“You can be invited to reproduce what you do not inherit."
Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life.
What I Inherited:
A recipe for kidney beans, pulpy
I inherited the desire and motivation to leave the country I was born
in and to never return to it, a mode of optimism
that came to an abrupt end
when it became clear
that I had inherited also a duty to my family, both immediate
I inherited a nostalgia for ordinary days -- morning, evenings --
in the country I was born in and also the country
my parents were born in and the country
that their parents were born in, but also the mornings
and evenings of my first years in the United
I inherited a memory of crossing a particular border
on a particular day, which showed up in my life
as numbness, a turning away from love rather than towards it, the desire
to lie down on the ground
I inherited a twentieth-century image: a woman's body
tied to a tree.
I inherited a specific set of colors: red, fuchsia, green,
turquoise and navy blue.
In the poems I wrote, these colors
took the place of memories. These memories felt like
What did I reproduce?
For a long time, I contributed my research and language to an MFA culture that I experienced as an unremitting zone of racism and sexism. My classes were invariably full; I found myself teaching a maximum load of students when my colleagues did not. Often, I was asked to take more students, which was presented to me as a form of generosity towards those with less advantage or power than my own. My own pay never increased; on the contrary, I was paid less than anyone else in the department. In this way, I contributed to the income stream and sustainability of a structure that reproduced the institutional violence I wanted to disrupt. I reproduced ideas about form and content that were mapped to departmental goals and a cultural lineage that were not, I realize now, my goals or my lineage. At the same time, I could not reproduce these ideas, something that was returned to me by my supervisor, a world-renowned feminist poet, as a question about my “rigor," my capacity to engage literary theory in ways that would move the community forward, away from identity-based concerns. Perhaps, too, I did not visually reproduce what a community member should look like. “Men in this part of the world will never find you attractive," said the supervisor once, “now that you're an older woman, like me." At this time, she was 69 and I was 38. In the shame and anxiety I felt so intensely and at various times in this cultural environment, I reproduced an idea about my own worth in the form of what it took years to recognize as: internalized oppression. To clarify, I reproduced multiple scenes in which brown-ness serves white-ness at the expense of itself.
In my family system, I reproduced an idea of the family as perpetually in flight or in danger; for some years, as if we were still camped out on that railway station platform in August 1947, we lived in a house with only one functional bedroom. We have been living, I recently thought, like refugees. Perhaps for this reason I have two full-time jobs. I inherited the position of my father when he died. I know that he had an early love-- a male-bodied partner who dressed and lived as a woman -- that he did not (could not) choose. Lately, I too have been dreaming of an early love, a love I could not choose, I realize now, because it would have broken my pact with my family. In these intimate and familial ways, I have reproduced an idea about deprivation and sexual loss. I have reproduced, as an anxiety about partnership and the selection of dangerous/abusive partners, the unthinkable choice of loving someone who was also my friend.
CURIOUS ABOUT HOW TO HEAL AT THE SITE OR INTERSECTION OF WHAT IS INHERITED AND WHAT IS REPRODUCED. WORKING ON IT. READING LIVING A FEMINIST LIFE THIS MORNING I GOT TO THAT LINE AND THOUGHT OKAY, YES. YES.
PERHAPS YOU CAN TRY IT TOO.
ANSWER THESE QUESTIONS IN TURN, ONE IN THE FORM OF POETRY AND THE OTHER IN THE FORM OF PROSE:
WHAT DID YOU INHERIT?
WHAT DO YOU REPRODUCE? ◆
This above is an excerpt from Issue #42 of The Lifted Brow. To read it in full alongside many other brillant works of writing and art get your copy here.
Bhanu Kapil is a British-Indian poet who lives now in the United States, although perhaps not forever. She is the author of five full-length works of poetry/prose.