Last semester, members of my grad cohort had dinner with a very cool queer theorist who was guest speaking at the university. We were thrilled to meet her and discuss her work. We were even more thrilled when advisors later told us, “Professor G loved you! She said you were so [inset gaggle of compliments].” We beamed like kindergartners awarded gold stars.
Then our advisor added, “Professor G was so impressed that you were so uncompetitive with one another.”
That last comment threw me a little, because I’ve never seen myself as non-competitive. Was I losing my edge?
I later learned that Professor G felt the students at her R1 were competitive in a destructive way. They’d ask questions not out of genuine interest in one another’s work, but in an attempt to one-up one another by tearing each other’s work down. That’s competition?
I think back to the members of my cohort. F works on art activism in queer communities of color. C’s work is on trafficking of women. B is looking into transwomen of color in the diaspora. N studies how colonial legal systems have enshrined violence against women. Professor G was right. They’re each doing vital work, and I’ve no desire to try to tear that down.
* * *
As a feminist involved in anti-capitalist and anti-globalization struggles, statements like “Well, capitalism is the best system that we have” or “What else is there?” frustrate the hell out of me. I can’t express how grateful I am to people who have refused to accept the inevitability of capitalism and the facile equation of capitalist development with progress.
My grad cohort could not even think of our work without of people like Mohanty and Spivak and Fanon.
Lisa Lowe, Audre Lorde, Homi Bhaba, Sr. Mary John Mananzan.
And the countless others, whose own works are the result of collaboration and building on the work of others.
Which makes me think of the renga.
* * *
Renga is a traditional form of Japanese collaborative poetry. One poet writes the first stanza, and another poet the next. They continue alternating writing stanzas until the poem is finished. The stanzas are linked by theme as well as structure (the third stanza follows the structure of the first, the fourth stanza follows the structure of the second, and so one until the end). Many renga are 100 lines long, while some are over 1000 lines.
One of my professors said that some renga were transgenerational, completed by poets over years and decades. But this beautiful form of poetry fell out of favor in the late 1800s, with Western poetry’s emphasis on individual authorship.
In 1969, Octavio Paz (writing in Spanish), Charles Tomlinson (British English), Jacques Roubaud (French), and Edoardo Sanguineti (Italian) got together for five days of collective writing and produced a multilingual Renga in honor of Andre Breton. In addition to the way renga allows collaboration and oscillation between languages, this Paz-driven project shows how this traditional form of poetry functions as dialogue, where participants are both authors and audience.
It’s also poetic form that lends itself to virtual collaboration, so it makes sense that renga groups are popping up all over the Internet. The renga, it seems, is due for a revival.
* * *
I think the renga is the perfect metaphor for our work.
I have no illusions that we could do away with colonialism and capitalism in my lifetime. But that’s not really the point of allying oneself with anti-capitalist and anti-globalization struggles. Instead, I do think of this work as a renga. The confluence of colonialism and capitalism reproduces itself by commodifying the lives and bodies of women. This is what we have to compete against. Not one another.
So I’m grateful that F works on queer communities of color, and B works on transwoc in the diaspora, and N studies colonial legal structures and C works on trafficking of women. And I’m grateful for organizations like the Asian Indigenous Womens Network and GABRIELA. And all the other people and organizations whose work contributes to this renga.
Salamat at Padayon.