“I’m nothing, if not”: An Anecdote of a Jar
To discuss my own entry into writing and publishing, I must admit a contrary relationship to publication, one probably not unique to myself. I feel that I have made exhaustive attempts to publish, and yet I also feel that I have not tried hard enough. I have never tried as hard as Michael Derrick Hudson, who was included in Best American Poetry 2015 under the Chinese name Yi-Fen Chou. Hudson admits that appropriating an Asian female name has been a successful strategy for “placing” unplaceable poems sent out under his own workaday Anglo name. I placed a jar in Tennessee. He writes, “I am nothing, if not persistent.” I never have been so persistent. I have been “unplaceable.” There are times I’ve given up and have sent out nothing. There are years where I could not even bring myself to write, much less publish. Like nothing. I never took on a pseudonym, although I admit I have often held the fantasy. I’ve had my nom de plume picked out for years. Since I’m often addressed as “Mr. Aggarwal” in snail mail and email by those who don’t know me, I picked out a male name. Terse, monosyllabic, strong. Vic Wall.
Where I am a workhorse, Vic Wall is a genius. Where I am awkward,
Vic is full of charm. He’s somebody who could get away with the bio: “Vic Wall lives in North America.” A badass maverick, he would be known for redefining post-conceptual poetry. For his slightly overexposed B&W author photo, I could pose in my most fascinating, international, androgynous angle.
Despite these detailed fantasies, I have never attempted to publish under “Vic Wall.” My friends have argued: If you really feel that your name is holding you back, you should change it! Renaming is intrinsic to the American mythology of reinvention: Walt “Walter” Whitman, Mark Twain, and my favorite, James Tiptree. Science fiction writer Alice Sheldon took the name “Tiptree” from a brand of preserves, a jar on a local grocery shelf, and fashioned herself as a secret agent in the small, intense, epistolary science fiction circles of her time. Vic Wall is my very own jar of aspirational whiteness.
And yet, I could never quite make myself go with “Vic.” Sending out work under my Sanskrit name (which apparently even I could not pronounce entirely correctly), I would occasionally receive nice notes back from editors of “good” journals, which were after all encouraging. But some of them would say things like: really fine poems but you might want to work on your sentences. Or, these are obviously highly accomplished poems, but I am not sure about “the hobbled syntax.” These moments were profound instances of disconnection for me.
It reminded me of the moments when fellow Americans in New York, L.A., Chicago, or Orlando would ask me about my wonderful “accent” and what region of India did it come from, or what country had I grown up in.
My family was from Punjab and, yes, my first language was Hindi, but upon moving to the States as an infant, my parents promptly started speaking to me exclusively in English and plopped me in front of the TV to pick up the perfect accentless American English of the assimilationist’s dream. At the point that I had successfully lost my Hindi, my parents initiated a campaign for me to relearn it, which I most vehemently refused. By now, we lived in the American South, moving from Baton Rouge to New Orleans to Bay City to Sugar Land to Knoxville, dealing with our daily portion of nasty slurs, dogshit on our doorsteps, eggs in our mailbox, and secret punches to the gut. Every year on the first day of school, I preempted the teacher’s butchering of my name (I was always first on the roll) by stating “Call me ‘Vida’” at the mere hint of a puzzled expression, although I continued to write “Vidhu” on any work I turned in, on birthday cards, on schoolgirl notes. (“Vida” followed me around until college, at which point I became “Vid,” and then “Vidhu” again, and later still “Vee,” but I was always “Vidhu” on paper, on the dotted line).
My father insisted that I should in no way speak any variant of the Southern accents around us. He was afraid I was beginning to sound “country,” and regretted that our family was forced to follow his engineering career jobshopping across the South. He came up with his own racialized epithet for our oppressors, “the white monkeys.” Among these were the strange adult men who would drive by while I was walking to and from the school bus stop or the corner store and yell faux “foreignese,” a babble of random dipthongs interspersed with occasional words like “coconuts.” “Don’t talk like those white monkeys.” My father had ambitions for me as a national news reporter. “Watch Barbara Walters and learn.” As a young girl, I had no desire to emulate Barbara Walter’s highbrow lisp. Instead, I picked up standard Californian TV English and Valleygirl slang. In grade school, I was pulled out of class every year to be tested for English proficiency as a foreign national even though I was apparently an outstanding writer. Needless to say, I got out of the South as soon as possible, but as an adult in Chicago and L.A.—global cities to be sure—I’d still every so often be asked about my foreign accent.
Many people who know me are shocked at this story, or surprised when they witness it happening. You sound 100 percent American. What! No one is more American that you! No WAY! Obviously, you were talking to ignorant, racist, idiots. And yet, these mis-apprehenders are most often nice, educated, cosmopolitan individuals like my friends, not to be confused with drive-by racist prowlers.
So I began to wonder when I sent out my work for publication, do editors think I’m “foreign” and that my experiments in language are simply “foreignese” or “bad English,” (even though “English” is a legitimate national language in India and other former British colonies)? Should I say that I am a college English professor in my cover letter to ensure that my linguistic experiments are not perceived as grammatical incompetence? Most certainly, I was finding it very difficult to “place” any of my work after over a decade of trying.
I admit: I never got an MFA, I did not have “poetry” peers, I did not live in New York City, and I was clueless about many aspects of the creative writing world. My early impressions led me to stay the hell away. I had walked out of my first creative writing class as a college freshman, never to enter one again as a student, after the famous professor told us we would never be Kafka or Flannery O’Connor. “You are no geniuses.” My one poet friend whom I had grown up with, also Asian American, enjoyed phenomenal early success, but was actively hostile towards my writing, perhaps feeling that there was only enough space in the poetry world for one of “us,” the scarcity principle for writers of colors that Jenny Zhang and others have documented. Painfully, I had to drop her though I had admired and loved her for years.
In college, I focused on analytical writing, studying early American silent film and cinematic literature at University of Chicago, eventually attending graduate school with a concentration in film, literature, and cultural studies at the University of Southern California. Scholarly publishing with “peer review” was a process I understood and in which I had excellent training, but increasingly I felt dissatisfied by the conventions of academic writing. I began to develop a growing stash of other “work,” which I anxiously revealed to a few poets I admired on faculty. Luckily, these early mentors were extremely encouraging about my work, but offered few insights into paths for publication. In a heady moment, one mentor told me: “Just wait. You will be published EVERYWHERE.” That did not happen. But I believed naively enough that “the best” work does get published eventually, and that I simply had to make my work “better,” whatever that meant. I worked and worked. I did not have much point of comparison with actual peers for quite awhile.
After starting my first job as an English professor teaching at a small liberal arts college, I began a hybrid literary and critical journal in Orlando, Florida (SPECS) in part to remedy that particular loneliness. Although I was initially hired as an expert in poetics, I was “marked” as a specialist in “world literature,” and was told I needed to teach the literature of multiple regions, and moreover publish in the multiple areas I taught in order to demonstrate my competence in the classroom. As they should, students wanted more range than my limited focus on postcolonial Anglophone and Francophone literatures of South Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa. “Teach more countries, like China and Russia,” I was told. My job, I soon discovered, and (at the time) my job alone was to master and transmit all forms of national otherness (foreignese!). Believe me, I scrambled and struggled to add a few Japanese texts in the class, emphasizing the U.S.’s neo-colonial relationship with East Asia and drawing upon Asian American writers for context, though I was hardly a bonifide “expert” in all the regions I was already teaching. Although I had spent years studying and writing about U.S./European transatlantic modernism, I was questioned often about my creds as an “Americanist,” my dissertation and publications in the field notwithstanding. Since I taught a poetry workshop, I also had to publish a sufficient number of poems in recognized poetry journals. The publication requirement applied to me was not standard but improvised to quantify my unplaceable difference—a practice discontinued after I received tenure. I mention this history, lest anyone think I’m valorizing the neutrality of academic publication over creative publication, when these areas are often intertwined.
At the same time, I began to send out my manuscripts of poems (there were several at this point) to contests, which were judged, according to the information on the sites, in an anonymous review process. In this vein, my manuscripts often placed as semi-finalist or, less often, as a finalist in various contests. I was much more successful (without actual publication) in an anonymous submission process than in sending out individual poems under my all-too visibly foreign name. Perhaps, there was less competition in book contests with their expensive, prohibitive reading fees; or perhaps, the poems were more comprehensive as a whole, rather than in small parcels. But after ten years of submitting, I still didn’t have a book.
On the other hand, while I was getting little traction submitting to more well-known “experimental” presses and journals, I was now and then being published by editors who were themselves writers of color, or committed to publishing writers of color. Sometimes they even looked for me! This was great! And yet, I was “regrettably” dropped from a anthology of South Asian American poetry by editors who had solicited and accepted my work a few years earlier because I did not, alas, have a big enough name or strong enough publications for their new, academic publisher. These editors had lost, to some extent, editorial choice in the face of “market forces,” or valuation of certain types of publications over others within an “academic” context—a practice all too familiar to me. I was not the only person cut and I do believe the editors felt pretty awful. I don’t question the value of the remarkable work of the poets who were included, but I wonder what happens when a system perpetuates the choices of more mainstream (white) journals in the first place!
Does a certain acceptable representation of Asian-ness prevail, even for Asian Americans? Does an Asian American writer have to prove competency at being “Asian” and “American?” What deformations does this entail?
My acute second-guessing about my name and my “worth” as a writer is, I sense, the condition of writing as a woman and as a person of color in the U.S. Because of my “model minority” status, people sometimes think (even I sometimes think) that I must be a willfully obtuse writer, not to be more widely published, given my instant advantage as another “Jhumpa Lahiri.” This sentiment has been expressed to me by friends, colleagues, and, even oddly enough, family. I’ve had privileges of resources, education, and time. The fact that “success” has not come easily means I must be doing something really, really wrong. And maybe I am. And maybe I want to be wrong. I’m “foreignese,” I’m for unease. Maybe my dream is not assimilationist: to become a simulation of the good charming fantasy immigrant, Vic Wall. I want weirdness. I want bite. Cosmic plasma. Not to “place” a jar of whiteness, “grey and bare,” “taking dominion everywhere,” as in Wallace Steven’s “Anecdote of the Jar,” although I too have felt “like nothing else in Tennessee”—ajar.
In entering more fully into various literary communities, I was encouraged to write work that was less “jarring.” I was told at times that maybe I should adopt a more audience-friendly style and tone (less “relentless,” more “whimsical”), or rename my “made-up” world-building concepts (such as in my “Humpadori” series into “real” dictionary words, or to turn to history rather than fantasy. I was told to write more autobiographically – to feature my “self” and my family more prominently in my poems (that’s what people are interested in). When I say “told,” I am speaking of “friendly” suggestions about making my work more publishable and less idiosyncratic. When I was part of the jury for the Florida Book Awards in poetry, most of my top choices—experimental works by women and writers of color—hardly ever made the short list. One year, one of the other jurors told me that the poets on my list were the worst writers he’d ever read! There was no politesse, no sense of “we just don’t share the same aesthetics.” He felt entitled to tell me my judgment was nothing. There was a sense that we as jurors had to preserve the integrity of the prize, shine it up through the writers we selected, support writers who had already achieved national institutional recognition. I felt my input was important and led to some alternative choices in the top three, but given Florida’s proximity to the Caribbean, its Indigenous history, and various African American and immigrant cultures, rarely in my tenure did we reward poets whose work engaged with the complexity of the region.
I’ve wondered, many times, whether poetry—a space I see for speculation in language, for alteration and injury—was too restrictive a place for me. Maybe I should turn to science fiction like Octavia Butler, James Tiptree, Nnedi Okorafor, and Nalo Hopkinson, where world-building is the norm. But then I’d think of Baudelaire, of Ai, of Bhanu Kapil and Kamau Brathwaite. And then I’d read the work of contemporary women poets who are wild fantasists, who seem to write from other planets, or parallel universes: Lo Kwa Mei-en, Alexis Orega, Cathy Park Hong, Molly Bendall. Or I’d read some badass dreamers, relentless and whimsical and charged: Metta Sáma, Shamala Gallagher, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Sade Murphy, Janine Joseph, Prageeta Sharma, Ching-In Chen. I could not give up poetry any more than I could give up my name.
The places where I see expansiveness and innovation in poetry are small presses and collectives like Belladonna*, Kelsey Street Press, Action, Birds of Lace, and co-im-press, as well as organizations like Cave Canem, VONA, and Kundiman, which are nurturing work and community in writers of color. In particular, I want to single out Belladonna* for its extraordinary recent publication of works by African American women poets—brilliant book after brilliant book by r. erica doyle, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Erica Hunt, and Tonya Foster, all complex, individual, thrilling works. Belladonna’s collective model inspired me to submit my own work to other such collectives in which writers are active participants in editorial community, and which do not necessarily have an academic association or imprint. My first book The Trouble with Humpadori is coming out in January 2016 with The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, a new venture started by Minal Hajratwala, Ellen Kombiyil, and Shikha Malaviya, to open, expand, and create a dialogue around poetry written in English across India and the South Asian diaspora in the U.S. and elsewhere, and to mentor poets. Some of these organizations I mention are relatively new (like GIPC) and some have been operating for some years now, but they are building off one another, borrowing best practices, coming up with new coalitional models and approaches. In closing, I’d also like to mention the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo, an anonymous “rogue” group whose often hilarious viral takedowns of white institutional structures are exciting dissident energies in young writers across the country. When students now ask me about publishing, I tell them, sure, send out your work, but also look to these other practices and possibilities. Start your own movements. Don’t wait for institutional recognition and validation, but participate in and create for yourselves new portals for diverse multi-verses.
VIDHU AGGARWAL grew up in the Southern U.S., primarily in Louisiana and Texas. Her multi-media works in poetry, scholarship, video are oriented around Bollywood spectacle, Mardi Gras, and science fiction. A Kundiman fellow, she is the founding editor of SPECS, a multi-media journal with issues on “Homuncular Flexibility,” “Toys,” and “Faux Histories.” She has worked with John Sims Projects on “The 13 Flag Funerals” in Florida, and with artist Bishakh Som on “Lady Humpadori,” a poetry/comic book collaboration. Her debut book of poems The Trouble with Humpdori received the Editor’s Choice Prize from The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective.