my Dida and the performance of gender. It is about the romance novels I loved as a child and a moment when my Dida tells me I am cursed with sexiness. It is about how sexiness does not equal love. I think of the psychiatrist. I feel the need to send him the essay to illustrate my success. I do not think about how my essay is about feminism, but also about desirability. Perhaps in the layers of my unconscious I realize that I am desirable to this man, but not in the ways I want to be. I begin to psychoanalyze him. His hovering and his challenging look, his email to me, his love and hate and kindness. How much does hate relate to sex and the desire to control? They are inextricable. I know he knows this. He did, after all, cite Freud. I, after all, know Freud’s work. I think, for him, I am powerful in my sexuality, but he does not see the prowess of my words. I want to be wanted in all the ways he does not want me: my writing and the stories I narrate and create. I want to know that he believes I can create sound, grammatically correct sentences.
No one intervenes to criticize his racist remarks. I know they notice the word hate from how the room loses its breath.
I email the entire class to tell them my good news. He replies all to my messages and announces to me, to the class:
“It’s wonderful to read a fully realized piece of yours, abrim with intriguing crosscurrents of pathos, edginess, and — yes — sexiness.”
I ponder his statement. The words, “fully realized,” “intriguing,” “sexiness” and “abrim.” I psychoanalyze his words and think of how for him I am intriguing. I wonder what he means by abrim. I know that “realized” means understandable, that “fully realized” means finally accomplished, that I have finally learned how to speak and write in fluent English. How it pertains to my ability to write clearly, not broken. His commentary is laced with paternalism and condescension. It is spiked with hate and the repulsive natures of his probable desires. It undermines me. He probably does not register this. I can psychoanalyze him, but he cannot psychoanalyze himself. Such is a white man’s privilege.
I do not respond.
More months go by. I hope I have moved on from the psychiatrist’s scathing critique of my language. I hope I have proven my ability to write a “fully realized” story, a grammatically correct sentence. But one night, I have a dream that I straddle the psychiatrist while he sits in a blue vinyl dentist chair, probes, excavators, and forceps around. I recall the time I had a tooth extracted. The procedure took over two hours. The dentist used a vial of Novocain to numb the left side of my mouth. I still felt a piercing pain whenever he pulled. I told him this, but he did not believe me. Not until fat wet tears mixed with black mascara ran down my face. The dentist administered three more vials but I still felt a sharp spasm when he tried to extract the infected tooth. He had to saw it in half and remove it in tiny pieces. In my dream, as I sit on top of the psychiatrist, a bright white glare illuminates his face from the burning lights above. It exposes every wrinkle that crawls through his forehead and around his eyes. I grab his face and press my fingers into his jaw. He winces with pain. It makes me happy. I furiously shake his head, as if to break his neck, his wrinkly skin on my fingertips, the coarseness of his beard. The glint of his silver earrings. Bile rises up into my throat, travels all the way to the tip of my tongue, once again. I want to vomit all over his face. Instead, I wake and touch my face, explore its heat, how it’s scorched with hatred, red and hot. I wonder if this means I love him, want him. I know it does not.
* * *
Rani Neutill’s work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Catapult, Hobart, Redivider and she has work forthcoming in The Rumpus. She is working on a memoir about fractured identity and her relationship with her mentally ill Bengali immigrant mother.
Editor: Sari Botton