Terrorist and Alien
By Nimmi Gowrinathan and Valeria Luiselli
terrorist: On 11/9 you and I both felt a kind of paralysis; we needed a pause to protect our raw nerves. And yet it had already begun. It started with hateful stares. A relative who voted for Trump told me, “Just don’t wear a scarf, for your own safety.” I almost said, “The scarf was on my neck, not my head,” but stopped myself; I wasn’t ready to enter the realm of the absurd. But this is the new reality: we are all, suddenly, exposed.
alien: I feel I should have foreseen all this. I am a novelist: my mind is trained to be paranoid, to read the world like a plot in which seemingly trivial events foreshadow the climax. And there were so many signs. Maybe you remember what happened to me on the day that Trump launched his campaign:
One of my neighbors approaches me as I’m locking my bike to a pole on the corner. He asks me what I make of Trump’s accusation that Mexican migrants are criminals and rapists. I say the man is an ignorant clown who understands nothing of the lives of Mexican migrants.
He says: “Maybe Trump has a point?”
And he says something about not all Mexicans being “like you guys.”
So I ask: “Like us guys?” — not sure I’ve heard him correctly.
The rest of the conversation is hazy. His argument spins between classist and racist: skilled versus unskilled labor, “inherent” worldviews and the “unwillingness” to assimilate. There is always a point at which aspirants to the American dream meet the concrete wall of racial and cultural bias.
terrorist: This story made everyone feel less lonely when you told it over dinner a few months ago. We were drinking wine; the conversation moved easily into sarcasm, satire. We believed our foundational assumptions were on firm ground. We discussed common perceptions of immigrant writers, demobilized female fighters, the difference between rights and liberties. All while our children moved quietly through a forest of adult legs, barely seen or heard yet overhearing us.
Now it feels like we’re sitting next to our children, under the table, looking up.
alien: May I remind you that your six-year-old son later told me that my novel The Story of My Teeth seemed like the silliest book in the world. He suggested I write about “more important things, like political violence.” He has it pretty clear.
terrorist: The course I teach looks at violence through the lens of gender. Women’s individual experiences with violence are different, but common to all is the fact that the state and society are ultimately responsible. What does a black woman facing police brutality in the Bronx have in common with a Tamil refugee woman living under military occupation in Sri Lanka? The lines we draw extend beyond identity.
alien: This reminds me of a nightmare I had: I assign a group of creative-writing students to read something great — say, Kafka, or Sei Sh onagon. When they come to class, and I ask them what they think, the only answer is “not relatable.” End of nightmare.
I heard that word, “relatability,” for the first time a few years ago. It took me a while to understand that it was the direct opposite of “empathy”: a piece of writing is “not relatable” when it doesn’t talk about me or reflect my experience. The point of literature is precisely to force us out of ourselves, to expand our understanding of the world by allowing us to see it through the mind of another person.
I’m done with relatability. Now when I teach any course on literature or creative writing, I go out of my way to choose texts and topics that are totally “un-relatable,” so as to teach my students how to make the effort that empathy — emotional and intellectual — requires.
terrorist: The problem is that each group has learned to protect the small political space carved out for it by identity politics. On the afternoon after the Paris attacks in 2015, a student of mine from Egypt declared that those who posted the French flag on Facebook were anti-Islam. In a tearful, confused defense, her French classmate was at once grieving and apologizing for an Islamophobia she didn’t feel.
I often ask my students why they’re interested in taking my courses. The answer always comes easily: “Because I am trans/queer/Native American/Mexican/black.” The who is easily substituted for the why.
alien: And that who is often an imposed category. I learned that I was a “woman of color” when I arrived in the United States — as if the new identity were part of my welcome kit.
terrorist: You are a Mexican woman and I a Tamil–Sri Lankan–American woman. What we have in common isn’t so much our identity as women of color as our rage at structures of discrimination. This is what we should be trying to do in class and in writing: dismantling those structures so that we can actually see each other.
alien: If only because speaking from inside a box is rarely an effective way to have your point heard anywhere outside it.
Your son was told, by someone in his first-grade class, that his skin was the color of poo.
terrorist: And he worries about the “extermination” of your daughter, his best friend, because she’s from Mexico.
alien: And she wonders if our other friends, who are lesbian, or her Argentine–African-American friend, will have to relocate to another country.
terrorist: And my son doesn’t always like the idea of resisting: “Can’t Trump just send the military and police to get us, Mom?”
alien: And my daughter suggests, as a “solution,” that we not speak Spanish in the street, “so nobody knows we’re actually mexicanos.”
terrorist: We’re back to dealing with very basic, random acts of racism. It will surely affect us internally. Can we draw on people’s individual, identity-based experiences with violence to create a collective political movement?
alien: I have no idea. How does one remain politically active in a world that strives to deny our presence within the political sphere, that wants to make people like us invisible by relegating us to identity categories: immigrants, women of color, brown, black, Mexican, Asian, Muslim — all you whatever-minority “others,” raus! I say this without an ounce of self-pity. I don’t even say it with rage. I say it with just a little regret, and I wonder: when we’re separated like this, how do we remember that we still have collective responsibilities?
Maybe we should just spend the next decades calmly rereading Hannah Arendt on a sofa; or invent new gods, make candles, and pray to them; or stop writing novels and articles, stop teaching, and instead focus on perfecting our handwriting for posters we’ll hold up in street protests for the rest of our lives.
Or we swallow the mierda and carry on. My students often paraphrase something you said to them one day: “Gotta turn all our emotional shit into political capital, yo!”