Q&A with Richa Nagar, author of “Hungry Translations”

Richa Nagar
 is Professor of the College in the College of Liberal Arts and a core faculty member in the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of Muddying the Waters: Coauthoring Feminisms Across Scholarship and Activism. which is newly available in an open access edition. She recently shared her thoughts about her new book, Hungry Translations: Relearning the World through Radical Vulnerability.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

A central question that drives Hungry Translations is – can one translate a struggle to those who are outside of that struggle in a way that does not encourage the readers and receivers to turn that struggle into a spectacle? This question emanates from the persistent desire among formally educated people and professionals to “help” those who have been othered, without questioning the assumptions about the superiority of our own knowledges. These assumptions of superiority, moreover, are reinforced through practices that compartmentalize different sites of learning, living, being, and telling, while also romanticizing knowledges and insights of those who have been othered. My long-term relationships and reflections through collective journeys with Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan and Parakh Theatre illuminated a different path, which first inspired me to rework the structure and spaces of the classes I teach at the University of Minnesota, and subsequently, to bring together the lessons from these interbraided journeys into this book, in the hope that it will invite fresh approaches to this question.

Q: Who were your biggest influences?

My biggest influences were the saathis or members of Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan in Sitapur, the co-actors and co-creators of Parakh Theatre in Mumbai, and the students in my undergraduate and graduate classes at the University of Minnesota. The writings of M. Jacqui Alexander, Gloria Anzaldúa, Himadeep Muppidi, Christi Merrill, Naeem Inayatullah, Viet Thanh Nguyen as well ongoing conversations with Beaudelaine Pierre about writing as a spiritual and political practice also played a profound role in shaping this work.

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?

As I wrote the book, I was overwhelmed by the power of organic connections among different kinds of embodied movement – the rallying and fighting people; the ink of words spilling onto a page or screen; the sweating and laboring bodies taking over a “stage” (whatever form that stage might take); the intense emotions and tensions in a class transforming themselves into a theater where all prior notions and assumptions twisted, flowed, and shifted…

This kind of organic and unstoppable movement across sociopolitical struggle, theater, and formal spaces of learning and doing politics, in turn, allowed me to appreciate how the dreaming, fighting, and writing for justice can only emerge as an always imperfect and continuously evolving practice of re-telling to build solidarities that are situated in place, time, and struggle. I discovered that such re-telling requires striving for radical vulnerability as a mode of growing together in search of poetic and social justice. This does not mean that radical vulnerability can always be attained, but grappling with the possibility or impossibility of radical vulnerability allows us to make sense of the structures and processes that make each one of us simultaneously human and inhuman.

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?

FIRST, I hope the readers will appreciate the ways in which knowledges created by many academics and development experts remain impoverished when the materially underprivileged people are reduced to the status of poor or hungry bodies. In entangling the hunger of the belly with the hunger of the soul, and in interweaving this entanglement with the inseparability of social and poetic justice, I have highlighted how these same ‘poor’ or ‘hungry’ people are profound intellectuals, theorists, activists, and artists with insuppressible yearning for co-creating sophisticated political discourse and nuanced artistry that is grounded in our everyday worlds. SECOND, I hope the readers will see why those who breathe, theorize, and act on the everyday complexities of their lives in all their fullness are the only ones who can truly claim expertise of their own lives. This realization necessitates an intellectual and political humility that allows for co-learning among all those who participate in making knowledges about injustice and justice in our worlds. Certified “experts” can strive to become co-travelers and co-creators of knowledge, by always being prepared to unlearn their inherited or taken-for-granted frameworks and

THIRD, I hope the book will dispel the notions that radical vulnerability is (a) a sign of weakness or (b) that it can be demanded; contrary to these myths, radical vulnerability is a consciously embraced collective stance that is a sign of courage and strength; it cannot be demanded.

Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?

Justice requires an ever-present hunger for translations, or tellings in turn, that strive to ethically mediate across the unevenness of our social locations without assuming that they can ever reach perfection. This hunger yearns to build and sustain relationships across unequal locations by becoming radically vulnerable — a mode of being together where those who walk alongside one another in search for justice open themselves up to continuous unlearning and relearning. Such radical vulnerability can only emerge as an organic need embedded in shared dreams and visions – a co-traveling that is always marked as much by mistakes and imperfections as it is marked by joys and hope.

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?

Music grounds me, and it makes me soar. I listen to old songs from Hindi films (Geeta Dutt, Shamshad Begum, and Mohammed Rafi are some favorites), ghazals, qawwalis, songs of Kabir, and Hindustani and Carnatic classical music. I am inspired by the fiery notes of Nina Simone, and haunted by the voice of Billie Holiday. When I am ripped apart by the ugly politics of the world, I find solace in the Shehnai of Ustad Bismillah Khan and ghazals of Begum Akhtar. I am most content when I can steal the time to immerse myself in poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction in English and Hindi/Hindustani/Urdu, and in
languages that are not always written down. Jamaica Kincaid’s writing holds a special appeal and power for me. I also get hooked on some serials on Netflix from time to time, especially those that consist of multi-generational dramas involving immigrant families in the US, Canada, and the UK.

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