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Unruly Visions


In conversation with Gayatri Gopinath
By Gayatri Gopinath |
OCTOBER 14, 2019


Gayatri Gopinath is Professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, and the Director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University. She works at the intersection of transnational feminist and queer studies, postcolonial studies, and diaspora studies, and is the author of Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures (2005).

In the first installment of SAADA's "In the Mix: Conversations with Creators" series, we ask Professor Gopinath about her newest book, Unruly Visions: The Aesthetic Practices of Queer Diaspora (2018).

Books are often attempts to make the reader think about a big idea in a new way. What ideas is at the heart of your book and what new way would you like people to think about them?
Unruly Visions begins and ends with the contemporary Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari, whom I put in conversation with South Asian diasporic artists such as Allan deSouza, Chitra Ganesh, and Seher Shah, but also with African American, Latinx, and indigenous Australian artists and scholars. The book’s method is juxtaposition, or what I call “queer curation,” where I juxtapose seemingly incommensurate texts to make apparent the resonances between them. This allows for what I call “a queer diasporic optic,” an alternative way of seeing that brings into focus intertwined histories that traverse the South Asian diaspora but that also exceed it. I use the term “queer” to refer to non-normative sexualities and genders; but I also use “queer” to name other ways of seeing and sensing the world. Ultimately, what is at stake for me in this book is that it is about imagining alternatives at this particularly grim moment in history. I look to the aesthetic realm – and queer visual art in particular – as a site of possibility, one that makes evident the entanglements, overlaps, intersections, and intimacies of these histories and geographies. I argue that it is through queer visual art that we can excavate those submerged intimacies in order to imagine other possibilities of organizing social life.

Is there anything in your personal life or that of someone you know that inspired you to care about this topic?
All my work is deeply personal, but in this book, the personal stakes are even more up front than in my earlier work. I have some personal or political connection to most of the artists I write about in the book. The first chapter in particular engages my own familial history: what Kerala as a complicated space of “home” means to me, and how we in the diaspora have a deep ethical responsibility to address the ongoing legacies of caste and class privilege that we inherit. How do these hierarchies make themselves felt in the diaspora? How do we acknowledge and undo these forms of privilege and hierarchy? Some of the artwork I write about in that first chapter grapples directly with these questions.

What resonance do you think your book has for parts of the South Asian diaspora, per se?
My first book Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures was, as its title suggests, all about the South Asian diaspora. Specifically, it focused on how queerness manifests in South Asian film, literature, music, and performance throughout the diaspora. Unruly Visions builds on and departs from my first book by focusing on the connections and entanglements of the South Asian diaspora with other diasporic histories (African, indigenous, Latinx, Middle Eastern). My point in this book is that there is no way to talk about the South Asian diaspora without also considering other racial formations and migratory histories: that these other formations and histories are in fact intrinsic to the South Asian diaspora.

How have you changed as an author since your first book?
I think I’ve become a bit looser in my writing style. When I reread my first book now, I appreciate how careful and thorough the argumentation is, but it also strikes me as so belabored! I was trying so hard to carve out a space for the work I was doing: queer, feminist, diasporic, interdisciplinary cultural studies scholarship at a time when that was not an easy thing. It still isn’t. But now I don’t feel the need to argue quite so hard for the validity of what I am doing or claiming. I can relax a little bit in my own writing style, knowing that queer diaspora and queer of color critique is now an established field of scholarship and that there is now a second and third generation of scholars doing the work and taking it in vastly different directions than I could ever have imagined.

What advice did you receive that really helped you in the writing process or what advice would you have for new authors?
Obviously having other folks read drafts of my work was hugely useful. The best feedback I got was that my own voice was subsumed under the weight of all the scholars I was citing. Citation is super important in academic writing: it shows that you are part of a collective endeavor and gives credit where credit is due. But I was so overburdened by being dutiful to everyone who had come before me that my own contribution was being buried. As one of my readers said to me: get rid of the scaffolding. This encouraged me to place many of the citations in footnotes rather than in the body of the text. So one piece of advice I would give to new authors in academic publishing is: make sure your original contribution shines through clearly. Don’t use other people’s ideas as stepping stones to get to what you want to say yourself. In terms of my writing process: I was able to finally make headway on the book when I simply set myself a goal of writing for just two hours a day, every day. That’s how the book got done: by carving out a precious two hours a day. Doing this felt less daunting than setting aside a whole day, or larger chunks of time. Bit by bit, it got done.

If there is some social or cultural or political change that could come about from people reading your book?
I would love a reader to come away from my book with a renewed appreciation of how deeply interconnected our lives and wellbeing are with those who seem utterly distinct and separate from us. What would it mean to live your life knowing that it is radically and intimately bound up with those who seem so distant from you? I think you’d have to move in a very different way, make really different decisions in your life. I think that’s the beauty of the art that I’m looking at: it forces us to grapple with that radical relationality.

What books would you suggest readers turn to in order to learn more?
I’m very much in conversation with the amazing queer scholarship of my peers and those that have come before me. This book is indeed part of a collective project to imagine otherwise, to think about alternatives to the here and now, to the current ways in which we structure our world. Queer scholarship has always been about imagining alternatives, and so I’m very much indebted to and in conversation with the work of queer scholars José Esteban Muñoz, Jack Halberstam, Martin Manalansan, Tavia Nyong’o, Juana Maria Rodriguez...the list goes on.
Gayatri Gopinath is Professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, and the Director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University.