Narayan

"And then I wrote queerly ever after…"

Madhu Narayan

This piece is a meditation on how I lost and eventually regained my ability to write: it performs the turmoil that I experienced during my first few years in graduate school. Here, I employ the term "queer" in order to describe non-normative performances of identity, especially within academia. In some popular discourses (and in some academic discourses), queer is synonymous with gay /lesbian. I believe that this is a reductive way of understanding queer. In this piece, I employ queer as a metaphor to articulate the dissonant ways in which some of us experience concepts and processes such as identity, home, writing, coming out etc. I believe that queer encourages dissonance and engages it in ways that are ultimately revealing and productive.

On being unable to write:
I sit here and watch the clock: time flows past me in waves. It engulfs me on all four sides; it moves onward and forward. And yet, I remain unmoved by it. I sit here and watch the clock.

"To write, to be a writer, I have to trust and believe in myself as a speaker, as a voice for the images. I have to believe that I can communicate with images and words and that I can do it well. A lack of belief in my creative self is a lack of belief in my total self and vice versa—I cannot separate my writing from any part of my life. It is all one."
~Gloria Anzaldua, 1987

Occasionally, I try to move my hand over my silent keyboard and type a word or a phrase. I stop, re-read and then I delete. It is constant, this continuous loop of inscription and erasure. I cannot write because I don't think that my stories are worth telling; I believe that there is no need for them. And so, I continue to watch the clock.

There are times when I think that I wasn't always like this. There was a time when the sheer act of writing was enough; when my stories didn't have to add to "existing scholarship" or when I did not feel an impending sense of doom the moment I committed my thoughts and myself to paper. Where did this come from, this sense of inadequacy, this feeling that the words that I see right now are weightless, without texture and without meaning?
I think I know.

It takes a while before I can make myself rise from my chair and approach the closet. I am keenly aware of my body at this moment: the knot of anxiety at the bottom of stomach, the slight twinge of pain in the small of my back, the dryness in my mouth and throat and the pounding sensation on the left side of my head: it's been a while since I have approached this closet for this specific purpose. It's been a while since I filed away those memories in this black space where my voice loses emphasis and silence shrieks back at me.

Reflections on the Closet:
It is a strange place, the closet. It is, all at once, a place and a state of being. It is a physical place that you can run into and hide so that the rest of the world does not witness how inadequate you are. And yet, you can be in the closet even when you are "out" among other people. You see, there are different kinds of closets, there are different ways of being "in the closet," and there are different ways of coming out. It doesn't matter if you are gay, straight, bi, queer, black, white, brown, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Muslim: at some point, we are living in closets that are made by us or for us.

And yet, while I know these things, while I am aware that hiding is not the best option, that hiding things away never solves anything, I continue to store my most painful memories in the darkest recesses of many closets: real and metaphorical. Years later, when I rediscover these secrets and memories, long after they have lost their power over me, I usually find the courage to pick up and throw away these impotent scraps of the past. But, now, this memory is too fresh, too new to be forgotten.

"If you are doing something that is so strictly forbidden by the patriarchs, you must be doing something right."
~Marilyn Frye, 1976

now, at this moment, when I finally manage to open the door to the closet, I am whelmed by a wave of anticipatory nausea: I know that in here I will find proof of my inadequacy, of my incompetence and my inability to write. Carefully, I look through all of the folders that have accumulated in the back of the closet in the past few months: there is a file that contains a stack of bills; another contains a mass of university transcripts and degree certificates: proof of my ability and my literacy: you are entitled to be here, they scream at me. You worked hard to be where you are. You are not a poser, an impostor, a fake. And yet, I am not convinced.

underneath these files lies the evidence that I have been searching for: it lies covered in an innocuous beige folder. I am afraid to look at it. I am afraid to touch it. I am afraid that when I look at it, it will make my eyes bleed or burn my fingers. And yet, out of a perverse sense of curiosity, I yank the pages out of the folder and greedily read the handwritten words on the back of the first page.

It is so anti-climactic, this moment. I expected tears and devastation and yet, all I can manage is a wry and tiny smile. Why was I so afraid of this?

Two little statements populate the blank page. In bold black ink, they politely ask:

"How do you see your work adding to existing scholarship?"

"What is the need for your story?"

Statements are events. They happen.
They make a mark.
They leave a scar.
They create blocks in the ordinary flow of time.
Statements matter.

The Writer's Tale

This is a true story.
The truth lies in the middle.
This is not a true story.

I have been a graduate student for an eternity: four years is a long time to be in graduate school. This is truly a queer world: it is full of insecure people and it is replete with closets of their own making; in this world, in order to survive, in order to prove that you exist, you must write yourself into it, over and over and over again until you've written enough to be read. And yet, there is a chance that when you are read, it is not your voice that is heard, but someone else's.

It is my worst nightmare to have my voice taken from me, to have my story written over by someone else. And ironically, when it did happen, it happened in a class about writing: we were learning to tell stories. I wanted to tell a story of my own, a story of my life, a story that I felt was worth telling. I took my ideas to my professor and every single time I visited him, he would say, "This story has already been told. Try another one." Every single time, I took him a piece of writing, he wrote over it with his black-inked pen and showed me why my writing was all wrong and then he rewrote everything in his own words. We reached a point where my words and his words were one and the same, where my thoughts and his thoughts seemed to be extensions of each other and my writing and his became one and the same entity. Worst of all, I began to believe that my version of my story was not worth telling and I adopted his version of my story, believing that it was better and that it was the way my story was meant to be written.

In the end, when I finally turned in a draft of my work, it came back marked and scarred by his black-inked pen.

"What is the need for your story?"

Statements Matter.

On Home
As a child, my favorite stories were always the ones in which, at the end of the
I can never go home.
adventure, everyone got to go home.
There was a sense of completion about

I've found that the hard part of the story is never done.
these tales, a sense of closure; the hard part of the story is over, the
dragon
The beast changes into a nastier version of itself, the dragon never dies and I
can never sleep.

is slain, the beast is transformed into a beautiful prince and the princess
Between pages, between lines, between scenes, I am constantly written into new stories. I am constantly writing myself into new stories.
wakes up.
And then everyone gets to go home and live happily ever after.

And because of these new stories, I can never rest, I can never go home.

What is the need for your story?

I wish I could say that all this was just about wounded pride; that my precious ego was devastated at the prospect of receiving a B on a paper in graduate school. But there are statements that take a toll on you physically and mentally: they bend your body and your psyche under their weight. You learn them by heart, you repeat them to yourself and by the force of that repetition, they become more real than other statements and other stories. When my professor asked me about the need for my story, it felt as if he was asking me why anything I wrote mattered at all; if my work wasn't fulfilling some kind of imagined need or if it wasn't contributing to existing scholarship, there was no need to write anything.

If I am not writing to fill a hole in existing scholarship, does my writing matter?
If I cannot provide a rationale for everything I write, does it mean that it is not worth reading?
If so, why write? Why write at all?

On Home(less)ness
How does one find home? How does one find this mythical, yet most common among places? How do you find home when you do not feel
at home within yourself? How does one find home in a real geographical location when one's internal sense of geography is torn apart?
When I live in three different locations in three different continents all at once?

Sometimes, late at night, I often have loud nightmares about not being able
to go home: these are the worst kinds of nightmares with a lot of pushing
and screaming and shoving and, worst of all, there is always nowhere to
run to, nowhere to hide, nowhere to feel safe and I wake up feeling lost,
helpless and panicked.

How does one find home? How does one find a specific space, a specific place that one can go back to? Or is home not a place at all? If so, what is it?

What is home?

Reflections on Coming Out:
I come out to myself every day. It was hard at first. The closet is a seductive place. So, first I crept out wearing disguises: I donned all kinds of camouflage and crept out into the sunlight, hoping for acceptance. It didn't happen.

It took me a really long time to understand that unless I came out to myself first, I could not seek acceptance from others. That unless I learned to like who I was, unless I learned to like the way I talked, read, wrote and thought, no one would.

So that's when it began: the great strip tease. Each day that I crept out of the closet, I would take off a layer of my protective camouflage and toss it back into the closet. I learned to speak out, to think out loud, to write the way I wanted to and I learned to like it. I learned to filter out the voices that I heard until I heard the one that I recognized as my own. And every single time I heard a voice telling me that I was not "good enough" or that everything I was saying had already been said or written, I learned to pause, to think and to write back.

Writing Back
Dear Professor X,

"If you feel written on, write back."
~Malea Powell, 2008

It's been a while since I have corresponded with you, but I have thought about you a lot. I have thought about you so much that you don't even seem real anymore. Over the summer, I spent weeks and weeks being depressed about the way things ended between us. I remember the way it happened: first, you refused to see me during your office hours and then, when you did, you stared at me as if everything I was saying resembled gentle flakes of snow falling to the ground. You watched as the words left my mouth, floated to the floor and gently melted. Have you ever felt the same way before while you were speaking to someone? That everything you are trying to say is weightless and without texture? As if all your ideas are turning into flakes of snow as they come out of your mouth? I imagine not.

What is it about my story that you felt was so distasteful, so unappealing? Was it because my story did not mirror your own? Was it because I refused to take your ideas and replicate them in my writing? Was my thinking too different, too queer? I asked myself these questions for a long, long time and as I thought about them, I came to believe that there was something wrong with me and that if I couldn't think like you, I couldn't be an academic. So I locked myself in a closet of fears and insecurities and every single time I tried to tiptoe out of it, I confronted the blank-inked scars made by your pen; and so I crept back into my closet.
How does it feel to know that you haunt me to such an extent that every

I will, most likely, never have any answers to these questions.
single time I write something I hear your voice telling me that "it's already
There will never be any sense of closure, any reprieve, any validation.
been done," or "it's already been written," or that I "need to rewrite it"?
I must write my own answers, I must write my way into answers.
How does it feel to know that the voice that I hear while I write is not my own?
This is my voice, this is me, this is who I am.
I am a writer. I write.

Make no mistake. This story is not about you.
This is not your story.
You are only as real as I allow you to be.
You are only as real as I want you to be.
You were made out of jagged words and fragmented memories of people, words and places.
You have no real power unless I invest you with it.
This story is mine.

On Homecoming
First, it took me a long time to understand that just because I didn't have
"Home" is a normative fallacy.
a home, I was not home-less: the fact that I cannot return to a specific
There are different kinds of homes, there are different ways of being home.
geographical location does not make me inferior.
I do not belong to a home, it belongs to me. I make it. It is what I make it.

I have resigned myself to the fact that I might never have the kind of homecoming that has been codified in myth, fairy tales and in the status updates of my friends on Facebook and Twitter. For those of us without a home, for those of us who can never go home to a particular geographical location, disorientation and dislocation are our home and we learn to live and thrive in its discomfort. There is always a distant sense of loss and separation and yet there is never a clear sense of exactly what has been lost or separated. There are days when I wake up feeling alienated from my self, as if I am an impostor surviving in someone else's body. As if I am on vacation within someone else's being.

And yet, out of this sense of discomfort, dislocation and disorientation, I learn to write myself into a home every single day.
As long as I keep writing, as long as I inscribe myself into existence,
I am home.

***

References

  • Anzaldua, Gloria. La Frontera / Borderlands. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1999. Print.
  • Frye, Marilyn. The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. Freedom: The Crossing Press, 1983. Print.
  • Powell, Malea. "Dreaming Charles Eastman: Cultural Memory, Autobiography, and Geography in Indigenous Rhetorical Histories." Eds. Gesa Kirsch and Liz Rohan. Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2008. 116-27. Print.

I am a second year Ph.D. Student in the Rhetoric and Writing program at Michigan State University. I write, I teach, and in my free time, I make trouble.

Photo in table of contents: "Closet Door" by taberandrew, flickr.