I was honored to be the subject of an interview for a colleague’s graduate course on Critical Writing. I have known James for many years. He is the kind of student we all want to have: engaged, thoughtful, and committed to effecting change. He took great care in preparing for the interview by reading much of my published work and–more importantly–making baked goods. I hope you enjoy this interview in which we discuss writing, theory, and teaching. I appreciate his permission to share this interview with you.
Dr. Clemens’ office is, like many other academic offices, filled with books. Sharing office digs with Dr. Morris, Dr. Clemens’s half of the office has the vibe of an eternal student—papers everywhere, books on every surface, a computer hibernating in the background, ready to spring into action at any moment. We met up at 12 o’clock, during an office hour Dr. Clemens holds before her afternoon classes. As I walked in, Dr. Clemens was putting the finishing touches on her lunch, a reheated bowl of macaroni and cheese with broccoli. I brought with me two loaves of pumpkin bread—one for us to eat with lunch and another for her to take home to her partner and their daughter. Our conversation touched on writing practices, politics, theory, and the terrains where these categories intersect with each other. I felt a spirit of camaraderie as our conversation began.
James: What is your writing routine like?
Dr. Clemens: Frenetic—virtually impossible. And yet I continue to produce, so obviously I’m doing it. [Pause] Having a kid changed my writing life. If I have to write at home, I’m going to write early in the morning before my daughter gets up. It’s very hard for me to work at home because home is where I’m a mom and there’s laundry to be done and dogs to be walked.
I am a morning writer. If my writing isn’t done by noon, it’s not going to happen. It is very easy for my writing to be overpowered by all the other things in my life. I have a memoir manuscript that I went to my friend’s cabin in the middle of the Adirondacks and spent a weekend on because I knew that if I didn’t do that then, I would never do it. That was May; I haven’t looked at it since. It’s probably not going to get any more attention until May again, just cause of other writing obligations…
At this moment, another student comes into the office, dropping off an annotated bibliography for a class assignment. Even in talking about how our writing schedules get interrupted, there is interruption.
Dr. Clemens: So it’s… it’s disrupted. Like everybody else. [She takes the papers from the student and bids him goodbye.] My perfect writing day is I get up, I go to the coffee shop where everybody knows me, I get my coffee and a little treat, and I write.
In the last year of following Dr. Clemens’s blog, I’ve seen maybe thirty new pieces she’s published in various outlets—movie and book reviews, personal reminiscence and political analysis. She’s happily prolific, touching on a large range of issues across various pieces.
James: Do you make a distinction when you sit down to write between writing a more academic piece, or doing something focused towards the general public?
Dr. Clemens: Sometimes I need to put on my academic hat and write with that in mind. Obviously I can write for scholars, but with the precious little writing time that I have that’s not where I’m drawn. I am very committed to the idea of being a public intellectual—somebody who writes for a larger audience. While the time I spend writing in my field is important, I think it is also important with my limited time to create actual change in hearts and minds. Most of my stuff that I write has an academic bent—the people who read me know what kind of a lens I’m going to use. I don’t need to convince the people who read the National Association of Women’s Studies Journal that there is an issue having to do with being female in Turkey—they know. I would rather write smart, accessible pieces that incorporate the theory that I care about into something a much larger audience might read. I’d rather have somebody say ‘I’ve never thought about it that way.’ That’s my favorite response.
James: Primarily you’ve worked within post-colonial theory but your more recent work also includes elements of feminist theory. How do you define post-colonial theory as a genre? What is the strategy—what is the work being used to achieve?
Dr. Clemens: It’s got to make a difference. It has to have something to do with practice. I think post-colonial theory and feminist theory are very engaged with practice. They both lean toward the anecdotal, they both use a lot of first-person, and the personal voice is recognized and lauded. Both of those have really invited the “I” into theoretical writing. There’s always a sense of action; a sense of urgency in these genres that I don’t feel in other theoretical genres, which is totally why I’m drawn to it.
James: Do you think it’s possible to apply post-colonial theory to ongoing colonial situations?
Dr. Clemens: Yes. I have no problem using elements of post-colonial theory to think about what’s happening now, even if it’s not in a colonial environment. I don’t have a problem using post-colonial theory about identity or borders to think about the EU or the Syrian refugee crisis. I get more nervous about going backward instead of going forward with it—going back in history and applying theory that wasn’t yet written to something. I will say that I do not love when people try to apply post-colonial theory to American literature. The amount of intellectual tangling one would have to do to make that case is tough. I’m not saying it can’t be done. The concept of the subaltern does not need to be in the post-colonial context. But if somebody wants to do a post-colonial reading of Huck Finn… that’s when I get nervous. There’s probably a better theoretical framework you could use.
I do find myself veering more towards post-colonial feminists because then it has the feminism element, or feminist theory, because so much of post-colonial theory is about identity formation and intersectionality. It’s not like colonization ends—we still have all of these legacies of colonialism. It’s not like because colonization ended fifty years ago everything’s fine. [In] India, just for one example, you can still apply those theories.
James: And there’s still the problem with the caste system—even though it’s outlawed, there’s still a reinforcement of it by the citizens outside of an actual legal framework.
Dr. Clemens: Exactly. It doesn’t just go away.
James: Which writers do you think are underrepresented in post-colonial studies?
Dr. Clemens: I am really interested in the people who are writing right now. So like Diana Abu-Jaber, Farnoosh Moshiri, and Mahasweta Devi. Theoretically—people like Meyda Yegeloglu who wrote about veiling, or Nawal El-Saadawi. These are the people who are writing right now at great risk. I feel like my job is really hard because I’ve chosen to care about contemporary literature. There is no finite nature of my canon. I am constantly trying to read new things, find new authors, bring them into the classroom, bringing them into my own writing… Every person I name is [probably] going to be a woman or trans*. It is almost overwhelming to me the level of new trans* literature that’s coming out now. Being a full-time academic and a mother, my two least favorite questions are ‘Have you read…?’ and ‘Have you seen…?’ [Laughter.] But tonight the big date night is going to be seeing He Named Me Malala. This is what it means to be married to me. [More laughter.] Because the problem, and the cool thing, is that people now expect me to have something to say about these things. People will say, ‘I really can’t wait to hear what you have to say about ___.’ It’s cool because people know what my lens is and they want to know what I’ve got to say.
James: You’ve written about teaching both academically and as a yoga instructor. These seem like two very different genres of teaching. What do these genres have to do with each other?
Dr. Clemens I teach a workshop twice a year on yoga and writing because I think that they are the same thing. They are practice; they are meant to help you understand voice. Both require you to show up. You’ve got to show up to the page and show up to your mat. You’ve got to practice. And you’ve got to quiet everything else down in order to do it. I think of them as my two practices. A lot of the things that I think about when I’m writing I also think about on the mat. I haven’t thought about it as a genre but to me they’re the same thing. They go hand in hand.
My academic writing is also very interdisciplinary. I’m trying to push against the idea that literary theory is this, and sociology is that, and political theory is this other thing. In my Snow article [“Suicide Girls”, a post-colonial, feminist reading of Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow]—half of that is sociological theory. I like that I get to put sociological theory next to Spivak and talk about how those all work together in a discussion of Snow. I think tamping at the kingdoms is a way to break the insularity. I think these kingdoms are kind of starting to erode, which I cheer for, but I know it’s hard. That’s why I like the Women’s and Gender Studies minor so much, because it’s an interdisciplinary minor.
James: In a review of I Speak for Myself edited by Maria M. Ebrahimji and Zahra T Suratwala for the Journal of American Culture, you wrote:
Many of the women, especially after the attacks of September 11, 2001, chose silence or not to be openly Muslim early in their lives in order to avoid conflict; these stories work to undo these women’s self- and culturally-inflicted silences.
Silencing is something you’ve talked about a lot, especially your academic work. How do we use writing to undo this ‘silencing,’ especially self-imposed silencing?”
Dr. Clemens: The self-imposed thing is hard, unless I drag somebody kicking and screaming to writing—which I do, I guess. So, I think [of] how I write so much about infertility and miscarriage. Early in that process in my life, I saw that there was a lot of silencing and shaming having to do with that topic, so I just got louder. I feel that the more people tell their stories, the more “normal” that experience becomes. I think we see that in the transgender community and I think that we see that with sexuality. That’s because of people who have taken great risk to break through that culturally imposed silence in order to “normalize” and to share their experience. What was really interesting about that book was that for so many of those women it took them ten years to break through that barrier that was imposed on them and speak. At some point they felt like the narrative of their life was coopted from them and finally enough people worked to undo that. At some point, if a person at great risk, cost, and time has made an effort to continuously remind you of a problem; maybe you’ll see it’s a problem. Those people who impose the silencing on themselves have to get it started so other people will [continue].
James: You wrote about a very similar aspect of silencing in “Suicide Girls: Orhan Pamuk’s Snow and the Politics of Resistance in Contemporary Turkey,” which first appeared in Feminist Formations. In the novel, a poet returns to Turkey from exile to report on several Muslim women wearing headscarves who have committed suicide recently. He also is caught in the middle of the ongoing political debate between Muslims and secularists responding to these suicides. I can imagine many people probably saw the coopting of the narratives of the headscarf girls by both political factions as something that happens “in the Muslim world,” but you pointed out in the article that this is a larger political problem all around the world. You clearly avoided language which would have tagged this issue as a problem within Muslim or Turkish culture. It also reflects the two extremes of the camps between the secularists and the religious people in the novel.
Dr. Clemens: I was very careful to make it universal. The headscarf girls are caught in the middle. They have no choice. I am very interested in the literature where women have no choice. The ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation, that’s like my genre. And I find myself teaching that kind of book all the time. In that book, the only way [one of the girls] can find her voice is by hanging herself with her headscarf. That’s the only way she can control the signified. And then she’s dead. She’s not there.
James: You often write about how binary thinking is dangerous. How is writing an effective mode of changing these ways of thinking and these assumptions? Is it more effective than outright marching in the streets?
Dr. Clemens: That touches on the biggest tension in my life. There are days where I really think I should just quit my job; move to Syria… But no one is going to do that. I would love to do more activist work. Recently I talked to Mahoney and I said I feel like the activist part of me is dwindling. Some of that might be the materialist factor of time: There are only so many hours of the day and there are a lot of things I’m trying to do really well. It takes a lot of work to shepherd other people into thinking about how to make change, and that doesn’t leave me many hours in my day to make change myself. There are many days when I feel like this is not helping. But on the days when I feel like the writing is helping and the teaching—and it’s hard for me not to conflate the two with this—I have to figure out a way to resolve this question.. There are days I’d rather be marching in the street, but no one is marching in the streets in Sellersville. I think this goes back to what I said about being a public intellectual, like trying to get somebody to think about the Hunger Games and thinking about how that’s reifying compulsory heterosexuality, without ever thinking of those words put together. But by thinking about those things, I think that that will [bring] change.
I have more questions, but our time is up. I have always found that a conversation with Dr. Clemens leaves me with more running through my mind than there was when we began. By the time our hour was up, it felt as though the two of us had travelled around the world without ever leaving our chairs. Without the tape recorder running, we caught up, asking after family members and mutual acquaintances. I walked with Dr. Clemens to her next class and said goodbye as the academic, the more formal side of Dr. Clemens came through. She walked through the door to the classroom, academic hat in place on her head, ready to cultivate the kind of thinking which changes hearts and minds.