Inteview with Azfar Hussain: Anti-colonial poetics, politics, and praxis
By Naushad Ali Hussein, Republished from NewAge, August 2006. Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Critic, theorist, poet, translator, editor, researcher, teacher, and activist, Dr. Azfar Hussain taught English, Comparative American Cultures, Cultural Studies, and Comparative Ethnic Studies at Washington State University and Bowling Green State University in the United States before his very recent move to the English Department of North South University, Dhaka. He had worked as a magazine editor, as a member of national-level left activist alliance, and as a university teacher of English in Bangladesh before he went to the United States on a Fulbright fellowship to do his graduate studies in English literature. He received his M.A and Ph.D. in English—both with distinction—from Washington State University (WSU), and his dissertation, being the best dissertation of the year, earned him the WSU English Department’s prestigious Postdoctoral Blackburn Fellowship in 2003.
Internationally published as he is, Dr. Hussain writes in both English and Bangla, and his written works—numerous as they are—encompass a wide range of issues and topics from political economy to critiques of postmodern-poststructuralist-postcolonial theory to the anti-imperial poetics and politics of ‘third-world’ writers-activists to globalization-as-globaloney to social and spatial engineering. In addition to editing and guest-editing numerous issues of journals and magazines both in the US and outside it, Hussain co-edited a two-volume reader called Reading about the World (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999), while his book-in-progress titled Toward a Political Economy of Land, Labor, Language, and the Body has recently been solicited by Routledge for publication in its series called ‘Literary Theory and Cultural Criticism.’
What follows is an interview with Azfar Hussain, one that is conducted by Naushad Ali Hussein of the New Age—an interview that takes up, among other things, issues and themes that Hussain himself broached in a lecture he gave on Chicano/a literature at North South University a couple of weeks ago.
Surely you find deep connections between the issues addressed in Chicano/Chicana literature, and literature produced as a result of our struggles during the Language Movement?
There are connections, of course. Our language movement in 1952 acutely underlined what might be called the right-to-language—the message that the people of the world should have the right to use their own language.
So we Bengalis had to fight for our right to use our mother tongue in the face of the official imposition of Urdu as a state language, and thus we had to confront, challenge, and combat a particular version, a relatively local brand, of linguistic imperialism, one that surely had to do with what we’ve come to call ‘national oppression.’ In the US the Mexican Americans had to fight—oh yes, for a long time—against linguistic imperialism. And they’re still fighting against linguistic imperialism as such, exemplified as it is in the imposition of English by white Americans. Think of today’s blatantly racist and imperialist ‘English Only’ movement in the US. In fact, part of what has come to be known as Chicano/Chicana literature—a political name for Mexican American literature produced in the US from the 1960s onward—has seriously taken up the language question, while also articulating a range of politically engaged positions against linguistic imperialism itself. Indeed, one of the major themes in Chicana/Chicano literature is this struggle against linguistic imperialism.
This becomes evident in—among other things—the use of a hybrid between English and Spanish, known as ‘Spanglish,’ in Chicano/a literature. For Chicano/a writers, then, the deployment of Spanglish itself turns out to be an explicitly political act, one that remains opposed to the hegemony of the so-called standard English language. Oh yes, Chicano/a writers seem to be saying like the South African poet Alexis Nyundai: ‘Stick your good English up your ass!’ So see the message here?
And I’m reminded of a major Chicana writer and activist—Gloria Anzaldua. In fact, the other day when I addressed a seminar on Mexican American literature at North South University, I focused particularly on Gloria Anzaldua. Now Gloria Anzaldua’s concern with language is quite evident in her entire range of works, particularly in her politically charged and hybrid or mixed-genre work in English and Spanglish called Borderlands. Anzaldua asserts in Borderlands thus: ‘Repeated attacks on our native tongue diminish our sense of self. Until I take pride in my language I cannot take pride in myself.’ In other words, language is her identity. When language is taken away, identity is also taken away.
It is this dialectical interplay between language and identity—one that my favourite theorist-activist Frantz Fanon has so wonderfully theorized in his Black Skin, White Mask—that has variously engaged a whole host of writers from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, in the face of different forms and forces of violence that colonialism had already perpetrated on many indigenous languages in the world. Think of how numerous Native American and other ‘aboriginal’ languages and dialects were simply destroyed by colonialism—Spanish or English or French. The fact that we use English in Asia or Africa today—or that others use Spanish and French, for instance, in Latin America and Africa—has to do with, among other things, a history of colonial violence.
And, indeed, we faced nothing short of violent colonial attacks on our own mother tongue—Bangla—for a long time. Our Language Movement of 1952 was a historically and politically significant response—people’s response (check out Badruddin Umar’s seminal work on our Language Movement)—to some of those attacks I mentioned. Also, it will be no exaggeration to maintain that Bangla has long remained the language of the ‘subaltern,’ the language of the ‘lesser mortals,’ if you will. It is not at all difficult to see how Bangla still remains by and large ignored—and think of the prestige or classist prerogrative of English, for that matter—the emergence of Bangladesh as a separate nation-state notwithstanding. In other words, our anti-colonial, anti-imperial struggles can by no means evade the crucial political question of language, the question of Bangla in this instance.
You spoke about land, labour and body, apart from language, as the four sites of struggle in Chicano/Chicana literature.
Yes, I did. In fact, in my forthcoming book called Toward a Political Economy of Land, Labour, Language, and the Body, I argue that land, labour, language, and the body constitute the four fundamental sites of both oppression and opposition, and that if such sites can be examined together in their interrelationships, the entire history of capitalism, colonialism, racism, and patriarchy—interconnected as they are—can be better understood in the interest of our struggle for radical social and cultural change.
In fact, I have been rehearsing this particular argument in the field of literary and cultural criticism for quite some time now, demonstrating that a whole host of literary and cultural productions from Asia, Africa, and Latin America—including ethnic/’minority’ literatures produced within the belly of the beast called the US—are variously concerned with those four material sites of anti-colonial struggles: land, labour, language, and the body.
Think, for example, of the Latin American novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I think Garcia Marquez is an exemplary anti-colonial writer. His massive novel One Hundred Years of Solitude is differentially concerned with those four sites of anti-colonial struggle. On various registers, then, Garcia Marquez calls attention in his novel to the ways in which the people themselves cling stubbornly onto their last bit of land, even when this land is taken away from them, even when the land is finally destroyed.
And Garcia Marquez talks about those people who remain passionately attached to their own language, the language of the land, making the points that language is what they are, that language determines and defines the limits of their world and their being. And Garcia Marquez focuses rather frequently in One Hundred Years of Solitude on the very history of the exploitation of labour power—a history that is otherwise rendered invisible, a history that remains otherwise unwritten. And the body? Surely, the body is always an issue in Garcia Marquez—the body being the source and site of the production of labour power itself, the body remaining rooted in the land, and the body fashioning its own language of love and labour.
And this is the case with other anti-colonial writers from Africa, Asia and Latin America as well, and one can readily mention Ngugi wa Thiong’o from Kenya, Chinua Achebe from Nigeria, Kim Chi Ha from Korea, and Akhtaruzzaman Elias from our part of the world. All these anti-colonial writers are significantly concerned with land, labor, language, and the body as the charged, consequential sites of anti-colonial struggles.
Your interests range into politics, ethnic studies, colonialism, cultural studies, American studies, and various other areas — well past just literature, isn’t it?
Well, I am interested not only in literature, but also in the connections between literature and other discursive domains in the humanities and the social sciences. I am interested in exploring the relations between, say, literature and political economy; or between literature and social or mass movements. I believe that the study of literature cannot be done on its own. For me, then, literature as a whole must be thoroughly grounded in the world, and thus nothing worldly can be reckoned as alien to literature, and to the study of literature for that matter.
If one endorses the notion of the ‘worldliness of literature,’ as I certainly do, then one cannot bypass the necessary connections between literature itself and the material world.
So, yes, my areas of interest range quite widely. For example, I am interested in ‘minority’/ethnic literatures in the US, such as Native American, African American, Asian American, and Mexican American literatures. Also, I am interested in African, Asian and Latin American literatures. Particularly those with a focus on land, labour, language, and the body.
I have written an essay titled ‘Joy Harjo’s Poetics as Praxis: Towards a Political Economy of Land, Labour, Language, and the Body.’ This particular essay, I hope, enunciates the very political position from which I tend to operate. Well, the essay itself is an interdisciplinary study of poetry. In this essay, I bring together the discourses of literary criticism and the discourses of political economy and cultural studies not only to understand the works of Joy Harjo, who is a politically engaged Native American writer, but also to account for the very interdiscursive nature of discourses themselves, emanating as they do in the thick of social struggles.
It appears that literature is for you a means to address political or social matters, rather than just a self-invested pursuit.
I have problems with conventional literary criticism. In fact, I wrote a poem called ‘Lit Crit Shit’ quite some time ago, a poem that marks my own opposition to the tradition of self-invested, self-justifying, and even self-fetishizing literary criticism. And I read, rather performed, that poem, yes, several times in front of those literary critics who, as you know, never grow tired of waxing lyrical on the need for preserving the so-called purity of art and literature. As far as I am concerned, conventional literary criticism short-circuits certain fundamental relationships between the literary text and the world outside. As I have already pointed out, I am interested in the worldliness of literature. So I emphasise the connection between the literary text and the world in all their configurations, constellations, and complexities.
And the ‘worldliness of literature’ is a concept I partially borrow from the Palestinian-American cultural theorist and literary critic Edward Said. By this concept I mean how literature itself is grounded in the world; how literature is about the world, and how it affects the world as well. And my interest in the worldliness of literature and by extension in literary criticism prompts me to remain very critical of aestheticism, or the kind of literature or literary criticism that remains invested in itself in the name of commending or even celebrating beauty.
Surely, throughout history, we’ve witnessed literary productions that have been extremely invested in themselves. These works deliberately wanted to distance themselves from the world and the people. I have never found these works interesting. I keep thinking of some Bengali modernists and of their disciples who are still around, for instance. Think of the Sudhin Dutta’s of the world in particular—those aesthetic Brahmins who cannot tolerate the presence of the contaminating masses. But, as I am saying this, by no means am I suggesting that literature has to be propagandistic. It is not to suggest that art forms have to be overtly concerned with the people. What I am saying here is that literature and literary criticism cannot but be worldly. And, of course, my special interest resides in how literature itself keeps contributing to the production, circulation, and exchange of what I wish to call ‘emancipatory consciousness.’
Well, if we were to see literature as an art-form, then surely it has a basis in the quality of aestheticism. You wouldn’t say that music, for example, must have its roots in issues of the world?
There are distinctions between music and literature. Just like there are distinctions between painting and literature. Although literature might have certain qualities of music or painting, one cannot say they are just identical.
Secondly, I’d submit that even music is grounded in the world. Music has to do with, among other things, sounds. And the world we inhabit is replete with all kinds of sounds. A musician selects, reproduces, modifies, recreates sounds from nature, from space, from time. I believe that if a person wants to have clues about the musical, he or she needs to understand what the body and nature are all about. Learn how to listen to the body. Learn how to listen to nature. And you keep listening to music. I have here what I wish to call a body-and-nature theory of music—music as a spatio-temporal event. That is to say, that which does not reside in nature and in the body cannot reside in music and vice versa. So, see, there are already connections between the world and music, howsoever remote or indirect those connections might appear in time and space.
There how can there be a way to divorce the world from literature?
It is not a question of literature being automatically divorced from the world as such, because the world is already in literature. It is rather a question of realizing that very connection, and doing something creative about it. There are literatures which, as I have already pointed out, attempt to distance themselves from the world, sometimes in the name of aesthetic distance itself. But the fact is—oh well, no matter what the distance is, no matter what the pretensions and claims are—the literary simply cannot transcend the world, nor can it transcend the historical. The point, I guess, I’m accentuating here is that the interplay between the word and the world, the charged discursive site of which is the literary work itself, must acknowledge its relation with the world, and creatively work through it such that we can keep opening up spaces of possibilities in the interest of the emancipation of the land, labour, language, and body of the global subaltern.
You mentioned ‘emancipatory consciousness’. What exactly do you mean by this in terms of literature?
‘Emancipatory consciousness’ is the kind of consciousness that enables one to envisage or imagine a better future for humanity. And emancipatory consciousness is the kind of consciousness that prompts one to orchestrate organic links between imagination and action, between the word and the world, between theory and practice—rather praxis. Yes, praxis is important here. And praxis is more than practice, of course; praxis combines theoretically informed practices with practices informing theories themselves.
It is true that there are certain disciplinary discourses that promote, for example, capitalism either deliberately or uncritically, whereas capitalism is a global and local—say glocal—system of exploitation and oppression. Emancipatory consciousness would then enable us to reflect critically on the world, and come up with strategies whereby positive changes can be brought about. It is the kind of consciousness that is fundamentally concerned with the emancipation of humankind from all forms and forces of oppression and exploitation.
When I speak of forms and forces of oppression and exploitation, I also speak of certain macro-structures of power-relations and production-relations such as capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, patriarchy, and racism, profoundly interconnected as they are, and profoundly or adversely affecting the sites of the land, labour, language, and body of the global oppressed. The macro-structures in question have kept all sorts of problems alive in the world. Knowledge, of course, must be used in service of our struggle against those macro-structures of domination and oppression.
Literature, for me, then constitutes just one source and site of the production of emancipatory consciousness and emancipatory knowledge.
Surely, Bangladesh has a long way to go, in the direction of economic and social emancipation. Do you see our literature leading the way there?
The relationship between literature and emancipation is an important one, but it is not always a very direct or mechanical one. Literature is not something that will bring about change or offer solutions overnight. But literature can certainly play a crucial role in terms of creating a critical consciousness—or, say, literature can even decisively play an enabling role in terms of producing, circulating, and exchanging what I’ve meanwhile called an emancipatory consciousness. Literature can contribute to the creation of the kind of culture that would further create conditions for change.
I feel some of our young writers are very promising and productive. They can certainly be compared to, and are perhaps way better than, many promising writers I have seen elsewhere. Also, as far as comparison is concerned, I feel we need to be acutely conscious of how we turn out to be at least complicit in the production and reproduction of what I wish to call ‘unequal discourse-relations’ that seem to be corresponding to the production and reproduction of unequal power-relations themselves across the world. We need to do away with the kinds and manners of comparisons that not only produce and reproduce but also legitimize and justify all sorts of hierarchies between the ‘great West’ and the ‘poor East.’ And think of those Bangladeshi writers who do creative writing—ah, creative writing!—in English at the expense of Bangla itself, even when those writers were never born or brought up in the UK or the US, for instance. The fact that these apparently Bangali writers—deshi shahebs?—haven’t produced a single significant line in Bangla is by no means an ideologically and politically neutral phenomenon in my reckoning. I think their values, their mindsets, their outlooks, and their smug, even if foolish and parasitical, elitism need to be continuously challenged.
And I think that certain literary productions in our country have been serving imperialism and colonialism directly or indirectly, or serving the status quo in all sorts of ways. There are certain authors who are basking in their own glory on the one hand, and are not at all mindful about how they are being a part of the establishment on the other. I have come across some literary pundits who are rather unabashedly complicit in the status quo, and I have come across some English-department academics who are virtually clueless about how they continue to behave like linguistic or literary slaves in the name of imparting literary and linguistic knowledge. I think my favourite anti-colonial African writer-activist Ngugi wa Thiong’o had these academics in mind when he wrote Decolonizing the Mind or ‘On Abolition of the English Department.’
However, some young writers have demonstrated the possibility of at least challenging the status quo. And it is necessary that we do so, and take literature as a crucial site of enacting an emancipatory poetics, politics, and praxis in solidarity with those cultural activists who believe in the possibilities of change. Let our efforts be both local and global—glocal.