Bound to the Masthead, or, Honorarium Slavery

I have an advertiser at $200 per annum who reminds me that I cannot stop posting. This means each post, at one post a day, is worth approximately $0.55 USD. I feel like Virginia Woolf, commenting on the economy of a small college for women in Three Guineas, or like Thackeray and other writers who were paid by the word. I myself know a writer in Uruguay who is paid by the character, that is, the worth of his output is measured in units comprised of individual letters and punctuation marks.

I recently read a book, and I am reading another. The first was the first novel of a former student of mine, now a friend; he is a creative writing person and this is the first novel he has had come into print. I bought it from a store, of my own free will, because I want to support this person’s work and also because I am interested. I read it and enjoyed it and it was recreational since I had no responsibility toward it, and I was also genuinely interested to see what a longer piece by him would look like, since we have discussed writers and writing a fair amount. I also read novels with new eyes now that I am writing one, so it was interesting. This is what it is to read the work of one’s friends and students for pleasure, without pressure or obligation.

The book I am reading is an edited collection of essays I agreed to review. One is well advised not to agree to review books, but I agreed to this for various reasons. But the book is further out of field for me than I’d realized it would be, and it is very uneven. I do not really have full authority to say that, and I do not want to alienate the authors or any of the related editors, in the case of this book and these texts.

For me to say anything I would actually like to say, I would have to undertake research to write this review. That is out of place and I am reduced to writing one of those dull reviews that describes and summarizes. I am reminding myself that these reviews are in fact useful. If you have not seen the book, a review that describes it with minor comment is a good substitute for standing in a bookstore or library looking at it. But this review, this kind of reading and writing, is a real chore.

Then I have a pile of books received. People write books or publish them and send them to me, because I can have them added to university library collections, or review them myself, or give distribute them to others who may review them and bring attention to them books in that way. I am glad that when people send me these books, they do not send specific instructions on what I am to do with them. I am happy do do all the professional courtesies I can, as I have often been a beneficiary of these; often, though, for reasons having to do with time, the best I can do is have their book catalogued and placed in our library.

But what one does, at least in the Mediterranean and South American venues I inhabit, is not to press for them. This may be a major difference between the atmosphere I am used to and the way people function in more British, or North/West European, or “whiter” venues what was called “Anglo” where I grew up. I don’t really know how to word this but the image I have of this “Anglo” attitude is one of expansion: it marches in like an army, punches you in the face, and tells you what to do or say, or how, in general, you should function to promote it.

Another difference I notice between the venues I primarily inhabit and the ways people act in the English department, say — and this is particularly true of Americans — is that they never say anything even vaguely negative about anything they have been asked to read. They say laconic things sometimes, or use evasive formulae such as “I am so glad you are writing, I really want to support you in that;” but they do not say anything negative.

I also noticed the other day that it isn’t quite proper to be too positive: I told one of the English students last week that he should send his essay to a journal, and he laughed derisively in my face. It was an insecure reaction, I know, discomfort with praise, but it was interesting how condescending he, a student just past the M.A., suddenly became to me: tsk, tsk, little professor girl, you could not know how hard it is to publish and what kind of quality is really required, whereas I, a man, understand the wide world.

But back to having actual reactions, giving one’s point of view: in my venues, that’s what one does if one is genuine, even if it means telling someone something like, you know, I would omit this scene if I were you, it doesn’t seem to fit. Not to do this would be the sign of disrespect, and saying anything that indicates you have read and not skimmed, is a sign of respect even if it is not gushing praise.

It is hard for me to use the word Anglo, especially to refer to an Other, because it is a stereotype coming from a place and time I am not in; because in that place and time I was, at least technically and interms of privileges held, a member of that group, and would not have presumed to allege otherwise; and finally, because from where I am now, I feel that to speak in a grossly negative way about “the Anglos” is to support the French colonial attitude, and I want no part of that. Nonetheless, I am about to use this word to refer to another, in a situation in which I feel the Anglo is the Other and I am not one.

One of my correspondents has been upset because I commented upon finished products as though they were near-finished. This person has been wounded by those who assume she will have certain attitudes because of her race and where she is from, and defines herself as a non “Westerner.” But my reaction to her upset — and it is not the first time I have had this reaction, I have just set it aside because I know it is likely to be seen by this person simply as the reaction of a “Westerner” to a “non Westerner” — but my reaction, the reaction I have had before, was to think:

Oh dear, I forgot, I am dealing with an Anglo here. I forgot that I need to be prepared for extreme aggressiveness on their part and for their expectation that others will subordinate themselves to them.

For this is my experience of Anglo behavior. I also note that when people do not subordinate themselves to the Anglo, they genuinely have their feelings hurt and are wounded. I feel responsible because their pain is genuine, and I am its immediate cause; but at the same time I am not responsible for their having been structured in this way and I cannot sacrifice myself to it. So these situations are awkward for me. There is actually something I would say to this particular person, though, and I will now practice saying it:

Stop worrying about what I or anyone like me thinks of your work. You have a Ph.D. now and two complete manuscripts, an academic one and a creative one, and both are good. If I were you I would be shopping them around to good presses — I mean Routledge, HarperCollins, White Pine, or for the creative manuscript any press no matter how small which will do distribution for you. Focus on what these presses think of your work and on what African writers and critics say about it.

As you know, there are several African literature series in good presses. There are more academic literary journals like Calaloo and more journalistic and creative cultural journals like Transition. You should be looking at venues like these. You should create a truly professional website — not just fool around with Facebook and YouTube. You should do these things whether you want an academic career or not, and you should consider getting an agent; because whether or not you decide to be an academic, you have already become a writer.

You need money for yourself and your projects; you might as well put yourself in a position to make some. Self-publication and guerrilla marketing have their place and I see the point of refusing to touch the “establishment;”  there are real dangers in professionalization, too, I know. At the same time there is a romantic quaintness to these ideas that may not serve you well. For instance, you should be discussing memoir, Bataille, and formlessness with a Leiris scholar.

My main department has, at this time, so far as I know, one transgendered person, three lesbians, two gay men, two bisexual men, and two members of polyamorous households; there may be more queer people in it I am not aware of. I am from San Francisco where everyone is gay, and I lived in Barcelona where everyone is gay, too. When we hired our fourth lesbian she was upset with us all because she wanted us to be upset about her orientation. She wanted to be our first. She wanted to experience discrimination from us and then teach us about it. She was frustrated with us because we as a group were not equipped to provide this experience. She was also a rather presumptuous person, and when she did not get the things she wanted, she understood this to be discrimination by reason of gender, and race, and sexual orientation.

She was right on a certain level. Our institution is a plantation and every woman, every non white person, and most if not all queer people are somehow discriminated against. And our field is discriminated against because we teach languages, literatures, and cultures of brown people. But this is a systemic situation and was not directed at her as an individual, and it was certainly not mobilized against her by any individual.

I am of German, British, and Russian descent and my family moved to what had been New Spain in the nineteenth century. Once a television repairman went to my mother’s house. He seemed foreign and she, out of friendly curiosity, asked where he was from. It turned out that he was literally from her property. He was Chumash and my mother’s house was on his land belonging to his ancestral village. I am arguably more culturally Mexican, which means mestizo and “Indian,” than I am “American” but I hold a U.S. passport and when I am not speaking Spanish am usually taken for white. And on this weblog, I am a sculpted detail on a Mayan stela. I am assuming, however, that that man would like his land back, and I am sure the pinto beans and poblano peppers I am eating right now, having bought them in a nice supermarket, were grown by actual Mexicans. There is a difference and I insist upon respecting it. By that I do not mean I insist upon preserving hierarchies; I mean I refuse to deny what class I am actually in, even if I do not like it.

Here is a trivial, yet telling example of that difference. At Christmas, I was at an apartment in Brazil that my friend had rented for her son. They had a star shaped hanging light fixture they were trying to install, very beautiful. The problem was that given the architecture and angles of the place, the way in which the fixture could be installed made it look like a pentagram. They were concerned about this — it looked good, but was it a good idea to hang a pentagram in one’s room? I said, go ahead and don’t worry. It looks good and it may attract nothing bad; if it does, deal with it then, but for now, I recommend putting up the pretty fixture and assuming the best.

They looked at each other and said: “She is a free Anglo-Saxon, that is why she is in a position to say that.” And it is true on so many levels, even though the dollar is now weaker in some ways than the real. It had been true eighteen months earlier, too, when I was in a bus accident in Peru. People wanted to complain to the bus company and the police but were so accustomed to being oppressed by authorities that they were not sure they would have the fortitude to hold their ground. By then they had figured out I was American and the man organizing the crowd said to me, “Look. As an American you will have had a civic education that teaches you you have rights as a citizen and as consumer. You also carry a passport which gives you a certain kind of protection the rest of us do not have. I know you will not forget these things when the police arrive. I know that formally, I have the same rights as you, but I also know that I will forget this fact sooner than you will. Therefore, when the police come and I negotiate with them, if you see me start to back down, please place yourself in my line of vision and look at me; I will understand you to be reminding me that I have rights.” I thought then of Toussaint l’Ouverture and his position in the morass of Western civilization.

When the police arrived, it turned out that they were Indians, too, and had no power against the bus company. We all laughed in Spanish and Quechua, and cracked jokes about the ideals of the French Revolution we have imprinted in our bones, and the wisdom of Adam Smith and Marx that was operating. The passengers in the car we had almost sent flying down the ravine, and who had originally armed themselves with rocks and keened in Quechua, as true senderistas might, preparing to attack so as to exact monetary reparations from the bus passengers, relaxed and laughed, too. And these people were all descendants of the builders of great Baroque churches, and of that famous defender of Inca culture and humanist and Latinist and scholar of Renaissance Italian literature when it was contemporary literature, the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. And yes, this incident took place in some interstices of Western civilization and of the ancient culture of Markahuamachuco, and this area is quite remote, and the old culture lives.

And the world is wide. The hills are high, and the canyons are deep; every mountain is a god. And the rivers have many bends, and there are sacred stones at the way-stations, and at one of them you sit watching sheep and spinning. Next to you is a covered basket and you say, I have fresh bread, will you buy, Mother? Or you are wearing a business suit and waiting for a ride because yes, a bus has broken down and you have errands in town. And we are all mixed and we have been mixed for a very long time.

And I have up until now largely discounted as elitist and criollista the discourse of Ariel; I have found the evocations of “the America of Bolívar and Martí” uncomfortably close to the idearium of Sarmiento. But at this moment, speaking as a person from Greater Mexico and also as a skull on a Mayan stela, I am turning decidedly Bolivarian (although not unreservedly Chávez-ian, you understand, unless we are talking about César Chávez).

I will also never again nod and smile when any white person, from any country, no matter how much they may have been mistreated by other white people and no matter whether they are just students with growing pains and moments of confusion, I will never again merely nod and smile when any white person decides to take it upon themselves to teach me certain things they imagine I do not know, namely, that I carry a passport from a country which is an imperialist power and which, despite deep inequalities, is one of the most opulent in the world, and that I ought to be aware of that fact and think about it for once; or that I am a white person and I have white privilege which I should learn to curb; or that I am a part of Western civilization and I should perhaps consider that there might be other civilizations.

I am a professor of Spanish and Portuguese, and I work in Latin American literature, and that means I have to be aware of a thing or two. I am also a direct descendant of the masters of Wye House in Maryland, which in its heyday had over one thousand African and Caribbean slaves, and I have the papers of this establishment and could tell you a great deal about its economy. My uncles were faithful members of the International Workers of the World. My aunts worked for woman suffrage and went down to the docks in San Francisco to welcome Emma Goldman. The city was full of Chinese and they were heavily discriminated against. Then they became my roommates; that is how I picked up the habit of stirring all pots with chopsticks. They kept telephoning Shanghai and speaking in Chinese, but mixing in words and phrases like “registration” and “driver’s license.” I am not Hispanic but I learned the second national language of my country as a child, and I first picketed with the United Farm Workers when I was nine. All of these things and more are parts of me and I, too, sing America. I will never bow down to any self righteous whites, from any country, because colonialism is a world system and we are all implicated; I want liberty or death. I am beyond needing elementary lessons in the the depravities of marauding Europeans and of U.S. policy, and I have heard of instrumental reason and the Cartesian “I.” Some of the information I have for you might be details on our prison system and our arms industry, not to mention the question of petroleum; my information goes beyond nice pieties and beyond anything most People Sitting in Whiteness want to hear.

Speaking of buses, though, when I returned from Brazil in January I took a bus to Maringouin because my suitor had sequestered my car. I thought nothing of it because I was coming from Brazil where it is normal to ride the bus, but in the United States, at least this part of it, riding the bus is a down and out and very Black thing to do and the bus officials treated us like prisoners. I mean they literally treated us like prisoners; I have direct knowledge of what that is because I have been going fairly regularly to some of the less elite parts of Angola, and I have also been interpellated there as a participant in some ways and to some extent. And when I speak of my experiences in the United States of America generally, where in most spaces many lack visas, I am not always speaking of experiences involving people endowed with the first world rights of Man and Citizen.

The reason I know peer review is not anonymous is that I have an essay I cannot publish; I cannot publish it because I have an Anglo name. It criticizes, from a left and S0uth American point of view, the work of an American writer who is a member of at least three oppressed groups. It cannot be published, nice white reviewers from English departments have said again and again, because a person with an Anglo name cannot criticize the work of a person without an Anglo name, because such criticism is necessarily conservative and “racist.” It is actually one of the best things, if not the best thing I ever wrote, but it is condemned to circulation in samidzat. So I, too, am discriminated against by white people for being white, but you know, dem’s da breaks; I could be out working in the fields right now, too, but I am sitting on a nice couch in a pleasant living room in incandescent lighting with the air conditioning on since it was in the nineties today, and I am writing in a blog.

Back home in Greater Mexico, when I was young, I had friends who were blond like me and had learned Spanish like me, and they were chronically upset because in those days one, being Mexican, did not speak Spanish openly if one was undocumented, and one assumed, usually correctly, that blonds did not speak Spanish, anyway. “They do not trust me,” my friends cried. “I am not like those mean white people, why can they not believe this?” I always said look, they do not know you, they have good reason to mistrust you, and you do not have a right to their immediate trust because of what you represent, no matter what you may be like as an individual.”

I think I was right about this, and I do not expect the trust of persons sitting in situations and historical positions worse than mine, situations which exist because of the activities of my ancestors (of which I am not guilty, but for which yes, I am responsible). However, I also do not owe apologies or justifications to other persons who, like myself, sit in whiteness (no matter how culturally Other they may feel).

Not including the present paragraph this post has 3662 words, which is 14.68 pages. That is a lot for one day. I wrote it in a total of 5.5 hours — in the office, waiting for students who did not come; in a waiting room, waiting for an appointment, and after dinner; I did not know I could carve that much writing time out of this particular day, and this is the most I have written on any day, ever. It is worth $0.55, American. That means each page is worth 3.7 cents, American; so each word is worth .015 of a cent. In terms of time, I have been paid exactly 10 cents an hour for this post.


2 thoughts on “Bound to the Masthead, or, Honorarium Slavery

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